British MPs join up to condemn Israeli ‘punishment’ of Gaza. Who knew?
Gaza city, ankle deep in sewage on World Toilet Day. In what other city would this not be an international scandal?
Debate, Westminster Hall
February 05, 2014
Mr Jim Hood(in the Chair): There is a long list of speakers for this debate, so I may have to impose a time limit. However, if right hon. and hon. Members speak a little more concisely than their enthusiasm would normally lead them to, I might not have to do that. However, I will if I have to.
Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): [above]I initiated this debate because during the last International Development questions I was struck by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister—he is not here today because he is on a ministerial visit to Nepal—who said:
The collapse in the supply of fuel and medical supplies entering Gaza in recent months and the rising price of food are exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation caused by restrictions on the movement of goods and people and the devastation of the winter storms.
He went on to say that he had been in the Palestinian Territories the previous week and had spoken
directly to a number of people in Gaza. The shortage of drugs is a serious issue, and that has been the case since about 2007. DFID is supporting the UN access co-ordination unit to work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the agencies to help to facilitate the transfer of medical equipment and supplies, and patient referrals, in and out of Gaza.
He then made a stark prediction:
It is no exaggeration to say that, come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water. One UN report predicts that it could become an unliveable place, meaning that it risks becoming unfit for human habitation.
—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 279.]
I visited Gaza twice some years ago during the 2001 to 2005 Parliament, when I chaired the Select Committee on International Development. One visit was under the auspices of Christian Aid, and it is worth remembering that there are Christians among the Palestinians. Palestinian Christians are a minority among Palestinians, and Palestinians are a minority in the middle east, so Palestinian Christians often feel that they are twice a minority and consequently doubly powerless at controlling their own lives. My second visit was with the whole Select Committee as part of an inquiry into DFID support for the Palestinian Territories.
During my chairmanship of the International Development Committee and my period as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, when the FCO still had responsibility for international development and what was then called the Overseas Development Administration, I saw many terrible tragedies—some from acts of nature, some as a consequence of human folly and some as a combination of both. They ranged from witnessing first hand the horrors of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 to visiting the camps for refugees and internally displaced people in Darfur.
What distinguished Gaza and struck me was the total sense of hopelessness among ordinary people there. One small example struck a chord. My great-grandfather was a market gardener, and Gazan farmers tried to make a living by growing strawberries; they sought to maximise the potential of what little land they had by erecting greenhouses. They were not allowed to export the strawberries as Palestinian strawberries, but at the time they were at least able to export them. Sadly, almost all their greenhouses were destroyed by the Israeli army. After my second visit, I recall returning home and telling my children that I had no fear of death and I had been to hell, or rather that I could not imagine a state of existence or purgatory of such total hopelessness as being trapped in Gaza.
The Chamber may recall that, back in 2012, the Prime Minister urged Israel’s then Prime Minister to “do everything possible” to end the crisis in Gaza. As far back as July 2010, the Prime Minister described Gaza as a “prison camp” and appealed to the Israeli Government to allow the free flow of humanitarian goods and people out of the Palestinian Territories.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and my near neighbour for giving way, and congratulate him on securing this vital debate. He has experienced those visits and the horrors he is describing so eloquently. Why does he think the international community has proved so ineffective at putting effective pressure on Israel to relax the horrific stranglehold on Gaza? What steps does he think could be taken now?
Sir Tony Baldry: To answer the right hon. Gentleman and my neighbour, I think the international community has for a long time put its hope in the negotiations for a two-state solution. I will speak about that towards the end of my comments.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): This is an important debate and I am sorry that I shall have to leave; I am going for a medical. Such a thing is denied to the people of Palestine because of the pressures they are under. The multitude of problems make their lives intolerable. Struggling sewerage facilities and difficulties with the provision of clean water are further undermined by the lack of power affecting health and medical facilities. Does the right hon. Gentleman see any way forward, or are we banging our heads against a brick wall?
Sir Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman accurately summarises some of the challenges facing Gaza, and I will set them out in more detail. The short answer to his question is that throughout this debate we must remember that, under international law, Israel is the occupying power in Gaza.
On 27 July 2010, the Prime Minister observed:
The situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.
Sadly, the situation there has not changed and, as I will explain shortly, the position on humanitarian goods and people has deteriorated significantly in recent times. Gaza today is still a prison camp with 1.7 million inmates. The Prime Minister said that he spoke
as someone who is a friend of Israel, who desperately wants a secure and safe and stable Israel after the two-state solution has come about.
That is also my position and, I suspect, that of almost every right hon. and hon. Member of this House.
I went to a Quaker school, so I have always taken an interest in international development and humanitarian affairs. As a lawyer, I have always taken an interest in international law since I was fortunate enough at university to have as my personal tutor Professor Colonel Gerald Draper. He had been a junior prosecuting counsel at the Nuremberg war crimes trial immediately after the second world war. Indeed, he had been part of a team that had been responsible not just for prosecuting, but for tracking down and indicting various Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice at Nuremberg. I was, and have continued to be, interested as a consequence in how the international community and the world as a whole can establish and maintain norms of civilised behaviour that should be enshrined in concepts of international law.
For that reason, I have taken a particular interest in the work of my immediate predecessor as head of chambers in the Temple, my right hon. and learned friend and brother knight Sir Desmond de Silva QC. With the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, he prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone and was responsible for establishing the principle that heads of state do not have sovereign immunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That resulted in Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, being brought to trial for war crimes at The Hague. More recently, the Government entrusted Sir Desmond to investigate and to report on the Finucane inquiry in Northern Ireland.
In June 2010, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly mandated an investigation into
violations of international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law, resulting from the interception by Israeli forces of the humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza on 31 May 2010 during which nine people were killed and many others injured.
The members of the mission appointed to undertake the mandate included Judge Karl Hudson-Phillips QC, a retired judge of the International Criminal Court and former Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, who acted as chairman of the mission, Ms Mary Shanthi Dairiam of Malaysia and Sir Desmond de Silva QC. It is worth reminding the Chamber of the conclusions arrived at by that panel of international jurists appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, not least because much of it happened at or about the time of the last general election and the reconvening of a new Parliament, when, understandably, the attention of many right hon. and hon. Members may have been elsewhere.
The UN mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance, came to the following conclusions:
The Mission has come to the firm conclusion that a humanitarian crisis existed on the 31 May 2010 in Gaza. The preponderance of evidence from impeccable sources is too overwhelming to come to a contrary opinion…One of the consequences flowing from this is that for this reason alone the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law. This is so regardless of the grounds on which one seeks to justify the legality of the blockade…Israel seeks to justify the blockade on security grounds. The State of Israel is entitled to peace and security like any other. The firing of rockets and other munitions of war into Israeli territory from Gaza constitutes serious violations of international law and of international humanitarian law. But any action in response which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances…The conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct cannot be justified or condoned on security or any other grounds. It constituted a grave violation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.
