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Israel and Hamas: Humanitarian Pause

Volume 741: debated on Monday 27 November 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the Israel-Gaza situation and the humanitarian pause.

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his question.

A tragedy is unfolding in the middle east. Israel has suffered the worst terror attack in its history and Palestinian civilians are experiencing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, last week’s agreement was a crucial step towards providing relief to the families of the hostages and addressing the humanitarian emergency in Gaza. This pause has provided an important opportunity to ensure that much greater volumes of food, fuel and other life-saving aid can enter Gaza.

On 24 November the British Government announced a further £30 million of humanitarian assistance, tripling our existing aid budget for the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year. During the pause, the fourth UK aircraft, carrying 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid for Gaza, arrived in Egypt, bringing the total amount of UK humanitarian aid provided via British aircraft to 74 tonnes. That aid is now being dispersed to the United Nations to support critical food, water, health, shelter and protection needs in Gaza and to pre-position emergency supplies in the region.

Today is the fourth and final day of the agreement. The British Government are supportive of the current pause in hostilities continuing, but that is for the Israelis and others in the region to agree. We are clear that this pause should not be a one-off. The increased flow of fuel and relief supplies over the Rafah crossing accompanying the pause was welcome and must be sustained. This pause should act as a confidence-building mechanism for future pauses, including those solely on humanitarian grounds.

We welcome the intensive international co-operation, including efforts from Qatar and the USA, that led to this agreement and we thank partners for their continued work. We remain committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. Britain’s long-standing position on the middle east peace process is clear. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The UK will continue to work with all partners in the region to reach a long-term political solution that enables both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.

I am grateful for the granting of this urgent question.

Holding the Government to account is a sacred duty of this House, but with Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton not here, this feels more like a game of “Where’s Wally?” I start by asking the Minister what progress is being made with Mr Speaker to ensure that all Members can question the Foreign Secretary.

The past 72 hours have brought much-needed relief to Israel and Gaza. I pay tribute to the work of Qatar, Egypt, the United States and the Red Cross. The images of hostages who have been released and reunited with their families have moved us all, but the situation remains bittersweet, with many more still captive and their families in agony.

In Gaza, the past few weeks have been an unimaginable nightmare for innocent Palestinians. The civilian death toll, which includes thousands of women and children, is shocking and intolerable. The increased flow of aid and fuel remains a fraction of what is required. More time is needed. We must urgently support the parties to reach an agreement to extend the cessation of hostilities, to secure the release of remaining hostages, to deliver more aid to ease the unacceptable humanitarian catastrophe and, crucially, to provide a stepping stone towards an enduring cessation of hostilities, ensuring that what follows the war is a durable political solution.

The danger is that the fighting will resume in mere hours. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the vital efforts to extend the cessation of hostilities fail, we cannot return to the situation of before the pause? We cannot go back to Hamas continuing rocket attacks on Israel, we cannot go back to unacceptable siege conditions in Gaza, and we cannot go back to the scenes of thousands of innocent Palestinians being killed.

The two-state solution remains the only credible basis for a lasting peace: a future in which Israel is secure from the threat of Hamas terrorists, in which Gaza is not occupied and its people are no longer displaced, and in which Palestinians and Israelis can enjoy security, dignity and human rights.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for most of his comments and, in particular, his desire to ensure an extension of the cessation of hostilities. On what he said about the broader situation, the Opposition Front Benchers and the Government are in complete agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what progress has been made in ensuring that the Foreign Office and the Government’s foreign policy is subject to proper scrutiny in this House. I completely agree with him that there is a sacred duty—I think that is the term that he used—to ensure that all that scrutiny is made available. I just point out to him the extraordinary authority that a former Prime Minister can bring to bear in carrying out those tasks, as he will have seen from Lord Cameron’s recent visit to the middle east. Lord Cameron is the most senior Foreign Minister in Europe—and, indeed, in the region—and I think that both sides of the House will see the benefit of that in the days and months to come.

