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Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I am most grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to call this debate. As I shall be entering territory that is highly charged with controversy and emotion, it might be helpful if I begin by saying where I come from. I do not have and never have had any personal, family or business connections with the state of Israel, any Palestinian community or institution, or any Arab country. It is meaningless to call any individual human being objective—that would be a misuse of the language—but it is fair to say that I come from as neutral a background as can readily be conceived.

I have visited Israel three times: once in my 20s, privately; once at the invitation of the Conservative Friends of Israel—I hope that they do not regret their kind hospitality to me on that occasion; and once as a member of the International Development Committee. I have also visited on one occasion each of Israel’s Arab neighbours—in fact, I have been to Egypt three times. That is my background.

I had originally asked for a debate to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, but I gather that, for technical reasons, it is not possible to make that the subject of a debate. The foundation of the state of Israel, which took place 60 years ago last week, was an event of extraordinary consequence in the middle east. It took place in extremely dramatic and, indeed, desperate circumstances. I remind the House that in May 1948, there had been open warfare between Jewish and Arab-Palestinian communities in Palestine for a long time. The mandate was about to end: the British were withdrawing to the last ports and would leave for the last time the next day or the day after. The very next day, on 15 May 1948, all four of Israel’s Arab neighbours—Lebanon, Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Egypt—together with Iraq invaded Israel. Few people gave Israel any great chance of surviving.

Israel did survive, of course. It won that war and three subsequent wars with its Arab neighbours. Today, it is a remarkably successful country with an extremely high standard of living. Its per capita income is the highest in the middle east, except for the oil and gas-rich countries of the Gulf, and actually it is not so far removed from them as one might imagine. I checked the figures last night: the latest World Bank figures show that Israel has a per capita income of $18,000 a year, and Saudi Arabia, with all its oil, has a per capita income of only $23,000 a year. That is the measure of Israel’s economic achievement.

Israel is a stable democracy and the only country in the region that can be described as such. It is famed for its universities and its scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. I believe that it is the third country in the world in terms of the rate of business creation per head of population, and the first for the rate of business creation by women and those aged over 55.

I am well aware that many people in this country and in the world are willing to pay tribute to the achievements of Israel but will then immediately say there is a dark side—that all those achievements have been made at the expense of the Palestinian people whose land has been seized and whose heritage has been robbed by alien immigrants and occupiers. It is because that view is so widespread that I want to address it explicitly this morning.

Three things must be said in response to that view. First, Palestine has never had a homogeneous population: there have always been some Jewish communities there. Some Jews remained after 70 AD, when Vespasian put down the Jewish revolt, dispersed the population and destroyed the temple except for the famous western wall. Some Jewish communities remained through the rest of the Roman-Byzantine period, through the Arab invasions in the 7th century, through the arrival of the Seljuks, through the period of the Christian kingdoms—the Crusader kingdoms of the 12th and 13th centuries—and through the arrival of the Ottomans in the early 16th century. Indeed, in the later Ottoman period there was increasing immigration of Jews into Israel, notably from eastern Europe.

As a result, by the time that political Zionism and any sort of co-ordinated immigration into Israel began—I date that as roughly from 1896, the publication date of Theodor Herzl’s famous book on the Jewish state, “Der Judenstaat”, or 1897, the time of the first Zionist Congress—the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish. There were 25,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, as against 14,000 Arabs. Anybody who says that the Jews should never have been there, that they were taking down the Palestinians, must start off by saying when the Jews should have ceased to be there, or from what point they should not have been allowed to arrive.

The second thing that needs to be said is that there was absolutely no expropriation or involuntary expulsion of Arab communities by Jews whatsoever during the Ottoman and mandate periods. The mandate authority would occasionally requisition land for the purposes of building public infrastructure, but it never expelled Arabs to give land to the Jews. There was, of course, an enormous expansion of the Jewish population from roughly 90,000 to 600,000 between the beginning of the mandate in 1920 and 1948. Those people were largely refugees from Nazi Europe, but they installed themselves on unclaimed land, or on land that had been purchased perfectly legally at market prices from the local inhabitants or proprietors.

Indeed, some of the land that was bought resulted in people doubting the good sense of the Jewish purchasers. When Menachim Ussishkin, for example, bought 40 square kilometres of the Jervaal valley in 1920 on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, it was simply a malarial swamp. He was much criticised, including by the next Zionist Congress, for having extravagantly wasted money. The Jervaal valley is now the centre of one of the most fertile and productive agricultural areas in the whole of the middle east, but one can hardly say that its value was created at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Many Members will know Tel Aviv—a booming and, indeed, swinging city. Its mixture of entrepreneurialism and hedonism reminds me of Los Angeles, and it has the same climate as that city. One hundred years ago, Tel Aviv did not exist—it was not even a small settlement, which Los Angeles was 200 years ago. It was nothing at all, just sand dunes and a beach—the beach is still there, by the way. No one can fairly say that Tel Aviv’s enormous value was created at the expense of the Palestinian people or stolen from them.

My third point is that a determinant of the very sad history of the middle east during the past 70 or 80 years—a history with which we are all familiar—was a decision taken by the Palestinian leadership right from the beginning of the mandate. In my view, that decision was taken at the expense of individual Palestinians. I do not wish to criticise the members of that leadership, which was dominated and personified by Haj Amin al-Husseini, known to history as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but the policy that they adopted was one of violent opposition to Jewish communities in Palestine. Undoubtedly, the violence came from one side—the Palestinian side.

Some people say that the Zionist project was an exclusive project and that, ultimately, the Palestinians had no choice. In all fairness, that thesis, if it was a thesis at the time, was never put to the test, because the Zionist leaders of the day—Chaim Weissman, David Ben-Gurion and so on—made it absolutely clear on every possible occasion that they wanted to deal peacefully with the Arabs, to respect their rights and to have good, harmonious relationships with them. They were never allowed to do so. The violence began right at the beginning of the mandate, with the Arab riots in 1920; they were followed by Arab riots in 1921 and in 1929, when 133 Jews were killed. It was in response to these riots that the Jewish community set up the Haganah—the origin of the Jewish defence forces—because the mandate authorities were incapable of defending Jewish communities through the length and breadth of the mandated territory of Palestine. It is hard to blame the Jews for that.

