I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of UK policy on the middle east.
May I say, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a north-west chum of years past, that it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
As the Minister responsible for the middle east, it is an enormous privilege for me to open this general debate. It is a pleasure also to welcome the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). We, too, go back a long way to our time together in Bury, and we have always enjoyed the warmest of relationships, as I am sure we will again. I have already had the benefit of his advice, as he recently held my post, and I look forward to his contribution.
Let me say a little about housekeeping for the debate. Those of us who have been in the House for some time know that in short debates the risk is that Front Benchers occupy a great deal of the time. I will do my best to confine scripted remarks to about 15 minutes. I will take a handful of interventions, but try to conclude within 20 minutes or so in order to give maximum time for Back-Bench contributions. That will mean a relatively short winding-up speech, with some written replies to colleagues. It is a short debate and, in deference to the Speaker’s request, we want to try to ensure that Front Benchers are not too heavily involved. I hope the House will appreciate that. If I am not able to go into everything in as much as detail as Members would like, and if they want to pursue the subject of Gaza, for example, I commend to them the debate on that issue tomorrow in Westminster Hall. I also intend to meet regularly, on formal and informal bases, colleagues who have an interest in the middle east, as I know many do. With that bit of housekeeping out the way, I shall move on.
The middle east is a topic of great concern to many hon. Members and of great importance to the security, economic and political interests of the United Kingdom. However, the middle east is more; it is an area rich in culture, heritage, history, faith and religion, in which Members have a wonderful opportunity to engage. The world sometimes spends rather too much time on the region’s conflicts and concerns, instead of on the great joys, history and cultural gifts that it has given. The Government intend to ensure that we are conscious of the opportunities and great heritage that the middle east brings to the world, as well as spending time dealing with the inevitable human problems that have been centred on the area for so long.
The Foreign Secretary recently said:
“It is one of the strengths of this country that a strong thread of bipartisanship runs through large areas of foreign policy.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 174.]
That is particularly true of the middle east, and quite rightly, given its international importance. That is why this Government will pursue active partnerships with the people and countries of the middle east to achieve security, prosperity and peace for Britain and for the peoples of the region.
Let me spell out in simple terms, but in no particular order, the Government’s aims and objectives for the middle east. We will work to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The only long-term solution to the conflict is a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, with Jerusalem the future capital of both states, and with a fair settlement for refugees. We will continue to press for progress, working with the United States and through the European Union. We will also continue working with our international partners to secure changes that help lift Gaza’s closure. Let the House be in no doubt: we wish to engage with as much energy as we can in the middle east peace process, because we recognise its huge importance to so many other issues that focus on the region and affect the world.
In congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment, I refer him to the proverb, “To every man with a hammer, the problem always seems a nail.” Will he do what he can, and get his Department on board, to try to impress on the Israelis the fact that Hamas is more than just a terrorist organisation? It is an idea—a frustration—borne out of many disillusioned and disfranchised Palestinians, and the best way of defeating an idea is not by using force but by coming up with a better idea, such as an equitable, two-state solution.
My hon. Friend makes a point that almost immediately illustrates the complexity of the area. Whatever Hamas might be as an expression of a movement, it also represents a repressive, authoritarian force which has had a grip on Gaza for too long and held Gilad Shalit unfairly as a hostage for too long. In illustrating that point, I note the clear sense that there must be some movement in the middle east peace process, involving all parties and, inevitably, the slow steps towards progress which invite compromise. Of that, we wish to see more in the future. The Government’s position on dealing with Hamas remains the same as the previous Government’s, requiring as it does an adherence to Quartet principles before it can move. I do not see any change in that position.
I thank the hon. Lady for her inquiry. We have had a lot of conversations, both with the Americans and the Israeli Government. We are keen proponents of the United Nations Security Council resolution, which was adopted quickly and called for exactly what the hon. Lady asked about—an independent and impartial inquiry. The international element is necessary to ensure credibility. At present, we believe that there is no reason why the inquiry announced by Israel today, with the external component that includes Lord Trimble, should not meet the requirements of the world to provide the answers necessary to the inquiry. That is an important standard, to which we will hold.
I thank the Minister for giving way and welcome what he has said about support for a two-state solution and involving our international partners. No matter what we do as the UK, it is vital that the US should also be involved in trying to unlock the peace process, which seems to have ground to a halt. Can the Minister tell us whether that was one of the issues discussed by the Prime Minister and President Obama on the telephone and whether there will be a renewal in US interest in trying to kick-start the peace process?
We very much welcome the kick-start that the proximity talks pointed to a few months ago. President Obama made it clear that a revitalisation of the peace process was one of his key objectives. The recent tragic incident in Gaza has highlighted once again the importance of getting things moving—not only in that area, but in respect of the peace process as a whole. My hon. Friend can be assured that the Prime Minister and the President think as one on that issue.
I shall make some progress. We will work with all our friends and partners across the region to ensure that they are free from terrorism and instability which is a direct threat to their security. We will take a broader approach to our relations with north Africa and the Gulf, supporting civil society and business links and aiming to be the partner of choice for commercial and investment links. We currently export £15 billion-worth of goods and services to the region annually, offering the best of British expertise, innovation and creativity to support the massive programmes of development under way.
We will remain engaged in Iraq. Iraq is a pivotal state in the middle east. A stable, prosperous, well governed and politically moderate Iraq is important for Iraqis, the wider region and the UK’s strategic interests. All in this House are proud of the role that the United Kingdom armed forces have played to help bring about the progress seen so far in Iraq, and we are committed to ensuring that their efforts are built on.
I ask my hon. Friend to give me a moment.
In the long term, all those partnerships will flourish if we can overcome the social and economic hurdles that the region faces. In the face of the complex challenges, our shared aim for middle eastern and UK interests alike must be good governance by stable states with growing social, economic and political participation. The Government will champion that approach while upholding our belief in human rights.
There are also important opportunities to work more closely with partners in the region on shared interests. We are well placed to work in partnership with the countries of the middle east in a way that benefits their people and ours. For example, the countries of the middle east will continue to be essential suppliers of the world’s energy needs. There is similarly mutual benefit in the flows of other trade and investments between Britain and the region. This Government will work closely to support and extend those links, facilitating trade missions and signing investment and promotion protection agreements. However, we will also work with the countries of north Africa to reduce the damage done to individuals and economies by illegal immigration, both here and there. By working with our partners against the threat from radical extremism, we are all stronger and more effective.
Now I want to cover a small series of significant issues, including Iraq.
I ask my hon. Friend to wait a moment.
By working with the key countries in the middle east and the international bodies based there we can together make more of an impact on conflicts and other challenges both within that region and beyond. Work to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is a foreign policy priority for this Government. As I said earlier, the only long-term solution to the conflict is a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. We will continue to press for progress, working with the US and through the EU, while supporting Prime Minister Fayyad’s work to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state.
The tragic events off the coast of Gaza last month were very serious and captured the world’s attention—the House has already discussed the issue during a statement and will discuss it tomorrow in Westminster Hall—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 UK and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government, including the previous Government, that the restrictions on Gaza should be lifted. It is a tragedy that that has not happened, and we hope soon to see progress to change the situation.
We call on the Government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity. As the Foreign Secretary has said, the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. It is also essential that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza in order to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and to permit trade to take place. At the same time, the rocket attacks from Gaza must cease, and Hamas must release Gilad Shalit, who is now entering his fourth year in captivity.
I welcome the Minister to his job. There is nothing in his speech so far that I would disagree with. In 2009, 96 humanitarian aid workers were gunned down in different conflict zones. Moreover, the death of the nine Turkish gentlemen is unacceptable. However, why does the United Nations not demand inquiries in every other country where humanitarian aid workers are slaughtered?
The right hon. Gentleman might reasonably submit that that is a question for the UN. In this particular case, though, I think that we responded entirely properly, in terms of the international concerns, by putting the primary responsibility on Israel to conduct its inquiry, as we are aware that it has in the past on issues such as Lebanon, and ensuring the international dimension for the security and the confidence of all. The important point is not to linger too much on the type of the inquiry but to consider more what it is about and how to move the process on so as to ease the situation in Gaza.
No, I will not. I am conscious that there is one more intervention to come. If I am to stick to what I said earlier and give Back Benchers time, I am afraid that that means a restriction on interventions.
The proximity talks that are under way are now more important than ever. The Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to those efforts, as well as supporting the efforts of the Quartet and inspiring the European Union. The UK is a committed friend of Israel, and a friend to the region. We believe that, in this particular context, the approach that I have outlined is the best that a real friend can provide, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Let me turn to Iran. There is grave concern among the international community about Iran’s failure to address concerns about its nuclear programme and the role that it plays in creating instability in the middle east.
I will proceed, if I may.
We remain resolved to address these concerns through a twin-track process of preventing a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran while reaching out with an offer for constructive engagement. We cannot allow Iran to act with impunity. I welcome the action that the UN Security Council took last week. The new resolution is an important statement of international resolve to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation. It intensifies peaceful and legitimate international pressure on Iran to change course and restore the trust in its intentions that is so badly lacking. However, it is a twin-track approach. The resolution also makes it clear that the E3 plus 3 remain ready to meet Iran at any time for substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue.
In addition, I should like to condemn the human rights situation in Iran, which is appalling. Amnesty International reports that more than 5,000 people were arrested following the June 2009 protests, and hundreds remain in detention. The courage shown by the protesters on Iran’s streets over those months clearly demonstrates the strength of the desire for democracy, human rights and freedoms among the Iranian people. The Iranian Government have responded to that desire for democracy with violence, brutality and oppression. This weekend, the opposition were again refused permission to organise demonstrations on the anniversary of the elections. This House will not forget those ordinary Iranians who stood up for their rights last year. We will continue to work with our international partners to shine a light on Iran’s deteriorating human rights record and hold the Iranian Government to account. On Thursday last week, I met members of the Baha’i faith ahead of the trial of seven of their leadership last Saturday. Iran’s flagrant disregard of even its own laws on due process and respect for human rights should not be accepted by the international community, which should highlight and scrutinise that at every opportunity.
I thank the Under-Secretary for giving way and compliment him on his new position. I endorse his comments about the need for human rights in Iran, but may I take him back to his work at the non-proliferation treaty review conference, which rightly condemned the potential development of any nuclear weapons in the region, but, for the first time, mentioned the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons? Where exactly will the process go now to achieve the aim of a nuclear-free middle east, which must involve Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons?
This country has consistently asked Israel to join the non-proliferation treaty as a non-weapons-holding state. Israel was mentioned in the non-proliferation treaty review conference in the context of the desire to move the resolution on a middle east free of nuclear weapons and, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. The resolution looked forward to a conference in 2012 on the subject. The conference was a success in reaching the agreement that it did. It is good to have moved the process on a little further, but much is to be done before the conference is held. We all support a middle east that is secure for all its countries, and an understanding of its weaponry is clearly a key part of that.
No, my hon. Friend intervened earlier. I repeat that I am pressed for time, and I need to get my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) in before finishing.
Let me mention Yemen briefly. We are continuing to work with other middle east nations such as Egypt and Jordan actively to promote increased stability in Yemen, because we know that al-Qaeda looks to exploit instability where it can. In Yemen, that instability is caused by wider social and economic problems. We welcome the fact that the United Arab Emirates and Jordan are co-chairing the two working groups of the Friends of Yemen. For our part, we will continue our direct, bilateral assistance to the Government of Yemen, which aims to reduce poverty and build the capacity and capability of the Yemeni state.
