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House of Commons Hansard
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13 September 2011
Volume 532

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I gave you a note, Mr Dobbin, to say that we may be joined by others who have recently been on a trip to Gaza. Should they make it here—they are currently in other Committees—they would like to speak in this debate, rather than just intervene. If the Minister agrees, I should like to end my contribution early so that they can tell us about the recent events that they have seen with their own eyes.

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I am grateful that I have been given that notice. It is fine for those Members to speak, provided that we keep roughly to the same split of time.

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Mr Dobbin, it is my intention to give the Minister adequate time to speak.

Having been to Gaza on five occasions, I feel that I should say a word about the people there. I was lucky enough to be a monitor at the first democratic elections in Gaza city. At all times, the people were unbelievably welcoming, friendly and tremendously supportive and I was much buoyed up by my meetings with them. On my last visit, we went to Beach camp. I was very ill—an allergy that I suffer from kicked in while I was there—and I found the people to be unbelievably hospitable and caring. They looked after me very well. I have nothing but the highest regard for them; they were kindness incarnate. It is those people whom I want to talk about in this debate.

First, though, I must talk about the context in which such recent visits have taken place. Deep concerns have been expressed, and continue to be expressed, about the impositions placed on the people of Gaza and the humanitarian effects of them. In the second democratic election, the people of Gaza chose to elect a Hamas majority Government. Since then, there have been tremendous controversies. I join others in condemning not only the inability of that Government to stop the firing of rockets into the Israeli territories and households, but the unbelievable excessive force used in retaliation by the Israeli Government, which has killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed many of the basic facilities required for humanitarian reasons.

There has been strong condemnation from the Turkish Government over the killing of nine Turkish citizens on the aid flotillas. They have now said that they will defend the flotillas taking humanitarian aid to Gaza if they are carrying Turkish citizens. The problem has been caused by Israel’s appalling blockade of Gaza. Access to the Gaza strip remains severely restricted. Only the Kerem Shalom crossing is functioning, although it has recently been subject to Palestinian industrial action, which is in protest at the recent closure of the Kami crossing. The Gisha Legal Centre for the Freedom of Movement notes that Kerem Shalom can accommodate 250 trucks per day in both directions, compared with 1,000 trucks in both directions at Kami, so that is clearly severely restricting the amount of aid going into Gaza.

In September 2009, the IMF directly attributed the continuing restrictions on access to Gaza as a prime reason for the continued high unemployment rate, low growth and high inflation. Gaza could reach growth rates of 7 to 8% if the economic blockade were lifted. As for the children of Gaza, one in three is anaemic and one in 10 is malnourished. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN classes 61% of Gazans as “food insecure” and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency reports that 80% of Gazans rely on some form of aid.

A report published in January 2011 on the website of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, which has access to documents obtained by Wikileaks, makes it quite clear that the Israeli Government are determined to starve the economy of Gaza to bring it to the point of collapse. If people cannot sustain their own economy, the need for aid grows and grows, and that is a strategy that the Israeli Government are clearly using. That is wholly unacceptable.

The report said that a shortage of Israeli shekels in Gaza has continued to be an issue. Last July, Tony Blair, speaking in his role as representative in the middle east, said that he welcomed

“Israel’s decision to allow the entry of 50 million shekels into Gaza as well as the exchange of 31.5 million shekels of spoiled banknotes”.

The pressure is on Israel. This is about not just starving people of basic materials that the international community would give them or that people would be able to trade, but trying to break the economy in retaliation for people exercising their democratic right, which we are always espousing, to choose a different Government.

Let me put on the record the names of all those Members who went on the visit in July 2011. They are my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), and Lord Warner. Before I quote from their reports, I also want to put it on the record that the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) was the first Minister to visit Gaza in the last decade. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will follow that example and go to Gaza to meet the people.

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The difference between Israel’s attitudes to the Gaza strip and the west bank might be because it faces more of a threat from the Gaza strip. As for the recent visit to the west bank, my understanding is that the economic growth in that part of the Palestinian authority is about 12% per annum. Clearly, the message is that if the Palestinians can restrain the violence being shown by Hamas in Gaza, economic growth in Gaza might be much greater.

