Gaza — [Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 25 February 2015.

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Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow 2:30, 25 February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, in particular because you are one of the few Members of the House who can properly pronounce my constituency’s name; I will say it now as a hint for any Members who wish to refer to it during the debate—East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.

I am pleased to be having this important debate today. I was motivated to secure it by the Westminster Hall debate of 1 December 2014, secured by my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris, on the subject of ending the conflict in Palestine. I re-read the Hansard report of that debate recently and was struck by how much common ground there was between the Members who contributed. I spoke in it, championing my belief that the two-state solution is the only way forward. It also struck me that that debate could be a foundation to build upon; that is what I want to try to do today.

I recognise that there are still significant problems. From my perspective, our problem in the UK Parliament is that far too many Members cannot separate the troubled history of that part of the world from the objective of a two-state solution; as a result, far too often, debates in this place become mired in a grisly, macabre and desperate pit, relying on the body count in the most recent conflict or on a selective part of history so as to condemn one side over the other. Whether the contribution of a fractured and weak Palestinian leadership or the lurch to the right in Israeli politics, both sides often fail to recognise properly their own weaknesses. In particular, when violence breaks out the rush in this place to condemn Israel is matched by a pedestrian-paced admonishment of the Hamas violence that has started that same trouble.

Although the debate on 1 December marked, for the most part, a coming together of minds on many issues, every proposal made was negative. It was an oxymoron of a debate: a positive start conjoined to a negative finish. The conclusion was that there should be boycotts and sanctions. But they will not solve the problems of Palestine and Israel; rather, they will pour diesel on an already blazing fire, and create more resentment and more obstacles to peace. The aim of this debate is to create an environment for peace, to recognise the plight of the people of Gaza and to identify how we can overcome the barriers and create a more successful outcome for everyone. I will also set out the very real threat that Gaza faces from within, and the internal struggles that beset the Palestinian leadership.

In the interests of transparency, I place on the record the fact that I am one of the vice-chairs of Labour Friends of Israel. I am also an unequivocal supporter of a two-state solution for two peoples, with Israel safe, secure and recognised within its borders and living alongside a democratic, independent Palestinian state. I will be clear from the outset that last summer’s war was a disaster and tragedy for the people of Gaza and the people of Israel. Six months on from the end of Operation

Protective Edge, this debate presents a timely opportunity to discuss ways in which Britain can contribute to halting the recurring spiral of violence in Gaza.

At home and in this House the war caused both anger and division, but surely we should now be able to unite around one goal and single objective—to ensure that the death, destruction and suffering experienced by both peoples are not repeated. Let me be absolutely clear: the people of Gaza did not cause or start the war, nor did the people of Israel. The responsibility for it and for the destruction that followed rests squarely with Hamas, and has done so on each of the three occasions in the past six years when Hamas has launched indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilians from residential areas of Gaza.

The question today is what can be done to break the vicious cycle of violence, against a backdrop of Hamas’s ongoing efforts not to support the people of Gaza but to continue its war against Israel. Although Arab nations and international donors have pledged the enormous sum of $5.4 billion for investment in Gaza, not one thin dime has been spent, because Fatah and Hamas cannot agree on payments to Hamas’s civil servants and cannot decide who will control the Rafah crossing—those are the priorities in those discussions. Instead of taking the opportunity to invest resources in its people, Hamas is investing in rearming. Now, ominously, it has almost regained its full military capability. I will put on the record that Hamas is preparing for further attacks on Israel as this debate takes place.

That point leads me to my first positive contribution on the way forward to peace. The international community needs to put an end to the threat posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups by halting rearmament and urgently pursuing disarmament in the Gaza strip. Secondly, the lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza must be improved, not simply through reconstruction but through concrete steps to lift the restrictions on the movement of people and goods, imposed not only by Israel but by Egypt, that stifle Gaza’s economic development and future prosperity.

Let me be unequivocal: the second of those objectives has to be utterly dependent on the first. The reality of Hamas’s perpetuating of conflict and laying the groundwork for another bloody war must be confronted by everyone. In December, Hamas celebrated its 27th anniversary by burning effigies of Jews and parading trucks carrying long-range rockets through the streets of Gaza. At the celebrations, Hamas’s military spokesperson, Abu Obeida, thanked Iran and Qatar for supplying the group with arms and support. A month earlier, Iranian leaders had confirmed their good relations with the Islamist group; having already done so much to hamper the cause of peace between Israel and its neighbours, Iran has pledged to redouble its malevolent efforts with these words:

“West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza”.

That was tweeted by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Hamas claims to be concerned about the welfare of the Palestinian people, but many of us have long known that that is a lie, as it is proving once again. As I mentioned earlier, instead of turning its efforts to rebuilding Gaza, Hamas has rebuilt its depleted arsenal of rockets and mortars. In addition, it is rebuilding its terror tunnels. It is also rebuilding its armed forces by recruiting a new so-called popular army of young men aged between 15 and 21. Last month, 17,000 teenagers spent their mid-term break at Hamas’s military camps being drilled on how to launch attacks through tunnels and how to kidnap and murder Israeli soldiers. That is Hamas’s education policy—teaching young people to kill.

Hamas also likes to tax and spend. That is the name of a policy that is sometimes the subject of debate in the UK, but Hamas’s tax and spend is slightly different. It taxes the people of Gaza so that it can spend the money on reconstructing its terrorist infrastructure. For example, in a list I saw recently, furniture imported to Gaza at a cost of 1,200 shekels faces an additional tax of 800 shekels. That is also true of many other goods that have to be imported into Gaza. Hamas says that Israel and Egypt should lift the blockade, but only two weeks ago we learned that the Israeli navy had intercepted a ship travelling from Sinai to Gaza. On board was liquid fibreglass, one of the many dual-use materials Hamas uses to build its weapons of war—in that case, booby-traps for houses with tunnels running underneath them. The reality of Hamas is clear: it does not care at all for the people of Gaza. The intentions of Hamas are also clear: it seeks to wage another bloody war against the people of Israel.

In the face of that reality and those intentions, there is only one solution: demilitarisation. The international community knows that and during last summer’s conflict, both the EU and the United States of America made it clear that demilitarisation of the Gaza strip rested at the heart of ending the violence. Moreover—this is a really important point—the Palestinian Authority support that.

The prevention of a new war requires an urgent drive towards demilitarisation of Gaza, but it needs more than that; it needs hope and opportunity for its people. There is real disappointment that despite last spring’s Palestinian reconciliation deal, the Palestinian unity Government have failed to establish control in Gaza, where Hamas operates what President Abbas calls a “shadow Government.”

