With permission, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the “Free Gaza” flotilla, on the immediate action that the Government have taken, and on our planned next steps.
In the early hours of 31 May, the Israeli defence forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the “Free Gaza” flotilla. The incident led to injury and deaths of a number of passengers, mainly on one of the vessels. We await details of all the casualties and fatalities, but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively to offer our condolences. The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats have been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe that they are en route to Gaza.
I can inform the House that it now appears that a total of 37 British nationals were involved in Sunday’s events. That is different from the number given by the Prime Minister a short time ago, which was based on what the Israeli ambassador had said previously. I spoke to our ambassador in Tel Aviv in the past 45 minutes or so before coming to the Chamber, and I repeat that the latest figures are of 37 British nationals, including 11 dual nationals. We have so far received access to 28 of those individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon. We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part, and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British nationals detained and access to all of them. We are urgently pressing the Israeli Government to resolve the situation within hours.
There is real, understandable and justified anger at the events that have unfolded. The Government’s position is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However, we have made clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life, and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The United Nations Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence that resulted in the loss of these lives. We continue to demand urgent information and access to all United Kingdom nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support for the families, who are understandably very worried. We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British nationals in international waters, and that aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into the events.
The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has been in close contact with the Israeli ambassador in London. The embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have already been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about their constituents and their families, and who have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved, and the need to keep Members updated.
Israel has told us that it wants to move as quickly as possible to deport people from the flotilla who are currently held in Israel. If they agree, they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for 72 hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. Our understanding is that they will be deported after that. We also understand that the Israelis have begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that the individuals who were allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe that there are any British nationals in that last category, although I hope the House will appreciate that this is a fluid situation.
Our partners in the international community are working, as we are, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to fly out their nationals, and the Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join those flights. We believe that some of the British nationals to whom I referred earlier are on those flights now.
The United Kingdom has played its full part in the European Union and the United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into these events. Our goal is a process that ensures full accountability for the events that occurred and commands the confidence of the international community, including international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international forums, including NATO and the United Nations Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand in all our diplomatic efforts, and will stress to the Israeli Government the need for them to act with restraint and in line with their international obligations, given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks, or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.
The events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world’s attention, but they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza, which is a cause of public concern here in the United Kingdom and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government—including the previous Government—that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted, a view confirmed in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860, which called for
“sustained delivery of humanitarian aid”
and called on states to
“to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation”.
The fact that that has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential that there be unfettered access not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, but to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place. The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or on the west bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state which I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security.
As the once productive private sector has been decimated and ordinary Gazans have lost their jobs and their incomes, it is tunnel entrepreneurs and their Hamas backers who benefit. Hamas now has near total control of the economy. Other groups, even more radical and violent, are finding a place amid the misery and frustration felt by a generation of young people. In this context, current Israeli restrictions are counter-productive to Israel’s long-term security. We will therefore continue to press the Israeli Government to lift the closure of Gaza, and plan early discussions with Israel as well as with our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while also ensuring that aid reaches those who need it and is not abused. I discussed that with Secretary Clinton last night, and we will be taking forward our discussions on the subject urgently.
The House should not forget the role played by Hamas in this conflict. It continues to pursue an ideology of violence and directly to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Violence has continued in recent days, with rocket fire from militants in Gaza and Israeli military incursions and air strikes in response. We call on Hamas to take immediate and concrete steps towards the Quartet principles, unconditionally to release Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity for four years, and to end its interference with the operations of non-governmental organisations and UN agencies in Gaza.
It is more clear than ever that the only long-term and sustainable solution to the conflict that produced these tragic events is a two-state solution that achieves a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, with its right to live in peace and security recognised by all its neighbours. The proximity talks that are under way are more important than ever. These events should not undermine those talks, but instead should underline just how important they are, and the Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to buttress that process. The Government will continue to keep the House informed of developments.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advance sight of it.
I said in the Queen’s Speech debate last week that a policy of ignoring Gaza in the search for peace will not work. In the early hours of Monday morning, we saw why the blockade of Gaza is a barrier not only to vital aid and reconstruction materials, but to any hope of peace at all. The attack by the Israeli defence forces is the latest in a series of self-defeating and deadly moves by successive Israeli Governments in Gaza. We on the Opposition Benches join the international condemnation of an operation that was not self-defence but defence of a failed policy. Israel does have rights to security against terrorism, but we are talking here about a policy that has done nothing to defeat terrorism. Until the people of Gaza can be confident of an education for their children in schools not crumbling around them, of being able to feed and clothe their families adequately, and of being able to live without a prescribed list of what they can and cannot use in their kitchens, there is no way that the call of negotiation and peace will be heard.
