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Middle East

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a statement on Gaza, the middle east peace process and Syria.

The whole House will be united in concern both at the intolerable situation for the residents of southern Israel, and at the grave loss of life and humanitarian suffering in Gaza, including the particular impact on children. On 14 November, the Israeli defence forces began air strikes against the Gaza strip in response to a sharp increase in rocket fire. Hamas and other militant groups responded with even greater rocket fire, although those attacks have been reduced in the last two days. As of today, three Israeli citizens have been killed, including one woman and one child, and at least 109 Palestinians have been killed, including 11 women and 26 children.

We have made clear both that Hamas bears principal responsibility for the start of the current crisis, but also that all sides have responsibilities. We quickly called on Israel to seek every opportunity to de-escalate its military response, and to observe international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. At the meeting I attended in Brussels yesterday, EU Foreign Ministers condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and called for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities. We have also warned that a ground invasion of Gaza could lengthen the conflict, sharply increase civilian casualties, and erode international support for Israel’s position.

We wish to see an agreed ceasefire that stops the rocket attacks against Israel and ends Israeli military operations. Efforts to agree a ceasefire are continuing as I speak, and the UN Security Council will continue discussions on the situation today. More open access in and out of Gaza is part of any longer-term solution. We pay tribute to the efforts of the Egyptian Government and the UN Secretary-General to secure an agreed ceasefire, and have supported those efforts over the past few days. I discussed them with my European colleagues yesterday, and with the Egyptian, Israeli and Turkish Foreign Ministers over the weekend, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Morsi. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is in Ramallah today, where he will meet President Abbas, after visiting southern Israel yesterday.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Gaza or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace becomes harder to achieve with each military confrontation, each loss of life, and the creation of facts on the ground. The only way to give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people the security and peace they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution, and time for this is now running out. It requires Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations; Israel to stop illegal settlement building; Palestinian factions to reconcile with one another; and the international community, led by the United States and supported by European nations, to make a huge effort to push the peace process forward urgently.

While there is any chance of achieving a return to talks in the coming months, we continue to advise President Abbas against attempts to win Palestinian observer state status at the United Nations through a vote in the UN General Assembly. We judge that that would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority. Our collective goal must be a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees, so while we support Palestinian aspirations and understand the pressures on President Abbas, we urge him to lead the Palestinians into negotiations and not to risk paralysing the process, but we also urge Israel equally to make every effort to restart negotiations, before the window for a two-state solution closes altogether.

The urgency of all of this is underlined by the conflict in Syria. The whole House will join me in condemning the barbaric violence by the Assad regime, which continues its aerial warfare against Aleppo, Homs and Damascus itself. Thirty thousand people have died already, and more than 100 are still being killed each day. Countless homes, clinics, hospitals and essential infrastructure, such as water and sanitation systems, have been destroyed or severely damaged, and between 1 million and 3 million people have been displaced from their homes. There are appalling reports of rape and sexual violence by Government forces and militia, and as a form of torture in regime detention centres, which the UN Human Rights Council-mandated commission of inquiry has said could be prosecuted as crimes against humanity.

There are now well over 400,000 refugees in neighbouring countries. The impact on young Syrians is particularly acute, since 50% of all Syrian internally displaced persons and refugees are children. We are increasing our humanitarian assistance as the crisis grows and winter approaches, and our appeals to other members of the international community to give far more to UN relief efforts have been intensified. Our £53.5 million in humanitarian assistance so far includes £9.7 million for the World Food Programme to feed 80,000 people inside Syria each month; £4 million to the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter and other basic relief items; and £9.7 million to other relief agencies for medical services and supplies, food parcels, water and sanitation services, distribution of blankets and hygiene kits.

In neighbouring countries, we have given £10 million for the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter, protection, registration, and water and sanitation services to refugees; £5 million to the World Food Programme to feed 20,000 people; and £6 million to UNICEF to provide education and trauma support for children, and water and sanitation services. In Cairo last week, I called on other countries to increase their contribution to the relief effort, which the UN has described as “critically underfunded”. But what is urgently needed is a political transition to new and legitimate leadership that reflects the will of the Syrian people and that can end the violence and begin to rebuild the country with regional and international support. On 11 November there was a major breakthrough in Doha, with the establishment of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been welcomed by many Syrians.

Last Friday, I met the president and two of the vice-presidents of the national coalition on their first visit to Europe. I sought assurances from them in three areas. First, I urged them to commit themselves to developing their political structures, widening their support among all sections of Syrian society, and agreeing a detailed political transition plan for Syria. Secondly, I encouraged them to use the next Friends of Syria meeting, which we hope will be held in Morocco next month, to set out a plan for Syria’s future in detail. Thirdly, I urged them to show a clear commitment to human rights and international humanitarian law, including the protection of all religious communities and unfettered and safe access for humanitarian agencies. In response, they stressed their determination to build on the Doha agreement and to leave the door open to other opposition groups to join them. They spoke of their intention to win the trust of Syrians from all communities, to be a moderate political force committed to democracy, and not to repeat the abuses of the Assad regime. They told me that their priority was protecting the civilian population against attack, and focusing on achieving a political transition. It would be for the people of Syria, they told me, to approve a future Government.

These are important and encouraging statements by the national coalition. They have much to do to win the full support of the Syrian people and to co-ordinate opposition efforts more effectively, but it is strongly in the interests of Syria, of the wider region, and of the United Kingdom that we support them and deny space to extremist groups. On the basis of the assurances I received and my consultations with European partners yesterday, Her Majesty’s Government have decided to recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. As the president of the national coalition said to me on Friday, recognition imposes responsibilities on the coalition, and we will continue to press them to uphold their commitments.

I can also announce a significant increase in practical support for the Syrian opposition by the United Kingdom. First, we will invite the coalition to appoint a political representative to the UK, and we will offer support to them as they set up their political and humanitarian structures. Secondly, we will provide a £1 million package of communications support, which could, for instance, include mobile internet hubs and satellite phones to improve their ability to communicate inside Syria. Thirdly, we will urgently deploy a stabilisation response team to the region to work with the coalition to develop its plan to meet people’s basic needs in opposition-held areas. This team will draw up recommendations for areas for further UK assistance.

Fourthly, and separately, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking at increasing our assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict. This could include increasing our humanitarian medical assistance for wounded Syrian civilians by providing UK funding for hospitals and mobile clinics, and training for health workers. We also intend to launch new work to build on our existing work to support victims of sexual violence in Syria.

This new package of support amounts to about £2 million of immediate commitments, and we will look to expand this considerably in the coming months. This comes on top of the training of citizen journalists, human rights advocates, doctors and Syrian activists that we have already provided, and the generators, communications equipment and water purification kits for unarmed opposition groups and civil society that I announced during the summer. Alongside that increased political and practical support, we are pressing the EU to increase its support to civil society in Syria.

We will continue to increase the pressure on Assad and those who support him through EU sanctions, including seeking accountability through the UN’s commission of inquiry. We also expect there to be discussions in NATO in the coming days about supporting the security of Turkey, and we will continue to work with all of Syria’s neighbours to help them mitigate the effects of the crisis. We will also step up our support for political transition and our planning for the day after Assad.

Finally, we will continue to support the work of the UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, whom I met a few days ago in Cairo, and we will renew our efforts to persuade Russia and China to work with us at the UN Security Council. I will take every opportunity to urge my Russian and Chinese colleagues to support a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria. Without such a solution, everything that they and we most fear is coming closer, including ever greater loss of life, instability in neighbouring countries and an opportunity for extremists to pursue their own ends.

