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Volume 706: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ask the Government of Israel to contribute to the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing in Gaza.

My Lords, we would welcome an Israeli contribution to the wider reconstruction effort, and indeed we agree that Israel should feel that there is a responsibility on itself to contribute. The most essential Israeli action that we continue to press for is the immediate free and unhindered passage of humanitarian aid, construction materials and the staff of UN agencies and international NGOs through the Gaza crossings.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed, helpful and positive Answer. What Zeb Brzezinski described yesterday as a “massacre” has resulted in the lives of thousands of Palestinian families being ruined, some tragically for ever, including those who are now severely disabled as a result of their wounds. Does the Minister agree that Israel need feel no shame in making amends for what has happened as part of the peace process by making full financial restitution and compensation to the victims and providing aid both for the reconstruction of over 20,000 buildings, and, in particular, in respect of more than 400 children who have been killed? That will be part of the peace process.

My Lords, I certainly agree with the broad direction of the sentiment. There is a well understood practice at the end of a war that a country contributes towards reconstruction. The same point was raised only last night by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in the House. However, I do not want to imply that there is a responsibility under international law to pay for that reconstruction. As part of the peace process, it clearly would have enormous value and would be a healing step.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the European Union, the United Nations and Israel that the reconstruction effort in Gaza should be led by the legitimate Palestinian Authority rather than by Hamas? What talks have our Government had with Egypt and others, in view of the upcoming reconstruction conference, about bringing the Palestinian factions together to enable the Palestinian Authority to perform this essential function for their people in Gaza?

My Lords, as the elected head of the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas does indeed represent Palestinians on this issue. However, he and his own colleagues have made it clear that it is important that reconstruction and all activities in the Palestinian territories should be led as soon as possible by a Government of national unity under the Palestinian Authority flag, representing the citizens of Gaza as well as those of the West Bank.

My Lords, I am following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. Can we make sure that, in our contribution to UN thinking on this, the proposal of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an international committee to oversee reconstruction in Gaza—it is, of course, desperately needed, whoever contributes, Israel or anyone else—so that the driving force really is to achieve what we all want: a single Palestinian state, a united Palestine? Surely that is not only the aim, but perhaps also the opportunity as one tries to pick up the pieces after this horrific tragedy.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord would agree that I can add to his words not just the aim and opportunity but the necessity for this. The cycle of reconstruction followed by renewed violence and destruction is one that all in this House feel must be broken this time.

My Lords, the most immediate need is humanitarian. Financial and reconstruction help comes next. We must say to Israel that it is time to be generous and to open the crossings between Israel and Gaza. Further, since we know that many civilians have undoubtedly been injured, Israel should offer them medical and hospital assistance. Can the Minister press on Israel the need for generosity and the extent to which such generosity is in Israel’s long-term enlightened interests?

My Lords, before addressing the broader point, I can assure the noble Lord that this week the crossings at Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz, Rafah, Erez and Karni were opened. On 20 January, the date for which we have the latest statistics, significant numbers of truckloads of humanitarian goods were able to enter Gaza, both through Karem Shalom and via the Karni conveyor belt, in addition to ambulances passing through the Rafah crossing. That is encouraging. However, we are more dismayed to see that there does not yet to seem to be easy movement of either diplomatic or international NGO staff through the crossings to support the delivery of assistance.

On the noble Lord’s broader point, he knows that I share with him completely the view that this is a time for Israel to exercise statesmanship, to open up and move forward on this and to show within that statesmanship an element of contrition.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the time has now come for EUBAM to be reinstated at Rafah, so that people can move in both directions?

My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in his meetings at Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem at the weekend that we would very much support its use at the Rafah crossing and extend it to other crossings, if that was the way to build trust and get the movement of goods going.