Thursday 8th February 2024

(2 weeks, 4 days ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 14 November 2023 and 9 January 2024, on the Humanitarian situation in Gaza, HC 110; Correspondence from the International Development Committee to the Foreign Secretary, on the Humanitarian situation in Gaza, reported to the House on 17 January 2024; Correspondence between the International Development Committee and the Foreign Secretary, on the Humanitarian situation in Gaza, reported to the House on 16 November and 5 December 2023; and e-petition 649371, Allow Palestinian Children to Enter the UK During Ongoing Conflict.]
13:30
Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered humanitarian aid and children in Gaza.

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for enabling this debate. I am grateful for the cross-party support that I had when seeking to secure it.

Before the war began, Gaza’s streets were alive with the sound of children. Roughly half the population are under 18, but unlike children in the UK, Gaza’s children have had to endure so much in their short lives. A 15-year-old will have lived through five wars, including the current conflict. Many have been displaced several times. Even so, they have never experienced destruction and death like this.

Since October, it has been clear that children have been affected by the conflict on an unprecedented and unparalleled scale. We know that the Hamas attacks involved the killing of Israeli children, and that an estimated 40 Israeli children were taken captive in Gaza. Nevertheless, more than 11,500 children have since been killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes and ground operations. The phrase “war on children” is echoing across the international community. Lost in the numbers are the faces, the names, the lives and the moments of joy that those children brought—children like six-year-old Hind Rajab, whose fate is reported to be still unknown after the car in which she was fleeing to safety with her uncle, his wife and their four children came under Israeli fire. More than 24,000 children have lost one or both parents.

Gaza’s hospitals have treated so many wounded children arriving alone for treatment after Israeli airstrikes that, chillingly, medical workers have coined a new abbreviation —WCNSF: “wounded child, no surviving family”. Obviously, unaccompanied and separated children require urgent protection and the provision of essentials. Given that these children need refuge and compassion, will the Minister clarify whether the Government have considered allowing children into the UK for their safety and wellbeing during this conflict, as per the petition which has been signed by over 17,000 people? For the children who have survived the bombardment, a slow and painful death looms due to the denial of essentials, the destruction of infrastructure and the lack of aid.

The healthcare system in Gaza is in crisis due to major shortages of doctors and nurses, the lack of medical supplies and the destruction of hospitals. Small children caught up in explosions are particularly vulnerable to major life-changing injuries, and more than 1,000 children have had one or both legs amputated. According to the World Health Organisation, many of these operations on children were done without anaesthetic. Such horrors are virtually unimaginable for us in the UK, but it does not stop there. Many children are accessing well below the recommended water requirements for survival, and those under five are at high risk of severe malnutrition and preventable death due to famine. According to Islamic Relief, Gaza is now the world’s worst hunger crisis.

As I have laid out, the situation for children in Gaza is catastrophic. Unfettered access for humanitarian aid is needed urgently, but the conditions on the ground, the bombardment, the siege and the destruction of infra- structure do not allow it to reach children and families in need. It brings to mind Israel’s Minister of Defence’s announcement on 9 October:

“We are putting a complete siege on Gaza…No electricity, no food, no water, no gas—it’s all closed.”

Can the Minister update us on the Government’s understanding of the legality of what many are arguing is the collective punishment of civilians and how this has affected children?

Save the Children International’s chief executive officer’s harrowing plea demonstrates the significance of what people all over the world are bearing witness to:

“We are running out of words to describe the horror unfolding for Gaza’s children. Most of them have been forcibly displaced, squeezed into a tiny sliver of land that cannot accommodate them. Those who haven’t been forced from their homes are cut-off from the basics needed for survival, far away from the little amount of humanitarian assistance that can be delivered.”

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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The horrors of recent months have literally been intolerable. Israel continues to use devastating tactics that have seen far too many innocent civilians—including children—killed, with unacceptable blocks on essential humanitarian aid. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need the fighting in Gaza to stop immediately, with a humanitarian truce now, and not just a temporary ceasefire but a lasting, sustainable ceasefire that leads to a viable two-state solution?

Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum
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I agree with my hon. Friend that without an immediate and permanent ceasefire, it is hard to imagine how we can turn around this situation and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the places where it is most needed.

The chief executive officer of Save the Children also said:

“Children are enduring and witnessing horrors, while the world looks on.”

I repeat that for emphasis:

“Children are enduring and witnessing horrors, while the world looks on.”

