It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I am glad to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber as I consider this to be a vital debate on the Goldstone report and the Government’s attitude to it before the vote in the United Nations General Assembly next month and, possibly, in the Security Council the month after.
As one of the few people who have read the report from cover to cover, I regard it as one of the most thorough and thoughtful I have ever read, and a model of even-handedness. I do not say that the original motion before the Human Rights Council was even-handed because it referred only to Israel. However, the amended mandate of the mission, as agreed between the president of the committee and Richard Goldstone, was even-handed because it refers to human rights violations by all parties before, during and after the conflict.
The Israelis have criticised the process and refused to give evidence. However, a panel of prominent international lawyers under Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a former Foreign Office lawyer, looked at the report and concluded that it was not invalidated by the criticism, nor by Israel’s refusal to give evidence—far from it.
I was one of the first group of MPs to enter Gaza after the military operations in February, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). We saw many of the same things and spoke to many of the same people as the mission. Our accounts were listened to, but we did not have the time or resources to cross-check every fact and assess the reliability of every witness. Richard Goldstone did so with meticulous care. I do not know whether to be surprised to discover that all the horrors that we could hardly believe were true.
The first strike by an Israeli jet fighter at 11.20 on 27 December caught a group of policemen on a three-week training course doing their morning sport exercise; 48 of them were killed on the spot. There were no allegations that the police force took part in combat, yet 248 members of the Gaza police were killed. The report found that to be a violation of international humanitarian law on several counts.
We saw the effects of shelling on the hospital and ambulances at al-Quds hospital. The report found that the direct attack on the hospital violated the fourth Geneva convention. We also visited the al-Wafa hospital and saw lumps of debris that were still smoking three weeks after the attack. The report confirmed that it was a white phosphorus attack that was reckless, unjustifiable and in violation of the Geneva convention.
Israeli paratroopers fired mortars into the busy al-Fakhura street in Jabaliyah, killing 24 people, nearly all of whom were civilians. They landed just a few metres from a United Nations school where 1,368 civilians were sheltering. In a sober, understated way, the report said that the decision to deploy mortars in a location filled with civilians was not a choice any reasonable commander would have made. The commander would have known that it would result in civilian deaths. A missile strike on the door of the al-Maqadmah mosque in Jabaliya, where 200 men had gathered for evening prayers, killed 15 and injured 40. There was no suggestion that the mosque was used to launch rockets, store weapons or shelter combatants. That too was found to be a grave breach. The commander of the paratroop brigade in Jabaliyah, Colonel Hartzi Halevi, who has since become brigadier general, was in the news only last week when he suddenly cancelled a visit to King’s college London because the British Government would not give an assurance that he would not be arrested.
A condolence tent, where relatives were mourning the victims of a flechette attack was itself hit by a flechette attack. Four mourners and an ambulance driver were killed and more than 20 were injured. The report found those attacks to be wilful killing, designed to kill and maim victims and, as such, were violations of international law.
One of the most distressing parts of our visit was talking to former inhabitants of Izbat Abd Rabbo, a village that had been razed to the ground; there was nothing left except rubble. The report confirms one incident that we heard about at the time:
“Shortly after 12.30 p.m., the inhabitants of that part of Izbat Abd Rabbo heard megaphone messages telling all residents to leave.”
“At about 12.50 p.m., Khalid Abd Rabbo, his wife Kawthar, their three daughters”
—aged nine, five and three and their grandmother—
“stepped out of the house, all of them carrying white flags. Less than 10 metres from the door was a tank, turned towards their house. Two soldiers were sitting on top of it having a snack (one was eating chips, the other chocolate, according to one of the witnesses). The family stood still, waiting for orders from the soldiers as to what they should do, but none was given. Without warning, a third soldier emerged from inside the tank and started shooting at the three girls and then also at their grandmother.”
The girls and the grandmother died. Their parents
“shouted for help and a neighbour, who was an ambulance driver and had his ambulance parked next to his house, decided to come to their help. He put on his ambulance crew clothes and asked his son to put on a fluorescent jacket. They had driven a few metres from their house…when Israeli soldiers…ordered them to halt and get out of the vehicle.”
The account continues:
“The soldiers ordered him and his son to undress and then re-dress. They then ordered them to abandon the ambulance and to walk towards Jabaliyah…The family decided that they had to make an attempt to walk to Jabaliyah”.
The parents carried the girls on their shoulders and the grandmother was carried by family members.
The verdict of the Goldstone report was that the soldier “deliberately directed lethal fire” at the girls and their grandmother and that the soldiers knew that the ambulance driver
“did not constitute a threat”
and deliberately aggravated the consequences of the shooting by forcing him to abandon the ambulance.
That is just one example. The report investigated incidents involving 34 Palestinian civilians who lost their lives owing to Israeli fire that was intentionally directed at them. In each case, it found that the Israeli armed forces opened fire on civilians who were not taking part in the hostilities and who posed no threat to them.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. All the incidents that he has described, all those that were covered in the Goldstone report and another 92 cases have been or are subject to investigations by the Israeli military police and the Attorney-General, and that will lead to Supreme Court review. Does he agree that that is an appropriate response by a responsible democratic Government to criticisms that have been raised about their military operations?
I will come to Richard Goldstone’s views about the Israeli internal inquiries in a moment. He says that they are inadequate and do not conform to international inquiry standards.
First, I will mention another Israeli officer who cancelled his trip to London last week. Colonel Itai Virob, commander of the Kfir Brigade, was asked recently to give evidence about allegations that his men beat Palestinians even when they were not suspected of any offence. He said that
“using violence and aggression…is not only allowed but sometimes imperative”.
He continued that
“a slap, sometimes a hit to the back of the neck or the chest…sometimes a knee jab or strangulation to calm someone down is reasonable.”
If one thinks that is bad, the soldiers under his command were even worse. An eye-witness saw them
“just knee [Palestinians] because it’s boring, because you stand there 10 hours, you’re not doing anything, so they beat people up.”
Another witness said:
“There were a lot of reservists that participated, and they totally had a celebration on the Palestinians: curses, humiliation, pulling hair and ears, kicks, slaps. These things were the norm.”
I should also mention the attacks on the Gazan economy. One chicken farmer
“watched as the armoured bulldozers destroyed the chicken farms, crushing the wire mesh coops with”
31,000 chickens inside. The report continues:
“He noted that the drivers of the tanks would spend hours flattening the chicken coops, sometimes stopping for coffee breaks, before resuming their work.”
Gaza’s only fully operational cement-packing plant was systematically destroyed over four days. Helicopter-launched rockets were used to destroy the main manufacturing line. Bulldozers destroyed the factory walls. The report notes:
“The silo had not been entirely destroyed…so explosives were attached to its supporting columns.”
It says that it was
“a very deliberate strategy of attacking the construction industry”
with no military reason or justification.
I will not go on about the beatings, the degrading treatment of detainees or the use of civilians as human shields. If people want to read about those things, they can read the full report, which I recommend. Goldstone’s conclusion was that rather than fighting the Palestinian armed groups in Gaza in a targeted way, as Israel was entitled to do, it had chosen to punish the whole population. That was a policy of collective punishment and the report states that it was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.
