21 February 2024
Ceasefire in Gaza

Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, speaks on behalf of the Government in the Opposition Day debate on a ceasefire in Gaza.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

This has already been an extremely interesting debate. We heard from the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr Mitchell 

I will give way later, but I am not giving way for the moment.

The shadow Foreign Secretary spoke about the huge benefit of our speaking with one voice. The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) talked about there being more cohesion in the House than people currently think. The shadow Foreign Secretary talked about the importance of having some humility, because Members of Parliament are not in the room.

I emphasise that the Government are in the room. There was a call for the tone be lifted; the shadow Foreign Secretary said that we should “come together.” I submit that the right thing to do is to support the Government amendment. The Opposition have been supportive in the past, and the House’s speaking with one voice helped Britain’s argument, which he and I share, in the middle east.

Subject to your advice, Mr Speaker, we will move our amendment, which I want to be sure that the House will consider seriously and in the tone that the shadow Foreign Secretary called for. Our amendment states that the House,

supports Israel’s right to self-defence, in compliance with international humanitarian law, against the terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas; condemns the slaughter, abuse and gender-based violence perpetrated on 7 October 2023; further condemns the use of civilian areas by Hamas and others for terrorist operations; urges negotiations to agree an immediate humanitarian pause as the best way to stop the fighting and to get aid in and hostages out; supports moves towards a permanent sustainable ceasefire; acknowledges that achieving this will require all hostages to be released, the formation of a new Palestinian Government, Hamas to be unable to launch further attacks and to be no longer in charge in Gaza, and a credible pathway to a two-state solution which delivers peace, security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians; expresses concern at the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and at the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah; reaffirms the urgent need to significantly scale up the flow of aid into Gaza, where too many innocent civilians have died; and calls on all parties to take immediate steps to stop the fighting and ensure unhindered humanitarian access.”

I submit that that carefully crafted amendment ought to carry the vast number of right hon. and hon. Members with the Government as we seek, in this incredibly difficult situation, to forge a common path and a common purpose.

Pete Wishart 

Will the Minister give way?

Mr Mitchell 

I will do so, but not yet.

This morning I returned from Qatar, as part of the British Government’s collective efforts to make progress on key objectives. I must apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House, because I will need to be absent for part of the debate, as it now extends to 7 o’clock, to engage in other ministerial duties. We all want an end to the fighting as soon as possible, but we must also recognise and understand that a ceasefire will not last if hostages are still being held, and if Hamas still rain down rockets on Israel and maintain control of Gaza with capabilities to carry out further terrorist atrocities. The immediate priority must be negotiating a humanitarian pause, because that will create a window to get more hostages out safely, to get considerably more aid in quickly, and to get further negotiations on a sustainable ceasefire going immediately.

Pete Wishart 


Mr Mitchell 

We want the pause to become a complete ceasefire without—I say this to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—a return to fighting. That is the focus of our diplomatic efforts as talk turns to a military offensive in Rafah, which has the potential for devastating consequences. I therefore welcome the opportunity to reflect to the House on the latest developments. As the Prime Minister said to Prime Minister Netanyahu last week, we continue to support Israel’s right to defend its people against Hamas’ terror, but we are deeply concerned about the loss of civilian life in Gaza and the worsening humanitarian crisis.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Mitchell 

I will in a moment. Let me also reflect on the terrible impact of this conflict. On 7 October, Israel suffered the worst terror attack in its history at the hands of Hamas. More than 1,200 Israelis were reported killed, and more than 5,000 Israelis were reported injured. Even now, more than 130 hostages are still thought to be held by Hamas in Gaza. Last week saw the first hostage rescue since late October, with two hostages returned to their family. We continue to call for the immediate release of all hostages, including British nationals and their families. We are using all diplomatic channels to push for that, working with partners across the region. Meanwhile, we have helped more than 300 British nationals to leave Gaza. The devastating humanitarian crisis is worsening daily, with hunger and disease spreading. According to latest reports, more than 29,000 people have been killed, 69,000 injured, and 1.7 million people have been displaced. We want Israel to take greater care to limit its operations to military targets and avoid harming civilians and destroying homes.

Sir Edward Leigh 

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 2 January and received a reply from one of his junior Ministers in the House of Lords about the plight of the 650 Christians held in the Holy Family church, who are innocent hostages of this appalling situation. I asked the Foreign Secretary if we could give those people asylum as they are clearly in the cross-fire. I received a frankly disingenuous reply saying that the Government would “seek respite” for those people. That means nothing. Are we prepared to offer asylum to those people and get them out?

Mr Mitchell 

My right hon. Friend will know that this is a difficult area that involves other Departments. I will ensure that he gets an update on that issue from the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) when she winds up the debate.