We will also remain engaged in Iraq. In many respects, Iraq is a nation changed for the better. There have been significant improvements in security, the economy and politics. Iraqis now have control over their own destiny and have embraced democracy, voting in their millions in March’s national election. Now that the election result has been ratified, Iraq’s leaders must work together to form an inclusive and effective Government.
I am sure that the House is proud of the extraordinary role that the United Kingdom’s armed forces have played in making Iraq a better place. We are right to commit to building on their legacy by supporting the Iraqi Government and all the people of Iraq as they face the challenges of maintaining security and strengthening their new democracy. We will also work to deepen our close bilateral relationship to our mutual benefit.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems to fit you perfectly and I do not know why it has taken so long for you to get to that position, but it is great to see you there.
There seems to be a duality of approach to Iraq, with the Kurdistan area moving at a different speed from the rest of Iraq. As my hon. Friend knows, Kurdistan has advanced much quicker than the rest of Iraq because it was not so involved in the wars. There are no direct flights from the UK to Erbil in Kurdistan—or, indeed, to Baghdad. If any businesses operate in the north in Kurdistan, they are prevented, because of internal politics, from getting involved in business opportunities in Baghdad. I urge my hon. Friend to visit that area and try to resolve the problem that one either supports Kurdistan or greater Iraq.
My travel itinerary is already starting to look interesting, but I appreciate any new opportunities that come my way and any new suggestions from colleagues. I have noted my hon. Friend’s with specific purpose, so I am grateful to him for raising it. He has been particularly involved and interested in those areas for many years and I know that I shall value his advice in due course.
No, because I am now pushing the time limit that I set myself. To be fair to other hon. Members and to stick to what I said, I will wrap up.
It has necessarily been a whistlestop tour because of the constraints of time. I am sure that we will return to the subjects often. One of the Government’s first foreign policy priorities will be to give new momentum to our relationship with the Gulf. We also want to build broader relationships with Europe’s close neighbours in north Africa. We can do that by elevating our personal links, pursuing a deeper and more nuanced partnership with Islam and continuing our dialogue on commercial, cultural and education links—and, I would go so far as to say, parliamentary links. There is much to be gained from relationships between legislators in different countries. By doing all that, the UK will be able to provide constructive partnership on issues that are core to our national interest.
The Government have already made it clear that, in our pursuit of an enlightened national interest, we intend to be a force for good in the world to seek the best for our citizens and society, not only because it is good for the people but because it is the right thing to do. In pursuit of that policy, we will uphold our belief in human rights, championing democracy and the rule of law, and working tirelessly for peace. Nowhere will that be more important than in the middle east. I look forward to colleagues’ support and assistance in taking on that particular role.
I welcome you to your new role, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), on his appointment. As he said, we have known each other for more than 20 years—I know that I do not look old enough. We are both proud sons of Bury, the birthplace of Robert Peel, the home of the internationally acclaimed authentic Bury black pudding and a town that is immeasurably strengthened by its religious and cultural diversity.
The Under-Secretary is still remembered with great affection by his former constituents, irrespective of their political affiliations. However, it comes as little surprise that he was not given the Europe brief. His opposition to the views of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is matched in intensity only by that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). As the Under-Secretary survived a prolonged—some would say indecent—period as Minister with responsibility for the Child Support Agency in the 1990s, the Prime Minister clearly took the view that responsibility for the middle east would be a cakewalk in comparison. More seriously, I know that the Under-Secretary will carry out his responsibilities with commitment, integrity and sensitivity.
I also wanted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), to his post. Now that he has returned to his place, I can do that.
I want to take the opportunity to place on record my appreciation of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, especially those in my former private office, for their dedication and professionalism. Being Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was a tremendous privilege and an awesome responsibility. Their support was crucial in enabling me to do my job effectively, and I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I welcome the opportunity presented by this timely debate. The middle east ignites strong passion in hon. Members of all parties and in communities up and down the country. In my contribution, I want to reflect on those passions and deal with the issues that must be addressed urgently.
The middle east peace process, Iran’s nuclear threat, the new Iraq and a fragile Yemen are all pieces in a jigsaw that will determine whether a positive future can ever dwarf the tragedies and conflicts of the past. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary often says:
“The most important word in politics is ‘Future’.”
Solutions will be found only through better leadership in the region, supported by co-ordinated and effective international action. However, for several reasons the middle east is also crucial to Britain’s national interest. They include security and stability, energy supply, the attachments of many of our diaspora communities and historic links, which give us special responsibilities.
The central challenge remains the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. I want to set my response to that challenge in the context of a question that I was asked several times in my ministerial capacity during interviews on al-Jazeera: how could I, as a Jew, undertake my role as British Minister for the middle east independently and objectively? Putting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of the question, my answer was and is straightforward. I am proud to be a friend and supporter of Israel, as well as someone who believes passionately in the right of the Palestinians to dignity, freedom and statehood. Too often in the House and outside, people are required to make a choice, and it does not and should not have to be like that. I sometimes wonder whether there would be more light and less heat if friends of Israel and friends of Palestine came together to form friends of peace in the middle east. In that way, people would be forced to confront their prejudices and certainties and be challenged to build mutual respect, rather than replicate the division and bitterness that have characterised the region for far too long.
The Labour party—in government and opposition—has long championed a two-state solution: a viable, contiguous Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Such a solution will be possible only if we demonstrate a sensitivity to and understanding of the fears and insecurities of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. I have witnessed for myself the anger and injustice felt by Palestinians on the west bank as their daily lives are interrupted by Israeli checkpoints and a security barrier that, in places, physically divides communities and therefore families. Occupation dehumanises both the occupied and the occupier. I also know families who have been traumatised by the impact of losing a loved one at the hands of suicide bombers who have wreaked carnage in towns and cities in Israel. I visited Sderot, where children live in fear of the next rocket attack from Gaza. Terrorism is no more legitimate in Tel Aviv and Haifa than it is in London and New York.
Palestinians yearn for freedom and statehood, Israelis for the certainty and guarantee of security. The political issues to be resolved are well known and frequently debated in this Chamber, but I want to spell them out clearly, with less ambiguity than in the past. What would a fair and just settlement actually mean? First, it would mean borders that ensured that the two states—Israel and Palestine—each had a volume and quality of land consistent with 1967. That would require land swaps, the principle of which has been accepted in previous negotiations.
Secondly, it would mean not a divided but a shared Jerusalem that can be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. The conventional wisdom is that in that scenario, the holy sites would have to come under some sort of international jurisdiction, but I disagree. An authentic, meaningful peace would mean that those sites should be the shared responsibility of the two states.
Thirdly, a settlement would mean justice for Palestinian refugees. They should have the right to return to a new, sovereign Palestinian state, and fair compensation should be paid to those who had homes and land within the borders of Israel.
Fourthly, as offered by the Arab League, a settlement would mean normalised relations between the Arab world and Israel. That cannot mean simply an exchange of ambassadors; it must also mean a commitment to end all support, financial and otherwise, for the military and terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as a commitment to end the promotion of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda via state-controlled media and education systems. An agreement to begin work on a framework for a middle east economic zone would be the strongest signal that the conflict is really over and that the focus has shifted to building a better future.
Fifthly, the settlement must be agreed as a full and final resolution of all contentious outstanding issues. Resolving those five issues in a comprehensive and just settlement would address positively the hopes and fears of the mainstream majority of both Palestinians and Israelis. It is true that the detail must be negotiated and agreed by the parties, but we should no longer be cautious when it comes to spelling out the parameters of such a settlement.
I shall come to that, but I believe that this country and the international community should give that plan every support. Prime Minister Fayyad, and indeed President Abbas, have done a remarkable job in the west bank on security and economic development, so we should give as much support as we can to the Fayyad plan.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he did as a Minister and for his clear statements this afternoon. Does he agree that it is vital that all parties understand that we need a secure middle east not just for Muslims and Jews, but for Christians and for people of other faiths and none across the region, and that the growing pressure for conflict prevention and resolution in the Parliaments and Assemblies of the middle east is one way forward? If we engage people on the ground on conflict prevention, we could do as much good as getting the world’s superpowers to try to solve the problem from afar.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he would not achieve his fifth point unless he got a resolution on his first four points? There can be no overall settlement unless the aspirations on both sides of the argument can be met at the same time.
The hon. Gentleman has a perfectly common-sense perspective. As all hon. Members know, although setting out the parameters is important, in a negotiation of such complexity, when the stakes are so high and when public opinion on both sides matters, there must be the necessary compromise. If non-negotiable matters are not resolved, no lasting and just settlement will be accepted by the people on both sides.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a good step forward would be if Israel released the substantial number of Palestinian parliamentarians who are still held in prison, several years after the election? Otherwise, the message is that democracy does not work, and it is like saying to the Palestinians, “Your leaders get arrested and taken away, and therefore you have no representation.” The anger at that in Gaza and the west bank is very serious indeed.
We need to take each case on its merit, and look at whether any of those individuals committed criminal offences. If not, those people should of course be released immediately, as a confidence-building measure towards progress in the peace process.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has welcomed the current proximity talks. As Foreign Secretary, he played a prominent role in supporting the efforts of President Obama, Secretary Clinton and George Mitchell to kick-start meaningful negotiations. However, the Opposition want to see direct negotiations begin without further delay. The success of such negotiations will be more likely if strong US leadership is supported by an enhanced role for the Quartet and a core group of Arab League states to provide political support to President Abbas.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Hamas, with its view that eliminating the state of Israel is a religious imperative, is a real obstacle to peace?
I agree with my hon. Friend in the sense that as long as that remains Hamas’s position, it is inconceivable that it will be drawn into any credible peace process. The criteria that the Quartet has laid down—recognition of Israel, a denunciation of violence and a respect for previous agreements—are clear. Of course, there is engagement with Hamas through, for example, the Arab League and Egypt, so there is an opportunity for countries and institutions to have discussions with it. However, the international community is clear about the criteria that need to apply for Hamas to join the political process.
As I said, we want to see direct negotiations begin as a matter of urgency. It is important that no preconditions should be imposed by either side in advance. However, it is also true that confidence-building measures would help to create a level of trust that, frankly, is currently in very short supply. I want to identify what those measures should be—they are not preconditions but ways to create the right environment for the rebuilding of some relationship of trust and mutual respect. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has consistently made clear, Israel should freeze all settlement expansion. Not only are settlements illegal but their expansion changes the facts on the ground, jeopardising the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state as well as provoking anger and mistrust. We should galvanise international support for Prime Minister Fayyad’s 2-year economic plan towards Palestinian statehood. I am proud that in government we pledged £210 million in aid, and I hope that over the three-year period that commitment will be maintained by the new Government.
The blockade of Gaza must end so that all necessary humanitarian and reconstruction assistance can get through. However, in line with resolution 1860, this will happen only is there is tangible action to prevent the trafficking of weapons and weapons parts into Gaza. To that end, we welcome Tony Blair’s efforts to secure progress, which—as I am sure all hon. Members accept—is now urgent. We want to see the Quartet and the Arab League working with all parties to come up with a credible plan that meets these two objectives within weeks, not months. Rocket attacks on Israel must stop. Gilad Shalit should be released by Hamas without precondition. His capture and continued detention are unacceptable.
With regard to recent events off the coast of Gaza, all sides have rightly condemned the tragic loss of life. We welcome today’s inquiry announced by Israel and the involvement of David Trimble and Ken Watkin. However, we will be watching closely to ensure that the tests of independence and transparency that we have set are met in the way in which the inquiry is conducted.
