Israel/Gaza

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Tuesday 24th October 2023

(7 months ago)

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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That this House takes note of the situation in Israel/Gaza.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, the importance and timeliness of this debate is self-evident. The number of speakers is testament to not just the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House but to the deep insight, wisdom and expertise. I am sure that, over the next few hours, as we listen carefully to each and every contribution, we will hear differing perspectives; we will have differing insights; at times, we will have, I am sure, a divergence of views and opinions. But what defines an effective, strong, resilient and progressive democracy is its openness, its ability to debate in a reasoned and sharing manner, respecting contrarian opinion, and then move forward in the best interests. I know for a fact that noble Lords speaking today will do so from a degree of principled passion on a particular issue. I am sure that today’s debate will also inform the Government, who are navigating this crisis which, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, in all my time as a Minister is perhaps—no, not perhaps; it is—the most testing and challenging issue that we face. I am sure that many will reflect that sentiment in their contributions.

I take us back to 7 October. It was a Saturday—Shabbat—and the evening before had changed the trajectory not just of Israel but of many commentators, reporters, Governments and perspectives, as well as the many within Israel whose lives would never be the same. The attacks in Israel on 7 October not only shocked a country, they shocked the world. As His Majesty’s Government have made clear repeatedly, the United Kingdom, at that time and today—I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords—stands with Israel, a nation in mourning.

I am a Muslim by faith, as all noble Lords know, and on hearing of the death of any person, the prayer we recite is:

“Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji-un”,


simply translated as “To God we belong and to God we return”. When we see the innocent lives taken that day, we pray for those souls. I know that people of all faiths and none were shocked by the inhumanity of the brutal murder of so many innocent people in Israel. Therefore, we should, irrespective of faith, community, belief and religion, condemn unequivocally the terror attacks committed by Hamas against Israel and, indeed, many international citizens. Simply put, these attacks were driven by hatred.

We are also clear—this is important, and I hope that during today’s debate it will echo from this Chamber—that it is Hamas, the proscribed terrorist organisation, that our focus is on. It is Hamas that is responsible for that violence, not the Palestinian people or the Palestinian Authority. It is Hamas that is responsible for those abhorrent acts of terror.

The ramifications of that attack continue to unfold, sadly and tragically, as I stand before your Lordships today. When we look at the sheer scale of the human cost, it is sobering. As I look behind me to noble Lords on my own Benches, and particularly towards the Bishops’ Benches—I am delighted that we are joined by voices today who will speak from a deep insight into the issues of what many of us of Abrahamic faiths term the Holy Land, which is called that for a reason—and then I look opposite me, to my side, to my right and left, and I know that all noble Lords are very much focused on not just that tragedy but the human cost that was suffered. In Israel itself, over 1,400 people were killed. When we reflect on the history of Israel in the last 75 years, we see that this was the most lethal attack against it.

There were some who drew comparisons with the shock and horrors of the Holocaust, yet that was then and this is now, with the brutality of an appalling act of terror. We should not for a moment be distracted. Again, as I look around, I remember the tragic events of 7/7 right here in the UK, as many noble Lords do. We can never allow terror attacks to disrupt the incredible diversity and strength of our nation, which is a united United Kingdom when it comes to issues of terrorism. I pay tribute to many noble Lords across this Chamber who have not only consistently raised their voices but come together in a voice of unity against terror. I hope —indeed, I believe this will be the case—that that voice of unity will again resonate from this Chamber today.

The attacks were both indiscriminate and unconscionable. Those missing come from over 40 countries, including the United Kingdom. I had a meeting just before I came into the Chamber, along with my dear and right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly. We were with some of the relatives of those who were killed or remain missing—being held hostage in Gaza. I thank them for sharing their important stories, but the significance of their testimonies, as the information is still being shared, also reflected that the youngest person being held hostage is as young as nine months and the eldest of those who shared their testimony about the people being held—the eldest in that incredible group of people who we met—is 93. The pain and unbearable torment they are suffering will, I am sure, stay with them, but it is also, rightly, reflected in the thinking of policymakers. We stand with Israel during its time of challenge and we are working with Israel to support the families who are suffering this pain.

