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Lebanon and Gaza

Volume 684: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip.

In Lebanon, the crisis has led the UN to estimate that at least 500,000 people have been displaced. Insecurity and damaged infrastructure are making it difficult to reach those in need of medical care, food and water supplies. The supply of electricity has stopped to most villages and towns in southern Lebanon. Stocks of fuel will be exhausted in two weeks. Factories producing medicines, milk, wood and housing supplies have been destroyed. It is clear from aid agencies that they need immediate and safe access to the displaced and the wounded and those requiring humanitarian assistance. I support the proposals by the UN and ICRC for safe humanitarian access, but ultimately the security situation needs to stabilise in order to ensure that vital assistance can get to where it is needed.

We have responded to international appeals for humanitarian aid. Following the initial response that I announced last week, I am today committing a further £2.2 million to support humanitarian relief, including for the UN flash appeal, which has been launched today. The UN Central Emergency Response Fund is also providing an initial contribution of $5 million, of which the UK share is $1.4 million (£770,000). This brings the total UK commitment to £5 million, and we stand ready to do more as needed. DfID is deploying two humanitarian advisers to the region. Two stabilisation and recovery advisers will join them shortly. The Post Conflict Reconstruction Unit is helping cross-government planning for the UK's contribution to stabilisation and recovery, immediately hostilities cease.

The situation in Gaza is also very difficult. Following the Israeli attack on Gaza's only power station, electricity is limited to supplies received from Israel. Households receive six to eight hours’ electricity per day. Electricity is vital for hospitals and clinics, which need constant supplies of power to run medical equipment and to keep drugs at constant temperatures. It is needed to pump fresh water to houses and to treat sewage. It is essential for the safe storage of food and for processing flour to make bread. Most households in Gaza are receiving two hours of water per day. This means that they do not have reliable access to water for drinking, personal hygiene and washing clothes. According to the World Health Organisation, cases of diarrhoea among refugee children in Gaza in early July were 50 per cent higher than at the same period last year. Humanitarian supplies are vital. The Rafah crossing was opened temporarily on 18 July to allow those stranded at the crossing in desperate conditions to enter and the Karni crossing was temporarily opened for humanitarian and commercial imports, but both are now closed again. Action is needed to ensure unrestricted humanitarian access, including the supply of medical equipment, fuel, food and electricity.

In April, the UK made a contribution of £15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides basic services for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. This is helping UNRWA to provide healthcare and other basic services to Palestinian refugees, who comprise 70 per cent of Gaza's population. The EU collectively provides over half of UNRWA's funding and the UK last year was the third largest bilateral donor.

The European Union has established a temporary international mechanism to support the basic needs of the Palestinian people. The mechanism will provide support to health, education and social affairs, help to pay for utilities and assist the very poorest Palestinians. The UK stands ready to allocate up to £12 million to the mechanism, plus our share of the European Community contribution, giving a total of up to £25 million. The mechanism has already enabled much needed fuel supplies for emergency generators after Gaza's only power station was damaged by military action. These fuel deliveries are keeping hospitals open, water pumps going and waste treatment plants open. The mechanism will soon start making payments to health workers in both Gaza and the West Bank to ensure that they can continue to provide essential medical care. We welcome the decision of G8 leaders to immediately expand the mechanism to provide wider assistance to the people of Gaza, and we are working closely with the quartet and others to ensure that this happens.

The UK is also providing assistance to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to enable it to monitor closely the humanitarian situation in Gaza to assist donors and others to make sure that help gets to those who need it most.

It is particularly important for the humanitarian welfare of innocent civilians in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza that there is an end to the violence on all sides. The UK Government support efforts to put in place a durable ceasefire.