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Israel and Gaza

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024


Tabled by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to secure a lasting ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Gaza.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Janke is unwell. With her permission, and on her behalf, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we support a ceasefire, but this must be a sustainable ceasefire that will last and prevent another generation living under the constant threat of war. That must mean that Hamas is no longer in power in Gaza, able to threaten Israel with rocket attacks and other forms of terrorism. Ahead of a permanent ceasefire, we want to see immediate and sustained humanitarian pauses to allow hostages to leave and more aid to enter Gaza, helping to create the conditions for a durable peace. As I said at the weekend, we would like to see such a pause start right now.

My Lords, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his reply, and I agree with most of it. However, these Benches have for a number of weeks called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire, beyond a truce, which would allow hostages to be returned, bombing to stop and, of course, vital lifesaving aid to be secured. Why have the Government failed so far to persuade the Israeli Government to allow much greater access for the humanitarian aid that is needed? There are 1.9 million displaced people, many of whom are now facing famine. We now know that, when it comes to civilian casualties, this is the most deadly conflict in the 21st century. The UK will need to increase its support of humanitarian assistance, but it cut that from £107 million to £12 million between 2019 and 2023. I support the increase in aid but, surely, there will need to be an increase of the cap of 0.5% if we are to do our bit and ensure that aid is increased.

First, I would say to the noble Lord that we have trebled the amount of aid that we are putting into Gaza. I very much take on board what he says about the pressure we need to put on not just the Israeli Government but other Governments in the region to get more aid in. Right now, as we speak, nine out of 10 people in Gaza are living on less than one meal a day. It is that serious. That is why I have had repeated conversations with the Israelis and set out a whole series of bottlenecks that need to be relieved. We need Kerem Shalom open all the time. We need the Nitzana checkpoint open all the time. I would like to see the port of Ashdod opened in Israel so that aid can get into the country through maritime routes and more swiftly into Gaza.

Crucially, we will not see more aid get to the people who need it unless the United Nations inside Gaza has the vehicles, the people and the fuel to get it around. Those permissions need to be given. I have had these conversations most recently this morning with the new UN aid co-ordinator, who I am confident will do an excellent job. We will keep up the pressure for this, because, as I have said, an immediate pause to help get that aid in and to help get hostages out is essential.

Will the Foreign Secretary consider very seriously creating a UN protection force for humanitarian relief? That was done successfully in the winter of 1992 in a very difficult situation, with no ceasefire, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I recommend that approach. Although a ceasefire is essential, it is not in the immediate future very likely, but the humanitarian crisis is getting worse every day. They cannot get relief in without some form of protection from UN forces.

I take what the noble Lord says, as a former Foreign Secretary, extremely seriously. What would make a difference is if Israel recognised its responsibilities for making sure that food, medicine and supplies have to be delivered to people in Gaza, and if it recognised that you need the UN staff who have the visas, the equipment and the fuel to help get it around. I will certainly take away the suggestion that the noble Lord makes, but the calculation here is quite simple. Before the conflict, some 500 trucks were going into Gaza every day. I check the figures every single day; we are up to about 150 trucks at the moment. That is not enough. The longer it goes on, the greater the risk of people going hungry and the greater the risk of disease and this humanitarian crisis getting worse. A pause would help, because there is no doubt that it would be easier to get food and other forms of aid in. It would also be very good to make some progress on the hostages, families of whom I met this morning.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary makes an alarming point: that within Gaza nine out of 10 Palestinians are not even getting a single meal every day. The need for a sustained ceasefire is absolutely clear as a first step towards getting humanitarian aid in. The Government confirmed last week that currently there are no plans for RAF aid flights or deliveries by the Royal Navy. Can he say why that is? Surely that would be a good way of getting aid in and trying to get around some of the problems that we have at the moment.

We are looking at every single way of getting aid in. Of course, there are maritime options, and we had a ship leaving Cyprus and taking aid to Port Said in Egypt. The so-called over-the-beach option of trying to land aid in Gaza is extremely difficult for reasons of operational security and other forms of security. On dropping aid by air, the French and Jordanians did so recently, but it was less aid than you would get into one truck. The truth is that the best way to get aid into Gaza is through trucks. As I said, 500 are needed, 150 are happening, and if you opened up Kerem Shalom seven days a week, if you had the Nitzana checkpoint open 24/7 and if you had the people inside Gaza, there would be plenty of aid. There is no shortage of aid and no shortage of countries prepared to make the financial commitment. In the end, trucks are faster, and it is trucks that we need.

My Lords, women and children are always disproportionately affected by conflict. The UK considers itself a global leader on the women, peace and security agenda and holds the pen for this at the UN Security Council. Why are we not hearing from women’s groups? After all, they were integral in bringing peace in both Northern Ireland and Liberia.

It is very important that we hear from everybody. One of the things that I do with the responsibilities of the aid and development portfolio that is now squarely within the Foreign Office is to make sure that we listen to all the NGOs, all the experts and all the people who can make a difference when it comes to getting aid in and trying to relieve this desperate humanitarian situation.

When the Foreign Secretary said

“I am worried that Israel has taken action that might be in breach of international law”,

did he have in mind the principle of proportionality in armed conflict and whether it is a proportionate self-defence by Israel to have been responsible so far for some 24,000 Palestinian deaths, including 10,000 children?

What I meant when I said that was simply that I worry about these things. It is my job to worry. The Foreign Office has a job, which is to look at the legal advice and work out whether Israel is committed to, and capable of complying with, international humanitarian law, and then, based on that judgment, we have to take a series of actions, including looking at things like export licences. We always urge Israel to obey international humanitarian law, and it is important that we do so.

Is it not the case that there would be an immediate ceasefire tomorrow if Hamas were to release the hostages and lay down its weapons, and if the criminals who did atrocities on 7 October were to go and join their leaders in luxury hotels in the Gulf?

My noble friend makes a good point, which is that Hamas could end this tomorrow by saying that it was going to lay down its weapons or leave. Everyone is aware that we want a sustainable ceasefire. That means Hamas not in power and not able to launch rockets and terror, and we have said we want to see an immediate pause so we can get aid in and hostages out. However, in many ways, the very best outcome would be to see whether we could convert that immediate pause for aid and hostages into a sustainable ceasefire without further hostilities. But for that to happen, a series of other things would have to happen: there would have to be immediate negotiations to release all the hostages, the Hamas leadership would have to leave Gaza, and we would have to be clear that there was no more danger of rocket and terror attacks on Israel. We would have to put together something based on the Palestinian Authority, backed by other Palestinians, going back into Gaza. In many ways, that would be the best outcome, but if we call now for an immediate ceasefire with no further fighting when Hamas is still in power, still launching rockets and still capable of launching terror attacks, not only would we not have a sustainable ceasefire and peace but we would have no hope of the thing that I think many in this House would like to see, which is a two-state solution.