My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place on the violence at the Gaza border and its impact on the Middle East peace process. The Statement is as follows:
“As I said in the statement I put out from the FCO yesterday, the violence in Gaza and the West Bank has been shocking. The loss of life and the large number of injured Palestinians, including children, are tragic, and it is extremely worrying that the number of those killed continues to rise. Such violence is destructive to peace efforts.
We have been clear that the United Kingdom supports the Palestinians’ right to peaceful protest. It is deplorable, but real, that extremist elements have been exploiting these protests for their own violent purposes. We will not waver in our support for Israel’s right to defend its borders, but the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.
The UK remains committed to a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. All sides now need to show real leadership and courage, promote calm, refrain from inflaming tensions further, and show with renewed urgency that the path to a two-state solution is through negotiation and peace.
We agree with the UN Secretary-General’s envoy that the situation in Gaza is desperate and deteriorating, and that the international community must step up efforts. We call on the UN special representative of the Secretary-General to bring forward proposals to address the situation in Gaza. These should include easing the restrictions on access and movement, and international support for urgent infrastructure and economic development projects. We also reiterate our support for the Egyptian-led reconciliation process and the return of the PA to full administration of the Gaza Strip.
We must look forward and work urgently towards a resolution of the long-standing issues between Israel and the Palestinian people. Now more than ever, we need a political process that delivers a two-state solution. Every death and every wounding casts a shadow for the future. The human tragedies should be used not as more building blocks for immovable positions, which will lead inevitably to more confrontation, but as a spur for urgent change. Yesterday’s tragedies demonstrate why peace is urgently needed”.
My Lords, all our thoughts are with those Palestinians in Gaza whose loved ones have been either killed or injured as a result of IDF action. During subsequent questions, Alistair Burt appeared to support the Secretary-General’s call for an independent and transparent investigation of these actions. He said that a team at the United Nations was working to find the right formulation, bearing in mind that a Kuwaiti attempt failed because it set out to apportion blame. What timescale are the Government working to in respect of a United Nations response, because it is clear that these matters need urgent and independent investigation?
My Lords, as my right honourable friend Alistair Burt said in another place, the United Kingdom Government support an independent and transparent process to establish exactly what happened, including why such a large volume of live fire was used. Given the importance of accountability, we want this to be both independent and transparent. On timelines, this is a UN process which needs to be agreed by all relevant parties. As that is updated, I shall inform the House and the noble Lord.
I associate these Benches with the thoughts expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about those killed and injured. Under international law, firearms can be used only to protect against imminent threat of death or serious injury. Does the Minister agree that firing on unarmed civilians in Gaza, often at a great distance, must be fully and impartially investigated and that if the law has been broken those responsible must be held to account? His right honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East, referred earlier today to the “hopeless” and “desperate” conditions in Gaza. Does the noble Lord agree that the United Kingdom should give some glimmer of hope to Palestinians held in such conditions by recognising the state of Palestine?
My Lords, first, of course, I associate myself with the sentiments of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. Our thoughts and prayers are with all the victims of the tragic deaths that have taken place. That said, on the issue of live fire, as I said in my opening remarks, we continue to implore the Israeli Government, while we respect their right to defend their borders, that the use of live fire should be considered only as a last resort. Indeed, this has been consistently mentioned at bilateral meetings directly with the Israeli Government.
The noble Baroness referred to the sentiments expressed by my right honourable friend in the other place. I visited both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories a few weeks ago and saw why it is very important that we make progress. As for providing hope, of course we continue to support UNRWA’s efforts to ensure that medical aid and assistance reaches Palestinian communities in Gaza and the West Bank. That is why we are supportive of Egyptian efforts to bring greater peace and reconciliation in Gaza and it is why we welcome the opening of the Egyptian border for a few days to relieve some of those efforts.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as declared in the register, especially as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. The World Health Organization has said that the injuries sustained in these appalling events in Gaza are comparable to wartime situations. There are desperate shortages of drugs and equipment at the moment in Gaza. What are the Government doing to help alleviate this desperate situation?
