8 July 2015
May I say first, Mr Hollobone, how delighted I am that you are joining us to chair the debate? I am pleased that time has been found for it, and I thank everyone who has joined us in Westminster Hall to take part.
I also thank a number of campaign groups, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks that have met me this week to help shape some of the arguments I am about to make: Labour Friends of Palestine; Palestine Briefing; Yesh Din; Medical Aid for Palestinians; the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network; Forward Thinking; Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and Ray Dolphin from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
I start by saying how pleased I was that last week Britain was one of the 41 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to support the adoption of a resolution on the Gaza commission of inquiry report, which looked into the 2014 Gaza conflict and will now be referred to the UN General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Like many other people, I feel that is an important step in both highlighting and addressing the ongoing conflict, which has blighted lives for more than half a century. It is shameful that the international community has failed to make any real progress towards achieving peace in the region in that time.
Today marks a year since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, a conflict that lasted 51 days, claimed 2,251 lives, including the lives of 551 children, displaced more than half a million people, and destroyed 77 health facilities and 261 schools. Each day, an average of 680 tank and artillery shells pummelled the densely populated areas of Gaza, leaving barely anywhere safe. Although the report recognises that Israel issued warnings to people to evacuate, there was often nowhere for them to evacuate to and no means of escaping the conflict zone.
Gaza is a tiny strip of land, covering just 139 square miles. If we bear in mind that west Yorkshire alone covers 780 square miles, it gives us some perspective of just how small Gaza is, yet 1.8 million Palestinians live in what is increasingly becoming a densely populated open-air prison, and they have nowhere to go. In 2012 the World Bank published a report, “Gaza 2020”, which claimed that Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020 as a result of the blockade, an increase in population size, and insufficient access to clean drinking water, electricity, and health and education services. After last year’s devastation, Gaza has reached 2020 five years ahead of schedule.
Currently, 860,000 Palestinians in Gaza survive on UNRWA food parcels. In addition to the destruction of health facilities, schools and homes, there has been massive disruption of water supplies, sewage disposal and electricity supplies, and they have not yet been repaired. One year on, not one of the 8,377 homes that were totally destroyed in the conflict has been rebuilt, and repairs have been carried out on only 5% of the 23,597 homes that were partially destroyed.
Much of the aid pledged at last year’s Cairo conference for reconstruction in Gaza has not yet materialised, and I hope that the Minister can update us about the UK’s contribution. The UN requested $720 million, but it has received only about $210 million. UNRWA faces a severe funding crisis, as it has a deficit of $100 million, which of course is having a serious impact on its ability to deliver essential humanitarian aid.
I hope the Minister can also say why, at a time of such turmoil in the middle east and when institutions such as UNRWA are delivering vital aid and support to vulnerable communities, the Government are proposing a 17% cut in the Department for International Development’s contribution. Given the fragility of the region, the mass displacement of people and, of course, the rising threat of terrorism, it is in our own interests to invest—both politically and financially—in bringing about a stable middle east, to ensure that Palestinians have a future within their own borders.
There is, of course, one glaringly obvious way in which we can ensure the effectiveness of UK taxpayers’ money when it is spent in Palestine, with a view to achieving long-term reductions. That is to stop Israel levelling projects funded by the EU, DFID and UNRWA, and institutions that are part-financed by Britain. Earlier today, the Chancellor announced, with renewed vigour, further cuts in and scrutiny of, public spending. I would like to see the Government apply the same level of scrutiny and accountability to the destruction of those buildings and projects in Gaza. Perhaps the Minister will update us on that and say whether he will send Israel a bill for the damage.
We must consider what cuts might mean for Palestine at this time. UNRWA provides schooling to 500,000 students across the middle east in 700 schools, but it will be unable to do so if its current financial deficit continues. At a time of rising militancy in the region, we have to ensure that young people have access to a good education and have a future beyond schooling. Otherwise, they will inevitably look elsewhere for promises—false ones—of a better life.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said in an interview just last week:
“Palestinian refugees are facing their most severe situation since 1948. They have had 50 years of occupation, nine years of a blockade in Gaza and now five years of conflict in Syria. When you look at all of that, how much more can they absorb?”
That is a stark warning to all of us.
Of course, the UN inquiry will investigate actions undertaken by both sides, which is right and proper. Acts of violence committed by either side against innocent civilians are wholly unjustifiable, and those responsible must be held to account. Although the report finds that both the Israel defence forces and armed Palestinian groups failed to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants during last year’s conflict, the scale of the arsenal available to the IDF makes their failure particularly devastating.
The commission’s report highlights the IDF’s method of issuing warnings, in an attempt to create “sterile combat zones”, as an example of the failure to differentiate adequately between civilians and combatants. Leaflet drops or “roof knocks”, which involved a drop of small missiles prior to a much larger strike, were used to warn civilians of an impending attack. The commission found that those attempts failed to have the desired effect, either because there was not enough time between warnings and the much larger strikes, or because, as was often the case, civilians felt that there was simply nowhere safer for them to evacuate to. The IDF then failed to recognise anyone who chose to stay in the area as a civilian, denying them the protections that would ordinarily accompany civilian status under international law.
