I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I appreciate that the whole House had an opportunity to debate the situation in the middle east yesterday, but I am sure that hon. Members will be tolerant of our having a debate today that concentrates specifically on issues affecting Gaza, given that they have been of so much concern in the past few weeks.
The crisis in Gaza is central to the broader crisis between Israel and Palestine, and that conflict, in turn, is one of the most important in global political terms. It is crucial that British parliamentarians and the UK Government, along with the European Union, the United Nations and the Quartet partners, redouble our efforts to ensure that the blockade of Gaza is lifted. However, that is simply the most immediate step towards a lasting peace settlement, without which we are doomed to see repeats of the present situation. Not least because this point is often misrepresented, it is essential to restate that Israel has entirely legitimate security needs that must be met; but that can happen only if the Palestinian people have the right to a viable and secure state within sovereign borders.
As we are all aware, the latest crisis was triggered on 31 May, when Israeli forces boarded one of six vessels in the flotilla carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish nationals. Accounts of the event vary widely, of course, and have varied over time as different presentations of events have appeared in the media. From the footage that we have seen, there seems to be no doubt that Israeli soldiers were themselves subject to violent attack. However, Israel originally stated that its soldiers were fired on first—a claim for which no evidence has been provided—and that they were equipped with paintball guns, whereas the BBC’s “Newsnight” on 1 June showed that Israeli solders had been carrying lethal weapons from the beginning. Although we can draw some conclusions from the footage made available to date, we cannot yet be certain of all that happened on that day.
It is crucial that the inquiry into those events wins the confidence of the international community. Whether that can be true of an internal inquiry with foreign observers, as opposed to the independent investigation requested by the UN, is open to doubt at the very least. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s view of the robustness of the internal inquiry promised by Israel.
However grave the events involving the flotilla were, they also serve to draw attention to the wider predicament of Gaza.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As she is moving on from the events involving the flotilla, may I take this opportunity to ask what her response is to the experience of one of my constituents, Theresa McDermott, who was on one of the other boats in the flotilla? Although live weapons were, fortunately, not involved, Theresa McDermott experienced what can only be described as brutality by Israeli forces, who fired sound grenades directly at people, tasered them and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an independent inquiry into what happened on the flotilla is needed, and that it would also be in Israel’s own interests to clear up what happened?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is of course true that in discussing the flotilla, we have, perhaps understandably, concentrated on the terrible events that led to nine deaths, but there are certainly grave allegations about what happened on the other boats in the flotilla. It is in everyone’s interests—including Israel’s, in my view—that the inquiry is sufficiently independent to win confidence. That is so often the case with such inquiries.
I have visited Gaza twice in the past three years. I spent two days there in March as part of a parliamentary delegation. On both occasions, what I saw shocked and appalled me. As an important preamble, let me say that on my previous visit in late 2007—I was there with other hon. Friends here today—I was able to visit Sderot, one of the southern Israeli towns subjected to rocket attacks from within the Gaza strip. Although it should not be necessary, I restate that rocket attacks on the civilian population, such as those that rained down on Sderot, constitute war crimes. I have no doubt that everyone taking part in this and other debates condemns such attacks without reservation. Israeli civilians have a right to peace and security. It is right that reasonable steps should be taken to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza and to expect that attacks on the civilian population should not take place from within Gaza.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I am listening carefully to what she is saying. Does she agree that the key problem behind the current crisis is the fact that Hamas, which rules Gaza, refuses absolutely to recognise the existence of the state of Israel?
I have not instituted this debate in order to act as an apologist for Hamas. There is absolutely no doubt that Hamas is a critical player in the crisis in the middle east, and neither I nor, I am sure, other parliamentarians are here to defend its role. The conflict is deep and intractable and Hamas must take responsibility for its share. However, with that important caveat, it seems to me that the issue underlying the wider crisis in Palestine and the situation in Gaza is the proportionality of the response and the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Surely there can be no excuse whatever for the acts of terrorism against the people of Israel, and the best way to stop the blockade is by Hamas stopping its terrorism so that people can live together in peace and harmony?
I am grateful for that intervention. I was not aware that I was in any way excusing acts of terrorism; I do not do that. However, although I do not want to be diverted into the chronology of recent events, it is also true that Hamas has instituted truces in the rocket attacks on any number of occasions, but that those truces have not led to the sort of response that would allow us to make progress. I am sure that colleagues seeking to participate in the debate will discuss that further. That is true in respect of both Gaza and settlement building in the west bank. The way forward to peace involves initiatives taken by both sides.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes, but this will be the last intervention for the moment.
The general tone of the interventions so far seems to suggest that Palestinians have brought this upon themselves by electing a Hamas Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the political issues in the middle east, punishing the Palestinian people collectively for exercising their democratic right is entirely wrong?
I agree totally and that is the main thrust of my contribution today. There are issues of proportionality and collective punishment. The 1.5 million citizens of Gaza should not be subjected to the impact of the siege because of the Government that they chose—or, in many cases, did not choose—to elect.
Israel has stated frequently that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers. However, as it has at any time since 1967, Israel has remained firmly in control of Gaza’s sovereignty, controlling its borders, airspace and coastal waters and retaining the right to enter at will. Gaza is surrounded on three sides by a security fence, and a seam zone extending up to 1 km into the territory is enforced by snipers to prevent anyone from approaching the fence. Palestinian farmers entering the zone are liable to be shot at by border guards, while fishermen seeking to fish away from the highly polluted coastline are regularly fired on by the Israeli navy. Leaving aside the casualties of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 116 injured since the beginning of 2010 alone. On 7 June, six Palestinians were killed off the coast of Gaza.
Since 2007, the control of Gaza’s borders has tightened further, to the extent of its being an all-encompassing siege. The people of that grossly over-populated strip—measuring only 10 km from east to west—have been denied all freedom of movement, have extremely limited access to vital goods and services and, perhaps most crucial, have been denied access to construction materials needed to rebuild the many homes and facilities destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.
The agreement on movement and access stipulates that 15,500 trucks a month should be allowed to enter Gaza via the crossing points with Israel. Since June 2007, however, the actual volume has typically been about 20% of that number. Between May and June this year, only 400 trucks entered Gaza—one third of the pre-siege level. The trucks are supposed to contain everything that the 1.5 million people of Gaza need to survive, yet only 73 sanctioned items were permitted. Items that were blocked—there has been very recent movement on this—included pasta, powdered milk, jam, cooking oil, school books and textbooks and T-shirts.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Regarding imports and exports to Gaza, she is aware that one of my constituents, Ibrahim Musaji, travelled recently to the area with Bristol Gaza Link—the third time that that organisation has travelled with humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza. Does she agree that, given the heavy decline in both imports to and exports from Gaza, with 95% of private business in effect going bankrupt, life is no longer normal in Gaza? Restoring the normal pattern of trade and humanitarian aid into Gaza is a crucial element for helping the people of Gaza, but doing so while managing to exclude weapons from being transported there is a conundrum that we hope the Government might be able to help to resolve.