Mr Perkins 

The Minister has just laid out the Government’s position, and the difference between that and the Labour amendment may not be immediately clear to those watching. The Labour amendment calls for an immediate ceasefire, and the Government’s calls for a “pause”, which by definition means that the war is not over but there is a pause in it. The Labour amendment calls for the introduction of a Palestinian state, and is in line with the position of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It opposes the action in Rafah, whereas the Government only have “concern” about it. Will the Minister explain, given those four differences, what he thinks is wrong with what Labour is saying in our amendment?

Mr Mitchell 

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s recognition that the amendments tabled by the Government and the official Opposition are close. It is a great pity that it is not possible for the official Opposition to support the Government amendment, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that when he comes to decide how to vote. I will come directly to the other points he mentioned, if he will allow me to do so.

As I have said, we are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah, where over half of Gaza’s population are sheltering, including more than 600,000 children. Those are people who have fled repeatedly since the conflict began, and as the Foreign Secretary has said, it is impossible to see how a war can be fought among them. There is nowhere for them to go. They cannot go south into Egypt, and they cannot go north because many of their homes have been destroyed. Hamas, of course, displays the utmost cynicism in lurking among civilians, sacrificing innocent lives in the name of their fanaticism, and we condemn that utterly. But we must also recognise the result of that cynicism: Israeli soldiers will only be able to reach hostages or the Hamas leadership at an incredible cost to innocent lives. We share Israel’s desire to end the threat from Hamas, and ensure that it no longer exerts control over Gaza, but the UK and our partners say that Israel must reflect on whether such a military operation is wise or is counterproductive to its long-term interests and the achievement of the goals that the international community has set out, before it takes any further action.

Britain and our partners are doing all we can to help those suffering. We have trebled our assistance, and we are pressing to get it into Gaza by all available routes—land, sea, air, trucks of aid rolling in from Jordan, and ships loaded with supplies sailing from Cyprus—all while striving to get more crossings open. As I mentioned, last week I was in Qatar, where we discussed the need to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza. I am pleased to say that a joint UK-Qatar aid consignment arrived in Rafah last week, including tents to shelter families in desperate need. Our partnership on that consignment prefigured our new $50 million global humanitarian and development co-funding initiative, which I unveiled with Qatari Minister Al-Khater last weekend. The Rafah crossing is vital to ensure aid can reach the people who so desperately need it. Britain has continually underlined the need for Israel to ease restrictions on humanitarian supplies and to ensure that the UN and aid agencies can reach civilians in need throughout Gaza.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)


Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)


Colum Eastwood 


Mr Mitchell 

I will give way in a moment to the right hon. Member for Islington North. Let me also reiterate that Israel must obey international humanitarian law in the way it prosecutes the war and in ensuring that food, water and shelter are available to Gazans. It must also take all possible measures to ensure the safety of medical personnel and facilities. The British Government have repeated that point in all our engagements with Israeli counterparts and partners, including during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Israel on 24 January, and with regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

Jeremy Corbyn 

People poured cold water on the South African submission to the International Court of Justice before it was placed. Could the Minister now give a response from the Government to the interim decisions made by the International Court of Justice—the world court—which effectively called for an immediate unilateral halt to the hostilities by Israel against the people of Gaza? Surely, if the Government believe in the rule of international law, they should respect the International Court of Justice.

Mr Mitchell 

I have previously in the House set out to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government respect the International Court of Justice. We made it clear that we thought it was a mistake for South Africa to launch that case when it did, and the view of the British Government has not changed since I last told him it.

The most effective way now to alleviate the suffering is an immediate pause in fighting to get aid in and hostages out. That is the best route to make progress towards a future for Gaza freed from rule by Hamas. Britain has set out the vital elements to turn a pause into a sustainable ceasefire without a return to fighting—that is one of the key points that the shadow Foreign Secretary made—and perhaps create the political space for a lasting peace. We can only turn to that if there is first a break in the fighting.

Layla Moran 

Anything that creates an advance is good, and I welcome the Government move. I am afraid that I cannot support their motion in not calling for an immediate ceasefire, because it does not capture the urgency. I welcome the Government’s sanctioning of the four extremist violent settlers, because there is a link between what is happening in the west bank in the settlements, the political views of the ultra-right-wing in Netanyahu’s Government, especially Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and the protestations of Netanyahu that he does not want a Palestinian state on ’67 borders. He has been clear about that, and when we put all that together, it in part explains why the assault on Rafah and the rest of Gaza is happening as it is. Will the Minister tell the House a bit more about those sanctions, because they are working? Also, what have the Government said to Netanyahu about a future Palestinian state, because it is a necessary precondition for any kind of truce, ceasefire or whatever we want to call it?

Mr Mitchell 

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, as she knows, but on her last point, she may rest assured that the Foreign Secretary, who knows Prime Minister Netanyahu well, and the Prime Minister specifically in a conversation last week have been clear on the importance of that. I hope she will consider that tonight when she decides how she will vote on the various amendments.

