Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, updates the House of Commons on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. A tragedy is unfolding. Israel has suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Palestinian civilians in Gaza are experiencing a devastating humanitarian crisis and violence is rising in the west bank. The best estimates emerging from a confused situation are that 2.3 million people need access to safe drinking water, food supplies are running out, one third of hospitals have been forced to shut down and 1.5 million people are displaced. I know that the whole House shares my pain at seeing so many innocent lives destroyed on and since 7 October.
Britain is working intensively to get more aid into Gaza, to support the safe return of hostages and British nationals, to back Israel’s right to self-defence and to prevent a dangerous regional escalation. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been engaging extensively and Lord Ahmad has been constantly in the region. This morning I met a group of charities and non-governmental organisations involved in getting life-saving support into Gaza. I spoke yesterday to the Jordanian, Lebanese and Egyptian ambassadors and early this morning once again to Martin Griffiths. I wish also to pay tribute to our diplomats and development experts who are striving to make a difference in the most difficult of circumstances.
Despite the many challenges, the whole Government are determined to do all that we can to continue to stand up for what is right and do the right thing. Immediately after Hamas’s brutal assault, the Government brought home almost 1,000 British nationals safely on charter and military flights, but the safety of all British nationals is our utmost priority, so we are in regular contact with those in Gaza registered with us since the conflict began. Working with partners, we have been engaging intensively with Israel and Egypt to allow foreign nationals to leave Gaza via the Rafah border crossing. This has proved possible on five of the last seven days, and I can confirm to the House that, as of late last night, more than 150 British nationals had made it through to Egypt. A forward-deployed team of consular officials is in el-Arish, close to Rafah, to meet them and provide the medical, consular and administrative support they need. We have also set up a reception centre for British nationals in Cairo and have arranged accommodation. We will do everything we can to ensure that all remaining British nationals in Gaza can leave safely.
Sadly, among the British nationals in Gaza some are held hostage by Hamas, among the more than 200 innocents cruelly kidnapped on 7 October. Their plight is a stark reminder of what Hamas represent. The terrorists continue to launch rockets relentlessly at Israeli homes and families. Their stated aim, repeated publicly in recent weeks, is the destruction of the Israeli state and the eradication of its people. That is why the Government unequivocally support Israel’s right to defend itself. However, we have also repeatedly stressed that Israel must take every precaution to minimise civilian casualties in line with international humanitarian law. We continue to press Israel to ensure that its campaign is targeted against Hamas leaders, militants and military infrastructure. We also condemn settler violence. Israel needs to take concrete measures to address it and hold the perpetrators to account.
All parties to a conflict must ensure that their actions are proportionate and necessary, affording innocent civilians the protection that is their right under international law. Who can doubt that this is true, because the Palestinian people are also victims of Hamas. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed his condolences to the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, for the deaths of Palestinian civilians caught in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack.
Since 7 October, the UK has made available £30 million of additional aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, more than doubling our existing aid commitment for this year. So far, three UK flights carrying a total of 51 tonnes of aid have landed in Egypt. The shipments included life-saving items such as wound care packs, water filters and solar powered lights. We have also sent humanitarian advisers and vital equipment including the forklift trucks, belt conveyors and lighting towers specifically requested by the Egyptian Red Crescent Society to help it to manage and deliver all the international aid received in Egypt more effectively. For this aid to meet escalating needs, however, it must enter Gaza and do so in much greater quantity. The Government have been working closely with partners including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Egyptian and Israeli Governments to achieve this.
Since 21 October, a limited number of trucks of aid have crossed into the strip, but the volume going through the Rafah checkpoint is nowhere near enough to meet civilian needs and it cannot be, even were it operating at full capacity. We are therefore urgently exploring with partners measures that can help to increase the flow of humanitarian support. These measures must include effective humanitarian pauses, as agreed by all the G7 countries in Tokyo this morning, and we are urging Israel to consider utilising the facilities at other land border crossings into Gaza, such as Kerem Shalom. This reflects our current assessment that delivery by land remains the only safe option to deliver aid in the quantity needed in Gaza while ensuring the necessary control and oversight. Control and oversight matters, given the absolute imperative of ensuring that aid reaches those in need and is not diverted or misused. Aid diversion is a real risk—more so during conflicts—and I will set out to the House how we are managing those risks.
All UK aid undergoes rigorous oversight. No funding goes to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. Our humanitarian programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories already operates with enhanced sensitivity, with the Government having introduced additional safeguards in 2017. They include measures to verify and map downstream partners, non-payment of local taxes, and enhanced due-diligence processes. We constantly review the due-diligence assessments in place with all partners involved in delivering aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The whole House recognises, however, that to prevent further conflict and terrorism and truly alleviate civilian suffering, there must be a political solution to the conflict. This issue is uniquely polarising. We have seen across the world and in our own communities its potential to radicalise. The long-standing British position on the middle east process is unchanged: we want to see a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The urgency of a political track—extraordinarily difficult today—has never been more clear. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to live in peace and security.
We have moral clarity over Israel’s right to self-defence and we reject all forms of antisemitism, but we are also committed to discharging our moral duty to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Palestinians and we reject all forms of Islamophobia. The current turmoil must act as a further impulse towards realising a peaceful future for the region, and the UK will be doing all it can to achieve that. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Minister.
I thank the Minister for the copy of his statement and for his call last night.
Four weeks on from the horror of 7 October, it is hard to comprehend the scale of the devastation in Gaza: almost 1.5 million people displaced and more than 10,000 people killed, with more trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Every single one of those lives matters. Every single death is a devastating tragedy. With two thirds of the dead being women and children, these civilian deaths are not just shocking—they cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of people are crowded into shelters in desperate need of food, water, medicine and fuel. And while we welcome the 93 trucks that entered through Rafah on 6 November, that is completely insufficient to meet the scale of humanitarian need.
I was surprised the Minister did not make more mention of fuel, because this is the urgent priority. Without it the water cannot flow, the hospitals cannot power their incubators and the food cannot be cooked. The sewage system breakdown is now threatening a major public health crisis. For weeks, the international community has demanded that the siege conditions on Gaza be lifted, but that has still not happened. That is totally unacceptable and it cannot continue.
Both the UN humanitarian co-ordinator Martin Griffiths and the United States have made serious efforts to break the deadlock, and to provide the assurances that Israel needs about fuel diversion. Can the Minister tell the House what efforts the Government are making to insist that fuel for humanitarian purposes can get into Gaza? I welcome his update on discussions about Kerem Shalom, but what is his assessment on the speed at which that could be achieved? May I urge him again to follow the US example and appoint a humanitarian co-ordinator to scale up the passage of aid?
We all recognise that while rockets and bombs continue to fall, it is impossible to deliver the scale of aid needed across the whole of Gaza and to repair the damage, extensive as it is, to water and electricity systems. We all want an end to the violence and the urgent release of hostages, but with Hamas leaders doubling down on their determination to attack Israel, and with Israel ruling out a ceasefire until hostages are released, the reality is that humanitarian pauses are, as Martin Griffiths wrote movingly last week, “the only viable prospect”. In Cairo last week, Ministers and aid agencies impressed on me the urgency of that. Pauses provide not only much needed aid, but space: space for the basic humanity to bury the dead; space to look past the pain; and space for dialogue to make progress towards peace more likely. This is needed now. No more delay.
We are devastated by the deaths of so many aid workers and United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff—the highest number killed in any conflict in the UN’s history. I hope I join the whole House in mourning their loss and paying tribute to their bravery and their humanity. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Safe shelters, safe distribution centres, and safe medical facilities, hospitals and emergency service convoys are essential.