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

To take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments on demilitarisation, given the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai and the recent evidence of increased smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the Mediterranean, does he think that the building of a seaport in Gaza—which we would all like to see eventually, but not in the current circumstances—would increase the likelihood of Gaza being demilitarised or increase the likelihood that weapons would be smuggled in?

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I will come on to talk about a seaport and an airport, but my proposal for a route map to peace must be premised on demilitarisation. No one will invest that type of money in Gaza when the whole thing could fall apart and be destroyed again because of Hamas’s malevolent influence.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

Given my hon. Friend’s opening comments, I am looking forward to what he will say about Israel’s responsibility and contribution, because so far his speech could have been written by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tel Aviv. Is he seriously suggesting that aid should be restricted and the reconstruction of Gaza refused without demilitarisation? Does he realise that most non-governmental organisations have said that that is not an appropriate way to behave?

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

As a member of the Select Committee on International Development who visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and saw first hand the tragic circumstances that the Palestinians face, I hope that the Palestinian leadership want to take all steps necessary to improve the plight of their people. Goodness, surely that would be immeasurably improved if the people who are causing the problems and violence stopped doing that.

Demilitarisation should be a prerequisite, because as my hon. Friend knows, until that is done, there will not be a willing partner in the state of Israel to participate in talks. It strikes me—perhaps he missed the first part of my contribution—that we continually look backwards at the problem and do not look forward. In my coming words I hope to look in that forward direction and make a positive contribution to a proposal for peace.

As I mentioned, President Abbas calls Hamas a “shadow Government” and the renewed tensions between Hamas and Fatah since last autumn are ominous. When Hamas’s reconciliation agreement with Fatah was under pressure in June last year, it responded by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers, which was a precursor that provoked the war. Reconstruction and the political and security environment are inseparable issues and I cannot fathom anyone who says otherwise. I have received correspondence from charities and NGOs who work in the area and, based on my visit to the area and witnessing such events first hand, they are deluded if they think that investment can be put in without dealing with the military and security issues.

The people of Gaza have been the casualties of those failures. The lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza must be improved through reconstruction and by the lifting of restrictions on imports and exports, as Andrew Percy said a few moments ago. The blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt restricts not only the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, but any prospect of much needed economic development and prosperity, and any prospect of the alleviation of poverty. If poverty is the breeding ground of terror, cannot prosperity be a catalyst for peace?

While the Palestinian Authority and Hamas argue over salaries and who controls what, the Israelis have kept Gaza supplied, and while Hamas has concentrated on guns and bombs, and with access to Egypt completely closed, Israel has allowed 43,000 residents from Gaza to purchase building materials for personal use. It has also allowed students to cross the border to study and, contrary to what was said in contributions made in the 1 December debate, people have been able to travel to the al-Aqsa mosque and visit their families in Israel.

I completely recognise that there is a massive journey still to be undertaken, but for Israel and Egypt to open up Gaza crossings further and to allow the maximum amount of material in, they must be given credible guarantees about their own security, with assurances that Gaza will no longer be used as a base for terrorist activity. I will be happy to take any interventions from hon. Members who want to condemn or make that point.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

I did not really want to intervene, but I must quickly challenge my hon. Friend on a number of issues. I listened to a Palestinian last night in the room adjacent who was denied access to the Gaza strip to visit his dying father, who was denied the opportunity to transfer from Gaza to a specialist hospital. Perhaps he died because of that. Is my hon. Friend seriously supporting the blockade, which predates Hamas’s control of Gaza, as a collective punishment? Surely all the United Nations agencies and charities—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Thank you, Mr Hood. Unlike some people who contribute in these debates, I will give a direct answer. I believe that the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and cannot be continued, but if I was part of the Palestinian leadership, the argument that I would be taking forward in those debates is: we must ensure that there is demilitarisation so that we have security for our own people as well as the other people who live beside us in the borders to ensure that we can get reconstruction and development and traffic in and out of Gaza to allow people to get treatment.

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I will not take an intervention at the moment, because I am still dealing with one. In terms of the tragic circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington relayed about the individual who was prevented from getting medical treatment, I also heard such tragic stories when the International Development Committee spoke to people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but I find it difficult to understand that hon. Members would seek to refute my contention that the way forward on all of these issues is demilitarisation and taking the weapons out of Gaza.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for what needs to happen. Does he agree that the stumbling block is Hamas control in Gaza and that, unless Hamas gives up its power, we will almost certainly have the same problems in the years to come?

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Sadly, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the future if we do not see these major impasses removed. That leads me neatly to what the international community needs from Hamas and what Hamas’s reaction has been.

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

May I make some progress? I will then be happy to give way again. Hamas—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Hamas continues to reject the Quartet principles. It has publicly condemned any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and it continues to reject the two-state solution. By contrast, the Palestinian unity Government have committed to the Quartet principles and they are the legitimate interlocutor in Gaza, both for the international community and for Israel. All sides must do their best to enable that Government to govern in Gaza.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

If Gaza was demilitarised, could the hon. Gentleman guarantee that the Palestinians will be treated as well there as they are in the demilitarised west bank and East Jerusalem?

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I think we could hope for even better than that. In terms of a normalisation process, we can hope for the rights of Palestinians to be restored completely and for them to live in freedom and peace alongside their neighbours, the state of Israel. I very rarely hear those words said by people who propagate the type of view that the hon. Gentleman holds—[Interruption.] Someone says, “Nonsense” from a sedentary position, but I am sick and tired of coming to debates in this House where we hear about people dying, about the blood, and about the disaster of buildings being destroyed and hospitals being destroyed. I am sick and tired of coming to debates like that. I am trying to move forward with a positive proposal for peace.

A Labour Government were responsible for proscribing Hamas’s military wing. I commend the Government for their work to ensure that it remains listed by the European Union. However, I also urge the Minister—perhaps he can address this in his contribution—to assess the increasing evidence that Hamas’s political and military wings are contrapuntally linked, and they should also be looked at in terms of their contribution to peace or war.

Britain can contribute to preventing another war in Gaza. I have set out the practical steps: first, demilitarisation and initiatives to stop Hamas’s rearmament, with additional reassurance that the British Government must also pledge that the push to secure a nuclear deal with Iran does not lessen the pressure on it to cease its destabilising policies in the region.

Secondly, Britain can show leadership at the United Nations Security Council by proposing an initiative that would impose sanctions on UN members caught attempting to transfer weapons to Hamas and other militant groups. Such a resolution would provide a clear signal that the international community is committed to preventing a return to hostilities in Gaza. However, it should also go further by providing for disarmament inspectors on the ground who would oversee the destruction of rockets, mortars and other heavy weaponry in Gaza.

