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Gaza: Hunger Alleviation

Volume 837: debated on Monday 18 March 2024

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to alleviate hunger in Gaza, following the latest report of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which found that 30% of Gaza’s population are currently experiencing catastrophic hunger and that famine is imminent.

My Lords, we recognise that the desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating rapidly, and we are doing everything we can to get more aid in as quickly as possible, most importantly by land but also by sea and air. We have trebled our aid commitment to the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year to just under £100 million. Given that delivering aid through land routes continues to prove challenging and is being blocked, we are working closely with Jordan and other partners to open a Jordan land corridor and are now also working with partners to operationalise a maritime aid corridor from Cyprus. We are clear that Israel must take action to open up more land routes and support the UN to distribute aid effectively, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary are pressing Israel directly on this. We have said that there must be an immediate stop in fighting now, progressing to a sustainable ceasefire. Everyone needs to act, and that is what the UK Government are doing.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. The bar to declare a famine is high. It means that at least 20% of the population is affected, with about one out of three children acutely malnourished due to outright starvation or the interaction of malnutrition and disease. It means that families are deploying every coping strategy available and are still starving to death. The Famine Review Committee said that:

“All evidence points towards a major acceleration of deaths and malnutrition”.

The UN relief chief has said that humanitarian access to Gaza

“is treated as optional, or indeed wielded as a weapon of war”.

This famine can still be prevented. The IPC calls for an immediate ceasefire

“together with a significant and immediate increase in humanitarian … access to the entire population of Gaza”

to ensure the provision of food, water and medicine and to restore health, water, sanitation and energy. Ad hoc and small aid deliveries, however well meaning, are not enough to meet the scale of this manmade disaster. Will the Government do everything possible, using every legal route, to press Israel to open up border crossings and allow a sustained supply of aid relief to enter the entire Gaza Strip by road? Otherwise, a preventable famine will take place on our watch, and with full warning.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that, as we have all said from various parts of your Lordships’ House, land routes are the most important and need to be utilised; indeed, all border crossings need to be fully operationalised. The delivery of aid through maritime and air, while important, delivers only a fraction of what is required. We are talking about more than 2 million people who need food, medicine and basic nutrition. I read the report briefly, and we agree with some of the recommended actions about restoring humanitarian access to the entire Gaza Strip. We agree with the calls to stop the deterioration of food security, health and nutrition, and for the restoration of health, nutrition and WASH services, and we stand ready with other partners to do just that. I have been to the Erez border point near Gaza and have seen the backlog of trucks. That issue needs to be resolved right now. Both the Foreign Secretary and I stressed that point to Minister Gantz when he visited recently; indeed, Minister Gantz heard that point very clearly from across the pond in the United States as well.

My Lords, how is it possible to ask or answer a Question about the situation in Gaza without mentioning Hamas? It bears responsibility for this because it started the war, it hired weapons and terrorists in densely packed civilian areas, and it steals food and fuel meant for humanitarian relief. The quickest way to get food into Gaza is for Hamas to lay down its weapons and stop the fighting. Failing that, Israel has to defeat the terrorists for there to be any prospect of peace in the future.

My Lords, I believe that I, my right honourable friend and indeed His Majesty’s loyal Opposition, if I may speak for them, have all been consistent in our line on this. We need this fighting to stop, which means that Hamas needs to stop launching the missiles, which it has done consistently. We agree that the events of 7 October were shocking and abhorrent—I have been very clear about that. Of course, we have met consistently with hostage families. As I left the Foreign Office today, my noble friend was meeting with hostage families, and I and the Prime Minister met with some of the hostage families two weeks ago. We know the pain directly from them, because they tell us quite directly. But I can also say, from the hostage families I have met, that they are also clear—I am sure the noble Lord agrees with me—that we need this fighting to stop now.

My Lords, can the Minister perhaps tell the House how the consideration of the problems that arose over UNRWA are coming along, given that the new financial year starts about two weeks from now? Will we, like a number of other western countries, thereafter be able to resume the distribution of aid through UNRWA, which the Minister’s noble friend the Foreign Secretary said had an unparalleled capacity for distribution?

I totally agree with my noble friend. I assure the noble Lord that our decision to pause future funding to UNRWA has had no impact on the UK’s overall contribution to the humanitarian response. On the specifics of what the noble Lord raises, we want to see three things in order to consider lifting the funding pause: the interim findings of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, the interim report findings of the independent investigation into UNRWA—led by the former Foreign Minister of France, Catherine Colonna—which is due this week, and a time-bound action for UNRWA to set out detailed management reforms. I stand by what my noble friend the Foreign Secretary said. UNRWA has provided valuable support to Gaza through the distribution of food, medicines and other services. We were shocked and horrified by the reports made against UNRWA. The Secretary-General acted very swiftly in removing those against whom those reports were made.

My Lords, last Tuesday the Foreign Secretary said that, as the occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. He said we would examine how that was happening and its compliance with international law. We have heard constantly that Israel has the commitment and capability. We need to assess whether it is complying. Last week I asked the Foreign Secretary whether we were going to ensure that the Israelis comply with the provisional measures of the ICJ. Why are we not doing so now?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, in all our interactions with the Israeli Government, we make the point, as we have said in your Lordships’ House, about the importance of complying with the ICJ decision on provisional measures. This is central to the issue of humanitarian aid. Security Council Resolution 2720, which the UK championed, also focused on ensuring the full and sustainable access of humanitarian aid into Gaza, which is needed now.

