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27 Jan 2009 : Column 7WH—continued

I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some good news about DFID, British aid and support for Palestine, and the way in which aid will get through—particularly in relation to exerting pressure to open the crossings to enable people to travel and in relation to the development of education. I also hope that the Minister will give us some news about the situation facing other aid agencies, such as Interpal. A number of British banks have refused banking facilities for Interpal, in particular Lloyds TSB. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has put a great deal of effort into supporting Interpal, which is a well respected, recognised charity. We should support all charitable efforts by ordinary people all over the country—indeed, all over the world—to respond in a decent, normal way to ensure that the people of Palestine no longer suffer
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from a lack of medicine, clean water, decent food and, above all, an absence of education for the young people there. It is our job to do all that we can, but I want to see a permanent settlement that allows the Palestinian people to live in peace.

9.59 am

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate. It is important that we consider the serious humanitarian consequences of Israel defending its citizens against the rockets of a terrorist organisation that has a charter proclaiming jihad, and that plants its weapons in civilian areas using civilians as human shields. Regardless of the origins of the situation, it certainly is true that there is a great deal of human suffering, and it must be addressed.

I shall concentrate my few points on what ought to be done, but, before doing so, I wish to raise one point about the partiality—or otherwise—of those giving some of the information about the scale of the disaster. We have heard a great deal of testimony from a number of Norwegian doctors, and particularly from Dr. Mads Gilbert. It is important to register that Dr. Gilbert is a well known activist on Palestinian issues and, much more than that, some years ago gave to his local Norwegian newspaper an interview in which he praised the 9/11 bombers. I state those facts just to put a question mark against whether Dr. Gilbert and others of his ilk are as impartial as the media believe them to be. Nevertheless, there is a major humanitarian crisis, and we need to concentrate on what needs to be done.

It is important that the ceasefire, which, even this morning, seems very fragile, holds. That means an end to arms smuggling and to the negative influence of Iran and Syria and that Egypt and other international observers must play a fuller part in border monitoring. It is important that the crossings be reopened fully, and I am pleased that the crossings at Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz and Erez have been opened. The Karni crossing has been closed since Hamas attacked Palestinian Authority monitors there, but I hope that the situation can be rectified. It is important that the 2005 European Union agreement on monitoring the crossings and on movement and access is revived, but that means Hamas co-operation and an end to Hamas attacks on Palestinian Authority members.

I fully agree with the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who said that we need a stable political structure as a background against which individual agreements can be made and held to. That means a unified Palestinian approach, which, the Secretary-General suggested, should be under President Abbas. That is important, but I recognise that it may be difficult, given that, before and during the crisis, Hamas attacked and murdered several PA personnel. That has left a great deal of bitterness, but I hope that it is possible to form a unified Palestinian order to try to deal with the problems.

Aid should go to Gaza, and it is vital that it goes to where it is needed, but that means that Hamas should stop hijacking aid for use on its black market. For example, around 20 January, a Jordanian trucking company suspended its operations after its truck was stolen at gunpoint, and, on 5 January, Hamas opened fire on a convoy of aid trucks, seizing food and medical supplies.
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It is believed to have been done so that Hamas could either keep them for its own use, or exercise its own black market. That is not the way to bring humanitarian help effectively to the Palestinian people, and such activities should stop. It is also important that Hamas does not abuse humanitarian efforts. Cement and metal are needed for reconstruction, but, in the past, Hamas has built rockets from pipes imported to rebuild Gaza infrastructure.

These are serious points that must be made if we are genuinely to address ourselves to how we can help the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. The need is great and reconstruction is required, but that means that there must be peace, reconciliation and an end to Hamas aggression.

10.3 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this timely debate. After the three-week war on Gaza, I had hoped to frame my contribution by looking at the long-term issues of economic development in the west bank and Gaza, because I thought that there would be a consensus around what needed to be done in the short term—around immediate humanitarian assistance. I welcome the efforts that my hon. Friend and the Government have made, but we all know that, if those short-term efforts are to be successful, the role of charities is absolutely vital, whether the charities are the Welfare Association, with which I have had the privilege of travelling to the area to see the good work that it does, Medical Aid for Palestinians, which had a major and very successful fundraising event on Sunday, or Interpal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned.

We must also consider the Disasters Emergency Committee charities: 13 of the most impeccable and mainstream charities in the UK, which wished, as we have heard, to broadcast an appeal this week, as they have done before on natural disasters and on war zones, whether they are Darfur, Congo or various other places. Its appeal was a humanitarian appeal, not one about taking sides, but the BBC and Sky refused to screen it. It has been the subject of huge concern in the past few days, and reference has been made to early-day motion 585, which stands in my name. I am very pleased that the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), is also a signatory to that early-day motion, and I congratulate ITV, Channel 4 and Five on broadcasting the appeal last night.

