Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Michael Foster.)
I do not usually have much luck in House of Commons ballots, but this debate could not have come at a better time. The war has just ended, and we are discovering its true horrors—white phosphorus, bereaved parents and injured children—as we contemplate the destruction not only of many homes but of much of the infrastructure of Gaza. The international community and Gazans themselves face not just a humanitarian crisis but the task, effectively, of rebuilding Gaza.
It is exactly a month today since the war started. What has been remarkable about the past month is not just the scale and spontaneity of the worldwide protests, which have been far greater than anything that we have seen before—some of us were involved in the issue at the time of the Lebanon crisis, and the situation has far outstripped even that—but the readiness of people around the world to help the Palestinians. For example, last week the Muslim community in Blackburn raised £150,000 for a Palestinian charity in just one week. Last night, Channels 4 and 5 and ITV screened the Gaza crisis appeal. We do not yet know how much it has raised—perhaps some people do. To my mind, it is unforgivable that the BBC and Sky refused to screen it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. I refer him to early-day motion 585, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Does he not feel that the BBC and Sky should not seek to pre-empt the work of the Charity Commission, which regulates the activities of the constituent organisations of the Disasters Emergency Committee? It is not for the BBC and Sky to make political judgments about the worth or partiality of humanitarian disaster appeals. Does he not think that the BBC and Sky should reconsider their disgraceful decision not to show the DEC appeal last night?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Broadcasters’ role is merely to ensure that appeals meet their criteria. I have before me the BBC guidelines for televised appeals, and anyone who runs through them quickly will find that they have been met completely. First,
“The disaster must be on such a scale…as to call for swift international humanitarian assistance.”
That is a tick. Secondly, agencies must be in a position to provide it. There may have been doubt about that earlier, but there is none now: agencies are there already. Thirdly,
“There must be sufficient public…sympathy…to give reasonable grounds for concluding that a public Appeal would be successful.”
Yes again. For the life of me, I do not understand on what grounds the BBC refused the appeal. It is undoubtedly true that however much money Channels 4 and 5 and ITV may have raised last night, much more would have been raised if the BBC and Sky had been there as well.
An organisation called the Ummah Welfare Trust has its headquarters in my constituency. Its bank is refusing to clear cheques, which is making its operation extremely tedious. The organisation is linked to Interpal, which is suffering similarly. Has my hon. Friend looked into the reasons why Interpal and the Ummah Welfare Trust are being refused access to banks and therefore cannot provide humanitarian aid to Gaza?
I hope that the Minister can respond to that. If it is in my power, I shall certainly look into it myself.
The war has shown us that, although there is a huge amount of sympathy for what is happening to the Gazans, we as a country seem to have lost our moral compass on this issue. It is one of the most brutal, ferocious, inhumane wars in recent memory, and although most people’s response has been strong, some institutions do not seem to have understood the seriousness of the situation in Gaza.
My hon. Friend the Minister has just returned—I think at 5.30 this morning—from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He will know that King Abdullah has pledged $1 billion. Saudi TV raised $300 million in an 11-hour telethon. Next door, Kuwait has pledged $500 million, and the Emirates have promised to construct 1,300 homes in Gaza.
By comparison, our Secretary of State announced an extra £20 million during the course of the conflict, in addition to an earlier £6.8 million. I do not know how much our bilateral aid will amount to over the whole of this year, but I know that last year it was around £45 million, and my figures state that £40 million in multilateral aid was given the year before, making about £80 million in total. I hope that the total is more than that now; I hope to hear about it from the Minister. We have pledged £250 million over the next three years, which sounds as though it will come to the same figure of £80 million a year.
I know that, on one level, £80 million is probably much more than many other European countries give, but at another level, it may be much less than is needed, given the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure not just by three weeks of bombardment with Israeli shells but by the three years of economic blockade that preceded it. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister has had a chance to visit Gaza, but I have, and I can tell him that it looked like a bomb site before it actually was one. There were potholes in the roads because the Israelis would not allow in the tar needed to mend them. Huge piles of rubbish were dumped all over the place because the Israelis would not allow in the building materials needed for waste disposal. There is a desperate need for clean water, sanitation, building materials to repair shelters, fuel and power. That need, which was acute before the war started, is now 10 times more acute.
I certainly accept the scale and the seriousness of the situation, but does my hon. Friend agree that the situation came about because the terrorist organisation Hamas fired thousands of missiles and rockets of increasing range and sophistication at Israeli civilians? Indeed, 5,000 of them were fired after Israeli settlers left Gaza.
We are considering the Gaza issue from an humanitarian and international development point of view. It would be a great detour to go into the rights and wrongs of it. That is not the point that I seek to make, and I fear that if we stray too far down that path, we might even be out of order. If one starts from the recent past, my hon. Friend’s point may carry some weight, but going further back, the rights and wrongs of the situation in Israel start from 1948 and 1967. People in Gaza feel that they have been deprived of most of their own country. They have a sense of grievance that long pre-dates what she talks about.
I have been to Sderot and have seen the huge anxiety caused to the people who live there by the possibility that, at any moment, a home-made rocket will come into their community. Equally, however, I understand the sense of grievance of Palestinians, who feel that their land has been confiscated. They have been evicted from their villages and herded into a small strip of land; they have an unemployment rate of 80 per cent., and 80 per cent. of them depend on United Nations rations for refugees. I think that their sense of grievance is just as understandable. That is not to condone terrorism, home-made rockets or suicide bombers, but it is important to understand why people in Gaza feel so desperate and are prepared to go to such measures to, as they see it, defend themselves.
I shall try not to take up too much time, because there are many other hon. Members present who wish to speak. The most urgent needs are in the hospitals, which were desperately short of vital equipment even before the war started. Now, it is a race against time to see whether they can be re-equipped in time to save thousands of children who have life-threatening injuries. Organisations such as the Red Cross, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Christian Aid are in the business of getting medicines and aid to hospitals, and they can get through. That is the light in which we have to see the BBC’s reluctance to screen the Gaza crisis appeal in order to
“avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality”.
Is its precious impartiality more important than children’s lives? Is it saying that it cannot save the life of a Palestinian child unless it saves the life of an Israeli child at the same time? What if there are no injured Israeli children? Does that mean that the Palestinian children will have to die?
It is a strange kind of even-handedness that cannot allow an appeal for horribly injured children on one side of a conflict because there are none on the other. The BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, should go on his own programme, “The Moral Maze”, to try to get his head around this problem. It is a complex moral issue, but it is not so complex that we cannot see what the answer should be. Practically the whole world can see what the answer should be, except, apparently, the governors of the BBC.