The panel went on:
there is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention…Wilful killing…Torture or inhuman treatment…Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. The Mission also considers that a series of violations of Israel’s obligations under international human rights law have taken place, including…Right to life (art. 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)…Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 7, International Covenant; Convention against Torture)…Right to liberty and security of the person and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9, International Covenant)…Right of detainees to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person (art. 10, International Covenant)…Freedom of expression (art. 19, International Covenant).
The panel also concluded:
The Mission is not alone in finding that a deplorable situation exists in Gaza. It has been characterized as ‘unsustainable’. This is totally intolerable and unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It is amazing that anyone could characterize the condition of the people there as satisfying the most basic standards. The parties and the international community are urged to find the solution that will address all legitimate security concern of both Israel and the people of Palestine, both of whom are equally entitled to ‘their place under the heavens’.
Those were the conclusions of a UN General Assembly-mandated mission of respected international jurists in 2010.
Since then, the situation in Gaza has deteriorated significantly, which is causing concern in all parts of both Houses of Parliament. In the House of Lords on 27 January, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, a Liberal Democrat peer, observed:
The humanitarian aid is terribly important, particularly when the 1.7 million people in Gaza are now living life at breaking point, with 11,000 people displaced by last month’s floods. Fuel shortages are such that donkey carts have replaced cars as a means of transport, the streets are overflowing with raw sewage and, with nearly 50% unemployment, the situation is like a tinderbox. The United Nations has said that Gaza will be unliveable by 2020
Lord Warner, a Labour peer, asked what the Government were doing to help with “lifting this blockade, which is a cause of great humanitarian suffering to the Gaza population, 50% of whom are children”.
Baroness Morris of Bolton spoke as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and as the UK trade envoy to the Palestinian territories, observing:
some industrial fuel went into Gaza between 14 and 20 January. However, it is not enough and much below consumption levels. Hospitals have regular power cuts and some families have only 12 hours of power a day. The most vulnerable families are suffering terrible burns from using inadequate heating and cooking utensils.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 978-80.]
For my part, I am the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and the Chamber will not be surprised that as a consequence I have stayed closely in contact with Christian Aid. As I mentioned, I previously visited Gaza with Christian Aid on one occasion. In anticipation of this debate, Christian Aid made the following points to me:
“Israel’s prolonged closure of the Gaza Strip, as one of its occupation policies, continues to effectively punish 1.7 million Palestinians for the actions of a minority…, As Gaza moves into its eighth consecutive year of Israeli closure, years of import and export restrictions have seriously impaired its basic infrastructure. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors in Gaza have been particularly affected. Unemployment in Gaza rose to 32.5% during the third quarter of 2013. Stunted economic growth has led to increased and unsustainable levels of dependence on humanitarian aid. The severe storms in December 2013 demonstrated how vulnerable this population is, especially to unexpected events like this.
In four days, 3,000 houses were flooded and according to a joint assessment by PARC and OCHA, 1,000 green houses were totally or partially damaged during the storm. The poultry sector was badly affected by the storm as the low temperature caused 12,000 chicks and chickens to freeze to death. 50 sheep farms in the Bedouin village were affected by the floods. Gaza’s Ministry of Social Affairs estimated the overall losses of the storm at $64 million…Fuel shortages led to the prolonged closure of the only electric power plant in Gaza in late 2013…Particularly worrisome is the situation of medical patients who, due to the lack of adequate capacity in Gaza, need urgent medical treatment in the West Bank or abroad.”
Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): Along with a number of hon. Members present today, I visited Gaza last week, as is detailed in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On power supplies, is the right hon. Gentleman as worried as I am about the number of people who are affected by burns because of things that they are trying desperately to do to create their own generators in order to get around the lack of power?
Sir Tony Baldry: Yes, and I very much hope that there is time for the hon. Lady to contribute in detail to the debate. Baroness Morris of Bolton made that point in the other place: the most vulnerable families are suffering terrible burns from using inadequate heating and cooking utensils.
Christian Aid went on to say:
“In December, the WHO— the World Health Organisation— reported a shortage of 30% of medicine and 50% of medical disposables and raised concern about the decreasing ability of the fragile health infrastructure to cope with critical shortages. Moreover, patients often encounter protracted delays in attaining permits to exit through the Erez crossing with Israel…In November 2013, a 24-year-old male patient with hearing disorder was arrested during security interview at Erez checkpoint. According to Mezan Center for Human Rights, 11 Palestinians were arrested at Erez checkpoint while trying to seek specialized medical treatment, of whom 5 were patients and 6 accompaniers…Since 2013, 154 Palestinian civilians have been victims of attacks in the Access Restricted Areas or ‘Buffer zone’, 11 of whom were killed, including two children. Most recently, on 24 January 2014, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian civilian protesting near the border…and injured several others. Gazan fishermen are also subject to frequent Israeli attacks. Already in 2014, at least 7 shooting incidents have been recorded against fishing boats within the 6 nautical miles limit.”
Christian Aid further observes:
Clearly Israel has a duty of self-defence towards its citizens from any attacks, but the indiscriminate and regular use of live ammunition against civilians violates basic principles including the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times and constitutes a breach of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Christian Aid highlights another concern, which is echoed by organisations like Human Rights Watch:
The explicit and punitive closure policy is entrenching the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which are considered as one territory under international humanitarian law. This cannot help the cause of peace or foster an atmosphere of optimism for the future.
Human Rights Watch observes:
Israeli policies on Palestinian residents have arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the ability to live in and travel to and from the West Bank and Gaza…the list of Palestinians whom it considers to be lawful residents of the West Bank and Gaza territories as separated families cause people to lose jobs and education opportunities bar people from entering the Palestinian Territories, and trapped others inside them…Israel has never put forth any concrete security rationale for blanket policies that have made life a nightmare for Palestinians whom it considers unlawful residents in their own homes…the current policies leave families divided and people trapped on the wrong side of the border in Gaza and the West Bank.
It is difficult for non-Palestinians nowadays to gain access to Gaza. I understand that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was recently in the region, he was able to visit the west bank but was prevented from visiting Gaza, allegedly on security grounds. Of course, Israeli journalists are unable, under Israeli law, to visit Gaza. For contemporary updates we have to rely on journalists who have recently been able to visit Gaza. In The Observer on 26 January Harriet Sherwood, the paper’s middle east correspondent, who has made more than 20 visits to Gaza, wrote:
The people of Gaza are reeling from a series of blows that have led some analysts to say that it is facing its worst crisis for more than six years, putting its 1.7 million inhabitants under intense material and psychological pressure…Power cuts, fuel shortages, price rises, job losses, Israeli air strikes, untreated sewage in the streets and the sea, internal political repression, the near-impossibility of leaving, the lack of hope or horizon – these have chipped away at the resilience and fortitude of Gazans, crushing their spirit.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has already mentioned many of the problems faced by Gazans. Is not one of the worst aspects of the situation the fact that 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable? Half the population of Gaza are aged 18 and under, and the Israelis are taking every opportunity to make it difficult to access drinkable water in Gaza. Military action has destroyed a lot of the water facilities. I emphasise the point that 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, which is a scandal in itself.