As Foreign Secretary, I negotiated UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1860 in January 2009, which eventually brought the Gaza war to an end. It demanded the full flow of humanitarian and reconstruction materials into Gaza, and an end to the trafficking of weapons into Gaza, and its implementation by all sides must be the central demand of the international community. That needs UN, EU and Quartet pressure, not just engagement.
The continuation of the blockade, not just by Israel but until yesterday by Egypt too, brings misery to Palestinians and does nothing to weaken the hold of Hamas on the territory—the alleged aim of the policy. In fact, revenue from smuggling taxes funds Hamas. The latest episode cost innocent lives, undermines Palestinians and Arabs who believe in co-existence and the peaceful path to statehood, and further isolates Israel in the international community. The only people smiling are the rejectionists. The answer to them is a political process with drive and momentum. I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary talk about proximity talks, but proximity talks are worth having only as a short prelude to substantive negotiations, and, frankly, they have gone on for too long already without getting to the big issues.
I have five sets of questions for the Foreign Secretary, the first of which is about the welfare of British citizens. The lack of clarity about the position of British nationals is completely unacceptable. We are talking about 37 people, not 37,000 people. They have a right to consular support; it says so in their passports. They should be given that support immediately. If it is being denied, we should be denouncing that, not saying that we are disappointed by it.
Secondly, on the legality of the action, I spoke to the Turkish Foreign Minister in New York last night, and it is clear that the Turkish Government intend to pursue that question. Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether he believes that the action, which took place in international waters, was illegal, whether he has discussed the issue with the Turkish Government, and if not, why not?
Thirdly, the Foreign Secretary says that he wants to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths during the raid on the flotilla, but surely the question to ask is why on earth armed and lethal force was used at all. A fundamental principle is involved; the language of condemnation is used very sparingly in international relations, but it is the view of those on the Opposition Benches that the loss of innocent civilian life should always be condemned. We have done so since Monday, and the language was repeated in the United Nations presidential statement on Monday night, which said that the Security Council
“condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded”.
We welcome that, but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have not used that language themselves. We call on them to say loudly and clearly that the British Government do condemn the loss of innocent civilian life. If they will not do that, they are setting a very dangerous precedent and sending a very bad message indeed.
Fourthly, on the Government’s intentions, we note the UN’s calls for an independent investigation, and of course we welcome them, but there are outstanding requests for investigations into incidents that took place during the Gaza war 18 months ago. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore explain to the House whether Her Majesty’s Government argued in the UN on Monday night for a UN investigation now? If not, why not? In that context, can he tell us how long he will give the Israeli Government to agree to an independent inquiry before he supports a UN inquiry?
Finally, the argument that opening borders only benefits Hamas has been exposed, because the present situation only costs innocent lives and actually damages Israel. What action does the Foreign Secretary propose to take through the UN and the European Union to drive forward improvements in the daily lives of people living in Gaza? Is it not the case that the EU has standing capacity waiting to be deployed to man checkpoints into and out of Gaza? Do we not need urgent engagement to get an agreement, as per resolution 1860, for those forces to be deployed?
This is a political crisis, not just a humanitarian one. Rocket attacks will be defeated only by a substantive political process towards a Palestinian state. That is where the greatest responsibility lies for all the parties. We will support all efforts on the part of the Government to make Gaza part of a wider international drive for peace in the middle east, backed by the UN and the EU, in support of US leadership, because without such an effort there will be no peace in the middle east.
I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his broad support for what is clearly a bipartisan policy shared across the Floor of the House. His concern for the people of Gaza is felt very deeply in all parts of the House. As he reminded the House, he played an instrumental part in the negotiation of UN resolution 1860 and he has always argued, as we have argued, that ignoring Gaza will not work; this problem must be addressed. I am grateful for the implicit support that he has given to the Government’s position and for the argument that he makes that the Israeli policy towards Gaza does not loosen but tightens the grip of Hamas on the people of Gaza.