As I have said, the relevant conditions for a televised appeal have been met. We know how much money has been raised by previous DEC appeals that were broadcast by the BBC. The Burma cyclone appeal raised £19 million, despite the fact that many people thought that disaster was under-reported because the press were not able to get in. The appeal for the Congo crisis—a war that many people feel has been overshadowed, and has been ignored and overlooked by the world—has raised £9.7 million so far, and is still open. As The Times has said:
“A national appeal from the DEC would normally raise about £10 million, but without the broadcasts the total is certain to be lower.”
I hope that people will think about those words, because the BBC has a huge responsibility in this regard. It has a responsibility to be impartial, but it must not misapply that responsibility to the unnecessary injury of other people. Does the Minister have an estimate of how much more money would be raised if the BBC, and indeed Sky, changed their minds, as it is still open for them to do, and broadcast the crisis appeal?
I think that if the BBC were to broadcast the appeal, it would raise a lot more money than other appeals because of the ferocity, inhumanity and disproportionality of the Israeli assault, which has so shocked and horrified people, regardless of their views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has mentioned this morning’s Order Paper, which contains several early-day motions expressing people’s concern about the BBC’s decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who is the chairman of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, has tabled one that has been signed by more than 100 people, including me. I am the chair of an organisation called Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, and people might therefore expect me to have a particular view of the conflict; however, another early-day motion, equally urging the BBC to screen the appeal, has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who is the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel.
Right across the spectrum of views about the roots of the conflict, there is consensus that the BBC and Sky should broadcast the appeal, because there is absolutely no reason not to, and because the decision not to is unnecessarily depriving charities of money that could help them to save lives. One does not have to lay any blame to recognise that there is an humanitarian crisis, and I seriously question whether anyone could be found, even in the Israeli embassy, who would complain if the BBC screened the appeal. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister—I am glad to see that he is not suffering from any outward sign of jet lag—to provide the House with information about the level of the UK’s current contribution and about whether any increase can be expected as the seriousness of the extent of destruction in Gaza unfolds.
The debate is not only about Gaza, but also the west bank. It is equally important that humanitarian aid, and economic aid in particular, continue to flow into the west bank, because the roots of the problem—to come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) has made—lie not only in Gaza but in the west bank, where the Israeli Government continue to expand settlements and, from the Palestinian point of view, to rub salt into the wound. Until the Israeli Government stop expanding settlements and confiscating Palestinian land, and until they stop increasing the number of checkpoints—there are now 630 in the west bank alone, so an area the size of Lincolnshire has 630 checkpoints and roadblocks to keep Palestinians off the settler-only roads—they cannot expect the peace process to continue, or expect progress to be made. Neither can they expect people to feel that the Palestinian economy has any chance of escaping that asphyxiating grip, or expect people in the region to believe that peace is seriously and sincerely on the agenda.
The humanitarian, the economic and the political are all intertwined in the region. In order for humanitarian aid to work, we need political progress as well, so I very much look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister, particularly about UK and European Union contributions to the Palestinian Authority, which I feel should be stepped up, not just for Gaza but for the west bank. There have been various mechanisms, such as the Temporary International Mechanism and PEGASE to overcome the problems caused by the EU’s reluctance to give money directly to Hamas. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, what is important is that the money should get through.
I hope that the Minister will also deal with what the Israeli Government’s role should be in this matter, because they are still the legal occupying power in both the west bank and Gaza, and therefore have responsibility for the entire population of the occupied territory. Legally speaking, every school that is repaired in Gaza, and every house that is built in the west bank, should be paid for by the Israeli Government, as the legal occupying power. At the very least, we should look to them to make a contribution and to tell us what their intentions are regarding the west bank and Gaza.
I should also like to be sure that both PEGASE and TIM are fully replacing the aid that the west bank and Gaza—the Palestinian territories—would have been getting whether the Government were Fatah or Hamas. We might all have strong opinions on those organisations, but surely the issue is about who the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people are, and who our Government should be dealing with. I shall not take any more time, because there are so many hon. Members present who want to speak. I very much look forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s reply.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to add my comments, which will be little more than bullet points because of the time constraint.
What the BBC and Sky have done is erroneous. The BBC supported a repellent regime such as Burma, in the sense that a broadcast was made and money flowed in, and so the floodgates are open for it and others to assist any desire to aid. However, humanitarian aid must get through. The big, international organisations— whether they are Muslim or those of the UN or EU—will make their own decisions and have mechanisms in place to ensure that aid gets through. Big, international non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, will also have their own mechanisms in place.
However, I am concerned about the smaller organisations, of which there is one in my constituency. It is a good organisation that helps throughout the world, but what does it do in such a situation? Does it drive up to the border with aid? Will it get through the border? If it gets through, will it be allowed to distribute aid to the sources that it wants to distribute aid to? I hope that the Minister will be able to advise small organisations, which might not want to have their assistance subsumed within a large organisation’s assistance programme. What help can the British Government give to a small organisation that wants to assist?
The history of giving aid to a country that is in a war zone or that is recently recovering from a war is patchy because the culture of the Government, entity or warlord concerned is not one that normally subscribes to high principles of charity or aid giving, or to the work undertaken by prestigious and important international organisations. All I hope is that those organisations, whether large or small, will be able to distribute their assistance without excessive interference because, as far as possible, they must ensure that all the money raised is spent on those who deserve the aid—not the participants in a conflict, but the victims of a conflict. For international, national or local organisations that are involved in any aid-giving process, the danger is that enormous sums of money will simply be transferred to organisations—whether in Burma or elsewhere—that will purloin the money and might have objectives that are inimical to the interests of the organisation giving the assistance.
I welcome the debate and look forward to what the Minister will say, particularly to hearing the advice his Department, the Government and the European Union can give to small organisations. I only hope that, as in the old days of the pony express, the mail gets through and that the assistance—whether it is large or small, to Muslims or non-Muslims—gets to the people who deserve it. That is imperative, and I hope that the advice given will be heeded.
Like other colleagues, I shall be brief because many hon. Members want to speak. That is good and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate.
The situation in Gaza is obviously appalling, but it is not new. The situation in the west bank is difficult—if not also appalling in many places—and, again, it is not new. Although the issue about the BBC and Sky refusing to broadcast the appeal is important—I will return to that in a moment—I want to draw attention to the systematic curtailment of economic activity and development in both the west bank and Gaza by the blockade, by the construction of the wall by Israel, by the prevention of the export of goods from Palestinian areas, and by the high levels of unemployment and difficulties that Palestinian people have in travelling.