While the picture is extremely bleak, I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in welcoming the release of two hostages in Gaza yesterday. But, as the Prime Minister made clear in his Statement in the other place yesterday, the UK will continue to do everything in its power, working with all our partners, to free those held hostage and to bring those British nationals home. I acknowledge the strong co-operation that we are receiving from key partners, including countries such as Egypt and Qatar, which are playing important roles in this respect.

Since that terror attack, a violent and vicious sequence of events has unfolded that continues to reverberate across the region and further afield. We have seen, as the Prime Minister said only yesterday, 4,000 Palestinian deaths in Gaza, and a growing and already challenging humanitarian catastrophe. Many people, right now, are likely to still be trapped under rubble. Let me be clear—and I hope I speak for every noble Lord, irrespective of whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or of no faith—we, together, mourn the loss of every innocent life, of every faith and nationality.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear Israel’s right to defend its borders and people, and to act against terrorism. In doing so, as I am sure noble Lords recognise, both he and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have been engaged directly with Israel, as have I, urging it to take all possible precautions to minimise harm to civilians in Gaza.

I will come to the grave humanitarian situation and the UK response shortly, but first I want to focus on the British nationals caught up in this conflict. Supporting our nationals and providing support to their grieving families is a key priority. I assure noble Lords—many have asked—that diplomatic efforts are under way to free all the hostages; I have referred to a number of cases. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has great expertise; I have seen that working in many ways across the globe over several years. On this occasion again, we will leave no stone unturned in bringing our people back safely. We have facilitated flights for those British nationals wishing to leave Israel, bringing out more than 950 people. We are working with Egypt, Israel and other international partners to ensure that British nationals can leave Gaza safely via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. I can share with noble Lords this afternoon that we have now deployed a UK Border Force team in Egypt, working with our embassy, to help citizens cross as soon as they can. The safety of British nationals will remain our utmost priority and I urge all noble Lords, when they get inquiries or people seeking information, to ask those people to look at our continuously updated travel advice.

British nationals currently in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Gaza, should register their presence via the Foreign Office’s travel advice page. We will then be able to share important updates, including information to help them to leave the country. We will also continue to keep in close contact with British nationals in Gaza and update them on the latest status of the Rafah crossing.

Many noble Lords have said to me privately—it was noted in the repeat of the Statement by my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal yesterday—that this tragic act of terror and the continuing situation in Gaza fuel further instability and violence across the region. The outbreak of protests in several cities reflects how strongly people feel about the conflict.

Before I set out the actions the UK is taking, I make it absolutely clear that we are not only acutely aware of the contagious nature of this conflict but acting in this respect. We are aware, for example, that violence in the West Bank is rising. This year has become the bloodiest for West Bank violence since UN records began in 2005. As I said earlier, and I am sure we will hear it repeated time and again in the debate today, all loss of civilian life is tragic, but it is also avoidable.

I turn to the specific action that the United Kingdom Government are taking. While support to British nationals remains our priority, and rightly so, there are, as the Prime Minister set out, three distinct areas where the UK is helping to shape wider events.

First, we are redoubling our work with the international community to prevent escalation in the region and further threats against Israel. As the Prime Minister has said, in Israel’s fight against Hamas, we are of course with Israel. But, importantly, hope and humanity must win out against the scourge of terrorism, aggression and hate. We will work to rescue our hostages, to deter further incursions and to support Israel as it seeks to do so from Hamas, and, importantly, to strengthen security for the longer term.

I turn to some of the assets we have deployed, because it is important that we clarify that position as well. We have deployed a significant package of support to the eastern Mediterranean, including two Royal Navy ships, RAF surveillance aircraft and a company of Royal Marines. We are bolstering our forces in Cyprus and across the region. However, I make it clear to your Lordships’ House that the Royal Navy ships and personnel are not being sent there to fight. We are there to support the humanitarian response and prevent the outbreak of a regional conflict.