There is no question that in 1948 there were expulsions of Arabs from areas of Palestine. Most of the Arabs who left their homes in 1948 did so of their own accord— sensibly and understandably, they wanted to get out of a war zone. Some of them may have left because Arab leaders told them to do so. A number of them may have left because of the fear engendered by the appalling atrocity perpetrated by Jewish terrorist organisations—the Stern gang and the Irgun—at Deir Yassin, where more than 200 Arabs were killed. Although Arabs may have left for other reasons, some undoubtedly left because individual Israeli units expelled them from villages that they were occupying. There is no doubt about that at all. However, people cannot read back into history from the expulsions in 1948 and say that that justified the violence of the 1920s and 1930s, because there had been no expulsions and no expropriations at that point: that is the key historical fact. The war, the fighting and the expulsions of 1948 were the consequence of a series of violent episodes that, unfortunately, were started by the Arab riots of 1920.

If the Arab leaders—the Grand Mufti and his colleagues—rejected any kind of negotiation or deal with the Jewish community, or any kind of integration, they also rejected partition when it was first proposed in the Peel report in 1936 and, with much more devastating consequences for the Palestinian people, when the United Nations decided that that was the solution in the 1947 resolution. That had enormous consequences. It can be proved mathematically what a bad decision that was for the Palestinian people, simply by calculating the surface of the territory that UN partition resolution—which was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs—would have accorded to the Palestinian Arabs and comparing that with the frontiers that were demarcated by the ceasefire lines of 1949. I am sorry to say that, at that stage in their history, the Palestinians chose the path of violence and lost. That is a sad fact for them. There is no doubt that, as a result, for 60 years the Palestinian people have had a miserable history, but I am not sure that it is possible simply to say that it is all the fault of Israel or of the precursor Jewish communities in Palestine.

From 1948 to 1967, the Palestinian leadership adopted a policy of non-recognition, which we would call, using the modern phrase, being in denial—pretending that Israel did not exist and rejecting the idea of negotiation, including direct negotiation, or a final settlement. What happened in 1967? I read the other day in The Guardian that Israel conquered the west bank. With due respect to The Guardian, that was an extraordinarily disingenuous use of language. I have seen that word used before. “Conquered” implies Julius Caesar conquering Gaul or William the Conqueror conquering England or the British conquering Zululand or Ashantiland: it implies a prior decision to go out and swipe somebody else’s territory and therefore to plan an invasion with the effect of doing so. Nothing could have been further from the truth in 1967. In fact, in 1967, Israel went out of its way to make desperate efforts to persuade King Hussein not to attack it in the rear while it was involved in the war in the west that had been provoked by President Nasser. But King Hussein of Jordan found that he was under such pressure—blackmail, really—from Nasser and the Palestinian leader at the time, Ahmad Al-Shukairy, that the future of his own kingdom would be threatened if he did not join in the war and attack Israel. So he attacked Israel in that war and, as we all know, he was defeated, the Arab Legion retreated and the Israelis found themselves on the banks of the Jordan river. Again, it is difficult to blame the Israelis for that. Once they were there, what were they to do?

Once again, and for 25 further years, the Palestinian leadership refused to deal with Israel, refused any kind of settlement and decided instead, first, under Ahmad Al-Shukairy and then under his successor, Yasser Arafat, to invest in international terrorism—those were the terrible days of the Achille Lauro and the murder of the Israeli athletes and so forth—as if that were going to solve the problems of the Palestinian people. So the Palestinian people were condemned, for another 25 years, to a continuation of the purgatory of statelessness, the lack of any sense of future and the inability to enjoy any kind of compensation, as they should have had and, I hope, still will have. All of those who left in 1948 should have had compensation a long time ago for the land that they left behind. That is a sad story.

The story has become slightly happier in the past 15 years. Right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar with the events of the past 15 years: the famous Rabin-Arafat meeting at the White House in 1993, and the Oslo I and Oslo II meetings in 1995, which were followed rapidly thereafter by the murder of Rabin by a Jewish fanatic who accused him of giving away Israeli land. Those deals and agreements—Oslo I and Oslo II—were, of course, interim arrangements that involved the extension of successive slices of Palestinian territory to be administered by a Palestinian authority: they were not a final settlement and did not represent a two-state solution.

The big imaginative leap forward came with Ehud Barak’s Government’s proposal in 2000 at the Camp David conference, which would have involved transferring to Palestine 98 per cent. of the territories, including the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. As we know, the then Palestinian leader declined that offer and declined even to negotiate on it, to the consternation of President Clinton and the other Americans present. That was an extraordinary decision: it was a decision to invest in violence, as we found, rather than invest in peace. We now know that Yasser Arafat was planning the second intifada all along, which, as we recall all too well, involved the obscenity of suicide bombing, sometimes involving impressionable adolescents and people with mental illnesses. For a third time, the Palestinian leadership decided, when given the choice, to go down the route of violence and, again, that did not work. Fortunately, largely as a result of the construction of the security fence or wall in the west bank, that campaign of violence did not succeed.

There have been peoples who have had worse leaders than the Palestinian leadership—the Russians had Stalin and the Germans had Hitler—but throughout human history I cannot think of any people who have been cursed with three leaders of the quality of the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the friend of Hitler, Ahmad Al-Shukairy and Yasser Arafat, who is now dead and is generally despised by Palestinian militants of all hues because of the massive evidence of corruption that has emerged since his death.

In many ways, the story of the Palestinian people is a sad one and there is no doubt that they are the victims, but they are not the victims of any wicked Zionist conspiracy to uproot them and remove them from their land. I am sure that all hon. Members in this Chamber, and all those who wish the Palestinian and Israeli people well, are united in hoping that we shall see in our time in politics a genuine long-term settlement and a genuine two-state solution. We hope that Mahmoud Abbas is the Barak or the Rabin of Palestine—the man who is prepared to invest in peace and take the risks of peace, rather than invest in war and take the risks associated with that. We hope that he may be in a position to speak for Gaza and deliver it as well as the west bank, although I cannot see how that can be achieved in the immediately foreseeable future. Some other leader might have to do that.

We can all see the way forward and we are all aware of the need to recognise the claims of and to compensate the 1948 refugees. We all recognise the need to deal with the Haram el-Sharif and the holy sites of Jerusalem. We all recognise the need to deal with the fact that, as a result of the events that I have described, 400,000 Israelis are living in areas beyond the 1948 boundaries. There is no great mystery about the task ahead of us, and we all hope and pray that, well before its 70th anniversary, Israel will be able to add to its list of magnificent achievements the conclusion of a final peace settlement with its neighbours.

Order. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I must call the Front Benchers shortly after half-past 10. Hon. Members can do the maths. If they all wish to speak, will they please keep their comments brief?

