Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, makes a statement to the House of Commons on the situation in Israel and Gaza.
With permission, I will update the House on the situation in Israel and Gaza.
Last week, my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the region as part of sustained British efforts to end the fighting and build towards a lasting solution. This statement will also cover the International Court of Justice’s decision on provisional measures, and the appalling allegations against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. As we debate these events, I know the whole House shares my horror at the heart-wrenching impact of this conflict.
One hundred and fourteen days on from Hamas’s barbaric attacks, they still hold more than 130 hostages. Innocent Palestinians are suffering, with over 25,000 people having died, and hunger and disease spreading. The Government’s end goal is clear: Israelis should be able to live without fear of Hamas terrorism, and Gazans should be able to rebuild their lives.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has led our engagement in the region and with partners to achieve that goal. Last week, he spoke to President Biden and met families of hostages, while my noble friend Lord Ahmad joined a Security Council debate in New York. The Foreign Secretary visited Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Qatar and Turkey, meeting leaders, Ministers, and other hostage families. The Foreign Secretary called for an immediate pause to get more aid in and to get hostages out, and for that pause to turn into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire, without a return to fighting.
The British Government have identified five vital steps for that to happen: a political horizon that provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution; forming a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza, accompanied by an international support package; removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; the release of all Israeli hostages; and key Hamas leaders agreeing to leave Gaza. All those things are intricately linked, and we cannot secure one without all the others. There are also many other elements to consider, such as Arab-Israeli normalisation, security guarantees, and financing the rebuilding of Gaza, but we need to generate momentum now towards a permanent peace. That is why pushing for a pause now is so important, and why we need a Contact Group meeting, bringing together the key players as soon as possible.
I will now turn to the desperate humanitarian situation. The Government are focused on practical solutions to get aid into Gaza. We have trebled our aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 7 October, committing £60 million this financial year. In Israel, the Foreign Secretary pressed for changes to allow unhindered humanitarian access, such as opening more crossing points for longer and permitting deliveries via Ashdod port. He announced work with Qatar to get more aid into Gaza, with our joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of family-sized tents being flown last Thursday. Earlier this month, Royal Fleet Auxiliary Lyme Bay delivered 87 tonnes of aid into Port Said. Crucially, we are supporting the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza, which has already delivered over 1,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza. We know the desperate plight of civilians caught up in this and the suffering they are going through, and we will continue to do all we can with our partners to save lives.
I turn to the ICJ ruling and allegations against UNRWA. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we had considerable concerns about South Africa’s decision to bring this case. Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas, and we do not believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza can be described as a genocide. Of course, we respect the role and independence of the ICJ, and the Court has now reached a decision on provisional measures. It called for increased aid into Gaza, and measures to ensure basic services, as we have been calling for. It has ordered Israel to preserve evidence relating to allegations of genocide, reporting to the Court on progress within one month. It has also ordered the immediate release of all hostages, and reminded all parties to the conflict that they are bound by international humanitarian law. Those are points that we have been pressing consistently, and we will continue to press them after the Court’s decision. For our part, Britain continues to engage closely with the Israeli Government on the conduct of their military campaign in Gaza. We have said that they must take greater care to avoid harming civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Finally, I turn to the very serious allegations about UNRWA first publicised last week, with further media reporting over the weekend. The agency is critical to delivering humanitarian assistance into Gaza and across the region. It plays a stabilising role at a time when we need focus on de-escalating tensions. The UK is a long-standing donor to UNRWA, as are our closest partners, notably the United States. Since 7 October, we have allocated a further £16 million to it as part of our response to the crisis. UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza continue their working at great personal risk in the most dangerous circumstances: 152 UNRWA staff members have lost their lives.
The UK is however appalled by allegations that any agency staff were involved in the 7 October atrocities. We welcome the swift action that UNRWA has taken to terminate contracts while it launches an immediate investigation. We and several partners are temporarily pausing future funding until we have reviewed these investigations. We continue to fund vital aid delivery through multiple other partners, including other UN agencies and international and British non-governmental organisations.
This week, the Government’s engagement continues. The Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad will again travel to the region. I am travelling to Qatar next week. We will continue to drive progress towards a lasting solution. As the Government have said, it is only when the prize of peace is more attractive than the potential benefit of continued conflict that there will be the chance of a better future. The time to start is now.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Last week, the International Court of Justice made an interim ruling under the genocide convention on the situation in Gaza. It was profoundly serious. The ICJ’s interim ruling does not give a verdict on the case, but it sets out urgent provisional measures.
Labour has been clear that Israel must comply with the orders in the ruling in full, and Hamas terrorists must release all the hostages immediately, but I note that the missing Foreign Secretary made no statement. The only response that appeared was from a nameless spokesperson the day after the judgment. It claimed that the Government respect the role and independence of the ICJ, but stated that they had
“considerable concerns about this case”.
Will the Minister give me a clear answer? Do the Government accept the Court’s authority or not? Do they believe that the ruling should be implemented in full? If not, which orders do they disagree with?
While the Government prevaricate, Labour is clear that international law must be upheld, the independence of international courts must be respected and all sides must be accountable for their actions. That is why we will press for all the orders to be implemented alongside an immediate humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire. The dire situation in Gaza must not continue. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of negotiations to secure a truce that will lead to civilians being protected, the immediate release of all hostages and a humanitarian surge in Gaza?
I repeat that aid getting into Gaza must surge, not stop. The allegations that a number of UNRWA employees were involved in the appalling 7 October terror attacks appalled the whole House. Anyone involved should be held to account by the force of the law. It is right that UNRWA has responded quickly by terminating contracts of staff allegedly involved and launching an investigation. Meanwhile, though, the humanitarian emergency in Gaza cannot wait. Twenty-five thousand people are dead, including thousands of women and children, 85% of the population are displaced and millions face the risk of famine. Will the Minister confirm that existing UK aid will continue to flow into Gaza so that current operations can continue? Will he outline a clear and fast path for future funding to return? We cannot let innocent Palestinians lose lifesaving aid because of Hamas terrorists.
