Palestine: Occupied Territories

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 11th January 2007.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 4:21 pm, 11th January 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what assistance they are providing to meet relief and development needs in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

My Lords, I am grateful to all friends, old and new, who have agreed to take part in this debate. The wording is primarily about humanitarian aid, but a debate like this cannot be lifted out of its political context. Hardly any corner of the world has been as disputed, especially in recent times, as Israel and Palestine. Britain was once the occupying force and still bears its share of responsibility for the bloodshed and injustice surrounding Israel's independence. We cannot allow the known horrors of the Holocaust to outbid those of Deir Yasin, Lod and other places where Palestinians have suffered ethnic cleansing, slaughter and expulsion on a considerable scale.

The new year is always a season of hope, and so the media are full of the usual speculation about road maps. The Palestinians have been through the process of Oslo, Camp David and elsewhere, and all they know are promises. We have a duty to search for peace and human rights there which goes beyond our average commitment, and I believe that our Government recognise that. It must remain a foremost priority for the FCO as well as DfID. Yet I am not satisfied that given our historic role we are active enough in diplomacy, or that our influence on the United States or even on the European Union can be any substitute for an independent British foreign policy, and that includes our relationship with, or attitude to, the elected Hamas leadership, which cannot simply be bypassed.

This has been one of the worst years for Palestine in recent history, and it is hard to see that our Government have made a lot of difference, except in their humanitarian support. In the past 12 months, overall poverty levels have increased from 54 per cent in 2005 to 67 per cent, according to the World Bank, and poverty levels for public sector employees have doubled. World Food Programme figures show that the percentage of people unable to meet basic food requirements increased last year to 51 per cent, up by 14 per cent. UNCTAD suggests that two-thirds of households are borrowing informally. People are literally starving and many feel embittered and angry, like prisoners. The effects of occupation on ordinary life, the physical barriers to human activity such as the "wall" and the closures at hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints are causes of poverty. They explain the divisions and weaknesses within the Palestinian Administration. The internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas is a new manifestation of an old struggle provoked by the occupation. This has of course increased the casualty list. Thirteen Palestinians were killed in two days last week, but this number is a fraction of the deaths caused directly by the Israeli security forces.

According to B'Tselem's research, from January to December 27 last year, Israeli security forces killed 660 Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel. At least 322 of those killed did not take part in the hostilities at the time they were killed. In the Gaza Strip alone, Israeli forces killed 405 Palestinians, including 88 minors. This proportion of civilian casualties is quite unacceptable in modern warfare in any state. Palestinian militants continue to fire missiles into southern Israel, spreading fear but with little other effect. According to B'Tselem, Palestinians killed 17 Israeli civilians in 2006, in addition to six members of the Israeli security forces.

I am mainly concerned today about our own Government's ability to respond to humanitarian need in the most practical and urgent way. I hope the Minister can reassure us. On 22 December, the quartet endorsed the continuation of the temporary international mechanism for a three-month period. The Minister will no doubt tell us how our Government have responded financially, but how can they ensure the poorest and most vulnerable households will benefit? Why have only 111,000 families so far received this assistance? What will be the effect on the PA's own capacity? Will the quartet also consider whether, as I suspect, the TIM in any way deepens the division between Fatah and Hamas?

Governments generally do not reach people quickly, even in an emergency. Last summer, many more Palestinians came close to destitution when hospitals in Gaza ran out of fuel, medicines and even food as a result of the PA's funding crisis. On these occasions it is often only NGOs who are able to help quickly. Medical Aid for Palestinians responded to an appeal from four of the main hospitals in the Gaza Strip just for emergency food. Staff of the PA-funded hospitals had to carry on for months without pay and with mounting debts to medical suppliers and maintenance contractors.

NGO projects constantly incur war damage. Last summer in Gaza for example, 27 greenhouses rehabilitated by Care International were completely destroyed and the nearby Beit Hanoun municipality playground, rehabilitated by Save the Children, was severely damaged. This was the town where 18 civilians were recklessly killed in an Israeli attack in November, which the Prime Minister explained was another "technical mistake".

NGOs also suffer from the effects of closures and the so-called security wall. Even with permission to travel to east Jerusalem, Palestinians face long hours waiting at checkpoints and crossings. Many families who used to access services at the Spafford Children's Center in east Jerusalem, for example, were suddenly isolated by the wall. The charity has since been able to open a new outreach centre in Izzariyeh.

Palestinian children have usually suffered most during this year of bloodshed and political uncertainty. According to UNICEF, children in Gaza are living in,

"an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear".

The fighting is hurting children psychologically and carers say they are showing signs of distress and exhaustion. I had a Christmas card with a message from one such child, saying:

"If they shut all the world around us, they can't shut our mouths to talk about our freedoms".

Remembering that seven in 10 of Gaza's population are refugees from 1948 who have spent their whole life trapped in camps, I am glad that we are still backing the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which has provided a lifeline from the beginning. Is there any risk of a funding crisis there, as there has been in the past?

It is not money which is lacking in the Middle East, it is justice and diplomacy. Much international aid comes from a variety of sources in the Arab world, both public and private. On 20 December, UNRWA signed a landmark agreement with a charitable foundation in the United Arab Emirates worth $6 million. Under a special agreement with Israel, several countries are now in theory able to send relief aid through Egypt. Yet there are major political and logistical obstacles. There are new restrictions on transfers, and some banks in the Middle East refuse to send even charitable funds. Four trucks loaded with supplies were still waiting on 28 December for permission to enter the Palestinian territories.

Israel continues to be in breach of the 2005 agreement on movement and access, despite some minor easing of restrictions. What are HMG doing about this? It is a humanitarian crisis and the media are largely ignoring it. However, there is a positive side: there are many unsung heroes behind the scenes, and across the divide there is a new generation of peace activists such as the One Voice organisation, which is well known in this House. A surprising number of NGOs, churches and organisations in this country maintain regular contact with Israel.

These activists are often witnesses to acts of destruction such as house demolitions. According to B'Tselem, Israel demolished 292 houses in military operations in the Occupied Territories. They were home to 1,769 people. In only 80 of these cases were the home owners given warning. What is the international community doing to help the victims of these house demolitions?

Just before Christmas, our church leaders visited Bethlehem, stood beside the victims of civil war and the occupation and expressed solidarity with the dwindling Christian community. But Munib Younan, the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, put it more forcefully last July, when he said:

"Is it not time to move [on] from the logic of war, self-justifying violence and acts of terror ... [and] for world leaders to repent—to admit that they have failed to bring a just peace and then to humbly change course? ... Can we not know righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? ... We see a world where we allow injustice to prevail at a gut-wrenching cost of human life, freedom and dignity".

So far the bishop has received no answer to these questions.