This is a serious matter. The UK’s priority in the region is security and stability for the whole of the middle east, yet today Netanyahu plans to push forward with a special budget that will fund expansions of the settlements by over $80 million. As a friend, we have a duty to say to Israel, “Do not proceed with this plan. It takes us further away from peace and, frankly, it will risk not only the truce, but the ability to get home hostages who are still held by their terrorist kidnappers.” What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we speak plainly to our friends?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for her comments. She is entirely right that Israel must comply with international humanitarian law, and must not only prosecute but punish those who have been involved in settler violence. The Government are delivering tough messages to all sides in this dreadful conflict, and we will continue to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, and I commend the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for the integrity and courage with which she raised her concerns.

Does the Minister agree that the only way we will see a lasting and just peace in the middle east is through the establishment of a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine are recognised as equal sovereign states with equal rights and equal responsibilities to uphold international law? Given that there are now credible accusations of war crimes against both sides in this conflict, will the Government confirm that they will give full support to the International Criminal Court to investigate without fear or favour all allegations of war crimes, regardless of who is accused of them, so that any perpetrator of a war crime, regardless of whose friend or foe they may be, is brought to justice before the international courts? Given that it is an offence in international law to supply weapons where they may be used in the commission of a war crime, what recent reassessment have the Government made of the legality of their arms sales to the middle east?

Finally, I do not know whether the Minister was in the Chamber to hear my plea on behalf of my constituent Dr Lubna Hadoura—I have written to the Foreign Secretary specifically about her—but will he agree to meet urgently with me and her, and with the Home Secretary, so that we can find an effective way to get the families of UK nationals who are still stuck in Gaza out while the peace lasts? If we do not get them out during a ceasefire, we might not get them out at all.

Both the Lord Chancellor and I have made clear the position in respect of the International Criminal Court. I set it out in the House: it is not for Government Ministers and politicians to address these matters, but for the prosecutor and the administration of the International Criminal Court.

The hon. Gentleman rightly identified future thinking as critical at this time. He will recall that the progress that was made at Oslo was on the back of the first intifada. That should give us some confidence in these dreadful sets of circumstances that we need to focus on the future, and a lot of thinking is going on in that respect. To address his point about the arms regime, he will know that the British Government have the toughest arms export regime in the world, and we adhere absolutely to that.

During this lull in fighting, the whole House wants to see as many hostages as possible released and as much aid as possible getting in, but both sides are committed to recommence fighting. Does my right hon. Friend think it is time to call for a demilitarisation of Gaza in the longer term, and to consider future governance, security and humanitarian plans? Will he consider a joint summit with the United States, bringing together all the stakeholders to look at the long-term implications of this conflict?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of looking to the medium and the long term, and of doing all that is necessary to bring together people of good will to make progress on the two-state solution. We want to see all hostages released as swiftly as possible, and we also want to see greater volumes of food, fuel, medicine and life-saving supplies getting into Gaza, principally through Rafah but also through any other plausible means.

Is it the Government’s contention that further hostilities—the destruction of the south of Gaza in the way we have seen the north destroyed, with tens of thousands more killed—will lead easily to a permanent ceasefire, or will it simply embolden the militants?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the very worrying position that exists in the south of Gaza at the moment. He will have seen that the United Nations and others are considering islands of deconfliction, particularly around Khan Yunis, including safe zones in order to dispense aid. But, like me, he will be very aware of the dangers experienced in other safe zones in the past, and the risks for civilians who are involved in them.

How can a two-state solution, which everybody says they want—everybody in this Chamber, at any rate—ever come to pass while Hamas remains in control of the Gaza strip?

I do not think that anybody thinks that Hamas are going to remain in charge of the Gaza strip in the medium term, or anything longer than that.

The prospect of the carnage simply resuming at the end of this pause is a really dreadful one. What is the Minister’s assessment of the likelihood that the ceasefire might be made permanent if, over a period of some further days, all the hostages are released?