Why is humanitarian aid not getting to children who need it? What are the blocks on humanitarian aid? According to reports, the flow of aid is being drip-fed. Although around 500 trucks per day are needed to meet basic needs, most days fewer than 200 actually make it inside, and on one day this month it was reported that only 30 crossed into Gaza. Human Rights Watch argues that the blocking of humanitarian assistance amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population and poses further grave risks to children. Can the Minister update us on his understanding of why aid is not being distributed as needed, and whether any blocks to aid would constitute the collective punishment of civilians?

Then there is the question of funding itself. The United Nations Children’s Fund has requested $168.3 million to support its response in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for 2024. On 17 January, it said there was a funding gap of $55.5 million. Shortly after the International Court of Justice’s plausible genocide ruling, the UK stopped funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the largest UN agency operating in Gaza, due to allegations from Israel that 12 of the agency’s more than 13,000 staff were involved in the 7 October attacks. UNRWA has since spoken of being “extremely desperate”.

International aid agencies including Oxfam and ActionAid have said they are deeply concerned and outraged at what they have called a

“reckless decision to cut a lifeline for an entire population”.

Amnesty International has said that while allegations against individuals must be independently investigated, cutting lifesaving assistance to millions could amount to collective punishment in and of itself.

It would be helpful if the Minister could update us as to the situation in this regard. What is the latest evidence the Government have seen regarding the allegations, and how are they being investigated further? What assessment have the Government made of the consequences of their decision for the children in Gaza? I know that many of my constituents are appalled that it appears the UK is continuing to send weapons to potentially kill children while withdrawing funding that saves children’s lives. I urge the Government to prioritise upholding their humanitarian obligations and resume the funding.

The ICJ’s plausible genocide interim judgment made it clear that Israel must take steps to prevent acts of genocide, and that its obligations regarding children and aid are key. Can the Minister tell us what the UK is doing to protect children in Gaza accordingly? In terms of the UK’s own obligations, it would be helpful to know what the Government’s response is to the growing call for the increasing of humanitarian aid and the halting of the transfer of weapons or parts for weapons that can be used against children.

All children should be cherished, Israeli and Palestinian. We know that children in Gaza should not be slaughtered, but they continue to be by Israeli forces in unprecedented numbers. We know that children in Gaza are enduring a humanitarian catastrophe with no relief in sight. We know that aid is desperately needed and that children need food, healthcare, shelter and water but are just not getting them. Does the Minister agree that an immediate and permanent ceasefire is the only way to bring about the end of the suffering of children in Gaza and to enable the urgent delivery of desperately needed aid?

13:40
Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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Thank you for calling me to speak so quickly, Ms Vaz. I was rushing here—I had trouble with my journey, and I think you got that message. I am obliged to you.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing the debate. It is absolutely timely and absolutely essential that this debate be held, because the war has just become a horror show—a horror show of bodies being taken away, of unknown numbers hidden under rubble in Gaza, and of the terrible devastation caused by all the other disasters that war brings about, such as shortage of water, shortage of food, shortage of medicine and everything else.

Obviously what happened on 7 October was appalling by any stretch of the imagination, and the continued hostage-holding of a number of children obviously has to be brought to an end as quickly as it possibly can. But as the Secretary-General of the United Nations pointed out at the time, this did not all come from nowhere; it comes from the siege of Gaza, which has gone on for a very long time, and also, of course, the occupation of the west bank. I recall many visits I have made to Gaza and the west bank, some in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), on a number of occasions. Every time I have been to Gaza, I always felt, “It can’t get any worse.” Then you go back there and it is even worse. Now, the bombing has made it absolutely appalling.

The International Court of Justice hearing was a seminal moment in many ways. I went to the ICJ hearing, at the invitation of the South African delegation, and I was there in the Court for the whole of the hearing. It lasted a very long time, and it was painstakingly presented by South Africa. There was a certain synergy about South Africa, a country that had come out of apartheid, presenting a case, essentially on behalf of the Palestinian people, that the behaviour of the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza was tantamount to acts of genocide against the Palestinian people. The statement made as a result of the ICJ hearing, which should be read very carefully, calls upon Israel to cease activities in the Gaza strip that could be construed as a continuation of genocidal acts against the Palestinian people. It is quite important that the world recognises that, in essence, it was calling for an urgent and immediate ceasefire and an increase in aid going through. That aid has increased very slightly, but it is very difficult to deliver aid when you are under bombardment at the same time.