In relation to any aid that is provided for development, we have to be sure of two things: one, that it will get through and be used to develop, and, secondly, that it will not be wasted by a subsequent bombardment. Many of us have memories of visiting Gaza in the past and of seeing, for example, the airport or the water treatment plant, which were splendid. The water treatment plant was built with a great deal of support from the Department for International Development. There were new roads and new pavements, schools, hospitals and all the other things that have been built largely with international support and aid—some of which came from this country, although some came from the EU and from all over the world. All those things have been destroyed in Gaza. On various occasions in the west bank, that degree of damage has also been done and many aid packages have been destroyed.
Although I strongly support appeals for aid and the international support currently being given to the Palestinians, there is a case for the Israeli Government to be presented with a large bill for the damage that they have done in Gaza over the past four weeks. What has happened has been a wanton act of carnage by the Israeli army against the civilian population in Gaza and has resulted in the destruction of their means of economic livelihood.
The aid appeal that the BBC and Sky ought to be broadcasting is being made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and, as others have pointed out, in relation to every previous international disaster of any sort—whether it is a tsunami, volcano, flood, war or any other form of humanitarian disaster—if the DEC meets and decides to launch an appeal, the broadcasting channels have always broadcast it, irrespective of the place concerned. They have done it for Burma, for the earthquake in Iran, for the Congo and many other places. I do not know what on earth is going through the mind of the BBC—it is mainly the BBC that has caused this problem—in not broadcasting the appeal. Is it that the Israeli Government have some kind of power of veto over what the BBC actually does, because it is beginning to look a little bit like that?
I thank the Government for putting what pressure they can on the BBC, and I welcome that. I hope that they will notice that a large number of hon. Members have also applied such pressure because we want the broadcast to take place. Of course, the whole thing has been counterproductive because the huge publicity given to the BBC’s refusal has damaged its reputation and encouraged people to contribute to the appeal anyway. I hope that they do so to a large extent.
I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some good news about DFID, British aid and support for Palestine, and the way in which aid will get through—particularly in relation to exerting pressure to open the crossings to enable people to travel and in relation to the development of education. I also hope that the Minister will give us some news about the situation facing other aid agencies, such as Interpal. A number of British banks have refused banking facilities for Interpal, in particular Lloyds TSB. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has put a great deal of effort into supporting Interpal, which is a well respected, recognised charity. We should support all charitable efforts by ordinary people all over the country—indeed, all over the world—to respond in a decent, normal way to ensure that the people of Palestine no longer suffer from a lack of medicine, clean water, decent food and, above all, an absence of education for the young people there. It is our job to do all that we can, but I want to see a permanent settlement that allows the Palestinian people to live in peace.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate. It is important that we consider the serious humanitarian consequences of Israel defending its citizens against the rockets of a terrorist organisation that has a charter proclaiming jihad, and that plants its weapons in civilian areas using civilians as human shields. Regardless of the origins of the situation, it certainly is true that there is a great deal of human suffering, and it must be addressed.
I shall concentrate my few points on what ought to be done, but, before doing so, I wish to raise one point about the partiality—or otherwise—of those giving some of the information about the scale of the disaster. We have heard a great deal of testimony from a number of Norwegian doctors, and particularly from Dr. Mads Gilbert. It is important to register that Dr. Gilbert is a well known activist on Palestinian issues and, much more than that, some years ago gave to his local Norwegian newspaper an interview in which he praised the 9/11 bombers. I state those facts just to put a question mark against whether Dr. Gilbert and others of his ilk are as impartial as the media believe them to be. Nevertheless, there is a major humanitarian crisis, and we need to concentrate on what needs to be done.
It is important that the ceasefire, which, even this morning, seems very fragile, holds. That means an end to arms smuggling and to the negative influence of Iran and Syria and that Egypt and other international observers must play a fuller part in border monitoring. It is important that the crossings be reopened fully, and I am pleased that the crossings at Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz and Erez have been opened. The Karni crossing has been closed since Hamas attacked Palestinian Authority monitors there, but I hope that the situation can be rectified. It is important that the 2005 European Union agreement on monitoring the crossings and on movement and access is revived, but that means Hamas co-operation and an end to Hamas attacks on Palestinian Authority members.
I fully agree with the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who said that we need a stable political structure as a background against which individual agreements can be made and held to. That means a unified Palestinian approach, which, the Secretary-General suggested, should be under President Abbas. That is important, but I recognise that it may be difficult, given that, before and during the crisis, Hamas attacked and murdered several PA personnel. That has left a great deal of bitterness, but I hope that it is possible to form a unified Palestinian order to try to deal with the problems.
Aid should go to Gaza, and it is vital that it goes to where it is needed, but that means that Hamas should stop hijacking aid for use on its black market. For example, around 20 January, a Jordanian trucking company suspended its operations after its truck was stolen at gunpoint, and, on 5 January, Hamas opened fire on a convoy of aid trucks, seizing food and medical supplies. It is believed to have been done so that Hamas could either keep them for its own use, or exercise its own black market. That is not the way to bring humanitarian help effectively to the Palestinian people, and such activities should stop. It is also important that Hamas does not abuse humanitarian efforts. Cement and metal are needed for reconstruction, but, in the past, Hamas has built rockets from pipes imported to rebuild Gaza infrastructure.
These are serious points that must be made if we are genuinely to address ourselves to how we can help the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. The need is great and reconstruction is required, but that means that there must be peace, reconciliation and an end to Hamas aggression.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this timely debate. After the three-week war on Gaza, I had hoped to frame my contribution by looking at the long-term issues of economic development in the west bank and Gaza, because I thought that there would be a consensus around what needed to be done in the short term—around immediate humanitarian assistance. I welcome the efforts that my hon. Friend and the Government have made, but we all know that, if those short-term efforts are to be successful, the role of charities is absolutely vital, whether the charities are the Welfare Association, with which I have had the privilege of travelling to the area to see the good work that it does, Medical Aid for Palestinians, which had a major and very successful fundraising event on Sunday, or Interpal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned.
We must also consider the Disasters Emergency Committee charities: 13 of the most impeccable and mainstream charities in the UK, which wished, as we have heard, to broadcast an appeal this week, as they have done before on natural disasters and on war zones, whether they are Darfur, Congo or various other places. Its appeal was a humanitarian appeal, not one about taking sides, but the BBC and Sky refused to screen it. It has been the subject of huge concern in the past few days, and reference has been made to early-day motion 585, which stands in my name. I am very pleased that the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), is also a signatory to that early-day motion, and I congratulate ITV, Channel 4 and Five on broadcasting the appeal last night.
