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Israel and Gaza

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what assessment he has made of Israel’s compliance with the summary order regarding Gaza issued by the International Court of Justice on 26 January, and what assessment he has made of the implications for the United Kingdom’s obligations, particularly with regard to arms exports.

We respect the ICJ’s role and independence; it is up to the court to monitor Israel’s compliance. We have noted our concerns previously about this case, which we do not think is helpful in the goal of achieving a sustainable ceasefire. While there has been some progress in some areas of humanitarian relief, Israel must do more to make good its promises, and I am pressing them on this, directly.

I regularly review advice about the situation in Gaza. Our position on export licences remains unchanged but, of course, we keep this under review.

I thank the Minister for his Answer but of course, events have moved on since my Question was laid. The ICC prosecutor has made applications for five arrest warrants, alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity by senior Hamas leaders, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s Minister of Defense. The prosecutor was advised to do so unanimously by an independent panel of experts—our own noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, among them—which has set out why it thinks there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Surely it now obvious that the UK should immediately at least suspend arms exports licences to Israel, given the clear risk that continuing them would put the UK in breach of international law. Surely the Minister will confirm here that the UK accepts the jurisdiction of the court in this case, under the Rome statute that the UK helped to write and, of course, agreed to.

What I would say to the noble Baroness is that the last time I was asked to make a political declaration outside our normal process of reviewing arms export licences, and to simply say that we would not sell any more arms to Israel, just a few days later Iran attacked Israel with a hail of over 140 cruise missiles. That position of acting outside our normal processes would have been completely wrong.

Let me answer very directly on the ICC’s announcement yesterday. I do not believe for one moment that seeking these warrants will help get the hostages out, help get aid in, or help deliver a sustainable ceasefire. As we have said from the outset, because Israel is not a signatory to the Rome statute, and because Palestine is not yet recognised as a state, we do not think that the court has jurisdiction in this area.

I would go beyond that and say that, frankly, this is mistaken in terms of position, timing and effect. To draw a moral equivalence between the Hamas leadership and the democratically elected leader of Israel is just plain wrong. It is not just Britain saying that; countries all over Europe and the world are saying that.

On timing, I point out to your Lordships’ House that the ICC was about to embark on a visit to Israel, which some of us had helped to arrange, and at the last minute decided to cancel that visit and simply go ahead with its announcement. It is not normally for the ICC to think about the effect, but as it clearly thought about the timing, maybe it should also think about the effect. As I have said, it will not help get the hostages out, and it probably makes change in Israel less likely.

I am very pleased with what my noble friend has just said. Does he also agree that if we and the rest of the West were to suspend arms sales, it would allow Hamas to regroup and return to the destructive and ghastly behaviour we witnessed on 7 October?

I thank my noble friend for that question. Britain and America are obviously in completely different situations in terms of arms exports to Israel. Our exports are less than 1% of the total, so not a meaningful amount, whereas the United States is a far bigger provider. As I said, I think acting outside our proper processes and guidelines —we have a process of going through Israel’s commitment, capability and compliance with the rules laid out in our export criteria—would not be the right thing to, for the reasons I have given.

Does the Foreign Secretary recall that in the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, during which there were just over 2,000 Palestinian casualties, he agreed with us on these Benches? As Prime Minister, he decided to pause military equipment licences to Israel on the basis of a disproportionate response by the Israeli military. That was the normal procedure, which he has referred to. Do we take it now that his view is that the current Israeli military response is proportionate?

Will the Foreign Secretary reassure me that, notwithstanding any of his opinions about the ICC, we will honour every obligation that the United Kingdom has signed up to in the Rome statute? These are treaty obligations when it comes to those who would be arraigned by the ICC.

I will tell you why. Today is day 227 of the hostages still being in captivity, including British citizens. All of this relates to what happened on 7 October. There was no “7 October” in 2014, so we are in a different situation. Of course we respect the independence of the ICC, but just as we respect its independence, it should respect the independence of politicians in not suddenly losing their voice and all their opinions about these things. I have a very clear view about what has happened, and I have been happy to share it with your Lordships’ House.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord is supporting the independence of the ICC, which is vital, but I hope he can truly find his voice. The UK supported UN Security Council Resolution 2417, which states that

“unlawful denial of humanitarian access”

and the act of “wilfully impeding relief supply” should be condemned. The noble Lord said on the BBC that

“Israel has not had a clean bill of health”

on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. Does he accept that Israel is in breach of that resolution, and if he does, does he not think that is a breach of international humanitarian law?

The noble Lord is right: I absolutely did say, and I repeat, that we have far from given Israel a clean bill of health on this issue. Not enough has been done to get aid in. We have had some recent promises, which are encouraging, about 500 trucks a day, about the opening of Ashdod port, and about the new pier adjacent to the beach in Gaza. Some of those promises are being fulfilled: Ashdod is open, the pier is working, and aid is being delivered, including British aid. But some of the promises are not being kept, and no one has been tougher on the Israelis than me in direct call after call and message after message about having to meet their obligations.

We have not given them a clean bill of health, but there is a world of difference between that and issuing arrest warrants at the same time as you are doing so for Hamas, and drawing this moral equivalence. It is not just the UK that takes this view. The Germans have said that simultaneous applications for arrest warrants gives the false impression of an equation. The Americans have called it outrageous. The Italians have called it totally unacceptable. The Austrians have said:

“The fact however that the leader of the terrorist organisation Hamas whose declared goal is the extinction of the State of Israel is being mentioned at the same time as the democratically elected representatives of that very State is non comprehensible”.

The Czechs have said that it is appalling and completely unacceptable. I do not want to get too political in your Lordships’ House, but the odd man out, in many ways, is the party opposite, which seems to be saying that it supports the ICC in every way.

While fully supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and fully supporting its desire to degrade Hamas’ military capacity, would the Foreign Secretary not agree that there is a legitimate worry about the use from the very beginning of the campaign of these 2,000-pound bombs, which, in a very densely populated area, are so difficult to use in a way that is both discriminate and proportionate?

I agree that, while Israel has the right to defend itself, to try to deal with Hamas and to prevent 7 October happening again, it is important, as we have said throughout, that Israel complies with international humanitarian law as it does so.

Does my noble friend the Foreign Secretary share my concern that the continuing withholding of the now $430 million under the Israel-Norway Accord, which is largely from Palestinian tax revenues, fatally undermines the authority of the Palestinian National Authority? What more can he do to ensure that money gets to them, and quickly?

My noble friend is absolutely right. One of the most important things we can do in trying to bring this conflict to a conclusion is to work on the political measures that are going to be necessary to deal with these problems. One of them is to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which needs the money that Israel is holding back from it. We have pressed the Israelis about that again and again. I would still say to the Israelis that you cannot fight something with nothing. You may not think the Palestinian Authority is ideal; you may think that it fails in many respects; but you need to find a partner that is not Hamas that you can work with in Gaza on the West Bank, and that partner should be the new technocratic government run by the Palestinian Authority.