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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 January 2009

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Palestinian Territories (Economic Aid)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Michael Foster.)

9.30 am

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I do not usually have much luck in House of Commons ballots, but this debate could not have come at a better time. The war has just ended, and we are discovering its true horrors—white phosphorus, bereaved parents and injured children—as we contemplate the destruction not only of many homes but of much of the infrastructure of Gaza. The international community and Gazans themselves face not just a humanitarian crisis but the task, effectively, of rebuilding Gaza.

It is exactly a month today since the war started. What has been remarkable about the past month is not just the scale and spontaneity of the worldwide protests, which have been far greater than anything that we have seen before—some of us were involved in the issue at the time of the Lebanon crisis, and the situation has far outstripped even that—but the readiness of people around the world to help the Palestinians. For example, last week the Muslim community in Blackburn raised £150,000 for a Palestinian charity in just one week. Last night, Channels 4 and 5 and ITV screened the Gaza crisis appeal. We do not yet know how much it has raised—perhaps some people do. To my mind, it is unforgivable that the BBC and Sky refused to screen it.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. I refer him to early-day motion 585, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Does he not feel that the BBC and Sky should not seek to pre-empt the work of the Charity Commission, which regulates the activities of the constituent organisations of the Disasters Emergency Committee? It is not for the BBC and Sky to make political judgments about the worth or partiality of humanitarian disaster appeals. Does he not think that the BBC and Sky should reconsider their disgraceful decision not to show the DEC appeal last night?

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Before you respond, Mr. Linton, may I make the point that interventions should be somewhat briefer than that?

Martin Linton: I agree with my hon. Friend. Broadcasters’ role is merely to ensure that appeals meet their criteria. I have before me the BBC guidelines for televised appeals, and anyone who runs through them quickly will find that they have been met completely. First,

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That is a tick. Secondly, agencies must be in a position to provide it. There may have been doubt about that earlier, but there is none now: agencies are there already. Thirdly,

Yes again. For the life of me, I do not understand on what grounds the BBC refused the appeal. It is undoubtedly true that however much money Channels 4 and 5 and ITV may have raised last night, much more would have been raised if the BBC and Sky had been there as well.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): An organisation called the Ummah Welfare Trust has its headquarters in my constituency. Its bank is refusing to clear cheques, which is making its operation extremely tedious. The organisation is linked to Interpal, which is suffering similarly. Has my hon. Friend looked into the reasons why Interpal and the Ummah Welfare Trust are being refused access to banks and therefore cannot provide humanitarian aid to Gaza?

Martin Linton: I hope that the Minister can respond to that. If it is in my power, I shall certainly look into it myself.

The war has shown us that, although there is a huge amount of sympathy for what is happening to the Gazans, we as a country seem to have lost our moral compass on this issue. It is one of the most brutal, ferocious, inhumane wars in recent memory, and although most people’s response has been strong, some institutions do not seem to have understood the seriousness of the situation in Gaza.

My hon. Friend the Minister has just returned—I think at 5.30 this morning—from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He will know that King Abdullah has pledged $1 billion. Saudi TV raised $300 million in an 11-hour telethon. Next door, Kuwait has pledged $500 million, and the Emirates have promised to construct 1,300 homes in Gaza.

By comparison, our Secretary of State announced an extra £20 million during the course of the conflict, in addition to an earlier £6.8 million. I do not know how much our bilateral aid will amount to over the whole of this year, but I know that last year it was around £45 million, and my figures state that £40 million in multilateral aid was given the year before, making about £80 million in total. I hope that the total is more than that now; I hope to hear about it from the Minister. We have pledged £250 million over the next three years, which sounds as though it will come to the same figure of £80 million a year.

I know that, on one level, £80 million is probably much more than many other European countries give, but at another level, it may be much less than is needed, given the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure not just by three weeks of bombardment with Israeli shells but by the three years of economic blockade that preceded it. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister has had a chance to visit Gaza, but I have, and I can tell him that it looked like a bomb site before it actually was one. There were potholes in the roads because the Israelis would not allow in the tar needed to mend them. Huge piles of rubbish were dumped all over the place because the Israelis would not allow in the building materials needed for waste disposal. There is a desperate
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need for clean water, sanitation, building materials to repair shelters, fuel and power. That need, which was acute before the war started, is now 10 times more acute.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I certainly accept the scale and the seriousness of the situation, but does my hon. Friend agree that the situation came about because the terrorist organisation Hamas fired thousands of missiles and rockets of increasing range and sophistication at Israeli civilians? Indeed, 5,000 of them were fired after Israeli settlers left Gaza.

Martin Linton: We are considering the Gaza issue from an humanitarian and international development point of view. It would be a great detour to go into the rights and wrongs of it. That is not the point that I seek to make, and I fear that if we stray too far down that path, we might even be out of order. If one starts from the recent past, my hon. Friend’s point may carry some weight, but going further back, the rights and wrongs of the situation in Israel start from 1948 and 1967. People in Gaza feel that they have been deprived of most of their own country. They have a sense of grievance that long pre-dates what she talks about.