I shall now respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He can tell that I am disappointed and very dissatisfied with the Israeli response, as it has gone on over recent hours, on consular access. The reason why I do not condemn the Israelis unequivocally is because there is a complicating factor: many people on board the ships did not have their passports or had destroyed all their papers, so it is not necessarily immediately obvious to which nationality they belong. In addition, there has been a clear lack of preparedness by Israel for handling this number of people and dealing with this number of consular inquiries. That is why, in some cases, our consular staff, who have been working extremely hard, have had to go to the prison at Beersheba to hammer on doors and ask people whether they are British. It has been chaotic, it is completely unsatisfactory and I am glad that some of the people are now able to leave the country. None the less, it is the most immediately urgent part of our work to ensure that that is put right and that all the British nationals have been identified and seen.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I had spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister. I did speak to him. Of course, one reason for an investigation will be to learn more about the legality of what may have happened. However, to connect this to one of the right hon. Gentleman’s other questions, the Turkish Foreign Minister particularly thanked me for the role played by our ambassador at the UN Security Council, because the presidential statement delivered to the council was, of course, made on behalf of the members of the council, including Britain, so it is very much our language as well. We certainly condemn acts that lead to the deaths of civilians—I have done that before, but if the right hon. Gentleman has not heard me do so, I do so again—so there need be no difference between us on that point.
Critically, an investigation must be prompt, independent, credible and transparent. It is my view and, from the discussions that I had last night, the view of the United States that the investigation should as a minimum have an international presence. It is possible for Israel to establish such an investigation and inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that commissions or inquiries have on occasion been established in Israel that have delivered stinging criticism of the Israeli Government and armed forces, although on other occasions such inquiries have not done so when we might have thought it was merited. However, we look to them to heed the international calls for such an inquiry and investigation, and if they simply refuse to do so—to answer his question—it would not be long before we added our voice for one conducted under international auspices.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that urgent work needs to be taken forward on providing the mechanism for access to aid into Gaza, and for trade in and out of Gaza, while giving the Israelis sufficient assurance that it will not be used for the smuggling of arms, which none of us wants taken into Gaza. We are now taking forward that urgent work with our partners in the EU and the United States, and it is something on which we will need to return to the House.
It is easy to be condemnatory of Israel and to argue for the raising of the blockade, but we must ask ourselves whether these things, taken by themselves, will bring about the solution that we all seek. Drawing on our colonial experience and recent experience in Northern Ireland, is it not clear that sooner or later, however controversial it may be, Hamas will have to be brought into the circle of discussions?
I always listen to my right hon. and learned Friend—I think I can now call him that, given that we are sitting on the same side of the House—with great care on these matters. He will be aware of the Quartet principles, which have been very clear for some years: Hamas must forswear violence, accept previous agreements and recognise the state of Israel. That has been the long-standing position of British Governments, the United Nations and the whole of the Quartet, including the United States, the European Union and Russia. I referred earlier to the need for Hamas to make concrete movement towards those principles in order for the rest of the international community to engage with it, and I continue to believe that that is the right position. It is a long-standing position and one that we have in common with our allies and the rest of the international community acting on the affairs of the middle east. That position must be sustained.
In welcoming the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s statement and his condemnation of the loss of innocent life, may I ask whether he recognises that those innocent lives might well have included any of the 37 United Kingdom citizens present when the Israelis committed a war crime of piracy in international waters, kidnapping and murder—and all in pursuit of upholding an illegal blockade on Gaza that amounts to collective punishment, as I saw for myself when I led an international parliamentary delegation there early this year? Will he assure the House that, if the Israelis fail to comply with the perfectly modest and satisfactory request that he has made of them, further action will be taken to make Israel rejoin the international community?
Yes, it is very important that Israel responds to the call from across the whole world, to which we have added our voice, for a prompt, independent, credible and transparent investigation or inquiry. As I mentioned earlier, in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, if no such investigation or inquiry is forthcoming, we will want to advocate such an inquiry under international auspices. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is right that whatever precise words we use, a blockade of Gaza is counter-productive; it is wrong and it does not even serve the interests of the security of Israel. He is also right to point out that fatalities could have occurred among the British nationals who were caught up in this. It is our strong advice to British nationals, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, not to travel to Gaza—let me make that absolutely clear—as they would be going into a dangerous situation, but it is absolutely wrong to maintain the blockade. That is the clear position of the Government.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who were able to enter Gaza in the aftermath of the last Israeli incursion could only come to the conclusion that there had been a wholly disproportionate use of lethal force of very, very dubious legality? Does he agree that there has now been a repeat of precisely that? What will the British Government do to try to ensure that there is not the same repetition again and again and again?