Intensive diplomatic engagement is also ongoing since those attacks on 7 October, as I know personally as the Minister for the Middle East. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both visited Israel and, importantly, the wider region. They took with them a message of support for and solidarity with the whole region, in unification against terrorism and in doing all we can, with the different equities possessed by different countries, to avoid a wider regional conflict. They remain, as I do, in close daily contact with counterparts across the Middle East and beyond. Earlier today, for example, I had a very constructive call with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kuwait. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to many of his peers on his travels, which have taken him to many parts of the Gulf and the Middle East.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, I have engaged with regional counterparts from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the UN—all coming together to seek to prevent regional escalation, while also focused on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Last Saturday, the Foreign Secretary and I attended the Cairo peace summit, at which we reiterated the need for us all to work together to prevent instability engulfing the region and claiming yet more lives. Whatever perspective different countries brought, all were focused on the importance of peace, security and stability in the region, and a collective effort towards, ultimately, a two-state solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security. Our partners in the region have welcomed our role and believe that we have a constructive and important role to play in preventing further escalation, and we will continue to do so.

We have also made it clear in these engagements that all precautions must be taken to minimise, limit and mitigate against harm to civilians in Gaza, and to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access. It is imperative that the window for relocation remains open and, if civilians are asked to relocate, they do so voluntarily and safely. Yet the challenges remain immense.

Secondly, we are providing humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people. The opening of the Rafah crossing this weekend to allow vital humanitarian aid into Gaza is testament to the power of diplomacy. It may seem—and it is—a small symbol, but it shows the art of the possible. The opening of the Rafah crossing was no small feat and required a diplomatic push from many countries. So far, more than 50 trucks containing aid have now crossed the border, but I would be the first to say that it is not enough. It is imperative that this continues and increases substantially if it is to have the desired impact of saving the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

We have been clear also that Hamas is a terrorist organisation which, as we have seen, neither speaks for nor acts in the interests of the Palestinian people. It does not stand for the future that Palestinians want or desire. The conflict is exacerbating a situation that is already dire: six out of 10 Gazans were in need of humanitarian assistance before Hamas attacked Israel. But now, a greater humanitarian crisis is unfolding before us.

On 16 October, the Prime Minister announced £10 million in humanitarian funding to help civilians in Gaza and, as noble Lords will have heard, my right honourable friend announced an additional £20 million yesterday, more than doubling our previous support to the Palestinian people. That funding will provide essential relief items, including food, water and emergency shelter, depending on needs on the ground. The uplift increases our aid commitment for the Occupied Palestinian Territories from £27 million to £57 million this year. This makes the UK one of the largest bilateral donors in this current humanitarian crisis.

I know that some noble Lords may express concern, as others have in the other place, but I assure them that all UK aid undergoes rigorous oversight, and multiple safeguards are in place to prevent UK funding from going to Hamas. Any UK assistance will be channelled through trusted partners, including key UN agencies, which have been playing an important role. As I said—I underline this important point—it is because of the strength of our partnership and relationship with Israel that we can make the case to ensure that it takes every possible precaution to minimise civilian casualties. As such, we welcome the commitment of the Israeli president, President Herzog, who has vowed that Israel’s armed forces will operate in accordance with international law.

However, we cannot equate the two: through our lens in this country, Hamas is, by definition, a terrorist organisation. We must have moral clarity when we approach these issues. Yes, Israel is defending its borders and citizens, but, as a state, our role, as a friend and partner, is to work with Israel on the importance of acting within international humanitarian law and of alleviating the suffering of innocent civilians.

Thirdly, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we are working hard to sustain the long-term prospects of peace and stability in the region. The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian president. The UK’s message has been clear: we must work together to chart a way through this particularly challenging and trying period for Israelis and Palestinians. The UK wants to see Israelis and Palestinians living safely and securely in peace. I have visited the region numerous times, and I know that many within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories have that desire for peace and stability.

I reiterate what the Prime Minister said only yesterday: the United Kingdom and this Government remain committed to making progress towards a two-state solution, for which the need is more acute now than ever. The UK’s long-standing position has been clear: yes, we support a negotiated settlement, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. I would go further: ultimately, as they are close neighbours, there will inevitably be an interdependency between people—that is an important vision to keep in mind. I accept that it may be difficult to look at that vision and opportunity right now, but we cannot allow terror and hate to win and to kill the prospects for this two-state solution and, importantly, for peace, security, normalisation and stability in the region.

As the Prime Minister also said yesterday, we must keep alive that vision of a better future against those who seek to destroy it. We cannot, at home or abroad, allow terrorism to divide us or to prevail—it cannot prevail.

