Gaza and Israel debate: First Minister's Speech - 21 November 2023

Speech delivered by First Minister Humza Yousaf to the Scottish Parliament on 21 November 2023.

Presiding Officer,

Like so many others, I will never forget the morning of 7 October. Nadia and I woke to messages from my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, who was in Gaza, clearly in distress at the unfolding situation.

On a call, my mother in law described to me the scenes that she was witnessing that very morning.

Rockets being fired from Gaza towards Israel, and she was watching news reports that militants had entered Southern Israel and were carrying out attacks, murder and even hostage taking.

The fear in her voice was palpable. There was no jubilation in the streets of their neighbourhood, simply fear of the inevitable retaliation that would be forthcoming.

Presiding Officer, all of us watching the scenes unfold on 7 October did so in horror.

This chamber is unified in its resolute condemnation of Hamas’ abhorrent terrorist attacks.

The vicious and calculated killing of innocent people and kidnapping of men, women, children, the elderly in Israel cannot be condoned.

This chamber is, I hope, also unified in its resolute condemnation of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

The killing of innocent men, women and children in Gaza, who have nothing to do with Hamas, also cannot be justified.

These two positions are not at odds with one another.

In fact, quite the opposite. They are a recognition that all human life is equal. That the life of a Palestinian is worth no less than the life of an Israeli, and vice versa.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security.

Presiding Officer, we may be thousands of miles away from Israel and Gaza, but unfortunately, the brutal reality of this conflict has been brought all too close to home.

It has been reported that over 1,200 Israelis were killed during Hamas’ atrocious terror attack, the single biggest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust.

Amongst them was Bernard Cowan, originally from East Renfrewshire, where many members of his family still live.

Bernard - he was a husband; he was a father; he was a grandfather.

When I met his mother Irene in Giffnock Shul, during a service of prayer, she told me of the grief that can only be felt by a parent who has had to mourn the loss of their child.

The events of 7 October have deeply scarred our Jewish community here in Scotland, and those around the world.

They are a community in mourning and now many are living in fear.

And many families in Israel, like those of 13-year-old Yagil Yaakov, who has been taken hostage by militants, they are in a state of despair worrying about their loved ones, not knowing if they are alive or if they are dead.

That is why this Government, and I am certain this Parliament, is unequivocal in our demand that hostages are released, so they can be reunited with those they love.

Presiding Officer, that grief, that sorrow, that despair which is felt by many in our Israeli communities here in Scotland, is also felt by our Palestinian communities here too who have lost their families.

Take the example of Dr Ibrahim Khadra, a Senior Academic at Strathclyde University who I see is in the gallery today.

I met Dr Khadra last week. He told me the devastating news that 70 members of his extended family in Gaza had been killed. The pain was indescribable as he fought back tears and told me of the dreams of his little nieces and nephews that were no more.

And in this one example alone, there should be a lesson for all of humanity the world over.

One of the oldest lies ever told in war, is that people can be “collateral damage.”

Let me be clear Presiding Officer, babies are not collateral damage children are not collateral damage; the elderly are not collateral damage; innocent men, women and children are not collateral damage. They are human beings, who deserve to live, to grow old and not be killed for the crimes of others.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly made clear that Israel has a right, like any other country in the world, to protect its citizens from terror.

However, no country, Israel included, has a right to ignore international humanitarian law.

That is why this Government has repeatedly called for an end to the 16-year blockade and siege of Gaza.

It is why this Government is unequivocal in its condemnation of the Israeli Government cutting off water, food, fuel and supplies to the entire population of Gaza at the beginning of this latest cycle of violence.

Collective punishment can never be justified.

The Scottish Government supports wholeheartedly the International Criminal Court investigating reports of any breaches of international law.

I have written to the UK Government urging them to back the ICC in its investigation of war crimes being committed by any party during this conflict.

Presiding Officer, the suffering in Gaza has shaken the world.

Over 13,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in Israel’s offensive – two thirds of whom are women and children. To put this into some perspective, that’s the equivalent of over 300,000 people being killed in the UK.

And at least 1.7 million people in Gaza are currently internally displaced, and struggling to find safety or access to food and water.

In the past week, the situation in Gaza’s hospitals has deteriorated dramatically. 

On Sunday, the World Health Organisation, described Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza as, I quote, a "death zone".

To save lives, doctors, like my own brother-in-law Muhammad, are forced to practice medieval medicine.

Reportedly, amputating limbs, stitching up serious wounds - even performing caesarean sections without sufficient anaesthetic. This is a cruelty that cannot be allowed to continue.