International law places an obligation on states to investigate breaches of the Geneva convention, but the report found that Israel’s own investigations—I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb)—were totally inadequate. Such investigations appear to have relied exclusively on interviews with Israeli officers and soldiers, those conducting them were not interested in interviewing victims or witnesses, and they did not start until six months after the event.
The inadequacy of Israel’s own investigations has meant that the report attaches enormous importance to the principle of universal jurisdiction. The report considers that universal jurisdiction is a potentially efficient tool for enforcing international law when states fail to do so. If soldiers are not punished for such casual cruelty, if generals do not investigate, if the Israeli Government spokesman, Mark Regev, simply denies on television that anything of this kind ever occurred, it eats away at the moral fibre.
The hon. Gentleman is raising a very important and timely subject, but does he share my disappointment that Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed the allegations as false prior to Israeli military police investigating them? Is that any way for the Prime Minister of a country to act in these circumstances?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Sadly, the Israeli Government have shown as cavalier an attitude to justice as some of their own soldiers, yet they should be setting the example.
Just in case the hon. Gentleman was going to make this point, I readily concede that the report does not just mention the Israelis. The inquiry also found violations of international law in the actions of Hamas and Fatah. However, as Goldstone points out, the fact that Hamas is responsible for grave breaches of international law does not make the Israeli breaches any less grave. Goldstone worries about what he calls the “culture of impunity” that spreads through Israeli armed forces and the Government, who show contempt for the Geneva conventions and for international law as a whole.
We have to understand that the Palestinians do not have the power to solve the problems that face them, and the Israelis do not have the will. It is only the international community that can resolve the situation, but it must act decisively and courageously. Universal jurisdiction is one way in which we can show how deeply we disapprove of what the Israelis have done.
My hon. Friend has spent 11 minutes—12 minutes now—of what is a very important and interesting contribution to a critical debate concentrating entirely on the allegations faced by the Israeli military and Government surrounding the events of Operation Cast Lead. Is he going to make the same mistake that I believe Judge Goldstone has made in focusing entirely on the one side—the democratic Government who are themselves investigating the events—without dealing with the terrorism from Hamas?
If my right hon. Friend had read the Goldstone report, she would know that many pages are devoted to the violations by Hamas and, indeed, some to the violations by Fatah. Out of the 428 pages, Goldstone devotes perhaps 20 or 30 to Fatah and Hamas, which seems a proportionate approach given that they are responsible for 13 deaths, rather then 1,300.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I must make progress. Universal jurisdiction is one way in which we can show how we disapprove of what is being done. Frankly, if the two Israeli officers had come to London last week, it would have been a good thing if they had been arrested and, indeed, prosecuted. The Foreign Secretary seems to think that arrest warrants would set the peace process back, but what sets the peace process back is the perception that the UK is applying double standards and enforcing international law against one country, but not against another.
I compliment my hon. Friend on his contribution and on securing the debate. Does he agree that gaining the universal arrest warrant in the wake of the Pinochet arrest was a major step forward for the cause of human rights in this country and around the world? It would be utterly deplorable if legislation were rushed through the House of Commons to remove what was a major advance in human rights law in this country and is held up as an example around the world. Does he agree that that would be a wholly wrong thing to do?
Indeed, I agree with my hon. Friend. What is more impressive is that Richard Goldstone cannot be dismissed as a friend of Hamas or as being worse than Ahmadinejad, as the Israelis tried to do. He regards himself as a Zionist and considers an independent inquiry into Gaza as being in Israel’s interests as well as that of the Palestinians. Goldstone agrees with my hon. Friend’s point. He is a veteran of inquiries into Rwanda and Serbia, he speaks with enormous authority on this matter, and he has come to the same conclusion as us.
The Goldstone report was set in motion after a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that stated from the outset that it holds Israel accountable for war crimes and that focused only on Israel. Is this not a case of being literally pre judice—prejudice?
I did not notice when the hon. Gentleman came in, but I dealt with that very point in my opening comments, when I said that I did not support the original motion before the Human Rights Council because it referred only to Israeli, but that the amended mandate refers to human rights violations by all parties before, during and after the conflict. We should judge the report as it has turned out, rather than by the motion of the Human Rights Council.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is not intentionally misleading the House, but the fact is that when Goldstone considered his mandate, he decided to go back only six months from the start of Cast Lead, not back over the eight years and 9,000 rocket attacks sent into Gaza by Hamas, which led the Israelis to have the justification of defending their people.
I assure my hon. Friend that if he reads the full report, Goldstone does go back and interprets before, during and after to mean putting the matter in the context of the whole history and going back over many years. However, the point is that after this exhaustive inquiry, Goldstone was driven to the very important conclusion that a lasting peace settlement will never be achieved unless the culture of impunity is ended and violations of international law are punished.
When an arrest warrant was issued for Tzipi Livni, the Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor was quoted in the papers as demanding a change in our law. Frankly, it is not his place to demand a change in our law; that is up to us. I for one would not support such a change. The Foreign Secretary said at the time that Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend so we should give the power to apply for arrest warrants to the Attorney-General. Is he suggesting that arrest warrants should be denied on the basis of friendship? Surely the Attorney-General is supposed to be entirely impartial in her legal role and changing the law in such a way would just feed the perception that double standards were being applied.
On the main point about the report—I will end my comments as soon as I can—it is a good thing that the Government did not vote against the Goldstone report and try to persuade our European partners not to oppose it. However, I also think that they should have voted in favour. The reason the Government gave for not doing so was that they wanted to give the Israelis and the Palestinians six months to conduct their own inquiries. That seems sensible, but, of course, that is what Goldstone recommends anyway. When the Goldstone report comes back to the General Assembly and goes to the Security Council, I urge strongly the Foreign Secretary to support it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I must finish now, because I can see from the number of hon. Members who are here that if I take much longer, I will impinge on their chances of speaking.
In conclusion, however much sympathy we have with Israel as a state and as an ideal, we must face the fact that how it behaved in Gaza and how it is behaving in the west bank is cruel, out of order, against international law, jeopardises world peace and is, importantly, against the interest of the Israelis. We have to take our courage in our hands and say that enough is enough. The international community must enforce international law—article 99, chapter 7 or whatever it takes—to make the UN an effective force for world peace.
We have a duty as signatories and guarantors of the Geneva convention, and we have a moral duty having contributed to the problem in the first place. We can no longer close our eyes to the fact that Israel is flagrantly in breach of the convention and of international law.
Order. Several hon. Members wish to speak in this important debate, so I remind them that I hope to call the Front Bench speakers soon after 12 o’clock. Members should therefore keep an eye on the time and limit their contributions to allow as many as possible to speak.
It is a pleasure to be here this morning, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate about British Government policy regarding the report of Judge Richard Goldstone following his investigation into Operation Cast Lead.
Although I concur with my hon. Friend on his description of the eminence of Judge Goldstone and his team, I will say that Judge Goldstone is not omnipotent and that there were flaws in his report. I support the view taken by Ministers here that his report is unjust in implying a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. He failed adequately to recognise Israel’s right to protect its citizens from murderous attacks and paid insufficient attention to Hamas’s acts of terrorism.