The ability of broadcasters to screen such appeals is important both to how money is raised to assist Gaza in the future, and to whether the money gets through. The issue is not about the allegation from some BBC executives that some of us want to interfere in their editorial independence; it is not about that. They have the absolute right to take such decisions as they want, and the power to do so. The rest of us also have a right to express our views, publicly, if necessary, when we think that they are making bad decisions. The BBC said that if it had screened the appeal last night, it would have compromised its impartiality, but I do not see any evidence that, since last night, the impartiality of ITV, Channel 4 or Five has been compromised. The BBC’s refusal to broadcast the appeal—in other words, its refusal to treat the situation in Gaza in the same way as it has treated war zones in Congo and Darfur—compromises its impartiality, not the other way around.
I wrote to Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, on Friday, when I heard about the issue. In his reply he said that there were two reasons for the BBC’s refusal. I shall turn to the first reason in a minute, but he said that the second reason was that
“Gaza remains an ongoing and highly controversial news story within which the human suffering and distress which have resulted from the conflict remain intrinsic and contentious elements.”
The issue is fairly clear. The BBC executives are worried not about impartiality but about controversy. If they want to avoid controversy, their actions over the past few days have not been very successful. It is dangerous, however, for a broadcaster to start to equate impartiality with an avoidance of controversy.
I completely agree. It is dangerous if the two ideas run together. Wars are controversial—it is in their nature—but the impact on the victims is real, and that should be our focus.
I have several questions, some of which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer, others that, perhaps through him, people outside Parliament may be able to deal with. In today’s Guardian, there is a report that the DEC approached the BBC on Tuesday, asking for the appeal to be screened. The BBC’s decision to refuse to broadcast it was communicated to the DEC at 5.47 pm on Wednesday, because, as we know, it believed that the content would be partial and compromise its impartiality. At that stage, the appeal had not been filmed, and I understand that on such appeals, editorial content rests with the broadcaster. So, what was the BBC saying? If it felt that there was a problem with impartiality, the solution was in its own hands.
On the first reason why the BBC refused to broadcast the appeal, the letter that I received from Mark Thompson says:
“There were two key factors in making this decision. In addition to the practical issue of delivering aid, there was a second important reason”,
and it then mentions partiality.
I just want to focus for a minute on the practical delivery of aid, because it is relevant to this debate and was clearly a reason that the BBC gave in its letter to me on Saturday. By the next day, the comments from BBC spokespeople were indicating that the issue of getting aid through was a less important factor because it probably could get through now. Interestingly, however, by yesterday that issue had re-emerged as a factor and, again, BBC spokespeople were saying, “We’re really concerned about whether aid will get through and whether it will get into the right hands.”
There are questions that the Minister may be able to shed some light on, but if he is not able to do so I hope that the BBC will. Who did the BBC ask about the issue of access for aid, when did it ask and where did it get its advice from? Was any advice sought from the Government, either through the Department for International Development or elsewhere, was any given and what was that advice? Apparently anticipating the DEC appeal, according to the report in The Guardian, the BBC charity appeals committee met in the run-up to the request for an appeal and some concerns were expressed about the ability of aid to get through. Apparently, those concerns had subsided by the time that the DEC made its request. We need to know who the BBC was asking and where it got its responses from. If the issue of access ceased to be such an important issue by Sunday of this week, why did it re-emerge as an issue yesterday? Who was the BBC asking and who told it that that was an issue? Who else did the BBC ask? I mention this matter because it raises some serious questions not only about what the BBC have been doing over the past week, but about the future of aid to Gaza and the Palestinian territories. If Chinese whispers can get in the way of the BBC’s broadcasting such a crucial appeal, will Chinese whispers not raise their head again and again and get in the way of the delivery of aid in future?
Before the war on Gaza started, for 18 months it was subject to an amazing blockade that was well reported by the United Nations and others. I spoke to the mayor of Gaza about 18 months ago, before the blockade got really tight, who said, at that stage, that he was having real difficulty getting the materials in to repair sewers, roads and so on. This man was not Hamas; he was an independent. He was having difficulties. We were told that hospitals were having difficulty getting medical supplies in, because those could be used, possibly, by terrorists.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that some of the materials that come in could be diverted for use elsewhere. However, the question is, if there are concerns about that, who makes the decision about whether materials go in or not? So far, the decision has been made by Israel. Israel decides whether aid could be abused and, if it thinks that it could, it just stops it getting in. That happened for 18 months and for a long time before that, to a lesser extent.
If we are going to sort this matter for the future and if the borders are going to be opened, who will decide what goes through when they are open? Will it be Israel or the Palestinians? Will the decision be made between them, jointly, or will the international community have a say in that matter? If the international community is going to have a say in that, will my hon. Friend the Minister say what the mechanisms might be for achieving that rather than its remaining the prerogative of Israel in future?
The discussion so far has rightly focused on humanitarian aid, but the solution for Gaza is not humanitarian aid. This should not be a poor part of the world. I do not want everyone to say that the matter is sorted once the people of Gaza are able to live for the foreseeable future on food parcels let in by the grace and favour of the international community, Israel or someone else. I want the people of Gaza to be able to trade and to have a decent, normal life. That is what they want.
Finally, if my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is worried about the smuggling of arms and about whether food parcels contain bits of food that could be used by terrorists, or whatever, the answer is to open the borders, let trade happen and let the Gazans raise money for an economy, for themselves, and let them link with the west bank. That is the solution and that is what we should all be working for.
We should never forget that half the population of the Gaza strip are children. When Hamas was elected to government only just over half of the half of the population who are adults voted for it—the rest voted Fatah. Many of those who were previously Fatah members voted for Hamas because they had given up hope that their party would deliver proper governance and a proper living in the Gaza strip, yet we are punishing all those who are certainly not firm Hamas supporters, many of whom have converted to being Hamas supporters. It is not right to impose collective punishment on a population in that way.
I was in the Gaza strip on 14 April last year, before the war, and I saw the effects of the blockade. I have never seen a population so subjugated—unnecessarily so, in my opinion. Even the Rafah crossing, where trade could have kept going with Egypt, was stopped. Is it any wonder that people were digging tunnels into Egypt to smuggle goods through? Arms were not all that was coming through the tunnels: basic materials, such as toothpaste and other things that we take for granted were coming through—even goats. The tunnels were not just there for arms. I admit that arms were coming through, but the vast majority of materials coming through those tunnels were necessary for life in Gaza.
