Gaza — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 5:36 pm on 6th July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 5:36 pm, 6th July 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the political situation in the Gaza Strip.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this week marks the first anniversary of the Israeli attack on Gaza named, rather euphemistically, Operation Protective Edge. We are also remembering the attack on London’s transport system on 7 July 10 years ago and, even more recently, the attack on British holidaymakers in Tunisia. These events are not unconnected. When by our actions over years and decades we teach people to hate us, we can expect only that they will, whether we are Jews or gentiles. Consequently, ISIL is now at the gate—I prefer to call them barbarians.

Gaza is a tiny strip of land of 139 square miles—the size of Boston in Lincolnshire. It has 1.8 million people. Hamas has ruled in Gaza since it fought and deleted Fatah there in 2007, following Hamas’s victory in the European Union-monitored election for the Palestinian Authority in 2006, when it was not allowed to form a Government. Our Government backed the view that the wrong side had won. That is our version of democracy. Indeed, we took a similar view when we backed the coup that deposed President Morsi of Egypt. Israel has blockaded Gaza ever since then and launched three attacks on the hapless people there since 2008.

Operation Protective Edge was the most vicious attack so far on these people, who live in an open prison and have no means of escape. During the operation, 2,251 people were killed, 551 of them children. Thousands more have to live the rest of their lives with terrible injuries. Half a million were displaced from their homes and it is to be remembered that the Israelis claim to have warned people of the impending attacks on their homes with the so-called knock on the roof, but when there is no safe place to escape to because you live in such crowded conditions, some preferred to stay put. Such cynicism on behalf of the IDF.

Ambulances and their personnel were attacked and 77 health facilities were destroyed. Only a tiny proportion were found afterwards to have been storing weapons of some sort. MAP has just published its report on the heath facilities remaining in Gaza. Some 261 schools were destroyed and Gaza’s universities were damaged severely. Small factories and other places of work were targeted—the list goes on and on. An average of 680 tank and artillery shells each day pummelled the densely populated areas in the course of the 50-day war, twice as many as during the previous attack. Water supplies, sewage disposal and electricity supplies have been disrupted and not restored. UN-Habitat estimates that 71,000 housing units are needed. Gaza has been reduced to rubble in many areas and the people survive as best they can.

Yes, Hamas was at fault too. The Minister is always telling me in her replies to my Written Questions that the rockets fired by Hamas are the main cause of the problem. I have to point out that on every occasion any Member of this House or the other place has met Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas, he has repeated his offer of a prolonged ceasefire together with recognition of the state of Israel within the 1967 boundaries. In the absence of any response from Israel or its allies, including our Government, the firing of rockets into Israel is what they have been forced to do as a form of self-defence from the prison that is Gaza. During Operation Protective Edge, those rockets from Gaza killed six civilians and 67 military personnel. It bears no comparison to the force and cruelty of the response by Israel, a cruelty now confirmed by testimonies of soldiers of Israel’s own defence force in the Breaking the Silence movement. They are very brave men to speak out.

“Disproportionate” was a favourite word used by our politicians. With that word they appeared to condone what was going on last summer. The Prime Minister, in fact, made no comment at all.

There is so much to report that to save time I must refer noble Lords to the UNHCR report, which has just been published, which gives detail to what I have said. It has now been referred to the UN General Assembly, mandating UNHCR to monitor the implementation of its recommendations. I thank the Minister and our Government, because they have, together with the European Union, have supported that motion, but the blockade continues and no reconstruction is visible to the people there. Rubble and filth remain.

Nearly 64% of the population of Gaza is under the age of 24. They are malnourished and have reduced access to education in which Palestinians have always prided themselves. Industry in Gaza is practically non-existent, half the agricultural land is unusable, and now the tunnels have been closed by Egypt there is no commerce to speak of either. Excluding the little children who have their own terrible physical and psychological problems as a consequence of Israel’s action and the fear of more to come, that is still a huge number of young people traumatised by years of conflict and depravation. They are undereducated, unemployed, unable to escape and filled with a burning hatred of Israel and her backers in the West.

There is a growing dissatisfaction with the Hamas Government within Gaza. Hamas in response is becoming stricter in enforcing Islamic code on all Gazans. If a recent report of the Times of Israel is correct, ISIL is putting pressure on Hamas to become more and more extreme. More and more young people in Gaza are giving their support to Islamic Jihad, which is responsible for most of the sporadic rocket fire from Gaza now. ISIL is there too. If young people from the United Kingdom are inspired to leave their homes to join ISIL, we must surely understand how the young people of Gaza may behave. Is this what western Governments want? Is this what Israel really wants? Israel is already active in the Sinai desert between Israel and Egypt, and has been for some years. If ISIL gains ground in Gaza, what will Israel do then? Are we going to see another attack on the imprisoned people of Gaza until they are reduced to pulp?

I have just been to the memorial service for the genocide at Srebrenica, and I wondered whether in a few years time we might have to attend a memorial service for what we have let happen to the people of Gaza. I hope not. It makes it imperative that our Government—who are responsible for this whole mess in the first place by betraying the Arab people, from the Sykes-Picot agreement and Balfour Declaration onwards, and by our subsequent blind support of the Israeli Government—insist on talks with Hamas by all parties. We must realise that they are now the moderates, even though there are signs that they are getting tougher on the people of Gaza as they themselves are challenged. Will our Government consider changing their policy towards Hamas as they did years ago with the IRA?

In conclusion, will the Government consider an arms embargo on Israel until a two-state solution is achieved? The Export Control Act 2002 is quite clear. I was on the Committee considering that Bill when I was in the other place. We should not sell arms to any country that would use them for internal repression or external aggression. Whichever way you look at Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians, it fulfils one or both of those criteria, yet we continue to sell arms or armament parts—military equipment—to Israel.

Will we talk to the businessmen and academics of the Israel peace initiative to restart the talks on the two-state solution based on the Arab peace plan—an initiative that comes from the people of Israel themselves? Will they insist that Israel recognises the right of Palestine to exist, and support this at the United Nations?

I end as I started. The barbarians are at the gate. Our civilisation is in danger. This is one area where we could make a huge difference.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 5:46 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness. We may not always agree on the Middle East but I recognise and acknowledge her commitment. Perhaps it was just a little one-eyed to claim that the raining of Hamas rockets on Israel is a form of self-defence.

