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27 Jan 2009 : Column 14WH—continued

10.23 am

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Nothing is new in the treatment of Israel and the attitude of the BBC to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. When I first went to the occupied territories, in 1988, before I came into the House, I saw the fruit on the trees rotting because the Israeli Government would not allow the people of Hebron to pick their fruit to sell it. That was happening throughout the occupied territories at that time. Nothing is surprising, because every time one goes to the occupied territories in Palestine—call them what you like—whether it is the west bank, which is supposedly Palestinian-controlled, or elsewhere, one sees that the Israeli Government continue to carry out collective punishments against the people of the Palestinian nation, in areas either within Israel or in the occupied territories. Without regard to whether they can prove a connection with any incident, whether it is a demonstration by a young enthusiastic student outside a university or by an elderly woman outside a mosque, the family home is destroyed—smashed—and the people are driven to live in tents. Sadly, that is happening on a large scale and regularly, because of the attitude of the Israeli Government. I believe that the aim is either to drive the Palestinian people into subjection entirely to one Israeli state or to drive them out of what was their homeland in the first place. I do not believe that that is something that is alien to the current nature of the Israeli state, which I think has become a viper in the middle east, despite being put there to be a place of peace—that was the hope—by the Balfour declaration. Sadly, Balfour was a Scot. As a Scot, I am ashamed of what has been reaped after that declaration.

Recent events were not surprising, but the scale on which the Israeli armed forces attacked the civilian people of Gaza was shocking. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The excuses about Hamas being in the community and so on do not stand up to scrutiny. That is why Amnesty International is calling on the UN to have a high-level inquiry into the behaviour of all sides. I think that such an inquiry would reveal most fault on the side of the Israelis. I do not in any way, or under any circumstances, condone members of Hamas or anyone else firing rockets or attempting to fire rockets into civilian areas of Israel. They are doing their people a great deal of harm by doing that and they are giving an excuse to the war machine that is the Israeli state to attack the innocent people of the Palestinian areas.

Let us be frank about the context for the events that we are discussing. The ceasefire held from June until November. Between June and November, not one single rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza, but the Israelis attacked and killed six Palestinians in Gaza and thereby broke the ceasefire. Whether that was deliberate, I do not know, but it was the context for what followed, which led to the excuses that have been made for the attacks.

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The context for the aid is very important, and in that regard Amnesty International has raised several very important matters. For example, in relation to the armaments used, the use of phosphorus was reported. There are eyewitness accounts from doctors. The Amnesty press release quotes one burns specialist at Al Shifa hospital as saying:

That is why aid is urgently needed for the medical services in Gaza. Weapons that should never have been used are being used. The descriptions of the continuing burning and deepening of wounds caused by phosphorus shells used by the Israeli forces are horrific.

Amnesty is clear in the letter that it wrote to the UN Security Council. It states:

That is the context in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, it still seems that the Israeli state dictates how much aid will get into the area.

Masses of aid has gone in, and I join those who have commended the efforts of our Government and DFID in that respect. From my contacts through the European Scrutiny Committee, I am aware that the EU has been very generous. It provided €551 million in 2007 and €340 million in 2006. Massive amounts of money have gone in, as my hon. Friends have described. However, much of that aid, if it went into infrastructure, has been destroyed by the recent attacks and by attacks over the years.

I am a great supporter of those who try to tell us of the horrors of the past, especially about the aid that went to help the people of Europe, particularly the Jewish nations, who were attacked during the holocaust. I have been with students in my schools to Auschwitz to see the horrors of that place, which must never be forgotten. However, it is important that we do not become apologists for the Israeli state because of our sympathy for the horrors heaped upon the Jewish people during the Nazi period.

Some people say that all the wrong is on the side of Hamas and that things are happening that should stop aid going in. However, it is important to consider the report of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which states:

Why is an Israeli gunboat shelling Gaza? The report continues:

That is not acceptable. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The scale of sympathy is not simply something to do with the organisations that have a deep understanding of what is happening. In my constituency, there is an
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organisation called Antonine Link—the Roman wall that runs through my constituency used to divide the people of Scotland. That group has set up a link with the peoples in the west bank who have been divided by the wall built by the Israelis. Organisations in Linlithgow do a huge amount of humanitarian work, and the Churches and faith groups have now turned to raising funds for the people in Gaza.