I congratulate the state of Israel on reaching her 60th birthday, and I salute her remarkable achievements. Israel has achieved a remarkable amount, and I want to talk about some of her achievements, particularly in science and technology. I shall be as brief as I can because I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Israel is a country that is low in natural resources, and to succeed she has had to depend on the inventiveness of her people. Indeed, her people are her greatest asset. Israel has done well not because she has vast mineral wealth, oil or huge natural resources, but because her people are enterprising, extremely innovative and able to apply high technology. Israel has attracted enormous foreign investment in new high-tech companies, and ranks second only to the United States in her research and development achievements in recent years.

Israel has more companies listed on American exchanges than any other foreign country bar Canada. Her high-tech products have found their way into most homes and offices throughout the world. Israeli inventions and high-technology have found their way into computers, telephones, cars and satellite television stations. Israel is no longer—if she ever was—merely a land of citrus groves and kibbutzim. She is a major global player in high-tech R and D. A vast number of the world’s multi national giants and companies seek to participate and to have a presence in Israel. It is a remarkable achievement that both Microsoft and Cisco Systems developed their first R and D facilities outside the US in Israel. In addition, companies such as IBM, Motorola, Unilever, Sony and Hewlett Packard all have a major presence in Israel. Major financial houses and venture capital companies also have a big presence in Israel, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Israel’s astonishing success at integrating into the global market has been facilitated by an enormous number of free trade agreements with the US, Europe and other countries, including Canada, Mexico and so on. In fact, Israel’s approach to free trade is one that we in this country could learn from.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by saying that I hope that the Government will continue to do all that they can to forge close economic ties with Israel. We can learn an enormous amount from Israel, and it is important that we do all that we can to try to help Israel to prosper and to benefit from close economic ties.

On Israel’s 60th anniversary, she has an enormous amount that she should be proud of. Few countries in the world can claim to have matched her ability to generate high-tech ideas, to translate those ideas into reality, and successfully to integrate them into the global marketplace for all of us to benefit from. Happy birthday, Israel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this debate. He referred to some of his visits to the region, and I was with him on his last visit with the Select Committee on International Development.

Just over two weeks ago, I visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust. For anyone who goes there, it is a chilling experience to see where 1.5 million people were clinically and brutally murdered. That left me with two salutary reminders of things I already knew. The first is the obvious one: the message that we must never, ever let anything like that happen again. The second is that the experience of the holocaust is ingrained in the collective memory of every Jew in this country and throughout the world, and a large proportion of the population of the state of Israel. It is there as Israel marks its 60th anniversary.

I am not suggesting that the Zionist dream of Israel came from the holocaust, because it did not. My hon. Friend talked about some of Israel’s history and criticised some of the selective versions of history from the other side—one could say that there was some selectivity in his description too, but I will not go into that. I simply want to say that if the search for peace in the middle east today is to be successful, we all need to understand the sense of identity of those involved. Their hopes and fears today are conditioned by, informed by and, to some extent, a product of those collective memories. The holocaust must be part of that, and it is essential to understand that. For anyone who is more associated with the Palestinian and Arab perspectives of the current situation—as I consider myself to be—an understanding of that collective memory of the holocaust is vital.

I say candidly to my hon. Friend that there are other collective memories that are different in scale and nature from the holocaust, but are just as real and just as painful for the people concerned. For all Palestinians, the collective memory of what they call the Nakba or catastrophe, which was also 60 years ago, is one. Seven hundred thousand Palestinians lost their homes. As my hon. Friend said, some were driven out by threats of violence, some were driven out by actual violence, and some fled because they were in a war zone. The point is that, however they left, they were never allowed to return.

Today, 4 million Palestinian refugees are registered, and refugees form a big part of the 1.5 million people who are imprisoned in Gaza with the appalling humanitarian crisis there. I do not want to go into the details of that today, because it is not the time, but to understand the Palestinians we must realise that the collective memory of the Nakba is a daily reality in Gaza and for those who, in the west bank, face closures, checkpoints and the separation wall.

That is also the reality and in the consciousness of the Palestinian minority who live in Israel. During my recent visits to the region, what perhaps struck me most is that it is not just those Palestinians who live under occupation in the west bank and Gaza who feel that. There is a massive and growing sense of grievance among Palestinians living in Israel, partly because in practice the laws discriminate against them, although in theory they do not, partly because in practice there is inequality in access to jobs, health care and education, and partly because of the way in which thousands of Bedouin homes in the Negev are demolished while the number of homes for Jewish families expand. That has been amply documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch. There is a feeling that Palestinians may be tolerated as citizens of Israel, but are not welcome in the area. It seems to me that if Israel wants to live at peace with itself, it must address that.

I pay tribute to the New Israel Fund and Sir Jeremy Beecham for bringing such matters to broader attention. Finding some sort of accommodation and recognition that Israel needs to deal with the reality of the Nakba and of the refugees must be part of that. I hear people say that Palestinian refugees cannot be allowed the practical implementation of the UN resolutions that apply to them because that would destroy the Jewish character of Israel. Actually, I believe that there are ways of recognising the rights of refugees without some of the problems that Israel believes there would be. However, what message does it send to the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel if they get the impression that their presence is tolerated only if there are not too many of them and that they do not become a majority in the area? That feeling is not new. Golda Meir was progressive in many ways compared with some of the Israeli leaders who followed her, but in 1969 she was quoted as saying:

“We must ask ourselves: ‘What sort of Israel do we want?’ I say: a Jewish Israel, with no question marks or doubts. A Jewish Israel, without the daily fear whether the minority now constitutes fifty per cent or not”.

What would we say if somebody said that about a racial or religious minority in the UK? Indeed, what would we say if that logic was applied to Jewish rather than Arab people?

If Israel is to have the bright future that my hon. Friend and all of us want, it must ask itself some serious questions. Israel must ask whether—not just in theory but in reality—it wants equal rights for its citizens. If the answer to that is no—quite apart from the impact that would have on Israel’s continuing relations with its neighbours—I do not think, as a state, it will be able to live at ease with itself, whether in relation to its Jewish or non-Jewish citizens. If the answer to the question I have posed is yes—and Israel means it—the refugee issue might not be as difficult to sort out as Israel thinks. Also, the search for peace, real equality and real co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis, and between the Israeli state and its neighbours, will not be as difficult as those involved think and the issue of occupation can be brought to an end. Israel needs to think about those issues and seriously ask itself those questions.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether he talks about those matters in the many discussions he has with his counterparts in Israel. If so, what do they say?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. There remain 30 or so minutes for eight or nine two or three-minute snapshots of Israel, which should be enlightening. Certainly, if the contributions follow the lead of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who opened the debate in such a measured and interesting manner, we are in for an interesting few minutes.

