Israel and Gaza - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 11:49 am ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 March.

“Israel suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history on 7 October last year. The scenes that we saw on that day were appalling, and Hamas’s disregard for civilian welfare continues today, more than five months later. We remember all the time those who are still being held hostage and their families, and we call once again for their immediate release. However, we naturally remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the impact of the conflict on all Palestinian civilians. We have borne witness to death and displacement on a vast scale. More than 1.7 million people have had to leave their home, many on multiple occasions. We are deeply concerned about the growing risk of famine, exacerbated by the spread of disease, and, of course, about the terrible psychosocial impacts of the conflict, which will be felt for years to come.

We are totally committed to getting humanitarian aid to all those people in Gaza who desperately need it, doing so either ourselves or through UN agencies and British or other charities. We and our partners are pushing to get aid in through all feasible means, by land, sea and air. We have trebled our aid funding to the Occupied Palestinian Territories this year, providing just under £100 million, of which £70 million has been delivered as humanitarian assistance. On 13 March a further 150 tonnes of UK aid arrived in Gaza, including 840 family tents, 13,440 blankets, nearly 3,000 shelter kits and shelter fixing kits, 6,000 sleeping mats, and more than 3,000 dignity kits. A field hospital, provided through UK aid funding to UK-Med, arrived in Gaza from Manchester last Friday. This facility, staffed by UK and local medics, will be able to treat more than 100 patients a day. Along with Cyprus, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and others, Britain will help to deliver humanitarian aid by sea to a new temporary US military pier in Gaza via a maritime corridor from Cyprus.

We have made it clear, however, that air and sea deliveries cannot be a substitute for the delivery of aid through land routes. Only through those routes can the demand for the volume of aid that is now required be met. We continue to press Israel to open more land crossings for longer, and with fewer screening requirements. There is no doubt that land crossings are the most effective means of getting aid into Gaza, and Israel must do more. There is also no doubt that the best way to bring an end to the suffering is to agree an immediate humanitarian pause, and progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire without a return to destruction, fighting and loss of life. Reaching that outcome is the focus of all our diplomatic efforts right now, and a goal that is shared by our international partners. We urge all sides to seize the opportunity, and continue negotiations to reach an agreement as soon as possible”.

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 11:58, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, the Minister has told the House that the United Kingdom has stressed to the Israeli Government the importance of complying with the ICJ decision on provisional measures, making the point that it is central to the issue of humanitarian aid. Both the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also stressed the importance of UNRWA in distributing aid, so why have we not accepted the recommendation of the OIOS inquiry’s interim report to recommence payments to ensure that the aid, which is increasing, is properly distributed? What are we doing to speed up the broader review of UNRWA’s activities and neutrality by Catherine Colonna? It would be good to hear that we are actively engaged in that, to ensure that we can get into Gaza the aid that is so desperately needed.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I say that, following the 7 October attacks, we were all shocked and appalled by the allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in those attacks. Like many other countries—the US, Germany, Italy, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands—we suspended funding. However, the noble Lord is right to raise the importance of the reports. We have spoken repeatedly—as has my noble friend—about the important role that UNRWA has played in providing aid and services. We have continued our support through other agencies, and the Foreign Secretary and I have been advocating very strongly for the opening up of new land access points to Gaza, which is showing progress. For example, we saw 185 trucks get through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

On the two reports, I can assure the noble Lord that the UK is fully engaged, primarily through our excellent ambassador at the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward. There is a briefing for UN Security Council Permanent Representatives on the interim findings of Catherine Colonna’s report at 8.30 New York time today. We are following this very closely, but there are important measures and mitigations that need to be put in place. While we recognise the important role of UNRWA, we must ensure that any resumption of new funding to UNRWA from the United Kingdom is based on those mitigations being in place.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister is aware that I asked the Foreign Secretary last week about concerns over potential breaches of international humanitarian law. The Department for Business and Trade instigated a change of circumstances review for export licences for military equipment in December, and the significance of the concerns has only grown since then. Can the Minister confirm that this is probably the appropriate time for that review to err on the side of caution and for the UK to follow Canada in pausing the export licences for military equipment to the Government of Israel?