Thirdly and crucially, a robust staged disarmament mechanism in return for economic development must be designed to open up Gaza and reconnect it with the world. Together, Israel, the Palestinian unity Government, the Quartet, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League should present Hamas with a clear choice: let the disarmament inspectors into Gaza and let them do their job; and in return, the international community, Israel and the Palestinian unity Government will immediately begin the work needed to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and future prosperity.

I remind hon. Members that that $5.4 billion investment has not been prevented by Israel or the international partners. It has been prevented because the two competing elements of the Palestinian leadership cannot agree on a way forward. Most importantly, with our place in the European Union and our seat on the Security Council, Britain can lead an international effort to stop the inevitable next step without demilitarisation, and therefore the inevitable next step and next debate in this House—perhaps led by the hon. Member for Easington or another hon. Member—in which we talk about another bloody war in Gaza.

I suspect people may not agree with this point, but nothing in my contribution today should divide us. If some hon. Members want to go over the history of who is right and who is wrong, count me out. If people believe that what Hamas is doing can be justified, please will they have the honesty to stand up and say so in their contributions? However, unlike the solutions—

Photo of Michael McCann Michael McCann Labour, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

No, I will not, because I am coming to my peroration, and I want to ensure that other people have the opportunity to contribute as well. Unlike the solutions offered on 1 December 2014, when my hon. Friend the Member for Easington led the debate, my solutions are positive and realisable. They combine the need for the people of Israel to be secure with the needs of the Palestinians to have the rights that they are entitled to.

I finish with this challenge for those who will follow in this debate: if their motivation is a desire to seek a resolution, I welcome that, but they must also consider whether their motivation is a desire to be a proxy for the status quo.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I inform hon. Members that I have nine speakers on my list plus two Front Benchers. I intend to call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm, so to try to allow everybody in, I will put a time limit on of five minutes.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 2:55, 25 February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I give my full congratulations to Mr McCann who introduced the debate, for whom I have admiration on this issue. He speaks with incredible wisdom.

I want to focus on five myths that hinder the reconstruction of Gaza, and through that, the peace process in the middle east. I will examine the occupation of the city, the blockade on aid, the border closures, the Israeli military operation and finally, the issue of settlements and how it affects the debate.

It should not be forgotten that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, implemented in 2005 by Prime Minister Sharon, was one of the most painful political decisions to have been taken. It led to the split of his Likud party and the complete restructuring of the Israeli political landscape. Behind that plan, there was a real impulse to mend Israeli-Palestinian relations. The greenhouses were meant to stimulate the Palestinian economy, and if that had worked, further steps would have involved Israeli withdrawal from much of the west bank, just as they had had the courage to withdraw from Gaza.

That is why there must be no doubt, when discussing Gaza’s occupation today, that it is not an Israeli occupation, as it has been described. Since 2007, the people of Gaza have been oppressed by Hamas who, after literally throwing Fatah officials off the roofs of the city, have spent the last eight years subjugating the population and forcing civilians to act as human shields when launching indiscriminate attacks against the Israeli population. Therefore, the first steps towards reconstructing Gaza should be ensuring that Hamas no longer divests international aid for a reconstruction purpose to the armament of a city they occupy, and recognising the crucial role of Israeli aid in the reconstruction of the city.

There is also criticism of the aid blockade that is supposedly in place. Since September 2014, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN have agreed to a trilateral mechanism of reconstruction for the Gaza strip, following the summer’s Operation Protective Edge. That would facilitate the rebuilding of 60,000 homes in Gaza, and the use of materials would be supervised by the UN, thus ensuring that Hamas would not be able to appropriate those resources.

There have been millions of tonnes of aid from Israel into Gaza. A few hundred trucks go from Israel into Gaza every week. To talk about an Israeli blockade on aid would be to negate the 62,000 tonnes of construction supplies that have entered Gaza since the beginning of the plan, and wilfully ignore the crucial role of Hamas in stripping the people of Gaza of the resources they need. Let us not forget that it was a Hamas rocket that took down the Israeli electrical power plant that gives Gaza electricity. It is worth noting that the Palestinian territories receive more humanitarian aid per capita than any other country on earth. So much of it has been taken away by Hamas and abused and used for corrupt purposes. We know about the secret tunnels that cost $3 million each. Why do we have those when that money should be spent on helping the Palestinian people in Gaza?

The attempt to find justice where there are just preconceptions must be extended to this summer’s war. There can be no peaceful Gaza without a recognition of the mandate of self-defence that Israel had to take on when Israeli civilians were indiscriminately targeted by Hamas. We should remember that the Israelis suffered from 19,000 rockets fired by Hamas on to Israeli towns after Israel withdrew from Gaza. We remember the 3,360 rockets fired in just under a month. There can be no reconstruction if we allow Hamas to carry on rearming and carry on training its terrorists.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that Hamas was recently judged to be the second most wealthy terrorist organisation after ISIS, and would he like to say something about what the UK Government should be doing to ensure that more pressure is put on the funders in Iran and Saudi Arabia so that the reconstruction that he wants can happen?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

My hon. Friend makes the exact point that so much of the money that goes into Gaza is being used for terrorist purposes—to fund weaponry. Palestinian economists have estimated that about 2,000 Hamas operatives have made $1 million each from the smuggling that goes on in the tunnels. We need to look at what goes on in the other countries. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Taking account of the intervention by my hon. Friend Andrew Percy, does my hon. Friend Robert Halfon agree that British aid should be tied to proper reconstruction and peaceful means, and that that should be guaranteed so that none can be used for military purposes?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

My hon. Friend again hits the nail on the head. British aid that goes to the Palestinian Authority should not be used to pay the wages of Palestinian prisoners, for example. Aid should be used for exactly that—to help the poorer Palestinian population, so neglected by the people who rule them, particularly Hamas.

When we look at the situation in Gaza, we need to remember that this is an area that has fallen, tragically, to a terrorist organisation, one that has the authority but not the will to implement a peace process, while the more moderate Palestinian Authority have the will but not the authority.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I will not, because I have given way twice.

We will not get a Palestinian state until we decide which Palestinian state it is going to be. Is it the one in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, with its terrorist network, its determination to throw every Jew into the sea and its continuing desire to fire missiles indiscriminately at Israeli territory? Is it the one in the west bank, with the more moderate Palestinian Authority?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

Just out of respect for the hon. Lady, I will briefly give way.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He talks about the west bank, but we know that more than half a million illegal settlements have been carried out there. As an hon. Member said earlier, even if we really believe in a two-state solution, that is not going to happen, is it?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

The whole idea of having a negotiation is that there will be land swaps. As I said, Israel withdrew from Gaza, the biggest settlement of all, and all that happened was 19,000 missiles were fired indiscriminately on to Israeli territory.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:02, 25 February 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend who secured the debate. I spent four years with him on the Select Committee on International Development trying to avoid having to pronounce the name of his constituency. I will not mess that up by making another attempt now.