I echo the Minister’s words about the unacceptable nature of settler violence in the west bank, but will he join me in reiterating our calls that Israel’s clear right to self-defence is not a blank cheque? He acknowledged the importance of international law. Has he raised the protection of hospitals, schools and refugee camps with his Israeli counterparts, and the need for action to be in accordance with international law in order to protect civilians and ensure safe and unimpeded access for aid?
The average age in Gaza is just 18. Make no mistake: this is a children’s war. More children have died in Gaza in four weeks than in all the world’s conflicts in each of the last three years. There are 1 million children caught up in the devastation who are orphaned and displaced, sleeping outside as the weather grows colder, short of food and forced to drink dirty water. In most conflicts we would expect children to be evacuated to a safer place to receive care and shelter. What makes this so devastating is that, almost uniquely, in this conflict that is not going to happen.
In the face of such an extraordinary threat to children, the international community is obligated to do more. With the Foreign Secretary at the G7 this week, will the Government join us in calling for an emergency plan to support the children of Gaza, to prioritise aid to children, safe and protected shelters for food, clean water and medical care as winter sets in? The crisis did not start in Gaza on 7 October. Even before then, two thirds of children were suffering from trauma. One aid agency that operates in North Sinai and Gaza told me last week that this now stands at 100%. Without a long-term co-ordinated plan for the children of Gaza, the political solution we need will not be realised and the cycle of violence will not be broken. We can and must do more.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her comments and for the priorities she set out in her response. I echo her comment about the brave humanitarian workers who lost their lives. She will remember that we consistently condemned that in the case of Sudan, where approximately 20 lost their lives. As she has, we honour, across the House, the more than 100 humanitarian workers—unarmed people putting themselves in harm’s way deliberately to help their fellow citizens—who have lost their lives.
I also pay tribute to those working in the crisis centre in Whitehall. One hundred or so officials, nearly all volunteers and very young, were working triple shifts the night that Rafah opened, working through the night to help British citizens. I pay tribute to them, their spirit and their hard work.
The hon. Lady made a particular point about the importance of fuel and, of course, she is absolutely right. We are negotiating for it. She will know that Hamas have a lot of fuel in their tunnels—we recognise entirely what that fuel is being used for—so fuel could be made available to help in humanitarian purposes. We are doing our best to negotiate for it. She will also have seen today’s G7 statement, which is very clear on these points.
The hon. Lady asks about routes for access, and the American envoy, Mr Satterfield, has been working non-stop to try to work out whether we can speed up other routes, using Kerem Shalom and Rafah, and we will continue to do all that.
The hon. Lady prioritises the importance of pauses, and we completely agree. We are arguing for humanitarian pauses, but she will also accept that, in the method within the pause by which humanitarian support is distributed, it is extremely important that we do not repeat the mistakes we made in Srebrenica, Rwanda and northern Iraq, when vulnerable people were brought together whom we were unable to protect. There are very clear guidelines on any pauses and safe spaces, and there must be absolute protection for those who go to them.
The hon. Lady mentioned that support for Israel is not a blank cheque. Of course, she is right. Good friends deliver hard messages, and they are able to do so precisely because they are good friends. She talks of children, and I saw UNICEF this morning. I entirely recognise the passion with which she raised that point. We will do everything we can to ensure that the priority of children is recognised in all the humanitarian work we do.
Finally, I remind the House of the wise words of our former colleague, and former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord Hague. At the end of his brilliant article in The Times on 9 October, he said:
“It is no consolation to those caught up in it but…this is no strategic masterstroke by Hamas, more a desperate move to fend off a future that is rapidly leaving them behind.”
We should not forget that, the day after this, there will be an urgent need for a political context.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I and, I suspect, my successor in the Chair will do our utmost to accommodate all Members, because we recognise the importance of this subject. I would be grateful if hon. Members would keep their remarks as brief as possible under the circumstances, in order that we can accommodate everybody.
I also gently remind the House of the admonition offered by Mr Speaker yesterday. We are dealing with very sensitive and very emotive issues. Words matter and the tone of those words matter. I know the House is capable of rising to an occasion, and I trust that this will be one of them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Government’s calls for humanitarian pauses will continue and be insistent. The Minister talked about a viable Palestinian state, which requires land. The reality is that so much of that land has been lost to illegal settlements. Will he continue to make that point, because a brighter future will require land to guarantee the peace we all yearn for.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course we will continue, as he suggests, to prioritise the issue of pauses. He will know that, in my statement, I condemned settler violence, as did the Prime Minister in yesterday’s response to the Gracious Speech. What he says is right, and we will not forget that.
I associate myself with the shadow Minister’s comments paying tribute to all the UN and aid workers who have been killed. The Minister is correct to remind the House that UK nationals are being held hostage by Hamas.
That said, the Israeli military must follow the laws of war in this situation. Have the Government made an assessment of Israel’s compliance with international human rights law since 14 October? As he mentioned in his statement, hospitals in Gaza are running out of fuel and UNRWA is warning that its aid operation will shortly “come to a stop” if fuel supplies do not get into Gaza, with blood and life-saving equipment also running out. Have the Government considered sending a military hospital ship to Egypt to help injured men, women and children who have been able to leave Gaza?
Finally, the Minister rightly said that there must be a political solution. The Red Cross has said that it is
“not an exaggeration to say it’s catastrophic in Gaza.”
In Gaza, 4,100 Palestinian children have died—a rate of 180 children a day. At what point will the UK Government join the many of us who are asking them to use their leverage to reach that political solution and call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says and the tone in which he says it. I also thank him for what he says about the brave humanitarian workers who have lost their lives. He asks whether we are aware of the full impact of supplies running out in Gaza, and I can assure him that we absolutely are. He speaks about the importance of following the rules of war and international humanitarian law, and both Front Benches are urging the Israeli Government to do that. We note the commitment of the President of Israel in that respect, but everyone will be watching to ensure that the rules of war are obeyed.
I have not spoken to a single constituent who has not felt the pain and tragedy of the 1,400 people murdered on 7 October, or of the tragedy unfolding in Gaza. I commend the Minister for all the work he is doing, and I know he works incredibly hard to make sure no stone is left unturned. Can he confirm that aid will increase, if necessary, in future? Does he share my concern about the risk of the conflict expanding because of the presence of Hezbollah? Its 100,000 soldiers and 150,000 rockets pose a risk to the region.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We have doubled the amount of aid going into the region, but we will increase it further if necessary. We are currently doing a lot of work to try to work out how to quantify what is in el-Arish and how to make sure it can be moved. Physically moving the aid is also a factor, which is why Britain has sent five forklift trucks and a conveyor belt.
Of course, regional expansion is an enormous worry for us all, and it is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister decided to send both air and naval assets to RAF Akrotiri in the eastern Mediterranean, to see what is being moved, to interdict any arms that are coming in, and to make sure we do everything we can to ensure that this conflict is contained and does not expand further.
Ten thousand people have been killed in a month, with UN staff, buildings, hospitals, journalists and the third oldest church in Christendom unspared, since Hamas’s deadly atrocities. There are 230-plus hostages still in captivity. The Minister talks about being a critical friend, so will he urge the Netanyahu Administration to recognise that statements such as the one about a “permanent” Gazan takeover, with some Israeli Ministers not even ruling out nukes, are only losing them support? Does he have any advice for my constituent, whose sister is a survivor of a family mostly wiped out when they moved south, as instructed? He says, “We don’t just want to manage to eat before dying under rubble.”
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. As far as the hostages are concerned, she will appreciate that we do not give a running commentary on those negotiations. She may rest assured that we are working very closely, including with Qatar, to secure their release. She will have seen the condemnation of the nuclear comment made by a senior Israeli.
On the subject of what happens when the conflict is over, she will have seen the very constructive comments made not only by some of the surrounding Arab leaders but by Secretary Blinken when he addressed that point.
