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Israel and Gaza

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 19 May.

“Since I was last at the Dispatch Box on 13 May, we have sadly seen further violence and more civilian deaths. I am sure the House will join me in offering condolences to all the families of those civilians who have been killed or injured across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Mr Speaker, with your permission I will set out to the House the work that the Government are doing, along with others, to bring about a peaceful resolution. We are urging the parties to work with mediators towards an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of life and a worsening humanitarian situation. We are supporting United Nations, Egyptian and Qatari efforts to that end, and we work closely with the United States.

We are also prioritising our own diplomatic efforts through both bilateral and multilateral channels. The Foreign Secretary and I, with the support of our diplomats on the ground, have been working to progress the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has spoken in recent days with the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister; he reinforced our clear message of de-escalation and our desire to work together to end the violence. I delivered similar messages to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in London.

We have also engaged regional partners at ministerial level. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Minister of Jordan on 17 May and just this morning I spoke with a number of ambassadors from Arab states to reiterate the need for an immediate ceasefire, and I underlined our shared goal of a peaceful two-state solution. We are playing a leadership role in the United Nations Security Council, where we are calling for measures by all sides to reduce further violence. We will participate in the emergency UN General Assembly session later this week.

The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations within Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups, which must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for the targeting of civilians.

Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. We are aware of medical institutions, a number of schools and many homes in Gaza that have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and we are concerned that buildings housing media and humanitarian organisations such as Qatar Red Crescent have been destroyed. We call on Israel to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality when defending its legitimate security interests.

We are also concerned by reports that Hamas is once again using civilian infrastructure and populations as a cover for its military operations. Humanitarian access is essential, and we urge all parties to allow the unimpeded entry of vital humanitarian supplies. Hamas and other terrorist groups must cease their mortar attacks on these crossings. We urge all parties to work together to reduce tensions in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. The UK is clear that the historic status quo in Jerusalem must be respected. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable.

The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution. The UK will continue our intensive diplomatic efforts in the region focused on securing a ceasefire and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace.”

My Lords, last week we called for concerted action at the United Nations Security Council to halt the violence, so it is welcome that France has put forward proposals, with the support of Egypt and Jordan, together with yesterday’s news that President Biden is encouraging the Israeli Government to facilitate a ceasefire. Such a move will not only allow moderate voices on all sides to be heard but will address the urgent need for humanitarian access to Gaza. Can the Minister detail what steps our representatives at the UN are taking to support the ceasefire initiative, and what steps the Government are taking to help facilitate urgent humanitarian support into Gaza?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, I have been engaging directly with our ambassador to the United Nations and we are working with other key colleagues to ensure first and foremost that a ceasefire is guaranteed, both through the UN and bilaterally. We have taken other urgent steps as well. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged directly with both the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister over the last few days to ensure that there is an immediate ceasefire, and on the important point the noble Lord made about guaranteeing access for humanitarian relief, particularly into Gaza.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the international community failed to address the underlying causes and grievances following earlier wars on Gaza, and this time a simple ceasefire—though absolutely necessary—is just not sufficient for the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians? I also point out that in the past a group of aid agencies working in Gaza, including Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Quakers, had regular meetings with his department. Can I ask him to make sure that these are reinstated?

My Lords, it is certainly my firm belief that, in the tragedy of this ongoing conflict, we all know what the ultimate sustainable solution is: a secure, safe Israel next door to a sustainable Palestinian state. I assure the noble Baroness of my good offices in ensuring that we do not lose the momentum behind this challenge. In response to her second point, if it is within scope to meet directly, I will—otherwise the appropriate Minister will engage directly.

My Lords, the longer this cycle of violence continues, the more challenging it will be to reach the objective of two states living side by side in peace. Does my noble friend the Minister not agree that, unless this conflict is soon brought to a close, it could result in increased radicalisation and extremism for the whole region? Therefore, could he tell me what steps the UK is taking to join the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, alongside the United States?

My Lords, we must engage directly with all initiatives which seek to bring peace to the region. This conflict has gone on for far too long. We know what the ultimate goal should be and should ensure we exercise all opportunities in achievement of that goal. We have taken immediate steps, as I have already indicated. On the issue of extremism and radicalisation, I agree with the noble Baroness; we have to ensure that the whole ideological base and the hijacking of the agenda by extremist and terrorist organisations are put to rest. The best way to do that is to bring together voices that want to see progress on this most important issue.

