Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Ellwood.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which I know was under enormous pressure for effectively the last bits of Backbench Business time before the recess. The Committee found time for three hours for the middle east, and I appreciate it. I also appreciate the support of many colleagues who agreed that it was important in the circumstances, with so much happening in the region, to have an opportunity to talk about events there.
I should declare some interests. I travel quite a lot in the region. I am not yet sure of all the etiquette relating to interests, but as I have been flying into the region and have been given hospitality in numerous places that I shall mention, I wanted to draw attention to those interests in the register. Last but definitely not least, I am sure that I speak on behalf of all of us in welcoming the new Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), to his brief. The Department is fortunate to have a new Minister who is aware of the area, has spent time there and knows different parts of it well, and who has always demonstrated a strong interest in foreign and middle eastern affairs while a Back Bencher. We all welcome him as Minister.
Accordingly, I thought that the best thing to do would be to set him up right away with a debate on the middle east and north Africa, which would give him and his hard-working officials a great opportunity to be fully briefed. I am sure we all agree that we do not expect him to answer all the key questions on the middle east, of which most of us have two or three in our back pocket that would stump any Government. This does not seem to be the day to throw them in the new Minister’s direction. I can also see from those who are prepared to take part in this debate that he will have an opportunity to hear from experts in the House who have studied the area and care about it deeply, and who have a lot to say and to listen to. There could not be a more ideal introduction for him than this debate.
It is easy to concentrate on all the negatives in the region, so although I shall be as brief as I can, I shall start with some of the positives before going on to look at the problems. I drew the title of this debate deliberately wide. Rather than finding a contentious motion on which to divide the House, I wanted to provide as wide an opportunity as possible for colleagues with many diverse interests in the region to talk about them, whatever they may be. I am sure we will hear about many different things. I shall concentrate a little on the prosperity issues in the region, and then talk about three or four specific areas. That will mean leaving out an awful lot, as we all know, but I am sure that other speakers will fill those gaps by the end of the afternoon.
One of the successes of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over the last three or four years has been the attention paid to the prosperity agenda. Prosperity matters. It is not simply a question of pounds and pence or of money in the bank for the United Kingdom; prosperity means that people have jobs and opportunities, and their states have an opportunity to prosper as well. Never has that been more needed in the region we are discussing, according to various estimates. I saw an estimate from Deloitte a year or so ago saying that 40 million new jobs will be needed in the next decade to cope with the growth in population. There is an obvious connection between idle hands and problems, and ensuring that people have enough work to do is key to the region.
Accordingly, I am proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played in the prosperity agenda. We can see it demonstrated across the region. In north Africa, for example, the Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf, concluded a seven-day visit last month to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. In each country, she met with the Head of State or Government and numerous Cabinet Ministers, including Finance Ministers, and the governors of three central banks. She led informative discussions on the development of the economy in each of the regions, focusing on economic diversification, managing each one’s different and abundant energy resources and developing education, training and qualifications. The north African region, of course, has been the birthplace of the Arab spring, and has been through a series of issues that are far from resolved. Each state is identifiably different from the others, but as part of the future of the region, the prosperity agenda will play a large part, and the United Kingdom can undoubtedly make a contribution.
I shall focus for a second on Tunisia in particular. Although we discuss the difficulties of politics in the region, I have seen far too little in the media recently acknowledging what has happened in Tunisia. Rather than people taking to the streets or political leaders finding reasons for division among themselves, the Tunisians have worked extremely hard to find out how they can come together on a constitution and make new politics work after the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship. We should watch Tunisia carefully and give every encouragement to the development of democracy there.
I pay tribute to the work of the FCO and the British Government through the Arab Partnership to consider what values we hold in common. Instead of telling states, “This is what you should do,” the Arab Partnership has simply offered a menu: “We think these sorts of thing work. Which is right for you in terms of building democracy, a Parliament and a new politics?” I am proud of the work that has been and continues to be done there, including by all the diplomats and officials in the region. I am delighted to mention Tunisia. Its success should counterpoint some of the difficulties in other places.
One of the first things I learned was how different each state was from the other. It is a bit like wondering why Manchester United are a success and Leeds United are not. Things are definitely different in each of the states. Tunisia, for example, had a broad background in education; the former leader put a lot of time and effort into the education of his country. That is quite a contrast with Libya, for example, where there was effectively no state whatever, with or without Gaddafi. Each state was in a very different place and was different economically, and, frankly, peoples are different from one another. It is best to consider the Arab spring as a collection of different states with similar problems but different identities, and to work individually in each. That has been the success of the Arab Partnership.
Looking beyond north Africa but staying with the prosperity agenda for a moment, I also commend to the new Minister a continuance of the Gulf initiative. The incoming Government in 2010 took the view that an enhanced relationship with our friends in the Gulf would be of benefit. Our relationships, whether on defence, counter-terrorism, energy security or trade and investment, are crucial in that region. Contact and relationships have been deliberately improved and increased, mostly through a huge number of visits. Ministers and others have made 260 individual visits to the region since 2010, including some extremely high-level visits. The region is home to 27% of the world’s sovereign wealth, and our export trade there is larger than to India, Russia and Mexico combined.
That initiative is extremely important. We have a great deal in common with these states, and being adventurous in our relationship, not just on prosperity but on the other things that we hold in common, will be an important sign of the future. I say that because, given approaching events such as the election and, if the Conservative party wins the election, a referendum on Europe in 2017, there may be a slight risk that the FCO’s orientation moves more towards Europe than other parts of the world. Whatever the interests of the Foreign Secretary may be—his great interest in the Gulf was shown in his role in defence—I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that he has a really important role to play in ensuring that the work that has been done on the middle east and the Gulf does not slip away because of other, more immediate political pressures affecting the Foreign Office. Continuing the Gulf initiative would be a good place to start.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Regarding not taking our eye off the ball in the middle east and the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates has certainly made great strides in working with the Kurdistan Regional Government; and our Government issued the first formal invitation to the KRG’s Prime Minister a month ago, and that relationship is developing. However, there are issues and I hope my right hon. Friend will address some of them. The Kurds now find themselves with a very long border with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They are also cut off from Baghdad because their budget has not been delivered since March. And of course, they have a strong bilateral relationship with Turkey and are attempting to sell their oil through the pipeline to Ceyhan and to Turkey, but that in itself has come up against a number of challenges. I suspect that our Government will remain neutral on this matter, but can he address some of those issues—
Unsurprisingly, I have a short passage in my speech relating to Kurdish issues, and I think my hon. Friend will find that I address one or two of those points.
I have a particular relationship with the UAE through my current chairmanship of the all-party group on the UAE, and through a connection with my very good friend, the deputy Foreign Minister of the UAE, Dr Anwar Gargash; I commend such a relationship to my hon. Friend the Minister. The UAE belies some of the easy and rather lazy descriptions that the uninformed make about the Gulf. This is a state where women hold very senior positions; for example, the ambassador to the UN and the Minister in charge of the extraordinary Dubai 2020 Expo are women. It is also a state where people can go to church; I went to church on my last visit to Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is also a state whose prosperity relationship with the UK is singularly important. We will contribute to British firms going to Expo 2020. There is also investment by the Emirates in the UK: the £1.5 billion investment by Dubai’s DP World in London Gateway; Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s energy company, is investing more than £500 million in the London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm; and the Abu Dhabi United Group is working beyond London in Manchester, through its connection with Manchester City football club, to encourage the regeneration of the city. Again, I profess a special interest, having been the Minister with responsibility for Manchester and Salford many years ago; seeing the regeneration of that great city has been one of the great highlights of the past 20 years. All that activity shows that the UAE is working with and investing in the UK, which enhances the relationship between the two countries.
Wherever we look around the Gulf, particularly in a state such as the UAE, we see a close partner working together with the UK. I emphasise that point because whatever direction the FCO now goes in, it is very important that the middle east and the Gulf remain uppermost in its mind. I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will be keen to ensure that that is the case.
Briefly, please do not forget the middle east. Stick with those states that are working through the Arab spring and working with the Arab Partnership. Stick with Libya—it is difficult. Stick with Egypt, which will be a key partner, even though it will inevitably go through difficulties. It has serious human rights and judicial issues to overcome, but its economy needs support if the country is to get anywhere with its democracy. Egypt’s parliamentary elections later this year will be keenly scrutinised to ensure that they are fully inclusive. Certainly, the state has questions to answer, as we all know, but it will be a key partner for the future and in increasing the prosperity of the region as a whole.