Judge Goldstone’s mission was limited by the mandate of the UN Human Rights Council, which was for an investigation of the military operations conducted in Gaza, excluding from his remit the seven years of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has mentioned. Israel estimates that, since October 2001, 9,000 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into its southern towns by Hamas. It is not good enough for Judge Goldstone to characterise those as acts by “Palestinian armed groups”. He was also mistaken when he decided to consider only actions in the entire occupied Palestinian territory and Israel from 19 June 2008.
Estimates vary, but I know that up to 1,380 people were killed during Operation Cast Lead, which is a shocking number of deaths. Many more were injured and made homeless and workless. However, the responsibility for those deaths lies at the door of Hamas. There is no Government represented at the UN that would tolerate a sustained and murderous attack on its citizens for a period of seven years such as that carried out by Hamas on Israel.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way in a moment.
There are victims on Israel’s side, too. I must at this point declare an interest, regarding a visit I made to Israel with Labour Friends of Israel in September, when the Judge’s report was published. During that visit I was fortunate to meet around 20 young men and women who lived in Sterodt, in the south of Israel. They had seen their classmates killed, blown up in the streets by Hamas rockets. Many had been injured, but they were stoic in their determination not to be driven out of their homes by terrorism.
They were without doubt traumatised. Their families were forced to adopt tactics that might seem almost comical: not being able to take a shower because for some families the shower was the bomb shelter and they might find themselves wet and without clothes in the presence of their entire family. Football can only be played under a protective shield mounted over a small piece of land. There are regular air raid warnings and drills to practise how to stay safe and minimise the risk of injury and death. That is no way to live. I repeat, which Government represented at the UN would tolerate such a threat to its citizens?
I, too, have visited Sterodt, and the fear of the people there that my right hon. Friend has described is absolutely genuine. However, if she is saying that the flaw in the Goldstone report was the time limit placed on the date from which it inquired, and she has talked about other things that should be looked at, why has she failed to mention the existence of the Hamas ceasefire long before Operation Cast Lead, or the blockade that existed in an extreme form since Hamas was elected to Government and in one form or other for a long time before that? If she wants to be balanced, why does she not mentioned those things?
It is precisely those sort of issues that could have been looked at had the Goldstone report’s remit not been so narrowly drawn by the UN Human Rights Council. The hon. Gentleman is my hon. Friend, but I disagree profoundly with him on this. I agree with the US Assistant Secretary of State, Michael Posner, who has accused the Human Rights Council of
“paying grossly disproportionate attention to one country, Israel. In the last five years the Council and its predecessor have commissioned more than 20 reports on Israel—far more than any other country in the world. Since its creation in 2006 it has passed 20 resolutions on Israel—more than the number of resolutions for all 191 other members combined.”
I believe that our Government are right to have withheld their vote in consideration of the flaws in the report.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. and learned Friend will allow me, I will make some progress.
More should be done to help ease the situation in Gaza. The EU announced last January its willingness to reactivate its border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing, but conditions have militated against that. Instead of admonishing Israel for seeking to protect its citizens from attack, will our Government work with EU partners to agree a substantial offer of assistance to facilitate the opening and operation of crossings into Gaza? What discussions has my hon. Friend the Minister had within the EU to bring that about? I am pleased to see him here this morning and am sure that he can shed light on the matter.
I have one final point, on universal jurisdiction. It is important that we bring to justice those guilty of crimes committed during warfare, but we should be ashamed of the fact that our judicial system can be manipulated so that a magistrate in a junior court can issue a warrant for the arrest of representatives of both Governments and the military from countries with whom we are friends and allies.—[Interruption.] I will explain. I am ashamed of the fact that Tzipi Livni, a woman of great stature and courage and a leader of her people, cannot come freely to Britain. It is nonsense that US and UK Ministers and generals might find themselves under similar restrictions in other countries. That area of law needs urgent review, and I ask the Minister what steps are being taken to correct that legal nonsense.
I will be brief so that other Members can speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate, on what he said and the way in which he said it. This is a debate in the British Parliament about accountability, and I have some specific points, which I would like the Minister to respond to when he replies, concerning the Goldstone report, the attitude taken at the UN Human Rights Council and the question of universal jurisdiction.
After the Gaza bombing had ceased and a ceasefire of a sort was in place, the Goldstone commission was set up, and it went into enormous detail to look at what was going on. He gave a comprehensive report, which is not, in my view, unbalanced or one-sided, because it makes criticisms of all parties. When the report was finally delivered to the UN Human Rights Council, the British Government’s representative, although not abstaining, extraordinarily did not participate in the discussion or vote at the end of the deliberations in Geneva. I would be grateful if the Minister explained exactly what the British Government’s representatives were doing at the time, because it seems to me that if we send representatives to the Human Rights Council in Geneva we expect them to be there, to participate in the discussions. If the British Government are not prepared to support the referral of the Goldstone commission’s report to the Security Council, they should do us the courtesy of explaining why. There appears to have been further obfuscation later on when it got to the UN Security Council.
I think Goldstone is a brave man. He stood out against apartheid. He is not an enemy of Israel. Indeed, he has quite strongly Zionist views, which many of us in this Chamber might or might not agree with. The fact is that he is a respected jurist around the world who has delivered an important report, and maybe we should treat it with some respect and have the matter dealt with properly by the Security Council.
The hon. Gentleman cites the authority of the UN Human Rights Council and its resolution as a source of legitimacy in the matter. Does he not recognise that some countries that voted in favour of the resolution and that have seats on the UN Human Rights Council have themselves grotesquely poor human rights records, such as Syria, Cuba and Saudi Arabia? To cite that as the authority on which to judge a liberal democracy is perhaps to apply double standards.
Most countries that are represented on the UN Human Rights Council have difficult human rights records, including the United States over Guantanamo Bay and this country over extraordinary rendition and the imprisonment of child asylum seekers. Many other countries have serious human rights questions to be asked of them. I do not resile from that, and I understand the points that are being made. None the less, the Minister must explain why the British Government representative could not bring themselves to take part in the decision to refer the matter to the Security Council. I am sure that the hon. Member for Harwich will agree with me on that point, if not on the other points that I have made concerning the matter.
The Goldstone report goes into a lot of detail about the destruction of economic and civilian life in Gaza. It mentions the deliberate destruction of houses, water tanks and centres of employment and economic life. It was not just a retaliatory attack, but an intention to destroy the very economic fibre of Gaza and reduce its people to the misery and poverty with which they are forced to survive at the present time. It was a wanton act of destruction that was disproportionate to the alleged threat that Israel was facing at the time because a ceasefire was already in operation.
One of the things that struck me about Operation Cast Lead was how Israel, which prides itself on being a democracy, kept all foreign journalists on a hill outside the Gaza strip so that they could not witness what was taking place. Does my hon. Friend agree that such behaviour is not the way in which a democracy operates?
