Gaza: Humanitarian Situation - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 4:00 pm ar 17 Ebrill 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) 4:00, 17 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, with the House’s indulgence, I will begin with a personal reflection. I have just heard the tragic news of the passing of Lord Rosser. Richard was well known to me; indeed, he was my oppo when I was a Transport Minister. He was always precise, courteous and forensic in his examination. He will be missed by us all.

I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister for the Americas, Caribbean and the Overseas Territories in the other place on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The Statement is as follows:

“Earlier this month, we passed a grim milestone: six months since Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack on Israel. The United Kingdom Government have been working with partners across the region to secure the release of hostages.

Palestinian civilians have spent these months suffering, with conditions worsening by the day. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. The Iran attack and our support for Israel have not changed our focus on ensuring that Israel meets its commitments to enable at least 500 aid trucks a day to enter Gaza; to open Ashdod port for aid deliveries; to expand the Jordan land corridor to at least 100 trucks a day; to open a crossing into northern Gaza; and to extend opening hours at Kerem Shalom and Nitzana. We are pushing as hard as we can to get aid to Palestinian civilians. As this House knows, we have been urging Israel at the highest levels to take immediate action on the bottlenecks holding up humanitarian relief. We have recently seen a small increase in the number of aid trucks being allowed to enter Gaza, but not all of them are full, and numbers are not yet close to reaching the levels required given the severity of the humanitarian situation we now see.

We will continue to press Israel to take immediate action to open Ashdod fully for humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, we recently announced new support for a life-saving aid corridor by sea to Gaza, including the deployment of a Royal Navy ship, which has now arrived in the Mediterranean and is ready to integrate with the US pier and provide a command and control platform.

We are also committing up to £9.7 million for aid deliveries through that corridor, as well as providing logistical expertise and equipment. In recent weeks, the Royal Air Force has conducted seven air drops along the Gazan coast, delivering more than 58 tonnes of food. The UK-Med field hospital, funded by the United Kingdom, is now up and running in Gaza and has already treated more than 8,000 people, a high proportion of them children. We need to see the operating environment in Gaza improve, so that more aid gets in and can be distributed quickly, safely and effectively. Israel must ensure that the UN has the access, equipment and staff that it needs to do that.

We were horrified by the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy, which killed seven aid workers, including three British nationals. Israel must do more to protect aid workers, including guaranteed deconfliction for aid convoys and other humanitarian work to ensure that they can operate safely. The findings of Israel’s investigation must be published in full, and followed up with a wholly independent review, to ensure the utmost transparency and accountability.

Six months on, however much we might wish otherwise, the fighting has not yet come to an end. We cannot not stand by. The Foreign Secretary is in the region, pressing again for further action”.

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 4:04, 17 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. What we heard this morning in the other place was a description of an incredibly dire situation. Famine is imminent, and perhaps even taking place now.

Sarah Champion, the IDC chair, reminded us this morning that her committee published a report in early March, asking for the Government to push for 500 trucks a day, but the weekly average is just over 1,100. Will the Foreign Secretary, while he is speaking to the Israeli Government today, ensure and demand that they abide by international humanitarian law?

The Minister also said that before resuming funding for UNRWA, the main vehicle for delivering aid, that we will be awaiting the final report of Catherine Colonna, yet we are the only major donor—apart from the US—not to resume funding. Can the Minister explain why? Surely we should be following our allies in terms of delivering aid?

The final point is that the Minister in the other place was asked exactly what the Foreign Secretary was going to demand in terms of avoiding a catastrophe if any action took place against Rafah. Can the Minister reassure us that we are making that clear to the Israeli Government?

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

My Lords, taking each question in turn but starting with the last one, yes, I assure the noble Lord that the issue of Rafah has been raised directly. The noble Lord will have seen the extensive engagement by my noble friend the Foreign Secretary in Israel. On his earlier point about Israel’s obligations and the need to open up more corridors and demand this, this has been something that we have consistently raised. We raised it on visits inwards as well. When Minister Gantz visited here, I joined that meeting, and I know my noble friend has raised these issues quite specifically, as have other Foreign Ministers.

On the issue of UNRWA support, we have always been clear, and indeed there is a statement today at the UN Security Council on UNRWA. We have been following the reports very closely. There have been some private briefings, including to our ambassador. The final report, as the noble Lord knows, is due on 20 April. He, like me, was appalled by the allegations which were made against UNRWA staff. It is important that we look at those allegations fully and ensure that they are being addressed and mitigations are in place. The report, I am sure, will also focus in on that. We remain very much committed to the humanitarian effort in Gaza, and that is reflected in the fact that our support in Gaza now stands at over £100 million.

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 starvation in conflict is expressly prohibited under customary international humanitarian law. Given the evidence that Samantha Power, the head of USAID, gave to Congress last week that famine is now setting in, this is a truly shocking revelation, especially in the context of the concerns of the Foreign Secretary that there are unnecessary blocks to food and supplies being brought into north Gaza in particular.

