Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for granting me this debate, and particularly for granting it to me so early in the evening. Before I start, I refer Members to my entry in the register and the fact that I was funded by Sir Joseph Houghton trust for a recent three-day visit to Gaza. I was joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), whom I hope to see shortly in their places. We were also joined by Lord Warner. I would like to thank Graham Bambrough and Ed Parsons from the Council for Arab-British Understanding, and all those whom we met in Gaza.
It is entirely as a result of that trip that I requested this debate, to feed back in a public venue the thoughts and reflections that I and my colleagues had while we were there. I should say that I also had other private meetings ahead of this debate, with the Minister and with the deputy Israeli ambassador, Mr Roth-Snir, for which I thank them both.
It is worth noting that our delegation was not allowed to cross between Gaza and Israel, and as a result it was, sadly, not possible to talk to people on both sides of the blockade, which we would very much have liked to do. May I, through the Minister, suggest to Israel that its interests may be better served by facilitating people to visit it, as well as Gaza?
My purpose in this debate is not to explore the history of the conflict, which has been done extensively elsewhere, and which, I think, does not do any participant proud. Sadly, discussions of the past were all too prevalent in our visit, with discussions going back as far as 1286. Instead, I want to focus on the present and on the future. But first, I believe that we do have shared goals that we all wish to see. Israel has a clear right to exist, and for its citizens to live in peace and security. The Palestinians have a clear right to have a fully potent state, with self-determination and autonomy.
Currently, Palestine does not have a truly functioning state or security, and Israel is concerned that it does not have the safety that it needs. Unfortunately, despite the ever ongoing peace talks, I fear that both sides are headed away from those goals.
One cycle of recent events began when Hamas won the elections in both Gaza and the west bank, under the banner, “Reform and Change”. Although I am no supporter of Hamas, it was poorly served by the west, which told it that it could stand in those elections only if it agreed to change its name and its platform. It did so and, in what seem to have been legitimate elections, won but was not recognised either in its own right or as part of a joint Government with Fatah. We need to learn the lessons, and consider more carefully how to respond when people whom we do not like win elections.
I was out in the west bank as an election observer during the very elections that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. He said that they were seen to be fair and impartial. It goes a little further than that, in that although people from the Carter and EU delegations and the British MPs who visited found minor things wrong with the way in which the elections were conducted, generally speaking there was an incredible turnout and there was very little on which we could challenge the elections.
I thank the hon. Lady for commenting. It is great to have the vision of somebody who was there and saw what happened. Whatever we think of the election result, Hamas clearly won it.
That led to the situation that we see now—a Fatah takeover in the west bank, and a Hamas takeover in Gaza, and to the events with which we are all too familiar: the rockets fired into Israel; Operation Cast Lead, with Israel killing 1,300 Palestinians, including 352 children; brutal repression of Hamas by Fatah and of Fatah by Hamas; the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit; the illegal blockade and siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt; and the assault on the flotilla bringing aid to Gaza.
In our visit to Gaza, we saw a population who felt under siege, trapped inside their own small strip of land, and overcrowded—an intelligent, peaceful population, desperate for education and opportunity.
Can the hon. Gentleman say a little more about what the young people told him and what message they sent about what they want us to do to ensure that they are assisted with their education?
I thank the hon. Lady for intervening on that issue, and I shall come on to develop some of those points.
I was struck by the tolerance. We attended a human rights lesson at one of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-run schools, where the pupils were asked about tolerance. One of the questions was, “How should you respond to people who are not tolerant of you?” and I thought that the response from one young lady was fantastic. She said, “You should be tolerant of them to show them what they ought to be doing,” and a lot of that is taking place, certainly in the UN schools. The message was, “We should be acting and listening. People should pay attention and help.”
We did not see a huge humanitarian crisis while we were in Gaza, but that is largely down to the excellent work of UNRWA, which has been in place, providing housing, food and education since 1949, and its excellent director, John Ging, who has been in place for a rather shorter period. In that short time, however, he has already had to witness his own UN compound being shelled by Israel.
UNRWA does amazing work, and I think that I speak for all of us who went on the visit when I say that we were very impressed by the range and quality of provision, from housing for refugees to schooling for their children, from women’s centres to summer camps. It was clear as we drove around in UNRWA vehicles that its work is well supported by the general public, with children cheering the cars as we drove by, but its ability to play that critical role is under threat.