Last week, I raised the question of public health in Gaza, which was bad when I was there. On the day that I visited Al Shifa hospital it had two days’ supply of fuel to keep the whole hospital running. It is the most important of the seven hospitals in Gaza and is the main centre for trauma treatment. It has an able intensive care unit, which I also visited—a traumatic experience. We talked to the staff there, including the director, who described his problems. He told us that 20 dialysis machines were out of action because there were no spare parts and not even technicians could be imported to repair some of the more expensive machines.
Al Shifa is an efficient hospital and it was well equipped, but even on 14 April last year it was not running properly. Basic medicines such as antibiotics, which we take for granted, were missing. Goodness knows how the hospital has survived attack during the three weeks of war without such basic materials. If the generators cease—if electricity is not supplied to that one hospital—80 patients will die within 30 minutes, many of them small babies in intensive care cots. If electricity is cut off for a week, the hospital will lose 250 patients at least, mainly as a result of its being one of the main dialysis centres in the region.
No wood was going into the Gaza strip; on 14 April people did not even have wood to construct coffins to bury their dead. In the grounds of Al Shifa hospital, there is a huge building that was derelict when I visited: all construction had had to stop because no concrete was going into the Gaza strip. That extension to Al Shifa hospital is important. There is no oncology in the Gaza strip at the moment, so no oncology work can be done. All cancer victims have to be exported to the west bank, Egypt or Jordan. However, doing that has been pretty well impossible too, so people have been dying unnecessarily.
When I visited there was $93 million in the bank for replacing houses that, frankly, were not fit for animals to live in. I went into quite a number of houses and I would not put animals into the kind of property that people have to live in. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was reconstructing houses and I saw some of those that were newly constructed, which I guess are now absolutely flattened. What a waste of money. It costs $16,000 to make a nice house for an extended family in the Gaza strip. However, that $93 million, even on 14 April last year, could not be moved to build the houses necessary for the citizens of Gaza.
I am very pleased that our Government are putting in about £27 million. I hope that along with the help from other Governments it is enough to start the reconstruction of Gaza, but I want to raise again with my hon. Friend the Minister the question of Interpal and particularly the Ummah Welfare Trust. I hope that he can explain why money from those organisations cannot be sent to Gaza, because most of my local Muslim population are very angry about that. I represent a large Muslim population in Bolton and they are very angry because they like to give to Muslim charities. Islamic Relief is another charity. It is not affected by the block involving the banks, but Interpal and the UWT are and they have a considerable amount of money that could flow straight into Gaza tomorrow for humanitarian work.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) that those states are giving quite generously at the moment, in view of the current crisis, but I accept that the Arab nations could help the occupied Palestinian territories a lot more than they may have done in the recent past.
When I was in Gaza, the whole of trade had collapsed. There were almost no businesses working except agriculture. Even people working in the public services were not being paid. There was no fuel for transport and no public transport, so people were walking to work. No refuse vehicles were collecting refuse, so there were piles of rotting refuse everywhere. We have to get the whole infrastructure going again.
It is very important that the sewerage infrastructure is repaired. Just inside the border, near Erez, there is a large lagoon full of raw sewage—or there was on 14 April; I do not know what happened to it during the war. People were very concerned that one of the dams would break and the raw sewage would flow into the villages. A five-year-old boy had already fallen into the raw sewage and drowned. That is an intolerable situation anywhere in the world.
Raw sewage was flowing into the sea and affecting fishing. I want to mention fishing because it is not often mentioned. The fishermen cannot fish beyond a very short distance from the shore, but that area is the breeding ground for the fish, so by restricting the fishing, the Israelis are destroying all the breeding grounds. Furthermore, the small fish that are being caught must be highly contaminated by raw sewage.
A third of the people did not have running water in their homes before the current crisis. Goodness knows how many people can access water now. It is vital that we get the sewerage and water systems flowing and the electricity infrastructure reconstructed. Those are the basic requirements now in the Gaza strip. I am conscious that other hon. Members want to make a contribution, so I shall finish on that point.
Nothing is new in the treatment of Israel and the attitude of the BBC to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. When I first went to the occupied territories, in 1988, before I came into the House, I saw the fruit on the trees rotting because the Israeli Government would not allow the people of Hebron to pick their fruit to sell it. That was happening throughout the occupied territories at that time. Nothing is surprising, because every time one goes to the occupied territories in Palestine—call them what you like—whether it is the west bank, which is supposedly Palestinian-controlled, or elsewhere, one sees that the Israeli Government continue to carry out collective punishments against the people of the Palestinian nation, in areas either within Israel or in the occupied territories. Without regard to whether they can prove a connection with any incident, whether it is a demonstration by a young enthusiastic student outside a university or by an elderly woman outside a mosque, the family home is destroyed—smashed—and the people are driven to live in tents. Sadly, that is happening on a large scale and regularly, because of the attitude of the Israeli Government. I believe that the aim is either to drive the Palestinian people into subjection entirely to one Israeli state or to drive them out of what was their homeland in the first place. I do not believe that that is something that is alien to the current nature of the Israeli state, which I think has become a viper in the middle east, despite being put there to be a place of peace—that was the hope—by the Balfour declaration. Sadly, Balfour was a Scot. As a Scot, I am ashamed of what has been reaped after that declaration.
Recent events were not surprising, but the scale on which the Israeli armed forces attacked the civilian people of Gaza was shocking. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The excuses about Hamas being in the community and so on do not stand up to scrutiny. That is why Amnesty International is calling on the UN to have a high-level inquiry into the behaviour of all sides. I think that such an inquiry would reveal most fault on the side of the Israelis. I do not in any way, or under any circumstances, condone members of Hamas or anyone else firing rockets or attempting to fire rockets into civilian areas of Israel. They are doing their people a great deal of harm by doing that and they are giving an excuse to the war machine that is the Israeli state to attack the innocent people of the Palestinian areas.
Let us be frank about the context for the events that we are discussing. The ceasefire held from June until November. Between June and November, not one single rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza, but the Israelis attacked and killed six Palestinians in Gaza and thereby broke the ceasefire. Whether that was deliberate, I do not know, but it was the context for what followed, which led to the excuses that have been made for the attacks.
The context for the aid is very important, and in that regard Amnesty International has raised several very important matters. For example, in relation to the armaments used, the use of phosphorus was reported. There are eyewitness accounts from doctors. The Amnesty press release quotes one burns specialist at Al Shifa hospital as saying:
“We noticed burns different from anything we had ever dealt with before. After some hours the burns became wider and deeper, gave off an offensive odour and then they began to smoke.”