Hopefully, I covered that point in my statement. I referred to the actions that have been taken by Israel as appearing to go beyond what was warranted or proportionate, and I weigh those words very carefully. I also said that that is unacceptable and that Israel must act with restraint and in line with its international obligations, so we have given a very strong message to Israel. In the conversations that I had with the Israeli Foreign Minister and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the Israeli Prime Minister, there could be no mistaking how strongly we feel. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) adds force to how we feel.
My constituent Hasan Nowarah was injured when the flotilla came under attack, although he is now, thankfully, safely at home with his family. He was motivated by a desire to help people in the most dire need, but the 45 tonnes of medical equipment that he helped to collect is currently floating aboard the ship, the Rachel Corrie, in the Mediterranean. Will the Foreign Secretary use his diplomatic efforts to persuade the Israeli Government to let that vital medical aid be delivered to hospitals in Gaza?
Yes, I very much take that point. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has just undertaken, as we were listening to the hon. Lady’s question, to look into what is happening to that specific shipment. I believe that some of the aid on some of the ships involved is now arriving in Gaza, but we will look into the shipment that she mentions.
This is a dreadful and deplorable tragedy, but will the Foreign Secretary tell us what urgent steps he will take to ease the transfer of essential goods through the crossings so that Israel’s security needs can be met? Does he accept that Israel has legitimate security needs against the enemy that is determined to destroy it?
Of course Israel has legitimate security needs. That is why I stressed in my statement the role and responsibility of Hamas and the need for it and anyone else in Gaza to end rocket attacks on Israel. That is a very important part of the entire situation as well. We need to find a way in which Israel can be assured that the smuggling of arms into Gaza does not take place while the flow of humanitarian aid and general economic trade can take place. Clearly, some additional assurance is going to be necessary for that to happen, and that is what we are working on urgently.
May I welcome the clear but restrained way in which the Foreign Secretary dealt with this very difficult matter? May I ask him a very precise question: has it not been clear for a long time now that the blockade of Gaza is illegal? Does it not therefore amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and is it not contrary to all international law and the Geneva convention?
The argument that I make is that, whatever the arguments about the blockade’s legality, it is unwise—it does not achieve its objective. In a practical world, it is not the right thing for Israel to do. No doubt, the Government of Israel would make a different legal argument from that of my hon. Friend: they maintain that the blockade is lawful because they are acting in their own self-defence. Therefore, the thing that they must be persuaded of is that the blockade does not serve their security interests and that a change of policy is urgently required.
I note the Foreign Secretary’s demand for free and unfettered access to Gaza but, in the absence of a blockade of shipping into Gaza, how does he believe that the people of Israel can be protected from the unprovoked assaults by rockets and other armaments that are being imported into Gaza by the supporters of Hamas terrorists?
That is why I have referred to the international work that needs to take place to try to give assurance that such importation of arms cannot take place while humanitarian and economic aid, and general economic trade, is going on. However, I stress again that it does not serve the interests of Israel’s security to maintain the current position, which is putting more power into the hands of Hamas and driving the people of Gaza into its arms. That does not serve the security of Israel.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, although we will be doing very well in the world if we can persuade everyone to stop using selective footage in the media. It may be a little ambitious to think that we will be able to persuade Israel to do that, but that underlines the need for the impartial and credible inquiry for which we have called.
In the past 18 months, Israel has killed 1,400 people during Operation Cast Lead. It has also carried out an assassination in Dubai using false passports, and now it has killed people on the high seas. On each occasion, there has been ritual condemnation, as there is today. I support that condemnation, but is it not time for us to take sanctions against Israel, such as lifting the EU-Israel trade agreement? Israel must understand that it cannot act illegally with impunity, and that it cannot kill people on the high seas in the way that it has just done.