I appreciate that the Minister is limited in what he can share on sensitive diplomatic matters, but will he assure the House that the UK Government are doing everything possible to work with allies to negotiate the return of the hostages?
As we see the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, with the terrible images of the dying, displaced and maimed, our focus must be on getting humanitarian aid to them and a humanitarian pause for them. As we look forward to a time when the bombing stops, does the Minister agree that the lack of focus on progressing a two-state solution over the past decade and more was a failure on the part of the international community? Will he set out something of what he will be doing to bring renewed focus on a just political settlement to the conflict in the region?
The Foreign Office and British Government are very focused on how to re-energise the peace process when the opportunity presents itself. The hon. Lady will have seen the comments that have been made about both a civil Administration in Gaza and what is necessary to secure peace when that point arrives. It is important to note that the huge progress—ultimately unsuccessful—that was made at Oslo took place on the back of the first intifada. It may therefore be that there will be an opportunity, given the disaster that has taken place, to re-energise that political track. We must make sure that if that opportunity presents itself, we grasp it with both hands.
This is something that unites the House more than divides it, certainly on the issue of the horrors going on in Palestine right now and what caused them. We all recognise the personal commitment of the Minister to humanitarian aims and, in particular, to humanitarian pauses. Does he agree that those who call for a ceasefire must recognise that Hamas is a terrorist organisation and, as was said by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) yesterday, that terrorist organisations go for ceasefires only when they suit their own regrouping, not to end violence?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and, of course, he is absolutely right. We all recognise the motivation of those who call for a ceasefire and why they are doing it, but at this time, in this situation, it is perfectly clear that Hamas have no intention of engaging in a ceasefire. Indeed, they have repeatedly made it clear that their intention is to repeat the awful events of 7 October. So I agree entirely with both his understanding and prediction of the situation.
I and many of my constituents continue to be upset beyond words by the human suffering we have seen on television screens since 7 October. So often, I am being asked to take sides, but, in the words of Jonathan Freedland:
“This is not a football match… Two peoples with deep wounds, howling with grief, fated to share the same small piece of land.”
Does the Minister agree that the side we need to be on is the side of all those who are working towards a lasting peace?
The hon. Lady is entirely correct in her last point, and indeed in all that she said. She says that her constituents are upset beyond measure. One thing we can all agree, wherever we stand on this issue, is that everyone is upset beyond measure. Therefore, she is right to say that we must focus, whenever the opportunity presents itself, on the political track and all the opportunities that could then open up.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his long-standing work in this area. The shadow Minister spoke of fuel and water. On 7 October, amid Hamas’s atrocities in Israel, the terrorist group made a concerted effort to destroy water and electricity lines from Israel into Gaza. Apparently, Israel has reopened two of the three water lines into Gaza, but the third remains heavily damaged, as do the power lines. Does he share my concern that Hamas deliberately seek to worsen the humanitarian conditions inside Gaza?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments, and of course he is right. Once again, I draw his attention to the words of the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague, who so accurately, so soon after these awful events took place, predicted the reasons why Hamas were doing this and why, ultimately, they must fail.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the response from my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). Will the Minister distance himself from the description of the Palestine marchers as “hate-filled”? The constituents I have been talking to are decent, law-abiding families who have no truck at all with Hamas but who are horrified by the scenes they are seeing, of children killed and maimed, day after day on their screens and are wanting this to stop, as we all must. Will he distance himself from that description?
The rights of protest are much cherished in this country, and, of course, they are enshrined in law and we respect that. As for what the Home Secretary said, we are all responsible for what we say and she said it in the way that she did.
First, let me thank the Minister, all his team and the United Nations agencies that are involved—Martin Griffiths and the people from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees who are on the ground, who obviously are in mourning for their colleagues—for all their incredible work to help with humanitarian aid. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is, in a sense, an intractable problem, because the nature of Hamas and how they are based in Gaza makes it impossible for Israel to defend itself effectively without, surely, breaking the rules of engagement and causing casualties, which everyone here finds very hard to accept? Does he therefore accept that the smidgeon of hope in all of this is that this disaster, which could repeat itself time and again, must be the catalyst for those in the region, above all, to lead on finding a proper political solution?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I hope that he will agree with my Oslo analogy and think that should give us all some hope at a very dark time. He is entirely right in what I take him to have meant, which is that Hamas can play no part in the future of Gaza after what has happened. I thank him very much for his comments about UN agencies and officials. There is no doubt that the UN, particularly UNRWA and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is working incredibly hard. I last spoke to Martin Griffiths just after 2 o’clock this morning, and I can tell the House that every sinew is being bent within the UN in trying to end an horrific state of affairs, which has been so accurately set out across the House.
Heartbreakingly, the number of children killed in Gaza in just four weeks of Israeli bombardment has surpassed the number killed in global conflict zones for every year since 2019, so we must urgently work for peace and a two-state solution, however difficult that may seem, and urgently deal with the humanitarian crisis engulfing Gaza. It pains me to see that the death toll in the occupied west bank, which I recently visited, is rapidly rising, including as a result of an Israeli airstrike on a mosque and more deadly settler violence. Those victims are certainly not Hamas. So will the Minister join me in condemning settler violence and the extremist rhetoric, and will he ensure that those perpetrators are held to account?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to ask us to condemn settler violence. The Prime Minister did that yesterday when he addressed the House, I did it in my statement, and it has been done from the Opposition Front Bench as well. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that violence in the west bank has reached unprecedented levels. We are doing everything we can to urge restraint and ensure that it stops. In what he said about children, he speaks for the whole House. The analysis of the problem is the easy part, but we are all working for the resolution.
On children, I welcome both statements made from the Front Benches: my right hon. Friend the Minister is right to focus on every civilian life that has been lost in this conflict, and the hon. Member for Wigan was right to highlight the importance of children in this. I remind the House that the full wording of the Balfour declaration included:
“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Children’s rights should be at the heart of that, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to double down on the push for humanitarian pauses and for humanitarian access, to make sure that we can protect children’s rights to life and to education?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, with which I agree entirely, and for his recollection of the Balfour declaration.
I am told by the Muslim Council of Wales that seven families in Wales have lost immediate family members in Palestine, with some having lost children and grandchildren. We fear for the Israeli hostages in Gaza, among them British citizens. More will lose their lives, which is why Plaid Cymru has tabled a motion in the Senedd calling on the international community to seek an immediate ceasefire. In advocating for humanitarian pauses, does the Minister recognise that innocent non-combatants in Gaza will again be killed when pauses cease and that the only way to achieve lasting peace is a ceasefire?
The right hon. Lady will have heard what I and the Opposition Front Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), have said about ceasefires, but the hearts of the whole House will go out to the seven families—and maybe others too, in Wales—who have lost family members.
The atrocities on 7 October were well planned and well resourced. Indeed, Hamas, the terrorist group, stockpiled in advance, knowing what the response would be from Israel. Equally, Hamas have been caught out putting injured terrorists through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of what Hamas should do now to release the resources they have stockpiled, so that there can be a wider humanitarian effort than there is currently?
My hon. Friend is right and knows a great deal about these issues. He is right about the atrocities committed on 7 October by Hamas. This was a pogrom. It was the worst loss of Jewish life at any time in one day since the Holocaust and since 1945. One reason why the Rafah crossing is so difficult is precisely because of the circumstances that he described, with the misuse of the rules by injured Hamas terrorists.
According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, more than 10,000 people have been killed by Israeli forces in the past month—that is one of every 200 residents of Gaza. That does not include everyone who may have died due to lack of clean water or the collapse of the healthcare system after fuel was cut off. How many more people must die before the Government join the UN Secretary-General, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Oxfam and the UN General Assembly in calling for an immediate ceasefire?