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Even when I have visited some of the worst regimes, I have always been impressed by the tremendous entrepreneurial ability of the people of the Palestinian nation and their tremendous thirst for knowledge and high skills. We see them all around the world. We have quite a number in Scotland who contribute to our economy.

If we look at what has happened on the west bank, and such things have been well recorded, we see that the people have to manage in very straitened circumstances, especially given the Israeli Government’s attitude to land, roads and water. Even in the west bank, the people live under a penal regime. In Gaza, there is an attempt to starve out and harm the ordinary people in retaliation for what is the unacceptable use of rockets.

Everyone recognises that Israel has used disproportionate force. We cannot just blame Hamas. The circumstances are set by the occupying nation, which is Israel. That may change shortly, because there will be an attempt in the UN to recognise the nation of Palestine as a state. Hopefully, that will change the attitude of the people in the UN—perhaps not in the Security Council. It will help Hamas and Fatah to try to create one non-violent approach to unity and to statehood.

Let me turn now to the situation that our colleagues found when they visited Gaza in July. The blockade clearly aims to cause great harm to the people’s ability to generate income and run their own economy. The effects of denying them the supplies that they require to function were quite stark. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said that it took them three hours to get into the occupied territories. Some of the Palestinians who were waiting at the crossing to get through had been waiting for days.

The imposition was deliberately put in by the Government. On a positive note, my hon. Friend said that when she spoke to women’s groups, voluntary organisations, small businesses and trade unions, she found a tremendous sense of activity within the community to overcome the burden placed on them. The people are not lying down with their hand out waiting for someone to come to their aid; they are a very determined people who are attempting to live under these terrible conditions and to do their best.

None the less, the reality is that the people cannot generate much of their own wealth—50% of factories were destroyed in the Israeli war in 2008-09. The numbers of employed fell from 135,000 to 15,000; that is a massive drop that impacts on their ability to generate income. As a result, inferior, illegally imported goods are coming through, which create safety problems. They are not of the right quality. Raw materials for manufacturing are difficult to source, so the Palestinian people’s ability to save their own economic life is minimal.

Another problem that has always existed in Palestinian communities is the difficulty of sourcing adequate water. The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) compared Gaza with the west bank. There is a water problem in the west bank, but the water problem in Gaza is probably more extreme. Even when I was last in Gaza, before the latest problem caused by the reaction to the election of Hamas, most of the main water sources had been diverted to Israeli settlements outside Gaza.

That has always been a problem, because the Israeli wells are sunk much deeper than the Israelis allow the Palestinians to sink their wells, so the Israeli wells soak up water from the aquifers. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility organisation in Gaza has said that, because of the reduction in the flow of the water, the amount of nitrates and the level of chlorine contamination are now rising very fast in the water sources that the Palestinian people have to use. Even when I was last in Gaza, which is some time ago now, doctors told me that children were beginning to show signs of diseases that had not been prevalent among the Palestinian people for quite some time, and children are the ones who are harmed by using contaminated water.

Another thing that caused me great distress when I was last in Gaza was the fact that people were not being allowed to dump their rubbish by taking it away to somewhere safe; often they had to dump it within the limits of their cities and communities. That meant that, when it rained, material from the rubbish leached down into the aquifers and was then absorbed back into the bodies of the people using water from the aquifers.

Because of the inability to generate enough electricity, the people in Gaza now have problems keeping even the basic facilities running in their hospitals. One of the hospitals in Gaza city is mostly comprised of wards that were built with donations from the families of returning or deceased soldiers from the first world war. Many soldiers recuperated in Gaza city after the terrible Gallipoli campaign and many of the wards in that hospital have plaques on the walls to show that they were built by the British.

To keep those wards running is very important. However, the recent British delegation visited Al Shifa hospital in Gaza city and the members of the delegation were told that kidney dialysis machines have to be disconnected from patients every time the power goes out, meaning that the blood has to be cleaned and the dialysis process has to be restarted every time the power goes out. Dialysis has to be done twice, which is a great imposition on kidney patients.