The message that we should send from the House today is that the clock is ticking and time is running out for peace and stability in the middle east. A lack of political progress will not sustain an uneasy calm, but will lead to a resumption of violence and the strengthening of those whose purpose and interest are served by perpetual conflict. It is true that political leaders should be wary of getting too far ahead of their electorate, but it is equally true that history teaches us that great leaders are willing to deliver difficult messages to their own people.
The time has come for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to prove their critics wrong. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to show that he truly understands and believes that there is no viable alternative to a just two-state solution and President Abbas needs to show the strength and credibility to deliver the Palestinian state which is long overdue.
Two states for two peoples will not bring to an end to al-Qaeda’s fundamentalist terrorism or bring the Iranian regime from the margins to the mainstream. Al-Qaeda’s support for the Palestinians is a tactic, not the pursuit of a just cause. But two states would undermine their selective narrative about the west’s foreign policy goals, weaken their recruitment tools and strengthen the voice and hand of the mainstream majority in the Muslim world who deplore both violence and the politicisation of faith.
On Iran, we on this side of the House strongly support the new package of sanctions agreed by the United Nations Security Council last week. We reiterate our hope that Iran will chose the path of dialogue and diplomacy. Iran is a proud country which would have an important and influential role if it chose to rejoin the mainstream of the international community, but the regime must understand that the world will not stand by as it develops a nuclear weapons programme in clear contravention of its non-proliferation treaty obligations. That is not only because of the direct threat to Israel and the Arab states, but because a nuclear Iran would almost certainly trigger a new nuclear arms race, with some Arab states feeling an obligation to develop their own nuclear programme. That would be catastrophic at a time when the recent NPT review conference sought to take some tentative steps towards a world free of nuclear weapons.
As the Minister said, the people of Iran are courageous, as they demonstrated through their peaceful post-election protests. They should know that Britain seeks to be a friend of Iran and wants to resolve our differences though negotiation. Equally, the regime should know that, with our international partners, we will remain unwavering in our determination to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons and in our revulsion at its President’s holocaust denial.
Irrespective of different views on the war in Iraq, we should always remember the brave British servicemen and women who risked and in some cases sacrificed their lives freeing Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Just before Christmas last year, I was privileged to visit Iraq and see for myself the excellent work being done by our Royal Navy in training the Iraqi navy to protect its coastal waters. Significant progress has been made in Iraq but the new Iraqi Government must seek maximum consensus to consolidate security, improve the effectiveness of Government and push forward with economic and social reform. They should seek to improve human rights, including for minorities, women and trade unionists. Britain has a duty to play a positive role in the development of a new Iraq, and it is important that the British Government work with the Iraqis to identify how we can add the most value and make the most difference on a sustainable basis.
I do not think that it is responsible to enter into a running commentary on the situation in Iran. We moved from an historic offer of dialogue from President Obama, which received no positive response, to toughening our economic sanctions—ensuring that those sanctions are targeted at the regime. We must hope that the Iranian regime understands that there is significant international consensus and concern about the concept of Iran developing nuclear weapons. It is important that there is a unity of message and purpose throughout the international community so that Iran does not see any weakening or division in our determination to ensure that it does not breach its responsibilities under the NPT. We should remember that Iran is a signatory to that treaty but has continually failed to live up to its obligations.
Finally, on Yemen, it is important that the international community learns the lesson of Afghanistan. We must ensure that the commitments made at the London meeting in January are delivered. The President of Yemen should be expected to lead a programme of change that addresses security and political, economic and social reform, including authentic internal political reconciliation. However, that will be successful only if the aid promised primarily by Gulf states is delivered and spent effectively alongside a fast-tracked IMF programme that supports economic reform.
As I found on my visit earlier this year, Yemen feels a new sense of friendship and warmth towards Britain. I hope that the Minister, when he visits, will focus on how we can use our innovative joined-up approach—combining the best of the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to achieve tangible results.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) often rightly states, Yemen is not a failed state, but it is most definitely a fragile state and we must do everything that we can to tackle the poverty and social disorder that are the breeding ground for al-Qaeda. Effective action now will prevent the far more serious interventions that would be necessary in the future if the Government of Yemen were to fail.
I do not have time in this debate to do justice to all the challenges that face the middle east, which include the implications of a newly assertive Turkey, the serious threat to stability posed by a re-armed Hezbollah in contravention of UN resolutions, or our approach to engagement with Syria which, although very important, has not yet led to any serious move by Syria to take a step—let alone make the leap—from the margins to the mainstream of the international community.
Sceptical friends in the region often say, “But you must understand: this is the middle east,” as they raise their eyebrows at talk of yet another peace initiative. My response is simple. In my lifetime, I have seen the Berlin wall fall and the Soviet Union crumble; Nelson Mandela released from prison and elected President of a democratic South Africa; peace come to Northern Ireland, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness serving in the same Government; an African-American elected President of the United States—events that are now facts of history, but which would once have been viewed as the naive dreams of romantic idealists.
The middle east needs a combination of realism and idealism. Most of all, it needs great leaders with the courage and vision to make the hard choices and take the difficult decisions. There will never be a shared narrative about the past, but there can be a shared determination to build a better future. I hope that the new Government will ensure that Britain remains at the heart of supporting a peaceful and just future for all the people of the middle east.
Order. This is an important debate, and a large number of right hon. and hon. Members have put their names down to speak. Mr Speaker has therefore imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, although if colleagues take less than eight minutes, we can probably get further down the list.
I congratulate you on your appointment, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the shadow Minister for what were two powerful and profound speeches on an important matter.
The subject of the debate is the middle east. One might therefore expect it to be concentrated on the views of the Arab world, as well as on those of Israel, yet one of the great ironies is that the three most important countries involved in the region—in the sense of being engaged in proactive action at this moment—are Israel, Iran and Turkey, none of which is an Arab state. Part of the difficulty that we face has been the inability, for various reasons, of most of the Arab world to take the kind of proactive role that might have been expected.
In the time available, I want to concentrate on Iran. I want to ask a number of questions, but I want also to offer possible answers to some of them, including to the point raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) in an intervention a few moments ago. The first question is: are we right to single out Iran for its almost-certain nuclear arms programme? Often we are told, “Well, there are other nuclear weapons states. Why should Iran be singled out in this way?” I believe that the answer to my question is that we are right to do so, and we are right for two reasons. Compared with the existing nuclear weapons states, Iran—or, more particularly, its President—has gone out of the way to be bellicose in his language, to be threatening to at least one other country in the region and to have aspirations for the aggrandisement of his country, with a willingness to use weapons for that purpose.
However, linked to that is the undoubted fact that, unlike in the case of previous nuclear weapons developments, undesirable though they might have been, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is painfully obvious not that it will use them directly, but that a consequence will be a destabilisation of the region and the almost near certainty of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey feeling it necessary to go in the same direction. Therefore, the middle east as a whole would become a region with a significant number of nuclear weapons states, with all the awful consequences that that could imply.
That is the first question. The second question is, therefore: is current policy working? Manifestly it is not. We all know that it was meant to be based on carrot and stick. What better carrot could there have been than President Obama’s offer of a grand dialogue with Iran and the normalisation of relations? Instead, that was thrown in his face. There were not even failed negotiations; the negotiations never began, because Iran rejected that possibility. We know also that sanctions—important though they are, and much as we welcome the latest decision by the United Nations Security Council—will not by themselves achieve a change of heart in Tehran.
I therefore come to the third question: is it possible that a policy of diplomacy and pressure could work? Is there a scenario in which it might work? The answer, I believe, is yes, if two conditions are satisfied. First, Russia and China are crucial, because although they supported the resolution last week, we know that their support is grudging. We also know that they have consistently taken on board their short-term considerations—in particular, their trade relationships with Iran and other aspects of their foreign policy—rather than standing four-square with the rest of the Security Council. Russia in particular, as a neighbour of the middle east and Iran, and with a large Muslim minority in its own territory, has as much to be concerned about by a nuclear-armed Iran as any country in the west, as does China, because of its particular position. Russia and China, therefore, if they look to their self-interest, ought to be able to share the position of the United Kingdom, the United States and others on the need for a total uniformity of view on the question of pressing Iran.
However, it is not just Russia and China; it is also the Arab states that I mentioned earlier. Anyone who goes to any of the countries of the region—and I have been to most of them—will find that, in private, people will say that they are as horrified as we are at the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. But try getting them to put their heads above the parapet—try getting them to support publicly what the United States and the Security Council are trying to do—and all sorts of reasons are given as to why it is too difficult, why it would be unpopular in their countries and why it all depends on what Israel does, along with various other excuses.
That would not worry me but for the consequence of that resistance to coming out and sharing people’s real views, which is that Ahmadinejad is able to say to the world, “This isn’t the international community versus Iran; this is simply the United States and its closest allies.” What we need is not a coalition of the willing, but a coalition of the relevant. We need those countries of the region to join the west—and, I hope, Russia and China—to take a common position on the issue. That is what happened in the first Gulf war, when Kuwait was being liberated. Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia publicly supported—with troops, as well as through diplomacy—what the United States-led coalition was doing. Pressure could work, therefore, but until that change takes place, it is less likely to do so.
The main point that I want to concentrate on in the time left is if the methods that I have described do not work—I refer now to the intervention of a few minutes ago—what then do we do? Do we simply say, “Well, that’s too bad. There’s nothing we can do”? There is the question of the military option. People have rightly pointed out that the downside is a pretty dreadful downside. If military action is taken by either the United States or Israel, it will almost certainly lead to Iran enabling Hamas or Hezbollah to become even more proactive and attack Israel, as well as fomenting mischief in Iraq, with the price of oil going sky high and the straits of Hormuz perhaps being closed.
All that is true, and I cannot say that it would not be likely to happen. However—and this is an important “however”—all those things would be relatively short-term events, and I stress “relatively”. They would last a few days or a few weeks, or perhaps two or three months. An Iran with a nuclear weapon, however, would be around for years to come—for ever. Therefore, it is not good enough simply to say, “There is a downside. Therefore, the military option cannot be considered at any stage.” We have to come to a judgment on the balance of advantage. Is the balance of advantage to accept major problems if military action was taken, if—and this is an important “if”—it would remove the nuclear threat from Iran?
However, everything that I have said on this issue depends on whether the military option is a real option. Would it actually deliver? That is the fundamental question that Britain, America, Israel and the wider international community have to consider. I do not have time to go into the detail, but I make the point that the objective must be to come to an honest judgment. If diplomacy fails, if sanctions do not work and if there is no peaceful alternative, then we will have to come to an honest view on whether the military option—whether by the United States or Israel—would destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity or, even if it did not, so degrade it as to make Iran unable to have nuclear weapons for a good few years to come.
I conclude by simply saying this. In this rather imperfect world in which we live, it is not good enough to ask, “What is the perfect solution to this dilemma?” The real question that we have to ask—or at least that Governments have to ask—is what is the least bad option? If the military advice was that we could either remove Iran’s nuclear capacity or degrade it for a long period, Iran must realise that, at some stage, that might be what happens. It would not be an ideal solution, but it might still be better than the alternatives.
Although we are discussing a grave subject, may I say what a pleasure it is to speak in the House with you sitting in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker?
The Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, once dismissed an opponent’s speech as consisting of “clitch after clitch after clitch”. I do not believe that there is any future in debating this subject by relying on clichés. If any other country had behaved as Israel is behaving towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories, international action would have been taken long ago. The international community is, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out, rightly concerned about Iran. Yes, Iran’s regime is detestable and it is important to do all we can to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it does not have them at present and it has never invaded another country. Israel does possess nuclear weapons; it is said to have 200 warheads. It has refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty and it recently refused to attend President Obama’s conference on nuclear weapons divestment. Israel has invaded Lebanon three times. It facilitated the Sabra and Shatila massacres. It also conducted Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza blockade and the attack on the Gaza flotilla.
Let us also dispose of the distractions that impede action. It makes no difference whether the inquiry into the attack on the flotilla is conducted internally by Israel or internationally. Even an international inquiry would not change Israeli policy. The Goldstone inquiry into Operation Cast Lead had no influence at all, and Goldstone was vilified as a Jewish anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. We have heard mention this afternoon of the dreadful situation involving Gilad Shalit, the young man who was taken into captivity four years ago this week. I feel great sorrow for his family, but he was a soldier on military duty. About 15 members of the Palestine National Council are being held without charge by the Israelis, and about 300 children are being held in prisons by the Israeli Government. It is a distraction to propose, as Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton have done, to change the terms of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Neither of them has challenged the principle of the blockade, yet it is that principle that contravenes the Geneva convention.
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will give way if I have time before I finish.
Israel ignores international opinion on the illegal wall that has turned towns such as Kalkilya and Bethlehem into prisons, and on the illegal checkpoints. It knows that, whatever it does, no action will follow. It has the most extremist Government it has ever had, under the most extremist Prime Minister it has ever had, and a Foreign Minister who is an avowed racist. Israel is allowed literally to get away with murder. Only punitive international action will make even the tiniest difference. That means an arms ban, and the kind of sanctions that were imposed by the senior President Bush on Yitzhak Shamir to force him to participate in international talks in Madrid.
This is a situation in which one country is holding 1.5 million people in an internal prison and 4 million other Palestinians in a form of detention, but let us be clear about this: no action will be taken against Israel. President Obama will take no action, partly because he has mid-term elections in five months’ time, and partly because the odious pressure group, AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—can destroy any United States politician who makes the slightest criticism of Israel. When a Republican Congressman suggested that a tiny sliver of the billions of dollars that the United States gives to Israel should be transferred to alleviate a certain amount of poverty in Africa, AIPAC labelled him an anti-Semite. That is what American politicians, including Obama, have to put up with. We could take action, however. The European Union could take action over trade agreements, for example. Let us be clear that we cannot appeal to the conscience and good will of a country that has not demonstrated that it has either quality.
The situation is now unsustainable. The more the Israelis repress, suppress and oppress the Palestinians, the more precarious the future of their state will be. I saw, as did other hon. Members when we went to Iraq this year, that the Israelis are breeding children who hate them because of their hunger and their lack of schooling, and because of the way in which they are being treated. The Israelis seem to believe that treating the people of Gaza like that is a way of weaning them away from Hamas, but it only makes them support Hamas even more. Nobody is excusing Hamas; it has done dreadful things, as I pointed out to its representatives when I was in Gaza earlier this year. The fact is, however, that the Israelis are creating a generation of children who will grow up hungry and hating them.
This Israel does not want a two-state solution, but the only alternative is a one-state solution, and the existential fact is that, before long, there will be more Palestinians than Israeli Jews. It took the Jews 2,000 years to get their homeland in what is now Israel. After 60 years in that homeland, they now risk throwing it all away.
May I begin by saying that it is nice to see you in your new place, Mr Deputy Speaker?
The Minister and his Labour shadow made wide-ranging speeches about the nature of the various problems in the middle east. I want to confine my remarks to the situation in Palestine, and particularly in Gaza, as did the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). That is not just because of the events that we all witnessed on our TV screens a couple of weekends ago, and which were discussed by colleagues at a Liberal International meeting in Berlin this weekend. My speech has also been informed by my visit to Gaza in March as part of a cross-party delegation led by my noble Friend, Lord David Steel. The hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck) were also part of the delegation. For me, that visit to Gaza was one of those life-transforming experiences that crystallised the issues in my head and made me see them more clearly than I had done before.
In Gaza, 1.5 million people are being held under siege conditions. First, they are blockaded on land. We saw the wall and, more pertinently, we had to be careful not to get too close to it because of the snipers who patrol it. The people are also blockaded by air, as well as by sea, the tragic result of which we saw a couple of weekends ago. To set this in the context of my own constituency, that is the equivalent of the whole of greater Bristol, Bath and all of Wiltshire being blockaded off from the rest of the United Kingdom and denied access to the most basic goods. This is a humanitarian violation on a quite staggering scale.
There are limited crossing points along the well-policed border. The Rafah crossing from Egypt, which we had to use, is only for foot passengers. No goods are allowed to pass through it. All the crossing points through which goods may be transmitted are controlled by the Israeli army. As we saw, only a limited variety of items are allowed to be transferred across, and the list, which seems quite arbitrary, changes from week to week. When we were there in early March, only 70 items were allowed across the border. If we go into our local corner shop—never mind the supermarket—we can see the thousands of products, including hundreds of different kinds of biscuits and confectionery alone, that are available to us. Imagine being limited to only 70 items in total out of the full range of goods and services that we, as 21st-century citizens, expect to have access to. However, only 70 items were allowed into Gaza in that particular week. This is not just the denial of humanitarian aid; it is the denial, and complete obstruction and destruction, of a fully functioning market economy.
Desperately needed reconstruction materials are not allowed to be transferred across the border either, and in Gaza we saw, of course, the bombed-out schools, the bombed university and hospital, and the housing shortages. It is absurd and outrageous that cement and other construction materials are not allowed across the border.
All of that leads to those 1.5 million people effectively being utterly dependent on a shadow, black-market economy supplied with goods through tunnels dug through the sand from Egypt and controlled by local criminals and Hamas. People with sufficient money and wherewithal can access those goods, whereas the rest are dependent on local patronage or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
What we saw in Gaza is effectively a parallel society. Ironically, people who can prove their status as a descendant of a 1948 refugee are in a slightly better position than those who have lived in the Gaza strip for generations, because they might get access to UNRWA food parcels. We saw that at a food distribution centre, where families came from all over the Gaza strip and took away their very limited supplies of cooking oil and other cooking materials by donkey cart. It was a mediaeval scene, and what is happening in Gaza is mediaeval, too: mediaeval siege tactics are being used that would have been appropriate at the time of Richard the Lionheart or Saladin but are completely outrageous and unacceptable in the second decade of the 21st century.
My remarks so far have provided an outline of the problem as I saw it for myself just a few months ago, but what can we do about it? The UK Government should use our membership of the European Union to be more active in putting pressure on the state of Israel, and also on Egypt. The objective should be to lift the siege, and not only for humanitarian aid; indeed, I am a little worried about the frequent references to humanitarian aid. The full range of goods and services that we take for granted in our society should be allowed in. That is needed in Gaza to allow people to rebuild a fully functioning market economy.
The EU is in a good position to apply leverage on the state of Israel through our trade agreements with it. The EU can also potentially play an important role in enabling access to goods and services for Gaza. While travelling into Westminster on the train today, I was intrigued by an article in The Times by the EU’s foreign affairs High Representative, Cathy Ashton, whom I believe is at this very moment chairing a meeting of all EU Foreign Ministers. The article said that the EU could perhaps be the agency that facilitates and polices the transfer of goods and services into the Gaza strip, and that instead of Israel banning all goods and services, we should have a list that prohibits only those few of them that would be prejudicial to Israel’s security, and that the presumption should be that all other goods should be allowed in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and may I also say what a pleasure it is to see an alumnus of Dynevor grammar school, Swansea, occupying the Speaker’s Chair today?
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that Israel is imposing such an extreme blockade if the solution is, in fact, as simple as he sets out?
I am certainly not going to deny that part of what is taking place is self-inflicted. Obviously, the rocket attacks on villages in the south of Israel are outrageous, and we made it clear in the meetings we had with various political representatives in Gaza that there had been wrong on both sides, but the state of Israel has an army at its disposal, whereas the inhabitants of Gaza are 1.5 million people who are at the mercy of a superpower on their doorstep, and those superpowers, whether Israel or Egypt—or the states that, perhaps, control and influence their foreign policy from much further afield—are, effectively, playing with the destinies of men, women and children, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton mentioned. That is not the way to build peace and understanding for the future, and I think we have a right to expect rather more from the democratic state of Israel than it has shown so far. That leads me to my final point.
I have fewer than 40 seconds left, so I am not going to give way again.
My final point is about political engagement. One of the touching scenes we saw while in Gaza city was at an UNRWA school, where children were conducting a mock election. That shows hope for the future, but I do not think there can be any hope for the future if we do not talk to the people whom their parents have elected. We must have engagement with all the political representatives of Gaza and the west bank. We must lift the siege. We must have constructive engagement, and from that point we might have a chance of building lasting peace into the future.
I also welcome you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to your new position and wish you the best of luck.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) spoke with great passion about the situation in Gaza and, based on my experience of visiting there, I completely concur with his analysis. I, too, will concentrate on the situation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Just over a week ago in the town of Ayr, I joined other local people in seeking signatures to a petition about the attack on the flotilla taking aid to Gaza and the resulting loss of life. I was joined by local people from Amnesty International and various other groups, including Sheena Boyle, who is involved in a Scottish charity, Children of Amal. She spends half her year in Nablus, where she provides therapeutic support and training to children who have been traumatised by violence. She also trains psychologists and social workers to provide group therapy through music as an art.
I was taken aback by what I witnessed in Ayr. The people who had volunteered have a long-standing commitment to seeking peace in the middle east, but I do not think those who were lining up to support the petition follow events in the middle east particularly closely. I was struck by the level of anger at what had happened.
All Members must take note that there is widespread concern in our constituencies about the entire situation and the continuing disproportionate actions of the Israeli Government. All too often, the Israeli Government act in an affronted and defensive manner when their actions are questioned and there are calls for independent reports. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) referred to the Goldstone report and the fact that the Israelis’ response was to blame the messenger.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, we should welcome an inquiry and input from independent people, including the Houses of Parliament. I understand that Turkey is not happy with the set-up and what is being proposed, and as it is the country that has been most affected by the action, we have to take note of that. In particular, we must make sure that there is transparency in the inquiry.
Over the years, there have been many false dawns interspersed with violence from both sides, although not in equal measure. My hon. Friend was very optimistic, based on his experience of various different situations in his lifetime where peace has been achieved. I am not so optimistic, as I am aware from trying to put myself in the shoes of the Palestinians—and, indeed, the Israeli people—that it is very hard to see any likelihood of progress.
We have heard plenty of words, but they have been interspersed with violence. There have been conferences, accords, mutual recognitions, declarations of principles, assassinations, memorandums, elections, permanent status negotiations, unilateral withdrawals, intifadas, reports, ceasefires, peace initiatives, curfews, a so-called “security barrier” that separates families from their livelihoods and nomadic people from their land, rocket attacks, road maps, air strikes, incursions, prisoner exchanges—we have seen all that and more since 1991. We have heard many words, but we have seen many negative consequences and very little positive impact. UN resolutions have been ineffective and Israel has not been held accountable to international standards of conduct and law.
