Israel and Palestine: Gaza — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 21st January 2009.

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Tabled By Baroness Northover

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson for International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 7:37 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, many noble Lords wished to speak in this debate tonight, and I am glad that it has been decided that there will be a second debate on Gaza on 27 January. It seems to me that in this ceasefire that we have perhaps even greater dangers. The danger is that we revert to doing little or nothing, with even more devastating consequences. There was international outcry over what happened two years ago in Lebanon. Then attention moved on and other crises became front-page news. How can we sustain international attention?

We have seen the dreadful pictures of what has happened in Gaza. The population had nowhere to run. They could not escape its borders. Even UN buildings where some took refuge received hits. Nowhere was safe. I have just been sent the pictures from the UN school: the white phosphorus raining down, the damaged classrooms, the two little brothers dead. Were these not civilians? Was it not obvious that there would be large numbers of civilian casualties in such a crowded area? Did the Government of Israel think that what they were doing was unwatched, unrecorded, even proportionate to their own experience of violence? Have we let the Israeli Government feel that they are not accountable?

These pictures, and many far worse, have been going around the region and the world. The speed and spread of information is new. We will all have received e-mails ranging from the moderate to the extreme. My son, setting up a discussion on the conflict on Facebook, found that within hours 80 friends of friends had joined from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan—within a day. We know that this conflict has long had its radicalising effect. The effect of this can now grow exponentially through the internet. We all know how this conflict is already used and, of course, abused in countries right across the region. We know that it is cited in our own communities. Therefore, if we did not know it before, we should know it now: unless the international community actively takes forward a just solution to this conflict, the world will become an even more dangerous place.

I welcome the brave statements by Jewish leaders, including my noble friend Lady Neuberger, in an open letter to the Government of Israel, saying that they write,

"as profound and passionate supporters of Israel", but that the actions of the Government of Israel threaten to destabilise the region and to undermine international support. We have surely reached a point of enormous danger to Israel; that, in its greater military strength, it has meted out such evident injustice to its would-be neighbours that there will be such a reaction that its own future will be undermined. Its window of opportunity to find a settlement is surely small and depends on the position of the United States, not only in terms of its support but also on how long the US is the only superpower.

I can remember when Fatah was not to be supported or negotiated with. But the warnings came that this played into the hands of those who are more radical. Indeed, Hamas was elected in Gaza, and 40 of its MPs were immediately imprisoned by the Israelis. Right now, we hear how no negotiations should occur with Hamas, although we also know that this is going on through the Egyptians. Note the viewpoint of Sir Jeremy Greenstock on the "Today" programme on 12 January in relation to Hamas:

"This is a regime about which a lot of inaccurate statements are made, particularly by the Israeli and Washington Governments. It is not beholden to Iran ... They are not trying to set up a Taliban-style Government in Gaza ... They are not intent on the destruction of Israel; that is a rhetorical statement of resistance".

I am sure that we will hear this evening how Israel should not have to put up with rockets being fired into its territories. Indeed it should not. But also hear what Sir Jeremy Greenstock says:

"The tragedy about what is happening is that the cessation of rocket fire on Israel would have been possible if Israel had lived up to its obligations under the June ceasefire to open the crossings".

It was of course said that the conflict in Northern Ireland would never be solved; it had lasted 400 years. However, it is amazing what change was brought about with economic progress, north and south, and engaging with all parties. You look at Gaza and the West Bank. How can families get on with their lives in a crushed economy? Olive groves and vegetable gardens are simply sliced through by the wall. Farmers are cut off from their land by settlers' roads that may not be used by Palestinians. There are checkpoints everywhere. Water is taken by the settlements, which are green and fertile, surrounded by the arid dryness of the Palestinian lands. The current situation in Gaza cannot be separated from the challenges in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Let us look at what has happened. Over 1,300 Palestinians have been killed. Of these, 412 were children. Thirteen Israelis have died, including three civilians and 10 soldiers, four of whom were killed by friendly fire. The BBC reports that 400,000 Gazans are currently without access to running water, while over 50,000 have been made homeless. It has been estimated that more than 4,000 buildings were demolished during the fighting and that it will cost more than $2 billion to repair the damage. Proportionate?

At least three United Nations schools have been targeted, including one where 40 people were killed. Israel has been accused of committing war crimes and breaking international humanitarian law by the ICRC and Amnesty International. The international community clearly has to hold both parties accountable for human rights violations.