We stand with Israel as it seeks to restore security to its borders, a country which was shocked to its core. As I said, that shock was not limited to Israel or to its people. It is a shock we all shared: the immediate shock of those innocent lives destroyed, the hostages taken, but also, as we have seen now, the terrible and continuing deeper suffering of the Palestinian people. Let us be clear, and many Israelis in Israel, that the Palestinian people are not the enemy: terrorists are, and the people who can be termed as such.

I assure noble Lords of my good offices and those of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and indeed across government. We will continue to work tirelessly on the four strands that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has laid out. First, we are supporting British nationals and their families affected by these events, both in Israel and Gaza. Secondly, we are working to prevent escalation in the region and further threats against Israel. Thirdly, we are providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. Finally—probably one of the most challenging issues that we face—we are striving to sustain the long-term prospects of peace, stability and security in the region.

It sometimes takes a shock to focus minds. This was an attack of terror on an ally of the United Kingdom, and therefore it is right that the United Kingdom continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel at this important time in its history. However, we are at a crossroads. There is an opportunity here. As I said right at the start, I know that many noble Lords across your Lordships’ House possess incredible insight and wisdom and have experienced themselves the issues of mediation and conflict resolution. Therefore, I assure noble Lords, as I have already done with a number, that I seek their insights, not just today in your Lordships’ House but on how we can work together and focus on the equities we possess. Irrespective of whether that person is currently in Gaza, in the West Bank, or in Israel, the message that must go to them is one of hope. That hope means that hate will not prevail.

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I first thank all noble Lords for their contributions—strong, focused, passionate, thoughtful, insightful, principled and at times emotional. But one thing was clear: these were expert insights from various perspectives. As I said in my introduction, there are some uniform and united messages that leave no doubt about the unity of your Lordships’ House this evening. I reflect the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in saying that, when it comes to important issues, such as how we stand against terror and those who seek to divide us, His Majesty’s Government, the Opposition, representatives of other parties and individual Peers in your Lordships’ House are very much at one.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, yehi zichra baruch—may their memory be a blessing. We join her and many other families who have sadly and tragically been impacted. Every life lost on this issue is a tragedy. As I said in my opening remarks, we stand united with Israel as it seeks to strengthen its response and to ensure that it secures its citizens, for security is the first duty of any responsible Government.

I also note the incredibly valuable and insightful contribution by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. I know I speak for the whole House when I say to him that, when we saw the tragedy unfold at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, we all recognised its particular link to the Anglican communion. Our sincere condolences go to all involved with that institution.

The ramifications of Hamas’s attack on Israel which, as we have heard from many noble Lords, was a terrorist attack, continue to unfold. As I said in my opening remarks, many in Israel, including from within, made comparisons to the Holocaust. While the world has moved on—this is 2023—the brutality of that appalling act of terror, which many noble Lords talked about, resonates.

The noble Lord, Lord Austin, talked of survivor testimony and many noble Lords talked of the importance of standing strong in the face of the challenge and the terrorism of Hamas. I associate myself with the thoughtful comments and great expertise shown by the noble Lords, Lord Turnberg, Lord Reid and Lord Bilimoria, all of whom talked about the Hamas threat, as did the noble Lord, Lord McCrea.

I will be very clear. I have noted and will come on to the issue of a ceasefire. A ceasefire is important for both sides, but when dealing with an organisation that is terrorist in its ideology—scratching the surface, comparisons were made to Daesh this evening; and I have visited parts of the region, including Iraq—it might at times be defeated on the battlefield or in the theatre, but the perverse ideology of such organisations remains. We should never lose sight of this. Hamas’s reason for being is the destruction of Israel. Its actions, terror, division and hate are reflected in what it did to innocent civilians.

Again, there was unity on the important issue of the taking of hostages, irrespective of the noble Lord contributing. The clear, unequivocal message from your Lordships’ debate this evening is: release them now and release them unconditionally.

When I met some of the families directly impacted, it affected me as a father. The youngest child of one family is nine months old; the oldest member of that family is 93. That shows the depravity of the organisation that is Hamas. I commend all noble Lords, irrespective of the strength of the views and emotions they expressed; we are at one on this issue.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and to my noble friend Lord Howard for his illustration of the strength of Israel. He talked about the diversity in its football team. My noble friend Lord Polak reminded noble Lords that I am a Liverpool fan, as is my noble friend Lord Howard.

