Israel and Gaza - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:16 pm on 7 May 2024.

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The Lord Bishop of St Albans:

Asked by The Lord Bishop of St Albans

To ask His Majesty’s Government (1) what representations they are making to the Government of Israel in light of a potential new offensive by Israeli forces, and (2) what humanitarian aid and support of essential services they plan to provide to the region.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we want an end to the fighting as soon as possible. Well over six months since Hamas’s terror attack against Israel, it is appalling that hostages are still being held. Too many civilians are also dying in Gaza, and this weekend Hamas rockets killed four IDF soldiers and injured others. As we have said, the fastest way to end the conflict is to secure a deal which gets the hostages out and allows for a pause in the fighting in Gaza. It is then that we must turn that pause into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.

Regarding the situation in Rafah, our position has been consistent. We are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military incursion, given the number of civilians sheltering there and its importance for delivering aid. It and other crossing points, including Kerem Shalom, must be reopened quickly to allow essential aid in. Israel must facilitate immediate, uninterrupted humanitarian access in the south, including for the entry of fuel, and ensure the protection of civilians and safe passage for those who wish to leave Rafah. As yet, we have not seen a credible plan to protect civilians.

We are following closely the latest developments around hostage talks and, at this stage, while events are still shifting quickly, we will not provide a detailed running commentary. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we want a deal agreed that will ensure the release of hostages and a pause in fighting. A generous offer was on the table last week, proposed by Egypt and accepted by Israel. We need now to see Hamas also accept the viable deal so that we can start building the momentum towards a permanent, sustained ceasefire. In parallel, we will continue to push as hard as we can to get much-needed aid into Gaza via vital land routes alongside sea and air to alleviate the suffering. Israel has now committed to significant steps to increase the amount of aid getting into Gaza. We now need to see this turned into action to ensure that aid actually gets over the border and is safely and properly distributed. I—

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

I thank the Minister for his reply. My concern is with the immediate humanitarian crisis facing civilians in the Gaza Strip, with Israeli forces now in control of the southern border crossing. What representations have His Majesty’s Government made about getting more fuel, food supplies and medicines in? Are there any other avenues by which we can get aid into the country to alleviate the immediate suffering?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I seek the House’s indulgence. The reason my Answer was slightly more lengthy is that it has been a very long working weekend on this and I wanted to give details. In answer directly to the right reverend Prelate, I say that we are imploring Israel to ensure that the crossings that were shut are opened immediately, including in Rafah. Noble Lords will know that the southern border on the Palestinian side is currently controlled by the IDF. My noble friend Lord Cameron had a conversation with the President of Israel this morning, and just a little while ago I also had a conversation with the chief negotiator of Qatar.

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

My Lords, the Minister has made the case: there should have been a government Statement today on this subject and we should have had more time to discuss it.

I ask two basic questions. Does the Minister not think that an attack on Rafah presents a clear risk of a serious breach of international humanitarian law? Can he confirm whether he or the Foreign Secretary have received any assessment—not legal advice, but any assessment or policy advice—from FCDO officials that the threshold has already been met? We need a clear view on that. This changes things dramatically. Also, as the right reverend Prelate said, aid is surely important. When will the Government resume funding to UNRWA? There is an immediate and urgent need for it.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

On the noble Lord’s second point, there were two reports set up by the Secretary-General. One—the Colonna report—has reported back; the other oversight report is being reported shortly. As the Prime Minister said, those will be reviewed. I accept the principle, as I have said repeatedly, of the important role UNRWA plays, particularly in Gaza. On the earlier point, of course this is evolving. We are receiving regular information. I have already made the point about the importance of the escalation into Rafah on a number of occasions. It needs to be immediately resolved, because there are now 600,000 children in Rafah—almost 50% of those in Rafah are children. We need to ensure their safety and security and at the moment, as I said earlier, we have not been reassured at all about any detailed plans on where these people will move. Mawasi is pretty barren land, but that is being suggested as a place where they may shelter.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Israeli Defense Forces advising 100,000 civilians, the majority of whom will be women and children, to move to a so-called humanitarian zone where there will be no support for food, shelter, medicine or security is a breach of international humanitarian law? Further, does he agree that, given the fact that the World Food Programme’s executive director said on Sunday that there is now famine north of Gaza, for the IDF to refuse entry of UNRWA staff to provide life-saving assistance is also a breach of international humanitarian law? Has the Foreign Secretary communicated that to the Israeli Government? What actions will the UK Government take, as it is a fact that there is no justification for the UK to replenish licences for military equipment and arms to the Israeli Government, given the situation? What are the consequences for the warnings that have been provided by Ministers, including that of the Foreign Secretary to me on 12 March? There is very little point in having a conversation if there are no consequences for actions.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the issue of consequences for actions, we have raised a number of concerns directly with the Israeli Government. I am sure the noble Lord saw, for example, on the issue of settler violence, that specific sanctions were issued on Friday, including against key settler organisations. These were a direct response. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we are making representations. Israel is a friend but, at the same time, the candid nature of our friendship means that we will not desist from action, as we have demonstrated. On the noble Lord’s earlier points, of course we are keeping all elements of our policy under review. What is really important, as I tried to get across earlier, is that we should be unrelenting in ensuring that aid reaches where it should and that there is a cessation in the fighting immediately. There is a deal on the table and I assure all noble Lords that we are working strenuously on the UK side in diplomacy to make sure that it becomes something that can last and be sustainable.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, as the Minister has recognised, it is vital to remember the hostages. Does he share my disgust that, after seven months, Hamas is still holding 133 hostages—some of them elderly, some of them children, all of them detained no doubt in appalling conditions—and using them as a bargaining chip in flagrant breach of international law? Will the Government redouble their efforts to do all they can to secure the release of these unfortunate people?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I give the noble Lord that assurance. I have on a number of occasions, as have the Prime Minister and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, met directly with hostage families—sadly, I would rather I did not have to meet with them on a weekly or fortnightly basis. We give that added assurance, and have seen the real emotion gripping the streets of Tel Aviv and elsewhere. It is time to bring the hostages home, get the aid in and stop the fighting.