The humanitarian, economic and political problems of Gaza are interrelated. On the humanitarian side, the UNHRC report of 22 June refers to the war a year ago. In many ways the report was unsatisfactory, as the commission itself acknowledges, but it does make a case against the Israel Defense Forces which needs an answer. The commission recognised its limited resources, its short timeframe of less than seven months from inception, the fact that halfway through its chair had to be replaced on a question of impartiality, and its limited resources and restricted access. Israel refused to co-operate with the inquiry, as indeed it refused to allow me and the Middle East committee of the Council of Europe which I chair to visit Gaza. The commission inferred a criticism therefore of Israel without having the benefit of the Israeli case, which in any event was the fault of Israel. The commission mentions the attempts of Israel to limit civilian casualties and the warning of attack, albeit, I concede, in congested areas, but the numbers of casualties speak for themselves.

By contrast a report on the IDF in the Gaza war led by retired US General Michael Jones and Professor Corn, formerly principal US expert on the law of war, was assisted by Israel. Perhaps not surprisingly, it reaches very different conclusions on the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas and the positioning of weapons in heavily populated areas. It is a pity that the two reports were not collated in some way.

Clearly, children suffer most, as the Save the Children report amply illustrates. The World Bank report published on 27 May shows just how dire the economic plight of Gaza is, and it can be improved only by a political breakthrough. Whatever problems Israel now faces on the external front, within the turbulent Middle East it is strong. Surely it is best to make concessions from a position of strength. Alas, there is no evidence of any compromise from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who appears to wish only to manage the situation and has no long-term vision.

I have a couple of questions on politics for the Minister. On the Israeli-Hamas front, what can the Minister tell us about the reported talks brokered by Qatar trading a five-year ceasefire by Hamas for an end to the blockade? How strong are the pressures in the European Union for more direct talks with Hamas? There has been some recent evidence of a warming in relations between Hamas and Egypt, which are very important. For example, Hamas has been removed from the terrorist list in Egypt and the Rafah crossing was opened—alas, only to be closed again after the outrages by ISIL-affiliated people in Sinai. There are contrary signs, such as the murder by Hamas of Fatah activists during the troubles.

As a postscript, the facts are clear on the population of Gaza. In 1948, there were less than a quarter of a million people in Gaza; in 2015, there are more than 1.8 million. Fertility rates in Gaza are much higher than among Palestinians in the West Bank and, indeed,

Palestinians in Israel. Do the Government and other aid donors take this problem seriously? Is family spacing part of the UK and EU aid policy? If not, there will clearly be little improvement in Gaza’s situation, particularly in that of their children, as the per capita income will inevitably decline.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:50 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, we all understand how passionate everyone gets on the question of Israel-Palestine and what is happening in Gaza. We also recognise that on Gaza, as on the West Bank, there are two competing narratives, both of which have deep senses of grievance and historical wrongs which are incompatible. I think we also recognise from recent reports that there have been unacceptable activities on both sides, some of which count as atrocities and some of which might perhaps be classified as war crimes. As far as possible, I do not want to take one side or the other but I simply say that the current situation cannot last. It will not last and will eventually break down, and when it does it will be worse for Israel and the region. That is why we have to engage.

For Israel, the costs of a further attack on Gaza would be enormous, above all for Israel’s already battered repetition in the democratic world. The costs in terms of Hamas’s control of Gaza, as we have seen, are that it would begin to lose control to more radical groups. There are already reports of not only Islamic jihad but groups affiliated to ISIL infiltrating Gaza, so the prognosis is poor. That is why we cannot leave the situation as it is. The role of Egypt in the last few years has not been helpful. One recognises why the Egyptians also feel that this is not their concern but they clearly have to play a more constructive role.

The instability of the region is increasing. There is the extent to which Jordan, unavoidably a player in the whole Palestine issue, is being destabilised by the refugees coming across the border from Syria. There is also the extent to which the Syrian civil war, as it staggers into its fifth year, is already becoming a generator of violent Salafism across the Middle East and a driver of radical Islam—here, as there. We all have to recognise that the situation in Gaza, and in Palestine and the West Bank as a whole, is one of the recruiting sergeants for ISIL.

I am conscious that in Bradford we are affected by what happens in Gaza and the Middle East, and that more recently in Bradford we have had some disputes between Shia and Sunni. These things come home to us. It is not just a matter of what happens there, so again we have no choice but to engage. There are reports of the role of Qatar in providing funds for reconstruction. Indeed, there are some encouraging suggestions of attempts to get Israel and Hamas together to talk about a five-year truce. Everything that can be done by the United Kingdom Government to promote that, together with our European partners and others, seem immensely worth doing. If we are, as our Prime Minister has just said, in a generational conflict with ISIL, this is the theatre with which the British must engage. It is connected to and cannot be separated from the broader conflict. Her Majesty’s Government must therefore be fully engaged in pushing all parties to the conflict together to try to avoid the situation getting worse.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop 5:54 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I have visited the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine five times since 2000 and I have commitments to lead study tours or pilgrimages next year and the year after. I have yet to go to Gaza but I hope to go to the border next January. What strikes the modern traveller most is the sheer contrast between Israel and the Palestinian areas. To pass from one to the other is like passing from a really up-to-date and modern first-world state to a third-world state, living cheek by jowl with it. In economic and other terms, modern Israel has of course been an extraordinary success in a brief period of just 65 years or so. Although recent economic growth in the West Bank areas has been encouraging in patches, in Gaza the World Bank estimates the per capita income to be 30% lower today than 20 years ago. The contrast just gets greater over time, which sets up a huge instability. I understand all the arguments for a two-state solution—I think I believe in that myself—but will two states so closely linked geographically and yet on such divergent paths easily exist side by side? I always return to that question when I have been to the area.

There is so much about modern Israel that I admire and respect. Given that it has had to fight for its life three times in its brief history, I can understand the toughness that is often manifested in the modern Israeli psyche. I so well remember sitting down with a senior member of the Government there, soon after the wall was built. He turned to me and said, “I don’t like the wall but I have five daughters. At least they’re not going to get blown up on the school bus”. We have to respect aspects of that element in modern Israel.

