I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I place on record my thanks to the Chairman of Ways and Means, who allowed this debate to be facilitated before the House goes into recess.
The situation in Gaza for its 1.8 million residents is nothing short of inhumane, but before I turn to some of the specific concerns of many in Gaza and the wider Palestinian community, I want to comment briefly on the events of the last two months, which cannot possibly be divorced from the broader realities facing Palestinians.
The brutal response to the protests on the Gaza border during the last two months are a mark of shame on a deadlocked international community, giving succour to an Israeli Government acting with a lethal culture of impunity. That, I am afraid, has been exacerbated by the feeble response of our own Government, whose voice carries weight yet has been barely audible, and of course by the disgraceful comments and actions of President Trump.
The violence at the Gaza border since
It is vital for the credibility of the international system that there is an urgent, independent, UN-led investigation into these grave violations of international law. The UK Government’s decision to abstain in the Security Council vote was therefore shameful. Last Tuesday, the Minister assured the House that he endorsed calls for an international, independent and transparent inquiry into the appalling events unfolding in Gaza, yet when the UN Human Rights Council resolved on Friday to set up a commission of inquiry to undertake precisely that, the UK failed to join 29 partner countries and abstained in the vote. The Government alleged that the Human Rights Council resolution was “partial and unhelpfully unbalanced”. Let me repeat the remit of the inquiry: it is to investigate
“all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law”, and the resolution called on Israel and “all relevant parties” to co-operate fully—that includes Hamas and other Palestinian bodies.
The Government have called for the Israeli authorities to conduct their own so-called independent inquiry, but the Israeli Government have already made clear what they think of the incidents on the Gaza border. Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, has described Israel’s response as “surgical”, and the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed that there are “no innocent people” in the Gaza strip. Such an inquiry by the Israeli Government could not be independent and would have no credibility in the international community.
We should all agree that the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Gaza is abhorrent. We need to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people at this time. While I agree with my hon. Friend on a UN-led inquiry, does she agree that a two-state solution is the only solution to the conflict and that we should be impressing that on all parties?
I agree. It remains Labour party policy, and indeed Government policy, to support a two-state solution, which is the only way forward for Israel and Palestine.
I know that Government policy and Labour party policy is a two-state solution, but I am increasingly concerned about how that could work practically on the ground. That makes me think we will have to find another way—perhaps a one-state solution, with everyone equal. I do not know, but the two-state solution becomes increasingly impossible as those tentacles of settlements go into places such as Area C in the west bank.
Of course, I understand hon. Members’ and indeed wider society’s concerns about the two-state solution and their frustration about its achievement, but I do not see a one-state solution as a possibility— I do not envisage that ever being acceptable to Israel. From conversations I have had with the Israeli Government and Israelis, it seems unacceptable from their perspective. However, I will make a little progress, if I may.
On the unacceptability of an Israeli-led inquiry, I ask the Minister: what does it say about the upholders of a rules-based international order that one of its principal architects, the UK, would allow the alleged perpetrators of violations of international law to conduct the investigation themselves? It makes an utter mockery of the international order. When repressive regimes the world over look at the actions of the democratic Israeli Government and the muted international condemnation, it is little wonder that they think, “Anything goes.” What more evidence do the Government need to support calls for an independent investigation and to uphold that international order? The UN experts have been very clear.
The basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials require law enforcement officials to refrain from using lethal force on demonstrators “unless strictly unavoidable” to protect their own or others’ lives. Their safety must be in actual danger. Those are the words of the independent UN. So my first ask of the Minister is, will he confirm what wording the Government would support in a UN resolution, and is the UK actively pushing for a more acceptable form of wording at the UN?
The direct and immediate humanitarian consequence of the Israeli security forces’ actions has been on hospitals in Gaza. Even prior to this series of protest-related mass-casualty events, Gaza’s health system was, according to the World Health Organisation, already
“on the brink of collapse”.
A medic who spoke to Medical Aid for Palestinians said that the types and numbers of injuries
“would overwhelm any European hospital and be classified as a ‘major incident’, let alone a local hospital in Gaza with a shortage of disposables and man power for this kind of injury.”
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on the need for a proper international reaction to Gaza’s humanitarian emergency. Does she share my concern that hospitals in Gaza were seeking to deal with an incredibly serious issue yet did not even have some of the basic supplies that would be needed? Gauze, syringes and surgical gowns were all running out. Does she agree that we have a duty as part of the international community to ensure not only that there is not a repeat of the bloodshed but, as Medical Aid for Palestinians has called for, that Gaza’s health sector is supported to develop in line with the needs of its residents?
I could not agree more. The health system in Gaza has long been under extreme pressure and on the brink of collapse, but now the medicines and materials needed to treat the wounded are dwindling. My hon. Friend mentioned several of those, and even saline solution is in short supply.
In fact, there is another aspect to all of this. I visited Gaza when I first visited Palestine about 10 years ago, and I saw the rudimentary hospital conditions there at that time—goodness knows how they must be now. However, if I wanted to go back, I would not be able to, because it is next to impossible for parliamentarians from the United Kingdom to get into Gaza. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Minister could do something about that, and that that would help us all in this situation?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on opening the debate. She is right to highlight the acute pressure on the health services in Gaza in relation to physical health. Of course, there is also a long-term mental health crisis in both Gaza and the wider region—including Israel—for people who are living constantly in the shadow of this terrible conflict. Does my hon. Friend agree that we also have a responsibility to ensure that those mental health needs are properly cared for?
Absolutely. The ongoing psychosocial, as well as physiological, implications of the woundings around the protest and of continued life under the blockade and the occupation cast a very long shadow for the entire Palestinian people. I believe Save the Children did a recent survey of children in Gaza and found that a very high percentage of teenagers were bed-wetting due to continued trauma.
According to WHO estimates, 11% of people injured since the start of the demonstrations risk developing a permanent disability. That is more than 1,000 people who will be permanently disabled, putting further pressure on the health system.
I apologise that a prior speaking engagement means I cannot stay for the whole debate, although I will try to return. My hon. Friend makes an important point in setting out the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Does she agree that that situation legitimately demands protest—that it is legitimate to protest against it, regardless of the responsibility of Hamas or others for stoking the protests? Does she agree that the failure of the Israeli Government to allow and enable peaceful protest is not only causing the mental health issues, but ensuring that the situation grows worse and that there seems to be no other way but violent protest?
All of us—every person in this world—has a fundamental human right to peaceful protest. Is it any wonder that ordinary people living in Gaza want to go and exercise that right, given the situation and the lives they are living?
Yes. The illegal blockade and the continuing occupation of Gaza by the Israeli Government are a fundamental part of the issue facing Gaza.
If our Government are unwilling or unable to put pressure on the Israeli Government to ease some of the causes of the humanitarian situation, we have a responsibility to the Palestinian people to address some of the symptoms that I have laid out today. The Government have committed £1.9 million in funding to UNICEF through the humanitarian fund of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. However, answers to written questions suggest that the Government will not be renewing support to that fund. OCHA is renewing calls for urgent support for its humanitarian funds to meet the desperate humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip. Can the Minister commit to renewing support to that fund? The immediate medical needs in Gaza are dire, and the sheer number of injuries alone will require long-term support. It is surely unjustifiable to withdraw support at this time.
The recent mass-casualty event has only exacerbated a whole-system collapse in Gaza. As I mentioned earlier, I visited Israel and Palestine in February this year, with my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and Mr Seely. We were taken there by the excellent organisations the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestine. We did not visit Gaza, but the situation there cast a long shadow across the rest of the country.
We visited Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem, a charitable hospital that provides healthcare to Palestinians, although they obviously struggle to access it because of restrictions on their travel as a result of checkpoints, the wall and the blockade of Gaza. We saw three newborn babies—triplets—born only days before. They were premature and tiny, in incubators and hooked up so that they could breathe properly. Their mother, a woman who had given birth to three babies only days before, was back in Gaza, having been ordered to leave East Jerusalem—part of Palestine, but annexed by Israel—because she was considered a security threat. She was separated from her newborn triplets.
We met a little boy who had a brain stem tumour and who was waiting to be operated on the next day. He was chatting away and laughing, blowing kisses at my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley and telling her that she was beautiful because she had rosy cheeks. There is an age restriction of 55 years on travel from Gaza, so his great-aunt was with him rather than his parents. He was being operated on the next day, and the surgeon was not hopeful about his chances. He was six years old.
The continued blockade of Gaza since 2005 and the restrictions on travel and trade have undeniably played their part in the horrific situation Gazans live in today. In 2012, the UN warned that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. Unemployment is as high as 45% for men and 80% for women. At least 90% of the water is not fit to drink. The birth rate continues to increase, in the most overpopulated place on earth. Only 40% of the 12,000 houses demolished during the 2014 war have been rebuilt.
For the last three months, families in Gaza have been receiving around two to four hours of electricity per day. Gaza receives electricity from Israel, Egypt and a single power plant near Gaza City. Around 28 MW of electricity are provided to Gaza from Egypt every day, but there are frequent disruptions. The sole power plant in Gaza produces around 60 MW per day. Israel ordinarily provides around 120 MW per day to Gaza, but on
Gaza now has daily blackouts of 18 to 20 hours, meaning that patients who rely on life-saving medical equipment are put at risk on a daily basis, and hospitals generally cannot function at their full capacity to ensure the health and wellbeing of patients. Water desalination facilities have been severely impacted by the lack of electricity. The impact on the hygiene and public health of the population is severe and a matter of grave concern, as sewage water cannot be treated or pumped away from residential areas. Currently, around 80% of Gaza’s shoreline is polluted by untreated sewage, enabling the spread of waterborne diseases.
Is it any wonder, in these conditions, that what the former Prime Minister David Cameron called an “open-air prison” is a hotbed for extremism? The threats from the United States over funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will inevitably mean that half the schools in Gaza funded by the UN will struggle, and children will be sent instead to Hamas-run schools. The humanitarian situation and Israel’s actions are Hamas’s best recruiting tools.
I know the Minister shares my concerns, but we need to step up. We cannot allow the desperate situation of Gazans to continue. Taking action will only serve to quell extremism and weaken Hamas. We need to hear a stronger, louder voice from the UK in the international community. We must bring pressure to bear on the Egyptian Government for their role. We must see UNRWA and OCHA properly funded and, yes, we must consider sanctions if international law continues to be flouted. Most importantly, we must ensure that the blockade is lifted and Gazans are allowed to travel, trade and have access to healthcare. If we do not do everything in our collective power to achieve that, the blood of many more Palestinians and Israelis will be on all our hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, on securing this debate and the powerful way in which she has introduced it. I apologise to hon. Members, the shadow Minister and the Minister: I must get back to my constituency for an engagement later this afternoon, so depending on how long this debate goes on for, I may not be able to stay for the winding-up speeches. I will ask the Minister some questions, and I will avidly read his replies to them in Hansard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, graphically laid out the nightmare that has been unfolding in Gaza—a nightmare that, frankly, we knew was coming. Back in 2012, the United Nations said that life in Gaza would be unliveable by 2020 because of the conditions that my hon. Friend described, but Robert Piper, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian aid and development activities, says:
“that unliveability threshold has been passed quite a long time ago.”
That is the reality of living in Gaza today.
