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Israel and Palestine

Volume 835: debated on Monday 15 January 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 8 January.

“Let me begin by reiterating our fundamental belief in Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. The events of 7 October were truly horrifying. Israel has a right to restore its security and to ensure that such horrifying events can never be repeated. We are also clear that too many civilians have been killed. Israel needs to ensure that its campaign is targeted on Hamas leaders and operatives, fulfils its obligations to protect civilians and is consistent with international humanitarian law.

No one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. That is why the United Kingdom played a leading role in securing the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2720, which made clear the urgent demand for expanded humanitarian access. The resolution also called for the release of hostages and for steps towards a sustainable ceasefire, for which the British Government have consistently led calls.

Britain has been pushing a number of innovative and impactful approaches—especially, but not only, maritime delivery—to support aid for Gaza. We are focused on the bigger picture and longer-term strategic value. UK Ministers are lobbying the Government of Israel hard and regularly to allow more aid in and reduce the numerous constraints that are hindering many aspects of our and others’ efforts to help Gazan civilians. We have appointed Mark Bryson-Richardson as our representative for humanitarian affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Last week, a Royal Navy vessel delivered 87 tonnes of life-saving UK and Cypriot aid, destined for Gaza, into Egypt. We have also supported the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. Seven hundred and fifty tonnes of life-saving food aid arrived in the first delivery and a second convoy, with 315 tonnes of critical supplies, reached Gaza last week, partly funded by the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the risk of famine is stark, and the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers throughout the Government are pushing the need to address this with the Israeli Government.

The Government are urging all sides to avoid further escalation. The situation is fragile and an escalation in violence, including on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, is not in anyone’s interests. In the Red Sea, the Houthis’ attacks against commercial shipping are patently unacceptable. We have already taken action to deter Houthi threats, and we will not hesitate to take further action as needed.

There is no perfect formula for peace. What I can say is that Gaza should ultimately be under Palestinian control, and we support a two-state solution that guarantees security and stability for both Israeli and Palestinian people”.

My Lords, all our thoughts are very much with all the civilians who have been caught up in this horrific and continuing war. I certainly welcome the Minister’s efforts in securing United Nations Resolution 2720 and the Government’s commitment to seek and push for a sustained ceasefire that will deliver the humanitarian support that we wish for.

Andrew Mitchell in the other place referred to the ICJ case that was being pursued by South Africa and said that we would follow and respect its decision. But international humanitarian law is broader than that simple case. What are we doing to support the ICC to have adequate access, support and resources to properly investigate all breaches of international humanitarian law? Clearly, this is an issue that concerns all our global partners.

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. Securing UN Security Council Resolution 2720 was of course important. Being directly involved, I can assure your Lordships that it was hard-graft negotiation until the very end. It is right that we need a ceasefire that is respected and sustainable. I pay tribute to my noble friend the Foreign Secretary for advocating this and I know that His Majesty’s Opposition share this view.

I can say no more about the ICJ case than that the ICJ is an institution that we support and that we await the outcome of the case. It is extremely important, for all concerned, that international humanitarian law is upheld. In all our interactions, we look to ensure—recently, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary engaged directly with senior representatives of the Israeli Government—that this point is made very clearly. Unlike Hamas, Israel is a state and it has obligations in this respect, which it recognises.

We are very supportive of the ICC as an institution. Earlier today, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and I met the prosecutor of the ICC, who is visiting, to discuss a raft of different issues about the institution and its various priorities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind words earlier. There have now been 101 days of this violence, and we have now seen the reports of 8,000 innocent Palestinian children being killed, and 150 UN workers also dying in the violence. The Israeli Government have said that their strikes have been targeted and proportionate, but analysis by the Financial Times before Christmas showed that the devastation of buildings in north Gaza is now more than it was in Dresden and Cologne, and is comparable to Hamburg. The Israeli forces have been using 2,000-pound bombs, which are four times the size that allies used in Mosul against ISIS, and have been using unguided munitions that date back to the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Government have said that they have monitoring aircraft in the region, which are being used to identify potential Hamas terrorists. That is to be welcomed, but are the Government also monitoring the use of the unguided so-called “dumb bombs” that have been raining down on Gaza, causing massive civilian damage? This will be evidence when it comes to any potential legal challenges, so are the Government collating the information?