I do not at all defend all the Israeli tactics in the recent conflict in Gaza—how could one?—but in a funny way I sort of understand them. I greatly regret what happened but what is one to do when thousands of rockets are fired at one’s civilian population from an area controlled by political forces that are dedicated in some degree to the destruction of the country? So there is much that I can understand about modern Israeli attitudes, even if I do not always like or approve of them. What I cannot understand from the Israeli perspective is the settlement programme. It is acknowledged on practically all sides outside Israel that it is both illegal and ill judged. In a certain way it is a parallel to the political mistakes in South Africa, where the South Africans simply dug themselves in and could not see the misjudgment. It took a very long time for them to come to terms with it and, for all the differences between those situations, I often see a certain parallel.

How are we to go forward? We have to work with Hamas. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, that working with it must be the future, difficult though that may be. We also need to recognise the danger of the more militant strands of Islam. As soon as the Syrian conflict quietens down, as we all hope it will, the real danger is exporting it to the northern border with Lebanon or into Palestine. However, on the economic issues, unless something can be done to address the disparity between modern Israel and the Palestinian areas, one way or another history is destined, sadly, to repeat itself.

Photo of Lord Gold Lord Gold Conservative 5:58 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I start by looking at what has been happening on the West Bank. It is estimated that there has been real growth there of more than 5% in 2014, mainly driven by exports and private consumption fuelled by bank loans. By contrast—and not surprisingly, given the 2014 war—the position in Gaza is far worse. The Palestinian economy has fallen into recession for the first time since 2006. Unemployment has risen to 43%, with yearly average unemployment increasing by 11% this year and youth unemployment reaching a staggering 69% at the end of last year.

Clearly the 2014 war has had a major impact on the economy and life in Gaza. However, the main reason for the economic decline, which started in 2013, was the destruction of the majority of illegal tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt, which were a key feeder to Gaza’s construction sector. In addition to the war, economic problems have been exacerbated by the blockade, by the failure of foreign Governments to meet their commitments of financial support and by serious internal tensions.

Hamas has a big responsibility here. It controls Gaza and has refused to allow the Palestinian Authority the control necessary to implement reconstruction, so it has not been permitted to take security and civilian responsibility for the Palestinian side of Gaza’s borders with both Egypt and Israel. Hamas has also misappropriated construction materials for use in terrorist infrastructures. This has been a long-standing problem. We now know that over many years much aid was diverted from essential building works to construct the network of terrorist tunnels that have been so significant in allowing Hamas to carry out its terrorist acts both in Israel and in Egypt, hence the unity of approach by both countries determined to prevent Hamas rebuilding the tunnels.

Happily, a great number of these tunnels were destroyed in the last conflict. The blockade continues, while the risk remains of these tunnels being rebuilt—signs of which have already been seen, unfortunately. Indeed, in recent weeks the Egyptian authorities have discovered and destroyed more tunnels crossing from their land into Gaza. While the 2007 blockade certainly has an impact on economic growth and reconstruction, unless and until Israel feels confident that its security will not be threatened by lifting the blockade, it is understandable that it continues. Even the UN, not slow to criticise Israel at every opportunity, has accepted that the Gaza blockade is legal. The UN’s Palmer report determined:

“Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law”.

Although security issues also have an impact on economic and business life in the West Bank, the constant threat of missile attacks was, happily, missing, and as a result the West Bank was not sucked into the 2014 war. There remain serious security issues in the West Bank and there are no open relations with Israel but, in contrast, life and the economy there are far better than in Gaza.

Why the difference? The key issue is the absence of Hamas. It has been a constant threat to Israel and peace in the region. It has been behind a reign of terror over the civilian population of Israel, constantly firing missiles across the border. It has used its tunnels to infiltrate Israel to kidnap and kill innocent civilians. It has controlled Gaza with a ruthless hand, unhesitatingly murdering opponents without trial. Indeed, we now know that, under cover of the Gaza conflict, Hamas summarily executed at least 23 of its opponents. The Guardian wrote that they were settling old scores.

However, there is reason for a little optimism, and I believe that we in your Lordships’ House can play an important role, whichever side of this debate we may be on. Recent newspaper reports indicate that Hamas is being threatened by Salafists and Islamic State jihadists in Gaza. This group has been responsible for recent rocket attacks in Israel, hoping to destabilise the present fragile ceasefire. Happily, Israel has not reacted to this, as its intelligence has identified exactly what is going on and, perhaps bizarrely, Israel and Hamas now find themselves with a common enemy. Better the devil you know, I suppose.

There are also reports of Israeli and Hamas officials secretly meeting in Qatar to see whether a five-year ceasefire can be agreed, and recently Efraim Halevy, former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, has called for a direct dialogue with Hamas. Perhaps there is a connection between these two developments. Having a dialogue with a sworn enemy is a step that many would regard as too large to take but—as we have seen in Northern Ireland—without taking it at some stage, we cannot progress towards a peaceful solution.

The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel. If progress towards peace is to be made, at some time Hamas will have to abandon that aim. I would hope that the Qatar meetings are a start towards that change. If that can be achieved, progress towards the two-state solution can also be made. Since its foundation, Israel has demonstrated that a true democracy can operate and thrive in the Middle East and be successful in all areas, not least economically. Palestinians have themselves demonstrated throughout the Middle East and in many other parts of the world that they have great business acumen and talent. We should see whether we can work together to achieve some sort of recognition that working together will be better for everyone in that region.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Labour 6:06 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, it is now a year since the horrific war in Gaza in which over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, of whom 65% were civilians and over 500 were children, and 73 Israelis were killed, of whom six were civilians. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, has said, much of the infrastructure in Gaza was destroyed—schools, hospitals, power and water plants, roads, residential accommodation—displacing 100,000 people, very few of whom have been rehoused. Along with the blockade of Gaza, this wanton destruction has crippled the Gazan economy, leaving it with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world, at

43%, and a poverty rate of 39%, according to the World Bank. By the end of 2014, youth unemployment had soared to 60%.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gold, has just said, movement restrictions and the blockade, as well as the armed conflict, have led to Gaza’s economic performance being at rock bottom—worse in only three other countries in the world. It is estimated that 80% of the population are dependent for their survival on overseas aid. Following last year’s war, reconstruction has begun. However, the pace is terribly slow, because of the restrictions on the import of building materials due to the blockade. Lengthy power cuts continue and manufacturing has almost disappeared. After Israel’s imposition of the blockade in 2007, Gaza’s GDP was reduced by one-third, as the right reverend Prelate also mentioned.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gold, that this blockade is justified because of Israeli security problems. In fact, in the long term, the blockade will threaten Israel’s security. My first question to the Minister is about what steps the Government are taking to get the blockade lifted. Further efforts are surely needed following the request that the Foreign Secretary made to Egypt last month to open the Rafah crossing. Should there not be another concerted effort by the UK and the international community to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, which would allow the £3.5 billion pledged for reconstruction to be spent? Pledges are simply not enough; action is what is needed. Unless economic growth can be re-established and jobs created for young people, Gaza will surely become a breeding ground for much more dangerous extremism.

