Gaza: Humanitarian Situation - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:13 pm ar 8 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:13, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, for initiating this vital, timely and extremely important debate, and all noble Lords for their insightful contributions. The debate has been sombre in tone, and emotions are high. Equally, the quality of those 60-second contributions has shown the insight that your Lordships’ House provides.

I was very touched by and agree with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I thank him for his insights, and thank many others across the House for providing me, as a Minister at this most challenging time, with their own valuable experience and insights into the British Government’s position. I share in his call for our common humanity. As a Muslim, I am reminded of the verse of the Holy Koran which says: “That person who saves the life of a single soul is akin to the person saving all humanity. That person who takes the life of an innocent soul is akin to the person taking the life of all humanity”. For those who claim to act in religion, as Hamas does, we must look at the fundamentals. Not just the Muslim world but any like-minded thinking person with humanity at their core should reject its activities outright.

I thank all noble Lords for the poise and detail they have provided. My noble friend Lord Frost was correct. He mentioned the article about other countries. I remember watching a hockey match at my son’s school when the Israeli ambassador called me, as those events unfolded. The United Kingdom’s friendship with Israel means that we have been able to make representations at the highest level.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Mitchell, reminded us of what started this crisis. Four months since Hamas carried out the worst terror attack in Israel’s history, Hamas continues to hold more than 130 hostages. I noted what my dear noble friend Lord Pickles said about the hostages; I echo his call. I met with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister once again some of the hostages’ families. I know all noble Lords across the House share their call for peace and security, but more importantly the return of their loved ones.

As we look across the situation in the Middle East, in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, it is clear that ordinary people are suffering. Palestinian civilians are facing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis; indeed, it is unfolding before our very eyes. In relation to the diplomatic engagements that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, I know my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has visited 12 countries in the last seven weeks. I have been with him on some of those visits; I was at the UN and have just returned from the UAE, and I am embarking again on a visit to the region very shortly. This underlines the focus and priorities, and I thank my noble friend Lady Warsi for recognising that we are trying to ensure that our diplomatic energies are fully focused.

The number of people killed in Gaza runs, as we have heard, into their thousands. It is a real recognition that the people suffer most, as was referred to by several noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, pointed out that it is often women and children—the tragedy in Gaza is no different.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, asked about Britain’s position on Gaza. We remain focused and have been consistently clear; I have made a Statement to that effect, about the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Gaza. Yes, Israel is a state, and it has obligations in this respect, and we make that point consistently. Indeed, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary did so on his recent visit to Israel, where he met the Prime Minister and a number of people within the Israeli war cabinet.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Hussain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, rightly raised the issue of UNRWA. Let me be very clear: it was not from Israel—the first call I received when I was here in the debate on Ukraine was from the head of UNRWA himself, telling me that the organisation had received the report and taken actions. Noble Lords asked about the suspension of funding; of course, we want to ensure any resumption of funding is based on the satisfaction that such individuals cannot be employed by UNRWA again. It damages not just the organisation but the UN as a whole, and that is why the Secretary-General has initiated this review. We are working closely with the United Nations in thisrespect.

In addition to the rising death toll, there are of course many injured people, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, reminded us. An estimated 1.7 million people are now internally displaced; more than 1 million people—over half of Gaza’s population—are packed into the southern region of Rafah, which previously had a population of just 280,000. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme has stated that nine out of 10 people in Gaza may be living on less than one meal a day, and only 14 of 36 hospitals are partially functioning, without enough medicines or specialised staff, with many working to 300% of their capacity. The UN reports that since 11 October, the Gaza Strip has been under an electricity blackout after the Israeli authorities cut off the supply, and fuel reserves for Gaza’s sole power plant were depleted. Let me assure all noble Lords that of course we raise these issues directly with Israel and ask them to turn back on the water supplies and the electricity so that vital hospitals and humanitarian efforts can be supported.

My noble friend Lord Roberts talked of Israel and the proportionality and numbers, but I think he would also agree that we are seeing is the loss of life. Irrespective of where we stand on this conflict, the loss of any innocent life is something we should collectively condemn.