I absolutely agree. That point goes to the heart of everything that I am hoping to say in the debate.
I mentioned a very recent relaxation of the inventory of items permitted to enter Gaza. There are reports that the Israeli authorities have recently approved the entry of 11 new food and hygiene items to Gaza, including jam, halva, soda, juice, canned fruits, razor blades and paste, yet overall Gaza imports have declined by almost 26% compared with last week alone. This week’s figure constitutes 17% of the weekly average that entered during the first five months of 2007—2,807 truckloads of items—before the Hamas takeover. A relaxation of the inventory is certainly not reading across into a relaxation in the volume of vital goods. Diesel and petrol for general use have been delivered on only five occasions in the last 18 months. Industrial fuel for Gaza’s only power plant is also restricted. Between May and June, only one quarter of the quantity required to operate it at full capacity was allowed through.
Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged 50,000 Palestinian homes, 280 schools and a number of hospitals and medical facilities, which I and other hon. Members in the debate saw for ourselves in early March this year. However, concrete and steel have, broadly speaking, not been allowed into the strip, and glass was allowed in only for a very short period. The result has been an almost complete lack of reconstruction since the war. That is clearly not in line with UN Security Council resolution 1860, which during Operation Cast Lead called for the
“unimpeded provision…throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical treatment”.
The Goldstone report, arising from the UN fact-finding mission, further found that the blockade deprives Palestinians in the Gaza strip of their means of sustenance, housing and water, as well as denying them freedom of movement. The report found that Israel has specifically violated
“obligations it has as Occupying Power”
spelled out in the fourth Geneva convention, such as the duty to maintain medical and hospital establishments.
On 1 March, I and other parliamentarians present saw, during my second visit to the area, that sites continue to lie in ruins or badly damaged a year after Operation Cast Lead, including the American international school, which was destroyed by Israeli missiles in January 2009. Rubble has been cleared, but apart from some innovative “earth dwellings” to help the homeless, little reconstruction has taken place. In the southern town of Khan Younis, we visited some of the 2,600 housing units commissioned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that have stood unfinished since the start of the siege. In total, $100 million-worth of UNRWA projects are on hold. Sewage treatment and the provision of safe drinking water are among the most urgent public health necessities, yet there too, materials are on hold for that crucial project.
I apologise for missing the first part of my hon. Friend’s speech. Did she also observe during her visit the psychological damage done, particularly to young people, by the sense of incarceration and imprisonment, lost ambitions and the inability to travel or see anything that the rest of us wish to see of this planet?
I did indeed. We hear a great deal about the public health impact of the siege, and there is clear evidence that a shortage of minerals and vitamins in the diet of children is leading to very serious bone and dental health problems and broader public health problems, but mental health is of critical importance. It is of critical political importance as well. It is hard to measure and often people do not see mental health problems as representative of a traditional humanitarian crisis, of the type that we saw in the days after the Haiti earthquake, but it is arguable that a graver problem is being stored up, not just for the people of Palestine and Gaza, but for the Israeli people and for the future benefits of the peace process. Half the population of Gaza is under 18. Some 900,000 children and young people are trapped in an open prison. What that is doing to them and to the next generations of political leaders does not bear thinking about.
That is one of the reasons why I feel so sad. It seems that, again and again, we see a behaviour that is not necessarily in Israel’s own best interests and is really counter-productive. The other example of that is the destruction, referred to in an intervention, of the private economy as a consequence of the siege. We have seen the virtual total destruction of private commercial enterprise in Gaza. That, of course, has contributed to poverty because it contributes to unemployment, but it has also—this is a perverse consequence—strengthened Hamas in important ways.
The siege has contributed to the thriving tunnel operation—the means used for smuggling on a massive scale from Egypt into Gaza. We saw for ourselves some of the estimated 1,200 or so tunnels under the border, which permit about 4,000 items to enter Gaza, from cars and satellite dishes to the fabled lion that was brought into Gaza zoo and even basic medicines and food. That further disrupts the operation of the economy. The tunnels take a significant toll in human life. Some might say, “That’s the price you pay for what is in effect a criminal operation,” but it is seen as a lifeline—a way of breaking some of the most destructive elements of the siege. Because it provides revenue in the form of taxation on the smuggling operation, it strengthens Hamas’s hold on the economy, which is surely not what critics of the Hamas regime want.
Steps to close the tunnels, which are now being executed, will deprive Hamas of revenue, but tighten the screws still further on the siege of 1.5 million people. No doubt Israel is worried—I understand why—that a lifting of the blockade would be claimed by Hamas as a victory, yet it is hard to see a viable alternative strategy, unless it is believed that sheer desperation will lead the people of Gaza to punish Hamas in favour of a more moderate strategy, which they have yet to see will read across into an effective political solution, as we have seen with the settlement building on the west bank. I suggest that anyone holding such a belief is doomed to be disappointed.
I hope that the Minister will give us his assessment of the independent inquiry into the events on the Gaza flotilla. I hope that he will report back from the EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels and advise us on what progress the EU can make, by itself and in discussions with other Quartet members, to lift the blockade urgently. Does he believe that any easing of restrictions will not merely ease the humanitarian situation, but underpin a strategy of reconstruction and the rebuilding of the private economy? Will the British Government do all that they can to strengthen the accountability of all parties in this conflict for war crimes and transgressions of international law leading up to, during and subsequent to Operation Cast Lead?
I shall conclude now, because many other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I remain convinced that, whatever the larger politics of the situation in Gaza and the middle east, we must act with the utmost urgency to resolve the crisis afflicting 1.5 million civilians in Gaza—one of the gravest in the world today. Britain’s longstanding connection with the area should be used even more effectively to achieve a resolution.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who regularly does this House a service by choosing topical issues, which she has done again. I hope that the way in which she spoke—her carefulness and informed contribution—will commend her comments to all parties.
I welcome you to the chair, Mr Streeter, not only because you are a good chair, but because you, with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I, co-chaired the all-party group on conflict issues in the previous Parliament. If there is one strategy that we as a Parliament and the new Government need to deploy, it is to use our skill in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. In that context, I also welcome my very good friend the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) to his new ministerial responsibilities. He was sensitive when participating in the debate on the middle east yesterday in the House, and I know that he and his colleagues come to the subject with huge understanding and dedication.
To make a passing comment to link those words, those of us of the Jewish, Muslim or Christian faith—of course, other people in the House have other faiths or have no religious faith—should have a particular responsibility in this matter. If followers of the three great world faiths, for whom the part of the world that we are discussing is so important, cannot understand that the logic of our faith is that we should seek to accommodate followers of other faiths who share the same belief in the same God, not much of an example is set to the rest of the world when we seek to preach to them.