The basis for such a political settlement is clear. A credible alternative to the Assad regime is emerging that has the growing support of the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and an increasing number of other countries, and we have an agreed basis for a transition in the form of the Geneva communiqué, which all permanent members of the UN Security Council signed up to in June. In the absence of that political and diplomatic solution, however, we will not rule out any option in accordance with international law that might save innocent lives in Syria and prevent the destabilisation of a region that remains critical to the security of the United Kingdom and the peace of the whole world.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement and for giving me early sight of it today. I shall first address the issue of Syria and the announcement that the Foreign Secretary made in his statement, and I wish to note my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has been appropriately registered.

As we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, only a credible and inclusive transition plan and a united opposition hold the prospect of being a bridge between conflict and a sustainable peace in Syria. Until now, not only the Security Council but the Syrian opposition have been disastrously divided. Over many months, the Russians have continued to ask the west, “So if Assad goes, what comes next?” On 11 November, however, we saw the establishment of the new Syrian national coalition in Doha.

Last week, the Opposition called on the Government to recognise the new Syrian national coalition, so I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement today that the British Government have taken the decision to recognise it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Recognition is a vital step forward, but can he tell us whether he intends to use this new-found unity within the opposition as the basis for a fresh diplomatic approach to the Russians?

The Opposition are clear that the correct focus for the UK’s efforts on Syria in the days and months ahead must be helping to unify the Syrian opposition, not helping to arm them, so will the Foreign Secretary give the House a guarantee that the recognition of the Syrian national coalition is not a precursor to arming the Syrian opposition fighters, which he must acknowledge would be against the European arms embargo currently in place?

The emergence of a political process must not distract us from the pressing humanitarian crisis. On my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, I saw for myself the sheer scale of the human suffering that is a devastating consequence of this war in Syria.

As winter approaches, with more than 2.5 million of Syria’s 23 million people now displaced and non-governmental organisations warning that 200,000 Syrian refugee children are at serious risk from freezing temperatures, action is needed. I therefore welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the British Government will be increasing British aid, but will he set out what specific steps he and his colleagues in Government will take to encourage others in the international community to increase their support in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis to which he referred? There is still a significant shortfall in the funds for the UN appeal for Syria. Britain must play its part in encouraging others to contribute and make up this inexcusable shortfall.

Let me turn now to the issue of Gaza. In common with those on the Government Benches, we abhor the loss of life that we have seen in recent days. The Foreign Secretary has reiterated today that principal responsibility for the start of the crisis lies with Hamas. Of course the recent rocket attacks into southern Israel, targeted at a civilian population, deserve our categorical condemnation, but does he accept that although the rockets were the proximate cause, the deeper causes of the latest crisis reflect the failure over years and decades to achieve a two-state solution? Every time a military solution is prioritised over a political solution, greater future problems are generated. Indeed, there is and can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israelis have stressed that their response is justified by the recent escalation of Hamas rocket attacks. No civilian population should have to live in such constant fear, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that acknowledging—as I do—Israel’s right to defend itself does not oblige the British Government to suspend judgment on the wisdom of its chosen actions? As a response to the rocket attacks from Gaza four years ago, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Operation Cast Lead had the aim of

“destroying the apparatus of terror”,

yet four years on Hamas is still in power in Gaza. More than 1,000 missiles have been launched from Gaza into Israel this year, and in recent days rockets have reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since Operation Pillar of Defence began on Wednesday, three Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that the scale of the casualties in Gaza, together with the continuing blockade, fuels hatred and emboldens those seeking to isolate Israel internationally? Does he also accept that the marginalisation of the Palestinian Authority by these events further diminishes the prospects for immediate negotiations—and, indeed, Palestinian unity—and that Hamas will undoubtedly claim itself to be the victor, whatever the outcome of the operation or, indeed, the negotiations currently under way in Cairo?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that if the operating logic of Hamas is terror and the operating logic of Israel is deterrence, then pleas for restraint risk simply falling on deaf ears? We on the Opposition Benches have for a number of days been urging not simply restraint, but an immediate cessation of violence. We have been clear that a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel. It would risk escalating the already spiralling death toll and further damage the hope for peace and security. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, given reports of overflowing wards in Gazan hospitals and the prior degradation of those facilities as a result of the blockade, free and unfettered access, including free passage through crossings, should urgently be guaranteed for medical and humanitarian personnel? Will he also set out what discussions he has had with the Egyptians about humanitarian access and stemming the flow of arms into Gaza—specifically Iranian missile technology—not only in these volatile days of conflict, but in the longer term?

On Saturday, Opposition Members called for a full-scale UN diplomatic initiative to end the violence. We urged the Secretary-General of the United Nations to travel to the region, and we welcome the fact that he has now done so, because sustained international engagement will be vital in helping to bring the conflict to an end. Past military action has failed to bring a durable peace. The fear of the Israeli population today stands alongside the suffering of the Palestinian people. Permanent occupation and blockade is not a strategy for peace; it is a recipe for repeated conflict. Talk of the “middle east peace process” ignores the fact that, sadly, today there is no peace and there is no process. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the long-term security of Israel will depend on its readiness to be as bold in seeking peace as it has been in using military force? At a minimum, that means that Israel must immediately end illegal settlement expansion, which is currently a key barrier to advancing negotiations.

Labour urges the Government to reconsider their stated opposition—repeated again today—and instead support the Palestinians’ bid for enhanced status at the United Nations at this month’s General Assembly meeting. This is not an alternative to negotiations, but a bridge for beginning them. The Foreign Secretary in his statement argued that recognition at the UN could “risk paralysing the process”, but when will he understand that there is at present no process, only paralysis? There is continued illegal settlement building. There are continued rocket attacks. There is continued fear and anxiety. There is continued occupation. There is continued blockade. But there are no meaningful negotiations, and there have not been any for a number of years. The suggestion that enhanced recognition of the Palestinians could somehow imperil progress in the peace process implies that progress is being achieved—and, indeed, that a peace process exists. At present, sadly, neither statement is true. Let us acknowledge this fact. After decades of diplomatic failure, increasingly some are questioning whether a two-state solution is any longer possible. That is why it is vital that as an international community, amidst the undoubted despair and the disappointment, we encourage the Palestinians to take the path of politics and reject the path of violence, and we rekindle hopes that there is a credible route to a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel achieved by negotiations. The British Government, among others, have a heavy responsibility to advance that goal at the United Nationals in the coming weeks.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Although there is one difference between us, on the UN General Assembly, I welcome his support and the fact that there is so much accord across the House on so many of these subjects and—taking them in the order he raised them—certainly on the new national coalition of the Syrian opposition. As he said, he has called for their recognition. Before the Government gave that recognition, I very much wanted to look into their eyes and ask the questions that I set out earlier, but I have given that recognition, and it is right to do so. All of us across the House have referred for a long time—as the right hon. Gentleman did in his questions—to the need for a unified opposition and the absence of that in the past as one of the obstacles to peace in Syria. Now that the Syrian opposition have done their utmost and made so many compromises to form a national coalition, it is right that we get behind them and that as much as possible of the world gets behind them. It is right for us to join in that, and we now look to the Syrian opposition to fulfil the commitments they have made.