Meanwhile, there continues to be a dangerous escalation across the middle east. We totally deplore the attacks on US soldiers. We offer our deep sympathies for those who have lost their lives or have been injured in the attack, as well as to their families. We stand with our US allies at this time of grief. The attacks are totally unjustifiable and raise tensions at an already dangerous time in the region. Iran must cease these attacks and de-escalate immediately. Labour has long recognised the dangers posed by Iran and its proxies. We have supported sanctions against Iran and have said for more than a year that, in government, Labour would proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, either through existing processes or a new mechanism to tackle hostile state actors. What will it take for the Government to finally act?
On behalf of our brave military families who sacrifice so much every day to keep us safe, will the Minister outline what his Government are doing to boost protection for the 2,500 troops stationed across the middle east? I welcome the Government’s efforts towards a permanent peace. The situation in the middle east cannot be more serious. I must note that the Development Minister—as capable as he is—is not the main decision maker in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. When will the Foreign Secretary finally come to this House to answer questions at this most dangerous of times?
I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his comments, and I will try to address them all. Let me start by thanking him for his comment about British troops who are deployed in the region, particularly our naval personnel who have been on the frontline in recent days and weeks. I agree that their safety is a paramount duty of the Government, and he may rest assured that we take that extremely seriously.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. He will have seen that over the past week the Foreign Secretary has taken a leading international role in the region to try to move many agendas forward. In my statement I set out what the Foreign Secretary was doing. He has made it clear that he will be ever present and able to answer questions from Members of this House, and the right hon. Gentleman may rest upon that.
Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the rising tensions in the region and the importance of de-escalating. He asked me, once again, about the IRGC. His points are noted, but I cannot comment on that on the Floor of the House, as he will understand. He talked about the importance of getting aid back into Gaza. All our efforts are set on that. He talked about the role of UNWRA; I talked to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNWRA, about two hours ago, to check its critical assets in Gaza—whether warehouses, vehicles or stores—without which no aid can get in. We all understand that they are essential for aid delivery, but the right hon. Gentleman will equally reflect that, given the very serious nature of the allegations, it is essential that the Government pause to ensure that they cannot happen again.
Finally, on the ICJ, we welcome the Court’s call for the immediate release of hostages and the need to get more aid into Gaza. We are clear that an immediate pause is necessary to get the aid in and the hostages out. On the wider issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised, we regularly call on Israel to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law, and we will continue to do so.
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I welcome the update from the deputy Foreign Secretary about the Contact Group and progress being made. However, I am concerned that on 18 January in Al-Mawasi, a supposed safe zone in Gaza, the UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians and the International Rescue Committee had their compound bombed by an airstrike from an F-16 jet. Thankfully, the four British doctors living there were only injured, although that itself is a cause for concern. A month before that, on 22 December, it was confirmed via UK defence channels that the IDF had logged the co-ordinates of the humanitarian base and de-conflicted it, marking it as a protected sensitive and humanitarian site. I am gravely concerned that the airstrike still took place. Will my right hon. Friend please share with the House what investigation is being conducted, what the IDF’s response has been and whether His Majesty’s Government have seen the targeting permissions for that airstrike?
I raised with UNRWA the concerns of many colleagues back in November about whether it was doing enough security checks on staff. Is the goal of pausing aid essentially to force it to get its house in order? Is that what we are trying to achieve?
The ICJ’s ruling was quite clear: Israel does have a right to self-defence, but it is not limitless. What are the Government doing to ensure that we are fully in line with the ruling and the six conditions placed on Israel by the ICJ?
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for her comments. On the latter point, as I have said, we continually remind the Israeli Government of their duties under international humanitarian law. The bombing of the compound is an extremely serious matter, which, as she rightly said, needed to be raised at the highest level. It was raised by the Foreign Secretary in his meetings in Israel last week and, as soon as was practical after the details got out, our ambassador in Tel Aviv raised it as well.
On UNRWA, my hon. Friend rightly refers to the fact that the assets it had, which I described in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, are vital for the delivery of aid. The inquiry would normally have been carried out by UNRWA, but it will instead be carried out by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, which will conduct an immediate inquiry and report to the Secretary-General. We will obviously look very carefully at what it says.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
I thank the Minister for prior sight of his statement. On Friday, despite concerted efforts to dismiss, ridicule and undermine South Africa’s case, the International Court of Justice delivered a damning provisional ruling that ordered Israel to take all measures to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza. The ruling has left the UK Government with nowhere to hide, as they now have a legal obligation to protect Palestinian civilians—an obligation that should, at the very least, mean an immediate arms embargo on Israel. However, we all know that the best way to protect civilian lives, stop the killings and secure the release of the hostages is an immediate ceasefire.
The ICJ ruling also demanded that effective humanitarian assistance be provided to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in Gaza. Instead, the UK Government immediately chose to cut funding for UNRWA —one of the few organisations that stand between the people of Gaza and mass starvation—on the basis of 12 of its 13,000 employees having been accused of taking part in the atrocities of 7 October. If those accusations are true, it is absolutely right that action is taken against them and that they be held to account. However, by deciding to cut funding to UNRWA, the UK Government have imposed their own collective punishment on an already beleaguered and desperate civilian population, knowing with absolute certainty that that decision will result in the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians.
Can the Minister explain the thought process that led the Foreign Office to that decision? What cognisance did it take of the ICJ ruling, and why did it choose to ignore it? What assessment has the Department made of the numbers of Palestinian children who will die as a direct result of that decision? Finally, does he not see that, by continuing to arm the IDF, this Government place themselves on the wrong side of history, and that history will judge them accordingly?