I have always described myself as both a friend of Palestine and a friend of Israel. I have been actively supporting the case for a Palestinian state since I was a teenager and have always argued that Israel has a right to exist with secure boundaries. I have had the privilege of visiting the area on several occasions, and although I have yet to have the opportunity to go to Gaza, I have frequently visited the west bank.
Let me make some brief comments following the worthwhile contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) to yesterday’s debate. First, we all hope that what Tony Blair said publicly yesterday will soon come to pass. The work done by the Quartet to bring about an end of the blockade, either wholly or significantly, is hugely welcome. Achieving such an end will be great progress, not least because the current situation is clearly nonsense, in the sense that although it is a terrible imposition on the people of Gaza by virtue of the tunnels and other things, it is a blockade with a conniving exemption. The whole thing has become a sort of international fiction, and the sooner we achieve orderly relations between people on either side of the border, the better.
Regarding the Government of Gaza, people must be allowed to choose their own Governments. They are not always comfortable choices, but the world must understand that it does not help by alienating those Governments entirely. I understand the difficulty. The Government of Gaza, Hamas, must understand—as they were moving to do—that the renunciation of violence and acceptance of the right of the state of Israel to exist have to be preconditions for international acceptance. However, that cannot mean that the people of Gaza or the west bank are not allowed to choose Hamas as their Government. The reason why they do so, as I understand it, is that that party stands strongly for the welfare of the people whom it seeks to represent. In many ways, it has done that more effectively than the other parties in the west bank. We must understand that. We must also understand that we may well have to deal with Hamas for a long time to come. I know that there are forces of enlightenment in the Government that want to make progress, and other Governments are helping them to do that. May we please be clear that precluding Hamas from being participants in the future is not a realistic option?
Israel is a democracy. As colleagues made clear in the House yesterday, it should be praised for being a democracy, although I share the view that certain forms of proportional representation are not helpful and that the Israeli system with a single chamber of Parliament might be one of them. The implication of a democracy is that the country respects international law. It cannot have it both ways. It cannot say, “We uphold democracy at home,” as it does, “and an enlightened social and other policy,” but then deny international law outside its own territorial waters or abroad.
I have talked to Israeli Ministers and officials about such matters. They really have to understand that international law has to apply to us all or it is discredited. When an inquiry such as the Goldstone report takes place, Israel cannot just then cast it aside because it does not like the findings. The eminent Judge Goldstone clearly did his job appropriately and properly. I heard the cautious words of the Minister yesterday; the Israeli Government must understand that their credibility regarding the events on the flotilla at the end of May will be established only if there is an international inquiry rather than just an Israeli Government inquiry with some international observers. I really believe that.
I and others have met constituents who were on the flotilla. I have heard vivid accounts of how they saw Israeli troops in large numbers—for example, 400 troops on the sixth boat—descend on the fighting. There is video footage and recordings, so there is no shortage of evidence. I just ask the Israeli Government to reconsider their limited willingness to hold an inquiry and for it to be conducted only by them. I want it to be done in a way that they find acceptable, but under the UN’s authority, as it has requested.
In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West referred yesterday to the motion of the executive of Liberal International, the organisation that represents all Liberal parties throughout the world, which met on Sunday in Berlin. To summarise, it
“Deplores the use of force by Israel commandos”
on that occasion. It
“Deplores the violence caused by some activists on board the flotilla”.
The executive expressed
“shock at the resultant deaths and injuries”
“Demands the restoration of liberty of the Israeli Arabs who have been on board the flotilla”.
“Supports the UN Security Council’s call for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent inquiry”
examining the actions of all parties, and
“Strongly calls on the Middle East quartet, and the US government in particular, to urge all parties to return to the Road Map and observe international law.”
Let me make one last point about the future. Gaza has a very difficult future. It is a small enclave surrounded by other countries, as the hon. Member for Westminster North rightly described. The history of enclaves in international law is not happy. Berlin is the last one that springs to mind—separate from the rest of its country with a corridor established. I understand the policy of both my party, and that of the Government. The traditional policy of countries such as ours is to accept a two-state solution: a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. That might be right but, just as there will need to be an imaginative solution to the future of Jerusalem, which will have to be the capital of both countries if there is to be lasting peace, so there needs to be an imaginative solution to how Gaza is linked with the west bank.
To have simply two separate territories without connection will not be an adequate way forward. There might have to be a special and protected connecting strip. There might have to be a renegotiation of land settlements that would include those settlements that are illegal as part of the package, as well as a return to old boundaries. There may have to be in the long term a United Nations presence to give security on what was mandated territory for us between the ‘20s and the ‘40s, and other international friends to support it. We, as a country, may have to play a significant role with the Quartet and other countries in guaranteeing the territories, the boundaries and the peace of Israel and Palestine if we are to persuade both Governments to feel confident about the future. I hope that my friend the Minister and his colleagues will be positive and think laterally about the way in which a solution might work, as well as work enthusiastically to make sure that the matter is one of the highest foreign policy priorities of the Government in the days and months ahead.
I rise to my feet as a friend of Palestine, and much to the furious incomprehension of a large number of my constituents, I do so as a steadfast friend of Israel, despite the provocation. Last summer, I sponsored an Adjournment debate on the Spirit of Humanity—a boat carrying humanitarian supplies that was trying to break the siege of Gaza. On that occasion, Israeli forces intercepted the boat—we presume in international waters, although the Israeli Government refused to provide details of the boat’s position, despite requests from British Ministers—but thankfully there was no violence. In the light of that and other previous incidents, should not the British Government have been alert to possible problems with the latest flotilla? Given that the Israeli media reported threats from the Israeli defence forces, making it clear that the ships were likely to be attacked, what actions, if any, had the British Government taken to avert those attacks, particularly knowing that British citizens were on board?
My constituent, Alex Harrison, was on board the Spirit of Humanity last year, and undeterred by that experience, she was also a passenger on the Challenger 1 ship, which formed part of the flotilla that was attacked again by Israeli forces on 31 May. Could the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the legality of the Israeli attack on the humanitarian convoy? What assurances has he had from the Government of Israel about whether there will be any more attacks in international waters on boats carrying British citizens?
Over the weekend, we heard more detail about the inquiry that is to be set up by Israel. We understand that it will include a foreign element and observers such as David Trimble. Will the international community have full confidence in that inquiry and its findings? Will it be independent and transparent? Will the Israelis, the Palestinians and, perhaps most importantly, the people of Turkey have full confidence in its findings? As Cathy Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union put it in The Times yesterday, will that inquiry be “credible, rigorous and impartial”?
In the debate yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) stated the obvious: there have been inquiries in the past on Israel, and perhaps one need go no further than to ask Tom Hurndall’s family about their experience of Israeli inquiries to explain why some people might be slightly cynical about an Israeli inquiry. Another issue is just how wide that inquiry will be and who will be questioned.. Will Alex Harrison be asked about her experience on that boat?