Although the blockade around Gaza has been lifted somewhat, there are still great concerns, because the construction equipment that should be able to enter Gaza legitimately comes under a lot of scrutiny and is often not allowed in. The crossing at Sofa, which is intended for construction materials, has been closed since 2008, and, although some material is allowed in at other crossings, it is fairly minimal and unreliable. We were told of UNRWA-led housing schemes, which aim to deal with housing shortages and to replace refugee homes that have stood for too long and buildings that were destroyed or damaged during Operation Cast Lead. Those schemes are funded by the international community, including the European Union, but they either cannot go ahead or they go ahead very slowly, because Israel will not allow in the cement and steel bars to build them.
We heard of a crisis in UNRWA-led education, which is far more liberal than that in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority schools and even includes a course on the holocaust. However, despite the fact that most UNRWA schools are double-shifted, with separate classes in the morning and the afternoon, there are about 40,000 refugee children who should be educated by UNRWA but are not, because of a lack of buildings. The money for eight much-needed new schools and two extensions has been obtained, the plans have been prepared and the contracts have been let, but the materials struggle to get in. While we were there, of the 48 trucks bringing in materials for the schools, 47 were turned back for no clear reason.
I raised the matter in International Development questions on 13 October, and the Minister of State, Department for International Development, agreed:
“Schools must be rebuilt, and we certainly urge the Israelis to ensure that any materials that can be used for the essential reconstruction of schools and the like can be allowed through.” —[Official Report, 13 October 2010; Vol. 516, c.316.]
I hope that he and the question have had some effect, because on Friday I heard from the Israeli embassy that approval had been granted for the eight schools, the two extensions and for two clinic centres, and that building materials will be allowed into Gaza in accordance with the building work.
My hon. Friend speaks eloquently about our visit, and I agree with all the points he has made. Does he agree that the slowness in building those schools, which Israel has already approved from a list of 13 projects, is partly due to the fact that the crossing in Karni is not properly open? Of the 404 trucks for which UNRWA requested permission to enter Gaza, only 70 have so far done so. Does he agree that that is a crucial issue, and one on which we would be grateful for the help of the Minister here tonight?
Indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for going on the visit. It was a great pleasure to share many experiences while we were there. He is absolutely right. One can look at different time scales, and his figures date back to 3 October, if I recognise them correctly, but in general UNRWA says that only about 1.7% of the material that it requires is allowed in. Indeed, as he says, the Karni crossing is open only two days a week. It could be open six days a week. The Sofa crossing could be open, and we could allow for the transfer of construction materials at Kerem Shalom. I am delighted, however, that we seem to be making progress on those schools, because the materials for them were our No. 1 priority after the visit.
It seems entirely counter-productive not to allow through those construction materials, when, as the hon. Gentleman says, the UNRWA schools are far more moderate in their teachings than the Hamas-led schools. I appreciate that he did not have a chance to visit Israel and hold meetings there, but did he receive any feedback on why there are delays, and why there is no real push or zeal on the part of the Israeli authorities to get those schools built?
That is a fascinating question. I thank the hon. Lady for raising it, and in a moment I shall refer to what I have heard about the situation.
I am delighted about the schools, but we should be cautious. Approvals have been given in the past and then withdrawn, and allowing such basic building materials in should be a standard right, not a long drawn-out victory, but I thank the embassy for its information and urge the Minister to monitor carefully the progress on those projects, and to make the strongest protests possible if the flow of materials for those projects is curtailed. I hope he will agree to that.
On the question the hon. Lady asked, the argument used by Israel for not allowing construction materials in for these and other projects is one of security. The argument is that such materials—and there is a relatively long banned list, although it is better than it used to be—could be used by Hamas for military purposes. That argument makes sense superficially, and Israel does of course have a legitimate reason for wanting to control materials that could be used to make rockets, but it falls apart on closer examination.
It is well known that there are hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt which are used for smuggling. At the peak of the blockade, there were 1,200, including some large enough to drive a car through. We went into one—not the whole way, I hasten to add—and they are impressively constructed. At its peak, we were told, the value of the tunnel economy was between $500 million and $700 million a year, although the relaxation of the blockade on food and similar consumer goods has reduced activity significantly. The taxes that Hamas levies on imports through the tunnels provide a significant income to that organisation, helping to fund its activities and to buy up land and businesses throughout Gaza. However, those tunnels provide a regular supply of building materials, and we saw trucks being loaded with large amounts of cement and steel bars, along with signs throughout Gaza of construction works.