The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the statements by the Israeli Government about the number of hostages to be released and the possibility of extending the pause in that respect. The view of the British Government is that we should do everything we can to ensure the hostages are released as speedily as possible. The longer that this pause continues, the greater chance there is for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and for progress to be made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any ceasefire continuing should be linked to the release of more hostages? Is he concerned that Hamas are breaking the agreement in several ways, including by separating parents and their children when releasing one but not the other? They have not even allowed the Red Cross to visit all remaining hostages, which has been a rule in conflict for over 100 years. Is he not concerned about these breaches?

I am immensely concerned about the fate of all the hostages. As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, there were originally about 240 hostages, and as of midnight last night 58 hostages have managed to get out. At the same time, 117 prisoners have been released by the Israeli Government. The sooner that all the hostages are out, the better.

Like others, I felt a real sense of relief watching some of the hostages who emerged and were reunited with their families yesterday. The Minister said that this pause could turn into a one-off; it need not. I know the issues are incredibly complicated and I know it is only through international intervention that we will make progress, but could he tell us what steps are being taken not to get to a two-state solution at this point, but to start a peace process between the warring factions that will eventually, one would hope, lead to a two-state solution? What steps are being taken now by international bodies?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She speaks with great wisdom on these matters. I can tell her that the discussions to which she refers are going on throughout the region and internationally. Britain is playing a proper part, not least by the visit last week of the Foreign Secretary to the region.

I very much hope we can extend the humanitarian pause. The Minister, as a former serviceman, like me, will know that the United Kingdom armed forces make extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties, even when targeting terrorists embedded in civilian areas—a point that has been made very forcefully to me by veterans in recent days—so will the United Kingdom carry on very clearly calling on Israel to follow similar standard operating procedures?

The pause is obviously welcome because it will save lives. The horror of 7 October has not gone away. The disaster of the killing of 14,000 people in Gaza has not gone away. There has to be a recognition, as António Guterres has pointed out, of the underlying issue, which is the occupation of the west bank and the settlement policy, and the violence that so many Palestinians have had to put up with for decades and decades. Does the Minister believe there is a role now for the United Nations to do more to try to bring about not just a ceasefire, but a long-term peace that will involve the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestine?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that there is always a role for the United Nations, but it has to be adapted to the circumstances. What he says about a ceasefire, which I have heard him say before, is fettered by the fact that Hamas have made it perfectly clear that they do not want a ceasefire. They want to repeat what they did on 7 October, the day of those terrible events. To have a ceasefire, we have to have two sides that want a ceasefire, and that is clearly not available on this occasion.

The conflict in the middle east is tragic, complex and, sadly, protracted. While the House is broadly aligned on the need to defeat Hamas, could the Minister please reassure me of the efforts being undertaken to urge restraint among all protagonists in the protection of civilians and non-combatants in Gaza?

Britain has been very clear about the importance of respecting international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

The Minister must be concerned by those who seek to play down what has actually happened to innocent Israelis in the middle east. He must be gutted and alarmed that Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister of a neighbouring state of ours, described one of the victims, an eight-year-old girl who was kidnapped and abused, as “lost”. That is unbelievable. Is the Minister concerned by the ever-increasing extremism and the anti-NATO and antisemitic attitudes emanating now from the Republic of Ireland? Is he going to have a word with that country about its attitude?

The Government have been absolutely clear on where we stand on antisemitism and Islamophobia: we condemn both without qualification and will continue to do so.

As the Minister knows, there has been no pause in violence in the west bank, whose largely defenceless population has been subjected over a number of months now to a campaign of what the Americans and French have referred to as “terror”. The Minister says he is asking tough questions and delivering tough messages to both sides, but when will those tough messages turn into tough action? The Americans have already said they will institute visa bans against those settlers who are perpetrating violence, but we have been talking about this for years to little or no effect. Given the centrality of achieving a two-state solution, is there not a strong case for us to take firm action against settlers, those who arm them and those who support them?