I have to say that I was a little confused by my hon. Friend’s contribution, because he started off talking about the need to move forward and not talk the language of boycotts, sanctions and so on, but I was listening carefully to what he said, just as I read carefully the article that he wrote on Left Foot Forward, and it seemed to me that the conclusion he drew was that there was a need for boycotts and sanctions on Hamas. I agree with a number of the things that he said about Hamas. It is a pretty reprehensible organisation in many ways, but the idea of saying that because there is an organisation in control of Gaza not only that we disapprove of but that commits some heinous crimes—it does—that justifies, excuses or places as something to be dealt with at a later date the situation facing the ordinary people of Gaza is one that I just cannot go along with. The reason is a moral one, but there is also a legal one. It is called collective punishment. Collective punishment is illegal under international law, and that is what has been happening to Gaza. It has been happening in a very extreme form since 2007, but it was going on from 2005; actually it was going on before that, before the Israeli withdrawal, as well. Were it not going on before that, why was there ever a need for an agreement on movement and access in 2005?

My hon. Friend says that it is wrong to count the bodies, and that is true. Often, debates just get stuck on that, but when we look at the horror of what is going on in Gaza, some figures do bear repeating. The last big military conflict there, Operation Protective Edge, left 2,205 Gazans dead; 1,483 were civilians and 521 were children. The reason I say that is not just to give the statistics, but to pose the question: what if that happened here? In the UK, it would have meant that 76,800 people were killed; 51,456 would have been civilians and 18,000 would have been children. One quarter of the population of Gaza is still displaced to this day. It would have meant 16 million people in the UK displaced.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I certainly regret the loss of human life in Gaza, but is my hon. Friend aware that the work conducted by the Meir Amit intelligence and terrorism information centre has shown that 52% of those who died were actually terrorists? Forty-eight per cent—a regrettable figure—were civilians, but 52% were terrorists.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am not aware of that particular organisation. I am aware that the Israeli Government have queried the figures compiled by a number of respected international organisations. I assume that that is what my hon. Friend is referring to.

Operation Protective Edge and the war last year was an appalling thing, but the real tragedy of Gaza is what goes on. It means that farmers can be shot and are shot just because they approach a border fence. Let us think about what the response would be if Hamas said it was entirely legitimate to shoot people in Sderot because they were getting too close to the border with Gaza. If it works one way, it should work the other. Let us imagine what it is like. My hon. Friend who secured the debate referred to the sea. There is a blockade by sea. Actually, what we have had recently in the waters outside Gaza is the interception of fishing boats. That happens regularly. In one case recently, three children on a fishing boat were required by Israeli gunboats to leap into the sea without their clothes on while the fishing boat that they had been occupying was sunk.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

No, there is no time to take any more interventions.

That to me means that we need something a bit more than saying that Hamas must demilitarise if we do not want to allow these things to carry on. If my hon. Friend is right to say that Hamas uses the population of Gaza as pawns, as playthings, what on earth would be the incentive to demilitarise in that situation? What would cause it to do that if, as he is saying, it plays and thrives on the current situation?

To resolve the problem, we need to lift the blockade. Of course, there can be security around that. In fact, there was. There was a major border crossing at Karni, with sophisticated equipment to ensure that the wrong things did not come in. That does not operate now. Why? Because Israel has demolished the Karni crossing. Why is it, when we talk about restrictions in and out of Gaza, that Israel has even put restrictions on the export of strawberries between Gaza and the west bank? How can that be justified on any kind of security grounds? The idea that somehow we can get a solution in Gaza without addressing the issue of the west bank and settlements in the west bank is, frankly, fanciful.

If my hon. Friend thinks that there should be sanctions against Hamas—I think that there are; there is international co-operation on stopping arms getting to Hamas—perhaps he could also consider sanctions against other breaches of international law. How about sanctions against people who aid and abet the illegal construction of settlements in the west bank? How about saying to Israel, “If you expect to receive the privileges under the EU-Israel association agreement, you also have to accept the responsibilities under that”?

How about my hon. Friend joining me and other hon. Members here in telling the Israeli Government and the Israeli embassy to let parliamentarians into Gaza? That could contribute to solving some of these problems, as we could speak with some knowledge about what is going on there. I and other hon. Friends here were the last ones allowed into Gaza to see what was happening, and that was after Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

On several occasions, I have asked the Israeli embassy, “Why do you not let us in?” Each time, it has said, “We are surprised you are not let in.” However, every time we try to get in, the co-operation disappears and the walls go up. As far as I know, my hon. Friend has not been to Gaza, and I imagine he would have the same problems as me in getting in.

Let us, therefore, speak with some knowledge. MPs from this country should be given access to Gaza so that we can see for ourselves whether the international organisations that operate there are right or whether my hon. Friend is right that this is all some kind of Hamas plot.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East 3:10, 25 February 2015

It is customary in these debates to ask the Minister for answers or information, but I want to ask him not to do something: not to tell us how he has urged this or condemned that. I ask him and the Government to be agents of change, because unless we do something differently, no change will be brought about. The UK can be an agent of change.

We all know that the Balfour declaration was conditional: it was clearly anticipated that conflict could arise, and a future home in Israel was conditional on the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities being protected. We all know that, and we also know that there has been a clear breach of that contract.

What has disappeared from our TV screens is the daily reporting of numerous rockets being fired from Gaza. That has disappeared, of course, because it is not happening. That is good news, and we all welcome it. We all condemn the firing of the rockets, and we are pleased that innocent Israelis can go about their lives free from fear. We wish that for everyone.

What has also disappeared from our screens, however, is the daily suppression of the Palestinians in Gaza. It has disappeared not because it is not happening, but because the world has largely moved on to other issues. That suppression is still taking place, and, as I have said many times, the absence of bombing in Gaza is not the only determinant of whether there is peace.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Having visited the west bank with the hon. Gentleman a couple of years ago, I agree wholeheartedly with the points he is making. Last week’s UNICEF report showed the systematic and widespread ill treatment of Palestinian children detained on a military basis. That is still going on, but, again, it has been absent from our news reporting.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

That is the very point. I assume other Members will refer to the living conditions in Gaza, so I will leave that to them, but we know the situation that people face. Schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and homes are not being bombed at present by the Israelis, but can we really call the conditions in Gaza peaceful?

