Gaza

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 30th January 2008.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 11:00 am, 30th January 2008

I am very pleased that we are having this debate today, but sad about the situation facing the people of Gaza at the moment, which is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. A very large number of people are living—or surviving—with shortages of medicines, food and water and with regular cuts in electricity supplies. Much of this was debated last week during the Westminster Hall debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report "Global Security: The Middle East". I am pleased that we can return to this subject today, because I want to put a number of specific points to the Minister.

As one who has had the good fortune to visit Gaza, on three occasions, as I told the Chamber last week, every time I go, I leave feeling that the situation is appalling, and each time we return, it appears markedly worse. I suspect that the situation now is as bad as it has ever been. Some very sad news was reported on all the media this morning. I quote from the al-Jazeera website:

"The United Nations Security Council has abandoned efforts to adopt a statement on the crisis in the Gaza Strip caused by an Israel's blockade after the US refused to support it."

I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some hope of a possibility of returning to that matter and of the UN Security Council coming to an agreed position. It is more than sad that on an occasion as serious as this the UN is apparently unable to come to a decision.

For the record, Gaza is a 225 km² rectangle originally occupied in 1948 when large numbers of Palestinians were removed from what is now Israel and sent there. It has been a part of Palestine ever since. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world and requires a large amount of aid in order to survive. Its economy is dependent on the ability of Palestinians in Gaza to cross into Israel, where in the past they could work, and of those who produce manufactured goods or grow food on its small farms to export their goods. Traditionally, it has relied on fishing, which is now limited to a very small inshore area, where stocks have more or less disappeared as a result of over-fishing. They cannot fish anywhere else because they are surrounded by the Israelis.

Two weeks ago, the state of Gaza, which effectively is a prison under siege from the state of Israel, changed dramatically when a number of people broke down the wall at the Rafah crossing in the south and crossed into Egypt. The exact figure is unclear, but it is possible that more than 500,000 people—one third of Gaza's population—have already crossed into Egypt. Furthermore, a large number of people have crossed from Egypt into Gaza, via Sinai and the Rafah crossing. There are many family connections on both sides of the border owing to the original connection between Gaza and Egypt. There are reports that Egypt will attempt to reclose the border between Gaza and Egypt, and if it succeeds, Gaza will once more become a complete prison, and it will be impossible for anyone to pass in or out.

It is very hard for us in this country to understand what it is like to live in what is effectively a prison. People cannot travel in or out; our only life would be television and computers, if we had electricity to turn them on, and watching the world through the internet. There is something deeply poignant about that. Having visited Gaza on a number of occasions, two of my most enduring memories are of talking to an elderly lady who described her life since 1948—all her children had either gone abroad or were in prison in Israel—and of talking to a group of young teenage girls, to whom I said, "What are your ambitions in life?", to which they replied, "To visit Gaza city". That was in Rafah. It is no distance at all, but they could not face the roadblocks. Their whole life was this very small dusty town in the southern end of the Gaza strip.

Israel claims that it is necessary to close off the Gaza strip because of rocket attacks made from the northern part of the strip into Israel. Every one of us in this Chamber will absolutely and unreservedly condemn those rocket attacks. We are not here to endorse such activity; it is completely wrong and I am not attempting to defend it in any way. However, I would point out that the casualty rate—deplorable as it is—of Israeli civilians killed by those rocket attacks is matched many times over by the number of people in Gaza killed by aerial bombardments, targeted assassinations and drones in the sky aiming to take out what are believed to be people preparing rocket attacks. The death rate in Gaza is very high, which obviously is terrible for the people of Gaza. The solution is neither the continued imprisonment of its people, nor the continued firing of rockets or bombardment of buildings in Gaza, but a political agreement that brings about some kind of justice for the people of Gaza and indeed all Palestinians.

When the Palestinian elections were held, first for the presidency and then for the Parliament, many international observers were present, including myself, my hon. Friend Richard Burden and other MPs. We observed the elections and could not honestly say that there was anything wrong with them. They were incredibly well run with unbelievable attention paid to the minutiae. The people of Gaza voted largely for Hamas, as was their right—in fact, Hamas won more than half the seats in the west bank and Gaza.