In preparation for this debate, I spoke to Alex. As I said, she was on board Challenger 1. It was flagged in the United States. She would like me to highlight the illegality of the Israeli action. The men who were killed were on the Marmora, which was registered in the Comoros islands, which are off Madagascar. It is her view, and that of many others, that the seizing and killing of the flotilla’s passengers while in international waters is nothing less than piracy. She says that they were some 80 miles away from Israel and were sailing away from Israel when they were boarded.
The Israeli action on 31 May may constitute breaches of international law that could be tried in the International Criminal Court. Alex was one of the boat’s crew. She told me that the Israeli forces came on to the boat, firing plastic bullets. All the glass on the boat broke. People were then pushed to the ground on to the glass. She was the last to be stopped, as she was on the bridge. Two members of the Israeli defence forces came up. Two Australian journalists—Kate and Paul from The Sydney Morning Herald—were with her, and they identified themselves. In response, they were tasered. It was a completely terrifying experience.
There was no violence from Alex’s boat towards the Israeli defence forces, yet those on board were treated with huge violence. She says that she has hand marks on her arms and legs from when she was picked up and carried from the boat. Once they were carried from the boat, all their items were bagged up and labelled. They have not had them back. The Israelis now say that they do not know where they are. She was told that she would be deported to Turkey. She had the clothes she stood up in. She had no passport and no money. She had not been to Turkey—she had come from Greece—and yet the Israelis said that they would deport her to Turkey.
Alex refused to go and so was one of the last to be deported. She was in a pen with 15 other women, and she witnessed some women next to her being hit about the head. They were not treated as badly as the men. She saw some men at the airport who were badly beaten, including Ken O’Keefe, who was so badly injured that he was not able to board the plane. She was some 5 yards away from an Irishman called Fiachra O’Luain as he was beaten around the head—she saw that going on. She also saw Turkish men, who had been injured and come out of hospital, being put on to the plane. Well, to say that they were put on to the plane is inaccurate—they were walking on to the plane as best they could. Some had been shot in the feet and were on crutches. There were no wheelchairs. She was not allowed to assist the men. If any attempt to try and assist them was made, people were hit again. Although she had experienced brutality from a distance in the past, she had never experienced such face-to-face, one-to-one brutality over such a sustained period. She said that they were sworn at, abused and laughed at throughout. That was unnecessary—gratuitous, in her view—and she certainly would like to give evidence to any inquiry. If necessary, she would like the matter to be taken to the International Criminal Court. One can understand why, given her experiences.
May I put it on the record that the constituent whom I referred to was also one of the protestors on the Challenger 1? She reports a similar account of what happened on the boat and in Israeli custody. Her account illustrates the real issues being raised by a number of credible people from the UK, and I hope that the Government will respond to them in the positive way that my hon. Friend requests.
Many hon. Members have constituents who have been on the flotillas. I suspect that we have many constituents who will be on them again. Alex Harrison has said that she will go back.
The terrible events of 31 May have brought the eyes of the world back to what has been going on in Gaza, highlighting the suffering of its people. The three-year blockade of Gaza has been compared to a mediaeval siege. There are some similarities: there is no free movement of people; no goods can leave Gaza, leading to the complete collapse of most businesses; no building materials have been allowed in to repair the damage caused by the Israeli attack of December 2008; one in 10 babies in Gaza are malnourished; one third of babies have anaemia; and a large proportion of the population is food insecure. However, the big difference between a mediaeval siege and the siege of Gaza is that the third crusade, when besieging Acre for two years, was intended to topple the garrison and not to behave in such a way that actually bolstered the garrison. That is effectively what has been happening. Instead of undermining the regime—which they seek to do—the Israelis are, by their actions, bolstering Hamas. Israel has got this fundamentally wrong. It is incumbent on those of us who are genuine friends of Israel to tell the truth: this is wrong, and to continue to behave in that way towards Gaza and Hamas undermines the security of Israel.
Does my hon. Friend accept that approximately 15,000 tonnes of goods a week have gone into Gaza, although that is clearly inadequate? Does she agree that if the European Union and the Palestinian Authority had been able to carry out their responsibilities in manning the crossings, goods could have gone into Gaza at a much faster rate?
In the end, if Gaza were treated how it should be treated, the gates would be open and the tunnels would be closed. Yes, I fully understand. I have been to Sderot and have seen how Israeli children are terrified of incoming bombs that rain down on their town. I fully understand why it would be necessary to search trucks going in—to make sure that they do not have weapons in them. However, it is not a challenge to Israeli security to stop biscuits going into Gaza, and that is the fundamental point. Gaza is being treated completely differently and in a way that is fundamentally unfair. It is incumbent on us to say loudly and clearly that that is wrong.
The hon. Lady referred to biscuits. On the visit that I attended with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), we saw the bombed biscuit factory that, ironically, produced goods for export to Israel. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in controlling the substances that are allowed into Gaza, Israel has been entirely arbitrary? Such substances change from week to week and include random items such as jam and pasta, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Westminster North. When we were there, we were told that nappies—or diapers, as they were called—were not being allowed in. The sole purpose of that seems to be to play with people’s minds and do psychological damage to the civilian population.
It goes further than psychological damage: the fact that there is not a steady stream of proper goods going into Gaza also undermines people’s health. Moreover, the fact that no exports are allowed out of Gaza means that the economy has been undermined and that the people are dependent on Hamas, which allows and taxes the tunnels. Civil society is therefore undermined even further and people become increasingly dependent upon Hamas. When a poor woman wakes up in the morning wondering how to feed her six children, she does not think to herself, “This is Hamas’s fault,” but, “This is Israel’s fault.” That continues to feed extremism and undermine the very security of Israel. Those of us who believe in a two-state solution are fundamentally worried about that and are very concerned about what is happening.
I will not go through all my examples—I am sure that hon. Members are aware of them—but Cadbury’s creme eggs somehow get through the tunnels and nobody can afford them. Some 12,000 buildings need to be rebuilt, and 44% of Gazans are unemployed and so on. The fundamental point, however, is that the siege of Gaza is not hurting Hamas; it is destroying the lives of thousands of ordinary Gazans. The EU is the largest donor to Palestine, but aid is not enough. It is also Israel’s largest trading partner, and we have some clout at EU level. We in the EU must be more confident and do more to put pressure on Israel to ensure that the people of Gaza are treated fairly. I very much hope that EU Foreign Ministers will adopt a united position and that Britain will fully support it. That may include questioning whether an internal Israeli investigation of what happened to the flotilla on 31 May is sufficient.
