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Gaza

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to report to the House on my recent visit to Gaza. Also, I wish to press the Government to do more to uphold international law.

It is my view, and that of many others, that if international law were upheld, there could and would be two states in Palestine, and we could look forward realistically to peace, but Israel constantly flouts international law, and the United States, the United Kingdom and the whole of the European Union collude in that. Thus, Israel concludes that might is right and uses its massive armaments to kill and bombard any who resist the constant expansion of its borders and land.

Currently, we face the prospect of decades of bloodshed, conflict and bitterness in the middle east. We also see the authority of international law and the moral authority of the United Nations being eroded. That, alongside growing environmental strains and population growth in the poorest countries, promises a grim and disorderly future if we continue on the path that we are on.

I reported briefly in the topical debate on Thursday 15 January on my visit to Gaza with a group of European parliamentarians in early November. I and other Back Benchers had six minutes to speak in the debate. Given that the Conservative and Labour leadership agree on the policy towards Israel but are out of tune with the views in the country, such limited time for Back-Bench dissent is unhealthy, but it is the reality that the House of Commons has experienced during the terrible crisis in Gaza.

I had a letter from a member of the public who was much distressed by events in Gaza. He watched the whole of the topical debate and was shocked that it ended with no vote and no action. I agree with him that the debate on Gaza demonstrated the weak and increasingly feeble state of the House of Commons.

During our visit to Gaza, we witnessed the shortages of food, paper and pens in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools, and shortages of water, pharmaceuticals and other medical necessities. Even more dreadful, the sewage systems are not adequate. Raw sewage is pumped into the sea. There are plans for new sewage treatment plants, civil engineers are available and donors’ funds have been committed, but Israel will not permit the materials to be imported. When it rains, sewage floods into people’s homes, and because the Israeli navy fire on the fishermen if they go beyond a five-mile limit, hungry people eat polluted fish and are constantly ill. Half the children of Gaza are anaemic, and, even before the recent bombardment, large numbers were severely traumatised by the endless threat of violent attack.

Israel also controls the import of EU-provided fuel for the power plant that gives light and power to Gaza. As everyone knows, Israel has partly bombed the power plant, but, as we left, it blocked all imports of fuel, and Gaza was cast into almost total darkness. The hospitals were run-down and lacking materials even before the terrible strains of coping with the injured from the three weeks of bombardment that have just ended.

Gaza is a prison. It is a large, crowded Bantustan of 1.5 million people on a strip of land 25 miles by six or seven. Seventy per cent. of them are refugees who were ethnically cleansed by the Israelis from other parts of Palestine. Half of them are children. Israel withdrew its settlements in September 2005, but it controls the borders and access to the sea and air. It has bombed the airfield, which therefore cannot be used. Young people with scholarships cannot get out to take up their places, and sick people who cannot be treated locally cannot get out for medical care.

Gaza is a prison—and that, of course, is why the tunnels exist. We went to Rafah to see them. Yes, some explosives may come through, but mostly what comes through are the necessities of life. British prisoners in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps built tunnels; Sarajevo built a tunnel—imprisoned people build tunnels. Now Israel has destroyed Rafah and the tunnels. It wants complete control of Gaza and for the people to lie down abjectly and accept their imprisonment.

The tightening of the siege with full support from the EU, the UK and the US was the result of the Palestinian people daring to vote in internationally scrutinised elections for a majority of Hamas parliamentarians in January 2006. Following that, the Palestinians formed a Government of national unity, but Israel, supported by the US, did not want that. It is a matter of record that the policy supported by the UK was to incite division between Fatah and Hamas and to support fighting in Gaza. I understand that Britain supplied arms to the Fatah forces—that comes from authoritative sources.

In response, Hamas took over Gaza. UNRWA staff told us how much safer life was without the conflict and roadblocks, but then the world besieged Gaza, imposing collective punishment on the people. That is an offence in international law, which lays down how people should be treated in occupied territories, but, as I said, none of the high contracting parties to the Geneva convention, including the UK, stand up for international law in the occupied Palestinian territories.