Secondly, given the concerns about two of the Ministers within the Netanyahu coalition—Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, against whom these Benches have called for actions to be taken—can the Minister update the House on discussions between the UK Government and the Israeli Government on a free trade agreement? Does he agree that it is probably not appropriate to continue discussions about a free trade agreement with those two Ministers at this time?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord will be fully aware that, as the Minister responsible, I called out the statements made by the two Ministers he named as inflammatory and not reflective of a majority of progressively minded and right-minded people and citizens of Israel across all communities who do not adhere to the statements made by those Ministers; we have rejected those words. The more substantive issue of IHL is important; we regularly review our assessment and we have previously assessed that Israel is complying with IHL. The noble Lord will have heard the words of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary about the importance of this and, while we will not give a running commentary, we have to go through specific processes in this regard, and I assure him that we are seized of this.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the support that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Government have given to the families of the hostages in Gaza. Will he please reconfirm that the Government are doing all they can to release these unfortunate people? Can he also make special efforts to try to secure the release of the remains of those hostages who have died in Gaza so that their families can give them a decent burial?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord both those assurances. This week my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to hostage families. I also met, for a second time, one of the mothers of the hostage families; he is not in his place, but I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Levy, for arranging that. It is important, and I assure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that this is a key priority. That is why we need the fighting to stop now so that we can get the hostages returned and aid in. To his point on remains, I remember a very poignant meeting, together with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, at which one of the relatives looked at me quite directly and said that irrespective of our faiths—I speak as a Muslim and she was of the Jewish faith—we all recognise the importance of closure, and we need to bring closure to the families of those tragically killed.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, will my noble friend impress on his counterparts in the Israeli Government that, difficult though the two-state, or confederal, solution may be, it is by far the least bad of those that are available—not least because if the political aspirations of the Palestinian people are not met by such an approach, there will be no lasting peace?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I totally agree with my noble friend, and that is why we have impressed, and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, that a key component of the key deliverables for a sustainable peace is a political horizon towards the two-state solution, which includes—as the Saudi Foreign Minister rightly said—irreversible steps to that solution. There is a real willingness and recognition of the need—I know that many in your Lordships’ House who know the Palestinians and Israelis would agree—to ensure security, stability and peace between both peoples, and that can be delivered only through a viable two-state solution.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, I return to the funding of UNRWA. I found the Minister’s response to my noble friend Lord Collins a little disappointing, given the concern that he and the Foreign Secretary have justifiably expressed about the urgency of getting humanitarian aid into Gaza and distributing it. Is he aware of just how much experience and expertise UNRWA has in this—far greater than any other group he could name? There are UNRWA people on the ground who can do the distribution. Is he also aware that our allies, Canada, Spain and others, who suspended funding to UNRWA have now restored it? What is preventing the UK Government restoring it and consistently pushing policies that will do something about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we are fully seized of our engagement with UNRWA. I have spoken several times to Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA, as has the Development Minister, and we will continue to engage directly on the importance of mitigations, as I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I fully agree with the noble Baroness—I said it again today—about the important role that UNRWA has played; I have said from the Dispatch Box that it has been the backbone of the humanitarian operation in Gaza and continues to provide important support.

I will make two points, though. We have not suspended humanitarian support in Gaza: additional money, now more than £100 million, continues to flow in. We have delivered over land, and the noble Baroness will know that we have also delivered through air and maritime routes. But we have been pressing the Israeli Government, with a degree of success and through working with the World Food Programme, for example, to ensure that aid is delivered, and we are working with other key partners on that. The important thing, as the UN and the Secretary-General recognise, is that those concerns, raised by the United Kingdom and others, allow UNRWA to move forward in a progressive way, with those important mitigations in place so that this chapter cannot be repeated.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister helpfully referred to the report being made to the Security Council today by the Secretary-General’s representative, Catherine Colonna. Will he share the report with Members of the House, perhaps in writing, when it becomes available to him? Given the imminence of the Easter Recess, will he tell the House before we go into recess what the Government’s response to that report is?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As the noble Lord will know from his own time as an ambassador to the UN, the report being shared today is an interim report by the former Foreign Minister of France, Catherine Colonna. It is a UN product. Ultimately, as she has said, it is a report to the Secretary-General, and how its details are shared and briefed will be a matter for the Secretary-General.