Sir Tony Baldry: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is intolerable in any part of the world for large numbers of people to be deliberately denied decent drinking water for long periods of time.
Harriet Sherwood went on to observe in her article:
Gaza is still blockaded and hope is rare. Israel controls most of its borders, deciding who and what can get in and out. Almost all exports are still banned; fishermen are regularly shot at by the Israeli navy; families are still separated.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has laid out clearly the appalling situation in Gaza and made the case that what has happened there constitutes a violation of international law, but we have not moved forward over the past five to 10 years. What does he suggest we can do to highlight the situation and put pressure on the Israelis to relent?
Sir Tony Baldry: I will, of course, come to that.
Harriet Sherwood’s article continued:
The price of a kilogram of tomatoes has quadrupled, along with steep hikes in the cost of essentials such as flour and sugar. Electricity is rationed, currently eight hours on followed by eight hours off. Some families are cooking indoors on open fires, at considerable risk of injury. Children are forced to study by candlelight. People set alarms for the early hours in order to be able to take a shower or charge their phones or send an email. Mealtimes are now determined by power supply rather than tradition. Gaza’s hospitals have to take into account the vagaries of the power supply when scheduling surgery; pharmacies are running low on medicines…The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is feeding more than 800,000 Gazans—almost half the population, and a record number. But UNRWA is also facing a catastrophic 20% drop in income while need is rising. ‘So much pressure has built up,’ Robert Turner, UNRWA’s director of operations, told me. ‘How far can Gaza bend before it snaps?’
I would like to suggest a number of actions that could be taken to make life in Gaza more tolerable. First, people should be allowed to exit Gaza, otherwise it becomes simply a large open prison. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world where there is such restriction on the movement of people. As I understand it, Israel is still committed to a two-state solution, but Palestine is a state divided into two, and how does one keep Gaza and the West Bank together as a viable unit and potential state if Palestinian citizens are not allowed even to travel freely between them? Before the blockade, thousands of Gazans went to Israel daily to work, and it was an important source of employment.
Secondly, there is an urgent need for fuel—fuel for power plants, fuel to pump fresh water and fuel to put in cars, which are all essentials for life. I understand that Turkey and Qatar have donated fuel for Gaza but that there are difficulties in the politics, and consequently in the logistics, of delivering it from Qatar. Many would argue that the constant use of diesel for power plants in Gaza is not sustainable in the long term. In any event, continuous power cuts are causing irreparable damage to the Gazan electricity network, which is likely shortly to become inoperable. The Gazans need more electricity, a high-voltage line from Israel in the medium term and the ability to access natural gas for a Gazan power plant in the longer term.
There is an increasing concern among donors, NGOs and the international community that constantly applying sticking-plaster solutions to the humanitarian situation in Gaza does not address the root causes of its problems. The simple fact is that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is getting worse, however much money the international community puts into it. The occupation must end. Gazan business should be allowed to export to Israel, and through Israel to the west bank. It may be possible to export Gazan strawberries for a couple of months a year to the Netherlands, but sustainable exports from Gaza are entirely to Israel and the west bank. There appears to be a total ban on exports from Gaza to either Israel or the west bank, however, which is resulting in mounting unemployment and grinding poverty.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I was on the same delegation to Gaza last year as the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for drawing attention to the environmental situation in Gaza: the water shortage, the inability to develop solar power because of lack of resources, and the lack of material for creating desalination plants. Does he agree that an environmental catastrophe is fast approaching, and that if it is not addressed, goodness knows what will happen to the people of Gaza?
Sir Tony Baldry: I entirely agree. Israel, the occupying power, does not seem prepared to allow people or exports to leave Gaza, and it seems equally unwilling to allow construction materials into Gaza. There appears to be an almost total ban on construction materials. There are strict controls even for international projects organised by the donor community: UNRWA can currently take forward only 12 of the 32 construction projects that it considers to be essential in Gaza. There is a need for new housing and to repair damage caused by the recent storms. Construction was one of the only industries in Gaza that used to be growing, and it once employed 20,000 people, but now practically no construction is taking place. The present humanitarian crisis seems to affect every aspect of Gaza. People appear not to be getting permits to travel to hospital. For the past two years there have been serious shortages of medical supplies and drugs, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 30% to 50% of drugs are at zero stock.
Gazan fishermen and farmers are also having a tough time. Fisherman are allowed to fish up to 6 nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline, but the main fish stocks are 8 nautical miles from the shore and fishing in nearer waters provides no livelihoods. There have been cases of fisherman being shot or their boats being confiscated. The reality is that 95% of Gazan fishermen are now dependent on aid. No new people are fishing, because it is impossible to make a living.
Farmers face the difficulty that there is no clarity about the width of the buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli border. Officially, it would seem to be 100 metres, but Palestinians have been shot up to 300 metres from the border, and I am even told that one was shot 1 km from the border. Farmers are not clear about whether and where it is safe for them to work and till their land. That has a cumulative effect, because if agricultural land is not properly worked it has little chance of recovery. The hours that farmers can work are also restricted to between 7 am and 3 pm. Many farmers in Gaza, as elsewhere in the world, want to get up at first light—5 am—to work their fields.
I think it is particularly tragic that Gaza, as part of Palestine as well as of Israel, has the potential to benefit from considerable natural gas resources and reserves. There is considerable natural gas in the Gaza marine field. Instead of having to rely on diesel, Gaza could run its energy and water systems on natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the natural gas discussions between Israel and the Palestinians have been complex and appear to be getting nowhere.
Gaza is part of the middle east peace negotiations, and for there to be a viable two-state solution, there must be a viable Palestine. To have a viable Palestine, Gaza must be part of Palestine and a viable part of a Palestinian state. It cannot be right, in the 21st century, that people are suffering as they are. As the UN General Assembly mission concluded, under international law “collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances.”
Occupation clearly harms those who are occupied, but I would also suggest that long-term occupation is not in the best interests of the occupiers.
I noticed that in this week’s Spectator, Sam Kiley, the foreign affairs editor of Sky News, observes that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has
repeatedly insisted that if there isn’t a deal this year that establishes an independent Palestinian state, then Israel’s own future as both a Jewish state and a democracy is in doubt. If there’s no two-state solution, then Israel will face international isolation as a pariah state that denies rights to up to 2.5 million Arabs.
He goes on to observe that John Kerry
has been more circumspect. Still, here’s what he told Israeli TV last year: ‘If we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimisation of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis. I’ve got news for you: today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s.’
Kiley reports that the US “has been clear about what it would like to see: a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. And it has set a deadline for talks to produce something: April this year.”