The ability of broadcasters to screen such appeals is important both to how money is raised to assist Gaza in the future, and to whether the money gets through. The issue is not about the allegation from some BBC executives that some of us want to interfere in their editorial independence; it is not about that. They have the absolute right to take such decisions as they want, and the power to do so. The rest of us also have a right to express our views, publicly, if necessary, when we think that they are making bad decisions. The BBC said that if it had screened the appeal last night, it would have compromised its impartiality, but I do not see any evidence that, since last night, the impartiality of ITV, Channel 4 or Five has been compromised. The BBC’s refusal to broadcast the appeal—in other words, its refusal to treat the
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situation in Gaza in the same way as it has treated war zones in Congo and Darfur—compromises its impartiality, not the other way around.

I wrote to Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, on Friday, when I heard about the issue. In his reply he said that there were two reasons for the BBC’s refusal. I shall turn to the first reason in a minute, but he said that the second reason was that

The issue is fairly clear. The BBC executives are worried not about impartiality but about controversy. If they want to avoid controversy, their actions over the past few days have not been very successful. It is dangerous, however, for a broadcaster to start to equate impartiality with an avoidance of controversy.

Jeremy Corbyn: On that basis, the BBC would not have broadcast appeals on Burma, Congo, Darfur or any other place living with the consequences of a war. The BBC is advancing a simply ludicrous argument.

Richard Burden: I completely agree. It is dangerous if the two ideas run together. Wars are controversial—it is in their nature—but the impact on the victims is real, and that should be our focus.

I have several questions, some of which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer, others that, perhaps through him, people outside Parliament may be able to deal with. In today’s Guardian, there is a report that the DEC approached the BBC on Tuesday, asking for the appeal to be screened. The BBC’s decision to refuse to broadcast it was communicated to the DEC at 5.47 pm on Wednesday, because, as we know, it believed that the content would be partial and compromise its impartiality. At that stage, the appeal had not been filmed, and I understand that on such appeals, editorial content rests with the broadcaster. So, what was the BBC saying? If it felt that there was a problem with impartiality, the solution was in its own hands.

On the first reason why the BBC refused to broadcast the appeal, the letter that I received from Mark Thompson says:

and it then mentions partiality.

I just want to focus for a minute on the practical delivery of aid, because it is relevant to this debate and was clearly a reason that the BBC gave in its letter to me on Saturday. By the next day, the comments from BBC spokespeople were indicating that the issue of getting aid through was a less important factor because it probably could get through now. Interestingly, however, by yesterday that issue had re-emerged as a factor and, again, BBC spokespeople were saying, “We’re really concerned about whether aid will get through and whether it will get into the right hands.”

There are questions that the Minister may be able to shed some light on, but if he is not able to do so I hope that the BBC will. Who did the BBC ask about the issue of access for aid, when did it ask and where did it get its advice from? Was any advice sought from the Government, either through the Department for
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International Development or elsewhere, was any given and what was that advice? Apparently anticipating the DEC appeal, according to the report in The Guardian, the BBC charity appeals committee met in the run-up to the request for an appeal and some concerns were expressed about the ability of aid to get through. Apparently, those concerns had subsided by the time that the DEC made its request. We need to know who the BBC was asking and where it got its responses from. If the issue of access ceased to be such an important issue by Sunday of this week, why did it re-emerge as an issue yesterday? Who was the BBC asking and who told it that that was an issue? Who else did the BBC ask? I mention this matter because it raises some serious questions not only about what the BBC have been doing over the past week, but about the future of aid to Gaza and the Palestinian territories. If Chinese whispers can get in the way of the BBC’s broadcasting such a crucial appeal, will Chinese whispers not raise their head again and again and get in the way of the delivery of aid in future?

Before the war on Gaza started, for 18 months it was subject to an amazing blockade that was well reported by the United Nations and others. I spoke to the mayor of Gaza about 18 months ago, before the blockade got really tight, who said, at that stage, that he was having real difficulty getting the materials in to repair sewers, roads and so on. This man was not Hamas; he was an independent. He was having difficulties. We were told that hospitals were having difficulty getting medical supplies in, because those could be used, possibly, by terrorists.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that some of the materials that come in could be diverted for use elsewhere. However, the question is, if there are concerns about that, who makes the decision about whether materials go in or not? So far, the decision has been made by Israel. Israel decides whether aid could be abused and, if it thinks that it could, it just stops it getting in. That happened for 18 months and for a long time before that, to a lesser extent.

If we are going to sort this matter for the future and if the borders are going to be opened, who will decide what goes through when they are open? Will it be Israel or the Palestinians? Will the decision be made between them, jointly, or will the international community have a say in that matter? If the international community is going to have a say in that, will my hon. Friend the Minister say what the mechanisms might be for achieving that rather than its remaining the prerogative of Israel in future?

The discussion so far has rightly focused on humanitarian aid, but the solution for Gaza is not humanitarian aid. This should not be a poor part of the world. I do not want everyone to say that the matter is sorted once the people of Gaza are able to live for the foreseeable future on food parcels let in by the grace and favour of the international community, Israel or someone else. I want the people of Gaza to be able to trade and to have a decent, normal life. That is what they want.

Finally, if my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is worried about the smuggling of arms and about whether food parcels contain bits of food that could be used by terrorists, or whatever, the answer is to
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open the borders, let trade happen and let the Gazans raise money for an economy, for themselves, and let them link with the west bank. That is the solution and that is what we should all be working for.