In a final point on the values that we hold dear, let me mention that throughout the region religious intolerance and ensuring that there is greater freedom of worship and conscience is another important issue that I am sure the FCO will address. I know that one or two colleagues here today will talk about that specifically
I had the honour yesterday of meeting two young women from Iran who had been imprisoned in Tehran in 2009 for being Christian believers. Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh are now free in the United States. They have written about their experiences and make the point that although a rapprochement in Iran in many ways has advantages for all of us, to neglect human rights issues in Iran would be a mistake. They also make the point that it is not only Christians who are suffering; so are Baha’is and others. We know that across the region the agonies caused by differences between Muslim sects have been reflected in the pressures on those of other faiths and of none. I am certain that a greater sense of religious tolerance throughout the region is a value that the UK and this Parliament would strongly profess, and again I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to make that a key part of his work in the region.
Before I sit down, I will address two major issues briefly: first, Syria and, secondly, Gaza. With Syria, it seems that we have a very short attention span for tragedy. One has to do a little bit of searching now in the newspapers to find out that the agony of Syria is continuing. In three years perhaps 160,000 people have been killed, although there are estimates of many more. There is a need to ensure that the truth of what is happening in Syria comes out, rather than a narrative produced by the Syrian regime.
In short, Assad would have us all believe that right from the beginning he was challenged not by his own people but by foreign extremists. That is untrue. There were no foreign extremists on the streets of Damascus when the first brave people asked not for his overthrow but for reform. They were met with torture and violence, and with a deliberate campaign to ensure that more extremists came into the country from outside, because Assad knew that his greatest chance of staying in power was to convince the outside world that he was threatened by terrorists from outside and not from his own country. Sadly, that narrative has had all too much opportunity to succeed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that while that uprising took place, there was a serious element of the Muslim Brotherhood within Syria that was promoting much of the violence that took place, as well as the regime’s violence?
Disentangling all the various elements of Syria is not an easy job. Disentangling the issues of the Muslim Brotherhood is, of course, a matter that now concerns the UK greatly as it pursues its review of the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood not only on places abroad but on the UK itself. There are different views on whether the Muslim Brotherhood represents a spectrum of opinion, or whether there is a very hard, almost fascistic edge to it in what it wishes to achieve—certainly, there are places and evidence that back that up, and places where it is not sufficiently proved. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise that as an issue that deserves to be looked at in the Syrian context.
I remind my right hon. Friend that the Foreign Secretary at the time that we were being asked to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war himself accepted, and indeed volunteered the information, that there were several thousand al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting alongside the opposition.
Yes, there were. I do not want to be drawn or tempted into a rehearing of that debate we had last August. I think the decision made by Parliament then was profoundly wrong and I wish that action had been taken against the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons on its own people, despite the difficulties. Nevertheless, we do not need to go down that route now.
Of course there were already different factions involved by then, but one of the confusions that the Assad regime was able to spread was that all opposition was the same. It is not and it never was. Accordingly, I ask my hon. Friend to look very hard at circumstances on the ground and to recognise that the moderate forces that have been supported by more than 100 nations and entities through the Friends of Syria process, the Free Syrian Army and others, are taking on both the regime and the extreme militants. They deserve our support. There is regular barrel-bombing and killing of civilians. They deserve the opportunity to protect themselves. I say no more than that. There should be no western boots on the ground and no western forces there, just the ability to change the dynamics so that the negotiations for peace have a better opportunity to succeed. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to keep an eye on that and give whatever support is possible to the moderates who are still fighting on so many different fronts.
As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned a moment ago, the long-standing nature of the crisis has meant that it has spread. There will be another opportunity in due course to discuss issues relating to western intervention or non-intervention. We have had three and a half years of non-intervention to weigh in the balance with Iraq and Afghanistan and to ask, “What are ever the right decisions in these difficult circumstances?”
We know one consequence of this continuing agony: the growth and development of an extreme force now in the region—ISIS/ISIL—which has gone beyond threatening Syria to threatening states nearby. It has, of course, produced an issue for the Kurdish community in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, protected and saved by the intervention of John Major and the no-fly zone, who now find their circumstances different from those in the rest of Iraq. What is to be done?
First, I think the United Kingdom should look hard at what support it can give to the Kurdish region. For example, an acknowledgement that they need to sell oil to survive, having been starved of funds by the Maliki Administration, would be important. Recognition that now they are looking for support on defence and intelligence, just in case that extremist army comes in their direction, would also be welcome. Counselling and discussion about further steps towards autonomy or independence would also help. Independence for the Kurdish region is a big step that would have serious ramifications, but it is no longer off the cards, because of the break-up of Iraq and, I have to say, the failure of Prime Minister Maliki over a long period, even though he was given every opportunity to bring together Sunni, Kurdish and Shia communities. Whatever may happen in the future, the Kurdish region deserves some degree of security, whether within a federal Iraq with greater autonomy, or something different. The UK needs to be alert to the needs of that region and its people, which we have supported for so long.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that if Kurdistan, one of the few democratic nations in the middle east, wants independence and its people vote for it, the British Government should support their right to have independence?
I hear that. If I was sitting at the other end of this desk, in the Minister’s place, I would be equally cagey in my response. I will not ask my hon. Friend the Minister for a definitive answer at this stage. There would be ramifications. Ultimately, the independence of the Kurdish people is a matter of self-determination—my hon. Friend is correct. Bearing in mind all that the Kurdish people—a people subject to chemical attack and the like— have been through for so long, it is important that people listen. This matter should not be dealt with suddenly; it should be worked through with neighbours and friends and the surrounding territories. The Kurdish people deserve to have their voice heard, of that there is no doubt. There is plenty that the UK can still continue to do.
Let me make one last point, because I am conscious that I have taken up a lot of time. I want to finish by talking about Gaza. I have become passionate about the region, and colleagues throughout the House have been kind enough to recognise that. I appreciate what colleagues have said over the past few months. If there is one issue on which that passion has been allied to grief, it is the continuing failure of the middle east peace process and the inability of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in the peace and security to which both are entitled and which both are being denied. What we are witnessing now in Gaza is just the latest instalment of this awful tragedy, which has been far too long-running for all of us. I welcome the news over the course of the morning about possible ceasefire prospects, because the matter is urgent and the kinetic action there needs to stop as quickly as possible on both sides.
Over many years I was solely associated with the Israeli cause, and I appreciate greatly how in office this was never raised against me by Arab interlocutors, who I think guessed rightly that such a background gave me the opportunity to speak with great frankness to my many friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which I did. My last four years have therefore brought me much closer to Arab and Palestinian leaders and provided greater exposure to the impact of the failure to conclude an agreement on their side. Whether it is the economic and humanitarian difficulties of Gaza or the grief of the Tamimi family in Nabi Saleh, or the parents of an Israeli schoolchild killed by a bomb, I have, like all the rest of us in this Chamber, seen too much despair from too many. I do not need to be told by either side whose fault it is or to listen any more to a catalogue of mutual injustice. For the record, I get it. Both have right and wrongs on their side. They are both my friends. Like the vast majority of those who live in the region, I just want this to stop.
The present round is sadly no different from the rest: it solves nothing on either side. As long as Hamas keeps re-arming, Israel will need to act to remove the threat. As long as Israel does so and as long as the suffering of Gaza and its people—from their Hamas Administration as well as the restrictions of Israel—continues, there will be new recruits, because the political end to the struggle is not co-ordinated with a cessation of hostilities. So it goes on, endlessly, and it is pointless because it does not achieve the objects of either of the protagonists. It just kills.
Israel has a right to protect its citizens from the unique terror of Hamas, condemned by the UK Government as we urged EU partners to proscribe the military wing of Hamas last year. It targets Israelis—actually, it targets Jews; let us be frank—anywhere in the world, contributes to incitement and fires rockets indiscriminately at them, or fails to prevent others from doing so. Israel’s reaction to this is proportionate to the threat, but there is an imbalance in the suffering as a result. Every child killed or hurt and every civilian killed wounds Israel and calls into question the method it is employing to bring security and peace to its people at such a price, just as dreadful injuries condemn those who place children in harm’s way. We cannot go on like this.
My optimism for the excellent efforts of John Kerry, and the quieter work of Tony Blair, has not yet been realised in a result, but might I ask my hon. Friend the Minister not to give up and to ensure the FCO plays its full part in urging that, after this round of conflict is done, we get back to the negotiations for the comprehensive solution, which is the only answer? It is truly not impossible to solve the problem if the will is there, as countless people have said.
I commend the article of 7 July in Haaretz, by His Highness Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud of Saudia Arabia, making the point that the 2002 Arab peace initiative still provides a template for a just solution to Israel’s conflict with Palestinians and the Arab world. He writes about the opportunity for both sides in the economic development and political opportunities that would result from an agreement. That the positives of a solution in that area so outweigh the negatives still leaves me gasping that it cannot quite be grasped. However, I hope that, after this round of hostilities, everyone will pile in on both sets of leaders to say, “We dare not have this happen again, in a region where we have learned that things can spiral out of control very quickly.”
