Israel and Gaza - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 4:11 pm ar 19 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:11, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, as an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place today, my colleague there gave the following response:

“The whole House will be gravely concerned about the desperate situation in Gaza. It cannot continue and we are deploying all our diplomatic resources, including at the United Nations, to help find a viable solution.

The scale of civilian deaths and displacement in Gaza is shocking. I was particularly disturbed to hear about the situation of civilians trapped in the Holy Family Church complex in Gaza City, the lack of water and food, and reports of sniper fire causing civilian deaths inside the complex. Although Israel has the right to defend itself against terror, restore its security and bring the hostages home, it must abide by international law and take all possible measures to protect civilians.

No one wants to see this conflict go on a moment longer than necessary; we recognise the sheer scale of the suffering and are appalled at the impacts on civilians. What we urgently need are more humanitarian pauses to get all the hostages out and life-saving aid in. We welcome the recent opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing to help achieve this, but it is not enough. Our immediate priorities are to secure the release of British hostages, to show solidarity with Israel in defending itself against Hamas while complying with international humanitarian law, and to call for such pauses—both at the UN and directly with Israel—to ensure that emergency aid can be distributed in Gaza, including fuel, water and medicine.

The Foreign Secretary will discuss the situation in Gaza with regional leaders this week in his visit to Egypt and Jordan. The Government have recently announced an extra £30 million of British aid, tripling the UK’s aid budget for the Occupied Palestinian Territories this financial year. To date, we have delivered 74 tonnes of aid, but there is still more to do: casualty numbers are far too high and we are calling on Hamas to release each and every kidnapped hostage. We are also actively exploring other routes for aid into Gaza, including maritime options.

Of course, as both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said, ultimately this must end. We of course want to see an end to the fighting, but this must be a sustainable ceasefire, meaning that Hamas must stop launching rockets into Israel and release the hostages. Over 130 hostages are still unaccounted for. They must be released immediately and returned to their families. To achieve long-term peace in the Middle East, a viable two-state solution is needed. Leaving Hamas in power in Gaza would be a permanent roadblock on the path to this. No one can be expected to live along- side a terrorist organisation committed to its destruction and dedicated to repeating those attacks”.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe worsens in Gaza, it is vital that the United Kingdom helps to build the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire—and that includes our work on the United Nations Security Council. I know that Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, have been working hard to find a text which can be agreed on that can lead to a cessation of violence and the release of hostages. While the outcome of the Security Council deliberations will not be known until later today, the mobilising of humanitarian support must be stepped up. Andrew Mitchell said in the other place that we will increase support for UNRWA directly into Gaza which, he said, now has US backing. Can the Minister give us more details of this and of how we are working with all UN agencies to get aid into Gaza?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord. He is right that things are at a crucial stage at the Security Council. We are expecting a vote at approximately 5 pm our time and are working really hard to make sure that we have a text that can be agreed on. It is involving all the diplomatic skills we have at hand. We will make sure that we keep the House informed on the progress of that and will explain the text we have achieved.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to raise humanitarian support. Some £10 million to support Palestinian refugees has been committed at the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. In addition, £150 million has been committed to support vulnerable Syrians and £70 million has been contributed to the UNHCR. A whole range of different schemes have been adopted in the region, but we have tripled our particular support to those in Gaza to make sure that we are supporting them. The humanitarian aid we want to see delivered has a number of potential routes in. One, which I mentioned earlier, was a maritime option, but that of course requires the agreement of both Israel and Hamas. We are also investigating a cross-land route via Jordan through Israel through to the Kerem Shalom crossing. These are complicated issues to negotiate, and we will continue to keep the House informed on our progress.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, we seem to be facing something of a moving target. When the Minister of State made the response in another place, the suggestion was that the UN vote was expected at 3 pm our time. My honourable friend Layla Moran, in asking her supplementary in the other place, noted that the Government

“talk now of a sustainable ceasefire”,

and asked whether they will demand “an immediate bilateral ceasefire”. It is not clear that the Minister of State in the other place gave a direct answer to that, so I wonder whether the Minister is able to do so and whether he can tell us whether the naval support being sent will be able to support ships getting through the Red Sea and keep trade lines open as well.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am mindful that the noble Baroness’s friend in the other place has family in the Holy Family church in Gaza. We are very keen to make sure that we are supporting both getting aid to people like that but also to make sure that we are holding Israel to the very clear statement of President Herzog, who said that:

The State of Israel and the IDF continue to act in a humanitarian manner and in accordance with international law”.

