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Smuggling (Gaza)

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

Arms smuggling into Gaza remains a great concern. The United Kingdom has not made representations to the Palestinian Authority on this subject. We understand the problems that the authority has with Hamas, which seized control of Gaza nine months ago. However, we support the work of the Quadrilateral Committee, which consists of the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt and the United States, and has been working closely to address the smuggling issue.

The people of Sderot are under daily bombardment from Gaza, a situation made possible by smuggled arms, by explosives disguised as humanitarian aid and by terrorists coming into Gaza from Iran, Syria and Egypt. Given that reply, will the Minister assure me that he will make renewed representations to both the Palestinian Authority and Egypt? Does he accept that the current representations are inadequate to deal with the growing humanitarian problem faced by the people of Gaza?

Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I can also tell her that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister this morning and that the border was mentioned in that discussion. We know of the conditions that people are suffering from in Sderot—more than 2,000 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired at that town since Hamas took over nine months ago. She is also right to highlight the terrible humanitarian plight of so many people living in Gaza. We are seeking to ameliorate that by urging the Israeli Government to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel oil, for example, are allowed into Gaza and the west bank.

Is it not true that the real losers are the people living in the Gaza strip? Given that any overall peace settlement between the west, the Israeli people and the Palestinian Authority must also include the authorities in Gaza, what is the British Government’s strategy for including them in such dialogue at some stage, whether that be through the Egyptian Government or otherwise? What is our thinking about that?

Our thinking is certainly that we support President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and the negotiating team that is talking to the Israelis post-Annapolis. Hamas must renounce violence, and it must recognise the validity of existing agreements and the right of Israel to exist without being bombed and rocketed. If it does that, we would have no difficulty talking to its representatives. We want everybody to play a part in rebuilding Gaza and the west bank. That will not happen at the moment. We certainly have no intention of undercutting the authority of President Abbas and his Government.

The smuggling of arms is also happening in Lebanon, but little can be done about that while the crisis in that country continues. I understand that the Prime Minister of Lebanon is meeting our Prime Minister today, and that is welcome recognition, but what more will the Government do to bring that crisis to an end, so that we can have stability in that country?

I know that Lebanon is not that far from Gaza, but my hon. Friend is ingenious in raising that issue. He is right: one of the common variables is Syria, and we would like Damascus to stop supporting the rejectionists of the two-state solution. We would also like Damascus to stop supporting the smuggling of arms into Lebanon, which is in a very fragile state.

Given that much of the smuggling into Gaza is done by the Bedouin tribes through deep tunnels, I am curious as to what conversations the Minister has had with his counterpart in Egypt about gaining greater control over the Bedouins and the smuggling that they are carrying out.

The area is not just open desert. There are large urban centres and the hon. Gentleman will know how difficult it was to stop smuggling in Berlin. It is not easy. The material goes down inside one house and emerges up through another house. It is very difficult to stop, and we have talked to the Egyptians about how they might control it. The best suggestion that I have heard so far is for a 20 ft deep trench on each side of the border. That would probably uncover about 50 tunnels.

Is it not a fact that what was being smuggled into the Gaza strip from Egypt, while the opportunity was there, was food and fuel to ameliorate the starvation and the terrible poverty of the people of Gaza; that President Abbas’s influence in Gaza is nil; and that the stranglehold of Hamas over the Gaza strip, with terrible deaths among the Gaza people and the Israelis, will continue until a meaningful peace dialogue is started? It did not start at Annapolis and it will not start until pressure is put on both sides.

I certainly do not agree with my right hon. Friend that there is not a dialogue proceeding: I believe that there is one, and I am glad to see it happening. I agree with him that the images that we all saw on our televisions of Palestinians living in Gaza smuggling food back into the Gaza strip was a revelation that told us a lot about the situation inside Gaza and the desperate circumstances of its people. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) pointed out, the difficulty is that while food and other requirements are being smuggled in, so are arms. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the people who are suffering as a consequence are the Palestinians living in Gaza, because they suffer from the blockades and the retaliation against those extremists who fire rockets and mortar rounds into Israel.