The hon. Gentleman made four points, I think, which I would like to address. The first point was the importance of a ceasefire. He should be very clear that the Government want to see an immediate humanitarian pause so that we can get the hostages out and humanitarian support in, leading then to a sustainable ceasefire. I have explained our position. It relates to his fourth point, about how we ensure that this suffering ends and manage to get the necessary humanitarian supplies into Gaza.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the ICJ. As I set out in my statement, we respect the role and independence of the ICJ. I pointed out that the Court has called for increased aid into Gaza and measures to ensure basic services, ordered the immediate release of all hostages and reminded all parties to the conflict that they are bound by international humanitarian law. We agree with that. It is extremely important that those points are respected.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the cutting of UNRWA funding. We are not cutting funding to UNRWA; we are pausing any future funding. We have made the funding available and there is no funding due for the rest of this financial year. Clearly, future funding will depend on the result of the inquiries now in process.
The ICJ has rightly dismissed South Africa’s obscene demand for Israel to stop defending its people and instructed Israel not to stop, but only to prevent genocide, which of course it is already doing. Meanwhile, Hamas have been ordered to release the hostages, which they have not done. South Africa, whose crime rate is totally out of control, has meanwhile banned David Teeger, the young captain of South Africa’s under-19 cricket team, because he is Jewish. Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the safety of Jews in South Africa in these circumstances, and will he consider changing Foreign Office advice on travel to South Africa?
My right hon. and learned Friend points—absolutely rightly, I believe—to the hideous nature of the charge against Israel of genocide, and I agree with him on that. On the release of hostages, which everyone has been asking for, I have read the reports of the meetings that took place in France over the weekend. It is still not clear whether significant progress has been made, but we all very much hope that it has.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the interim measures set out by the ICJ but refused to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary. Does the Minister believe that Israel has a legal obligation to comply with the measures set out by the ICJ?
The answer to that has been set out in the House on a number of occasions. Israel plans to act in accordance with international humanitarian law and has the ability to do so. That is what the British Government continually press upon the Israeli Government.
We all share the abhorrence of what happened in October, and this House has stood behind Israel in its right to defend itself, but this conflict, which has lasted for far too many decades, will only be solved with a two-state solution and a proper humanitarian response, led by the Israeli Government. Does my right hon. Friend have confidence that that will happen? If not, what else can we do to put pressure on our friends the Israelis and say, “This is the only way forward for you”?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We and our allies and friends, and virtually everyone in the region, believe that the only answer is a two-state solution, with Palestinians living behind safe borders and Israelis living behind safe borders as well. That is the policy of the Government, this House and the Opposition. We are pursuing it vigorously, as Lord Cameron showed in his many meetings last week.
The Minister said that the Government did not support the reference to the ICJ, but that they support the outcome that justifies that reference. Given those mixed messages, what confidence can we have that he is communicating to his Israeli counterpart that the legally binding orders of the Court must be complied with?
I have already set out the Government’s response to what the Court said, but in response specifically to the hon. Gentleman’s question, he may rest assured that those points were made by the Foreign Secretary throughout his extensive trip to the region last week.
A pause in fighting, humanitarian aid and a long-lasting peace: all are needed to stop people dying now and in the future. I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out the five-point plan towards that long-lasting peace. I find it so frustrating that people who may be pro-Israel say to me, “There is no point talking about a two-state solution, because the Palestinian people will never agree to it,” and people who may be a bit more pro-Palestine say, “There is no point talking about a two-state solution, because the Israeli Government will never agree to it.” Does he agree that everyone should stop second-guessing what others will not agree to, and start working on what they will agree to and how we get there?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and she will have noted that those are exactly the tactics that the British Government are employing. We are quite clear about the importance of the two-state solution, and we hope that when the political track is able to recommence—a moment that cannot come too soon—everyone will bend their sinews to deliver that result.
No one is disputing the fact that Israel has the right to defend itself, but it must do so within the law, and that is what the ICJ has said. When the ICJ ordered provisional measures in the case against Myanmar, the UK Government welcomed the decision and asserted that Myanmar must do more “to protect the Rohingya.” In a statement, a Minister said:
“We encourage the government of Myanmar to comply with the provisional measures, which are legally-binding”.
Is this Minister prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box and say the same of Israel? Does he encourage the Government of Israel
“to comply with the provisional measures”,
and does he accept that they are legally binding?
As we have made clear, we always emphasise the importance of abiding by international humanitarian law. At the start of her question, the hon. and learned Lady set out the two key points that were made by the ICJ, about the importance of international humanitarian law and the release of the hostages, and the Government strongly approve of them.
When we talk of collective punishment, let us remember that it is Hamas who subjected the people of Gaza to collective punishment when they decided to steal aid and fuel meant for civilians, when they decided to embed their military capability in schools and hospitals in civilian areas, and when they made it clear that they intended to continue to attack Israel in the way in which they did on 7 October. Those are the people who have subjected Gazans to what is happening now.
As for UNRWA, according to today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, intelligence suggests that 1,200 UNRWA staff are actual operatives of Hamas or other Palestinian terror groups, 23% of UNRWA’s male employees have taken part in Hamas’s military or political framework, and 49% of all UNRWA employees have family members or other relatives who belong to Hamas or other Gaza-based terrorist groups. Is that what the money from the taxpayers of Brigg and Goole should be used for: funding groups who wish to murder not just all Jews in Israel, but all Jews in this country?
That is why the Government have paused future payments. However, I should also make it clear that during my discussion this morning with Philippe Lazzarini, who runs UNRWA, I specifically welcomed the news that he will commission a totally independent review so that its conclusions will be unimpeachable. That means discussions with the US State Department, including US congressional interests, with the European Union and with the United Kingdom, and the engagement of respected individuals who might assist. It is that quality of investigation that is now required to satisfy not only my hon. Friend, but many others on both sides of the House who are extremely concerned about this.