That is why aid is urgently needed for the medical services in Gaza. Weapons that should never have been used are being used. The descriptions of the continuing burning and deepening of wounds caused by phosphorus shells used by the Israeli forces are horrific.
Amnesty is clear in the letter that it wrote to the UN Security Council. It states:
“Amnesty International urges the UN, preferably the Security Council, to establish, without delay, a comprehensive independent international inquiry into all allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups participating in the conflict.”
That is the context in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, it still seems that the Israeli state dictates how much aid will get into the area.
Masses of aid has gone in, and I join those who have commended the efforts of our Government and DFID in that respect. From my contacts through the European Scrutiny Committee, I am aware that the EU has been very generous. It provided €551 million in 2007 and €340 million in 2006. Massive amounts of money have gone in, as my hon. Friends have described. However, much of that aid, if it went into infrastructure, has been destroyed by the recent attacks and by attacks over the years.
I am a great supporter of those who try to tell us of the horrors of the past, especially about the aid that went to help the people of Europe, particularly the Jewish nations, who were attacked during the holocaust. I have been with students in my schools to Auschwitz to see the horrors of that place, which must never be forgotten. However, it is important that we do not become apologists for the Israeli state because of our sympathy for the horrors heaped upon the Jewish people during the Nazi period.
Some people say that all the wrong is on the side of Hamas and that things are happening that should stop aid going in. However, it is important to consider the report of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which states:
“Four Palestinians were injured on 22 January by a shell fired from an Israeli gunboat off the Gaza coast.”
Why is an Israeli gunboat shelling Gaza? The report continues:
“a house was set on fire by a shell fired from an Israeli gunboat…Also on 22 January, IDF troops shot and injured a child east of Gaza City near the border.”
That is not acceptable. Two wrongs do not make a right.
The scale of sympathy is not simply something to do with the organisations that have a deep understanding of what is happening. In my constituency, there is an organisation called Antonine Link—the Roman wall that runs through my constituency used to divide the people of Scotland. That group has set up a link with the peoples in the west bank who have been divided by the wall built by the Israelis. Organisations in Linlithgow do a huge amount of humanitarian work, and the Churches and faith groups have now turned to raising funds for the people in Gaza.
I finish by making one remark about the BBC. It has been run by idiots for the last decade. Whoever took the decision not to broadcast the appeal and the back-up given to that decision by Mr. Thompson, has brought the BBC into a position of unacceptable irrelevance to the people of this country. It is time that the BBC realised that it is a public broadcasting organisation. If it wants to be objective, it must advertise this appeal in the same way as it advertised previous appeals.
Many people have been shocked at the images shown on television of what has recently been unfolding in Gaza. The true horrors of war, some might think, yet that is not so—what we see on TV is an extremely sanitised version of what is happening on the ground. Watching TV in other European countries or on the internet gives a far more graphic picture of the reality—of the suffering that the action means for many innocent civilians, especially children.
However, even those sanitised images were enough to trigger many good people on to the streets of Edinburgh and other cities a couple of weeks ago to say, “This must stop.” Despite the bitter cold and rain, thousands of people braved the elements to call for an end to the bombing, the killing and the violence. Regardless of their political reading of the situation, the majority were there from a sense of compassion for the suffering of the people of Gaza. Jews were on that march, side by side with Palestinians and many others, old and young.
The conflict in Gaza was intensely political, but politics must not get in the way of efforts to stop further suffering wherever possible. Those who attended marches throughout the country may have had different ideas about the best long-term solution, but they were united in their desire to see an end to the suffering in Gaza. To achieve that, we need to facilitate the quick delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, the west bank and wherever else it is needed.
Gaza was a humanitarian concern before the recent conflict because of the severe restrictions imposed by Israel. Movement was all but impossible, and the supply of food and water, of sewage treatment and of basic health care were all creaking under the strain of the demands being made. Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants were enduring the worst conditions for 40 years, with 80 per cent. of the population dependent on food aid. A coalition of eight UK humanitarian and human rights groups warned last year of an impending “humanitarian implosion” in the Gaza strip. What we see today is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Other hon. Members rightly addressed the BBC’s decision not to air the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I back the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) when he argued that it was nothing short of an insult to the viewing public—the licence-paying public—to suggest that they would be unable to distinguish between humanitarian needs and political sensitivities. The BBC claims that it cannot show the DEC appeal because it does not want to compromise its commitment to impartiality; at the moment, however, the BBC appears to be compromising its commitment to humanity.
I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State for International Development has asked the BBC to reconsider its position. I would appreciate an update on what the Department is doing to resolve the matter. For the avoidance of doubt, it is easy to donate. I can tell those who read Hansard that they should visit the website www.dec.org.uk, or call the DEC on 0370 60 60 900. Ironically, the ban on the broadcast of the appeal has probably given it more publicity than could have been hoped for, but that still does not make the ban right.
The immediate needs in Gaza are the protection of civilians, emergency access for medical aid, electricity and fuel supply, water and sanitation, and food. Without immediate action, the UN is genuinely concerned about the total collapse of public infrastructure. Immediate and increased access to Gaza is the key to relieving suffering, and I would appreciate an update on what the Government are doing, through diplomatic channels, to ensure improved access to Gaza for the delivery of aid. Oxfam officials have identified the primary obstacle for aid delivery: the main crossing for aid to enter Gaza is 40 km from where most relief is needed, and it is too small for the number of trucks that need to go through.
The recent bombing damaged water wells and pipes and led to shortages; it has left half a million Gazans without running water. Five days after the ceasefire, 400,000 were still without water. Officials have confirmed that 2 million litres of waste water at Gaza city’s treatment plant, which was bombed on 10 January, have leaked into surrounding agricultural land. What is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that Gazans are able to access reliable sources of water?
Eight hospitals and 26 primary health care clinics were damaged during the fighting. The World Health Organization says that Gaza’s hospitals were “completely overwhelmed” during the Israeli assault; as a result, Gaza has only 2,000 hospital beds to cope with 5,000 injured. Although the situation has improved slightly, there are still reported shortages of skilled medical personnel and there is ailing equipment, with the UN describing facilities as under “enormous strain”. I look forward to hearing what the Department is doing to improve the supply of medical equipment and personnel to Gaza.
With such widespread devastation, shelter is now a major concern. Other hon. Members may have seen reports that more than half of those questioned for a Care International survey were hosting displaced people in their homes. Officials in Gaza have estimated that 4,100 homes were totally destroyed and 17,000 damaged during the conflict. I know that many constituents who contacted me on the subject would appreciate knowing what the Government are doing to provide emergency shelter. I am delighted that a further £20 million in humanitarian assistance will be made available by the Government. Will the Minister update us on the current position?
