Gaza and Israel: First Minister's speech

First Minister's statement to the Scottish Parliament on Gaza and Israel, Tuesday 24 October 2023. 

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Presiding Officer, there are many things of course we disagree on in this Chamber. But at times of grief and sorrow, we have often found a way of putting those differences aside and coming together.

Even on the issue of Israel and Palestine, where passions run high, as do differences of opinion, we can, and we should, unite on many issues.

Firstly, let us unite in unequivocally condemning the terror Hamas unleashed on 7 October in southern Israel.

The more we learn about Hamas’ barbaric attack which took place on the Jewish sabbath, on a Jewish holy day, the more we are sickened by their brutality.

The Scottish Government unequivocally condemns the abhorrent terrorist attacks of Hamas.

Let me say as someone who is proudly Muslim, that I was taught from a young age that Islam tells us “That if you kill one innocent person, it is as if you have killed the whole of humanity.”

There can be no religious or moral defence of the killing of innocent civilians.

Israel, like every other country in the world, has a right to protect itself from terror. That, of course, must be done within the confines of international law, an issue I will return to later.

The Scottish Government also joins with the international community in calling for hostages taken by Hamas to be released immediately and unconditionally.

Secondly, let this chamber unite in our common humanity, in accepting that there is no hierarchy of grief. That when a mother loses a child then we all feel that pain, we all feel that hurt, we all feel that sorrow, whether that mother is Israeli or Palestinian.

I certainly felt that pain when I met Irene Cowan, the mother of Bernard Cowan who was killed by Hamas.

Irene and I held each other, we cried and shared in each other’s grief. She is an incredible woman who despite her own heartache told me that she was praying for my in-laws and for all the innocent men, women and children who are trapped in Gaza.

So let us agree, that too many mothers and fathers have lost their children, too many children have become orphaned, and that is why we need an immediate ceasefire. An immediate ceasefire must be agreed to.

Thirdly, Presiding Officer, let us all unite in saying clearly that the overwhelming majority of men, women and children in Gaza have nothing to do with Hamas and they must not be punished for Hamas’ crimes.

Almost 60% of Gazans are under the age of 25.

Almost half of the population of Gaza are children.

Cutting off electricity, food, water, and fuel supplies to the people of Gaza is collective punishment and must be condemned in the strongest possible manner. International law must be always, but especially when it is difficult, be respected.

The Scottish Government calls on all sides to agree to an immediate ceasefire to allow a humanitarian corridor to open and for supplies to get into Gaza, as well as allowing those who want to leave, safe passage out.

UN agencies described the humanitarian situation in Gaza as desperate before the war – they now call the situation catastrophic.

Today, premature babies, injured infants, pregnant women − and all the people who have lost their homes overnight in Gaza − have little in the way of access to clean water, they cannot make bread, and many are in desperate need of sufficient medical treatment for horrendous injuries and have virtually no access to lifesaving medicine.

The aid, the trickle of aid, arriving in Gaza must be significantly increased without delay, and, Presiding Officer, it must include fuel, otherwise hospitals will simply shut down, the sick, the injured and premature babies, they will die Presiding Officer. If that happens it will be a stain on our collective conscience, and one for which we will not be forgiven.

On the humanitarian effort that is now required, Scotland stands ready to do our part.

The Scottish Government has already pledged £500,000 in humanitarian funding to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency, to help displaced people in Gaza.

Presiding Officer, the Palestinian people are proud people. They are proud of their culture, their history and proud of their land.

They should not be forced to leave. However, we know this conflict alone has meant one million people in Gaza have already been displaced.

Therefore, for those who wish to leave, I call on the international community to commit to a worldwide refugee programme for the people of Gaza, particularly women and children.

And I will continue to call on the UK Government to begin work on both the creation of a refugee resettlement scheme, and on plans for the medical evacuation of injured civilians in Gaza.

As I have said before, Scotland is willing to play her part. To be the first country in the UK to offer safety and sanctuary to vulnerable people caught up in this war.

Scotland is ready to treat the injured men, women and children of Gaza in our hospitals where we can.

In the past, people in Scotland and indeed across the UK have opened our hearts and our homes and welcomed those from Syria, Ukraine, and many other countries. We are a generous nation.

