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Gaza: Al-Ahli Arab Hospital Explosion

Volume 833: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 October.

“The destruction of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza is an appalling tragedy. A hospital is a place of compassion and care. This devastating loss of human life is profoundly disturbing. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the deceased and to the injured.

The UK is working intensively with our allies to establish the facts. We will not rush to judgment. The whole House will understand that pointing fingers prematurely only fuels regional instability and upsets community cohesion here in the UK. We need a firm grasp of what has happened, not a slew of social media commentary. We all share a duty to be thoughtful and careful in how we respond to reports emerging from the conflict, which can be at best incomplete or at worst examples of active disinformation. We are carefully analysing the evidence that has been put in the public domain, and other information. As soon as we have reached a definitive conclusion for ourselves, we will make it public.

Some things are not in doubt, however. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out, Hamas carried out a terrorist assault on Israel that was unprecedented in that country’s 75-year history. The whole House is united in support of Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism. In defending itself, Israel must act with professionalism and an unwavering commitment to international law. States must take every precaution to minimise civilian casualties and ensure that humanitarian support reaches those in need. I welcome President Herzog’s unequivocal commitment—made both directly to me and in public—that Israel is operating in accordance with the rules of international law.

By embedding itself in civilian populations, using innocent Palestinians as human shields, launching thousands of rockets since Saturday from one of the most crowded places in the world, and preventing civilians from heeding Israeli warnings about future areas of operation, Hamas reveals itself and its callous indifference to human life. In this tense situation, UK diplomacy is relentlessly focused on our aims: supporting our nationals in their moment of need, pushing for and delivering humanitarian support, and working to prevent tensions spilling over into the wider region or playing out on the streets of this country. I have travelled to Israel and engaged with G7 allies and regional partners, and I will visit the region again later today because we recognise that this will require intensive effort.

None of us knows how this complex, protracted situation will develop. The Government are committed to keeping the House updated. Both here in the UK and in the region, this is a time for cool heads and determination to make a difference.”

My Lords, as the Minister said earlier, we—the Opposition and the Government—are at one, united in support of Israel against terrorism, and we mourn the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, and particularly the loss of life at the Al-Ahli Hospital. President Biden made it clear that he believed the main achievement of his trip to Israel was to persuade Israel to allow humanitarian relief deliveries across the Egypt-Gaza border. After speaking to Egyptian President al-Sisi, Egypt agreed to open the Rafah crossing to allow 20 trucks with humanitarian aid to enter—obviously, a limited number. As President Biden said, the roads and the infrastructure to get that aid in has been badly damaged and need repairs. The real issue of the next few days and weeks is: will aid get through, is fuel getting through, and is the United Kingdom helping to facilitate that? My specific question is—I heard what the Minister said earlier today: what are we doing to support Egypt to get that aid through as well as support for those people who are in such desperate need of assistance?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks, which are very reflective of the contributions of many across this Chamber. Humanitarian aid getting through to Gaza is a key government priority and we are working with key partners. President Biden’s visit recently was very much focused on that, and progress has been made. As I came into the Chamber I checked again; although the situation is fluid and the border is not yet open, the noble Lord is correct that the convoys are ready. We are engaging quite directly. I mentioned earlier that both my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are in the region. The Foreign Secretary was in Egypt this morning and had a detailed discussion with Foreign Minister Shoukry, who I am also in touch with, on these very issues and some of our key priorities, including the hostages and the departure of British nationals from Gaza. It is also important that we look at the inward flow of humanitarian support. It is not yet operational but I assure the noble Lord and indeed all in your Lordships’ House that this is a key government priority, and with the Foreign Secretary’s meeting today in Egypt we are engaging quite directly and bilaterally at the highest level in terms of diplomacy.

My Lords, I also welcomed the Minister’s measured tone at Questions earlier today in the Chamber in response to this truly terrible incident. There needs to be a proper investigation as to the source of the tragedy. Does he agree with me, however, that we need a humanitarian cessation of hostilities to ensure that life-saving aid, food and water are provided and restored to Gaza and to allow for intense diplomatic activity to be carried out to prevent a wider escalation? I am sure that he agrees with that final element, and I pay tribute to the work that he has been doing with regional powers. That pause would also allow continuing support from these Benches and across the House for Israel’s absolute right to self-defence under international law against Hamas terrorism and to recover hostages.

My Lords, again I thank the noble Lord for his contribution and for the important message that is going out in our united front, as well as our united front in recognising the suffering of ordinary Palestinian civilians in Gaza, made all the worse by Hamas’s abhorrent actions. I assure him that we are prioritising that. There are moving parts to it. Yes, there is Egypt and Israel, but a majority of Gaza is still controlled by Hamas, and that is one of those areas of concern with regard to the security logistics for those who will be taking such support through. The other issue, which I know other noble Lords have been seized of as well, is the previous diversion of aid and support which has gone into Gaza. All these factors add to the complications on the ground but it is important that we look to prioritise humanitarian support, which we are doing, and we will also focus on ensuring that this is done in the most secure manner possible.