There is also a major problem in trying to source legitimate building materials, because of the argument put forward by the Israeli Government that certain things, including basic building materials, have dual use and therefore should be denied to the people of Palestine. That argument does not make any sense. For example, radiotherapy drugs for cancer patients are banned, because Israel says—for some reason—that they are a dual use product. I am not quite sure how to extract the small amount of radioactivity from radiotherapy drugs and how it could be used for anything other than medical purposes.

I know, Mr Dobbin, that you come from a medical research background and so you will know that a small amount of radioactive material, with a very low level of radioactivity, is generated by every hospital in the country. I do not see anyone saying that we need to rush around and put that material in a high security facility, so the Israeli attitude is nonsense and an imposition on patients.

Doctors who spoke to the British delegation that visited Gaza recently estimated that in the past year 500 Palestinians have died simply because of a lack of medication; Gazans are simply not being allowed to import medication in adequate quantities. Children and cancer patients are most at risk, as they are denied the treatment they need. For example, we met a young boy with a sickle cell anaemia problem. In this country, we would regard any child who had that problem as being a priority, but that child in Gaza was denied drugs to deal with that terrible disease. Providing those drugs is what humanitarian aid is about.

We must ask the Minister, “When will the warm words and the talking stop? When is all this nonsense about it being all right when we have a negotiated settlement going to stop?” There is a widespread feeling that the Israeli Government do not want to have a negotiated settlement that would give the Palestinians an equal and adequate life, and it is quite clear that we are condoning and colluding in the situation in Gaza. We did not like the result of a democratic election and we have not done enough to try to move from that viewpoint, to a situation where that election result is not seen as a threat but as something that should be absorbed into the discussions about what happens in Palestine.

In all the years since I last visited Gaza, and in the time since the British delegation visited Gaza recently, there seems to have been very little movement, except perhaps for a backward movement in the conditions of the people there. That is a great tragedy and, to be quite frank, in the past it has been a cause of great shame for my party when we were in government; we should have dealt with that situation if we were in any way humanitarian and democratic socialists.

Now the challenge lies with this Government, without regard to party. I hope that they make the choice to change their position so that they support UN recognition of the state of Palestine. But if they cannot do that, I hope that they will do something to argue very strongly for, and win through the UN, a situation whereby it is accepted that it is wrong for Israel to do what it is doing in preventing humanitarian aid and other basic aid from being taken to the people of Gaza by whichever route people choose to take it.

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Thank you very much, Mr Dobbin, for calling me to speak. I will be very brief and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) for giving me a few moments to say something.

I have visited Gaza on quite a number of occasions and every time I have come away even more depressed than I was at the end of the previous visit. There was a sort of high point post-Oslo in the late 1990s, when there was an airport ready to function, there were water supply systems, drainage systems were in operation, forests were being planted, trees were growing, agriculture was developing, and there was a high level of employment and a real sense of optimism and hope.

I then went to Gaza in 2005 as an election observer. I have vivid memories of Israeli border guards at the Rafah crossing deciding to shoot into the town of Rafah on polling day. Why did they do that, other than to intimidate those people who were trying to cast their votes legitimately and democratically in that election? I was not particularly surprised at the result of that election. Along with many others, I confirmed that it was peacefully carried out and democratically conducted and that there was no intimidation of voters. So we must recognise what has gone on in Gaza; the situation there is very serious.

On a subsequent visit, I discovered the number of people suffering from mental illnesses and from wholly preventable conditions, because of polluted water supplies and everything else, which indicates that we are dealing not with a natural tragedy but a human tragedy, of human proportions, created by the blockade, the bombardment, Operation Cast Lead and the constriction of supplies. Under the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Rafah crossing was opened and closed at various times. Now it is open most of the time and it is the only way that sufficient supplies can get into Gaza, because the Israeli blockade continues.