Now we hear that efforts to relieve the problems are being hindered by limited access. There surely must be immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access for goods and people. Even more important is complete and even-handed international engagement in the area. To date, the quartet has failed adequately to address the causes of the conflict or successfully pursue peace. Trying to split Hamas and Fatah has been disastrous. The Palestinians need to speak with one voice. All parties should be brought into the negotiations, just as Sinn Fein, as the political wing of the IRA, was brought in. Preconditions which seem designed to thwart negotiations must be set aside. Countries in the region need to be brought in. But when Israel attacks Gaza, how can the Arab leaders answer to their own populations?

Gaza was in a terrible humanitarian state prior to this latest attack. It has been set back further. Hamas has, if anything, probably been strengthened, Fatah weakened. Is that what was intended?

We should surely urge the UK Government to work with other EU partners such as the French to move negotiations further forward, bringing in Hamas, at least through intermediaries; to use EU economic sanctions if need be to encourage the Israeli Government to lift the blockades and enable people to move through the Palestinian territories; to enable commerce and trade, and the development of political discussion; to engage with moderates on both sides; and to show that the path of dialogue and moderation produces results. In the end, the security and prosperity of both the Palestinians and the Israelis will only result from them viewing each other as neighbours with common aims and interests, working to ensure that their children and their grandchildren have a brighter and more prosperous future than currently seems on the horizon for either side.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 7:47 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, we all welcome the large increases in aid from the UK, both financial and in kind, that have been announced by HMG over the past days. I also welcome the announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia of $1 billion to help to rebuild the Gaza strip. Would the Minister agree with me that progress in the Middle East peace process depends on more such practical participation by Arab countries? Perhaps he could assure us that Her Majesty's Government are doing all that they can to encourage humanitarian aid from Arab countries as a first step in their increased practical involvement in the peace process. If that kind of aid and involvement had been made available in 1948 at the beginning of the wretched situation of 250,000 Palestinian refugees being herded into Gaza, then part of Egypt, their now 1.5 million descendents would surely not have been so dependent on the UNRA for food and maintenance, as they are today.

I echo the final hopes of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. Let us all hope that, out of the present humanitarian disaster in Gaza, a lasting settlement can emerge to the benefit of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Photo of Lord Eden of Winton Lord Eden of Winton Conservative 7:48 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I hope that countries outside the immediate area which are giving money for practical humanitarian assistance will now come together and work closely with each other to ensure that there is a co-ordinated effort on the ground. It is, first and foremost, essential that the distribution of and expenditure on aid is effective and provides the immediate help that is so urgently required.

Perhaps Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain and France are well placed to come together and help find a solution to this problem. However, the two groups on the ground who can most effectively achieve that are the two separate voices that speak for the Palestinians. To ensure effective distribution of aid, perhaps the PA and Hamas can come together, maybe initially with the help of an intermediary, but with the practical work that they might then carry out leading to closer association between the two. I hope that those two points can be borne in mind.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:50 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, it is hard to see why Israel has got it so wrong again or why it has to make so many enemies in this world. Like others, I am concerned about Hamas too, but I have been appalled at the callous and disproportionate targeting of civilians in Gaza. The attacks on the UN and the terrible loss of Doctor Izeldeen Abuelaish's family could hardly be called self-defence.

I feel personally the destruction of the Near East Council of Churches clinic that I visited a few years ago. It was an essential service for Palestinian families in Gaza. The idea that Hamas should be hiding there is preposterous. It was just a monstrous crime. War crime seems too polite a phrase for a country which is supposedly democratic and concerned for the rule of law. The rule of war is more like it. Israel has again lost support throughout the world and among many of its own citizens and friends in this country.

It has flagrantly betrayed the second concept of the Balfour declaration, namely, the respect for minorities. Palestinians will soon no longer be a minority. They are a people with an equal right to life, whether in one state or two. Of course, Israel has a right to defend herself and Hamas must stop firing rockets, but that is not the way to stop them. Hamas is a popular movement and an elected party; it will never be bombed out of existence. The people have no alternative to Hamas, and this conflict can only be settled by dialogue.

Surely our own Government can do more than simply condemn the action, send money and call for investigations. Why are we not beside the international community, up there with Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia? Don't let's wait for Mr Obama; he will take his time. Let's do it.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop 7:52 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, the Council of Christians and Jews, which I chair, has made clear its distress at the desperate suffering of the people of Gaza and of those who have been under rocket attacks in Israel. I join in urging the Government to do all they can to address the tragic humanitarian situation. Providing for the rebuilding of the physical fabric will, I hope, lead to the complex rebuilding of the will for lasting peace and reconciliation.