Once again, the hon. Lady will have heard the views of spokespeople on both Front Benches on the issue of a ceasefire, but her comments underline the importance now of trying to achieve these humanitarian pauses, so that help and succour can be brought to those who are suffering.
The loss of life in Israel and Palestine is beyond horror and everybody wants it to stop, but the statement from Hamas that they will not stop until the people of Israel are annihilated is deeply chilling. In his statement, the Minister mentioned radicalisation and the concern that the greater the loss of civilian life, the greater the risk of radicalisation, so I thank him for saying clearly that Israel must take precautions to minimise civilian casualties. I would add that Israel needs to be seen to be taking such precautions. We continue to call for pauses in fighting to let aid in and people out. What assessment has he made of the likelihood of such pauses happening?
I do not think I can give a running commentary on that, except to say that the sinews of everybody are bent towards achieving it. My right hon. Friend makes a good point that, from all this death, destruction and killing, we must guard against the radicalisation of an entire new generation of young people. As President Biden said, it is very important that the lessons of 9/11 are properly learned.
Those of us who support a ceasefire are getting the overwhelming message from both the Government and the Labour Front Bench spokespeople that somehow calling for a ceasefire is naive. Does the Minister think that the Pope is naive in calling for a ceasefire?
I have set out very clearly our understanding, our logic and the reasons why we and Opposition Front Benchers have reached the conclusions we have on a ceasefire. I hope, at the very least, the hon. Gentleman will reflect on those.
Getting aid into Gaza is vital and I welcome the Minister’s statement about looking for additional border crossings. What is more important is making sure that once aid is in Gaza, it gets to the people who need it most. Reports suggest that Hamas are holding more than 200,000 gallons of fuel that could be used for generators, to power hospitals or for ambulances. What is the Government’s assessment of Hamas holding fuel? What steps are being taken to ensure that once aid gets into Gaza, it does not end up in the hands of Hamas?
My hon. Friend is right that we know Hamas have hoarded fuel in Gaza, although I cannot give him a statistic on that. The statistic he gave to the House may or may not be right, but we know that they do have a stockpiling of fuel. In terms of the way in which support will be used once we get the pauses and are able to get help and humanitarian supplies into Gaza, I can tell my hon. Friend that we are very careful indeed. We never work through the Palestinian Authority or Hamas in terms of direct support; we only go through trusted organisations. As I set out in my statement, we are very careful indeed to ensure that the aid gets to those who need it and gets there directly.
The United Nations Secretary-General has said:
“Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children.”
More than 4,000 children have been killed since the start of the conflict. Every day we see footage of heartbreaking stories; I watched a small girl being pulled out of the rubble, asking her uncle if she was dead and whether he was taking her to a graveyard. Another video showed a girl of barely five stuck under a collapsed building, praying her final prayers in preparation for her death. At their age, children should be asking whether they are going to a playground, to buy an ice cream or any of those usual things, not whether they are going to a graveyard or preparing for their death. Children outside Al-Shifa Hospital yesterday felt they needed to do a press conference to call on the world to let them live. Minister, when will the UK ramp up its effort to end the bloodshed and ensure that Palestinian children just have the right to live?
The hon. Lady speaks with the greatest possible eloquence. She speaks for the whole House in saying that what is happening to children in Gaza appals us all. I just ask her to consider the wider context, accept that the Government understand and agree with her analysis of the plight of children in Gaza, and will do everything within the wider context to try to bring that to an end.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests concerning my visit to Israel and Palestine in May this year.
I received a report from a surgeon at a hospital in Gaza today. He says the situation is beyond catastrophic and that he is seeing “horrific” injuries, the majority of which are to children. He says:
“The type of injuries we are seeing is not something a human mind can accept or tolerate.”
He goes on to say that people who are being pulled alive from the rubble
“are scratched and bleeding and full of flies.”
A lot of his report is very graphic, including the fact that many children have lost limbs and no one knows who many of them are. The UK is the penholder for the protection of civilians in conflict at the UN Security Council. Can we ensure that all health facilities, including the Indonesia Hospital in Gaza, which was at threat of being bombed, be protected from attack?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to refer to the UK’s role at the United Nations. We take those responsibilities extremely seriously and our brilliant team who work at the UN are doing everything to justify the fact that we hold that particular pen, among any others. My hon. Friend will have heard what the Prime Minister said about the treatment of hospitals, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect them.
May I welcome the balance and tone of the Minister’s statement? When the Government make representations to the Israeli Government about the increase in settler violence in the west bank, what do the Israeli Government say in return?
These are ongoing discussions and they are made at many levels. The Prime Minister has spoken repeatedly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and my colleague Lord Ahmad has been consistently in the region, as has the Foreign Secretary, so we are having those discussions at every level. The right hon. Gentleman may rest assured that what the Prime Minister has said, and what I have said from the Dispatch Box, is the thrust of those discussions, and we are doing everything we possibly can to drive forward what both he and I believe is the right answer to this.
It is incredibly difficult to hear the testimonies of the survivors of the 7 October Hamas atrocities. It is equally difficult to see the media reports of what is happening in Gaza, particularly in relation to the children who are being affected. It is so important that we do all we can to bring this conflict to an end for the security and the futures of children in both Israel and Gaza. I welcome the extra humanitarian aid that is going into Gaza from the UK Government. Can the Minister please assure us that, once this conflict is over and even bigger humanitarian aid is required, the Government will do all they can to help rebuild Gaza?
On my hon. Friend’s final point, there is no doubt that when peace comes and the international community is able to engage in a political process, the rebuilding of Gaza will certainly be a part of that. To her point about the awful testimonies of survivors from the 7 October attacks and the dreadful scenes that we see on our television thanks to the brave reportage of many journalists, there is no doubt that it is extremely difficult to watch, which is why the Government, along with our allies and others who are deeply concerned about this, are doing all we can to ensure that we bring this to a close as soon as we can.
There are 1,400 dead in Israel and 10,000 dead in Gaza; there is increased military activity on the west bank, increased settler violence, and now more and more children dying as this conflict goes on in Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu is now promising that Israel will control the Gaza strip into the indefinite future. Is it not time that the British Government joined all those other sensible and reasonable voices around the world that are doing everything they can to demand and get a ceasefire to prevent any further loss of life and to begin to work out a peaceful future for all the people in the region?
The right hon. Gentleman will have heard what his successor, the leader of the Labour party, has said on the subject of a ceasefire, and we agree with him. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman describes an extraordinarily difficult situation. He also talks about security on the west bank, the key purpose of which for Israel is to ensure that the rockets cannot come over the border again. I think we need to see security in that context, rather than in the ebb and flow of the debate that is going on at the moment.
We know that escalation is a real risk. With reports that Israeli forces have started raiding refugee camps on the west bank, we know that there is real risk to innocent Palestinians. There are also reports of Israeli settlers on the west bank becoming increasingly hostile in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Will the Minister please explain what specific steps he is taking to de-escalate the situation?
My hon. Friend makes the point that escalation is not just about the region, but about the west bank as well. That is why the Prime Minister has condemned settler violence and why we continue to make representations to the Israeli Government in that respect.
On the question of humanitarian pauses, can the Minister tell us his assessment of how long they will last, how people will be protected, and how those pauses will be managed? He referred briefly to those points in his statement.
The aim of humanitarian pauses is not only to get humanitarian relief and supplies into Gaza, but to ensure that there is a safe structure, as I said earlier in my statement, to deliver humanitarian supplies, and one that does not put people in jeopardy. Therefore, a humanitarian pause should not be seen as one on its own; we are looking at negotiating a series of humanitarian pauses, so that there can be a proper supply basis for the people we are trying to help.