We have taken no decision consequent on that—or no decision at all as things stand—to change our policy on the EU arms embargo. We look at all options, as I have repeated today. We rule out no options. It is the job of the National Security Council to look at all options, particularly as the crisis worsens. At the moment it is going in the wrong direction, but we have taken no decision as things stand to change the policy. We are certainly putting other nations under a lot of pressure—there is a lot of persuasion—to increase the aid they are giving to address the huge humanitarian suffering that I and the right hon. Gentleman have seen on the borders of Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development convened a meeting of many nations on this issue at the UN General Assembly. Since then some of them have increased their aid. Last week I attended the meeting of EU and Arab League Foreign Ministers in Cairo, and that was one of the main points I made to them—that increased contributions, particularly from the Arab world, will be necessary as winter comes and the number of refugees continues to increase—so I think I can readily agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said on that subject.

Of course we will now—again, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested—use the fact that the opposition have come together in an unprecedented way to renew our diplomatic efforts with Russia. If one of Russia’s objections is—and it always has been—that there is no single interlocutor on the opposition side, that objection at least has now been removed to the possibility of diplomatic progress. I stress that it remains the case that the only real solution in Syria is a diplomatic and political solution. Neither side has anywhere near the military strength to overthrow or remove the other. Even if they did so, they would then be dealing with a deeply fractured society for generations.

There is a lot of agreement on many aspects of the middle east peace process. Whenever a conflict such as this one in Gaza occurs, it is vital to remember the wider picture. At the root of all this is the failure to make progress on the middle east peace process. It is absolutely right to point to the sharp increase in rocket attacks—they have gone up steadily over the years since Operation Cast Lead—producing the current crisis, but it is also quite right to make clear the need for improved access in and out of Gaza in order to allow humanitarian assistance and trade to proceed. It is a mistake by Israel to have such tight restrictions on Gaza; we have often made that clear.

The one point of difference between the right hon. Gentleman and me has been over the tactics of the UN General Assembly, and I want to explain the reason for the Government’s position. Time is running out for the two-state solution. Owing to unacceptable settlement building on the west bank and in east Jerusalem, we are not far from a two-state solution becoming impossible and unviable. With the Israeli election coming to an end in January, with the US election now over, and with time clearly running out, this coming year will be a critical one. People always say, “This will be a critical year,” but this really is one. If progress towards a two-state solution is not made in the coming year, it will, in all probability, not be made.

The message that we have given to the United States is that it is vital that they and we and the major EU countries put our full weight behind this over the coming months. However, we have to ask whether a motion on observer status being carried at the UN General Assembly now would make that easier or more difficult. There is a perfectly respectable and legitimate case for saying that it would be right to pass such a motion because this has gone on for so long and because Palestinian frustrations are so intense, for understandable reasons. I believe, however, that the balance of judgment comes down on the side of saying that to do so would be more likely to retard efforts to restart the peace process than to advance them—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will make different judgments about that. We will see, over time, what the reality is.

If such a motion is carried, we must of course move heaven and earth to prevent it from retarding the peace process and the attempt to restart negotiations. Our message to the United States would be the same. As things stand, however, because of the possible reaction of the US Congress and the possibility of Israel withholding tax revenues, the position of the Palestinian Authority could be made worse by the passage of such a resolution. We will therefore use our vote on this in whatever way we think will keep open the best prospect of negotiations. We will consult closely with our partners in the European Union about this, as I was doing yesterday. I hope that there will be a large measure of European agreement on how to vote on the resolution.

That is the reason for our position on the matter, and it has the best interests of the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state at heart. In international diplomacy, when our heart and our head pull in different directions, we have to give precedence to the considerations of our head, and the best way to pursue the peace process is to put our full weight behind it in the coming months.

Order. Inevitably, I have granted some latitude to the two Front Benches to enable them to treat of all the various matters involved. In trying to accommodate this level of interest, given other pressures on time, it would help if right hon. and hon. Members could confine themselves to a single short question, rather than covering all the terrain. Such questions will, I know, be followed by a typically succinct reply from the Foreign Secretary.

In view of the increasing gravity of the situation in the middle east, will my right hon. Friend ask the Leader of the House and Mr Speaker whether they will arrange a full-scale parliamentary debate on the middle east in prime time next week, with time limits on Back-Bench speeches of not less than 15 minutes, so that we can have a proper Back-Bench debate and not a series of soundbites?

I think that that is a question for my colleagues, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has heard that request. I must say, however, that it would be a tragedy if the comments of my right hon. Friend the Father of the House were limited to 15 minutes.

Given that the experience of the past decade or more is that Israel pockets any concession made by the west to accommodate its position and then not only does nothing but makes the situation worse—by illegal settlement building, for example—will the Foreign Secretary please reconsider his position on the British Government’s refusal to vote for the United Nations General Assembly resolution? He is a man of great fluency, and he normally convinces the House with his arguments, but I find his reason for that refusal utterly incomprehensible. It is not that I disagree with it; I simply do not understand why our voting for the resolution would make the situation worse. Surely it would make it much better.

I always listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, for obvious reasons. For the sake of clarity, I should say that the Government have taken no decision yet on how to vote on the resolution. We are arguing against the holding of such a vote, which would be carried in the UN General Assembly, because of the number of nations in favour of it. As I mentioned earlier, we will consult closely with our EU partners on this matter. There was a time when the right hon. Gentleman used to place great weight on the views of European Union Foreign Ministers, and after yesterday’s discussions, I believe that most of them have the same view as ours. That is the majority view for a reason: there is genuine anxiety about whether it would be possible, in the remaining short window, to restart the middle east peace process negotiations if the motion were carried now. It is therefore a tactical difference. There is a respectable difference of opinion on the matter, but I come down on that side of the judgment.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the emergence of the Syrian national coalition, and this Government’s welcome recognition of it today, removes a major barrier to the supply of defensive military equipment to the Syrian resistance? As the European embargo is due to expire on 1 December, and as President Hollande of France has said that France is now willing to reconsider the supply of defensive military equipment, will the Foreign Secretary look at this matter constructively? Does he recognise that what he rightly described as the barbaric violence of the Syrian regime against the civilian communities will not come to an end unless and until the Syrian resistance is able to defend itself?

My right hon. and learned Friend has consistently made the case for the active arming of the Syrian opposition by western countries. In response, I have often pointed out some of the disadvantages of that course of action. There is no automatic change in our policy on that as a result of the recognition of the Syrian opposition. I have discussed the issues with the French Foreign Minister. The arms embargo is due to be rolled over and continued from 1 December, as part of the entire package of Syrian sanctions. Whatever one’s views on the arms embargo, we very much want to maintain all those sanctions, so any changes would rely on a subsequent amendment to the overall sanctions package. There has been no request from France to the EU to change that position at this stage. We will keep all the options under review, but we have made no decision to change our policy on arms supplies, as things stand.

But surely the Foreign Secretary must accept that his specific and chilling refusal to rule out western, British-backed military activity in Syria will make a disastrous policy even more disastrous. Nobody can win this civil war. Assad’s savage regime has the backing of at least a third of the population, including Christians and other minorities. The conflict is also a proxy for Sunni versus Shi’a, for Saudi Arabia versus Iran and for the west versus Russia and China. We have to resolve this by political settlement, not by upping the military stakes.

I think I made the point a few moments ago that there can only be a political and diplomatic solution. It is also important to point out that no one knows exactly how events in Syria will proceed in the coming months and years. Situations such as the one that arose in Libya last year and the present one in Syria are uncharted territory in international affairs. It is foolish to rule out options when we do not know how the situation will proceed. However, it is right to place huge emphasis on diplomatic and political progress and on humanitarian assistance, as I have done in my statement.