On his visit last week, the Foreign Secretary delivered very strong messages, when he was in Ramallah and when he saw the Israeli Government, about the importance of stopping settler violence and ensuring that people are put before the courts and punished—that if the perpetrators of settler violence were identified, they could be put before the courts.

The release of hostages and the increase in humanitarian aid is very much to be welcomed, but I am sure the Minister and the House agree that only a political solution can bring about a lasting peace. In that spirit, will he support Labour’s calls for a new middle east envoy? Also, I was not quite clear from his answer to the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, so will he say that the UK state condemns and is utterly opposed to the settlements?

The position of the British Government on the illegal settlements is absolutely clear. On the possibility of having an envoy, a whole range of different envoys are engaged in this, but if it was appropriate for us to deploy an envoy on behalf of the Government—either a humanitarian or political envoy around the region—we would have no hesitation in doing so.

Despite the pause over the last few days, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains catastrophic and is likely to continue to be catastrophic. While no one doubts the right of Israel to defend itself, the fact is that it is an occupying power and as such has clear legal obligations to the civilians of Gaza, so when my right hon. Friend next speaks to his Israeli opposite number will he remind him of those obligations and ensure that even after the pause ends sufficient aid is allowed to get through to the population of Gaza?

We are doing everything we can through the United Nations and other contacts in the region to ensure that aid and support gets through to those who need it so desperately in Gaza, and my right hon. Friend may rest assured that we will continue to do that.

The massacre by Hamas on 7 October is completely indefensible, but the Minister will be aware that since then no fewer than 5,500 Gaza children have died and there are hundreds more missing, probably under rubble. The Secretary-General of the UN said Gaza is “a graveyard for children” and most recently the executive director of UNICEF has said that pauses are not enough and only a ceasefire will save children. When are the Government going to use their good offices to press both sides for a ceasefire?

Regardless of whether the right hon. Lady’s figures are correct, we know that there has been appalling loss of civilian life in Gaza. In respect of what she says about the relative merits of a pause or ceasefire, we can build on pauses, but I point out that it is the policy of those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government to press for humanitarian pauses, and that is what the British Government will continue to do.

The release of some hostages is incredibly welcome, but the price for that is that Israel has taken the difficult decision to release many Palestinian prisoners held for terror offences, including bombings and stabbing attacks, in exchange for its civilians held in Gaza in unimaginable conditions. History shows us that previous security prisoners released by Israel have gone on to commit further terror offences. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this should be of concern to the whole world and that we must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel to support it to combat terror?

The point that my hon. Friend makes, particularly about prisoners reoffending, underlines the importance of our pursuing every possible way of getting on to a political track. When this ghastly violence finishes, or is significantly diminished, everyone must bend every conceivable sinew to drive forward a new political process for peace.

Few of us can imagine the trauma of being permanently displaced from our homes and never allowed to return. Can the Minister reassure the House that Israel will not take land in Gaza, as some Israeli Ministers have threatened to do, and that Palestinians will be allowed back to their homes and lands, particularly given that 1.7 million out of 2.3 million people living in Gaza have been displaced?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to talk about the deeply contentious issue of land, but what she says is, as I have understood it, absolutely in accordance with the policy of the British Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the pogrom that took place on 7 October, followed by the horrific levels of antisemitism that we have seen across our own country, let alone across the western world, with people feeling frightened to leave their homes for no other reason than their religion, shows why the state of Israel has a right to exist and must always be allowed to defend itself?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. What happened on 7 October was a pogrom, and it was the worst loss of life by Jewish citizens on any single day since the holocaust and 1945.

I thank the Minister for his assistance in getting some of our constituents from Birmingham out of Gaza. On his answer to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), for clarity can he state explicitly that UK Government policy is that every displaced Gazan currently must be allowed to return to their lands?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, and I remind Members from all parts of the House to use the hotline to communicate with the emergency centre in the Foreign Office on behalf of constituents. In terms of the Gazans who have been displaced by the terrible events started by Hamas on 7 October, it is the British Government’s policy that those displaced should be able to return to the area from which they were driven.