Last December, I received a letter from the Foreign Secretary, after he had promised to write to me following a question that I asked about members of the Hamas-led Palestinian Legislative Council. He pointed out:

"Since 28 June 2006, the Israeli Defence Forces have arrested 39 Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members. Wasfi Kabaha, Nasser Al Shaer and Samir Abu Eisheh, all former Ministers of the then Hamas-led Palestinian Authority have since been released."

The letter goes on to state that a number of them have not yet been charged and are still held in custody.

We cannot stand by and allow elected members of a fellow Parliament to be arrested and held without charge or trial in Israeli prisons. I am a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Executive, and every time we meet we discuss human rights issues facing fellow parliamentarians around the world. More Palestinian legislators are in prison than legislators from all the other Parliaments in the rest of the world put together. Surely that is cause for very deep concern. I hope that the Minister will tell us that serious pressure has been put on Israel to release those parliamentarians.

There is also a question about the strategy followed by the west since the Annapolis summit. We want peace and justice for Palestine. It seems that since the election of the Hamas-led Government there has been a process of denying Palestine aid and of refusal to recognise, negotiate or deal with Hamas, on the grounds that it does not unreservedly recognise the existence of the state of Israel. That is not to say that there are not elements in Hamas who want to hold negotiations and make some progress. However, the strategy of cutting off all links with Hamas, thereby cutting off all links with Gaza and acknowledging the Israeli sealing of the Gaza borders, is bringing not peace or justice, but a humanitarian crisis. It does not reduce support for Hamas either; in fact, it is probably having the opposite effect of increasing support for Hamas in Gaza. The reasons why Hamas won control in Gaza by elected means were first, they were not corrupt and secondly, they were delivering real social and health services for ordinary people. The Israeli strategy is clearly illegal under international law. Indeed, the UN representative there has said as much.

The question of settlements is a serious one. When Israel agreed to withdraw its settlements from Gaza, it reluctantly did so, but they were for the most part withdrawn. However, the number of settlements has increased on the west bank, and while the settlement policy is allowed to continue, settlements continue to grow and Israel is able to benefit economically through the exports from those settlements, which increases tension in Gaza and throughout the middle east. Unless something is done to force Israel to withdraw the settlement policy, we will have problems in the long term.

There are International Development questions later this morning, when I shall raise some questions on the Floor of the House, but my more immediate point is that by closing the area's crossing point between Gaza and Israel, no goods can get through and no food can get in. By cutting off power supplies to the strip, there is unbelievable hardship within that area.

Last Saturday, a group of humanitarian organisations in Israel, led by the revered and highly respectable Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, organised a convoy of relief aid that was collected by ordinary Israelis who were disgusted by the activities of their Government. Those people attempted to go to the area's crossing point and take in the humanitarian supplies, but I received a message yesterday from Uri Avnery, who said:

"On Saturday the army representatives at the Erez checkpoint indicated that Monday our truckloads of relief would go through. We didn't rely on this vague promise too much but gave it the benefit of the doubt. After all, we also heard...that PM Olmert had told him personally that our relief would be let through. Meanwhile, Monday passed and the goods did not go through.

While we are still in negotiations with the army and busy mobilizing Knesset members we would very much want activists abroad to strengthen the demand of 'Let the convoy pass'."

They are also preparing a case to go the Israeli supreme court. His draft letter says:

"I am writing to urge you to authorize without further hindrance the entry into the Gaza Strip of the humanitarian goods carried in the convoy of Saturday 26"—

January—

"2008".

They have since been held up, and the convoy includes all necessities.

I also received a message from Mohammed El-Rantisi and his family. In an e-mail describing the situation he said:

"We struggle to secure the basics if we can, to light at night, to have bread, simply every thing in Gaza runs either on Gas or Benzene. Even going to work is a story as most cars stops. The elevator at work is not working and I have to go to the 5th floor in darkness walking. My father is suffering from a type of cancer, we cannot find his medicine. My daughter is suffering from low hearing and I would like to go to Egypt for a better treatment. I am in a better position than many other people. At least I have a salary at the end of every month."