Israel has an unambiguous right to defend itself, but along with such rights go duties, and in this case the duty is to use only proportionate means to effect that defence. Does my right hon. Friend believe that targeted assassination, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the imposition of casualties on women and children are consistent with that duty?

Of course all our efforts have to be directed to making sure there is a ceasefire, and only at a subsequent stage could one make the judgment that my right hon. and learned Friend is inviting me to make. I have not shied away from it in the past, as he knows; in fact, during the Lebanon war when we were in opposition, I was very clear about the disproportionality of what happened. In this case, we have to ask ourselves whether the current conflict in Gaza would be taking place without the increase in rocket attacks, which have gone up from 200 in 2010 to more than 1,300 before this conflict began and up to last week. That is clearly an intolerable situation in the south of Israel, so we have to bear that in mind as well.

Does the fact that Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, that in 2005 Israel removed all its 9,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza and that that was followed by Hamas firing thousands of rockets from civilian centres in Gaza targeted at Israeli citizens mean that Israel deserves full support in defending its citizens against this aggression?

We are rightly critical of Israel when there are civilian casualties, but we have to bear in mind that for Hamas and other groups firing rockets out of Gaza, the sole intention is to cause civilian casualties; that is the entire purpose of what they do. We are right to stress the responsibilities on Israel and the need to stop settlement building and restart the peace process, but also the responsibility on Hamas to renounce violence, to recognise previous agreements and to recognise the right of Israel to exist. Such things would also be immense steps forward in the peace process in the middle east.

Over the weekend, Israel was widely condemned for a military strike on an international media centre in Gaza in breach of the Geneva convention. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it was in fact a base for Islamic Jihad and that the only person who lost their life was its military commander?

I have heard that, but I hesitate to confirm the actual fact definitively. Certainly the Israelis explained that, rather than targeting a media centre, they were targeting a different organisation. We have also been in touch with the media organisations concerned. I very much take my hon. Friend’s point.

Is it not interesting that when Assad lethally represses the Syrian people, he is the bad guy, yet when Netanyahu lethally represses the Palestinian people, he is the goodbye—[Interruption.] I mean the good guy—I wish it was goodbye! Also, when the Syrians respond with brutal force to that repression, they are the good guys, yet when Palestinians respond with brutal force to that repression, they are the bad guys. It is this kind of discriminatory attitude by the international community that will prevent there being peace in the middle east.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I always have a great deal of time and respect for him, although I think that in that question he tends towards a caricature of the situation in the middle east. I do not think that is the attitude of anybody in this House; there are responsibilities on all sides. Our response—the response of the western world—is, yes, to give assistance to the Syrian people, but it is also to give a huge amount of assistance to Palestinians. DFID’s current programme provides £359 million for the Palestinian Authority and for humanitarian assistance, including in Gaza. We are trying to assist everyone in desperate need in the middle east—Palestinians and Syrians.

I draw the House’s attention to my interests as declared in the register. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a world of difference between Hamas, which specifically targets Israeli children, and Israel, which does its best to avoid killing Palestinian children, although both sometimes fail?

Yes. As I pointed out a moment ago, it is important to remember that the rockets launched against Israel have no other purpose than to cause civilian casualties. That is the only reason they are fired. It is important to bear that in mind. Of course Israel’s Iron Dome system means that it is able to stop a large part of them, and some rockets are inaccurate in any case, but that is little consolation to the people who have to be within 30 seconds of a shelter in southern Israel. My right hon. Friend thus points out an important difference.

Is not the lesson of the last decade that meaningful progress towards a two-state solution is made only when American Presidents in their second term use that freedom to make the huge effort that the right hon. Gentleman says is required? What, then, are he and the Prime Minister doing to persuade Barack Obama that he needs to make such an effort?

The right hon. Gentleman is broadly right. We have already had that discussion with President Obama earlier in the year, and I have discussed the issue many times with Secretary Clinton and, just a few days ago, with Senator Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The United States must now make its decision. As the re-elected Administration, albeit with many new personnel, is established, they must now take their decisions. Throughout that, the US will hear very clearly from us at every level that this provides an opportunity—perhaps the last opportunity—to push this forward. If that does not happen within a year from now, the US would probably find the votes of many European nations very different, the process very different and American leadership of that process in considerable doubt.

In his statement, my right hon. Friend said that the security of Israel and the security of the region have a direct impact on UK national security and the peace of the whole world. Given that the current diplomatic efforts, and indeed efforts over the last few years, have failed, would he consider a new possible solution: an EU security treaty with Israel in return for substantive and meaningful negotiations over land?

There is an important role for the European Union and its nations, but for the moment or for the coming months, we must not take our eyes away from the goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the United States playing a leading role. The US still has a unique degree of leverage over all concerned and a particular influence on Israel, so it is important for the Americans to be able to lead such efforts. The EU should act in a way that buttresses and supports those efforts—unless they are not made or come to an end.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly drawn attention to the impact on children. The 13,000 rockets fired into Israel since 2001 have led to many children and young people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, while the children in Gaza must fear the terror from the Israeli action and also from Hamas. I urge the Foreign Secretary to redouble his efforts to call for peace, because of the impact of these events on these children’s future, which will be lifelong.

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a very important point. That is why we support the current efforts to bring in a ceasefire. I pay tribute again—I referred to it in my statement—to the efforts of the Egyptian Government over the last few days. This is a new Government with a new presidency and a new system of government. Our impression is that the presidency, the Foreign Ministry and other Egyptian agencies have worked together cohesively, talking both to Hamas and Israel to try to bring about a ceasefire. We have to support their efforts.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the greatest stride towards peace was made when President Sadat signed the treaty between Egypt and Israel? Does he share my disappointment at the recent statement by President Morsi of Egypt that the present situation constitutes an act of aggression solely by the Israelis?

While that statement is different from what my hon. Friend or I might say about the origins of this, I hope that he will bear in mind the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) about the very constructive role being played by Egypt. My experience, and the Prime Minister’s experience, of meeting President Morsi suggested to us that he wants a peaceful future for his country, that he has not turned against the peace treaty with Israel, and that he knows the importance of building up the economy and society of Egypt and not having conflict on his borders. I think that we should give him the space and time in which to accomplish those things.

No one is trying to justify rocket firing into Israel, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that Israeli air strikes have caused so many civilian casualties in Gaza that the killing of children—the burning to death of children—should be considered a war crime? As for the overall position, is not the truth of the matter that since the state of Israel was created in 1948, and even more since the 1967 war, the Israeli authorities have refused to recognise the legitimate entitlement of the Palestinian people to statehood, dignity and a proper life? That is the real issue that faces the international community now.

There have been failings on all sides. I do not want to agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. On other occasions, he has heard me criticise both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships from the Dispatch Box for their failure to make progress in the peace process. Many opportunities have been missed by both sides, but it is our job in the international community to try to bring them closer together and to ask for de-escalation rather than inflaming these situations. I will not, therefore, take up his invitation to go down a more dramatic rhetorical path.

Given that it is firing missiles on civilians while hiding behind civilians, is it not Hamas that is guilty of war crimes?

All these terms and accusations are flung around in the world and across the House, and the extreme feelings engendered by these situations are completely understandable. Indeed, we have referred several times to the targeting of civilians by Hamas, and to the way in which they have sometimes shielded themselves behind civilians. I stress, however, that our job now is to de-escalate and use the language of de-escalation, and to encourage that to happen over the coming hours.