I begin from an unchanged position: as a friend of Israel and as someone who visited it as a student. I carry many memories of that land from a number of visits over the past years. However, like all friends of Israel, I do not take an uncritical position. At this stage, I do not want to labour the contemporary difficulties—I will come on to those. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) mentioned, a number of things should be put on the record about Israel. In paying tribute to Israel’s 60 years, such things should not be forgotten. For example, it has an extraordinary free press and a sense of religious freedom that is not shared throughout the middle east. Israel has shown commitment to other nations through humanitarian and international aid. In addition, it has good health care facilities, and has worked on climate change issues, on combating desertification and on environmental innovation. Those are all things of which the Israeli people can be proud.

In Israel itself, there is co-operation across faiths. The Christian Allies Caucus has been established through the Knesset and throughout the world to cement the strong relationship between Christians and Jews. The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development has done much work and economic efforts have been made to improve the circumstances of those in the Arab community. The centre’s recent newsletter provides details about small shops, small enterprises and the technological advances achieved through the co-operation of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. That is a remarkable testament to what goes on under the surface of a country, about which we often hear only the difficult things and world shattering events, rather than the things that mark the everyday lives of people.

Of course, we do not think of Israel in those terms; we think of it in terms of its strategic world position, and I shall say a couple of things about that. History and memory are both a blessing and a curse. For most people, history and memory sit lightly upon us. In fact, there is a medical condition that leads to people being overcome because they remember everything that has ever happened to them. They cannot move or function because everything they do is affected by the slights and hurts that they felt in the past. Most nations do not have such a condition: they wear their history relatively lightly, gently erase what they want to forget and keep the things that they need to allow them to move on. The middle east is too often stuck because of problems related to memory—things are never forgotten and that prevents people from moving on. It is essential that people are able to move on.

Israel’s friends are candid with it. No state is perfect. The way in which it reacts to the unique circumstances that affect and threaten it has weaknesses, which could damage Israel in the eyes of world opinion. No discussion of Israel’s reaction to its difficulties can avoid recognition of those threats themselves. One of Israel’s neighbouring nations is working on potential nuclear weapons with the declared aim from its President of wiping Israel from the map. Hostile undemocratic forces on its borders are unprepared to acknowledge its right of existence and will not work within the realities of modern politics to find accommodations that will ultimately benefit those whom they claim to represent, if memory can, to some extent, be put to one side. Its enemies hide weapons in the clothes of children and rockets in the households of the humble. They appear to glory in the privations of their people—using them in campaigns of hatred and rejoicing when a suicide bombing kills the innocent of all ages.

Yet, Israel survives—as I trust it always will. It remains an oasis of democracy and freedom in a troubled region. Israel’s friends salute its jubilee and wish it many more, but most of all they wish it to have peace among its neighbours and pray for a change of heart among those who hold back those opportunities—those who perhaps hold to memory on both sides. Some of that memory must now be put to one side to take the nations concerned forward and provide the peace that those in the middle east so earnestly deserve.

Often debates on Israel focus on the peace process and the failures of the Israeli and Palestinian political establishment to reach a comprehensive settlement when so much time has already been dedicated to talking about that. There is plenty to say on that matter and I am sure that colleagues have and will expand further and at great length on the problems and the solutions.

However, given the broad title of the debate, I wanted to take the opportunity to look at aspects of the state of Israel that are not related to peace and security and to focus on some of Israel’s remarkable achievements in the fields of education and health. Both areas are of particular interest to me and I am committed to trying to reduce health inequalities in the UK. My constituency suffers from particularly high rates of heart disease and cancer and I am keen to learn wherever possible of ways to reduce those rates in the north-east. As a member of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I have been lucky enough to have had opportunities to consider what other countries are doing in terms of education. Much can be learned from some of Israel’s achievements and best practices.

When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, a fully functioning education system already existed. It was developed and maintained by the pre-state Jewish community. The modern Hebrew language—an updated version of biblical Hebrew—was used as the language of instruction, which had been revived for daily speech at the end of the 19th century. However, since shortly after the establishment of the state, the education system has faced the enormous challenge of absorbing large numbers of immigrant children from more than 70 countries. Some children arrived with their parents, and others came alone. The UK can learn a range of lessons from Israel’s massive success in integrating such a vast number of children into an evolving school system. We are constantly developing our own education system to deal with a changing demographic and it is hugely important that we take lessons from other countries who have successfully dealt with similar situations, although in differing circumstances.

In the newly established state of Israel, the mass immigration of the 1950s—mainly from post-war Europe and Arab countries—was followed by a large influx of Jews from north Africa in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the first sizeable immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union arrived. Since the beginning of the 1990s, more than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union have arrived in Israel, and tens of thousands more still arrive each year. In two mass movements—in 1984 and 1991—almost the entire Jewish community of Ethiopia was brought to the country. In addition to meeting urgent demands for more classrooms and teachers, special tools and methods had to be developed to help absorb youngsters from many cultural backgrounds into the school population. Programmes designed specifically to meet the needs of newcomers include preparation of appropriate curricular aids and short-term classes to introduce immigrant pupils to subjects with which they were not familiar, such as the Hebrew language and Jewish history. Special courses were initiated to train teachers to deal with immigrant youngsters, and retraining courses for immigrant teachers have helped them to find jobs in the Israeli education system.

Israel takes the provision of education seriously and, since 1990, national expenditure on education as a percentage of gross domestic product has averaged above 8 per cent. That compares with UK education expenditure of 5.6 per cent. of GDP in 2007. School attendance is mandatory from the age of five and is free until the age of 18. Almost all three and four-year-olds attend a pre-school programme.

Higher education plays a pivotal role in developing the country. In the academic year 2004-05, 257,000 students were enrolled in Israel’s higher education institutions, with 48 per cent. attending universities, some 30 per cent. studying at various colleges and 21 per cent. participating in courses through the Open university. A wide range of programmes, from bachelor degrees to courses at post-doctoral level, are available at Israel’s eight universities, while colleges offer academic courses as well as specialised training in fields such as primary school teaching, music, fashion design and physical education.

Israel has recognised its lack of natural resources and compensated by investing heavily in higher education and scientific research and development and in the application of R and D. Some 24 per cent. of the Israeli work force hold a university degree. In that respect, Israel ranks third in the industrialised world after the United States and Holland. The statistics speak for themselves. With so many of Israel’s youngsters reaching university, their level of production in science and technology is remarkable. While we consider innovative and creative means of encouraging our youth to enter university in the UK, we should take the time to examine how Israel has achieved that and whether we can learn from it.