Last year’s war did not just result in many civilian deaths; it also left over 11,000 Palestinians injured, including 3,500 children, some of whom suffered permanent physical disability. As has already been mentioned, many more children have been traumatised, fearing to go to school, bedwetting, clinging to parents and with high levels of aggression. This is all well documented in a recent report by the Save the Children Fund. The damage done to so many children and young people does not augur well for the future of Gaza and its political system. There is a danger that some of them will grow up alienated, disturbed and easy prey for militant extremism, which the high rate of unemployment is likely to exacerbate. More aid is needed to provide psychological help to these children, as well as better conditions to give them some hope for the future.

There is already evidence that Salafist militants now claim allegiance to ISIL and are becoming very active in Gaza. They recently fired rockets into Israel with the aim of jeopardising the ceasefire. Were their numbers to grow greatly, Hamas’s crackdown on them might be very hard to sustain, resulting in potentially terrible consequences, not just for Gaza but for Israel.

My second question to the Minister is: what steps does the UK intend to take to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s report? The Independent Commission of Inquiry received full co-operation from the Palestinians, but, deplorably, not from the Israeli Government, who refused to respond to its questions. Nevertheless, the report was impeccably even-handed, finding fault on both sides. It criticised Palestinian armed groups for indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel and the failure of the Palestinian authorities to bring those involved in violating international law to justice. It considered that many of the actions of the Israel Defense Force may have amounted to war crimes or violation of customary international humanitarian law. One of the issues that concerned it was Israel’s,

“lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable, not only … to secure justice for victims but also to ensure the necessary guarantees for non-repetition”.

In the debate on the report, the UK Government voted in Geneva last week to support the UN’s accountability resolution. Will they now work at the UN in New York and in the European Union to set up investigations into possible war crimes in the interests of abolishing impunity? Surely we owe it to the victims of these atrocities to challenge the impunity that, up to now, has prevailed across the board? If we fail to do so, we must fear for the prospects of peace in Gaza and for a stable and secure political situation ever being established there.

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 6:12 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for securing the debate. Achieving lasting peace between Israel and Palestine must remain a significant priority for the international community. The issues in the Gaza Strip are far-reaching and affect us all, not least the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Last month, the Daesh insurgents threatened to turn the Gaza Strip into another of their Middle East fiefdoms. Daesh is trying to destabilise Hamas and create tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Daesh has carried out bombings in Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel. In the light of this, the need for the international community to find a just solution to the plight of the beleaguered Palestinians becomes all the more pressing. We need to consider the implications of a spread of the brutal Daesh threat to Gaza and, perhaps, the West Bank. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether our Government have considered the security implications of increased Daesh influence in these areas.

We need a more balanced and equitable approach to these issues, and we could begin by recognising Palestine as an independent state. In October last year in the other place MPs voted by 274 to 12 on a Motion to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the State of Israel. At the moment, 136 countries have recognised the state of Palestine, including the Vatican and Sweden. I ask my noble friend the Minister what the Government’s present position is regarding recognition. Further, does she feel that we have a fair and balanced attitude when looking at Palestine and Gaza? We must all work to the establishment of a two-state solution and the creation of a viable sovereign independent state of Palestine, living peacefully alongside a secure Israel. Can we take a more active role to achieve this objective?

This debate may be about the political situation in the Gaza Strip, but of equal importance is the humanitarian situation. I care deeply about humanitarian issues and have been involved in facilitating four convoys of humanitarian aid being sent to Gaza following the

Israeli invasion in 2009. I subsequently visited Gaza with the consent of those on my Front Bench and the Conservative Party. I saw for myself the devastation that had been done and tragically continues to this day. I have also visited Israel and the West Bank.

It has been a year since the cessation of the 50-day assault on Gaza, which left more than 2,200 mostly innocent Palestinian men, women and children and 71 Israelis dead. There was a programme yesterday on the BBC that showed how the children of Gaza have been traumatised following the invasion. Little has been done to stem the tide of poverty, destruction and deprivation that has engulfed the strip. The situation is dire: more than 100,000 people are still displaced and homeless; unemployment stands at more than 50%; and 80% of residents depend on food aid. Medical supplies are at an all-time low; 25% of people have no access to fresh running water and there are frequent power cuts. I, with others, have tried to get medical and humanitarian aid into Gaza, without success, for more than six months. We must all use our influence to ensure that the inhuman siege is brought to an end. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to seeing an end to the brutal siege of the people of Gaza?

We can no longer stand by while the rights of Palestinian people are systematically abused and their suffering continues. Nor can we hide behind the idea that Palestine simply is not ready politically or economically to support a political state. We must work proactively with the international community to achieve a two-state solution.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 6:17 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, there are five salient facts that ought to come out of any debate about Gaza, two of which I am glad to say have already been dealt with at some length and are generally recognised in the country. One is that Gaza is clearly a most unpleasant place to live: it is extremely poor and very violent. It is poor partially because of the blockades that have been imposed by both its neighbours, Egypt and Israel, for reasons that may be very understandable. One can realise that that immediately has very negative humanitarian consequences. There is obviously a sense of great despair in the population of Gaza. We have to recognise and start from that, and ask what has caused it and what we can best do about it.

The second salient fact that has come out and which is certainly recognised all over the world is that Gaza in its present state is a recurring threat to peace in the region. Rockets are continually fired at Israel. After some years, the Israelis inevitably lose their patience—they do so much less rapidly than I would if people were bombarding Lincolnshire with rockets on a regular basis—and intervene militarily. There is nasty military action, obviously with a lot of fatalities.

