UNRWA - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 15 May 2024.

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

My Lords, immediately following the arson attack against UNRWA’s headquarters in east Jerusalem, I made clear through a statement that the attack was completely unacceptable. We have also called for the violent perpetrators of this attack to be held to account, and also for Israel to ensure the protection of UN facilities and staff. We cannot allow room for extremism of any kind. That is a view shared by many of heads of mission, which have made similar representations.

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, I am glad that the Minister has made such representations. Of course, UN internal documents and the head of UNRWA have reported months of attacks, obstruction and interference with UNRWA’s work. I hope that the Minister will continue to make those representations to the Israeli authorities to ensure that these humanitarian workers are properly protected. Has he also raised the attacks on humanitarian convoys and trucks, which are also impeding the delivery of support?

Can I also ask the Minister about UNRWA funding? The Colonna review—the Minister has referenced it several times—has now concluded, and countries such as Canada and Australia have resumed financial aid. The Foreign Secretary, however, told Laura Kuenssberg that he was “more demanding” and was awaiting the findings of the final UN Office of Internal Oversight Services before we resume funding. Can the Minister explain when we can expect a decision to restore funding to this vital tool for getting aid into the Occupied Territories and Gaza?

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

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, both the Foreign Secretary and I have raised these issues quite directly and have issued statements. Trucks were going through the Jordan crossing and through the Erez crossing, which the United Kingdom has advocated for. It is a real tragedy that many of those trucks—a 40-truck convoy—were attacked. We have made strong representations and continue to do so. I know that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has been very seized of this in his recent engagements.

On the issue of UNRWA funding, as we have repeatedly made clear and I have said several times, we of course recognise the important role that UNRWA has played and continues to play in Gaza and indeed in neighbouring countries. The Colonna report was on the issues of mitigation and made particular recommendations. We know that UNRWA has also responded to that. As my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has said, there is one additional report that is specific to the attacks of 7 October, which is the oversight report, which we are awaiting and will then make a full assessment. I underline again our strong support for the important role that UNRWA has.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative

My Lords, I refer the House to my registered interests. I am sure that my noble friend will join me in wishing the people of Israel well on Israel’s 76th birthday yesterday, including the 132 hostages being held in captivity. On 19 November 2018, I said from this position that

UNRWA, which was born in 1949, is now outdated, does not provide value for money”, and that it

“refuses to help resettle the Palestinians and even refuses to take … some 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan” off its refugee list. It therefore

“continues to perpetuate the problem”.

I appealed for a

“new and modern programme of aid and development for the benefit of the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region

I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister: post 7 October, can the UK take a lead to urgently create that new, modern programme?

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

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for everyone when I say that we of course join in recognising the importance of anniversaries. Indeed, the establishment of Israel was supported by the United Kingdom and is supported by all Members of your Lordships’ House. Equally, I am sure that my noble friend will recognise that it was a very sombre occasion in Israel. I have met with many hostage families and a recent comment that I heard was that there are 25 nationalities, and there are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who are held by Hamas in Gaza. That is why there is the human appeal to let the hostages go.

On the issue of UNRWA, I have a different perspective from that of my noble friend. UNRWA plays an important role; what is required is reform in terms of how it governs and the list that it provides to ensure that recruitment is done properly. As my noble friend reads the Colonna report, I am sure he will also recognise some really positive recommendations made by the former Foreign Minister of France. We are looking at those, but also require the detail of the report that the Secretary-General will get shortly.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, utterly reprehensible as it is that even 12 out of UNRWAs 30,000 employees around the region should have been involved with Hamas, it is still really urgent to recognise that no proper humanitarian effort in that part of the world can be mounted, particularly in Gaza but also in the West Bank, without UNRWA being part of it? So, will he undertake that the review that he says is under way—we are now in the second month of the new financial year—will lead to a determination by His Majesty’s Government without delay?

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

My Lords, I have already articulated the United Kingdom’s view on the important role that UNRWA plays. I have also said that we are looking to ensure not only that there are mitigations in place but that there is a full review of those abhorrent events of 7 October. The Government will be looking at both those reports and then making a decision accordingly, but I add again that we of course recognise the continuing and important role UNRWA plays.

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, UNRWA has lost 89 of its humanitarian workers in this terrible conflict and, as the noble Lord says, is the only body that is able properly to administer support for more than 1 million children displaced within Gaza. That is equivalent to the entire under-10 population of Greater London. The impeding of that aid is a clear breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. I know that His Majesty’s Government officials are collating evidence of when that supply is being impeded. Does the Minister agree that the Government should be as clear with us in Parliament as the US State Department is to Congress in providing all that information in a public manner? Will the Government do that?

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

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of ensuring that aid reaches Gaza, particularly those who are most vulnerable, the women and children. That is where the Government have been focused since the tragedy of 7 October, but even in advance of that. We all know the challenges Gaza faces; that is why we have advocated so strongly for the reopening of the Rafah crossing. I know it has been closed since Israel’s Rafah operation, including to important fuel supplies into Rafah, which need to be secured to ensure the facilitation of hospitals.

On the advice that the Government receive, of course there is a precedent, and we look at advice on a revolving basis. The Foreign Secretary receives advice from various sources, including assessments of adherence to IHL, and will then give his view accordingly.

Photo of Lord Austin of Dudley Lord Austin of Dudley Non-affiliated

I thank the Government Chief Whip. In February, the Hamas data centre was discovered underneath UNRWA’s headquarters and, just yesterday, UNRWA terrorists were discovered using an UNRWA school as a base from which to launch their attacks, so it is absolutely clear that UNRWA still has very serious questions to answer. In the meantime, there are other agencies with whom we should be working to get much-needed humanitarian aid in for the poor people of Gaza, who have been so terribly affected by the war Hamas deliberately launched on 7 October, when it raped, kidnapped and murdered so many civilians.

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

I assure the noble Lord that we are doing exactly that. Notwithstanding that, the funding that we have given has also been focused on other agencies like the World Food Programme, UNICEF and others. I come back to this point: I am sure the noble Lord recognises that mitigations are necessary, and we are pressing on those, but, equally, UNRWA has the most effective structures in Gaza. We need to ensure that those are not just revitalised, but that they are done so to allow for mitigation of the issues that were previously raised.

Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative

My Lords, the healthcare system in Gaza has collapsed, and the last functioning hospital in Gaza, the European Hospital, has had staff leaving in droves as the IDF start active combat in Rafah. No aid is going through to Gaza and the field hospital which we are supporting is able to provide only urgent care. Children are unnecessarily losing their limbs. I ask my noble friend: will the Government take another look and see whether there could be, and whether we should have, a pathway open for children with serious wounds, so they can be given specialist care which can only be afforded to them in the specialist hospitals which we are lucky to have in this country?

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

My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend. Also, I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House, irrespective of perspective on this conflict, in paying great tribute to those within agencies, particularly the voluntary agencies, who have allowed for UK medevac and those serving in the UK field hospital and others, for the courage, commitment and principle they show in bringing support to the most vulnerable.

On the issue of medevac, my noble friend will know that we have worked with other countries, including the UAE and Egypt, in facilitating that for those who are in most acute need of it. I also recognise the important proposal she has put forward. We want to ensure that those in urgent need, particularly children and the most vulnerable, are provided with that support. The best way that we can achieve this, as I say time and time again, is to stop the fighting, get the aid in, ensure the facilitation of all the medical services and get the hostages out. Human suffering does not look at religion, race, colour or any other creed; it looks at humans, and we must put humanity at the core of everything we do.