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Israel and Gaza

Volume 741: debated on Monday 20 November 2023

We are working with partners across the wider region, urging all sides to de-escalate tension, facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid, and tackle all forms of extremism.

Order. Members must sit down again once another Member is speaking. We cannot have two Members on their feet at the same time.

We are all heartbroken by what is happening in the middle east. As Israel works to root out Hamas terrorists, will my right hon. Friend work to ensure that aid gets to civilians and that Israel works in a way that is compatible with international law? As the Government work to get hostages freed, will they also work for increasingly long humanitarian pauses that can build towards a just and lasting peace?

My hon. Friend is right about trying to do everything we can in the region. That is why I sent a Royal Navy task group to try to de-escalate tensions, including RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Argus. Those facilities, along with others, are doing everything they can to help lower the tensions and certainly act as deterrents, and to ensure that we can get aid into the region. He will be interested to hear that we have had 51 tonnes of aid delivered so far, and there will be another flight later this month.

There are thousands of orphans and displaced families amid an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. What are the Government doing to ensure that unrestricted aid is reaching all the people who desperately need it, and, importantly, to ensure that Israel lifts the siege conditions?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are in favour of seeing pauses in the action. Some people, I know, call for a ceasefire, but I would point out that there was a ceasefire on 6 October; the problem is that it was broken by Hamas, who wrought this carnage on the middle east. We are doing everything possible to help get that aid in. With the Royal Navy taskforce, infantry, and other personnel in the region, we now have an uplift of about 600 personnel in the wider region, who are all helping to ensure that we get the aid in and across the border once we have got it to the region itself.

I welcome the Defence Secretary to his place. Behind Hamas, sits Iran; behind Iran, sits Russia; and, increasingly, behind Russia sits China. That is the geopolitical backdrop that will define the next decade, with growing authoritarianism impacting on our security and our economy. Is it now time to increase the defence budget to 3%?

My right hon. Friend will know that we have indeed pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5%, as economic conditions allow. This year, it will probably be around 2.4%, so we are making good progress. Prior to getting this role, I talked about my own desire to see higher defence spending, because we are living in a much less certain world, with many more variables. He is right to point out Iran’s action, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian militias in Iraq, and Houthis in Yemen very much driving the situation.

The reality is that neither the long-term security of Israel nor justice for the Palestinians will be found through bombs and bullets. As an international community, we need to be doing all we can to move to an enduring cessation of the violence, but while we are doing that, can the Secretary of State say how the UK armed forces will be utilising their capacity to help those getting aid into Gaza to get much bigger quantities in than is happening at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the UK’s desire to do that, and I have talked about how we have deployed a large increase in personnel in the region to work with various Governments. I have personally spoken to most of the middle eastern Governments, and on those calls the first thing they have done is welcome our deterrent and the fact that we have brought such a large amount of aid—now £30 million—to help the Palestinians. It is not just the hostages themselves who are being held hostage; the population of Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, and therefore the solution is to deal with Hamas themselves.

After nearly three months, it is very good to finally welcome the Defence Secretary to the Dispatch Box for the first time. He reflects the deep concern about the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the risks of wider escalation. Labour totally condemns Hamas terrorism. We back Israel’s right to defend itself, but require it to meet its duties under international law and lift the siege conditions, and we want to see the breaks in fighting extended to get much more aid in and the hostages out. We back the military deployments to the region to support wider security, but with attacks against US personnel rising, what action is the Defence Secretary taking to increase protection for UK personnel in the middle east?

First, Mr Speaker, it is good to be at the Dispatch Box opposite the right hon. Gentleman. I thank him, as well as yourself and others, for their condolences when I was not able to attend the first Defence questions.

In terms of protecting our own personnel, I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to review their position. I made reference to the additional personnel who have moved to the region, but did not mention that several have been moved to Tel Aviv, Beirut and Jordan, all with the aim of protecting both British military personnel and British citizens in the region. We keep that matter under constant review.

Would the Defence Secretary agree that over the past decade, there has been an international failure to pursue a Palestinian peace settlement and tackle the Hamas threat? Middle east escalation risks were not mentioned in the Government’s defence Command Paper update, nor were Hamas or Palestine. With threats increasing, is the Defence Secretary pursuing that defence plan in full, including further deep cuts to the British Army?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that nobody, including the Israelis, saw what Hamas were about to do coming. That points to the need for much greater surveillance, but also—much wider than that—the need to pursue the two-state solution, which is official British policy and is something that the world must do as this conflict, we hope, comes to an end.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about being able to deploy British troops and, indeed, assets is that when I asked the question, the answer came back immediately: “Yes, we can do it, and there is more that we could do should we need to.” I am satisfied that we cut our cloth in order to react to events around the world, which of course came on top of what we are doing in Kosovo and elsewhere. We will certainly make sure that we maintain the resources to carry out those important missions.