Skip to main content

Gaza (Reconstruction)

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2009

3. If he will take steps to ensure that funding under pledges for reconstruction in Gaza made at the Egyptian donor conference will not be channelled through Hamas. (266026)

5. To which programmes his Department plans to allocate the £30 million announced on 1 March 2009 for the reconstruction of Gaza; and if he will make a statement. (266028)

Participants in the Sharm el Sheikh conference expressed their intention to deliver reconstruction aid to Gaza through existing international and regional financing mechanisms. The £30 million that I announced will be spent through those mechanisms and through non-governmental organisations that are not affiliated with Hamas and have robust monitoring systems. Priority programmes will include the repair of homes and schools, the clearance of unexploded ordnance and the short-term creation of jobs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I commend the British Government’s commitment to getting aid into Gaza to support the urgent reconstruction. Given that Hamas recently stole United Nations aid and has allowed unexploded weapons under its guard to go missing, does he agree that it is now important to get an increased Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza to monitor the crossings and to free up the aid so that it gets to ordinary Palestinians, who desperately and urgently need that help?

My hon. Friend raises a number of different points. When I was in Gaza recently, I took the opportunity to discuss with John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there, concerns about the misappropriation of any aid resources. He was able to assure me that at the point at which we met the supplies were getting through, and that we had robust monitoring mechanisms and continue to do so. On the Palestinian Authority, we of course welcome the fact that, under the auspices of the Egyptian Government, reconciliation talks are under way. On the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises about authority at the border posts, it is, of course, the European Union’s position that we have offered assistance through the EU border assistance mission. We hope that we will be able to find a way through by a combination of the political reconciliation talks that are under way and maintaining in the minds of the international community the continuing importance of the Palestinian Authority.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about additional aid for Gaza, but what steps can he take to ensure that dual-use materials such as metal pipes do not fall into the hands of militants to be converted into weapons, but are used to improve the lives of the people of Gaza?

There is of course a long-established and trusted list of dual-use materials. It is a matter of great regret, therefore, that that has not been the basis on which the Israeli Government have made judgments in recent weeks, when there have been long disputes about whether rice should be allowed into Gaza, although pasta is allowed in, or about whether paper should be allowed in. That gives a sense of the scale of the challenge that the international community continues to face. We have been clear and unequivocal that we do not want the misappropriation of any materials and in our condemnation of the continued rocket attacks on the Israeli population, but we have been equally robust in saying that there needs to be full and unfettered access for those items that constitute humanitarian provision.

I am slightly surprised to hear the Secretary of State say that when he was in Gaza the head of UNRWA, John Ging, said that supplies were getting through, because that is not what he said to me when I was in Gaza recently, nor what he said to a cross-party group in this very place yesterday afternoon. He did say that UNRWA is unable to go about its business in Gaza because of a lack of armoured vehicles. He also said that UNRWA was chronically underfunded. Given that this country pledged £47 million at the outset of the crisis—very little of which has got into Gaza—will the Secretary of State now show some leadership by talking to the Israelis to insist that UNRWA armoured vehicles get through to Gaza?

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension following my previous answer. The point that I was making about John Ging was that he was clear that the aid that he was supervising was getting through to the people of Gaza who required it and was not being misappropriated by Hamas. Consistent with the position that the British Government have taken, John Ging—speaking on behalf of UNRWA—has very deep concerns about the range of items being allowed through the crossings and into Gaza.

When I visited Gaza, I took the opportunity to meet Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Social Affairs Minister, and press directly the case about the armoured vehicles and the wide range of items that are not being allowed to enter Gaza. Only as recently as yesterday, those efforts were reinforced by one of my colleague Ministers who made the point again directly to Isaac Herzog. Of course, a new coalition is emerging in Israeli politics. Let us hope that the dialogue that we have begun in recent weeks—although it has not achieved what we would all wish to see—makes more progress in the weeks ahead than it has done so far.

It is essential, of course, that every assistance possible be given to the innocent people in Gaza, but can the Secretary of State assure people in the United Kingdom that that assistance will not be misappropriated by those who caused the problems in Gaza in the first instance?