I will share a personal anecdote. When those attacks happened, the first call I received was from the Israeli ambassador. Very soon that morning, calls started rapidly coming in. Because of a family bereavement, my wife was not there. I was on paternal duties as well. I was standing on the side of a hockey pitch watching my son in his debut performance as a goalkeeper. As I watched my son play, the gravity of the unfolding situation dawned on me. Therefore, when my noble friend Lord Polak talked of that young child in his Liverpool shirt, I wiped a tear from my eye—I mean that sincerely. That could have been my nine year-old, although he would have been wearing a Tottenham shirt; I am not quite sure how that happened.

The importance of life and of the dignity of life should not be lost. When the attacks happened I made three calls, though not deliberately to show how faith matters to me personally. One of the first was to my noble friend Lord Polak, because I knew he was in Jerusalem. The second call was to Imam Sharif Odeh in Haifa; I have been in discussion with him this evening. Tomorrow he is hosting people, including the Mayor of Haifa, who are all of different religions— Muslim, Christian and Jewish together to ensure a unity of response from the community. It is important to recognise that 20% of the population of the State of Israel are non-Jewish—Israeli Arabs made up of Christians and Muslims. As several noble Lords pointed out, Jerusalem is the Holy City, the Holy Land that brings together these three Abrahamic faiths. The poignancy of the contribution from the most reverend Primate is not just acknowledged but recognised for the strength of the Spiritual Benches and their importance to your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, talked in a strong, principled manner. When I am dealing with him on legislation, I often have to look at the technicalities of the law. I admit this with a high degree of trepidation because I know how the noble Lord—my dear friend David, if I may say that—operates. I was humbled by his gracious invitation to his home. I remember that evening very well. This evening he shared with us his abhorrence of Hamas’s ideology. Other noble Lords referred to it, including my noble friend Lady Warsi.

Let me make it absolutely clear: this organisation seeks not just to misrepresent but to hijack a noble faith. Its actions and ideology are nothing to do with the faith that I, and several other noble Lords who have spoken today, follow. It is no kind of religious ideology. It is the hijacking of a noble faith. But it is equally important that, when we see acts of terror—irrespective of who the perpetrators and victims are—we call these out quite directly. This debate has been reflective of that issue. Other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Gold and the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, mentioned the absolute abhorrence of the Hamas ideology.

It is interesting that we have had debates on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, and I will come on to the community response. But what is it when you as a Muslim stand up for the Jewish community and you receive hate? How do we describe that? Is that anti-Muslim hatred or is that anti-Semitism? I would say it is a vile combination of both. That is also something many noble Lords in this Chamber and honourable and right honourable Members of the other place have to face. However, it is absolutely essential that we make our views even clearer. We should not be cowed in any sense.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, talked about the Government. I always say, and I will defend this to the hilt, that of course we have issues and challenges in the United Kingdom but this country—our country—is a rich tapestry of communities, people and faiths. Its diversity is its strength. We must not just challenge those who seek to divide but tell them absolutely straight that they are wrong, that we are united, and that their perverse ideology will be defeated. That has to be clear in everything we do.

We mourn the loss of every innocent life in this tragic conflict. The picture changes with each hour. I have been sitting here, as all noble Lords have, for several hours, being constantly updated about the current situation in Israel and Gaza. As I said earlier, the Prime Minister has said very clearly that, notwithstanding the challenges and issues we face, we will work distinctly on the four key pillars.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked about the warning of conflicts. We should look at that very carefully. It is shocking that, depending on how you define conflict, anything between 40 and 60 conflicts are raging across the world in 2023. The issue of contagion of this conflict is very real. We need to ensure that we understand that our relationship, friendship and alliance, and the strength of unity we have with Israel, also means that we have a valued position. When we talk with various Israeli interlocuters, as my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have done, it is not just a gesture of diplomacy; they listen. Why? Because we stand with them at this time of great challenge. I am appreciative of His Majesty’s Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Benches, and in this House the Cross Benches, for their strong united stand in this case.

