Israel and Palestine: Gaza — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 3:00 pm, 20th January 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of whether international humanitarian law has been breached in the conflict relating to Gaza.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, very serious allegations have been made against both Hamas and Israel. We take these very seriously and they must be fully investigated. The Israeli authorities have said that they are investigating specific incidents raised by the aid agencies. We will consider very carefully the results of investigations once they are available. At that stage, the parties and the international community will need to decide on any further action.

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The people of Gaza have been subjected to collective and indiscriminate punishment by the Israelis, some of whose actions can perhaps be considered inhumane. Israel has used white phosphorus shells, whose use against people is prohibited under the 1980 Geneva Convention, and there may have been incidents whose investigation is likely to find breaches of international humanitarian laws. There have been statements of condemnation—

Noble Lords:

Question!

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative

My Lords, will the Government take a lead to facilitate a full and thorough investigation by the United Nations and the Red Cross to determine whether there have been breaches of international laws and to ensure that appropriate remedial action is taken? Will the Minister keep your Lordships' House advised of progress in this regard?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said in another place that we fully support investigations of these allegations. In the first instance, it is a matter for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, both of which are on the ground and both of which have the responsibility for collecting evidence of the different incidents that have occurred. It is also the responsibility of the Government of Israel, as a party to the international laws that govern this—particularly the Geneva Conventions—to make an initial investigation. However, there is no doubt that, if these allegations stand up, they will need to be pursued internationally. These are very serious crimes, if they were committed.

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour

My Lords, on the investigations that we are discussing today, will the Minister say whether the acts of Hamas in putting children on the front line—a number of us have seen internet clips of Hamas soldiers dragging children into the front line with them—and in shooting at and hijacking UN relief agency trucks can be examined in as great detail as the alleged acts of Israel?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, as I said in my Answer, there are allegations against both sides—in the case of Hamas, the use of human shields and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian communities inside Israel—so investigations indeed need to examine both sets of allegations. However, I say again that the Government of Israel have made themselves party to the Geneva Conventions and must therefore expect to be judged by them.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson for International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, how can we ensure that any inquiry into alleged abuses of international law is independent, robust, public and able to hold any individuals indicted to account?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, at this stage we must allow the proper procedures to unfold. The international agencies are now at the stage of collecting evidence and presenting it in an initial inquiry by the Israelis themselves. It is premature to speculate how this will unfold but, as I have said, we on these Benches are absolutely determined to ensure that a proper and independent effort is made to arrive at the truth of what happened.

B

When the Israelis are themselvs being investigated, how on earth can we let them conduct the initial inquiry themselvs? That is absurd!

Submitted by Benoit Bennett

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the unsung heroes of this appalling series of events are the UN humanitarian agencies, in particular UNRWA, which have performed their tasks under appalling conditions? Are the Israeli Government co-operating with the UN inquiries into these incidents and the matter of white phosphorous or are they blocking them as they have so often done in the past?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the men and women of UNRWA and all the humanitarian agencies, including the Red Cross and others, who have been involved during these terrible days in Gaza deserve our greatest respect and support for the heroic work that they have undertaken. On his second point, it is simply too soon to know. There is an obligation on Israel to co-operate. We very much hope that it will live up to that obligation.

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while obviously we need an independent and thorough investigation into all allegations of abuses, on this day especially the most important thing is that the international community bends its energies unreservedly to resolving the issues that lie behind this crisis?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I completely agree with what the right reverend Prelate has just said. It is enormously important that we do not get distracted from the core issue, which is to move beyond this ceasefire to a lasting peace. That is a huge hill to climb. It has defeated peacemakers from around the world over many decades. However, now more than ever we have to recommit to the objective of preventing further descent yet again into these terrible periodic bouts of violence in the region.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree—

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, enlarging on what the Minister has just said, may I ask what the Government are doing to ensure that the fragile peace can be converted into a durable settlement?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, let me reassure my noble friend that we are doing as much as we can. The Prime Minister promised naval support to prevent arms smuggling and support for mine clearance. He has committed additional humanitarian assistance and he went at 24 hours' notice to Egypt and Israel on Sunday to put British support behind a lasting agreement. Again, we should not fool ourselves: it is easier in the Middle East to achieve a ceasefire, difficult though that is, than to tackle the long-standing roots behind a crisis of this kind. But we must do the latter.