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Israel and Palestine

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

10. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Palestinian Authority on a two-state solution. (906666)

17. Whether he has had discussions with his Israeli counterpart on the (a) compatibility with international law and (b) proportionality of Israel’s response in Gaza to the attacks by Hamas. (906673)

23. What steps his Department is taking with international partners in the middle east in response to the situation in Gaza and Israel. (906680)

Since Hamas’s brutal terror attacks on 7 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have visited the region and have spoken and met extensively with counterparts totalling almost 20 countries, as part of our extensive diplomatic efforts to prevent escalation, to sustain the prospect of regional peace and to secure the free movement home of British nationals in Gaza and the release of hostages.

It has been reported that the Palestinian Authority is to pay up to $3 million a month in so-called martyr salaries to the families of dead and captured Hamas terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those payments to rapists, torturers and murderers, some of whom have killed Brits? Will he use his good offices to ensure that no British aid money has gone towards this filthy practice?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we always ensure that UK aid money is protected from misappropriation. I can confirm to him and the House that no British aid money goes directly to the Palestinian Authority. We have raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and highlighted our belief that it is not conducive to good relations and a future two-state solution.

What are the prospects of a two-state solution, given the pace of Israeli settlements on the west bank?

The Government’s long-standing position is that we oppose settlement expansion, for the reasons I have highlighted extensively in the conversations that I have had with the Israeli Government and the leadership of countries in the region. Despite the terrible circumstances we are experiencing, there is a renewed desire for a meaningful resolution that means that the terrible images that we saw on 7 October will never be repeated.

Close to 1,000 constituents have contacted me, deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding and the need for a ceasefire. Nearly 5,000 people have died in Gaza, including 1,700 children. While the whole House rightly condemned the Hamas atrocities, we must be unequivocal in our condemnation of violations of international law. Will the Foreign Secretary set out in what circumstances he believes it is legal for Israel to cut off water, fuel, food and electricity in Gaza?

There is always much debate in this House about the interpretation of international humanitarian law. I have raised directly with my Israeli counterparts the need, in whatever actions they take to secure their protection, defend Israeli citizens and secure the release of hostages, for them to act in accordance with international law. I have received assurances from the Israeli President to that effect.

There have been countless reiterations from the Israeli authorities, including in a joint speech with the Prime Minister last week, that they are taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, more than 4,650 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the last 16 days. Palestinian lives matter, so what more action, other than just repeating promises about civilian protection, is the Foreign Secretary’s Department taking meaningfully to ensure that innocent Palestinians are kept safe?

I am on record mourning the Palestinian lives that have been lost in this conflict, just as we mourn, and I mourn, the loss of Israeli lives in this terrible situation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government take the loss of life, from whichever community, incredibly seriously.

I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that Hamas routinely and consciously put civilians in harm’s way, specifically to generate fatalities that they then use as part of their media operations. We are conscious of that and the Israeli armed forces are conscious of that—that is why, they explained to me, they have given notice of future areas of military operation. We have seen evidence that Hamas are routinely preventing Palestinians from leaving areas that are going to be engaged by the Israeli Defence Forces.

In contrast to the last two questions from the Opposition Benches, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and our Prime Minister for their important recent visits to our ally Israel. The Government’s unequivocal message that Israel has the right and must be able to defend itself against the Hamas terrorist group is right and just. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support Israel in its efforts to secure the release of the 200-plus captives still held in Gaza, including any British citizens? Can the Secretary of State ensure that they receive immediate assistance from the international Red Cross?

My hon. Friend reminds the House that the Government remain focused on the protection of British nationals in Israel, the west bank and, of course, Gaza. It would be inappropriate for me to go into detail, but I can assure him and the House that we speak with all parties who we believe could have influence on those holding hostages: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others. It is incredibly difficult. We do not have direct lines of communications, but we will not rest—we will not rest—in trying to secure the release of hostages and the evacuation of British nationals from Gaza.

I am clear that the international community, backed by the UN, must now work together to dial down the rhetoric, open humanitarian corridors, encourage restraint and protect life. Will the Foreign Secretary commit the UK to expanding the Abraham accords as a priority, which will not only bring strategic partners to the table but may offer a future peace between Israel and Palestine?

I have said regularly how much I value the Abraham accords. The improving of relationships between Israel and the Arab nations in its near neighbourhood is an extremely positive step. There is a realistic belief that part of the aim of the attack of 7 October was to derail future normalisation and negotiations. Again, I think that highlights the fact that Hamas are not a friend to the Palestinian people. They are not trying to improve relationships between Israel and the Arab world. They brought down the Oslo agreements, and they have consistently blocked all attempts to normalise relationships between Israel and the wider Arab world. We must not let them win in that endeavour, and we must work to bring peace between the Palestinian people and the Israelis.

I have been inundated with emails from constituents terrified for the future of the internally displaced Palestinians in Gaza. Since 7 October, nearly 600,000 internally displaced persons have been sheltering in 150 United Nations Relief and Works Agency facilities, 35 UNRWA staff have been killed, and 40 UNRWA installations have been damaged. When the ground invasion inevitably starts, where are these people meant to go? Who is expected to host them? Who will administer them, and where will the support come from? Finally and fundamentally, what does the Foreign Secretary believe is the Israeli politicians’ long-term objective?