I want to ask the Minister about the UK’s response to that humanitarian crisis, but before I do, I remind hon. Members that perhaps the greatest humanitarian issue of all is the right to life. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,000 injured since
The Minister knows—my hon. Friend repeated this point—of the widespread concern in the House over the United Kingdom’s failure last Friday to support the creation of an independent commission of inquiry by the United Nations Human Rights Council. What is the UK’s position on the HRC’s inquiry, now that it has been set up? Does the United Kingdom now accept the collective decision to create that body, even though it disagreed with it? Will it get behind and support that inquiry, and urge Israel to co-operate with it? If not, is the Minister saying that there is an obligation on member states to get behind collective decisions by the HRC and other UN bodies only if states happen to agree with them? If so, is that right reserved to the United Kingdom, or does he expect all states to exercise it?
Israel announced that it will conduct its own inquiry into the events in Gaza, as my hon. Friend said. Answering the urgent question on Monday, the Minister said that if such an inquiry
“is done solely by the Israeli legislative and judicial system, it is unlikely to carry the sort of confidence that the international community is looking for.”
He was not kidding about that. The United Nations commission of inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict said in 2015 that Israel has a
“lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable”.
B’Tselem, the respected Israeli human rights organisation, said:
“The military’s announcement that the general staff investigation mechanism led by Brig. Gen. Motti Baruch will look into the incidents in which Palestinians were killed, focusing on civilian deaths, is pure propaganda, intended—among other things—to prevent an independent international investigation.”
To address those concerns, which the Minister seems to understand are out there, he told the House on Monday that he believes that the Israeli inquiry
“must have an international element to it.”—[Official Report,
“Must” was used. Has that been put to the Israeli Government? If the Israeli Government accept that there should—must—be an independent international element to the inquiry, what mechanisms does the Minister think should be put in place to monitor that international element, to ensure that it provides transparency and independence, rather than a fig leaf for an “inquiry” that, in reality, is anything but?
What will be the UK’s response if Israel refuses that independent international element? Will the United Kingdom say at that stage that all we are left with is the HRC inquiry, and that we will get behind it? Will the UK argue proactively for another international mechanism? If so, what will that mechanism be? Or will the reality be that, if Israel says no to that international element, and the United Kingdom, United States and Israel absent themselves from the HRC inquiry, accountability will just go by the board? That would underline what both B’Tselem said about the recent events—that Israel is finding a way of avoiding accountability—and what the UN commission of inquiry in 2014 said, with this being another example of Israel’s lamentable record of holding wrongdoers to account. The difference will be that this time, the United Kingdom would be complicit in that process.
The second area of accountability on which I will question the Minister is arms sales. In the past two years, export licences to Israel have been provided for categories of arms and arms components including sniper and assault rifles, pistols, weapon sights, targeting equipment, ammunition for small arms and grenades, smoke canisters, tanks, combat and military helicopters, military support and combat aircraft and civil riot control protection equipment. The consolidated arms export criteria, under which the UK operates, say that licences should not be granted if there is a serious risk that arms or arms components will be used for
“internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”, and that the need
“not to affect adversely regional stability in any significant way” must be considered.
There is widespread concern about whether UK-supplied weapons or components have been used in Gaza. I raised the subject in a written question to the Minister before last week’s events. He told me in his reply that the Government
“do not collect data on the use of equipment after sale.”
I asked the Minister for clarification of that on
“we have looked at all extant licences in relation to Israel.”
He went on to say that
“we have no information to suggest that UK-supplied equipment has been used against protesters.”—[Official Report,
I would like clarity from the Minister on that latter point. Is he saying that weapons or weapons components exported from the UK being used in the recent events in Gaza would constitute a breach of the consolidated criteria? I am also unclear about the Minister’s saying that “extant licences” have been looked at. Is he saying that Ministers have looked to see if any new orders are likely for items covered by those licences, but with no concern about what arms already supplied have been used for? Or is he saying that he is making inquiries about the uses of items already supplied to inform decisions about future licences?
If it is the latter, how is he making those inquiries? Is it simply a question of asking Israel if arms or arms components exported there from the UK have been used in Gaza, or are any other checks being undertaken? I ask because in 2009 the Foreign Office decided that because of misleading statements made by the Israeli Government about such matters, it would no longer regard their word as reliable or sufficient to decide whether to grant an arms export licence. Has the Foreign Office changed its mind about that? Does it now see Israel’s word about the uses to which it puts arms and arms components imports from the UK as reliable enough? If so, what has changed to give the UK more confidence in that word? If the UK still does not see assurances from the Israeli Government as sufficient, what other checks are in place?
Before I close, I will say a couple of words about the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, described. I was encouraged by the Minister’s commitment last week, when he said he was calling on the special representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations
“to bring forward proposals to address the situation in Gaza.”—[Official Report,
I would be grateful if the Minister outlined whether our Government will make any recommendations to go with that call, and if so, what they will be. Will he engage with the Quartet on its proposal to address the water and electricity crisis in Gaza? I would also be interested to hear from the Minister on the likelihood of support for engagement with those processes from other international parties, including Israel.
To follow up on that, the Minister will be aware that in March the White House held a summit on Gaza that UK officials attended, and very little information has come out about that, so I would be grateful if he could outline whether any plan or proposals were discussed at the summit and what, if anything, is likely to come out of it.
I would like to add to the questions that my hon. Friend put to the Minister about the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs humanitarian fund. Last year, £1.9 million was donated to that fund through the UN Children’s Fund. That has been supporting up to 1 million people in Gaza by providing clean water and rehabilitating sanitation facilities. I appreciate the efforts that the Minister put into securing that money.
However, the UN is now calling for an urgent replenishment of the humanitarian fund, because of the deteriorating situation in Gaza—a situation made worse by the cut in funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency from the United States. The pooled fund, which is being replenished now, is being supported by a range of countries, including Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland. However, we have still heard nothing from the UK Government about that. Despite their supporting the fund last year, responses from Ministers to written questions that I have tabled have given no indication at all about whether the Government plan to contribute to the fund this year. Given that the fund is addressing urgent needs in Gaza and that this Minister has said repeatedly—wearing, I guess, his Department for International Development hat, rather than his Foreign Office hat—that his Department stands ready to respond to spikes in need, will he accept that we are seeing a very obvious spike in need in Gaza, and will he give us a clear indication today of whether the UK Government will support the United Nations OCHA humanitarian fund?
I would be very grateful if the Minister could respond to the points I have made when he replies to the debate, and I again apologise if I am not able to be here to hear that reply.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Louise Haigh on securing this important debate. May I add my apologies? Whether I am able to be here for the whole debate will depend on what time it ends. I certainly hope that I can, but if not, I apologise to you, Sir Henry, to the Minister and to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton.
Last week’s tragic events on the Gaza border underline the need for urgent action to address the plight of the Palestinian people. In the past decade, Gaza has endured three wars. Ending the spiral of violence requires us to tackle the toxic cocktail of hopelessness and desperation that underpins it. As Labour Friends of Israel set out in its pledge for Gaza earlier this year, we need a multifaceted approach, with political, diplomatic and economic strands.
First, Israel should lead an international effort to assist with the economic revitalisation of Gaza. That should utilise its burgeoning relationships in the Arab world—something that Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli Labour party, suggested last week that Benjamin Netanyahu has singularly failed to do. In February, Israel presented an international conference with a list of infrastructure projects in Gaza that it would like donors to fund, and offered to provide technical support and know-how. Those projects included installing a new high-voltage line that would double the amount of electricity that Israel supplies to Gaza; laying a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza; and building a sewage purification plant. I urge Israel to go further and urgently consider the plans, first presented by the Labour member of the Knesset Omer Barlev in 2014 and since discussed by Ministers, for a seaport on an artificial island off the Gaza coast that would both ease the flow of goods into the strip and meet Israel’s legitimate security requirements.
Secondly, the international community should honour the reconstruction pledges made at the Cairo conference in 2014. Britain, the US and our European partners have done so, but Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have thus far failed to meet their obligations. World Bank figures show disbursement ratios of significantly less than 50%.
Thirdly, the Palestinian Authority’s control over Gaza must be reasserted. Previous efforts to secure a reconciliation agreement have foundered, and the PA’s misguided attempts to exert pressure—for instance by cutting the supply of electricity to Gaza—have simply added to the suffering of the Gazan people. I commend Egypt for its attempts to re-establish the PA’s authority in Gaza and urge a new, more imaginative and less blunt effort by President Abbas’s Administration.
Finally, the root of Gaza’s problems lays in the brutal rule of Hamas. It has deprived the people of their civil rights, including their right to new elections. It has used Gaza as a base from which to launch terrorist and rocket attacks on Israel and, as the Red Crescent made clear last year, shown callous disregard for the lives of the Gazan people.
I will not, because there is time for hon. Members to make a contribution should they so wish and should you call them, Sir Henry.
Hamas has spent Gaza’s resources arming itself and preparing for war. Indeed, it is estimated that the cement used for the 32 Hamas tunnels that Israel uncovered at the outset of the 2014 conflict could have built two hospitals, 20 clinics, 20 schools or two nurseries. As well as restocking its arsenal of weaponry, Hamas has used the past four years to rebuild its terror tunnels, placing them underneath apartment blocks, schools and the Kerem Shalom crossing—the main route into Gaza for humanitarian aid. The Oslo accords require the demilitarisation of the Palestinian territories. President Abbas demands the principle of “one state, one government, one gun”. The international community must take action to stop the flow of weapons to Hamas and to assist in its disarmament.
I have had the pleasure of visiting on a number of occasions the Nir Oz kibbutz on the Gaza border. Its brave and resourceful people live under the constant threat of Hamas rocket attack and have suffered terribly in the past. However, they bear the people of Gaza no ill will; they wish for them only the peace and security that they wish for themselves and their children. Their attitude should be an example to us all as we strive for an end to violence, and the pursuit of co-existence, reconciliation and, yes, a two-state solution as the only route to a lasting peace for Israel and Palestine.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this very important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Louise Haigh on securing it.
I do not want to repeat the statistics that have already been referred to, but I think that we need to look dispassionately at the evidence of the unfolding catastrophe that we are witnessing in Gaza. I would like to echo the comments of other Members. My experience when I was part of a delegation to the occupied territories was that we were not able to effect entry into Gaza. I appeal to the Minister to try to make representations to the Israeli Government to ensure that that is possible.
According to Oxfam, at least 80% of the population in Gaza rely on humanitarian aid to survive. It is clear that many—in fact, nearly all—of the key industries were destroyed during the three military interventions, and as a consequence more than 60% of Gazan youth are unemployed. I understand that that is the highest rate in the world.
My right hon. Friend Joan Ryan referred to the actions of Hamas. Clearly, Opposition Members and, I think, Members across the whole House condemn violent actions. In truth, the Gaza blockade began long before Hamas came to power in Gaza. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that it started with Israel cancelling the general exit permit out of the Gaza strip in 1991. To suggest that the current situation in Gaza is down to Hamas alone does not fit into the facts or the realities on the ground. Gaza has been accurately described as a vast open prison, a strip of territory hermetically sealed from the outside world by Israel and Egypt. Since 2007, Israel has repeatedly attacked fisherman off the Gazan coast. A number have been killed and more than 30 injured in recent years as a result of the policy of restricting the distance from the coast that the Gazan fisherman are allowed to fish to between three and six nautical miles.
The irony is that Gaza does potentially have some natural resources and some opportunity to trade, not least the quite extensive gas reserves that have been discovered off the coast, with an estimated value of $4 billion. Israel’s military completely destroyed Gaza’s seaports in 2002 and its airport in 2001. That prevents Palestinians from engaging in direct trade with the outside world. Palestinians are barred from using about 20% of their own land space, as this is kept as a buffer zone, which Israel maintains as a kill zone, whereby Palestinians risk death if they dare to enter the area near the Gaza fence.
