Gaza (Humanitarian Situation)
Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I initiated this debate because during the last International Development questions I was struck by the comments of the International Development Minister who made a stark prediction: “Come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water. One UN report predicts that it could become an unliveable place, meaning that it risks becoming unfit for human habitation.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 279.]
When I chaired the Select Committee on International Development, I saw many terrible tragedies. What distinguished Gaza and struck me was the total sense of hopelessness among ordinary people there. After my second visit, I recall returning home and telling my children that I had no fear of death and I had been to hell, or rather that I could not imagine a state of existence or purgatory of such total hopelessness as being trapped in Gaza.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): Why does he think the international community has proved so ineffective at putting effective pressure on Israel to relax the horrific stranglehold on Gaza? What steps does he think could be taken now?
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): The multitude of problems make the lives of Palestinians intolerable. Struggling sewerage facilities and difficulties with the provision of clean water are further undermined by the lack of power affecting health and medical facilities. Does he see any way forward, or are we banging our heads against a brick wall?
Sir Tony Baldry: On 27 July 2010, the Prime Minister observed: “The situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
Sadly, the situation there has not changed and the humanitarian position has deteriorated significantly. Gaza today is still a prison camp with 1.7 million inmates. The Prime Minister said that he spoke “as someone who is a friend of Israel, who desperately wants a secure and safe and stable Israel after the two-state solution has come about”. That is also my position and, I suspect, that of almost every Member of this House.
There is an increasing concern among donors, NGOs and the international community that constantly applying sticking-plaster solutions to the humanitarian situation in Gaza does not address the root causes of its problems.
The simple fact is that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is getting worse, however much money the international community puts into it.
The occupation must end. Gazan business should be allowed to export to Israel, and through Israel to the West Bank. It may be possible to export Gazan strawberries for a couple of months a year to the Netherlands, but sustainable exports from Gaza are entirely to Israel and the West Bank. There appears to be a total ban on exports from Gaza to either Israel or the West Bank, however, which is resulting in mounting unemployment and grinding poverty.
Israel, the occupying power, does not seem prepared to allow people or exports to leave Gaza, and it seems equally unwilling to allow construction materials into Gaza. Construction was one of the only industries in Gaza that used to be growing, and it once employed 20,000 people, but now practically no construction is taking place.
People appear not to be getting permits to travel to hospital. For the past two years there have been serious shortages of medical supplies and drugs, and the UN estimates that 30% to 50% of drugs are at zero stock.
Fisherman are allowed to fish up to 6 nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline, but the main fish stocks are 8 nautical miles from the shore and fishing in nearer waters provides no livelihoods. There have been cases of fisherman being shot or their boats being confiscated.
Farmers face the difficulty that there is no clarity about the width of the buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli border. Officially, it would seem to be 100 metres, but Palestinians have been shot up to 300 metres from the border, and I am even told that one was shot 1 km from the border.
There is considerable natural gas in the Gaza marine field. Instead of having to rely on diesel, Gaza could run its energy and water systems on natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the natural gas discussions between Israel and the Palestinians have been complex and appear to be getting nowhere.
It cannot be right, in the 21st century, that people are suffering as they are. As the UN General Assembly mission concluded, under international law “collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances.”
Occupation clearly harms those who are occupied, but I would also suggest that long-term occupation is not in the best interests of the occupiers. Israel cannot continue to be both a Jewish state and a democracy if it denies rights to 2.5 million Palestinians indefinitely. It would appear that we have months rather than years to resolve the issue.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): What signs has he seen from Hamas, the political power in Gaza, of willingness to participate in a peaceful settlement?
Sir Tony Baldry: The chair of Conservative Friends of Israel is of course right to bring Hamas’s role to the attention of the House. However, so long as he and other supporters of the state of Israel—of which I am one—remain deaf to the clear advice that has been given about the illegitimacy of the collective punishment of the people of Gaza for the actions of a few, we are never going to see a resolution of the tragedy that is affecting so many people in Gaza.
Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): Is the right Member as worried as I am about the number of people who are affected by burns because of things that they are trying desperately to do to create their own generators in order to get around the lack of power?
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Is not one of the worst aspects of the situation the fact that 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable?
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What does he suggest we can do to highlight the situation and put pressure on the Israelis to relent?
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does he agree that an environmental catastrophe is fast approaching, and that if it is not addressed, goodness knows what will happen to the people of Gaza?
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does he agree that we are talking in terms of months not years in order to get matters right, not only for Israel but for the people of Palestine?
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Again and again, Israel seeks to justify the vile injustices that it imposes on the people of Gaza and the West Bank on the grounds of the holocaust. It is totally unacceptable that the Israelis should behave in such a way, but they do not care.Go to Tel Aviv, as I did not long ago, and watch them sitting complacently outside their pavement cafés. They do not give a damn about their fellow human beings perhaps half an hour away.
The Member quoted the Prime Minister as saying that Gaza is a prison camp. It is all very well for him to say that, as he did, but what is he doing about it? Nothing, nothing, nothing!
The time when we could condemn and think that that was enough has long passed. The Israelis do not care about condemnation. They are self-righteous and complacent. We must now take action against them. We must impose sanctions. If the spineless Obama will not do it, we must do it—even unilaterally. We must press the European community for it to be done.
These people cannot be persuaded. We cannot appeal to their better nature when they do not have one. It is all very well saying, “Wicked, wicked Hamas.” Hamas is dreadful. I have met people from Hamas, but nothing it has done justifies punishing children, women and the sick as the Israelis are doing now. They must be stopped.
I do not want a war. I do not want violent action, but the action that the international community takes must be imposed, otherwise hell will break loose.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I do not believe, and will not be persuaded, that the state of Israel has any interest in imposing the present conditions on the people of Gaza for the sake of it.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Come off it!