Many constituents have raised concerns with me about the humanitarian crisis faced by Palestinians in Gaza. Indeed, a march was held in Aylesbury on Saturday, which, I am pleased to say, passed off peacefully. We know that Hamas hide behind human shields—including, shockingly, even in hospitals. How is my right hon. Friend’s Department working with partners on the ground in Gaza to ensure that aid gets to those who need it, including in hospitals, despite the barbarity and the barriers put in their way by Hamas?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the importance of ensuring that Hamas brutality does not fetter our ability to get aid through to those who really need it. I can give him the undertaking that that is precisely what we are trying to do.
Against the backdrop of a child dying every 10 minutes in Gaza and evidence that water entering as aid through the Rafah crossing is not being allowed into northern Gaza, will the Minister confirm that the Government support the independence of the International Criminal Court and recognise its jurisdiction to address the conduct of all parties in the conflict in Gaza?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about the importance of prioritising children. In respect of the International Criminal Court, she will know that the Government are a very strong supporter of it and the role that it plays in international affairs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement; I agreed with every single word of it. In my 13 years as an MP I have never received such detailed and harrowing letters from my Jewish and Muslim communities in South Derbyshire. Whatever else happens, please can we make sure that, looking to the future, we work on the two-state solution and put in place a safe place for all Gazans and Jewish families going forward?
My hon. Friend accurately summarises the role and the importance that the Government attach to progressing the political process, and I thank her for her comments in that respect.
Will the Minister tell us whether his discussions with charities and non-governmental organisations this morning included aid agencies such as Oxfam, Christian Aid or Save the Children? They say that only a full ceasefire can deliver the conditions to get lifesaving food, fuel, water and medicine into Gaza, not least because critical infrastructure, such as roads and hospitals, needs to be mended first and that cannot happen if there are only humanitarian pauses. I know that he has said a lot this afternoon about the difference between pauses and a ceasefire, but he has not addressed explicitly the advice that we are hearing from humanitarian experts on the ground who say that only a full ceasefire will allow them to get that kind of aid fast enough to the people who need it.
The hon. Lady is correct about the importance of tackling the deficiencies of infrastructure, both in the area around Rafah and more extensively than that. She asks about my contact with NGOs and charities. As she said, I had a meeting this morning that was chaired by the British Overseas NGOs for Development—BOND— which is the collective of charities. We operate through trusted partners, such as UNICEF, UNRWA and UNHCHR, and we are in continual contact with them. The point she makes about infrastructure is one that we are very much aware of and will do everything we can to assist with.
The Minister is absolutely right to say that Hamas made a massive strategic error when they attacked innocent Israeli people on 7 October, and they are paying a heavy price with the destruction of their terror network in the Gaza strip. However, does he agree that the bigger price that they should pay is the moderate voices on both sides coming together to re-establish the framework, as he has referred to, that was in place under Oslo, going towards a two-state solution between a viable Israeli state and a viable Palestinian state, and getting the terror network out of the way?
Not just in Britain but all around the Arab world and the United Nations, people are very much focused on how to get a political track going again when these dreadful events draw to a close. As I said earlier, I think the one opportunity that may arise from these dreadful events is an effort to rebuild the political process to deliver an answer on the way we go forward politically—my hon. Friend mentioned the two-state solution, which is the bedrock of British Government policy.
I spoke to a constituent last night who is studying in York. He has lost 42 members of his wider family, and his immediate family remain in the line of rockets in Gaza. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there can be family reunions, and that refugees can come from the Gaza strip to the UK?
We are working very hard to ensure that families are not broken up through the Rafah crossing. We have been moderately successful at that so far. I am sure that everything that can be done will be done. If any of the hon. Lady’s constituents are caught up in that way, I hope that she will let us know in the crisis centre through the MP hotline.
I put on record my thanks to the Bolton Council of Mosques, which covers 34 mosques in my constituency and has 60,000 members across the town. My constituents have felt very aggrieved over the last month. We have seen statements coming out of Israel about having “security responsibility” for Gaza for an “indefinite period”. The Minister mentioned that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that there shall be no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza after the war. What is our Government’s position on that in the long term? My constituents through the Bolton Council of Mosques have called repeatedly for a ceasefire. I will meet them again tomorrow night. From our Government’s perspective, what criteria would have to be met in order for us to call for a ceasefire?
I know that my hon. Friend has been deeply engaged in representing his constituents, and I am aware of the representations that he has made. I hope that he will explain to his constituents tomorrow night the reasons why a ceasefire is not something that either the Government or the Opposition are calling for. I hope that he will be able to explain that we are doing everything that we can both to construct a scenario where there can be a number of pauses and to ensure that humanitarian support can be safely delivered within Gaza.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that as Gaza loses power, hospitals lose power, putting newborns in incubators and elderly patients who are on oxygen at risk. Without electricity, hospitals turn into morgues. Does the Minister not think that at this point bringing an immediate stop to the violence is the only way to stop hospitals turning into morgues and the whole of Gaza turning into a graveyard?
We are extremely concerned about the position in hospitals and the effects that the hon. Gentleman has described, but I can only repeat what I have already said to the House about how we are doing everything that we can to try to bring these circumstances to a close.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for his, the Prime Minister’s and the Foreign Secretary’s ongoing diplomatic efforts. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the brave humanitarian workers who are doing so much in Gaza, and can he reassure the House again that the UK Government are straining every sinew to get as much humanitarian aid into Gaza as quickly as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for once again reiterating the strong support across the House for the brave humanitarian workers and what they are doing in this terrible conflict, and for expressing his abhorrence that unarmed people who are trying only to benefit their fellow humans should be murdered in this way. He can rest assured that we will do everything that we can to ensure that they are protected.
Hounslow’s Muslim leaders told me and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) yesterday evening of the horror felt in their communities at the atrocities taking place in Gaza, the need to get aid and support in, and their wish for long-term peace. Now that Israel is threatening to occupy Gaza permanently, will the UK Government support the US Secretary of State Blinken’s insistence that there should be no Israeli occupation of Gaza after this war?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for telling the House about her meetings with the Muslim leaders in her constituency. I hope that she will tell them about the position of the House, the aid and support that we are trying to get in through the pauses, and the support for the political process that she mentioned. The British Government agree with what Secretary Blinken said, but are absolutely clear that the perpetrators of the dreadful events on 7 October—Hamas—must never be allowed to do it again.
My constituent Momon Zomlot is from Gaza. I met him when he was working as a chef at a local pizza restaurant. He is an incredibly nice and genuine guy, but this morning he sent me a text informing me that his family home was destroyed three days ago and he has heard nothing from his family since. How much longer do we have to wait until this suffering ends and humanitarian aid can reach people such as my constituent’s family?
I cannot tell my hon. Friend the answer to that, but I can tell him that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that the period is as short as possible.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I indicated that I would endeavour to accommodate everybody. That remains the case. The Minister has indicated to me that he has effectively cleared his diary to accommodate this statement, because he realises how important it is. But there is a time when everything has to come to an end, because a large number of Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, wish to speak in the King’s Speech debate and we want to get those people in as well. I will try to terminate this statement by 2.30 pm, bearing in mind that some 38 Members still wish to ask a question.
We are grateful to the Minister for his tireless work, but by his own analysis the aid is not getting through. I commend to him the motion passed by Birmingham City Council last night that calls for an immediate ceasefire binding on all sides, because it is the best way to save the hostages, get aid through, and let the war crimes inspectors do their work. I support that position. I do not think that he does, but could he tell us under what conditions the British Government would shift from a policy of supporting humanitarian pauses to a strategy of supporting an immediate ceasefire?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will explain to our friends on Birmingham City Council the reason the Government and indeed his own Front Bench take the view that they do about a ceasefire, but he is right that the critical thing at the moment is to focus on the humanitarian pauses, which are designed to get food to those who need it. Nothing is more important in this context than that.