Not a single rocket has been fired from Gaza in the last two months, yet Israel, as we have seen, has used lethal violence against Palestinians in Gaza, while the Israelis are claiming to be the victims. I saw figures relating to the recent short period in May, which showed that 68 Palestinians were killed. Israel has multiple non-lethal methods of addressing civilian protests, and it uses them frequently. It has much expertise in such methods. Indeed, it sells them to the rest of the world. In the opinion of many, shooting live ammunition into mass, dense protests—indeed, any protest—is a war crime, and there must be repercussions. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have indicated, there must be an independent international investigation into these events. The use of live ammunition must be the very last resort and can only ever be justified where there is proven immediate threat to life and not under any other circumstance.
In Gaza, 95% of the water is undrinkable. There are between two and four hours of electricity a day, on average. There is at least 45% unemployment, and over half of the children are suffering acute mental stress. A very large percentage are suffering acute anaemia, presumably as a consequence of the unsafe drinking water. Over the half the population in Gaza are refugees from places within short journeys just outside the strip, in Israel. According to Jason Cone, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, most of the wounded patients in Gaza felt that they had no hope, nothing to lose and no jobs. They told medical staff that they were willing to go back and die at the protest sites. Many wounded protesters were returning to the demonstrations with casts, on crutches and with external fixators holding together their shattered bones.
The level of violence, with the throwing of stones and petrol bombs and other such activities, did not reach the stage that would justify the hostilities threshold, and therefore the use of live rounds should be limited to non-lethal law enforcement methods. Israeli police have used violent repression against Palestinian citizens in Israel protesting against the Gaza violence, even breaking the leg of one protestor and arresting scores of others. The only way we can alleviate the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza is simply for Israel to lift the blockade and allow Gaza to have a viable electricity supply, clean drinking water for the population, access to decent medical supplies, a fully functioning sewage system and freedom of movement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I welcome this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend Louise Haigh on securing it. It gives us the opportunity to discuss what has been happening in Gaza.
I have been contacted by more than 800 constituents since Monday of last week, when, as we have been reminded, 60 people died in protests in Gaza and 2,771 were injured, 1,359 of them by live ammunition. The protests, which had been building up over a period of weeks, were provoked in part by the reckless decision of the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. I regret that that decision was taken and has been put into effect. It was predicted what would happen if that decision was taken, and that is precisely what has happened.
There are a variety of views about the right and wrongs of what happened in Gaza on Monday last week. I want to quote Human Rights Watch, whose judgments are broadly accepted as fair. It summarises:
“Israel has a right to defend its borders, but shooting unarmed protesters who haven’t breached its frontier is disproportionate and illegal.”
I think that most of us would share that conclusion on the rights and wrongs of what happened.
My hon. Friend referred to the culpability of Hamas in all of this, and was absolutely right to do so. To pursue that point further, I will again quote Human Rights Watch on the contribution of Hamas to events last week. It said:
“Certainly Hamas has supported the protests in Gaza, where its control is palpable. Criticism of Hamas rule can be punishable by arrest and torture, as Human Rights Watch has documented. Hamas reviews the sermons at Gaza’s mosques, and those sermons now tell worshipers to join the demonstrations at the Gaza border. On ordinary days, Hamas police officers prevent demonstrators from coming within 1,000 feet of the border fence inside Gaza, the distance that Israel has declared to be a ‘no go zone.’ Since March 30, Hamas has allowed protesters through and hired buses to transport people to the demonstrations.”
Like my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, I affirm Hamas’s culpability in what is happening, but those observations underline the strength of Human Rights Watch’s conclusion that what happened on the part of the Israeli army was nevertheless disproportionate and illegal.
I visited Gaza a long time ago—13 years ago—with Christian Aid to look at the situation. At that time, it was very, very grim. I remember meeting families who could not get basic healthcare for their children, farmers whose everyday livelihood was being interfered with by petty restrictions and difficulties of one sort or another, and other people, such as a student on holiday from university who was stuck at the border crossing for a week and unable to go home, where she had hoped to spend her vacation. There were endless indignities and problems.
That was 13 years ago, and the position today is vastly worse. Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power in Gaza, has primary responsibility for meeting the humanitarian needs of Palestinians, but the position is dire. We have already been reminded that in 2012, the United Nations forecast that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. In July, it published an update to that view. In his foreword, Robert Piper, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian aid and development activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said that
“life for the average Palestinian in Gaza is getting more and more wretched.”
The report continued:
“Reviewing the indicators which in 2012 led the UN to question whether Gaza would become ‘unliveable’ by 2020, it is clear that very little progress has been made” in the intervening five years, and said:
“Despite the warnings issued by the UN in 2012, Gaza has continued on its trajectory of de-development”.
When I visited 13 years ago the position was grim, but a couple of years later the blockade began. It has been in place for more than 10 years. According to the UN’s July report, in that period GDP has fallen by half; unemployment has reached an extraordinarily high level, with youth unemployment at about 60%, as we have heard; and access to safe drinking water through the public water network has plummeted from 98.3% in 2000 to 10.5% in 2014.
Other hon. Members have referred to the daily blackouts in the electricity supply and the strain on the health service. I will say a bit about that latter point, because I vividly remember meeting families who could not get access to basic healthcare. The World Health Organisation reports that in 2017, the number of permits issued by Israel for Palestinians to leave Gaza to access healthcare reached a record low. The proportion of those who applied who actually got a permit was 54%, the lowest since the World Health Organisation started to keep the figures in 2008. The WHO made the point:
“There has been a continuous decline in approval rates since 2012,” when 93% were successful. It also reported that in 2017, 54 Palestinians died following the denial of a permit or a delay in issuing a permit. Of those, 46 had cancer. It is very difficult to understand why people who need urgent cancer treatment are being denied permits to leave Gaza to obtain it.
Another problem that people in Gaza have to contend with is a basic lack of calories. In the assessment I referred to earlier about what is going on in Gaza, Human Rights Watch said:
“Until 2010, Israel counted the number of calories that Gaza residents would be allowed to consume, sorted by age and gender, and then used mathematical formulas to restrict the amount of food entering Gaza to no more than what…officials deemed necessary.”
That was defended as
“‘economic warfare’ aimed at weakening Hamas by restricting supplies to residents of Gaza and halting production and trade. It had the opposite effect. Faced with these shortages, the Hamas regime in Gaza consolidated power, handing out food and cash to the poor, hiring the unemployed as public servants, and opening a lucrative trading system via tunnels underneath the border with Egypt.”
We all dearly want to see a two-state solution—a secure Israel alongside an autonomous and independent Palestinian state—but we can all see that time is running out for achieving that solution. I genuinely do not know what the Israeli Government think the long-term solution will be, but the viability of a two-state solution is being continually eroded by the establishment of settlements pepper-potting Palestine. It is increasingly difficult to see how what appears to be the only possible secure and peaceful outcome can be achieved.
I will finish by underlining the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, and others, including my hon. Friend Richard Burden, asked and pressing the Minister on whether the British Government will contribute again to the Occupied Palestinian Territories humanitarian fund. I welcome the fact that we contributed to it last year, and the need for it seems as compelling as ever. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether, as I hope, the British Government will contribute again this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. Monday
This is, of course, an emotional debate. It has touched us here, and it has touched my constituents. At times last week, I was receiving emails at a rate of more than one a minute. My constituents are angry and upset about what happened, and so am I. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to represent that anger, but we also need to think seriously about what happened and what a meaningful response might look like, so I thank my hon. Friend Louise Haigh for securing the debate. As we heard again this afternoon, she is a powerful, articulate and passionate advocate for the causes she takes up.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I do not defend or dispute the disgraceful conduct of Hamas. They waved swastikas in the protests, which was a simply awful thing to do. They supplied maps to protesters, with directions to homes in the nearest Jewish communities. They spread downright lies about breaches in the fence, manipulating protesters and encouraging them to run towards the heavily armed and fortified fence. They have also claimed that 50 of the 60 people who died on
However, I think that most of us can agree that the response of the Israeli Government was massively disproportionate. I think it came from a legacy of seeing the people of Gaza as nothing more than a security threat and shamefully denying their humanity, their rights and the conditions in which they have been living. In every so-called “Gaza war”, we have seen civilians being treated like enemy soldiers. It is a systemic problem.
The testimony of one Israeli defence force officer, given to the Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence in 2014, is a stark example of that. He said:
“The rules of engagement are anything inside”— that is, inside the Gaza strip—
“is a threat, the area has to be ‘sterilized’, empty of people—and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming, ‘I give up’…then he’s a threat and there’s authorization to open fire”.
The interviewer asked the officer:
“When you say open fire, what does that mean?”
The officer replied:
“Shooting to kill. This is combat in an urban area, we’re in a war zone. The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’”
“There are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip…Everyone’s connected to Hamas.”
There is plenty more like that. There are similar testimonies describing Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014—the repeated bloody episodes that have marked the blockade of the Gaza strip, which has now been going on for more than 10 years.
Again and again, we hear reports of the devastation of life in Gaza, which, in my view, often amounts to war crimes. We are told that such action is legitimate self-defence, but we need to say loudly and clearly that self-defence does not allow free rein to kill, to destroy property and infrastructure, and to effectively enact collective punishment of a people. Avi Dichter, chair of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee, said that Israel’s security forces
“won’t let anyone put soldiers, and certainly not civilians, in danger”.
Then he said:
“The IDF has enough bullets for everyone.”
He said that last Monday, while the death count was still rising.
Again and again, security is linked with deadly, disproportionate attacks on civilians. I want to add my voice to that of my hon. Friend Richard Burden when he called for a suspension of the export of arms to Israel. I cannot see that there is any justification for us to continue those exports.
Security was the excuse for Myanmar’s attacks on the Rohingya people. Security is also the excuse for the attacks on the Kurds, who are our allies in the fight against Daesh, and who I feel this Government have abandoned. And, for many years now, security has been used as an excuse for what can only be described as collective punishment in Gaza.
As my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has already said, when the blockade began, Israeli defence officials calculated the bare minimum of food needed to avoid malnutrition in Gaza. Surely that was not necessary for security. As my right hon. Friend also said, 54 Palestinians died last year waiting for travel permits, which they needed to receive life-saving medical care outside the Gaza strip. Surely that was not necessary for security. Now in Gaza, as we have heard, there are about four hours of electricity each day; between 90% and 97% of the water is contaminated, mainly by sewage; food is scarce; 80% of people are dependent on foreign aid; and, for some children, breakfast is a cup of hot water with a sprinkle of salt. Is that what security has to look like?
The people of Gaza have nothing, so they have absolutely nothing to lose. Omar Ghraieb, a journalist and blogger in the Gaza strip, said in January:
“Despair isn’t even the right word to describe what’s going on here because things are getting worse and worse”.
Many of the protesters knew that they risked their lives by going to the demonstration last Monday, because the IDF had considerately dropped leaflets to tell them so, but many thousands of people protested peacefully anyway. I think that the protesters’ decision to attend a demonstration when they had been told that doing so would put their lives at risk speaks volumes. They had faith in their future as a nation, but they no longer had hope for themselves individually.
I have to tell the Minister, who knows—I hope—that I hold him in really high regard, that we have reached an absurd situation. We have always said that a decision on the status of Jerusalem would be postponed until it could be part of a negotiated peace. Now the city has effectively been recognised as the Israeli capital by the United States, which is arguably the most powerful country in the world. The United States has seemingly made a unilateral decision on behalf of us all.