Israel will be listening to the condemnation in this House, including from the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt about that, but I do not think that the right policy is to impose sanctions. I think that the right policy is to urge on Israel the course of action that I have set out today. The restrictions and the blockade of Gaza should be lifted, and a truly credible and independent investigation should be set up. They are part of the practical way forward that we should concentrate on, and therefore they are the right foreign policy for this country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but does he agree that the effect of the brutal Israeli blockade of Gaza is to drive all trade into the tunnels? Some of the tunnels are now large enough to accommodate 4x4 vehicles, and of course there is no restriction whatever on the importation of weapons through them.
Yes, and my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. What in effect happens is that Hamas is able to tax the importation of goods through the tunnels, providing funds for itself while further impoverishing the people of Gaza. That is a further reminder that the blockade is not an effective policy.
Is it at all possible that the Israelis are aware of the worldwide revulsion at what has happened this week? The killings on the high seas had no justification whatsoever, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about other measures that Israel has taken. Is it not clear that Israel seems to show no concern at all for international opinion, and that it is out of control? Unless firm action is taken by the international community, will we not see further tragedies of this kind?
I would not necessarily reach the conclusion that there is no awareness or concern about international opinion in Israel. In fact, there has been a good deal of criticism of the Israeli Government in the Israeli media over the past couple of days. Remember that Israel is a democracy. There is free expression of opinion. Sometimes that is bitterly critical of their own Ministers, and sometimes of their own armed forces. We saw that in the aftermath of the Lebanon war four years ago. I think it would be over-simplifying the situation to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did a few moments ago. There is a consciousness in Israel of international opinion. That is why we have to express ourselves in a way that is forceful but responsible, and ask them to do reasonable things that are in their own best interest. That is the position that we have taken.
Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there has been up to 1 million tonnes of aid from Israel to Gaza since January 2009? Will he also acknowledge that the reason for the blockade, which we all want to end, is continued terrorism by Hamas, the hijacking of aid convoys and the smuggling of arms from Iran into Gaza?
It is very important to remember the role played by Hamas. It is important to remind people all the time, as I did in my statement, that we need to see an end to the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, as well as the other measures that we have called on Israel to take. My hon. Friend brings that necessary balance to the questions asked today.
The Foreign Secretary will know that the terrible siege of Gaza has been ongoing now for three years, with huge suffering caused to people, but given that the condemnations and criticisms of Israel never seem to change the Israeli authorities’ actions, what further action does he propose to take? In the EU association agreement with Israel, for example, there is a clause that provides for its suspension in the light of human rights abuses on either side. Will not his refusal to consider suspending that EU association agreement give the message that we are not serious about taking action with Israel, and that we are not serious about our EU agreements either?
I do not think Israel will be in any doubt about the seriousness of the message. The fact that a Security Council statement was agreed so rapidly, with the support of the United States as well as of the United Kingdom, will have made an impact on Israel; the hon. Lady can be sure of that. If she could have heard the conversations that we have had with out Israeli counterparts, she could also be very confident that they are aware of the strength of opinion and our deep concern about these issues.
The EU-Israel agreement is not exactly progressing at the moment anyway. I take the point that she makes about that, but it is not an additional measure for this particular situation. As I have explained in answer to previous questions, I want to concentrate on trying to make sure that that credible and independent investigation takes place, and that the case is understood in Israel for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza in their own best interests. It is important that we put it in that way.
The flotilla, which was probably doomed to fail, was an expression of the frustration of ordinary people at the failure of the United Nations, and in particular of the Quartet, to get Israel to comply with its UN obligations. The Foreign Secretary has had conversations with Mrs Clinton. I understand that he is also meeting the EU High Representative. Does he believe that between us we can encourage the Quartet to take firmer action with Israel, which still in its statements today seems not to understand the gravity of the situation?
There is a real international focus on these matters now, and that is true in the United States. I was with the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, last night in Sarajevo, and she certainly has the same focus on these issues, as do many other EU Foreign Ministers. This morning I was at the EU-western Balkans high-level meeting in Sarajevo, and many of the Foreign Ministers discussed the issue in the margins of that. One of the results of the action was to bring the issue centre stage. It has shone a spotlight on the problems of Gaza, to which so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred. It is now important for us to take the momentum from that and make sure that the necessary work continues over the coming weeks and months to improve the situation.