Absolutely. The whole point about a democracy is that it opens itself up to accountability and observation. Israel made very sure that journalists could not get into Gaza. We should be grateful to al-Jazeera and others that remained in Gaza throughout the conflict for sending live footage of what was going on. Such action probably helped to hasten the end of the conflict rather than prolong it, which is what would have happened had they not been there.
Those of us who visited Gaza before the conflict and Operation Cast Lead are aware that the economic damage to which my hon. Friend refers was being inflicted even then and is still being inflicted now by the blockade. I am sure that we all welcomed the Prime Minister’s support for an end to the blockade in Prime Minister’s questions last week, but does my hon. Friend agree that we need action and not words on this?
Absolutely. I first visited Gaza in 1998 post-Oslo. There was an amazing air of optimism around. Developments were under way and farming, education and employment were all growing; it was a great time. Go there now, and one will see the horrors, destruction and misery of life for ordinary people. In effect, the people of Gaza are imprisoned. Let us put that in a wider context. When the police in this country decide to surround a demonstration and perform a “kettling” operation, people quite quickly become angry, annoyed and distressed. They either turn on each other or on the police, and very quickly a nasty conflict develops. Think of the people of Gaza who are under occupation. They cannot travel, move, work or live a normal life. Those who have managed to develop industries and employment or who have tried to create a sense of community saw it all destroyed in Operation Cast Lead.
If we wish to bring about peace in the area, we must stop the occupation of the west bank and the imprisonment of the people of Gaza. The borders must be open and respect shown for the democratic process within Gaza and the west bank that has resulted in elected Government. Whether one likes it or not, that must fundamentally be what the democratic process is about.
Lastly, I want to turn to universal jurisdiction, which I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. I was deeply involved in the whole issue of General Pinochet, including his arrival in this country on an arms-buying spree, his eventual arrest on an extradition warrant from Spain and the historic decision by the House of Lords to declare universal jurisdiction on human rights matters to be competent for British courts. It was good enough then, and many people were very pleased with it, because General Pinochet’s popularity had not lasted. People said, “This is a good thing. We are bringing murderers to justice.” However, now that the Foreign Secretary and others see Israel as an ally, it is seen to be inconvenient to apply a similar process to people who said that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and who ordered the bombing of civilian installations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Surely they, too, have humanitarian law questions to answer in British courts should they show up in this country.
I am proud of the fact that we have universal jurisdiction in British courts, and I will in no way support the reduction of that right in any parliamentary move that is made by the Government. When the Minister replies, I suggest that he tells us that that nonsense has been dropped and that we will stick with our human rights law and universal jurisdiction. If that means that people such as Tzipi Livni cannot come here unless they are prepared to answer legal questions, so be it. It might discourage other people from bombing civilian targets in the future. Surely that is the whole point of having that law and of international human rights law.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on obtaining this important debate. I should like to touch briefly on the important legal implications of the Goldstone report rather than its content, which has been dealt with extensively by my hon. Friend with his usual clarity and articulation. Goldstone is unique; there has never been such a meticulous and judicial analysis of atrocity within so short a time of those atrocities being committed either by a nation state or by others. I have read the report and already it has achieved the iconic status that is normally, in literary terms, reserved for “Ulysses”. We always used to ask each other, “Have you actually read “Ulysses”?” The answer was a test of both one’s veracity and virility.
And one’s stamina.
Yes, and stamina. We now ask each other who has read Goldstone. I have, and found it a harrowing and dreadful experience. Worse than the destruction of schools and hospitals and the wanton blowing up of civilian targets is the wanton destruction of 40 per cent. of the agricultural output of Gaza. I have one rhetorical question that I wanted to ask when I tried to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). How does a country defend its people by wantonly destroying 40 per cent. of the agricultural capacity? More than anything else, it is the casual cruelty that is the most devastating. Goldstone mentions the casual shooting of children and civilians while soldiers do nothing except eat on the top of a tank. Effectively, they are doing it for fun. That reawakens images of the worst regiments of history; images with which my generation were brought up. I am talking about images of the Waffen SS doing precisely the same thing. That is what is so horrifying in the Goldstone report.
Let me briefly touch on the even-handedness of Goldstone. The Goldstone report centres on Israel and the actions of the Israeli army because 1,440 people have been injured and killed—including 400 children—by that army. It is hardly surprising that Goldstone concentrates on such matters. Israel is an immensely prosperous state that is supported by the most prosperous state on Earth and many of the most prosperous institutions. It is a state that, ever since I entered politics, I have supported and worked for its right to exist. It is a state born out of indescribable suffering, which happened in my lifetime. So, I do not take any criticism from those who might say that I am anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli—I am not and never have been—but Gaza opened the eyes of people like me, who had been quiet for far too long on the issue.
What happened in Gaza is chronicled in Goldstone. What is the effect?
I welcome the debate. I come from a similar background to my hon. and learned Friend and have been going to that part of world since before I came into this place. Does it disturb him, as it disturbs me, that people use “democracy” and the existence of an internal electoral system that appoints a Parliament as an excuse—a smoke-and-mirrors scheme to hide behind—to justify the actions of what anyone else would say has become a pariah state?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Democracy, laudable though it undoubtedly is, is only one hallmark of civilisation; how one behaves in that democracy is another. The Third Reich started out as a democracy; Hamas is a democracy; democracy is not the only thing. The repetition of the phrase, “This is the only democracy in the middle east”, with Israel therefore deserving some special treatment, is costing us dear in international terms and in international relations.
Briefly, on the legal consequences of Goldstone, does the report have a legal base in British jurisprudence? Yes, it most certainly does—it is evidence. Ironically, one of the reasons why it is evidence is because of the extreme loosening of the evidential barriers effected by the Government in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, in the teeth of opposition from people such as myself. None the less, that is the effect: Goldstone is an evidential document in British jurisdiction, and may be used as such.
The hon. and learned Gentleman mentions the examples of brutality cited in Goldstone, which are based on examples provided to Goldstone by non-governmental organisation evidence. The NGO evidence, as Goldstone himself stated, was based almost entirely on unverifiable publications from politicised NGOs, such as the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, whose analysis it is fair to say is not wholly objective. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept that some of the evidence base in Goldstone is highly questionable and that the report is not the objective document that he pretends it to be?
That interpretation of Goldstone is highly selective, but let me answer the real question, which came at the end: do I not accept that some of the evidence in Goldstone is questionable? Of course I do. I have been a criminal barrister for a long time and have prosecuted and defended—I am happy or unhappy to say—some of the most venal, serious, dangerous, nasty and on occasion violent crimes that have been committed in this jurisdiction. Of course I know that all evidence needs to be tested. That is why the report needs to be tested in a proper arena; it needs to be tested in a British court, or in a court. Brought before such a judicial test, it may well be that some parts of the report will be found wanting. Frankly, I disagree—the report is a devastating indictment, in its form, its content and the nature and background of the man who wrote it. However, that is all that it is: an indictment. That indictment cries out to be tried.