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise because I must shortly leave this debate to go to the main Chamber. I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how long the two-state solution has to run. My view is that we have months rather than years. This debate is therefore not only timely but must lead to progress. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are talking in terms of months not years in order to get matters right, not only for Israel but for the people of Palestine?
Sir Tony Baldry: I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. He has reinforced the point that it appears was made by both our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and John Kerry. As a lawyer, I think that there is a question under international law as to how long it is possible for part of the world to be occupied without such an occupied territory becoming part of the de jure state that is occupying it. The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made is that Israel cannot continue to be both a Jewish state and a democracy if it denies rights to 2.5 million Palestinians indefinitely. It would appear that we have months rather than years to resolve the issue.
All that any of us can ask is that Israel, as the occupying power, complies with the norms of international law, and that we see some swift and speedy alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I share his desire for urgency in bringing about a conclusion, or at least progress in the two-state solution talks. What signs has he seen from Hamas, the political power in Gaza, of willingness to participate in a peaceful settlement?
Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend, the chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, is of course right to bring Hamas’s role to the attention of the House. However, the state of Israel was created by the United Nations. It owes its whole de jure legitimacy to a UN vote in 1948. I would therefore urge my hon. Friend, before he tries to draw the attention of the House on to Hamas, to focus on the views and opinions of international lawyers whose mandate was also given to them by the UN General Assembly. So long as my hon. Friend and other supporters of the state of Israel—of which I am one—remain deaf to the clear advice that has been given about the illegitimacy of the collective punishment of the people of Gaza for the actions of a few, we are never going to see a resolution of the tragedy that is affecting so many people in Gaza.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.40 pm. I have a long list of speakers, so to ensure that they all get the chance to contribute I am going to put a time limit of five minutes on speeches.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I once led a delegation of 60 parliamentarians from 13 European Parliaments to Gaza. I could no longer do that today because Gaza is practically inaccessible. The Israelis try to lay the responsibility on the Egyptians, but although the Egyptians’ closing of the tunnels has caused great hardship, it is the Israelis who have imposed the blockade and are the occupying power. The culpability of the Israelis was demonstrated in the report to the UN by Richard Goldstone following Operation Cast Lead. After his report, he was harassed by Jewish organisations. At the end of a meeting I had with him in New York, his wife said to me, “It is good to meet another self-hating Jew.”
Again and again, Israel seeks to justify the vile injustices that it imposes on the people of Gaza and the west bank on the grounds of the holocaust. Last week, we commemorated the holocaust; 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are being penalised with that as the justification. That is unacceptable.
The statistics are appalling. There is fresh water for a few hours every five days. Fishing boats are not allowed to go out—in any case, what is the point, because the waters are so filthy that no fish they catch can be eaten? The Israelis are victimising the children above all. Half the population of this country is under the voting age. What is being done to those children—the lack of nutrition—is damaging not only their bodies and brains; it will go on for generation after generation.
It is totally unacceptable that the Israelis should behave in such a way, but they do not care. Go to Tel Aviv, as I did not long ago, and watch them sitting complacently outside their pavement cafés. They do not give a damn about their fellow human beings perhaps half an hour away. The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) quoted the Prime Minister as saying that Gaza is a prison camp. It is all very well for him to say that, as he did, in Turkey—he was visiting a Muslim country—but what is he doing about it? Nothing, nothing, nothing!
The time when we could condemn and think that that was enough has long passed. The Israelis do not care about condemnation. They are self-righteous and complacent. We must now take action against them. We must impose sanctions. If the spineless Obama will not do it, we must do it—even unilaterally. We must press the European community for it to be done. These people cannot be persuaded. We cannot appeal to their better nature when they do not have one. It is all very well saying, “Wicked, wicked Hamas.” Hamas is dreadful. I have met people from Hamas, but nothing it has done justifies punishing children, women and the sick as the Israelis are doing now. They must be stopped.
As has been pointed out, there is a time limit for what we are talking about. The idea that things can go on, while we wait for a two-state solution, is gone. Sooner or later, the Palestinians will say, “We are dying anyhow, so let us die for something.” Let us stop that: I do not want a war. I do not want violent action, but the action that the international community takes must be imposed, otherwise hell will break loose.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I have visited Israel and the west bank several times, and I occasionally heard Israelis say things about the Palestinians similar to what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has said about the Israelis. I pointed out that they were wrong to say so and that many Palestinians seek a peaceful solution and look forward to working with Israel in future if possible.
I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) the humanitarian wish to improve conditions in Gaza, in a practical way. He spoke at length about the juridical and legal situation, going back to the creation of the state of Israel. He will remember that that UN resolution—in 1947, I think—was accompanied by a proposal for a partition of what was then Palestine, under the British mandate, into an Israeli and a Palestinian part. The Israelis accepted that, but the partition did not come about. As soon as the state of Israel was created, the partition was made redundant through an invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies, for the purpose of attacking Israel. It is necessary to move on from there.
Photo by Dwayne Senior/Sunday Times
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Of course it is necessary to move on. I am afraid that is history, though. We have to address the humanitarian crisis facing us now. That is what my hon. Friend must do.
Mr Clappison: I went back to the founding of the state of Israel, but it is worth putting that on the record.
I do not believe, and will not be persuaded, that the state of Israel has any interest in imposing the present conditions on the people of Gaza for the sake of it.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Come off it!
Mr Clappison: Hon. Members need to contain themselves. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, and it was hoped that that would bring about a solution to Israel’s immediate problems. It did not. Since then—and my right hon. Friend touched on the point—there have been about 8,000 rocket attacks on Israel. There have been many thousands, certainly.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is trotting out the usual Israeli propaganda. I went to Gaza three weeks after Operation Cast Lead, where 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. That was the ratio—100 Palestinian deaths to one Israeli death. Yes, of course we condemn rocket attacks, but let us remember—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making an intervention; he is making a speech.
Mr Clappison: The hon. Gentleman will have his chance. I regret all deaths on both sides, but the hon. Gentleman must face the fact that it was Palestinian—Hamas or Islamic Jihad, whatever it was—rocket attacks that began it. In each case that is what has begun the problems.
Israel has no interest per se in doing such things to Gaza. It is in the same position as any state would be that faced rocket attacks on such a scale—not to mention the other terrorist attacks, the digging of tunnels into Israel and attacks on border crossings, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury mentioned. The situation is not helped by suicide attacks on border crossings, or all the other things that have happened in the recent past. Israel has behaved with restraint on many occasions and I hope it will always do so, and that things will improve. However, we must face the fact that the only way to bring about a material improvement is to make progress in the peace talks.
There is a problem for my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and others who talk about how urgent it is to get a two-state solution. I agree, but as I understand the matter Hamas has set its face against a peaceful solution in its charter—[Interruption.] I may be corrected, but hon. Members can see the Hamas charter.