Can the Minister explain what impact the review, and the time it will take, will have on the aid that is provided to people? I recognise what he has said about what will happen in the future, but it is important for us to understand what the humanitarian impact of this change will be while the investigations happen. Given his great record of campaigning against genocide and for genocide prevention, can he also address the point about how the UK Government will speak to our Israeli counterparts to ensure that Israel follows the prevention order that is so desperately needed, as has been highlighted by the ICJ case?
For many years, the hon. Lady and I have shared a deep concern about the question of aid getting through. I can tell her that while we are temporarily pausing any future funding of UNRWA while we review these appalling allegations, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that humanitarian aid gets into Gaza for the people who need it so desperately. We do, of course, work with other organisations: the British Red Cross, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, which has been essential in bringing vital supplies from Jordan into Gaza. However, as I said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the infrastructure that UNRWA has inside Gaza will always be fundamental to getting humanitarian relief to the people who need it.
I very much welcome the five-point plan, the call for an immediate pause in fighting and the contact group bringing together stakeholders. The allegations directed at UNRWA are indeed serious, and we should all welcome the investigation ordered by the UN chief António Guterres. I understand why countries including the UK have paused funding, but given that UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, does the Minister agree that holding back funds for too long could see the humanitarian situation degrade further and lead to more Gazans joining the ranks of Hamas?
My right hon. Friend, the former Chair of the Defence Committee, is right to focus on that issue. I also spoke this morning to Sigrid Kaag, the humanitarian reconstruction co-ordinator for Gaza, and she made it clear to me that while we have zero tolerance of these dreadful things that are alleged to have been done, we cannot operate at zero risks. The politics of logistics and distribution are a nightmare in Gaza, as my right hon. Friend knows. We will look carefully at these reports, and we will suspend any future funding until we have them, but we recognise that the UNRWA assets are essential to delivering in Gaza.
The ICJ ruling is incredibly serious for all sides. Can the Minister tell us today whether it is His Majesty’s Government’s analysis that Israel is operating within the measures that have been set out and, crucially, what consequences there will be if there is no observance of the ICJ’s ruling? The Minister has told us for nearly 100 days now that we have been pressing for proportionate action in Gaza, but we have not got proportionate action in Gaza, so the question for the Minister must be: what are we now going to do differently to change behaviour on the ground?
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to do things differently. We have been pressing very hard for these changes to be made. When he was in the region, my noble Friend Lord Cameron tried to advance the various issues epitomised in the five-point plan, which we are trying to drive forward. The right hon. Gentleman asks me specifically about the judgment on international humanitarian law. As I have said to the House before, we know that Israel plans to act in accordance with international humanitarian law and has the ability to do so. Clearly, these things are looked at all the time, but the judgments that we have made, which I have set out to the House in the past, remain current today.
Israel is much more than Prime Minister Netanyahu. What more are we in the US and the UK doing to encourage the moderate voices in Israel who argue for a definite democratic future for Gaza and the west bank? Above all, is there any more progress we can make to convince the Israeli Government that it is not in their interests to have any more settlements or expansions of existing settlements? It is the sense of helplessness among the Palestinian people that is fuelling this whole conflict, so what more pressure can we put on the Israeli Government?
My right hon. Friend accurately says that there is a plurality of opinion in Israel. We strongly support, and say within Israel, what we think is the right way forward, which above all is a two-state solution. During the course of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s visits, he was able to engage with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority and assure them that there is a plan to push forward at the point where certain changes are made in the way that the Palestinian Authority is run, and that Britain will be there at their shoulder to assist when that moment comes.
The ICJ ruling is highly significant all around the world, despite the Government’s opposition to South Africa even taking its case there. A few days later, when news comes out of the issues facing UNRWA, the UK Government, the US Government and others announce that they are withdrawing funding from it. I understand that the British Government’s payments are not due until April. Presumably, the US Government have suspended payments immediately. The immediate effect on the most desperate people in the world—that is, the 1 million people around Rafah who are trying to get something to eat, water to drink and medicines to be cured with—is that they are not getting the support that they desperately need. Have this Government been in touch with the Israeli Government to demand that they adhere to the ICJ ruling? Will the Minister also tell us that, in light of the ICJ ruling, all British military aid to Israel has been suspended until such time as they abide by the ruling?
The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the reports of the Foreign Secretary’s meetings, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu, during his series of regional visits last week.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s penultimate point, the Prime Minister spoke to President Biden on 22 January. They discussed the UK and America’s shared deep concern about the terrible suffering and loss of civilian life. I have nothing to add to what I have already said about the ICJ’s ruling, but the right hon. Gentleman may rest assured that we are very focused on the extraordinary degree of suffering that is taking place in the area around Rafah, where so many people are effectively kettled without either shelter or food.
What circumstances would change the Government’s policy towards Israel, which is currently determined to oppose a two-state solution?
My right hon. Friend reflects one strand of opinion in Israel, but he does not reflect the fact that there are many others. There is, not only inside Israel but across the region, internationally and at the UN, a very clear understanding that a two-state solution is the right answer. People may disagree about how we get there, but most accept that that is the destination.
Let the House be in no doubt that article 1 of the genocide convention makes it absolutely clear that the UK has a legal obligation, not just a moral duty, to act to prevent genocide. While the Government are rightly fulfilling those obligations, in part, in Burma, they have allowed arms sales to the Israeli military to continue, despite the concerns of the Foreign Office’s own legal advisers that the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza are unlawful. Now that the ICJ’s interim ruling agrees that it is legally plausible, under international law, that genocide is being committed in Gaza, possibly using arms sold by the UK, will the Government immediately suspend the sale of arms to the Israeli military?