In the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs visited Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, whose impact was a humanitarian and counter-productive disaster. We could see the resentment being fed by that operation and we could see that it was shoring up the position of Hamas. This Government and the previous one are against holding talks with Hamas, because to do so would apparently make it seem more legitimate. However, we must consider the suffering of the people in Gaza, who live in one big prison, subjected to collective punishment and deprived, as the hon. Member for Bristol West said, of everyday necessities and the means to rebuild their infrastructure and economy. That has made people turn to Hamas in the face of an ongoing failure to find a peaceful solution.
The Committee also visited Sderot and a local college, which are often subjected to rocket attacks. The people there, too, want peace, because they are in the same spiral of despair and distrust as the Palestinian people. The longer the blockade continues, the lower expectations become. Recently, it seems that the US even reached the stage of outlining its own plan, with a view to imposing it on both sides—such is the frustration at the ongoing situation, which does not appear to have a real solution.
Will the hon. Lady visit Egypt in order to understand from the Egyptians why they have not fully opened the Rafah crossing? Does she understand why they have been conspicuous in their absence from the chorus of disapproval for the flotilla? Does it not have something to do with the fact that they are very much aware of the danger of having Hamas right on their border?
I do not underestimate the danger of Hamas, but the reality is that Hamas is part of the equation, whether we like it or not. Hamas was elected by the people of Palestine and will not go away simply because we ignore it. Some of the actions, far from advancing the cause of the Palestinian Authority, actually undermine it.
I would welcome news today of a breakthrough in the easing of the blockade, whereby fewer goods will be restricted, and commercial goods and civilians will be allowed entry and exit. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, I would also welcome the involvement of the European Union, because that would encourage greater transparency and would leave no excuse for the smuggling of goods through the illegal tunnels. However, that is not a substitute for the lifting of the blockade. It will not achieve a two-state solution. We have heard plenty of words, but turning them into action is what will bring credibility to the Palestinian Authority.
The previous UK Government played their part in the Quartet and some benefits are being reaped from that involvement. I get the impression from the Minister that the new Government will follow a similar policy, and we hope that they will do so with similar determination. The main thing is to ensure that the US does not lose impetus in promoting a peaceful solution, as has happened so often in the past. A two-state solution in the middle east involving the occupied territories and Israel is long overdue, because what is happening in the meantime is a disgrace to humanity.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I declare my interest: I am interested in Israel, I am the parliamentary chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel and proud to be so. Everyone in this House should have an interest in Israel, because it is a country that embodies the values that we should stand for. It was created in the 1940s, partly as a reaction to the way in which the Jews were treated during the holocaust. Israel was created by the international community and it became a bastion of the rule of law, democracy, free speech, business enterprise and family values. If that is not what this country also stands for, I am disappointed.
Israel is a country that makes mistakes. Its political system of proportional representation taken to a ludicrous degree is a mistake. Because of its political system, it finds it very difficult to change. In my view, the continued existence of the settlements is another of those mistakes—when President Peres was here a year or so ago, he suggested that most Israelis share that view. Again, however, because of the political system that is, unfortunately, extremely hard to change. But what is definitely not a mistake, and what we ought to applaud, is Israel’s determination to stand up for its continued right to exist in peace and security.
When that peace is destroyed by Hamas kidnapping Gilad Shalit and continuing to hold him prisoner for years, nobody should expect Israel just to accept it. When that peace is destroyed by rocketing from Gaza, nobody should expect Israel to say, “Yes, flotillas can be allowed to import whatever they like into Gaza, including perhaps explosives and rockets.” On one ship, the Karine A, which was not involved in this convoy, the Israelis found tons of weapons for Hamas. Were they simply to assume that this particular flotilla contained no such weapons to be used by Hamas against both Israel and the population of Gaza, whom Hamas treats so cruelly? Surely not. So obviously the flotilla was going to be stopped and boarded.
The fact that five out of the six ships were boarded without incident establishes, to my mind, that those who carried out the operation were well trained and well disciplined, and did not invite trouble. The trouble came from the sixth boarding operation. It seems strange to me, for the following reason, that the Israelis were apparently unprepared for a reaction to that boarding. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) talked about aid, but this flotilla was not about aid for Gaza. Had it been about that, the Israeli and Egyptian offers to allow the aid through at the land crossings would have been accepted, but they were refused, both before the flotilla sailed and after it had docked in Ashdod. The purpose of the flotilla was simply to create publicity. Therefore, as Israel should have predicted, the flotilla would have been a waste of time and resource unless there was a violent incident that would create that publicity. Given that the flotilla was designed to be provocative and to end in violence, we should not blame Israel for the violence against which it failed to guard itself; the blame lies with those who went on to the flotilla expressly seeking martyrdom.
Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the incident took place in international waters, that most of the ships were boarded and that most of the people who were taken were held, handcuffed and illegally taken into Israel from international waters? Surely he should acknowledge that Israel is guilty of a breach of maritime law, never mind humanitarian attitudes.
No; as a lawyer, I have, in my time, done international law, and I do not consider that any of this was illegal. If one is trying to prevent people from going into a blockaded area, the only place where one can board the ships is in international waters. I do not accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, although I accept that he strongly believes it.
It is against that background that Israel somehow manages to lose the propaganda battle, and I find that completely baffling. What I do not understand—I hope that someone in this debate can enlighten me—is why Israel is so good at fighting wars, but is absolutely atrocious at managing its public relations. Why does Israel—a country the size of Cornwall that was created out of nothing and that is surrounded by oil-rich countries, at least one of which would like to see it wiped off the face of the map—always allow itself to be portrayed as the aggressor? What is it about the right to exist in peace that is so difficult to get across?
I should like to finish by quoting from an excellent article, last week, by Charles Moore. He asked:
“What has gone wrong? Experts tell me that there is no proper co-ordination, that no one person is in charge of shaping and communicating Israel’s message to the world, and that no one is sacked…Somewhere down the years, Israel allowed itself to forget that its greatest weapon is the story it can tell about itself…What it wants is a clear, calm, repeated case. It is a case—aimed more at public opinion than at foreign ministries—about freedom, democracy, a Western way of life and the need for the whole of the free world to fight terrorism.”
I, too, congratulate you on your very well deserved position, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The death of nine people on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May has brought widespread outrage. It is the latest incident to highlight the tragic conflict between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, which will be resolved only by a negotiated, comprehensive peace settlement that establishes two states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security. I am very pleased that inquiries into the incident have now been set up. We will have to await the results of those inquiries to get the full picture, but this afternoon I want to refer to some of the facts that are already known—indeed, they are clearly evident.
The blockade of Gaza came about because Gaza has been run by the Islamist Hamas after Israel dismantled its settlements, ended the occupation of Gaza and withdrew 8,000 settlers and its soldiers. Instead of that being followed by an attempt to build a peaceful society, it was followed by Hamas overthrowing Fatah and establishing a regime set on eliminating Israel. Hamas’s ideology is very clear—it is set out in its charter and by the continuing statements of its leaders. Hamas sees it as a religious duty to destroy the state of Israel and it promotes the death cult. It says:
“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews)”.
That is in article 7 of its charter. It also invokes the protocols of the elders of Zion—the false allegations that there is a Jewish conspiracy to run the world.
Hamas’s position is not just to do with ideology and rhetoric; it is to do with action as well. It has fired about 11,000 rockets and missiles—directed at Israeli civilians—and now it is receiving weapons from Iran that Israelis fear could reach Tel Aviv. It was only last November that a shipment of more than 500 tonnes of Iranian weapons coming to Gaza was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus. So Israel has every reason to be concerned about the Hamas regime continuing to attack Israeli civilians and working continually with Iran, its backer, which is dedicated to the absolute destruction and annihilation of the state of Israel and its people. Israel has every reason to be concerned about that.
There is also every reason to be concerned about what is happening to civilians and citizens in Gaza, many of whom are not involved with Hamas. That can and has to be addressed in the long term by a proper peace agreement, but in the short term it could and should be addressed by the European Union, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority taking their part in ensuring that goods that do and should come into Gaza do not include weapons of destruction. That responsibility had been taken up in the past, but has now ceased to be exercised. It should be resumed, and I hope that today’s announcement will facilitate the easing of that blockade and will allow the needs of the people of Gaza to be met without threatening the citizens of Israel.
I want to ask several questions about the incident with the flotilla to Gaza. Six vessels set out to take humanitarian aid to Gaza, from five of which aid was landed at Ashdod as the Israelis requested. Most unfortunately, Hamas then refused to allow that aid to be taken into Gaza. The incident and the regrettable deaths happened on the sixth vessel, so what was different about it? Who was on it? Were the peace activists who most certainly were on the other vessels infiltrated by others with sinister motives? What was the role of the IHH—the Turkish-Islamic organisation that is linked, through the Union of Good, to Hamas and jihadists and even to al-Qaeda—which was involved in promoting the flotilla? When the Israelis asked that No. 6 vessel dock in Ashdod to unload its humanitarian load, a reply came back, which was recorded, “Go back to Auschwitz.” What was going on on that specific vessel?
The Turkish press have been making a number of interesting reports in the past few days, including interviews with the families of some of the people in the flotilla who died. Those families have spoken about their partners wanting to be martyrs. We saw Hamas flags draped over the coffins of the dead and we have seen videos of the Israeli paratroopers on those ships being attacked with metal pipes and knives and being dragged downstairs in attempts to lynch them. Reuters has issued an apology for clipping from photographs scenes showing weapons being held by activists on that ship. Were they all peace activists? I have no doubt that most of the people who set out for Gaza genuinely want peace, but there was something else going on on that No. 6 vessel—something that we need to know a lot more about.
I am sorry, but there is very little time left.
Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, said on 4 June that the
“Zionist project on our land is reaching its final stage. The incident marks the beginning of the delegitimisation of the Zionist project in our country.”
Clearly, there is something more to this than the giving of humanitarian aid. I hope that those inquiries will show just exactly what that is.
There is something to be hopeful for in the middle east, and that is the resumed negotiations, although they are only indirect, with Fatah in a genuine attempt to find a two-state solution to this very tragic conflict. I hope the work of Senator Mitchell and his team is successful. The only solution to the conflict is mutual recognition by two peoples, justifiably seeking to retain or achieve national statehood and living in peace. The ideology of Hamas, followed by its actions to deny Jewish statehood, is absolutely unacceptable and is the obstacle to peace.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I share the pleasure of the House at seeing you in the Chair, loss though you will be to the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
In the few minutes available to me, I shall devote my remarks to policy on the blockade. I start by making it unequivocally clear that I consider that Israel has a totally indisputable right to self-defence as a sovereign national state. Last year, I was able to visit Sderot with the Foreign Affairs Committee. One is left in absolutely no doubt whatever about the intolerable state in which those living in that community and others near the Gaza border are placed by the Hamas rocket attacks.
The reality is that in Sderot the warning time between the siren sounding and the rocket exploding is between 15 and 17 seconds, which means that there has to be a shelter within a few metres of where people are living. Shelters have even had to be dug underneath bus stops so that people queuing for the bus can go to them quickly. We were told by the Israelis there that, since the rocket attacks started in 2001, more than 800 Israelis had been wounded and 15 had lost their lives. That is 15 too many, but it is fair to point out that the number of those who lost their lives during the last Israeli incursion into Gaza was approximately 1,400—overwhelmingly non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.