Those two facts are pretty well known. There are three facts about Gaza that are not so well known and which ought to be better known. One is that it is a very nasty, savage tyranny. The noble Baroness who introduced the debate—we are enormously grateful to her for doing that—did not mention this, but Hamas imposes its power by regular use of torture and execution of political opponents: so-called collaborators with the

Israelis and so forth. I believe that the noble Baroness knows Gaza very well and often talks about it. I never hear her mention the words “torture” or “execution”. I wish she would, because her remarks on the subject would then sound a little more dispassionate than they generally do. She used the words “open prison”. I have been in quite a number of open prisons—not as an inmate, but as a visitor. On the whole, they are pretty humane institutions. Gaza is anything but a humane institution. It is a very unpleasant tyranny. We should not forget it.

The fourth point that ought to be much better known is one I tried to bring out a few weeks ago at Questions, when I asked the Minister whether Hamas could bring to an end, any day it wanted, the blockade imposed by Israel, simply by accepting the quartet conditions. These, as the House knows, are: the giving up of violence, the recognition of the state of Israel and the acceptance of existing accords, including the Oslo accord. The answer I got was yes, the Hamas regime could, any day it wants, get rid of these blockades. It chooses not to do so. Finally, I have met representatives of Hamas and they are of course in denial. They say, “No, we can’t possibly recognise the State of Israel”. They tend to say that they cannot recognise the State of Israel even with the 1948 borders; they certainly cannot recognise what happened in 1973 or 1967. So they are in denial.

The fifth point, which certainly is not as well known as it ought to be—because it affects the pockets of every taxpayer in this country, apart from anything else—is that this mixture of unpleasantness, tyranny, threat to world peace and denial is being actively subsidised by the international community to the tune of many billions of dollars a year. The World Bank reckons that the GDP of Gaza is about $1.6 billion and that the total subventions that Gaza receives is some 60% higher than that. In other words, this is probably the most subsidised community anywhere on God’s earth. The European Union makes much the biggest contribution to these subsidies, at about €1.6 billion, and the second largest contributor is Qatar, at about $1 billion. If we are going to go on subsidising the Hamas regime as we do, we have to ask ourselves whether we should introduce an element of conditionality into our relationships with Hamas. I put it to the Minister that perhaps it is time we did and that we say to Hamas that it would not be in anybody’s interests—least of all the peoples of Gaza—to simply carry on with these subsidies indefinitely with no political change, with no recognition, and with a continual “in denial” approach towards the problems of the Middle East on the part of Hamas; that it is time for Hamas to begin to take life seriously and to make sure that it recognises reality and the needs of the next generation of Gaza, which should not suffer the terrible incubus that the previous two or three generations have under the Hamas regime.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 6:22 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, not only for introducing this debate today, but for the courageous consistency and firmness with which she pursues this issue.

One of the most cynical dimensions to the whole situation at the moment is that, while we all know that if there is to be a two-state solution, there has to be reconciliation between the two parts of the Palestinian political organisation, this is impossible because of the rigid controls of border crossings. The assembly, which had been set up, at least in theory, to enable this reconciliation to begin, is unable to function. This is something to which we must all address ourselves.

Like the noble Baroness, I was at that service in Westminster Abbey today—and a very splendid and impressive occasion it was. I was reflecting on two things. First, what is becoming clearer and clearer about Srebrenica is the cynicism and prevarication in the outside world which meant that the horrific eventuality of the genocide could happen. We all solemnly undertake that this must never happen again—exactly as we said of the Holocaust. I wonder if—pray God, not on the same scale—we shall be having a service in Westminster Abbey to talk about the inaction, the prevarication and the failure to face up to the issue of Gaza by the outside world. It is high time for effective action and not just platitudes.

We lament the effect of the blockade: the suffering of the children and families, the adverse impact on health services, and the fact that a UN official in exasperation can say that at the present rate it will take 30 years to rebuild Gaza. All these things impress us, but of course the most important thing is to enable the economy of Gaza to function. When I was last in Gaza, I was talking to a senior UN official who said, “These people are immensely entrepreneurial, full of imagination and dynamism; given half a chance they could become incredibly successful economically”. But that chance is not there. The materials that they need to develop their industries are not coming into the country. Access to the markets of Israel, and the world beyond, are just not there because of the crossings—and the control at the crossings.

People say, “We’ve got to understand the reasons for the control at the crossings—the constant bombardment of Israel”. While that may be a reality, how much imagination has gone in to thinking about how we could get independent monitoring at the crossings? Have the British Government been making representations about the possibility of UN monitoring at the crossings? Is this not something we should be arguing for very strongly with our Palestinian and Israeli friends as one approach to making sure that the wrong materials are not going in? There is also this talk about having to face the reality that the bombardments and the military action have come from both sides. I am really rather tired of that argument. It is obviously true that there were all these rocket attacks; they were stupid and provocative and wrong. But the disproportionate and indiscriminate size of the retaliation dwarfs that into insignificance. In fact, even more recently, it appears that innocent Gazan people have been shot by Israeli security forces—with fishing families fired at. We have to be very careful about this “two sides” argument on the bombardments.

My biggest anguish—and I have followed the whole situation closely since the Six Day War in 1967, when I was in Israel for its duration—is how on earth is Israel building security for its future, its children and its grandchildren? It is building up resentment. It is providing recruits for ISIL. We must persuade the Israelis that this kind of punitive action, which they seem determined to follow, is not the way to secure a future for their country. We will support and work with them in every reasonable way if we have a genuine regeneration of effective international action.

Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Non-affiliated 6:28 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for providing us with the opportunity to discuss Gaza and the plight of Palestinian people, who currently live in the largest prison in the world.

I had the pleasure of travelling with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, a few years ago on a boat from Cyprus to Gaza. During that trip we were harassed by the Israeli navy in the international waters like pirates. Despite this setback, we made it to Gaza and saw for ourselves how the Palestinian people had been suffering for many years.

Just this past week, Israeli Navy forces intercepted a ship carrying international activists who hoped to breach the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. The vessel, which contained humanitarian aid including medicines and solar panels, was prevented from entering. That incident is nothing new. As your Lordships’ will remember, in 2010 Israeli forces raided a Gaza-bound flotilla and violently attacked the activists on board. Some nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed as a result. Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that intercepting and attacking boats in international waters carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza is illegal under international law? Have Her Majesty’s Government advised the Israeli Government on this matter?