I have been to Sderot and have seen the huge anxiety caused to the people who live there by the possibility that, at any moment, a home-made rocket will come into their community. Equally, however, I understand the sense of grievance of Palestinians, who feel that their land has been confiscated. They have been evicted from their villages and herded into a small strip of land; they have an unemployment rate of 80 per cent., and 80 per cent. of them depend on United Nations rations for refugees. I think that their sense of grievance is just as understandable. That is not to condone terrorism, home-made rockets or suicide bombers, but it is important to understand why people in Gaza feel so desperate and are prepared to go to such measures to, as they see it, defend themselves.

I shall try not to take up too much time, because there are many other hon. Members present who wish to speak. The most urgent needs are in the hospitals, which were desperately short of vital equipment even before the war started. Now, it is a race against time to see whether they can be re-equipped in time to save thousands of children who have life-threatening injuries. Organisations such as the Red Cross, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Christian Aid are in the business of getting medicines and aid to hospitals, and they can get through. That is the light in which we have to see the BBC’s reluctance to screen the Gaza crisis appeal in order to

Is its precious impartiality more important than children’s lives? Is it saying that it cannot save the life of a Palestinian child unless it saves the life of an Israeli child at the same time? What if there are no injured Israeli children? Does that mean that the Palestinian children will have to die?

It is a strange kind of even-handedness that cannot allow an appeal for horribly injured children on one side of a conflict because there are none on the other.
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The BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, should go on his own programme, “The Moral Maze”, to try to get his head around this problem. It is a complex moral issue, but it is not so complex that we cannot see what the answer should be. Practically the whole world can see what the answer should be, except, apparently, the governors of the BBC.

As I have said, the relevant conditions for a televised appeal have been met. We know how much money has been raised by previous DEC appeals that were broadcast by the BBC. The Burma cyclone appeal raised £19 million, despite the fact that many people thought that disaster was under-reported because the press were not able to get in. The appeal for the Congo crisis—a war that many people feel has been overshadowed, and has been ignored and overlooked by the world—has raised £9.7 million so far, and is still open. As The Times has said:

I hope that people will think about those words, because the BBC has a huge responsibility in this regard. It has a responsibility to be impartial, but it must not misapply that responsibility to the unnecessary injury of other people. Does the Minister have an estimate of how much more money would be raised if the BBC, and indeed Sky, changed their minds, as it is still open for them to do, and broadcast the crisis appeal?

I think that if the BBC were to broadcast the appeal, it would raise a lot more money than other appeals because of the ferocity, inhumanity and disproportionality of the Israeli assault, which has so shocked and horrified people, regardless of their views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has mentioned this morning’s Order Paper, which contains several early-day motions expressing people’s concern about the BBC’s decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who is the chairman of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, has tabled one that has been signed by more than 100 people, including me. I am the chair of an organisation called Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, and people might therefore expect me to have a particular view of the conflict; however, another early-day motion, equally urging the BBC to screen the appeal, has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who is the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel.

Right across the spectrum of views about the roots of the conflict, there is consensus that the BBC and Sky should broadcast the appeal, because there is absolutely no reason not to, and because the decision not to is unnecessarily depriving charities of money that could help them to save lives. One does not have to lay any blame to recognise that there is an humanitarian crisis, and I seriously question whether anyone could be found, even in the Israeli embassy, who would complain if the BBC screened the appeal. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister—I am glad to see that he is not suffering from any outward sign of jet lag—to provide the House with information about the level of the UK’s current contribution and about whether any increase can be expected as the seriousness of the extent of destruction in Gaza unfolds.

The debate is not only about Gaza, but also the west bank. It is equally important that humanitarian aid, and economic aid in particular, continue to flow into
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the west bank, because the roots of the problem—to come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) has made—lie not only in Gaza but in the west bank, where the Israeli Government continue to expand settlements and, from the Palestinian point of view, to rub salt into the wound. Until the Israeli Government stop expanding settlements and confiscating Palestinian land, and until they stop increasing the number of checkpoints—there are now 630 in the west bank alone, so an area the size of Lincolnshire has 630 checkpoints and roadblocks to keep Palestinians off the settler-only roads—they cannot expect the peace process to continue, or expect progress to be made. Neither can they expect people to feel that the Palestinian economy has any chance of escaping that asphyxiating grip, or expect people in the region to believe that peace is seriously and sincerely on the agenda.

The humanitarian, the economic and the political are all intertwined in the region. In order for humanitarian aid to work, we need political progress as well, so I very much look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister, particularly about UK and European Union contributions to the Palestinian Authority, which I feel should be stepped up, not just for Gaza but for the west bank. There have been various mechanisms, such as the Temporary International Mechanism and PEGASE to overcome the problems caused by the EU’s reluctance to give money directly to Hamas. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, what is important is that the money should get through.

I hope that the Minister will also deal with what the Israeli Government’s role should be in this matter, because they are still the legal occupying power in both the west bank and Gaza, and therefore have responsibility for the entire population of the occupied territory. Legally speaking, every school that is repaired in Gaza, and every house that is built in the west bank, should be paid for by the Israeli Government, as the legal occupying power. At the very least, we should look to them to make a contribution and to tell us what their intentions are regarding the west bank and Gaza.