The Christian and Jewish communities of the council are committed to supporting this huge task and to opposing those whose policies deny the right of Israel to security and peaceful co-existence. There are many excellent examples of faith-based humanitarian assistance in Gaza, and I hope the Minster is aware and supportive of them. Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Jewish agencies have all stepped up their programmes. The British Jewish community recently organised the "Saving Lives Together" text campaign, raising funds to help hospitalised victims in Gaza and Israel, regardless of faith and politics. The Church of England is working with Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities and agencies to provide further funds. The Anglican hospital in Gaza continued, through everything, to provide treatment to all comers. For its part, the Council of Christians and Jews calls on other religious organisations to work tirelessly with it to increase humanitarian support, to oppose both Islamophobia and the backlash from Gaza of the rising level of anti-semitism—in Manchester, 85 incidents were reported within two weeks—and to sustain warm interreligious relationships in this country. We look to the Government for the assurance of their commitment also to each of these interrelated humanitarian issues at this difficult time.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 7:54 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, as a former director of Oxfam I thought it would be sensible to seek from it an update of what it is encountering in the humanitarian situation. It is working to provide water to 60,000 to 80,000 people and supply food aid; but the ongoing 19-month blockade is severely hampering the efforts, not only of Oxfam, but of all international agencies trying to bring assistance to the 1.5 million people of Gaza.

Despite the commitments made on 19 January by the Israeli Prime Minster's spokesman, Mark Regev, that Israel would provide supplies,

"in the volume that is required and in an expeditious manner",

Oxfam's experience is that this is just not yet happening. The UN reported on 18 January that only 97.5 truckloads entered the Kerem Shalom crossing. But Israel continues to refuse fully to open the critical Karni commercial crossing, which, Oxfam understands, has a capacity of up to 1000 truckloads a day, if fully operational. Kerem Shalom is not mechanised and is therefore a slow and costly way—the handling charge is some $1000 per truckload—to move supplies into Gaza. Israel has opened a small grain conveyor at Karni, which provided the equivalent of 38 truckloads; however, according to the UN on 19 January, it has failed to repair a second conveyor.

Israel is still obstructing NGO access to Gaza with only two, both medical, there at the last count. This hardly expedites supplies and access, which, the Israeli Government claim, are a priority. Indeed, one initial report suggests that at least 500 truckloads a day are required.

International humanitarian law is very clear that Israel must allow humanitarian assistance to enter the area. Can my noble friend confirm whether the Prime Minister was able to raise this issue directly with the Israeli Prime Minister and, if so, what commitments he secured and what steps the Government will take immediately to bring an end to the blockade? We must act fast. Every day's delay causes yet more suffering and undermines the prospect of an enduring ceasefire.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Spokesperson for Health 7:57 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said that Israel would go wild in Gaza. They certainly did that, with the USA turning its usual blind eye. The UK and the European Union have behaved so feebly they were almost colluding in Israel's actions. Israel carefully excluded the press and media—evidence of guilt? But the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all had people watching what was happening, as well as the Al-Jazeera cameras.

One charge I wish to make concerns the use of white phosphorus in residential areas, where many people were injured by this obscene material. It is a crime. The injuries sustained by burning phosphorus are horrible and the suffering is unthinkable. The Israelis also used 155mm shells in residential areas, able to do damage over a range of 300 metres. Yet, the Israelis assured us that they were accurately targeting only those areas with Hamas installations. Really? With a damage range of 300 metres? What lies. Both actions are against international law; they are war crimes. Many innocent civilians, many little children, have been killed by these obscenities.

Will the Minister assure us, therefore, that our Government and the European Union will not be content with Israeli offers of an inquiry into the behaviour of their military? There must be an independent investigation through the United Nations Security Council. Israel stands accused of war crimes, witnessed by the whole world. What hope for Israel's long-term future now?

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 7:58 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I care about humanity and I would like to express my serious concern and sense of disturbance at possible breachesof international humanitarian laws by the Israelis. The use of white phosphorus shells by the Israelis against civilians, which is not allowed under the Geneva Convention, has caused horrific injuries the likes of which some doctors have not seen before.

The International Red Cross has strongly condemned the Israelis for neglecting their international obligations and for their lack of care of the sick and wounded. In addition, the Israelis did not allow the Red Cross to provide care for the wounded. In one case, rescuers found four small children lying next to the corpses of their dead mothers. There have been other incidents, but I should like to mention one more where 100 members of an extended family were herded by the Israelis into a house which was subsequently shelled by them, killing 30 people.