It is welcome that the British Government followed France in recognising the Syrian national coalition, but merely saying that it is the sole legitimate representative does not make it so. What action is being taken to deal with the problem that has already arisen in Aleppo, where groups have rejected the coalition’s leadership, and to secure international recognition for it as well as its effectiveness in Syria?

I think that there will be further international recognition for the coalition—I think that, for example, other EU countries will recognise it, in stages—and that growing international recognition will in turn lead to an increase in practical support. I have announced several areas in which we would increase our own practical support and channel it through the coalition, and if other countries do the same, that will steadily add to their credibility inside and outside Syria. Obviously we cannot control or dictate the reactions of all groups in Syria, but from all that we understand, the coalition has received a warm welcome from many people there. I do not think that we shall see a better attempt to create an umbrella opposition group, and I think that we should therefore get behind this one.

Egypt surely has a key role to play, given its proximity to Gaza and its Government’s proximity to Hamas. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore continue to encourage it to broker a genuine ceasefire, and, together with others in the region, to enforce both the ceasing of fire and, crucially, the ceasing of the supply of weapons to terrorists?

Yes, we are fully engaged in that process. I have spoken to my Egyptian counterpart twice during the last few days, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Morsi at the weekend. We are strongly encouraging Egypt in that regard. However, it has more than a responsibility to try to bring about a ceasefire. In a diplomatic context, in the aftermath of the tragic sequence of events over the last week, there is an opportunity to work with Israel to deal with security challenges as well as improving the overall situation in Gaza, and I hope that Egypt will move on to that.

Will the Foreign Secretary encourage fairer and more balanced reporting of the middle east conflict, rather than the anti-Israel bias that seems to be featuring in the news? Will he do all that he can to ensure that Hamas stops hiding behind the civilian population, deliberately putting them in the line of fire and in danger of death, and using that as political propaganda?

The hon. Gentleman has illustrated well the fact that serious accusations can be made on all sides. Hamas certainly seems, as so often, to have had little regard for civilian life. As for the question of balanced reporting, it is not in my remit or in the power of Her Majesty’s Government, but it is very much to be encouraged.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence does not extend to a pre-emptive attack on Iran?

My hon. Friend has introduced a different subject, and one on which he has often given his views to the House. He knows from my earlier answers that we have counselled Israel against a military attack on Iran in circumstances in which we are pursuing a twin-track policy of intensified sanctions and negotiations with Iran, and that remains the position.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that unless the blockade of Gaza is ended, there will be little chance of a permanent end to the violence?

More open access into and out of Gaza is an important part of the solution there. That includes access for more normal items of trade as well as people. I made that point briefly in my statement, but I am happy to reiterate it.

Since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, nearly 7,000 missiles have been fired on Israeli towns by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In this year alone, 47,000 tonnes of food and provisions and 300 trucks went from Israel into Gaza. Does my right hon. Friend think that Israel’s response in taking out missile silos in Gaza is proportionate?

I will not expand on the answer that I gave to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and become involved in defining different degrees of proportionality. I have, I think, laid out clearly the responsibility for precipitating the current crisis—the exchange of fire with Hamas that has taken place over the last five days—and I do not want to enter into any finer judgments than that. We would now like an agreed ceasefire between both sides.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us an up-to-date account of the involvement of our Department for International Development, along with NGOs, in the relief effort in Syria. Can he give us a similar update on their contribution—it must be a dreadful situation—in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel?

Yes, if the right hon. Gentleman would like me to. DFID’s Palestinian programme is contributing £359 million to—among other things—provide primary education for more than 36,000 children, immunise 2,000 children a year against measles, train and equip the Palestinian police so that they can provide a more professional service, provide basic services for refugees across the region, and help to develop the private sector in order to stimulate the economy. Until 2015, £106 million of that funding is going specifically to UNRWA and one third of that to Gaza.

Will the Foreign Secretary congratulate President Morsi of Egypt on his moderating role in this crisis and heed his advice to vote yes to the recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, thereby demonstrating some small progress for those Palestinians who are promoting the path of diplomacy, not violence?

This is the debate that we entered into earlier, and I have had that discussion with my Egyptian counterpart a couple of times already, understandably. There are wholly legitimate points of view about that. My judgment is that it is important to do whatever is necessary to support a return to negotiations, and that a vote now in the General Assembly does not support that. That is the Government’s considered view. We will continue to discuss with our European partners how we should respond to any actual vote.

Can the Foreign Secretary have a word with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is apparently in Ramallah today, and who visited southern Israel yesterday? Will he suggest to the Under-Secretary that he should go on to visit Gaza, and talk to the people of Gaza and their elected representatives and examine for himself the destruction Israeli war planes have wrought on the people of Gaza? That would be a way of promoting the unity of all the Palestinian people, which is what the Foreign Secretary says he wants. This opportunity should not be missed or wasted.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very busy in the region today. I am not going to comment on his programme, for security reasons, but he has not only visited southern Israel—he is in the west bank today. He has now had his meeting with President Abbas. I am not going to speculate about where my hon. Friend will go next, but of course we will want to understand the humanitarian needs in Gaza and the extent of the damage that has been caused, as well as to alleviate that problem for people in Gaza and in southern Israel.

First, I declare an interest: I have just returned from a trip to Israel and the west bank. Israel has made genuine efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza, to maintain the fabric of civilian life there, and that has been done despite the current hostilities and increased number of rocket attacks. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his Israeli counterpart as to the importance of this humanitarian support?

My Israeli counterpart frequently makes that point, and it is true that Israel sends that humanitarian support. Nevertheless, I think there are additional steps that it is important for Israel to take. We have been talking about some of them, including freer access for others into and out of Gaza. That must be part of any longer-term solution for Gaza.

What conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office to ensure that relations between different British communities are not adversely affected by the violence in the middle east?

Since one of our Ministers of State, Baroness Warsi, has a DCLG hat as well, we are in constant—hourly—discussion about such matters. They are important, of course, but it is also important to pursue the right foreign policy for the United Kingdom bearing in mind the whole interests of the UK, and that is how I regard these subjects as Foreign Secretary.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the aim of our diplomacy is not only to reduce these rocket attacks but to bring them to an end? Surely we in this country would not have put up with hundreds of long-range missiles being fired into our centres of population? If some of those rockets had landed in Fife, even the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) might have had something to say about that.

I am sure he would, although he is no longer in the Chamber and I will not put words into his mouth. My hon. Friend makes a wholly legitimate point, but at the same time we must, of course, recognise that it is important to bring the entire conflict to an end, of which the violence in the last week is another tragic symptom. It is important for Israel to address itself to doing that, as well as to the immediate security of its population.

Palestinian victims of Israeli atrocities are so many that they often go unnamed. I would like to name the four youngest members of the El Dallo family: Sara, 7; Jamal, 6; Yusef, 4; and Ibrahim, 2. They were four of nine family members and of 26 children killed in Israeli air strikes in the last week. Does the Secretary of State accept that hundreds more Palestinian children will die, as they did four years ago, if he and other western leaders do not put more pressure on Israel not to launch a ground assault?

I think I have made very clear what we believe about a ground assault, and in my statement I briefly gave several reasons why that would lose Israel a great deal of international support. The Israelis are very clear about the message they are receiving from the United Kingdom on that. The best thing we can do to avoid more names being added to that list is to support those trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire, but that has to be a ceasefire on both sides, of course, and it has to include an end to rocket fire against Israel as well as an end to Israeli military operations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is easy to call for Israel to show restraint from the safety of this Chamber, but showing such restraint is difficult for those living with the daily threat of seeing their family and friends wiped out by the rockets fired from Gaza?