The other area that I wanted to talk about was health, but I am aware of the time and that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I will therefore cut my comments short. I will just highlight Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, which is a beacon of integration. Its mission statement includes a pledge to forge links between patients of all nationalities, races and religions who come to its doors for healing. As well as being at the forefront of medical research and pioneering technologies, Hadassah is a tremendous example of equality and medical care that transcends all political divisions.

I hope that I have given an insight into the contributions and achievements of Israel and that I have highlighted work that we might be able to learn from in the UK. No doubt Israel will continue to stride forward over the next 60 years. I wish Israel the best of luck in all its fine work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this very important debate and on his tour de force of historical analysis. That said, I would like to mention one or two points of particular relevance to the UK. First, it was, of course, the UK that created the Balfour declaration, which led to the state of Israel. That was the positive. The negative was how very soon afterwards, under the British mandate, we made every effort that we could to limit immigration by Jewish people into Israel. The most appalling decision was made in May 1939. I am referring to the White Paper that limited immigration, on the eve of the holocaust, to 75,000 people over five years.

When considering the history, we should remember, not as a side note but as an important point, that hundreds of British service people and civilians gave their lives during the period of the British mandate, trying to fulfil what was an impossible task given to them by the British Government and the League of Nations in the mandate. The graves of those people are often forgotten.

When talking about the problems of the Palestinian refugees, we overlook the Jewish refugees from Arab lands. In 1945, some 800,000 Jewish people were living in Arab countries; today, there are fewer than 7,000. I am thinking of the Jews from Iraq and Yemen, who had to flee the pogroms there. The net result was what can only be described as an exchange of populations, because of the number of Palestinians who left and the number of Jewish people who went to Israel, having been expelled from Arab lands. Now, of the population of Israel— 7.2 million—some 20 per cent. are Arab, yet there is still immigration not just from Russia and Ethiopia, but from Europe. Of course, there are people from my constituency who like to carry out aliyah—to return to what they consider their homeland of Israel. We also see, in the rest of Europe, people fleeing to Israel from the fear of anti-Semitism, which has been growing dramatically.

In the short time available, I would like to remind hon. Members of the founding principles of Israel. The declaration of independence stressed the values of liberty, justice, peace and equality—traditional values. Israel has been able to maintain that democracy against all the threats with a vibrant Supreme Court, which challenges its own Government in the same way that our courts challenge our Government, of whichever political hue—often to the regret of the politicians involved.

Although Israel has won the wars that it always has to fight against threats that exist—I am thinking of the events of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973—unfortunately it has lost the battle for public opinion. When we compare how people perceived Israel in 1967 with how they perceive it now, we need to ask why the perception has changed. It is partly because Israel has not gone out to court world opinion. Also, people forget that Israel is surrounded by an enormous population of people who are hostile to it. That has fed anti-Semitism around the world. It has led to terrorism, hostage-taking, the missing Israeli service personnel, from Ron Arad to Gilad Shalit, and now we see for the first time threats to Israel’s existence from Iran and the nuclear programme of President Ahmadinejad, who refuses to negotiate about that. Although the threat to Israel’s existence—though not to its population—through terrorism has declined, a very different world is now developing. We will perhaps see some realignment as Arab states, too, are threatened by the growth of Iran’s armoury.

There is little time left in the debate, so I will simply say this. If there is to be progress and a peace agreement, the three international conditions of an end to terrorism, recognition of international agreements and recognition of Israel by Hamas must be met.

I welcome the debate and the historical analysis provided by my hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Obviously, the creation of the state of Israel is a product of history and of the Zionist movement, but also of the holocaust before and during the second world war. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, I visited Auschwitz earlier this year, and one can only be moved by the sheer horror of what happened and the violence that was used to try to exterminate a large number of people.

We are now dealing with the existence of the state of Israel and, with all the hullabaloo surrounding the 60th anniversary, I would just advise Members to look at page 2172 of today’s Order Paper, which states that the Select Committee on International Development is taking evidence on:

“The Humanitarian and Development Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Who is occupying the Palestinian territories other than the state of Israel? If Israel wishes to live in peace and prosperity in the future, it has to start reckoning both with its own immediate past in terms of the expulsion of large numbers of people from what is now Israel into Palestinian lands and refusal of their right of return, and with the destruction of 530 Palestinian villages.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the future security of Israel very much depends on a two-state solution and that if that is to be the case, there must be a viable second state, and at present Israel appears to be doing a great deal to ensure that that does not exist?

I agree. I will be brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. While all the celebrations are going on in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not far away—in fact, probably less than an hour’s drive away if the roads were normal—one has in Gaza the most densely populated place in the world, with 80 per cent. unemployment, desperate poverty, food shortages, water supply shortages and sanitation problems.

The Gaza mental health organisation has informed me that 70 per cent. of the population are seriously medically depressed by the situation. Gaza is nothing more than a vast prison surrounded by barbed wire and roadblocks, and there is an inability to travel. Imagine what it is like for a young person growing up in Gaza, knowing that the only future they have is to stay living in that prison and that the possibility of travel is about zero.

Young people growing up in Gaza and on the west bank live their lives vicariously through television and the internet. The possibility of travel and experiencing the rest of the world is zero, and the poverty that they experience is terrible. I want peace in the middle east. I want recognition of a Palestinian state. Imprisoning the people of Gaza and, to some extent, the west bank does not achieve that.

Does my hon. Friend think that it will help the people of Gaza, and normalise their existence, endlessly to fire rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel? I believe that 7,000 such firings have taken place since 2002.

As my hon. Friend knows, I am on record many times as being very critical of anybody firing rockets from Gaza into Israel—and, indeed, of the bombing of Gaza by Israeli jets. I remind him that 21 children were killed in April alone by Israeli bombardment. The death rate in Gaza from Israeli bombardment is high. I remind him of what was described by the United Nations as the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and the raids that take place on the west bank. That collective punishment involves roadblocks, imprisonment and the wall. Israel presents itself as a democracy; perhaps it should give some thought to the 70 Palestinian parliamentarians still being held in Israeli prisons.

I want peace in the middle east. I want people to be able to live in peace and security, and enjoy each other’s company. Israel is not creating security in the Palestinian territories; it is making the situation much worse by its refusal to negotiate, particularly with Hamas; by its continued construction of the wall; and by the grabbing of Palestinian lands.