The mayor of Gaza City told al-Jazeera that not one litre of fuel has reached the Gaza municipality, likely due to the fuel being misappropriated. Why does the Minister think that the international community should trust Hamas to distribute any aid?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are extremely careful about how British aid is distributed and do it only through trusted partners of whom we have long and detailed experience. This is perhaps the most observed and scrutinised aid programme of any that the British taxpayer and British Government pursue anywhere in the world.

In Home Office questions, I raised the case of a constituent on a student visa whose five-year-old daughter is in southern Gaza, and I am hoping for a similarly positive response from this Minister. Were that visa to be granted, would that young girl be allowed to travel with her grandmother into Egypt with the FCDO’s support so that they can be reunited?

It is unwise and difficult for me to give granular advice on that specific situation from the Dispatch Box, but I will happily speak to the hon. Lady immediately afterwards and ensure that we do the best we can.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks about increasing aid to Gaza and the Palestinian people at this time, and I note what he said about the care taken to ensure that British aid reaches its intended target, but given what we now know about the industrial scale of theft and misappropriation of aid in Gaza over the years, who is making sure on the ground right now that British aid is not being taken by Hamas terrorists?

For aid in Gaza, we have not dealt with either the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas civil administration for many years, and we do everything we can to ensure that it gets through to the people who need it. He will have seen that, I think yesterday, a British aircraft delivered 4,500 blankets and 4,500 sleeping mats to al-Arish in Egypt. That was the fourth planeload. We will continue to ensure not only that we supply as much aid as we possibly can to meet the need, but that it gets to the right place as speedily as possible.

Does the Minister share my grave concerns about what Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent chilling comments—that “Nothing will stop us” and that he will fight “until the end”—will mean for Palestine and the further massacring of innocent civilians? We need an urgent ceasefire to prevent the further loss of life. How many more Palestinian children must die before the Government will call for a permanent ceasefire?

Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself, following the appalling events of 7 October. Of course, civilians, as well as hospitals, must be protected under international humanitarian law, but the hon. Member should be in no doubt that the Israeli Government have the absolute right to defend themselves under international law.

The recent discovery of a tunnel from the Shifa Hospital to a residential property is yet more clear evidence that Hamas are using civilians as human shields in this conflict. Will the Minister therefore join me in clearly condemning that activity, and will he confirm that the Government will continue to support Israel in its fight to eradicate Hamas from the region?

I, too, call for the pause to transition into a ceasefire. What discussions have the Minister and the Foreign Secretary had about opening up corridors for humanitarian aid to cross between Israel and Gaza, in the light of the poor infrastructure in Gaza for moving humanitarian aid from the south to the north?

We are in those discussions. As the hon. Member will know, the access through Rafah is fettered by physical and non-physical circumstances. When the Foreign Secretary was in the region last week, he had specific discussions about other means of access into Gaza, and we are doing everything we possibly can, together with our humanitarian partners, to achieve a far greater degree of access for humanitarian supplies.

From the perspective of my constituents in Bolton, we are watching the worst horror movie conceivable, and hitting pause will only delay the suffering. Boltonians are asking: when can all sides simply hit the stop button and bring about a ceasefire? If a ceasefire is not possible, what discussions are we having with Israeli and other counterparts about extending the pause after today?

My hon. Friend will have seen the discussions going on and the offer that, apparently, the Israeli Government have made if extra hostages are released. All those discussions are continuing. Clearly, the longer the pause, the more support and humanitarian supplies can get into Gaza. The British Government are doing everything they can to progress both those things.

I welcome the Minister’s words that the Foreign Secretary is exploring other crossings being opened to get aid into the south. It is essential that that happens. If the hostilities resume, as most people expect, what representations are the British Government making to try to stop them moving south, where almost 2 million are displaced and there is nowhere else to go?

