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Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2009

Mr. Speaker, before I answer the question may I say that, as you will be aware, the Foreign Secretary is on an official visit to India, where he is meeting the Indian Government and Opposition and making a speech on terrorism. He will also be discussing India’s relations with Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, as well as other regional issues. My right hon. Friend sends his apologies.

Our current focus is on securing an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have urged both sides to stop the violence and fulfil their humanitarian obligations. Last week’s United Nations Security Council resolution, tabled by the United Kingdom, called for an immediate ceasefire. The Government are also working on making a ceasefire sustainable, including exploring ways to stop arms trafficking and to open the crossings to Gaza.

Does the Minister share my concern that many reports of Israeli activity in Gaza, including the use of phosphorescent shells and the use of heavy-fire shells in built-up areas and attacks on medical facilities, all constitute prima facie evidence of war crimes. What will the Government do to ensure that where that prima facie evidence exists there will be a full investigation and that those responsible will be brought to justice?

Extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides during the conflict have been made by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others. Those allegations have to be properly investigated. The hon. Gentleman referred to the alleged use of white phosphorus. Those allegations have been made but not substantiated and although the use of white phosphorus is not illegal, the UK Government are very clear that it should not be used as an anti-personnel weapon and certainly not in a civilian environment. We will continue to make our view very clear to the Israeli Government and to urge them, as we have done, to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

I understand that evidence of white phosphorus on civilians in Gaza has been confirmed. If that is the case, is it the intention of the UK to report the Israelis to the war crimes tribunal?

May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that my understanding is that the allegations have not been substantiated? Nevertheless, it is the case that extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides have been made. Those allegations have to be properly investigated and I remain absolutely firmly of that view.

But while these allegations are being made, is there not an interest in having some balance and remembering that this undoubtedly began through unprovoked aggression by Hamas firing a huge number of rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian targets? Would the proper step not be for Hamas to stop firing those rockets? As long as they are being fired, they are derailing the peace process in the middle east, which may be the intention.

I visited Ashkelon, near the border, just before Christmas and the air raid sirens were going off while I was there. If that is happening on a sustained daily basis—as it has been—it is a real cause for concern. That is why we have argued as strongly as we have both for the rocket attacks to stop and also for an effective ceasefire. There has been massive loss of life in the Gaza strip; the figure is now 900 people, 250 of them—crucially—children. That is why we need a ceasefire and why we have argued so strongly for it and why we secured the Security Council resolution last week.

May I remind the Minister that the allegations of international law abuse have been backed by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, and by Amnesty? Christian Aid has just reported that one of its mother and baby clinics was bombed by the Israelis earlier this week and completely destroyed. May I press the Minister specifically on what the British Government will do to make sure that there is an independent investigation? Will he take the matter to the EU sub-committee on human rights to see whether the trade agreement can be suspended?

I know that my hon. Friend has a genuine and long-standing interest in these issues. Our overriding priority at the moment is to do everything possible, both diplomatically and politically, to get to a ceasefire. That is what we are driving towards. Consistent with that, we have nevertheless repeatedly called both publicly and, crucially, privately on all parties to fulfil their humanitarian obligations and to facilitate the delivery and distribution of aid, and that we will continue to do.

Is the Minister aware of diplomatic reports that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, had to be recalled from holiday and from lucrative speaking engagements to deal with the present situation? Does he not share my concern that Mr. Blair has not even been to Gaza at this critical time?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza and of the fact that 850 people have been killed, 250 of them children. What attempts are the Government making to ensure that Israel makes available more time to enable essential medical aid to get through to the Palestinians? I understand that only one fifth to one sixth of the required medical and food supplies are getting through now.

I agree, and we have argued consistently that an immediate and sustainable ceasefire is urgently needed. In tandem, we have argued strongly that humanitarian aid—food, medical equipment and supplies—should be allowed in unfettered. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I met humanitarian non-governmental organisations yesterday; they reported to us that just one fifth of the necessary supplies are getting in daily. That is the reason for the urgency and the reason why we have consistently and continually argued for a ceasefire.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think it ironic that the present Israeli Government were elected on a programme of withdrawing settlements and negotiating a twin-state arrangement independently, and have shown evidence of that purpose by withdrawing from Gaza and removing their own settlements from the area? Are not the present circumstances therefore primarily the responsibility of Hamas, which failed to take up the offers made by the Israeli Government, but continued its programme of rocketing civilians?

I believe very strongly there are responsibilities on all sides. The situation in the Gaza strip and southern Israel is desperate; that is why we urgently need a ceasefire. We must remember that as long as the conflict is taking place, the prospects for a longer-term and durable middle east peace settlement are moving further away. That is why dealing with the situation is so important and why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary adequately and unequivocally condemned the terrorist means being used by Hamas. Does the Minister of State accept that the essence of terrorism is to attack civilians and civil infrastructure with a view to achieving or imposing political ends? When, therefore, will the Government similarly condemn the onslaught by Israel on the people of Gaza and stop the twin pretence that there is either military equivalence or moral difference between the terror tactics being deployed by the Israelis and those used by Hamas?

We have consistently and rightly argued that the sustained rocket attacks on the state of Israel are wrong and unacceptable; but we have also rightly called for a cessation of the Israeli activity in the Gaza strip. At the beginning of the conflict—this is the point the hon. Gentleman is driving at—a European Union statement was made that described the Israeli response as disproportionate. We supported that view and that is one of the reasons why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.