[Ann Winterton in the Chair] — Palestinian Territories (Economic Aid)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 27th January 2009.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 9:30 am, 27th January 2009

We are considering the Gaza issue from an humanitarian and international development point of view. It would be a great detour to go into the rights and wrongs of it. That is not the point that I seek to make, and I fear that if we stray too far down that path, we might even be out of order. If one starts from the recent past, my hon. Friend's point may carry some weight, but going further back, the rights and wrongs of the situation in Israel start from 1948 and 1967. People in Gaza feel that they have been deprived of most of their own country. They have a sense of grievance that long pre-dates what she talks about.

I have been to Sderot and have seen the huge anxiety caused to the people who live there by the possibility that, at any moment, a home-made rocket will come into their community. Equally, however, I understand the sense of grievance of Palestinians, who feel that their land has been confiscated. They have been evicted from their villages and herded into a small strip of land; they have an unemployment rate of 80 per cent., and 80 per cent. of them depend on United Nations rations for refugees. I think that their sense of grievance is just as understandable. That is not to condone terrorism, home-made rockets or suicide bombers, but it is important to understand why people in Gaza feel so desperate and are prepared to go to such measures to, as they see it, defend themselves.

I shall try not to take up too much time, because there are many other hon. Members present who wish to speak. The most urgent needs are in the hospitals, which were desperately short of vital equipment even before the war started. Now, it is a race against time to see whether they can be re-equipped in time to save thousands of children who have life-threatening injuries. Organisations such as the Red Cross, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Christian Aid are in the business of getting medicines and aid to hospitals, and they can get through. That is the light in which we have to see the BBC's reluctance to screen the Gaza crisis appeal in order to

"avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality".

Is its precious impartiality more important than children's lives? Is it saying that it cannot save the life of a Palestinian child unless it saves the life of an Israeli child at the same time? What if there are no injured Israeli children? Does that mean that the Palestinian children will have to die?

It is a strange kind of even-handedness that cannot allow an appeal for horribly injured children on one side of a conflict because there are none on the other. The BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, should go on his own programme, "The Moral Maze", to try to get his head around this problem. It is a complex moral issue, but it is not so complex that we cannot see what the answer should be. Practically the whole world can see what the answer should be, except, apparently, the governors of the BBC.

As I have said, the relevant conditions for a televised appeal have been met. We know how much money has been raised by previous DEC appeals that were broadcast by the BBC. The Burma cyclone appeal raised £19 million, despite the fact that many people thought that disaster was under-reported because the press were not able to get in. The appeal for the Congo crisis—a war that many people feel has been overshadowed, and has been ignored and overlooked by the world—has raised £9.7 million so far, and is still open. As The Times has said:

"A national appeal from the DEC would normally raise about £10 million, but without the broadcasts the total is certain to be lower."

I hope that people will think about those words, because the BBC has a huge responsibility in this regard. It has a responsibility to be impartial, but it must not misapply that responsibility to the unnecessary injury of other people. Does the Minister have an estimate of how much more money would be raised if the BBC, and indeed Sky, changed their minds, as it is still open for them to do, and broadcast the crisis appeal?

I think that if the BBC were to broadcast the appeal, it would raise a lot more money than other appeals because of the ferocity, inhumanity and disproportionality of the Israeli assault, which has so shocked and horrified people, regardless of their views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. My hon. Friend Martin Salter has mentioned this morning's Order Paper, which contains several early-day motions expressing people's concern about the BBC's decision. My hon. Friend Richard Burden, who is the chairman of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, has tabled one that has been signed by more than 100 people, including me. I am the chair of an organisation called Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, and people might therefore expect me to have a particular view of the conflict; however, another early-day motion, equally urging the BBC to screen the appeal, has been tabled by my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne, who is the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel.

Right across the spectrum of views about the roots of the conflict, there is consensus that the BBC and Sky should broadcast the appeal, because there is absolutely no reason not to, and because the decision not to is unnecessarily depriving charities of money that could help them to save lives. One does not have to lay any blame to recognise that there is an humanitarian crisis, and I seriously question whether anyone could be found, even in the Israeli embassy, who would complain if the BBC screened the appeal. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister—I am glad to see that he is not suffering from any outward sign of jet lag—to provide the House with information about the level of the UK's current contribution and about whether any increase can be expected as the seriousness of the extent of destruction in Gaza unfolds.

The debate is not only about Gaza, but also the west bank. It is equally important that humanitarian aid, and economic aid in particular, continue to flow into the west bank, because the roots of the problem—to come back to the point that my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman has made—lie not only in Gaza but in the west bank, where the Israeli Government continue to expand settlements and, from the Palestinian point of view, to rub salt into the wound. Until the Israeli Government stop expanding settlements and confiscating Palestinian land, and until they stop increasing the number of checkpoints—there are now 630 in the west bank alone, so an area the size of Lincolnshire has 630 checkpoints and roadblocks to keep Palestinians off the settler-only roads—they cannot expect the peace process to continue, or expect progress to be made. Neither can they expect people to feel that the Palestinian economy has any chance of escaping that asphyxiating grip, or expect people in the region to believe that peace is seriously and sincerely on the agenda.

The humanitarian, the economic and the political are all intertwined in the region. In order for humanitarian aid to work, we need political progress as well, so I very much look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister, particularly about UK and European Union contributions to the Palestinian Authority, which I feel should be stepped up, not just for Gaza but for the west bank. There have been various mechanisms, such as the Temporary International Mechanism and PEGASE to overcome the problems caused by the EU's reluctance to give money directly to Hamas. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, what is important is that the money should get through.

I hope that the Minister will also deal with what the Israeli Government's role should be in this matter, because they are still the legal occupying power in both the west bank and Gaza, and therefore have responsibility for the entire population of the occupied territory. Legally speaking, every school that is repaired in Gaza, and every house that is built in the west bank, should be paid for by the Israeli Government, as the legal occupying power. At the very least, we should look to them to make a contribution and to tell us what their intentions are regarding the west bank and Gaza.

I should also like to be sure that both PEGASE and TIM are fully replacing the aid that the west bank and Gaza—the Palestinian territories—would have been getting whether the Government were Fatah or Hamas. We might all have strong opinions on those organisations, but surely the issue is about who the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people are, and who our Government should be dealing with. I shall not take any more time, because there are so many hon. Members present who want to speak. I very much look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's reply.