Now I come to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which so shames my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, who would take no interventions on the subject. Let us deal with universal jurisdiction, which she finds so abhorrent. In the case of Tzipi Livni—not a case in which I was retained—inevitably what happened was that evidence was placed before a British district judge, of whom there is no criticism at all. I shall listen carefully to the Minister’s reply, when he comes to deal with the issue. If he says that the district judge can be criticised, he is wholly at odds with the Foreign Secretary, who has spoken to me in such terms as, “There is no criticism of that district judge.” That district judge, on the evidence placed before him or her—I do not know which, but it was a Westminster district judge—found that there was a prima facie case to answer, because of the evidence of the atrocities committed in Gaza and the authority exercised by Tzipi Livni at the time.
That is the British system. In our system, we have the contribution of the citizen to a degree not exemplified elsewhere. We have jury trial, for instance—the first trial without a jury starts today, ironically, but the basis of our system is still jury trial. The citizen decides; the citizen can initiate process; and the citizen can go to a district judge and put evidence before the judge—if the evidence is there, process will issue. That is our system and I find nothing shameful in that at all. What I find shameful is the speed with which our Prime Minister got in touch with the Israeli Government and told them that there was something wrong with our judicial process. What I find shameful is that the Attorney-General—our Attorneys-General in this Government have a lot to answer for in how they have used their office in the build-up to the Iraq war and now this—going to a Hebrew university, talked about war “lawfare” and said:
“Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely in the United Kingdom”.
Why? Why should Israel’s leaders “always” be able to travel, no matter what they do or the atrocities committed by their Government, army and the Israeli defence force on their behalf? Why? The time has long gone in this world when those who commit war crimes can believe that they can travel with impunity and immunity into civilised states and not face universal jurisdiction.
The hon. and learned Gentleman comes from a proud tradition of the British left of being staunchly anti-imperial and anti-imperialist. Is there not something vaguely imperial about the ambition of universal jurisdiction, the idea that a British court can detain and arrest the leader of another country? Is that not an inversion of the anti-imperial tradition of which he used to be an advocate?
It is not just our courts, but all the courts of any country that has signed the fourth Geneva convention and its protocol. That is the point; the jurisdiction is universal, which is the precise opposite of colonial. It is a universal jurisdiction, so that those who commit war crimes and atrocities know that their movement will be restricted in the world. Ironically, those who denied the freedom of movement to others, find that movement is denied to them.
I shall oppose—I very much hope that the wider House will oppose—any attempt to restrict universal jurisdiction at the behest of any state, however powerful, whose leaders are accused and against whom there is prima facie evidence of committing such crimes.
Was my hon. and learned Friend ashamed of a British Prime Minister referring to the report as describing the “crimes” of Hamas and the “alleged crimes” of Israel? Has not that perception of a lack of even-handedness—that kind of hard power—aroused the antagonism of much of the Muslim community, in our local mosques and throughout the world, and fuelled the terrorist threats?
I agree. The perception of partiality in respect of Israel has long dogged not just this Government but British Governments generally. It is high time that such partiality finished, with the way that is articulated—the semantics used—carefully chosen.
I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate, because it is a year on since last winter’s devastating Gaza conflict and we now have the report from Goldstone. I agree with the Government that the report raises serious questions that need to be answered but at the same time is pretty flawed.
[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]
I asked the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) a parliamentary question about the report and he set out the flaws in November last year: it did not adequately recognise Israel’s right to protect its citizens or pay sufficient attention to Hamas’s actions; it made broad assertions about detailed interpretation of international law over which we differ; and it lacked an authority of Israeli perspective, so crucial to determining the legality of the actions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) mentioned the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, targeted at innocent civilians in southern Israel, which constituted a breach of international humanitarian law but was not addressed. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, there have been 9,000 such attacks since October 2001.
We have heard a lot about international universal jurisdiction and the way that the Goldstone report was used to attempt the arrest in December last year of Tzipi Livni, Leader of the Opposition in Israel and former Foreign Minister. Hamas has since admitted that it worked in co-ordination with lawyers in this country on that case to try to achieve that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, that has led to the cessation of visits by Israeli leaders and senior officials, dangerously affecting our relations with that country and, more importantly, our influence over the middle east peace process.
I should like to say a few words in support of the commitments made by the Attorney-General in Jerusalem earlier this month, and the Foreign Secretary last month, to look at ways in which the system can be reformed, because if we are going to retain our strategic partnership with Israel and continue to have a constructive role in any middle east conflict it is vital that Israeli visitors, whether in government or not, are able to come to this country for meetings with UK politicians and the wider community. It is important to recognise that Ms Livni is a strong proponent of the two-state solution and of renewing peace negotiations, yet her visit was cancelled, so she could not discuss with our Government those specific issues that would help the peace process rather than hinder it. That is the consequence of this action.
I would like to see the law reforms. I support the principle of universal jurisdiction for international law, but I would like to see our courts protected from being used as campaign forums by politically motivated groups that are not really interested in justice, but are interested in scoring party political or other political points in this long-running conflict in the middle east, which is not going to be resolved in courts of law. Our courts have been left dangerously open to political manipulation and being brought into disrepute. There is a way forward by allowing the Attorney-General to decide whether this should happen. The Attorney-General is, in the end, responsible for deciding which prosecutions should go ahead, based on the likelihood of both a conviction and a public interest test. We may have the embarrassment of leaders being arrested but no prosecution following on from that.
Although this state of affairs has little appeal to those who have serious concerns, it is now attracting the efforts of those seeking to use our law to embarrass foreign political leaders who they dislike. We need international, universal jurisdiction to deal with people such as the genocidaires from Rwanda and war criminals from Bosnia and Serbia, and the war lord from Afghanistan who was prosecuted successfully, but this is not what it was designed or intended for.
If my hon. Friend is saying that a better way of operating the law of universal jurisdiction would be to involve the Attorney-General at an earlier stage in determining whether there should be arrest, not just deciding whether there should be a prosecution, does he think it was wise for that same post-holder—the Attorney-General—to go to Israel and give a guarantee in advance that, as far as the British Government are concerned, no Israeli leader would be arrested if they came to the UK? Is not that rather prejudicing her office?
I do not think that is right. I think we had a serious diplomatic problem with Israel that needed to be resolved sensibly. The approach being adopted by the Foreign Secretary, with whom I discussed this matter last night, is sensible. We need to work with the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign Office to find a sensible solution to this issue to enable us to prosecute people such as the Rwandan genocidaires, yet at the same time play a constructive role in the middle east peace process, which these efforts hinder.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If I give way any more, nobody else is going to get in.
The Government have rightly called for Israel to conduct an independent inquiry into what happened, as did Goldstone, and this call has been echoed by international partners as well as many NGOs. I welcome the answer given by Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead in the other place to a parliamentary question earlier this month, saying that the Israeli authorities have carried out, or are currently undertaking, investigations into 140 separate incidents, including but not limited to the 34 highlighted by Goldstone inquiry. Although those investigations are being carried out by the IDF and not by an independent body, which would be preferable, the fact that Israel is conducting these inquiries should not be ignored. Too often Israel is painted as a country incapable of self-scrutiny. Yet we only need to look back as far as 2006, to the Winograd investigation and to 2005, to the Sasson Report, to know that this is far from true. Winograd was in response to the Lebanon conflict in 2006 and Sasson was commissioned to look into the funding of settlement expansion.