We found it ironic and deeply concerning that Hamas and related private individuals can have all the materials they need to build anything, from apartment blocks to bunkers, while the only effective constraints appear to be on the UN, non-governmental organisations and legitimate businessmen. That is surely counter-productive to Israel’s interests. It also serves to weaken UNRWA, which risks losing support through its inability to build while others are able to, because it is of course not prepared to use illegal materials. Given the flow of materials through the tunnels, Hamas can quite easily obtain any military equipment it requires, without having to try to acquire goods via the Israeli border.
Egypt plays an important role in the area. Indeed, we entered Gaza through Egypt. The press rarely highlights the fact that Egypt maintains a blockade on people movement in Gaza, just as Israel does, largely out of fear of the spread of Hamas ideology. However, Egypt could easily close down the tunnels if there was a desire to do so centrally, and if local military and police commanders were prepared to act—although that might go against their financial interests.
I thank my hon. Friend for intervening. It was a great pleasure to have him on the trip as well, and yes, it is absolutely absurd to imagine that Egypt does not know about the tunnels, when one can drive along and see large tents. One has to speculate on how materials suddenly, magically appear out of them. Egypt could find those tunnels on the other side of the border as well, and the trucks that go backwards and forwards for supplies could surely be found, too. There is a considerable Egyptian presence of tourist police and other organisations, as anyone who has been there will know.
Egypt is concerned about Hamas ideology, and it was fascinating to discover how broad the Hamas support base is, along with the spectrum that it covers, from reformers to hard-liners. It was also interesting to see how some of the more extremist Islamic groups there consider Hamas to be far too moderate. Those groups have been involved in many recent attacks on Israel, and Hamas has where possible put them down brutally. The feeling is often reciprocated.
While I am on the subject of tunnels and imports of materials, let me mention the lack of exports and the effect that that has on the economy. Exports have been barred since June 2007, with minimal exceptions: there have been a few shipments of strawberries and carnations. This does not make for a serious export market or a way of earning income for a country. I was fascinated to find that some entrepreneurial Gazans use the internet to do paid work, but that is very much in its infancy and cannot be a substitute for a proper export economy. I note in passing that one of our party inadvertently left a medical device behind in Gaza, and we are still struggling to find a way to get it back again. Without exports, there is no hope of the Gazan economy starting to re-function. The collapse of the economy has led to 40% unemployment rates, and 60% youth unemployment. These are not good conditions for a transition to a more peaceful solution.
There are problems with the provision of fresh water and with sanitation, and we heard about the desperate struggle to undertake rebuilding projects of those kinds as well. On physical construction, we need to think ahead. When the next Operation Cast Lead happens—we all hope that it will not happen—what steps will the Minister be taking to ensure that any future assaults by Israel would not blow up the provisions that we in the international community paid to have built? We need to ensure that we are improving Gaza, not stuck in a cycle.
Reconstruction is not just about the economy or infrastructure; mental reconstruction is also an issue. We met a fascinating gentleman called Iyad Saraj from the Gaza community mental health programme, as well as people from other non-governmental organisations that operate there, who made it clear how much psychological harm is being done to Gazan residents, especially children. As well as the traumatic events of Operation Cast Lead and other Israeli assaults, there is a sense of imprisonment in what the Prime Minister has called a “prison camp”. There are 800,000 under-18s in a population of 1.5 million, and more than half of them have never left Gaza.
Serious construction is needed in leadership. Time and again, we heard of the desperate shortage of leadership on all sides. The ongoing feud between Hamas and Fatah exemplifies the suggestions that they are each more interested in their own interests. There is a long history between the factions, and an urgent need for them to overcome their differences. Talks facilitated by Egypt have been ongoing for two years, but are still unresolved. At the intended signing of the deal recently, there were five remaining differences, which have now been reduced to one—security. However, the talks on this issue that were supposed to start on 20 October fell apart almost immediately, and it is now urgent for these two factions to unite if they are to be able to represent the Palestinian people.