I shall focus on the critical issue of getting building supplies into Gaza to rebuild the area. One needs to go to Gaza to see at first hand the scale of the destruction that has taken place. We saw huge numbers of homes that had been shattered. We saw the hospital in Gaza City that had been burnt out with incendiary phosphorus Israeli tank shells. We went to a large industrial estate spreading over many acres where not just an isolated factory or warehouse had been destroyed, but every building had been razed to the ground and flattened—a scorched earth policy. I am at a loss to know why the Israelis believe that depriving hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians of viable employment and driving them into the hands of Hamas can be in Israel’s interest, but that was the policy that was followed.
The policy is justified on the grounds of security, but that argument simply does not hold water, for the simple reason that Hamas has all the building materials it wants. Hamas controls the tunnels through which come all the cement and steel reinforcing rods it wants. Hamas can build bunkers to its heart’s content, so the security grounds do not hold up. However, a huge rebuilding programme is needed for the civilian population of Gaza.
This morning, on the “Today” programme, I heard what was said by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. If we are to reach a position where the Israelis agree that a limited amount of building supplies linked to UN projects can go into Gaza, it will certainly be a step in the right direction, but that does not go far enough. Among the 1.5 million population of Gaza, large numbers of people need building supplies, but they are not part of a UN project. People want to rebuild their homes. People need to rebuild their farm buildings, their businesses, factories or warehouses, to create a viable economy. I point out to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that, if the proposal is to allow in building supplies only for UN projects, I hope the Government will say that we should go wider than that. There is no security risk in increasing the amount of building supplies going into Gaza to private individuals and private companies, provided that all those supplies are subject to the right of search by the Israelis.
I fully accept that the Israelis have every right to ensure that no weapons go into Gaza. We insisted on the same right in Northern Ireland. We did our utmost, with varying degrees of success, to prevent the IRA from getting weapons by sea from countries such as Libya. The Israelis have every right to interdict weapons and explosives, but I hope the Government will take a robust attitude and make every possible case for allowing the free flow of building supplies to Gaza. Hamas has all the building supplies it wants. There is no security case for stopping building supplies, which are critical in allowing the people of Gaza to rebuild their lives and their businesses.
I add my welcome to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to your new position. Just as the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) declared his interest as chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel, I declare my chairmanship of the all-party Britain-Palestine group. In that capacity I offer my thanks to the 133 Members from all parties who have signed the early-day motion on the Gaza flotilla, which underlines the widespread concern across the UK about what happened on 31 May.
Today, we have heard that Israel has set up what has been described as an internal inquiry into that incident. I hope that Members will forgive me for being a little sceptical, because Israel’s record on inquiries has not been a good one; we have only to ask the British mother Jocelyn Hurndall about the hoops she had to jump through to get to the truth about the shooting of her son Tom by an Israeli sniper in Gaza in 2003.
Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said that his inquiry meets the standards of
“prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation.”
We shall see whether that is the case. There are worries about the evidence to which the inquiry will have access. It is described as an internal inquiry, but the incident was not internal. The interception of the Gaza flotilla took place in international waters, so why is there not an international inquiry? The approach of the Government of Israel to Gaza, and to Israel’s occupation of the west bank, appears to be that the international community can advise—even the Palestinians can advise—about what should happen, but Israel decides what happens, not only within its borders but beyond them. If we are to have peace, that mindset has to change.
Will the Government confirm whether they still support the concept of an international inquiry? The Under-Secretary referred to an international dimension of the Israeli inquiry, but the Secretary-General of the United Nations described it as an inquiry to international standards, which is not necessarily the same thing. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) that, to get to the bottom of what happened on the Gaza flotilla, why can we not have an inquiry to international standards, run by the international community? What is the problem with that if we are to get to the truth?
Today, we have also heard that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, expects a significant easing of the Gaza blockade in the coming period. In particular, he has predicted a change in Israeli policy from allowing into Gaza only items that are on a list of permitted items to letting in items if they are not on a list of prohibited items. As we know, Israel has prohibited things such as cement and steel—things that are vital to the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and homes. I refer hon. Members to the two reports of the all-party Palestine group that are based on eyewitness reports in 2009 and 2010 about the importance of such things going through.
It will be a step forward if Israel allows those materials to enter for UN projects, but it is not just UN projects that are important, even though their work is absolutely vital. Israel has said, for example, that medicines have no problems getting into Gaza. Well, actually, they do have some problems, but most medicines slowly and intermittently will get through eventually. They are not the same as medical equipment. We know from those two all-party group reports—when I was there, I witnessed this—that tubes needed for diagnostic equipment could not get in because they were seen as goods that could be used for terrorism. The last all-party group visit found the same experience with X-ray equipment.
Let us assume that those things get through. People can get food and medical treatment in a prison, but that does not alter the fact that it is still a prison. That is the issue, because the blockade is a collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Not only is it unlawful, but it condemns the people of Gaza to living in a prison. It is not enough for the people of Gaza to get by on more food parcels. It is not just an international humanitarian charity case. The people of Gaza need to be able to travel. They need to be able to rebuild a functioning economy.
It is interesting that the United Nations Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance reported just last week that more items were going into Gaza by category but that imports had declined by 26% compared with the week before, and there is still a ban on exports from the territory. That is not only wrong, but it undermines the cause of peace. As many hon. Members have already said, it is also madness: goods can get into Gaza through the tunnels illegally, but most of the people of Gaza cannot afford them, because poverty has risen exponentially. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that the number of people in abject poverty has tripled since 2007.
It is not Hamas that is saying these things. John Ging, the UNRWA co-ordinator, is saying them. I pay tribute to him, because he is one of those who are trying to give the children of Gaza some glimpse of a normal childhood by running summer camps. He has received threats from extremist groups for doing so, and they have also set fire to equipment. As a friend of Palestine, I say very clearly that those threats and attacks must stop, but that does not alter the fact that, for that to happen and for trust to be rebuilt, the blockade of Gaza must not be eased; it must be ended.
In the minute that I have left, I want to say one other thing. There has been a lot of focus on Gaza today—rightly so; it is understandable in the circumstances—but let us not forget the west bank. Although there has been a partial easing of checkpoints and movement restrictions, it is still under occupation. Since the start of this year, there has been an escalation of attacks by settlers on Palestinians—up to 132. Land confiscations continue. Demolitions of homes continue. There has been a particularly pernicious systematic eviction of Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem from their homes—often virtually in sight of the United Kingdom consulate general.
If we are to bring such things to an end, we must do more than talk. It is time to say what action can begin to be effective. The European Union has an association agreement with Israel that carries not only rights but responsibilities. It carries the right to trade preferences and various other preferences, but it carries the responsibility of Israel abiding by standards of international humanitarian law. Israel is simply not abiding by those standards. The terms of the EU-Israel association agreement are not being carried out. Therefore, until Israel changes its attitude, that agreement needs to be suspended.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am, of course, grateful to you for the opportunity that you give me, terrifying as it is, to make my first contribution to a debate in the House. I confess to hesitating before doing so in a debate that touches so many people so seriously and that is of such a serious nature.
I am naturally sensible of the very great privilege that I enjoy in addressing the House on this occasion—and, no doubt, for the last time—without interruption. Members on both sides of the House will recall their own maiden speeches, and many of them have been kind enough to give their advice about what I should say, whether or not it has been asked for. The principal injunction of course has throughout been to be short. Well, as those who are in the Chamber will observe, that is an injunction with which it will not be difficult for me to comply. Indeed, the entire purpose of my having delayed my speech for this long was to try to avoid the incongruous spectre of appearing in the Chamber at the same time as my new neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), but I see that I have singularly failed to achieve that.
As I rise to address the House, I am conscious of a number of advantages that I enjoy. First and foremost among them is, of course, that I have the honour and privilege to follow in this place a very distinguished parliamentarian indeed. Mr Douglas Hogg, as he was known in the House, was, as Members on both sides of the House will know, respected and beloved throughout his constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham and before that of Grantham. He was generous with his time for those who sent him here to represent their interests, thoughtful in his contributions to the business of the House and unstinting in his support for the rights of this place against any interference from the Executive—something that he addressed in his own maiden speech. All that will be sorely missed. They are big shoes to fill, as Members on both sides of the House have made very clear.
That brings me perhaps to the second advantage that I enjoy as I make my maiden speech—namely, that the electors of Sleaford and North Hykeham, who chose me as a candidate at an open primary even before they had the opportunity to put their crosses in the boxes in May, were evidently satisfied with the make and model that they had returned to the House for the past 30 years, for they have chosen as their new MP another silk—another dinosaur—and another Member with a wife cleverer and more successful than he is. As Douglas himself has put it,
“the old banger must have been pretty sound for them to have chosen the same make and model again.”
I caution, though, and certainly add at this juncture that the unoriginal question that has occurred to wags on both sides of the House receives the answer no. I leave that as a puzzle perhaps for my successors, but given that I represent Sleaford and North Hykeham and follow Mr Hogg, many Members will know what question has arisen in their minds.
Before I come to the matter on the Order Paper, let me say that there is, finally, this advantage that I also enjoy: I have the very considerable honour to represent one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country, with some of the very best people one could hope for. From my village of Thorpe on the Hill in the north to Barrowby in the south, Long Bennington in the west to Metheringham in the east, hon. Members on both sides would do well to pay us a visit. It is a great shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) is no longer in his place. He would particularly enjoy some of the real ale and some of the best pub food in the country, but I shall look forward to welcoming him and as many others as possible to the constituency.
The House can expect contributions from me perhaps on the middle east, and I hope to speak in future debates at somewhat greater length than I have time to do today. I hope also to speak about special educational needs. As many in the House will know, I was the chairman of governors at one of the last remaining signed bilingual schools for deaf children in this country. Close to my heart are issues about the education of deaf and autistic children and those who are less able.
I come to the matter that is on the Order Paper, conscious of the fact that I have heard contributions of great weight, not merely from Front Benchers but from Back Benchers, and that many Members on both sides of the House know a great deal more about this than I do. As is evident from those contributions, Members on both sides of the House well know the physical suffering that the continued blockade of Gaza is causing to a civilian population already laid low by the effective destruction of its infrastructure. Members obviously recognise the unsustainable policies that have been pursued in the past by the Government of Israel, of which I count myself a considerable friend, but which have, whether we like it or not, had the effect of entrenching a de facto Government with a vested financial interest in the maintenance of the tunnel economy that has been created by the blockade.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke about building materials. There is no shortage of building materials available to Hamas. The leaders of Hamas, should they wish to, construct villas, as they do, and have no problem getting cement through the tunnels. It is even possible to get a 4x4 through them. The argument that the blockade is based on the security of Israel is, I am afraid, fallacious, and I join other Members in saying that it should quickly be abandoned. Israel should concentrate on its strengths and on the values that it offers and demonstrates to the world.
Members on all sides have also been appalled, as have I, by the inability of the Palestinian Government, of whatever colour, to offer security to Israel. There is only one way forward—the two-state solution. Change has to come to Gaza and to the entirety of Israel and the Palestinian territories established under the Oslo accords. Change is something that we all talked about during the election, but this is a change that is desired by the vast majority of the civilian population throughout the middle east, and indeed in Palestine and in Israel, and is supported by the Government here as well as by our allies, as resolution 1860 demonstrates. It is that resolution with which Israel would do well to comply, as long as, of course, its security is guaranteed, and for that reason I hope that in this Parliament we will have the opportunity of seeing some form of lasting peace—the lasting peace that has for so long evaded previous Administrations in this House and indeed across the world.
I, too, congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and welcome you to the Chair. Before making my brief remarks, I mention, by way of declaration and pending the publication of the register, that my constituency party has received donations from individuals and organisations supporting the rights of Palestinians, and I made several visits to Palestine, Gaza and the west bank in the last Parliament.