The sense of anger and outrage among ordinary Palestinian people is so great that it will boil over at some point. The way to deal with that is not by continuing the oppression and the occupation, but by engaging—by replacing conflict with politics. That, surely, has to be the way forward. Israel, on its 60th anniversary, might think about those things a little more and recognise that keeping people in poverty is not a good way to ensure its security.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this important debate.

Despite Israel’s unprecedented situation—it has always faced hostility from states that do not recognise its existence—it has over the past 60 years created a vibrant, progressive and multi-racial society. It has recreated the Jewish national home and revived the Hebrew language, and it has provided a haven for victims of persecution. They include victims of the holocaust, and victims of persecution in Arab and Muslim countries. Indeed, half Israel’s population are Jews descended from people who lived in Arab countries. Today, Israel welcomes refugees from Darfur who had been rejected and often attacked in Egypt.

The threat against Israel’s existence has sadly not been removed. I draw the House’s attention to the continuing threat from Iran. Its president attempts to build a nuclear bomb, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, calls Jews “filthy bacteria” who should be eliminated, and trains and funds groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that are dedicated to preventing a two-state solution.

Israel’s achievements are many. They include the socialist kibbutz movement, which has inspired millions over the years; the co-operative values of the moshavim; and the strength of the Histadrut trade union movement, which sets a model for such movements internationally and which now works with the Palestinian trade unions. Israel’s economy is highly successful. Its innovations are world renowned, and they include software and voicemail technology. It may be a mark of Israeli society that book sales per capita are the highest in the world.

Mention has been made of Israel’s democracy. It is important to point out that 25 per cent. of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, that 12 of the 120 Members of the Knesset are Israeli Arabs, and that Israeli Arabs in Israeli society include Ministers, diplomats and a justice of its Supreme Court, the independent court that often overrules Government decisions.

Israel is a progressive society. While Iran hangs gay people from cranes in the street, Israel welcomes civil partnerships. Israel’s hospitals and universities are models of co-existence. The remarkable world-class Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, Poriya hospital in Tiberias and Soroka hospital in Beersheba have doctors and nurses from all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities helping patients from all backgrounds. Only last year, I visited Hadassah hospital as a member of a delegation from Labour Friends of Israel, and I saw a tiny baby from Gaza, the victim of a domestic fire, being given dedicated care by a team of Israeli medics. Organisations such as Givat Haviva bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

The tragedy of the situation is the failure to find peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians. Although Israel can be criticised in some respects, the overwhelming responsibility for that failure lies on the Palestinian side, and the battles fought by those rejectionist elements that prefer the cult of death and the suicide bomber to negotiated peace. The best success that Israel can achieve is co-existence with its neighbours. That would bring peace throughout the region and, I hope, achieve the dream of Shimon Peres of a federation of countries of the middle east working together for peace in that area and beyond.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate.

I intended to speak about the role that Israel has played in the field of international development. It is an altruistic, innovative, outward looking actor on the world stage, but it gets little international recognition because the state is generally viewed through ideological eyes. I do not have the time to speak in depth about the work that Israel does globally, albeit on a small scale, in water resource management and irrigation, desert agriculture, early childhood education, community development, emergency and disaster medicine, refugee absorption, employment programmes and so on. All that is built on Israel’s experience as a struggling nation in an inimical climate, and the nation offers advice, expertise and support globally.

More important than developing those points in the short time available is, I feel, responding to my hon. Friend—he is a friend—the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who represents a seat on the other side of Birmingham from mine. I do not think that it is on to come here and conclude, as he did, with what effectively amounts to a denial of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, having begun those remarks with a reference to Auschwitz. My message to him today is that he cannot have it both ways. He cannot end his speech by referring to a state that is wonderfully and purely democratic but not Jewish after choosing to start, 10 minutes, earlier with Auschwitz.

It is not that easy and it is not that simple. If the holocaust means what it does to a lot of people here and if the history of persecution over centuries and millenniums is relevant, a state that is definitively, absolutely and unconditionally Jewish is part of the deal. My hon. Friend cannot have it both ways.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate. He spoke authoritatively and gave us a good base of Israel’s history.

The debate has been incredibly positive. The number of people attending and speaking today is testament to the importance of the state of Israel and its place in the region and on the world stage. It is good to have had a debate that has touched on many aspects of Israel that often are not covered because, understandably, we usually focus on the peace process. We heard about a wide range of topics—economics, our grave remembrance of the holocaust, the political situation, education, anti-Semitism, culture, health care, international development and the challenges with neighbouring countries such as Iran.

The timing of the debate is obviously appropriate, coming as it does just after the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, and it is important that we celebrate that milestone and the country’s many successes, which have been covered in the debate. We should recognise what it has achieved in its fairly short history. The anniversary is also an opportunity to look forward to the next 60 years and beyond, and it is important to take a sober look at the prospects.

The future of Israel must lie in finding peace with its neighbours. Sadly, the prospects for that look increasingly fragile. I visited Israel in 2000, which is some years ago. Such a visit is essential if one is to understand properly the climate of fear surrounding the security situation in the country—the tension is palpable. I was also struck on my visit by the beauty of the country and how varied it is, despite its small size, from the mountainous north and the Golan Heights to the wonder of the Dead sea, the beautiful golden beaches next to the bustling city of Tel Aviv, which were mentioned, and Jerusalem, which is, frankly, stunning, with history around every corner.

When the hon. Lady went to the Dead sea, did she notice that its water level was falling by between 1 m and 2 m a year and, because of excessive water abstraction, that it will disappear within the next 20 years?

Having visited only once, I did not notice the change in the Dead sea, but I have read of the problems arising from lack of water. Indeed, I had not necessarily clocked the politics of water in the area generally—it is vital and underlies many of the political tensions. With climate change, those are likely only to increase.

Obviously, my visit was a few years ago, so I thought it would be good to hear from people who have visited more recently. I spoke yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), who last month was on a cross-party delegation to Israel to see the situation. She was struck by the problems and difficulties, from the Israeli town of Sderot, which is under daily mortar fire—indeed, the delegation of MPs narrowly missed being hit by a Qassam rocket at the Gaza checkpoint—to Gaza, which she described as an appalling horror. Lakes of raw sewage surround it and there is a lack of basic medical supplies, such that there is a life-or-death lottery based on whether a person can get a pass to visit better medical facilities—some Palestinians receive treatment in those facilities, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) mentioned.