Mrs Pillay of the United Nations has said that the violations of international humanitarian laws may constitute war crimes, for which individual criminal responsibility may be invoked. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, has condemned Israel's excessive use of force and has demanded that those responsible for shelling schools and other facilities run by the United Nations be held to account.

My urgent appeal is for us to be actively involved in caring for the injured and providing them with medical care and assistance in every way possible. We should then ensure that investigations are undertaken into the violation of international humanitarian laws and that appropriate action is taken against those who are guilty, whoever they may be.

Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour 8:01 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, the humanitarian cost in Gaza is now clear: more than 1,000 dead; hundreds of homes destroyed; and a near collapse of the infrastructure, including hospitals and food and water supplies. There is also the cost to democracy of banning the international free press from reporting the conflict. However, the lasting cost is irredeemable—the cost of the political process.

It is now clear that the humanitarian cost cannot be solved in the long term without addressing the political cost of the conflict. A clear political process is now needed, with possible fresh elections, as the Minister indicated earlier this week. I therefore ask him: if we have fresh elections and Hamas puts up candidates and is successful, will we maintain the policy of no dialogue with that group?

A strong case has been made for stopping rockets being launched into Israel. This is now being achieved. Can the Minister assure the House that opening the crossings will involve not just one or two crossings but a lifting of the blockade, giving unfettered access to Gaza? Without that, the cost in humanitarian terms will only get worse.

There is a saying that goes: if your friends cannot tell you, no one can. I have been privileged to be a member of both Trade Union Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Israel. However, when the methods you use are worse than the evils you are fighting, it is time to examine your morality. Sadly, for Israel, that time has come.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 8:03 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I shall not try to equal the heart-rending eloquence of Members of this House on the subject of the disaster in Gaza. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, for pointing out that the Government have given substantial aid. I am glad to see that but the danger is that, in giving aid, we may simply be bringing flowers to the funeral. It is welcome but it goes nowhere near the nature of the real problem.

At present, the biggest donor of aid to Israel is the United States of America; the biggest export market for Israel is the EU; and the money given to help the Palestinian Authority to survive comes from the EU. Quite simply, this means that the weapons and tools to create a better situation are in the hands of the United States and the European Union—two members of the quartet. Therefore, my question to the Minister is very simple: has the time not come when we should make our aid conditional on at least the recognition of the rule of law and basic human rights legislation? Should we not now say that further acts that are in breach of the rule of law cannot be accepted by those who donate to one side or the other, whether it be aid or humanitarian assistance?

Perhaps I may put it very bluntly. We know perfectly well that at present the international community, which so far has escaped without much criticism in this short debate, has in its hands the ability to change the situation dramatically on both sides—Palestinian and Israeli. The Minister has presented in the most humane and understanding way the case for doing something about the disastrous situation in Gaza that will be lasting and not simply temporary. It is in our hands and we have the capacity to bring it about.

Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Labour 8:05 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, even the horrific pictures from Gaza and the terror imposed on the children of Palestine by the modern day Pharaohs of the Holy Land have not been enough for the Bush Administration to call for an end to the brutality by the Israeli Defence Force. Moses did not turn up to rescue the children of Palestine as he was caught up in the bureaucratic red tape and the veto of the United States. The UN is too weak and the European leaders were pathetic in Jerusalem. They did not mention occupation; they did not mention condemnation; and they did not mention war crimes or the breach of international law.

It was Israel that broke the ceasefire on 4 November last year, when the Israeli Government ordered the bombing of the Gaza Strip, killing six people. There were 22 days of cold-blooded murder of 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, and injuring more than 5,000, with 26,000 buildings either damaged or destroyed. Can the Minister say—this has already been asked—whether Her Majesty's Government will support a UN-led investigation into the apparent illegal use of white phosphorous and uranium against children and therefore urge the ICC to indict the Israeli Prime Minister and others for war crimes? Will Her Majesty's Government urge the EU to suspend Israel's special economic and political status in the light of the reckless and arrogant aggression displayed by the IDF, despite pleas from the international community?

During the Israeli army's assault on Gaza, many UN buildings, such as storage compounds and schools, have been destroyed. Will Her Majesty's Government ask Israel to pay for the damage? Will they support an investigation into the cost of rebuilding Gaza and, more specifically, make an assessment of how many buildings—schools, hospitals, airports and ambulances—donated by the EU taxpayer have been obliterated by the IDF?