I have listened with great interest to the description of the awful humanitarian situation in Gaza. Is it the case that the readiness to ensure that breaches of international law and alleged war crimes are investigated and prosecuted is critical not only to the future of the middle east, obviously, but to our many constituents who care about the matter, especially those in the Muslim community, and much more widely as well? The perception of double standards damages the prospects for international peace and can also sour relations between the Islamic world in general and the rest of the community. Building bridges by ending those double standards is critical for the way forward internationally and for solidarity at home.

I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend. I will come to that point and make that argument. It is the duty of parliamentarians and the public in the UK, and across Europe, to hold our Governments to account. The fact that they do nothing to enforce international law is a green light to Israel to keep breaking international law. The people of this country, particularly young Muslims, are angry about that and see our Government as engaged in double standards. That causes rage everywhere.

We are told that the bombardment of Gaza was necessary because Israel has a right of defence against Hamas rockets. That justification of the attack is deeply dishonest. It is as big an untruth as were the claims about the need for war in Iraq. Two sets of facts are important when we assess Israel’s excuse for its attack. For the past seven years, from when rocket attacks began up to 27 December when Israel attacked Gaza, those rockets killed 13 innocent Israelis and one foreigner. In that time, Israel killed 2,990 Palestinians in the Gaza strip, 634 of them children. Large numbers of those killed were innocent civilians, including many women and children. Those figures are provided by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. There is no possible justification for us to say that Gaza was attacking Israel and Israel was not doing anything. The balance of attack and killing was that Israel was doing more harm to Gaza than the other way around.

A way to stop rocket attacks was available without the bombardment. Negotiations had led to a halt to them. Egypt negotiated a six-month ceasefire from June 2008, which Hamas held to, and the rocket attacks stopped. But then, breaching the terms of the ceasefire, Israel tightened the siege and, in early November, it broke the ceasefire with a bombing attack that killed six Hamas members. Let us be clear: Israel kills massively more innocent Gazans than vice versa and negotiations had stopped the rockets. There was no case for Israel’s attack, which was clearly long-planned.

What is to be done about this dreadful situation that we are now in? All who defend Israel’s position say that we must get back to the peace process, but the truth is that there is no peace process. Western policy is to divide and rule the Palestinians and, even though President Abbas and his Fatah faction do all that is asked of them, no concessions are made and the situation of the Palestinians on the ground gets worse still. It is clear, from the facts on the ground, that Israel has no intention of allowing the Palestinians their state on the lands that belong to them under international law and were occupied by Israel in 1967.

In the Jordan valley, in East Jerusalem and on the west bank, massive settlements and small settlements established by extremists but protected by Israeli forces stand alongside the wall, which takes an illegal route. In addition, the closures and the Israeli-only roads show that Israel is taking still more land and confining the Palestinians to a series of Bantustans, where they are locked in and constantly humiliated if they try to move, and economic activity is steadily crushed.

Prime Minister Olmert said that without two states there would be an international demand for an end to this apartheid system. Indeed, many South Africans, including Archbishop Tutu, have said that the situation is like apartheid in South Africa, only more brutal. Therefore, there are ever more calls for one state for all the people of Palestine, in which Jews and Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs and Christians would live side by side. But of course the demography shows, as Prime Minister Olmert pointed out, that Israelis would soon be in a minority. He said that there should be two states, but he does nothing to bring about two states.

I conclude, with many others, that the two-state possibility is almost certainly dead. That means a long period of conflict and that, internationally, we must mount another boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign across the world. That will take time and create great division, but if our Governments will not stand up for decency and international law, then the people must do so.

I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Lady, but does she not agree that all the international community has now more or less agreed that there should be a two-state solution? Is it not now up to the international community? It is up to Americans to pressurise the Israelis and whoever has influence with the Arabs, particularly Iran, to talk to them and make sure that this never happens again. Then we can get back to the peace process, put in the aid that is needed to rebuild Gaza, and, hopefully, we will not have this situation again.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the two-states idea is the answer, but it is eroding on the ground and no one is doing anything—including our Government and the hon. Gentleman’s party’s Front Bench. No one is standing by international law, which says that the lands occupied in 1967 cannot be incorporated into Israel and should be the basis for a Palestinian state. That is the answer, but it is disappearing. The world should be more troubled by that and should take more action to restrain Israel. That is the argument that I am trying to make.