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave a little earlier about the south. We are conscious of the fact that very large numbers of people are kettled into the south, which makes the supply of aid even more dangerous, unless there is a comprehensive agreement that there will be no hostilities around the areas where aid is being distributed. We are very conscious of that, and we are working with our partners to make it as safe as possible for aid to be distributed.

It is extremely good news that some hostages have been freed. However, polling suggests that 75% of the Palestinian people support the atrocities by Hamas, and 85% refuse to even consider the coexistence of a Palestinian state with the state of Israel. At the moment, Palestinian prisoners are being released to the west bank and Hamas are getting the credit, so does the Minister accept that there is a risk that Hamas not only dominate Gaza but end up dominating the west bank as well?

My hon. Friend’s comment underlines the importance of a political track emerging and being pursued with great vigour as soon as possible.

I want to talk about the plight of women in Gaza, which a constituent raised with me. Every day, 180 women in Gaza give birth, most without water, painkillers, anaesthesia for caesarean sections, medical supplies or, as we know, electricity for incubators. With more than 5,000 women expected to give birth in Gaza next month, will the Minister join Labour in calling for Israel to protect hospitals in Gaza and allow continued access to medicine, food, water and electricity to protect those women and newborns during birth?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the very large numbers of women who are seeking to give birth in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We are conscious of that in the aid and humanitarian supplies that we are making available. I completely understand the importance of the humanitarian support workers who are in Gaza—extremely brave people who are putting themselves in harm’s way to support their fellow citizens with humanitarian supplies. Nowhere is that more true than in the area that she described.

It has been extremely moving to see hostages starting to come out and aid starting to flow in. I hope that the truce will hold, but if the hostilities start again, please can the UK Government make every representation to Israel that, in its legitimate efforts to stop the terrorism, it must do more to prevent mass loss of civilian life, especially children?

My constituent Adam Abu Warda has close family in Gaza and is extremely anxious that they should have the opportunity to get out and come to the UK, as other MPs have said. What is the Government’s policy on our constituents wishing to get their very close family out of Gaza to bring them to the UK?

We are seeking, within the rules the hon. Gentleman will be aware of, to facilitate, in every way we can, those people leaving Gaza. As I said to one of our colleagues, it would not be sensible for me to look at the granular detail of the specific case he raises on the Floor of the House but, if he has contacted the emergency consular support team in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and has any concerns about the responses he is getting, I am of course very happy, to look at it myself.

Three weeks ago today, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and I were at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where we saw and heard things we will never forget, and where the smell of rotting blood and flesh was still pungent in the air, such was the butchery not only of Hamas but Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the thousands of Gazan civilians who streamed into the kibbutzim afterwards. There are some in this place who seem to give the impression that the only barriers to peace are the actions of the Israeli Government. The facts are that it is Hamas who are responsible for every death that occurs. It is the Palestinian Authority whose textbooks preach hate against Jews, not just in Israel but around the world. It is Palestinian Authority schools that were closed in a day of celebration after 7 October and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), hold such appalling views about coexistence. Will the Minister, in his dealings with the Palestinian Authority, encourage them to deal with their issues of extremism?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the British Government are doing everything they can to address the issues behind what he says. I have no doubt, having been at that terrible location so recently, that that is something he will never forget.

What is the Minister’s understanding and assessment of the Netanyahu Government’s medium and long-term strategy for the Gaza strip?

The right hon. Gentleman, who is extremely experienced in these matters, will draw his conclusions from what the Israeli Government are saying, just as the British Government do.

Now that the welcome temporary pause is under way, what steps are the UK Government taking to press to ensure that it becomes an enduring ceasefire as soon as possible, leading to a political process for peace? Are the UK Government being clear with the Israeli Government that, as they seek to continue in their legitimate aim of destroying Hamas, a return to the relentless bombardment, the razing of Gaza and the indiscriminate killing of civilians is not acceptable, proportionate or within international law?

As the hon. Lady will know, Israel has an absolute right to self-defence. It has been made clear around the world that that is the right position, but it must abide by international humanitarian law.