I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that his interpretation of what the ICJ is saying is not the Government’s interpretation, or indeed the interpretation of many Members of the House. I reiterate that throwing accusations of genocide across the Chamber, in respect of Israel’s activities in Gaza, is extraordinarily offensive and, in my view, totally wrong.
The Foreign Secretary, writing in The Mail on Sunday on 28 January, said how important it is to
“allow vital aid to get in to Gaza, where people are starving and disease is spreading.”
Indeed, the provision of aid has been a key cornerstone of the UK’s response to the current crisis in Gaza, as the Minister outlined, with £60 million of aid donated since 7 October. In the light of the recent decision to freeze funding to UNRWA, how will this aid be delivered? Following the review, what action is the UK expecting UNRWA to take to see the funding resumed?
The action that UNRWA needs to take is pretty clear: it needs to make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again. I emphasise that we are not cutting humanitarian supplies to UNRWA at this time. We have paid up the money required for UNRWA to continue, and there is nothing planned until April—even before these terrible events, there was nothing planned until April—but we will review future funding in the light of the inquiry, which the Secretary-General will be receiving as swiftly as possible.
I echo and support the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). International law must be upheld and the ICJ’s ruling must be implemented in full.
UNRWA has done vital work since 1950, and it supports refugees on the west bank and in Jordan, as well as in Gaza. UNRWA educates half a million children. The Minister mentioned the stabilising effect of its work in a very conflict-driven region. Following the suspension of 12 UNRWA staff, out of 13,000, and the rightful condemnation of their actions, will the Minister clarify the assurance that UNRWA operations will continue while investigations take place, and that ordinary Gazans will still be able to access that vital aid?
On the hon. Lady’s final point, UNRWA humanitarian operations, getting aid to people who need it, will not be fettered in any way by the British decision. She will be well aware that there are very significant logistical problems outside that, but the effect of the decision that we have made about suspending future payments does not affect the payments we have made already. I recognise the importance she attaches to getting more aid and humanitarian support into Gaza, and that is the absolute intention of the British Government.
The Minister is right to reference the desperate plight of civilians in Gaza. One of my constituents, Dr Salim Ghayyada, is an NHS surgeon of 20 years and a UK citizen. He is terrified for his family, who are trapped in Gaza. Unlike other Governments, the UK Government are offering no help to UK citizens who have family stuck in Gaza. Will the Government consider a scheme for non-citizens, such as the Ukraine scheme, to help with this desperate situation—this plight for citizens in Gaza?
We have been working with partners to secure passage for all those who wish to leave, including British nationals and their families. We have helped to facilitate over 300 British nationals leaving Gaza. We are working with Egyptian and Israeli authorities to ensure that any remaining British nationals who want to leave but have not been able to do so previously can do so.
Several hon. Members rose—
I do apologise; I will now call two from the Government Benches. First, I call Dr Matthew Offord.
In November, a report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education found that half of Gaza’s 500,000 school pupils attended UNRWA-operated education institutions and that the Palestinian Authority curriculum taught in those schools is replete with antisemitism and encourages violence. The Minister says that he is going to suspend future payments, but the damage has already been done by decades of UK funding.
I can tell my hon. Friend that, when I was previously in government, I heard these allegations back in 2010, 2011, 2012. I asked to see and have translated these school books, and I have in the past year raised the same point again. I have not seen any evidence of what he is describing. If he would like to give the Government evidence, we will of course follow it up, but I must make it clear to him that both 10 years ago and in the past year no such evidence has been forthcoming.
Many of us have had concerns about the activities of UNRWA and the people who work for it. The excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) exposed the number of UNRWA employees who are directly linked to terrorist organisations, so what confidence can we now have that the aid we are providing actually gets to the people who need it, rather than being diverted by the terrorists that exist in Gaza? If all these people from UNRWA are actually involved with the terrorist organisations, perhaps they could actually do something about assisting with getting the hostages out of captivity.
My hon. Friend is right to make it clear that getting the hostages out is absolutely essential. He refers to the 12 people who have been identified, out of a workforce of 13,000. I can tell him that the head of UNRWA told me this morning that of the 12, two are dead and one is mismatched, so we are talking about nine people. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes the right point about the fact that this is completely intolerable. Inquiries have been set up, within UNRWA and the more widely held one that I described in my opening remarks, and we will wait to see what comes out of those inquiries and make our plans accordingly.
In his answer to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and in a number of other answers he has given, the Minister has said, “We have raised this with Israel”, as if that were enough. What does Israel say in response to the question raised by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about a known humanitarian base being bombed? What will the Government do to insist that Israel abides by the ICJ’s ruling that it must investigate and
“punish the direct and public incitement to genocide”?
Will we just “raise” that?
Because Britain is a close ally and friend of many in the region and of Israel in particular, we are able to have difficult conversations. It is perfectly clear that both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have done so with the President and Prime Minister of Israel, and with a large number of members of their Cabinet. Those discussions have sought to persuade them to accept the need for a vast increase in the humanitarian support getting into Gaza, and to move forward towards the political track. Those are the ambitions and views of the British Government. Through our close relationship, we are able to press all levels of Israeli society.
I welcome the move to pause UNRWA funding, but the scale of the problem is much more significant than if it had involved only a handful of people, given the reports that 10% of UNRWA’s 12,000 workers in Gaza are somehow linked to Hamas and other terror groups. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that a Telegram group used by 3,000 UNRWA teachers celebrated the 7 October massacre. Given those appalling earlier revelations, why did the Government not rethink our relationship with UNRWA before?
As my hon. Friend makes clear, those allegations are abhorrent. We have always been aware that there are dangers in operating in the environment of Gaza. That is why this is one of the most inspected and scrubbed development and aid programmes that Britain has anywhere in the world. I hope he will be reassured by what I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about the independence of the inquiry that is taking place, and the fact that the inquiry team will add to their number respected, independent people who will, hopefully, be able to give a useful judgment, and engage in the EU, the UK, and on the hill in America to ensure that we move to a better position.