The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) that he wants the Government of Israel to comply with international human rights law and that he encourages them to do so, but he did not answer my hon. Friend’s question: have the Government made an assessment of whether or not the Government of Israel are complying with international human rights law?
It is not for the Government to make such an assessment; it is for lawyers and a court to do so. The critical thing is that Britain makes it clear that all countries must abide by international humanitarian law and the rules of war.
Over 10,000 people have already been killed in Gaza in the past month—more than were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. There are grave concerns that starvation is being used as a weapon of war against 400,000 civilians in the north of Gaza. That is illegal under international law. The UN Secretary-General and a number of others have talked about the need for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and a halt to the spiral of escalation already taking place, from the west bank to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. I recognise the position across the two main parties on a ceasefire, but 120 countries in the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian truce. That has not been achieved either. The Government talk about humanitarian pauses, yet our Government have abstained on UN resolutions. What are the Government doing to use their influence at the international level to stop the bombardment, so that at the very least aid can get in?
As I set out in my statement, we are engaged on all those matters and doing everything we can, through Britain’s very strong diplomatic network, which means that we are engaged and connected to almost all the relevant parties in this matter, and that will continue.
Order. I do have to call upon hon. Members to try to keep their questions brief. I want to accommodate everybody, but at the present rate of lengthy questions it is simply not going to be possible.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful answers. In 1919, seeing children from the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire starving, Eglantyne Jebb established Save the Children. Many people said to her, “How can you help enemy children?” and one of her supporters, the great Irish humanitarian George Bernard Shaw, said:
“I have no enemies under the age of seven.”
Almost half of Palestinians are children, many thousands of whom have been killed, maimed and orphaned. So have many Israeli children, including one dual Irish citizen who is believed to be among the hostages in Gaza. Does the Minister agree with UNICEF’s regional director, Adele Khodr, who says that the situation in Gaza is
“a growing stain on our collective conscience”?
The head of UNICEF, who made those comments, is right to focus on what is happening in Gaza and to express her abhorrence of what is taking place. On the hon. Lady’s citation of the brilliant work that Save the Children does, I have been intimately connected with Save the Children for the last 20 years and we honour both its work and the success it so often achieves.
Everybody wants the bloodshed to stop; the question is how to secure that ambition in a lasting way, not whether we should seek it. For my constituents, that matters not just as a policy for the UK Government, but for the people on the ground, who are our neighbours and directly affected. May I have a few precious moments of the Minister’s time to help to offer them just a crumb of comfort? For 30 days they have not heard anything. Both Oded and Ibrahim are at direct risk of harm due to Hamas and the Israeli missiles. Oded, the father of one of my constituents, was kidnapped by Hamas, and the Prime Minister made a personal pledge to assist him. Ibrahim is at risk because we do not yet know why he and his family have not been able to cross the border at Rafah. May I seek an urgent meeting with the Minister to look specifically at those two cases and to find those rays of light we all desperately want for my constituents?
In response to the hon. Lady’s request for a meeting, she will know that the crisis centre in the Foreign Office, which is full of both willing volunteers and experts in these consular matters, will be the right place to take this issue. However, I will certainly meet her immediately after this statement.
A doctor sent a message last night from Gaza saying, “We have worms coming out of wounds even after we do surgeries. Nothing is clean. Nothing is sterile.” It is clear that we need an urgent cessation of hostilities on all sides on humanitarian grounds, because the situation in Gaza is now unspeakable. At the same time, as well as condemning settler violence in the west bank, we need more action to bring an end to it. May I bring the Minister back to a question of accountability under international law, following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott)? Will the Minister confirm that the Government support the independence of the International Criminal Court and recognise its jurisdiction to address the conduct of all parties in Gaza and the west bank?
We are very strong supporters of the International Criminal Court, and that has been true under Governments from both the main parties. On the hon. Lady’s important point that we need to see an end to settler violence, the Government entirely agree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) set out in the most powerful way why the deaths and trauma experienced by innocent children in Gaza are utterly intolerable. The supply of basic utilities such as water, medicine, electricity and fuel needed to operate the hospitals in Gaza should not be blocked. It is unacceptable that siege conditions are still being imposed on Gaza by Israel. Can the Minister confirm that he agrees, and what has he done to communicate that to Israel as a matter of urgency?
The Government at every level are engaged in those discussions with the state of Israel. The hon. Lady lists a number of humanitarian supplies that need to get through, and Britain is at the forefront of the international community in doing everything we can to ensure both that they do get through, and that there are sufficient supplies in the region.
I will not take up time now, but we will forward the report from Doctor Hassan at the Indonesian hospital in Gaza regarding the treatment of children with no hands and stage 4 burns. However, we must remember that 30 of the hostages are children too. I believe in an immediate ceasefire, but I am willing to clutch at straws as well. Have the Government verified in any form with Qatar the reports that Hamas might be willing to agree a release of civilian hostages for a five-day ceasefire, and have the Government engaged at all with the proposal by the families of hostages for an “all for all” release of hostages for prisoners of Israel?
The right hon. Gentleman is a very senior member of this House and he knows that I cannot give him a running commentary on hostage negotiations. However, I can confirm to him that Qatar has been exceedingly helpful and that releasing the hostages remains at the very top of our list of priorities in this dreadful situation.
I hate to disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), but I am not sure we can exactly trade hostages in these conditions. However, does Minister agree that the immediate release of the hostages would go a long way towards enabling the conditions for the kind of humanitarian pause or pauses that we need if we are to deliver aid in the manner and on the scale that we all think is necessary?
As a person of Jewish heritage, I was mortified and horrified by what happened on 7 October, but I did not for one second believe that any Palestinian child anywhere was responsible. Yet the Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that Gaza is “a graveyard for children” and that the Israelis are committing war crimes, and has called for humanitarian peace. We helped to create the United Nations. We are permanent members. Is it not time we got behind the Secretary-General, who speaks with great moral authority on these matters, and ourselves called for a ceasefire?
The British role at the United Nations is second to none in trying to stop what is happening in Israel and in Palestine. The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that Hamas knew exactly what they were unleashing on that dreadful day of 7 October, and the blame for what has happened should be allocated precisely where it rests.
Gaza used to be described as a “prison camp”—that is what Prime Minister David Cameron called it in 2010. This week the United Nations Secretary-General called it “a graveyard for children”. More than 10,000 Palestinians have been slaughtered in Israel’s assault, nearly half of them children. It would take nearly six hours to read the names and ages of every child killed so far. Yet that horror has been given the green light by this Government. Today I tabled an amendment to the Humble Address calling for an immediate ceasefire, a move backed by 76% of the British public. Will the Government finally do what is right and demand an immediate ceasefire to end the bloodshed?
While the hon. Lady is eloquent on the effects, she is not so eloquent, in my opinion, on the causes. In respect of the amendment that she has tabled, of course that is a matter for the House, but it will not be supported by the Government, nor by those on her own Front Bench.
Almost 1,200 constituents have been in touch with my office demanding a ceasefire now. Oxfam has said that humanitarian pauses and safe zones are simply not enough to address this humanitarian crisis, and it is far from alone in saying so. Can the Minister explain to my constituents and to Oxfam why he will not support a ceasefire?
I will not try your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker, by repeating what I have already said. The hon. Lady says that pauses are not enough, but there have not yet been any pauses. That is why we are working so hard to try to achieve them.