Nobody can help but be moved by the sight of hostages being released. This weekend, the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), on a public platform, said that the UK Government

“will not rest until each and every one of them is back in the loving embrace of their families,”

It is now more than a month since anybody at all from the UK Government has had any contact at all with the UK citizens who have family members as hostages—not a single phone call. The Minister will know that I have come to this place and pleaded with him to help arrange just five minutes of Lord Cameron’s time with the hostage families to tell them what the Government are actually doing to help get their family members released. It has been other Governments who have helped to identify that their family members are alive. Please, finally, can the Minister listen to those UK citizens asking their Government, “What are you doing to help get my family released?” and arrange that meeting as an urgent matter?

My understanding is not the same as the hon. Lady’s in respect of the British hostages. She will know that over 200 British nationals and their dependants have so far left Gaza, and we are working around the clock to get the rest of those out who want to leave. In terms of the hostages, my understanding is not the same as she has said.

Does the Minister agree that we cannot accept civilians being ordered to flee into areas that are then subject to bombardment? Does he share the concerns of the UN and the World Health Organisation about the proposals for a safe zone with no infrastructure, which will cause more problems down the line?

There are very serious problems with safe zones. We have learnt about them the hard way from the events that took place in Srebrenica, in—indeed—Rwanda, and in northern Iraq. It is an absolute preoccupation of humanitarians—including those in the United Nations, who are neuralgic about safe zones—to ensure that if we are to distribute very large amounts of aid we have the capacity to do so before too much longer, and we all hope that we are able to do it in the safest possible way.

I welcome the pause, with hostages released and aid delivered, and I hope that it continues. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the role that he has played to date, but if this drip, drip of hostage release is to continue, surely more must be done to ratchet up the pressure and ensure that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent gain access to the hostages about whom we have no information. Is that not a priority now?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right: it is a priority. There is some suggestion that while I have been on my feet in the Chamber, Qatar has announced that the truce will be extended by two days. Obviously we all hope that that is true, and that as a result more hostages will be able to leave.

The Minister is known for his humanitarian instincts. Does he agree that it is unthinkable now to resume the indiscriminate destruction of Gaza and the lives of Palestinian civilians? Is he urging on the Israeli Government the need to find a means of removing the threat from Hamas that does not cost the lives of thousands of women, children and other non-combatants?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with wisdom about the position of civilians. All of us hope that the loss of life among innocent civilians can be minimised, but I would point out to him that the Israeli Government have an absolute right to go after the murderous terrorists of Hamas who perpetrated the dreadful events of 7 October.

I have heard from a number of constituents in Glasgow North who are concerned that weapons either manufactured in the UK or sold by UK companies are being used in this conflict. Can the Minister say how regularly the UK is assessing its obligations under the arms trade treaty to ensure that arms are not being transferred when there is a risk of their being used to commit or facilitate breaches of international humanitarian law?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the British rules for the export of arms, scrutinised by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, provide for the toughest regulations anywhere in the world. If he ever believes that those rules have been infracted in any way, he should of course inform the requisite authorities.

Despite the four-day truce, there remains a humanitarian emergency in Gaza. We cannot return to the indiscriminate and unprecedented killing that we have seen take place on such a horrific scale over the last seven weeks; we need to see a lasting, permanent ceasefire. As I have been repeatedly urging the Minister, will the Government use the UK’s influence at this crucial moment to secure the ceasefire, so that we can see an end to the bloodshed and the war crimes, allow desperately needed aid to reach all parts of Gaza, and create space for the immediate return of all hostages and meaningful negotiations on a lasting peace?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the aid and support to which he has referred reaches those who need it. Of course, if we build on a humanitarian pause, the longer the pause goes on and the longer there are meaningful negotiations in Qatar, or through Qatar, the better. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware, however, that it is the policy of his own Front Bench as well as the British Government not to call for a ceasefire—which, for the reasons I have given, would be impractical in any event—but to pursue the pauses that are desperately needed for humanitarian relief to arrive.