I wish that there were more time to debate this issue today. There is a debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), which may give more opportunity to address the issue of Gaza. We have heard very powerful speeches about that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) which will help me to confine my remarks. I wish that I had more time to deal with some other issues. I would like to comment on Yemen, Syria and Iraq, but the time simply does not allow that, save for one point, which is topical and relevant to my constituents.
In opening the debate the Minister mentioned in an impassioned way the contribution that this country had made to security in Iraq. I do not in any way denigrate the efforts that have been made by our forces there, but Iraq remains very insecure. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has commented on the forcible removal of people from this country to central and southern Iraq in conditions that put their safety at risk, and I ask the Government to look at that matter. A longer, all-day debate on the issue in the Chamber would be helpful in order to test the Government’s emerging policies on the middle east. I am lucky enough to have in my new constituency the Iraqi Association UK, which I know is particularly concerned about deportations that continue from this and other European countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said that he wished there could be more of a meeting of minds between interests representing the Palestinian and Israeli sides. I echo that. It does occur, but perhaps not frequently enough. I am afraid that in the debate today we have seen people taking entrenched positions again, and I will try not to do that in my remarks. I have noticed an unprecedented co-operation between the groups representing the interests of Palestinians and in the three main parties, which now meet on a relatively regular basis. That is to be welcomed, but I think it is a response to the appalling situation that the attack on the Gaza flotilla has brought to light.
Following my several trips to Gaza, I would highlight three points that have come home to me and, I think, other hon. Members who have also made that journey in the last two to three years. First, there is a desire for justice. Yes, there is a desire for cement and security, but there is an overwhelming desire for justice among the Palestinian people. They believe that they are not getting that and that the balance of force is set very much against them, whether in the region or in the world. The hope given by the Goldstone report has so far been dashed, and now the prospect of an independent inquiry into the attack on the Gaza flotilla appears also to have receded.
Why is an independent inquiry important? The Prime Minister of Israel, in announcing the inquiry, said that it is to investigate
“whether Israel’s Gaza blockade and the flotilla’s interception conformed with international law”.
With respect to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), he may need to brush up on his international law a little if he is going to practise again, because every opinion that I have read from respected international lawyers is very clear that there is no right to attack a ship bearing the flag of another country in the high seas to enforce a blockade, even were it a legal blockade. On that and many other grounds, this is an action of little more than piracy, and it will not much trouble the inquiry, if it is an impartial inquiry, to investigate that.
The other reason for the inquiry, according to Mr Netanyahu, is to
“investigate the actions taken by the convoy’s organisers and participants.”
In other words the victims—those who were killed and the many who were injured—are to be put on trial. Thanks to the way the Israeli media typically manipulate publicity—we have heard some examples repeated verbatim in the House tonight—there is very little chance of the inquiry being impartial and of the world being presented with what actually happened.
I took the opportunity to attend press conferences held by British citizens from the flotilla immediately on their return from Istanbul, where they were flown from Tel Aviv, and to hear their first-hand accounts. I may be able to say a little more about that in the debate tomorrow. Suffice it to say that it gives a totally different picture from most of what has been reported even in the British media and certainly in the international media about what happened during that unprecedented attack, in the middle of the night, in international waters, by armed troops, in a way that was deliberately provocative and ended with the entirely predictable result that many people were killed.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that although we understand the careful wording of what our Government said today, people such as his constituents and mine, who have come back with their stories, having been on the flotilla, particularly if they are of Palestinian origin, as the person whom I saw was, would be reassured only by an independent inquiry, rather than a partial one. We cannot expect people to trust an inquiry carried out by one of the parties to the event. It has to have international credibility.
I am grateful for that intervention. Those who heard the response of the Israeli Prime Minister’s official spokesman, both during the Gaza invasion and more recently, will realise the deep cynicism that underlies most of what Israel says and does to justify what has happened.
We have heard a lot said about Hamas today, and I have again heard the same points trotted out. I do not in any way defend what Hamas has done or said in the past, but let us look at the inequality in arms, and at the violence done and the deaths caused in the region over the past few years. There have been 1,400 people killed—mainly civilians, including many children—in the invasion, and nine people on the flotilla were killed. Just this year, six Palestinians have been killed, and 18 injured, on the west bank; 31 were killed and 116 injured in Gaza. Of course we must condemn rocket attacks, and the now relatively isolated attacks on Israeli civilians and on the Israeli military, but the question of proportionality must enter into the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton mentioned the lockdown on the west bank and the repression that, every day, in a thousand ways, crushes the spirit of the Palestinian people there.
I end by putting a further question to those on the Government Benches: does an end to the blockade mean an end to the blockade? In The Guardian last Thursday, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was quoted as saying that that was not necessarily the case, and that we could not expect an end to the blockade immediately. I believe that we need an end to the blockade, and I would like to hear the Government say today that that is what they intend. I echo what was said by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley): there should be entry of supplies not only for UN purposes, but for general purposes so that the population of Gaza, who simply wish to live ordinary lives, can succeed and thrive—to trade, to eat, and to behave in a way that we in this country would think normal. The blockade is a form of collective punishment, not a way of controlling terrorism. It would be helpful to hear the Government say that in terms today.
Many congratulations to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your current position, some 30 years after we first met in a Committee Room elsewhere in this noble House.
The first, fundamental duty of any Government is to safeguard their citizens and borders, and to look after their people at home and abroad. As we come up to the 70th anniversary of the battle of Britain, we may ask, who would have denied our nation the right and duty to safeguard ourselves against the Nazis? Who would condemn Britain’s historical roles, both in the middle east and blockading the African coast to enforce the abolition of slavery back in the 19th century?
Many of our noted justifications for invading sovereign countries have been based on safeguarding our safety and security. Our reason for invading Iraq was that weapons of mass destruction could be implemented on our sovereign soil within 45 minutes. We are still searching for those weapons of mass destruction, but that was the reason that we were given. Our justification for occupying Afghanistan is, of course, to prevent al-Qaeda and other forces from setting up camps, planting bombs and damaging British sovereign territory. We must say to the Government of the day that as we win that fight, we must ensure that al-Qaeda and other such dark forces do not set themselves up in other countries, such as Yemen. We must remember that that is a big danger that we face.
Israel has fought a number of wars over the years since it was set up in 1948. Its recent experience of rockets and bombings, including suicide bombings, has been traumatic for all residents. The people of Israel have witnessed frequent suicide bombings, and suffered as a result of them. When the Israeli Government set up the wall, the incidence of suicide bombings dramatically reduced. If one were an Israeli citizen, one would say that the Israeli Government had done a wondrous thing. However, if one were a Palestinian, one would say, “You have done terrible things to us.”
Equally, what is Israel’s justification of the blockade? It is quite clear that since the blockade was implemented, the incidence of bombings and rockets coming into Israel has reduced, although such incidents have not ceased. The reality is that given the state of war between Israel and Hamas, Israel has the absolute right to enforce the position that rockets, bombs, missiles and ammunition must not enter Palestine or any area that can then attack the state of Israel.
We are challenged on the position of humanitarian aid, yet the state of Israel allows some 15,000 tonnes per week of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. However, there is the role of Hamas: it holds up the aid. It uses it as an incentive to control the people of Palestine, and as a means of repression. Until it ceases its repression, the people of Palestine will not see the benefit of having a properly, democratically elected Government who truly represent them.
As has been said in many speeches today, Hamas says in its founding statement that it wants to destroy the state of Israel and wipe it off the face of the planet. It is very difficult to negotiate with people whose fundamental aim is to destroy one’s Government and one’s very being.
We must challenge the position taken on the flotilla and ask what its purpose was. Was it to deliver humanitarian aid? Absolutely; most of the people on those ships wanted to make sure that the citizens of Palestine and Gaza received humanitarian aid. However, behind it was IHH, an organisation with fundamental links to Hamas and al-Qaeda. The reality is that it sponsors terrorism, and it wanted to breach the blockade so that subsequently, once the blockade was removed, guns, rockets and other ammunition could be brought in, so that bombs could rain once again on Israel. It is understandable that the Israeli defence forces sought to prevent that from happening. On five of the six ships, they did so in a perfectly reasonable way, and people went about their business properly.
Let us look at what happened on 31 May, particularly on the Mavi Marmara. Many of the individuals concerned appeared to wish to be martyrs to the great cause. They attacked Israeli soldiers—remember, Israeli soldiers were injured during the boarding, and the reality is that they were attacked with weapons. There are two sides to the issue. Is it any surprise that Israel is concerned about inquiries? The Goldstone inquiry was almost certainly perceived in Israel as being biased against that state. When the inquiry came before the United Nations, the Labour Government’s representative refused even to vote on the issue.
The state of Israel rejected the inquiry as being biased and unfair. The reality is that the British Government refused even to vote on the issue; they did not vote for or against it. They did not even abstain. They just refused to vote. It is perceived as being not a fair and reasonable inquiry. On that basis, the state of Israel will most certainly say, “If we are to have another such inquiry, that can hardly be perceived to be fair or reasonable.” That is one reason why there is a difficulty with the whole approach.
There is, of course, a way forward on the situation. First, Hamas and Hezbollah must renounce violence, stop bombing Israel and recognise Israel’s right to exist. Israel must then lift the blockade, allow humanitarian aid in and ensure that a two-state solution can prosper and grow in an atmosphere of negotiation, peace and tranquillity. That will be hard on both sides, but that is what is required in the region to ensure that we move forward to two independent states able to exist side by side. Until all the nations that surround the state of Israel can accept Israel’s right to exist, and Iran retreats from its stated position of trying to destroy the state of Israel, potentially with nuclear weapons, the situation in the middle east will remain fragile.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on your new position.
Like many colleagues on both sides of the House, I shall concentrate my remarks on the situation in Israel. I visited Israel and the west bank last year and met politicians from both sides. The best and most hopeful meetings were those with politicians with moderate views, who were willing to make compromises and could see the conflict from the perspective of the other side. In that vein, I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who said that there is no contradiction between being a friend of Israel and a friend of the Palestinians, supporting a viable two-state solution.
During my visit, I was struck by the range and depth of those agreements, and I ask the Government how they will strengthen the voices of those moderates. Recent events filled me with great pessimism. The horrific incident on the Mavi Marmara sent a shock wave around the world, with widespread condemnation of the deaths of the nine civilians. The inquiry into the incident—I believe there should be an inquiry—must be judged by the international community as comprehensive, impartial and independent. Anything that falls short of those criteria will not be credible. I do not want to prejudge the conclusions of the inquiry, but questions about the conduct of soldiers aboard the ship must be complemented by searching questions about the planning of the military operation.
There must also be a wider understanding by the Israeli Government and the Israeli defence forces that they cannot use the justification of self-defence for any action that they choose to take. They must understand that there are severe doubts about the proportionality of their response in this case and others, and that the blockade of Gaza, in the wise words of my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, is self-defeating—a policy that has long been discredited and continues to push power into the hands of Hamas.
The people of Gaza are, in effect, faced with collective punishment, which in turn produces bitterness and resentment and pushes them further into the arms of Hamas, thereby frustrating the efforts of the more moderate voices that I mentioned. Allowing Hamas to control supplies of many of the goods that are smuggled illegally has strengthened its hand, not weakened it. The basic human rights of the people of Gaza have been denied for too long. The economy of Gaza is in ruins, with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%. Any hope of sustaining economic growth through exports is strangled at birth by the blockade. Not being able to export from Gaza has given more power and control to Hamas.