Will the Foreign Secretary not accept that what he said today really amounts to saying that the United States, Britain and Europe will continue to tolerate the Israeli blockade of Gaza? Does he not agree that this toleration should be brought to an end, and, if necessary, Britain and the other European members of NATO should say that if another flotilla sets off for Gaza, we are willing to give it naval protection, with the Royal Navy reverting to its traditional role of protecting the freedom of the seas?
I understand, in every case in which right hon. and hon. Members express their outrage at what has happened, the strength of feeling in many parts of the House and of the country. As I have explained, in the pursuit of practical foreign policy we should concentrate on the two things that I have identified—the setting up of the right kind of investigation and inquiry, and doing so quickly, and making the coherent case, including to the Israelis, for lifting the blockade on Gaza. Those are the right things to concentrate on. The right hon. Gentleman refers to British naval protection and deployment, but the previous Prime Minister promised a British naval deployment in the Mediterranean to try to stop arms smuggling to Gaza, and no ship was ever sent. I will not make empty promises; we will concentrate on the two issues that we have identified as necessary.
Given the importance of the investigation that the Foreign Secretary referred to, does he not also believe that there is a very powerful case for referring this to international arbitration and/or the international court at The Hague? After all, this involves not only questions of international law. The political causes are well known, but they have not yet been resolved by the political intervention of the Quartet, and so forth, and international arbitration may well be a very good move to adopt.
The position that we have taken does not exclude those things, but they are quite difficult things to bring about and seek agreement to, so the priority is to have an inquiry and investigation established as soon as possible that meets the criteria that I have set out. However, we have not excluded advocating other courses of action if that is not heeded.
I think that we have pussy-footed around Israel for long enough. The only language that it understands is not the language of diplomacy but the language of the hobnail boot, by which I mean sanctions, telling it to stop building any more settlements, and insisting that it has talks with people—both sides—who represent the Palestinian people, as the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will develop a much more robust foreign policy towards Israel.
Again, the right hon. Lady illustrates the strength of feeling in the House. I have not immediately donned my hobnail boots, because the right way to approach the matter, which will make sense to people in Israel as well as to the rest of the world, is to advocate the measures that I have called for today. That is a crucial ingredient for Israelis themselves to see—that this needs to be properly investigated to international standards in a way that the international community can respect and take seriously, and that the blockade of Gaza makes no sense even from their own point of view. Israel is a democratic country. It is possible to make these arguments and to have them heard there, so I favour concentrating on that method of proceeding rather than the hobnail boots that she wants me to put on.
My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear this afternoon that he thinks that the blockade is counter-productive because of the suffering that it causes to the people of Gaza. Will he therefore press the international community to lift the blockade as a precursor to a full middle east peace settlement?
It is a very important part of any middle east peace settlement, and my hon. Friend’s question reminds us that it is very important to continue the work on a middle east peace settlement overall. The proximity talks have been taking place and we want them to become much more serious. European nations now have to look to how we can buttress the efforts of the United States to push those talks forward. It is one of the things that I want to discuss around European capitals next week. Ending this blockade of Gaza is an integral part of finding any such durable solution.
Is it not clear that Israel believes that it has done absolutely nothing wrong when it sends armed commandos to attack in international waters ships carrying humanitarian supplies to a tiny strip of land where more than 60% of the population are food-insecure? Could that not be because, for many years now, Israel has put itself above international law, without consequence from the international community? What does the Foreign Secretary think the practical consequences should be if Israel does not abide by the will of the international community this time?
We will see whether Israel thinks, in the end, that it has done nothing wrong. The Israeli Cabinet is, as I understand it, meeting this afternoon for the first time since the incident and since Mr Netanyahu returned from north America, and we will see what, if indeed anything, comes out of that in terms of the investigation—the inquiry—that we and most of the rest of the world have called for. Again, I stress that it is important to make the case for those two things, the investigation and the lifting of the blockade, because it would be wrong to characterise everyone in Israel as insensitive to international opinion. This is an argument that has to be won within Israel, as well as in the rest of the world. That is why I am taking the approach that we are taking and, indeed, previous Governments, broadly, have taken; and I am sure that, for now, that is the right approach.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a little rich for the Israeli Government to justify their behaviour on the ground that they are denying matériel to a terrorist organisation when they have in the recent past shown themselves perfectly willing to import proscribed munitions for use against civilian targets?