In the short time left to me, I want to make a plea to the Minister. I plead with him to understand that the people of Gaza—1.5 million people—are in prison. I plead with him to try to understand what it is like to be a young person growing up in Gaza, knowing that it is only possible to watch the world through television and computers and that it is only possible to listen to the world through radio, because the chances of travel are limited, job opportunities are limited and aspirations are limited. Education in Gaza is often very good; there are very many graduates and people with other educational qualifications in Gaza. That is what breeds the anger and all the problems that I have just outlined.

The pressure must be put on to lift the blockade of Gaza, to recognise the legitimate rights of the people of Palestine, and, above all, to get aid to Gaza as quickly as possible, to deal with what is a developing human tragedy of undernourishment and medical problems, including mental health problems, caused by the blockade. Anything that the Government can do in that respect would be very much appreciated and I appreciate the short time that I have had today to contribute to this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution.

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Thank you very much indeed, Mr Dobbin, for calling me to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) on securing this very important debate and I thank him for doing so.

Let me begin by stating very clearly that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable. In Gaza, 66% of the people are dependent on food aid; 90% of mains water is unfit to drink, the consequences of which were particularly noted by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has just contributed to the debate; and, despite the fact that schools are running on double or triple shifts, 40,000 children have no school place. Gaza’s economy is depressed and aid-dependent. There has been strong growth recently, but from a very low base. GDP per capita remains 40% below 1994 levels. At 37%, the unemployment level is among the highest in the world, and 38% of Gazans live in poverty. It is deeply troubling that Gaza, which should have a thriving economy, is currently one of the highest per capita recipients of aid funding in the world.

We believe that the actions of both Israel and Hamas have contributed to the current situation in Gaza. Between 18 and 21 August this year, we witnessed, once again, an alarming escalation of violence: a terrorist attack in southern Israel, more than 100 rockets and mortars launched from the Gaza strip at Israeli civilians, and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli air force against targets in Gaza. Nine Israelis were killed during the rocket attacks, and many more were injured.

We strongly condemn the appalling violence. In Gaza, at least 15 people have been reported killed, including three children, and 44 injured. We have urged the Israeli Government to ensure that everything is done to avoid further civilian causalities. The announcement of the current ceasefire is welcome, and it is vital that both sides now show restraint and seek to reduce the tensions. Like the hon. Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and for Islington North, I have been to the region, although not to Gaza itself—that was the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—but in the southern Israel area the problems are real and continuing.

Israel retains obligations under international law as an occupying power. It controls the majority of Gaza’s borders, and sea and air space and, as such, has primary responsibility for facilitating humanitarian access to Gaza. We welcomed the changes to the Gaza access regime announced in June 2010, and the subsequent package of measures agreed by Quartet representative Blair and Prime Minister Netanyahu on 4 February this year. However, recent UN reports show that the measures have not brought any fundamental change to Gaza, with food insecurity remaining high and economic opportunities scarce.

Much more needs to be done to ease restrictions on exports, construction material imports and the movement of people. Israel’s commitments on exports that were agreed with the Quartet representative in February 2011 have not yet been met. Increases in imports since June mainly relate to consumer goods, with the number of trucks entering still being only one third of what it was pre-blockade. We understand Israel’s security concerns, but the current access regime imposed by Israel has the perverse effect of fostering radicalisation and empowering Hamas, while punishing the ordinary people of Gaza.

Economic restrictions have not brought political change or degraded the military capability of Hamas. On the contrary, legitimate business is being strangled while Hamas allies are strengthened. Isolation and growing frustration at the lack of economic opportunities make extremism more attractive, a point ably highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) in his intervention. An improved economy and a resurgence of Gaza’s business sector are not only essential for the people of Gaza, but firmly in Israel’s security interests.

The vast majority of goods entering Gaza come not through the official crossings but through the vast network of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. Hamas controls the tunnels and imposes taxes on goods passing through them, the money raised forming a large part of their revenue base. As a result of the blockade, UN and non-governmental organisation projects confront constant difficulties in gaining access and in importing construction materials, which means that projects designed to help the most vulnerable people are blocked, delayed or made more expensive. Meanwhile, 30 times more cement and 10 times more steel comes in through the Hamas-controlled tunnels than through the crossings.