There are now more than 1 million people around the Rafah crossing. It is a small town. It is grotesquely overcrowded and has a shortage of absolutely everything. One can cite many images, but I saw one the other day of two children—they looked five or six—walking down the road together, hand in hand. They were a boy and a girl. The girl was holding a bottle with a small amount of water in it, and they were aimlessly wandering about. When they saw anyone, they said, “Do you know where we can get food?” The world should not treat children that way, particularly when a few kilometres away there is plenty of food, medicine and clean water deliberately being denied to those people. This country signed the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1989—there is a stone commemorating that in Hyde Park—and we should abide by it.

The UK Government’s decision to withhold further funding to UNRWA until the inquiries have taken place is beyond regrettable. When he announced his decision in Parliament, the Foreign Office Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), pointed out that payments had already been made and that this was withholding future payments that might be due after April. Well, I think we need a bit more certainty than that that we will continue supporting the UN Relief and Works Agency. Around one third of its income is now at risk or already gone.

The case against the people who are alleged to have taken part in the 7 October event has not yet been backed up with evidence, not yet been presented and not yet been concluded. In any event, if there is a case against individuals who were employed by UNRWA, let us bring it forward, bring it into the open and have the hearing. But to deny the whole organisation funding and to deny the staff of UNRWA continued employment all across the piece—in the refugee camps and the west bank as well as in Gaza—seems to me to be totally wrong and unfair. I hope that when the Minister who is here today replies, he will be able to assure us that we will rapidly resume funding for UNRWA.

I have visited many UNRWA depots over the years, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and others, in the west bank, Gaza and indeed the refugee camps. It is an underfunded organisation, anyway. It performs superhuman tasks just to provide food, medicine and education for Palestinian people. It is the oldest UN agency. We have to recognise the absolute importance of that.

The question of food supply to Gaza is obviously critical. The population is very young and possibly half of the 27,000 recorded deaths in Gaza will be of young people or children. The number who are still under the rubble is enormous. There is very limited access for outside help to get in. The numbers of medical staff who have been killed are huge, as are the numbers of journalists who could report on the situation—80 journalists have already lost their lives in Gaza. This is a horror show on live TV all over the world.

The idea that, somehow or other, this country can adopt a policy of not funding the one agency that can deliver help, food, aid and medicine to the children of Gaza I find to be completely unconscionable.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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Like my right hon. Friend, I have seen the amazing work of UNRWA on the ground in Palestine. We in the UK and across the globe cannot become desensitised to the civilian deaths that we are witnessing, especially those of thousands of innocent children, and there has been no let-up to the suffering in Gaza. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with so many displaced, desperate and hungry people and with potential aid cuts and continuing conflict, there is a real danger of a deadly famine engulfing Gaza as well?

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn
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My hon. Friend is right. Frankly, the famine is already there. The number of people dying from wholly preventable conditions in the southern part of the Gaza strip is already greater than the number who have been killed by the daily bombardment there. And what are they dying from? Diarrhoea, hunger, malnutrition and lack of any kind of medicine.

I talked to a doctor who I met in Leeds two weeks ago when I was at an event in support of the people of Gaza. He told me that he had done something that he had hoped he would never, ever have to do in his life: perform an amputation on somebody without anaesthetic —on a child. Imagine being a professional doctor who has taken the Hippocratic oath and having to put a child through the most unbelievable pain in order to, hopefully, save their life. He told me of cases where he has performed a successful operation, in the sense that the operation was carried out, but the patient has then died of a heart attack because of the pain inflicted on them. None of that is necessary. Medical aid and anaesthetics could get there if only they were allowed in.

Currently, in the southern end of the Gaza strip there are reported to be 135,000 cases of diarrhoea; they have been recorded by those doctors who remain there. That is 13.5% of the people around Rafah and possibly even more than that. Diarrhoea is a killer, particularly of children, because it means that they cannot feed food down or keep their body hydrated; it is an absolute killer.

In addition, no child has been to school anywhere in the Gaza strip since November—so that is three months of education already lost. Even if the bombardment and fighting stopped tomorrow, there is no school to be reopened; there would have to be schools in tents for months, if not years, to come. The children affected will be physically devastated, and mentally scarred and devastated. What is the next generation going to be like when they have been through this horrific experience?

Surely, therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to do everything we can to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza and save the lives of children. The messages are there—from the UN, from all the children’s agencies, from the World Food Programme, from Amnesty International, from Human Rights Watch and from a whole range of other people who have either been to Gaza or managed to pick up information about what is going on there regarding the crying need for help, particularly for children. That help can best be achieved by a ceasefire.