Sadly, in the past we have supplied aid in the west bank and other places—for instance the port in the Gaza strip, as we heard—only to see it destroyed. I saw one example at first hand; a police station filled with UK-funded equipment and computers was bombed to complete destruction by the Israeli defence force, supposedly in an attempt to kill a prisoner being held in the cells. The building was destroyed, but he walked free from the rubble.
We have heard today of the scale of humanitarian need in Gaza. The figures are sobering. However, while Gaza is still smouldering—it is rightly the focus of today’s debate—we must not forget the situation in the rest of the west bank. The construction of the wall, new settlements, razor-wire fences, checkpoints and access roads are all part of the process of subdividing the west bank and ensuring that it will never be a viable state in its present condition. The economy has been destroyed, and agriculture is suffering as water supplies become more problematic. What was a key part of the two-state solution is now a mix of refugee camps, with people in villages separated from their fields, children separated from their schools and adults separated from their work. It is amazing that that area, too, did not recently explode into violence as a result. The only long-term hope for peace in the region is a two-state solution, but for it to be an option, the Palestinians must have a state that they can call home. Our aid will help to keep body and soul together until that happens, but they cannot wait for ever.
Next month, I shall be visiting Gaza with Scotland’s Medical Aid to see for myself the situation on the ground. Although the BBC says that airing the DEC appeal would be one-sided, we must remember the other side of the coin—military and other aid to Israel from the USA is estimated at £3 billion per year for the next 10 years. Any aid that we can give, or might have given, to Palestine will be dwarfed by that figure many times over. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will detail what can be done in the weeks and months ahead to go some way towards ending the misery for those innocent victims, who do not have food, water, shelter or medical aid.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I welcome the Minister back from Palestine and congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) not only on securing this debate, but on providing the Chamber with a well-informed speech. I shall draw later on some of his comments. I should add that the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), is on his way back from Gaza.
Three weeks of fighting in Gaza have caused damage estimated at £1.4 billion. Four thousand homes have been destroyed, 17,000 residences partially destroyed and upwards of 1,300 Palestinians have lost their lives. In that context, we should remember the Israelis who have lost their lives as well as the Israeli soldier killed this morning. I hope that the latter death does not lead to a new upsurge in violence.
We should not for a minute underestimate the scale of the crisis in Gaza. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) graphically illustrated the destruction of public services and the absolute misery of people living with raw sewage, and without running water or enough equipment in the hospitals. The situation in Gaza is truly dreadful: it existed long before Operation Cast Lead began, but it is now inescapably more desperate.
The short and long-term scope for the spending of economic aid is huge. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has launched a campaign whose stated aims demonstrate the immediacy of the need for humanitarian assistance—that need is recognised throughout the Chamber—and many other groups are, of course, working to provide that much needed assistance.
Many Members have criticised the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said that
“while it is clearly a decision for the BBC and other broadcasters as to whether they show the appeal, the British public ought to have the opportunity to make their own judgment on the validity of the appeal. British generosity through our leading NGOs will make a huge difference to this appalling humanitarian crisis.”
As the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, the BBC must be very careful not to lag behind or to contradict public opinion. It is the guardian of the licence payers’ money, and ultimately they should have a broadcaster that conforms to their wishes, and indeed those of this Chamber—a number of signatures are on the relevant early-day motion.
A number of questions have been posed to the Minister this morning about the role of the Department for International Development. In 2007, DFID agreed funding of up to £243 million to the occupied Palestinian territories, although it is to be linked to progress in peace negotiations. In light of the recent violence, I would welcome an update from him on how DFID’s aid campaign will now progress and on how he envisages us getting the aid into Gaza. As I said in a debate in this Chamber last week, it is imperative that we get water, food and medicines into Gaza as soon as possible and that we use every means possible to do so, including, if necessary, by ship and under the auspices of the Royal Navy.
The UK is not alone in providing funding. The European Commission is providing nearly €500 million, and the United States has pledged $555 million. However, even with all that funding and good will, the cessation of violence and the steady establishment of the Palestinian economy and infrastructure have not been achieved. In Gaza it is even more tragic that any gains made might have been destroyed during the fighting, and many infrastructure projects will be back to square one. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned the excellent housing projects that might sadly have been destroyed. That is a tragedy. I share with Members in the Chamber the genuine hope that the ceasefire can hold. We must continue to try to look forward, which is why we are all here today.
Economic assistance must be spent wisely and properly, and audited correctly. We must ensure that it does not find its way into the hands of the Hamas extremists. That is not where the aid is needed. We must do all that we can to assist in the negotiations for a lasting peace settlement in the middle east. Only through a two-state solution, with a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, can true peace exist. Trust must be restored through negotiations. There is recognition that Israel must open its borders, but in doing so it must be open only to items that foster development, not violence.
As I have said to the Israeli ambassador, if peace is to endure in the long term, there will have to be a political solution, as we found in Northern Ireland. The onus is on Hamas to demonstrate that it prefers its people’s welfare to warfare against Israel. In the west bank, Fatah has chosen a path of political engagement over conflict—a process that has not been easy but is beginning to show signs of progress. Developments are being witnessed in trade, employment, security and agriculture, all of which lay the groundwork for future economic and social developments, free from the threat of war. More can be done, however, and I hope that the Minister will say something about the fact that Mahmoud Abbas needs to receive more support from the western world to prevent him from being sidelined and silenced by Hamas. Israel needs to offer more carrot and less stick in the west bank, and the further opening up of borders to allow the free movement of goods and people that will allow the region to develop.
From the other middle eastern states neighbouring this conflict, we must see a greater demonstration that they truly believe in peace in the region and are doing all that they can to assist. I was very interested to hear the hon. Member for Battersea say that Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion and Kuwait $500 million, and that the United Arab Emirates has pledged to rebuild 1,300 houses. That is an excellent start. However, I urge all Arab states, many of which have plenty of wealth from oil revenues, to do more and to apply pressure to bring about a political solution. In addition, the international community must monitor developments to ensure that the rocket attacks do not resume, because the consequences of a resumption of hostilities, on top of what has happened already, do not bear thinking about.
I welcome Barack Obama’s initial engagement with the issue and greatly look forward to seeing how he and Hillary Clinton, the new Secretary of State, choose to proceed. In particular, I welcome the appointment of George Mitchell in his new role as special envoy to the middle east. He has a proven track record in Northern Ireland where he was pivotal to the peace process. Let us hope that he can repeat some of that work in the middle east. However, we should not lose sight of Britain’s historical involvement in the region and must ensure that we remain a key player and continue to work with our friends in the United States and Europe in trying to find a solution to this desperate situation.
