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Gaza: Humanitarian Aid

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to increase the amount of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, because humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza and the release of the hostages are top priorities.

My Lords, we are doing all we can to increase aid into Gaza. We have been collaborating with Jordan on humanitarian air drops and are now working with partners to operationalise a maritime aid corridor from Cyprus. However, this cannot substitute delivery by land, which remains the best way to get aid in at the scale needed. Israel must open more land routes, including in the north, for longer and with fewer screening requirements. I have been clear: we need an immediate humanitarian pause to increase aid into Gaza and get the hostages out. Israel must remove restrictions on aid and restore electricity, water and telecommunications.

My Lords, the House understands that aid from the air is problematic and aid from the sea takes time. Can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why he has been unable to persuade the Israeli Government to allow the border crossings to be opened to provide the access for the hundreds of trucks needed daily? What are the Government intending to do so that, when the aid reaches Gaza to the people who so desperately need it, it is distributed to the people on the ground by local networks not controlled by Hamas?

We have repeatedly made points about the need to open crossings and allow more aid in. I can give the latest figures to the House. They are slightly more encouraging. The average number of trucks getting through per day in January was 140. This fell to 97 in February but has gone up to 162 so far in March. So we are making a difference. The opening of Kerem Shalom happened, and that made a difference. With regard to what is happening on the maritime front, which is encouraging, I say that, if Israel really wanted to help, it could open the Ashdod port, which is a fully functioning port in Israel. That could really maximise the delivery of aid from Cyprus straight into Israel and therefore into Gaza.

On the noble Viscount’s question about how to make sure that aid gets around Gaza, that is one of the trickiest pieces of the jigsaw. One of the things that Israel needs to do is give out more visas to UN workers who are capable of distributing the aid when it arrives in Gaza.

My Lords, I am very pleased that Mark Bryson-Richardson met with COGAT today. I would ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm the following: first, there is no backlog at all at the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel; secondly, there is a backlog at Rafah—there are columns of trucks in sovereign Egypt after they have been inspected and cleared by the Israeli authorities; thirdly, as has just been said, there is also, sadly, a backlog on the Gazan side, where the UN agencies are struggling to distribute the aid at the pace that Israel is facilitating it through.

I am delighted that Mark Bryson-Richardson, who I appointed as my aid co-ordinator, has met with COGAT; that is very useful. I can say to my noble friend that, yes, of course, getting more aid into Gaza requires the work of more than just Israel taking the relevant steps. But Israel is the country that could make the greatest difference, because some of the blockages, screening problems and all the rest of it are its responsibility. One proof point of that is that 18 trucks were dispatched from Jordan and they were held for 18 days at the Allenby/King Hussein bridge crossing. That seems to me the sort of the thing we need to act on faster to get that aid into Gaza. As I said in answer to the previous question, once it is in Gaza, it needs people to distribute it. That is about visas and capabilities, and deconfliction.

The Foreign Secretary was very eloquent in describing the unnecessary blockages that have been put in place. He will agree with me that Article 50 of the Geneva Convention, on the requirement on occupying powers for children, is that they will not

“hinder the application of … food, medical care and protection … in favour of children under fifteen years, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven years”.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that these hindrances and blockages are potentially a war crime under the Geneva Convention and that, if any Ministers in the Israeli Government are actively blocking the inward supply of aid, we should consider sanctioning them?

It is our legal position, and has been for some time, that Israel is the occupying power in Gaza; that was the case before 7 October. After the evacuation of Gaza in 2005, it was not truly freed up as an independent functioning territory, so it is true that the way that Israel behaves as the occupying power in allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza is a material consideration when it comes to looking at how it is complying with international humanitarian law. As I have said many times at this Dispatch Box already, what matters is whether it has the commitment and the capability, and whether it is complying. That is what we keep under review.

My Lords, the words that the Foreign Secretary has just used are the ones he used last Tuesday. But today in the Commons, Andrew Mitchell was asked a question by Lisa Nandy on precisely this point, particularly in relation to the BBC investigation into the treatment of medics at the hospital in Gaza. She asked Andrew Mitchell why we were not ensuring that the Israelis comply with the provisional measures of the ICJ. Andrew Mitchell was unable to support Lisa Nandy’s call. Why?

What I would say, as I think Minister Mitchell said in the House of Commons, is that these are very disturbing pictures and reports that have come out from this hospital. We need to get to the bottom of what exactly happened; we need answers from the Israelis. When we have those, it will be easier to comment.

My Lords, this crisis has been caused by Hamas, which hides terrorists and weapons in densely packed civilian areas and steals food and fuel meant for humanitarian relief. It is absolutely clear that there will be no prospect of peace —let alone the two-state solution that the Government want to see—until Hamas is completely removed from power in Gaza. This is why the Government should be doing all they possibly can to ensure that Israel has all the support it needs to win this war.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We completely agree that we will not have a two-state solution if the people responsible for 7 October are still running any part of Gaza. Obviously, what we would like to see is an immediate pause, the hostages released and a series of conditions put in place to make sure that the pause turns into a permanent ceasefire without a return to fighting. One of those conditions would be that the people responsible for 7 October—the leadership of Hamas—would have to leave Gaza and the terrorist infrastructure would have to be dismantled. If that did not happen through a process of negotiation, the noble Lord is no doubt right that there would be a return to fighting. That needs to be understood by people.

My Lords, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his first response, which set out very clearly and practically what the Government are trying to achieve in the Middle East. The problem though is pretty clear; the problem is the Israeli Government, who are not prepared, it seems, to accept the suggestion by the UK and the United States. So will he now make it clear to the Israeli Government that their continuing pressure on Palestinians, especially on their women and children, is absolutely unacceptable and, furthermore, that it risks antagonising millions of Arabs and Muslims for years and years to come? I say that having served for many years myself in the Middle East.

I am very familiar with the noble Lord’s service in a number of our embassies in the Middle East and his long experience in that part of the world. I say to him that we have said repeatedly that Israel must abide by international humanitarian law. As the noble Lord, Lord Austin, said, Israel has a right to self-defence. Hamas fighters started this conflict by their appalling invasion and terrorist pogrom in Israel, which led to the murder of over 1,400 people—and it is worth remembering that they still hold hostages. We are more than 150 days in. If Hamas fighters wanted to end this conflict, they could do so tomorrow—they could do so today—by releasing those hostages, getting their leaders out of Gaza and laying down their weapons. They do not do that. But the noble Lord is absolutely right to make the point that we had this experience fighting terrorist insurgencies in our own country, in our own history. You have to obey the rules and obey the law; if you do not and you lower yourself to the standards of the people you are fighting against, that does not end well.