There is some doubt about the responsibility of Hamas for the rocket attacks, but in recent times it has, we know, ordered the withdrawal of its forces preventing rocket fire; that has been interpreted in some quarters as giving a green light to rocket attacks. In January the attacks intensified. They must be brought to an end if there is to be a peaceful solution. No country—certainly not this one—would permit its citizens to live under the threat of rocket attacks. We must have progress towards a peaceful situation, and an improvement in the security situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is right to make his case about the conditions in Gaza, but they cannot be seen in isolation.
I join my right hon. Friend in wanting progress on a two-state solution, compromise on both sides and, in the meantime, every possible flexibility and accommodation on the part of Israel. I understand that more construction materials have recently been permitted into Gaza—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may have better statistics than I do, but that is what I understand, and I hope for improvements.
I also hope that medical help will be facilitated. I understand that Israel permits a huge proportion of Palestinians seeking medical treatment to leave Gaza and that many receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals; in some years, it is as many as half of those people. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke at length about medical matters; if he wants to contradict me on that point I shall give way, but I do not have much time left. He should be fair and put what I have said into the balance.
The real solution will be progress in the peace talks. I agree with the Government’s statements. Progress is urgent and important for both sides, and in their interest, but the security situation in Gaza cannot be detached from peace talks, peaceful negotiations and a peaceful settlement. Two countries cannot live in such a state of conflict, with continual attacks by one on the other. We must have a balanced picture. I look forward to future progress, but we must face the fact that Hamas as it stands is an obstacle to a peaceful solution. It amounts to almost half the Palestinian population.
I do not doubt the good faith of the Palestinian Authority about wanting a peaceful solution. We have been told many times that Hamas is about to make progress towards peace, or a statement, or give a sign that it is interested in peace. None has been forthcoming. I hope that those right hon. and hon. Members who take an interest in such things will use their influence with Hamas and the Palestinian side to turn them towards peace. At the moment they have set their face against peace, and they are the problem.
Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I associate myself completely with the comments of the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who secured today’s debate, and with everything said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman); and I dissociate myself from virtually all the comments of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. His remarks showed why there is a problem in getting a resolution for Palestine.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about a small nation that is being persecuted, millions of whose people are refugees, and whose citizens on the west bank have been living with Israeli occupation. In Palestine people are suffering collective punishment. Millions of people do not have decent housing, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick)mentioned, 90% of the water is contaminated. I do not know how the hon. Member for Hertsmere can say that that is justifiable, whatever may be happening.
People cannot fish in the sea or get proper produce to provide food. They cannot build houses, so their economy cannot regenerate. The United Nations has an organisation that builds homes. It is not a private organisation, but because of the blockade it cannot get the equipment and materials to build those homes and create jobs. What is happening in Gaza is intolerable, and if any other country were inflicting that level of punishment on people, the whole United Nations, the Security Council and the whole international community would be up in arms. Yet, what do we have? Yes, there are some good people in this country and even in Israel who campaign against the actions of the Israeli state in not only Gaza but the west bank, but guess what? The leaders of most countries in the world are saying nothing and turning a blind eye.
The situation has been going on for nine years. Everyone, from all parties—this is not a party political issue—and every one of our Foreign Secretaries have said, “Yes, we think this is wrong, and we all believe in the two-state solution. Yes, we are friends of Israel, and we have told Israel that it should not be doing this.” But guess what? Nothing has happened.
Mr Winnick: What would be the position if 90% of the water in Israel proper was undrinkable? Would there not be an outburst, and rightly so, of indignation and anger, as there should be over the situation in Gaza?
My hon. Friend touched on an issue raised by our right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). There are people in Israel—a minority, unfortunately—who take the same views as most of us on human rights and share our anger over the denial of justice to the Palestinian people. We should not forget those brave people in Israel who stand up for human rights—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making an intervention, but a speech. That is not fair on hon. Members who put their name on the list to speak.
Yasmin Qureshi: I agree with everything my hon. Friend said. I want to praise the people in Israel and the Jewish people in this country who campaign actively for the rights of Palestinians. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, I am sure that they are criticised by other Jewish people perhaps for trying to betray the state of Israel. However, the issue is not about a state of Israel, of Jews or of religion; it is about the millions of people who used to live in the state of Israel, who have been made homeless and who have sought refuge in various parts of the world and have not been able to return to their country. Particularly inhumane actions are being carried out in Gaza, causing the suffering that we see.
It is all very well for the Prime Minister to say that Gaza is a prison; others have said that it is like an open prison. Actually, there is a difference: in open prisons, people get clean water, food, medical treatment, and even books or television to watch at times, so even the comparison with open prisons is not accurate. If Palestinians were in that situation, they might think that that was a bit of a rejoicement. Gaza is a real prison in the worst sense of the word.
What has struck me in all this is that the state of Israel was founded because of what happened to the millions and millions of Jews who suffered genocide. Their properties, homes and land—everything—were taken away, and they were deprived of rights. Of course, many millions perished. It is quite strange that some of the people who are running the state of Israel seem to be quite complacent and happy to allow the same to happen in Gaza.
The issue is not just about Gaza; let us think about the west bank and Jerusalem as well. Many Palestinians are being turfed out of their homes in Jerusalem. The Israelis are the occupying power in the west bank, where they have got rid of Palestinian homes and replaced them with hundreds of thousands of settlements, recognised by the United Nations as illegal.
Whether we are talking about the west bank or Gaza, the policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, “What hope is there for us?”, and they rightly ask, “What is the international community doing about this?” Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why are we not getting the same in Palestine?
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): We should thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), because this is a debate and both sides of the issue have to be put. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber is totally committed to Israelis being allowed to live in peace and security in their state. Given the appalling oppression that they have suffered historically, how could anyone disagree with that?
Everyone accepts that Hamas is an appalling organisation and that the rocket attacks are appalling. However, I want to focus on humanity. That is what this debate is about. It is not, in a sense, about high politics, the two-state solution, or why the state of Israel was founded, but about the suffering humanity and 1.7 million of our fellow human beings who are living in appalling conditions. It is not just that they are in a vast prison camp; unlike the rest of us, they do not have any right to economic self-determination or to travel—all the normal things we take for granted.
Just listen to this report:
“Daily life is a battle for the deprived residents of one of the world’s most densely populated places on earth.”
We can look just at one person cited by the report:
The horrific scars disfigure Mona Abu Mraleel’s otherwise strikingly beautiful face. Swathes of bandages cover the injuries the 17-year-old sustained to her arms and legs in a blaze from which she narrowly escaped with her life. Still racked by pain from burns to 40 percent of her body, she goes to hospital on a daily basis to have her dressings changed. Specialist doctors are preparing to carry out a delicate skin graft… Yet the hospital on which her recovery depends is woefully ill-fitted to the task—riddled by equipment failures, power cuts and shortages in a mounting crisis that doctors fear is leading to a ‘health catastrophe’.