The middle east has not been more volatile in recent years. From Lebanon to Yemen, there are latent threats to add to those more obvious, about which I have spoken, but there is still a vibrancy of populations who promise, and deserve, much more. I hope therefore that the UK long continues its historical relationship, for we still have so much to offer our friends throughout the region in terms of peace and prosperity.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I want to let hon. Members know that I do not intend to place a time limit unnecessarily at this stage. However, at least 10 hon. Members wish to catch my eye, so to ensure that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip and has a fair opportunity to have their voices heard, perhaps Members could look to speak for about 10 minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing this important, timely debate. In his contribution he displayed both his expertise on the whole area and his sensitivity to the involvement and suffering of so many different parties in that region. I want to focus my comments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and, in particular, the horrifying events under way in Gaza, but what happens in Israel and the Palestinian territories is of course much affected by what happens in a turbulent neighbourhood. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria and the millions of people there who have been displaced. That ongoing issue is causing widespread concern.
I start by saying that all civilian deaths are tragic. A civilian death on any side of a dispute is equal to that on the other. It is all tragic and it should all be avoided. It is a great cause for concern that John Kerry’s initiative has, up to now, not succeeded. The overall situation will only be resolved by a negotiated agreement on setting up a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. That means agreement on borders based on the 1967 boundaries, on how to share Jerusalem and on dealing with refugee issues on both sides. As long as that is not secured, there will be disputes.
The current situation in Gaza is intolerable. The Israelis withdrew all their 8,000 settlers and soldiers in 2005. Some were withdrawn forcibly by the Israeli army. There followed a short time when Israel and the Palestinian Authority had an agreement. For the very first time, Gaza was ruled by Palestinians, but that was short-lived. Hamas came to power, and it has to be recognised for what it is: a terrorist organisation. It is recognised to be so by, among others, the USA, Jordan, the European Union and Japan. Its 1988 charter—in other words, a recent, modern charter—contains elements that are blood-curdling. It talks about Jews running the worldwide media and Jews being responsible for such things as the French revolution and the Russian revolution. Hamas is a terrorist organisation that will not accept the existence of Israel. It is not interested in boundaries. It finds the concept of the majority Jewish state of Israel as anathema in that region, and that has to be remembered.
What is happening now is that Hamas decided to launch an attack, targeted on Israeli civilians. At the last count, although it may well be an underestimate, some 1,350 rockets have been launched, targeted on 70% of Israeli civilians.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Will she confirm the size and scale of the rockets? Some who seek to defend the action from Gaza refer to the rockets as little more than fireworks, but they are a new type of rocket from Hamas with a payload of 300 lb and a range of 100 miles or more. That should not be forgotten.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Those rockets are aimed at and landing on places such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Munir al-Masri, a senior Hamas spokesperson, stated only two days ago, on 15 July:
“Hamas will continue hitting Israel until the last Zionist leaves the whole of Palestine, from the sea to the river.”
It is pretty clear what this is all about.
The situation is intolerable. Neither the Israeli Government nor any other Government could countenance this targeted attack on their citizens, the aim of which is to kill and to destroy. It is interesting to note the comment made by Gershon Baskin, who is renowned for his efforts working with Palestinians and Israelis to seek peace. Indeed, he was a pivotal figure in the release of Gilad Shalit. He spoke only last week of his absolute despair. He said that he called on the Hamas leadership not to intensify its actions. He knows that his message went right to the top, to Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader. With absolute despair, he said that the Hamas leader simply said, “Bring it on.” The situation is extremely grave.
A large number of Palestinian civilians have been killed or injured, which is a matter of deep regret. It is a tragedy for them as much as it would be for Israelis to be injured or killed. The responsibility for the deaths and injuries has to lie with those who decided to put their rocket bases, launchers and headquarters in civilian populations—Hamas. Indeed, a senior Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said only two days ago, on 15 July:
“The fact that people are willing to sacrifice themselves against Israeli weapons in order to protect their homes is a strategy that is proving itself.”
The Israelis feel that they have to stop those deadly rockets being launched, deliberately targeted at Israeli citizens. The Israelis know that they have to go to civilian areas, and they are consciously and as a matter of policy informing the civilians in those areas about what is about to happen and asking them to leave, because they do not wish to have civilian casualties. It is clear from that statement—there are many others—that the Hamas leadership is gloating over the situation and the death of its own citizens. That is absolutely deplorable and should not be countenanced.
I thank the hon. Lady for her thoughtful speech. Are we not in a crazy situation where Israel is being criticised for defending itself too well, because the Iron Dome is stopping many of the missiles and preventing many thousands of Israeli citizens from being killed?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Hamas has been threatening this type of action for a long time. It has clearly stated that it does not accept the existence of the Israeli state and that it will attack it. It has been building up its weaponry; Hamas now holds Iranian weapons. Indeed, recently, in March, Israel intercepted an Iranian ship with a cargo of weapons, including advanced weapons, heading for Gaza and for Hamas. Hamas has been organising itself to attack, so, naturally, a responsible Israeli Government have been preparing for that through defensive means. The Iron Dome was constructed so that the weapons—the shells, the rockets—coming over from Gaza, targeted on Israeli civilians, could be stopped without any Palestinian civilian loss of life. That is what the Israeli Government have deliberately done.
Is my hon. Friend not aware that in the recent hostilities 200 Palestinians have already died and that water and sewerage works have been targeted by Israeli planes? Does she not think that the siege of Gaza, which has now gone on for a very long time, is a contributory factor? Does she not think that the inability of Israel to recognise Palestinian needs and rights is a major cause of the problem?
My hon. Friend makes some interesting observations. I am well aware of the deaths and injuries sustained by Palestinian civilians. I deeply regret them and think they are a great tragedy, but those civilians were in that situation because Hamas deliberately put its weapons and launching bases among them. As I indicated by referring to the recent comments from Hamas spokespeople, Hamas seems to be gloating and sees its policy as working. On the other factors my hon. Friend mentioned, I go back to the facts I declared earlier. Israel withdrew all its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2008. When, a year after that, Hamas, which was then running Gaza, decided to attack Israeli civilians, the Israelis had to take some steps to try to protect themselves.
The solution to this dreadful situation is of course for there to be an overall peace settlement, recognising the rights of the two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to have their states and to live in security and peace alongside one another in a region that will support them. The Kerry initiative has not up to now succeeded, but no one should abandon hope, and I hope that it can be resumed. It does not mean, however, that nothing can be done. What should be done now is for Hamas to stop sending its rockets against Israeli civilians. The Israelis then would, and should, stop their attacks on the missile sites in Gaza. I hope that that will provide the basis for a long-term ceasefire and, ultimately, lead to a peace in which all peoples of the region can have the peace they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Davies. I welcome the debate and, in particular, the fact that it was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was one of the finest Ministers responsible for relations with the middle east that this country has seen in recent times. Few possess both his fairness and his wisdom in dealing with the intricate problems of the region. I am proud to speak alongside him.
I also welcome the debate because at this time of crisis for the middle east it is worth setting out a few home truths. First, we need to acknowledge that the free world has got it badly wrong. Not only has it been the cause of some of the problems, but it has attempted to solve them with quick fixes, rather than real, long-term solutions. Too often, realpolitik has taken precedence over human values, ignoring the fact that freedom is about not only having an election, but the rule of law, tolerance, equality and property rights. Secondly, realpolitik has too often led to appeasement and to working with the very regimes that created the situations. Even worse, we have seen disengagement due to fear, and guilt over past mistakes. That is why we are now told that we have to work with Iran to deal with the problems of ISIS in Iraq, or why we supply arms to dictatorships in the middle east to enhance stability, despite some of those countries’ records of exporting extreme Islamism around the world. Thirdly, instead of supporting the few genuine democracies in the middle east, either we seek to hold them to disproportionately high standards—higher than any other country—or we deny them the right to self-determination.
Let us look at realpolitik and appeasement. The Arab spring could have been a great opportunity, not only for the citizens of the countries involved, but for the free world. For the first time, it showed that the people who were in revolt wanted and cherished the same values that all of us, throughout the world, hold so dear—the values that Roosevelt so accurately summed up as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Unfortunately, the west gave mixed signals, in particular in Egypt, where the prevalent attitude has been “better the devil you know”.