I turn to some of the specifics on the hostages. All noble Lords talked of the need to release them, and not just the British nationals. I was with the Foreign Secretary, who made it absolutely clear that while of course we defend British interests and look towards British hostages, this is about every innocent person taken, irrespective of whether they are a man, woman or child and irrespective of age or nation. We want all hostages released. That is the message.

My noble friend Lord Howard talked about Qatar, as did the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and several other noble Lords. I assure noble Lords that we are talking to Qatar and that Egypt is also playing an important role. I join others in commending the role of the ICRC and the Red Crescent, which are playing important bridging roles. I assure my noble friend Lord Leigh that this is not a one-off. We are in regular contact with these key players to ensure that those with influence exert that influence and make sure that it is counted. We should not in any way cease our activities, and I will continue to update your Lordships’ House in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about British nationals. I can share that all British nationals who have registered and want to leave Israel on government flights have been allocated seats. We are also working on the very difficult and fluid situation in Gaza. I talked about the 900 people we brought back from Israel to the UK. Commercial flights operate and continue to operate from Tel Aviv, but we are cognisant of our wider responsibilities and that is why we changed the travel advice for Lebanon. We also introduced, in advance of the challenges we are currently seeing on the northern border of Israel and the southern border of Lebanon, a register of presence to ensure that those who are in-country can register. I assure noble Lords we are seized of this.

Many noble Lords have talked about the issue of contagion, including my noble friend Lord Sterling and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. I always saw him as coming from a health perspective, so to see him as an insightful foreign policy expert is very welcome; I am sure there will be many debates in this respect. I welcome both his challenge to the Government and his contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, also mentioned it—I almost called him my noble friend because we have worked on many initiatives together—as did the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and others.

Let me be very clear: we want this conflict to end tomorrow, but that needs Hamas to stop throwing rockets into Israel and to stop holding innocent hostages. We are true to our word, standing up and providing that humanitarian lifeline. Yes, I pay tribute to our friends and partners, the United States and Egypt, in the negotiation, but I know for a fact that this is not some media policy. Your Lordships have it on record from the Minister for the Middle East about the diplomacy and the leadership shown by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, who were in the region at the same time—there was almost a baton exchange. When I travelled to Cairo last Saturday, that reflected this strength; the messaging to key partners was candid. I hope noble Lords will recognise that the United Kingdom Government are taking our responsibilities in this respect very seriously.

The issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised about ensuring that we prevent wider conflict is very much at the forefront of our mind. We are engaging directly. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised specific issues. Let us be clear: over the course of the weekend, as the Pentagon reported, there was an attack by Iraqi militia on a US base. There should not in any way be a decrease in vigilance; this is about increased vigilance. We also know that Bashar al-Assad is now in a different place from where he was before, even six or 12 months ago, so we need to be very clear about the issue of contagion, whether that is Lebanon or the situation in Iraq. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are engaging directly with the Iraqi Government in this respect. Over the last few days I have been in touch directly with the Foreign Minister of Iraq.

We will continue to be vigilant. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has played its role, but there was also an attempt—it was symbolic but nevertheless a real threat—coming from the Houthis. We had seen some real progress being made on the issues in Yemen, but it was Houthi drones pointed towards Israel that were recently shot down, so it is important that we stay vigilant in this respect.

We are also intensifying diplomatic engagement guided at the principle of standing with Israel. As I said, we want Hamas to give back the hostages, stop its incursions and look towards security for the longer term.

Thirdly, we are providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians now. I pay tribute to the IDF soldier Yosef, who the most reverend Primate mentioned. I also recognise the points made by my noble friend Lady Morris about the incredible bravery of so many workers working for NGOs within both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, who play a vital role. I acknowledge the important role of the United Nations and the UNRWA teams. I spoke directly to the Secretary-General and commend his visit to the Gaza border. It is important that we recognise that senior members of the UN team, including Secretary-General Guterres, Rosemary DiCarlo and Martin Griffiths, were also in attendance at the Cairo meeting.

The most reverend Primate asked specifically about our support for the reconstruction of hospitals and other parts of Gaza. We are committed to that. We have already seen my right honourable friend increase funding over the last few weeks. I remember doubling the funding at the UN high-level week—which was only in September but seems like a long time ago now—and our funding for this year now stands at £57 million. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, that we have made all efforts to mitigate any misdirection of aid to ensure that it reaches the most needy and vulnerable and those for whom it is intended. We therefore work with trusted partners, including UN agencies and other key international NGOs, to ensure that we can fulfil that obligation.