The eyes of the world are on this. We were all appalled by what happened on 7 October; Many Members of this House have seen the footage of those terrible attacks, and absolutely accept the right of Israel to defend itself. But we want to get aid in and make sure that Israel is operating in accordance with humanitarian law. The sustainable ceasefire that we are talking about, which my colleague the Foreign Secretary and his opposite number in Germany have put together, is about stopping the launching of rockets, releasing the hostages, and moving to that key two-state solution. That is what “sustainable” means in this context.

Photo of Lord Swire Lord Swire Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I declare an interest as a past chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, and ask my noble friend for clarification. The Permanent Representative to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, suggested that the reason the UK abstained at the recent vote in New York was because the Motion did not condemn Hamas. Can the Minister be very clear—had it condemned Hamas, would the United Kingdom have actually voted for the resolution? Secondly, when you have the spokesman for the Israeli Government, the Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, ruling out ever having a two-state solution, do we not need to finally admit that the two-state solution is over, and we need to be a little more creative and forward-leaning in working out where we go from here?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I hope that we are being as creative, forward-leaning and dextrous in our diplomacy. Our permanent representative to the UN is working on the text which, we believe, must make some reference to the atrocity of 7 October but also—it is possible to hold two thoughts in our head at the same time—we want to make sure that aid is getting in and that we have a political solution. We know that this conflict cannot continue, and certainly not in its current form, and we want to see an end to it.

Photo of Lord Austin of Dudley Lord Austin of Dudley Non-affiliated

My Lords, the reason civilians in Gaza are at risk is because Hamas hides its weapons in densely packed residential areas and in hospitals and schools. What the atrocities on 7 October show, which Hamas has promised to repeat, is that there is no prospect of the peace process we all want to see with Islamist terrorists committed not just to killing every Israeli but to the murder of Jews worldwide. This is why the UK Government should be doing all they can to support Israel’s campaign to deal with Hamas and free the hostages.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, that is what we are seeking to do. The reports of weapons being found in child incubators in hospitals are appalling, if true. They should be condemned by everybody, and we should be working to secure a lasting peace in this area. I understand the noble Lord’s frustration; in order for this to happen we have to get both sides to move, and we are trying to use all the diplomatic levers at our disposal to achieve that.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Bishop

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments so far. I want to raise two specific incidents with His Majesty’s Government that are of particular concern to these Benches.

News arrived overnight of the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in destroying the entrance wall of the Anglican Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, closing that facility, detaining most of its staff and leaving a tank on the rubble. The second incident relates to comments made by the deputy mayor of Jerusalem on LBC radio this morning, where she was questioned about a sniper attack on two Christian women in the compound of the Holy Family Church. She said that there were no Christians or churches in Gaza and that they have been “driven out by Hamas”. There remains a small, yet highly visible, Christian community in Gaza, which is very notably engaged in the provision of Gaza’s healthcare facilities.

While I recognise the right of Israel to pursue its legitimate military objectives, I ask the Minister to ensure that His Majesty’s Government make clear to the Government of Israel that the targeting of religious buildings, their people and the healthcare facilities they provide to the community is unacceptable, and that the Church in this country expects the prompt release of medical staff detained from the Al-Ahli hospital.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I do not have time to go into the details of the two incidents that the right reverend Prelate raises, but our information is that there were no Hamas fighters in or around the Holy Family compound and that the people who work and live there are nuns and other employees, or people who work with them. We want to make sure that they are protected and given all the protection one has a right to require for such people in a conflict situation.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, may I press my noble friend on the possibility of delivering humanitarian aid through maritime routes? Will he also look at the conflict in the Red Sea that is now impacting on our own merchant shipping?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

RFALyme Bay” is off Cyprus, ready to go, and will require, as I said, the agreement of both sides in the conflict for it to make a maritime landing of aid—I cannot say more on that.

On the other question, which I think I did not answer the noble Baroness about, relating to the situation in the Red Sea, we are working with our allies. The United States Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, has put together a plan, which we are part of, to ensure that international shipping will continue to be able to head through the Strait of Hormuz. It is an absolutely vital seaway for the security of the region and for the trade routes throughout the world, and we are treating that as an absolute priority.