James Cleverly, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, answers MPs’ questions.
Israel and Palestine
2. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on the situation in Gaza. (906657)
10. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Palestinian Authority on a two-state solution. (906666)
12. What recent reports he has received on the situation in Israel and Palestine. (906668)
17. Whether he has had discussions with his Israeli counterpart on the (a) compatibility with international law and (b) proportionality of Israel’s response in Gaza to the attacks by Hamas. (906673)
20. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on the situation in Gaza. (906677)
23. What steps his Department is taking with international partners in the middle east in response to the situation in Gaza and Israel. (906680)
Since Hamas’s brutal terror attacks on 7 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have visited the region and have spoken and met extensively with counterparts totalling almost 20 countries, as part of our extensive diplomatic efforts to prevent escalation, to sustain the prospect of regional peace and to secure the free movement home of British nationals in Gaza and the release of hostages.
It has been reported that the Palestinian Authority is to pay up to $3 million a month in so-called martyr salaries to the families of dead and captured Hamas terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those payments to rapists, torturers and murderers, some of whom have killed Brits? Will he use his good offices to ensure that no British aid money has gone towards this filthy practice?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we always ensure that UK aid money is protected from misappropriation. I can confirm to him and the House that no British aid money goes directly to the Palestinian Authority. We have raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and highlighted our belief that it is not conducive to good relations and a future two-state solution.
What are the prospects of a two-state solution, given the pace of Israeli settlements on the west bank?
The Government’s long-standing position is that we oppose settlement expansion, for the reasons I have highlighted extensively in the conversations that I have had with the Israeli Government and the leadership of countries in the region. Despite the terrible circumstances we are experiencing, there is a renewed desire for a meaningful resolution that means that the terrible images that we saw on 7 October will never be repeated.
Close to 1,000 constituents have contacted me, deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding and the need for a ceasefire. Nearly 5,000 people have died in Gaza, including 1,700 children. While the whole House rightly condemned the Hamas atrocities, we must be unequivocal in our condemnation of violations of international law. Will the Foreign Secretary set out in what circumstances he believes it is legal for Israel to cut off water, fuel, food and electricity in Gaza?
There is always much debate in this House about the interpretation of international humanitarian law. I have raised directly with my Israeli counterparts the need, in whatever actions they take to secure their protection, defend Israeli citizens and secure the release of hostages, for them to act in accordance with international law. I have received assurances from the Israeli President to that effect.
There have been countless reiterations from the Israeli authorities, including in a joint speech with the Prime Minister last week, that they are taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, more than 4,650 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the last 16 days. Palestinian lives matter, so what more action, other than just repeating promises about civilian protection, is the Foreign Secretary’s Department taking meaningfully to ensure that innocent Palestinians are kept safe?
I am on record mourning the Palestinian lives that have been lost in this conflict, just as we mourn, and I mourn, the loss of Israeli lives in this terrible situation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government take the loss of life, from whichever community, incredibly seriously.
I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that Hamas routinely and consciously put civilians in harm’s way, specifically to generate fatalities that they then use as part of their media operations. We are conscious of that and the Israeli armed forces are conscious of that—that is why, they explained to me, they have given notice of future areas of military operation. We have seen evidence that Hamas are routinely preventing Palestinians from leaving areas that are going to be engaged by the Israeli Defence Forces.
In contrast to the last two questions from the Opposition Benches, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and our Prime Minister for their important recent visits to our ally Israel. The Government’s unequivocal message that Israel has the right and must be able to defend itself against the Hamas terrorist group is right and just. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support Israel in its efforts to secure the release of the 200-plus captives still held in Gaza, including any British citizens? Can the Secretary of State ensure that they receive immediate assistance from the international Red Cross?
My hon. Friend reminds the House that the Government remain focused on the protection of British nationals in Israel, the west bank and, of course, Gaza. It would be inappropriate for me to go into detail, but I can assure him and the House that we speak with all parties who we believe could have influence on those holding hostages: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others. It is incredibly difficult. We do not have direct lines of communications, but we will not rest—we will not rest—in trying to secure the release of hostages and the evacuation of British nationals from Gaza.
I am clear that the international community, backed by the UN, must now work together to dial down the rhetoric, open humanitarian corridors, encourage restraint and protect life. Will the Foreign Secretary commit the UK to expanding the Abraham accords as a priority, which will not only bring strategic partners to the table but may offer a future peace between Israel and Palestine?