We will continue to assess the situation on the ground and, as I said earlier, we will continue to update noble Lords in that respect. The noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Blackstone, asked about the distribution of aid. We are working with key partners. With regard to protecting some of those partners, I am sometimes reluctant in conflict zones to name them, but UK aid specifically has started arriving; I believe the first plane arrived yesterday. We want to keep the Rafah crossing open. I say quite directly to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that I said right at the outset that it is good that we have started some trucks going in but that is not enough to sustain the innocent civilians who are currently being used in Gaza by Hamas. So funding has been delivered through key partners, and of course we are closely monitoring its delivery.

The noble Baroness Lady Ramsay, my noble friend Lord Leigh, the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, and other noble Lords—in fact, just about everyone—asked about the proscription of the IRGC. The malign influence of Iran is very clear. I cannot give what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked for today, but of course we are observing closely Iran’s continued influence, the escalation and its support for organisations within the region. We are clear that Iran poses an unacceptable threat to Israel, as my noble friend highlighted, including through its long-term support for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. We have long condemned its destabilising influence. I will share the strength of views in many contributions in your Lordships’ House with my right honourable friend and others within government. I am sure noble Lords recognise that at this time I cannot go further.

However, we are working on sanctions. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, asked me about the JCPOA sanctions. I have written in advance to several noble Lords to say that, as these sanctions are coming off, we are working with our EU partners and the US to make sure that, as they expire, they will come into UK law directly so there is no break from the sanctions currently being applied. We believe that is a legitimate response in order to limit Iran’s malign influence.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, my noble friends Lord Wolfson and Lord Polak and the noble Lords, Lord Stevens and Lord Verdirame, raised another issue. I commend the influence of the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, may perhaps have a conversation with him about the law when it comes to conflicts. Of course we are raising directly with Israel the issue of proportionality and ensuring that it takes all necessary steps to prevent civilian casualties. We are impressing that upon Israel, and we would not be having this number of trucks carrying deliveries if Israel did not recognise the importance of opening the crossing at Rafah. We have stressed to Israel the importance of protecting civilians and facilitating safe and unhindered access to humanitarian and medical aid for Gaza. I assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan, Lady Hussein-Ece, Lady Gohir and Lady Smith, and others who raised these issues that that is a live issue right now, and we will continue to press it. I hope that noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, will recognise the UK’s efforts in this respect.

On the issue of how we deal with conflicts, one of the things that I have learned with all the—how can I put this politely?—challenging responses that I get on some of my own social media, which my noble friend Lord Wolfson pointed to, is that this is now a different kind of conflict. We have to deal with things live.

Lots of people ring me and say, “Tariq, what are you doing here?”, sometimes using rather choice language. I say to them that at a time of conflict, you need calmness —a calm, considered response. Evidence matters; facts matter. On the reporting in certain media channels—the noble Lords, Lord Grabiner and Lord Verdirame, and my noble friend Lord Polak, among others, raised this—I can do no better than repeat the Prime Minister’s words:

“When things are so delicate, we all have a responsibility to take additional care in the language we use and to operate on the basis of facts alone”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/23; col. 592.]


Whether that applies to a Minister, a parliamentarian or, indeed, our media colleagues, it is very important that we have that moment of reflection.

We have not been silent on illegal white phosphorus. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, raised this, as did my noble friend Lord Leigh, and I will answer it directly. The accusation made against the IDF regarding the use of white phosphorus is, in its words, categorically false. Israel recognises its responsibilities under international law. Yesterday the Prime Minister called for us to speak on the basis of facts alone. We need to recognise that there is a lot of misinformation out there and we need to verify the facts.

Several noble Lords, such as my noble friend Lady Warsi, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hussein-Ece, Lady Gohir and Lady Bennett, as well as my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, provided an alternative perspective on ceasefires. As I said earlier, ceasefires will also involve Hamas ceasing hostilities. It has demonstrably shown that it is not willing to do so. However, we are opening up those access points for humanitarian corridors, which is where our current focus is. I believe that most noble Lords will agree that it is right to do so.