The international community would allow no other country to treat anybody the way Israel treats the Palestinians. Such a country would be ostracised and treated as a pariah state; at the very least—as in the case of Myanmar, Russia and South Africa—we would impose sanctions. I have an online petition with more than 80,000 names calling on the Government to be an agent of change and to consider sanctions as part of bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The truth is that, until we engage in an honest debate about why Israel is given special protected status, we will never resolve the conflict.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Conservative, Stroud

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one useful step would be to send a signal that we would recognise a Palestinian state? Does he agree that that would mean safety for Israel and improved governance in Gaza?

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

Of course. The long-term solution is peace for both sides. Although those who support Israel are called friends of Israel, I would argue that they are the enemies of its long-term safety and security because they defend the indefensible actions it takes every day against the Palestinians.

What is apparent to anyone visiting Gaza is the tremendous contribution that countries around the world make to support the Palestinians. However, I have to ask how much of what is contributed is the result of genuine concern for the suffering of the Gazans and how much is donated by nations with a guilty conscience because of their failure to take action against the country that destroyed the very buildings they are helping, yet again, to rebuild. Too often, it is the easy way out for those nations to say they are supporting the Palestinians by helping them to rebuild and to reconstruct, when the damage would not have occurred if those countries had had the courage to take action against Israel.

The debate is not about our contribution to the important life support machine of international aid for a stricken patient, but about our contribution, as an agent of change, to ensuring that the Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace as neighbours. Unless something changes, things will stay the same. The urging and the condemnation do not work; something new needs to happen, and I would argue that that will come through sanctions.

Given its legacy across the region, the UK can and should provide leadership. The same old responses from a UK Minister will not help—they will simply not take us anywhere, and they will not bring about change. We are no longer waiting for banal responses; we need action from the Government to show that they are on the side not only of the Palestinians but, in the long term, of those in Israel who seek to live with the Palestinians in peace, side by side and in a neighbourly way.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling 3:17, 25 February 2015

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr McCann. For the record, I am the parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

All of us around the Chamber have really good instincts about what needs to happen. We want peace for the Palestinian people and the Israelis. It is a tragedy and a blight on the international community that, six months after the end of last summer’s Gaza conflict, people in Gaza are still suffering as a result of a humanitarian crisis.

I would not often say this, but I want to recognise the British Government for continuing to support humanitarian efforts. However, I have one or two questions for the Minister. When he replies, will he comment on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s recent statement that only $135 million in pledges have been received from donor countries, leaving a shortfall of nearly $600 million? That means that assistance programmes have been suspended. All of us want a quick response to the crisis facing the people of Gaza, although hopefully it is only a short-term one.

Efforts to reconstruct Gaza in the longer term throw up greater challenges, some of which have been addressed today. I would like the Minister to comment on the remarks made not by the Israeli Government or any other country in the area but the UN Under-Secretary-General, Mr Feltman, who expressed alarm at the reports of Hamas rearming. He said that there were “dangerous developments” in the area. Given the general acceptance that under the Oslo accords there should be a demilitarisation policy, will the Minister comment?

I want the cycle of violence to be broken. I will not be in the next Parliament; but Members cannot return again and again to discuss the aftermath of yet another conflict in Gaza. Given what the UN Under-Secretary-General said, there is potential for that to happen. I hope the Minister—or, indeed, my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, when, as I hope, he assumes a ministerial role—will continue working with the UN to deter the continued arming of the Hamas regime.

Britain has much to do. It is a question of encouraging Israel and President Abbas; looking towards work with Egypt, the Quartet and the Arab League; and coming together to make Hamas face the real choices it has if it wants to open up Gaza in the best interests of its people. Even the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, said on Sunday that the dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was hindering efforts to reconstruct in Gaza. He told the London-based paper Al-Hayat that the Arab League was holding consultations with donor countries. However, he also said:

“The internal differences and the absence of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are behind the delay in reconstructing the Gaza Strip”.

This morning I listened to an interview on Radio 4 with two mothers, one Gazan and one Israeli. The astounding thing was that, regardless of their views on the particularities of the current situation and what caused it, they both identified what it was doing to their children—Israeli and Gazan children. They both talked about its traumatic impact, even while there is supposed to be a ceasefire. Peace is not easy. It is really difficult, and we all, as people of good will, must play our part in it. That includes the UK Government.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. To allow all those who want to speak to get in, I must cut down the time limit for speeches to four minutes.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:22, 25 February 2015

I have taken part in probably most of the debates on Israel and Palestine in the past 10 years. Some have been uplifting, such as the one on Palestinian recognition introduced recently by my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris; some have been quite testy, because there are strong views on the subject; and some have been quite constructive, particularly when they were about aid. I have no pleasure in saying that I found today’s debate to be premised on an entirely cynical proposition, and quite disrespectful of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Listening to hon. Members on either side saying that Israel has kept Gaza supplied, I think people must be living in a parallel world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington referred to the delegation from the General Union of Palestinian Students, some of whom come originally from Gaza.

They came here to acknowledge the contribution made by Members of this House to the recognition of a Palestinian state, and told us their personal stories, which included that of a young man who could not see his dying father because, like the 30,000 people trapped and waiting to go in at the moment, he could not get into Gaza. Almost certainly his father died because he could not be given the aid he wanted. That is a common story.

Despite the encouragement of my hon. Friend Mr McCann, I am not going to stop talking about the body count. That is not because I do not regret every Israeli death just as much as every Palestinian one; but the fact that 15,049 Palestinian and four Israeli civilians died has significance, because of the disproportionality and because of the weapons used by Israel against Palestinians, consequent on the blockade. The bombing of schools full of refugees, the shelling of hospitals, the contamination of water supplies and the reduction of Gaza, such that according to the UN it will not be habitable by 2020, are factors that have not so far been mentioned in the debate.

Leading NGOs have commented on the situation. The United Nations Relief and Works agency says:

“You can’t punish freezing children because of the actions of armed groups.”

Amnesty International says the blockade

“is unlawful and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally i.e. it should not be contingent on any other possible processes, including demilitarisation.”

Oxfam says:

“Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction must be provided based on need and cannot be contingent upon political developments or demands, including the demilitarization of Palestinian armed groups.”

I ask hon. Members who support that proposition to reflect on what those organisations have said; on the fact that Israel has a responsibility, just as Hamas and other organisations do; on the fact that war crimes are committed by Israel and that collective punishment and the blockade of Gaza are major contributory factors to what we are dealing with; and on the fact that Israeli forces often, unprovoked, fire on people in the Gaza strip.

