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Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2008

The Government and I are extremely concerned about the situation in Gaza and we are monitoring it closely. Gazans scrambling over the Rafah border last week secured essential supplies, but the underlying humanitarian situation is still dire. Although we understand Israel’s security concerns, we do not support the decision to close Gaza’s crossings. The Foreign Secretary and I have called on Israel to open them and to lift immediately all restrictions on humanitarian supplies. So far this financial year, the UK Government have given more than £11 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the west bank through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the temporary international mechanism. The majority of that money went to Gaza.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s answer. Does he agree that it is completely unacceptable for the Israelis to stop goods coming in, in particular for the Umm al-Nasser project? That project is needed to drain a lake to prevent potential flooding for 10,000 people in Gaza, but the Israelis are blocking the supplies that are coming in for that. The Israelis made a commitment to the special envoy to the middle east that they would honour the project, but what is the point of having a special envoy and getting him to do deals with the Israeli Government if they will not deliver—

I have had the opportunity to discuss with the Quartet’s envoy the quick impact projects, including the project in Gaza. He is determined to continue his work to ensure that those projects are taken forward. Ordinary Palestinians should not suffer because of the actions of extremists, and any response by the Israeli Government to the rocket attacks by militants should be in accordance with international law. We are therefore keen not only that humanitarian supplies should be able to enter Gaza but that we have the kind of economic progress that is necessary to support the peace and reconciliation process in the middle east that we all want to see.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Israel’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza is probably illegal under international law and the fourth Geneva protocol? The closure of the Erez crossing means that basic humanitarian medical supplies and all food supplies cannot get through to Gaza. Even a humanitarian convoy put together by Israeli human rights organisations has been blocked at the Erez crossing. Will the Secretary of State put immediate pressure on Israel to open the crossing, allow medical and food aid to get through and allow the humanitarian supplies to arrive quickly? Israel’s refusal to do that means that the anger and poverty of the people of Gaza simply gets worse and worse.

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I travelled to the Palestinian Authority’s territory in December and took the opportunity to meet Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister who is responsible in the Israeli Government for the policies about the crossings. I impressed on him the long-standing position of the British Government that, notwithstanding the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, we believe that the crossing should be open. We recognise that there are deficiencies in the medical supplies available in Gaza and continuing requirements for fuel for generators, not least for the hospitals. That is why I and the Foreign Secretary have made repeated pleas to the Israeli Government to recognise their obligations and ensure that the crossings are open for humanitarian supplies.

I welcome the pressure that the British Government are putting on the Israeli Government to reopen the crossings and the humanitarian support that we are giving through the non-governmental organisations in Gaza. However, what steps and systems has the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is not being diverted in Gaza to be used to create rockets to be fired into Israel?

I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. There are clearly established mechanisms, principally through the UN and the ICRC, to provide support. We are providing about £100 million through UNRWA to the Palestinian territories over a period of five years. However, in addition to those assurances, we continue to speak to the Palestinian Authority, principally to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and to impress on them the importance of taking forward the work in the Palestinian community to find a way forward, not least in relation to Gaza.

While the Government’s actions on this matter are impeccable and the efforts of Tony Blair are wholly admirable, is it not a fact that only international action can bring to an end the humanitarian disaster caused by collective punishment imposed by the gang of amoral thugs who comprise the Israeli Government and violate not only international law but the historic Jewish conscience?

I know of the long-standing concern about and the interest in the middle east with which my right hon. Friend speaks. The British Government have been unequivocal in stating that Israel should abide by its commitment under the fourth Geneva convention. We recognise the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, but it is vital that the Israeli Government act in a way that is consistent with their obligations under international law.

My right hon. Friend made another substantial point about international action, and I welcome the steps taken by the Quartet’s special representative and the recent visit to the region by President Bush of the US. The whole international community should speak with one voice to impress on both the Israelis and Palestinians the urgency of finding a way forward in the middle east.

We are appalled by the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, but does the Secretary of State agree that we have reached an extraordinary state of affairs when a UN representative can say:

“Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the...acquiescence…of the international community”?

We all condemn the rocket attacks on Israel, but does the Secretary of State think that the scale of the Israeli response is disproportionate?

I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his Front-Bench post as Liberal Democrat spokesman on international development. We are extremely concerned by the humanitarian situation. I have seen the reports to which he has referred and which were written by an UNRWA representative. Since July 2007, when the closure regime was tightened, we have made active diplomatic efforts to ensure that the humanitarian situation has eased. In December, I took the opportunity to discuss the Israeli Government’s defence posture and humanitarian obligations with Ehud Barak. As recently as last weekend, my colleague the Foreign Secretary raised those matters directly with Minister Livni, the Israeli Government’s foreign affairs spokesman.

At least no one in the House of Commons is trying to defend the Israeli Government’s inexcusable actions. Cannot the western powers—certainly this country, and I would hope the US—be much firmer with Israel and say that its actions cause dismay throughout the civilised world? How would Israeli citizens like to be subject to what the citizens of Gaza are subjected to by Israeli occupation?

As I said, we have been unequivocal in urging the Israeli Government to recognise their humanitarian obligations in Gaza. We have also been unequivocal in our support for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts over recent months to reform the system of governance in the west bank and to take the peace process forward. Ultimately, both the Palestinians and the people of Israel have legitimate security concerns, but that is no reason why humanitarian supplies should not reach Gaza, nor why rockets should be fired on the Israeli population. It is imperative that all sides recognise their responsibilities, and it is essential that the international community communicates that with one voice.