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Volume 723: debated on Monday 13 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to alleviate the hardships suffered by people living in Gaza.

The UK has provided £27 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency this year, of which 30 per cent has been spent in Gaza to deliver essential services to the 70 per cent of Gazans who are refugees. We are also providing £2 million to support the Gazan private sector and funding UN and Palestinian Authority teams working to facilitate access for imports to Gaza. We continue to call on Israel to improve access to Gaza for aid and reconstruction materials.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. As she will know, last month I made a visit to Gaza, the details of which are declared in the register of interests. Is it not part of the tragedy of Gaza that, although some goods are now going in more freely, severe restrictions remain on the import of construction materials that are necessary to build and rebuild homes and schools? While no one disputes the security problem, do not the Government agree that there is a danger that such a policy of restriction, which harms thousands of entirely innocent people, will help to recruit a new generation of extremists?

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s concerns. We recognise that ordinary Gazans are suffering—indeed, the deterioration of Gaza’s institutions and infrastructure is described by the UN as “de-development”. We continue to call on Israel to implement its 20 June announcement by allowing full exports and movement of people. Ministers have put that to Israel during their recent visits to the region and we are working with our EU partners to agree practical steps to improve access. That is having results, as Israel has agreed to limited exports from early next year. However, it is important that that translates into reality on the ground.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that despite the antagonisms between Hamas and Israel, almost 40 per cent of children sitting down with their families in Israeli hospitals are from Gaza? Is she also aware that a number of doctors from Gaza are training in Israel to go back to set up clinics there?

The noble Lord makes a very valid point. Of course, it is by dialogue and improvement in negotiating across both the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel that we will improve the lot for both sides of the argument.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the recent interagency report, Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade, that there can be no just and durable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without an end to the isolation and collective punishment of the people in Gaza?

My Lords, I very much take on board what the right reverend Prelate says. We know that the situation in Gaza is a tragedy, but we do not believe that isolation of Israel through means of economic sanctions or embargos is the right approach. We will continue to press Israel robustly to make the concrete changes needed to improve the lives and futures of the people of Gaza.

My Lords, can my noble friend give the House an update on the progress of the talks between Israel and Turkey in Geneva in trying to resolve the crisis created by the killings of Turkish citizens attempting to break the Gaza blockade aboard the “Mavi Marmara”? What actions are our Government taking to try to help resolve the strained relationship between those two countries, particularly given the importance of the strategic relationship between those countries and our own interests in the wider scenario?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. All dialogue and all conversations are very welcome if they encourage peace.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Gaza has other very severe sources of hardship, which include: the enforcement of morality rules against women; attacks on Christians; the bombing of Christian schools; the persecution of journalists; and the killing of political opponents? All of those are due to the enforcement of the regime by Hamas. Does she further agree that perhaps the person in Gaza who suffers most is that long-term captured prisoner, Gilad Shalit?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that all those actions are deplorable. We need to ensure that, through dialogue with both sides, we work towards a peaceful settlement.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking through discussions with the countries of the Arab League about what they are able to do in terms of humanitarian relief? I am thinking particularly of Egypt, which controls the Rafah crossing, and I wonder whether it is allowing any humanitarian aid into Gaza through that crossing.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises important issues that we are continuously raising with the Egyptians, through both the Foreign Office and DfID.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council and vice chairman of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Group. On a recent visit to a school in Gaza with my noble friend Lord Fowler, I was struck by the irony of the seven year-old boy singing the song he had learnt for us, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Would my noble friend agree that education is vital in holding the line against extremism? Will she confirm that DfID does all that it can to support the UNRWA schools that do so much to bring balance to the lives of children in Gaza?

My noble friend is right that education will be key to solving many of the difficulties that both these nations face. Of course, through our aid programme, that is exactly what we are trying to do to ensure that the infrastructure projects are able to work as normally as possible under the very difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves.

My Lords, apart from the point raised by my noble friend, how is Hamas reacting to the present situation? In the Government’s view, is it helpful or unhelpful?

My Lords, ever since I came to this House in 1998, I have heard members of the Front Bench say that the Government are calling for Israel to do this, to desist from that and all the rest of it. Israel has been in a decades-long breach of international law not only on its pulverisation of Gaza but on its colonisation of the West Bank. When are we actually going to do anything?

My Lords, my noble friend knows that only through dialogue will we resolve matters. The UK is only one of many partners involved in making sure that peace is able to be brought forward.