Today, we can see with our eyes and through facts that Israel severely damaged the stability of Palestine. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, last year, Israeli Operation Protective Edge either severely damaged or destroyed 17 hospitals, 56 primary healthcare facilities and 45 ambulances. Sixteen healthcare workers were killed and 83 were injured, most of them ambulance drivers and volunteers. In total, as we have heard again and again, more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, at least 500 of them children. More than 10,000 were wounded. Over 160,000 homes were affected, with 2,400 housing units completely destroyed and 6,600 severely damaged. Some 17,500 families—some 100,000 individuals—are still homeless. An estimated 7,000 explosive remnants of war are buried in debris. At least 10 people have been killed and 36 injured due to ERW. According to the Israeli Committee Against House DemolitionsICAHD—since 1967 Israeli authorities have demolished more than 27,000 structures in the Occupied State of Palestine. Furthermore, according to the Norwegian NGO, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the number of internally displaced people among the Palestinian population is at least 263,000.

Israel’s colonial and prolonged military occupation of the Occupied State of Palestine, including its eight-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, is the root cause of recurring violence and ongoing violations of the human rights of Palestinians. Poverty, deprivation and lack of education are all factors increasing crime and signs of extremism. This increase in extremism paves the way for Daesh to expand its influence to Palestine. Several reports by UN bodies and independent fact-finding missions have now accused Israel of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The lack of accountability for these crimes has led to the recurrence of such crimes and to the latest aggression against the Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip—the deadliest offensive against the Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967.

There is an Israeli contempt for Palestinian life and international law. The international community has an obligation to ensure respect for civilian lives and international law. The only way to do that is to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice and to hold the occupying power accountable. Finally, would Her Majesty’s Government support any UN initiative to bring all those responsible for war crimes to justice, whether Israeli or Palestinian?

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 6:33 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I am afraid that I must admit to being among the usual suspects gathered for this debate. It is pretty obvious that I, on my part, tend to defend Israel but I do so with some knowledge and a great deal of sympathy for the citizens of Gaza. I meet young medical researchers from Gaza who come to the UK on travel fellowships that my wife and I support from our charity. They tell me how hard life is and about the worries they have for the future of their children. They have many reasons to worry, not least because Hamas keeps a very tight hold on everything they do and does not brook any disagreement from its citizens.

It was Hamas that cut off the nose of its people to spite its face by destroying all 3,000 huge greenhouses that Israel left behind 10 years ago. More importantly from the political perspective, it removed all trace of Fatah, the opposition party, when it came to power by expelling its members or killing them off. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that it is Hamas that has contempt for life. These are not nice people. Mr Abbas has never been able to visit Gaza out of fear for his life. It is clear now that the PA and Hamas are incompatible and their so-called unity Government dead. That nice Mr Abbas even accused Hamas of treachery for recently hinting that it might be willing to talk about a peace deal with Israel, according to something called “Middle East media sources”. That is remarkable but apparently true.

Hamas split from the PA and is becoming increasingly isolated. It lost the support of Egypt because of its strong links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has now become an outright enemy, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, more extreme groups nibble away at Hamas’s political base. It is losing the support of Qatar and others in the Middle East as aid for reconstruction from there has almost dried up—despite the promises. It is even in the firing line, as we heard, from ISIL, which promised to annihilate Hamas as well as the Jews in a recent somewhat surprising outburst. Its main remaining friend is Iran, which continues to supply arms and other support.

One of the major sources of income for Hamas was the tax it placed on goods smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt. That made many Hamas officials into millionaires. It may surprise your Lordships but yes, there are millionaires in Gaza. However, now Hamas feels the squeeze and is increasingly reliant on the tax it puts on the 15,000 tonnes of goods that Israel ships across every day. That is 500 truckloads of materials every day. There are also more than 1,000 people going across into Israel: businessmen, patients coming to hospital and so on. There is more to do, of course. However, I say to my noble friend Lord Judd that Hamas refused to allow the Palestinian Authority, let alone the UN, to monitor the crossings. Contrast all that with the recent failed attempt to bring in this Swedish ship, which was found to contain actually very little aid at all. It was a political gesture. If the political and financial position has weakened for Hamas, its relations with the PA are deteriorating and its support from the rest of the Middle East fading, does the Minister think there is any prospect that Hamas will drop its demands that Israel be destroyed? What is the Government’s assessment of reports that Hamas will contemplate discussing a peace deal with Israel? Are the Government here doing everything they can to help that?

Finally, I will say something about proportionality and the accusation that Israel’s response to the thousands of rockets fired at it was out of proportion. There is no doubt that the people of Gaza suffered terribly in the recent wars. However, it is the nature of the threat to which a response should be proportional. Where was the proportionality in the bombing by the allies in Kosovo when there were many civilian casualties on the ground with not a single US or UK casualty? What about the bombing now of Iraq, Yemen and potentially in Syria by the US and ourselves? It is hard to imagine that there are no civilian casualties there yet we have none on our side. It is the nature of the threat that determines the response and unfortunately Israel has an existential threat on its doorstep. Why did Hamas not allow its citizens into the tunnels it has in large numbers for smuggling and attack? It must bear some responsibility for its civilian deaths. While I do not view the deaths of women and children with any equanimity at all—indeed, I am very distressed by them—I just do not buy the proportionality argument. The oppressed citizens of Gaza deserve better but that can be achieved only when Hamas changes its belligerency and seizes the opportunity to talk about peace instead of war and destruction.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 6:39 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on securing this debate, and I congratulate her and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on their excellent speeches. It is timely to discuss Gaza’s misery as events in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Tunisia push Palestinian issues in general and Gaza’s problems in particular further and further into the public and political background.

I have been to Gaza and met Hamas representatives both there and outside Gaza. There are undoubtedly some pretty unpleasant people among them, but I can think of many political parties around the world that have unpleasant people in them. That is not an excuse for not talking to them. It is easy to forget that Hamas won a democratic election, supervised by the UN, in 2006, so we have been involved in not having discussions with that particular democratically elected Government.

We found at the end of the day in Northern Ireland that we had to talk to the IRA. We found that the IRA itself had splintered and that some of the most unpleasant people had gone off to do other things that were even more unpleasant than anything the IRA did in its heyday. That is no excuse in the modern world for refusing to discuss with Hamas and trying to forge some capacity to help Israel engage with Hamas. Standing on the sidelines hoping for better weather to arise in Gaza, which is what we do, does not seem to me to be a very credible strategy for a modern Government in Europe.