I do not think that we can allow this reckless US diplomacy, for want of a better word, to represent the international community, because it clearly does not. In the other place, the International Relations Committee has recommended “serious consideration” of the recognition of the state of Palestine, so I have considered it, and it seems to me that this is the kind of important, pivotal moment when recognising a Palestinian state would do meaningful good.
I do not believe that there has ever been a more urgent need to recognise Palestine. Is there a more opportune moment waiting for us just round the corner? I have been observing and speaking about this situation for years, and a realistic peace process seems to be getting more remote. I honestly think that we need to recognise Palestine now, so that these two historic nations can work towards a shared future together, and so that the people of Gaza can imagine a better future for themselves and their children. I do not believe that prevaricating about when we should do this remains a viable option. The status quo in Gaza is no longer an option. The time is now.
It is a real pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last November, I travelled to the west bank as a guest of Medical Aid For Palestinians, which does excellent work not just in the west bank but in Gaza. I am grateful to it, to Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, Palestine Briefing, and of course the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend Richard Burden, for the briefings that they have provided for the debate.
We have the rare privilege of time this afternoon. I do not intend to abuse that, for once, and I will not repeat the excellent speeches that have already been made, not least that of my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, who gave a superb introduction to this subject. I congratulate her on securing this debate from the Chairman of Ways and Means.
I hope that this debate gives the Minister time to answer questions at greater length than is normally possible in Question Time or during statements in the Chamber. I do not want to butter him up, but he has immense knowledge of his brief and thinks about it in a considered way. Let me put it this way: Opposition Members are always very indignant when junior Ministers turn up when Secretaries of State should be there, but I never hear that in the case of the Foreign Office. However, there could be two reasons for that. I will leave it at that.
Rather than going through the facts and figures we have heard—they are important—I will give my impression from my visits to Gaza. I first went nearly 10 years ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield. We went through Erez from Israel in 2009. I think we were probably the last parliamentary delegation that was allowed in. A couple of years later, I had an exciting fast drive with the military across Sinai to Rafah with my hon. Friend Ms Buck and Lord Steel. I wish I had been able to go to Gaza since then. I have been to the west bank several times since, but I do not believe it is possible to go to Gaza now. I think Sinai is too dangerous at the moment. Can the Minister address whether we can get Israel to allow, in addition to the visits it allows from humanitarian organisations, parliamentary delegations to visit?
The visit I made at the beginning of 2009, which was less than three weeks after the conclusion of the first war on Gaza in recent years—Operation Cast Lead—was the most traumatic experience I have ever had. The only thing I can think of that compares with it is Grenfell last year, and that was not an intentional act and was on a much smaller scale, although it was much closer to home. Some of the things I saw there were utterly horrific and barely describable. I met survivors in families in which 20 or 30 members had been killed. Some had been killed by sniper fire. Others had been killed by more severe weapons of war, such as jets, gunboats and tanks.
What really made an impression on me was visiting hospitals that had been shelled by tanks. We visited industrial estates and villages that had been completely razed to the ground. We saw mosques, other public buildings and the Parliament, which had been deliberately destroyed. I visited a garden in the hospital that had been funded by DFID where phosphorous—illegal weaponry—was still smoking three weeks later. Those are war crimes. They are breaches of international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention, but Israel commits such breaches every day.
In three wars on Gaza—not just Protective Edge, which was the most recent in 2014, but Pillar of Defence in 2012 and Cast Lead—more than 5,000 Palestinians died. Most of them were civilians, and many were children. That is a consequence of waging war on a very densely populated civilian area. Obviously those wars were far more severe than what has happened in recent weeks, but we saw what happened in recent weeks. Often we do not see what happens in Gaza as a result of bombing and shelling, or we can only bear witness to it afterwards. Some 53% of injuries between the end of March and the middle of May were by live fire—the majority. We saw people a long way back from the border being picked off by sniper fire, and weaponry being used that maimed and permanently maimed. That is not accidental; it is a deliberate strategy. Even if one accepted a need for Israel to use force in the circumstances, I do not believe for a moment that that type of force or that type of weaponry or live fire needed to be used. That is what is so outrageous.
According to the Medical Aid for Palestinians briefing, 238 health personnel were injured in that period. Some 38 ambulances were damaged and 16 medical workers were hit by live ammunition. One was killed. That is targeting, as often happens, of medical and relief facilities, which again is illegal. That is the situation we find ourselves in. The counter-briefing about it all being Hamas people and so forth does not explain those facts.
We need to remind ourselves of certain basic facts in relation to Gaza. First, as the UK Government acknowledge, Gaza is still under occupation. Even though there was a withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops to the border of Gaza, it is, under international law, considered to be under occupation because it is completely constrained.
The point is often made by supporters of the Israeli Government that although Israel withdrew, that did not solve the problem. The motivation for withdrawal, given what has since happened with the wars and blockade, was less to do with the withdrawal of relatively small numbers of settlers—certainly as compared with what has happened in the west bank—than it was about demography. It is about Israel having its cake and eating it. As Bob Stewart said, Israel does not want a one-state solution, but it makes a two-state solution impossible, so the compromise is the creation of these Bantustans like Gaza. That is what withdrawal from Gaza is about: it is about isolating almost 2 million Palestinians so that they do not count, and do not raise questions about why they do not get a vote and why a one-state solution is not possible.
I would like to hear from the Minister on some issues, if he has time to address them. The march and the demonstrations were primarily about the right to return. That issue is not often addressed by the British or other Governments because of the other more pressing matters, but it is a real concern. The vast majority of the population of Gaza are refugees from ’48, or possibly from ’67 more recently, or from elsewhere. What is our policy on that? It is one of the final status matters that has to be addressed. That is a specific issue that is being raised here. In what Palestinians refer to as Nakba, 700,000-plus people were forced to leave their home or fled in terror. They want to know what the solution is to that issue. It is a perfectly reasonable request to make, but it is one that is not addressed.
The more immediate problem that we often address is the blockade, the imprisonment of 1.8 million people in this open prison, and the act of collective punishment, which is clearly what this is. My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms gave the example of the rationing of food, bringing people down to starvation levels to put pressure on the Government. That is a clear indication of that collective punishment. What is the UK Government’s response to that punishment continuing—and accelerating because of the effect on water and sewage systems, and the cumulative effect of this having gone on for a decade or more? What are we doing to help the peace process, and the process of Palestinian unity?
I have no more time for Hamas than anyone else who has spoken. It did win a free and fair election in 2006, but its conduct since then has placed it beyond the pale. There has not been the opportunity to have an election since then, and Israel’s active co-operation is needed for that to happen. Of course the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, Hamas and the other parties also need to enable that to happen—that is not impossible with international support—but Israel is the key, as are the attitudes that we and other EU countries take. Elections would be an important step forward—one that we do not hear much about.
Earlier this week, I raised the issue of human rights organisations. In response, the Minister said he thought I had made my mind up on the issue. I referred to the case of Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch in Israel and Palestine, whom I met last year when I was over there. He is a well respected, hard-working individual in the international human rights community, but he is threatened with deportation. Yesterday, a court granted an injunction to allow him to stay in Israel until proceedings have completed. That is good news, and it is right that we recognise that an Israeli court made that decision, but I do not agree with the Minister that there is nothing the Government can do in such cases. Other Governments have raised concerns about that.
If I have made up my mind about this, it is on the basis of evidence. The organisations that we meet, both here and when we are over there—B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and Israeli human rights organisations; Palestinian organisations, inlcuding al-Haq, and international organisations such as Amnesty International —are constantly under pressure from the Israeli Government and parts of the Israeli establishment in a way that they have not been before. They are made enemies in their own country. We have to support them not just financially, by encouragement, and by meeting them and listening to them, but by taking up their case, because they do extraordinary good work and are instrumental in trying to bring communities together.
I make no apologies for raising the issue that we always raise: recognition, which my hon. Friend Lyn Brown mentioned. It is difficult to see, given not just the vote in Parliament but the facts on the ground, why the UK Government will not recognise the state of Palestine. The answer given is: “We don’t believe it’s the right time.” I would like the Minister to say why he does not think it is the right time, and what indicators might lead us to suggest that it is the right time.
Settlements are a huge part of the problem, and not just because they are a form of colonisation. With settlements come the whole infrastructure of occupation—the wall, checkpoints and everything like that—which then need security, for the protection of the settlers. I am not talking about boycott, divestment and sanctions. I have never been a particular supporter of BDS because it is a blunt weapon. We should address the specific issues where Israel has got it wrong, and where we have got it wrong. One is on recognition; another is on trading with settlements.
I cannot for the life of me understand why, given that—as we repeat constantly—settlements are illegal under international law, we say that it is a matter of choice for people in the UK to buy settlement goods. Settlement goods should not be available, and British companies that support settlements, financially or otherwise, should not be doing so. Those would be good steps, along with those already mentioned. I cannot better what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, said about arms, an issue that he has looked into. Where atrocities have been committed—as they are being at the moment—including during the wars on Gaza, we should not have supplied arms to the Israelis. I accept that Israel is an ally and a friendly country to us in many ways, but we have to be tough with our friends sometimes. I cannot see why we continue to do that.
The issue at the bottom of this is always the occupation. This is a 60-year occupation, which is very unusual, even in what is an incredibly dangerous and quite horrific world at the moment, given the many things that are happening. It is a matter of shame to the international community that we have not done more to address it. What causes most difficulty for those of us who advocate for the Palestinians is that there is very little recognition by Government of the inequality of arms. It has to be, “Yes, 5,000 Palestinians have been killed, but some Israelis have been killed as well.” Of course every single death is a tragedy, but I was struck by the column that Gideon Levi wrote in Haaretz this week, in which he posed the question: what would happen if it was the other way around? What would happen if 60 Israelis had been killed while the Palestinians were celebrating a music festival and opening an embassy in Ramallah? I think there would have been extraordinary international outcry. I cannot bear the double standard.
There is so much to admire about the state of Israel and everything that it has done in that time, but its treatment of the Palestinians is a stain, and is something that we should not shy away from, but confront. If the Minister were able to put a bit more flesh on the bones of these issues than is normally possible, we would all be very grateful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few brief things in this timely debate, which I congratulate Louise Haigh on securing. I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I serve as a member of the advisory board of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, which funded a trip that I made last year to the west bank, along with Medical Aid for Palestinians.
I will not repeat the excellent points that have been made in this afternoon’s debate. Like Andy Slaughter, I want to allow the Minister as much time as possible to respond. For the benefit of the record, I concur with everything that has been said about the excessive use of force in recent weeks. We have seen the tragic results of that, and of the incredible situation of the United States opening its embassy in East Jerusalem.
I regret the United Kingdom’s abstention in the United Nations Human Rights Council vote last week. It is a principle of natural justice that nobody should be a judge in their own cause. Even if we thought that Israel could be relied on to conduct an investigation into what has gone on there in recent weeks, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, we should not wish to see that happen, and Israel herself, if she is to respect the norms of international law, should not seek to do so. However, we are where we are.
The Minister put the Government’s position on the record very fully on Monday in answer to an urgent question, but Richard Burden has asked the questions that need to be answered today. What is the view of the United Kingdom Government in relation to the conduct of that Human Rights Council investigation, and what demands will the United Kingdom make of Israel to ensure that there is international and objective input into the investigation that it is to carry out, if that is how it is to be done?