The west’s disengagement, however, has manifested above all in Syria. As my right hon. Friend said, there are 160,000 people dead, and there were promises of red lines that never appeared, and chemical weapons attacks, including the September 2012 one on Palestinians in Yarmouk. As we have seen, the result has been a moral vacuum filled by extreme Islamists, who have now spread from Syria to Iraq. We like to talk about moral values, but where were the demonstrations, the moral outrage and the requests for boycotts by VIPs and celebrities when Assad gassed the Palestinians and starved them to death in Yarmouk? The only Palestinians who count in the eyes of the west are those in Gaza. Compromises with oppressive regimes have led us not only to fail those fighting for freedom, but to fail to support those nations that are spreading democratic values across the region, such as Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Let us turn to Israel. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza and disbanded all settlements at great political cost, eventually causing the split of the main Israeli political party at the time. It was envisaged that the successful withdrawal from Gaza would lead to a withdrawal from much of the west bank; that was the point made by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. The reality turned out to be quite different. Instead of progress towards peace, Israeli towns faced a barrage of missile attacks from a total of 11,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad—11,000 since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
In recent months, as has been described, the rocket attacks have extended from towns close to Gaza, such as Sderot, to Tel Aviv and further. Let us not forget that the missiles—supplied by Iran, which has given Hamas financial and material support—have emboldened that terrorist organisation and led to today’s tragic situation. After being dragged into unwanted confrontation, instead of getting support for facing down Islamist terrorist organisations, Israel yet again gets opprobrium from the west.
Similarly, Iraqi Kurdistan, another nation to have suffered genocide, faces daily threats from terrorism, is surrounded by hostile enemies and is denied its right to seek independence, despite having been faced with an economic blockade by Baghdad over the past year. It now faces the terrible threat of ISIS on its borders. Instead of trying to keep together an artificial and broken Iraq, the UK, the United States and their allies should be doing everything possible to help the Kurdistan region to become independent, and to ensure that that part of the middle east remains free and democratic.
And safe, as my hon. Friend points out. In recent times, the message from the United States and NATO on all such matters has been confused and disparate. The free world needs to group together to give a clear signal that muscular enlightenment must and will take precedence over appeasement, and that freedom and liberty must and will take precedence over extreme Islamist, terrorist or authoritarian dictatorships. Guilt and fear stemming from past mistakes cannot justify total inaction and turning our back on those fighting for just causes.
We must make it clear that intervention to stop genocide, to stop the use of chemical weapons and to protect people from poverty and starvation, far from being unnecessary, is all the more important. It is not wrong to say that democracy can be dropped from a B-52 bomber; perhaps if we had done so from the beginning, we would not have 150,000 dead in Syria. I hope that the debate is a pointer for us, showing that we should grasp the nettle of muscular enlightenment and the case for intervention and doing the right thing in the middle east, so that the people of the region can enjoy the values that all of us cherish so dearly.
May I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I add my thanks and tributes to those of others to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I pay tribute to his work as middle east Minister, a role that he approached with great sincerity and sensitivity. He has always dealt with me with the utmost courtesy, and I thank him for that.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and I disagree on many things, and we will disagree in this debate, but frankly there is no reason to caricature the views of those who stand up for the rights of people in Gaza as them not being bothered about the rights of Palestinians in Yarmouk, or about what is going on in Syria. If he looks at the record, that is simply not true.
I will concentrate my remarks on what is going on in Gaza for no other reason than time. I will pose a few questions. Does Israel have the right to self-defence? Yes. Do Palestinians have the right to self-defence? Yes. Can what either the Israeli Government are doing or what Hamas has been doing in the past two weeks be credibly described as self-defence? No. Have the actions of either made the people each said they were defending any safer? Well, there are some answers to that. I will quote Emily Hauser, an American Israeli, who wrote recently in Haaretz:
“I have lived under missile attack, and I have family under attack in the south right now. I do not for one moment doubt Israel’s right to self-defense. But even if we set aside the damage and forget the dead, if we remain incurious about the impact both might have on our enemy’s will to compromise—even if all we consider is sheer efficacy—how can we look at this history and believe that repeating past failures will keep the Jewish State safe? Are you safe now?”
That speaks volumes. If we look on the other side, the answer was given yesterday when those four children had their lives snuffed out while doing nothing other than playing football on the beach. If hon. Members have not read Peter Beaumont’s eyewitness account of that in The Guardian, I suggest they do so.
The point is that it has to stop; the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said that in introducing the debate. Nobody will do the Palestinians or the Israelis any service in this debate by justifying rockets or trying to justify the scale of the attacks that Israel has been making on Gaza. The question is how we can help to stop it.
The first thing is to be serious. We have just heard that there has been a humanitarian ceasefire for a few hours. There was also a very strange ceasefire a day or two ago, of a kind that I have never come across before. It seemed to be announced without even the Americans being involved, which is rather strange in the circumstances. It was announced late one night and accepted by Israel the next morning, when Hamas said it had not even been directly approached and had heard about the ceasefire from the media. If people are serious about ceasefires, they pre-cook them and make sure the back channels work, but those channels did not work on that occasion.
I have been trying to put some feelers out as well—not to Hamas directly, but through people who I know are talking to it. One thing that has come back from that—not from hard-liners, who reject the idea altogether, but from people who are saying that they might be prepared to consider it—is that if a ceasefire is agreed, it will need to involve Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, as well as Hamas, and Hamas will be relied on to police that ceasefire. How will it do that while it is itself the target of air strikes? We do not have to hold a writ for Hamas to work out that there may be a point there. That is why people should use the back channels and take the process seriously, and not just announce things. That is not just my opinion; hon. Members can read the article on ABC News by Ali Weinberg, who said that some of the things going on around that ceasefire were curious—I will say no more than that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and speaks with a wealth of experience.
The question is, what do we do? First of all, if there is going to be a ceasefire, as we all hope, it has to be serious and it has to work. Secondly, let us not make life any more difficult from our side. Every time Britain supplies arms to Israel—we do not supply arms to Hamas, because there is an arms embargo—we do so under strict criteria called the EU consolidated criteria, with the condition that they are not to be used for external aggression or internal repression. Under the Labour Government—and I think under this Government—use in the occupied territories was seen to run contrary to that condition. Every time there is a flare-up, it is asked, “Were British arms used?” At best, the reply is “We are not quite sure”; at worst, it is, “Probably, yes, they were.” Every time, we say that to Israel, but it happens again, so my first question to the Minister is: are British arms being used? If they are, what will we do to stop it? If we do not know, there should be an arms embargo.
The next point is that if we want a ceasefire to turn into peace, we have to tackle the causes. There is a narrative that says that if Hamas just stopped its rockets, things would be okay—the idea is that quiet will be met with quiet. The last time there was a flare-up like this one was in November 2012. In November 2013 the United Nations—not Hamas, not the Palestinians, but the United Nations—produced a humanitarian bulletin from OCHA, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I quote:
“November marked one year since the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire understanding between Israel and Hamas, which ended an eight day escalation of hostilities. The year that passed has witnessed the lowest level of violence and civilian casualties registered in Gaza and southern Israel in 13 years. Additionally, there has been limited improvement in people’s access to fishing areas at sea and to farming areas along the fence with Israel. Overall, however, Gaza has seen a deterioration in living conditions. The majority of the Israeli imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip have remained in place, with at least one of them (import of building materials) tightened.”
That same humanitarian report also talked about the growing sanitation and water crisis in Gaza and an escalation in dispossessions and demolitions in East Jerusalem. That was during a period of relative quiet.
I was in the west bank at the end of last year with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). We saw dispossessions being threatened and schools threatened with demolition to make way for settlements. Someone might say that I have my own view on the issue and that it is not unbiased, so let us not listen to me; we will listen to the United Nations again. This is from 2 June this year:
“UNRWA is gravely concerned about recent steps taken by the Israeli authorities that appear to advance plans to transfer Palestinian Bedouin communities in the central West Bank, the large majority of which consist of Palestine refugees.”
That report goes on to say that they are
“located in the E1 and Ma’ale Adumim areas, which are slated for further Israeli settlement development. Additionally in recent months, the ICA appears to be intensifying measures that are displacing or threatening to displace many of the Bedouin communities targeted for transfer.”
It simply is not true that quiet is met by quiet. Quiet is met by continued settlement building, displacement and occupation. We should not think that there will be a real and lasting peace unless those things are addressed; there will not be.
Imagine if the tables were turned—that somehow, in that mythical world, the Palestinians suddenly got the kind of military power that Israel has, and said, “We want to build some settlements in Galilee. A lot of Palestinians live there. We want to take over the homes of a few Jewish Israelis and build there.” Are we honestly saying that all the west would say to that is, “That’s not a very good thing to do—please stop”? Of course we would not. We would demand that they stop. We would talk about international law—and we would be right to—and would implement it.
I think it was pretty clear from my opening remarks that the answer to that is an unequivocal yes, but that gets us no further. It is a statement of fact that Hamas should stop firing rockets, and that if it fires rockets at civilian areas that is a war crime that deserves to be condemned. It has to stop; I say that to Hamas. However, that does not in any way justify a continued occupation. My point is that unless we tackle that issue we will not move towards peace. In plain speaking, settlement building is illegal.
