Situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

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Tuesday 30th January 2024

(4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, is a respected Minister in this House and I mean no disrespect to him. However, we are asking questions on a Statement about the Foreign Secretary’s activities, in the House that he is a Member of, but repeated by another Minister, it having been made in the House of Commons. The Foreign Secretary made a very significant contribution to this debate, outside this House, to the Conservative Middle East Council, on which we are also going to be asking questions of this Minister. I think it would be appropriate for the Foreign Secretary to be in this House, of which he is a Member, to take questions on speeches that he makes—especially those which could make a significant change to policy, and which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked valid questions on. We can now only go on a speech made at a Conservative Party event and an article in the Daily Mail in trying to elicit whether the Government’s policy on the recognition of the state of Palestine has changed.

If it has changed, these Benches will welcome it. We have a long-standing view on the recognition of the state of Palestine. My honourable friend Layla Moran has twice now launched her presentation Bill in the House of Commons, and in it she outlined what practical steps would be necessary if we were moving towards recognition. That was first presented before the violence in October and the Hamas atrocities, but it is even more important now. I look forward to the Minister outlining very clearly what the Government’s new approach is regarding what practical steps they will be taking to bring this about. This House has debated recognition of the state of Palestine. Is it the Government’s intention that, in government time, we will be debating this again? That would be a natural corollary of what the Foreign Secretary’s speech last night indicated.

With regard to the ICJ, it was regrettable from our perspective that the Government rather undermined the processes, but it is welcome that they have accepted what the rulings are: the recognition of the atrocities committed by Hamas and the responsibilities now upon Israel. Previously, I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, what data and information the UK Government are collecting from our monitoring, both in the skies and through other monitoring, with regard to activities. Will we be participating in the work of the ICJ now, given its ruling, to ensure that proper information is collated about the tactics of the Israel Defense Forces within Gaza? We know, even just today, from BBC Verify, of the estimate that between 51% and 61% of all buildings in Gaza have now been destroyed or damaged; that is between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings. It is estimated that 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, 70% of them being women and children. The need for adherence to the ruling is incredibly important.

On the UNRWA situation and the very serious allegations, I agree with the noble Lord that the investigation needs to be expedited and clear, and that those responsible need to be prosecuted. I welcome the Minister’s Statement that 13,000 staff are providing life-saving services for the people within Gaza. As we know, UNRWA is operating outside Gaza too. Can the Minister clarify what the UK “pause” means in reality? Have we stopped co-ordinating on the delivery of aid with UNRWA, given that, in many areas, it continues to be the only provider of assistance? Is our pause open-ended, or will it be contingent on whether the report has been made or any prosecutions carried forward?

Finally, there is now likely to be US retaliation for the attacks and the deaths of their service personnel. There is likely to be political change in the Israeli Government, depending on coalition partners’ response to the latest talks in Paris. This is a time of great volatility and concern. What role is the UK playing overall? Is it a leading role, if we are changing our position on the state of Palestine, to ensure a collective approach to not just a full bilateral ceasefire, but a regional partnership for peace, in what may be a very dangerous time ahead?

Lord Benyon Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Benyon) (Con)
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I am grateful to both the noble Lords. I agree wholeheartedly with the analysis of the current situation given by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The whole House shares his and my horror at the impact of this war. It is 115 days since Hamas’s attacks against the State of Israel. Hamas continues to hold more than 130 hostages, and innocent Palestinians are suffering, with over 25,000 people killed. Israelis must be able to live in security and Gazans must be able to rebuild their lives.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the latest negotiations. The United Kingdom is involved, at the highest levels, in setting up a contact group with key partners. We are in the key position of having friends across the region and being a friend to the State of Israel. We are working closely with everyone. The Prime Minister has spoken to the President of the United States at length and to a great many other people. The Foreign Secretary is not here today because he is travelling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon, as part of a continued list of engagements in the region which he has been undertaking since he took his post. I am sure that the House thinks that is right, because he clearly has to take that role. I will come on to talk about concerns about recent comments.

We have called for an immediate pause to get more aid in and hostages out. We want this pause to turn into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire, without a return to fighting. We have identified five steps for this to happen, which answers one of the crucial questions that both noble Lords asked. A political horizon will provide a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution. We can then form a new Palestinian Government for the West Bank in Gaza, accompanied by an international support package. Key to that is removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel, the release of all Israeli hostages and Hamas leaders agreeing to leave Gaza.

The noble Lords asked about the ICJ ruling. The United Kingdom is a firm supporter of the rules-based order and has been for decades. We respect the ICJ ruling in its entirety. One cannot pick and mix on this. There is a question about whether it came at a time when such sensitivities were manifest in the region, but we absolutely accept this ruling.