I finish by making one remark about the BBC. It has been run by idiots for the last decade. Whoever took the decision not to broadcast the appeal and the back-up given to that decision by Mr. Thompson, has brought the BBC into a position of unacceptable irrelevance to the people of this country. It is time that the BBC realised that it is a public broadcasting organisation. If it wants to be objective, it must advertise this appeal in the same way as it advertised previous appeals.

10.31 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Many people have been shocked at the images shown on television of what has recently been unfolding in Gaza. The true horrors of war, some might think, yet that is not so—what we see on TV is an extremely sanitised version of what is happening on the ground. Watching TV in other European countries or on the internet gives a far more graphic picture of the reality—of the suffering that the action means for many innocent civilians, especially children.

However, even those sanitised images were enough to trigger many good people on to the streets of Edinburgh and other cities a couple of weeks ago to say, “This must stop.” Despite the bitter cold and rain, thousands of people braved the elements to call for an end to the bombing, the killing and the violence. Regardless of their political reading of the situation, the majority were there from a sense of compassion for the suffering of the people of Gaza. Jews were on that march, side by side with Palestinians and many others, old and young.

The conflict in Gaza was intensely political, but politics must not get in the way of efforts to stop further suffering wherever possible. Those who attended marches throughout the country may have had different ideas about the best long-term solution, but they were united in their desire to see an end to the suffering in Gaza. To achieve that, we need to facilitate the quick delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, the west bank and wherever else it is needed.

Gaza was a humanitarian concern before the recent conflict because of the severe restrictions imposed by Israel. Movement was all but impossible, and the supply of food and water, of sewage treatment and of basic health care were all creaking under the strain of the demands being made. Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants were enduring the worst conditions for 40 years, with 80 per cent. of the population dependent on food aid. A coalition of eight UK humanitarian and human rights groups warned last year of an impending “humanitarian implosion” in the Gaza strip. What we see today is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Other hon. Members rightly addressed the BBC’s decision not to air the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I back the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) when he argued that it was nothing short of an insult to the
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viewing public—the licence-paying public—to suggest that they would be unable to distinguish between humanitarian needs and political sensitivities. The BBC claims that it cannot show the DEC appeal because it does not want to compromise its commitment to impartiality; at the moment, however, the BBC appears to be compromising its commitment to humanity.

I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State for International Development has asked the BBC to reconsider its position. I would appreciate an update on what the Department is doing to resolve the matter. For the avoidance of doubt, it is easy to donate. I can tell those who read Hansard that they should visit the website, or call the DEC on 0370 60 60 900. Ironically, the ban on the broadcast of the appeal has probably given it more publicity than could have been hoped for, but that still does not make the ban right.

The immediate needs in Gaza are the protection of civilians, emergency access for medical aid, electricity and fuel supply, water and sanitation, and food. Without immediate action, the UN is genuinely concerned about the total collapse of public infrastructure. Immediate and increased access to Gaza is the key to relieving suffering, and I would appreciate an update on what the Government are doing, through diplomatic channels, to ensure improved access to Gaza for the delivery of aid. Oxfam officials have identified the primary obstacle for aid delivery: the main crossing for aid to enter Gaza is 40 km from where most relief is needed, and it is too small for the number of trucks that need to go through.

The recent bombing damaged water wells and pipes and led to shortages; it has left half a million Gazans without running water. Five days after the ceasefire, 400,000 were still without water. Officials have confirmed that 2 million litres of waste water at Gaza city’s treatment plant, which was bombed on 10 January, have leaked into surrounding agricultural land. What is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that Gazans are able to access reliable sources of water?

Eight hospitals and 26 primary health care clinics were damaged during the fighting. The World Health Organization says that Gaza’s hospitals were “completely overwhelmed” during the Israeli assault; as a result, Gaza has only 2,000 hospital beds to cope with 5,000 injured. Although the situation has improved slightly, there are still reported shortages of skilled medical personnel and there is ailing equipment, with the UN describing facilities as under “enormous strain”. I look forward to hearing what the Department is doing to improve the supply of medical equipment and personnel to Gaza.

With such widespread devastation, shelter is now a major concern. Other hon. Members may have seen reports that more than half of those questioned for a Care International survey were hosting displaced people in their homes. Officials in Gaza have estimated that 4,100 homes were totally destroyed and 17,000 damaged during the conflict. I know that many constituents who contacted me on the subject would appreciate knowing what the Government are doing to provide emergency shelter. I am delighted that a further £20 million in humanitarian assistance will be made available by the Government. Will the Minister update us on the current position?

