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Children in Gaza

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what his Department is doing to ensure the lives and security of the children of Gaza.

My Lords, the best way to address the humanitarian situation is by ending the fighting as soon as possible. That is why I have repeatedly said that an immediate pause in fighting is necessary. UK aid is saving children’s lives. We are doing everything we can to get more aid into Gaza and have trebled our aid commitment to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This includes targeted support for children through our £5.75 million contribution to UNICEF. Children are also benefiting from life-saving food, shelter and health support that we are providing through partnerships with other UN agencies, NGOs and the Red Crescent societies.

I thank the noble Lord, but surely a pause in fighting is not enough. We need a permanent ceasefire now. Specifically, I am sure he is aware of the awful fate of six year-old Hind Rajab, calling for help in the midst of the bodies of her dead relatives, who appears to have died with two would-be rescuers from the Red Crescent. Have the Government demanded answers from the Israeli Government—or will they—about what happened to Hind, her family and the rescuers? Are the Government challenging the Israeli Government on the risks to hundreds of thousands of children in Rafah who are now in the path of the Israeli offensive? Surely it is time to stop all arms shipments to Israel, as a Dutch court has demanded that the Netherlands does, and implement targeted sanctions against members of the Israeli leadership, particularly those calling for new settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank.

The noble Baroness asks a number of questions. The case she raises is completely tragic, and what is happening in Gaza is tragic. We want an end to this suffering and killing. Let me make this point: we want to turn the pause we are calling for into a ceasefire, by making sure the conditions are right for getting a stop in the fighting to mean a permanent ceasefire. The way to do that is by fulfilling a number of conditions. In our view, you have to get the Hamas leaders out of Gaza—otherwise, any ceasefire will not last because the problem will still be there. You have to dismantle the operation of terrorist attacks. You have to have a new Palestinian Authority Government in place. You have to give the Palestinian people a political horizon to a better future and a two-state solution. Crucially, you have to release all the hostages—and do that very quickly.

The noble Baroness asks whether we challenge the Israeli Government over individual episodes. Yes, we absolutely do. I have done that personally with them, for instance, over a building that was bombed that had UK medics and other charities in it. We will continue to do that as part of the very important process that we go through to judge whether they are in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Is my noble friend aware of any moves by Hamas to protect the children of Gaza, for instance by releasing all the hostages, as he just mentioned, or stopping attacks on Israel and the leaders fleeing to the Gulf? Is he aware of any such moves? I agree with everything he said.

My noble friend makes a very good point. It is worth remembering that on 7 October, 29 children were killed by Hamas and 39 children were taken hostage and remain hostages today. It is right that we in this House keep asking what else Israel should do, but at the very same time we should also say what Hamas should do, which is to lay down its weapons and stop right now. It could stop this fight immediately.

Is the noble Lord aware that the IDF has suggested that it is in no rush to enter into Rafah and will delay, possibly until after Ramadan? Meanwhile, the negotiations in Cairo can continue. That gives a chance for Hamas to release the hostages and for the conflict to stop.

That is absolutely right. I believe those discussions are under way, and it is a great pity that they did not reach that conclusion the last time they were under way. As I said, the best outcome we could seek is an immediate stop in the fighting. Let us hope that the stop is for as long as possible. I think that Israel was content to offer a month or six weeks as a pause. Then we need the momentum to turn that pause into a permanent ceasefire, without a return to the fighting. That should be our goal but, crucially, the pause is necessary to get the aid in and the hostages out.

My Lords, there is plenty of time. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Green.

I am grateful to the Chief Whip. UNICEF has said today that 600,000 displaced children are in Rafah in Gaza. That is comparable to the entire under-12 population of Scotland being displaced to one postcode area. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that for any belligerent in a conflict to advise children and civilians to relocate, on the pretext of their safety, to an area where there is no shelter, water or medicine, and where there are no security guarantees, is a war crime?

I say to the noble Lord what I said yesterday in Scotland: many of the people in Rafah have already moved three, four or five times. It is not possible for them to move again. They cannot go north because they would be going back to homes that have been destroyed. They cannot go south because that would involve going into Egypt, which none of us wants to see and the Egyptians do not want. That is why it is so important that the Israelis stop and think before going ahead with any operations in Rafah.

My Lords, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the huge number of civilian casualties in Gaza is deeply damaging to the reputation of Israel? Will he therefore take action to promote a change of strategy by the Israelis, as well as the other measures he has mentioned? Thousands of civilians are being killed; that has to stop.

Our view from the start has been that, while Israel has a right to defend itself and the attacks on 7 October were an appalling attack on Israel—it is worth remembering that it was the biggest pogrom since the Holocaust in terms of the loss of life of Jewish people; we should not forget that—and a tragedy that it had every right to respond to and try to prevent happening again, Israel must obey international humanitarian law. Let us be clear: not only does that involve what the IDF does in terms of the way it prosecutes this war but, as Israel is the occupying power in Gaza, it has to make sure that humanitarian aid—food, water and shelter—is available to people in Gaza. If Israel does not do that, it would be a breach of international humanitarian law as well.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary is right; the priority has to be securing an immediate, extended pause in fighting to ensure that we can get aid in and the remaining hostages out, and create room for a long-term, sustainable ceasefire, followed by an even longer-term resolution. There are currently almost 1.5 million displaced Palestinians in Rafah and it is the main route for humanitarian aid. Any further Israeli offensive in Rafah will be catastrophic. The situation is getting more urgent by the hour. I know the noble Lord has been working to establish a contact group of regional and international leaders who would influence both sides. Is he able to offer any progress on that group or its ability currently to influence events?

At the Munich Security Conference on Friday, there will be a meeting of the key European countries that help to fund the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the key Arab and Gulf states working to help support a future Palestinian Authority. We very much hope that the Secretary of State of the United States will be there as well. This is not yet the formation of a contact group—a number of countries, particularly in the Arab world, are understandably nervous about meeting in advance of a proper ceasefire and a plan towards a cessation of hostilities—but I think we are on the way to getting this group, which the noble Baroness has long called for, up and running.

It is important, because there are lots of things that we need to start talking about now—what happens the day after a pause; a reconstituted Palestinian Authority; the question of how to offer a political horizon to people in the Palestinian territories; or indeed how to deal with Israel’s very real security concerns. If there is a pause and then a ceasefire, how do you make sure that the people responsible for 7 October cannot remain in Gaza and that the infrastructure of terror is taken down?

My Lords, alongside medical aid on the ground, one practical step the Government could take with an immediate impact would be to support medical care for children injured in Gaza on a temporary basis in the United Kingdom. I know that my noble friend and his department have been looking at this possibility. I would be grateful if he could update us on progress.

I thank my noble friend. It is called Project Pure Hope. We are looking very closely at whether it is possible to take the people in greatest need and bring them to British hospitals, as we have done in the past. The early work we have done shows that there is much we can do in the region, and we should probably do that first—for example, helping in the field hospitals that have been established, helping to send medical teams to referral hospitals in the region and supporting organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians. If that work leads to the identification of specific cases in which someone would be better off taking the long journey to Britain and going to Great Ormond Street or elsewhere, we certainly do not rule that out. We will continue to look at this.