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Gaza: Humanitarian Situation

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 4 December.

“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 opportunity to ensure that much greater volumes of food, fuel and other lifesaving aid can enter Gaza.

On 24 November, the British Government announced a further £30 million-worth of humanitarian assistance, tripling our existing aid budget for the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year and bringing it to a total of £60 million. 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 by 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. We are also actively exploring other aid routes, including by sea.

The pause that ended last week was a crucial step towards providing relief to the families of the hostages and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We have said repeatedly that we would like to see an extension. UK humanitarian funding will continue to support trusted partners to provide humanitarian assistance, and negotiate humanitarian access, in Gaza. The UK will continue, in conjunction with our international partners, to advocate internationally on humanitarian priorities. These include respect for international humanitarian law, the need for fuel, humanitarian access, humanitarian pauses and an increase in the types of assistance. We are urgently exploring all diplomatic options to increase that, including urging Israel to open other existing land borders, such as Kerem Shalom.

We welcome the intensive international co-operation, including efforts from Qatar and the USA, which led to the 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, as each day passes, the need for a return to a cessation of hostilities becomes more urgent, in order to secure the release of hostages, address the humanitarian crisis and begin the process towards a political solution. Rising numbers of Gazans are being internally displaced in the current process of urging civilians to evacuate to so-called safe zones—which is, as a Minister put it, kettling people together—apart from the huge personal tragedies for families and communities.

Can the Minister say what assessment his department has made of the impact this displacement will have on levels of infectious diseases, and how would we be able to support the people in those circumstances? Separately, given the increase in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, which I know the noble Lord has witnessed, as have I personally, will the UK follow the US lead in placing visa bans on the settlers responsible for this violence?

My Lords, first, I assure the noble Lord that I think we all agree with him that we want to see conditions prevailing that allow humanitarian aid, which is continuing, notwithstanding the continuation of the conflict, but at levels that ensure at least some sense of hope and sustenance for the people in Gaza. The number of Palestinian civilians who have suffered as a result of this conflict is immense. Although we have supported and recognised the right of Israel in light of the terror attacks, it is clear that the humanitarian suffering is immense. Too many children and vulnerable people have died—some of the figures are eye-watering.

On the humanitarian crisis, I agree with the noble Lord, and we are working very closely with UN agencies, including the World Health Organization, which is very seized of this issue. Hospitals’ ability to sustain their operational capacity is extremely limited; I think the World Health Organization said today that it is working in the south at about 300% in terms of its capacity limits. We are not only focusing on ensuring that the support gets through the Rafah border; as the noble Lord knows, through both private and public briefings I have given to him, we are also working to ensure that the Kerem Shalom operation can be restored. In that regard, the Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is currently in Washington and will be engaging on all aspects of this crisis.

On the issue of the hostages, I am travelling to Qatar again this weekend, because that provides the first important cornerstone in bringing a resolution to this conflict.

The noble Lord referred to the West Bank violence. The Foreign Secretary made clear when he travelled to Israel—noble Lords will have noticed this in public statements as well—the importance of not just stopping settler violence but holding those responsible to account. We note the action taken by the US, and I am sure that will be part of the conversations my noble friend has with the Secretary of State in Washington.

My Lords, the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza now has 15,250 civilian casualties, 70% of whom are women and children, and the news today is that 600,000 people have been told to move. However, where is the Government’s assessment of where it is safe for them to move to? Turning to the appeal from the World Food Programme, it says that only one-third of stocks have been replenished. Why have His Majesty’s Government not increased humanitarian support to the Occupied Palestinian Territories from two weeks ago, which currently stands at less than a quarter compared with pre-ODA cut levels?

With regard to the West Bank, we now know that 244 civilians have been killed, 65 of them children. What is the cause of the delay in the UK moving now to ensure that there is no impunity? We want to make sure that there are no extremists in Gaza at the end of this conflict but equally, there should be no impunity for those who are conducting extremist activities in the West Bank against civilians. Why is there a delay in removing visa waiver access for them?

On the noble Lord’s last question, I think I have answered that. Of course, I will not speculate on what actions we may or may not take but my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s statements on the issue of accountability have been very clear. On humanitarian support, the noble Lord will also recognise that we have increased our support, particularly through UNRWA, and we are working directly with those on the ground, including international agencies. Our current support is now up to £60 million, and we will continue to review what further support is needed. We are working directly not just with other UN agencies but with those on the ground, including key partners such as Egypt—Qatar also has an active operation—to ensure that we get the right support through to the right people.

On the issue of people within Gaza being displaced, I of course note what the noble Lord said. I agree with him, and that is why we have made it very clear that safe zones and protected areas is a key question for Israel to answer. We have seen in history that safe zones are not something that the UK has supported, nor continues to. We need a sustainable sense of these hostilities coming to an end—the creation of those conditions —and we are working to that end.

My Lords, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC has called for the collection of evidence where there are alleged violations of international law. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to help with the collection of any such evidence?

My Lords, I am aware of the prosecutor’s visit to both Ramallah and Israel. We are strong supporters of the International Criminal Court. He will make his appropriate determinations, and it is important we allow him the space and opportunity to do his job effectively.

My Lords, I hesitate to arbitrate between my noble friends. I think it might be usual to hear first from that Bench, and then I hope there is also time for my other noble friend.

I am grateful. I pay tribute to what the Minister has been doing throughout this crisis. I know he has spent much personal capital on making sure that people are discussing these incredibly difficult matters, and that it has been personally traumatic for shim. The whole House values and appreciates what he has been doing. I want to follow up the questions from the two Front Benches. What consequences follow from settler violence? What consequences follow for those individual settlers, but also for Ministers in the Israeli Government who have supported this violence, not just through their rhetoric but through the provision of arms? Is the Minister going to be brave and bold enough to say at the Dispatch Box that either we have little political say with the Israeli Government, or we are saying it and they are not listening?

My Lords, as my noble friend will know from her own experience, it is important that we make public statements and private representations, and we are doing that to Israel. While we support Israel as an ally and friend; the other side of the coin is that we can give quite candid messages, and I assure my noble friend that we are doing just that.

The issue of accountability is well recognised, and I alluded to the response and visit of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary on that issue. As I said in answer to an earlier question, he is currently in the US, and we are aware of the actions it has taken.

I heard my noble friend’s earlier question, so perhaps I can answer that at the same time. In anything, we have to be very measured in our diplomacy, but giving in to blackmail or threats is not the way of any British Government.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in the first week of October, there was massive sympathy with the Israeli people and their suffering, in light of the outrageous activities of Hamas? Does he also accept that when people see, night after night, the slaughter going on in Gaza, there is every danger of losing the battle for international understanding and sympathy—of winning the battle but losing the war? Can that message please get through?

As for the first part of the noble Lord’s question, the attacks that took place on 7 October were abhorrent, and that is why we welcome the universal condemnation of those acts, irrespective of who you are, where you are and what faith you follow. Let us be very clear: Hamas itself does not represent the best interest of the Palestinians. It certainly does not represent the interests of a faith that I know other noble Lords follow, or indeed any faith or belief. Nothing sanctions the acts of terrorism committed by Hamas. Equally, I know, both personally and in my professional capacity, that we are seeing many innocent Palestinians lose their lives, including vulnerable women and children. The Government and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary are seized of this, and we are engaging in shuttle diplomacy with all partners. Israel is a friend, and I refer to my response to my noble friend Lady Warsi: a friend means you can support that friend and ally with them, as we have done, yet equally land those messages that others perhaps cannot to ensure we see a pathway to peace in this process.