The Minister will also be aware of the concerns that defensive military equipment is being used to level civilian residential areas to render them uninhabitable in the future, which is also a breach of international law. Have His Majesty’s Government satisfied themselves that any equipment that the UK has supplied over the last number of years is not being used, either in the blockage of aid going into Gaza or indeed in the levelling of civilian areas? Does the Minister not agree that under the principle of proportionality, it would be right to pause export licences now until a full review has been carried out, so that we can satisfy ourselves that international humanitarian law is being adhered to?

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

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point, I am sure he has followed the Statements both in the other House and, importantly, of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, who has now reviewed the most recent advice about the situation in Gaza. Based on that, as the Foreign Secretary said, the UK position in regard to export licences is unchanged. We have robust checks and balances in place.

Of course, we are acutely seized of the situation in Gaza, particularly northern Gaza. That is why we are pressing for the opening up of the Erez crossing, and indeed other crossings to the north. There are other crossings that we are looking at, such as the Karni crossing, north of the Gaza wadi—the valley—to ensure that access also. That is where our priority is, and those are the exact messages which my noble friend has delivered directly to the Prime Minister and others in Israel today.

Photo of Baroness Fall Baroness Fall Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his work. I also thank the Foreign Secretary, who is in Israel today. Does the Minister not agree that the recent, very worrying escalation by Iran last weekend is likely, just at this moment, to deprioritise the aid and humanitarian issue? As other noble Lords have said, Gaza is on the verge of famine, if it is not already there. I urge the Minister to make sure that this issue is not deprioritised. What has happened to the temporary ceasefire negotiations, which seem to have broken down?

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

I assure my noble friend that, together with my noble friend the Foreign Secretary—whom my noble friend also knows very well—I will leave no stone unturned with vigour, rigour and passion to ensure that this happens. I speak for all noble Lords of whatever perspective. We want to ensure that we do our utmost to save the life of every single innocent civilian. We were all rightly seized with the shocking nature of what happened in Israel. Right now, we are focused on getting more aid in. This is the message that is being delivered, notwithstanding the awful nature of the Iranian attack. It is important that we look at that in the full mix of things and not lose sight of the humanitarian issue. We want to avert famine at all costs.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Llafur

My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s reference to the terrible event of 1 April when the humanitarian aid workers from World Central Kitchen were targeted by drones and killed. I know that an investigation by the IDF is taking place. I have also read that Australia is going to conduct an investigation because one of those killed was Australian. Three of those killed were British citizens: a man of 57, another of 47 and a young man in his 30s. They were all hugely experienced humanitarian aid workers. It is shocking to see that the loss of so many people working in this field is not getting the coverage it deserves. Are any steps being taken here in Britain to investigate this matter with the great military and legal expertise that we could apply? I understand that Poland is now considering having an inquiry for the Polish citizen who was killed. Should there not be unification and collaboration between the nations which have lost humanitarian aid workers in this series of strikes on their convoy? Should there not be a joint investigation?

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

I assure the noble Baroness that the WCK aid workers only intensified our concerns and momentum in addressing the humanitarian situation, particularly where aid workers in Gaza are putting themselves at risk. More than 200 aid workers have now been killed in this conflict. We need to ensure their protection. The IDF has completed its initial inquiry. There have been some consequences for those who were involved in the strike. As my noble friend is doing again today, we are not just reviewing it, we are asking for it to be followed up with a full, independent report on what happened. The noble Baroness has put forward a practical suggestion, which I will certainly take back. Co-ordination is good. Perhaps we can discuss this outside the Chamber to see how it can be progressed.

Photo of Lord Sterling of Plaistow Lord Sterling of Plaistow Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, it was announced about a week ago that the great container port of Ashdod is opening up. I know it extremely well. It is by far the biggest container port in the area. It can deliver 20 times more than any of the convoys. Most importantly, is the huge amount of goods that turns up getting through, as everybody wants to see? So much of it gets into the hands of Hamas.

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

My noble friend makes an important point about Ashdod. We are focused on this and, equally, on ensuring that the aid sent to Gaza reaches the victims and those who are suffering. They need it most.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, can the Minister say why there are no independent observers or journalists in Gaza, such as from the BBC, Sky News, CBS and CNN? I could go on—the list is very long. Do we not need those independent observers on the ground so that we can stop these constant contradictions about why aid convoys are being attacked and why aid is not reaching people? This is very distressing. At the end of the day, we have people suffering from famine, and we really cannot let this go on. We need to stop this toing and froing about who is responsible for it and just get on and do it.

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

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point about journalists and their protection. But equally, this is a conflict zone, and we need to ensure in a responsible manner that journalists, like aid workers, who we have just been talking about, are also protected. As the noble Baroness will know, many have lost their lives. We want to see objective reporting, and Israel has always prided itself on being a pluralist, open democracy. However, we are in a conflict zone. It is important that the protection of journalists is fully afforded, but we all welcome the openness of objective reporting, wherever it may be in the world.