The restrictions and the poverty that they engender leave the people of Gaza without hope and drive them into the waiting arms of Hamas, whose only counsel is a path of confrontation and an endless cycle of violence and revenge. I welcome the work that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, is doing to ensure that supplies will, we hope, go into Gaza, that the security concerns of the Israelis are respected and that weapons are not allowed into Gaza.
The proactive stance of the Obama Administration and their insistence that the Israeli Government should halt settlement construction is welcome. For too long the Bush Administration inflamed rather than helped the situation. Israel needs critical, not uncritical, friends. I urge the Government to do everything they can to strengthen the voices of moderation on both sides of this tragic conflict. Despite all that has happened, there are such voices, and our Government should put pressure on the Israeli Government, through the Quartet or bilaterally, to extend the freeze on settlement building beyond September.
The talks going on are, unfortunately, indirect talks. If the confidence-building measures of which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South spoke are adopted, I hope they will lead to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that equally the Government should apply pressure to Hamas to ensure that the force that it uses is not successful, that the repressive approach that it takes is counter-productive, and that the authoritative way in which it goes forward is self-defeating?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I regret the fact that there have not been elections in Gaza, as there should have been, last year. They were also put off this year. The lack of democracy in Gaza reinforces the position of Hamas. We in the international community should do all we can to fight against the increase of its power.
Only if the indirect talks become direct talks will there be a chance of a lasting and viable two-state solution in the middle east. I look forward to all that the Government can do. We on the Opposition Benches will help them, where we agree with them, to bring that about.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I, too, welcome you to the Chair? You look very fine in it.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his post, which I know he will undertake as well as he has undertaken every other post in which I have worked with him in the past. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), on his excellent maiden speech. The whole House knows that the finest things come in small packages.
In this first debate of the new Parliament on the middle east, and the first debate in which I have had a chance to take part, I did not want to get lost in the thicket of the detail of the current negotiation and the rights and wrongs of every issue. I wanted to take a little time to step back and tell the House why, ultimately, I count myself a friend of Israel, first and foremost, in the middle east. That is because I think of some fundamental truths.
In my maiden speech last week, I talked of the achievements of the Labour Government in establishing full equality for all people in the United Kingdom. Let us look at the middle east and ask ourselves, where in the middle east is it best to be a woman, or where in the middle east is it best to be gay? In Egypt, personal status laws discriminate harshly against women on marriage, custody of children and inheritance. In Jordan, a country which I consider to be a positive force and one where the current ruler is trying to take it forward, more than 20 women per annum, according to Amnesty International, are killed for breaking social taboos. Israel had a female Prime Minister before any party in Britain had even thought of it, and it nearly had another one last year—I rather wish it had—in Tzipi Livni.
Think about a gay person in the middle east. In Syria, it is not so bad—three years in prison. In Iran, a gay person would get the death penalty. In Israel, a gay person can rise to be a general in the armed forces, and just last Friday 100,000 people marched in Tel Aviv to celebrate the equality of gay people in Israel.
So then I ask myself, where in the middle east is it best to criticise the Government in public? In Syria, it is simply not possible, because the state controls every single aspect of the media. Reporters Without Borders calls Iran,
“the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists”,
but it ranks Israel higher than the United States as a place for press freedom—44th in the world and first in the middle east.
Finally, I ask myself, where is it best in the middle east to belong to a religious or ethnic minority? In Syria, Kurds and Jews are not allowed to take any part at all in political life. In Iran, one cannot even go to university without passing an exam on Islamic ideology, and one cannot get a senior post in any organisation unless one belongs to the majority Shi’a group. In Israel, Israeli Arabs have always had all rights—the same as Israeli Jews—except for one: they do not have to serve in the armed forces, because the state of Israel recognises that it would be unfair to set them against their Arab brothers. However, they can vote and be elected, and many have been. There is even an Arab-Israeli serving on the supreme court in Israel.
So let us be clear: for all its errors and excesses, which I and the whole House see, Israel is an oasis in a desert—an oasis of freedom, democracy and human rights in the middle east. We therefore have to ask ourselves, why does Israel do those things that shock, pain and worry us all? Why does it feel driven to inflict on the people of Gaza what we all recognise, whether in law or not, as seemingly like collective punishment? The answer is very simple: it is not just faced but encircled by an enemy that wishes to destroy it.
So before the House pulls on its breeches and starts saddling up the high horse, let us remind ourselves of how we—this place, this ancient democracy, this ancient birthplace of freedom—reacted when we faced an existential threat. We interned or deported long-time residents of German and Italian origin and refugees from Nazi Germany—to our everlasting shame. However, we did it, and with the approval of this House. The Americans did the same with Japanese Americans and German Americans, so we should be very careful before we start lecturing a nation that was built by the survivors of a genocide, which took less than five years to kill more than the current population of Jews in Israel.
Rather than lecturing and sitting on that high horse, we should ask ourselves, what practical things can we do instead of the huffing, the puffing and the futile outrage? I, too, welcome the role of Tony Blair in the middle east and in Palestine at the moment, so, first, we should do everything that we can to support the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and, in particular, Prime Minister Fayyad, so that Palestinian people can see an alternative to Hamas which delivers security, jobs and a normal life. That is all that they want. Secondly, we must do everything we can to encourage Turkey to remain aligned with Europe and the west, and not to feel that we do not want it in the European Union or as part of the western alliance. Turkey is key to us and to Israel, and we must ensure that Turkey knows it.
Finally, we must confront Iran. I am very glad that the Government played such a pivotal role in achieving the sanctions that the UN agreed last week. The middle east is a terrible area of the world, with so many problems, but in ending I share the optimism that some Members have expressed. Yes, the situation seems full of despair, but let us look at the progress that has been made. There is a peace treaty with Egypt, and I should point out that Israel has never attacked a nation with which it has a full peace treaty. There is a peace treaty also with Jordan, and across the Israeli political system it is commonly accepted that a two-state solution with an independent state for Palestinians is the right solution. I feel that progress is being made, and further progress can be made if we quit the lectures and just get down to supporting our friends and helping them to come to an agreement.
I was going to say something very different when I started listening to the debate, but after hearing the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) talk about different countries’ rules, regulations and societies, I must say that that is no basis for invading, for killing or for destroying other people. One cannot say, “I’m a friend of Israel because it is a democracy.” We can be friends with Israel; I have no problem with the state of Israel. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said about the way to deal with the situation in the middle east. He said that the Palestinian people should receive land in proportion to their population. There should be an end to illegal settlements, and we should end the war, which has created so much misery for the Palestinian people.
We have to go back in history. In the 19th century, only 5% of the population in Palestine were Jewish; 95% were Muslims and Christians. In 1931, 18% of the people in Palestine were Jewish, resulting from the persecution of the Jewish people in Europe. Between 1947 and 1948, 78% of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, and now Jewish people hold 75% of the land, whereas the Palestinians, who are larger in number, have only 25%. That is the dispute under discussion; that is the issue that the House must not forget. People have been expelled from their homes and blockaded, but some Members say, “We can’t see why people are being critical of the Israelis and why people feel that they should fight for the rights of the Palestinians.” I agree that there should be two states, but they should be created on the basis of equality—on the basis that 20% of the population own 75% of the land. When does that become fair? When is that right? Until we put those wrongs right, we will never have peace in Palestine.
I am surprised that people seem to have forgotten the history. Jewish people were massacred and genocide was committed against them, but it was carried out by western democratic countries—Germany, Austria and Poland; nobody in the middle east carried out genocide against the Jewish people. If the Palestinians are given their proper rights, I do not think that the state of Israel will have any problem with any of its neighbours. It would certainly finish Hamas, because Hamas exists only because such inequities exist. If we gave the Palestinian people their rightful homeland, if we gave them a proper share of the land and if we gave them security, Hamas would disappear just like that.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to your seat, Madam Deputy Speaker, on this, my first opportunity to do so. I thank all Members for participating in the debate. Time necessitates that I cannot deal with each submission. Suffice it to say that tomorrow in Westminster Hall there is a debate on Gaza, which will provide me with a longer opportunity to put forward the Government’s position and to respond to a few other issues.
Before I make some general remarks, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for his contribution, which we all much enjoyed. He takes on a seat that Douglas Hogg held with that combination of mischief and brilliance of which he was such a unique exponent. Douglas will be sadly missed, but the gap is clearly going to be very ably filled, indeed. My hon. Friend spoke about a difficult subject with a lightness and self-deprecation that clearly masks a keen intellect. We sensed that when he touched on the seriousness of the issue. I am sure that we all enjoyed his contribution. We will certainly hear from him again, and we will welcome that.
On the debate itself, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) began with some thoughtful and reflective comments that illustrate why as a Minister he was so well regarded in both the House and his private office, which I have been fortunate enough to inherit. Freedom has allowed an even richer seam of belief and rhetoric to emerge. His sensitivity, through his faith, to those on all sides of the conflict caught up in incidents of death and misery, reflected the concerns of so many of us who agonise over the steps needed to achieve the realisation of a peace the architecture of which is seemingly so well known to so many people and has been for so long.
The later contributions of many colleagues on both sides of the House illustrated the complexities of the politics of the region and how easily the confidence-building measures of one run the risk of being a threat to another. It was inevitable that the House would concentrate on Gaza. With due deference to balance in many contributions, a number of colleagues examined the events of the other week from a deeply held conviction on one or other side of the divide.
I shall deal with some of the issues in more detail tomorrow, but I welcome the contributions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), my hon. Friends the Members for Sleaford and North Hykeham, for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the hon. Members for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman).
The remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) were more about Iran than anything else, but in general the debate concentrated on Gaza. Hon. Members anxious about Gaza and angry at the activities and actions of Israel demonstrate why the Government urge a credible inquiry and change in Gaza to relieve the humanitarian situation while recognising Israel’s need for security. We need to create the environment so necessary for a viable, non-dependent economy and a people with reason to hope.
Friends of Israel, in the House and beyond, will no doubt reflect on the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), a long-standing friend and colleague. As much from experience and deep conviction as from his unquestioned support for the state of Israel, he posed a series of questions that will make uncomfortable but necessary reading in Israel.
At the beginning of the debate, I said that the middle east was a realm of culture, diverse history, faith and heritage. Despite that, we concentrated on places and circumstances that illustrate the other side of the middle east and show that history can be a burden as well as a blessing. If I have anything to offer in this context, it will be my determination to work with the House and the expertise of so many Members who care about this issue, to reflect the House’s passions and above all to champion its eternal determination to bring hope into the most difficult of situations.
The hon. Member for Bury South was not wrong to list the series of events that he and I have experienced and witnessed throughout our time in this House, a number of which have been personally shared by colleagues here. They range from standing amid the tear gas in apartheid South Africa in the ruins of Crossroads to opening ballot boxes in a free East Germany and cheering home President Obama—not so much for his party, but for what he represented in respect of change for the world and his country. How the House longs to add the middle east to that list.
The way will be long, tough, tortuous and unromantic. The House can and will play its part in offering balance and sharp inquiry—and, I hope, encouragement—to the many partners who will be playing key roles in securing the peace and stability that we long for in the middle east. We will return to these issues many times. I trust that in darker times to come, the light of hope, which the best of history can provide, will remain unextinguished by events, no matter how frail that flame may be from time to time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of UK policy on the middle east.