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Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2009

The UK Government are extremely concerned about the current violence in Gaza. We are in close contact with all the key players and are at the centre of efforts to reach a ceasefire and secure urgent humanitarian assistance. The Foreign Secretary was instrumental in gaining Security Council agreement around a British text, which became resolution 1860; that now needs to be reflected in reality on the ground. For any ceasefire to be sustainable, it has to include action to stop illegal arms trafficking into Gaza and opening the crossings into Gaza.

May I thank the Minister for that response? Last week, along with three other hon. Members—my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for Livingston (Mr. Devine), and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher)—I visited Pakistan, where we were fortunate enough to meet the Prime Minister, the President, and the Leader of the Opposition, all of whom expressed deep concern about what is happening in Gaza. I was left with the overwhelming impression that without peace in Palestine, there will not be peace anywhere in the middle east. Does the Minister agree that current efforts are being undermined by the conflict in Palestine, and that the Palestinian moderates, who seek a peaceful settlement with Israel, are being undermined by the conflict?

There is widespread, genuine concern across the whole international community at the current situation. I share with my hon. Friend a real concern, and I say this as a friend of the state of Israel: there is a real risk that current actions will reinforce extremism within the region and the wider world, and undermine those who are arguing for peace, particularly in the Arab states.

But is not one of the fears of the world that the tragic loss of life in Gaza today will be compounded, and be seen to have been in vain, unless on this occasion, when hostilities stop, they do so on the basis of the chance of a secure, long-lasting peace? That will not be the case until Hamas and its allies move tangibly towards an acceptance of, and stop terrorising, the state of Israel.

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. While Hamas remains committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and to acts of terror, launching rocket attacks on a regular basis, we will not make progress. We need to move forward and agree a ceasefire, which must address the critical issue of arms smuggling across the border. That is one reason why the talks in Egypt are incredibly important.

According to reports from Egypt, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, and Saeed Jalili from the Iranian security services are actively encouraging Hamas not to enter into a ceasefire and, indeed, to step up the rocket attacks. Does my hon. Friend agree that those reports not only underline Iran’s wholly malign influence in this region but underscore genuine fears among the Israeli public that behind Hamas is a country led by a lunatic and committed to the destruction of the state of Israel?

There are genuine and long-stated concerns about the regional role played by Iran. We constantly urge all parties and states in the region to work with us to try to secure a ceasefire as the first step that is desperately needed for the Palestinians in Gaza and for the Israelis.

Would the Minister not accept that the situation in Gaza is horrific? There are no words to describe what is going on there at the moment, but does he not accept that if Hamas gave an undertaking to stop the rocketing of Israel, the Israeli defence forces would withdraw, and it would give all those who are concerned about the future of Gaza, particularly President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the opportunity to bring peace? Will he tell us what influence President Abbas, for whom I have great respect, is trying to bring to the chaotic situation in Gaza?

President Abbas has been crucially involved in all the discussions, and he was involved in the discussion that led up to the Security Council resolution in New York last week. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a ceasefire, and a key element of that ceasefire is stopping on a sustainable basis the rocket attacks by Hamas into Israel. If that is to happen, we must address in a real and meaningful way the smuggling of arms across the border.

The Foreign Secretary was right to emphasise the need to facilitate Palestinian unity in his statement on Monday, which is difficult, given the violent methods that Hamas employed to seize control of the Gaza strip, executing Fatah supporters and expelling Palestinian trade unionists. Is my hon. Friend concerned about reports coming out of the Gaza strip that the execution of Fatah supporters has resumed? If so, what are the British Government doing to make their views known?

We make very clear our opposition to such actions, and we need to move forward. We need Palestinian recognition, but that fundamentally requires movement on the part of Hamas.

The Minister rightly said that the Government have argued for better access for humanitarian aid to Gaza, but will he say more specifically what the Government can do, or are doing, about the representations from the ICRC on the creation of safe passage, particularly for ambulances, for the evacuation of the most urgent medical cases, and on the need for both sides to meet their obligations under international law to protect aid workers at all times? Is he satisfied that all necessary plans are being made now, so that Gaza can receive a great deal of aid and assistance for its civilian population whenever there is a cessation of hostilities?

We are certainly working to that effect, and the announcement that the Government made last week of $10 million additional support for aid is a demonstration of that commitment. We need to keep arguing, too, that we need to reach that ceasefire as quickly as possible but, notwithstanding that, we must ensure that the aid is getting through on an unfettered basis, and continuing discussions are taking place about what is the most effective route to get that aid into Gaza.