In conclusion, I welcome the good will of all those, especially our generous public, who choose to provide money to combat suffering wherever it takes place. I hope that, despite the BBC controversy, they will continue to donate generously to the DEC appeal and to other non-governmental organisations trying to alleviate the suffering of those poor people in Gaza.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on introducing this debate. It is not only timely, but has been of a very high quality, as the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said. I congratulate all Members on their contributions; I shall address as many of their questions as I can, but if I cannot do so in the time allowed, I shall follow up in writing to the Members concerned.
We have heard hon. Members’ concerns about the grave situation in Gaza—concerns that the Government share. We have all been shocked by the loss of life and the scenes of violence in Gaza in recent weeks. The images on our television screens have been harrowing. My hon. Friend asked whether we should debate the causes of the situation—whether it was 1967 or 1948, for instance. When I was in Saudi Arabia, yesterday, we talked about events as far back as the 1917 Balfour agreement. However, we should leave historians to debate and rewrite the history books. What we should do as politicians is try to shape the future for the Palestinian people.
May I remind the Chamber, and all those listening, what the UK’s position has been since 27 December when the conflict resumed? We called for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary led the way at the United Nations to secure resolution 1860. My Department has led efforts to ensure that, even when violence is wrecking people’s lives, they have access to medical supplies, food and shelter. The Government have not stood by, and we have not walked by on the other side of the road. My Department has moved incredibly fast to ensure the availability of all the resources that are needed for this immense humanitarian effort.
Since 31 December, the United Kingdom has pledged nearly £27 million for the relief effort. According to the UN, that makes the UK the current largest donor of humanitarian assistance. Many other countries have pledged future commitments. Saudi Arabia, for example, has pledged $1 billion for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza.
Of the more than £11 million that we have spent since 31 December, £4 million has gone to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides food and shelter for the people in Gaza. Last Sunday, I announced a donation of £4 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver medical supplies and to support the medical evacuation to Egypt; £1 million has gone to the UN humanitarian emergency response fund to help non-governmental organisations support local work; and £1 million has gone to the World Food Programme to support logistical efforts in the task of getting aid through the crossings from Israel into Gaza.
Yesterday, the UK airlifted three specially modified vehicles to enable the UN to distribute safely humanitarian assistance and to allow the needs assessment to take place, with aid workers being kept safely in the vehicles. In addition, the Secretary of State announced that we were sending £200,000 to the Mines Advisory Group to help it clear unexploded munitions and other explosive material.
This morning, I can announce that £600,000 will be given to Oxfam to provide water and sanitation in Gaza. That should help to deliver clean water for up to 50,000 people who are most in need, and sanitation kits to more than 2,000 people.
I welcome what the Minister has said about the British assistance. Will he confirm that when the exploration is done to uncover unexploded munitions, any evidence of illegal weapons that have been used by Israel will be handed over to the appropriate investigators, who may refer the matter to the International Criminal Court?
I am conscious that there are allegations on all sides about the illegal use of weapons, and that the matter should be, and is, subject to international humanitarian law and its agencies.
The BBC has come in for a lot of criticism during this debate. Its decision has managed to unite the political parties, the friends of Israel and the friends of Palestine. Somehow, it is deemed to be impartial, and it is worried about its impartiality. As for whether today’s comments constitute interference in editorial decision making, I have to say that if an MP expresses a public opinion on a matter, that is not editorial interference. Trying to secure the best humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza does not constitute interference in editorial decision making.
Access has long been a problem in Gaza. We have been calling for the borders to be opened for a long time. It is an issue that I raised with Israeli Minister Herzog when I was in Jerusalem. It turned out that Israel was perfectly happy to consider increasing the number of trucks going through the crossings from 100 to 500 a day, which, according to the UN, will maintain the status quo. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, that does not take into account the 18 months in which the blockade has taken place and the backlog of work that is needed to be done.
I am sorry to intervene slightly out of sequence in the Minister’s speech, but it would be useful if he could tell us this morning—in addition to the very welcome announcement he has made on the amount of humanitarian assistance going into Gaza—when the aid is likely to get into Gaza and how much has gone in already. The situation is urgent and the aid is needed now.
That is a very good question. The aid is getting through, but clearly not in sufficient quantities. I witnessed lorries being loaded with food aid to be delivered to the Palestinian people, so the work is ongoing. As for the value of the aid that has gone through, that is a different calculation. I will investigate the matter to see what can be established. At the moment, the count that is being made is on the number of trucks going through the crossings as opposed to the value of the aid that is on those trucks.
At a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Livni last week, the Foreign Secretary and his European colleagues pressed for improved access for all humanitarian supplies. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield raised the issue of what would happen to access in the future. Clearly, that issue will be part of the process that is evolving in Gaza. We have made it clear that the responsibility for managing the crossings should be held by the Palestinian Authority. However, if help is needed in the short term, the Prime Minister said that an EU mission would be made available to staff the crossings to maintain the security of the people of Israel while allowing the supplies to get through into Gaza.
Before my hon. Friend the Minister leaves the issue of the BBC, will he or his colleagues pass on to Mark Thompson the points that have been made? Does he have any estimate of how much extra could be raised by the crisis appeal if the BBC changed its mind and broadcast it?
My hon. Friend is right to remind the Chamber that Mr. Thompson will be in the House at 4 o’clock this afternoon. Colleagues may want to address their concerns directly to him. As for the likely cost of the BBC’s decision on the appeal and, therefore, the direct help that can be given to the people of Gaza, NGOs have told us that if the DEC appeal did not make the headlines, it could reduce contributions by up to 80 per cent., which is a substantial sum. However, the appeal has hit the headlines over the past few days, so the impact that it will make in the future is too hard to calculate.
In the minute or so that we have left, may I remind the Chamber that the UK has been the third largest bilateral donor to the Palestinian people after the United States and Saudi Arabia? At the Paris conference, we pledged £243 million to be spent over three years. In the first year, £84 million—just over a third—was committed. We are also the second largest contributor to the European Commission, and that has pledged more than $1 billion over three years. We are the second largest donor to the humanitarian relief effort in Gaza. That level of support demonstrates the importance that the Government attach to sustainable peace in the middle east and to improving the lives of millions of ordinary people who have suffered for far too long. We welcome the interest that this debate has shown and I will ensure that hon. Members are kept up to date with developments in the weeks and months ahead.