Sadly, in the past we have supplied aid in the west bank and other places—for instance the port in the Gaza strip, as we heard—only to see it destroyed. I saw
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one example at first hand; a police station filled with UK-funded equipment and computers was bombed to complete destruction by the Israeli defence force, supposedly in an attempt to kill a prisoner being held in the cells. The building was destroyed, but he walked free from the rubble.

We have heard today of the scale of humanitarian need in Gaza. The figures are sobering. However, while Gaza is still smouldering—it is rightly the focus of today’s debate—we must not forget the situation in the rest of the west bank. The construction of the wall, new settlements, razor-wire fences, checkpoints and access roads are all part of the process of subdividing the west bank and ensuring that it will never be a viable state in its present condition. The economy has been destroyed, and agriculture is suffering as water supplies become more problematic. What was a key part of the two-state solution is now a mix of refugee camps, with people in villages separated from their fields, children separated from their schools and adults separated from their work. It is amazing that that area, too, did not recently explode into violence as a result. The only long-term hope for peace in the region is a two-state solution, but for it to be an option, the Palestinians must have a state that they can call home. Our aid will help to keep body and soul together until that happens, but they cannot wait for ever.

Next month, I shall be visiting Gaza with Scotland’s Medical Aid to see for myself the situation on the ground. Although the BBC says that airing the DEC appeal would be one-sided, we must remember the other side of the coin—military and other aid to Israel from the USA is estimated at £3 billion per year for the next 10 years. Any aid that we can give, or might have given, to Palestine will be dwarfed by that figure many times over. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will detail what can be done in the weeks and months ahead to go some way towards ending the misery for those innocent victims, who do not have food, water, shelter or medical aid.

10.40 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I welcome the Minister back from Palestine and congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) not only on securing this debate, but on providing the Chamber with a well-informed speech. I shall draw later on some of his comments. I should add that the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), is on his way back from Gaza.

Three weeks of fighting in Gaza have caused damage estimated at £1.4 billion. Four thousand homes have been destroyed, 17,000 residences partially destroyed and upwards of 1,300 Palestinians have lost their lives. In that context, we should remember the Israelis who have lost their lives as well as the Israeli soldier killed this morning. I hope that the latter death does not lead to a new upsurge in violence.

We should not for a minute underestimate the scale of the crisis in Gaza. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) graphically illustrated the destruction of public services and the absolute misery of people living with
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raw sewage, and without running water or enough equipment in the hospitals. The situation in Gaza is truly dreadful: it existed long before Operation Cast Lead began, but it is now inescapably more desperate.

The short and long-term scope for the spending of economic aid is huge. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has launched a campaign whose stated aims demonstrate the immediacy of the need for humanitarian assistance—that need is recognised throughout the Chamber—and many other groups are, of course, working to provide that much needed assistance.

Many Members have criticised the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said that

As the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, the BBC must be very careful not to lag behind or to contradict public opinion. It is the guardian of the licence payers’ money, and ultimately they should have a broadcaster that conforms to their wishes, and indeed those of this Chamber—a number of signatures are on the relevant early-day motion.

A number of questions have been posed to the Minister this morning about the role of the Department for International Development. In 2007, DFID agreed funding of up to £243 million to the occupied Palestinian territories, although it is to be linked to progress in peace negotiations. In light of the recent violence, I would welcome an update from him on how DFID’s aid campaign will now progress and on how he envisages us getting the aid into Gaza. As I said in a debate in this Chamber last week, it is imperative that we get water, food and medicines into Gaza as soon as possible and that we use every means possible to do so, including, if necessary, by ship and under the auspices of the Royal Navy.

The UK is not alone in providing funding. The European Commission is providing nearly €500 million, and the United States has pledged $555 million. However, even with all that funding and good will, the cessation of violence and the steady establishment of the Palestinian economy and infrastructure have not been achieved. In Gaza it is even more tragic that any gains made might have been destroyed during the fighting, and many infrastructure projects will be back to square one. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned the excellent housing projects that might sadly have been destroyed. That is a tragedy. I share with Members in the Chamber the genuine hope that the ceasefire can hold. We must continue to try to look forward, which is why we are all here today.

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