I want to spend the rest of my time picking up some of the issues about what we are allowing to happen in Gaza to its children. Their plight is terrible—the BBC will be reminding us bravely this week of some of the trauma that they have suffered. The US seems to have retired hurt from the Middle East and Europe now has to start to make up its own mind what it wants to do in this area.

The context is pretty terrible as far as Gaza’s children are concerned. The starting point in their plight is the civilian death and destruction caused by the Israeli military in July and August last year. This was not just the first conflict, it was the third such conflict in six years, with further destruction piled on that from the previous two. Let me quote from the March 2015 draft of a UN damage and needs assessment:

“During the 51 day escalation, bombardments, air strikes and ground incursions resulted in an estimated 2,260 direct casualties”— that is a euphemism for killings—

“including 612 children … and 230 women ... 10,625 people were injured, among them 3,827 children … and 1,773 women ... 899 people were left permanently disabled”.

None of these dire statistics tells us anything about the casualties left over from the previous two conflicts or about those children and their mothers who survived all three but have been left severely traumatised by their experience. Studies show that mental disorders are consistently higher in Gaza than in Israel. These casualties would be a challenge for any healthcare system, let alone one so impoverished as Gaza’s. The last conflict alone killed and injured over a 100 healthcare workers, with ambulance drivers disproportionately affected. A WHO assessment of 87 health facilities has revealed that 25 have been severely damaged or destroyed, and goes on to say:

“El-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital ... was specifically targeted and totally destroyed following warnings from the GoI to evacuate its patients and staff”.

WHO estimates the economic losses to the health sector at over $380 million. There is a chronic shortage of pharmaceuticals, supplies and spare parts for medical equipment. All this is on top of the damage to water and sewage facilities, housing, electricity and the food supply. Between 95% and 97% of the water supply is unfit for human consumption.

This is the context in which Gaza’s children are growing up: high unemployment, no prospect of jobs, traumatised, poor, with 80% of the population dependent on donor aid. Would we really be surprised if some of them turn to ISIL and Islamic Jihad, and would we really be surprised if those numbers increased? We are bringing on ourselves and helping Israel to bring on itself a move to extremism. This will do even more damage in Gaza and do damage to Israel itself.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:45 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, in September, 22 years will have passed since the famous Arafat-Rabin handshake in Washington—the Oslo agreement that promised so much but has delivered so little. The tragedy of Palestine, and Gaza in particular, continues unabated. Nobody can forget the dreadful scenes that we saw on our televisions last summer. It is of course essential that we recognise that there is fault on both sides. If Hamas wants to see an end to the constant blockades and incursions, it needs to refrain from lobbing indiscriminate rockets into Israel and to recognise the right of Israel to exist. It also needs to stop hiding weapons in schools.

The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, in our last Palestine debate in January powerfully read out excerpts from Hamas’s Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, which frighteningly set out some of the organisation’s rules and principles, including the encouragement to jihad. But Israel, as a respected friend of the UK, needs to be told in no uncertain terms that it needs to respect international law, to stop killing innocent civilians, and to stop building on land that is not its own. There are extremists on both sides, and they need to understand that the whole region is in a great deal more precarious a state than it has been in for decades. Now would be a good time for both sides to compromise.

It is essential that we do not forget the devastation that has been brought on the Gaza Strip: massive youth unemployment, shelled houses, limited imports and exports due to the blockades. Many noble Lords have detailed last summer’s appalling death toll—mostly civilians and many children. As the noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Ahmed, emphasised, over 100,000 people in Gaza are thought to have had their homes destroyed, and not a single one of these has been reconstructed in the last year. But it is also unacceptable that 69 Israelis were killed including four civilians. Israeli people need to feel safe in their homes and when they travel, and we must see an end to indiscriminate bombings on buses and murders in synagogues.

It must be emphasised that the UN Human Rights Council has concluded that there was evidence of atrocities and suspected war crimes on both sides in the conflict last summer. However, the disproportionate number of casualties on the Palestinian side compared to the Israeli side speaks for itself. People around the world saw that as unjustifiable.

King Abdullah of Jordan stressed that ISIS’s ability to recruit foreign fighters was aided by last summer’s conflict between Israel and Palestine. He said that many of those who joined the group were spurred on by the perceived persecution of the Palestinians. With IS gaining strength in the region, including last week in Sinai, Hamas needs to understand that now would be a good time to reach out and go for peace. At the start of this month a new video was released by ISIS militants who have directly threatened to overthrow Hamas in Gaza, because the group is not extreme enough. Even the former head of Mossad says that direct dialogue by Israel with its sworn enemy could lead to a form of mutual coexistence. Are the Government aware of any quiet negotiations taking place between Israel and Hamas at the moment?

In order to break the deadlock, Israel needs to halt its illegal and continued settlement expansion and land confiscation in the West Bank. The number of Israeli settlers in the Palestinian West Bank grew by approximately 85% after the Oslo accords were signed. Labour is firmly of the view that we need a two-state solution, but we need to ensure that Palestine can be a viable state. Constant and illegal land grabs make this more difficult by the week. The new Israeli Government have announced new plans to build further settlements. Beyond condemnation, what action are the UK Government taking to end the settlement expansion that they agree is illegal? Does the Minister really believe there can be a peace agreement when the Israeli Government continue to act in this way, when Netanyahu suggested during his election that he did not want to see a two-state solution, and when the US priority for this region has changed?

Palestine and Gaza cannot be dealt with in isolation from other events and battles going on in the region. While the continuing advance of IS is of profound concern, we cannot ignore the festering sore that has lasted for so many decades in Palestine. We need to work towards a lifting of the blockade, an honouring of the pledges for reconstruction, and an understanding from both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they have a great deal more to lose than to gain from the continued absence of peace.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State 6:50 pm, 6th July 2015

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for tabling today’s wide-ranging debate. It was important for us to hear from her the graphic description of the appalling humanitarian conditions within Gaza. It was also very helpful to hear the insights of the Front-Bench spokespeople—both the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—in putting everything into context, as they did.