Has the Minister seen the reaction to the ICJ judgment in Israel? There were reports at the weekend of a number of rallies at which Netanyahu Cabinet members said, “The ICJ makes judgments, but we make settlements.” There is now a call for settlements in Gaza, both in Khan Yunis and in Rafah. At the same time, Netanyahu is attacking the Qataris, even though, from most aspects, they have been playing a significant role in securing the release of hostages. He has also been refusing to engage in a discussion about the Egyptian peace programme. In reality, the UK Government have virtually no influence over Netanyahu; we should admit that. He will listen only to the Americans, so what discussions are we having with the Biden Administration to ensure that they maximise the pressure to bring about a ceasefire discussion and the release of the hostages and prisoners?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government condemn the building of such settlements. He will have heard what I and others have said about the complete condemnation of settler violence, and the demand that the Israeli Government hold to account those responsible for it, put them before the courts and punish them. I will be in Qatar at the end of next week. I pay tribute to the work Qatar has done, particularly in trying to assist with getting the hostages out. On authoritative voices in Israel, I point him to the meetings that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, has had with Netanyahu. They have known each other for many years, and the Foreign Secretary was able to deliver some tough messages, which I believe will be heard.
Reports of UNRWA staff potentially being involved in the 7 October massacre—one of the worst pogroms against Jewish people since the holocaust—bring horror to many people, especially now that we are learning that up to 10% of UNRWA employees have some links with Hamas. I know that the Minister has said that there will be an independent review of UNRWA. Can he assure me that it will be independent, and that the UK Government will have input into it to make sure that the UN is not marking its own homework? If these allegations are true, what will we do about UNRWA? We cannot continue spending taxpayers’ money on funding antisemitic terror attacks.
The review will not be a case of UNRWA marking its own homework. It has specifically accepted that it must be a different part of the United Nations, far away from UNRWA, that makes these judgments.
We will look very carefully at what inquiries reveal. I am completely with my hon. Friend on ensuring that nothing like this can happen again. I hope that the independence that is being injected into these inquiries will give him some confidence that we are moving to a different place.
As others have said, the ICJ’s interim ruling could not be more serious, and it sets out urgent provisional measures that must be taken. I am sorry, but the Minister has not yet been clear on this point, so I will ask him again: do the Government agree that Israel has a legal obligation to comply with those measures? What role will the Government play in ensuring that within one month of the ruling, Israel submits a report to the Court on the steps that it has taken to comply with the orders, as it is required to?
I think I have answered the point that the hon. Lady makes about the ICJ. Let me reiterate once again that we regularly call on Israel to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law, and we will continue to do so in all circumstances.
The allegations against employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency were appalling, but UNRWA remains a vital source of food and support for the Palestinian people. I can already hear voices from the Conservative Back Benches that seem to be calling for us to throttle funding for UNRWA for the long term. Can my right hon. Friend advise us on what will happen between now and April, as regards his representations to the Chancellor on the Budget and contingency funding for this organisation after April?
We will make our plans for funding known to the House in the usual way, but we cannot do so until we have seen the report and are clear that what has been revealed cannot happen again. Let me emphasise to my hon. Friends that the UNRWA infrastructure assets inside Gaza—the warehouses, the vehicles, the stores, and UNRWA’s ID system, which is used by the Israeli Government—will have to be used, regardless of who uses them.
What steps are the Government taking, in line with their obligations under international law, to ensure the full and immediate implementation of provisional measures ordered by the ICJ regarding the protection of Palestinians from genocide, and the immediate provision of humanitarian aid and other vital services? Can the Minister confirm whether the UK will now end arms sales to Israel, due to the risk that they could be used unlawfully to kill women and children?
We keep all arms exports under review. The hon. Lady will know that we have one of the tightest regimes in the world. Clearly, we will consider any impact from the Court’s ruling. In respect of the other points that she made, she will have heard what I said about the ICJ ruling, and indeed what I said about throwing around allegations of genocide across the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for updating the House, following a number of very significant and concerning developments in recent days. We should not forget that, in the midst of all this, dozens and dozens of families vontinue to live every day with the anguish of knowing that one of their loved ones is being held hostage in unknown conditions. They do not know their whereabouts, or about their wellbeing or the conditions in which they are being held. Should not the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas be the one thing that every Member of this House calls for, following the ICJ report?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He sets out the Government’s position on the release of hostages. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) and I had the deeply moving task of attending a meeting at which we heard at first hand about the awful plight of the hostages. My hon. Friend may rest assured that the British Government, working with partners, will do everything that they can to secure their release as swiftly as possible.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) raised the dreadful, appalling issue of the targeted Israeli airstrike on the MAP compound—the compound of a British charity—in Gaza. On behalf of the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, I would like to raise with the deputy Foreign Secretary the fact that almost 100 journalists have been killed in Gaza since 7 October. Their bravery has kept the world informed and exposed some of the appalling atrocities that we see daily. What does he plan to do to stop the deliberate targeting of journalists? I remind him that the ICJ ruling particularly says that we must, as part of its provisional measures, continue collecting evidence of breaches.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government, in particular through the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, have done their best to stand up for journalistic integrity, and the right of journalists to report on such circumstances; I strongly agree with what he said about that. On the bombing to which he referred, I draw his attention to what I said earlier: it has been raised by the British Government, and was raised as soon as practical by the ambassador in Tel Aviv.
The Minister has spoken at length about this country’s relationship with Israel, and the powerful networks of advocacy that could work towards the noble cause of securing a ceasefire, a safe Israel and a free Palestine. Let us see whether he will use them today. Will he be clear that the Government, in their next conversations with the Israeli Government, will condemn the far-right Israeli Ministers who attended the conference this weekend in Jerusalem about the resettlement of Gaza? Members of Likud, including the National Security Minister, said that Israelis need to find a legal way to voluntarily emigrate Palestinians. Will the Minister of State also confirm that the UK will support the reported brokered deal by Israel, the US, Egypt and Qatar on the immediate release of the remaining Hamas hostages? How will the Government use our voice?