The answers to those questions need to be robust if the position that has been taken by the United Kingdom last week and this week is to have any credibility in the eyes of the international community. Other hon. Members have said that we have a substantial voice on the world’s stage that should be heard and has not been heard, which is a fair comment. That is why it is all the more important that we hear what the United Kingdom is going to do to ensure that it can honour the basis on which it has advanced its position.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith spoke about the position of Omar Shakir, so I do not think that I need to do so, other than simply to say that I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. It would be good to hear from the Minister today what representations we are making to the Israeli Government, because Omar Shakir’s position is a novel one. This is the first occasion on which Israel has used those deportation powers in relation to somebody who is already resident in Israel in accordance with all Israeli law and immigration regulations.
Over the years, I have worked very closely with different groups in my constituency, as well as those with whom I work here. In Orkney, I have a very active group called Orkney Friends of Palestine. Over the years we have built links with agricultural communities on the west bank. Orkney is a farming community, so we understand the issues that they face. When dealing with something of the nature and scale of the situation facing the people in Gaza, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it and to lose sight of the human impact, so the aspect that I want to put to the Minister today is the position of the Gazan fishing industry. I represent Orkney and Shetland, and I am an islander by birth and by choice. One third of Shetland’s economy depends on fishing, so when we consider the position of the Gazan fishing community and industry, we understand just how desperate their situation is, and how the enormous entrepreneurial, self-starting instincts of so many people in Gaza have been constantly thwarted. That is how they become so frustrated and ground down.
Currently, the Israeli Government permits Palestinians to fish up to only six nautical miles from the coast. The Oslo accord says it should be 20 nautical miles. In fact, they have never been allowed to fish beyond 12 nautical miles. B’Tselem reports that the Israeli Government routinely prohibit entry into Gaza of all the normal materials that we would find in every boatyard and every chandler’s shop in Lerwick today. The steel cables, the fibreglass, the spare parts are all denied to the Palestinian fishermen, because, in the view of the Israeli Government, they are dual-use materials.
The scale of oppression is difficult to understand. I ask myself how I would feel if the fishermen of my constituency were denied the opportunity to ply their trade and pursue their lifestyle, because fishing is, of course, more than their occupation—it is a vocation of sorts. On behalf of the Gazan fisherman, I say to the Minister, surely something can be done.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I assume the change of Chair was a planned changeover and that Sir Henry is not bolting just because I was up next.
I congratulate Louise Haigh on securing the debate. Without meaning to be flippant, to get a last-minute debate on the afternoon before recess shows commitment, and I commend her for bringing it forward. The importance of the Gaza humanitarian situation is reflected in the turnout here this afternoon. There have been Back-Bench contributions from seven hon. Members and other interventions in support of them.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley set out the problems well and outlined the scale of the violence, commenting on its disproportionality—there has been only one Israeli soldier injured, compared with all the deaths and injuries for Gaza’s population. She stated that the resolution that the UK Government refused to back is not biased and, correctly, called on them to make clear what wording would be acceptable. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that.
The hon. Lady and other hon. Members highlighted the effects of the illegal blockade and the need for the UK Government to commit to OCHA funding. Overall, it was a powerful speech. She was slightly emotional when talking about her visit to the hospital and her encounter there, which is understandable. It shows the importance of parliamentarians being able to make such visits to get first-hand understanding. I echo the call to see what can be done to allow future parliamentary visits to Gaza, which are currently denied to hon. Members. In her closing remarks, the hon. Lady said that if there was no further action, there would be blood on all our hands. That was a powerful way to end her speech.
I commend Richard Burden for his work as chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group. It does fantastic work and puts on a lot of events that allow people to find out more information. I wish I did not have so many clashes when those events are on, because they always look valuable. He said that the current situation in Gaza is a nightmare—I think that is the correct word—and that it was predicted in 2012. The World Health Organisation predicted that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. We have now reached that tipping point in living conditions. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the basic fundamental human right of the right to life, which has been denied to so many people. The recent deaths underpin just how that philosophy has been eroded completely.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech, summing up all the issues that face civilians in Gaza at the moment. The UN reports that 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is not fit for human consumption and that 60% of the population depend on humanitarian aid. Often, issues such as purified water are missed in the grand scheme of things, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is not a fit way to live and that we must redress the situation?
Yes. Other hon. Members have also made that point. I agree—this is not a way to live. It is a way to control the population, and to do so, frankly, in an inhumane way.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield highlighted Israel’s past failures to have robust inquiries that get to the truth. That is why so many hon. Members are calling for international co-operation and involvement in an inquiry—there is no faith that we will get to the truth of what has happened and the scale of violence that has been perpetrated. He also correctly raised concerns about arms sales and the checks that are required on the sale of weapons from the UK to Israel, a point that other hon. Members reflected on.
Joan Ryan made a balanced speech, although I think she sometimes came at it from the wrong perspective. She highlighted the fact that Israel has presented a raft of infrastructure projects for the international community to fund. Frankly, that is an abdication of Israel’s responsibility. Israel is the occupying force and should be supplying and funding the infrastructure, rather than asking the international community to do so. She also highlighted the possible benefits of the Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas, regaining control of Gaza. I think we would all agree with that, but equally a change in political leadership would be a silver bullet—far more work needs to be done to end the conflict, although I agree with the philosophy that we need an end to the violence.
Grahame Morris highlighted the controls on the Gazan population: the permits issue goes back to 1991 and predates Hamas. It is important to remember that perspective and how long the situation has been building up. He highlighted issues of attacks on Gaza fishermen, as well as the fact that trade opportunities for Gaza have been completely undermined and offset by the destruction of infrastructure, including the seaports. I wholeheartedly agree with that. He also highlighted the impact and scale of the violence, with 1,300 casualties in hospital in one day. We need to remember that the hospitals are already under pressure, and that puts further pressure on hospitals and on aid budgets and exacerbates the downward spiral.
Stephen Timms is one of the few parliamentarians who have been lucky enough to visit Gaza. He discussed the observations of Human Rights Watch on the disproportionate use of violence, as well as Hamas’s involvement in the protests. He also highlighted the effects of the blockade on what he called the de-development of Gaza, which I think is a fair comment, and the issue of exit permits. There is real suffering for people who need urgent healthcare; they are being denied their right to that healthcare and some are dying as a consequence. We really need to appreciate the gravity of the situation for so many of the population.
Lyn Brown highlighted the work of Breaking the Silence and the testimony of a former soldier. I too pay tribute to that organisation for its work. I have met its representatives, and it was a real eye-opener for me; its books and publications would bring tears to the eye. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her speech, and I agree that some of the recent actions should be called war crimes. That is why we need a robust, independent inquiry. There is a general lack of hope for individuals living in Gaza, which exacerbates the current situation.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s call on the need to recognise Palestine. It is time that the UK Government stepped up to the plate on that.
Andy Slaughter has also been lucky enough to visit Gaza. He highlighted just how traumatic that visit was, which again underlines the value of parliamentarians being able to visit and see things at first hand, explain their observations to other people, get the wider population to understand, and then put pressure on the Government. He asked the Minister about the UK Government’s policy on the right to return—again, it will be good to hear the ministerial response—and why the Government continue to say that this is not the time to recognise Palestine. So what are the reasons? We really need to understand them.
The final Back-Bench contribution came from Mr Carmichael. He talked about the inquiry and used the phrase:
“Nobody should be a judge in their own cause”, which underlines the concerns that hon. Members have about how the inquiry will go forward. He also spoke about the persecution of fishermen and was able to relate to the impact it would have on his community if there were similar persecution on the fishermen there.
I have also visited the west bank—I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and I have seen at first hand the controls on the Palestinian population and the security walls and checkpoints. I have visited Bedouin villages where demolitions have occurred and further demolitions are continually threatened. I have seen how natural assets are misappropriated for the use of new settlements to the detriment of the indigenous population. I have visited the village of Khan al-Ahmar, where an aid-built school is constantly under the threat of demolition. That gave me a flavour of what life is like for some Palestinians, but it did not even come close to allowing me to have an understanding of what life is like in Gaza. Obviously, I will not be able to visit Gaza unless the situation changes.
The same Israeli Government tactics mean that people are hemmed in by security barriers and assets are controlled by the Israeli Government. There are fuel and power shortages, and as other hon. Members have said, water plants are unable to operate around the clock and 96% of groundwater is unfit for human consumption. The sewage treatment plants are not operating, 80% of the shoreline is polluted, and there is pressure on hospitals. It really is no wonder that Gaza is labelled an open-air prison. Just recently, the UN Human Rights Commissioner stated that 1.9 million people are imprisoned in Gaza
“from birth to death in a poisonous favela”, which really underlines what international organisations think.
As others have said, Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world, estimated at 44%, and 80% for women. UNICEF estimates that nearly 80% of the population are dependent on international aid. Is it any wonder that there are protests when people live like that? Save the Children analysis has revealed that almost 8,000 people, including 700 children, have been injured in protests since
Israeli campaigners highlight how the settlers have been removed from Gaza and that Gaza is therefore under the control of Palestinians, as though that has been a good move. However, that makes it easier for the Israeli Government to control the Gazan population. People bristle at the term “apartheid”, but if the Gazan population is completely hemmed in, is that not apartheid?
I have also visited the city of Hebron, including an area of the city that Palestinians are not allowed to enter. There are checkpoints to make sure they cannot enter. Again, that can only be apartheid. We need to understand that and not shy away from using such language.
We need the UK Government to step up to the plate. It was shocking that they did not vote for an independent investigation into the killings by the IDF. The UK Government have so far refused to back calls that trade with the illegal settlements should be halted. Such trade clearly gives legitimacy to the settlements, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith identified. The UK Government have also refused to demand compensation for aid-funded structures that have been demolished. They call for an easing of the blockade rather than a proper public statement that the blockade is completely illegal and should be lifted. As we have heard, they continue to sell arms to Israel, which causes concerns for hon. Members, and many of my constituents have contacted me on that matter.
Although the UK Government maintain support for a two-state solution, we seem to be further away from that than ever, and I echo the calls that other hon. Members have made: it is time for the UK Government to formally recognise Palestine if we are to move the situation forward.
The west bank is in danger of being split in two, and as we know, Gaza is already completely separated from the west bank. In practical terms, it seems almost inconceivable that two states will be created—Bob Stewart expressed that concern in an intervention.
We need to see clearer international action to resolve the Gaza situation and the wider geopolitics of Israel. I repeat my phrase: the UK Government need to step up to the plate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, as well as that of Sir Henry, who has now left the Chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend Louise Haigh on securing the debate and on introducing it so passionately and clearly. She made it clear that the situation for 1.8 million Gazans is inhumane, and one cannot but agree. She also pointed out our Government’s weak response to the bloodshed on the Gaza border. I know the Minister will address those points in his response. My hon. Friend said that Israel has the right to defend itself, and that the role of Hamas has not helped the situation, although the UK Government’s abstention on the Human Rights Council resolution was, in her words, “disgraceful”.
My hon. Friend drew our attention to the fact that the Israeli ambassador, Mark Regev, described the Israeli response last week as “surgical”, which is appalling, especially coming from a man who is so well respected in the diplomatic community. My hon. Friend Mr Dhesi intervened to reaffirm his commitment to a two-state solution as the only way forward to peace, and he asked my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, to affirm hers, which she duly did, of course.
The only Conservative Member present, Bob Stewart, who is not in his place right now, said that the two-state solution might be becoming increasingly difficult to achieve, and asked whether it would be possible to accept a one-state solution. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, said no, and that a two-two state solution was the only way forward for peace, which is what the Labour party completely supports.