Does the Minister agree that to prevent a catastrophic outbreak of waterborne diseases such as cholera, we need to see fresh water flowing and sanitation and hygiene supplies being delivered on a large scale, alongside key public health and medical support?

Those are indeed the supplies that are necessary to stop the situation that the hon. Lady described developing further. There is a very real risk of waterborne diseases and cholera breaking out in Gaza, and that is why we are diligently pursuing the humanitarian policies I have set out in every way we can.

No one would wish to withhold the aid that has been given to the innocent civilians—who, let’s face it, are only suffering because of a war instigated by Hamas terrorists—but does the Minister agree that this cynical drip-feed release of hostages is a further act of terror by Hamas and that the pauses in the fighting will be used by them to regroup and rearm? Will he give me a reassurance that our Government will not fall into the trap of acceding to Hamas’s incessant demands for indefinite pauses, rather than allowing the Israeli Government to do what they need to do, which is to engage in security action to destroy Hamas in their own dens?

The right hon. Gentleman underlines the fact that Israel has every right to exercise its self-defence in rooting out the Hamas terrorists and murderers. The British Government are very clear that what he has said about that is absolutely right.

Given that Hamas have been crystal clear that they have no intention of ever wanting a permanent ceasefire, what discussions have been had with the Palestinian Authority to build its capacity and competence, to ensure the transition to a two-state solution?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about Hamas and the ceasefire, with which I completely agree. In respect of building Palestinian capacity, he will know that Lord Cameron was in Ramallah last week discussing that and many other associated matters with President Abbas, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister there.

I was incredibly relieved to get my constituent’s family, 13 of them, across the border and home through Egypt. I pay tribute to the staff in the consular section who supported them, but the support was patchy and the cost of them returning was over £5,000 on commercial flights. What more can the Minister do to supercharge that consular support and to reimburse those families who had to come home on commercial flights? Would he consider meeting my constituent’s family to learn the lessons that they have experienced of having to flee in the middle of a bombardment?

I will certainly be pleased to arrange for Foreign Office officials to meet the hon. Lady’s constituent’s family if she believes that there are lessons to be learned, but I also want to pay a special tribute to all the men and women who work in the emergency centre at the Foreign Office, who have often been working through the night throughout this emergency and have done so with huge diligence, tenacity and commitment.

As many other Members have made clear, a two-state solution is critical to a lasting peace. So, given the announcements made today, can the Minister make clear the UK’s complete opposition to illegal settlements in the west bank?

The position of the British Government—and, I believe, the Opposition—is one of complete opposition to illegal settlements.

Many of us believe that a humanitarian pause is inadequate, as Israeli aggression continues unabated, but that would be as nothing in terms of a failure to support a ceasefire if Britain were to be complicit in any way with Israeli aggression. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus is not being used by the US military to supply Israel, and that British military and intelligence sites in Cyprus will likewise not be used to support Israel or America in this conflict?

I think the hon. Gentleman confuses the role of the British Government, which has been set out clearly by the Prime Minister and by me in the House. He will also know that when it comes to the use of intelligence assets and so forth, we do not discuss those matters across the Floor of the House.

It was welcome this weekend to see the release of Israeli child hostages. It was also welcome a moment ago to hear the Minister talk about a possible two-day extension to the pause in fighting. We heard two weeks ago from the Israeli Foreign Minister, who said:

“Israel has some two or three weeks until international pressure seriously begins to increase”.

He said that the pressure was “not particularly high” but was increasing. Given that the Israeli Government were not feeling pressured internationally a fortnight ago, how can the Minister be sure that the pressure from the UK Government is being felt now, so that the rules of engagement of the Israel Defence Forces will distinguish between terrorists and civilians?

The people who serve in the Israel Defence Forces are taught, as part of their basic training, the importance of abiding by international humanitarian law. I would contrast the Israel Defence Forces, who seek to defend Israeli citizens, with Hamas, who seek to use their citizens to defend Hamas.