Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing the debate and on all she has been doing since the beginning of this crisis to draw attention to what is happening in Israel and Gaza, which has now spread to other parts of the middle east.
Everyone around the world was horrified by what happened on 7 October, but everyone—or almost everyone—has watched with increasing horror the effect in Gaza over the ensuing months. It is almost somewhat prurient that, as we debate this matter every week in this place and out in the wider community—as the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, there is huge interest among the public in this—we are commentating on the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly civilians and overwhelmingly women and children. That is an extremely uncomfortable position to be in, but we have to try—and, above all, we have to try to persuade the UK Government that they and their partners need to do more.
My starting point for dealing with what is different between Gaza and some other conflicts is that there was a long period before the current hostilities—since at least 2007—when Gaza was under siege, so these depredations are happening not to a robust society, but to one that has already been depleted in many ways. I visited Gaza twice during that period. The first time was just after Operation Cast Lead, another major Israeli military incursion, though obviously not on the scale of the current one, and I saw what happens when heavy-duty weapons of war are used against civilian populations. We were lucky to get into Gaza through Erez that time. The second time I visited, most political visits had been stopped, but we were able to cross Sinai—something that, again, may not be possible now—and enter through the Rafah crossing.
What impresses me most about Gaza, as others have mentioned, is the resilience of its people, despite the utter squalor of life, caused by occupation and the control of land, sea and air borders for a long period, such that most are reliant on aid, cannot leave the country, except in very few cases, and have been living almost as stateless citizens, in limbo, for nearly a generation now. Gaza has a highly educated population, and it has become clear during the current conflict, as we have seen hospitals and other civilian infrastructure destroyed, that it was there. Indeed, many doctors and other specialists have gone out from this country to assist medics and others in Gaza in running the health service as best they can, despite the deprivation of supplies. At the same time as being horrified by the conditions that people had to live in, one could not help but admire the fact that life continued as normally as it could under the circumstances. Not only did a siege go on, but there were four or five separate land or air assaults by Israel on Gaza between 2008 and the current conflict. Life had been worn down, and people had been worn down, not just physically but mentally, over that period.
The other aspect of Gaza that is perhaps unique is that there is nowhere to flee to. There is no route out of Gaza. Gazans do not want to leave Gaza. They do not want to be forced into Sinai or elsewhere, or into any of the mad schemes that extreme members of the Israeli Government have come out with. Undoubtedly, there are those who would like to be able to cross the border, perhaps because they are wounded or injured, they are foreign nationals or have family abroad, or they simply cannot stand what is happening, but they are simply unable to. That adds another dimension of horror to the situation. People are being bombed and shelled daily, as we have seen. We do not get the full picture, but we see that whole districts and neighbourhoods, and the majority of residences, have been damaged or destroyed in what would be an extraordinary level of bombardment in any war but is particularly so in such a narrow and small piece of land.
People have mentioned some of the headline statistics, if I can put it that way. The fact that 85% of the population have been displaced is extraordinary. Some 27,000 people have been killed, over 11,000 of them children, and we have heard about the half a million people who are in the most severe level of food crisis. A very substantial proportion of people around the world who are in that highest level of crisis are now living in Gaza, which previously had a first-world economy, in many ways, and first-world education and skills. That is the seriousness of the case, and that is why we have seen attempts to defend the victims through action in the International Court of Justice in the United Nations itself.
The debate is about one narrow aspect of this crisis and conflict—aid. Whatever the Government say about aid shipments that they have authorised, it is clear that aid is not getting into Gaza in anything like the amount that is needed. UNRWA is not the only aid agency; there are many others, such as Islamic Relief and Medical Aid for Palestinians, whose local staff are working on the ground under appalling conditions. Those charities do a very good job, but they do not do what UNRWA has done since 1949 and provide whole-infrastructure support for a population that, through no fault of its own, is unable to supply it itself. UNRWA also provides education, healthcare and employment for many thousands of people.
Let us not disguise the fact that what some UNRWA staff—a very small number—have been accused of has to be investigated. Those staff, quite rightly, are out of a job while that is being investigated, and if it can be proven that they played any part in the 7 October events, they must be punished with the full severity of the law. But the idea that the whole organisation should be effectively brought to a halt by being defunded seems extraordinary. The Minister for the middle east said, and I am sure he is sincere, that he does not believe the defunding will make a difference because we have made the current financial year’s payment and are not due to make the next one until the next financial year, but will the various inquiries—there are more than one—be resolved by then? I would like a commitment from the Minister today that, as long as we are assured that investigations are being properly carried out, we will not restrict the funding we would otherwise have given to UNRWA, which itself is only a fraction of what is needed and is less than used to be given.
The Government are failing. Even with respect to aid, they have singularly failed to give a political lead. They have singularly failed on many of the issues that have arisen since 7 October, including on what is happening in the west bank and the wider middle east, but every time questions are raised about those things, we get the reply, “Yes, but we are prioritising aid.” Well, with respect, that does not appear to be happening. If it were, we would be working more closely with the UN, our European allies and the US, as well as bilaterally, to ensure the necessary amounts of aid are getting into Gaza through a variety of crossings and in a variety of forms, and many of the current hold-ups would be relieved.
It is so obvious—and I think this is the Government’s position—that aid cannot be got into Gaza in any meaningful way without the cessation of hostilities. We may differ on what that cessation should involve and on the terminology, but it would be good to hear from the Minister that the Government wish to see an end to the hostilities between Gaza and Israel until such time as the famine and disease that are running rife are ended, and the wounded and others who are suffering in Gaza have received proper medical attention, food and other supplies. Surely that is the least that we should demand.
The way that Ukraine is reported in the UK differs from the reporting of Gaza. There is rightly a high degree of access to what is happening in Ukraine, so we get a good picture of the atrocities visited on the Ukrainian people by Putin and his forces. Despite the brave efforts of many journalists, many of whom have been killed, we do not get a full picture of what is happening in Gaza. For those of us who are familiar with the region, it is possible to imagine it, but probably not on the current scale. The suppression of information coming out of Gaza is being used to disguise the full horror of what is happening there.
Despite that, it is clear from every polling exercise and from the correspondence that every MP receives— I have had more than 5,000 emails on this subject, calling for an immediate and full ceasefire by a ratio of 100:1, and others have had considerably more than that—that the public in this country are deeply concerned about what is happening and want to see their Government take action to stop the killing, particularly of children, and the destruction of a whole civilisation. There is clearly a targeting of civil society bodies, records, courthouses, Parliaments and business districts, which can have no military significance whatever, in a way that punishes and degrades the entirety of the Gaza strip. I want the Government to speak out against that more and, above all, take many more steps to ensure that aid is delivered in secure circumstances in the course of a ceasefire.