That means he is one of the less than 20 per cent. of people who are in work. He continued, saying that

"others do not have money, they lost their jobs because the raw materials are not permitted into Gaza. The unemployment reached about 80%. Patients in hospitals are in a real danger as electricity is cut so often and also medicine is not available. I was surprised when my kid Ahmed 5 years old asks 'is there bags dad in Al Arish?' His bag is torn!"

Ordinary life for those people has been destroyed, and something must be done about it.

I have some specific questions. Do the Government share the assessment that Israel's blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment within the terms of the fourth Geneva convention? The Prime Minister stated in December that the UK would provide about £243 million in aid to Palestinians if the conditions existed for aid to have any impact. Has that aid got through? If so, will aid continue to get through?

The number of people killed in the Gaza strip since the Annapolis conference is 136. Some 360 have been injured, 76 have been arrested and there have been 415 Israeli military attacks on the strip. There are 1,500 patients who need treatment outside the strip, 322 who need urgent treatment and 470 cancer patients who are suffering. That is a dreadful situation, but it will be dealt with only politically. We need the utmost pressure to be placed on Israel to lift the siege, lift the sanctions and negotiate with Hamas. We also need progress. If the UN's John Dugard says that he believes Israel is in breach of the fourth Geneva convention on the illegality of collective punishment, what is being done about it? Additionally, what sanctions are we prepared to impose on Israel?

My views are shared by many ordinary and decent people in Gaza and by humanitarian organisations throughout the world who want peace and justice. Are we to watch the disaster unfold before our very eyes on our TV screens, or shall we, politically, do something about it?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 11:16 am, 30th January 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this important debate. I know how passionately he feels about the plight of the Palestinians, and that he understands the need for urgency and care in resolving the long-standing political and security problems that continue to generate the crisis in Gaza. He is right to describe it as a crisis.

The Government recognise the impact and scale of the problems and the need to address all of them. We understand the political and economic pressures that nurture and drive them, and that, for example, Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks. I join my hon. Friend in deploring the fact that so-called rejectionist Palestinian groups—including Hamas, I am afraid—fire those rockets indiscriminately from Gaza, with the intention of killing and wounding Israeli civilians. However, in the course of self-defence, it is imperative that Israel remain committed to undertaking its obligations under international law. The United Kingdom continues to monitor the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said clearly that restrictions on fuel supplies will not achieve Israeli security. He is dead right. Nor will the political aspirations of the Palestinian people be furthered by rocket attacks, so the United Kingdom urges restraint on all parties.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is an immediate cause of concern for the Government. In statements made on 11 and 21 January, my right hon. Friends the Foreign and International Development Secretaries made clear our concerns. On 21 January, they said:

"We do not support Israel's decision to close all crossings into Gaza, preventing the delivery of vital humanitarian supplies as well as fuel to the Gaza power station."

Such restrictions have an impact on water and sewerage systems, both of which are powered by electricity generated from Gaza's power plant. On 20 January, there was a blackout in Gaza—apparently owing to reduced fuel supplies.

We welcome Israel's announcement that it will increase the amount of goods and fuel going into Gaza to pre-17 January levels, and we look forward to the resumption of normal operations of the crossings under Palestinian Authority control. Just two days ago, the Foreign Secretary, with his European colleagues in the General Affairs and External Relations Council, called for the continuous provision of essential goods and services, including fuel and power supplies, from Israel to Gaza.

I shall interrupt my contribution to answer the question that my hon. Friend asked about the UN Security Council resolution. I have not seen the wording of the initial draft, and I have certainly not seen the wording of the modified draft. My information is that all members of the Security Council except Libya had agreed to a text on Gaza. Libya made changes that were unacceptable to the United States, which was why the text fell. I shall examine the wording; my hon. Friend has been around a long time and he knows that words matters in such resolutions—people can become sensitive about them. I shall certainly try to find out what happened in the debate on the resolution.