Those who are briefed by Israeli sources tell us, as do the Government and the Opposition Front Benches, that Hamas is a terrorist organisation that refuses to recognise Israel, refuses to accept previous agreements that have been negotiated and refuses to end violence. Our delegation met Prime Minister Haniya when we were in Gaza and he said that Hamas had answered each of those demands. It had ended violence by agreeing to and standing by the ceasefire, as I have described. It recognises that the Palestine Liberation Organisation had made agreements—notably, Oslo—and thought that, although it was a bad agreement, it was properly made. I agree that that is a bad agreement and that the Palestinians have lost out on it, because it has not been completed. Hamas also said that it would recognise a long-term peace if Israel would recognise a Palestinian state on 1967 boundaries. It has met the demands of the international community, but the international community is not interested, will not meet and discuss the matter, and will do nothing to restrain Israel and hold it to account under international law.

I am afraid that the truth is that Israel does not recognise the Palestinian right to a state, as their reservations on the road map make clear. It is on the record that Israel certainly has not renounced violence and does not comply with Oslo or the road map, in that it will not allow a Palestinian state to be established.

My request to the Government is that they cease their unbalanced policy and stand up for international law, on the basis of which we could achieve peace. I ask the Government, first, to halt all arms sales to Israel immediately. There is little doubt that British-supplied arms helped to kill people, including children, in Gaza. Arms sales should be halted.

Secondly, the Government have said that the allegations of war crimes during the attack on Gaza must be investigated. There are serious allegations from very authoritative sources. I have taken legal advice on this matter, along with Baroness Tonge in the other place, which I am sending to all Members of Parliament in the UK. We will also circulate it across Europe. Briefly, that advice is that, because Israel did not sign up to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, it is necessary for the Security Council to fulfil the role envisaged for it when the Rome statute of the ICC was concluded in 1998. That statute provided that, when some suspects were not from states that were parties to the treaty, instead of a special ad hoc tribunal, as in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the Security Council should refer the case to the ICC, as in the case of Darfur.

There have been serious allegations of war crimes, so it is right that all such allegations against all sides should be thoroughly investigated. I challenge the Government to refer the case to the ICC through the Security Council. Then we will see whether President Obama is going to stand up for international law and for the prospects for peace in the middle east, and abandon the US policy of vetoing all resolutions that in any way criticise Israel. An honourable Britain would do that.

Following on from that point, sadly, although the Foreign Secretary and Lord Malloch-Brown have said that all allegations of war crimes must be investigated, Amnesty International informs me that it is widely believed that the UK, in the European Council of Ministers, is not being supportive of proposals for investigations into violations of international law because that would set a dangerous precedent for UK military operations across the world. That is shocking. Are UK Ministers saying one thing in Parliament and another in Brussels? If the Minister cannot answer fully now, I hope that she will ensure that the Government’s explanation is made available quickly.

In addition, the European Union has a trade treaty with Israel that gives it privileged access to EU markets. That treaty contains human rights conditionalities. Israel, even before the attack on Gaza, was in constant breach of the Geneva convention in its behaviour in the occupied territories, as the International Court of Justice spelled out in its 2004 advisory opinion. The route of the wall, the settlements, the closures and much else are a litany of breaches of international law, about which nothing is done.

I want to know why the Government and the rest of the European Union do not invoke the conditionalities in the treaty to require Israel to abide by international law. Instead, the EU proposes enhancing its relationship with Israel. The message is clear—that Israel can go on gravely breaching international law and no action will be taken.

Then we have the Geneva convention. It imposes duties on all high contracting parties to take action to impose its provisions for the treatment of people in occupied territories, yet the UK does nothing.