My Lords, I must have been mistaken, but I thought this Question was about the explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital. Can the Minister confirm that the facts that have now come out establish that this was not an Israeli-induced explosion at all and came from an internal rocket that failed, according to the current detailed arguments which been put forward and confirmed? Does he deplore that the Hamas version of this story, which was that 500 had been killed by an Israeli rocket, rattled around the world for quite a long time and was carried, regrettably, by British and American publications, including the BBC? Is this a matter where some move could be taken, while these are independent and free press organs, to encourage organisations such as the BBC News department to take a more cautiously impartial approach rather than regarding it as having two sides, between the butchers and the butchery, and those who suffer and have their throats cut and killed and those who do the killing? There are not two sides in this matter: it is bestiality and evil versus the public and international and world good. Can those sort of views be gently—perhaps privately—put to those who just seize on the latest propaganda for Hamas, which is a very evil organisation?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. We are of course looking at the tragedy which has befallen the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. As I said earlier, it is a hospital with strong connections to the Anglican community and has provided, over many years, an important service. On the issue of attribution, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are working with all key partners, as well as internally to make our own assessment, to establish what happened there. I am not going to speculate any further at this time: work is under way on attribution.

The important point within all this is that the people who have suffered are those who were in the hospital: those who were seeking urgent assistance and support, and among the most vulnerable. It is therefore important that, in establishing the facts, we also do not lose sight of the issue of humanitarian support, which noble Lords have mentioned. On the wider point of not jumping to conclusions, my noble friend was himself a Minister in a distinguished capacity, and one thing you learn clearly—not just as Ministers but as Governments and parliamentarians, and even our friends—is that we vitally defend media freedom in the United Kingdom. It is an important thing that we lead on. But, in all these areas, responsible reporting and responsible assessments are important, and that is what the Government are currently doing.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, does the Minister agree that the rapid and largely uninformed responses to this tragedy underscore the importance of the information war in this conflict, and that while nothing is likely to move the majority of public opinion in many Arab countries, nevertheless in the context of the wider world, it is crucial that credible evidence on the cause of this disaster is put into the public domain as soon as possible?

I agree with the noble and gallant Lord; that is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said as much yesterday during Prime Minister’s Questions. As I said, we are assessing the facts and the noble and gallant Lord will know of the importance of assessment and evidence. It is right, I believe, that we take time to ensure that the narrative that prevails is one which is based on the evidence that we ourselves have assessed. On wider reporting, I personally think it extremely tragic that we live in a very information-based world today where there are many people commenting on every utterance, including those of government Ministers. I assure the noble and gallant Lord that while everything which is said is being assessed and interpreted in a particular way, we want to ensure that, as far as possible, the facts are established and then, as my right honourable friend said, we will of course share them.

I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting the very real connections that there are between the Anglican Church and the hospital. The Al-Ahli hospital is run by the Anglican province of Jerusalem, as he knows, and built around the sacred and historic St Philip’s church, which was subject to such an horrendous incident on Tuesday. We grieve with all those who grieve the suffering and the innocent deaths in Israel and Gaza arising from the atrocious attack by Hamas.

The Archbishop of Jerusalem, Archbishop Hosam, called on people in a press conference yesterday to pray for peace, but also paid particular tribute to the extraordinary dedication and bravery of the nurses, doctors and administrators working in the hospital in such desperate conditions. Can the Government continue to impress upon the Government of Israel how essential it is, in particular, that fresh medical supplies reach the hospitals of Gaza, while also ensuring maximum protection for those buildings? Does the Minister also agree that such incidents, whatever the cause or intention, are very detrimental to the longer-term security and peace that Israel and the Palestinians deserve, in that they risk perpetuating the cycle of violence for generations to come? Protecting the hospitals in Gaza should therefore be a very high priority.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate and pay tribute to the incredible courage and bravery of the doctors and nurses around the world who play a pivotal role in providing medical support, often in the most trying of circumstances. That was exactly the case in the Al-Ahli Arab hospital. I agree also about the important role that faith has, particularly when we look at the current situation in Israel and Gaza. I know Archbishop Hosam very well. We were working directly with many faith communities prior to this conflict; that will continue to be the case.

I am also reminded that I have said at the Dispatch Box that I represent His Majesty’s Government. The head of faith—the head of the church—and the head of our Government is His Majesty, and I was very taken by the poignant tone and substance of a speech he made at Mansion House. He himself said that we are a country defined by our communities. That is the strength of the rich diversity in our nation. When something is celebrated in many parts of the world, including in Israel and by the Palestinians, we should not forget that this is not just about Islam and Judaism, as some people claim, since 20% of the Israeli population are Arab. Many of them are Muslim, yes, but many are Christian as well. The right reverend Prelate mentioned prayers for peace, so perhaps we should end with that word: peace; shalom; salaam.