That is true, of course. We heard earlier about the need for balanced media reporting. Some of the recent media reporting has brought out what a terrifying experience the current situation is for people in southern Israel as well as for people in Gaza. It is important to understand that, and to direct ourselves to bringing this situation to an end.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that his repeated claim that Hamas bears principal responsibility for the current crisis is gravely misleading, as it completely ignores the five-year blockade Israel has put on Gaza, which the UN has called a policy of collective punishment? It is illegal under international law. What more will he do to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade?

I have already addressed the need to do that. I hope the hon. Lady heard that, but I also hope she is clear that if there had not been rocket fire—and an increase in rocket fire—in recent days and weeks, we would not now be debating this situation or the deaths of so many people on either side, so I think she should think again about who is misleading people about that.

I took the use of the word “misleading” by the hon. Lady a moment ago to be a reference to inadvertent misleading. I am sure she would not suggest the Foreign Secretary would seek knowingly to mislead the House. We do not entertain such thoughts in this Chamber.

Does my right hon. Friend have any information on the supply of sophisticated weaponry to Hamas from the Iranian regime?

I do not have any information I can give the House of Commons on that, but I do believe Iran is involved in sending weapons to Hamas, as I mentioned on the television a couple of days ago. That contributes further to this type of crisis, of course, instead of turning people’s minds to a negotiated settlement and a peaceful way forward, and Iran should desist from that.

The Foreign Secretary will no doubt be aware of the understandable concerns of many about the nature of Israel’s response to the rocket attacks, but may I press him to say something more about an issue that many of my constituents are concerned about, and to which the shadow Foreign Secretary alluded: the growing crisis in the Gaza hospitals, and whether they are able to cope with the number of casualties they are seeing?

Those hospitals, particularly UNRWA health centres and food distribution centres, benefit from the support of some of the DFID money I was talking about earlier, and which has been established for several years. My information is that at the moment the majority of those health centres and food distribution centres are managing to operate, and valiant attempts are made to continue that, of course. We will watch what is happening very closely, however. We are in touch with the situation, and I know my DFID colleagues are following it very closely as well.

I recently visited Sderot and Ashdod as part of a pioneering cricket tour to Israel, the purpose of which was to bring together Israeli and Palestinian children in the pursuit of peace, but I also saw at first hand the anxiety felt by citizens in southern Israel about the persistent threat from Hamas rockets. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any sovereign country would feel a duty to protect its own citizens from such a threat?

Yes, of course that is right. I read about the cricket tour, and I applaud that initiative. If cricket can be brought to Israel, peace can be brought to the middle east. It gives us hope for the future. Any nation will wish to protect its own citizens against attack, of course, but at the same time any nation must try to ensure that there is long-term security and peace, so it is very important that Israel does that, as I mentioned a few moments ago.

In equally condemning terrorising violence against civilians, whether they are in southern Israel or in Gaza, we cannot all subscribe to the hierarchy of blame offered by the Foreign Secretary for the immediate crisis. On the UN resolution, which is a modest proposal from Palestine, does the Secretary of State not believe that if time is running out for a two-state solution, it is time that the international community took the chance to create more of a semblance of a two-state process?

As I explained earlier, that is a completely acceptable argument. The frustrations are intense and there has been completely inadequate progress in recent years. We have to judge what is the best hope for that now, and I do not believe that a debate and vote on a resolution at the General Assembly will improve matters. If it happens, we will do everything we can to try to make it improve matters but it will make things more difficult for the US Administration and possibly for the Israeli Government, whatever their intentions, to engage in the peace process over the coming months. That is why at this moment—not for ever—I counsel against it.

I visited Gaza in early 2009 with other Members of the House in the weeks following Operation Cast Lead. The evidence of destruction and misery that I saw there was almost indescribable. May I urge the Foreign Secretary not just to warn Israel against a ground invasion but to condemn those plans in the strongest possible terms?

Following the conversations we have had with Israel at many levels and following what I and many other Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government in other western countries have said, Israel is in no doubt about the opinion in the western world. At the same time, our greatest effort is supporting the efforts to bring about a ceasefire so that any such plans for a ground invasion become academic.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that there will be no solution to this appalling and tragic situation if any side feels that it can act with impunity? In particular, where Israel’s recent actions are found to have breached international law and fallen far, far short of the UN convention on the rights of the child, to which it is a signatory, what will he do to ensure that it is held accountable?

We must bear in mind at all times the need to try to bring about a settlement in the whole region. The hon. Lady is right to refer to this, as it is important to abide by international humanitarian law. That is one of the specific points I have made to the Israeli Foreign Minister in my conversations with him over the past few days. Of course, we will have to judge what happens after that and after any breaches of humanitarian law when we have the evidence of those things. It is also very important for other organisations, including Hamas and militant groups, even to begin to think about international humanitarian law, something of which they have taken no notice so far.

What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the involvement of Egypt in supplying weapons to Hamas and other terrorist organisations?

I reiterate what I said earlier: I think Egypt is playing a very constructive role and is wholeheartedly behind efforts to bring about a ceasefire. I pay tribute to the Egyptian Government for that and do not want to say anything that cuts across it.

Surely the Foreign Secretary sees the double standards in his statements. The only way that the UK will be seen as an honest peacemaker in the middle east will be if we treat every life as equal, irrespective of religion or nationality—every British or American life as equal to every Iraqi life and every Israeli life as equal to every Palestinian life. Although I condemn the rocket attacks into southern Israel, surely the principal reason behind this ongoing conflict is an ongoing illegal occupation and an ongoing siege and blockade in Gaza. Twice the Foreign Secretary has been asked what the humanitarian response is from the UK Government and twice he has told us about the ongoing support that we give on an annual basis. What support have the Government given in this specific week to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

I very much agree that all lives are of equal value to us in our society and in this Parliament. That is absolutely right. Of course, we stress, as I did in my statement, the importance of more open access to Gaza and of stopping illegal settlements. The hon. Gentleman asked for a balanced approach, or for no imbalance, and it is right to call for those things. If we are doing those things, it is also right to assign blame or responsibility when it belongs elsewhere and not to give a totally one-sided picture the other way. On the humanitarian side, the help goes in every week but my colleagues in the Department for International Development have a budget of several hundred million pounds going in to help Palestinians. If the evidence is there for them to change or adjust that budget, they will look into that.

Order. I would like to accommodate several more colleagues, but I shall have a better chance of doing so if hon. and right hon. Members would now confine themselves to single short supplementary questions without preamble, and we will have comparably succinct replies, as ever, from the Secretary of State.

According to article 51 of the United Nations charter, Israel’s actions are in self-defence. May I therefore urge the Foreign Secretary and this Government to provide support to Israel in her sovereign right to defend her people?

Some are not happy about it, but I have been clear about where the principal responsibility for this sequence of events lies. We also must be clear about the need to make progress more generally in the peace process and on Gaza. I am sure that that is the right position for us to uphold.

What help have or can the British Government, either alone or with the United States Administration, give to Israel to ensure that the Iron Dome defence system that gives security to sections of Israel can be delivered for vulnerable parts of Israel that are not at present protected by a defence system?

Israel, as I understand it, receives a good deal of help from the United States on its Iron Dome system, and it is American technology that has made that possible. The United Kingdom is not involved in that and I do not see any need for the UK to become involved. Israel and the United States have worked on it successfully together.