My Lords, I will first share my own thoughts and those of the Government. I think I speak for every Member of your Lordships’ House when I say that the loss of life we saw in the terrorist attacks on 7 October, and subsequently the loss of so many innocent lives in Gaza, is something we all deplore. That is why the Government have been working extensively. I and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, literally during the course of the last month or so and during the Christmas period, have been working to ensure that we get the agreements in place to allow for humanitarian support to be provided to those most in need. No one needs to demonstrate how the situation in Gaza is being played out; we have seen it. There is acute need, particularly for the most vulnerable, and women and children in particular—70% of those who have been killed are women and children. I alluded to the importance of collating evidence earlier as well. There are international institutions looking at this, and Israel itself is a responsible state that has responsibilities under various agreements it has signed. Now is the time to focus on getting that sustainable ceasefire, so we can see that rebuilding, getting support in and also, let us not forget, getting the hostages out who have been held since 7 October.

My Lords, the war would end tomorrow if the hostages were released, but is it not time to call out the role of Iran in all of this? Although Iran is apparently keeping out of it, it is promoting Hamas to carry out its horrible acts, and pushing the Houthis into the direction they are taking. Without Iran, they would not be doing this. Is it not time we told them to stop?

I assure the noble Lord that we have done exactly that. While there may not be direct operational instruction from Iran to those militias that are being supported—not just those that have been supported in the Occupied Territories, but those further afield—I assure the noble Lord that we are making that case. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary recently spoke directly with the Foreign Minister of Iran, and that point was made very strongly.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. There are still over 130 hostages—men, women and children—being held in Gaza, and we should not forget them. Like other noble Lords in this House, we had the difficult opportunity to visit Kfar Aza down in the south of Israel last week. It was horrific. I was able to say the memorial prayer to the son of my friend, Netta Epstein, who died when he jumped on a grenade to save the life of his fiancée. But would my noble friend agree that there is some small light in the darkness? That is the Abraham Accords. I will be specific and mention the Kingdom of Bahrain; its understanding and support, not only in the fight against Hamas but also against the Houthis, is that small light.

My Lords, first of all, on my noble friend’s point on hostages, I myself, along with the Foreign Secretary, have met with various members of the families of hostages currently being held. I assure noble Lords that we are doing our utmost with those who have influence to ensure their release as well as their safety at the current time. On the wider issue, when one looks at the situation currently, every glimmer and silver lining of this dark cloud is welcome, and I agree with my noble friend that the role of, and our partnership with, Gulf countries is particularly important. I also acknowledge fully the role that Bahrain has played in treading a very challenging line for itself, considering its position in the region and its domestic audiences, but equally standing up on principle, as we saw during the Manama Dialogue from His Highness the Crown Prince.

My Lords, I have visited Auschwitz and seen something of the suffering of the Jewish people, and I appreciate the wonderful contribution the community is making to this country. But should we be silent and look the other way when every human rights organisation, the United Nations, Amnesty International and others point to gross abuse of human rights in Gaza? Should we look the other way when Benjamin Netanyahu compares the Palestinians with the Amaleks, who, according to the Bible, God ordered the Jews to slaughter—every man, woman, child and infant in the cradle—or when he says that the 25% of the Israeli population who are Palestinians have no rights, or when the Defence Minister states:

“We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly”?

My Lords, far from it. We are not looking the other way. We have a strong relationship with Israel and are making very forceful points to the Government of Israel about their responsibility. I have stood at this Dispatch Box a number of times, and the Israeli Government recognise their duty and obligation, aside from to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to the 21% to 22% of the population of the State of Israel who are non-Jewish, which includes many Christians and Muslims.