Skip to main content

Gaza: Reconstruction

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to bring reconstruction aid into Gaza following the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.

My Lords, there was broad support at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference for the immediate, unconditional and sustained re-opening of crossings so that Gaza can be rebuilt. The United Nations promoted its new draft framework for humanitarian access. We hope that this will be endorsed at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting in April, which Israel will attend. The UK Government will continue to press Israel at the highest levels to increase access.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. but is he able to reassure this House? In view of the present Israeli Government’s flat refusal even to consider reopening the crossing points into Gaza, how on earth will rebuilding materials and equipment get in as soon as possible, bearing in mind the urgent humanitarian need?

My Lords, the nail has been hit on the head. The Israeli Government’s position is not a flat refusal, but there is no question that Israel can do most to help this situation by addressing the whole issue of access. Her Majesty’s Government take the access position extremely seriously. We have put particular effort into diplomacy, going back to 19 January when Mike Foster met Isaac Herzog, the Minister responsible for access. On 21 January, the Foreign Secretary had a private luncheon with the Israeli Foreign Minister to urge access and joined EU Foreign Ministers. On 4 February, the Prime Minister wrote to Prime Minister Olmert. On 16 February, the Foreign Secretary met Isaac Herzog again and the Secretary of State for International Development met him on 1 March. There is no question that the key issue in the short term is access. We are putting all our efforts into trying to break through the access deadlock.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how international aid will get into Gaza, not only so long as the Israelis maintain their blockade, but, perhaps as importantly, so long as we and our partners in the quartet refuse to speak to the effective authority in Gaza? What assurances have we received or sought from Mr Netanyahu that his continuing threat to destroy Hamas will not reduce any rebuilding done in Gaza to rubble yet again?

My Lords, I believe that the last assurance possibly is beyond the British Government and certainly way beyond my pay grade. We in DfID are trying to ensure that there are methods of getting aid through. We are using the present agencies that are working in Gaza. They are getting some aid through. We recognise that those agencies have to treat with Hamas. As noble Lords know, we do not believe that it is proper at this time to treat with Hamas, but that does not stand in the way of aid getting through. We certainly agree with the general thrust of the noble Lord’s question that a long-term solution to peace in the area will need Arab and Palestinian reconciliation. The need for all countries to work together for a long-term solution is crucial. We praise very much Egypt’s role in the recent past and we are very pleased to see the emphasis that the Obama Administration are putting on that.

My Lords, we hope that this aid gets through to those who desperately need it. Gaza has a border with Egypt. Presumably, the Egyptians have as many anxieties as Israel about the diversion of funds by Hamas for the purchase of arms, just as it has hijacked the funds going through the UN and UNRWA. What steps can we take to ensure that the aid will reach the needy Palestinians rather than Hamas?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that Egypt is concerned that aid gets to the right place. We are concerned. We believe, as a generality, that aid is getting to where it is needed. The agencies delivering that aid are giving us those assurances.

My Lords, the DfID website informs us that as of 26 February nearly £16 million had been allocated out of the £27 million pledged to help aid in Gaza. Is the Minister aware that, on 1 March, Douglas Alexander announced an extra £20 million in funding for reconstruction? Can the Minister give us further details on exactly how this and the £10 million not yet allocated from the previous announcement will be spent?

My Lords, it is being spent on an extremely wide selection of projects. This is not a money problem: the outcome of the Sharm conference, as the noble Baroness rightly says, was to bring our aid commitment up to £50 million in the short term and something above £250 million over the long term. However, what came out of Sharm was a pledge of £4 billion of new money, so this is not a problem of money—although it might be, in the longer term—but of access. It is a problem of Palestinian politics, in which we and the international community are trying to help, and of achieving peace in the region so that proper, long-term reconstruction can start.

My Lords, does the Minister not think it absolutely extraordinary that Tony Blair, who has been the quartet’s envoy to the Middle East for the past two years, had not even visited Gaza until this week? What does that say for the even-handedness of the international community concerning that area of the world?

My Lords, having read through all of the briefings to prepare for this Question, the international community is being extraordinarily even-handed. It has, for instance, been forceful in getting across to Israel the importance of its duties in this situation. It has been even-handed in getting across the importance of stopping the smuggling; that is part of it. Tony Blair is doing the right job at the right time. The international community really does seem to be putting together a good, co-ordinated effort on this. It is now a matter of getting the Palestinians to work together, and of getting long-term peace in the region.