The blockade should be lifted now, under international law. That could be done, and supplies could go into Gaza with monitoring and verification to make sure that arms do not get in. An entirely false and unworkable premise has been put forward, as I am afraid its sponsors know. Let us have genuine dialogue and reconstruction. Let us prevent arms from going to Gaza; but let us not punish the children and civilians of Gaza for what is happening there.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 3:26, 25 February 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr McCann on securing this important and timely debate. It is true that the rehabilitation and restoration of Gaza following Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians last year has been slow, and it is important that the barriers to that rehabilitation be removed; but what is happening now is far from that, and it is vital to be alert to Hamas’s current activities in preparing to launch a new war. It is doing that by reconstructing the terror tunnels; rebuilding its arsenal of rockets and mortars and, indeed, trying to beat Israel’s defence system, the Iron Dome; and recruiting an army which it describes as having been set up for the purpose of “liberating Palestine”.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

The hon. Lady’s remark about Hamas rearming is important. Does she agree that despite that rearming, and contrary to what Mr Slaughter said, hundreds of tonnes of aid are going from Israel into Gaza every week?

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I agree. Israel was right to defend its citizens from attack in 2014 and if necessary it will defend itself again, but a new round of violence started by Hamas aggression cannot bring a solution to a peace for Palestinians and Israelis any nearer. I call on all those who genuinely care about peace to take whatever action they can to stop a new war. That means recognising the threat posed by Iran, which is already saying how it supports a new war, and threatening—as the Ayatollah Khamenei did in a tweet in November:

The West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza”.

We should recognise the problems that Iran poses with respect to the lack of peace in Gaza, and the current nuclear talks with Iran should not stop pressure being applied for it to cease destabilising the region. The United Kingdom should urge the UN Security Council to pass a resolution preventing the rearmament of Hamas and starting a process of demilitarisation. Demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of Gaza are not alternatives to reaching a comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but they are an essential step towards that goal. Hamas aggression started a horrendous war last year with deplorable loss of life.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I have no time to give way. Hamas has now embarked on a new course, preparing for renewed attacks targeted on Israeli citizens. That will make the prospect of peace even more distant. To all those who seriously want to secure peace, I say this: do all that is possible to stop Hamas rearming, prevent a new war and work for a peace that brings a new and fulfilled life to Israelis and Palestinians, including the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I remind hon. Members that if they accept interventions, they may cut off somebody who is on the list to speak.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 3:30, 25 February 2015

It would be churlish of me not to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr McCann on securing the debate. However, I feel that, in many respects, it is a counsel of despair, because of the propositions that some hon. Members have put forward, and because of the failure to look at the historical facts and properly analyse the way forward.

I will divide my much-curtailed contribution into two parts. Of course, every hon. Member and every person with a conscience wants to avoid a repeat of last summer’s catalogue of horrors. We have heard the figures for the appalling loss of life and the destruction of residential areas and United Nations facilities. Ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza strip are being made to pay the price for the conflict. We must look at the root causes of the situation. We are talking about a day-to-day, grinding occupation. The occupying power is Israel, which maintains an illegal and unjust iron grip on the territory and its inhabitants. Robert Halfon, who has unfortunately left the Chamber, suggested that Israel has disengaged, but that is a false premise. The international community recognise that the situation in Gaza is an ongoing occupation, because of the restrictions on trade, employment, movement, access to medical supplies and medical treatments, and so on.

I refer Members to article 154 of the fourth Geneva convention, which refers to the responsibilities of the occupying power under belligerent occupation. Of course, the closure of Gaza is part of a long process that predates the rise of Gaza. Members who support the Israeli Government often use that fact as some kind of justification, but it is quite incorrect to do so. The punitive nature of the blockade, although it is denied by those who strongly support the Government of Israel, is acknowledged by those who administer it as an act of collective punishment. If we believe in anything as parliamentarians, we believe in the rule of international law in upholding international conventions, and collective punishment is forbidden under international law.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

Does the hon. Gentleman hold the same view about Egypt?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

There are some really important lessons to be learned internationally, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and the peace process in South Africa. There are issues that must be addressed with Egypt, and I do not think that its position is awfully helpful. The fundamental point is that all interested parties must come together and actively participate in a meaningful process.

Time is short, so I turn to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow that Hamas would voluntarily disarm on the basis that Israel would, at that point, end the blockade and its illegal settlement enterprise and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The parties in Israel are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, so that premise is deeply flawed. In the west bank, the Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted non-violent resistance to the occupation in 1988. In the years since, what has been its reward? House demolitions, the expansion of illegal settlements, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers, continued oppression, the arrest of children and the subjugation of military occupation. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is not conducive to peace, because it proposes only to remove Hamas’s weapons. It would not address the factors that lead people in the west bank towards violence. Let us learn from the peace process in Northern Ireland. We are treating the symptoms and not the cause. We must address the blockade, and rather than undermining Palestinian political institutions that seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, we should strengthen them.


Why do we put sanctions on Russia but not Israel?

Submitted by Jonathan Hipkiss

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough 3:35, 25 February 2015

Any proposal for ending conflict between Gaza and Israel that does not prioritise the upholding of international law and a just settlement between Israel and Palestine is bound to fail. Indeed, the failure of the international community to halt the colonial theft of Palestinian land and to broker a just peace is the greatest provocation of further unrest.

The Oslo dynamic, which has persisted for more than 20 years, has demonstrably failed. In conflict resolution, victims of conflict sometimes abandon their right to seek justice for past crimes and transgressions in the hope of building trust and strengthening a political process that is designed to resolve the broader conflict. We need only look to Northern Ireland to see how that principle has worked in practice. Importantly, the dynamic assumes that the parties to the conflict are sincerely interested in resolving the situation in a way that is both legal and acceptable to the other party. Sadly, that is not the case in the virtually non-existent middle east peace process. Rather, Palestinians have been asked to sacrifice almost every conceivable right or claim to justice at the altar of negotiation. That has afforded the Government of Israel unparalleled impunity for its many crimes against the Palestinian people. With each unpunished transgression, those on the Israeli right are encouraged to continue to act as they like, however immoral or illegal their actions, safe in the knowledge that there will be no adverse consequences.

Palestinians are told that they must negotiate for their rights, their statehood and their freedom from occupation. Meanwhile, the party with which they must negotiate changes the facts on the ground day by day to make the realisation of those rights an ever more distant prospect. For those who seek to deny the Palestinians their rights, it is worth noting that the Israelis were not expected to negotiate with the Palestinians for the same rights. It is both impractical and wrong to expect a successful peace process to emerge from a dynamic in which there is such a disproportionate imbalance of power and in which the rule of law has been totally abandoned.

Most of the current Israeli Government—those with whom the Palestinians are told they must negotiate to obtain their rights—are on record as saying that they fundamentally oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Last summer, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is on the left of his right-wing coalition, spoke his mind:

“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

For the past two decades, negotiations have served as little more than a fig leaf to cover Israel’s expansionist aims so that it can consolidate what it has already taken by force of arms.