I should also like to be sure that both PEGASE and TIM are fully replacing the aid that the west bank and Gaza—the Palestinian territories—would have been getting whether the Government were Fatah or Hamas. We might all have strong opinions on those organisations, but surely the issue is about who the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people are, and who our Government should be dealing with. I shall not take any more time, because there are so many hon. Members present who want to speak. I very much look forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s reply.

9.50 am

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to add my comments, which will be little more than bullet points because of the time constraint.

What the BBC and Sky have done is erroneous. The BBC supported a repellent regime such as Burma, in the sense that a broadcast was made and money flowed in, and so the floodgates are open for it and others to assist any desire to aid. However, humanitarian aid must get through. The big, international organisations—
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whether they are Muslim or those of the UN or EU—will make their own decisions and have mechanisms in place to ensure that aid gets through. Big, international non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, will also have their own mechanisms in place.

However, I am concerned about the smaller organisations, of which there is one in my constituency. It is a good organisation that helps throughout the world, but what does it do in such a situation? Does it drive up to the border with aid? Will it get through the border? If it gets through, will it be allowed to distribute aid to the sources that it wants to distribute aid to? I hope that the Minister will be able to advise small organisations, which might not want to have their assistance subsumed within a large organisation’s assistance programme. What help can the British Government give to a small organisation that wants to assist?

The history of giving aid to a country that is in a war zone or that is recently recovering from a war is patchy because the culture of the Government, entity or warlord concerned is not one that normally subscribes to high principles of charity or aid giving, or to the work undertaken by prestigious and important international organisations. All I hope is that those organisations, whether large or small, will be able to distribute their assistance without excessive interference because, as far as possible, they must ensure that all the money raised is spent on those who deserve the aid—not the participants in a conflict, but the victims of a conflict. For international, national or local organisations that are involved in any aid-giving process, the danger is that enormous sums of money will simply be transferred to organisations—whether in Burma or elsewhere—that will purloin the money and might have objectives that are inimical to the interests of the organisation giving the assistance.

I welcome the debate and look forward to what the Minister will say, particularly to hearing the advice his Department, the Government and the European Union can give to small organisations. I only hope that, as in the old days of the pony express, the mail gets through and that the assistance—whether it is large or small, to Muslims or non-Muslims—gets to the people who deserve it. That is imperative, and I hope that the advice given will be heeded.

9.54 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Like other colleagues, I shall be brief because many hon. Members want to speak. That is good and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate.

The situation in Gaza is obviously appalling, but it is not new. The situation in the west bank is difficult—if not also appalling in many places—and, again, it is not new. Although the issue about the BBC and Sky refusing to broadcast the appeal is important—I will return to that in a moment—I want to draw attention to the systematic curtailment of economic activity and development in both the west bank and Gaza by the blockade, by the construction of the wall by Israel, by the prevention of the export of goods from Palestinian areas, and by the high levels of unemployment and difficulties that Palestinian people have in travelling.

In relation to any aid that is provided for development, we have to be sure of two things: one, that it will get through and be used to develop, and, secondly, that it
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will not be wasted by a subsequent bombardment. Many of us have memories of visiting Gaza in the past and of seeing, for example, the airport or the water treatment plant, which were splendid. The water treatment plant was built with a great deal of support from the Department for International Development. There were new roads and new pavements, schools, hospitals and all the other things that have been built largely with international support and aid—some of which came from this country, although some came from the EU and from all over the world. All those things have been destroyed in Gaza. On various occasions in the west bank, that degree of damage has also been done and many aid packages have been destroyed.

Although I strongly support appeals for aid and the international support currently being given to the Palestinians, there is a case for the Israeli Government to be presented with a large bill for the damage that they have done in Gaza over the past four weeks. What has happened has been a wanton act of carnage by the Israeli army against the civilian population in Gaza and has resulted in the destruction of their means of economic livelihood.

The aid appeal that the BBC and Sky ought to be broadcasting is being made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and, as others have pointed out, in relation to every previous international disaster of any sort—whether it is a tsunami, volcano, flood, war or any other form of humanitarian disaster—if the DEC meets and decides to launch an appeal, the broadcasting channels have always broadcast it, irrespective of the place concerned. They have done it for Burma, for the earthquake in Iran, for the Congo and many other places. I do not know what on earth is going through the mind of the BBC—it is mainly the BBC that has caused this problem—in not broadcasting the appeal. Is it that the Israeli Government have some kind of power of veto over what the BBC actually does, because it is beginning to look a little bit like that?

I thank the Government for putting what pressure they can on the BBC, and I welcome that. I hope that they will notice that a large number of hon. Members have also applied such pressure because we want the broadcast to take place. Of course, the whole thing has been counterproductive because the huge publicity given to the BBC’s refusal has damaged its reputation and encouraged people to contribute to the appeal anyway. I hope that they do so to a large extent.

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