Photo of Lord Steinberg Lord Steinberg Conservative 8:07 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, when I spoke on the Statement on Gaza on Monday, I may inadvertently have said something that could be construed in a number of ways. I therefore wish to be unambiguous when I talk about opening the crossings from Gaza into Israel. An international peacekeeping force should check the Gaza population and the goods going out of Gaza, and it is Israel's right to protect the safety and security of those coming into Israel. In other words, Gazans wishing to work in Israel should be checked so that they do not cause a security problem for Israel.

Turning to the fragile ceasefire, remarks from Hamas about restocking its weapons and rockets are distinctly unhelpful in this very emotive situation. I am very glad that there is a ceasefire, but nothing—absolutely nothing—must happen in the way of firing rockets, and noble Lords can be sure that Israel will keep its side of the bargain. I worry that Hamas is a disorganised body of terrorists and thugs, and if anything goes amiss—if any rockets are fired—I am certain that the rocket launchers will be attacked.

There is a further debate next Tuesday, when I shall speak in more detail on the situation, but I sincerely hope that, with the huge good will that Barack Obama has, we can reach a peaceful solution, which, of course, will mean Hamas removing from its charter the desire to destroy Israel.

Photo of Lord Janner of Braunstone Lord Janner of Braunstone Labour 8:09 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I deeply regret the suffering of so many ordinary Gazans, and I greatly hope that the situation can be speedily improved. The increase in humanitarian aid by our Government is very welcome. We must recognise that as a result of this conflict, Hamas terrorists deeply exacerbated the misery of the people of Gaza. They stored weapons in public buildings; they fired rockets from within the civilian population; and they set traps in civilian institutions. In particular, their use of their civilians as human shields is absolutely disgraceful and demonstrates a complete disregard for and systematic violation of international humanitarian law by which, regrettably, as a non-state actor, they are not bound.

The Israeli defence forces were operating in an extraordinarily difficult environment. Just a few weeks ago, I was in southern Israel when bombs were dropping. Each time I had 15 seconds to get down into a shelter, and that was before this war began. There came a time when the Israelis found that they could no longer agree with their own population being stormed in that way. It is absolutely plain that, by firing over 8,500 rockets into Israel over eight years, Hamas bears direct responsibility for causing this war, for the sad humanitarian situation that they now face, and for costing the lives of so many of its people.

Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 8:11 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I commence by declaring an interest as a member or officer of a number of organisations, both in this country and in Israel, that support Israel, including the Open University of Israel and the British section of the Israeli MDA, which is the equivalent of the Red Cross, both of which serve Arabs and Jews alike.

I echo what has been said already about deploring the suffering that has taken place. I am very conscious that in answering a Question earlier this week about the Government's policy, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, cautioned first against condemning and secondly against holding a trial—I paraphrase what he was saying. As I understood him, he was emphasising that it is important that one does not jump to conclusions until one has found out the facts.

One thing that causes Israel to be doubtful about the support of the international community is that, as history has shown again and again, allegations are made and then reported in the media in very colourful terms, but when those allegations are subsequently found not to be based on the truth it receives no publicity at all. That undermines the ability of the international community to bring pressure to bear on Israel in the way that it should. I am rather disappointed this evening to find that the same thing is happening again in this House. One will not get progress in that part of the world, which I visited during the period of the fighting, by hurling accusations without knowing the facts.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Shadow Minister, Health 8:13 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, the military operation has had a devastating impact on the children of Gaza. Hundreds are dead, and thousands more are injured, orphaned or homeless—in many cases, all three. Those who still have homes are often sleeping in the cold because windows have been blown out. According to UNICEF—I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK—many children are displaying severe anxiety, bed wetting, loss of appetite and general malaise. Doctors can mend broken and bruised bodies but the deep mental wounds will take much longer.

Life was hard in Gaza before 27 December. The blockades had caused fuel shortages, shutting down the only power station, and there was a chronic shortage of clean water. But children were still turned out clean and fresh to go to school. Education is important to Palestinians. Eyad el-Sarraj, in a moving article in the Herald Tribune, describes how when an unknown fanatical Islamist group accused the American International School of promoting western culture and assaulted the principal, the whole community of Gaza came to the support of the school, making it clear that education is the path to development and nation building. But today there is significant damage to many of Gaza's schools and great loss of equipment and books. The resumption of education is a vital priority to help put back some normal rhythm into the life of these traumatised children. An important part of re-establishing the rhythm of life for all ordinary people in Gaza must be to give them hope of a better future, with proper access to goods and services.