It is also important for us to be more active diplomatically in the middle east. The problem is not going away—we must address it. We must end the blockade, which is morally outrageous and politically self-defeating, and as I said here last summer, we must open the gates and close the tunnels. Many organisations based in my constituency—such as Medical Aid for Palestinians, Save the Children, UNICEF and Merlin—work very hard to support the people of Gaza; but, ultimately, their good work simply gives us the space to exert moral and political courage to ensure a two-state solution and peace for everyone.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I apologise for missing the start of the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing it. It is extremely important.
I have had the good fortune to visit Gaza on five occasions over the past 10 to 12 years, and I was last there with many of my colleagues as part of a European delegation led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), during which we saw for ourselves what the situation was like in Gaza. As I said in an intervention, we saw the people of Gaza’s sense of imprisonment and its psychological effect on young people. I also noticed for the first time—I had never seen it before—a sense of youth disaffection, with higher levels of drug taking, vandalism and antisocial behaviour, which was never previously a factor in the life of Gaza.
Gaza has a very young population. Teenagers and young people often have a good education—the UN schools are pretty good—and there are high levels of university education. Palestine has the highest level of graduation of any country in the region, but people have no possibility of employment unless they can get a job with the UN, a non-governmental organisation, or the Government of Gaza. NGOs clearly require sufficient resources, because the private and business sectors have virtually completely collapsed. The two basic ingredients for running a small business or a store are customers and goods to sell. In Gaza, there are no customers, because they have no money, and there are no goods to sell, because they cannot be got in. One therefore walks down streets and streets of boarded-up stores and shops, and there is a sense of deep depression in the environment.
During our visit, we had a lengthy meeting with members of all parties of the Palestinian Parliament in Gaza in the bombed-out ruins of the Parliament building. What possible purpose was there in Operation Cast Lead specifically bombing the debating chamber of the Palestinian Parliament? What kind of message was that trying to give? Why were mortar shells fired through the upper floors of a school? The last time I had been in that school was as an election observer the year before, when it was teeming with people queuing up to vote. The school was bombed, which was clearly gratuitously insulting to the people of Gaza. There was no point or purpose to it whatsoever. There was no possible military objective; nor was there in the destruction of many homes, among other things.
As we left Gaza on our way to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt, our bus was filled with an unbelievable stench from the sewage works. They had been damaged and bombed and no chemicals had been allowed through to operate the sewage treatment system. The result was tens of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the Mediterranean. At some point, that sewage will start polluting the beaches of Israel when presumably public opinion in Israel will say something should be done to allow equipment in to repair the sewage works in Gaza. That kind of gratuitously insulting behaviour makes people so angry and is utterly counter-productive.
I have spoken to many people who were on the flotilla the week before last, and listened to their descriptions, including that of Alex Harrison, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). The way in which the Israeli soldiers behaved was disgusting: people were shot, imprisoned and denied access to phones, legal advice and, particularly in the case of older people, food and water.
I was at a meeting last week when an al-Jazeera journalist, who had been on the vessel, described in excruciating detail what he had observed. He clearly has a vivid and photographic memory. That account needs to be told because it was of an incident taking place on the high seas in international waters. An inquiry headed by a series of Israeli judges—with all due respect to David Trimble, the only international observer—is not good enough. We want an international inquiry from the United Nations with an international committee of jurists. I guess Israel would not be happy about that because the last international observation of Israel’s behaviour was the Goldstone commission on Operation Cast Lead. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what progress has been made on the Goldstone commission and its process through the UN Security Council.
I do not want to go on too long because many others want to speak. In reality, the situation is simple: Palestine is under occupation. In the case of the west bank, it is under occupation through checkpoints, endless military intervention, targeted assassinations, the construction of the wall, denial of water, trade and ordinary life, and the sense of collective fear of many people living on the west bank. In the case of Gaza, it is encircled by walls, barbed wire, aerial buzzing—including targeted bombings—and by Israeli naval vessels off the coast to prevent fishermen going further out and the flotilla and aid vessels getting in.
Although public opinion in Israel undoubtedly supports what the Government are trying to do, a significant number of people argue, demonstrate and act collectively to say that the strategy is complete madness, collective punishment and illegal, and creates a sense of isolation in Israel. Israel is now more isolated in world opinion than it has ever been. It broke the law, in my view, in the case of the flotilla. The Goldstone commissioners reported on Operation Cast Lead. British and other passports were used in the Dubai assassination. There are numerous examples of how UN law and resolutions have been flouted by the state of Israel. So we come to the conclusion: what do we do about the situation?
First, we send all the aid that we possibly can to the people of Palestine to allow them to survive. I was at a fund-raising event last week for medical aid for Palestine. The organisation, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury, does fantastic work. Many of us have also supported many other charities. Why do we have to send medical aid to Palestine? Why do we have to send aid at all? The people of Palestine and Gaza are suffering not from a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano, a hurricane or a tropical storm but from something specifically designed to punish, to hurt and to damage people’s lives. That is what the occupation and imprisonment of the people of Gaza are all about.
Why, then, do we not impose some kind of sanction against Israel for its constant illegal behaviour? Why do we not suspend the EU-Israel association agreement by which Israel survives so well economically? Why does the US continue to pour aid into Israel, including military aid and a new missile defence system, other than because it sees Israel as an extension of its own foreign policy in the region? If we want a nuclear-free middle east and peace in the middle east, the siege must end. The blockade must be lifted, and the people of Palestine and their legitimate right to live peacefully and to survive must be recognised.
I sat down with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and others at several lengthy meetings during our visits with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the Hamas Government and parliamentarians in Gaza. The one thing that came across in the last two meetings with the Hamas Government and the other parties was that they want to be part of the process. They want to be part of the future, and of a settlement. Isolation, ignorance, occupation, killing and murdering, which is what it is, are not making things better. They are making the situation worse, and we look to the Government to be assertive in their policies towards Israel’s ending the blockade.
Several hon. Members
Order. Colleagues, winding-up speeches will begin at 10 minutes past 12, so we have 18 minutes to go. I have two colleagues on my list and two new Members have just indicated that they would like to speak, and we will try to get everyone in. You can do the maths yourselves.
It is important that we discuss the shocking events of 31 May, but it is also important that we discuss the context in which they occurred, even though some of the facts about that context disturb a number of people. There may be things that they would rather not hear or know about. However, the facts are that Israeli settlers left Gaza in 2005, but that was followed not by Palestinians and the people of Gaza trying to build a new society and attract international investment. It was followed by the violence of Hamas overthrowing Fatah and engaging in a civil war with it, and by Hamas continuing to state its absolute opposition to the very existence of Israel.
Hamas’s charter is readily available. It constantly puzzles me why people who are legitimately and genuinely concerned about social justice wilfully ignore the contents of that charter in a way that they would not if it belonged to any other organisation. The charter includes statements about killing the Jews. It says that the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews. It says that there is no way except jihad, and that peace conferences and negotiations are a waste of time. It talks about the protocols of the elders of Zion, and the false allegation that Jews run the world. It claims that Jews are responsible for all revolutions, including the French and Russian revolutions. Indeed, the charter goes beyond being anti-Israeli: it is clearly anti-Semitic, and when it is combined with Hamas’s actions in targeting rockets at Israeli civilians, is it surprising that Israelis are genuinely concerned about their security?
