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Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what responses they have received from the Government of Israel to their requests for unrestricted access for humanitarian supplies and construction materials entering Gaza.

My Lords, since the ceasefire in January, humanitarian access to Gaza has improved, but still not nearly enough humanitarian supplies or construction materials are getting in. The UK Government continue to take this issue extremely seriously. At the Sharm el-Sheikh conference in March, there was broad international support for greater access to Gaza. We welcomed this and have sustained our lobbying of the Israeli Government on the issue.

My Lords, have we or have we not had responses from Israel to requests made by our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary? Given the scale of malnutrition, homelessness and deprivation in Gaza, will the Government support Egypt’s proposal for a technical and humanitarian committee nominated by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to organise access for essential incoming supplies? Will they also bear in mind the fact that UNRWA has offered to verify the end use of such supplies?

My Lords, as I have said, the UK Government and others continue to press the Israeli authorities to allow greater access. The Government have no knowledge of the details of the proposal that the noble Lord enunciated about a new committee. The UK’s priority is that humanitarian and recovery aid should reach the people of Gaza. We have well developed international mechanisms for doing that, including the UNRWA, the World Bank and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We strongly support the UN’s role in this. However, recovery and reconstruction will necessarily involve consultation with numerous local and international actors. We are doing all that we can to ensure greater access.

My Lords, following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, in which he demonstrated that his Administration will take a more pragmatic approach to resolving this issue, will Her Majesty’s Government be working closely with the Americans in order to encourage the Israelis to ease their border restrictions for humanitarian aid?

My Lords, the Government continue to work closely with the United States, our European partners and all international actors who share our view that what is required in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is dialogue. That dialogue comes about by getting the international actors to put pressure on the local actors. The fact that this was done in the form of a speech by the American President is an opportunity for a step forward, which the UK Government strongly support.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, despite what he indicated in his initial Answer, food and building supplies and even children’s toys and crayons are being blocked from going into Gaza? DfID has just had to pay £40,000 simply to store vehicles that have not been allowed into Gaza since February. Is it not time that the international community put a stop to this and indicated to Israel that it is hardly in its best interests to have this kind of image of what it is doing going around the world?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes important points. Only 25 of some 4,000 forms of humanitarian and other supplies are allowed in. Many will echo her sentiments. However, I do not think that she has to lie awake at night worrying about whether the UK Government and others have made those points to the state of Israel. They are central to the discussion and we hope that those arguments will bear fruit.

My Lords, what evidence is there to suggest that Hamas will co-operate with Israel in coming to the aid of the beleaguered people of Gaza?

My Lords, not a lot, on the basis of what we know. The United Kingdom Government do not communicate directly with Hamas. The Arab League has given that responsibility to Egypt. There is therefore only an indirect dialogue. I do not believe that in our task of providing assistance there is a requirement to talk directly to Hamas.

My Lords, what information do the Government have about negotiations for the formation of a national unity Government in the Palestinian Authority, which could have a positive influence on the problem in Gaza? Will he confirm the views that his noble friend expressed in this House some months ago that, should a national unity Government be formed, the British Government will deal with them in a perfectly straightforward manner?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes important points, both of which I can answer in the affirmative. I can give him the absolute up-to-date information on the formation of a national Government: the Egyptian proposal is supported. I will see whether there is information that I can add in a written reply to the noble Lord. On the second point, the UK Government’s position remains the same as enunciated previously.

My Lords, on a point of information, will the Minister tell us whether he has any evidence that Israel is concerned about the smuggling of weapons with supplies into Gaza? It would be helpful to have an answer.

My Lords, the answer is self-evident. Undoubtedly, Israel is concerned about what it sees as an attempt to smuggle arms and other ordnance, as is shown in the way in which it is denying access to goods that other people consider to be perfectly reasonable. We have to find a way through that meets the security concerns of the Israeli Government and the absolute and urgent needs of the Palestinian people.

My Lords, the problem has gone on for a long time and there are two directly conflicting interests, both of which one has a great deal of sympathy with. On the one hand, there is the humanitarian need and, on the other hand, there is Israel’s need for security. Will my noble friend please come back to the House with a Written Answer on the Egyptian proposal and how that might work, with international scrutiny of what really is going over the border?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question. Any noble Lord can table any Questions for Written Answer. I invite the noble Baroness or indeed any other Member who wishes to table Questions to do so, so that they can be given serious consideration and Answers provided. This is not just a question of humanitarian aid. At the moment, dry goods and basic foods are available. What we need is much greater access to provide for reconstruction, without which Palestine cannot hope to get away from the state that it is in at the moment.