Photo of Lord Clarke of Nottingham Lord Clarke of Nottingham Conservative

My Lords, we are very near to the prospect of aid being delivered by sea once the Americans have finished the construction of the quay that they are undertaking. Have the Government made any progress in reassuring us about the orderly and safe distribution of aid by that route when the quay is ready? What is their present position on direct British involvement, including the use of British troops if necessary, to work on proper distribution of that aid to the people we hope will be able to receive it?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My noble friend is right to raise the maritime route, and I assure him that we are involved in all elements of that process. We were involved in the initial call for that route, and there are developments under way. On the issue of safe distribution within Gaza—that is the key component of this—we want to ensure that we do not see the tragedies repeated against those agencies working on the ground that we saw with World Central Kitchen and other UN agencies, where workers were directly in the line of fire and were killed. They have the expertise. We are looking at all the dynamics on the best way to support the British operation in this international effort. As details evolve, I will share them with your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Government repeatedly said that the invasion of Rafah should not happen and that it was a red line, as did the Americans. That invasion has already started, with casualties resulting from families constantly being bombed. As my noble friend pointed out, the place where the Israeli Government say they will evacuate 100,000 people—mostly children—to is not fit for human habitation. I know that the Minister is working extremely hard on this—I have enormous sympathy for the work he is doing and pay tribute to him—but conversations do not seem to be enough. What other action can the British Government take? They have been very silent over the weekend; I did not hear or read any statements from the Foreign Secretary.

Furthermore, do the Government support the work of the ICC, the ICJ and the chief prosecutor, who is a British subject and is facing threats to himself and his family from Republican senators? I am glad that international law has been cited on this Question because the ICC is trying to uphold international law. Are we expressing our support for international law at any of the international courts?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

On the noble Baroness’s earlier point, I have spoken proactively about the deep concerns. I know the lay of the land on Mawasi regarding the proposal to move. There are 1.4 million people in Rafah—the size of Westminster or thereabouts—and how to move quickly when almost 50% of them are children is why we have called for compliance. IHL has been mentioned and that is part and parcel of this.

On the noble Baroness’s latter point, the United Kingdom is a long-standing supporter of international courts. They act independently, and their role in the application of the rule of law is important.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that the quickest way to get aid in is to get the hostages out, the quickest way to get the hostages out is to have a sustainable ceasefire, and the quickest way to have a sustainable ceasefire is for Hamas to agree to the generous terms which Egypt has proposed and which Israel has already agreed to?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My noble friend has articulated the Government’s approach extremely well. That is exactly what I assure all noble Lords that the Foreign Secretary and I are working on.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, on the topic of international law, will the Minister remind Egypt of its obligations under the refugee convention to accept such refugees as make their way across the border, rather than beating them back? Will he also set aside the misguided, misinformed statement by—shamefully—some former members of the Supreme Court that it was plausible that Israel was committing genocide? That allegation must be put to rest.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the second point, the Government’s position is well known: genocide determination is a matter for the courts. We remind all sides, including partners, friends and allies in the region, of the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law obligations.

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

My noble friend the Foreign Secretary set out five objectives—which I fully agree with—one of which was the elimination of Hamas from Gaza. I went to Kerem Shalom twice, once before 7 October and once after. Many of the people we met before 7 October who were delivering aid to Gaza have been killed by Hamas. The people who were left told us that one of their biggest problems was distributing aid because it was being taken by Hamas before it could be distributed. Do His Majesty’s Government still have the objective of the elimination of Hamas from Gaza?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the Government’s position has always been that we need all sides who come to the negotiating table to recognise the other side’s right to exist. Therefore, we have been very clear as part of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s conditions, and as my noble friend Lord Leigh has laid out, that Hamas can no longer be in control in Gaza.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat

My Lords, have the UK Government seen any evidence that the Israeli authorities have put in place serious provisions to ensure that the Palestinian refugees in Gaza are being protected? If they do not see any such serious evidence—the Minister mentioned that he looked for it—what action will they take?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I have already answered the first question; we have seen no credible plan as to where people would go. I assure the noble Baroness that we are pressing the Israeli authorities to ensure that their obligations in this regard are fulfilled if the full-scale Rafah operation goes ahead.