All the conversations that we have had with Israel, with Egypt and with intermediaries who are able to maintain lines of communication with Hamas have been about the preservation of human life. Let me put this on the record once again: we completely support Israel’s right, and indeed duty, of self-defence. We are only just starting to see the scale of the brutality. Video evidence retrieved from those individuals who brutalised and murdered Israeli citizens on 7 October has now been put in the public domain, and it is worse than any of us could have imagined. We absolutely stand by Israel’s right to self-defence, and we have said that we want to work with Israel, with Egypt, with the countries in the near neighbourhood and, of course, with those who are the de facto Government in Gaza to minimise civilian casualties. We have had that commitment from Israel; we have had no such commitment from Hamas.

Since I raised this question with the Prime Minister last week, indiscriminate airstrikes and a total siege blocking food, water and medical supplies have killed thousands of innocent Palestinian men and women and more than 1,000 children. Let us be absolutely clear in this House: this is now beyond a humanitarian catastrophe. Even as we stand here today, innocent blood continues to be spilt on the streets of Gaza, and mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, bakeries, water plants and homes continue to be flattened by the Israeli military.

I have a very simple question for the Foreign Secretary. Just what will it take? How many thousands of innocent Palestinians must be slaughtered before this Government condemn the brutality and bloodshed?

We have consistently said that we want to minimise further loss of life, and the lives lost among the Palestinian people are of course something for which we grieve, but we must never lose sight of the fact that during the period since 7 October, thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. Indeed, according to an assessment that we now have, one of the most high-profile losses of lives in Gaza, which was covered extensively by the British and international media, was likely caused by a rocket emanating from Gaza and targeting Israel. While I respect the hon. Gentleman’s passion about the preservation of life, and I assure him that I share his passion, we must be thoughtful, and we must remember why this is happening. It must not be forgotten that the single largest murder of Jews since the holocaust was initiated by Hamas, who then put Palestinians intentionally in harm’s way as part of their operations.

One of the appalling hallmarks of the terrorist attack by Hamas on the state of Israel has been hostage taking, and we are now seeing hostage taking increasingly being used in state-sponsored terrorism. With that in mind, and given the number of British hostages who are currently being held, does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary think that now is the time to appoint a prime ministerial envoy for hostages, with full diplomatic immunity, so that the British state can keep in touch with Britons who are being held and use our soft power to negotiate their release?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We have one of the largest and most effective diplomatic networks, so our diplomats on the ground are often best placed to initiate those negotiations, but he raises a good point and I will take his suggestion seriously.

I, like many others, have received hundreds if not thousands of emails from my constituents expressing their despair at what they are seeing happening in Gaza. It is more than a humanitarian emergency. Does the Secretary of State agree with Labour’s calls to work with international partners to give UN agencies such as UNRWA the long-term resources they need, as well as to insist that fuel is allowed into Gaza?

The Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Development Minister and I have had extensive and regular talks on ensuring that humanitarian supplies get to the Palestinian people in Gaza. Indeed, the Development Minister has virtually daily conversations with Martin Griffiths, the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Prime Minister has recently announced an additional £30 million of humanitarian support on top of our pre-existing £27 million, making us one of the most generous contributing nations to humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza.

George Mitchell, the great American peacemaker, said that diplomacy was

“700 days of failure and one day of success”.

Labour recognises the hard, quiet diplomacy required to secure the release of hostages and eventually long-term peace, but in this bloody war we cannot afford 700 days without success. Overnight, we saw reports of the possible release of 50 hostages, only to learn that those talks had stumbled. Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress to secure the release of all the 200 hostages so cruelly taken by Hamas terrorists?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the calm professionalism that he has displayed throughout. I can assure him and the House that this remains an absolute focus of our attention. It was raised by the Prime Minister, by me, by my right hon. Friend the Development Minister and by others in our bilateral conversations with leaders around the region, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will stay relentlessly focused on this.

The situation in Gaza is heartbreaking and deeply troubling. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel must follow the laws of war by taking every possible step to protect civilians and by ensuring that aid is rapid, safe and unhindered, that blocks to water, food, medicines and fuel are lifted immediately, and that Palestinians who are forced to flee are not permanently displaced? Does he also agree that upholding these laws is not just a legal and moral obligation, but necessary to prevent Israel’s campaign from undermining long-term prospects for peace and stability.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is exactly the tone of the conversations we are having. The preservation of civilian life remains a priority, and we discuss this regularly and at every level with the Israeli Government. Of course we reflect on the point that Israel itself—as well as the countries in the near neighbourhood—is trying to prevent this from becoming a regional conflict. As I say, professionalism and restraint by the Israeli Defence Forces are an important part of preventing this from becoming a regional conflict.

Has the Secretary of State seen any evidence, been made aware of any evidence or had reasonable grounds to believe that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in its response to the Hamas atrocities on 7 October?

I am not in a position, and indeed it is not my role, to make an assessment of the interpretation of events that are unfolding as we speak. There will, of course, be assessments of the nature of international humanitarian law. We are trying to make sure that, in all of its actions for its legitimate self-defence, Israel abides by international law.

If it is not the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility to make that assessment, I wonder whose it is. He knows that international humanitarian law is unambiguous in saying that the collective punishment of a civilian population is illegal. Is he telling us that he is unaware, or has seen no evidence, that people have been forced from their homes and that their water, food, power and access to medicine have been cut off? Or is he actually saying that all of this has happened but the UK Government have unilaterally decided that international humanitarian law does not apply to this conflict?

The hon. Gentleman undermines his own question by making the assertion that his interpretation of international humanitarian law is, by default, one to which I have to subscribe. His definition of what is happening is not one that I necessarily agree with.