We were told on several occasions that some exciting visitors from Britain had come to visit. Gerry Adams went to Gaza to give advice to Hamas. Of course, he is in a unique position to do so, with the benefit of detailed experience of armed uprising. In his comments, as reported to us, he said that there is a time to stop fighting, and that in Northern Ireland they had waited too long, increasing the death count for no benefit; and he argued that Hamas had gone beyond that point. I hope that he is heeded. Hamas has also been in talks with the African National Congress and with bodies around the world. It is not clear, however, that there is a Palestinian leader who can be Gerry Adams, Nelson Mandela, or anyone even close; it seems that there is no one who can take the dramatic steps required for peace to be serious. Hamas will not take steps to amend its founding, and outdated, charter. There is no one who will release Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for more than four years.
However, there is leadership in other places. I would highlight the leadership in human rights provided by Jaber Wishah of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. He was jailed by Israel for his part in fighting against the Israelis, and he spent many years in jail, but while he was there he decided to renounce violence, and he now dedicates himself to fighting fearlessly for human rights throughout Gaza, courageously reporting infringements by Palestinian and Israeli alike against people from any background. It was a privilege to meet him; we need more people like him in Gaza and elsewhere.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in an environment in which the people have been so badly let down by their leaders and their neighbours, the best role that Britain can play in this difficult situation is to encourage the moderation and education that come through UNRWA’s crucial work in Gaza, and that that is where our focus should be, while encouraging the Palestinians to try to create unity among themselves?
Indeed; we have to focus on what is there. I was struck by the fact that many of the younger generation are ready for something different. We met people who are ready to start thinking in another way, and they need our support. I hope that that Minister can comment on whether the British Government are in any way able to provide support and training to some of the up-and-coming young people in Palestine.
Israel is not acting like a partner for peace at the moment. Although it is clear that the vast majority of Israelis do seek peace, as indeed do the vast majority of Palestinians, the leadership in Israel is undermining the search for a lasting peace. Avigdor Lieberman’s recent comments are inflammatory, as is the continued construction of illegal settlements on the west bank—only today, we heard of 1,300 more. The time available for peace is running out. There are currently Israelis and Palestinians who know each other, who have worked together, or who are friends, but this is fading. The younger generations on each side increasingly know each other only as enemies, and with every passing year this becomes worse.
We were told a chilling story, with which I will conclude. One woman we saw was given permission to travel to Israel to meet a colleague, and to take her daughter with her. Her daughter met her friend, and asked what she was. She was told that she was, inter alia, an Israeli. The daughter said, “That can’t be right. Israelis are soldiers who wear masks and carry guns.”
If we are to avoid a perpetual state of conflict, a perpetual siege of Gaza, and a pressure cooker that will eventually explode in furious violence, then Israel and Palestine must up their games. They must find leadership to overcome their differences—to act in the common interest and the long-term interest of their citizens. We in Britain must play a role in supporting and helping them to take these difficult steps. We must be prepared to criticise firmly and actively when needed, and to encourage and assist when required. We must not take our eyes off Gaza. We must not allow the people in Gaza to bear the brunt of collective punishment and bear the burdens of a long and sorry history. The siege has to end. Senior Members of Parliament, from the Foreign Secretary down, must go there to see for themselves what is happening.
I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how he will ensure that Britain is a more active participant in the region, how Britain will ensure that UN Security Council resolution 1860 and all the others are enforced, and how Britain will ensure that it is a force for peace, for human rights, for the rule of law and for the people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this Adjournment debate. It is an extremely important debate that needs to be had.
I went to Gaza this summer with two Members of the House of Lords. It was the first time that I had been to Gaza or anywhere in the middle east region. Like the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, we travelled to the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, and we saw some of the tunnels as well. We spoke to people from UNRWA and saw the people living in the camps. It completely shocked me and, I think, the people with me to see almost three generations of people—grandparents, children and grandchildren: people of all different ages—who had lived in one room for more than 40 or 50 years. That surely cannot be acceptable in the 21st century. It does not matter about the rights and wrongs of Hamas, Israel and so on. We, the international community, have an obligation.
As Members probably know, under a settlement made a long time ago, people cannot extend their camps into any other space but must keep building on the land they have. There are therefore a number of layers of homes, with people in flats of up to eight floors. On each level there may be a room with a family of 10, 12 or 15 people living in it. Some 1.5 million people live in a space of 2.5 or 3 sq km of land.