If the situation is to end and space is to be created for a meaningful peace process, the UK must push to make Israel accountable for its breaches of international law. That means that we should be prepared to pull whatever levers exist, whether economic or diplomatic, to ensure that the Israeli Government understand that continuing to annex Palestinian land, collectively punishing 1.7 million people with an illegal blockade and systematically denying a people their fundamental rights will not be tolerated by the international community. We should also do what we can to strengthen the voices of moderation inside Palestine and to demonstrate that it is the path of politics and peace, not the path of violence, that leads somewhere. Our Government should respect the will of Parliament and immediately recognise Palestine as a state. We must also do all we can to support the unity Government, in which Hamas is to take a back seat. In fact, the announcement of the unity Government that preceded this summer’s assault on Gaza was widely seen—

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does my hon. Friend recognise the suggestion made by my hon. Friend Mr McCann that Hamas would disarm in return for economic development? That would make a hostage of all those peace-loving people in the Palestinian population who neither hold arms nor hold any brief for those who hold arms.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it involves doing all we can to support the unity Government in which Hamas is to take a back seat. The unity Government was welcomed by everyone, save only for Israel.

Critically, we should understand that the realisation of Palestinian rights and the success and security of Israel are intertwined. There will never be justice for Palestinians while the occupation continues and their rights are denied. Peace and security will be unobtainable for Israel so long as Palestinians live with such injustice.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

The two Front-Bench Members have each given Fabian Hamilton a minute.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Labour, Leeds North East 3:40, 25 February 2015

Thank you, Mr Hood. I appreciate that. I thank my hon. Friend Mr McCann—I hope I pronounced his constituency correctly.

My last visit to Gaza was in March 2009 as part of a Foreign Affairs Committee delegation. The visit included opportunities to see the post-war situation in both Israel and Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, but owing to security considerations only four members of the Committee were allowed to cross the border. In Gaza, the delegation witnessed at first hand the destruction caused by Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military operation waged to stop Hamas’s indiscriminate launching of missiles from Gaza against Israeli towns and cities. In Israel, we visited towns, including Sderot, that had been most greatly affected by the Hamas terror rockets. Those rockets were constructed from the metal pipe work that was sent by Israel to reconstruct the sewage treatment works in Gaza but was instead cut up into rocket-sized tubes, packed with explosives and rocket fuel and sent back across the border to Sderot in order to inflict as much civilian damage as possible. In fact, the police station in Sderot had piles of spent missiles with Hebrew writing still stamped on the cut-up lengths of metal pipe. Sadly, it feels as if little has changed since my last visit to Gaza in 2009.

In the time I have left, I will briefly mention what life under Hamas means for the people of Gaza. One of the things we hear most about are the summary executions with no hint of due process. Hamas publicly executed 25 people in just over 48 hours last August, allegedly for collaborating with Israel. Those executions cannot be explained away as the excesses of war. Among those executed by Hamas in 2013 was a juvenile offender, despite what Amnesty International termed

“serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, including allegations he was tortured to ‘confess’.”

Hamas regularly uses torture. According to the recently published annual report of Human Rights Watch, not a body that anyone could describe as a stooge of the state of Israel:

“The Internal Security Agency and Hamas police in Gaza tortured or ill-treated”—

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 3:43, 25 February 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr McCann on securing the debate. As others have said, more than 2,000 people were killed in the conflict last summer, many of them civilians, including more than 500 children. Many more were injured, including more than 3,000 children. As a result of their injuries, more than 1,000 of those children are likely to have physical disabilities for the rest of their lives.

Last summer’s conflict was, of course, the third since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, and the cycle of violence was grimly reminiscent of the events that led to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. On all three occasions, it was obvious that a sustainable solution will not be found through violence and that a political solution is necessary. The human cost of the failure to negotiate a lasting and sustainable settlement to the middle east conflict is all too apparent in the continued trauma, devastation and insecurity not only in Gaza but in the west bank and Israel. My hon. Friend is right to warn that the international community must now do all it can to avoid further conflict in Gaza, and that a complex mix of pressures in Gaza, Israel and the wider middle east must be thought through and understood to avoid further bloodshed, and over the medium term, to move towards a more comprehensive negotiated settlement that secures the two-state solution that I suspect everyone in the House wants.

An immediate priority must be to address urgently the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Almost 20,000 homes have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and many others have been damaged, and more than 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. Some 19,000 displaced people are still living in United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters, such as school buildings. Those whose homes remain habitable struggle to cope with the scheduled power cuts of up to 18 hours a day, and basic services such as access to water and sanitation can best be described as dysfunctional. That already grim situation has been exacerbated by recent winter storms, which resulted in further deaths and affected those in emergency shelters or damaged homes.

In that context, the $5.4 billion pledged by the international community at the Cairo conference last October is welcome, but it is deeply worrying that UNRWA had to halt a $720 million project that aimed to give rental subsidies to people whose homes have been damaged and are inhospitable, and cash to people to repair and rebuild their properties. UNRWA has stated that it has been left with a shortfall of almost $600 million, as the money pledged by international donors has yet to be translated into actual disbursements.

It was recently reported that just $300 million of aid pledges have so far been transferred. The UK pledged some £20 million at the Cairo conference to support the reconstruction effort in Gaza, and the Department for International Development announced the disbursement of $4.7 million just before Christmas, bringing the total amount it has disbursed to some £7.8 million. Will the Minister update the House on when the next disbursement is planned? How much will be disbursed, and for what services will that aid be delivered? Why has progress on disbursing our aid appeared to be so slow?

What discussions have the Government had with other international donors to ensure that they fulfil their pledges? The Minister will know better than the rest of the House which donors have not so far met or begun to come close to meeting their expectations on delivering aid. Does he believe that a further international effort is needed to facilitate progress? What role, for example, might the EU’s new High Representative, the Quartet or the Gulf Co-operation Council play in helping to facilitate progress on reconstruction?

As has been mentioned in the debate, donors appear to have become concerned about the failure of the technocratic unity Government, agreed by Hamas and Fatah in April 2014, to take control of Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto Government. What is the Minister’s assessment of the scale of difficulty faced by that technocratic unity Government? What progress are the Arab League and the UN making on their consultations to put in place a Palestinian authority to govern Gaza? My hon. Friends are right that the blockade of Gaza must end.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way because of the time.

The blockade of Gaza must end with the co-operation of Israel. What recent action has the Minister taken to press the Government of Israel on that critical issue? No one wants to see a repeat of last summer, and clearly a crucial element of preventing another conflict must be for the international community to stop Hamas rebuilding its arsenal and tunnels so that it cannot again fire thousands of rockets into Israel. There can be absolutely no justification for the conduct of Hamas and other organisations that fired rockets into Israel and sought to infiltrate civilian areas. We are unyielding in our condemnation of Hamas both for the indiscriminate killing of Israeli civilians and for the disruptive role it has played when others have tried to secure the two-state solution that we all want.