That is the backdrop, but, equally, there is agreement in the House on the need for two separate states—Israel and Palestine—with secure borders, and on the need to rid the area of the scourge of violence that has blighted so many lives on both sides and that has created an atmosphere in which people live day to day in a state of fear.

The re-launch of efforts for the peace process at Annapolis was viewed by many as slightly optimistic, given its timetable for conclusion by the end of 2008, but it must be remembered that there is no better way than dialogue. The current situation and the violence will not bring a solution, so despite the many barriers and obstacles to success, dialogue must be the path that we pursue. The Quartet has some flaws. It is widely seen as US driven, but the US is not necessarily seen as an honest broker in the process, and given our former Prime Minister’s history in Iraq and the region, he was not necessarily the most obvious choice as a representative to bring peace, although we wish him well in that difficult job. The Quartet has much dialogue with Arab countries, but its lack of an Arab representative is a problem. It would be better if it was driven by the UN instead of the US and if it was chaired by the Secretary-General.

Obviously, the daily violence will be a huge barrier. Until that violence is renounced, progress is not likely, and the history of suspicion and mistrust on both sides, which we have heard about today, will be difficult to overcome. The injustice of Gaza and the humanitarian problems are pressing—until there are basic humanitarian standards, it will be incredibly hard to see a way forward.

On the other hand, only a couple of weeks ago the Quartet expressed deep concerns about the settlements issue. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, the number of settlements could reduce the viability of a Palestinian state. If we want a two-state solution, that thorny issue needs to be tackled, as does the political situation, including the election of Hamas and the historically weak leadership on both sides in relation to acting and taking the risk for peace—I do not recall who said that, but it was a good way of putting it. It is a risk, but it needs to be taken. The prize is worth it.

Although the situation can seem hopeless, we can see chinks of light if we choose to look for them. The citizens of Palestine and Israel want to live in peace, like most people—it is a basic aspiration. That is a good starting position, and we need to focus on getting the parties talking. We need to recognise that if we wait until we meet the three conditions that were outlined—the renunciation of violence, accepting previous peace agreements and recognising Israel—before talking to Hamas, we might leave it too late. There needs to be no doubt that renunciation of violence is essential, but if Hamas makes positive moves, they should be rewarded, working towards the other two conditions being met. The dialogue process is essential if we are to find peace in the region.

I recently met Waza Fahoum, an Israeli-Arab, who was on a trip to the UK. An incredibly inspiring person, she is the chair of an Arab-Jewish centre in Haifa called Beit Hagefen. At grass-roots level, the centre organises meetings, cultural activities that celebrate both Arab and Israeli culture, educational classes and festivals, and provides lots of opportunities for Arabs and Jews to work together. To me, it seemed that at least at the grass roots some people are getting it right and finding a way to live together in harmony, learn, and share time and culture. We should focus on those things as points of light and optimism for a future settlement.

The politicians in the region would do well to learn from some people at the grass roots who are making those things happen and working together in peace and harmony. Only when politicians learn to engage in dialogue and follow such examples will we see peace in that troubled region.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this timely debate, even if he was not able to introduce it under the precise title that he wanted. He and many other Members have rightly paid tribute to the achievements of the state of Israel in the past 60 years.

More than anything else, an episode from my first visit to Israel some years ago sticks in my memory. I visited an immersion centre to see the work to induct Falashas from Ethiopia, and Russians who spoke no other language and who had lived only in the Soviet Union, into Israeli life, language and culture. One of the defining characteristics of Israel is the conscious and successful efforts to forge a nation from people who come from disparate cultural and linguistic backgrounds. That is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

Hon. Members have spoken of Israel’s achievements in different spheres of life over the past six decades. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) spoke about Israel’s achievements in medicine. Several hon. Members spoke about the quality of Israeli universities and the country’s commitment to high educational standards. We could talk about Israel’s scientific and technological achievements; and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) did, about the way in which Hebrew has once again been developed as a living language. We could talk about the flowering of Jewish art in Israel, or about the work of Israeli historians and archaeologists. We could talk about the way in which Jewish musical traditions have been fostered, or the fact that Israeli musicians are among the foremost players and conductors of classical works in the western tradition. There is a great deal to celebrate in Israel’s culture and its economic achievements.

There is also a great deal to celebrate in Israel’s political and constitutional achievements. Israel is a state that abides by the rule of law. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, the courts do find against the Government and, crucially, the Government then obey what the courts have said. Israel is also a vigorous democracy.

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point about Israel abiding by laws. Israel has flouted a large number of UN resolutions, and as I said in my speech—perhaps he will comment on this—70 Palestinian parliamentarians who were democratically elected in internationally recognised elections are still in Israeli jails.

The hon. Gentleman will know from other debates that I am not uncritical of the decisions that have been taken by Israeli Governments and authorities over the years. There are also fierce critics of Israeli Government decisions in Israel itself. However, it is fair that we describe and celebrate the fact that we have a vigorous democracy in the middle east. One will find as many opinions in Israel as there are Israelis—indeed, the fiercest critics of Israeli Governments are often sitting in the Knesset or writing for Israeli newspapers. That is a sign of strength. In which other country in the middle east has there been the same level of public scrutiny as there has been, for example, of the conduct of the 2007 war in Lebanon?

When I went to Israel at the end of last year, I wanted to see the effects of the barrier around east Jerusalem. It was an Israeli non-governmental organisation or pressure group—B’Tselem—that took me around and explained the harm that it believed Israeli policy was doing to Palestinian political aspirations and economic prospects. If one is looking for people who are demonstrating and lobbying for Palestinian rights—I have heard the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) make this point himself on the Floor of the House—one will find them in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Again, that pluralism is a source of great strength.

It is right, however, that we also recognise that there is a great missing ingredient in the Israeli achievement. The situation was summed up quite well by a columnist in the Financial Times, who said:

“As long as Palestinians are in despair the Israeli miracle will remain, like Schubert's eighth symphony, unfinished.”

Last year, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, openly said that without a settlement based on a two-state solution—an Israel that is recognised by her neighbours and that lives within secure boundaries alongside a viable, independent Palestinian state—the existence of the Israeli state will be at risk.

I therefore passionately hope that the Annapolis process, for all its imperfections, will succeed. We have debated many times in the House what needs to happen if we are to see that success. We need the rockets to cease being fired from Gaza at Sderot and other cities. We need improvements to security on the west bank, so that not only politicians but ordinary Israeli citizens can feel confident that their security against suicide bombers will be maintained. I am happy to repeat that we need action to stop the growth of settlements and remove the outposts because that, more than anything else, will send a message to those Palestinians who are committed to negotiation and the path of peace that there are real gains to be had from engagement in the process of negotiation and peacemaking.