I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is very passionate about this subject; I simply want to approach it from a different aspect. In November 2012 I was in the region, and it was not very pleasant to be there. Should not the starting point be an acknowledgement by the states surrounding Israel of the borders of Israel and of Israel’s right to exist? That covers a number of the issues that he is addressing.
Israel absolutely has a right to exist, and I will speak about that when I wind up.
If we accept that continued settlement building is contrary to UN resolutions, the Geneva convention and international law generally, what do we do about it? I am not suggesting any military action against Israel, but I am suggesting that we uphold international law. That means we should have no contact with illegal and illegitimate settlements. We should not trade with them, and we should insist that if Israel wishes to export goods from the settlements, it separates them from goods produced in Israel. If it does not, I am sorry, but the trade preferences that apply to goods from Israel should not apply to goods from the settlements.
I will conclude by responding to the point made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). People say that the Palestinians should recognise Israel. I agree. The Palestinian Authority, including Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, recognised Israel years ago. It has said that Hamas should recognise Israel. The Quartet takes the view that not only should it recognise Israel, but it should already have done so, in order to get into talks. That demand has never been made of Israel the other way around. Let us think about it. Continued settlement building removes the practical chance of a two-state solution. In practical terms, Israel does not recognise the right to a Palestinian state; in practical terms, it is removing it before our eyes. That is the reality; is it also the theory?
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave an interview that was reported in The Times of Israel by David Horovitz. It was given in Hebrew, but it has helpfully been translated by The Times of Israel, which is not a Hamas organ, or even a Palestinian Authority organ. I urge hon. Members to read it because it makes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view of a Palestinian state pretty clear. It says:
Prime Minister Netanyahu—
“made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.”
That should give us all pause for thought. If we are all in favour of a two-state solution, both sides must abide by that, not as a matter of negotiation, but as a matter of right. If Israel demands, as a matter of right, to be recognised by the Palestinians, it is not wrong and not too much for the international community to say to Israel that as a matter of right it should recognise Palestine. Perhaps we could help that along the way by doing it ourselves.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for leading today’s debate. There have been many fine contributions and as time is short I will confine my remarks to one aspect that has not been spoken about in detail: the security situation in Jordan, a country that I know well having travelled there many times on business in my former life. In fact, I was there the day my predecessor resigned as a Member of Parliament, and I had to return quickly to fight the subsequent by-election.
As many hon. Members appreciate, many people in Jordan and throughout the wider region, particularly in Israel, where I also have friends and contacts, are concerned to ensure that Jordan receives the full support of this country, the US and the US’s allies around the world at a dangerous and unpredictable time in its history. I share the concern of many in the region who believe that the US Government have been missing in action as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, has taken over much of Syria and Iraq. I find that very disturbing and worrying. As the terrorist organisation now turns its sights on such an important ally of ourselves and the west, the Kingdom of Jordan, neither we nor the US can afford to continue to ignore it. This debate poses a good opportunity for me to raise some of the issues that I have heard from colleagues and friends in Jordan and to bring some of the questions to the Minister’s attention.
No doubt the Minister will soon have access to far greater intelligence than I do, but people I have spoken to in Jordan do not seem to think that there is an immediate threat from ISIS or its equivalent of a military offensive, but they are extremely concerned about the potential for terrorist attacks to occur and increase, with a destabilising effect throughout the kingdom.
Before the by-election, I spoke to the Jordanian defence Minister. The Jordanian armed forces seem to be competent, generally non-sectarian and broadly loyal to King Abdullah. They train extensively, as hon. Members will know, with US forces, and receive $300 million in annual US military assistance; there is also some assistance from the United Kingdom. Jordan’s armour and air power seem to be adequate to secure its relatively short 112-mile border with Iraq, and it has gone to a great deal of trouble to fortify its positions along the frontier with Syria. I would be interested to hear the Government’s assessment of the security of that border.
The most pressing concern is that ISIS will establish a support base in Jordan of men capable of and committed to terrorist attacks. From 2002 to 2005, Jordan experienced a series of terrorist attacks, and I was in Amman during one of them. They were perpetrated by a predecessor of ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group led by a Jordanian national, Abu Musabal-Zarqawi. I have seen a YouTube video that I would recommend to hon. Members, although it is not pleasant to watch. It was posted in April and sadly is still available on YouTube. It shows Jordanian ISIS members now fighting in Iraq shred and burn their passports. The jihadists, one of whom is seen wearing an explosive belt, describe King Abdullah as despotic,
“a worshipper of the English”,
vowing to “slaughter” him. This is not a light matter but is taken seriously in Jordan. In 2013, Jordan spent some $1.3 billion, nearly 13% of its entire budget, on internal homeland security and national defence. It will continue to do so. The majority is provided by US aid.
The question for this debate is what more can the UK Government do to assist Jordan in the years ahead, particularly with the urgent concerns in the present climate.
My hon. Friend’s knowledge of Jordan is very valuable. Does he agree that perhaps one issue involving the Palestinian state could be solved if Jordan were a Palestinian state, given that it was originally part of Palestine in 1921, and even after 1948 the then King of Jordan described himself as the King of Jordan and Palestine?
We have had a good and productive relationship with Jordan for many years. Clearly, if Jordan had taken a more decisive role in running those territories, the position today would be different.
On what we as a country can do and what I would like the Government to do to try to help in Jordan, the first question that my contacts in Jordan raise with me is how can we better enable Jordan to counter military Islamist inroads. Primarily, that is a task for the US, but we have a role to play, part of which is economic support. Jordan is often—inaccurately—thought to be a wealthy country, but parts of it are under-served or economically depressed and there are restive regions that, being economically depressed, tend to become fertile ground for Islamist terrorists. There is certainly a role in encouraging the US, our allies and the key regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE to increase their financial contributions. Many commentators have asked whether the UK and the US could convene a conference for friends of Jordan, or something along those lines to encourage the monarchy’s western friends and regional allies to contribute more and to ensure greater rapid economic development.
I lived in Jordan when I was a boy, in the valley where David killed Goliath, as a matter of record. One of the biggest problems that Jordan faces is that almost half the population seem to have come in as refugees. It is a huge economic problem for this country that is so pro-west.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The difference in terms of development and western views between an area such as Oman and some of those areas with heavy immigrant populations is dramatic and not seen by most business travellers to the region.
The second area I want to touch on is whether the kingdom would benefit from expanded training in counter-insurgency warfare and in detecting improvised explosive devices.
I had the opportunity recently to look at the refugee situation in Jordan, as part of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. One thing the Jordanians were saying to us is that although they have been extremely generous in welcoming, helping and absorbing refugees, they are concerned about the amount of aid coming, not from the UK and US so much, but from other countries that have not given as much as they should. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Foreign Office could pressure our allies and friends who have a lot to say about the area into doing more and putting their hands in their pockets to help in a practical way?
Very much so; I echo those comments. The UK has been very generous, as have the US and Saudi Arabia, but many other countries in the world, particularly other European allies of ours, could and should be giving far more. That is a practical role that the UK could play in supporting Jordan.
Returning to my point about counter-insurgency, having spoken to those active in the defence world in Jordan, it seems that the US and the UK could play a greater role in providing counter-insurgency training, and detecting IEDs has been specifically mentioned to me. That is something the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence could look into and work with the US on.
My third point is that until Baghdad regains control of its western border, the UK and the US should encourage Jordan to continue aggressive counter-border actions against ISIS. The US has, perhaps controversially, deployed drones over Baghdad to defend the US embassy. I think the Obama Administration should consider moving armed, unmanned air assets over western Iraq to help Jordan establish some form of no-drive area along the Jordanian border to prevent further incursions by ISIS. That could be a bolder move for the UK to push with its US counterparts.
We should be in no doubt that ISIS and its equivalents have the desire and the potential to create a great deal of domestic instability in Jordan, perhaps more than in many other parts of the region, which will no doubt be discussed in the remainder of this debate. In Jordan, there is the potential for this country to act, given Jordan’s size, its relatively short borders and our good relationships with the country. It is somewhere we can get involved productively and successfully and use our strong diplomatic links to have a successful outcome. The pro-west regime in Oman is, in my opinion, too valuable to us, the US and the west to leave things to chance, as perhaps we have over the course of the last year in Iraq.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for giving us all the opportunity to speak on this subject. I was privileged to go with him to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for the debate, and it will come as no surprise to Members to hear which subject I will touch on. I have spoken on it many times before but it continues to be an issue, and this is a grand opportunity to underline that. I feel extremely passionate about representing those in my constituency, other constituencies and elsewhere in the world who face hardships—in this case, Christians who are persecuted for their beliefs. Today’s debate gives me an opportunity to highlight that issue again.
