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Gaza Strip: Rafah Crossing

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to call for the stationing of UN military observers in the Gaza Strip and the creation of a UN agency to oversee the safe passage of materials essential for reconstruction and access through the Rafah Crossing.

My Lords, the immediate priority is for the Israelis and Palestinians to agree a long-term, durable ceasefire for Gaza that prevents a return to conflict. In the mean time, we are providing support to the UN-brokered reconstruction mechanism which is facilitating the import of construction materials into Gaza and encouraging Egypt to show maximum flexibility on opening the Rafah crossing.

My Lords, is it not time that rather more imagination was used with regard to Gaza? Does the Minister agree that independent military advisers would prevent the endless arguments that we have had in recent years? Similarly, impartial supervision of incoming construction materials and their end uses would speed up reconstruction and reduce the harmful effects of the current blockade. Is it not true that the Rafah crossing is essential for urgent medical cases and, much more widely, for access to the outside world for the people of Gaza?

My Lords, I carefully note what the noble Lord has said, but we hope that the Israelis and Palestinians will agree to this durable ceasefire for Gaza which will prevent a return to conflict. In the mean time, we will continue to support the UN through its various mechanisms. That includes the UN special envoy on the Gaza reconstruction mechanism, which is facilitating the import of construction materials into Gaza. The noble Lord also mentioned the Rafah crossing. It is important that those areas are opened so that the conditions in Gaza can be improved.

My Lords, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s view on the United Nations Human Rights Council report on potential war crimes during the conflict in Gaza last year? Does the Minister accept that accountability in previous conflicts is likely to assist in preventing future conflicts? In the light of that, how does he now view the Foreign Secretary’s statement in July last year when the United Kingdom abstained on the setting-up of this report by saying that it would,

“complicate the process by introducing unnecessary new mechanisms”?

The noble Baroness is quite right concerning accountability: there must be a robust process of accountability given the heavy civilian death toll. That includes acts committed by Hamas and other militant groups too. We are pressing Israel to demonstrate accountability for its actions during this conflict. The noble Baroness also mentioned war crimes. Both sides of the conflict have put themselves into a position where perhaps war crimes have taken place. We of course need to keep a careful watch on this matter.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that while Egypt is busily destroying homes on its border with Gaza to try to prevent the smuggling of arms to Hamas, Israel is allowing through the Erez crossing more than 500 trucks—with 15,000 tonnes of goods, including medical aid, benzene and building materials—every day? Is he further aware that while Egypt has stopped the passage of anyone through the crossing into Egypt, 1,200 people a day are coming across into Israel for medical care or business purposes? Should we be pressing Egypt to do the same?

The noble Lord makes a good point about approaches to the problems in this area. We are concerned by the restrictions at the Rafah crossing and are urging the Egyptians to show maximum flexibility in reopening it. We are also calling on Israel to fulfil its obligation by lifting its restrictions in order to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians and to allow the Gaza economy to grow.

My Lords, we have already seen Fatah lose control of Gaza to Hamas, and we now see signs that Hamas is threatened by more radical groups within Gaza which might, indeed, include supporters of IS. Given the cycle of violence between Israel and Gaza—and it is a cycle of violence, with both sides playing roles in it—do we not need something more urgent and imaginative to avoid what would be a disaster for the already poor relations between Israel and both entities of Palestine?

The noble Lord makes a good point. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deeply concerning, so we are urging key donors to disburse the Cairo pledges. We are encouraging the Palestinian Authority, as the noble Lord said, to engage more in Gaza and to move forwards on reconciliation. We are also continuing to press Israel to do more on exports, power, movements and access. As I said earlier, we are also urging Egypt to show more flexibility at the Rafah crossing.

My Lords, as of April this year, of the $3.5 billion promised by donors for the reconstruction of Gaza, only 26% of the money has been released. Not one of the 19,000 destroyed homes has been rebuilt. Can the Minister explain what pressure the Government are bringing to bear on the donors to release the promised funds, and can he confirm whether the UK has honoured its commitments to Gaza on this subject?

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the Cairo pledges. The United Kingdom has honoured 80% of its pledges and has 20% outstanding. That will be spent over the next financial year and will concentrate on job creation, getting people into work, which we all know will help their economy. As for the other countries and their pledges, pressure is being put on them to spend more money in that area.

My Lords, we have just had a spokesman from the Labour Benches ask a question, so if we are taking turns, it would normally be the turn of the Lib Dem Benches.

My Lords, I am most grateful. I think I heard the Minister say that “perhaps” war crimes have been committed. We cannot leave it as “perhaps” war crimes have been committed. Either they have or they have not, and surely Her Majesty’s Government and others should now be taking steps to ensure that they understand whether or not that is the case.

At the particular point when answering that question, I could not find the notes in my folder. As I understand it, war crimes have been committed.