Gaza: Humanitarian Situation - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 8 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat 2:37, 8 February 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, we are about to go into a Question for Short Debate with 27 speakers, which means a necessary time limit of one minute for Back-Bench contributions to ensure that there is enough time for the Minister to respond to the very important points that will no doubt be raised. I am acutely aware of the importance of this topic and I well understand the interest from noble Lords across the House. That is why I am pleased to say that we have separately arranged a general debate on foreign affairs, with the Foreign Secretary closing the debate, on Tuesday 5 March. Members can sign up to speak in the usual way. This will provide a further opportunity for longer contributions on this matter should noble Lords wish to make them then.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat 2:38, 8 February 2024

I very much welcome the statement from the Government Chief Whip.

I declare that I am the honorary president of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine and remind the House of my interests in the register. I am pleased that this debate has received so much interest. It is a conflict that matters to millions of people here in the UK and around the world.

The scale of the Hamas attack and the number of killings in a single day were truly shocking. There has been global condemnation of and revulsion at the events of 7 October, when more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals in Israel were killed. An estimated 240 people were taken prisoner. To date, at least 105 of those hostages have been released by Hamas during a six-day ceasefire.

Since that day, Israel has killed at least 20 times that number and more than 200 times as many children. The latest figures show that Israeli attacks have killed approximately 27,500 Gazans in 17 weeks. That is 15 times the rate of killing of civilians in Ukraine over 18 months.

The UN says that, since the start of the war, about 100,000 people in Gaza have been killed, injured or are missing as Israel continues to press what has become one of the most destructive military campaigns in modern history. Some 70% of those killed have been women and children. Although Israel says it avoids civilian casualties, 12,000 children have been killed—that is 136 children killed per day. Nearly 85% of the total population of Gaza have been forced to leave their homes. Many of these people have been forced to move to seek new shelter several times. Exhausted men, women and children have walked for many miles past dead bodies lying in the street. Shocking photos of starving dogs and cats scavenging dead bodies have gone around the world. Since 7 October, more than 10 children per day on average have lost one or more of their limbs, according to Save The Children, and more than 1,000 children have had one or both legs amputated. Many of these operations on children were done without anaesthetic.

The healthcare system is crippled, there are severe shortages of doctors and nurses and there is a blockade on vital medical supplies such as anaesthesia and antibiotics. The healthcare infrastructure has been all but destroyed. Almost all the hospitals in northern Gaza have been shelled, besieged or occupied by Israeli forces, who are also cutting off supplies of fuel, water, electricity and food. The UN’s assessment is that one-quarter of the total population is suffering catastrophic famine—I would appreciate not being heckled.

Eighty per cent of people worldwide currently in that category are from Gaza. This is a man-made famine. The Israeli Government are using the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war, which is a war crime, as Human Rights Watch has documented. The naval blockade could easily be lifted to allow aid to be shipped in. Hundreds of trucks of aid and food wait in Egypt but are prevented from entering while people nearby are starving.

Children and babies make up half of Gaza’s population. Some 26,000 children have lost one or both parents. Dr Tanya Haj-Hassan, who works with Doctors Without Borders, told BBC News:

“There’s an acronym that’s unique to the Gaza Strip, it’s WCNSF—wounded child no surviving family—and it’s not used infrequently”.

Yesterday, we saw reports and footage of snipers positioned outside Nasser Hospital, which thousands of starving and thirsty people sheltering in a nearby school are trying to reach to get water. A young woman was shot dead yesterday trying to get water. These are truly sadistic crimes. Not one person can ever justify them, and they are nothing to do with eliminating Hamas.

Israel, recognised as the occupying power, has a legal obligation to provide for the well-being of those under its occupation. Some have disputed the State of Israel’s occupation prior to 7 October, but nowhere could be more occupied than Gaza right now. Will the Minister make clear that Gaza is not Israeli sovereign territory, that Israel is the occupying power and that, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, as the occupying power, it has clear, explicit, legal obligations that it is legally bound to meet for the welfare of 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza? This means it has to provide essential services, including food, water and healthcare. Will the Minister say whether the UK Government accept this and whether that has been conveyed to the Israeli Government recently? Will the UK Government increase pressure on Israel to comply with international humanitarian law in terms of the provision of humanitarian assistance and the conduct of hostilities? Will they publicly support the work of the International Criminal Court across all situations under its jurisdiction, including the ongoing investigation into serious crimes committed by all parties in and from Palestine?