I thank the Minister for his statement, but how will he ensure that humanitarian aid, which he has assured the House will get to those in Gaza, will actually get there? We are getting reports that there are hospitals in the north that have only 24 hours’ worth of fuel. We are seeing and hearing horrific reports of children dying, and of people trying to work in those horrific circumstances. What are we doing to help those people? It is too much. We are crying; we are upset. It is going on and on. We have statements to the House, but they are not enough. People need to know that we care and that we will make a difference.
I do not think there is any doubt that, across the House, we care deeply about what is happening there. The hon. Lady asks how we will achieve access for humanitarian aid, and rightly makes the point that it is not getting through in anything like sufficient quantity at the moment. That is why we are doing everything we can, across the international community and the humanitarian sector, to ensure that the pauses are implemented and take place as soon as possible.
We are seeing a humanitarian catastrophe of unfathomable depths unfolding among the world’s youngest population. Last week, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for the
“immediate, full, sustained, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access”
for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as well as an
“immediate and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”.
The United Kingdom abstained. The resolution was supported by France, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, New Zealand and 115 other nations. Why did the UK abstain? If a similar resolution comes again, will the UK vote for it? Does the UK support Pedro Sanchez, who put a motion before the European Council calling for a peace conference after the conflict has finished? Does the UK join that call?
If another motion comes before the United Nations, Britain will of course look at the terms of that motion and discuss it together with our allies and like-minded countries who, like the hon. Gentleman, want to see an end to these dreadful circumstances. In respect of the last motion and Britain’s decision not to oppose it but to abstain, he will have seen the reasons set out by the Government. For any new motion put before the United Nations, we will vote in the way that we think is best in these dreadful circumstances.
The Secretary of State has said that he is discussing with partners how to increase the amount of aid going into Gaza, and that humanitarian pauses must be part of that, but how long must a humanitarian pause be to live up to that name? Infrastructure needs to be repaired, and an enormous amount of aid needs to be shifted, in a very short time. Is there consensus with those partners on how long a humanitarian pause has to be?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but these matters are the subject of intensive negotiations at this time.
We know that multiple respected humanitarian organisations on the ground in Gaza and Israel have called for a ceasefire of all parties. We know that, historically, ceasefires break down and are maintained again only with international support and pressure, so how many horrors and deaths do the Government believe we must see before that pressure comes from the international community? If, as he said, the Minister believes that multiple humanitarian pauses are achievable on all sides, when will that hope be transferred to a permanent, lasting ceasefire?
Although it is not the policy of the Government or Opposition Front Benchers to call for a ceasefire, we are calling for comprehensive humanitarian pauses to enable us to reach civilians in the desperate circumstances that the hon. Lady describes.
I concur with the calls for a ceasefire. Since 7 October, an estimated 39 journalists have been killed in the conflict. That makes it the most deadly month for journalists in almost 30 years. What more can the Government do to stress to the Israeli Government the importance of safety for journalists and their safe access? Accurate reporting on this is crucial.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to raise the point about the number of journalists who have sadly lost their lives. Many very brave journalists are in the area trying to ensure that we get accurate reporting of what is going on there—they risk their lives in that respect. When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Foreign Secretary, he specifically implemented a number of changes to try to defend journalists who were caught up in those sorts of difficulties, and the British Government strongly support the work that he set in train.
In the scale of human suffering in the 7 October attack and the offensive in Gaza, we are drawn to that of the children who have been killed or injured, and who continue to suffer. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), has asked the Government to provide for a co-ordinator for aid to be appointed. Will the Government meet that request?
We are certainly considering that as the situation evolves, but for the moment, there are many specialists fulfilling a series of different purposes and different work in connection with the international situation.
The human suffering in Gaza is unimaginable, and a humanitarian pause for aid is desperately needed to save lives. The UK has played a unique historical role, so what steps are the Government taking to support UNICEF and others in protecting the million innocent children in Gaza?
UNICEF is one of the most highly respected United Nations organisations and agencies. Britain has consistently been one of the most generous and strong supporters of UNICEF, precisely because of the effectiveness of that organisation. The hon. Lady may rest assured that we will work closely with UNICEF throughout this period, and that we profoundly respect the abilities and reach that UNICEF brings to its work.
Yesterday a mother and five children—all UK citizens in my constituency—finally made it out of Gaza, having experienced sights that no child should witness, literally walking past hundreds of dismembered and decaying bodies to reach safety. If war crimes are committed, they should be investigated. Will the Minister answer the question that he has deftly avoided so far: is there a role for the International Criminal Court in investigating the conduct of all parties to this terrible war?
I do not think it fair to say that I was avoiding the question. I was making the point, which I know the hon. Gentleman will understand, that Britain was one of the first countries to support the ICC—it was not supported by Russia, China or America, as I recall—so Britain’s support and enthusiasm for the work of the ICC should not be in doubt.
It is heartbreaking to hear of the fear and terror that caused 1.5 million people in Gaza to be displaced. Does the Minister agree that, for the 1.5 million Palestinians who had to flee, the right to return to their homes is vital for long-term peace, especially given the history in the region? Has the Minister raised that in his diplomatic meetings, and what response has he received?
We all hope that, eventually, the position in Gaza will be radically different from what it is today, and that the two-state solution will be implemented. The two-state solution means that Israel is able to live behind secure borders and the state of Palestine emerges, so the answer to the hon. Lady’s question is a fairly qualified yes.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for his clear commitment to looking out for the innocent in Israel and Gaza and to finding solutions—it is clear that that is what he wants to do. It is understood that the Egyptian Government have opened the Rafah crossing for dual nationals to vacate the Gaza strip, and many have already taken advantage of that. What steps will the Government take to ensure that British dual nationals are guaranteed safe passage via the crossing to get back to the UK for a much-loved reunion with their families?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments—he always speaks for the House on humanitarian matters. More than 150 British nationals have now come out, and all our country-based staff and dependents were out by last night. There are 32 British nationals who are waiting for clearance, and 48 British nationals who have been cleared and who were waiting to come across when this statement started. That is the current position, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use the MPs’ hotline to the crisis centre for any of his constituents who are caught up in this, so that we can give him the most accurate information available.
The charity Medical Aid for Palestinians has warned that people are struggling to find food and water and meet their basic needs, and that even the minimal humanitarian aid that has been allowed in is unable to be distributed fully, due to the damaged roads and lack of fuel for trucks. The north of Gaza is basically receiving no aid at all, so can the Minister set out how the Government are working with international partners to ensure that urgent fuel and humanitarian supplies are not only getting into Gaza, but throughout it, to help those in desperate need?
The hon. Lady rightly draws a distinction between getting humanitarian supplies into Gaza and being able to distribute them safely. These are very challenging circumstances, for the reasons I have set out to the House, but she may rest assured that the international humanitarian community is doing everything it can to address them.
The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza, with an average of 180 giving birth every day without access to obstetric services and, of course, babies being born into a war zone. Can the Minister outline what work is going on to make sure that humanitarian aid is getting to those pregnant women, new mums and babies?
The right hon. Lady describes an extremely difficult situation, one that has been ventilated in the press, where we have seen that women are having to give birth in the most hideous of circumstances. What I can say to her is that if we are able to get aid in, we have specific humanitarian aid and support for mothers of babies—for mothers who have just given birth—and when we are able to get access in that respect, we will do everything we can to meet that need.
Thousands of children are dead. Many more are traumatised, millions are being starved, and as we have heard, the UN has described Gaza as becoming a “graveyard for children”. We all agree that Israel has the right to respond to the senseless and brutal attack of 7 October, but many of us, including hundreds of my constituents, believe that this response is utterly disproportionate. With the UN, the WHO, and the lead prosecutor of the ICC warning of breaches of international law, will the Minister explain to the House what it will take for his Government to stand up to Netanyahu and his extremist Ministers and make clear that this abject suffering simply cannot, and must not, continue?