That is daily life for 1.7 million of our fellow citizens. Despite the horrors of Hamas and the rocket attacks, we cannot punish the many because of the sins of a few. That is what this debate is about.
Mr Love: Against the backdrop of what is happening in Gaza, which has clearly and emphatically been laid out in this debate, what chances are there for the peace process?
Sir Edward Leigh: I do not think we should have a sense of hopelessness. We should be indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and others who try. We may have inadequate means, but we are parliamentarians, and at least we are trying to do our bit to highlight the issues.
I do not share the general pessimism about the peace process. I was in the west bank recently, visiting a hospital in Bethlehem run by a charity of which I am a part. The hospital helps many young people to have children in good conditions, and we do our best to run it properly, but how can we have a peace process when virtually every month ordinary Palestinians see a new settlement coming on the hillside? I saw for myself, travelling through the checkpoints, how people were humiliated.
Israel has a right to peace and security, but surely the people of Israel and all of us must rise up and say, “There is hope for peace. They must stop these settlements, and they should start dismantling them. They must end the blockade of Gaza for the sake of the people who live there and the fishermen.”
We have heard about the fishermen. How can anyone fish just 6 miles out in filthy water? How can anyone live in a place where 90% of the water is undrinkable? How can farmers be shot just for going within a mile of an electric fence while going about their business? As the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) asked, would that be tolerated in any other part of the world? Would our Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the UN not be stopping it?
Yes, this is only a little debate in Westminster Hall and we are only Back-Benchers, but we must do our bit to articulate a sense of outrage that our fellow human beings are being treated like this, and we must spare no effort, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said in his most passionate speech. I share his passion. We must spare no effort in trying to persuade our Israeli friends that they are losing the battle—to put it that way—of world public opinion. They are not helping their cause.
By all means, if someone is attacked, they should reply strongly in military terms, but not punish a whole people and reduce them to utter poverty and destitution. I say this as a strong supporter of the state of Israel, but there is a real danger that more and more people in the world believe that a people who were formerly oppressed are now becoming the oppressors, and that the state of Israel is thereby losing its soul. What is its soul? It is the soul of an oppressed people who have made a great and wonderful nation. But there are other nations in this world and they must be treated fairly and must have an equal right to health, dignity and freedom.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I now have to impose a four-minute limit on speeches to get more speakers in.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will do my best to convey my concerns in four minutes.
I have been to Gaza on a number of occasions, most recently as part of a delegation with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). We visited an awful lot of facilities—health, environmental and agricultural facilities. I was struck by two things. One was the hope, determination and inspiration of many of the people who were trying to provide services and food against appalling odds, using their ingenuity to do so.
Secondly, and at the same time, I was struck by the random nature of bombardments and attacks. In Operation Cast Lead, illegal weapons were used and the most appalling abuse was meted out against people. The abuse has not stopped. Random bombings and air attacks still take place.
In Gaza, I visited the crater made by a bomb that had fallen not long before. I talked to the one survivor of a family whose house had been hit. I went into its remains and it was as if the world had stopped at a certain moment. Remember those old movies where the clock has stopped at a certain moment? It was exactly like that. The house was covered in dust, there was a bomb crater outside and almost everyone inside the house was dead. That family had done nothing—they were just the victims of yet another random attack by an F-16 jet from a first world power, which had been supplied by another first world power, against people living in desperate poverty and under siege the whole time.
I looked with great interest at the environmental problems faced by Gaza. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for allowing me to intervene on him about the issue of the environment; I pay tribute to his speech and how he delivered it. The water shortage in Gaza is due, in part, to the fact that it is a dry area; in part to its large population; and in part to the fact that there will always be a problem of water supply in the whole region because of the large population, their needs and so on.
The problem can be dealt with by sharing, co-operation and conservation. Instead, the alluvial rivers that flowed into Gaza no longer do so because Israel stops off the water somewhere else. The aquifer is not being replenished fast enough to deal with the rate of abstraction, so sea water and polluted sewage are seeping into it. In all honesty, the Gaza coastal aquifer should not be used from this moment onwards, because it is too dangerous and too polluted, but what else are the people of Gaza supposed to do? They cannot bring in desalination plants, because they cannot bring in the technology or get the energy to use them. The problem then moves on. How can they possibly sustain any level of agriculture? They cannot, unless there is water.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the economic problems of Gaza. He was generous with his words, as there is not really an economy in Gaza. The economy, such as it is, is what the United Nations Relief and Works Agency spends, what the aid community gives and what Qatar spends on capital developments. However, the ability to export food or anything else is so nastily constrained by the Israeli checkpoints that there is just disaster, destruction and waste. It is a humanitarian disaster. It is totally the responsibility of the power that is encircling Gaza and has brought this situation about. It is time that something was done about the situation, and rapidly.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will confine my remarks as much as possible.
I will make a couple of points. First, I have been to Gaza on a couple of occasions. I went after Operation Cast Lead, and the situation was dire although we all know that things have got a lot worse since then. More than 2,000 tunnels have been closed. Although that reduced the number of illegal weapons getting into Gaza, it also stopped the people of Gaza from accessing the everyday things they need to survive. It is totally inhumane to close all those tunnels without easing the blockade. My second point is about the women and children of Gaza, who have suffered for so many years in a situation of conflict and insecurity. They do not deserve to be denied the most basic human rights just because of where they live or the political party that happens to rule them.
So many people are now saying that the situation in Gaza is bad. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, said:
“Come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water…an unliveable place”.—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 280.]
That is telling, because it is not exactly diplomatic language or how you would expect a UK Minister to talk. I hope that the Government will take matters further and call on Israel to end the blockade.
I will put specific questions to the Minister who is here today. The answers may help in the immediate situation, pending the end of the blockade. Will the UK Government insist that Kerem Shalom be opened for exports as well as imports? Will they push for Erez to be reopened for imports and exports, and if necessary fund more security scanners if there is a real need for them? Will they push Israel to organise a “land bridge” between Gaza and the west bank, so that exports can reach west bank markets? A lorry convoy system could be instituted immediately for that purpose.
Will the Government push for the activation of the EU border assistance mission, which was agreed in 2005, to oversee the 2005 access and movement agreement and to address Israel’s security concerns independently? The arrangements should be immediately reinstated and a similar mission put in place at Erez and Kerem Shalom. Finally, as other Members have already asked, will the UK Government push for the fishing limit to be extended to 12 or 15 nautical miles?
Those are some of the questions that should also be put to the Israeli Government in the meantime. As the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said, they have a responsibility under international law for the position of the Gazan people and the misery they face. I hope that the UK Government will act as urgently as possible to deal with the situation.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has done a great service by securing this debate and setting out so clearly the case for humanitarian intervention in Gaza. There have been many good speeches, not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who showed his usual passion on this subject.