On the allegations around UNRWA, have the UK Government been given Israel’s dossier of allegations? Have the Government requested what evidence Israel has, as opposed to allegations? Will the Government reverse their decision to temporarily pause funding to UNRWA and state clearly that they will continue to fund the agency as it investigates the serious allegations brought by the Israeli Government? Will they also state their support for UNRWA’s essential role in delivering life-saving humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza?

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was quoted as saying:

“We are trying to separate the Palestinian people from the terrorists that have been running their government in Gaza and the way to do that is to say there is a better” way if they choose it. He has also stated his intent on recognising a Palestinian state. I agree, as many do. There is clearly no military solution; indeed, it is clear that this catastrophic war will not bring peace or security to either Israel or the Palestinian people.

Mr Netanyahu has reportedly just rejected a ceasefire deal that would have seen the release of hostages. He claims he wants to go for full victory, which is within reach—apparently, within months. He, along with his far-right coalition Government and his ambassador to the United Kingdom, have made it clear they do not support a two-state solution, making Israel at complete odds with the United States, the UK and the United Nations, as well as Saudi Arabia and all the key players in the region.

This war is destabilising the whole Middle East region, and the non-western world sees things very differently than we do here, in relative safety. They are seeing that the apparent international human rights we in the West have universally advocated do not appear to be universal.

What we now need, from the United Kingdom perspective, is an immediate ceasefire, with mutual exchange of hostages and a staggered Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. A massive international effort would be needed to rebuild Gaza, which now resembles closely the zone of the earthquake in Turkey, which we have just seen the anniversary of. There should be full accountability under international humanitarian law for all violators.

Will the UK increase its diplomatic pressure on Israel, and publicly and privately call on it to end the unlawful attacks on hospitals and ambulances? We should also condemn Israel’s cutting-off of essential items as collective punishment and use of starvation as a weapon of war.

The Hamas leaders of today were once children in refugee camps. What do we think the thousands of children and young people who have just seen their entire families wiped out—their mothers and siblings blown to pieces—will become without some hope of a future? I believe that the majority of people in this country want a ceasefire and peace, as do the people in the region. The Palestinian people in Gaza do not have months left to survive this brutal conflict. The Israeli people deserve and need peace and security, along with the Palestinians.

Photo of Lord Pickles Lord Pickles Conservative 2:47, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests. There is consensus about the urgent need to increase the flow of aid into Gaza. Equally, there is a need to ensure that the aid goes to Gazans and is not stolen at gunpoint by Hamas and its kleptocratic leadership in Qatar. Aid cannot be used to prop up Hamas’s failing leadership, nor to facilitate a future that permits Hamas to play any role in the rebuilding of Gaza. The road to peace is straightforward. Hamas must cease using civilians as human shields, surrender its arms and release the hostages. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that there can be no peace without the hostages going home? Bring them home; bring them home now.

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 2:48, 8 February 2024

My Lords, the citizens of Gaza are suffering terribly, as we have heard, and deserve all our sympathy and support, but let us look at who is to blame for their disastrous situation. I have no doubt that it sits squarely with Hamas. Those who have any doubt that Hamas are a terrorist group need just to look at their own bodycam recordings of their atrocities on 7 October. If that is not terrorism, I do not know what is. They are not simply militants, as some in the media suggest, and it is they who stand behind their citizens as they fire their missiles; it is they who use their schools, hospitals and mosques as their military bases; it is they who are holding over 100 Israeli hostages. Let us certainly provide more aid, but remember how Hamas have always purloined supplies intended for their people and used them for themselves—they are doing so now. Let them release the hostages and aid would undoubtedly follow, which is desperately needed. Meanwhile, let the blame be put where it belongs: on terrorist Hamas.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Liberal Democrat 2:49, 8 February 2024

My Lords, Netanyahu’s vengeful bombardment after the barbaric events of 7 October has been disastrous for Israel, for the hostages, for the region and for world Jewry, and it has been catastrophic for the Palestinians. The scale of destruction and human suffering has been appalling. Destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages were obvious incompatible objectives, but Netanyahu is uncompromising. What plans have the United Kingdom and the allies to provide medical help for Gaza, perhaps including teams on the ground and hospital ships, if and when a ceasefire—which I called for in last November’s King’s Speech debate—is agreed?

