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Gaza: Post-conflict Reconstruction

Volume 833: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to coordinate action to rebuild Gaza after the war.

My Lords, rebuilding a safe and stable Gaza will be a high priority for the international community but the United Kingdom’s immediate focus is on helping to co-ordinate immediate humanitarian assistance. On Monday, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced an increase of £10 million of support to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We are working closely with the UN and partners in the region to ensure that humanitarian support urgently reaches civilians in Gaza. As the Prime Minister said, we are stepping forward with humanitarian support, working to protect civilians from harm and straining every sinew to keep the flame of peace and stability alive.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that update. I agree with everything he said and give my whole support to the Government in their efforts. I declare an interest as a long-standing member of the Labour Friends of Israel. I pray daily for the safe release of the hostages, as I am sure many others in the Chamber do, and for an end to the hostilities the Minister has described.

Looking beyond that, can the Minister confirm that he believes in the existence of a viable Gaza after we find a peace of some sort? To secure that peace, does he agree that we must try to bring into play all possible actors in the region, including some of those who have hitherto declined to get involved in any settlement? In that context, does he recall the debate in this Chamber led by the noble Lord, Lord Polak, on the Abraham accords and some of the positive ideas suggested in it about how we can improve the economic circumstances of Gaza and the surrounding area? In particular, my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Stone, suggested that there should be a complete change in economic approach, bringing in the Saudis. As a result, the Saudis—

I know this question is long, but this is very important. The Saudis responded to the noble Lord’s suggestion, but I found that the Government have not followed that up. Will the Government pursue this with the Saudis as a basis on which something might be built for peace?

My Lords, the hostages are a priority. Irrespective of whatever faith we follow, or no faith, I am sure that all our prayers and thoughts are with them. We want their safe return and peace and calm restored. A stable Gaza is in the interests of the whole region, but it is clear that the leadership of Hamas—if you can so call this abhorrent terrorist group, which is proscribed in the United Kingdom—is not the future for Gaza, the Palestinians or the people of the region. Of course the Abraham accords are important. We are working with key partners and, as the noble Lord is aware, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are currently in the region.

My Lords, I welcome the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel, which is an important statement. Does my noble friend agree that, before we can talk about the construction of a new Gaza, there must be a destruction of all the terror infrastructure underneath Gaza, which is causing the problem?

My Lords, while the situation in Gaza was extremely challenging prior to this conflict, it is an inescapable truth that Hamas as an organisation, through what it subscribes to and its actions in Israel—the killing, murder and maiming of so many, including innocent women and children—does not represent the interests of any people who are like-minded about our common humanity. I agree with my noble friend that Hamas should be something that we talk about as the past—that it was defeated and the infrastructure was put to rest—because even now, in the most desperate situation in which Gazans find themselves, missiles continue to land in Israel.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the first step in rebuilding Gaza is to stop the US-backed Israeli destruction of its infrastructure and the merciless killing of its inhabitants, including the sick in hospitals, in collective punishment for the sins of Hamas? Does he also agree that the USA, which has given support to Israel to invade Gaza, should not only meet the financial costs of reconstruction but pay reparations to survivors?

My Lords, I speak not for the US Government but for the British Government. However, we both stand by the provision of humanitarian support around the world—a proud tradition irrespective of political leadership that continues today for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As I have said, the Prime Minister has announced additional funding and support. We are focused on that vital humanitarian support, but I am sure that the noble Lord recognises that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. This is a very fluid situation. It is time for calm heads. Everyone was shocked to their core by the devastation we saw at the Al-Ahli Hospital—I pay particular tribute to the Lords spiritual for the strong Anglican tradition associated with that hospital—but we cannot jump to conclusions. At a time of conflict, we must ensure that there is patience, resolve and calm before we look at attribution. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom Government, as my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said, are looking at this very carefully.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a Hamas-free Gaza, if we can ever get to that point, will provide an enormous opportunity for the case to be made strongly for a possible Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza? Does he agree that, with Hamas there, that is impossible?

My Lords, I reflected the noble Lord’s sentiments in my earlier responses. We are engaging with all key partners, including the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this morning I had a meeting with Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior member of the Executive of Mr Abbas. The Prime Minister has engaged directly with President Abbas, I have spoken to Foreign Minister al-Maliki, and the Foreign Secretary has been fully engaged. We have done so because the PA represents those who represent the interests of the Palestinians. In the future of that region, the rights and protection of all citizens, irrespective of faith or community, must be upheld. For the long-term horizon, that means a sustainable, two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace. However, at this moment we must ensure the return of the hostages, that this threat from Hamas is put to bed and, ultimately, that sustainable peace can be achieved. We all wish and pray for a future in that region without Hamas.

My Lords, on Tuesday, just hours before the terrible incident at the hospital to which the Minister referred—I agree with his remarks about that—an UNRWA school was hit. Fourteen UNRWA staff have been killed since 7 October and half a million Palestinians are currently sheltering in UNRWA facilities. I welcome the extra £10 million to the OPT, but this March I raised concerns that UK support to UNRWA has been more than halved since 2018, from over £70 million to £28 million. Does the Minister agree that there is now an urgent need for the UK fully to replenish our support for UNRWA, which will save lives?

I was at the UN in September. Two countries often come in for criticism around the protection and defence of Israel—the United Kingdom and the United States. The biggest new pledge to UNRWA, of $73 million, came from the United States and the second-biggest came from the United Kingdom, doubling our support of £10 million. This new money is in addition to that. I accept that we have had to make reductions to ODA programmes around the world, but I am sure the noble Lord accepts that, when it really matters, it is countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States that stand up for those people who need the greatest level of support.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that it has been the United Kingdom and United States standing up for UNRWA, although we have had severe cuts there, but the Question is about the future and how we are working. James Cleverly said yesterday that the Palestinians are victims of Hamas as well. We must remember that. How do we ensure that we do not just rely on the United States but work with countries such as Saudi Arabia so that the proper funds are put back into Palestine?

I agree with the noble Lord, and put on record His Majesty’s Government’s recognition of the strong support from His Majesty’s Official Opposition, and indeed all other parties represented here, in the united voice on this issue. All of us care about people suffering around the world and the issue of the Palestinians is no exception. I recognised that engagement in the meetings I had this morning. Prior to this, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said in his Question, we were working with key partners. I was extensively engaged on new memorandums of understanding that we have signed with Gulf partners on issues of development. This needs not just the US and the UK. We should get away from “the East”, “the western world” and the “Islamic world”. I am a Muslim of the West. Am I conflicted? No, I am not. I am proud of the traditions of this country—my country—because we stand up for the people when they need us the most. We are working with Israel; of course we are a steadfast partner, but we are also working to ensure that the Palestinians see a future horizon which is bright and in which they recognise that they can live their lives in peace, in a sustainable way with their neighbours.