I saw many people rushing off to the beaches, yet we were told that all those beaches were unsafe and polluted. They cannot be cleaned, because pipes would need to be sent out there, and no materials for reconstruction are allowed through. The only pastime that young people seem to have is going to the beach. In this country, we would never tolerate people going en masse to severely polluted beaches that were very bad for their health. A number of people in Gaza have suffered ill health precisely because they have disregarded advice, gone to the beach and gone swimming.
We spoke to people in Gaza and saw some of the schools that they have constructed. The tragedy of Gaza is that, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is money there. It is not like some parts of the world where there is no money and no finance, and nothing can be done. The money is there, but Israel has imposed embargoes that do not allow anything to be exported or imported properly. In some respects Israel is kicking itself, because if goods were allowed to come in properly and the money could be used to rebuild schools, hospitals and other institutions, it would create an enormous number of jobs and the economy would prosper. Trade with other people would be possible.
Historically, the best way for countries to negotiate or become friendly has often been through trade. That is often the most peaceful way for countries to build better relationships. By not allowing trade and reconstruction, Israel is hurting itself. It is important that the siege is lifted and reconstruction can start. That will be better for everyone concerned.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert)—my hon. Friend now—on securing the debate. I appreciate not only what he said but the way in which he said it, and I thoroughly enjoyed his contribution. It was made better by the fact that he did not have to squeeze it into the usual time and could extend it. I thank him for the great courtesy of giving me the outline of his speech earlier, because, at their best, Adjournment debates are not ambushes but an opportunity for colleagues who share many opinions and concerns to inform each other, the House, yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the public of what we are about.
I also thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for her contribution. Both contributions indicated the importance of travel. Occasionally, the House has to defend itself against those who think that every time we step outside our own shores, it is for purposes connected more with us than with what we are about. The descriptions that both colleagues gave of their personal experiences, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Bradford East (Mr Ward), who accompanied the hon. Member for Cambridge on his visit to Gaza, were good examples of how important it sometimes is to see things on the ground, so that we can report them faithfully to the House. I see my long-standing friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), in his place. He will know of the many times that we went to South Africa together in the difficult days of the 1980s. We hope that our personal experience of going there when many others could not made a difference to discussions in the House.
I am grateful to my very good friend the Minister for that kindness.
In probably every constituency in the United Kingdom, and certainly every urban one, there are people who daily worry about the future of Palestine, Israel, Gaza and the middle east. We therefore have a particular responsibility to be informed. I have been twice to the west bank and Israel, although I have not been to Gaza. The faith groups want us to do that, and Britain has a historical responsibility to be as engaged as possible—not just Government but Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are right to go and right to put the matter on the agenda in the House.
Yes, indeed, and the number of letters that I deal with from colleagues expressing the concerns of their constituents certainly confirms what my hon. Friend says.
I applaud the aim of the hon. Member for Cambridge, following his recent visit and that of his colleagues, to ensure that eight new UNRWA schools are built in Gaza. Like him, I welcome the recent announcement that that will be done. The situation in Gaza continues to cause the Government concern, and it was high on the Foreign Secretary’s agenda during his recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories. I hope to explain in my remarks what action the Government are taking to reconstruct and stabilise Gaza, and why that matters to the middle east peace process.
To begin with, I should like to set out the scale of the reconstruction challenge in Gaza and explain briefly how we got where we are. Although we agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no longer a humanitarian crisis as such in Gaza, the situation there remains extremely fragile and could deteriorate very quickly. Despite Israel’s welcome announcement on 20 June of measures to help ease access restrictions, we remain worried about what the UN has termed the “de-development” of Gaza, with the economy, institutions and skill base steadily eroding.
Although I am not tempted to go back to 1286, it is impossible to consider the current issues in Gaza without recognising the historical context and noting the tragedy of the people of Gaza, caught up in the generations-old dispute concerning Israel and Palestine. After years of occupation, and much international criticism, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pursuing its policy of swapping land for peace and evicting a number of settlers and settlements. The UK, along with international partners, welcomed the withdrawal as a positive step towards meeting Israel’s road map commitments. We also pushed hard for Israel to co-ordinate with the Palestinian Authority on the aftermath of withdrawal.