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 2:50, 8 February 2024

My Lords, the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza is tragic indeed, but the House needs to focus on the causes of this tragedy. Gaza has received billions of dollars, pounds and euros in aid over the past decades, but this has not been used to improve education, health or the economy of Gaza. Much of it has gone into the Swiss bank accounts of Hamas leaders, and most of it has been used to build tunnels and attack Israel. If Hamas were now to release the hostages, and if Gaza were no longer used as a military base for attacking Israel, there would be no war in Gaza.

Photo of The Bishop of Norwich The Bishop of Norwich Bishop

My Lords, I visited Gaza on 4 October, just three days before Hamas’s evil attacks, to see the Anglican-run 80-bed al-Ahli hospital. The World Health Organization reported on Tuesday that there are 150 patients there—all are critically ill. Everyone is fearful, stressed and exhausted. Medical staff have been detained, shackled and blindfolded by the IDF, and, on release, they are deposited in Rafah and not allowed to return to the hospital. There is an urgent need for medical staff, fuel, food and critical medical supplies, such as bone stabilisers, antibiotics and anaesthetics, across Gaza’s hospitals. Will His Majesty’s Government hear the cries of medics in Gaza and press the State of Israel for the WHO to have sustained access to resupply hospitals across the Gaza Strip so that they can continue to function?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative 2:51, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for their personal hard work in ensuring that they are doing everything they can to get aid into Gaza. But we still have a population being starved, a people on the brink of famine, pregnant women undergoing C-sections without anaesthetic, newborns with starving mothers and babies orphaned at birth, with no access to baby formula. There are no period products, basic medication or clean drinking water. Despite miles and miles of aid trucks on the Israeli border, can my noble friend say on the record what barriers are being created by the Netanyahu Government to getting aid in? Why are more than 50% of trucks cleared and allowed into the north of Gaza still being stopped by the Israeli army inside Gaza? Why is the northern Gaza water pipeline—the only source of clean water for the most desperate civilians—still switched off by Israel, in direct breach of the ICJ ruling, in breach of a Security Council resolution on the use of hunger as a weapon of war, and in breach of international humanitarian law?

Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Labour 2:53, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I will specifically ask about the Government’s decision to suspend funding for UNRWA after the very serious allegations of involvement by UNRWA staff in the horrific attacks on 7 October. I have four questions for the Minister. First, did the UK Government see any direct evidence provided by the Israeli Government, and was that the basis of their decision to suspend funding? Secondly, at the time, the Government said they were temporarily pausing funding of UNRWA

“whilst we review these concerning allegations”.

Can the Minister update us on what the review has shown? Thirdly, why did the UK suspend funding in advance of the investigation or its conclusions, rather than deciding, as France, Switzerland, the EU, Denmark and lots of others have done, to wait for its findings? Fourthly, is it right to axe funding for UNRWA when the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza relies so heavily not just on the aid it provides but on the physical infrastructure and logistical services that it provides for almost all other aid agencies?

Photo of Lord Austin of Dudley Lord Austin of Dudley Non-affiliated 2:54, 8 February 2024

My Lords, it is not Israel that is responsible for the terrible situation in Gaza but Hamas terrorists who hide in densely populated civilian areas, hospitals and schools, and who deliberately started a war with the atrocities on 7 October.