I have just explained that we use tried and tested mechanisms that provide robust supervision. Oxfam, an organisation with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar, now distributes drinking water by water tanker to up to 60,000 people every day in the worst-affected parts of Gaza. Since 27 December and the outbreak of the conflict, the World Food Programme has distributed two months of rations to more than 296,000 people in Gaza, and UNRWA, the organisation led by John Ging, is reaching up to 1 million beneficiaries with food assistance. Those are practical examples of the difference that the generosity of the British people and others in the international community is now making to the lives of ordinary Gazans.

My right hon. Friend personally, and this Government, have a magnificent record in assisting Gaza, but is it not lamentable that the money that he provides simply goes to rectify the wanton devastation inflicted savagely by Israeli forces in Gaza? Does he agree that the real obstacle to reconstructing Gaza is not Hamas, loathsome though it is, but what is about to become the most extremist Government in Israeli history?

We have been unequivocal in our condemnation of the rocket attacks that have continued from Gaza into the Israeli population, but we have been equally clear that the Government of Israel have heavy responsibilities. One of the most dispiriting aspects of my visit to Gaza was sitting with a group of Palestinian business people who told me of their investments in factories in Gaza in recent years—at a cost of being called quislings by the Hamas authorities because they were willing to trade with Israel—and of how, during the final hours of the conflict, ahead of the unilateral declaration of the ceasefire, they watched the devastation of the industrial region of Gaza when there was no apparent activity from Hamas forces in that part of the territory. There is a huge amount of work to be done and it is vital that the humanitarian effort continues, but, beyond the humanitarian effort, it is critical that a comprehensive middle east peace plan emerges in the weeks ahead. I hope and trust that the new Israeli Government under formation at the moment will take that forward.

The Secretary of State will be aware of growing concerns in the NGO community about the apparent contradiction between EU and UK law on whether NGOs can continue to support public officials such as teachers and nurses. Will the Secretary of State offer some clarity and confirm that British NGOs will be able to continue to provide vital services in Gaza without the fear of prosecution under EU law?

The position that the British Government have adopted for some time has not changed. We urge the agencies involved to maintain the greatest possible distance from Hamas. We recognise that there might be circumstances in which there is proximity within Gaza, given Hamas’s present role, but none the less we are clear that those mechanisms that I have spoken of already need to be upheld. We need to be able to offer assurances to the British people that the aid to which they have generously contributed is not being misused and misappropriated.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind in these exchanges that the appalling devastation in Gaza was brought about by Israel? More evidence has come to light in the past few days that Israel has in fact committed war crimes in Gaza—crimes against humanity. Although I have no time for Hamas at all—obviously not—the fact remains that far more should be done by the international community first and foremost to help the people of Gaza and secondly to try to ensure that those who have committed war crimes are brought to justice.

I hope that my answers today have given some comfort to my hon. Friend that we are taking decisive action in providing the humanitarian support for which I know there is widespread support on both sides of the House. We are extremely concerned by the reports of killings of innocent civilians during Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli Government are carrying out an investigation into the allegations, led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and he has stated that the findings will be examined seriously. It is important that these investigations are carried out, not least given the severity and seriousness of the charges that are being levelled.

Two months on from the end of the conflict, as hon. Members have pointed out, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains absolutely desperate. We all accept that we must take every measure to avoid aid being diverted by Hamas to other ends, but the Secretary of State himself has expressed concerns about the Israeli Government, who are allowing through only about a fifth of the humanitarian assistance that the NGOs and others say they need. Is it not time that the Secretary of State spelled out what steps the Israelis must take to let that assistance in and what will happen if they do not do that? For the sake of the NGOs, will he spell out the difference between legitimate co-ordination with officials in Gaza and illegitimate engagement with Hamas?

I have of course met the NGOs that are working in Gaza. I reiterate at the Dispatch Box today that if they have concerns they can come and talk to us directly in the Department. In relation to the point on the Israelis, the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that we continue to have deep concerns about the level of access that is being denied—in terms not simply of the quantity of aid, but of the range of products that are being allowed in—and about international aid workers’ inability, in certain circumstances, to enter Gaza to offer their expertise in the light of the continuing humanitarian situation. That is why I have raised that issue with the Israeli Government and why, only yesterday, we once again raised it with Isaac Herzog, the Social Affairs Minister.