The commission’s report also looked at the west bank during the same period in 2014. Between 12 June and 26 August 2014, 27 Palestinians, including five children, were killed and 3,100 Palestinians were injured by Israeli security forces. That was largely due to increased use of live rounds as a means of achieving crowd control.
The commission’s report calls on Israel to bring its systems for investigating alleged violations of the law of armed conflict in line with international standards, and I hope that the UK will also take this opportunity to demand that. The examples that I have given must be the basis upon which we find ways to bring about change. We would be naive to think that these injustices are not feeding into a rise in militancy and unrest right across the region, as well as much closer to home.
Gaza has been under blockade for eight years, and the Palestinian people have been living under Israeli occupation for almost 50 years. That is a damning indictment of the international community, and of our failure to secure peace and justice for the people of Palestine. It is now 21 years since the Oslo accord, and an entire generation of young Palestinians—the Oslo generation—have grown up to witness a worsening situation on the ground. There have been significant expansions of illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank, heightened security threats to both sides, the construction of an illegal separation barrier, restrictions on Palestinian movement, the suffocation of productivity, punitive home demolitions and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and there is no end or hope in sight. It is depressing that, 21 years since Oslo, both sides seem to be further away from peace and security than ever before.
I welcome Britain’s support for the commission of inquiry on Gaza. However, although the report identifies in great detail the violations against international law and makes recommendations about addressing those, it also recognises that we have been here before, time and again. The empty rhetoric about opening dialogue and, increasingly, getting round negotiation tables has now been ongoing for more than 50 years. It is time to think carefully about why the international community has failed and time to consider all the options available to us, to ensure that we are not still sitting here in five, 10 or 20 years time, discussing yet more reports on further conflict.
That leads me on to what the UK could do, unilaterally if we must, to take concrete steps towards peace. We have condemned the illegal settlements in the west bank, as well the collective punishment inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza, in breach of the Geneva convention, which has been described as a war crime by the EU, the Red Cross and the UN. However, we simultaneously continue to trade freely with Israel. We support the commission’s report, which outlines the deaths of innocent civilians in both Gaza and Israel, yet we continue to export arms to Israel.
I am aware that the Government are reviewing the sale of arms to Israel case by case, but in the context of the conflict, surely even the most limited attempts at evaluating risk would conclude that the potential risk of a breach of international humanitarian law would be too high, and that arms should not be changing hands. According to the EU code of conduct on arms exports:
“Member States will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim.”
Yet following the brutal conflict last year, Britain has approved new arms licences for Israel of up to £4 million. Furthermore, The Independent newspaper reports that the Government also approved arms exports to Israel worth nearly £7 million in the six months prior to Operation Protective Edge. Does the Minister agree that turning a blind eye to violations of international humanitarian law when an arms deal is on the table undermines our standing in the world and begins to compromises our integrity?
A new approach to diplomacy must be based on the protection of civilians, on equal respect for the human rights, security and sovereignty of both Israelis and Palestinians, and on the realisation and implementation of international law, beyond just the rhetoric. It is not enough to focus exclusively on negotiations while failing to hold Israel accountable for violating international humanitarian law. In 2010, on a visit to Turkey, the Prime Minister said:
“Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza”, and called for an end to the blockade, to allow a free flow of humanitarian goods and people.
Five years later, under the stranglehold of an eight-year blockade, the situation in Gaza is still precarious and, indeed, worse. I welcome the remarks just days ago by the Minister responsible for the Middle East, who is in his place:
“The UK supports EU efforts to develop options for easing movement and access into and out of Gaza. This includes the possibility of EU assistance in establishing a sea-link from Gaza to another international port. The UK and EU have consistently called on the Government of Israel to ease movement and access restrictions, and will continue to do so.”
I hope that we all support him in making that a reality, beyond the rhetoric.
The crisis in Gaza must be understood in a wider context of a 48-year illegal occupation of Palestine. It is essential that the UK and the wider international community are honest brokers for peace and take practical steps towards addressing the root causes of the conflict, starting by ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and ensuring that Palestinians are able to enjoy their basic human rights and freedoms.
Some 64% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25. The report recognises that, without any economic horizon or sustainable productivity, there is an inevitability about the cycle of conflict and unrest. That will serve neither Israel or Palestine, so it must be addressed. I am proud that the Labour party supported the motion last year to recognise a state of Palestine. Surely that would be an easy starting point.
In 2012, 135 countries voted in favour of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly. Last year, a number of EU member states also voted in their Parliaments in support of recognising a Palestinian state. The argument that the recognition of a Palestinian state should come at a time that is deemed suitable is hollow. Israel should have no right of veto over the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Recognising Israel was not subject to negotiation, and recognition of Palestine should not be either.
We can and should do more with our European partners to hold to account those who commit violations of international law and to promote endeavours such as this report, which is a welcome first step. I hope that the Minster will consider and respond to some my proposals.