When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it had a successful economy, control over imports and exports, open borders and plans for a seaport. Hamas staged a vicious coup, murdered moderate Palestinians and launched a wave of terror acts against Israel—and that is why Israel had to build a fence, not as a blockade but as a defence. Instead of building hospitals and schools, the murderers steal funds to make rockets and tunnels to attack Israeli civilians. Instead of improving the lives of people in Gaza, the corrupt gangsters stole billions and live in luxury in Doha. Now they steal fuel, food and aid meant for starving civilians. The only way to improve the situation in Gaza is for Hamas to stop the terror attacks, stop the war and accept Israel’s right to exist.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 2:55, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I will make one simple suggestion—that everyone should read the excellent article by Stephen Daisley in the Spectator yesterday, in which he wrote:

“Time and again, Israel was urged to make concessions … In each case, the promise from foreign capitals was the same: do this and, if the Palestinians exploit these concessions to attack you, we will back your right to self-defence. Well, Israel made the concessions, the Palestinians exploited them, and, with some honourable exceptions, the international community went wobbly whenever Israel mounted a military operation”.

That is why Israelis feel as they do now.

After 7 October, Israel has an absolute right to act to remove the threat of terrorism from its borders and topple Hamas. In doing so, it goes out of its way to prevent civilian casualties and takes precautions that no other military in the world takes. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that this country will continue to support Israel in finishing that job?

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 2:56, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for securing this debate. Today the future seems bleak after Prime Minister Netanyahu, perhaps understandably, rejected a ceasefire because, as reported, total victory may be achieved in months. In my city of Bristol, women from Jewish and Muslim communities stand silently together in public vigil, and those of all faiths and none march each week campaigning for a cessation of violence on all sides.

Total victory within months—what does that mean for the hostages held in tunnels, for the women who are pregnant without medical support, for babies whose mothers have no breast milk? What we see is a horrible inversion of the word of the prophet Joel: the dreams of old men are shattered and the visions of young men are betrayed. The hopes of so many Jews, Muslims and Christians are destroyed. May God and our political leaders have mercy, source aid and work unrelentingly for peace.

Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative 2:57, 8 February 2024

My Lords, Gaza’s children are innocent. They are the future of the Palestinian state, which must become a reality. I welcome my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s comments in that direction. Their lives are being shattered, more than 10,000 have been killed, and every day in Gaza more than 10 children on average have one or both of their legs amputated, often due to being injured by heavy weaponry and often in procedures carried out without anaesthetic due to the blockade. Children’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to blast injuries and burns inflicted by explosive weapons. Their need for medical aid is overwhelming, and their right to it is recognised under international law. A Palestinian child’s life is as precious as that of any British or Israeli child.

We have the expertise and ability to help in demanding a ceasefire and helping the most vulnerable civilians. Will my noble friend therefore commit to supporting efforts to provide specialist medical treatment on a temporary basis to a limited number of children from the region in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat 2:58, 8 February 2024

My Lords, according to reports, around 30,000 people have been killed and around 70,000 injured in Gaza since 7 October. Some 1.9 million are displaced, with little or no health facilities, and are in dire need of medicine and food.

Loss of innocent lives is condemnable, regardless of their faith, ethnicity or origin, and those responsible need to be brought to justice. It is regretful to note that the British Government are falling short of asking for an immediate ceasefire and have stopped supporting the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. I urge the British Government to do everything to stop the war in Gaza and help to get maximum humanitarian aid to the war victims. I urge an immediate release of all Hamas-held hostages, and all the Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Finally, I welcome the statement from the British Foreign Secretary to recognise the state of Palestine, as this would be a milestone—to achieve a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians may live side by side in peace.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour 2:59, 8 February 2024

My Lords, we need to remind ourselves again that there are still 136 hostages with no access to the Red Cross. The appalling discovery that UNRWA participated in the Hamas massacre has meant that not only the UK but most countries around the world have suspended aid. That is just a reminder to my noble friend Lord Wood. Aid has been diverted by Hamas, which is using civilians; it does not care about the price that the civilian population pay.