I will briefly mention one other supporter of Gaza and its people—my friend, Del Singh. With other hon. Members, I have the sad duty of attending his funeral tomorrow. He was murdered by the Taliban a few weeks ago in Kabul, where he was on a humanitarian mission. I had known him for the past five years as the main organiser of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, a job that he did brilliantly. The fact that he was killed on humanitarian duty sums up the man. He was a true friend to the Palestinian people. He ran the Gaza marathon two years ago to raise money, and he visited the area often. Del was of Sikh origin, but we have heard today that Muslims, Christians, Jews and those of no religion at all have all strongly supported the people of Gaza’s right to self-determination and their simple right to lead a decent life.
I first visited Gaza shortly after Operation Cast Lead. It was a totally harrowing experience that is completely fresh in my mind five years on. It was the complete evisceration of a society, with the systematic and organised destruction of industry and villages. It was what can only be called murder, including the murder of whole families. There was shelling of hospitals, which was done knowingly, and white phosphorus was used. These were war crimes, just as the occupation itself is a crime against international law. To say that these are not deliberate and knowing acts by the Israeli Government is naivety or worse. What is so distressing—
Mr Clappison: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Slaughter: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
Mr Clappison: I gave way to him.
Mr Slaughter: I would give way, but other hon. Members want to speak. I am sure that it was important.
Mr Clappison: If the hon. Gentleman will give way—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman has got his answer. The hon. Gentleman speaking is not going to give way. I should mention that any intervention will come off other people’s time.
Mr Slaughter: I understand. Quite right, too.
Since that time—I have been back, and I tried to return in January, but it is impossible, now, to get in—the situation has got worse than in the aftermath of a sustained military assault.
I found out this week that 30% to 35% of all the correspondence to the Foreign Office is about Israel-Palestine. Why cannot our Government, whether through their influence on the United States or their role in the EU, or unilaterally, do more to support the people of Gaza? That issue is clearly uppermost in the minds of the people of this country.
This week, we had the pleasure of a briefing from Sir Vincent Fean, a distinguished diplomat who was retiring after 40 years, having spent his last three years as consul-general in Jerusalem and therefore being responsible for Gaza. He told us about the incredible suffering—the lack of power, the polluted water, the lack of jobs, the complete blockade—and how intolerable it was.
Unfortunately, as well as killing Palestinian civilians, the Israeli defence force is good at propaganda and saying that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. The Israelis recently refused the offer of a scanner from the Dutch Government to allow goods to go in and out of Gaza. That sums up the fact that they want the blockade to continue and have no intention of helping the Palestinian people under any conditions. It is only through international pressure, brought by Governments such as our own, that the situation is going to be resolved.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. It is now time for Front-Bench speeches, but the Front-Bench Members have kindly agreed to give up part of their time. The two hon. Members who have not got their name on the speakers’ list, but have been here for the debate, have a minute and a half each or two minutes maximum. That will allow them both to contribute.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): You are a good man, Mr Hood.
I have been to the Gaza strip twice: once with Interpal, with the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), and once with Caabu and the all-party group on Palestine, with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).
My take is that, yes, the humanitarian situation is dire. But there will be no solution to the problem of the Gaza strip unless, first, the security situation is sorted out and, secondly, proper economic links are restored both with the state of Israel and with the state of Egypt.
When the Northamptonshire regiment went into Gaza in the first world war and took part in the three battles of Gaza there was no water, so it built a water pipeline from the River Nile to Gaza. That should be considered today. The problem is the Sinai and the security situation there; Hamas-backed terrorists are just as much of a problem to Egypt as to the state of Israel. If Hamas is taken out of the equation, the security situation begins to be addressed and then the economic links between both sovereign states can be tackled.
All of us want the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip sorted out, but we simply will not make any progress if all the condemnation is against Israel. Instead, we should be looking at the practical economic realities on the ground, where the Palestinians in the Gaza strip simply want to resume their trading life—as they always did—with both Israelis and Egyptians.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for bringing the debate to this Chamber and to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to it. It has been worth while, although I recognise the limitations of Back Benchers.
I want to make a few remarks. I first make my declaration in reference to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am concerned, because anyone who speaks up for justice for the Palestinians and speaks out against the abuses of human rights is characterised by the pro-Israeli lobby as anti-Semitic, an apologist for terrorists and a holocaust denier or worse. None of that is true, however, of hon. Members speaking here on humanitarian grounds in favour of a fair deal for the inhabitants of Gaza. I object most strongly to the vilification of hon. Members, including me, when we speak up on these issues.
It is clear that, for 1.7 million people—men, women and children—living on this tiny strip of land, Israel’s military blockade has meant economic collapse, extreme poverty and shortages of food and medical supplies. Gaza is indeed suffering. To suggest that this is a natural disaster simply beggars belief. As the occupying power, Israel should be held to account by the international community. It is important that we Back-Bench MPs hold our Ministers to account and that our Ministers hold the Israelis to account for their actions.
The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, cited an International Monetary Fund report in the House of Commons last year, saying that the blockade and other restrictions imposed by the Israelis cost the Palestinians 78% of their GDP. These people deserve a future and the opportunity to prosper.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate, to which many hon. Members from all parties have contributed.
I suppose that at the heart of the debate is the point made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh): we are called to deal with a humanitarian issue on the basis of humanity. In that spirit, I intend to speak primarily about DFID’s work in Gaza. I appreciate that hon. Members had only a short time to speak, so I am willing to take interventions.
The worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza is of enormous concern. December’s flooding has forced 11,000 people from their homes. That, alongside the ongoing blockade and recent closure of the tunnel network, has forced 1.7 million Palestinians into a daily life of extreme poverty. There is a serious danger that supplies of food, water and fuel—already diminished—will run out later this year. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deeply troubling, as evidenced by hon. Members in this debate. Aid agencies as well as international organisations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, have expressed particular concern about the serious and immediate lack of adequate water supplies and sanitation in Gaza.
The conflict in Gaza and the continuing blockade have exacerbated the chronic lack of basic infrastructure. We believe that the Israeli authorities must ease restrictions on humanitarian aid to Gaza. We fully support a negotiated two-state solution that establishes a safe and secure Israel, alongside a viable Palestinian state, with both sides enjoying the respect and recognition of their neighbours and the wider international community. I speculate that that view would be uncontroversial in the House. The previous Labour Government worked tirelessly with our international partners to help achieve that situation, but I appreciate and share the frustration that many people feel about the lack of progress on the issue, during that time and in recent years. The UK has a role to play and is playing it through the work of DFID.
I understand and welcome the International Development Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of DFID’s spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and look forward to seeing and debating the conclusions of its report. It is considering the effectiveness of DFID’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; whether DFID is focusing on the right sectors and working with the right organisations; whether DFID’s funding to the Palestinian Authority aids the twin goals of state-building and achieving a negotiated peace; and whether DFID should consider funding projects involving Israeli-Palestinian joint working. I hope that that will allow us another opportunity to come back in due course and debate these issues. It is important that we also scrutinise DFID’s work in the region right now.