We had a further intervention from my hon. Friend Kate Green, who pointed out the mental health crisis in Gaza as well as the physical health crisis. We often forget that mental illness can be as debilitating, if not more, than physical illness or injury. My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell asked about the illegal blockade of goods going into Gaza. There is no doubt that there is a massive crisis in healthcare on the Gaza strip, with no supplies of basic dressings or medication, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, pointed out. There are serious water shortages, increasing pollution of that water, and diminishing water tables. My hon. Friend said that action by the United Kingdom and the international community would help to diminish the ability of Hamas to recruit, and she is absolutely correct.
We next heard from my hon. Friend Richard Burden, whose record on standing up for the rights of Palestinians is as exemplary as it is long. I have known him for more than 40 years, and even as a student he was a champion of the rights and cause of Palestine. I remember clearly the poster on his student room wall: a reproduction of an airmail letter that said “Palestine: return to sender—no such address.” He asked for the UK Government’s view of the United Nations Human Rights Council decision, now that the commission of inquiry has been set up. My hon. Friend also talked about B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, which I am also familiar with, and which has serious concerns about Israel conducting its own inquiry and about how independent that will be. He questioned the use of UK-supplied equipment against protesters, but was encouraged by the Government’s response to questions about humanitarian relief in Gaza. I know that the Minister will deal with his questions.
I thought that the contribution of my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan was positive, because although she talked about the toxic cocktail of hopelessness and despair in Gaza, which must be tackled, she put forward some of the ideas that are being discussed in Israel, and mentioned the Labour leader, Avi Gabbay, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when the shadow Foreign Secretary—my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry—and I were in Israel and the occupied territories six months ago. Avi Gabbay has suggested economic aid from Israel and its Arab neighbours, which could be extremely positive but is of course being thwarted by the appalling Government of Binyamin Netanyahu. The idea of a sea port is such an obvious one. It could solve not just the economic problems of Gaza but the security issues. Why can that not be created, if not by Israel then by her Arab neighbours and the international community, supported by the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North also said that of course Palestinian Authority control of Gaza must be reinstated. One can only agree with that sentiment; it would be good—although, of course, as other hon. Members have pointed out, Hamas was actually elected in the last elections to be held, which were more than 10 years ago. My hon. Friend also commended Egypt for its efforts. She said that the root of Gaza’s problems lies in the brutal rule of Hamas there, and there is no doubt about that.
My hon. Friend mentioned the kibbutz of Nir Oz, which I had the privilege of visiting in November with the shadow Foreign Secretary. I was struck not only by its nearness to Khan Yunis across the Gaza strip—you could see it from the kibbutz—but by the stories that we were told about mortar bomb attacks and shelling from Gaza, and the lack of anger from Nir Oz residents. Of course they were upset and did not want to live under gunfire and shelling—and people in a nearby kibbutz had been killed by shelling. However, one resident told me he could understand the anger and frustration of Gazans, and why they were so angry that they wanted to attack anyone in Israel. He said something had to be done to relieve the appalling plight of those living in Gaza, and to allow them to live as the residents of Nir Oz could live. That was extraordinary, because there was no anger, or desire to kill Gazans or react to the shelling or violence. There was simply a view that it would be possible to live in peace if the circumstances were right and the Government did something more positive.
My hon. Friend Grahame Morris has left his place, but he has a strong record of standing up for the cause of the Palestinian people. He talked about the Gaza blockade having begun long before Hamas gained power in the Gaza strip, and said Gaza was a vast open prison, hermetically sealed by Egypt and Israel. He said that there had not been a single rocket fired from Gaza in the past two months—but of course that rather covers up the fact that there have been many rockets in the past 10 years.
It was 10 years ago, in fact, that I had the privilege of visiting Gaza, when it was still possible for parliamentarians to go there, and I was struck by the appalling damage that Operation Cast Lead had done—supposedly striking individual buildings without damaging hospitals, although that was actually far from the case. We saw damage to residential blocks and two medical facilities, and the way in which food aid has to be handed out in an area that is very fertile. If they were allowed to, people there could grow their own food quite easily. That was being stopped by the political situation. We also saw damage to the British war cemetery, which is carefully managed by Gazans and kept as it should be. My hon. Friend condemned, as we all do, the use of live ammunition, which should be a last resort but of course was used to pick off demonstrators, whether they were attacking the fence or running away from it.
My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms is another colleague and friend who has always stood up for peace and the rights of the Palestinian people. He mentioned the concern of his constituents, from whom he has had 800 messages since Monday. I have had a few, but not quite that many. He quoted Human Rights Watch’s description of Israel’s response as “disproportionate and illegal”—a theme echoed by almost every speaker this afternoon. He also mentioned the culpability of Hamas. Human Rights Watch has said that it has certainly supported protests, and that criticism of Hamas can be met with arrest and torture. My hon. Friend mentioned high unemployment, which must be a contributory factor in people’s anger and frustration, living in that prison. He also mentioned the plummeting water quality.
My hon. Friend Lyn Brown made a passionate, emotional and extremely articulate speech. She always speaks very well. She said that Monday
My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter was with me and the shadow Foreign Secretary in November in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He has long been a champion of the cause of the Palestinian people. He spoke of the devastation caused by Israel during three wars in Gaza, in which more than 5,000 people died, mostly civilians and children. We have seen clearly on the news the death, destruction, injuries and terrible bloodshed caused by the Israel Defence Forces shooting directly at protestors on the grounds that they were terrorists, and were all Hamas members. If we do not believe most of Hamas’s propaganda, why do we believe the statement that virtually all the protesters killed were Hamas members? I do not believe a word of that, either, frankly.
The majority of injuries in recent unrest were caused by live fire, but as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out in column 139 of Hansard when asking an urgent question on
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith pointed out the deliberate targeting of 38 ambulances, which were damaged by the IDF. Medical relief facilities were also deliberately targeted. I saw that for myself when I was there 10 years ago with other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. My hon. Friend talked about recognition of the state of Palestine, as did many other hon. Members. That is Labour party policy; if elected, Labour will recognise the state of Palestine immediately. I wish that the Israeli Government would do the same. It would go a long way towards a two-state peaceful solution in the region. My question to the Minister is why the Government do not recognise Palestine right now. If not now, when?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said something else very important. This debate is often polarised; people on either side are unable to see both sides at the same time, even if they have a very strong view of violence, bloodshed, cruelty and the appalling way in which people treat each other. He said something important: “There is so much to admire about the state of Israel”—I repeat, “so much to admire”. I passionately agree with that. I wanted to repeat it because he is rightly known for championing the cause of the Palestinian people, but he says something like that about Israel. He also said that Gaza is a stain on Israel, and I cannot but agree with that, too.
Finally, we heard from Mr Carmichael. I have heard him speak twice in 24 hours—yesterday it was on the subject of Qatar and UK relations with it. He always speaks with great clarity, and he is a very accomplished Member of this House. He concurred with everything that had been said this afternoon. He, too, was very concerned about the United Kingdom’s abstention last week on the issue of an inquiry by the Human Rights Council. He, too, said something important, which was that, as we all know, the United Kingdom has “a substantial voice on the world’s stage”, but it is not being heard on the violence in Gaza. What more can we do to ensure that it is?
To be clear, in such a critical but apparently intractable situation, it is more incumbent than ever on the global community, and not just the United Kingdom Government, to act to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the residents of Gaza. It is therefore too appalling for words that the Trump Administration have chosen this critical moment to halve their funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as so many have mentioned this afternoon.
For almost 70 years, UNRWA has helped hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents and millions more Palestinians across the region with their essential humanitarian needs. Its budget last year was $760 million and, as a direct result of its work, tens of thousands of children in Gaza received schooling, and tens of thousands of their parents received healthcare that would otherwise not be available to them. Goodness knows that if it was not available, there would be nothing whatever.
This year, however, UNRWA must deal with the fact that Donald Trump has cut its funding by $65 million, because—I quote his tweet—
“we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect”.
In January in Davos he went further, saying that the money had been cut as a direct result of the Palestinian authorities’ refusal to meet Mike Pence, and that he considered the money to be “on the table” now, as a negotiating chip to force the Palestinians to accept the mythical US peace plan. So young children in Gaza are being denied education and medicine, until the Palestinian authorities start showing Donald Trump some “appreciation or respect”. If it was not so cruel, it would be laughable.
Other countries, including most recently Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have tried to plug the gap in UNRWA’s funding, but when all they can offer are one-off contributions rather than annual additions, the funding crisis is only delayed rather than stopped. That is why we have called on the Government to take the lead on a longer-term solution, by initiating a special global funding conference, such as those held in response to humanitarian emergencies, the difference in this case being that we must not wait for the emergency to strike before acting—it has already struck and is present every single day.
My fear, however, is that the Government are unwilling to act—though I hope they are not. Why? Because their friend President Trump will say: “What are you doing? I’m punishing them, and you’re letting them off the hook. I’m trying to blackmail them into accepting my peace plan, and you’re removing my leverage.” If that is the argument, however, I respectfully say to the Minister that they should not just differ in private; the Government must have the courage to differ in public, and to tell President Trump that he is wrong.
This is no time for passivity. As we have heard throughout the debate, Gaza cannot afford to wait. There is a massive opportunity for someone to step into the global leadership gap that Donald Trump’s America has left in Palestine. I urge the British Government to listen to what they have heard today, and urgently fill that gap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, as it was to serve under Sir Henry’s earlier.
With the rare luxury of a little extra time to respond to the debate, I shall do my best to do so. First, I congratulate Louise Haigh on securing it, and I thank her for speaking as ably as she did. I also thank Fabian Hamilton for his excellent summary of the debate so far. We have become a bit of a double act, in which the hon. Gentleman does that—he does it so well—and I then do not have to spend half of the 10 minutes that I normally get to respond to a debate covering it, which means that I am left with the time that I need. In this case the time did not matter, and as he went through the debate he stole a number of my best lines—I would have drawn attention to a number of the same things as he did.
Before I turn to the script and before my officials worry too much, let me say a little off script and respond in the tone that has been used in the debate, because that is important. First and foremost, I would like anyone interested in the subject to read this debate. I do not agree with every word that has been said—I can make that clear without picking out the individual points in question, although people may understand which they are, and I shall cover quite a lot of them in my response—but I want to say this: I know well most of the Members who spoke, and I have known many of them for a number of years. They are not in this Chamber last thing on a Thursday afternoon just before the recess as a mouthpiece for anything; they are here because they care about this issue and have cared about it for as long as I have. They understand the complexities.
As the hon. Member for Leeds North East pointed out, quite a number of colleagues who have strong positions, particularly in support of Palestinians, made very strong remarks about Hamas, and about recognising the good things in Israel. Those points are not always heard. As I have mentioned before, for instance in responding to the urgent question this week, the issue has become incredibly binary. I know what Members who have spoken in the debate will get on Twitter and Facebook tonight, because I get it as well. There is no acceptance on one side or the other of anything that remotely reflects the complexities and difficulties that have to be faced. All hon. Members who have spoken will receive something tonight from someone who will be bitter and abusive about something said in the debate that they have picked up on one way or the other. Anyone who cares to read the debate and wants to go down that line, however, should know the sort of Member involved—they are people who care about all this.
Joan Ryan was in a relatively lonely position in putting her case today, but she mentioned things that needed to be said, and other hon. Members picked up on them. The little bit of extra time enabled colleagues to go a little wider in their remarks that usual, which I feel was necessary in the circumstances. We have to deal with the specifics of what happened recently and the specifics of the Gaza humanitarian crisis, but we cannot do that without understanding the wider issue.