My right honourable friend Andrew Mitchell spoke to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the day before yesterday. The inquiry that he announced goes much further than a normal UN inquiry; it is independent and we must let it take its course. I share everyone’s view that it is wrong to have people who are alleged to have been perpetrators of the 7 October attacks in this organisation. It is right to cease their employment and to investigate further.

I give the House this clear commitment. First, our contributions to UNRWA have been made for this financial year and our commitment to trebling aid to Gaza still stands. The UK is providing £60 million in humanitarian assistance to support other partners, including the British Red Cross, UNICEF, the UN World Food Programme and the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, in order to respond to the critical food, fuel, water, health, shelter and security needs in Gaza.

We will continue our support for the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. Some 750 tonnes of life-saving food aid arrived in the first delivery in December. The second delivery of 315 tonnes was made earlier this year. We will continue to support the Red Crescent Society, with which we have a long-standing, trusted relationship, to make sure that this happens. But for this to happen, we need to see border crossings open on a more sustained basis. We are calling for the Ashdod port to be opened as a route for aid to reach Gaza, and to extend the opening hours and the capacity of the Nitzana screening facility and the Kerem Shalom checkpoint so that more trucks, aid and fuel can enter Gaza. This requires the Kerem Shalom crossing to be open seven days a week. My noble friend Lord Cameron has raised this at the highest levels in Israel.

I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, a complete answer today to his question about data collection. There is a variety of different sources—some open, and some requiring other forms of data. We are monitoring what is going on, and we are concerned about the scale of the tragic loss of life. We want to make sure that we are encouraging Israel to defend its borders, as it has the absolute right to do, but to do so proportionately.

The US retaliation against the attack on its base in Jordan is obviously an indication of the complexity of the problems right across the region. We are in close touch with the United States about this. We are deeply mindful of the 2,500 British personnel in the region, and we want to make sure that they are safe and that their families are assured that they are safe. Any response must, first of all, give a clear indication to Iran and its proxies that they cannot operate in this way. We are also mindful that we need to move this whole region towards a more peaceful and stable future.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, does the Minister accept that there was a very warm reaction to the reports of what the Foreign Secretary said to the Conservative Middle East Council dinner? Does this not show that the old approach to a two-state solution—whereby Palestine is recognised as a state and Israel is fully recognised by the Arabs at the end of the process—is not going to work? This is a very difficult issue. What is probably needed is a process which, from the start, makes it clear that Arab participants should recognise Israel and that all of us, including Israel, should recognise Palestine as a state. This is the only viable outcome.

Do the Government share the view of the US Secretary of State, who said that UNRWA’s ability to provide and distribute various forms of aid in Gaza was “absolutely indispensable”? This is surely covered by the ruling of the International Court of Justice that all must do their best to increase the flow of aid into Gaza—including UNRWA, even though what some of its employees have been accused of is quite horrible and must be punished following an inquiry.

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The noble Lord understands more than any of us how sensitive this time and the surrounding negotiations are. It is absolutely clear that Gaza and the West Bank are occupied Palestinian territory and will be part of a future Palestinian state. We support a two-state solution that guarantees security and stability for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. Recently, I read a most interesting quote from former Mossad director, Meir Dagan. Commenting on the two-state solution, he said:

“We have no other way. Not because the Palestinians are my top priority but because I am concerned about Israel’s well-being and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence.”


That shows a real depth of understanding of the importance of working towards that conclusion.

On the noble Lord’s point about UNRWA, we are not alone in having paused our financial support for UNRWA. The United States, Germany, Australia, Italy, Canada, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands have all temporarily paused funding. I gave a list of other organisations that we are using. The noble Lord is absolutely right that UNRWA has the facilities on the ground and many thousands of people working in and around Gaza who have the ability to get food, fuel and all other humanitarian items to the people of Gaza. We want to be back working with it when this inquiry has worked out who precisely was involved in the attacks to get back international confidence in it as an organisation to deliver aid.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, we have been having discussions about the process which will lead to peace, but we need to start the process. In order to start the process, do we not need to recognise two things? First, the world of 8 October is a fundamentally different world from the world of 6 October. Secondly, Israel is a democracy, unlike Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. That means that if we are going to be realistic about encouraging Israel to start that process, we need to recognise that, even today, well over 100 of its citizens are still being held hostage. I know the Minister has personally made significant efforts to meet hostage families and to work on that issue. If we are going to start a process to peace in the Middle East, which I would welcome as I have worked on it for as long as I can, we need to face basic political realities. Unless and until those hostages are released, the process will not begin. If we want to see peace in the Middle East after that conflict, the first step must be to get the hostages released. Does my noble friend agree?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I certainly do. That is the first step in a road out of this sorry saga that we all want to see achieved. I cannot imagine—well, I can imagine what it is like for the families, because on two occasions I have met them, and I am due to meet some more this week. Noble Lords can understand the emotion. When you meet them, it is absolutely a searing realisation of the true brutality of those events and the continuous misery for those families, including the parents of a child who is around one year old. You can only imagine what they feel about that.