Sasson exposed the fact that state bodies were covertly diverting funds to settlements improperly and the Winograd report was critical of the military strategy employed in the second Lebanon war, particularly the decision to respond with an immediate intensive military strike, following the kidnapping of Israeli servicemen Ehud and Goldwasser. Israel has, in the past, conducted proper inquiries into such matters, found itself wanting and acted accordingly.
Israel has established a legal system that is respected throughout the world, with a Supreme Court that is open to all, with few restrictions on its jurisdiction. On 29 December 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a 14 km west bank stretch of Israel’s highway 443, a main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, should not be closed to Palestinians, despite the military’s fears that after six Israeli deaths on the road in terror attacks during the second intifada, opening the road could result in more deaths of Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that that road should be opened.
I highlight these points because they are too often overlooked. Although our Government were right to call for Israel to conduct an inquiry into possible breaches of international law during the Gaza conflict, although the Goldstone is merely an indictment not a proven fact, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said—unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) who, on introducing the debate, effectively took it as proven fact—and although Israel’s current investigations may not be perfect, it is right that we give Israel the opportunity to show the international community that it is taking these allegations seriously.
We should at least wait to hear the outcome of Israel’s investigation before offering premature condemnations, such as we have heard today. Israel may establish a fully independent inquiry.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, there is not time.
Several prominent Members of the Knesset, including Kadima party MK and chair of the Israel-United Kingdom Parliamentary Friendship League, Nachman Shai, have called for such a judicial inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in response to Goldstone.
Israel is entitled, as a liberal democracy, to time to respond to the Goldstone report fully. I do not see any sign of Hamas setting up an inquiry into the war crimes that it is alleged to have committed, with considerable evidence behind the allegations, such as rocketing Israeli civilians indiscriminately or using its own citizens as human shields effectively to maximise casualties to create the pressure on Israel that we have seen. Only last week, there were three rockets fired into and 10 mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza, endangering innocent lives as well as the efforts of the international community to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations restarted. The situation in Gaza is unlikely to improve while these attacks are still occurring and Hamas refuses to renounce violence.
Although I disagree with the level of restrictions imposed by Israel at the crossings into Gaza, we should not forget the threat that Israel faces. Removing these restrictions means that Hamas and other terrorist groups will have greater opportunity to smuggle in weapons and carry out terrorist attacks. Hamas has, in the past, used such building materials to fortify its military infrastructure and construct weapons. Egypt’s recent blocking of crossings from Egypt into Gaza, and the fact that it deported the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), are signs of its changing attitude to some of the problems that it is now seeing, which Israel has seen for a long time.
Mr. Hood, I do not want to take up any more time. Our Government have the right approach to both international universal jurisdiction and the Goldstone report. I commend them on their stance so far and hope that that will continue and that there will be an early announcement on how they intend to deal with universal jurisdiction.
Order. I hope to start winding up round about 12 o’clock.
Mr. Hood, I take your hint.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, I was an eye witness to the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Gaza—as were my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)—as part of the first parliamentary delegation into Gaza after the withdrawal of the IDF. Therefore the report has a certain poignancy, in addition to that felt by other hon. Members who have taken the trouble to read it.
Yes, we did see the destruction of entire villages, hospitals, some of the 280 schools and some of the 95 per cent. of private industry that was destroyed. We saw the destruction of civil society, including police stations. Nearly 250 police officers were killed in deliberate bombing attacks, most on the first day of the bombing. Yes, we did stand in the rubble of the legislature in Gaza and we spoke to some of its democratically elected Members. I thought that that would have some resonance for hon. Members in this House, even those who seem to have a blind spot in discussing this issue—unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea—and seeing both sides of the argument.
Yes, there were atrocities on both sides, but disproportionately and massively, more atrocities were committed by Israeli forces. If the deaths of 352 children are not a murderous act as my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said, I do not know what is. We saw the evidence of white phosphorous having been used; it was still reignitable three weeks after the troops had left. Yes, I have been to Ashkelon and seen the conditions that people live in and yes, that is intolerable, but it is a functioning modern city, as Sderot is. One cannot make a comparison between the suffering of people in Gaza and the suffering of people in Israel in that respect.
I shall mention two other points. The first, which is dealt with in the Goldstone report, is the suppression by the Israeli authorities of organisations such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, and the bombing of UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—facilities. Again, the eyewitness reports that we received and the people we met, mainly through the facility of those well respected organisations, are also unable to tell their story to the outside world. Of course, the siege continues. Only 15 per cent. of the trade that was getting into Gaza before the blockade started is getting there now.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister two questions. First, please will he address what the Government’s attitude to the Goldstone report is now and why, given the time that has elapsed, the Government cannot come off the fence and say that the allegations made in Goldstone ought to be investigated? Secondly, the universal jurisdiction point is not about the dark arts of diplomacy and Government-to-Government discussions; it is an important point about civil liberties for this country. Many hon. Members, as well as many of our constituents, will not stomach attempts by the British Government to remove traditions that we are very proud of in this country simply because somebody described as an international partner requests us to do so.
In the context of what is happening in the middle east, the failure to secure a settlement freeze, the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, the effect that has on moderates and particularly President Abbas at the moment, in the west bank and the Gaza strip, the Goldstone report and universal jurisdiction are vital not just as arcane debating points here, but to our constituents and to the Palestinian people in Gaza and the west bank.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has done the House a great service by proposing the debate. All the contributions so far show that people are engaged and feel very strongly on both sides.
When an action such as Operation Cast Lead happens, it is right that we get to the facts. Those of us who saw the pictures on television, whether from al-Jazeera or other sources, and who heard the reports coming out of Gaza at the time said we felt that the action was disproportionate and there was a case for investigating allegations of war crimes on both sides.
I was delighted to be invited and felt strongly enough to go to Gaza to see the situation for myself, as part of the parliamentary delegation that was mentioned. The facts that we saw on the ground in a limited, restricted way, given our time and ability to verify things, only confirmed what we had seen on television—that the destruction was huge and wanton. Some of the villages we saw had been targeted not just for military targets, but for civilian targets. We talked to people who lived there, who said that first they had been fired on from the air, then the tanks had fired on their houses and, because some were still standing, the troops then came in, laid charges and blew the rest of the houses down. We went to that village, stood on the rubble and saw house after house that had been destroyed, so if anyone tells me that they think that was correct action, fair action and along the lines of international law, I cannot accept it.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman; I hope he will answer that point.
We all recognise that there have been many victims of the conflict and many horrific things happened, but will the hon. Gentleman also recognise that some of the victims are casualties of the terrorist tactic of launching attacks from close proximity to civilian centres?
We visited Ashkelon and saw the damage that had been done by Hamas rockets, and the report is very clear, quite rightly, that firing by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups from Gaza indiscriminately on Israeli civilians is a war crime and a crime against humanity. I condemn every single one of those rockets fired indiscriminately against civilians. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is talking about where they were fired from, but I do not know how he knows where they were all fired from. Some were clearly fired from civilian centres, but if he thinks that justifies wiping out—razing to the ground—a whole village, he is coming at this from a different political perspective from mine.