The communications and industrial fuel shutdown continues to hinder the aid community’s efforts—I pay tribute to them—to assess the full extent of needs in Gaza. Of course, once this war comes to an end, assessments will be made. The Foreign Secretary and I have met a number of medics; the point was raised—I know that Action Against Hunger joins us today in this debate. However, equally important is ensuring that we get first-hand accounts of what is needed, by whom. Widespread destruction of roads and other infrastructure further hampers their ability to respond to the deepening humanitarian crisis.

There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support; we recognise that. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are focusing on practical solutions to save lives. We have trebled our aid commitments, so I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, that we have abandoned the Palestinians—far from it. We have trebled our aid commitment this financial year and continue to support further uplift on humanitarian response, up to £60 million.

During our visit in December to al-Arish in Egypt, the Foreign Secretary and I met representatives from the Egyptian Red Crescent Society who are co-ordinating the relief effort. As a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Warsi, mentioned, there is a backlog, there are checks and there are rejections of goods which should not be rejected. We heard how shelter blankets and other vital equipment provided by the UK have been giving much-needed relief to the people of Gaza. However, we also equally heard, if not to a greater extent, about how many constraints the humanitarian operation faces. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich reminded us of the vital support, as did my noble friend Lady Helic, and I thank her for her active engagement, along with others. We are looking at issues of hospitals; we are also looking at key partners. There are projects, and the one she mentioned is being looked at actively, but in my conversations in the UAE recently, we also asked in its field hospitals how the UK could assist in the supply of medics.

The Foreign Secretary discussed directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 24 January the urgency of getting significantly more aid into Gaza to alleviate the desperate situation there. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and others, that he reiterated the need for Israel to open more crossing points into Gaza, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and for Nitzana and Kerem Shalom. Indeed, the UK was the first country to advocate for the re-opening of Kerem Shalom, for it to be open for longer, and for Israel to support the efforts to distribute and effectively get aid across the whole of Gaza.

My noble friend also announced work with Qatar. Again, we had the Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister in London this week, who has been involved in the hostage negotiations. I met him yesterday. We are working with Qatar to get joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of tents, which were flown into Gaza last Thursday. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to support the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. Again, the Foreign Secretary and I have visited that very spot. Some 750 tonnes of lifesaving food and aid arrived in the first delivery in December, and there have been a number of further deliveries since. Noble Lords may also recall that RFALyme Bay” delivered 87 tonnes into Port Said.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol reflected on the terrible suffering. I agree, and that is why we have asked the Israelis again to protect civilian lives. Many Israelis understand, and their Government understand in certain respects, the importance of the international requirement—not just to comply with international humanitarian law—which means that aid and humanitarian support get into Gaza.

In addition to the Foreign Secretary’s Representative for Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, along with Ministers, we are all working intensively to address the blockages preventing more aid getting into Gaza. I assure my noble friend Lord Polak, we have been very clear on those who have taken and seek to divert aid: we will prevent that from happening as best as we can, but Israel must also take steps, working with partners—particularly Egypt—to significantly influence the flow of trade.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, that we too want to see the end of fighting. We have called for an immediate pause now to get more aid in and hostages out. We want to turn this pause into a specific, sustainable and permanent ceasefire. That means no return to fighting. The Foreign Secretary was in the region last week to do exactly that.

To conclude, my noble friend Lord Leigh, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick, Lord Austin and Lord Young, among others, all talked about what comes next. First and foremost, as my noble friend Lord Pickles said, there must be the release of all hostages held in Gaza. Equally, that means removing Hamas’s capacity to launch rockets against Israel, as it has done before; it means Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza, and the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the West Bank and Gaza, accompanied by an international, comprehensive support package. We also need a political horizon, which is incredibly important and which my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has homed in on, that provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution.

We need genuine momentum towards permanent peace. That is why we are pressing for a contact group; my noble friend the Foreign Secretary will do so at the Munich conference. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, as ever, reminded us of the organisations he will bring with him; I will be pleased to meet them, as I am sure will other noble Lords. Alongside this peace plan, the international community will also need to make a massive effort to deliver security and peace for the people of the region.

Finally, I thank noble Lords once again for their very thoughtful contributions to this very short but important debate. I know that emotions are high and there are differing perspectives, but I very much value the insights provided. I am reminded of my most favourite poem, “If” by Kipling, in which he said:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.

We have seen that today.