My Lords, the European Union, along with hundreds of countries around the world, has now officially accepted that Israel is starving Gaza. At the weekend the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said:

“In Gaza we are no longer on the brink of famine, we are in a state of famine, affecting thousands of people … This is unacceptable. Starvation is used as a weapon of war. Israel is provoking famine”.

As we heard last week, and as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has reinforced, Article 50 of the Geneva convention places a requirement on the occupying power not to hinder the application of food, medical care and protection for children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people. Do His Majesty’s Government also consider that these deliberate blockages are potentially being used as weapons of war under the Geneva convention? What legal advice have the UK Government had in their support of the Israeli Government, who are actively blocking the inward supply of vital life-saving aid and creating this famine?

My Lords, on the projections of famine, the report says that one in five households faces an extreme food shortage and one in three children is acutely malnourished. Famine is projected to occur in the northern part of Gaza

“anytime between mid-March and May 2024”.

The issue of food insecurity is very clear. Previous assessments of compliance with IHL have been documented in your Lordships’ House. We regularly review advice about Israel’s capability and commitment to IHL and will act in accordance with that advice.

My Lords, I visited Kerem Shalom, as disclosed in my register of interests. All the operatives we met have either been killed or abducted and the equipment destroyed. However, Israel—which has never denied Gaza humanitarian aid—now has the capacity to pass 44 trucks per hour into Gaza. On 10 March, 150 lorries passed through, supplying 3,750 tonnes of food, equivalent to four pounds per person. If we are to seek peace, reconciliation and a ceasefire, does the Minister not agree with me that it is very important not to have disinformation, particularly about Israel? It has always sought to ensure that humanitarian aid is supplied wherever it can. The problem has been the UNRWA distribution thereof.

My Lords, we have been very clear about the importance of aid entering Gaza unimpeded. There have been claims and counterclaims. The United Kingdom has been very clear that Israel is not letting enough trucks through the crossing. The number that my noble friend quotes is factual, but it is also true that 500 trucks were entering before the war. Some statements have been made that commercial items were included within that. Yes, they were, but there was also food grown in Gaza, which is no longer possible. That is why there is an acute need. The 500 that is consistently stated is not a high threshold but the minimum threshold, and it is needed now.

My Lords, is the Minister aware how much of the aid is getting through but not being distributed because it is being siphoned off by Hamas? Does he have any figures at that end of the scale?

My Lords, all the aid that gets through is checked first and foremost by the Israelis themselves at the various checkpoints including, as my noble friend said, at Kerem Shalom, which has a very enhanced capacity that needs to be fully utilised. On the issue of aid within Gaza, undoubtedly, with the current chaos in Gaza there is no infrastructure. The roads are no longer fully operational. There are some military roads, which have allowed certain countries —including recently, as reported, Morocco—to deliver aid to the north of Gaza. We need consistent support from the Israeli authorities on the ground to ensure aid distribution. UNRWA provided a vital function. I have reiterated our shock, horror and abhorrence at the reports about UNRWA, and UNRWA is taking action. We have not yet resumed funding, but we are looking at that very carefully.

The difference between Hamas, a terrorist organisation, and Israel, a Government, is that under IHL Israel has obligations that it needs to fulfil as a Government with responsibility to the Geneva conventions. Many in Israel, including many NGOs, are very reflective of that. I have met with many hostage families who are shocked by what they see in Gaza, notwithstanding the horror that they are continuing to face themselves. That is why we are clear: stop this fighting now, release the hostages, let humanitarian aid enter Gaza unimpeded. Then we can talk about the medium to long term on peace and security, which is an equal right of Israelis and Palestinians.

I do not meet many people in the course of my life who are not influenced by what is happening in Gaza. I can honestly say that most of the people I meet and talk to, people from all walks of life, are appalled at what Israel is doing. Is somebody going to tell Israel about the damage it is doing not only to its own people but to people throughout the world? Jewish people throughout the world are having a hell of a time because of what is happening there. This is the worst form of foreign policy ever; it is terrible. The amount of anti-Semitism you see around the world is because Israel is thinking not about the next five or 10 years but only immediately.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are very clear to Israel, as a friend and partner—for example, with Mr Gantz—about Israel’s responsibilities in the appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza and the importance of acting with the rights of all its citizens. Let us not forget that 21% or 22% of its population is Arab, Christian and Muslim. Israel is a democratic state and has important security concerns that need to be directly supported, but equally we are very clear that the only way of securing peace, stability and security in the region is to ensure an immediate stop in the fighting now, to get the hostages released and to let in humanitarian aid. A lot of work is being done, including directly by my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and me on the diplomatic front, to ensure that we can address this shocking chapter in the history of Israel and across the Palestinian territories quite directly and bring peace, stability and security through the two-state solution. I assure the noble Lord that we are working diplomatically and extensively on that point.