I am a trustee of the Disability Partnership, and we are currently running a project in the West Bank to help disabled children. It is our intention to work in Gaza, and the need for our programme has never been greater, yet we cannot get even our equipment into the West Bank. We have been waiting six months simply to get four small children's walking frames through, so what hope do we have in Gaza unless the decencies of normal life are observed? Israel has a right to live and to raise its children in peace and prosperity, but so, too, do the proud people of Palestine.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Labour 8:15 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe—1,300 dead, a third of them children, only one in 25 a Hamas fighter. That is the extent to which the assault on Gaza was indiscriminate, whatever the Israeli Government may say. Of course Israel has a right to defend its citizens, but who will defend the citizens of Gaza? The citizens of Gaza have elected representatives. That is not to say that I support the firing of rockets into Israel—of course I do not—but I can understand it. If the international community will not defend Gazans, who will?

We also have to understand, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, that war crimes might have been committed. That has to be investigated. However, Israel has certainly committed gross violations of international humanitarian law, and that is totally unacceptable. The brazen cynicism of the attacks is also unacceptable. Is anyone convinced that the timing of these attacks is coincidental—that they just happen to have occurred in the last three weeks of the Bush Administration, an Administration who have given Israel a blank cheque for eight years? But we know at least one thing. This is the last time that that cheque will be honoured, because President Obama will not honour it.

I finish where I started. Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe. The BBC reports that 400,000 people are without water and 50,000 people without homes. The borders into Egypt and Israel must be unblocked and reopened as a matter of urgency. I welcome what our Government have done on humanitarian aid, but I urge the Minister to tell us what action the Government are taking to speed up the opening of the borders to ensure that some of this catastrophe can be dealt with as soon as is humanly possible.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 8:17 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, I do not think that anyone who looks at what has happened in Gaza over the past few weeks—seeing hundreds of thousands of people herded into a territory where they do not particularly want to be, with traditional weapons, white phosphorus and so on showered around them; children and women damaged not just in the short term but permanently with psychological and physical scars—will not feel distressed, unless they have themselves begun to lose something of their humanity.

The last time that I was in Israel I spoke to an Israeli mother. She said to me, "I desperately hope that my son in the IDF does not kill a Palestinian, because it will not help the Palestinian to be killed, and it will also damage my son". She understood that the obvious humanitarian disaster of somewhere like Gaza destroys not only the Palestinian people but also terribly damages those who inflict the wounds, whatever they think they may be doing to help themselves or their state. It also means that the rest of us who stand by wringing our hands—or wearily, hopelessly shaking our heads when we could be doing something such as throwing in a few million pounds which we know will be destroyed again quickly—will also have lost some of our humanity.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that it is important to be objective and human. I ask the Minister whether he will look at one objective report, not of this particular crisis but of the cost of the Middle East conflict since the failure of Oslo, a report which was launched today in your Lordships' House. This report shows the loss in human, environmental, psychological, political, cultural and economic terms—costs which are eye-watering in every way that one means that term—so that all of us can objectively but humanly shoulder our responsibility in making a difference for good.

Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 8:19 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, last week over 20 prominent Muslims denounced recent anti-Semitic attacks in Britain and called on Muslims to prevent attacks on Jews predicated by the Gaza conflict. I know that I speak on behalf of the Jewish community in this country when I express my heartfelt thanks for that unambiguous and very welcome statement. No one can ignore or not be moved by the terrible deaths that have occurred in Gaza, not just those of children but of the adults as well. It is simply too ghastly for words.

The population of the UK is 10 times that of Israel. Israel has had 60 rockets a day raining down on it; our equivalent would be 600 per day every day for three years. How would we react if 600 rockets were falling on Kent or Sussex? As each day passed by, the rockets would fly further; they would become more accurate and their effect would be more deadly. There would be sirens constantly wailing, and children would be running for cover. Life would be coming to a total standstill. What if those rockets were being fired from the cover of mosques, blocks of flats, schools or hospitals? What would we do? How would we respond? How would we get the balance right? There is not a nation on this earth that would not defend its people in such circumstances and attack the attackers.

Israel is a nation under threat. It has shown patience and restraint for three years. But once it commits, it commits hard, particularly when under attack by a terrorist organisation dedicated to its obliteration. So when we debate the humanitarian situation in Gaza, can we also give equivalent attention to the bombings and terror in and around Sderot?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 8:21 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, next Tuesday we will debate the wider issues but tonight we are here to debate the humanitarian questions. I hope the Minister will focus his reply on how Her Majesty's Government will contribute to humanitarian assistance and how they will work with others to make sure that it gets through fast.