My Lords, perhaps I could press the Minister a little further on some of his earlier answers. Could he say whether, in the meetings of the Security Council between 16 and 19 May, our representative gave full support to the call by the UN Secretary-General for an early ceasefire? If the answer if not unambiguously “yes”, why not? Does he not agree that, as I think he has said, we have now seen beyond demonstrable doubt that the policy of neglecting the Palestine-Israel negotiations over recent years is neither producing security for Israel nor generating well-being for the Palestinians?

My Lords, on the second question the noble Lord raised, I think I have made the position clear. In reply to his first point, both at the Security Council and in the Statement yesterday we called for an immediate ceasefire.

Some of your Lordships may be aware that I returned from Jerusalem yesterday evening, where I attended the very joyful installation of the new Anglican archbishop there. From an earlier answer given by the Minister, I take it he agrees that, until the underlying causes that gave rise to the clashes on Temple Mount, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood where I was staying, and the conflict between Hamas and Israel, are addressed, Israelis and Palestinians will not enjoy security, experience justice or build a relationship of mutual respect and regard? Does the Minister agree that, for violence to permanently end, Israel’s occupation must also end?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate and have already indicated what the sustainable solution is, which is clear and in front of us. It goes back to the importance of a viable two-state solution, which the Government have repeatedly stated. On the points he made about the importance of Jerusalem and other holy places across the Holy Land, speaking as a Muslim who has visited Israel—Jerusalem and other holy sites—I say that we have been enriched by the essence of faith, the Abrahamic faiths, which bring people together. The faith community has had an important role to play in the healing, reconciliation and building through progressive steps towards the two-state solution.

My Lords, it looks like a ceasefire is imminent, but that is not the issue now. This conflict was completely unprovoked and started by Hamas terrorists for pure political expediency at a horrific and terrible cost, not least to their own people. Does my noble friend agree with me that the issue now is that we ensure that Hamas cannot and does not call this conflict a win in any way, and that it does not get access to more lethal and dangerous arms, as it will undoubtedly seek to, from countries such as Iran?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend: Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. We have seen interview upon interview with innocent residents of Gaza who have been impacted by the actions of Hamas and the missiles and rockets that have been seen over Israel. Equally, it has also caused not only destruction to buildings but loss of life. The response has also caused a major loss of life in Gaza. We need an immediate ceasefire, but Hamas is an organisation that does not believe in peace. What we need is progressive voices on both sides to build to the ultimate sustainable solution of two viable states.

My Lords, beyond an immediate ceasefire, does the Minister agree that, until last week, there seemed to be no chance of reviving the Middle East peace process? However, now, in part because of concern in Israel about a possible civil war, there is at least the prospect of opening serious talks, brokered by the United States and Arab states, with our support. Of course, Iran is acting as a spoiler, still supplying rockets to Hamas in Gaza.

My Lords, as I have already indicated, through the tragedy of the current conflict, there is ironically a sense of both attention and momentum, and therein lies an opportunity to revive the peace process, in the interests of not just the Palestinian people but Israel and, indeed, the wider region.

My Lords, I am very concerned at the loss of life and violent activities on both sides. I have been to Gaza as well as Israel, and I ask that we actively pursue securing the ceasefire immediately. However, I will refer to a question that I raised in your Lordships’ House yesterday but did not get a reply to. Like many Muslims in the world, I was very disturbed by the Israeli attacks on the al-Aqsa mosque; to us Muslims, it is the third holiest place in the world. I have visited and prayed there three times. It is sacred, and I believe that what has happened is sacrilege. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on what has happened and perhaps try to ensure that it does not happen again?

My Lords, my apologies; I was certainly writing to answer my noble friend’s question. I too have worshipped at the al-Aqsa mosque; it is a sacred site for Muslims. Equally, as we have heard from the right reverend Prelate, the whole essence of Jerusalem is important to all three Abrahamic faiths. Respect for the historic status quo in the holy sites in Jerusalem is also valid. Any violent action, particularly that which was taken on the eve of Laylat al-Qadr, is extremely tragic to see unfolding in a mosque, which is a place of peace. We need to ensure that the sanctity of places of worship is sustained.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Ramsay, that there was not time to hear their questions.

Sitting suspended.