It is clear that the current situation in Gaza is unacceptable. It is true that the ceasefire agreement reached in August 2014 is still largely holding, but there has not been progress towards a durable solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Hamas remains in charge in Gaza—and the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Stamford and Lord Turnberg, reminded us that under Hamas life is far from easy. This is not a straightforward matter of who is good and who is bad. We have assessed that Hamas is seeking to rebuild militant infrastructure, including the tunnel network, in Gaza, and we are deeply concerned at reports of militant groups rearming.

Noble Lords referred to the issue of Daesh/ISIL perhaps being in Gaza. We are indeed concerned about the recent rise in the number of small Salafist groups in Gaza that have self-identified with ISIL/Daesh, and we are monitoring the situation closely. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has not taken the steps needed to make progress on reconciliation and to restore control in Gaza. Of course, while Israel has indeed lifted some movement and access restrictions, including doubling the water supply to Gaza and permitting more exports of produce from Gaza, as noble Lords have pointed out, Israeli restrictions are still extensive. We work consistently to persuade the Israelis that they should ease those restrictions further; we should not underestimate the changes that have taken place, particularly with regard to access to water. But so much more needs to be done, and there needs to be certainty rather than having moment-to-moment access to the necessaries of life.

Egypt, wary of extremists in the Sinai, has been reluctant to reopen the Rafah crossing, opening it only sporadically. Again, clearly it is important that we continue working with Egypt to be able to have that crossing opened more regularly.

Without significant change, at best, it could take many years to rebuild Gaza. At worst, we risk a return to conflict and, if the underlying causes are not addressed, Gaza risks becoming an incubator for extremism around the region. So, as noble Lords have said, there is an urgent need to address the terrible situation in Gaza once and for all. Bold political steps are necessary—first, to bring about a durable end to the cycle of violence and, secondly, to address the underlying causes. I can say directly that, with regard to the recognition of Palestine, our position remains that it is important that to achieve any resolution we will recognise the state of Palestine, where Palestinians currently live, only if and when Hamas get to the position whereby it can recognise the right of Israel to exist, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, mentioned. The moment when we are able to decide to recognise the state of Palestine is the one that best brings about hope of peace. We will make that step only when we judge that it best brings about peace, and it would be a matter of recognising the state on 1967 borders. That also means that we continue to work with regard to discussing with Israel very strongly about the illegal extension of settlements in the Occupied Territories. Israel knows our view on that very well.

I was also asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, whether we would consider an arms embargo on Israel. The UK continues to be of the belief that imposing a blanket arms embargo on Israel would not promote progress on the Middle East peace process at the moment. All countries, including Israel, have a legitimate right to self-defence; our Government operate some of the most robust export controls in the world. We approve equipment only when we are satisfied that it would be consistent with the EU and consolidated arms export criteria. We are most cautious.

I was asked about the talks between Hamas and Israel—the hudna talks—that are rumoured to be taking place. What I can say, very carefully, is that we are aware of the rumours of those talks; the immediate priority for us remains that all parties should prioritise making progress on reaching a durable agreement that addresses the underlying causes of conflict.

Our policy on Hamas remains clear: it must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements. Hamas must make credible movement towards these conditions, which still remain the benchmark against which its intentions should be judged. We call on those in the region who have an influence over Hamas to encourage Hamas to take those steps. It is important that all parties take credible steps to end this cycle of violence. Many noble Lords have referred to how long this violence has endured. Working with others, such as the United States, we want to make progress with the Middle East process talks. Clearly, it is a matter that the talks have not progressed over the last year as we hoped they might; we continue to press that those talks should resume and resume soon.

Many noble Lords referred to accountability in some detail, and it is right that that should be raised at this point because of the United Nations report, the commission of inquiry report that was before the Human Rights Council so recently, in this last month. I attended the Human Rights Council and was there shortly before the report was issued, and of course I have followed each and every word of the debate that ensued on that matter. Our negotiators in Geneva were very careful and firm in the views that they took as a result of guidance from Ministers, and I am very grateful to them for their work.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, the UK along with our EU partners voted in favour of the resolution on the UN commission of inquiry report on the 2014 conflict in Gaza just last week. We would have preferred to see a text that gave more weight to Israel’s legitimate right of self-defence and the threat that she faces from militant groups operating inside Gaza, including Hamas. However, despite those concerns, we supported the text of the resolution. The noble Baroness will know from her experience that every word counts in those resolutions.

The UK is deeply concerned by the terrible human cost to both sides of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as underlined by the findings of the report. We strongly condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip. Such actions are serious violations of international humanitarian law. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and others that it is for all states and non-state parties to have a careful mind about what constitutes international law and international humanitarian law, including those who seek to deliver aid from whichever avenue they seek to do it. It is for all of us to obey the law. We do not pick and choose. We have throughout urged both sides to the conflict to act in a manner that is proportionate and to take all measures to prevent the loss of human and civilian life and to comply with the law.

We note that the UN commission of inquiry report highlights,

“substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases these violations may amount to war crimes”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and others asked what happens next, after this stage. The allegations in the COI report must be fully investigated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the authorities in Gaza.

We therefore welcome the fact that Israel is conducting its own internal investigations into specific incidents. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing those responsible must be held accountable. I will pursue that too. I have had my own conversations with those involved in investigations in Israel and I shall continue to hold them to account. It is first for both parties to demonstrate robust and credible internal investigations to this end, in line with international standards. I believe that we and the United Nations will continue to monitor that carefully.

Many noble Lords mentioned the matter of international aid. The United Kingdom has been one of the largest donors to Gaza since last summer, providing more than £17 million in emergency assistance. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, that none of our aid goes to Hamas. It goes via the United Nations relief agency and the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. This has helped to provide vital supplies of food, clean water, shelter and medical assistance to those most in need. The UK pledged an additional £20 million at the October 2014 Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo to help kick-start the recovery and get the Gazan people back on their feet. We have now delivered 80% of that pledge, with more to come shortly. Others need to deliver on their pledges too. All aid should be delivered in accordance with international humanitarian law.

As we have heard in detail today, the challenges in Gaza are clear. We must act urgently to help its people get back on their feet and begin the hard work of reconstruction, which indeed will take a very long time. For its part, the United Kingdom will continue to push for progress towards peace, and lead the way in supporting Palestinian state-building and measures to address Israel’s valid security concerns, working with the parties every step of the way. The security of the Palestinian people, of Israel and the region demands no less.