The humanitarian situation in Gaza is extremely serious and will worsen now that the winter rains have started. Nearly a year after the conflict, 75 per cent. of Gazans still rely on some form of food aid, more than 60 per cent. do not have daily access to drinking water and 10 per cent. have no access to mains electricity. The United Kingdom continues to press Israel for full access to humanitarian aid in line with internationally accepted humanitarian principles.
That is but one of the health consequences of the conditions currently being visited on the people of Gaza. As I said, we have made clear representations to the Israeli Government. Only yesterday, I spoke to Defence Minister Ehud Barak and pressed him for wider access to a range of humanitarian goods. The reconstruction effort that we all wanted to see after Operation Cast Lead has not been possible because of the constraints on access that continue to affect the community. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well taken, and I can assure him that we take many opportunities to press the Israelis to ensure that the necessary reconstruction efforts are now made.
The Secretary of State will doubtless be aware that those seeking anything other than the most basic medical treatment in Gaza are required to travel abroad. However, in the period ending in June, no fewer than 40 per cent. of applications for travel permits for health care were refused by the Israeli Government. What pressure can he bring to bear to ensure that that situation improves?
In recent days—as I said, only yesterday—I have spoken with Ehud Barak, and last week I met Mr. John Ging, the outstanding head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, who is doing genuinely heroic work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances in the Gaza strip. That is testimony to the continuing efforts that we are making through a range of different channels to press not simply for greater humanitarian access, but ultimately for the necessary political resolution to the situation in the middle east, which would facilitate the kind of movement that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
We seem to be in the rather bizarre situation in which desk parts for UNRWA schools have now been permitted to enter—I understand that some deliveries have been allowed—but the fittings necessary to assemble those desks have not. That is but one example of the difficulties being suffered in Gaza at the moment as a result of the constraint on movement and access. As I said, I discussed that position recently with John Ging, the head of UNRWA, and we will continue to press the Israelis to admit educational materials.
Some 50,000 homes are estimated to have been destroyed during the Israeli attacks on Gaza, but cement, panes of glass and steel girders are still not getting in to repair them. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about his meetings with Mr. Barak, but if the Israelis are not listening, what are we going to do about it?
I have sympathy with my hon. Friend, who has great knowledge of the region and the challenges facing it. In some ways, the difficulty is exemplified by the issue of cement. John Ging told me that Hamas is building a watchtower opposite the Israeli watchtower at the crossings using cement that presumably has been smuggled in through the tunnels from Egypt. However, at the same time, the Israelis are denying the cement to rebuild the schools that will give the young people of Gaza exactly the opportunities that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want them to enjoy. That is why we are continuing to press the Israelis. However, with humility we recognise that that is not a task for the United Kingdom alone. The European Union and the United State have key jobs, which is why we continue to work in international forums to press the case for those humanitarian supplies to be allowed in for reconstruction to take place.
What contribution does the Minister think might be made to ease the humanitarian situation by the release of Gilad Shalit, with all the possible implications for the improvement of relations should his captivity by Hamas be ended?
Of course, we have called consistently on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit without further delays or any kind of conditions. Although we welcome the video tape released recently by Hamas, around 2 November, as part of the prisoner swap deal, the continued captivity of Gilad Shalit, as was raised with me by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, is utterly unacceptable. Hamas has a clear responsibility to release him without delay.
I think that there is wide recognition on both sides of the House that continued humanitarian efforts are needed to support the people of Gaza and, indeed, the west bank, given the difficulties that currently afflict them. Equally, however, most hon. Members recognise that ultimately the resolution in the middle east lies in politics. I believe that the challenge at the moment is to get behind the efforts being made—I am glad to say—by President Barack Obama and his team, in the first year of his presidency, to support and facilitate the emergence of a comprehensive middle east peace plan. That seems to be the most effective way in which we can buttress the humanitarian work on which we are engaged.