I have said regularly how much I value the Abraham accords. The improving of relationships between Israel and the Arab nations in its near neighbourhood is an extremely positive step. There is a realistic belief that part of the aim of the attack of 7 October was to derail future normalisation and negotiations. Again, I think that highlights the fact that Hamas are not a friend to the Palestinian people. They are not trying to improve relationships between Israel and the Arab world. They brought down the Oslo agreements, and they have consistently blocked all attempts to normalise relationships between Israel and the wider Arab world. We must not let them win in that endeavour, and we must work to bring peace between the Palestinian people and the Israelis.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee.
I have been inundated with emails from constituents terrified for the future of the internally displaced Palestinians in Gaza. Since 7 October, nearly 600,000 internally displaced persons have been sheltering in 150 United Nations Relief and Works Agency facilities, 35 UNRWA staff have been killed, and 40 UNRWA installations have been damaged. When the ground invasion inevitably starts, where are these people meant to go? Who is expected to host them? Who will administer them, and where will the support come from? Finally and fundamentally, what does the Foreign Secretary believe is the Israeli politicians’ long-term objective?
All the conversations that we have had with Israel, with Egypt and with intermediaries who are able to maintain lines of communication with Hamas have been about the preservation of human life. Let me put this on the record once again: we completely support Israel’s right, and indeed duty, of self-defence. We are only just starting to see the scale of the brutality. Video evidence retrieved from those individuals who brutalised and murdered Israeli citizens on 7 October has now been put in the public domain, and it is worse than any of us could have imagined. We absolutely stand by Israel’s right to self-defence, and we have said that we want to work with Israel, with Egypt, with the countries in the near neighbourhood and, of course, with those who are the de facto Government in Gaza to minimise civilian casualties. We have had that commitment from Israel; we have had no such commitment from Hamas.
Since I raised this question with the Prime Minister last week, indiscriminate airstrikes and a total siege blocking food, water and medical supplies have killed thousands of innocent Palestinian men and women and more than 1,000 children. Let us be absolutely clear in this House: this is now beyond a humanitarian catastrophe. Even as we stand here today, innocent blood continues to be spilt on the streets of Gaza, and mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, bakeries, water plants and homes continue to be flattened by the Israeli military.
I have a very simple question for the Foreign Secretary. Just what will it take? How many thousands of innocent Palestinians must be slaughtered before this Government condemn the brutality and bloodshed?
We have consistently said that we want to minimise further loss of life, and the lives lost among the Palestinian people are of course something for which we grieve, but we must never lose sight of the fact that during the period since 7 October, thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. Indeed, according to an assessment that we now have, one of the most high-profile losses of lives in Gaza, which was covered extensively by the British and international media, was likely caused by a rocket emanating from Gaza and targeting Israel. While I respect the hon. Gentleman’s passion about the preservation of life, and I assure him that I share his passion, we must be thoughtful, and we must remember why this is happening. It must not be forgotten that the single largest murder of Jews since the holocaust was initiated by Hamas, who then put Palestinians intentionally in harm’s way as part of their operations.
One of the appalling hallmarks of the terrorist attack by Hamas on the state of Israel has been hostage taking, and we are now seeing hostage taking increasingly being used in state-sponsored terrorism. With that in mind, and given the number of British hostages who are currently being held, does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary think that now is the time to appoint a prime ministerial envoy for hostages, with full diplomatic immunity, so that the British state can keep in touch with Britons who are being held and use our soft power to negotiate their release?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We have one of the largest and most effective diplomatic networks, so our diplomats on the ground are often best placed to initiate those negotiations, but he raises a good point and I will take his suggestion seriously.
I, like many others, have received hundreds if not thousands of emails from my constituents expressing their despair at what they are seeing happening in Gaza. It is more than a humanitarian emergency. Does the Secretary of State agree with Labour’s calls to work with international partners to give UN agencies such as UNRWA the long-term resources they need, as well as to insist that fuel is allowed into Gaza?
The Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Development Minister and I have had extensive and regular talks on ensuring that humanitarian supplies get to the Palestinian people in Gaza. Indeed, the Development Minister has virtually daily conversations with Martin Griffiths, the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Prime Minister has recently announced an additional £30 million of humanitarian support on top of our pre-existing £27 million, making us one of the most generous contributing nations to humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
George Mitchell, the great American peacemaker, said that diplomacy was
“700 days of failure and one day of success”.