10.14 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): We should never forget that half the population of the Gaza strip are children. When Hamas was elected to government only just over half of the half of the population who are adults voted for it—the rest voted Fatah. Many of those who were previously Fatah members voted for Hamas because they had given up hope that their party would deliver proper governance and a proper living in the Gaza strip, yet we are punishing all those who are certainly not firm Hamas supporters, many of whom have converted to being Hamas supporters. It is not right to impose collective punishment on a population in that way.

I was in the Gaza strip on 14 April last year, before the war, and I saw the effects of the blockade. I have never seen a population so subjugated—unnecessarily so, in my opinion. Even the Rafah crossing, where trade could have kept going with Egypt, was stopped. Is it any wonder that people were digging tunnels into Egypt to smuggle goods through? Arms were not all that was coming through the tunnels: basic materials, such as toothpaste and other things that we take for granted were coming through—even goats. The tunnels were not just there for arms. I admit that arms were coming through, but the vast majority of materials coming through those tunnels were necessary for life in Gaza.

Last week, I raised the question of public health in Gaza, which was bad when I was there. On the day that I visited Al Shifa hospital it had two days’ supply of fuel to keep the whole hospital running. It is the most important of the seven hospitals in Gaza and is the main centre for trauma treatment. It has an able intensive care unit, which I also visited—a traumatic experience. We talked to the staff there, including the director, who described his problems. He told us that 20 dialysis machines were out of action because there were no spare parts and not even technicians could be imported to repair some of the more expensive machines.

Al Shifa is an efficient hospital and it was well equipped, but even on 14 April last year it was not running properly. Basic medicines such as antibiotics, which we take for granted, were missing. Goodness knows how the hospital has survived attack during the three weeks of war without such basic materials. If the generators cease—if electricity is not supplied to that one hospital—80 patients will die within 30 minutes, many of them small babies in intensive care cots. If electricity is cut off for a week, the hospital will lose 250 patients at least, mainly as a result of its being one of the main dialysis centres in the region.

No wood was going into the Gaza strip; on 14 April people did not even have wood to construct coffins to bury their dead. In the grounds of Al Shifa hospital, there is a huge building that was derelict when I visited: all construction had had to stop because no concrete was going into the Gaza strip. That extension to Al Shifa hospital is important. There is no oncology in the Gaza strip at the moment, so no oncology work can be done. All cancer victims have to be exported to the west
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bank, Egypt or Jordan. However, doing that has been pretty well impossible too, so people have been dying unnecessarily.

When I visited there was $93 million in the bank for replacing houses that, frankly, were not fit for animals to live in. I went into quite a number of houses and I would not put animals into the kind of property that people have to live in. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was reconstructing houses and I saw some of those that were newly constructed, which I guess are now absolutely flattened. What a waste of money. It costs $16,000 to make a nice house for an extended family in the Gaza strip. However, that $93 million, even on 14 April last year, could not be moved to build the houses necessary for the citizens of Gaza.

I am very pleased that our Government are putting in about £27 million. I hope that along with the help from other Governments it is enough to start the reconstruction of Gaza, but I want to raise again with my hon. Friend the Minister the question of Interpal and particularly the Ummah Welfare Trust. I hope that he can explain why money from those organisations cannot be sent to Gaza, because most of my local Muslim population are very angry about that. I represent a large Muslim population in Bolton and they are very angry because they like to give to Muslim charities. Islamic Relief is another charity. It is not affected by the block involving the banks, but Interpal and the UWT are and they have a considerable amount of money that could flow straight into Gaza tomorrow for humanitarian work.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is sometimes surprising how little the vastly oil-wealthy middle eastern states give in that respect?

Dr. Iddon: We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) that those states are giving quite generously at the moment, in view of the current crisis, but I accept that the Arab nations could help the occupied Palestinian territories a lot more than they may have done in the recent past.

When I was in Gaza, the whole of trade had collapsed. There were almost no businesses working except agriculture. Even people working in the public services were not being paid. There was no fuel for transport and no public transport, so people were walking to work. No refuse vehicles were collecting refuse, so there were piles of rotting refuse everywhere. We have to get the whole infrastructure going again.

It is very important that the sewerage infrastructure is repaired. Just inside the border, near Erez, there is a large lagoon full of raw sewage—or there was on 14 April; I do not know what happened to it during the war. People were very concerned that one of the dams would break and the raw sewage would flow into the villages. A five-year-old boy had already fallen into the raw sewage and drowned. That is an intolerable situation anywhere in the world.

Raw sewage was flowing into the sea and affecting fishing. I want to mention fishing because it is not often mentioned. The fishermen cannot fish beyond a very short distance from the shore, but that area is the breeding ground for the fish, so by restricting the fishing, the Israelis are destroying all the breeding grounds. Furthermore, the small fish that are being caught must be highly contaminated by raw sewage.

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A third of the people did not have running water in their homes before the current crisis. Goodness knows how many people can access water now. It is vital that we get the sewerage and water systems flowing and the electricity infrastructure reconstructed. Those are the basic requirements now in the Gaza strip. I am conscious that other hon. Members want to make a contribution, so I shall finish on that point.

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