However, far from being freed, Gaza’s population found itself the battleground for a gradually intensifying dispute between Fatah and Hamas for the control of the land. Hamas’s repressive control of Gaza gradually tightened. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in 2006, kept completely incommunicado for many years and denied Red Cross access, and he is still detained. Hamas violently ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip in 2007, leading Israel to declare Gaza a “hostile entity”. A regular barrage of rockets directed towards southern Israel began. Israeli Government statistics claim that in 2005 Hamas and other Palestinian groups launched about 850 rockets and mortars at Israel from Gaza. By 2008 that figure had climbed past 2,000.
Although I heard and understood the hon. Gentleman’s point about responding differently to those who win elections with policies that we may not like, equally, those who wish to play a serious part in deciding the future of a people need to know that an acceptance and encouragement of violence, and a refusal to accept the existence of the state of Israel, will result only in closed doors, and rightly so.
A downward spiral of restricted access, the cutting of fuel supplies and retaliatory violence prompted aid agencies to describe the situation in Gaza in early 2008 as the worst since the 1967 Yom Kippur war. As hon. Members know full well, a shaky ceasefire was not renewed towards the end of 2008. Militants in Gaza fired barrages of rockets at Israel, and Israel responded by launching Operation Cast Lead. The conduct of both sides in that war is the subject of a number of inquiries and is not for this debate. However, the consequences for the people of Gaza have been severe.
To prevent the rebuilding of supplies of arms, Israel ensured a tight blockade of Gaza. The UK Government understand and support Israel’s right to protect itself. However, to come to one of the hon. Gentleman’s key points, we were, and are, less persuaded that the economic blockade that was simultaneously imposed would be of any benefit to Israel, and we share the hon. Gentleman’s assessment. The fact that the economy of Gaza has been so reduced that 80% of Gaza’s population is in receipt of food aid, and that unemployment is calculated at 40% for adults and 60% for youth, has not produced serious political gain for Israel or ruin for Hamas, but simply added to the misery of the people. We do indeed call on Israel to rethink that part of its policy, which would not undercut its concern on security, and might indeed, for reasons that have been outlined, assist its security. We make that case regularly to Israel, and we will continue to do so.
Following Operation Cast Lead and resolution 1860, the international community lobbied Israel hard on the need to allow access for humanitarian and reconstruction relief to Gaza. However, it was not until after the flotilla incident earlier this year that international pressure made a difference, and Israel announced on 20 June measures to ease controls on goods entering Gaza. We welcomed that announcement and the Israelis’ subsequent implementation on 5 July of a move from a list of permitted items to a list of banned and dual-use items. The latter step resulted in an increase in the variety and volume of goods entering Gaza.
Further steps have been taken by Israel, including procedures to allow the entry of dual-use items, such as building materials, into Gaza, and I will come to that key point a little later. The Government of Israel are also taking steps to improve access for Palestinian business people into and out of Gaza. We welcome those steps and acknowledge that the volume and range of goods entering Gaza has increased in recent months.
I spoke this morning to John Ging, and I very much echo the hon. Gentleman’s appreciation of his work. I had the pleasure of meeting John during the summer to help me understand the area for which I now have responsibility. He tells me that the consumer goods picture is much improved. Indeed, he estimates that there is only 20% of the tunnel traffic that there was. Once again, we share the hon. Gentleman’s perception. Tunnel traffic simply became a source of revenue to Hamas and to criminals and appears to have done little damage to Hamas politically.
However, John Ging also said that the situation in terms of construction material remains dire. He cannot find what he needs to tackle the under-resourcing of school building. We share his welcome, and that of the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues, for the eight school projects, but they will not satisfy the demand of 40,000 children. Once again, I echo the hon. Gentleman’s point. If UNRWA, with the support of the international community, is not seen to, and cannot, provide the development that is needed, yet Hamas and its allies can provide it because of access to materials through routes other than the official crossing, who will get the blame and who will get the support?
It is possible that it is not any political ill will that is affecting the delivery of construction material specifically orientated towards UNRWA, and UNRWA must, rightly, be held responsible should any material go missing and assist Hamas. However, John Ging informs me that there is a significant capacity issue, which hon. Members have mentioned. I understand there are sheer logistical difficulties in getting more material through the existing crossing. To that extent, therefore, reopening other crossings may assist, and we certainly intend to take that up, although we appreciate that it requires serious consideration and cost to Israel. The gain, however, may make it well worth while.