The Government announced that they were providing £87 million of aid; I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I have got that figure wrong. However, it was not clear how that aid was going to be delivered, how it was going to be dispersed or who was going to disperse it. I gently say to the Minister that the existing agencies that have done so much work for so long and managed to ensure the continuation of a health service of some sort throughout Palestine but particularly in Gaza, such as Palestinian Red Crescent and others, are the best people to do it. The most important role that any of us anywhere else in the world can play is absolutely to demand peace in the region and a solution to this crisis, starting with an immediate and permanent ceasefire to stop the killing of so many children in Gaza.

As somebody who has been in this House for quite a while and in Israel, Gaza and the west bank, including in the refugee camps, on nine occasions, I feel the sense of hope that children there have. I went to a primary school in Jabalia refugee camp; I have been there twice, on successive visits. It was a beautifully run if underfunded school. From the roof of the school, it was possible to see the fence—the border with Israel. We met the children; this was a primary school, so they were 10 or 11-year-olds. They were excitable, artistic, enjoyable to be with, full of ideas, full of hope and full of aspirations. I always left that school feeling, “Well, these children will be a huge asset to the country of the future, as they are the citizens of the future.” The school has now been destroyed—completely destroyed. Those kids have lost their school. Having lost their homes, the one strong factor in their lives had been their sense of a place to go to school, and that applies to every other school across the Gaza strip, as well as to every hospital across the Gaza strip.

Let us give all the aid we can to UNRWA now and give all the support we can now to the people of Gaza—particularly the children, so that they may grow up to at least live without the threat of being bombed day in and day out. But above all, get off the fence and get on the side of supporting a ceasefire now to save life in Gaza and bring about a long-term peace for all the people of the region, before this thing degenerates into a ghastly war that engulfs the whole region.

As you can gather, Ms Vaz, I feel extremely strongly about this issue, but it is not just me. I am stopped by people in the street who have never shown the slightest interest in international affairs or politics of any sort, but they now say, “Please, please, you’re our MP—do what you can to save life in Gaza!”

13:54
Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Ms Vaz.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing this really important debate on the last day before recess. We may not be many, but we are strong, as they say.

The horrors of recent months in Israel and Gaza have been intolerable, and there has been no let-up in the suffering in Gaza and no end to the cruel treatment of hostages. Millions of people are displaced, desperate and hungry. Thousands of my Luton South constituents have contacted me about the ongoing conflict, so I wanted to make sure that I added my voice to this important debate. I will echo many of the comments that have already been made.

Israel continues to use devastating tactics that have seen far too many innocent civilians and children killed. There have been unacceptable blocks on essential aid, with nowhere being safe for civilians. It is a humanitarian catastrophe, and now there are warnings of a deadly famine. Women, children and newborn babies bear the brunt of the violence in Gaza. Since the horrific attacks on 7 October, Israel’s devastating response has killed over 11,500 children in Gaza—one in every 100 children in the Gaza strip—and UNICEF has reported that 17,000 children have been left unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Many of my Luton South constituents, as well as non-governmental organisations such as Islamic Relief and Medical Aid for Palestinians, have highlighted the fact that, without an immediate and permanent ceasefire, the numbers dying of hunger, malnutrition, disease and unmet medical needs could far exceed those that have already been caused by the bombardment. Like many others, I have heard briefings from UK doctors who have regularly visited Palestine to carry out medical work, procedures and training. They are despairing that we will see children dying from preventable diseases and lack of simple medicines such as insulin for diabetes. That is terribly shocking.

Alongside the horrific physical impacts, Oxfam has reported that about 1 million children are in need of mental and psychosocial support. The deep trauma of Palestinian children will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Nearly all the children in the Gaza strip require mental health support. Many are presenting very challenging symptoms, including extremely high levels of persistent anxiety, with the responses to that such as not eating and being in despair.

While that is going on in Gaza, the worst hunger crisis and starvation are setting in; it is on the verge of being a famine. It has been reported that all children under five are at high risk of severe malnutrition, as that risk of famine conditions continues to increase. Other hon. Members mentioned hearing reports and receiving briefings from Islamic Relief staff in Gaza describing how desperate children are roaming the rubble-filled streets in search of any scraps of food that they might find.

Like others, I have heard first hand from doctors who have, sadly, had to do medical procedures in Gaza without anaesthetic, including the amputation of children’s arms and legs, because there is a critical shortage of drugs and medical supplies. We also hear about babies being born on the streets, and the umbilical cords being cut with whatever sharp object is to hand.

The constant, indiscriminate bombing, the debris, the electricity blackouts and the lack of fuel make it extremely dangerous to distribute any aid and make many parts of the Gaza strip inaccessible. As has been so well put by others, to meet the need for humanitarian aid, an estimated 800 trucks of aid would have to enter Gaza daily; since 7 October, however, the highest daily average has been two trucks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, we really need to question whether this is a blockade and what that would actually amount to. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that issue.

