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27 January 2009

Aid to Palestine Speech

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 Mr. Clegg when he argued that it was nothing short of an insult to the 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 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.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.