My conclusion is that UK policy is completely unbalanced, fails to uphold international law and therefore sends a constant green light to Israel to do as it wishes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, that is a shocking example of double standards and hypocrisy. It is also a recipe for continuing conflict in the middle east and the erosion of international order.

I and others have been consulting lawyers about whether we can take action to require our Government to comply with international law and to require the EU to invoke the human rights conditionalities in the trade treaty. I am told that the tradition of our courts is that they do not interfere in foreign policy, but I suggest that we must take this further. If the Government will not uphold their duties under international treaties and the Geneva convention, and as Parliament has no power in this matter, surely it is time for the courts to act.

I welcome the debate and congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing it, because it provides a further opportunity for hon. Members to discuss the situation following the ceasefire. I should like to pick up on some general points and, if time permits, to refer to some of the specific points that she made.

Thank you, Mr. Hancock.

The UK was active both in private and in public in working for a ceasefire. With our support, the UN Security Council, on 27 December, called for an immediate halt to the fighting. That was followed by intensive work by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary with their international counterparts to deliver the ceasefire. The focus of international efforts now, rightly, is to ensure that the ceasefire holds.

Without doubt the end of the hostilities will be welcomed most by the people of Gaza. We see day in, day out on our television screens the extent of the humanitarian tragedy caused by the fighting. To meet the urgent and profound humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people, on Monday the Prime Minister announced the trebling of the UK’s humanitarian budget for Gaza, with an additional £20 million in aid to support the International Committee of the Red Cross to supply medical services. It will also deliver food, fuel and vehicles, and support desperately traumatised children. The UK is acting to stabilise unexploded bombs and, in the longer term, to help to rebuild destroyed homes. The UK also provides long-term support to the Palestinian people. In December 2007, we announced £243 million in aid over three years.

It is without doubt early days, but the ceasefires declared by Israel on Saturday and Hamas on Sunday, although fragile, appear to be holding. We welcome the announcement by Israel in the past 24 hours that its troops have now completely withdrawn from Gaza. The Hamas ceasefire must be accompanied by immediate action to ensure that there are no further rocket attacks into Israel. More than 300 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel between June and December, and a further 300 rockets were fired at civilian Israeli targets over an eight-day period.

There is a desperate need to get food, water and medicines into Gaza. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the British Government will use every possible way to get that aid in as quickly as possible, if necessary by ships from the sea?

Indeed I can assure hon. Members that we are doing everything possible. As I said, we are working with our international counterparts and with organisations such as the ICRC. I will come on to the issue of support.

I think that the figures that the Minister has just given about rockets between June and December are wrong and, as I said in my speech, my source is an Israeli human rights group. I have also seen an exchange in which the spokesman for the Israeli Government agreed that the rockets stopped between June and December. I ask the Minister to re-examine her assertion. I think that she will find that it is false.

Of course, we can debate what is right and what is not. I respect the fact that the right hon. Lady disagrees with me, but the figures that I have given are the figures on which we have constantly relied and they are from what I believe is a reliable source. I will be happy to give further details of that, but for today we must, unfortunately, agree to disagree.

The right hon. Lady spoke about the status of Hamas. I think it wise that I refer to what the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), who has responsibility for the middle east, told the House on Thursday:

“We should be absolutely clear that Hamas is not a benign organisation. It commits acts of terrorism, it is committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and its statement last week that it was legitimate to kill Jewish children anywhere in the world was utterly chilling and beyond any kind of civilised, humanitarian norm.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 399.]

We recognise Israel’s right to self-defence. It is also the case that the use of force must be proportionate. We have made clear our view that the Israeli reaction was disproportionate, and we are gravely concerned at the allegations of breaches of international law made by credible organisations such as the ICRC and the UN. I remind the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members that just yesterday the UN Secretary-General called for a full investigation. That has our full support. Those allegations must be closely and speedily investigated under international law, with the three key parties to that being the UN, the ICRC and the Israeli Government. We are in touch with all of them.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and to my hon. Friend the Minister for not being present earlier because of business upstairs. Will the Minister assure me that, if it is found that the allegations of war crimes are correct, every effort will be made by the British Government to ensure that those responsible for such crimes and atrocities, the victims of which include very young children, are brought to justice?

