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Middle East: Gaza Strip

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they are making to members of the Middle East quartet as well as the Government of Israel regarding the urgent reopening of additional road access to the Gaza strip.

My Lords, there is a pressing need to overcome the obstacles to reopening Gaza’s crossings for humanitarian goods, trade and people. The quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, the UN and Russia, has expressed concern over the continued closure of major crossing points. The UN is actively involved in trying to find a solution. The EU has called on all parties to work towards an opening of the crossings in and out of Gaza. The UK’s representative on the Middle East, Michael Williams, most recently raised our concerns about the situation in Gaza with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 7 November.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his Answer. Unemployment in Gaza has now reached 50 per cent. Eighty-four per cent of the people there are living below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, 46 per cent of public servants and their families are not receiving enough food to survive, and only in the past day or two has Israel confirmed the closing of the super-crossing, which up to now has taken 70 per cent of humanitarian aid into Gaza. We are facing both a humanitarian disaster and the potential for an irreversible economic collapse. First, does the Minister agree that this is exactly the kind of situation that, frighteningly, radicalises young Muslims throughout the world? Secondly, in this desperately urgent situation and with the Annapolis conference still without a clear date, could the United Kingdom not call on the quartet for an urgent meeting to consider how to deal with this impending disaster?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course correct that the situation in Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe with completely unacceptable levels of economic despair. Let me provide the up-to-date situation on the crossings into Gaza. Two are presently operating: Kerem Shalom, which is allowing access for humanitarian aid and commercial supplies; and Erez, for personnel movements, although its opening hours have been reduced. I completely support the noble Baroness’s basic premise that unfortunately the noose is growing ever tighter and the humanitarian consequences are devastating.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not simply a question of how the Israelis behave but how the Gaza citizens behave? Does he know that almost every day rockets are fired from Gaza into surrounding Israeli towns and villages—apparently, there were seven yesterday—and that the people who live in these towns and villages are in constant fear of attack? Although of course it is important to both sides, and to all of us, that the situation in Gaza should improve and that we should do everything in our power to help in that improvement, does my noble friend agree that, before the Israeli Government can open access to these roads, there must be a viable Palestinian infrastructure that can ensure the safety, security and well-being of both parties, and indeed that we should all welcome the current efforts of Tony Blair and the Middle East quartet to achieve that result?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to draw attention to the continuant shelling from Gaza into civilian settlements in Israel. The Government have made it clear that this is unacceptable and that we need the Hamas administration of Gaza to accept the quartet principles of the right of Israel to exist, of the suspension of violence, and of the acceptance of the road map and the other negotiating arrangements. Obviously, people of good will on both sides devoutly hope that a solution can be found so that this suffering does not continue, with the inevitable political consequences that it brings with it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right that this is an horrific situation, with only the Kerem Shalom crossing now open, although I think Erez is allowing some pedestrians through. Fuel supplies are being reduced, electricity is being cut off, and we could see 1.4 million people forced into starvation. We agree with all that but is there not also a serious dilemma, about which the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has just spoken? The Al Fatah guards have fled—they are no longer controlling these crossings because the Hamas people have driven them away—and the mortar attacks are continuing. Is this not a question of talking directly to the Israeli officials and ministry about how they will manage this very difficult situation?

I do not have easy solutions, but it seems that general propositions to the quartet or railing against the Israelis are not enough. People are dying and immediate, careful, planned action is required to cope with the dilemmas that I have described.

Looking for a little hope in the longer term, is it not correct that this tiny strip of land, the Gaza Strip, is sitting on a massive offshore gas reservoir which will supply fuel for the whole area and bring some prosperity to this miserable situation?

My Lords, the House is united with regard to the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord that this is a situation of utter frustration for all of us who wish to see progress. Indeed, the incidents that have been so eloquently described this morning have led us to a point where the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly with potentially devastating results. Everyone seems to be caught in a position where nobody can act effectively and operationally to find solutions. I reassure the noble Baroness that we expect the Annapolis meeting to occur next week. We hope that it will be the beginning of a process that can lead to solutions on this and other issues.