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Volume 724: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Israel on import restrictions affecting Gaza.

My Lords, we are clear that the status quo in Gaza is both a tragedy and unsustainable. We continue to call on Israel to ease restrictions on access to Gaza. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visited Israel in November. My ministerial colleague, Alistair Burt, is currently in the region and discussed Gaza at length with the Israeli Co-ordinator for Government Activity in the Territories, General Dangot.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is not the real problem the restrictions on the import of building materials, which are necessary to build and rebuild houses, schools and medical facilities in Gaza? We all utterly deplore the acts of terrorism directed at Israel but do not restrictions of that kind, affecting thousands of ordinary people in Gaza, gather in support for extremism rather than cutting it off?

Yes, my noble friend is completely right. The problem is obviously the lifting and easing of the blockade. We have had some small success: the Israeli authorities have agreed to shift from a total block on progress to a list of very limited permitted goods and are moving to a blacklist of goods that cannot go in. They have announced that they now are happy to allow in things such as steel-ready concrete, asphalt and cement for Palestinian Authority-approved civilian projects that are under the supervision of the UN.

There is, of course, a long list of ifs and buts. Frankly, we have not found that any of this so-called easement has yet made much difference on the ground but it is a slight move forward. Of course, consumer goods are allowed in. We will continue to press extremely hard to get a much more expansive and open regime to allow in the reconstruction items and materials to which my noble friend refers.

Opposed as I am to Netanyahu, is it not right to recognise that in recent days there has been a considerable relaxation over the movement of construction goods from Israel to Gaza? Is it not also right to recognise that there is currently recognition by the United Nations that Hamas is not exactly performing well? Does it not altogether oppose the United Nations regime?

I say to the noble Lord that no one on any side is really performing fully in the way that we want. The relaxation has been announced and we are watching to see whether it has an impact on the ground, although, as I said earlier to my noble friend, our analysis suggests that that impact is not very great so far. However, it is at least a step in the right direction, although we have to go further, as there are so many qualifications and safeguards. I also say to the noble Lord—and it is a perfectly fair point with which I know he will agree—that rockets are raining down all the time on Israeli territory from Gaza. Therefore, the Israeli authorities have to have some safeguards with regard to equipment going into Gaza, which might be used merely to develop aggressive military weaponry for use against them. There is a balance to be struck, and I think that sensible people all round have to recognise both the difficulties and the possibilities on all sides.

Is my noble friend hopeful of a resumption in negotiations between the immediate parties as soon as possible, despite the enormous difficulties that that would involve? Such a resumption would help to end the prolonged collective oppression of the long-suffering Gazan population.

I live in hope, otherwise I would not be doing what I am doing. Of course we want to see talks between sensible and responsible people, and of course the quartet wants to carry these things forward. We are working very closely with the quartet, as well as through the UN and the EU. However, particularly if Hamas is to be involved, the requirements are that it recognises Israel and that there is some sign of that going forward—we may hear about that in a moment. It must also renounce violence and abide by previous agreements. That is what the quartet requires to get things going again, but so far we are not quite there.

My Lords, two years ago the UK Government were co-sponsors of the text of UN Resolution 1860, which, among other things, emphasised the need to ensure a sustained and regular flow of goods and people through the Gaza crossing. Is it not now time for the Security Council to review the full implementation by all parties of those high-meaning and well-intentioned words?

The right reverend Prelate is of course right that this is what we want to see and what we want to press forward. In a sense, these matters are under review all the time. We are working very closely with the UN and the quartet, through DfID, our own aid department, and through constant dialogue with the Israeli authorities about getting the blockades lifted and getting some enterprise going. The Israelis have also announced—this may be a tiny glimmer that we should hang on to—that they will allow some exports from Gaza. Of course, that is essential if the economy is to begin to move forward. If we are to get people out of massive and miserable poverty there, the Israelis must allow business to flourish. Therefore, yes, there must be a review but a review is going on all the time and we must continue to be vigorous in our efforts.

My Lords, despite the terrible antipathy between Hamas and Israel, does the noble Lord agree that we should build on the many positive grassroots interactions which exist between Gazans and Israelis? In the medical field, for example, there are many Gazan patients in Israeli hospitals, as well as doctors in training there, so should we not be building on those positive grassroots efforts?

Yes, that is perfectly true, and very high-quality treatment has been, and is, available in Israel to meet certain urgent needs from Gazan citizens. One could go further and say that it would be good if the tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand, Gazans who used to cross the border every day to work in Israel were allowed greater movement on that front as well. I agree that there are things on which to build but overall we have to get some sense of agreement and understanding between Israel and the Palestine authority as a whole to get things going forward. We are just not there at the moment.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the head of the Shin Bet security service said this week that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are behind a lot of the Gaza violence? Is he also aware that the same Shin Bet security service is saying that Hamas wants to achieve its aims through charity organisations, while other, more radical groups want the same goal through violence? Will the Minister agree that, this being the case, we should be talking to Hamas and including it in all our negotiations with Israel to protect Israel and prevent the situation deteriorating further?

I understand that from my noble friend, who has been absolutely tireless in pursuing these matters in great detail, and I congratulate her. Of course, accusations fly around and, as she knows better than I do, there is more than one aspect or wing and more than one associated policy within the Hamas group. There are people in Hamas for whom it would be invaluable to find common ground and to meet the conditions that the quartet requires, as I described earlier. However, I am afraid that there are also people in Hamas who are not interested in that but who are interested in violence and, indeed, presumably organise the rocketry into Israel every day. Therefore, we somehow have to find a way through this maze, and I think that my noble friend understands that very well.