On my noble friend’s point about democracy, he is absolutely right. As we can see daily in our newspapers, Israel is a vibrant democracy. There are future changes perhaps—we do not know—but we will support whoever is the legitimate Government of Israel to help to find a solution to this. My noble friend is also right that it has been 18 years, I think, since free and fair elections, or elections, have taken place in Gaza. The Hamas controlling body has no democratic authority. We want to make sure that the future of Gaza does not have Hamas anywhere in it.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, while welcoming much of what the Minister has said, will he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the Israeli Government actually respond to the request that the UK Government and the Foreign Secretary are now making about an immediate cessation of hostilities to allow for more aid to get in, for hostages to get out and above all for the slaughter to stop with a view to turning this into a permanent sustainable ceasefire, which is demanded by more and more countries and by public opinion in this country? Has the time not come for the UK to cease trading in arms with Israel while it continues to kill thousands of civilians, as we have heard, 70% of whom are women and children, which my noble friend Lord Collins has described from the Front Bench as a humanitarian disaster?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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We are very concerned with the immediate days—hours, even—of this emerging saga. Whatever any Minister says at any Dispatch Box is very often out of date by the time he or she sits down. First of all, we absolutely accept that Israel has the right to defend itself against the vile terrorism that it suffered on 7 October. We have very strict rules in this country and fantastic oversight, in this place and beyond, of our arms trading arrangements. Any Government should apply those oversights to it, and we do. But it is absolutely vital that we concentrate on the immediate problem, which is getting those hostages released. I pay tribute to the Government of Qatar for their support and great expertise in achieving this. Those who have been involved in the Northern Ireland issue over the years know how galling it is when you see people that you know have done terrible things being swapped for victims of terrorism who have done no wrong. But it does require an enormous amount of courage and determination to make sure that we can get these hostages out and move forward to sustainable, lasting peace.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his remarks. I also pay tribute to workers in Gaza, particularly, and in the West Bank, many of whom are risking their own lives to provide support and medical help for the victims of the bombardments. Does the Minister appreciate that UNRWA apparently does not have enough money to see it through February, to provide aid in Gaza and in the West Bank? Will he look into, or have the Government looked into, the fact that medical facilities for victims are being denied and systematically destroyed, according to the reports coming to us from Medical Aid for Palestinians? What are the Government going to do to ensure that all the victims have access to the medical support and the help that international law says they should?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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It is crucial to get the right amount of medical aid and food, and all the other types of sustenance the people of Gaza require. That means more trucks, more ships and more material getting across borders. That is our priority, and there are a great many organisations that can assist with the delivery of that; I listed them earlier. But the noble Baroness is right; UNRWA employs 13,000 people in Gaza and has provided essential basic healthcare, education, protection and vital humanitarian assistance for hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza. Some 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are eligible for UNRWA support. In Gaza, it operates 183 schools and two primary healthcare facilities. We want to make sure that we can use this agency as quickly as possible, but that is not stopping the level of compassionate support that the British people are giving to the people of Gaza. We are getting that aid in as quickly as we can, but we need those border crossings to be more functional.

Lord Pickles Portrait Lord Pickles (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register, particularly those relating to friendship with Israel. Does my noble friend remember that, when the International Court of Justice announced its inquiry, Hamas pledged to honour those interim judgments? The court has asked for the release of hostages. Is my noble friend disappointed that that has not happened—that Hamas has broken its word? If we are to recognise an independent Palestinian state before there is a lasting peace and mutual recognition of boundaries, what assurances does my noble friend intend to put in to ensure the safety of Israel? Or would the British Government be content, for example, with a sovereign Palestinian state entering into a defence arrangement with Iran?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I understand my noble friend’s concerns and hope that, through the process we can now move towards, we can address the 30-year failure of the international community to support a lasting solution. In Israel we have seen rising incomes and a state that is very advanced in its security, trade and the living standards of its population, but one thing that has not been delivered to the people of Israel, and which really matters to them and to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, is security. That is what we want to achieve. We want a lasting security, and then Israel can continue to be a real force, both economically and culturally, around the world.

Baroness Uddin Portrait Baroness Uddin (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, no democratic country should have the mandate to mercilessly kill another nation. What advice have our Government received since the ICJ interim ruling as to whether they will also be dragged into complicity should the international court determine that there have been war crimes and breaches of the genocide convention?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The British Government have never defined what genocide is; we leave that for a court to do. However, we do not believe that this qualifies as genocide. We accept, and are pleased by, the ruling of the court in its calls for the release of the hostages and for the necessity of getting aid into Gaza.