There is increasing concern about the involvement of Iran with Hamas in Gaza. That concern was intensified when, last November, a vessel was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus, filled with armaments coming from Iran on their way to Gaza. Those weapons were aimed not only at Sderot, which has suffered too much and for too long, but at Tel Aviv. Israel’s concerns about security are real.
Something needs to be done about the crossings and the current state of affairs. Last June, the European Union said it was willing to contribute to post-conflict arrangements, yet what has happened? Very little. Egypt was also involved in addressing what was happening with the crossings, but it has withdrawn. I hope the statement made by Tony Blair yesterday about new proposals will become a reality, so that the long-suffering people of Gaza can have their needs addressed.
Disturbing questions must be asked about the events of 31 May. Six vessels were involved, and it must be asked why five of those six vessels landed at Ashdod as requested and unloaded their humanitarian aid, while on the sixth vessel something was very different. When those five vessels landed their humanitarian aid at Ashdod, Hamas refused to allow that aid to be delivered to Gaza. That is deplorable, and I do not hear cries of concern and criticism directed at Hamas for taking that action.
My hon. Friend is aiming her fire at something nobody in the debate has sought to defend. Why does the picture that she paints of Gaza appear to be so different from the weekly reports given by the United Nations and other agencies about the situation, and about the causes of that situation and Israel’s responsibility for it? Those agencies are there, so why does she think they have got it so dreadfully wrong? I suggest that it might be a good idea for her—and a number of other hon. Members—to visit Gaza and talk to people there and get their views on their situation.
The reality is that Gaza is run by Hamas, an Islamist organisation that is proscribed by the EU, the USA and Canada as a terrorist organisation. Its regime has led to this dreadful situation for the people of Gaza. That cannot be ignored; it is a fact. More questions need to be asked about that flotilla, focusing on that sixth vessel. What is the role of the Turkish IHH—again, a charitable organisation linked to Hamas and other terrorist organisations? What about the recording that was made in relation to that sixth vessel, showing that when the Israelis repeatedly asked it to land at Ashdod, the reply came back, “Go back to Auschwitz”? What about the fact that people on that sixth vessel were armed with metal rods with knives, and that a lynching of Israelis was attempted? I have no doubt that the majority of people on those vessels were genuine peace activists, but were they infiltrated by somebody else with other ideas?
What about the reports that we have seen since those events in the Turkish media? Families of people who were regrettably killed on that vessel have stated that their partner—the husband in one case—said that he wanted to be a martyr. Even more damning, what about the broadcast that was made on Hamas TV on 30 May, the day before the incident happened, when a university lecturer said that the participants in that flotilla wanted to die as martyrs even more than they wanted to reach Gaza? What a condemnation.
My hon. Friend is repeating the information—if I can call it that—put out by the Israeli authorities in the immediate aftermath of the incident, for which no evidence has been produced. Is she seriously saying that, because Israeli forces normally get away with abseiling heavily armed on to ships in the middle of the night, when, on one occasion, people resist and nine of them are shot dead, they had it coming to them? My hon. Friend should consider the language she uses, even in putting forward her case so strongly.
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
The detail of what happened on the ship will come from the inquiries, but the information that I have brought to this debate—I think very damning condemnation of what happened—does not come from Israeli sources. It comes from the Turkish media and what has been shown on Hamas TV. Those facts might be very inconvenient for people who do not want to know about them, but they are there and they are part of the picture.
I understand the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend and her view on the issue, but does she agree that the differing accounts that are being given are themselves a good reason why the inquiry into the incident should be seen as genuinely independent and international, and as having credibility on all sides? Will she at least agree that that would perhaps provide some way forward from that unhappy incident?
There are indeed differing accounts of what happened, and that is to be expected in an exceedingly fraught and tragic situation such as the one that occurred. That is why I agree that it is important that inquiries should take place; but it is not possible to ignore the facts that I have stated: what happened on that flotilla, what was involved in its planning, the statements that have been made on the TV, the information that has been in the Turkish media, and the context in which Gaza is run, by an organisation with a charter that is simply genocidal.
There is a way forward. The statements made by Tony Blair, the middle east envoy, point a way forward to dealing with the issue of the crossings, but more than that must be done. The most constructive thing would be for Hamas to review its situation, withdraw its charter and state its agreement to accepting the existence of the state of Israel, and join Fatah in negotiations to secure a two-state solution to this tragic problem.
To pick up a comment from one of my hon. Friends about going to Gaza, I have been there—a long time ago, in 1967, just after the six-day war. That was certainly not a golden age for the people of Gaza, which had at that time been administered by Egypt under the armistice agreements of 1949. The people of Gaza were deeply distressed and dissatisfied with the rule of Egypt. They were in poverty and distress. After that war it was hoped that there might be a negotiated solution to the whole conflict, but the Khartoum conference, where the Arab states said clearly “No recognition, no negotiation, no peace” put an end to that. I hope that, whatever our different perspectives on why we are in the current position, we can all make a new start and there can be a negotiated peace on the basis of two states living together in peace and security.
Several hon. Members
Winding-up speeches will start at 12.10 and three hon. Members have said they want to speak, so I suggest brevity if possible.
Before what I hope will be brief remarks, I point out by way of a declaration of interest 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 previous Parliament.
As to the flotilla, about which we have heard quite a lot in the debate, we clearly have heard very different versions of what happened. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, perhaps for that reason more than any other, an independent inquiry—one that is seen to be independent—is demanded. The way the news came out was entirely predictable—an entire news blackout and suppression of information by the Israeli authorities for the first 48 hours. They gave their version of events, and with regret I must say that some of the highly partisan and unsupported accounts, blackening the name of people who were travelling on that flotilla by way of exonerating the Israeli actions, have been repeated in this debate and yesterday on the Floor of the House. That does not help, and nor does the way the Israeli information services deal with those matters.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I do not think that I have time to take interventions.
Travelling on that convoy were many independent, well-respected people, including an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, and Henning Mankell, the respected Swedish author. All those people have given eye-witness testimony as to the brutality and violence of the Israeli forces, who wholly unnecessarily stormed the convoy in international waters in the middle of the night. No real explanation can be given as to why that was necessary. I have heard a number of those eye-witness accounts, which are compelling and have the ring of truth about them. However, the solution to the absolutely black-and-white situation that we have heard described by the two sides so far is an independent inquiry.
I have three sets of questions for the Minister. On the responsibilities of the British Government, the treatment of British citizens needs to be looked into. Issues include the violence and brutality that many of them allege the Israeli forces meted out to them over a prolonged period, and the confiscation of their belongings. There is also the refusal of consular access. There has been great criticism of the embassy in Tel Aviv for not pressing as hard as other countries’ embassies to get access to our citizens. All those matters require answers.