There has to be a two-state solution, following the release of hostages and exchange of prisoners. There was an interesting article recently about a Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, who has been involved in very serious crimes. The comment made about whether he can play a part was that he was undoubtedly a terrorist. The comment made in response to that was, “So was Mandela”, and yet he formed a key part of peace negotiations. I would welcome a comment from the Minister in relation to a two-state solution and exchange of prisoners.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative 3:01, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I refer the House to my registered interests. It is not difficult: Hamas started this and Hamas can bring it to an end. The 7 October massacre and the holding and mistreatment of hostages by Hamas has caused the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza. Does my noble friend agree that its double standards know no bounds? The sister of Hamas chief Haniyeh and her premature baby are still receiving life-saving treatment in Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, Israel, while the hostages in his hands are starving, being raped and dying in brutal conditions.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

My Lords, history will rightly seek justification for the actions and words of our appointed leaders as they continue to show callous disregard, allowing the inhuman brutalisation of the Palestinian people for 75 years. Generations have been mercilessly wiped out with weapons of our gift, allegedly including phosphorous in Gaza. A free Palestine will emerge. A paradigm shift and a global citizen movement are afoot, led by every child, woman and man of Gaza and the courageous leadership of South Africa.

In honour of the tens of thousands of innocents slaughtered and maimed in the hands of the IDF’s allegedly genocidal regime, witnessed by loud advocates of penholders of universal morality and justice now speaking another tongue, when will the UK Government say “Stop now” and cease their complicity for the incomprehensible cruelty, rape, torture and detention in the killing fields of Palestine, which has indeed set an ugly precedent for our world, and abide by the ruling of the ICJ provisional order?

Photo of Lord Roberts of Belgravia Lord Roberts of Belgravia Conservative 3:03, 8 February 2024

My Lords, even if we were to take as accurate Hamas’s statistics and the 27,500 figure—there is no reason why we should; we do not do that with Putin or ISIS—if one subtracts the number of Gazans who have been killed by the quarter or so of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas rockets that fall short, one is left with a less than 2:1 ratio of civilians to Hamas terrorists killed, of whom there have been more than 9,000 so far. War is hell, and every individual civilian death is a tragedy, but—I speak as a military historian—less than 2:1 is an astonishingly low ratio for modern urban warfare where the terrorists routinely use civilians as human shields. It is a testament to the professionalism, ethics and values of the Israel Defense Forces.

Photo of Lord Stone of Blackheath Lord Stone of Blackheath Non-affiliated 3:04, 8 February 2024

My Lords, many noble Lords taking part in this debate have said that in this war, one side is right and the other side is wrong and there should be no compromise. Both Israel and Palestine have right on their side, yet they cannot see the right on the other side. At heart, their actions come from a place of humanity, but only from one side. So, to try to help them move to a consciousness of shared understanding and love, and to help them decide to collaborate with the opposing people and together, find the right way to proceed, I have invited to the House of Lords 40 individuals who lead organisations on the ground in both Palestine and Israel and who are ready to work in union across the divide, supporting each other. They will come here for three days at the beginning of June to discuss how they would use their experience, compassion and friendships to work out which way to go to find a way of living together that benefits us all. When we have summarised their combined wisdom, I will wish to share it with the Minister and the whole House.

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench 3:05, 8 February 2024

My Lords, war affects women and men differently. With no access to menstrual products, Palestinian women and girls are using dirty rags. Palestinian women are having caesareans without anaesthetic and dying during childbirth. If Palestinian women survive bombs, childbirth, disease and hunger, they are witnessing their babies and children dying. Will the Minister confirm if an assessment will be made of whether the assaults on the reproductive rights, health and dignity of Palestinian women have breached international laws? The Government have not only abandoned Palestinians; they are contributing to their collective punishment by suspending aid to UNRWA. The agency is the only lifeline for the majority for food, shelter and medicine. Suspending aid will be catastrophic. I urge the Government to reverse the decision. If not, what is their alternative plan?

Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 3:06, 8 February 2024

My Lords, five weeks ago I was at Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the Israel-Gaza border. Hamas had ransacked the place. It did not take much to imagine the carnage and depravity that took place. I then turned to my left and faced Gaza, no more than a mile away. There were explosions. It also did not take much to imagine the thousands of innocent Palestinians who were dying and whose lives were being wrecked. But it was Hamas that spent billions building subterranean fortresses when it could have built thriving communities. It was Hamas that located military command centres under hospitals and schools; and now it is Hamas that is commandeering the distribution of food and water to the Gazan people.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:07, 8 February 2024