The Foreign Secretary has quite rightly said that we need a credible and independent inquiry. This was an illegal act in international waters, involving citizens from many countries throughout the world. Surely the only way in which we can have a credible and independent inquiry is if it is an international, credible inquiry. Does the Foreign Secretary support that? If not, why not?
We shall see about that. The hon. Gentleman may be right in the end, but, in answering his right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), I referred to the fact that Israel has previously held inquiries—into some of the events in Lebanon in the 1980s and into the Lebanon war in 2006—that certainly were independent and credible by international standards, and that meted out considerable and, sometimes, severe criticism to the authorities in Israel. It is possible for them to do that. Today I have made the additional case that such an inquiry and investigation should have an international presence and, therefore, be not just an Israeli inquiry. But I have also not excluded this Government from advocating the sort of inquiry that the hon. Gentleman would prefer to see, if no other action is taken in the meantime.
Behind Hamas lurks the spectre of both Syria and Iran. Were the Gaza blockade to be lifted at some point in the future, what practical assistance could Her Majesty’s Government, the European Union or NATO offer to Israel in order to stop the smuggling of weaponry from those two rogue states?
Such assistance and such assurance is very important, and that is why we are now consulting other nations on the best vehicle for providing it: whether that is best done under United Nations’ auspices, and how much more the European Union can do. There have, of course, been previous attempts to provide it under EU auspices, but it is very important to be able to stop the flow of arms into Gaza, just as it is so vital to be able to open up Gaza to humanitarian aid and to more normal economic activity. My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.
I join my colleagues in condemning the actions of the Israeli Government. Two of my constituents, Sarah Colbourne and one other woman, are currently in detention in Israel. I thank the consulate for its work with them, but I am concerned about their position. I agree with the Foreign Secretary that an international flavour to an investigation, and an independent investigation, are important. Notwithstanding that, will he or the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), agree to meet my constituents and others who were there—because nothing beats hearing it from the horse’s mouth—in an attempt to shape this Government’s foreign policy towards Israel?
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, in particular the call for an international and impartial element to an investigation. However, is it not crucial to ensure that the peace talks resume and that the role of Turkey, which had been an important regional ally of Israel’s, is both supported and encouraged?
Yes, that is very important. It is important that the proximity talks turn into something much more than proximity talks. Turkey has become very active diplomatically in the whole region, and in a very welcome way; in our proceedings this afternoon, we have referred several times to the role of the Turkish Foreign Minister. Turkey has tried hard in recent years to bring Syria and Israel closer together and it has sometimes come within an ace of bringing permanent peace between the two countries. In general, Turkey has played a very constructive role in the region, and I am sure that she will want to do so in future.
The blunt Yorkshireman has been converted into a Foreign Secretary who weighs his words carefully, dramatic transition though that may be. As we are advocating a prompt, independent, credible and transparent investigation and inquiry, in the terms that I have put forward, it is important for us to be prepared to see what it produces before feeling that we need to add any other language to how I have expressed things today.
This afternoon, the Secretary of State appears to have ruled out a number of options for dealing with Israel within a European Union context. What exactly is the United Kingdom doing within the European Union to maximise diplomatic pressure to end the blockade on Gaza?
I am not conscious of ruling anything out, and I am not ruling anything out. But again I must stress that there is an enormous amount of pressure. I had dinner with many of the European Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo last night and I have seen many more of them this morning. They are all expressing themselves in very similar ways, and very emphatically, to the Government of Israel. There is no doubt about the intensity of the feeling and pressure from the European Union. Clearly, we will now want to discuss as a body what more we can do and, most importantly, what we can do working with the United States to try to give new momentum to the middle east peace process as a whole. The issue is right up there on the agenda and in the minds of European Foreign Ministers, and there will be a great deal of pressure.
As someone who has been to Gaza twice since Operation Cast Lead, I ask the Foreign Secretary to exempt Members of the House, at least, and other people who can bear witness, from the advice not to travel to Gaza. Perhaps he would like to go himself. Having a news blackout and hiding the appalling situation is exactly what the Israeli Government want, as they did during Operation Cast Lead. May I add that the Foreign Secretary’s testy conversations with Mr Lieberman are not going to get us anywhere? We need sanctions if Israel is to lift the blockade at all.