My hon. Friend will know that all of this is subject to international law, but he does allow me to raise the important point that before anyone talks in the House or elsewhere about the reporting of war crimes, it has first to be established under international law whether war crimes have been committed. There has to be an investigation. That is why I believe that today we are in a new place, in that the UN Secretary-General has called for such an investigation. I re-emphasise to right hon. and hon. Members that we thoroughly endorse that investigation, whatever the outcome may be.

Under the ICC—it was the new Labour Government who signed up to it in 1998—a state that has not signed up to the authority of the ICC can be dealt with by a reference to the international court and the prosecutor then makes inquiries. That is the way in which Sudan and Darfur were dealt with, and that is the right procedure, but the Government appear to be ignoring that and waiting for some other authority that does not have the same capacity in the international system to bring forward evidence. Please, will the Minister consider referring the case to the ICC in the proper way so that the prosecutor there can make his inquiries?

Again, I regret that I have to disagree with the right hon. Lady. I have just outlined the process. Obligations under international law are clearly set out. As I said, first, there has to be an investigation to establish whether war crimes have been committed. We all know the process that will be followed if that is so. The obligation under international law is that the primary burden for investigation rests on the authority against whose forces allegations of war crimes are made. The due and appropriate process will be followed.

The next step in delivering a sustainable ceasefire is to see an immediate end to the flow of arms into Gaza. The UK is ready to play its part in ensuring that that happens. Along with our EU partners, we stand ready to reactivate the EU border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing with Egypt and are willing to consider extending that assistance to other crossing points. I say to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) that, last week, the Prime Minister confirmed that we are prepared to provide British naval support to stop the arms trafficking. Of course Egypt has a fundamental role to play in ensuring an end to arms smuggling through its border with Gaza, and we will work with it to establish border security.

Success in stemming the flow of arms into Gaza will have a direct effect on the reopening of the border crossings. We will continue to convey the need to open those crossings to the Israeli Government—they are vital to facilitate the free and unhindered passage of emergency humanitarian aid and to ensure the supply of goods needed for longer-term reconstruction. The two issues of arms smuggling and open border crossings will be at the heart of discussions this week. This evening, our Foreign Secretary will join 26 other EU Foreign Ministers to meet Israel’s Foreign Minister. On Sunday they will meet their Palestinian, Jordanian and Turkish counterparts.

The biggest challenge now faced by the international community is to find a way to deliver a lasting resolution in the middle east. The crisis has undoubtedly highlighted the urgent need to make political progress in the peace process. There is only one way forward and that is a comprehensive approach with a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, underpinned by a broader peace agreement between Israel and the whole Arab world, about which the Arab League has shown itself to be extremely serious. In other words, we seek a 23-state solution—the 22 states of the Arab League, and Israel.

The Palestinian President recently described the Arab peace initiative as the most significant initiative of the last 60 years. Israeli leaders have also indicated that they view this peace initiative as a basis for negotiations. With a new Government in Israel, a new President in the United States and our commitment as a Government, we must seize this chance and reinject urgency into the middle east peace process. That must include a unified Palestinian Government.

The Foreign Secretary has already assured the House that the middle east peace process will be top of the agenda when he speaks to Secretary of State Clinton this week. The UK will remain active in providing humanitarian assistance in the short term and will be unstinting in its efforts to find a permanent peace between Israel and Palestine.

In the short time that I have available, I will refer to some of the comments made. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood referred to international obligations. The UK has consistently called on Israel to fulfil its obligations under the fourth Geneva convention. That includes giving permission for the delivery of aid and supplies to Gaza. As the Foreign Secretary told the House, he raised that matter with Israeli leaders in his November visit.

I apologise to the Minister for intervening, but we must move to the next debate. I would like to thank the participants in this debate for their courtesy to each other and to the Chair.