My Lords I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. A stock-take: more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. Many hundreds of those have been killed since the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take all possible measures to prevent genocidal acts. Around 1 million children are in need of homes, basic sustenance and medical care, and almost an entire population has been displaced. Scores of Israelis remain hostage in Gaza and hundreds of Palestinians are being held in Israel. What can and should the UK do? First, it should call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire now, as the Green Party has long been doing. Secondly, it should resume the funding for UNRWA, the largest aid agency, that is so crucial to people’s survival. Thirdly, it should suspend all arms sales to Israel, particularly parts for the F35 joint strike fighter. This is particularly crucial: these sales could soon see us taken before the ICJ.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 3:08, 8 February 2024

My Lords, the people of Gaza have been failed by Hamas and by UNRWA. Hamas killed, raped and mutilated Israelis on 7 October. It killed 1,200 and wounded many more, and it took more than 200 hostages. It knew exactly what it was doing and what the consequences would be for the people of Gaza. UNRWA is rotten to its core and has been a willing accomplice to Hamas. Its schools taught hatred of Israel. UNRWA staff have allowed weapons and rockets to be stored in aid centres. Most shockingly, some of them willingly joined the murderous gangs on 7 October. I pray that one day, the innocent victims in Gaza will recognise their true oppressors.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 3:09, 8 February 2024

My Lords, we have heard of the horrific events in Gaza and the suffering of the Palestinian people. The declared objectives of the war in Gaza were to destroy Hamas and secure the release of the hostages, yet after 17 weeks, neither has been achieved. There is therefore no credible justification for further killing and laying waste in Gaza. In the meantime, Ministers Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have called for Jewish settlements in Gaza and for the migration of the Palestinian people, while health and aid facilities are being systematically destroyed. What action will the UK Government take to insist on compliance with international law and the rulings of the ICJ, condemn these declarations and fully support the Palestinian people’s right to reclaim their territories?

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, the current situation in Gaza is of course horrific, but it could be resolved within hours, if Hamas wanted to, by releasing the hostages. Hamas does not want that and should be held liable for the terrible deaths, destruction and injury, as Israel has no choice but to try to protect and rescue its citizens. Gaza was a tragedy before 7 October, when Israel totally withdrew; it could have flourished, like Tel Aviv, but was prevented from so doing by Hamas and Hamas alone.

His Majesty’s Government have called for an independent state of Palestine. Can my noble friend confirm now or in writing: is it to be a democracy or an autocracy? Will a Palestinian state be required to ban Hamas and other terrorists? Will it have a military army, and will this mean the end of the discredited and corrupt UNRWA? Will it allow regular inspections to ensure there are no more tunnels? These difficult questions highlight why now may not be the right time to seek a two-state solution. The objective now must be to focus on peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 3:10, 8 February 2024

My Lords, how should one wind up a debate of such passion and complexity? Jesus summed up the whole of the law and the prophets by saying:

“Love God with all your heart … Love your neighbour as yourself”.

When you next look into the eyes of one of your own children or grandchildren, you will see the miracle of a wonderful human being. You do not want them to suffer, be beaten, shot or blown up, have their limbs amputated without anaesthetic, live in misery or die in agony. That is too awful to contemplate. When you next look at a picture of a child—a Jewish child, a Palestinian child, Muslim or Christian or any other child—are you reminded of your own children, or have you lost that sense of our common humanity? With the killing of innocent children, much less the killing of thousands and thousands of them, there can be no excuses, no exceptions, no caveats and no shifting of the blame to someone else for their deaths. Does the Minister agree that it is not just “the other” who is being killed? Our common humanity is being destroyed.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:12, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I have three quick questions to which I hope the Minister will respond. The dire situation in Gaza must stop now. We need a humanitarian truce to allow aid in and the release of the hostages, so can he update us on his and the Foreign Secretary’s efforts to support the international community? Can he also update us on increased access to Gaza, particularly land routes through Kerem Shalom and Rafah, and air drops and maritime routes? How can we get access quickly? Finally, to pick up my noble friend’s point about UNRWA, we need to ensure that that organisation can continue, so will the Minister set out a clear and fast pathway to returning to funding it? When will we get the report and be able to get aid back into Gaza?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:13, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, for initiating this vital, timely and extremely important debate, and all noble Lords for their insightful contributions. The debate has been sombre in tone, and emotions are high. Equally, the quality of those 60-second contributions has shown the insight that your Lordships’ House provides.