The crucial question is how are we going to get the crossings opened; or are we going to support Israel in keeping those crossing at least half-closed because the prevention of any smuggling of arms is given a higher priority than getting humanitarian assistance in? We must press the Israeli Government to open the crossings fully. We will have to hold them responsible if a further humanitarian catastrophe follows the conflict.

Our message to the Israeli Government must be to think not of their anger but of their enlightened, long-term interest. I suggest to the Government that we highlight to the Israelis a hard comparison: the impact on a defeated Germany of how the victorious allies behaved after 1918 and then after 1945. After 1918, anger, hatred and a determination to make them suffer as we had brought about the collapse of the German economy and German society. Out of that grew a much more embittered Germany and the Nazi movement, a movement from which came the Holocaust. We learnt that lesson. After 1945 we went in with food and helped to rebuild Germany despite our anger and hatred of everything that happened in the Second World War. Out of that has grown a peaceful Germany in a peaceful and democratic Europe. That is a hard comparison that the Israelis now have to think about. I call on all members of all communities in this country to say that as critical friends of Israel today.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 8:23 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, the number of speakers from all sides of the House tonight reflects the depth of real concern about the tragic events in Gaza. I join other noble Lords in expressing my feelings of relief that a ceasefire was called at the weekend. However, as several noble Lords have said, it is a very fragile ceasefire with both sides claiming victories. We all want to see a lasting solution and a permanent peace.

The terrible nature of this conflict has been made all the more tragic by the enormity of the humanitarian crisis associated with it. More than 80 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance. This is unsurprising when the number of households earning less than $1.20 per person per day has increased from 55 to 70 per cent. As the report The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion states:

"In the last 6 months, the majority of private businesses have shut down and 95% of Gaza's industrial operations are suspended".

This is an impossible situation. The head of UNRWA has declared:

"Hungry, unhealthy, angry communities do not make good partners for peace".

Like other noble Lords, I look forward to hearing the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to step up humanitarian relief to Gaza. I hope that he will be able to provide fuller and happier information in the debate in this House next week.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN) 8:25 pm, 21st January 2009

My Lords, like all noble Lords, I rise to my feet with a sense of sadness and tragedy about what has happened. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for obtaining this debate. We will obviously have to return to this at greater length next week, and I therefore apologise to noble Lords who feel that I do not fully answer their points tonight.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we are here primarily to discuss the humanitarian situation. In that sense, the fact that Israel halted its military operations last Saturday night and that on Sunday Hamas stopped its rocket fire is, in its way, a glimmer of good news because after 22 days of terrifying violence and tragic loss of life, the people of Gaza have finally been able to emerge on to the streets and be reunited with friends and family. I will come to the huge humanitarian tasks that lie ahead.

To hear the anger expressed from all sides of the House tonight about what has taken place gives us all pause for thought. All of us in this House recognise and accept that Israel is an astonishing creation. It is a democratic country built around values of liberty and freedom and the experience of a people who suffered centuries of persecution. However, that is what makes us all so saddened to see what has happened in Gaza in recent weeks. Of course, there is a right of self-protection. We have made that point repeatedly from all sides of this House. The rockets launched against Israeli civilians are never justified, but when 1,300 Palestinians have died against the 13 Israelis who have lost their lives, we are forced again to think: is this proportionate?

Noble Lords asked whether there will be international investigations and whether the UK Government will support them. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, that we must make sure that the facts are established. We must move beyond the reiteration of newspaper reports to establish once and for all what did or did not happen. We will support fully the efforts to establish independent international investigation of this.

It was particularly poignant for me to see the UN Secretary-General speaking from Gaza yesterday. He said:

"It is particularly significant for me as Secretary-General of the United Nations to stand in front of this bombed site of the United Nations ... compound. I am just appalled. I am not able to describe how I am feeling, having seen this site of the bombing of the United Nations compound ... I have protested many times, and am today protesting in the strongest terms, and am condemning it. I have asked for a full investigation and to make those responsible people accountable".

Her Majesty's Government support fully the demand of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for a full investigation of what has happened.

