Gaza (Humanitarian Situation)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 5th February 2014.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry The Second Church Estates Commissioner 2:30 pm, 5th February 2014

The hon. Gentleman accurately summarises some of the challenges facing Gaza, and I will set them out in more detail. The short answer to his question is that throughout this debate we must remember that, under international law, Israel is the occupying power in Gaza.

On 27 July 2010, the Prime Minister observed:

“The situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”

Sadly, the situation there has not changed and, as I will explain shortly, the position on humanitarian goods and people has deteriorated significantly in recent times. Gaza today is still a prison camp with 1.7 million inmates. The Prime Minister said that he spoke

“as someone who is a friend of Israel, who desperately wants a secure and safe and stable Israel after the two-state solution has come about”.

That is also my position and, I suspect, that of almost every right hon. and hon. Member of this House.

I went to a Quaker school, so I have always taken an interest in international development and humanitarian affairs. As a lawyer, I have always taken an interest in international law since I was fortunate enough at university to have as my personal tutor Professor Colonel Gerald Draper. He had been a junior prosecuting counsel at the Nuremberg war crimes trial immediately after the second world war. Indeed, he had been part of a team that had been responsible not just for prosecuting, but for tracking down and indicting various Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice at Nuremberg. I was, and have continued to be, interested as a consequence in how the international community and the world as a whole can establish and maintain norms of civilised behaviour that should be enshrined in concepts of international law.

For that reason, I have taken a particular interest in the work of my immediate predecessor as head of chambers in the Temple, my right hon. and learned friend and brother knight Sir Desmond de Silva QC. With the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, he prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone and was responsible for establishing the principle that heads of state do not have sovereign immunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That resulted in Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, being brought to trial for war crimes at The Hague. More recently, the Government entrusted Sir Desmond to investigate and to report on the Finucane inquiry in Northern Ireland.

In June 2010, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly mandated an investigation into

“violations of international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law, resulting from the interception by Israeli forces of the humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza on 31 May 2010 during which nine people were killed and many others injured.”

The members of the mission appointed to undertake the mandate included Judge Karl Hudson-Phillips QC, a retired judge of the International Criminal Court and former Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, who acted as chairman of the mission, Ms Mary Shanthi Dairiam of Malaysia and Sir Desmond de Silva QC. It is worth reminding the Chamber of the conclusions arrived at by that panel of international jurists appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, not least because much of it happened at or about the time of the last general election and the reconvening of a new Parliament, when, understandably, the attention of many right hon. and hon. Members may have been elsewhere.

The UN mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance, came to the following conclusions:

The Mission has come to the firm conclusion that a humanitarian crisis existed on the 31 May 2010 in Gaza. The preponderance of evidence from impeccable sources is too overwhelming to come to a contrary opinion…One of the consequences flowing from this is that for this reason alone the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law. This is so regardless of the grounds on which one seeks to justify the legality of the blockade…Israel seeks to justify the blockade on security grounds. The State of Israel is entitled to peace and security like any other. The firing of rockets and other munitions of war into Israeli territory from Gaza constitutes serious violations of international law and of international humanitarian law. But any action in response which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances…The conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct cannot be justified or condoned on security or any other grounds. It constituted a grave violation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

The panel went on:

“there is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention…Wilful killing…Torture or inhuman treatment…Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. The Mission also considers that a series of violations of Israel’s obligations under international human rights law have taken place, including…Right to life (art. 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)…Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 7, International Covenant; Convention against Torture)…Right to liberty and security of the person and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9, International Covenant)…Right of detainees to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person (art. 10, International Covenant)…Freedom of expression (art. 19, International Covenant).”

The panel also concluded:

“The Mission is not alone in finding that a deplorable situation exists in Gaza. It has been characterized as ‘unsustainable’. This is totally intolerable and unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It is amazing that anyone could characterize the condition of the people there as satisfying the most basic standards. The parties and the international community are urged to find the solution that will address all legitimate security concern of both Israel and the people of Palestine, both of whom are equally entitled to ‘their place under the heavens’.

Those were the conclusions of a UN General Assembly-mandated mission of respected international jurists in 2010.

Since then, the situation in Gaza has deteriorated significantly, which is causing concern in all parts of both Houses of Parliament. In the House of Lords on 27 January, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, a Liberal Democrat peer, observed:

“The humanitarian aid is terribly important, particularly when the 1.7 million people in Gaza are now living life at breaking point, with 11,000 people displaced by last month’s floods. Fuel shortages are such that donkey carts have replaced cars as a means of transport, the streets are overflowing with raw sewage and, with nearly 50% unemployment, the situation is like a tinderbox. The United Nations has said that Gaza will be unliveable by 2020”.

Lord Warner, a Labour peer, asked what the Government were doing to help with

“lifting this blockade, which is a cause of great humanitarian suffering to the Gaza population, 50% of whom are children”.

Baroness Morris of Bolton spoke as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and as the UK trade envoy to the Palestinian territories, observing:

“some industrial fuel went into Gaza between 14 and 20 January. However, it is not enough and much below consumption levels. Hospitals have regular power cuts and some families have only 12 hours of power a day. The most vulnerable families are suffering terrible burns from using inadequate heating and cooking utensils.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 978-80.]

For my part, I am the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and the Chamber will not be surprised that as a consequence I have stayed closely in contact with Christian Aid. As I mentioned, I previously visited

Gaza with Christian Aid on one occasion. In anticipation of this debate, Christian Aid made the following points to me:

“Israel’s prolonged closure of the Gaza Strip, as one of its occupation policies, continues to effectively punish 1.7 million Palestinians for the actions of a minority..., As Gaza moves into its eighth consecutive year of Israeli closure, years of import and export restrictions have seriously impaired its basic infrastructure. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors in Gaza have been particularly affected. Unemployment in Gaza rose to 32.5% during the third quarter of 2013. Stunted economic growth has led to increased and unsustainable levels of dependence on humanitarian aid. The severe storms in December 2013 demonstrated how vulnerable this population is, especially to unexpected events like this.

In four days, 3,000 houses were flooded and according to a joint assessment by PARC and OCHA, 1,000 green houses were totally or partially damaged during the storm. The poultry sector was badly affected by the storm as the low temperature caused 12,000 chicks and chickens to freeze to death. 50 sheep farms in the Bedouin village were affected by the floods. Gaza’s Ministry of Social Affairs estimated the overall losses of the storm at $64 million…Fuel shortages led to the prolonged closure of the only electric power plant in Gaza in late 2013…Particularly worrisome is the situation of medical patients who, due to the lack of adequate capacity in Gaza, need urgent medical treatment in the West Bank or abroad.”