Labour recognises the hard, quiet diplomacy required to secure the release of hostages and eventually long-term peace, but in this bloody war we cannot afford 700 days without success. Overnight, we saw reports of the possible release of 50 hostages, only to learn that those talks had stumbled. Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress to secure the release of all the 200 hostages so cruelly taken by Hamas terrorists?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the calm professionalism that he has displayed throughout. I can assure him and the House that this remains an absolute focus of our attention. It was raised by the Prime Minister, by me, by my right hon. Friend the Development Minister and by others in our bilateral conversations with leaders around the region, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will stay relentlessly focused on this.
The situation in Gaza is heartbreaking and deeply troubling. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel must follow the laws of war by taking every possible step to protect civilians and by ensuring that aid is rapid, safe and unhindered, that blocks to water, food, medicines and fuel are lifted immediately, and that Palestinians who are forced to flee are not permanently displaced? Does he also agree that upholding these laws is not just a legal and moral obligation, but necessary to prevent Israel’s campaign from undermining long-term prospects for peace and stability.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is exactly the tone of the conversations we are having. The preservation of civilian life remains a priority, and we discuss this regularly and at every level with the Israeli Government. Of course we reflect on the point that Israel itself—as well as the countries in the near neighbourhood—is trying to prevent this from becoming a regional conflict. As I say, professionalism and restraint by the Israeli Defence Forces are an important part of preventing this from becoming a regional conflict.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
Has the Secretary of State seen any evidence, been made aware of any evidence or had reasonable grounds to believe that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in its response to the Hamas atrocities on 7 October?
I am not in a position, and indeed it is not my role, to make an assessment of the interpretation of events that are unfolding as we speak. There will, of course, be assessments of the nature of international humanitarian law. We are trying to make sure that, in all of its actions for its legitimate self-defence, Israel abides by international law.
If it is not the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility to make that assessment, I wonder whose it is. He knows that international humanitarian law is unambiguous in saying that the collective punishment of a civilian population is illegal. Is he telling us that he is unaware, or has seen no evidence, that people have been forced from their homes and that their water, food, power and access to medicine have been cut off? Or is he actually saying that all of this has happened but the UK Government have unilaterally decided that international humanitarian law does not apply to this conflict?
The hon. Gentleman undermines his own question by making the assertion that his interpretation of international humanitarian law is, by default, one to which I have to subscribe. His definition of what is happening is not one that I necessarily agree with.
Iran: Support for Hamas
3. Whether he has received reports on the potential role of Iran in providing financial and other support for Hamas for terrorist attacks on Israel. (906658)
8. Whether he has received reports on the potential involvement of Iran in providing support for Hamas for terror attacks on Israel. (906664)
Hamas is responsible for these appalling terrorist attacks. We know that Iran has been a long-term funder and supporter of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran’s support for these militant groups has a destabilising impact on regional and international security, and we remain ever watchful of its actions.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that answer. Iran’s fingerprints are all over Hamas’s brutal massacre in Israel. Iran’s blatant arming, funding—worth $100 million a year—and training of terror groups around the region is no secret. Hamas’s leaders have even publicly lavished praise on Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for their support. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must be absolutely clear about the threat posed by Iran abroad and at home, and that now is the time for a policy reset?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s assessment of Iran’s malign influence. The Government and the FCDO are well aware of this, and I can assure him that we have been clear-eyed throughout the work we do with regard to Iran and its influence in the region. We will remain ever watchful. I am sure that no reset is required, because we are very conscious of Iran’s impact on the region.
What diplomatic efforts are His Majesty’s Government taking to protect and, indeed, enhance the Abraham accords in the light of the fact that the Iranian regime is clearly seeking to engender discord and, indeed, conflict in the middle east?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Abraham accords have been a force for good. We need to protect them and ideally enhance them. Anything that sees greater co-operation between Israel and the Arab world has to be a step in the right direction when it comes to the creation of a sustainable two-state solution. I can assure him that we remain focused on that outcome.
This Government have rightly imposed sanctions on those states and organisations that support terrorism. Can the Secretary of State therefore clarify that if it is found, following an independent investigation, that Israel has also broken international law and committed war crimes in Gaza, his Government will consider the introduction of appropriate sanctions?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate about our future response to future events. At the moment, I am dealing with events in the here and now. I am trying to prevent loss of life. I am in constant conversations with the leadership in the region to try to prevent further Israeli and Palestinian loss of life.
Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting families whose loved ones have been taken hostage. They came here to share their testimony, which was deeply moving. They raised the fact that Iran is very much behind this, so why have we yet to proscribe the IRGC? It was time a year ago, so it is surely time now. What is the excuse for waiting?
I have a huge amount of sympathy for the plight of the families who have either lost loved ones or have loved ones who are still held hostage in Gaza. I will be meeting families who have members held hostage later.
As I have said regularly, we are well aware of Iran’s influence. Any decision about proscription will be a cross-Government decision. The advantages and disadvantages of proscribing will always be at the heart of any decision-making process, but as the hon. Lady knows, we do not comment on future sanctions or proscription designations.
Following on from the question of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), I emphasise that Labour has been calling on the Government for many months to proscribe the IRGC. Evidence is emerging of Iranian involvement in the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. We also understand that the United States has called on the United Kingdom to follow its example. I therefore press the Foreign Secretary: when will the Government act, by using either existing terrorism legislation or a new process of proscription directed at the IRGC?
I remind the House that the IRGC—as well as certain individuals who are members of it—is sanctioned in its entirety. As I said in response to the question of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), no international measure comes without cost. There are advantages and disadvantages to proscription, which fundamentally would mean that we could have no direct diplomatic relations with Iran. As I have said, we always take those issues seriously, and any decision will be made cross-Government, but we do not speculate on future sanctions or proscription designations.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [R] (906681)
In response to the terrorist attacks on 7 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, other Ministers and I have of course engaged intensively with allies in the region, but we are equally determined to deliver on other vital priorities, notably supporting Ukraine, tackling illegal migration, supporting stability in sub-Saharan Africa and alleviating poverty around the world.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Government of France have announced today that they are sending their Foreign Minister to the United Nations Security Council to argue for a humanitarian truce in Gaza, which in their words would be capable of leading to a ceasefire and necessary for the distribution of aid to civilian populations. It would also allow the focus to concentrate on the release of hostages, which I would have thought would commend itself also to the Government of Israel. Will the Government support—
Order. Being first on the Order Paper is not permission to take all the time. Topicals should be short and sweet. The right hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are trying to find every avenue to alleviate humanitarian suffering. We will be represented at senior ministerial level at the Security Council later today. We want to take action that will actually deliver aid and support to the Palestinian people who are suffering in Gaza.
On 27 June, this House passed Labour’s motion calling on the Government to bring forward within 90 days legislation to seize and repurpose Russian state assets for Ukraine’s recovery, but it has now been 120 days since that motion was passed and we have heard nothing but vague words. When will the Foreign Secretary do what Labour has called for and deliver what Ukraine needs by taking difficult but necessary steps to ensure that Russia pays?
The state seizure of private assets is a serious act that we typically condemn in other countries. The Government have made it absolutely clear that the people who are responsible for brutalising Ukraine will ultimately pay for its reconstruction.
T8. Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the most important messages that Palestinians need to hear from the international community right now is that the two-state solution is not dead? Will he say a bit more about his discussions with Israeli counterparts on what more can be done to resuscitate faith and optimism in a two-state solution? (906688)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the prospect of a peaceful and secure Israel alongside a peaceful and secure Palestine—a two-state solution—is our best route to navigate these terrible situations successfully, and it will remain at the heart of UK foreign policy in the region.
T10. On my recent visit to the Pinner United synagogue, I heard from constituents about the impact of the Hamas terrorist attack on their family and friends in Israel. Will my right hon. Friend restate the commitment that we all share to ensure that promoters of terror are unable to do their work from the sanctuary of safe countries such as ours? To that end, will he work with our allies to proscribe the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? (906690)
With regard to the proscription of the IRGC, my hon. Friend will have heard the answer that I gave some minutes ago. The work that we are doing, in close co-ordination with the Home Secretary and her team, to ensure that communities here in the UK feel safe and secure remains an absolute priority for us. Limiting, and ideally stopping, the ability of organisations and countries to fund terrorism will remain a priority for us.
It is vital for peace that the rule of law is established and upheld in both Palestine and Israel. Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of whether the weakening of the judiciary in Israel will impact on legal decisions relating to the Israel defence forces’ rules of engagement in the current conflict?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. While I was in Israel prior to the 7 October incidents, we of course discussed the proposals for judicial reform. Those proposals have not yet been taken forward by the Israeli Government, but I can assure her and the House that we remain committed to international law and will always communicate that to all parties involved.