A century ago, about 20% of the population of north Africa and the middle east were Christian, according to figures from Open Doors, but now Christians make up only 4% of the population due to persecution. That concerns me greatly. The past two months have been littered with stories of Christians persecuted for their faith all across the middle east, such as the case of Meriam Ibrahim, the mother who was imprisoned in Sudan. When hearing that story, I wondered how many other Meriam Ibrahims there are in Sudan whom we do not hear about, because whereas she had access to the American embassy, others did not. There was also the teacher arrested in Egypt for her faith—Pastor Saeed, who remains in prison—and thousands of Christians who have been displaced due to ISIS’s violent takeover. Christians in the middle east are wondering whether there is any room left for them to stay.
Syria continues to rise in the World Watch List. The civil war has seen an increase in violence in general, but the rise of Islamist extremism is putting even greater pressure on Christians. On top of that, most of Syria’s Christians are concentrated in strategic areas of the country that are vital to both the Government and the Opposition’s war efforts, such as in and around Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, making them even more vulnerable, because that is where the war seems to be at this time. Last year, there were countless reports of Christians being abducted, physically harmed and killed, with many churches damaged or destroyed.
Many Christians have become malnourished owing to shortages and the rising price of food and other essentials. Access to water, electricity and communications is very limited. It is perhaps the traumatised children of Christian families who are suffering most acutely; some have lost one or both parents and many also face great dangers, as rebel forces have even targeted Christian schools. There is a perception among terrorist groups that if people are Christian, they are pro-western; they are Syrians first, and that always must be remembered.
Syria used to be one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian. Until early 2011, its churches were large—accounting for about 10% of the population—and Christians were respected by the Muslim majority. They were allowed to worship and practise their faith without much official interference, but now, with an estimated 600,000 Christians having fled the country or lost their lives as a result of the civil war, there are fears that Christianity will soon cease to exist.
That is made more poignant by the fact that the Church has existed in Syria since biblical times, and we must also remember that the middle east is very much where the Bible stories that we all know come from. In the book of Acts, it was on the road to Damascus, capital of today’s Syria, that Saul was stopped short in his mission to destroy the early Church. It was in Damascus that Saul regained his sight after being struck blind and it was there that he was filled with the Holy Spirit, baptised and began his ministry as an apostle. That is the story in Syria.
In Iraq, following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, there was a huge surge in anti-Christian threats, kidnappings and murders, and the violence has continued ever since. In June 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on that a short time ago and I highlighted the threat to Christians in Mosul and the plain of Nineveh. The goal of ISIS is to create a caliphate—an ultra-Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. Although the attackers were relatively few in number, the Iraqi army fled, leaving the militant jihadists to take control of the city. The result was a mass exodus of thousands of citizens; up to half a million according to some estimates. Those leaving included virtually all of Mosul’s remaining Christian population. As refugees, they are living in extreme hardship and extreme fear of injury or death, because they are Christians.
In 2013, a church in Baghdad was fired at by masked men who seriously wounded two security guards. Christian-owned businesses in the area had been the target of bombings the previous day. As well as violent attacks, Christians also suffer significant discrimination, marginalisation and injustice. Hundreds of thousands of believers have fled their homes, reducing the Christian population to a quarter of its 1990 size. Iraq’s Christian community is hardly a western innovation or a colonial relic. It dates from the 1st century, when two of Jesus’s disciples—St Thomas and St Thaddeus, better known as St Jude—preached the gospel in what was then Assyria. There has been a Christian presence in Iraq ever since. As with Syria, Christians are not newcomers to the country. They have as much right to be there practising their beliefs as everyone else. In each of those two countries, there has been a clear Christian presence from an early stage.
In Iran, since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s warning in 2010 of the ever-expanding influence and numbers of house churches, the treatment of Christians has rapidly worsened. The regime tries to destroy those who reach out to converts by monitoring services, carrying out arrests, banning the Farsi language services and closing some churches. Attacks against Christian communities have increased and the prohibition of house church activities is enforced much more strictly there than anywhere else, yet the regime’s harsh treatment of Christians only further fuels the flames of church growth. Certainly that seems to be the case in Iran. That said, each of those three countries ranks in the top 10 countries on the World Watch List, and undoubtedly the daily hardships that Christians face are simply unacceptable. The persecution of religious minorities has intensified in Iran since 2005. Almost all Christian activity is illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages. That applies to evangelism, Bible training, publishing Scripture and Christian books and preaching in Farsi.
On Wednesday we had an opportunity to hear from some people from Iran. The right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire spoke about that in his introduction to the debate, and I appreciate that. There are 61 people in prison in Iran today for their Christian beliefs, and it is not known which prison some of them are in. That is a very serious issue for the Iranians. We also had an opportunity today to attend an event organised by the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom. There are real human rights and equality issues to address there. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are denied in Iran. Christians are seen as a particular threat to the regime, as their numbers are growing and it is said that children of political and spiritual leaders are leaving Islam for Christianity. There is great interest in the message of the gospel.
As the early Christian author Tertullian noted,
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
That might be the case in Iran, but it is a reality that our Christian brothers and sisters should not have to face. I again urge the UK Government and the Minister to do as much as they possibly can to bring an end to the violent and sometimes fatal ordeals that those men and women face daily.
Last but certainly not least, I want to speak about Egypt. There, Muslims who convert to Christianity have long faced persecution from family members who punish them for abandoning the Islamic faith. However, in recent years, Egypt’s historical Christian communities have increasingly been targeted as well. The toppling of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 after a popular uprising raised hopes that the condition of Christians in Egypt might improve. In the short term, that did not happen. Indeed, it was the trigger for a furious backlash against them by angry Islamists. In mid-August 2013, at least 16 Christians were killed and some 60 church buildings destroyed. In the Islamist stronghold of Minya, Christian properties were marked for destruction with a black X.
That was the situation then, but we did see a change. The right hon. Gentleman and I, with others from the Commons and Lords, had the opportunity to attend an event, and we saw quite clearly a sea change in Egypt’s attitude towards freedom of expression, freedom of religion and equality. That is something it has tried to include in the constitution. It is good news to see that happening, at least initially, in Egypt.
What the hon. Gentleman has just said about Egypt is interesting. He must be aware, though, that a large number of journalists in Egypt are now in prison—they have been sentenced to very long stretches indeed—many others are under threat and there is a silencing of political and public debate because of the threat to journalists from the Egyptian Government.
I accept that and I will give two examples of Christians who have just been put in prison because of their beliefs, so although we have seen some indication of change, a lot of things still need to change. We always work on the basis of the change that we see. Kerolos Attallah was arrested in June for “liking” a Facebook page for Christians from a Muslim background—Knights of the Cross. In court, he was convicted of blasphemy and contempt of religion and was sentenced to six years in prison. I want to put this on the record. Demiana Emad, a 23-year-old social studies teacher, was sentenced to six months for insulting Islam. She
“presented a comparison between religions in ancient, middle and modern ages as mentioned in the curriculum”.
It was very clearly not blasphemy in either case, but the Egyptian Government recently condemned those two people to prison.
The churches in Egypt continue to hope for better times ahead. The new constitution was approved in a referendum in January 2014. Christians and other minorities are granted greater political representation. Freedom of belief is declared “absolute”—that is what we were told—while the freedom to practise religion and establish places of worship is granted to Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. Those are welcome changes, but many people have suffered and lost their lives to get there, so I hope we can work together to bring similar peaceful and fairer treatment for all Christians across the whole of the middle east.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate. He made a first-class speech that many of us could agree with in large part. I, too, draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to visits to Israel and to the Palestinian territories.
I want to speak briefly about the situation in Gaza and our country’s and Government’s support for Israel and its right to defend itself. I make no apologies for repeating some of the statistics the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) gave in her excellent speech on what has actually been happening in Gaza. She mentioned that 1,300 rockets have been fired at Israel since last Monday. That is more than 160 a day. Nine hundred and sixty-six of those rockets have exploded in Israel and 218 have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Lady, it is frankly disgusting that some people, who would call themselves friends of Palestine, simply refer to those attacks as effectively firing fireworks at Israel. The fact that Israel is strong and has the capability to defend itself through Iron Dome should not in any way diminish our understanding of the scale, range and size of those rockets. Rockets have repeatedly been fired as far as Jerusalem, which is 55 miles from Gaza; Tel Aviv, which is 44 miles away, and even Haifa, which is 100 miles away. That is nothing new, of course, because since the beginning of 2014, 2,000 rockets and mortars have been launched from Gaza into the south of the state of Israel. Since 2001, more than 15,000 rockets have landed in Israel. That is an average of three attacks every day. I wonder how we would respond to such aggression and such threats.