It is not just schools. The sewerage system needs serious work to stop untreated sewage entering the Mediterranean. Some 90% of mains water is undrinkable. As I indicated, 80% of the population is dependent on food aid. It is also vital, therefore, to take steps to revive Gaza’s economy, including allowing exports and the movement of people. That is key to ensuring Israel’s long-term security interests. The empowerment of Gaza’s legitimate, non-Hamas controlled business community will act as a counterweight to radicalisation.
Before the Minister moves on from aid deliveries to Gaza, will he give us the Government’s view on the informal conveys? Those are certainly an issue in Bristol, where people have donated. Trucks have set off from Bristol, and constituents have gone to Gaza to try to deliver food and other aid, but they have been blocked. Is that useful, or would be it better to go through the official channels?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, on which I have received a number of letters. Our position is: we do not advise unauthorised travel to Gaza. As we know, it is still a dangerous place, and we cannot guarantee the safety of British nationals who go there. For those who want to contribute aid to Gaza, there are recognised channels to go through, which include the United Nations. We encourage that. There are ways in which people can take aid directly and use existing channels to ensure that it gets through. However, as she will be aware, there are opportunities taken where the political point of breaking the blockade appears to be almost as important as any of the humanitarian aid behind it, with sometimes tragic consequences, so we are right to be cautious. We want to ensure that those who feel strongly have an opportunity to express it, and there are legitimate ways to do so. However, we do not encourage unauthorised activity, hard though it may be for some to accept. We advise people to use the official channels to support Gaza.
We had a number of interesting conversations about the convoys while there, and one concern expressed to us was that, in many instances, the goods being provided were not the things that were desired. Medical supplies have far too much of some things, and far too little of others. They do not need more Tamiflu, and they do not need old X-ray scanners; they would rather have some spare parts. Perhaps people considering sending convoys could first find out what is wanted and needed, and then go.
That makes a lot of sense. The aid agencies actively involved are very good and know what they are doing. However, I do not want this to be misconstrued. We do not want the aid agencies to be there at all. We want the economy to be working properly, and we want Gaza to be a fully functioning part of the middle east.
As I indicated earlier, we know there are capacity problems, but in the main we believe that aid gets through. I do not think it is fair for people to feel that, if they send it through a recognised source, sometimes it all just sits there. There were more issues with that in the past, but we have found, since the flotilla incident, that the Israelis are genuinely moving more goods through, and have responded to the concerns. There might be individual instances of hold-up, and where that happens all pressure should be applied, However, there is a logistical problem with the amount of aid, to which I just referred, and the hon. Lady was right to pick up on that.
I made the point about ensuring that if the business elite in Gaza are given the opportunity to develop and grow, and handle things themselves, they can be a counterweight to radicalisation. John Ging made an interesting point to me this morning. He said that the closing of the tunnels, with more goods travelling through official routes, has not met with what might have been anticipated, which was an aggressive response from militants seeking to disrupt official traffic. They have gone along with it, partly because, we think, the business community and others have made it clear that they want to see the official channels open and will not accept the militants and extremists getting in the way of the development of the economy. That is good news for those who believe that the economy is the key to the future of Gaza.
There are issues on the Palestinian side, however, that also need improvement. The Department for International Development is working closely with the Palestinian Authority to help increase its co-ordination of goods into Gaza and to speed up the approvals process. I would like to reiterate the call for Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, because it is clearly unacceptable that he remains in captivity after four years. The Foreign Secretary met the Shalit family during his visit to Israel and heard their experiences at first hand. I also call on Hamas to end its interference in humanitarian operations in Gaza.
I am sure that hon. Members would agree, following the remarks of the hon. Member for Cambridge, that there are sobering facts on the ground, and that reconstructing Gaza will require vast amounts of reconstruction and development support. He concluded by asking what the British Government are doing and what more we intend to do to fulfil resolution 1860 and other requirements. The United Kingdom should play, and is playing, its part, primarily through aid provided by DFID. We are providing basic services to Palestinian refugees through funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Some 70% of Gazans are refugees who rely heavily on it. Last week the Minister of State for International Development, who was on a visit to the west bank, announced an additional £8 million for UNRWA, bringing our total support for 2010 to £27 million.