Ultimately, we have to help the Palestinians and the Israelis to get back to the negotiating table. It is surely the responsibility of all of us in the international community—certainly the UK, but also countries across the international community—to use the leverage that we have to encourage again the conditions so that negotiations can begin on a peaceful, lasting solution.

Such a solution needs to involve the peoples of the occupied territories and of Israel, as well as their leaders. Progress on violence, on respecting human rights and on illegal settlements will be critical to building the conditions for such negotiations to take place.

I come back finally to the urgency of the situation in Gaza. The humanitarian crisis there demands that the international community steps up its efforts to get the construction of homes and access to basic services going again. I look forward to hearing what further role the Minister thinks the UK can play in helping to achieve that.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I am expecting a Division at 4 o’clock.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 3:50, 25 February 2015

I shall begin, as others have done, by congratulating Mr McCann on securing this important debate. I thank hon. Members for the tone and the manner in which we have discussed this very important issue. I share with hon. Members and hon. Friends my frustration in having only nine minutes or so before the Division bell rings to answer all the points. I have written pages of notes in order to respond in detail, and I feel frustrated because of the limitations of the debate. May I ask the powers that be, if they happen to be listening, that we have a longer debate on a more regular basis, such is the importance of the issue? I will do my best to get through the points. If I do not, please forgive me. I will do my best to write to hon. Members and respond to their points.

We have played a key role in support of Gazans. During the summer, the UK was one of the biggest donors to Gaza, providing more than £17 million in emergency assistance to deliver life-saving food, clean water, shelter and medical assistance to tens of thousands of people affected by the fighting. We have also played a vital role in supporting Gaza’s reconstruction. The UK pledged more than £20 million at the Gaza reconstruction conference, which I attended in October, to help kick-start the recovery and get the people of Gaza back on their feet. A quarter of our pledge has already been distributed, and we urge other donors to disburse theirs. Mr Thomas was right to say that there have been problems, and we need to make sure that the bottlenecks are sorted out.

DFID’s long-term programme of support in Gaza is focused on relieving the humanitarian impacts of the occupation, supporting the provision of basic services, including health and education, and helping local businesses to grow and provide jobs.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I cannot give way because I need time to answer the questions. Let us have the debate in the Chamber, give me half an hour to reply, and I will be happy to give way.

We are still deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation, which has continued to deteriorate, as hon. Members have implied. Thousands of families still do not have homes to return to. The UK is working closely with international partners to support the work of the Gaza reconstruction mechanism, which was created to facilitate the importation of vital construction materials, and is providing £500,000 in support.

We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities the damage that their restrictions are doing to ordinary Palestinians in Gaza. We are clear that supporting legal trade for Gazans is firmly in Israel’s long-term interests. We are concerned about the closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Indeed, let us open the other crossing. The Rafah crossing is a pedestrian crossing that needs to be converted into a wider one for vehicles. The Kerem Shalom crossing could be expanded, and Erez is another one that needs to be widened. We continue to raise those important points not only with the Israelis, but with the Egyptian Government, who are central in bringing together the parties to get the negotiations restarted.

We firmly believe that ending the cycle of violence in Gaza is in the interests of all parties. Last summer, Israelis lived in fear of indiscriminate rocket strikes and terror attacks. That is clearly not acceptable and we deplore the terrorist tactics of Hamas. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, just as the people of Gaza have the right to live safely in peace. We are deeply concerned by reports that militant groups within Gaza are re-arming and re-digging tunnels. That will not deliver peace to the people of Gaza. Only a durable ceasefire can offer that. The UK will do all that it can to support efforts towards that goal.

Last year, we worked hard with international partners to bring a ceasefire about, and we came close before things unravelled in April. We urge the parties to resume negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement that tackles the underlying causes of the conflict. Such an agreement should ensure that Hamas and other militant groups permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel, and that the Palestinian Authority—not just a technocratic Government—resume control of Gaza and restore effective and accountable governance. An agreement should also ensure that Israel lifts its restrictions in order to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and allow the Gazan economy to grow.

In response to some of the comments that have been made today, we are lobbying Israel on the transfer of goods from Gaza to the west bank. We want an increase in the fisheries zone from six miles to the 20 miles that was in the Oslo peace accords. We want further movement of people out of Gaza at some of the crossing points that I mentioned. We also want Israel involved in longer-term strategic measures such as power, water and exports.

I have personally lobbied Federica Mogherini. She and others in the European Union could promote the idea of getting the marina working. Let us have an umbilical cord going from Gaza to the EU via Cyprus, which is secure, with the agreement of the Israelis. Such an EU contribution would be very helpful indeed. Unfreezing the tax revenues, which are causing such problems with funding at the moment, would also help.

We are lobbying the Palestinians. We are certainly disappointed about the political stalemate between Fatah and Hamas, and we would encourage the Palestinian Authority to increase their footprint in Gaza. It does require their being able to get there, so we call on

Israelis to allow the movement of people, particularly the politicians, to be able to exert their leverage. We are also emphasising the need to resume talks on a long-term ceasefire to achieve stabilisation.

Egypt plays a crucial role. We want to facilitate the contacts towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. We want Egypt to resume its important role in hosting the talks that began in Cairo.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am afraid I will not give way. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands why.

In the short time that I have left, I will try to respond to some of the points that were made. Richard Burden took a step back and talked about the general plight of what is going on in Gaza. What we see is a tragedy in one of the most populated areas of the world, with 57% of the population suffering food insecurity and 80% reliant on aid. Such numbers suggest that that is exactly where terrorism can be incubated, when so many people are so poor. It must be in everybody’s interest to make sure that we tackle that.

Mr Ward talked about events that are no longer on our television screens. He is right to say that. They are not on TV at the moment, but we do not want to go around this buoy again. We do not want to see another Operation Cast Lead or another Operation Protective Edge. We do not want to see such conflicts again. Yet, what we are not seeing on our TV screens—this has been illustrated today—is the tunnels being built, the salaries not being paid and the taxes not being collected. It also seems that settlements are still being built. We have seen on previous occasions that those ingredients could be leading us into a very dangerous place. We need to recognise that and work together to prevent repeating history.

Dame Anne McGuire talked about funding, which I have touched on. It is important to get the funding streams working. The UN representative talked about the re-arming and dangerous developments that are taking place. I met Nabil Elaraby, Secretary-General of the Arab League, last week in Washington.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I will give the Minister two seconds to finish, or we can come back after the Division.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I would like to say so much, but I am being denied. I hope we can continue this debate. I thank hon. Members for their contributions.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.