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I hope that the Minister has the opportunity to visit Gaza at some point. I welcome what he says, but does he not acknowledge that the tunnels are a product of the blockade? Without the blockade there would be no point in the tunnels, and there certainly would be no economic advantage in having them. The blockade must be lifted; that is the crucial issue.

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I certainly recognise that it is difficult to envisage how the tunnels might have come into being but for there being a difficulty in getting goods to move, so I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency reports that at the current approval rate for reconstruction projects, it will take 78 years to rebuild Gaza. Only 28% of its work programme for Gaza has been approved by Israel, and only half of the materials needed for approved projects have entered into Gaza. UNRWA wants to build 100 schools, but at the moment has permission for only 42. The UNRWA schools are vital, because they teach the lessons of the holocaust and of the universal declaration of human rights. If a child cannot get a place at an UNRWA school, he or she might end up unable to go to school at all, or might attend a school with a curriculum approved by Hamas or another extremist group.

What is the UK doing? We continue to press the Israeli Government bilaterally to ease the movement and access restrictions. We have consistently lobbied the Israeli Government at ministerial and official level, in close co-ordination with the office of the Quartet representative and European Union partners. The Department for International Development supports the UN Access Coordination Unit to work with the United Nations, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and aid agencies to facilitate the transfer of vital humanitarian assistance, including medical equipment and supplies, in and out of Gaza. DFID has also contributed to a greater international understanding of the situation in Gaza and the impact of the blockade. Earlier this year, DFID-funded reports by the World Food Programme and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs provided detailed and impartial analysis of the situation in Gaza, and that has provided a solid, analytical basis for our work with partners in identifying ways to improve the situation.

We are also providing support through our programmes. Immediately after Operation Cast Lead, we concentrated on humanitarian aid, working with the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs to provide drinking water, food, shelter, medical assistance and support for those traumatised by the conflict. Our current work on Gaza addresses the key access constraints, promotes economic growth and provides support to the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society.

The UK supports the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA to provide basic services, such as education and health, to the people of Gaza. About 50% of our support to the Palestinian Authority and 30% of our support to UNRWA benefits the Gazans. We provide 2,400 vulnerable families with work and an income through our support for UNRWA’s back-to-work programme, and we help to develop the private sector by supporting 304 small companies in Gaza and generating jobs for more than 1,800 unemployed Gazans. We also provide food vouchers to 5,750 poor households through our support to the World Food Programme, enabling them to purchase the basic food items, such as bread and milk, that they need to survive. We help 24 UN agencies and 132 international NGOs to get aid and goods into Gaza through our support to the UN Access Coordination Unit and the Palestinian Authority’s crossing co-ordination committee.

We understand Israel’s security concerns, but for a peace settlement to work any future Palestinian state must be economically viable.

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Will the Government take up with some priority the matter of much-needed medical drugs, particularly for the treatment of cancer? It is ridiculous to deny people cancer-treatment drugs because of the dual-use nonsense.

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I am happy to undertake that we will look into that, to see what the situation is and what can be done, not least because of the commitments that I have just listed, particularly our help in ensuring that there are supplies for assisting with medical needs—not just in emergencies, but for ongoing health requirements.

In the last couple of minutes of the debate, I shall touch on the broader process. We in the UK hope that the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas announced in May this year will lead to the formation of a Government who reject violence and pursue a negotiated peace. We will judge any future Palestinian Government by their actions and their readiness to work for peace.

It is clear that negotiations towards a two-state solution are the only way to meet the national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians and to achieve a sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security. We therefore call on both parties to resume talks on the basis of clear parameters, including borders based on 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, security for Israel that respects Palestinian sovereignty, a just and fair resolution of the refugee problem, and Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

We want the new generation of Palestinians to grow up in hope, not despair, and to believe in a peaceful settlement with Israel, rather than being impoverished and susceptible to terrorist recruitment. We want the next generation of Israelis to live free from the fear of rocket fire, and able to enjoy peaceful relations with their Arab neighbours. We cannot deliver that for either side, but as friends to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, we will work with our international partners to help deliver progress in the peace process. We remain a strong supporter of those who are building the institutions of a future Palestinian state.