T7. Do the Government agree that there needs to be a full independent international inquiry into the recent terrible events in Israel and Gaza, with full access to the Gaza Strip as well as Israel? Do the Government agree that the only way forward is a proper process of accountability for those responsible for the commission of any crimes—including war crimes—identified, whether Israeli or Palestinian? Will the Government review their position on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? (906687)
I have no doubt that, in the aftermath of the brutal terrorist attacks on 7 October and Israel’s defensive response, there will be an assessment of what has happened. We would want any such assessment to be as comprehensive and independent as possible.
T9. On Saturday I stood with thousands of Glaswegians whose overwhelming message was clear that we need a ceasefire now. The only way we can begin to de-escalate this conflict—a conflict that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe—on both sides is by ending the bombardment of Gaza, ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid and creating a space for engaging in diplomacy and dialogue. In the light of all that, why do the British Government not call for an immediate ceasefire now? (906689)
As we have seen over and over again this morning, calling for a ceasefire is the easy bit; actually negotiating something meaningful is considerably harder. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said repeatedly from the Dispatch Box, we are working with all parties. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has made reference to Israel’s actions, but I remind the House that a ceasefire without Hamas stopping its bombardment of Israel is not a meaningful ceasefire.
Last week, China put export restrictions on graphite, which is essential for electric vehicle batteries. Four out of 10 of the top producers of graphite are Commonwealth members. Will the Government pursue a partnership agreement on critical minerals with the Commonwealth to reinforce those supply chains?
I commend my right hon. Friend on his pursuit of this subject, which I know was very much in his thinking when he was in my position. I can assure him that a critical minerals strategy is something that I regularly discuss with Commonwealth leaders and others, particularly in Africa. It is in their interest and ours that they protect their natural resources.
The war in Ukraine is undoubtedly the largest land war in Europe for decades. Notwithstanding other pressures around the world, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reaffirm the UK’s commitment to its support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people?
I can confirm to the House that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself remains a focus of the Government. The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and I discuss this matter regularly, and I continue to have regular communications with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister. This matter may have fallen temporarily from the headlines of the British newspapers, but it has not fallen from the mind of the British Government.
When atrocities take place, we have a duty to call them out. When Hamas murdered and kidnapped innocent civilians, we rightly called it out, and when Putin targeted innocent Ukrainians and Assad targeted hospitals, we expressed our horror in this House. Now we also have a duty to speak on behalf of innocent Palestinians who are being collectively punished, starved, and indiscriminately bombed in their homes by Israeli forces. Children’s bodies are lying in the street. It is wrong, and it is why we need a ceasefire. Will the Secretary of State convey that to his Israeli counterpart?
Again, the hon. Lady asserts her interpretation of international law, which is not necessarily one that is shared by the Government. The preservation of all life, including Palestinian life, remains at the forefront of our thinking.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with Ministers Kamikawa of Japan and Wang Yi of China about their respective countries’ role in easing tensions in the Israel-Gaza conflict?
I have not had the chance to speak with the Chinese Foreign Minister on this issue, but I have spoken a number of times with the Japanese Foreign Minister about it. Of course, we are more than happy to work with any international partner that can alleviate the pain and suffering of both Israelis and the Palestinian people, particularly those in Gaza, and we will continue to do so.
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in congratulating Narges Mohammadi on being awarded the Nobel peace prize for her outstanding work to raise awareness of the struggle for women’s rights and equality in Iran. Will the Minister publicly support the brave women who are campaigning against the forced hijab laws in Iran, and once again, will he commit to proscribing the woman-hating regime that is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps?
On the proscription of the IRGC, the hon. Gentleman will have heard the answers I have already given a number of times from the Dispatch Box, but I can assure him that we continue to stand with the brave women of Iran, who are standing up for their rights in the face of their Government’s oppression. Indeed, I met with women Iranian campaigners a number of weeks ago, and the hon. Gentleman and the House should know that we stand in full solidarity with them.
I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and their teams for their important diplomatic efforts in the middle east in recent days. The potential implications of the conflict between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas are deeply concerning for the wider region, so can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the steps the Government are taking to prevent this conflict from spreading to the wider region?
In the conversations I had with the Israeli Government in the immediate aftermath of the 7 October attacks, they expressed a desire for this not to turn into a regional conflict. That desire was echoed by all the leaders of the Arab world that I have spoken to. It remains an absolute priority for this Government, and indeed the Governments of the region, to prevent this from turning into a regional conflict. That is exactly what Hamas wants, and therefore is exactly what we do not want.