Recent events at Rafah, where Palestinian militants smashed holes in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, have demonstrated yet again how incendiary the position is in Gaza. With his EU colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced on Monday support for the Palestinian Authority's proposal to take control of the crossings, and we support the efforts of the Arab League, particularly Amr Mussa, in that respect. The EU is ready to consider resuming its border mission at Rafah, which has been dormant since Hamas took over Gaza last summer, as soon as conditions allow.

I understand the overriding imperative for the Palestinian people and their supporters around the world to advance a political settlement that affords them the justice, security and democratic rights that the great majority aspire to, but there is also a need to ensure in the meantime that life and limb can be sustained throughout the crisis that my hon. Friend described. The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Palestinians in Gaza. We have pledged £100 million over five years to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which works to provide essential supplies and services to Palestinians in Gaza. Last year, the UK provided £15 million to UNRWA and a further £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross for its work in the west bank and Gaza. Another £15 million reached Palestinians directly from the UK through the European temporary international mechanism.

We can give that vital help, but it will not solve the problem. It simply helps people to survive in the meantime. We must understand that Gaza is an integral part of any future Palestinian state. It is crucial that we continue to strive for peaceful progress in the region, and Gaza cannot be separated from that progress. As well as the continuation of crucial humanitarian aid, the international community, Israel and the Palestinians must work for a peaceful, political solution involving all Palestinian people.

We welcome the efforts to bring Gaza further into the peace process. The situation there was severely complicated by Hamas's military takeover of the strip in June 2007, which caused the national unity Government to break down and led to Gaza becoming politically isolated. We continue to call on Hamas to adhere to the Quartet's principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. Those principles are not set unreasonably high, and they remain the fundamental conditions for a viable peace process. A political dialogue is impossible as long as one party is dedicated to violence and the destruction of the other. The option of engagement is in the hands of Hamas.

The best way to provide a long-lasting solution to the political, economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza is to secure real peace in the middle east. Our aim is to help the peace process be sufficiently robust to survive any setbacks. Since Annapolis, there have been major setbacks. The bedrock of our approach to the middle east peace process is still to give unstinting support for the principle of a two-state solution, to give every support to those who are committed to peaceful progress in the region, and to support economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Annapolis conference, which took place on 26 and 27 November, saw substantial political movement. Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas committed to meeting each other fortnightly and agreed to a joint bilateral steering committee for specific negotiations. Both parties renewed their commitment to the road map, with the United States providing a much-needed monitoring mechanism. The Paris donors conference in December raised more than £7 billion in pledges for the Palestinian reform and development plan devised by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, including a significant and welcome contribution from regional partners. As the single greatest contributor at Paris and also through the EU action plan, the EU has demonstrated its commitment to the process.

The Annapolis negotiations are continuing, as is the financial support for Palestinian reform and development that is crucial to a successful peace process. Those are significant breakthroughs, and the UK stands ready to support that progress, but there is a long way to go. Israel must display to the world that it is prepared to take and implement hard decisions to achieve its road map obligations on settlements. We consider settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories illegal under international law, including Israeli settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. Settlement construction is an obstacle to peace. We support President Bush's view that there should be a complete freeze on settlement construction and that outposts should be removed. The Foreign Secretary has made clear our concerns on the matter to his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The Palestinians, too, must step up their efforts to implement their road map commitments. A reformed Palestinian security force will continue to be the key to the success of the peace process. Militias and gangs that fire rockets and mortars indiscriminately at Israeli civilian targets must be prevented from carrying out their murderous activities by the Palestinians themselves. Israeli security and Palestinian hardship can be tackled only through a political process that creates an economically and socially viable Palestinian state, at peace with Israel. Those issues must be addressed together.

I appreciate the contribution that my hon. Friend makes. I assure him that we have exerted serious—as he put it—and consistent pressure on the Israelis either to charge the elected representatives of the people with a crime or to release them. He is right to pursue that point; the situation is unacceptable and does nothing for the reputation of Israeli democracy. We call on all sides to take the crucial measures, clearly set out in the road map, that will lead to peaceful co-existence between two viable states. I urge my hon. Friend to continue his work on the matter. I shall continue mine, and between us we will try to take a balanced approach that will bring relief to the people of Gaza and sustainable peace to the middle east in the near future.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.