On the final point, of course we are working very closely with the Qataris and the Administration of the United States to effect the release of the hostages. Although I cannot give a running commentary to the House, the hon. Lady may rest assured that we are intimately engaged in that. She talked about our effect and reach within Israel. It is not just within Israel; it is in the whole region. The British diplomatic service has unparalleled reach, in terms of talking about the way ahead and the political track, and we are exercising it. On the rallies that took place over the weekend and the reports that she mentioned, the policies mentioned are not those of the British Government.
Given the mounting reports of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israel, and now serious recognition by the ICJ of the real risk of genocide, do the UK Government accept that the provision of weapons may lead to complicity in such a crime, and will they therefore immediately cease licensing arms and security equipment to Israel?
The hon. Gentleman will know that Britain has one of the most effective and tough arms sale regulation authorities in the world. He may rest assured that its provisions do not change when it is dealing with Israel—or any other country.
The International Court of Justice is the world’s top court and a leading body of the United Nations, and its orders are binding. It has called on Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent the killing of, or causing of serious harm to, people in Gaza, yet hundreds more people in Gaza have been killed since Friday’s ruling. As a signatory to the ICJ, do the Government not have a legal as well as a moral duty to uphold, and not undermine, the ICJ’s rulings, and to do much more to stop Israel’s actions in Gaza? Should that not include suspending arms sales to Israel?
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I have set out the position on arms sales and the regime that the British Government set up and support. I think I have also set out the Government’s position on the ICJ very clearly, and I have nothing to add to what I have said.
I am increasingly worried about the trend in this Government towards the casual acceptance of international law and international courts when it suits. That really is not good enough.
The ICJ interim ruling stated that article II of the genocide convention must be upheld, including ensuring the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza. Given what the Minister has said about UNRWA, and the fact that it is the largest humanitarian agency in Gaza, if the UK and other donors decide not just to pause their support, but to cease it completely and permanently, how are the Government and other international donors going to ensure the same capacity of humanitarian relief—and if they do not, are they in contempt of the ICJ ruling?
I am not a lawyer, so I am not able to answer any of the hon. Lady’s legal points—nor should I, across the House—but I can assure her that we are committed to making sure that international relief and humanitarian supplies get into Gaza. That is the burden of much of the discussion and comments that the British Government are engaged in. I discussed it with Jamie McGoldrick and Martin Griffiths, the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over the weekend. We are doing everything we can to expand the ability to get aid into Gaza. On UNRWA, the hon. Lady will know that, while we have made it clear that we will not be making any further payments until the inquiries are completed to our satisfaction, nevertheless the funding we have already given to UNRWA is having an effect on the ground. We just want to make sure that it reaches the people for whom it was intended.
Earlier the Minister failed to answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), so I will ask a similar question and give him another opportunity. Given the ICJ’s interim ruling that the risk of genocide in Gaza is plausible, will the Minister suspend UK arms sales to Israel to ensure that UK weapons are not used to kill innocent Palestinians?
On the subject of both arms sales and the ICJ, I have set out for the hon. Gentleman the Government’s position. I am afraid that, just because he asks the same question again, it does not mean he is going to get a different answer.
Two months ago, I asked the Government whether they would consider providing specialist treatment for the wounded children of Gaza in UK hospitals, as is often done when there is a natural disaster or a cruel war abroad. The Minister responded at the time by saying that the choice was to increase in-country aid, and he referred to the increase of £16 million in his statement. Given the destruction of hospitals in Gaza and the dire state of medical facilities, will he reconsider that stance?
We are considering whether we should join with the United Arab Emirates, which is lifting people out of Gaza, particularly children, and giving them support in the UAE. The hon. Gentleman will also know that we have deployed an emergency medical team who are looking at the situation there, and we would, if it was appropriate, deploy a field hospital—indeed, we would deploy it into Gaza, if that was practical and appropriate. On the critical subject of trying to ensure that we help all those who are hurt and wounded, particularly children, he may rest assured that we are looking at all aspects of that.
We talk about statistics as though they are not human lives: 26,000 men, women and children killed, 1.9 million people displaced, and a human catastrophe engulfing the people of Gaza. The five-point plan is great. We know what needs to be done. The fighting has to stop, the aid has to get in, the hostages need to be released, and we need to rebuild both the civilian infrastructure and hope for the Palestinians. However, there is one roadblock to a Palestinian state, and that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and the allies around him in government. They do not want Judea and Samaria to be handed over to the Palestinians for their state; they want the resettlement of Gaza. During his visit to see the Prime Minister of Israel, did the Foreign Secretary tell Mr Netanyahu that his views on the creation of a state of Palestine and on a second Nakba are not just unacceptable and wrong but abhorrent?
The hon. Gentleman made the point about numbers as statistics, but those numbers speak for themselves—there will be no one in the House who does not reflect upon the catastrophe that has engulfed Gaza. He went on to set out a very eloquent road map for moving forward and for progress. He asks about the Foreign Secretary’s discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think that that is a matter for either Prime Minister Netanyahu or the Foreign Secretary to reveal, but I can assure him that the Foreign Secretary would have been his usual robust self in setting out the position of the British Government. In respect of Prime Minister Netanyahu being the blockage, as the hon. Gentleman put it, to the ceasefire and to progress, I would point out to him that Hamas have made it clear that they are not interested in a ceasefire; what they want is a repeat of the appalling events that took place on 7 October.