The second issue on which the Government should be prepared to act is the search for a more independent role for the inquiry. It would be useful to hear the Minister talk about the effectively tokenistic gesture of appointing Lord Trimble, who is known as a supporter of the boycott of Hamas and a friend of Israel, and who cannot be seen as impartial, and a judge who does not believe in an international element to the inquiry. That is not an independent inquiry; it is the basis for a whitewash, and it would be useful if the British Government asked for a genuine international inquiry.
Thirdly, the Minister was quoted as saying that he did not think that
“the British Government is talking about lifting the blockade”
on Gaza. That quotation, which was in The Guardian last Thursday, may be wrong, but it would be disappointing if it was correct. We need to lift the blockade on Gaza; we need not to ease the restrictions or simply to see a greater number of supplies going in, but to restore full commercial and civil life to Gaza. Again, that is something that the Government should strongly support.
We are talking not about factional organisations, but about organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have said clearly and in terms over the past few days not only that the blockade is “illegal” and a “humanitarian catastrophe”, but that it constitutes
“a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”
I would like the British Government to make similar pronouncements and at last to put pressure on the Israelis to lift the wholly unjustifiable and inhuman punishment of 1.6 million civilians, which they have imposed simply because they have the ability to do so and because the rest of the world is not, at the moment, prepared to stand up to them.
The firing of rockets from Gaza into the south of Israel presents a menacing and deadly threat. It is completely wrong and it needs to stop because it is taking innocent lives. It is wrong because it provides the justification for Israel’s retaliation, although not for its disproportionate response, which is merciless at times.
The question that I am constantly asked in Bradford East is why the state of Israel is allowed to get away with this. People simply cannot comprehend why international action is not taken. The answer, I have to conclude, is that Israel can get away with it and regularly does. Yes, Hamas is proscribed, but why is the state of Israel not proscribed? Everyone says that a peaceful solution is necessary, but why on earth should the state of Israel agree to a peaceful solution when brutal force has achieved so much for it over such a long period? In my view, the two-state solution is almost an impossible dream. The situation has gone too far. I hope that that is not the case, but I fear that it is.
Why should we take a lead? We should do so because the British are up to our necks in responsibility for the situation in the Palestine region. From 1917 onwards, we gave away something that was not ours; we turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing that took place after the second world war; and now we are participating in the international acceptance of an apartheid state. People say that that would not be allowed anywhere else. In fact, it was not allowed anywhere else—certainly not in South Africa.
Unless things change, they stay the same. We must take a lead with our European partners, as has been said. We must go back to Obama, who started by making a very positive speech in Cairo. However, we must also consider boycotts, divestment and sanctions, because those were the only things that carried any weight in South Africa. Those policies must extend not only to weapons but to sport and academic boycotts as well. The United Nations has made a score or more resolutions. It is not resolutions we need; it is resolve—
Order. I apologise, but my earlier plea for brevity failed. I call Ivan Lewis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate and on her passionate, balanced and highly effective contribution, which was an extremely good start.
There is absolutely no doubt that the plight of the people of Gaza is both a humanitarian tragedy and a political crisis. The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable, and it is now essential to remove all obstacles not only to humanitarian assistance but to the materials and resources required to begin rebuilding homes, public infrastructure and the Gazan economy. However, that will happen only if Israel can be assured that systems are in place to ensure that arms and arms components cannot be smuggled or got in any way into Gaza. It is therefore essential that the Quartet and the Arab League work with Israelis and Palestinians to come up with a credible plan to end the blockade while meeting Israel’s legitimate security concerns, which is the basis of resolution 1860. The Opposition warmly welcomes the work of Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton on those matters.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What do the British Government believe should be the EU contribution to such a plan? How quickly can a plan be put in place? Neither in this debate nor in yesterday’s did anyone refer to the Egyptians putting in place security infrastructure to close the tunnels and prevent smuggling. Has that been done and, if so, what effect has it had on the tunnels?
On the Israel defence forces’ raid on the Gaza flotilla, I made it clear during last night’s debate that we welcome the Israeli Government’s decision to set up an inquiry with the involvement of two international observers. However, we will watch closely to ensure that the inquiry meets the tests of independence, transparency and credibility. My questions to the Minister about the flotilla relate to many of my hon. Friends’ contributions. Will British citizens who were on the flotilla have the opportunity to give evidence to the inquiry, and what efforts will the British Government make to facilitate that? What happened to the humanitarian assistance on the flotilla? We hear different accounts.
On aid, this country can be very proud of the aid that we provided to both the west bank and Gaza. The sad irony of this debate, for reasons that many hon. Members have raised, is the contrast between progress on the west bank and in Gaza. We should always pay tribute in such debates to the leadership of Prime Minister Fayyad and to President Abbas for the improvements in security and economic growth on the west bank. We should also continue to support the two-year plan launched by Prime Minister Fayyad towards Palestinian statehood.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. Will the new Government maintain our commitment to £210 million in aid over three years for the west bank and Gaza? Was the £19 million for UNRWA in Gaza announced by the Secretary of State for International Development last week new money, or part of the £210 million that was already committed?
Let me briefly raise the continued detention of Gilad Shalit. I think that all Members agree that his detention is unacceptable and that he should be released without delay or precondition. It was very moving for me to meet his father not that long ago and hear the human misery that the family is going through. What more does the Minister think that the UK and the EU can do to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, particularly in their dialogue and contact with Arab states?
As we are on the subject of the release of prisoners, does my hon. Friend think that the Palestinian parliamentarians should also be released?
I think that I dealt with that question last night, and my hon. Friend heard my answer then. He probably was not satisfied with it, but I give him the same answer now. Clearly, if people are being held without trial and without charge and there is no evidence that they have committed criminal offences, they should be released. If there is evidence of criminal offences, that evidence should be brought before the courts, and whatever the person’s status—we have recently had a debate about status and parliamentarians in this country—they should be charged. That is my very clear position.
Finally, I have some specific questions about Hamas for the Minister. Do the Government stand by the three conditions laid down by the Quartet that Hamas must meet to be brought into the political process? Are the Government reviewing Britain’s position on that issue, or is Britain arguing within the EU or the Quartet that that position should change? A question that is never sufficiently asked in these debates is whether we have an assessment of the treatment of Gazans in terms of human rights, and of Hamas’s attitude and behaviour towards UN agencies and non-governmental organisations in Gaza. What is the international community’s assessment of the people of Gaza’s experiences of the Hamas Government? How many rockets have been fired into Israel in the past 12 months? Can the Minister give an assessment of where we believe Hamas’s financial support comes from? Some hon. Members have referred to the relationship between Hamas and Iran; it would be useful to know what the British Government’s assessment is of the nature of that relationship.