Unfettered access for humanitarian aid is needed at scale to meet the desperate need of the children in Gaza. The UN Relief and Works Agency is the largest agency operating in Gaza: 80% of aid to the Gaza strip is delivered through it. I have asked questions about this issue. In response to my written question, the Foreign Office Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), said that the Government are

“pausing any future funding of UNRWA”

while they review allegations of its staff being involved with Hamas. However, Channel 4 has reported on the document in which Israeli officials alleged that a dozen UNRWA employees were involved in the 7 October attack, led by Hamas. Channel 4 reported that the document

“provides no evidence to support its explosive new claim that UNRWA staff were involved”.

I would welcome an update from the Minister with regard to the Government’s position on the matter. If this key UN agency is not funded, how do they intend to fill the gap for humanitarian aid in Gaza?

I recognise that the Government have on many occasions expressed their commitment to ensuring that much-needed humanitarian aid and medical supplies reach Gaza for the many children in desperate need. Will the Minister provide information on the current position and on the Government’s long-term plans to support children in Gaza, many of whom are now orphaned and will be living with this trauma for the rest of their lives?

14:00
Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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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.

14:14
John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as always, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing this absolutely crucial and emotional debate. As others have said before me, the situation in Gaza is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. Children, of course, are bearing the brunt of the crisis, facing unimaginable horrors every single day. That those children—and adults—are having to go through this is not the mark of a civilised world. We, the adults, in this place and elsewhere, cannot ignore their plight any longer.

As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, a new term has been coined for children in Gaza—WCNSF: wounded child, no surviving family. What a horrible thought and image to have in our heads. It embodies the tragic reality of many innocent children in Gaza, where death, destruction and injuries have become just daily occurrences. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) described the image of two children walking along the road asking somebody for food. As always, the numbers paint a grim picture of the harsh, stark, horrible reality of war. Some 40% of the casualties are believed to be the innocents—the children.

“Suffer little children to come unto me”

springs to mind all the time when one hears these stories. But the horror does not end there. Even those who survive face an uncertain future, with disease, starvation and exposure threatening their lives. God only knows what the long-term impact will be on those children.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn
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Surely the issue now is that as the weather gets warmer, without any sewage facilities or clean water, the next thing will be cholera.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally
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The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Disease is only going to worsen over the next period. Unless there is intervention immediately, it is just going to get worse and worse. After the war is finished, we will still have to deal with the situation that is left, so the quicker we intervene, the better.

There are reports of deliberate strikes on civilian safe zones and hospitals—deeply disturbing accounts have been heard. Let us be clear: aid efforts, while crucial, are no substitute for a ceasefire. There is absolutely no doubt about that whatsoever. The lack of safe zones and the destruction of medical facilities mean that innocent lives continue to be lost unnecessarily. As the right hon. Member for Islington North said, unless we intervene, it is just going to get worse. The ongoing suffering of children in Gaza is heartbreaking. It is unthinkable in this day and age that it is going on. More than 1,000 children have had their limbs amputated—hundreds without anaesthetics, proper medical care, running water, electricity, food or shelter. It is unimaginable. The blockade imposed by Israel only exacerbates the situation, leaving more children vulnerable to infections and untreated injuries.

Furthermore, education has come to a total standstill in Gaza, with thousands of children deprived of their right to learn. The UNRWA schools—a lifeline for many —have closed their doors, robbing children of their future and denying their basic rights to education. Keep in mind that that all impacts on the mental health of children, and the mental health toll on children is absolutely staggering. Anxiety, loss of appetite—if they can get food —and emotional distress are commonplace. Can we even begin to understand, to take any of that into our heads? Entire families have been wiped out, leaving children orphaned and traumatised through no fault of theirs. In my constituency of Falkirk, I have personally heard first hand from a woman and her mother whose whole family are in Gaza, and they related the whole thing to me in a very calm, organised manner over a two-hour period. It is hard to take in what these people are going through.

It is unconscionable that the UK Government should continue to support Israel’s actions under the guise of self-defence. The consequences are simply dire, with totally innocent children paying the ultimate price. It is downright wrong. Humanitarian aid is essential, but it must be accompanied by a ceasefire. The decision to freeze funding for UNRWA will only worsen the crisis, putting millions of lives at risk. I ask the Minister to seriously rethink and reverse that decision.