According to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, in just two days since the International Court of Justice ruling, at least 373 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombings and airstrikes, including 345 civilians, and 643 others have been seriously injured. Israel is already in breach of the order. What action are the Government taking to prevent the killing of Palestinians in Gaza? Will they now stop arming Israel, call for an immediate ceasefire and stop allowing Israel to act with impunity? Will the Minister tell the House what legal advice the Government have received in relation to ensuring that the UK is not complicit in acts of genocide?
The hon. Lady sets out with great eloquence the jeopardy and difficulties facing the people of Gaza at this time. I hope that it is of reassurance and comfort to her that the Government also recognise how difficult the situation is and are doing everything we possibly can to help move on to a political track and end the great difficulties that she sets out.
The ICJ’s ruling is clear and specific, and respect for the international Court is of the utmost importance, yet in response the Minister seems to be saying simply that it is business as usual. May I press him again on what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the provisional measures ordered by the ICJ are complied with in full? What does he believe should be done to ensure accountability?
I believe it essential that there is an immediate humanitarian pause to get aid in and hostages out, that Hamas must agree to the release of all hostages, that Hamas can no longer be in charge of Gaza, and that an agreement must be in place for the Palestinian authorities to return to Gaza to provide governance, services and security. That is the way in which we make progress, and that is the commitment and policy of the British Government.
The Minister referred earlier to the extraordinary degree of suffering in Gaza. We need an immediate ceasefire to stop that humanitarian disaster and get the aid in now, but such has been the level of destruction in Gaza that the need for aid work will continue for many months and years. When the Minister spoke to him earlier, did Philippe Lazzarini indicate, first, how long his inquiry is likely to take, and secondly, when the pause in funding will start to impact on the agency’s humanitarian aid work?
Philippe Lazzarini did not indicate a specific timeline, but I would be very surprised if it could not be completed within the next two months. It is essential that it is, because we and others need to make our plans to fund humanitarian relief, and in making those plans, we will need to decide what we are going to do about UNRWA.
It is reported that the heads of the CIA, of Mossad and of Egyptian intelligence and the Qatari Prime Minister have agreed on a new hostage deal framework to put to Hamas. That deal would reportedly include the release of the remaining American and Israeli hostages in phases, starting with women and children, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Can the Minister inform the House whether the UK was involved at all in negotiating that framework, and whether the Government are using their diplomatic position to press for the release of all the hostages as soon as possible?
The British Government are very strongly in support of the process that the hon. Lady has described, which took place in France over the weekend. I have heard the reports in the media about this matter, but at this point, I am not in a position to update the House authoritatively on its results.
I am sure the Minister will have seen the harrowing ITV News interview and subsequent video of an innocent Palestinian civilian brandishing a white flag in a so-called Gaza safe zone as he was shot dead in cold blood by the Israeli army. Does the Minister think that that constitutes a war crime, and what representations have the UK Government made to the Israeli Government about it?
I have seen many videos of that sort, and my reaction is the same as the hon. Gentleman’s. In terms of what the British Government are doing, as I have set out throughout this statement, we are intent on helping to ensure that the situation is brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible and, in the meantime, that we get aid and humanitarian support into Gaza to help those who are suffering so grievously there.
The International Court of Justice ruling that it is plausible that Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza should have been the moment that this Government suspended arms sales to Israel and finally called for an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Instead, they are stopping their funding for the UN aid agency that millions of Palestinians rely on. The recent allegations must be investigated, but the Government’s decision collectively punishes the Palestinian people and will lead to more starvation. In light of the ICJ ruling, what legal advice has the Minister received that says that continuing to arm Israel while stopping funding for Gaza’s primary aid agency is consistent with the Government’s obligations under the genocide convention?
First of all, we are not stopping funding UNRWA; we are not committing any future funds. Britain has been funding UNRWA and is funding it today, but in the circumstances, until the inquiries have been completed, we are not willing to pledge any additional funds to UNRWA at this time. In respect of the hon. Lady’s interpretation of the ICJ ruling, I must reiterate what I have said: that understanding is not the understanding of the British Government.
The Minister’s statement is silent on the west bank. He will be aware of reports of increased settler violence, shepherds being forced from their land, the confiscation of livestock, the imposition of fuel blockades, and the arrest of Palestinian civilians who have been placed under administrative detention—that is, indefinite detention without charge. What assessments and representations is the Minister making regarding those serious reports that keep coming out of the west bank?
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen, the British Government have condemned without qualification settler violence and illegal acts that have taken place on the west bank, and have made it absolutely clear that when such acts take place, those who commit them must be held to account, put before the courts and punished. In respect of the overall situation on the west bank, Lord Cameron was there last week and had some extremely good meetings—not just with President Abbas, but with others in the Palestinian Authority—where he sketched out a way in which Britain can be by their side and helping them when a political track is possible, and said that they should make the necessary reforms first, before that political track becomes available, so that they are ready to go when it does.
On Friday, the ICJ determined that there may be plausible grounds that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. With that in mind, and with the case ongoing, will the Minister confirm that we will take the only serious options available to separate ourselves from the risk of complicity, which is to demand an immediate ceasefire, immediately ban all sales of arms to Israel —including ending assistance in the transfer of any arms to Israel, such as via the Akrotiri base in Cyprus —and ensure that sufficient funding is provided so that humanitarian aid reaches those people in desperate need?
The hon. Lady will understand that the issue is not with providing aid, but getting it in. There is plenty of aid ready to go into Gaza; it is getting it in that is most important. She will have heard what I have said about Britain’s arms regime. On the demand for a ceasefire, the British Government have set out very clearly that we want to see a humanitarian pause, the hostages freed and aid getting into Gaza, and then we want to see a sustained ceasefire. However, I draw her attention to my earlier comment that that is not something Hamas want to see. This is the policy the British Government will pursue—the pause, getting the hostages back and a sustainable ceasefire—with every sinew that we can bring to bear.