Turning to the Gazan economy, we have just announced a further £2 million in new funding to support the recovery of Gaza’s dormant and damaged private sector, which was laid waste after Operation Cast Lead. That will help 300 existing businesses and four start-ups to generate an additional $5 million in revenue and employ an extra 2,200 people. Finally, we are funding the United Nations and Palestinian Authority teams working to facilitate access to imports in Gaza.
The Minister referred to the severe problems with good water supplies and the offshore pollution along the coastal strip. Will he say whether the Government are working with others to deal with what is both an environmental and a health crisis? Clearly we cannot deal with it on our own, but is that on the agenda of DFID or his Department? Clearly, not much has been satisfactorily achieved so far, so what more can we do?
So as not to flannel my hon. Friend, I should give a better response when I have spoken to colleagues in DFID. I know that the problem that he raises is a serious one, and it is also caught with the problem of construction materials, which are vital to do the work that is necessary for the sewerage system and the like.
We were disturbed by the appalling situation —which we could smell as we drove along the beach—of sewage going into the sea. The terrible consequence is that the sewage is finding its way back into the land through the water table, which is serious for agricultural development as well.
My hon. Friend describes an unbearable situation. I know that colleagues are on to it, so rather than speak in generalities I will find some detail. Indeed, if he submits a written question, I can supply an answer, and that will disseminate the information more widely.
On the diplomatic side, we are working closely with the UN, the office of the Quartet representative— Mr Blair—and the European Union to co-ordinate the international community’s demand for further progress. Mr Blair has played a very important role on Gaza, and was helpful in the period immediately following the flotilla incident. He did a great deal of work—and continues to do so—with the Government to deal with the authorities there. We are also working with the European Union to co-ordinate the international community’s demand for further progress. Although we welcome the steps that Israel has taken so far, we need to see further progress. In particular, we want to see faster approvals for key UN reconstruction projects. The international community is listening closely to UNRWA’s feedback. We urge Israel to work with UNRWA to expedite its reconstruction plans, particularly for schools. We want Israel also to show greater flexibility on the movement of people and exports, in order to increase employment, reduce aid dependency and allow the full movement of humanitarian workers.
There is a final point to make this evening. Sometimes I worry that a given situation remains unresolved because, in reality, it suits all parties, rather than those most affected, to leave it be. For Israel, Gaza is a heavy security risk—a dagger potentially pointing at its heart, through Hamas. It is a place of missed opportunities, following—Israel believes—the generosity of its withdrawal. For Hamas, Gaza is a counter to Fatah—an element in its war with Fatah, as much as in its role of resistance to Israel. For Egypt, Gaza is a conundrum too—part of the need to resolve the Palestinian situation, but where, in authority, it finds a political entity to which it is opposed, and in whose success it has no more vested interest than Israel. In the middle are the people—the children; those whose future could and should be so much better; those who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, are crying out for leadership, to take them out of this situation, and for a future.
The only path is that Gaza will be part of the ultimate settlement in the middle east. That is why we and other parties are urging those involved in the direct negotiations to keep at it. We are pressing both sides to stay with the talks, to overcome the difficulties on settlements. That is why the Foreign Secretary pressed the point in relation to Israel, and why all friends of both Israel and Palestine should keep the parties at it. Ultimately, Gaza’s future salvation lies in a comprehensive peace settlement: the two-state solution, which is so important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, time is running out. My story meets his in terms of those he spoke to. A couple of years ago, I was on Israel’s northern border and talking to some of the young people—they are very young—who guard those border posts. I asked them whether their children and grandchildren would be doing the same thing, and they thought that they probably would be. That is as sad and depressing as my hon. Friend’s story.
We have lived through momentous times during our period in Parliament. We have seen the unresolvable dealt with, and we have seen all sorts of things change during the past 20 or 30 years. The most intractable political problems have been solved, and it is always possible that that can happen in the middle east. The time is now.
I hope to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories early next year. I have been to the west bank and Israel, and I hope to have the opportunity to go to Gaza. I will take a message from this House that we are all determined to redouble our efforts to drive the peace process forward, and we look to all those in the region and beyond to join us for the sake of all those in Gaza we have spoken about tonight.
Question put and agreed to.