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Israel and Gaza

Volume 719: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had about the situation in Israel and Gaza.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is in regular contact with the Israeli and Palestinian Governments and our international allies regarding the current humanitarian situation in Gaza and the wider issues relating to the peace process. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in the other place, it is essential that there should be unfettered access to Gaza, not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza but to enable reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place.

My Lords, in the face of threats to intervene and break the blockade by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval units, why cannot the United Kingdom Government announce that they are prepared to challenge the blockade by providing a naval escort for a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid into Gaza, aid which has been given prior clearance by the European Union in the way that Bernard Kouchner has suggested? Would that not be a far better way to proceed? The Israeli Government are far more likely to heed that kind of initiative.

I recognise the noble Lord’s strong feelings on this matter, but we simply do not think that that is the right way to proceed. We think that the right way is for the restrictions and the so-called blockade to be lifted beyond the present arrangements, by which some humanitarian supplies get in but not enough. We think that the right way forward is to put maximum pressure on Israel to do that. That is the sensible way forward for Israel’s own security and for the future prospects for the peace process.

I agree entirely with the Minister about unrestricted access to Gaza, but are there not immediate questions to be discussed with the Government of Israel concerning the ships themselves, their cargoes, now under arrest, and possibly the personal possessions of persons who have been arrested?

I cannot answer the noble Lord on the personal possessions issue. With regard to the humanitarian goods on these ships, the idea is that they should be shipped on into Gaza. However, unfortunately, it appears that the Hamas group has not been very keen on accepting all that aid at the moment. But that is the procedure that the Government of Israel are trying to adopt in the face of attempts to run the blockade or break the restrictions, which are apparently to be promoted by a number of countries, including some of the Iranian authorities.

Does the Minister agree that, while there is a great need to improve the access for aid and commercial goods into Gaza, it still requires any new regime allowing new materials into Gaza to take great care not to allow in weapons that might be used against Israel?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. This is the dilemma. Israel does have the right to restrain the import of weapons, bombs and so on into the control of Hamas. At the same time, we all want to see the sufferings of the people of Gaza minimised and the maximum supplies of food, building materials, medical supplies and so on imported into Gaza. That is the dilemma that must be solved. The right way forward is along the lines proposed, with pressure on Israel to do that rather than creating some head-on conflict with Israel when it is the country with which we need to co-operate to achieve the two-state solution that we all want to see.

In the mean time, my Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the peace talks and the proximity talks are proceeding apace, despite the continuing weakness of the quartet mechanism, which is deeply disappointing to all observers? Will he reassure us that the sinister rumours that George Mitchell is less than even-handed between Israel and Palestinian lobbies are not true?

I can give that reassurance. I can also tell my noble friend that the Palestinian authorities have shown no inclination to withdraw from the proximity talks or from the talks that might follow them. For the moment that side of the situation holds together, despite all these unhappy developments in recent days.

The Minister must recognise that Israel has legitimate security concerns and cannot be expected to allow unfettered access. How, then, do the Government respond to the specific proposal from Bernard Kouchner that the European Union offers to provide some form of border monitoring for material entering Gaza to ensure that it is only for humanitarian purposes?

There may well be something in that idea. Of course there is the other border on the Egyptian side, which was open temporarily and has now been closed. All these matters are to be pursued to see whether we can find that key reconciliation between the need to end the suffering of the people of Gaza and Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

My Lords, while I recognise the appropriate need for Israel to be protected, the issue of building materials in relation to the people of Gaza is nevertheless important, given the recent campaign against Gaza involving bombing and the destruction of houses. What can Her Majesty’s Government do in the interim to encourage the Israeli Government to allow building materials to go into that country? Surely they are fundamental to the humanitarian effort.

The right reverend Prelate is right. The answer has to be that maximum pressure and encouragement must be placed on the Government of Israel to do what is actually in their own interest, which is to minimise the restrictions, to lift the blockade as far as they can consistent with their security and to continue to expand the amount of provisions already going into Gaza from Israel as well as from Egypt. That is the way forward and we should not be deflected from it.