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Update on Recovery in Lebanon and Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

Volume 449: debated on Monday 11 September 2006

The recent conflict in Lebanon caused great harm to the civilian populations in both Israel and Lebanon. A million people, a quarter of Lebanon’s population, were displaced by the fighting and in Israel 300,000 people were reported to have fled their homes or taken to shelters. Israel had every right to defend itself against Hezbollah, but from the beginning we expressed the need for a proportionate response. I believe that this requires all sides to respect international humanitarian law.

The ceasefire, reached after much diplomatic activity, including strenuous efforts by the British Government, is holding and has aided the relief effort but the humanitarian situation in Lebanon remains serious.

On 15 August, the day after the ceasefire came into effect, I visited Beirut to assess the situation for myself. The priorities for the humanitarian aid effort were to secure sustained access for humanitarian convoys to reach the most vulnerable; to ensure safe return for displaced citizens; to minimise the risk of injury and death from unexploded munitions for those returning and for aid workers; and to repair basic infrastructure, such as water and power supplies and bridges.

From early in the conflict, the UK responded to Lebanon’s call for help. Our total funding commitment now stands at £22.3 million, including our share of multilateral spending, making us one of the biggest bilateral contributors to the humanitarian effort. In line with our assessment of current priorities, this money is helping to provide shelter, healthcare, water and sanitation, and to clear unexploded munitions. We have agreed to provide urgently needed prefabricated bridges to open critical humanitarian supply routes. The first three bridges arrived in Lebanon on 1 September.

The Government have also urged Israel to lift all restrictions on normal shipping entering Lebanese ports, as set out in resolution 1701. This is essential in order to help restore the economy. The partial lifting of the economic blockade last week has further enhanced the chances of avoiding a much bigger humanitarian crisis and will help Lebanon begin the path to recovery. We continue to push for further progress on the issue.

The international community has responded generously to Prime Minister Siniora’s appeal for assistance at the Stockhom conference on early recovery held on 31 August. Collectively we have pledged over $900 million to aid recovery. It will be important that these pledges are acted on as soon as possible.

Lebanon needed our aid, and we are ready to do more as needed, but more than anything else what Lebanon and the region need is peace. The conflict of this summer was a symptom of a wider collective failure to resolve the conflict that has affected the Middle East for decades. UNSCR 1701 was a step in the right direction, and must be implemented by all parties, but we need to encourage negotiation, compromise and above all political leadership to end the long-term suffering of people on both sides of the border.

Unfortunately, what has happened in Lebanon is not the only humanitarian crisis in the region. We cannot forget the plight of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, where violence continues and people die. Since the start of the current conflict on 28 June, over 200 Palestinians have been killed and over 700 injured. The cost of damage to agriculture and industry is now estimated at around $46 million. Many households continue to receive only six to eight hours of electricity per day. However, there are plans to rebuild the Gaza power station and to supply electricity from Egypt, which should improve the situation. Intermittent electricity supply is affecting all key services. Water supply and sanitation services remain limited, with severe health implications. The UN now estimates a 65 per cent. increase in the number of children with diarrhoea compared with this time last year. Hospitals are struggling to operate vital equipment and to store drugs and vaccines safely.

Food prices are rising and 70 per cent. of Gazans are now considered to be food insecure. The World Food Programme reports a 72 per cent. increase in numbers using their feeding programme. Gaza crossing points are open intermittently, primarily for humanitarian food supplies. Action is needed to ensure unrestricted humanitarian access, including the supply of medical equipment, fuel, food and electricity.

At the Stockholm Donor Conference on 1 September, donors pledged $500 million for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, of which $200 million was for humanitarian aid. The UK pledged £3 million to the Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) for operation, maintenance and repair work to keep water, sanitation and electricity services running. This follows an earlier contribution to the TIM of £3 million to fund essential health supplies. In addition, the UK made a contribution of £15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in April. UNRWA provides healthcare and other basic services for Palestinian refugees, who comprise 70 per cent. of Gaza’s population. The UK has also deployed two experts to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to improve its capacity to monitor the humanitarian situation in Gaza. These two experts will assist donors and others to make sure help gets to those who need it the most.