I am conscious of time and seek your Lordships’ indulgence on two key points. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, my noble friends Lord Godson and Lord Polak, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, among others, mentioned the Abraham accords. They are part and parcel of our response. I am always taken with the contributions by the noble Lord, Lord Stone—they are succinct, brief, and to the point. Of course I will continue to work with him in this respect, because we have to bring hope.

We will sustain the long-term prospects of peace and stability in the region—we cannot lose sight of this. Hamas’s abhorrent actions must not be allowed to dictate the fate of the region. If we give up, collectively —and that applies to Palestinians and Israelis—then Hamas has won. Therefore, it is right that we step up even more strongly in support of bringing about peace. As I have said, we remain committed to a negotiated two-state solution—a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, a just and lasting solution that ends occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. This has gone on for far too long. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, spoke of reconciliation—of course it is possible, and we will continue to focus on that.

I was taken by the very personal contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Oates. Again, it is not that we are not taking on board the calls for a ceasefire, but a ceasefire is called for when it will be most effective. Of course we want humanitarian windows, and those are being delivered. We will continue to call out those issues which are obstacles to peace, such as illegal settlements, which were mentioned—barriers which gravely undermine the prospects of a two-state solution. I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to be seized of that issue.

The final point I want to make is on the rising tide of hate which we have seen. On the work of the CST and Tell MAMA, we have, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, acknowledges, increased funding to the CST, which provides vital support. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, my noble friends Lord Harrington, Lady Altmann, Lord Gold and Lady Eaton, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, as well as others, all talked of the protests. We celebrate our democracy for its right to protest but that protest must be without incitement to hatred. That is important. I celebrate the fact that I am still able to pick up my file and cross the road to the Foreign Office from this place. We should be protecting these things. They are a vital part of our democracy.

I echo the call made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I remember going to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a group of students when I was a Communities Minister. I still remember that, as we turned into the camp, the silence of that bunch of 16 year-olds was total. At that moment, there was silence in the coach. Why? Because the dawning of their historical learning was very real. It is therefore right that we invest in such initiatives. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Warsi for her initiative, Remembering Srebrenica. These genocides happen and they are happening today. We need to stand united against them and call them out. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also focused on these issues.

We will stand strong against anti-Semitism. I assure the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that I will take back some of his suggestions. There were suggestions from my noble friend Lord Godson about engagement and I assure him that our policy has not changed when it comes to our engagement. I will certainly take back some of the points he wanted to share with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up. I say to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that, yes, we want to strengthen the faith initiatives. We cannot let hate divide communities or spill into our streets. We need to stand firm, whether that is against anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim hatred.

On our universities, I acknowledge the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and my noble friend Lord Wolfson. It should not be the case that he is worried about his daughter. I have a daughter as well; I want her to be safe and his daughter to be safe. I want all daughters and sons, all children, all people to be safe in our country. That is what our country is all about.

As a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Minister, I assure your Lordships that we are using our levers of development and diplomacy to best effect. That does not mean we are getting everything right immediately, with the changing circumstances, but we stand to build alliances and unity of purpose. Maybe this is the window of opportunity that brings us a first step to lasting and sustainable peace.

I recognise the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House this evening but today this is perhaps more important than ever. The heavy toll that has been paid by innocents, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said, demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards peace. We should not lose sight of that. We should rekindle the spirit of President Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin: that peace is possible. We should all strive for that and say that we will do our part to ensure that hope transcends over despair, peace over conflict and love over hate.

I end my remarks with words which I am sure some noble Lords will recognise. There was a very revered person who understood the Middle East—as my noble friend said, blessed are the peacemakers, and this person was one of those. He said that the only

“radical means of sanctifying human lives”

is

“Not armored plating, or tanks, or planes, or concrete fortifications. The one radical solution is peace”.


That was the revered, respected and late Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace Prize winner, in his lecture of December 1994. We were reminded by the noble Lord in his earlier contribution about prayers for peace and coming together. I join others in saying that, in our respective ways and homes, and our respective faiths and religions, that kind of faith is needed now and those prayers for peace are needed now. In our own way, let us work towards ensuring that it becomes a sustainable peace for people across the Holy Land.

Motion agreed.