Let me pick out a couple of other points made in the debate. Lyn Brown and I spoke together in the holocaust debate not long ago; we spoke about Auschwitz. I understand the deep feelings that she has about both sides of this issue. She spoke about hope and the absence of hope, and for me that lies at the heart of everything. I have campaigned for years for an end to all this, as colleagues know. Responsibility for the failure to find the answer to the middle east peace process is shared by so many. We can point to no one group and say, “They, and they alone, are responsible.” But the collective failure over years has left people wondering where their hope will come from.
On my last visit to the west bank, I talked to the Palestinian leadership. After years of working on the basis of going for statehood, the concern is what their process will be if that does not happen. Who do they talk to then? How do we move forward? In Gaza, the hopelessness caused by a combination of governance by Hamas and the pressures put upon the area from Israel has left a miserable situation where so many people are dependent on humanitarian access—the smell of the sea and all that sort of thing.
There are things we do not talk a lot about. We do not much talk about the difficulties and failures of Palestinian political reconciliation, or the lack of democratic accountability. We do not talk much about incitement to terror and the commemoration of those who have committed acts of quite serious atrocity on others. That is because we cannot cover everything, but it is also a part of the mindset that has led to this binary situation where neither one side nor the other can move.
Israel sees everything in Gaza as a potential security threat. To respond to Mr Carmichael, it sees the waters as a place from which attacks can be launched—because they were. It sees approaches to the border fence as a potential for attack—because they were. There is a strong sense from those in leadership in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that security therefore trumps everything else.
Of course, there is a point beyond which it cannot go. I have made the point on behalf of the Government that defence and security are about more than just having more weapons than your opponent. Ultimately, the security that we need is provided because of the relationship we have with our friends and neighbours. That is not in place in the circumstances we are discussing. Those are the fundamentals of the issue.
Rather than digress further, I will come to some of the main points and perhaps to some questions were asked. That context is really important, because when this House discusses this issue, there is a shortage of time and we just have sharp questions, and people can get the view that we are part of the binary discussion and that colleagues have narrow views. They do not; they understand the situation, and I am appreciative of being able to respond.
The situation in Gaza is deeply troubling. The loss of life and injuries through violence at the border are tragic. I am grateful to Members for their concern and for the many excellent suggestions made today about how international partners might alleviate the situation. Both sides must urgently prioritise steps to resolve the situation in Gaza. We must not let those events reinforce violence further, but we ensure that, at last, they signal a new time for leadership, negotiation and peace, because we should not go through this again.
We have been in close contact with international partners to monitor the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In relation to the immediate issue, I am in urgent consultation with the International Committee of the Red Cross to support its appeal. A contribution to the appeal will address urgent needs in Gaza’s health system. Some 11 hospitals need support to cope with increased need for surgery, through the provision of materials including surgical equipment, drugs and disposables, wound-dressing kits and assistive devices.
The ICRC appeal will also help in the evacuation of patients requiring medical care that is not available in Gaza and physical rehabilitation services for some 4,000 persons with physical disabilities. It will provide fuel and spare parts so that the 11 hospitals can keep functioning. I am in urgent contact with the ICRC about what we can to do to support that.
We are all aware of the situation, but I want to say a little more about what we are trying to do. The UK has supported up to 1 million people by addressing critical water and sanitation needs through UNICEF. In answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, the UNICEF grant was only ever intended to be short-term; we provide a long-term contribution through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which will continue. Clearly, events at the moment may allow for further support. That depends on the steps that are taken in relation to Gaza, as raised by special envoy Nikolai Mladenov last week. I will speak about that later. Because the situation is moving and getting worse, the UK has the opportunity to provide further support. Right hon. and hon. Members should not assume that just because announcements have already been made, that is it. It depends on other things, and we may well come back to the issue.
UK aid to the occupied territories provides essential health and education services, helps to build strong state institutions, promotes economic prosperity and supports the most vulnerable, including refugees. In 2016-17, UK support to the Palestinian Authority enabled around 24,000 young Palestinians to get an education and provided up to 3,700 immunisations for children and about 185,000 medical consultations. We take our humanitarian responsibilities very seriously and we do what we can, but nothing disguises the fact that, ultimately, we do not want to do any of that because we want to see a different situation in Gaza.
On the political front, it is vital that all parties urgently work together to unblock the barriers to medical care and access in Gaza. Besides providing impartial humanitarian funding, it is incumbent on all parties to redouble political efforts to realise a two-state solution, to ensure justice and for both Palestinians and Israelis, as so many colleagues have spoken of today. As right hon. and hon. Members rightly understand, the UK’s long-standing position is that a negotiated two-state solution is needed, with Jerusalem as the shared capital.
Before I get into further areas where we may not agree with one another, let me touch on the recognition of the state of Palestine. The UK keeps that possibility very flexible, because we can never know the most appropriate time to do it. The time is not now. It is easy to say that we are always waiting for something else, but the possibility of the United States’ envoys coming up with their proposals provides a target for all of us at the moment to make progress in the middle east peace process.
The recognition of the state of Palestine would be an important issue and a symbolic gesture for the United Kingdom, but it is important for it to be more than symbolic—it must go along with other steps taken by the Palestinian leadership and by the state of Israel to cement Palestine’s position. Otherwise, I say in fairness to all colleagues present that it could just be accepted, forgotten and moved on from, and that could become a further barrier for those who are looking for states to take one side or the other.
We all know what the reaction has been to the United States’ decision on Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority said, “Well, that’s it. The Americans have changed their position. It is clear that they cannot be an honest broker. They have made this decision.” I am not willing, and I do not think the Government are willing, to risk the possibility of such an important step as the recognition of the state of Palestine, which we want to take, being seen in such a way. That is why it is important to make it clear that the decision can be made, and that it is not dependent on anyone’s veto or on any set of circumstances beyond those that we think will be most conducive to peace. At the moment, the distance between the parties is so wide that it would not be the most effective use of such an important step, but the United Kingdom keeps it under active consideration. That is where we are with that.
I assume the Minister is not equating the US’s decision to move its embassy with the UK’s potential decision to recognise the state of Palestine. Does he accept that Palestine feels abandoned by the international community and by a country that, wrongly, it felt it could rely on for support? It would be more than purely symbolic for the UK to come forward and recognise the state now; it would be an important move to rebuild the peace process.
The hon. Lady is right that I am not equating the two at all. The United Kingdom opposed the United States’ decision to move its embassy because we were concerned, first, that it broke an international convention and a UN resolution on the status of Jerusalem and, secondly, that it indicated a move by the United States that made its position more difficult as an important interlocutor in this difficult situation. That is my point—the reaction to it made that more difficult. The two are not comparable, and of course the UK could recognise the state of Palestine at any time. Sadly, unless that were grounded in something meaningful for the process, it may be just symbolic, and is very important that it should not be. I fully accept that recognition is the Opposition’s policy. It is not ours, for the reason I have given. We will not change that this afternoon, but we still want—and will be able—to use recognition at the time when we think it is most effective. That remains our policy.
The situation in Gaza is complex, and the actions of non-state actors such as Hamas make the situation extremely difficult. We recognise Israel’s legitimate security concerns and urge Hamas to renounce violence and move towards the Quartet principles long needed for peace. I did not hear any suggestion to the contrary from any colleague who spoke, whatever their position. We reiterate our support for the Egyptian-led reconciliation process and the return of the Palestinian Authority to full administration of the Gaza strip, because that causes practical issues in Gaza. That is as important as a number of the other things we have spoken about.
The UK continues fully to support the need for an independent investigation into the Gaza protests and the response to them, as I have made clear. I will go into a little more detail about that to answer colleagues’ questions, and I am happy to take further questions. We are concerned about the high number of deaths and casualties, and about the volume of live fire used. The Foreign Secretary, the Human Rights Minister and I have raised the issue of force with Israeli authorities. The Foreign Secretary spoke to President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu on
There is a need to establish the facts, including why such a volume of live fire has been used and the role that Hamas has played. That is why we support of an independent and transparent investigation. Everyone has seen different things—clearly, there are questions to answer on both sides about how this came about, and colleagues raised a number of them.
On the independent investigation, during the UN Human Rights Council session last Friday we abstained on calls for a commission of inquiry into recent violence. The substance of the resolution was not impartial and balanced. We could not support an investigation that refused explicitly to examine the action of non-state actors such as Hamas. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, and her reading of the resolution is the same as mine, but it is notable that the Human Rights Council in particular loses no opportunity to name Israel—it does so on every single occasion, including in the notorious item 7. It would not have been difficult to name Hamas, but the council does not and will not. The possibility of the council conducting an inquiry that has acceptance where it needs acceptance is genuinely limited.
We continue fully to support the need for an independent and transparent investigation into recent events. We call directly on Israel to carry out a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence, and to demonstrate how it will achieve a sufficient level of independence. We believe that investigation should include international members, and we urge that its findings be made public and, if wrongdoing is found, those responsible be held to account. We joined European allies—Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia—in our position. I understand why we have been picked out, but 14 states in all said, “Look, this isn’t the right way to go.” We regret that the substance of the resolution was as it was, but what is important now is that the inquiry that states want to see is carried out.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and others asked, “Why should Israel do this?” Israel should do this because the first responsibility for such an incident usually lies with the state party itself, as has happened with inquiries in the United Kingdom. I made the point in the House—I think others have made it, too—that the reality is that if the Israeli authorities did this alone, they would be very unlikely to convince international parties. Andy Slaughter made reference to a court case just the other day, where the Israeli Supreme Court will hold against the Israeli Government. So Israel does have a structure, an investigative system and the rule of law, but in circumstances such as these it is difficult to imagine that, without some independent element, people who have seen what they have seen on the television and in film will feel there has been an adequate response.
It is essential that all aspects are covered. There are real issues about being able to investigate in Gaza and to talk to those connected with Hamas to see what might be revealed. Again, we cannot gloss over that. The hon. Member for Leeds North East made the point that Hamas claimed that a number of its “operatives” were involved. That may well be the case—we do not know. Hamas is under a lot of pressure in Gaza for what happened. Many people in Gaza are deeply distressed by the event and feel they might in some way have been used in all this. Hamas may have its own reasons for putting forward the claim that many of its operatives were involved. I do not know the answer to that question—none of us does. It is important to ensure that the investigation can cover both sides, but the need for Israel, in the first place, to accept a degree of responsibility for examining what happened and to recognise that an independent element will bolster the international community’s confidence in such an inquiry seems to me to be self-evident and very important.
Can I just seek some clarification? Do the Government not support the Human Rights Council undertaking an independent investigation, because of some of the concerns the Minister has just outlined, or do they not support the resolution that was drafted by the Human Rights Council? If it is the latter, will the Government work with the other countries that abstained, which he mentioned, to draft a new resolution and ensure that a truly independent investigation can go forward?
Our concern was about the resolution itself. We worked with other parties to see whether we could get a resolution that would be acceptable. I genuinely do not know whether it is possible to reopen that, because a decision seems to have been taken. If people were going to change the resolution, it would have been changed at the time.
Let me say this about what is happening now. The UK is not required formally to take any further action or position on the HRC-mandated inquiry until the final report is published, but as supporters of commissions of inquiry in general, we will encourage parties to engage constructively with the HRC and its mechanisms. At the same time, we will work to ensure that the commission of inquiry is as independent, transparent and balanced as possible in its approach.
I really appreciate the Minister’s giving way on this point. We are in a really imperfect situation, and I think we all recognise that it will be impossible for all parties to have complete buy-in to any investigation. However, the investigation that is on the table is the closest we can currently get to an independent investigation into this dreadful situation, so surely we should give it more support. Although Israel can carry out its own investigation and that, too, should be considered at its conclusion, this independent investigation certainly requires the UK’s support at this time.