It is now clear that far from homemade rockets being sent from Gaza, these are serious missiles supplied by Iran. What action is my right hon. Friend taking internationally to stop the resupply from Iran or anyone else to Gaza so that Israel can feel less threatened?

My hon. Friend is right and it is clear, particularly in the case of longer range rockets, that they are coming from elsewhere. I mentioned earlier the involvement of Iran and of course we encourage all countries that might be transit routes for such weapons—whether they are Iranian weapons going into Syria, Gaza or Lebanon—to live up to their international responsibilities and stop the transfer of such weapons. We will intensify those efforts.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that in seeking to discourage a vote on observer status at the UN, he is undermining those Palestinians who seek a peaceful solution and bolstering Hamas and other extremists?

What I am calling for in conjunction with that is a major effort by the United States and European countries to drive forward the peace process. That very much has at its heart strengthening Palestinian moderates and saying to Israel that this is a Palestinian leadership with which it can do business in our judgment. Although there is a legitimate difference of view and argument about tactics, I believe that that is the right way to go about it.

I refer to my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have just spent a week in Israel and I came back and spoke to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Despite prejudices in this House, I can assure hon. Members that everybody to whom I spoke has an absolute thirst for peace, but one of the greatest obstacles to peace is the Israeli dilemma of how to trade off intangibles for tangibles. Israel will happily give up land, but how can it have guaranteed security and peace?

Of course, this is one of the challenges and the widespread perception in Israel. However much they might want peace, some Israelis argue that peace is not available. That is the importance of giving the support we give to the Palestinian Authority and of trying to ensure that progress is made in the coming months. As I was arguing a moment ago, there might not be a better Palestinian leadership for Israel to come to a peace agreement with than the current one.

Under normal circumstances the hospitals and medical facilities in Gaza operate without essential supplies, and that has been exacerbated in the past week. What efforts have the UK Government made to ensure that essential medical equipment and supplies reach Gaza urgently?

Earlier I gave the information that I have about the operation of health centres as well as food distribution centres. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has just left the Chamber, but she heard all the comments that other hon. Members have made. If we think it is necessary for the United Kingdom to do more on that, do not worry—the United Kingdom will certainly do so.

Do not my right hon. Friend’s comments about Iran supporting Hamas illustrate starkly the threat to Israel of an emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah if an anti-Semitic Iran becomes a nuclear armed power?

Yes, absolutely. It is very important to prevent wider proliferation in the middle east and for Iran’s nuclear programme to be solely for peaceful purposes. That is the purpose of the negotiations that we are engaged in, as well as the sanctions that we are applying to Iran. My hon. Friend reinforces the importance of this very well.

In his response to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the Foreign Secretary declined to say what he felt was proportionate. When an organisation such as Hamas gets international sympathy and support, and unprecedented support in the region, does he not think Israel’s approach is a mistake, and if so, is he willing to say so?

I have made very clear my views about a ground incursion, but I have also said many times that Israel is making a mistake through settlement building, through not easing access into Gaza and through not, so far, making a more decisively advantageous proposition to the Palestinians about a two-state solution than it has made in recent years. So we are very clear about all of that and very clear about mistakes that have been made. Now we have to bring an end to the mistakes and make progress on a two-state solution before it is too late.

On the Syrian opposition group and recognition, what discussions have been held with the United States to get it to recognise the opposition group? So far the United States has refused to recognise the group.

The United States has so far used different wording from that which I used today. It has talked about the coalition being a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It has not yet gone as far as we have, or France, Turkey or the Gulf states. It is for the United States to decide over the coming days or weeks but I believe, as I said, that other countries will add to the recognition that we have given today, and I hope that in due course the United States will be one of them.

I would be grateful if the House would note my recent employment with Oxfam. The Foreign Secretary will no doubt be aware that in the Cast Lead operation four years ago, there was significant damage to UN facilities and the operations of other humanitarian agencies in Gaza. What conversations have he and the Secretary of State for International Development had with the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other humanitarian agencies in the past week about the continued functioning of their operations?

May I be the first across the Floor of the House to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on arriving in the House of Commons? I speak as someone who won a by-election for the governing party many years ago, although in my case there were not very many at that time. I welcome him to the House and so quickly speaking in the House. The issue that he identifies is important and other hon. Members have raised it. Ministers at the Department for International Development are in constant touch with UNRWA and with this problem. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is in the region now, is forming his own assessment of the situation in Gaza, and I will make sure that those contacts are properly followed up over the coming days.

The blame game in the middle east can be taken back tens, hundreds, even thousands of years, but it will never bring us closer to peace. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that our focus now must be on an immediate ceasefire and ensuring humanitarian access so that we can end the unacceptable toll in civilian lives on both sides?

Yes, we do need that, but we need a ceasefire that works, a ceasefire on both sides—that means an end to rocket attacks on Israel, as well as an end to Israeli military operations—and, of course, the proper humanitarian access of which we have all spoken.

The pictures on last night’s television of Palestinian children being put in graves is an abomination, but does the Secretary of State concede that the firing of rockets from Gaza means that the lives of innocent Palestinians have been used as pawns on the jihadist and Hamas chessboard, and that the only game in town must be an intensified effort for peace talks?

The hon. Gentleman puts it very well and places responsibility quite broadly for those tragic deaths. He is right to do that.

One hundred per cent. of Hamas’s rocket arsenal is delivered across the Egyptian-Gaza border. Over the past year Egypt has lost control over a lot of the increasingly lawless Sinai. Is there any realistic prospect of Egypt securing its border with the Gaza strip?

My hon. Friend draws attention to a very important issue. When I met President Mursi a couple of months ago for the first time, we discussed security in the Sinai. It is crucial for Egypt to ensure that there is such security, and I believe that this situation and other incidents that have happened over recent weeks demonstrate clearly the need for that. Now it is extremely important for Egypt to attend to that, as well as to bring about the ceasefire for which we are calling.

Yesterday, 38 aid agencies asked for the help of the international community to put pressure on to get the crossings into Gaza open so that essential humanitarian supplies—clean water, food and medical supplies—could get through. I acknowledge that the Foreign Secretary has acknowledged the role of the blockade in this conflict, but notwithstanding the responsibilities on both sides for the recent escalation, does he believe that the actions of Israel have had a disproportionate impact on civilians?

The hon. Lady invites me to get into the proportionate/disproportionate debate, which I am not going to take any further, but she makes a very important point about humanitarian access and what aid agencies have called for. The Government will pursue that in our contacts with Egypt and with Israel, and my colleagues in the Department for International Development will look particularly at whether further British assistance is required.

Given the volume of rockets that have been fired from Gaza on civilian targets in Israel over a very long period indeed, and given the cost of intercept missiles, does the Foreign Secretary agree that maintaining a purely defensive strategy in Israel is neither effective nor economically sustainable?

Clearly, such a strategy has not succeeded in reducing the number of rocket attacks. That has gone up over a long time, although it has protected many Israelis from the consequences of those rocket attacks. As we have said before and as I said in my statement, there is no military solution to the problem. There is only a political solution, and that is for the Israeli leaders, the Egyptian leaders and Palestinian leaders to concentrate on very hard over the coming weeks and for us to support them in doing so.

The Foreign Secretary earlier mentioned the fact that the window of opportunity was closing for a two-state deal. Is that because Israel will not lift the sanctions on the Palestinians and it would be impossible for Israel to dismantle the settlements?

