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Israel and Hamas: Humanitarian Pause

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 27 November.

“A tragedy is unfolding in the Middle East. Israel has suffered the worst terror attack in its history and Palestinian civilians are experiencing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, last week’s agreement was a crucial step towards providing relief to the families of the hostages and addressing the humanitarian emergency in Gaza. This pause has provided an important opportunity to ensure that much greater volumes of food, fuel and other life-saving aid can enter Gaza.

On 24 November the British Government announced a further £30 million of humanitarian assistance, tripling our existing aid budget for the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year. During the pause, the fourth UK aircraft, carrying 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid for Gaza, arrived in Egypt, bringing the total amount of UK humanitarian aid provided via British aircraft to 74 tonnes. That aid is now being dispersed to the United Nations to support critical food, water, health, shelter and protection needs in Gaza and to pre-position emergency supplies in the region.

Today is the fourth and final day of the agreement. The British Government are supportive of the current pause in hostilities continuing, but that is for the Israelis and others in the region to agree. We are clear that this pause should not be a one-off. The increased flow of fuel and relief supplies over the Rafah crossing accompanying the pause was welcome and must be sustained. This pause should act as a confidence-building mechanism for future pauses, including those solely on humanitarian grounds.

We welcome the intensive international co-operation, including efforts from Qatar and the USA, that led to this agreement and we thank partners for their continued work. We remain committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. Britain’s long-standing position on the Middle East peace process is clear. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The UK will continue to work with all partners in the region to reach a long-term political solution that enables both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.”

My Lords, events are changing every minute, and it is very difficult to keep up to date, but I know that all our hopes and prayers are for a further extension of the cessation of hostilities, which will provide relief in Israel, Gaza and beyond. I certainly acknowledge the Government’s efforts in giving humanitarian support, which I very much welcome.

There are two specific issues that I feel Andrew Mitchell did not properly address when he had the opportunity earlier this week. One is in relation to the release by Hamas of nationals from around the world. Can the Minister give an update on the British hostages that the Government had previously reported were being held in Gaza?

My right honourable friend David Lammy has written to the Foreign Secretary, asking him to respond to Steve Brisley’s request for a response to his family’s request to meet the Foreign Secretary. I know this was raised yesterday. Can he give an assurance on it? The matter should be properly addressed without delay. It is awful that they have heard nothing from this Government about their family members who are being held as hostages.

My other point was raised by Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in relation to Netanyahu’s announcement of funds of $80 million for the expansion of settlements. Can the Minister be more explicit about the British Government’s response to that? Have we made direct representations to the Prime Minister of Israel to ensure that it complies with international law in this regard? It will hinder progress towards a two-state solution.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his questions. He is right that it is a very fast-moving situation, and the hostage releases start at about 2 pm local time, which is very shortly. I can give him figures as of yesterday only: we think that a total of 81 hostages have been released under the deal.

It is wrong to call this a humanitarian pause: it is a pause to facilitate a hostage release deal. We want a humanitarian pause—we actually want a ceasefire. But the good news is that Ada Sagi, an Israeli national with a British family, was one of those released, and another 10 have been agreed for today. We hope that that is taking place as we speak.

The number of foreign nationals crossing the border while hostage exchanges are going on is none, because the hostage release has primacy. Some 245 UK-supported foreign nationals have crossed at Rafah; of those who have left, 175 are British nationals, 27 are country-based UK staff, 43 are Palestinian dependants, and 67 people are waiting to cross. There are some issues relating to people who have clearance to leave—

I take the point that the noble Lord asked about the hostages. We are working very closely with the Qataris, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has been in regular discussions with the negotiator and has made the point that we want a release. I am very happy, as is he and is the Foreign Secretary, to meet families with British connections from both sides of the conflict. Indeed, I am meeting families of the hostages after this session so I will be very happy to continue that dialogue.

My Lords, the release of the hostages is a blessed relief for the families involved, but the humanitarian catastrophe continues. I heard the Minister say that His Majesty’s Government now favour a ceasefire rather than just a pause. These Benches would support that but I understand that it is not government policy. If he could clarify that, I would be grateful. More than 10,000 women and children have now been killed in Gaza, so does the Minister agree that the UK needs to fully replenish our humanitarian support to levels pre the ODA cut? He did not respond to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on the West Bank. The Israeli Government passed a budget this week which included over $100 million for expanded West Bank settlement and the weaponisation of some of those settlers. Surely the position of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, who oppose this in the Knesset, should be supported by the Government.

The Government have been very clear about the settlements on the West Bank and I apologise if I did not answer the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is absolutely right that this is an emerging humanitarian crisis. We entirely support Israel’s right to defend itself and to perpetrate efforts to ensure that Hamas never commits such an appalling atrocity again. We want aid to get to people who are in a really dire state. As for language, we want the conflict to end and if that is a ceasefire or a pause I am not going to be semantic; we want to make sure that we get aid to people in the meantime. We do not want to limit the opportunity for Israel to defend itself and fight a legitimate conflict against Hamas, but we want to protect civilians and get aid in there, and we will do all we can to make sure that is happening.

My Lords, if the 7 October atrocities had never happened, there would never have been a war in that area at all and nobody—no man, woman or child—would have died. There were only a few weeks before the Abraham accords were going to be signed, as noble Lords all know. If that had happened, we would not have had this outrageous anti-Semitism increasing throughout the world. Does the Minister agree with that view?

The conflict has had a terrible effect of destabilising people way beyond the region. As I said earlier, we firmly support Israel’s right to defend itself but the tragedy is that, while there was still terrible poverty in Gaza, there was hope for a great many people. There was an emerging tech economy. There were things happening of a very good nature. Hamas has spent a very large amount of money on things it should not have spent money on—it should have been improving healthcare and education—and that is a tragedy. We want to support the people of Gaza and the people of the region in trying to rebuild this shattered community and make sure that Hamas never has a role in its governance again.

Do the Government continue to share Israel’s assessment that that country and the world can be free from the threat of Hamas only if we see Hamas in the same terms as ISIS: in needing to completely eliminate that threat, rather than cut a deal, make a ceasefire and entrench its resistance for decades to come?

This is a matter to be settled in the region. Countries such as ours can be involved, and we are involved at a high level, particularly with negotiations on the hostages. I entirely agree with the noble Lord: Hamas is a terrorist organisation, and the horrendous attacks it perpetrated on 7 October cannot be seen as anything other than a brutal terrorist atrocity.

My Lords, there have been reports of women and girls being violently raped by Hamas terrorists, but I have seen no reflection of this in UN reports or actions. Does the Minister agree with me that, since rape is a war crime, this should be reflected in the UN’s understanding of the situation?

We have very strong views where actions such as rape and torture are used to perpetrate conflict in any form whatever. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that this matter should be investigated further and the people responsible should be held to account. We really want to ensure that the vast number of people who are affected by, and are innocent parties to, this conflict can receive the humanitarian aid they deserve.