Morally, there is no justification – none - for bombing of medical facilities and UN schools that are being used as shelters.

Humanitarian organisations and medical facilities must be given special protections under international law.

And they must be allowed to deliver life-saving services to those that need it.

Presiding Officer, the people of Gaza do not just live in fear of missiles killing them, they are at grave risk from starvation, dehydration, and infection.

According to the UN World Food Programme, supplies of food and water are, to quote, "practically non-existent.”

The entire population is being deprived of the basic means of survival.

And the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide these essentials safely has been severely curtailed, by the lack of access to fuel, and the loss of humanitarian workers and medical personnel.

The Scottish Government’s position has remained, and does remain, consistent.   

In the face of such destruction, death and inhumanity, an immediate ceasefire, agreed by all sides, is needed to ensure the protection of innocent civilians, and the delivery of essential supplies – including  food, fuel, water, and medical provisions.

Presiding Officer, some people have suggested that we should be seeking to achieve a “humanitarian pause”.

Simply a pause in the killing of innocent men, women, and children? Only, what, to resume a few hours later?

Surely, we must and can strive for better than that.

For the sake of the people of Gaza who are living in a nightmare of unimaginable terror, and for the Israeli hostages who remain captive, this Parliament, and the international community must unite in calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Presiding Officer, let me be clear that when it comes to Gaza – Gaza belongs to the people of Palestine - to the Palestinian people. Whatever its future, it must remain under the control of the Palestinian people. No one has a right to expel Gazans from their land.

Many Palestinians will wish to remain in Gaza, it is their land after all, and it is right that the current focus is on calls for a ceasefire and providing humanitarian aid to them.

But an estimated 50 per cent of northern Gaza’s buildings have been turned into rubble.

The dropping of more than 10,000 bombs, missiles and projectiles in one of the most densely populated areas in the world has caused complete devastation.

Should there be a need to provide sanctuary to refugees, we have called upon the UK Government to use existing resettlement schemes to work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to establish a route to safety for the most vulnerable Gazans.

And as I have reiterated, Scotland is ready to play its part in any such scheme, but also in the medical evacuation of injured citizens from Gaza, and indeed Israeli citizens if so required, through activation of the UK medical evacuation scheme.

Just as hospitals in the UAE have helped to treat injured Gazans, Scottish hospitals are ready to treat injured civilians where we can.

Presiding Officer, this parliament stands as one and exerts that the horrors in Israel and Palestine can never justify expressions of antisemitism, of Islamophobia or racial or religious hatred of any kind, in Scotland or elsewhere.

Presiding Officer, I have never hidden the fact – in fact I’m very proud of the fact that I am Muslim.

My faith is intertwined in history, in theology with our Jewish friends, and we are of the Abrahamic tradition, alongside Christians.

In Scotland, the Muslim and Jewish communities have enjoyed decades of friendship, decades of shared humanity and faith.

Nowhere is that more evident than in East Renfrewshire, home of Scotland’s largest Jewish community, and a significant Muslim population too, who have lived side-by-side in harmony for many years.

But we cannot be complacent. We must all be proactive in rooting out any hint of Islamophobia or antisemitism wherever it occurs.

Presiding Officer, even though it feels impossible to look past the current horrors of war, we must ensure that this perpetual cycle of violence that we see occur far too often finally ends, once and for all, in a peaceful resolution.

To that end, there must be a renewed, and serious international effort towards a two-state solution. Israeli and Palestinian States that can co-exist in safety, security and with equal rights for each of its citizens.

Unfortunately, the world has not kept its promise to the Palestinian people. They have not been given a free sovereign state, along the 1967 borders, as they were promised. Quite the opposite. The continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is not only illegal but works against a peaceful resolution.

So it is simply not enough anymore to pay lip-service to a two-state solution, we must take steps to turn that into a reality.

To that end, I have written to the Prime Minister, and to Sir Keir Starmer, and urged them to immediately take steps to ensure the UK recognises the State of Palestine.

It is only with full recognition of Palestine, as a State in its own right, that we can truly move forward towards a two-state solution.

To conclude, Presiding Officer, to prevent further deaths, the bombs, the rockets – they must stop.

The Scottish Government continues to call for:

  • an immediate ceasefire
  • for the safe release of all hostages
  • for an end to the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza
  • for an end to the siege of Gaza
  • and for all parties to abide by international law.

The UK government and the international community must use their influence to prevent the further loss of innocent life. 

Every child the world over deserves to grow old. The children of Gaza and Israel deserve nothing less.

It is our moral obligation to act. Let us hope, even in these - the darkest of times - that humanity prevails.

I move the motion in my name.

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