That is not to say that the situation is not intolerable for residents and citizens living in the Gaza strip. I think that all of us in this place, whatever our views on who is to blame for the recent situation, would wish to express our condolences and horror at what is happening there at the moment.
Of course, we have heard some talk of the ceasefire proposal. I take on board in part the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), but there is no doubt that Israel communicated very strongly its intention to de-escalate, following the Egyptian proposal, and it did embark on that course of de-escalation with a suspension of attacks. What happened in response to that? Hamas did not not know about this proposal, which is what some seem to be implying or suggesting—that because it had not gone via the United States or through certain other channels, it was in some way a surprise to Hamas. It was not a surprise to Hamas. It knew about it sufficiently to be able to reject it, and it answered the proposal with a volley of 50 rockets following the suspension of strikes by Israel at 9 am on Tuesday. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, also seemed perfectly satisfied with the proposal. He publicly backed it and urged both parties to sign up to it.
Hamas knew about the proposal sufficiently to reject it and then to fire 50 rockets in response to it, so I think that tells us all we need to know. And President Abbas seemed to know about it, because he stood up, quite rightly, and urged Hamas to accept it. This is a concern.
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
We must remember why we are in this situation and where we have got to. I understand the UK Government’s support for the unity Government. I understand their aims in doing so, and I understand that they have the best of intentions. It is a concern, however, that one of the unity Government’s constituent parties—although it is not actively serving in that Government, which is a technocratic one—does not recognise the state of Israel in its charter, and that it seeks not only the total destruction of Israel but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said in his opening speech, the destruction of Jewish people around the world. I cannot understand how we can possibly expect to move forward with the unity Government when some of the potential members will not sign up to the Quartet principles. I will not dwell on the subject, but I agree entirely with the points made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside).
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that actions in overseas territories, such as Palestinian territories and Israel, have implications for my constituents? The Community Security Trust has said that anti-Semitic attacks have doubled, and of the 50 attacks that have occurred in recent weeks, 30 have been directly attributed to the incidents in those territories. The insistence of Hamas and other organisations on making claims such as we are discussing ends in violence towards my constituents.
Indeed, and I am sorry to hear about that. There are many good people who support the Palestinian cause for just reasons, but we must be honest and say that some use the cause for more sinister ends. We have heard examples of those, and they are truly shocking. I have no doubt that everybody here, whatever their view on the conflict, would condemn such actions entirely.
I want to say a little about the Israeli response. It has saddened me that some have bandied about phrases regarding collective punishment and the proportionality of the response. It is incredibly sad that people have died on any side of the conflict, but we cannot conclude, because of the way Hamas acts and the fact that it puts more of its civilians in harm’s way, that Israel’s response must be disproportionate simply because more people have sadly died. Let us be honest about what is going on. Israel does not fire rockets from its civilian population. While we have been debating, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has confirmed that one of its schools in Gaza has been used as a hiding place for rockets, and the agency is due to make a statement on that shortly. That tells us all we need to know about why there are such large numbers of civilian casualties.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. The charge has been raised against Israel that it is committing a crime by firing on families. My hon. Friend’s point is an important one; there is a difference between firing on families because they are families, and because they are being used as a shield to hide army and control centre operations. As far as I have seen, where families have been fired on, Israel has agreed to investigate it, admitting that it is not the right thing to do and quite a different thing from firing on control centres.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is incredibly sad that the situation is such that civilians have been used as human shields. It is distressing that on Hamas’s Facebook page, the Ministry of the Interior and of National Security has advised Gazan citizens to ignore Israel’s warnings to get out. There are even “knock on the door” mortars fired in advance of an attack to warn Gazans of an impending strike but, sadly, Hamas is officially—
Does what my hon. Friend has said about UNWRA finding out that missiles were being kept in schools not show the truth of the statement that Hamas uses its civilians to defend its missiles, whereas Israel is using its missile defence to defend its civilians?
It absolutely does. It is appalling that, simply because there have been more deaths on one side, some people conclude that the response has been disproportionate. Hamas chooses to use civilians in such a way because, let us be honest, the more bodies that are photographed, the better it is for Hamas’s PR campaign. That is a terrible situation, but why else would the Ministry of the Interior be telling its citizens to ignore warnings to leave their homes because of an impending strike? What other reason could there be?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his comment about Hamas is verified by the public statement made by Sami Abu Zuhri on 15 July, who said:
“The fact that people are willing to sacrifice themselves against Israeli weapons in order to protect their homes is a strategy that is proving itself”?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a fellow member of the Select Committee on Health. I apologise for being late; I was presenting a petition at No. 10 Downing street. He is outlining a scenario that has made me wonder: if he had been Defence Secretary at the time of the IRA bombings, would he have advocated the carpet bombing of east Belfast or Kilburn?
No, but I would expect my Government to do all that was required to defend their citizens, particularly when the country is a democratic state. That is why I hope Israel will take the necessary steps, to the utmost and to the end, to defend its people and track down terrorists. We are talking about a terrorist organisation as defined not only by the state of Israel but by this country. I would absolutely expect my Government to respond forcefully to such acts of aggression.
I will end shortly because I know that time is pressing, although I would have liked to say something about the humanitarian situation and assistance to Gaza. We all agree that the situation is terrible. I hope that the Minister will continue to affirm this country’s commitment to Israel’s right to defend itself, and that he will push even harder to achieve progress in the middle east, as the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said. The situation must not continue, on either side, for much longer. There must be a renewed emphasis on peace, and rockets on either side will not achieve that. I hope the Minister will confirm the Government’s stance on that matter. Of course, he is new to his role, and I congratulate him on it.
Order. Colleagues, seven Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Therefore, to get everyone in and give both Front-Bench spokesmen ample time to respond, I must limit speeches to eight minutes. I apologise for being a bad cop, but that is life.
I have just drawn the short straw. It would be tempting, given the title of the debate, to go on a Baedeker’s tour of the middle east. The right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has the authority and knowledge to do so, but I will not be tempted down that route. I will talk, as other Members have done, about the immediate crisis in Palestine and Gaza, not least because I—and, I suspect, a number of Members present—have received several hundred letters and e-mails on the subject from constituents during the past week.
First, however, let me say a few sentences about other interests I have. I entirely applaud the right hon. Gentleman for saying that Tunisia continues to give hope, as it has since the beginning of the Arab spring, notwithstanding the difficulties there have been and, indeed, the fact that there has been some violence in that country. I do not disagree with what he said about the Gulf and Egypt, in the sense that we need to maintain good relations with them, but I hope those will also be critical relations. I hope the new Minister, whom we welcome to his place, will be aware that, in relation to Egypt and, in a smaller way, to countries such as Bahrain, the hopes placed in the Arab spring have failed to materialise in many cases.
I sometimes feel that, perhaps for strategic or other reasons, Her Majesty’s Government are not critical enough of the violent deaths that have resulted from the actions of the state in those countries, of the death sentences handed out in Egypt and of the continued oppression of the majority Shi’a population in Bahrain. However, we need to be even-handed when we address such matters. I should add that, notwithstanding the appalling continuing situation in Syria, the events that have taken place since last summer have shown that the House was right to vote the way it did during the recall, and not to be stampeded into supporting military action. That would have been a catastrophic mistake.
My constituency has one of the 10 largest Arab populations in this country—I always suspected it did, but I now know that, thanks to the 2011 census. Many of my Arab constituents—indeed, not just them, but my Muslim constituents and my constituents more generally—would, I hope, think that what was happening in Gaza was truly shocking. I do not mean just the individual incidents, such as the two disabled people who were killed in a care home, the nine young men who were killed while watching the World cup, the 18 members of one family who were slain and the four children who were killed on the beach—I am not quite sure what strategic target there was there yesterday that meant those four young children were brutally and horribly murdered.
The current count is 227 deaths. There have been 2,000 air strikes, 1,400 homes have been destroyed and 18,000 have been displaced. If hon. Members do not regard that as disproportionate action, I do not really know what is. Listening to some hon. Members, I sometimes wonder what Israel would have to do, and what actions the Israeli defence forces would have to take, to earn their condemnation, just in the interests of simple humanity.
What I find more shocking than the individual deaths or the military action generally, however, is the cynical and predictable way in which Israel, on a cyclical basis, goes about its incursions into Gaza. I visited Gaza with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) three weeks after Operation Cast Lead. In that incursion—it was the last major incursion, but there have been smaller ones since—1,400 mainly civilian Palestinians were killed. According to a very good article in The Independent today by Matt Rowland Hill, these incursions are known colloquially in the IDF as “mowing the lawn”, which means going in—with complete disregard, it seems, for civilian casualties—and trying to curtail any military strength Hamas may have built up.