Well, I have said what I have said. We will encourage parties to engage, but we did not support the resolution, for the reasons I have given. As I said, the HRC’s relationship with Israel over the years makes it difficult for it to claim to be an independent sponsor. I understand that other nations do not see it that way, but if we want to get to the bottom of this situation, as in any inquiry, we need as much buy-in from as many of the parties as possible. If we know right from the beginning that we will not get that, it will be a false trail in the first place. As the hon. Lady says, there is nothing else there at present. Presumably, that is why the HRC has taken the line that it has taken. We disagree with it, but rather than leave it completely, we want to do exactly as we have indicated.
We have taken this issue directly to the Israeli authorities —that was one of the questions raised—and we will continue to do so. We will wait to see what the response is and what Israel has planned. I would be extremely surprised if Israel did not want to take matters forward in some way, but we will need to make those judgments as they come along. However, just because something imperfect is the only thing in town, that is no reason necessarily to back it if it will not work practically. That is why we have taken the view on the inquiry that we have.
Let me turn to Gaza. The restrictions imposed on movement and access to Gaza contribute significantly to the pressures that the Gazan people face. One of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Hammersmith was about what I thought about the demonstrations. I can only go off what we have—the diplomatic intelligence and everything that we get—and my sense is that it is a combination of those factors that colleagues have brought out. There is an inevitable frustration in Gaza, typified by so many of those comments, but there is a practical and realistic recognition of the politics of the situation and the dreadful combination of what happened last week, together with other events taking place elsewhere.
Colleagues have already spoken of the political incitement that was given during that time. My sense is that it is a terrible mixture of those things, and ultimately the only resolution of that is to take away all the seeds of such frustration. That can be done only with developments in Gaza as a first and urgent step, followed by the political process.
I appreciate the thoughtful way in which the Minister is answering the debate. I do not think he has yet addressed the question I asked about the United Nations Occupied Palestinian Territories humanitarian fund, which was supported by the British Government last year. Will he give us some hope that the Government will support that fund this year as well?
As I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, we responded to an appeal in relation to Gaza at the end of last year—I think that was with £1.9 million. We have no current plans to do so, but we are reviewing all our possibilities in support of Gaza. I indicated what we are doing at this moment in relation to the ICRC. Just because nothing is immediately on the table, that does not mean that it will not happen. I will go on to talk about what we hope to do in Gaza and open that up a little.
We note Israel’s recent efforts to ensure the delivery of goods to Gaza, despite the serious damage done at the Kerem Shalom crossing by protestors during recent weeks. We will continue to work hard with Israel for an increase in the entry of goods to Gaza to stimulate economic activity.
The Gazan health sector is of course under immense strain. As I mentioned earlier, medical facilities are already stretched by the long-standing shortages of medical, electricity and fuel supplies. Delays in approvals for medical referrals and difficulty in reaching facilities mean that people have to wait a long time for medical treatment. Do we make representations on that? Yes, we do. Like other colleagues here, I find it difficult to see how cancer patients can be any risk to those looking after border controls and the like. We do indeed make representations where we can on that. While we always recognise that there are those who will seek to exploit anything, we would want to see the discretion that we would expect, which is used by Israel in a number of cases, extended to all those genuine medical cases.
The tragic events during the recent protests at the Gaza border have exacerbated the chronic strain on the health system. Emergency services are overwhelmed and overstretched, and the WHO is calling for essential drugs, medical disposables and medical kits for surgery and trauma. The ICRC recently stated that the health system is close to collapse, which is why we are in urgent consultation with it at this moment.
We welcome the decision by the Palestinian Authority to provide critical medical supplies and doctors to Gaza. There is also a desperate ongoing need for access to clean water. As I mentioned earlier, the UK is supporting approximately 1 million Gazans through support to UNICEF’s work to provide clean water and rehabilitate sanitation facilities, helping to stop the spread of disease.
We are also a long-term supporter of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, which provides basic health and education services to 1.3 million people in Gaza, as well as over 800,000 refugees in the west bank. The United States is responsible for its own policy, but the UK will deliver its next round of financial support earlier than originally planned to help meet the growing needs of Palestinian refugees across the region. We remain keen to support UNRWA in its work. We are one of the top five UNRWA donors, and we remain keen to ensure that all donor partners recognise the part it plays, and to help and assist in dealing with any queries or concerns that others may have.
News of Egypt opening the Rafah crossing for Ramadan is encouraging, and we urge Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to work together to find a resolution to the situation in Gaza. The UK will continue to work with the UN special representative of the Secretary-General to facilitate that.
In connection with that, Nikolai Mladenov, the special representative, presented to the UN Security Council yesterday and addressed the situation in Gaza. He brought forward commitments, including on the need to advance urgent infrastructure and economic development projects, to improve access and movement, and to support the Egyptian-led reconciliation process. In particular, he spoke about his aim to fast-track the delivery of priority projects agreed over the past two years by the ad hoc liaison committee, such as the Gaza central desalination programme, the implementation of the Red sea-Dead sea agreement to provide clean water to Gaza, support on sewage treatment, and the 161 line for better electricity supply. As he noted, failure to implement during the next six to 12 months some of the achievable projects already approved by the relevant stakeholders would amplify the humanitarian crisis.
We stand ready to support the areas of work that Mr Mladenov and the UN have identified. We also support him in an engagement and co-ordination role, working with the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt to overcome any political, administrative and logistical blockages that may emerge. That work will help to improve the humanitarian situation, stimulate economic activity and ensure a long-term future for Gaza.
Richard Burden asked about the Quartet proposals. I met John Clarke, the economic director of the Quartet, about two weeks ago, when we discussed some of the ongoing work, and I indicated the United Kingdom’s support. We are planning to upscale our support for the economic development of Gaza in order to increase trade and job creation, enable greater movement and access for people and goods, and enhance the supply of electricity and water.
The point I must put to the Minister is not directly relevant to Gaza but has a bearing on the current climate there. As we have debated, the Israeli High Court has handed down the judgment of Justice Solberg, rejecting a petition against the demolition of the community and school at Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community of 100 souls on the west bank. Obviously, that entitles the state to demolish the community, but it does not require it. Is this not an opportunity for the Israeli Government, as the occupying force in the west bank, to demonstrate a bit of good will, which might ease the tensions elsewhere in Palestine?
I endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I have been to Khan al-Ahmar, as colleagues know, and as a number of colleagues have. We disagree with the possible demolition. We will continue to make representations to Israel on our sense of the damage to the community, and because this is something that would demonstrate renewed commitment to resolving issues by looking to find a pathway forward together, rather than taking action that might be legally possible but not seemingly appropriate. The UK maintains its position on demolitions and settlements as set out before.
I do not know when the Minister was last in Gaza or if he plans to go again—I know that successive consul-generals from Jerusalem go there regularly —but will he or his Department make representations to the Government of Israel that Back-Bench Members of Parliament from any party should be allowed to travel to Gaza?
Yes, we will. Ultimately, it is a decision for the state of Israel to take, even in relation to my trips. If I seek to go, they have to be sure of the circumstances and everything else. I would not want to take that away, but I always feel that contact is vital, helpful and necessary, and of course I would encourage it.
The UK is committed to addressing the underlying cause of humanitarian strife in Gaza—it is so pertinent to what we have been discussing—by increasing our support for economic development. The Palestinian economy is not growing at the rate needed to create the necessary jobs for a growing labour force or to improve living standards. As a result, unemployment continues to rise. Israeli constraints on movement, access and trade are the key impediments to economic growth.
In Gaza, that is compounded by the dire water and energy situation. Issues over power and energy remain. As colleagues have said, Gazans currently have access to only four hours of electricity per day. Our support will help to lift the overall standard of living by increasing trade and job creation, enabling greater movement and access for people, and enhancing the supply of electricity and clean water.
There is a glimmer of positivity through the work that the special envoy, whom I spoke to last week, is moving forward in an otherwise difficult time. We will continue to channel our support to that work, in addition to diplomatic efforts. We are keen to focus on areas where there is Israeli-Palestinian co-operation, of which there is much more than I think some people outside this place would necessarily recognise, and to support the financial sustainability of the Palestinian Authority.
As I have the time, let me deal with one or two of the specific questions raised. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about Omar Shakir. We are obviously aware of the case but, as I said in the House the other day, ultimately it is a matter for the Israeli Government. We have been in touch with Human Rights Watch about the case. Officials from the embassy in Tel Aviv have also raised the gentleman’s case with the Israeli authorities, and did so two days ago.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who I think knows more about the subject than I do after all the long years he has spent on it, spoke about increasing funding to UNRWA, and I have already mentioned that. He spoke about the recent conference in Washington, which a UK senior official attended. We discussed projects to help to transform Gaza, and we will continue to support those efforts and US leadership. US engagement is vital, of course, to help to encourage and support Israel in its work on that. In view of the fact that we might not get movement on the middle east peace process as quickly as we would like, Gaza is something that could be done more quickly, and because it is urgent, putting some emphasis into that is the right thing to do. He also mentioned MPs visiting Gaza, and I have answered that point.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley spoke about both mental health and UNICEF. I answered the question about UNICEF, but the situation is such that we are reviewing what support we can give, particularly looking forward to the projects in Gaza that I mentioned. On mental health, our support to UNRWA helps to support mental health services. All our experience of seeing trauma in many places around the world leads us to recognise that the damage done to people by being part of this situation, and particularly the damage done to children by what they may have witnessed, requires that attention is given to mental health services.
I have detained the House for far too long. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to say a little more than in the rushed five minutes I usually get at the end of a debate. As I said earlier, I know that all colleagues who have taken part in the debate care about this issue very deeply. I know also that there are often things that the House would like the UK Government to do that we cannot do, but there are positions that we believe are the right way to try to move forward, and we will continue to press those. We remain absolutely convinced both of the need to recognise Israel’s existence and its needs for defence and security and of the legitimate right to justice of the Palestinians.
We recognise that the windows that we have all been looking for are closing very quickly. If not two-state, what? If we are not now to move forward, when? We will continue to press that. I hope and believe that the balanced position we seek to take, recognising the complexities, and that having this debate read in many different capitals around the place will enable states and friends of both Israel and the Palestinians to recognise Parliament’s desire for peace, its understanding of the complexities of the situation, and its determination to recognise that the humanitarian situation of those affected has now reached such a state that there must be an even greater degree of urgency than before.
This is something that cannot be left or managed or that will it disappear of its own accord. Hopefully, the sort of determination and comments that colleagues have expressed today will make a difference, and the United Kingdom will be able, in time, to be part of a process that will deliver what so many colleagues in this House desperately want to see.
I thank you, Sir David, the Minister, the shadow Minister, the Scottish National party spokesperson and all hon. Members for participating in the debate today—the last thing before recess. I know many hon. Members will have cancelled constituency arrangements to be here—it delayed my trip to Benidorm for my cousin’s hen do by a day, so I did not really mind being here so much.
I thank the Minister for his, as ever, thoughtful response. I welcome the Government’s commitment to early funding of UNRWA and their support for and involvement with the parties in the independent investigation. I also welcome the Minister’s commitment that he will review humanitarian support. May I say, though, that it is the case not that the Government cannot do more but that they will not do more? It is now desperately urgent for the Government to step up and take more action—to exercise our unique responsibility in this conflict, to fill the vacuum America has left behind and to secure a future for the people of Gaza.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the humanitarian situation in Gaza.