I was very touched by and agree with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I thank him for his insights, and thank many others across the House for providing me, as a Minister at this most challenging time, with their own valuable experience and insights into the British Government’s position. I share in his call for our common humanity. As a Muslim, I am reminded of the verse of the Holy Koran which says: “That person who saves the life of a single soul is akin to the person saving all humanity. That person who takes the life of an innocent soul is akin to the person taking the life of all humanity”. For those who claim to act in religion, as Hamas does, we must look at the fundamentals. Not just the Muslim world but any like-minded thinking person with humanity at their core should reject its activities outright.

I thank all noble Lords for the poise and detail they have provided. My noble friend Lord Frost was correct. He mentioned the article about other countries. I remember watching a hockey match at my son’s school when the Israeli ambassador called me, as those events unfolded. The United Kingdom’s friendship with Israel means that we have been able to make representations at the highest level.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Mitchell, reminded us of what started this crisis. Four months since Hamas carried out the worst terror attack in Israel’s history, Hamas continues to hold more than 130 hostages. I noted what my dear noble friend Lord Pickles said about the hostages; I echo his call. I met with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister once again some of the hostages’ families. I know all noble Lords across the House share their call for peace and security, but more importantly the return of their loved ones.

As we look across the situation in the Middle East, in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, it is clear that ordinary people are suffering. Palestinian civilians are facing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis; indeed, it is unfolding before our very eyes. In relation to the diplomatic engagements that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, I know my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has visited 12 countries in the last seven weeks. I have been with him on some of those visits; I was at the UN and have just returned from the UAE, and I am embarking again on a visit to the region very shortly. This underlines the focus and priorities, and I thank my noble friend Lady Warsi for recognising that we are trying to ensure that our diplomatic energies are fully focused.

The number of people killed in Gaza runs, as we have heard, into their thousands. It is a real recognition that the people suffer most, as was referred to by several noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, pointed out that it is often women and children—the tragedy in Gaza is no different.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, asked about Britain’s position on Gaza. We remain focused and have been consistently clear; I have made a Statement to that effect, about the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Gaza. Yes, Israel is a state, and it has obligations in this respect, and we make that point consistently. Indeed, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary did so on his recent visit to Israel, where he met the Prime Minister and a number of people within the Israeli war cabinet.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Hussain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, rightly raised the issue of UNRWA. Let me be very clear: it was not from Israel—the first call I received when I was here in the debate on Ukraine was from the head of UNRWA himself, telling me that the organisation had received the report and taken actions. Noble Lords asked about the suspension of funding; of course, we want to ensure any resumption of funding is based on the satisfaction that such individuals cannot be employed by UNRWA again. It damages not just the organisation but the UN as a whole, and that is why the Secretary-General has initiated this review. We are working closely with the United Nations in thisrespect.

In addition to the rising death toll, there are of course many injured people, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, reminded us. An estimated 1.7 million people are now internally displaced; more than 1 million people—over half of Gaza’s population—are packed into the southern region of Rafah, which previously had a population of just 280,000. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme has stated that nine out of 10 people in Gaza may be living on less than one meal a day, and only 14 of 36 hospitals are partially functioning, without enough medicines or specialised staff, with many working to 300% of their capacity. The UN reports that since 11 October, the Gaza Strip has been under an electricity blackout after the Israeli authorities cut off the supply, and fuel reserves for Gaza’s sole power plant were depleted. Let me assure all noble Lords that of course we raise these issues directly with Israel and ask them to turn back on the water supplies and the electricity so that vital hospitals and humanitarian efforts can be supported.

My noble friend Lord Roberts talked of Israel and the proportionality and numbers, but I think he would also agree that we are seeing is the loss of life. Irrespective of where we stand on this conflict, the loss of any innocent life is something we should collectively condemn.

