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Gaza: Civilian Deaths and Humanitarian Situation

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

4. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. (900592)

5. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. (900593)

10. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. (900598)

15. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. (900603)

23. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the humanitarian situation in Gaza. (900611)

Britain has increased planned assistance to Palestinian civilians to £60 million, and has delivered over 74 tonnes of aid. The recent pauses in fighting were a welcome opportunity to get hostages out and aid in. We know that more is needed: more fuel, increased humanitarian access and assistance into Gaza, and compliance with international humanitarian law.

Did the Minister see the analysis recently published in the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the proportion of civilian deaths in Gaza is significantly higher than the average civilian death toll in all conflicts around the world during the 20th century? Does that not give the lie to any claim that Israel is avoiding civilian deaths, and as the death toll in Gaza approaches 20,000, is it not now time for the whole international community—including the UK—to support a ceasefire that protects civilian lives?

The hon. Gentleman will know the importance that the Government and Opposition Front Benchers attach to saving civilian lives, and will know that Britain has made it absolutely clear to the authorities in Israel that we expect them to abide by international humanitarian law and understand and accept the rules of war. He will equally know that the unprecedented figures he refers to follow on the back of an unprecedented attack by terrorists on 7 October, a pogrom in which more Jewish people were murdered than at any time since 1945 in the holocaust.

I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that the UK has increased its humanitarian aid by £60 million since 7 October. Can my right hon. Friend outline how his Department is working to ensure that that funding is spent as effectively as possible, by which I mean reaching those in the most urgent need? I am sure we have all been greatly distressed by the suffering of the innocent civilians in this conflict.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have 82 tonnes of humanitarian supplies in Cyprus ready to go, and 5 tonnes of medical equipment ready to go. As soon as there is the possibility of getting more aid and support into Gaza, we will be using those supplies to do exactly that.

In the past nine weeks, over 250 Palestinians—including 69 children—have been killed by the Israeli security forces in the west bank, and over the past year we have seen a dangerous rise in the number of attacks by violent, illegal Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property. Even the United States announced that it would impose a travel ban on violent extremist settlers last week, but all the UK Government have been able to announce is that planning is going on. How much more bloodshed do we need to see before the Government stop planning and start acting, and will the Minister take real action today against violent, illegal settlers?

I made clear in my answer to Question 1 that the Government condemn without qualification the illegal attacks by settlers on Palestinians. The hon. Gentleman asks me specifically about visa bans; while I cannot give a commentary in this House, I can tell him that our plans in that respect are moving forward.

A stop-start approach is likely to prolong hostage captivity and increase the risk to hostages’ lives. It also continues the relentless loss of civilians and innocent children. If the UN Security Council resolution returns with a condemnation of Hamas, will the UK do the right thing this time and back an immediate humanitarian ceasefire?

As the hon. Lady will know, not least from the urgent question asked in the House yesterday by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), neither the Government nor the Opposition believe that a ceasefire is the right way to proceed. However, I can tell her that we are very heavily engaged in what is happening in these Security Council resolutions, and the Security Council permanent members were at Rafah yesterday, looking in detail at the situation on the ground.

There has to be a ceasefire to protect civilians in Gaza. Does the Minister agree with the US Secretary for Defence when he said that

“protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative”,

and that

“if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”?

Are the Government making those representations to the Israeli Government?

Of course, the position of the American Defence Secretary is exactly the position of the British Government, and that is why we say at all points that everyone must adhere international humanitarian law.

The whole House is appalled by the atrocities committed by Hamas, but also by the civilian suffering in Gaza. Will my right hon. Friend set out the steps he is taking to relieve civilian suffering, and also the steps he is taking against illegal settlements and the actions of violent settlers, because they are an obstacle to the two-state solution and to a lasting and just peace?

On the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, I can tell him that we have delivered 74 tonnes of aid to el-Arish, which we are trying to make sure gets in. On specific relief, I can inform the House that 100 trucks and 120,600 litres of fuel did get across the border into Rafah yesterday. It is nothing like enough, but there was some progress yesterday.

Israel has detained huge numbers of Palestinians in Gaza. The International Committee of the Red Cross has received reports of 3,000 missing between 7 October and 29 November, and many also in the west bank. We have seen the images of those men stripped on the beaches, and Haaretz has released an article showing that 10% to 15% of them were connected to Hamas, which means that nearly 90% were not. Are this Government making representations to the Israeli Government about their treatment of Palestinian detainees?

The situation the hon. Member describes is not clear in the fog of war, but I can tell her that we emphasise to everyone the importance of abiding by international humanitarian law and of course the Geneva convention, to which she was referring.

Every life lost, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is a tragedy, and so often in conflict and wars it is the children who suffer the most. What further discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the United States and other partners about having new humanitarian pauses? Finally, I am supportive of the Government, but may I ask him whether he feels that the Israeli response is proportionate?

We are arguing in every way we possibly can that there need to be humanitarian pauses, and that they need to be five days long so that we can get relief and humanitarian supplies into Gaza. On my right hon. Friend’s final point about proportionate force, as I said earlier during these questions, that is why we emphasise continuously the importance of abiding by the rules of war.

In Gaza, almost 80% of the population have been forced from their homes with nowhere safe to go. Sewage is flowing in the streets, with enormous risk to health, while hospitals and ambulances continue to be hit. Half the population are starving. The most recent report is of over 18,000 Palestinians killed, including utterly appalling numbers of children. I recognise the efforts of Ministers, but it is barely even slowing down the tide of death when the humanitarian crisis simply needs to end. What is the Minister’s strategy to do that?

At all points, Britain is trying to use its brilliant international network, working not only with the other United Nations Security Council members, but through our intense diplomatic network around the middle east. On trying to see a political track when it becomes available, Britain, with its allies, is doing everything possible to achieve that. On the suffering that the hon. Lady described—everyone in the House will agree with her analysis of that—the Foreign Secretary recently announced an additional £30 million of support. We are looking at how that can be used specifically to assist with medical issues, particularly for children.