Lord Dobbs Portrait Lord Dobbs (Con)
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My Lords, the Minister referred to the failure of the international community for 30 years or more in this matter. That implies that, if a two-state solution is to be brought about, as the Foreign Secretary said last night—and I very much welcome his remarks, and indeed the very balanced remarks of the Opposition, if I may say so, this afternoon—that surely implies that simply asking them to bring about a solution is not going to be enough. It requires more than just persuasion, and possibly a degree of international coercion on both sides, to bring about a solution in the wider interest. That is difficult when the Israeli Government, as at the moment, do not believe in and have rejected a two-state solution. Does the Minister have any ideas how the real problem of Hamas might be dealt with in this ongoing discussion?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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None of these solutions is entirely in our gift. We do not have the ability to wave a wand or send a gunboat or do all the things that Foreign Ministers might have done in centuries past. It comes down to really hard work and old-fashioned diplomacy. That is what my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, other Ministers, my noble friend Lord Ahmad—who has been ceaselessly working on this—and the Diplomatic Service have been trying to draw together. We think we have a thread which can lead towards a solution. We have to be positive about this. If you just think of the world as it exists—my noble friend referred to 8 October, the day after the attack—it is so bleak and depressing that you can hardly see a way forward. But there is a solution and we know it can work. It comes down to working with our partners, and, most of all, working with the Government of Israel and with sensible people in the Occupied Territories, to make sure that we can have a solution which is free of Hamas and gives lasting security to the Palestinian people and Israeli citizens.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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My Lords, do the Government assume that alternative sources of finance for humanitarian aid, which the Minister mentioned, will make up for the loss of financial aid currently going to UNRWA? Clearly, the Government are radically revising their policy at the moment and have set out these five important conditions. So far as the two-state solution is concerned, are the Government going to wait for the slowest? Will they wait for a consensus among their allies? What will they deem to be necessary before they accept a two-state solution? On the other matter, is the Minister confident that the Palestinian Authority is ready to assume responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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My noble friend the Foreign Secretary met the President of the Occupied West Bank Territories, Mahmoud Abbas, and will continue to talk to him to find, I hope, precisely that solution. On the noble Lord’s first point, on UNRWA, as I said, we have given to UNRWA what we were going to give this financial year, and the additional sums that we are promising will still get, in aid, to the people of Gaza through a variety of sources that I listed earlier.

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister clarify his last remarks? When he said that my noble friend Lord Cameron has had discussions with the Prime Minister of Palestine, can we be crystal-clear that the United Kingdom will not recognise a state of Palestine that is led by the current Palestinian Authority and the Fatah organisation, which has been so involved in terror, and will not recognise a Gaza-led Government where Hamas has either control or power?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend, and allow me to clarify. We will recognise a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution at the time that is right and with the leadership in place. We have already talked about needing a technocratic Government who will resolve the issues that exist within Gaza in particular, and we want to make sure that that Government do not have Hamas anywhere near them, or as part of them, and that they are trusted in those territories but also by the people of Israel, who want to live in peace with their neighbours.

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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My Lords, for as long as most of us can remember, Ministers at the Dispatch Box, of both parties, have reiterated the commitment to a two-state solution, although I have to say—and a Select Committee of this House made this position explicit not so long ago—that the possibility of that being achieved as long as the Government in Israel pursue their expansion of settlements on the West Bank is diminishing. It is only at times of awful violence, such as we have seen in the last few months, that the attention of the international community is focused on what the two-state solution actually means and whether we will work for it as soon as the violence ceases. What is new is not just that Israel has been moving towards making a two-state solution more difficult but that the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made it quite clear that he simply will not accept a Palestinian state. I should like to know what steps the Government are taking to try to impress on him that there can be no long-term chance of peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians, like the Israelis, have a state of their own.

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The noble Lord raises the fundamental issue here. There are different voices in Israel, and we will work with whoever is in government to achieve what we, with our partners in the region and with countries such as the United States, think is the best way forward for the people of Israel and those living in the Occupied Territories. The noble Lord is right: that is very difficult to achieve, particularly when people at the top of the Government are saying that our policy is not right for them. However, there are plenty of people who believe—I earlier quoted somebody deeply involved with the security of the State of Israel—that it is fundamentally important not just for the Palestinians but for the future of Israel. It is that which we want to secure. Israel is our friend; we can speak frankly with friends, and that is what we do in diplomatic terms. We do not cut ourselves off from it just because there might be some side to an argument that we disagree with. We will work with Israel to try to achieve what we think is best for the long-term security of the region, which affects us all.