The communications and industrial fuel shutdown continues to hinder the aid community’s efforts—I pay tribute to them—to assess the full extent of needs in Gaza. Of course, once this war comes to an end, assessments will be made. The Foreign Secretary and I have met a number of medics; the point was raised—I know that Action Against Hunger joins us today in this debate. However, equally important is ensuring that we get first-hand accounts of what is needed, by whom. Widespread destruction of roads and other infrastructure further hampers their ability to respond to the deepening humanitarian crisis.

There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support; we recognise that. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are focusing on practical solutions to save lives. We have trebled our aid commitments, so I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, that we have abandoned the Palestinians—far from it. We have trebled our aid commitment this financial year and continue to support further uplift on humanitarian response, up to £60 million.

During our visit in December to al-Arish in Egypt, the Foreign Secretary and I met representatives from the Egyptian Red Crescent Society who are co-ordinating the relief effort. As a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Warsi, mentioned, there is a backlog, there are checks and there are rejections of goods which should not be rejected. We heard how shelter blankets and other vital equipment provided by the UK have been giving much-needed relief to the people of Gaza. However, we also equally heard, if not to a greater extent, about how many constraints the humanitarian operation faces. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich reminded us of the vital support, as did my noble friend Lady Helic, and I thank her for her active engagement, along with others. We are looking at issues of hospitals; we are also looking at key partners. There are projects, and the one she mentioned is being looked at actively, but in my conversations in the UAE recently, we also asked in its field hospitals how the UK could assist in the supply of medics.

The Foreign Secretary discussed directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 24 January the urgency of getting significantly more aid into Gaza to alleviate the desperate situation there. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and others, that he reiterated the need for Israel to open more crossing points into Gaza, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and for Nitzana and Kerem Shalom. Indeed, the UK was the first country to advocate for the re-opening of Kerem Shalom, for it to be open for longer, and for Israel to support the efforts to distribute and effectively get aid across the whole of Gaza.

My noble friend also announced work with Qatar. Again, we had the Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister in London this week, who has been involved in the hostage negotiations. I met him yesterday. We are working with Qatar to get joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of tents, which were flown into Gaza last Thursday. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to support the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. Again, the Foreign Secretary and I have visited that very spot. Some 750 tonnes of lifesaving food and aid arrived in the first delivery in December, and there have been a number of further deliveries since. Noble Lords may also recall that RFALyme Bay” delivered 87 tonnes into Port Said.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol reflected on the terrible suffering. I agree, and that is why we have asked the Israelis again to protect civilian lives. Many Israelis understand, and their Government understand in certain respects, the importance of the international requirement—not just to comply with international humanitarian law—which means that aid and humanitarian support get into Gaza.

In addition to the Foreign Secretary’s Representative for Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, along with Ministers, we are all working intensively to address the blockages preventing more aid getting into Gaza. I assure my noble friend Lord Polak, we have been very clear on those who have taken and seek to divert aid: we will prevent that from happening as best as we can, but Israel must also take steps, working with partners—particularly Egypt—to significantly influence the flow of trade.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that we too want to see the end of fighting. We have called for an immediate pause now to get more aid in and hostages out. We want to turn this pause into a specific, sustainable and permanent ceasefire. That means no return to fighting. The Foreign Secretary was in the region last week to do exactly that.

To conclude, my noble friend Lord Leigh, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick, Lord Austin and Lord Young, among others, all talked about what comes next. First and foremost, as my noble friend Lord Pickles said, there must be the release of all hostages held in Gaza. Equally, that means removing Hamas’s capacity to launch rockets against Israel, as it has done before; it means Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza, and the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the West Bank and Gaza, accompanied by an international, comprehensive support package. We also need a political horizon, which is incredibly important and which my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has homed in on, that provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution.

We need genuine momentum towards permanent peace. That is why we are pressing for a contact group; my noble friend the Foreign Secretary will do so at the Munich conference. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, as ever, reminded us of the organisations he will bring with him; I will be pleased to meet them, as I am sure will other noble Lords. Alongside this peace plan, the international community will also need to make a massive effort to deliver security and peace for the people of the region.

Finally, I thank noble Lords once again for their very thoughtful contributions to this very short but important debate. I know that emotions are high and there are differing perspectives, but I very much value the insights provided. I am reminded of my most favourite poem, “If” by Kipling, in which he said:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.

We have seen that today.