The use of white phosphorus has been condemned in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. We want to understand exactly how it was used. As I have said before, in certain cases, it is a legitimate weapon of war used to create a smokescreen to allow troops to advance. However, it appears to have been used in very different ways here to burn and maim civilians. If that is established, it is clearly a breach of the rules of war and must be exposed as such.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, reminded us that this debate is on the humanitarian situation. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to brief them on what is going on. As has been said, 400,000 people are living without water. Even before the current military operation, 80 per cent of drinking water in Gaza did not meet international standards for human consumption. Since 17 January, UNRWA has been able to resume deliveries of diesel, but fuel remains in very short supply. Most of Gaza's mills and bakeries, on which so many depend for their daily bread, are no longer operating. In many areas, sewage has spilled onto the streets.

Movement is now possible between the north and south of Gaza, but the destruction of critical infrastructure continues to make it particularly difficult to get supplies to those who need them most. As I have reported to this House, DfID has pledged nearly £27 million since the conflict started. An additional £20 million pledge, as part of that, was made earlier this week. The £27 million includes £4 million to the ICRC to help it save lives and provide medical treatment to the injured. A total of £4 million will go to UNRWA for the provision of basic fuel and food supplies, including cash assistance for to up to 2,500 families. The sum of £1 million has gone to the World Food Programme to co-ordinate relief items. A further £1 million will go to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, which will enable local UN humanitarian co-ordinators to allocate funds quickly and flexibly to emerging priorities, and also to make moneys available to NGOs and other organisations with staff on the ground, to meet emergency humanitarian needs.

Along with my noble friend Lady Ramsay, we welcome the pledge from Saudi Arabia of $1 billion towards reconstruction. I also commend the different NGO groups active on the ground. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester referred to the different religious NGOs—Christian, Muslim and Jewish—that are trying to distribute relief. My noble friend Lord Judd referred to the role of Oxfam. We know that many British and international NGOs are working there in a heroic and important way.

The UN today began a full needs assessment. We hope that this can be completed soon, so that we will all know what more is needed. As a number of noble Lords have said, access is critical to successful humanitarian relief. I was asked by my noble friend Lord Judd whether the Prime Minister raised this issue with Mr Olmert in Jerusalem at the weekend. I assure him that at the meeting on Sunday, the Prime Minister raised the issue of border restrictions and called for them to be eased. Tonight, our Foreign Secretary and other EU Foreign Ministers are meeting the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mrs Livni. They will reiterate our calls for easing those border restrictions and opening the crossing points.

Karni is the largest crossing point, best configured to cope with large-scale flows of goods in either direction. We are particularly focused on making sure that this vital artery of humanitarian relief is open, and that aid can flow. In order to meet Israel's requirement that arms do not also flow through these border points, we must make sure that humanitarian access is secured along with assurances that it is humanitarian goods that are being transported. We believe that the 2005 movement and access agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority provides the framework for that. We will work with Egypt to establish security on its border. If necessary, we will look at extending the EU border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing, to provide European support for monitoring other crossing points beyond Rafah.

As has been expressed so strongly in the House, a humanitarian sticking plaster may stop the bleeding, but it will not heal the wounds of Gaza. Nor will it provide long-term security to the citizens of those towns in Israel. That can come only from a robust political settlement. For that, we must move beyond the simple restoration of infrastructure to address the political sources of this conflict. The ceasefire is the first step, as UN Security Council Resolution 1860 made clear. However, we must go beyond this. Israel must withdraw its troops from Gaza, and they must not go back in. Hamas must put a final end to the rocket fire, as the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, and others, said. We must also move forward on removing unexploded ordnance. An initial survey of that is starting this week.

We must make sure also that the longer-term political progress to which we will return next week is followed up; that there is indeed a united Palestinian Government, able to deal with both Israel and the international community on issues of peace and development. The question was asked why European leaders went to Jerusalem last weekend. Let me point out that they also went to Sharm el-Sheikh. There was a determination that Europe must play a role, not just as a provider of assistance, but because we are generous donors, and because—as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said—Europe is a major market for Israel's exports. We must make our voice heard for a solution which provides for decency and fairness, and for a solution which respects the needs of both communities. Last year, my honourable friend the Foreign Secretary argued, for example, for stopping the import into Europe, or at least labelling the import into Europe, of goods made in illegal settlements. We are very conscious of these trade levers and must find ways to use them.

To conclude, Britain, British NGOs, the United Nations agencies and the European Community organisations that we support will all play a major role in the humanitarian reconstruction of Gaza. But that is not enough. In this House, we all agree that humanitarianism can succeed only if the political roots of this terrible tragedy are also resolved once and for all.