We did not just visit homes and speak to people. We saw the hospitals and schools that had been destroyed. We went to an ice cream factory. The report talks about the cement factory, the flour mill and the water and sewage works, but we also saw ice cream factories. We met a Palestinian entrepreneur who had been working with Israeli businesses for 20 or 30 years, supplying ice cream to Israel, and had been one of the moderates in Gaza, trying to get free enterprise going in Gaza. He told us that he was absolutely disillusioned by the Israelis, how his business had been destroyed, how people had been thrown out of work and that it was completely unjustifiable because he had never allowed any Hamas militant anywhere near his factories.
Those are the facts about what we saw, but I readily confess that it was limited and could not be verified on every account. The question is how far Judge Goldstone’s report gets to the truth. It cannot get all the way there. Israel refused to take part, so the mission did not hear from both sides, which is a limitation of the report, but Judge Goldstone can hardly be criticised for that.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the fact that the Israelis refused to take part enhances the perception of bias in the whole report and that it would have been much more helpful if there had been co-operation from the Israelis?
Of course. My point is that the Goldstone report cannot be criticised because one party refused to give evidence.
There are some valid criticisms of the report. One is that the resolution tabled at the UN to create the debate on the report and the follow-through from the report was biased. It was not as balanced as the report itself. The Government did not actually abstain—they were not in the room—but I can understand why they would have abstained if they had been in the room, because of the limitations of the resolution.
However, some of the other criticisms levelled at the Goldstone report do not stand up to analysis. People talk about a biased mandate. Judge Goldstone amended the mandate to ensure that it was balanced and brought in the issue of rockets fired on civilians from Gaza.
People say that the report is politically motivated; they talk about many of the shortcomings of the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, the report was written not by the Human Rights Council, but by one of the world’s greatest jurists, who is an expert at looking into war crimes as a result of his experience in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
One criticism says that the report did not adequately recognise Israel’s right to protect its citizens. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the report’s mandate. The report was not set up to look into the legality of the war, but to look into the behaviour of all parties during that conflict. Therefore, I do not think that criticism can undermine the findings and thrust of the Goldstone report.
I am particularly taken by the findings of the expert meeting convened at Chatham House at the end of November last year, referred to briefly by the hon. Member for Battersea. It involved a number of experts in international and humanitarian law: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, whom people will know as the former Foreign Office legal adviser, Professor Matthew Craven, Dr. Catriona Drew, Professor Charles Garraway, Professor Steven Haines, Professor Françoise Hampson and Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. Together, they were an extremely experienced and expert group to consider issues of international law. They looked into the criticisms of the procedural aspects of Goldstone and their report concluded:
“The meeting was of the view that the Report was very far from being invalidated by the criticisms. The Report raised extremely serious issues which had to be addressed. It contained compelling evidence on some incidents.”
That is the judgment of independent academics who are experts in the field, and therefore I do not think that the report can be dismissed. I hope that the Government will tell us what they intend to do at the UN and regarding their relations with Israel, to ensure that the report is answered; it cannot be shelved. We need to hear the full answers, and to ensure that people are held to account. Any moves to undermine the need for accountability on such matters should be opposed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who would have responded to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, has asked me to express his apologies. He is visiting Tokyo at the invitation of the Japanese Government.
The contributions that we have heard this morning from both sides of the House show the strength of feeling about Gaza that exists among members of all political parties. What happened in Gaza during the Israeli military action 12 months ago was an appalling human tragedy, and today the people of Gaza—1 million or more of our fellow human beings—continue to suffer. The debate has also shown how opinions about events in Gaza have become polarised, which reflects the stark division of opinion in the middle east itself. To most Israelis, Operation Cast Lead was a necessity, a national duty even. Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza strip—dismantling its settlements and evicting settlers by force—and she hoped for peace. Instead, she saw Gaza taken over by a group dedicated to Israel’s destruction and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. When I talk to Israeli representatives, I find that they express regret about the loss of life among civilians in Gaza, but they point to the fact that in 2008 and 2009 more than 1,750 rockets and more than 1,500 mortar shells were fired into Israel. To most Israelis, including men and women passionately committed to peace and to a two-state solution, military action in Gaza was justified by the need to protect their fellow citizens.
In the Arab and the wider Muslim world, an utterly different narrative is heard. The argument there is that an imperfect but more or less effective ceasefire was wrecked by Israeli incursions into Gaza, which prompted retaliatory attacks from Hamas. Night after night, television screens showed shocking graphic images of women and children killed and maimed by Israeli bullets and shells. Not only Syria and Iran, but traditionally more moderate countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, reacted with anger.
We can understand why Israel felt compelled to take action to protect her citizens from rocket attacks, but there can be no doubt that the war in Gaza has damaged prospects for peace in the middle east and Israel’s hopes for permanent security along with it, and has caused an immense and continuing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip. We shall not get an enduring peace in the middle east unless that legacy can be addressed, and both political and economic progress can be made with regard to Gaza. That includes addressing the serious and grave allegations of human rights violations that have been made against both the Israeli defence forces and Hamas. Throughout the conflict, we called for those allegations to be fully investigated, and we have supported the establishment of a UN fact-finding mission to Gaza and the work of Judge Goldstone. It is a pity that the Israeli Government decided not to engage with the commission, because the consequence is that the report lacks an authoritative Israeli perspective on the military and legal criteria that the Israeli defence force used.
Like the Government, we think that the Goldstone report has flaws. It refers to the rocket attacks on Israel, describing them in paragraph 108 as probable war crimes, and it also denounces how Gilad Shalit is being held and criticises Hamas for the murder and abuse of its political opponents inside Gaza, but those paragraphs make up only a small proportion of a report, the bulk of which deals with allegations against the Israeli forces and makes severe criticisms of them. It does not adequately recognise Israel’s legal right to protect its citizens; nor does it pay sufficient attention to the actions of Hamas.
We continue to believe that the allegations listed in the Goldstone report need to be fully investigated, and addressed by both Israel and the Palestinians. It is a pity that the resolution tabled at the UN Human Rights Council was so utterly one-sided, failing even to mention Hamas by name. That is why we called on the Government to vote against the resolution. The Government’s action in instructing the British delegate to leave the room rather than to vote either way, or even record a formal abstention, was an abdication of responsibility.
The Goldstone report also deals at length with the humanitarian problems in Gaza, which were made much worse by the war and continue today. We want to see the crossing points reopened as soon as possible, to allow food, medical and hospital supplies to be brought in without limit. The Israeli authorities have told us that they believe such humanitarian aid is being allowed through but that Hamas activists prevent it from reaching ordinary people. The aid agencies tell us that basic needs are still not being met. Will the Minister give us the British Government’s assessment of the adequacy of food and medical supplies reaching Gaza, and what action they are taking to improve matters on the ground?