Sir Charles Walker 

As my right hon. Friend said, and I think the shadow Foreign Secretary said, we are in the business of politics. If my right hon. Friend entered into negotiations this week with the Israeli Government, would we have more chance of persuading them to an immediate ceasefire or more chance of persuading them to the cause of a humanitarian pause?

Mr Mitchell 

My hon. Friend makes his point extremely clearly.

Rehman Chishti 

Looking at the specific wording of the Government amendment, it mentions

“a credible pathway to a two-state solution which delivers peace”.

With regard to that specific point and the point made earlier, where is the United Kingdom on the recognition of a Palestinian state? I saw comments by the Foreign Secretary recently on that. For a two-state solution to be achieved, the Government need to set out what they consider a Palestinian state to look like. Is it based on ’67 borders and a motion that we, the United Kingdom, drafted and asked others to support? Looking at Ukraine, around the world people say, “If you want us to support you on international law, you have to be consistent in your approach.”

Mr Mitchell 

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is important not to go too fast and imperil the objective we seek, and I point him to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I am coming directly to that point.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Mitchell 

I will give way in a minute; I have been generous in giving way.

We have set out the vital steps for achieving the pause we wish to see. All hostages must be released and a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza formed, accompanied by an international support package. Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel must be removed, and they must no longer be in charge in Gaza. Finally, there must be a political horizon, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) mentioned, that provides a credible and irreversible pathway to a two-state solution. The resolution put forward in the Security Council yesterday did not achieve those outcomes. Simply calling for a ceasefire, as that resolution did, will not make it happen. Indeed, as it could endanger the hostage negotiations, it could make a ceasefire less likely.

The way to stop the fighting and then to potentially stop it from restarting is to begin with a pause to get hostages out and aid in. That is what we are calling for, and it could end the fighting now.

We have also taken further steps to hold those to account who undermined the steps to peace in the west bank. Last week, the British Government announced new sanctions against four extremist Israeli settlers who have violently attacked Palestinians in the west bank.

Our long-standing position is that we will recognise a Palestinian state at a time that is most conducive to the peace process, and I submit to the House that that must be the right answer. We must give the people of the west bank and Gaza the political perspective of a credible route to a Palestinian state and a new future, and it needs to be irreversible. Likewise, we must give the people of Israel certainty of security. That does not just come down to us, but we can help. Crucially, we have made it clear that the formal recognition of a Palestinian state cannot come at the start of the process, but it does not have to be at the very end of the process either.

Jim McMahon 

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for rewarding my perseverance by giving way—I appreciate that. This has been a highly charged debate, both in the House and among the general public. People are rightly angry. Part of the anger is born from a real sense of frustration that this Parliament and this Government do not give the same value to the life of a Palestinian child as they do to the life of an Israeli child. Whether we accept that or not, it is a strongly held belief. We know that 600,000 children are at risk if the Rafah ground offensive begins. No ifs and no buts—will the Minister say from the Dispatch Box that the Government do not support that action?

Mr Mitchell 

I have set out the Government’s position extremely clearly. I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman is making. There are strong feelings across the House on this matter. The point that I am trying to make in this speech, and that has been made by a number of Members, is that there is an awful lot in the Government’s amendment that most people in the House can agree with and support.

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con)

My right hon. Friend said that the Foreign Secretary has asked Israel to think again about any further military offensive or incursion into Rafah. I think we would all urge Israel to think carefully about how that would be conducted. However, does he agree that our support for Israel on 7 October, when we said it should be able to eradicate Hamas, was clear, and that there is a danger that our emerging position—certainly that of other parties—would leave Hamas’s terrorist organisation partially intact? That is an intolerable situation for Israel: it would send a clear message that using human shields works and that we will not allow Israel to fully defend itself. How would he answer that question?

Mr Mitchell 

I think that I have answered it, because I have made clear the Government’s position in respect of Hamas and Hamas’s future. If my right hon. Friend reads the record and the Government amendment with care tonight, I think he will see that the key point he is making is one that informs the Government’s view.

Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)

Has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with the Israeli Government about how, if the hostages were released by Hamas, Israel would withdraw and the peace process could start moving forward?

Mr Mitchell 

I am sure the House will understand that I cannot comment in any detail at all about the ongoing hostage negotiations, but I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that Britain is right at the front of trying to ensure that the negotiations are successful.

Let me end by recognising that there will be a huge amount to do in the days after a pause. It will be a starting point on the road to peace, not the final destination. Nevertheless, it is critical that all parties give the process the best odds of succeeding. That means first securing a pause in the fighting, which then progresses to a sustainable ceasefire and—we all hope—a lasting peace. I urge all Members of the House to look carefully at the Government’s amendment tonight before deciding how to vote—if you, Mr Speaker, put it to a vote.