Certainly, the more settlements are constructed, yes, the harder it becomes for anyone to envisage a two-state solution working. That is the heart of the argument, particularly the expansion of settlements in east Jerusalem, which of course makes it harder for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of both states, as all of us envisage, in an eventual settlement of this issue. So yes, we are on the same lines.

As the international community has failed the Palestinian people for the past 64 years, perhaps a new approach is required. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore contact the Jewish Voice for Peace based in Oakland, California? Perhaps its programme could be a catalyst for a peaceful future for Israel and Palestine.

I will have a look at that. I have a lot of people to contact but if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details—he is looking rather mischievous about this, so I am not quite sure what is entailed—I will, as always, give due care and attention to his ideas.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary held with Secretary Clinton over Egypt’s role in brokering a comprehensive ceasefire agreement? Might such an agreement deal with issues such as border crossings and trade between Gaza and Egypt, which would help reduce Gaza’s economic dependence upon Israel?

Yes, we are in close touch with the United States. I have regular discussions with Secretary Clinton and we are to have another very shortly. The wider solution for Gaza, not just an immediate ceasefire, is of course important. It includes the role of better access to and from Gaza and greater assurance that weapons are not going into Gaza—there are many aspects. We will discuss that with the United States as well as Egypt directly.

I declare an interest: I have just returned from a visit to the Palestinian authorities and to Israel. The Foreign Secretary’s statement that Hamas bears the principal responsibility for the crisis and could end the conflict by stopping bombardment of Israel was heard attentively, but does he agree with me that the use by Hamas of long-range imported missiles capable of striking Jerusalem has made that much more difficult to achieve?

Yes, absolutely. It is clear that the armoury of rockets in Gaza has changed since the time of Operation Cast Lead; there are now longer range rockets, which have been launched at Tel Aviv and, in at least one case, at Jerusalem. Of course, that is an escalation of the threat to Israel, but it only underlines the importance of taking forward all the work on a negotiated peace and settlement in the middle east, which is supported across the House.

In August this year, an UNRWA report found that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. Already, because of the blockade, 44% of Palestinians in Gaza are food-insecure, and 80% are aid recipients. What recent conversations has the right hon. Gentleman had with his Israeli counterparts about increasing the flow of basic humanitarian goods into Gaza, and ensuring that that continues to increase, to meet the needs of the Palestinian people?

That is a constant part of discussions with Israeli leaders. Of course we have put the case for that, and indeed more than that, by saying not only that humanitarian relief is required, but that a different and more open approach is required. In fact, tight restrictions often serve the purposes of Hamas, rather than directly the purposes of Israel, and sometimes help to fund Hamas through its operation of smuggling and the use of tunnels into Gaza, for example. We will continue to have those conversations, I hope more successfully, in future.

The civilian populations of southern Israel and Gaza desperately need an immediate and effective ceasefire: that means no rockets, no air strikes and no land invasion. What hopes does my right hon. Friend have of the US Secretary of State being able to broker that immediate and lasting ceasefire?

There are some hopes. I do not want to overstate them, because of course these things can go wrong. Anything at any moment can go wrong, endangering the process through some event on the ground or breakdown in what either side seeks from a ceasefire, but the UN Secretary-General has put energy behind this; Egypt is playing a strong role, which the visit of Secretary Clinton will bolster; and all of us in the EU countries are determined—a lot of effort is being put behind the ceasefire proposal.

May I press the Foreign Secretary to say more about future consultations with his fellow EU Ministers on Gaza, and what consultations he is having with the Quartet’s special representative to the region?

We had the whole EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting yesterday, from which the conclusions are published. It made calls very much in line with what I have said to the House in terms of the need to end rocket attacks on Israel, but also stated our support for a negotiated ceasefire. The whole of the European Union spoke clearly together on that yesterday. Of course, we also regularly discuss matters with Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Palestinians: most recently, I spoke to him about this nine or 10 days ago, and my colleagues are in constant touch with him. We will see whether there can be a role for the Quartet in the coming weeks in attempts to restart negotiations on the peace process.

The Secretary of State has made clear his belief that Hamas bears the principal responsibility for the start of the crisis, but does he not accept that many people believe that the blockade of Gaza amounts to an act of aggression perpetrated by the state of Israel against the Palestinians every single day, whether a rocket or a shot is fired? How does he believe that assigning blame for the present situation will help the Government to work with both sides to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict?

I think we have to speak clearly about these things. The hon. Gentleman is right that restrictions and blockades are part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we are always clear about that. The occurrence of yet another crisis in Gaza adds to those arguments, but we also have to be clear that the firing of hundreds of rockets at Israel certainly does not help and is no tactic designed to get rid of any blockade or restrictions; it is totally counter-productive in that respect, and it kills civilians. We should not hesitate to criticise that just because we want a wider solution.

Given the blocking stance taken by Russia and China on Syria, have they contributed any money to address the current humanitarian crisis in Syria?

Contributions from Russia and China have been very small. I would have to write to the hon. Lady with the details, but they are not so large that I have them immediately in my mind, let me put it that way. We will encourage—I have done so previously—Russia to make a contribution to the UN funds, but the biggest contribution has been from the United States, the second biggest from the EU and the third biggest from the UK—of course we are also contributing to the EU money—so as things stand, the backing is heavily western.

The Foreign Secretary said that he did not want to get into a debate about disproportionate or proportionate, but while it is right that we condemn militant rocket attacks, should we not also condemn the loss of innocent lives and particularly children? Regarding the vote at the UN, is he wholly convinced that the UK Government, by taking the stance they have taken, do not risk undermining those who want a peaceful solution?

That the Government and the whole country deplore the loss of life in Gaza and southern Israel, particularly children, was the first line or second sentence of my statement today, and I reinforce that now. As I think I have explained, the reason why we are so concerned about a vote at the United Nations General Assembly coming now is precisely that we think it will make it more difficult to advance the peace process. We will make every effort to prevent its damaging the peace process, but the likelihood is that it will.

May I press the Foreign Secretary once again on the importance of ending the blockade if we are to make progress in the peace process? The impact of the blockade on the Palestinian people, in terms of the destruction of their economy, has been mentioned, but there is also an impact on Israel: there is a thriving tunnel economy and most of the weapons currently being used in Gaza come through it. There could be a win-win situation if we can make progress on the issue.

I do not think I need pressing very much, because I just made part of that point myself when I talked about the tunnels and the way Hamas, rather than the security of Israel, profits from them through smuggling. For a win-win, there has to be a greater degree of trust and peace on the border, which has eluded us all so far, but if that can be brought about, then yes, there can a very big win-win for all involved.

After 23 years in the House, the Foreign Secretary well knows that the fact that a point has been made does not prevent it from being remade, usually on multiple occasions, very eloquently and sometimes at length.

Mr Speaker, I will try to raise an issue that has not been raised so far. Has the Foreign Secretary been able to assess whether UK-made components are being used in Gaza, as part of Israeli equipment, and what implications do the actions of recent days have for UK military links with Israel?

The hon. Lady has raised an issue that no one else raised, which is pretty good going after one hour and 40 minutes, so I thank her for that. As she knows, we have very tight export controls, through our and the EU’s consolidated guidance. We always evaluate any arms export licences against the risks of misuse, of intensifying conflict and of being used for internal repression. That leads us to refuse some export licences for Israel, but to grant others. Of course, any future grant or refusal of licences will be considered against the background of recent events.

I thank the Foreign Secretary and colleagues for their assistance, which enabled 65 Back Benchers to take part in 66 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. I fear that there are points of order, but I am sure that they will be legendarily brief.