Let us show that generosity of spirit and heart once again.

Presiding Officer, I am greatly concerned by the plight of British citizens who are captured as hostages by Hamas, I reiterate our call for them to be released.

I am also deeply distressed thinking of Scots who are trapped in Gaza.

British citizens, including children and the elderly, who have called Scotland their home for decades and who are trapped within the Gaza strip waiting to cross safely into Egypt.

And of course, there is the plight of my own in-laws.

Let me thank members from across the Chamber who have sent kind messages of support, of solidarity and who have told me our family is in your prayers. Your words have been of great comfort to me and to Nadia.

Every night Presiding Officer, Nadia and I go to bed, barely sleeping as we count down the hours until the morning, waiting anxiously for a message from my mother-in-law to tell us they have survived the night.

Throughout the day, the 100 people who are in our family home, they must ration their food. The adults barely eat, my mother-in-law only ate cashew nuts yesterday. They ration so the children in the house don’t end up malnourished, but time is running out.

I spoke to my mother-in-law this morning. She feels helpless, she has lost hope. She told me she feels as if the UK Government has forgotten about her.

Please don’t interpret my point as a political one, it is not.

She is a UK Citizen, yet the only communication she receives from the Foreign Office is a text message telling her what she already knows – that the Rafah Crossing is closed.

What she needs, is the UK Government, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, to spend every minute of every day demanding their allies in Egypt and Israel open the Rafah Crossing and open it now, to allow those UK Citizens trapped in Gaza safe passage and for them to return home to their families.

I made this very point to the Prime Minister this afternoon when we spoke on the phone. And reiterated the Scottish Government’s calls for a ceasefire, for more aid, including fuel, to be allowed in to Gaza and of course reiterated that the Prime Minister has our full support in doing everything he is doing to bring British hostages back home.

And in the meantime, I have a wife who really wants to hug her mum and dad, and I have two girls, who really miss their granny and grandad. They just want to know, like many other families across the country, when they’ll come home. I’m afraid, Presiding Officer, it is a question I simply do not know the answer to. 

Presiding Officer, too many innocent men, women and children are suffering.

We cannot allow this conflict to create new tensions in our own peaceful communities in Scotland, or indeed elsewhere.

There has to be, there must be, zero tolerance for antisemitism, islamophobia, or sectarian violence of any kind, anywhere.

Scotland’s Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian communities are communities I love. Ones I’ve grown up with. Whose pain and sorrow I share.

As long as I am First Minister, let me be abundantly clear. I’m sure I can speak for the entire chamber. There is no room for antisemitism, islamophobia or hatred of any kind here in Scotland.

I am steadfast in my commitment to solidarity and to our strong tradition of inclusion and inter-faith working across Scotland. I was pleased to be able to bring together senior Rabbis and Imams to put their name to a joint statement clearly stating that they will not be divided and they stand together against hatred in any form.

We all know that there are those who say violence is inevitable, an eternal constant in the human condition.

They are wrong.

The human capacity to love is far greater.

Only days before Hamas’ horrific attacks, thousands of women from the Israeli movement Women Wage Peace and the Palestinian movement Women of the Sun held a joint march for peace on 4 October – demanding an end to “the historic cycle of bloodshed”.

After Hamas’ attacks on 7 October, Women Wage Peace issued the following statement:

“Every mother, Jewish and Arab, gives birth to her children to see them grow and flourish and not to bury them. That’s why, even today, amid the pain and the feeling that the belief in peace has collapsed, we extend a hand in peace to the mothers of Gaza and the West Bank.”

It’s time that the whole world listens to Women of the Sun, to Women Wage Peace, and other voices – to reduce armed conflicts, to promote equality, to protect the vulnerable, so that humanity can unite to overcome violence and hatred, and so that every mother can see her children grow up safety.

Surely that is something every Israeli and Palestinian deserves.

Presiding Officer, the Scottish Government reiterates our call for hostages to be released, for an immediate ceasefire, for an end to collective punishment, for more aid and fuel to be allowed into Gaza, and for those who want to leave, particularly foreign nationals, to be given safe passage.

Let us hope together and pray that humanity prevails.

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