We cannot stand by idly while innocent children suffer. The international community cannot afford to remain silent in the face of such atrocities. The UK Government, among others, must heed the calls for a ceasefire, and prioritise humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Resuming funding for UNRWA is not just a matter of humanitarian obligation, but a moral imperative. We must also recognise the psychological toll of war on children. The trauma they endure leaves scars that may never heal. Gender and age-appropriate mental health support must be provided urgently to mitigate the long-term effects of conflict on Gaza’s future generation.

In conclusion, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza demands our immediate attention and action. We cannot stand idly by as innocent children bear the brunt of this senseless violence. Let us join hands in solidarity with the people of Gaza advocating for peace, justice and the protection of children’s rights. Our humanity compels us to, for the sake of those children who have suffered enough.

14:21
Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Vaz. I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for introducing the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time for it. I also note the e-petition that was submitted, and the significant time allocated to it. Although the House is about to rise for February recess, I am glad that we are having this debate, and I am very pleased that Members have made the effort to come along to express their views and opinions this afternoon.

I believe it is important that we do not become desensitised to the appalling suffering taking place in Gaza. There can be no doubt at all about the sincerity of Members who have spoken this afternoon. We know that in these terrible circumstances, more than 27,000 Palestinians have lost their lives as a result of the actions of the IDF. As a number of Members have correctly pointed out, women and children have been the primary casualties in this conflict. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned that 11,500 children have lost their lives, and that 24,000 children have lost one or both parents. As we have heard a couple of Members mention, we have the terrible, unbelievable horror of operations, such as the amputation of limbs, being conducted on children without anaesthetic.

It is important to recognise that the people who have been killed and severely injured are primarily not terrorists or their supporters. The people of Gaza, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) correctly said, are highly educated, resilient and wish to live in peace. The shadow Minister for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and other members of the shadow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office team have met with British Palestinian families very recently. Those families raised a number of important and distressing issues with us, including the need for children with urgent medical needs to be temporarily evacuated from Gaza for surgery. We are pursuing these issues with the Government. If the Minister could give any indication today of what the Government are doing or planning to do on this, it would be welcome.

We are all acutely aware that the only way to resolve this appalling humanitarian crisis is through a sustainable ceasefire. This will allow the return of all hostages and an immediate concerted international effort to take into Gaza the greatest possible amount of humanitarian aid: food, water, fuel and medical supplies. There is a frustratingly limited amount that we, as an Opposition, can do or say to help, but I assure Members that all members of our Front-Bench team are discussing the situation with our counterparts in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Nations and the United States. Only yesterday, I met the Foreign Minister of Qatar in person; I made it clear to him that the Labour party stands firmly behind those who want to see a ceasefire, an immediate end to the suffering and the achievement of a lasting peace.

As we all know, serious allegations have been made against 12 UNRWA employees. The Government must ensure that they have robust processes in place regarding the use of UK aid. However, it would be wrong if anything were to stand in the way of crucial aid reaching Gaza in the midst of this terrible crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, the shadow International Development Minister, has discussed the issue with her counterpart, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has confirmed that the next allocation to UNRWA from the United Kingdom is due in the next financial year. There will be a UN review, led by a French former Foreign Minister, and an interim report will be published at the end of March. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) alluded to this; like her, I would be appreciative if the Minister could confirm that there will be no interruption to the flow of UK funding to UNRWA in the next financial year.

There are, of course, other aid agencies working in Gaza. I pay tribute to them and in particular to Medical Aid for Palestinians, an organisation with which I have had a fair bit of contact. They are all doing a tremendous job in the most difficult circumstances; indeed, many of the aid workers have lost their lives. However, UNRWA’s role is absolutely central to the humanitarian effort in Gaza and across the entire region. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the point that there are 13,000 people working for and in Gaza, and a number of those workers have lost their lives too. Their work is essential, especially when we remember the appalling fact that more people are dying from hunger and thirst in Gaza than from bombs and bullets. Let me be clear: if UNRWA’s vital work is disrupted, the consequences for the people of Gaza will be further death and suffering. Again, I ask the Minister to make the Government’s position absolutely clear.

The debate has been important, and we have heard a number of heartfelt and moving contributions from Members. I hope that before too long there will be an enduring ceasefire, agreed by all parties, and that the necessary aid will be brought into Gaza and distributed in safety and without conditions to all parts of Gaza. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

14:29
Leo Docherty Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (Leo Docherty)
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I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for leading this important debate. I am also grateful for the sincere and passionate contributions of other right hon. and hon. Members. I am here on behalf of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). I will try to cover the points that have been raised.