I also wish to ask a question that nobody has asked for some considerable time. We, as a Government, were giving tremendous support to Egyptian efforts to reunify the Palestinian leadership. I think that we all accept that that would ultimately be in the best interests of a peace process. Things have gone very quiet, however, and it is not clear whether the Egyptians have stopped playing that facilitator role or whether the process is ongoing and the British Government continue to support the Egyptians in fulfilling that role.
In conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said at the start of the debate, what matters most is political progress towards two states. The current proximity talks are important, but until we move to direct talks on the comprehensive issues that will lead to a fair and just two-state solution, the vacuum is dangerous because it could lead to a return to serious violence. I hope that the British Government will continue to do everything in their power to support the move towards direct negotiations as quickly as possible.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I begin by echoing the thanks of the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) to the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington North—
None of us should forget that. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and on the balanced way in which she put her case, marking out clearly what she believes, but also making due reference to the needs of Israel and its security on a number of occasions. All of us, I believe, appreciate the way in which she made her points. I also welcome the work that she has done with the all-party group and the report that she has produced, which illustrated her remarks.
I will do my best to cover as many questions as I can, but I will not go through all of them as there are many. It is quicker to ask questions than to answer them, but I will do what I can. I also appreciate the engagement of the hon. Member for Bury South with my office on the debate and the issues that he raised, about which he knows a great deal.
Old habits die hard.
Yes, I remember. It is difficult for a while to stop, and the hon. Gentleman is clearly in that mode, but he is doing extremely well.
I shall remark on the incident itself and then say a little about the situation in Gaza. The Government unequivocally deplore the deaths of the nine people who lost their lives as the result of the recent events. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister were in touch with the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to offer our condolences, recognising that most of those who died were Turkish citizens. We have consistently made the following point clear to the Israeli Government, both in public and in private: we look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the unacceptable actions.
The hon. Member for Bury South asked about the United Kingdom’s role in the events and the investigation. The UK has played a key role, working closely with the international community, including the EU and the Quartet representative Tony Blair, to stress to Israel the importance of an investigation that ensures accountability, commands the confidence of the international community and includes international participation. The Government have discussed those matters with Israeli counterparts on a number of occasions, most recently on 13 June, when the Prime Minister spoke directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu just before Israel announced a public commission to investigate the incident.
It is important that the investigation ensures full accountability and commands the confidence of the international community. The announcement yesterday by the Israeli Government of a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge and including David Trimble and Ken Watkins, a Canadian, as international observers is an important step forward. We welcome the commission’s international membership and broad mandate. It is important that the inquiry is truly independent and the investigation is thorough. We will watch the progress and conduct of the inquiry before we make any further remarks.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), because she has not spoken.
I thank the Minister. Please forgive me, as it is my first time participating in such a debate, but I am a little concerned that we have not heard many details about the remit of the inquiry, particularly on the question of consular access, which was incredibly important to a number of people from Walthamstow, members of whose family were on the flotilla, and on the lack of information that we, as the British Government and as British MPs, were able to get hold of. It does not seem clear to me, as far as we have seen the remit of the inquiry, that the issues about how international citizens are treated in such kinds of incidents and what lessons can be learnt will be covered. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Clearly, we are not responsible for the remit of the inquiry, but a number of Members have mentioned the consular problems that occurred. I will make some inquiries with the Israeli authorities on that matter. I would like to say a little about the consular problems, because a number of Members raised them.
Will the Minister give way? I have a small point.
No, because I have only six minutes.
The consular service is one of the most important aspects of the Foreign Office’s work. Our travel advice clearly advised people against travelling to Gaza, and we made that specifically clear in relation to the flotilla as well. I will meet those who were involved in the incident tomorrow. The meeting was set up at my request so that people could discuss their experiences both with me and other consular officials at the Foreign Office. I shall listen to them very carefully.
As far as I am aware, our consular staff in Israel worked tirelessly from the moment that they were alerted to the situation to ensure that they could get access to those involved and that people had everything they needed. We raised with the Israeli authorities the need for immediate consular access, and that was granted the following day. Our officials spent several hours visiting those who were in detention and in hospital before they were deported, and we had a large presence in Istanbul to meet those who arrived there. We are also aware that some people’s passports and luggage have not been returned. We will raise that issue with the Israeli authorities because such goods must be returned.
The hon. Gentleman’s persistence must be rewarded.
Does the Minister believe that the Israeli Government’s inquiry has the confidence of the international community? Furthermore, Does he believe that it should be an international inquiry rather than an internal inquiry with an international dimension?
No, the inquiry meets the United Nations Security Council resolution requirement of an independent and impartial inquiry with an international element, but we will wait to see how it evolves. We believe that it has met the initial requirement set out by the international community, which was not for an international inquiry or a UN inquiry; it was exactly as the UN resolution delivered. The point is we should not be distracted by the remit or the structure of the inquiry. The important thing is what it looks at and what emerges from it to give some credibility to the assessment of what happened. We know that there are competing versions of events out there, and we know that the world will not be satisfied unless there is a process that gives everyone the chance to say what they saw and what conclusions they came to. The state of Israel understands that as well as anybody else, and we have made that point very clearly. We should not get hung up on the structure of the inquiry, because, in testament to those who died or who were involved, we should let the inquiry get on and see what emerges, and that is what we are concentrating on.
It is very important to see the incident not in isolation, but as part of the continuing misery and drama of Gaza. We and other members of the international community have underlined the need to lift current restrictions in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860. As for the blockade itself, the UK’s position is that there is a role for the EU, both diplomatically and as part of the Quartet, in dealing with the easing of the restrictions.
In terms of semantics, when I talked about not lifting the blockade last week, I meant not lifting the blockade to allow completely free access to Gaza of everything that anybody wants to bring in. No one is talking about that. If conventional wording means to allow the unfettered access of goods that are both humanitarian and necessary to help with the reconstruction of Gaza, but not including arms, that is what I meant, so there should be no disagreement between us there. We support the attempts that have been made to change the nature of the blockade and to get the right goods in.
As far as our support for the UN work is concerned, we announced £19 million for UNRWA’s work with Palestinian refugees across the region. That is part of the tranche of money that was already agreed. In relation to the question of the hon. Member for Bury South about continuing that flow of money, such a decision is subject to the same concerns about Government expenditure generally. None the less, I share his belief that that support is necessary and should continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government’s commitment to international aid and development.
The position of Hamas was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and a number of others. Hamas does play a part in the whole tragedy of Gaza; it is wrong to ignore it or to ignore its part in that tragedy. There is no suggestion that the United Kingdom will change its position in relation to contact with Hamas; we intend to keep that as it is.
The hon. Member for Bury South asked a number of questions about Hamas, but he also called for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit and asked what we can do about that. We in the Conservative party have also pressed for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit for a number of years. As a Government, we will continue to do that—
Order. We must now move to the next debate.