I hope that we hear from more and more Arab leaders throughout the middle east a public and repeated commitment that if and when Israel and the Palestinians reach a settlement, that settlement will embrace the entire region. King Abdullah of Jordan has spoken out along those lines. The invitation to Foreign Minister Livni to speak to a conference in Qatar a few weeks ago was a further encouraging sign. Prince Turki al-Faisal said that if there was peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he—one assumes that he was speaking for many in the leadership of Saudi Arabia—would regard the Israelis as their brothers in the region. Those moves are all welcome.

When I went to Sderot last December, I noted that a square in the city was named after the late King Hassan II of Morocco. It was King Hassan who said that if the Israelis and the Arabs could live in peace and work together, they could turn their region into the garden of Eden. That is the vision that should inspire us, despite all the difficulties. That goal is profoundly in the interests of our country and of Israelis and Arabs in the region.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate, which marks the foundation of the state of Israel. Although we might agree or disagree with parts of his speech, we all recognise that it was a tour de force as a short history of the conflict and the process of state building. I also congratulate all the hon. Members who have taken part: the debate has been not only interesting, but incredibly disciplined, and I know how strongly they feel about the ongoing conflict.

Like the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, who have both recently spoken on this subject, I am happy to celebrate this historic anniversary. As we have heard, the establishment in 1948 of a homeland for the Jewish people followed centuries of discrimination and persecution. As hon. Members have said, the holocaust was persecution at its most chillingly murderous, and the Jewish people had long suffered such hatred. In trying to describe the uniqueness of Israel, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) reminded us that the country was created out of that crucible of horror and in a maelstrom of further violence. It is a tribute to the tenacity and imagination of the Israelis that their country has, in just 60 years, developed from a fragile political novelty into the vibrant, economically dynamic and technologically advanced country it is today. No one mentioned it but, from a mere 650,000, Israel’s population has grown to 7 million, which includes immigrants from 96 countries, speaking 66 different languages.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford reminded us that Israel’s gross domestic product per capita is comparable to that of some of the Gulf states, which is remarkable. It does not have coal, oil or gas—or only a little: perhaps some will be found offshore—so those figures are a great achievement. We have heard from hon. Members some of the details of Israel’s turbulent history. The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) reminded us of its great economic and scientific achievements, which were created and recorded in the teeth of wars. I am old enough to remember listening to what I think was the first account I ever heard of a war—the 1967 war, which was broadcast almost live. I doubt whether there had been a war, certainly since the second world war, with such a commentary. Yet at the same time the great achievements that the hon. Gentleman outlined were under way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) is a doughty contributor to debates on Israel and he cares enormously about the region. He reminded us of the collective memory of not only the Israelis but the Palestinians. He told us that the Palestinians must be not only tolerated but welcomed as citizens of Israel. I have met many Palestinians in Israel who feel that they are welcomed, but I know what he means. The debate about the place of Palestinians is as active now as it was 60 years ago in the state of Israel, and it cannot be ignored. The day after Israel’s birthday party, none of the issues, such as the religious settler divide and the place of minorities—especially Israeli Arabs—appears any easier. They must be made easier—a way through must be found.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) reminded us in a wonderfully apposite way of the military and terrorist threats that poison relations between Israel and its neighbours and affect the debate about what kind of state Israel should be. That problem has never gone away.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) listed some of the Israeli state’s social, health care and educational achievements and the lessons that we might learn from them—especially those achievements generated by mass immigration of sometimes poor and poorly educated people into a small, crowded country. That involves recognition of what a great potential asset they are to the state, as the hon. Members for Harwich and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) highlighted the numbers of Jewish refugees who, in the early days, returned to what they considered to be their homeland. The story is not a simple one of the displacement of one people because another people moved in. It was a complicated time and, as I have said before, there were great hopes that people could live in one state or in a federation of nations in the region. The present situation is a consequence of a litany of war and hostility, enunciated so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said that Israel may have won the military wars but it has largely lost the war of public opinion, and I think that he is right in many ways. The war continues. There should not be a war; what is happening should be about information, and some of the tremendous achievements that we have heard about today should weigh in on the side of acceptance that a state exists that should be living in peace with its neighbours. My hon. Friend told us, as others did, of the threat to Israel and to other, Arab, states posed by Iran with its expansionist rhetoric, if not actions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) always takes part in debates on Israel. He reminded us that there will be a Select Committee hearing this afternoon on the occupied Palestinian territories and aid from this country, which is very extensive, as is aid from the EU. He reminded us of the destruction of villages and, most vividly, of the dreadful humanitarian situation in Gaza. He is right to bring that to the debate, because there will not be peace in the area until the problems are solved. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is shocking, and I know that my hon. Friend understands full well the tensions generated not just by what he describes as the fence of barbed wire and blockades around Gaza, but by rockets being fired out of Gaza and bombs hitting it. That is an intolerable situation, which must be resolved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford reminded us of one of the reasons for what is happening. I, too, can think of very few peoples who have been as badly served by their leaders as the Palestinians. It is dreadful. I remember when I began to hear the first stories of the corruption of the Arafat regime. I suspect that that corruption continues to this day, and it has done no good to the reputation of the Palestinian leadership.

Will the Minister add something about what the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has added to the mix in his new role as peace envoy to the middle east?

I was going to come on to that, because I wanted to answer some of the comments made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is right to highlight the matter of the 71 Palestinian parliamentarians who remain in jail. They should be either charged and tried, or released. It is as simple as that. It does Israel’s reputation no good when that story circulates continuously through the Arab streets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside enunciated some great achievements and contrasted them well and sharply with the cult of death and the absurdity of wallowing in the notion that suicide bombing is somehow a redemption of what has happened to the Palestinian people. Suicide bombings are obscenity, and that philosophy should be resisted at all times.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke of Israel’s remarkable achievements, but I do not agree with her that the Quartet is driven by the US. I have had the privilege of taking part in Quartet meetings and the US is one player, along with the UN, the EU and Russia. Those representative bodies are not easily pushed to one side. I have had the privilege of travelling extensively across the region and speaking to Arab leaders and ordinary citizens, and I believe that Tony Blair was a good choice as an envoy. He is capable of making a difference in helping to mobilise the economic potential of the region. I remind the hon. Lady that the Quartet met the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in London on 2 May. Those were useful talks and, like the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I hope that, as part of the Annapolis process, they succeed.