Let me assure my noble friend, as I said in my previous answer, that the UK is a long-time supporter of UNRWA’s efforts in this. Indeed, we are committed to continue our funding, which does provide those very basic services that my noble friend has just referred to. It provides basic healthcare to 1.3 million people in Gaza, and I assure my noble friend we are also supporting humanitarian access, which enables basic reconstruction efforts in Gaza as well.
My Lords, I am grateful to Her Majesty’s Government for the careful yet very specific response they have given to the appalling loss of life at the border between Gaza and the state of Israel yesterday. The thoughts and prayers of this Bench are with all those affected. It is good to know that the Minister supports an independent review of what happened. At the same time, will the Minister agree that, while the United Kingdom recognises the integrity of the border—and, indeed, of all Israel’s pre-1967 borders—and the security of Israel’s prosperous and pluriform society, the defence of its interests must offer tangible hope to those with whom it hopes to engage in dialogue? The phrase, “a glimmer of hope” was mentioned a moment ago. I was in Gaza about four years ago. The situation then was desperate and deteriorating. It is infinitely worse now. What real, substantial hope can be given to those who live in what is effectively a vast open prison?
My Lords, that is why the United Kingdom Government, let me assure the right reverend Prelate, are committed to ensuring humanitarian access, as I have said already, and equally firmly convinced that the only way to bring that ultimate hope both to Israel and to the Palestinians is through a two-state solution. We continue to implore both sides that, now more than ever, it is required that they come to the table and that we see that lasting peace that we all desire.
My Lords, does the Minister remember that the living hell that is Gaza and the creation of Hamas itself are due to successive Israeli Governments, and that the offer from Hamas consistently over recent years of a 10-year truce in return for the lifting of the siege on Gaza has been totally ignored? When will he persuade our partners in the international community and the Government of Israel to consider this offer?
My Lords, ultimately it is for both parties to come to the table. The noble Baroness mentioned Hamas. A positive step forward would be for Hamas to recognise the right of Israel to exist. It has repeatedly failed to do so. That would be the most progressive step and a step forward in that process.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of Medical Aid for Palestinians. Two days ago, we could not have imagined that 58 people would be shot, 2,000 civilians would be injured and explosive bullets—it is alleged—would be used. It is absolutely appalling. Frankly, for the Government simply to say that they are concerned is pathetic. In the face of that, they should condemn it and call for an immediate investigation, particularly into the nature of the ammunition used.
As I said earlier, we continue to implore the Israeli Government to restrain themselves from the use of live fire. I assure the noble Lord that, when I and my right honourable friend Alistair Burt meet the appropriate Israeli Ministers, we continue to call for that very approach of ensuring that alternative methods to the use of live fire are considered. On the noble Lord’s second point, of course we have already associated ourselves with calls for an independent investigation.
My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Blunkett, can choose who is going to speak next.
The Liberal Democrats asked a very simple question: if international law was broken, should legal action be taken? Can we have an answer to the Liberal Democrats’ question?
That will be a matter for the independent investigation. Of course, the investigation will look at the principles of international humanitarian law and then report back appropriately. That is why we are supportive of this transparent and independent process.
My Lords, at the core of the Jewish religion, as with other religions, is the importance of the sanctity of life—“Kiddush HaShem” in Hebrew. I therefore mourn any loss of life. It is easy to blame one side or the other without having facts. I will give your Lordships just one fact. Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, stated just last month:
“We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies”.
Also last month, Israel destroyed the largest and deepest Hamas tunnel into the territory. Will the Minister join me in condemning all violence, as well as Hamas’s continued development of its underground terror structure, its use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and deliberately sending its own people towards the border fence into danger?
My Lords, I am sure I join all noble Lords in condemning violence and the loss of innocent life anywhere in the world. We must now see progressive action to ensure that the lives that were lost recently were not lost in vain.