In a written answer dated 2 November 2009, the Government said that the United Kingdom had not yet been able to spend any of the £20 million of funding earmarked for reconstruction in Gaza because of restrictions imposed by Israel on the entry of building materials. The essential reconstruction of homes, schools and health facilities is not happening, and well over half of Gaza’s population does not have daily access to water. That state of affairs is morally wrong, and can surely only add to the bitterness that will make political reconciliation even more difficult to achieve. What actions are the Government taking both bilaterally and through the European Union to find ways to accelerate the pace of reconstruction in Gaza? What is the status of negotiations to reopen the crossing points, and does the Minister believe that there might need to be some kind of international presence on the ground to help to overcome the political obstacles to restoring the normal flow of goods for civilian use?
One consequence of events in Gaza has been the increased risk to Israeli politicians of arrest if they visit the United Kingdom, as we have heard in today’s debate. It is essential that Israeli leaders should be able to come to this country to talk about bilateral relations, and in particular about the middle east peace process. I note that the Attorney-General said recently that the Government intended to address that problem, possibly by changes to legislation, but I hope that the Minister will give us a bit more detail when he replies.
It is in the interests of the United Kingdom to see a genuine and enduring peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. In our view, that settlement has to be based upon a two-state solution in which Gaza forms an integral part of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. Such a solution is vital to the future safety and security of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate. He has always been a courageous politician, who speaks out on the issues that matter most to him, and I hope that he has a successful year. I also congratulate him on how he has advanced his cause. Many of us saw the horrific events last year, and have responded all around the world with heartfelt concern for those affected. My hon. Friend put his case very well.
The Government’s position starts firmly from the belief that, in all our responses, we should focus on the desirability of an enduring peace in the middle east. All hon. Members will know the Government’s position, but I state for the record that we believe in a two-state solution, with a viable—not violable, as I believe I heard the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) say—Palestinian state and Israel secure within her borders.
Of course, as two of my hon. Friends said, Israel has an absolute right to protect itself. However, that does not give it carte blanche to use any means that it wants, and nor does it allow it to stray beyond the bounds of what is morally right or what is legally right under international law—or, for that matter, under its own law.
Similarly, Israel has a right to build homes for its people, but it does not have the right to build homes exactly where it chooses. We have made it absolutely clear that we are critical of all plans to continue with the settlement process, particularly in East Jerusalem. We believe that Israel should stop all illegal settlements. Indeed, that is why we supported the statement made at the European Council’s December meeting:
“The Council is deeply concerned about the situation in East Jerusalem. In view of recent incidents, it calls on all parties to refrain from provocative actions. The Council recalls that it has never recognised the annexation of East Jerusalem. If there is to be genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.”
That is strongly our view as well.
We also urge upon Israel the absolute seriousness of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which was mentioned by several hon. Members. It is morally indefensible to kettle the Palestinian people. The hon. Member for Braintree asked about the Government’s view on enabling the reconstruction of Gaza. We do not believe that that is moving fast enough. With our colleagues in the European Union, we have urged Israel to be open to much more humanitarian aid. We are not able to provide the support that we stand ready to give, and we urge Israel to do more.
The Minister says that we should ensure that we do not kettle the people of Gaza. Two countries border Gaza. Egypt, too, has responsibilities in that regard.
Yes, of course. That is why we want to ensure that humanitarian aid can get through. However, aid is also needed to enable people to rebuild homes that were destroyed a year ago. To us, that seems a vital part of the ongoing peace process. That is why I am glad that the European Union came to a clear view on the matter before Christmas. The continued policy of closure was unacceptable and, we believe, politically counter-productive.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend when he is in full flow. The EU passed a view on that point, but may I press him on the matter? Will the EU, and my hon. Friend in discussion with other Ministers, do more than take a view and come together to see whether solutions cannot be found to help Israel find ways to open the border crossing?
Yes. There is constant discussion between our Prime Minister and others, particularly Mr. Sarkozy, the President of France, about how we might do that. However, I do not want to underestimate the difficulties. Of course, while Hamas refuses to renounce violence, it will always be more difficult. I return to the fact that, especially in winter months, there is a real humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We want to see humanitarian aid and other aid get through as fast as possible.
Several hon. Members spoke of universal jurisdiction. We wholeheartedly support that concept. That is why we have always supported the International Criminal Court. On a slightly different point, it is why we have always supported the European arrest warrant. There are crimes that need to be prosecuted, whether through the European arrest warrant or the international arrest warrant. We need people to appear before a court, and to be prosecuted. However, the direct parallel with General Pinochet drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is a slightly different matter.
I was disappointed that, for a time, it was not possible to bring Pinochet to trial for the undoubtedly criminal acts that he ordered in Chile, not least because several of my friends were killed there under his dictatorship. That case was slightly different, however; the problem was extradition. In the present case, it is vital that international war crimes are prosecuted. It seems odd and unusual that in England and Wales—but not in Scotland, which has a different legal system—arrest warrants can be sought and issued without the prior request of the police or the advice of a prosecutor. That is different from what pertains in many other countries. The key point is that we wholeheartedly support the concept of universal jurisdiction. The question is how it is prosecuted in individual countries. Discussions about how we can move forward are ongoing, and I hope that they will bear fruit in the near future.
The problem with the Minister’s description is this: if the law is changed to allow the universal arrest warrant to be issued against individuals only with the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney-General—or the Home Secretary, the equivalent of the Minister of the Interior—one moves straight into the political field. We have already heard statements from Ministers here that Israeli Ministers and leaders, whoever they might be, must be free to travel in this country. That suggests that the ability to obtain an arrest warrant through a district judge is a powerful and important instrument for human rights and humanitarian law.
In some aspects, my hon. Friend has a point. It is not that the Government want literally any politician, anywhere in the world, to be free to come to the UK because we want a conversation with them. However, I push it back to my hon. Friend: if we are to secure peace in the middle east it would be difficult were politicians—it is different for Ministers, as they would not be caught—not able to travel to the UK. We have an important role.
I give way first to the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell).
Briefly, on the Tzipi Livni case, will we change the law? Yes or no? If so, when?
The hon. Gentleman did not quite catch me saying that discussions are ongoing, but I am sorry to say that I shall disappoint him. I am not able to reveal what the Government intend, but I hope that we will soon be able to do so. We support the idea of universal jurisdiction, but how it is applied in the UK is a matter for us to consider. None the less, other countries would not be able to move to a prosecution without a prosecutor having made a case, and without the police having requested a warrant. It is important that we move to a system under which politicians from Israel—and, for that matter, other countries—should be able to travel to the UK, but as I said earlier, it should not be a carte blanche arrangement for all.
That goes to the heart of why people believe that there are double standards. The Minister refers to what the Government are looking at doing in relation to the question of international jurisdiction and its applicability in the UK. In relation to settlements, the blockade and Goldstone, he speaks not of what the Government are doing but of what they are saying. If they are going to do something about universal jurisdiction, what will they do to ensure that the Goldstone report is properly investigated and the matter tried in an internationally recognised institution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews); it is a sadness that Parliament will not have the benefit of his counsel after the election. However, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) both said that evidence needs to be tested. They are right.
I pay tribute to many elements of the Goldstone report. There were 188 interviews, and more than 300 reports were reviewed. However, it does not provide the whole story. The report itself acknowledges that, but it was for reasons to do with Israel’s not providing evidence and not engaging with the report, which we deprecate. We wish that Israel had taken part.