Four months have now passed since Israel suffered the worst terror attack in its history at the hands of Hamas, who still hold more than 130 hostages. Meanwhile, as has movingly been laid out this afternoon, Palestinian civilians are facing a devastating and growing humanitarian crisis inside Gaza. Children in particular are bearing the worst consequences of the conflict, as we have heard. We want to see an end to the fighting in Gaza as soon as possible. An immediate pause is now necessary to get aid in and hostages out, and the UK is engaged in sustained efforts to achieve that and to build towards a lasting solution.

I will start by reflecting briefly on how the current situation in Gaza is affecting children, as has been laid out by many colleagues this afternoon. The number of people killed in Gaza has reportedly surpassed 27,000, and more than 67,000 have been injured, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza. As we have heard, the vast majority are women and children. Many people, including children, are still missing, presumed dead and buried under the rubble.

Of the 1.7 million people who have been displaced, more than half are children. Tens of thousands of those children have been orphaned or separated from their family. Hunger and disease are spreading rapidly, which has been made worse by overcrowded shelters. There are reportedly more than 223,000 cases of acute respiratory infection, to which children are particularly vulnerable, and over 158,000 cases of diarrhoea, more than 50% of which are in children under the age of five, as colleagues have referred to. Many of these children are likely to be malnourished, making the effects of disease more severe. UNICEF reports that all children under five in Gaza—about 335,000 children—are at high risk of severe malnutrition. For children, especially those under two years old, a lack of food and vital nutrients during the developmental stage of life can lead to grave lifelong setbacks.

The healthcare system in Gaza has virtually collapsed. Only 13 of 36 hospitals are even partially functional, and even those are without enough specialised medical staff to manage the scale of the crisis. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to the grave constraints that doctors face. Hospitals simply do not have sufficient medicines or medical supplies.

I turn to the UK’s response. We are focused on practical solutions to get more aid into Gaza. I am happy to confirm to the right hon. Member that we have trebled our aid this year for the Occupied Palestinian Territories to £87 million, of which £60 million is for Gaza specifically. We continue to call for an immediate pause to get aid in and hostages out.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn
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I understand the figure that the Minister has just given, and I understand that a third is allocated for Gaza, but I would be grateful if he let us know exactly how that aid will be administered. Who will actually deliver it? How will it get there, given the current problems of getting anyone—even medical workers—into Gaza through the Rafah crossing?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful for that question and will address it in my remarks.

We have trebled our aid commitment this financial year to the OPTs. There is, as I said, a £60 million uplift for the humanitarian response. We are doing everything we can to get more aid in and to open more crossings.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse quite rightly asked for an update regarding UNRWA. Colleagues will know that we are a long-standing donor. The £35 million that we have given this year is for this financial year and will last until March. But, of course, we are appalled by the allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attack. That is why we are pausing, and that is why a pause has been announced of any future funding, while we review these very concerning allegations. Of course, we remain committed to getting humanitarian aid to people who desperately need it.

In addition to the UK, 16 countries have paused funding temporarily. The pause will be in place until we are satisfied that we have been able properly to review the allegations. A future funding decision will be taken after that point, and the Minister for the middle east will keep colleagues updated as to that decision point.

Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum
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In Europe, as the Minister will be aware, Belgium, Spain, Norway and Ireland—while calling for, and endorsing the need for, a swift and serious investigation into the allegations—have maintained their funding. I want to understand from the Minister what conversations or discussions are being had with counterparts in those countries to understand how they are approaching the situation, as part of the UK’s review.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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That is a very good question. We are talking to all counterparts. On Sunday of last week, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the middle east, spoke to the UNRWA commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, who provided an update regarding the UN investigation. We will keep closely in touch with the progress of that investigation, and that will inform our decision. Up until the point at which we are satisfied, the pause will remain in place, but the Minister for the middle east will keep colleagues updated.

In terms of our calls for increased border crossings and access, children need additional food and shelter and the health support that we are providing through our partnerships with all the UN agencies, NGOs and Red Crescent societies. From the £60 million that I mentioned, we have provided specific, targeted support for children through our £5.75 million contribution to UNICEF. Our funding is supporting its work to assist more than 5,800 children with severe malnourishment, as well as providing 853,000 people with emergency child protection services, including the mental health and psychological support that, as we have heard this afternoon, is very badly needed.

We are also a founding member of and a key donor to Education Cannot Wait, the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. The fund is supporting several education interventions in Gaza. However, its ability to reach children who so desperately need help is, of course, restricted by the very grave security situation.

The Foreign Secretary discussed the urgency of getting significantly more aid into Gaza, to alleviate the desperate situation there, with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 24 January. He reiterated the need for Israel to open more crossing points into Gaza, for Nitzana and Kerem Shalom to be open for longer, and for Israel to support the UN to distribute aid more effectively across the whole of Gaza.

Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum
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On the crossings and the ability of aid to reach the places where it is needed, agencies such as Oxfam have reported to me that they are experiencing delays in aid actually getting through, because of the excessive checks at the crossings. Some trucks have been checked up to eight times at the Kerem Shalom crossing.

The agencies have also raised with me a lack of clarity about which items are able to pass through. The Minister may be aware of Israel’s dual-use policy, which strictly controls which items may or may not enter Gaza. For example, people are being told that they are not allowed through with olives with stones; only pitted olives are allowed. What discussions have there been with the Minister’s counterparts in Israel on the dual-use policy?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am very grateful for those questions. We have made these specific points to our Israeli counter- parts. We believe that there are 10 steps that they should be taking to increase the flow of aid. Primarily, of course, we need a humanitarian pause to allow humanitarian agencies and Gazans to operate more safely right across Gaza. We need to ensure effective systems to guarantee the safety of aid convoys, humanitarian operations and IDP returns and facilitate access. We need to ensure that the UN has the people, the vehicles, the equipment and the fuel to distribute aid safely across Gaza once it is inside Gaza. That includes the issuing of visas.

We need to extend the opening hours and the capacity of the Nitzana screening facility and Kerem Shalom checkpoint so that more trucks, aid and fuel can enter Gaza. It needs to be open seven days a week, not just five. We need to remove restrictions in order to ensure greater consistency on the goods allowed in, as the hon. Lady referred to. We need unencumbered access to aid coming in from Jordan. The Israelis need to open Ashdod port as a route for aid to reach Gaza. The Israelis need to open the Erez crossing to allow direct access to north Gaza. And, of course, there needs to be a restitution of water, fuel and electricity connections. We continue to make these points to our Israeli interlocutors.

The Foreign Secretary also announced work with Qatar to get more aid into Gaza. Our joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of family-size tents was flown in last Thursday. Last month, RFA Lyme Bay delivered 87 tonnes of aid into Port Said. Crucially, we are supporting the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza, which has already delivered more than 1,000 tonnes of aid. It is vital that we sustain this support and go further.

We are clear that Israel must take steps, working with other partners including the UN and Egypt, to significantly increase the flow of aid, including by allowing prolonged humanitarian pauses, opening more routes into Gaza and restoring and sustaining water, fuel and electricity. Above all, the best way to address the humanitarian situation is by bringing an end to the fighting as soon as possible, which is exactly the point that right hon. and hon. Members have made this afternoon.

The Foreign Secretary was in the region last week to urge de-escalation and build towards a sustainable and permanent ceasefire without a return to the fighting. We have identified five steps to allow that to happen—first, the release of all Israeli hostages; secondly, the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza, accompanied by an international support package; thirdly, removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; fourthly, Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza; and fifthly, a political horizon that provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution. We will continue to do all we can diplomatically to push this agenda forward in order to save lives, quite frankly.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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I doubt that there is anybody here who does not fully agree with those five points, beginning with the release of the hostages; it is indefensible that they should continue to be held. Realistically, however, given the nature of the Netanyahu Government, does the Minister expect those things, including looking forward to a new peace process, to happen before there is a sustained ceasefire?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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Despite the difficulties, there will come a point at which a humanitarian pause can lead to a ceasefire if international assurances are given, if the contents of the five-point peace plan are catered to and if there is confidence on both sides. As difficult as it may seem to imagine that now, we believe that it could be possible to get to a ceasefire, and a horizon of statehood would be a necessary component of that.

As has been discussed this afternoon, it is clear that children are the worst-hit by this conflict. Even though too much of the humanitarian relief that children need is not getting into or across Gaza, UK aid is saving children’s lives and we are doing everything we can to get more of it into Gaza. We are working hard to generate momentum towards a permanent peace, as difficult as it may seem. That is the only way we can give the children and the people of Gaza hope for the future and a better life.

14:41
Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Backbench Business Committee again for enabling this debate. I applied for it before the Government’s decision to pause the UNRWA funding; none the less, colleagues’ participation in it has been important and timely for that reason.

I emphasise again that all children, Israeli and Palestinian, should be cherished. We need aid to be made available and distributed so that children in Gaza get the food, health- care, shelter and water that they so desperately need. We need clarity about the situation of any remaining Israeli children who are held captive, and we need all hostages to be released. As many Members have said today and have been saying for some time, only an immediate and permanent ceasefire can end the suffering of children affected by all these decisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered humanitarian aid and children in Gaza.

14:44
Sitting adjourned.