Because we are strongly supportive of Israel’s right to self-defence—we have been absolutely clear about that throughout these dreadful circumstances, as have the Opposition—we are able to have clear and firm discussions with the Prime Minister of Israel, and that is what we do.
I abhor the loss of all innocent civilian life. Dead innocent Israeli men, women and children and dead innocent Palestinian men, women and children have this in common: they are innocent civilians, and they are dead. This vicious cycle of killing must stop. As we are here to talk about the humanitarian situation, I remind the House that the Prime Minister told us before Prorogation that he would use British logistical capacity to get hundreds of aid lorries a day—rather than the tens that were crossing at the time—across the Rafah crossing. By when do we expect that target to be met?
The hon. Gentleman speaks for everyone in the House when he abhors the loss of life among innocent civilians. On the humanitarian situation, he has referred to what the Prime Minister said before Prorogation. What the Prime Minister said is absolutely correct: Britain has not only been supplying humanitarian provisions into el-Arish so that they can go through Rafah when circumstances permit but has provided heavy lift materials so that others, as well as us, can move those supplies towards Rafah when they are able to get through. What the Prime Minister told the House is what everyone, not just Britain, is trying to achieve.
I thank the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary for the work they have done to help facilitate the safe departure from Gaza of my constituent, Mr Abdel Hammad. Mr Hammad was in Gaza to perform kidney transplant operations as a charity volunteer with the Liverpool International Transplant Initiative. I pay tribute to his many years of humanitarian work in this field.
As we know, there have been thousands of deaths in this terrible conflict, so will the Minister urgently press all parties to agree to an immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities, and will he do all he can to bring about a peaceful resolution to this devastating conflict?
In respect of the hon. Lady’s last point, I am not sure I can add to what I have already told the House, but I am very relieved to hear about her constituent. I will pass on her thanks to both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.
The only route to long-term peace is a two-state solution. The Minister has said in response to other questions that Gaza will look radically different at the end of this conflict, but can he commit to making representations to his Israeli counterparts that all those displaced in Gaza will be able to return?
The hon. Lady rightly identifies the importance of getting back to the two-state solution, which is the policy of the British Government and has repeatedly been the policy of British Governments. She may rest assured that Britain, along with its allies, is absolutely focused on the wellbeing of the people of Gaza and their future. It is very important to make clear that Hamas is not the Palestinians.
To tackle this humanitarian crisis, we need to strain every sinew for a ceasefire. The UN Secretary-General says that we need a ceasefire, one binding on all sides. The UN high commissioner for human rights also says that we need a ceasefire; so, too, do the heads of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Children’s Fund, UN Women, the UN World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation. In fact, the heads of all major United Nations agencies are calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. Why do this Government think that they know better than the world’s leading humanitarian agencies?
Again, I am not sure that I can add to the very comprehensive and full answer that I have already given the House on that point, but let me make clear that it is not the policy of either the Government or the Opposition to call for a ceasefire, for the reasons I have set out. However, all of us across the House are engaged in trying to bring these dreadful events to a close.
I agree that the need for humanitarian pauses is urgent. With that in mind, what discussions are the Government having with regional partners, especially Egypt, to ensure that the Rafah crossing will allow for many more people to leave Gaza much more quickly? Further to that, can the Minister assure the House that when it is safe to do so, those people will be able to return quickly and safely?
I thank the hon. Lady for her support for humanitarian pauses. She can rest assured that we are having detailed discussions with all our regional partners. In respect of Egypt, which she mentioned specifically, I had a discussion yesterday at around midday with the Egyptian ambassador.
In depriving the civilian population of Gaza of water, food, medicine and power, combined with the forced relocation of civilians, not respecting the sanctity of hospitals—indeed, bombing or threatening to bomb hospitals—and targeting civilian infrastructure including refugee camps, Israel has broken articles 3, 18, 23, 33 and 47 of the Geneva conventions. What exactly do the Israel Defence Forces have to do before this Government call out Israel for its war crimes?
I would not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, in his question, of the Geneva convention, but when he talks about the need for water, food and medicines, he may rest assured that Britain is focused very much on those supplies in its humanitarian efforts.
In 2014, a six-hour pause made way for a three-day pause before a ceasefire. This House must be on the right side of history, and I absolutely respect the Minister for the time and the tone of the statement today. However, does he agree that, for lasting peace, we must inevitably reach the point of a ceasefire, even after humanitarian pauses? Will he assure me that he will press for that with our international partners to ensure that we have lasting peace in the region?
In spite of the hon. Lady’s very generous comments, I cannot agree with her, for the reasons I have set out, about calling now for a ceasefire, but I hope she will feel that the intention of the Government, along with our partners, in respect of humanitarian pauses is moving in the right direction.
I understand the need for Israel to act to free the hostages and deal with Hamas, although the images we see and the number of children who have been killed can sometimes seem a very distant way away from those objectives. On the latter of those aims, in relation to Hamas’s capacity, I would like to know how the UK Government will judge whether that objective has been reached and whether we have reached a point when we say to Israel that that is enough?
I recognise that the hon. Member is being supportive in saying that the purpose of the Israeli Government is to free the hostages and deal with Hamas. I am sure this will not be the only occasion when I come to the House to give a statement about both the humanitarian position and also the position throughout Gaza.
When so many children are being horribly maimed and killed, it really is not naive to call for a ceasefire. That is why so many international voices are calling for a ceasefire, including my friends at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. They have done that against the background of an assessment that the rules of international humanitarian law have not only been broken by Hamas, but may be being broken by the Israeli Government.
I was very disappointed to hear that the UK Government have not carried out an assessment of whether international humanitarian law is being obeyed on the ground in Gaza. This matters terribly to my constituents, many hundreds of whom have written to me about it. May I suggest to the Minister that if the UK Government fulfilled their obligation to carry out an assessment of whether international humanitarian law is being obeyed on the ground in Gaza, that might change both the UK Government’s mind and the mind of the official Opposition, and make them support a ceasefire now?
The hon. and learned Lady is a distinguished lawyer, and she will know that the judgment she is asking the Government to make is not a judgment for Ministers and politicians, but a judgment for lawyers in respect of international law, so I fear that I am not in a position, as a Minister, to give a direct answer to her question.
I want to thank the Minister for the way he has conducted himself this afternoon, listening to the wide range of concerns from right hon. and hon. Members. My prayers and thoughts remain with the hostages, who have been kidnapped for over 30 days now. They have to be released safely and urgently.
I have received so many emails from constituents who are really concerned about the ongoing humanitarian situation in Gaza. I recently met Islamic Relief UK, which is based in my Vauxhall constituency, and it shared with me the harrowing story of one of its aid workers on the ground:
“None of us has proper food, we’re struggling to find water and we have no electricity. Humanitarian assistance is not being allowed into Gaza and I fear people will starve here.”
That is a quote from an Islamic Relief staff member in Gaza who fled south with his family. These calls are real, and these calls are being made now. People are in desperate need of help. People are facing a major crisis. What more will the Minister and this Government do to make sure they are speaking to their Israeli counterparts to ensure that that pause is real and that it comes now, so we can get in urgent assistance and do not see more innocent civilians dying?
I think the hon. Lady speaks for the House about the importance of achieving the humanitarian pauses, which have been greatly mentioned over the last hour and a half. I say to her that I know those at Islamic Relief extremely well, and I have visited them in her constituency. They do fantastic work, and we all honour and respect them for that. In her question, she talked about the importance of releasing the hostages and addressing humanitarian concern. Those two things are at the heart of what the House has been discussing today, and I thank her for ending this session on a constructive note.
At the start of the statement, I expressed the hope that the House would rise to the occasion, and I have not been disappointed. I particularly thank the Minister for the courtesy he has brought and the time he has given to this session.