In 2009, the Labour Government responded to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, giving an additional £15 million at the height of the conflict. While I accept that this Government have increased spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since that time, has the Minister considered additional funding to meet the costs of December’s flooding and associated humanitarian issues? Although the immediate need is clear and must be met, Gaza must also be set on the path of sustainability through DFID’s investment. I would welcome a few comments from the Minister about how she is tackling the issue of both the short-term and long-term crisis.
I have two additional thoughts before I allow the Minister to step in and talk about DFID’s work. First, we know that the tunnel clampdown, which began last summer, has had a significant impact on the ability of Palestinians to get the bare necessities of day-to-day living. Food and building resources previously transported through the tunnel system have been stripped back, leaving a growing problem of food insecurity and undeveloped infrastructure. We know that that has had a massive effect on the Palestinian economy, with some £250 million being taken out of key sectors and some 20,000 jobs being lost. The construction industry, previously valued at a quarter of Gaza’s GDP, is among the sectors that have been hit hardest.
Secondly, there are serious, immediate concerns about health. A recent World Health Organisation report concluded that a third of medicines and half of medical disposables are simply out of stock. There are no cancer drugs. At a time when hospitals are trying to deal with the fallout of the floods, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage-filled water are washing out entire districts and pressure is being added to areas where disease is already rife. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we can respond to the immediate needs of the situation, which has been exacerbated in recent months?
DFID has committed £94 million of bilateral aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past financial year. Will the Minister lay out how that spending is split between the territories? Will any spending be shifted in response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza? There is clearly much more work to be done, and Gaza requires immediate assistance, as well as long-term strategy and investment in basic infrastructure, to meet development needs. It is right that the UK Government, alongside other partner nations, should play their part in helping to give the people of the region a chance to build an equitable future free from poverty and disease and truly secure.
Lynne Featherstone MP, photo by Peter Dench
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Lynne Featherstone): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate and on his incredibly powerful speech. Indeed, I congratulate all Members who have contributed today. Passions clearly run high, but I doubt whether there is anyone in this Chamber who does not want peace and security for Gaza, the west bank and Israel.
The situation in Gaza is untenable. Indeed, the UN has predicted that by 2020, unless we see major changes Gaza will have become unliveable. Obviously, the UK Government are concerned about the crisis, so I welcome today’s debate. A great many points and questions have been raised, and I am undecided as to whether to tell Members what I was going to tell them or to try to answer their questions. I will try to address some of the points first, which may mean that I do not address all the issues that one might expect.
On the points that have been raised, we welcome the modest extension of the opening hours at Kerem Shalom during recent storms. We continue to push for exports, and there is no security argument against exports that we can understand. The Dutch recently funded a scanner at Kerem Shalom that remains unused, so there is currently no case for the UK to provide another scanner, although we understand the frustration. Only the easing of Israeli restrictions will relieve the situation. Conversations are currently ongoing with EU partners on possible border assistance. Exports to the west bank via a land bridge—something that was raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne)—would only be possible with peace and better movement and access. Those points are all symptoms of the same problem.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the Foreign Secretary, who has been most clear that there is “no more urgent” priority than the middle east peace process. He continues to support US-led efforts. There is huge frustration with the lack of progress, but at least talks are taking place.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned drinking water, desalination and the environment. Restrictions on construction materials mean that it is not possible to build the necessary infrastructure. The EU is doing important work on water and sanitation in the area. Water scarcity is a serious problem across the region. There has been a lack of rain, and as well as the political situation, a series of things have led to a water shortage. A division of the water supply is crucial for both countries in any two-state solution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) mentioned burns acquired from trying to access the power supply, thereby highlighting the need for a long-term power solution. The present situation is unsustainable and extremely dangerous. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned sewage, the lack of medical care and the lack of power. The serious sewage spills in December 2013 were due to the severe weather, but the underlying problem is actually the lack of power for sewage pumps. DFID supports the UN access co-ordination unit’s work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and aid agencies to transfer medical supplies, but obviously restrictions mean that patients cannot always access specialist treatment.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who chairs the Conservative Friends of Israel, raised the role of Hamas, which has been condemned by both sides of the House as an awful organisation. As hon. and right hon. Members know, Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation, and it has to renounce violence, recognise Israel, prove that it has changed and be willing to make peace, without which it is very difficult to move forward.
Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?
Lynne Featherstone: No, I will not.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned that a high proportion of correspondence to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK public are hugely interested in the peace process, which must make progress. DFID receives similarly high levels of parliamentary and public interest in that subject.
I hope I have answered some of the points that have been raised. As we have heard today, this is a dark time for the people of Gaza, and I do not exaggerate when I say that they are struggling to survive. The UN has assessed the situation as close to breaking point, and a return to violence is increasingly likely. As hon. Members know, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not a new problem. Poverty, unemployment and shortages of food, water, fuel and medical supplies have made life a daily struggle for too long.
Things that we take for granted, such as clean water and jobs, are not a norm for people living in Gaza, and we are concerned about that. Gaza has a chronic and devastating power shortage, and the latest crisis caused by the storms has all too clearly revealed the fundamental weakness of relying on imported fuel, as well as the dangers of using interim measures such as cooking oil. The root of those problems is Israeli movement and access restrictions. We understand Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and we have recently seen increases in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. We condemn such actions wholeheartedly, but they are the actions of a few and should not automatically mean increased suffering for the many. We continue to push Israel to ease those restrictions.
Several hon. Members rose—
Lynne Featherstone: Forgive me if I do not give way, as I have only two minutes left to conclude my remarks.
A stifled Palestinian economy is not in Israel’s security interests. Poverty and hopelessness drive radicalisation. The restrictions on legitimate trade drove transactions through the tunnels, which benefited Hamas to the tune of some £90 million a year in taxation. The Israeli restrictions on fuel and construction material imports are the root of many problems in the area. Actions by Egypt to close the illegal smuggling tunnels have undoubtedly made the situation worse, but ultimately the responsibility lies with Israel, as the occupying power, to ease the restrictions that make life for Gazans so difficult. We make that point to Israel strongly and regularly.
This is a humanitarian debate, for which DFID is responsible. The UK takes the problem extremely seriously. DFID provides substantial support to Gaza: by supporting UNRWA’s job creation scheme, which provides 52,000 jobs; by contributing to the World Food Programme, which provides food vouchers to 285,000 people; by supporting UNRWA to build 22 schools; and by helping to develop the private sector by supporting more than 340 small companies in Gaza.
To sum up, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly precarious. Our partners tell us that the situation is close to breaking point, and we need to see peace negotiations and a two-state solution that includes Gaza. We need to see Israel—
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.
It looks as though there is not going to be a Division at 4 o’clock.