Minister outlines nine-point plan to ease Gaza blockade

Middle East minister Toby Ellwood used a debate in the Commons on Gaza to set out nine steps that he is pressing the Israelis and Egyptians to take to ease the blockade of Gaza, now in its eighth year:

  1. “We are concerned about the closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.” [30,000 Gazans are stranded in Egypt unable to get home because the crossing has been closed since January 22.]
  2. “The Rafah pedestrian crossing [between Gaza and Egypt] needs to be converted into a crossing for vehicles.” [Although there is a lorry-park at Rafah crossing, no goods are allowed through except for emergency deliveries of medicines.]
  3. “The Kerem Shalom goods crossing between Israel and Gaza could be expanded.”  [This is the only goods crossing between Gaza and Israel and its capacity is only half what is needed just for humanitarian supplies at the pre-blockade level.]
  4. “The Erez crossing is another one that needs to be widened.” [Designed for vehicles and for 45,000 people per day, it currently handles only 400 people per day.]
  5. “Israel should allow the transfer of goods from Gaza to the West Bank.” [Israel imposes an almost total ban on exports, even to the West Bank. In the week ending March 2 only one lorry-load was allowed out of the Kerem Shalom crossing compared with an average 240 a week before the blockade.]
  6. “There should be an increase in the fisheries zone from six miles to the 20 miles as promised in the Oslo peace accords.”
  7. “We want further movement of people out of Gaza at some of the crossing points.”
  8. “The European Union could promote a secure sea-route – and umbilical link – from Gaza to the EU via Cyprus with the agreement of the Israelis.” The Minister has lobbied EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to push this.
  9. “The Israelis should unfreeze the payment of tax revenues” which they collect on the Palestinians’ behalf but are illegally refusing to hand over as punishment for going to the ICC, causing the non-payment of salaries for several months in the Palestine Authority.
The Minister was responding to calls from MPs for government action to reduce the suffering caused by the blockade. Labour shadow minister Gareth Thomas asked: “The blockade of Gaza must end. What recent action has the Minister taken to press the Government of Israel on that critical issue?”
The debate was initiated by Michael McCann (East Kilbride) (Vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel) who argued that the lifting of the economic blockade on Gaza had to be “utterly dependent” on the disarmament of the Gaza Strip.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Chair of the All-party Britain-Palestine group) said he could not go along with the idea that one could justify or excuse the situation facing the ordinary people of Gaza because Hamas “commits some heinous crimes – and it does”.
“The reason is a moral one, but there is also a legal one. It is called collective punishment. Collective punishment is illegal under international law, and that is what has been happening to Gaza. It has been happening in a very extreme form since 2007, but it was going on from 2005 [before Hamas took control].”
“To resolve the problem, we need to lift the blockade.”
He pointed out that Israel’s economic blockade goes far beyond what could possibly be justified on grounds of security. “Why is it that Israel has even put restrictions on the export of strawberries between Gaza and the West Bank? How can that be justified on any kind of security grounds?”
Grahame Morris (Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East) challenged the idea that the Israelis would agree to lift the blockade of Gaza or end settlement building if the Palestinians agreed to disarm. The Palestine Liberation Organisation had adopted non-violent resistance in the West Bank in 1988. “What has been its reward? House demolitions, the expansion of illegal settlements, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers, continued oppression, the arrest of children and the subjugation of military occupation.”
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP) also said that the suggestion that Hamas would disarm in return for economic development “would make a hostage of all those peace-loving people in the Palestinian population who neither hold arms nor hold any brief for those who hold arms”.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab) said most of the current Israeli Government were in any case on record as saying that they fundamentally oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. “For the past two decades, negotiations have served as little more than a fig leaf to cover Israel’s expansionist aims so that it can consolidate what it has already taken by force of arms.”
David Ward (Bradford East) (LD) said the UK “can and should provide leadership. We are no longer waiting for banal responses; we need action from the Government to show that they are on the side not only of the Palestinians but, in the long term, of those in Israel who seek to live with the Palestinians in peace, side by side and in a neighbourly way.”
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