Mr Clappison: Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, and it was hoped that that would bring about a solution to Israel’s immediate problems. It did not. Since then—and he touched on the point—there have been about 8,000 rocket attacks on Israel. There have been many thousands, certainly.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am afraid that the Member is trotting out the usual Israeli propaganda. I went to Gaza three weeks after Operation Cast Lead, where 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. That was the ratio—100 Palestinian deaths to one Israeli death.
Mr Clappison: I regret all deaths on both sides, but the Member must face the fact that it was Palestinian—Hamas or Islamic Jihad, whatever it was—rocket attacks that began it. In each case that is what has begun the problems.
Israel has no interest per se in doing such things to Gaza. Hamas has set its face against a peaceful solution in its charter. At the moment they have set their face against peace, and they are the problem.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I want to praise the people in Israel and the Jewish people in this country who campaign actively for the rights of Palestinians. Like the Member for Manchester, Gorton, I am sure that they are criticised by other Jewish people perhaps for trying to betray the state of Israel. However, the issue is not about a state of Israel, of Jews or of religion; it is about the millions of people who used to live in the state of Israel, who have been made homeless and who have sought refuge in various parts of the world and have not been able to return to their country. Particularly inhumane actions are being carried out in Gaza, causing the suffering that we see.
Whether we are talking about the West Bank or Gaza, the policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, “What hope is there for us?”, and they rightly ask, “What is the international community doing about this?” Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why are we not getting the same in Palestine?
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Everyone accepts that Hamas is an appalling organisation and that the rocket attacks are appalling. However, I want to focus on humanity….. [but] despite the horrors of Hamas and the rocket attacks, we cannot punish the many because of the sins of a few.
We have heard about the fishermen. How can anyone fish just 6 miles out in filthy water? How can anyone live in a place where 90% of the water is undrinkable? How can farmers be shot just for going within a mile of an electric fence while going about their business? Would that be tolerated in any other part of the world? Would our Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the UN not be stopping it?
Yes, this is only a little debate in Westminster Hall and we are only Back-Benchers, but we must do our bit to articulate a sense of outrage that our fellow human beings are being treated like this.
By all means, if someone is attacked, they should reply strongly in military terms, but not punish a whole people and reduce them to utter poverty and destitution. I say this as a strong supporter of the state of Israel, but there is a real danger that more and more people in the world believe that a people who were formerly oppressed are now becoming the oppressors, and that the state of Israel is thereby losing its soul. What is its soul? It is the soul of an oppressed people who have made a great and wonderful nation. But there are other nations in this world and they must be treated fairly and must have an equal right to health, dignity and freedom.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I have been to Gaza on a number of occasions. I was struck by two things. One was the hope, determination and inspiration of many of the people who were trying to provide services and food against appalling odds, using their ingenuity to do so.
Secondly, by the random nature of bombardments and attacks. In Operation Cast Lead, illegal weapons were used and the most appalling abuse was meted out against people. The abuse has not stopped. Random bombings and air attacks still take place.
In Gaza, I visited the crater made by a bomb that had fallen not long before. I talked to the one survivor of a family whose house had been hit. I went into its remains and it was as if the world had stopped at a certain moment. Remember those old movies where the clock has stopped at a certain moment? It was exactly like that. The house was covered in dust, there was a bomb crater outside and almost everyone inside the house was dead. That family had done nothing—they were just the victims of yet another random attack by an F-16 jet from a first world power, which had been supplied by another first world power, against people living in desperate poverty and under siege the whole time.
It is totally the responsibility of the power that is encircling Gaza and has brought this situation about. It is time that something was done about the situation, and rapidly.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Will the UK Government insist that Kerem Shalom be opened for exports as well as imports? Will they push for Erez to be reopened for imports and exports, and if necessary fund more security scanners if there is a real need for them? Will they push Israel to organise a “land bridge” between Gaza and the West Bank, so that exports can reach West Bank markets? A lorry convoy system could be instituted immediately for that purpose.
Will the Government push for the activation of the EU border assistance mission, which was agreed in 2005, to oversee the 2005 access and movement agreement and to address Israel’s security concerns independently? The arrangements should be immediately reinstated and a similar mission put in place at Erez and Kerem Shalom. Will the UK Government push for the fishing limit to be extended to 12 or 15 nautical miles?
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I first visited Gaza shortly after Operation Cast Lead. It was a totally harrowing experience that is completely fresh in my mind five years on. It was the complete evisceration of a society, with the systematic and organised destruction of industry and villages. It was what can only be called murder, including the murder of whole families. There was shelling of hospitals, which was done knowingly, and white phosphorus was used. These were war crimes, just as the occupation itself is a crime against international law. To say that these are not deliberate and knowing acts by the Israeli Government is naivety or worse.
30% to 35% of all the correspondence to the Foreign Office is about Israel-Palestine. Why cannot our Government, whether through their influence on the United States or their role in the EU, or unilaterally, do more to support the people of Gaza? That issue is clearly uppermost in the minds of the people of this country.
This week, we had the pleasure of a briefing from Sir Vincent Fean, a distinguished diplomat who was retiring after 40 years, having spent his last three years as consul-general in Jerusalem and therefore being responsible for Gaza. He told us about the incredible suffering—the lack of power, the polluted water, the lack of jobs, the complete blockade—and how intolerable it was.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Yes, the humanitarian situation is dire. But there will be no solution to the problem of the Gaza strip unless, first, the security situation is sorted out and, secondly, proper economic links are restored both with the state of Israel and with the state of Egypt.
All of us want the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip sorted out, but we simply will not make any progress if all the condemnation is against Israel.