Testy conversations with Mr Lieberman are part of what we need to do. I have explained our overall approach and my reaction to the suggestion of sanctions. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s strength of feeling and knowledge about the situation in Gaza. Our general travel advice is not to go to Gaza, but sometimes Members of Parliament are able to go in a privileged and particularly safe way. Such visits must happen and are welcome; it is important for this House to have as much knowledge and information as possible about what is happening on the ground. I am not discouraging right hon. and hon. Members from going under the right circumstances, but let us not mistake that for our general travel advice to the British public.
Since we have called for an investigation, I do not think that we can pre-empt such matters. I stress that, as far as we know, the aid workers, activists, or people who were aboard the ship—however we want to describe them—and who may be in that position do not include any of the British nationals. Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that illustrates the strength of feeling in this House. That is one reason why we need to continue to call so strongly for the credible investigation to which I have referred.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly referred to the strength of feeling in this House, and, indeed, almost on a global basis. However, he will be as aware as anyone that Israel has a well-founded reputation for toughing out these crises, hoping that they will go away, and has been very successful in doing that. He made the point, again rightly, that these events are the recruiting sergeants for terrorism. Can he tell the House—this is a serious question—what will be different this time?
I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman what the course of events will now be. I can say, slightly reiterating what I said earlier, that these incidents have shone a particular spotlight on to the situation in Gaza. The speed and unity of the diplomatic response is unusual. I referred earlier to the ease with which the UN Security Council statement was agreed, including with the United States—I stress that point. I think that that will have been duly noted in Israel; in fact, I know that it has been duly noted in Israel. Can I promise what reaction the Israelis will now provide? No, I cannot, but we will watch it very closely and minutely, and we will argue very strongly for the measures that I have set out today, not excluding other courses of action in the future.
It is an unusual and impressive sight to see a Yorkshireman linguistically restrained, but I thank the Foreign Secretary for what was, in the main, a robust and refreshing statement. I also include the shadow Foreign Secretary in that.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned that the Rafah crossing has been reopened. We have been told in the past that that will open up an enormous amount of access for munitions and weapons of war. If some good has come from this bloodstained horror, it is the opening of the Rafah crossing. Will this be monitored, will there be a report to the House, and will we be able to consider, in this House, whether the truth of the Rafah crossing is that it is simply another border crossing, and not an access point for matériel for Hamas?
Is it not the case that resolution 1860, as well as calling for an end to the blockade, acknowledges that the international community itself has responsibility to ensure that weapons are not smuggled into Gaza? We know that the Foreign Secretary does not want to send a gunboat to ensure that this happens—[Interruption.] I think that a gunboat has a rather different aim from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) wanted. Given that, what practical steps can the international community take to offer assistance not only to Israel, but to Egypt, to ensure that weapons are not getting into the Gaza strip, which will reassure the great mass of Israeli public opinion, which I believe will be as horrified about these events as are people in this House?
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on what is required. There have been previous attempts at various forms of international presence and activity around Gaza that were meant to give assurance. Clearly, that has not worked, so we now have to find a new mechanism for doing so. Britain stands ready to help in many ways. When the hon. Gentleman referred to needing a gunboat, one of my right hon. Friends said, “We haven’t got one.” That was indeed how it turned out under the previous Government, when such a thing was offered but never materialised. That is why I am not making any rash promises. However, given the huge importance of this issue in international affairs, the United Kingdom will do whatever we can to assist.
I think that there will be many more discussions in this House. I am not offering a timetable today, but I have indicated that we have not excluded other actions and pressures in the future. I would be very disappointed if we did not have a further opportunity to discuss these things.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the robust condemnations and statements from the Foreign Secretary and from my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, but is the Foreign Secretary aware that the Hamas charter states:
“There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility”,
“our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging”
“Israel…will remain erect until Islam eliminates it”?
Such anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish language is the official doctrine and policy of Hamas. I share in all the points that the Foreign Secretary made and wish him well, but Hamas is part of the problem, not yet part of the solution.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—I never thought I would say those words, but I am. I hope that I made that point in my statement in a slightly different way, by referring to the ideological motives of Hamas and reminding the House that there is a Hamas dimension to the whole problem. It has refused to forswear violence, recognise previous agreements and recognise Israel’s right to exist, and until it starts making some concrete movement towards those things, it will be very difficult for the international community to discuss the future with it. The right hon. Gentleman adds force to that argument.