We can all talk about the role Hamas has played in escalating the crisis, and about the effect of rocket fire. However, I would like to dwell on where we are going with the occupation of Gaza and the west bank. I have come to this conclusion reluctantly, but I fear that, whereas the rest of the world—whether we are talking about the attempt to revive the Arab peace initiative or John Kerry’s recent efforts—is still committed to, and still believes in, a two-state solution, the state of Israel no longer believes in one, and the quote my hon. Friend gave from the Prime Minister of Israel says that in terms.
The problem with the two-state solution is that it looks almost impossible to enact. Given the number of settlements—many of them illegal—in the west bank, I just cannot see how we can carve out a two-state solution. We may well have to have a one-state solution where all are equal.
I cannot fault the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but I would say that what he describes has been the result of deliberate action by the state of Israel over a number of years. It has been brought about partly by the settlement building—that has been the main infraction. There are 500,000 settlers living in East Jerusalem and the west bank, and the pace of settlement building continues. However, Netanyahu said last Friday:
“there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
There is no intention at all in Israel, from the Prime Minister downwards, to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. We therefore have to see what is happening in Gaza and the west bank as the management of the status quo; we can conclude only that Israel wants to put 1.7 million people into a prison. The occupation continues in Gaza and the west bank —under international law and de facto—because the borders are sealed.
The consequence is that Palestinians in Gaza are living in hellish conditions. I have visited Gaza several times, and even when people are not being strafed by jet fighters, fired on from the sea and shelled, 95% of water is still undrinkable, thousands of tonnes of sewage flow into the sea every day, and half the population is dependent on UN handouts. That is the situation to which the Palestinians have been reduced by the deliberate actions of the state of Israel.
I will not, because I will not get any extra time. I apologise for that.
There can be no other conclusion but that the—I use the word advisedly—apartheid state that exists on the west bank, which treats Palestinians as second or third-class citizens, including, increasingly, in the state of Israel itself, is using the cordoning off of Gaza simply to manage the current situation, because that is the one it finds least unacceptable. That situation will continue, and I see no hope of that being altered from the Israeli side.
Therefore, the situation in Palestine can be improved by only one thing: Palestinian unity, further elections, democracy and a recognition by the Palestinian people, wherever they live in Palestine, of the state of Israel. We can then have a mandate for a two-state solution and a recognition by not only Israel, but the rest of the world, including the UK, of a Palestinian state. That is the only thing that will jump-start this process.
The actions of the international community therefore become imperative. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, said that we should not trade or deal in any way with settlements that are illegal under international law. If the Israelis will not separate out, and make clear the difference between, Israeli and settlement produce, we should not enter into favourable trade agreements.
The view that many people in this country had of Israel over many years—that it was a liberal, democratic country—has been tarnished to such an extent that the overwhelming view here, and across the western world, is that Israel behaves as an occupying state and in a tyrannical way towards people who simply want what people in every country in this world want—the ability to live in peace, and self-determination. That is what the Palestinian people want; that is what the state of Israel will not give them. It will be Israel that loses out, just as the Palestinians have lost out, if they lose that support internationally. The demographic changes in Palestine mean that time is running out, not just for the two-state solution and peace, but for Israel itself.
It is a pleasure to join today’s debate. The plaudits heaped on my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have been considerable. I will not add to those, because he already knows of my respect for him. May I also warmly welcome my former colleague at the Foreign Office to his new place as Minister with responsibility for the middle east? He comes to the fray at a difficult and sensitive time, and we should all wish him good luck in his difficult task.
Today we debate a region that is large; its overall situation is dire and the scale of its humanitarian disaster is enormous. Britain’s contribution to dealing with some of the regional humanitarian crises is considerable. Let me focus, in the brief minutes available, on the situation in Gaza and Israel. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who I think has just left, referred earlier to an Israeli policy of “muscular enlightenment”. I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, who has led the way on several enlightened policies adopted by the Government, but I do not think that that phrase is his happiest one. Nor do I think that it is a good description of current Israeli policy.
The truth is that those who make play of the cynicism of Hamas in putting military assets beside, or even inside, schools and hospitals, to explain civilian deaths, need to provide a compelling explanation of how four children on a beach represent a threat, let alone a target. Those who make play of being a democracy answerable to the people need to be able to explain how immediate military action is taken, without charges, against those suspected of murdering three Jewish teenagers, when progress in resolving the murder and burning of a Palestinian teenager so soon afterwards looks very slow. Those who make play of the rule of law must explain what is legal about the entirely illegal settlements, the continued appropriation of traditional Palestinian grazing lands in the west bank, and the destruction of Palestinian homes, particularly in East Jerusalem. Those who make play of shared values cannot be surprised when British citizens, including Jews, who see the level of apartheid on the ground in cities such as Hebron say that that does not reflect our values.
Before anyone leaps to conclusions, my remarks so far are not the opening salvo in a pro-Hamas speech—far from it. Hamas’s continued commitment to the complete destruction of Israel, and its importation of military hardware from Iran, whose leaders share similar views, is intolerable. None of us who live in this country has to deal with the concept of a neighbour whose approach to us starts with the idea of our complete destruction. However, the violence and deaths on each side will achieve little. As the Israeli ambassador recognised the other day, there is no real victory to be had. When a truce is struck, as surely it will be—we must pray for it to happen as soon as possible—Hamas’s military capacity will have been significantly damaged; but its recruitment of enraged young teenagers in Gaza will probably expand, and the emotional support for it, from British Muslims and others, is likely to increase. We will have to see what the impact will be on international support, such as further Palestinian efforts to involve the International Criminal Court.
That will leave us all frustrated, though not, I believe, half as frustrated as the many peaceful citizens whom I have met both in Israel and in Gaza. I therefore think that the Minister is likely to face more pressure, first to support sanctions as described by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) against Israeli businesses based in illegal settlements; and secondly to support with intensity all efforts to get the peace talks started again. Thirdly, perhaps, there will be a question of pressure in some of the international areas that I alluded to. The months ahead, dealing with his new brief, will be difficult for the Minister. We can only hope that we will all try to stand back from being pro-Palestine, pro-Gaza, pro-Hamas or pro-Israel, and look at the issue as a monumental humanitarian disaster, from which few of us emerge with great credit.
I apologise, Mr Sheridan, because I may not be here for part of the winding-up speeches, as there is a ministerial meeting with the all-party group on the African great lakes region at 4 pm.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on obtaining the debate. I am sure that when he applied for it and I supported the application, we assumed that it would be about the entire region and north Africa; inevitably, however, in view of the crisis, Gaza and the west bank will dominate the debate. I have recorded relevant interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, having visited Israel and Palestine nine times over the years.
My last visit to Gaza was depressing in the extreme, because I saw a place surrounded by a 1 km wide no-go zone. Anyone who ventures into that zone, whether a farmer or anyone else, will automatically be shot by machine guns placed on the fence between Gaza and Israel. Any fishing boat that goes more than a very short distance from shore will be shot at by Israeli naval vessels, and every day, all the time, surveillance planes, drones and so on fly over the Gaza strip. The people there live under siege and have done for a long time.
I know people in the Gaza Community Mental Health Foundation and Dr Munah Farah well. Their estimation is that at least two thirds of the population of Gaza suffer medical stress from the way they live, with constant food and water shortages, and constant insecurity of supply. That has been happening to those people not for just a few months but for many years. They live in an open-air prison, created and continued by the state of Israel. That is the cause of the deepest anger and frustration among ordinary people in Gaza. We would be angry and frustrated as well, if it was done to us.
My hon. Friend has made that point many times. Israel withdrew its unwelcome settlements in 2005, as she points out, but it maintained border control and surveillance. It is not just that there has been bombing recently; there has been regular bombing by Israeli jets of targets along the Gaza strip. I make my point again: no one should live in an open-air prison, facing such horror and continued destruction.
No, I will not give way again, because of the time.
Jocelyn Hurndall is a brave woman whose son Tom was shot in Rafa by Israeli troops while he was trying to defend children whose homes were being demolished by Israeli defence forces. In response to an interview given in The Independent by Daniel Taub, she wrote:
“Mr Taub, there is only one Gaza, currently being bombed to pieces by the might and sophistication of Israel’s military”.
She went on to say, in respect of the Israeli victims of any rockets that are sent:
“Fortunately, Israel has the infrastructure, funds and basic materials to build bomb shelters for its people. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank continue to suffer: an internationally recognised, illegal military occupation, extreme provocation brought about by settlement-building on Palestinian land in spite of international condemnation, the utter thwarting of prosperity due to closed borders and blocked coast, grossly disproportionate civilian deaths and injuries, the destruction of thousands of homes, and a lack of food, water and medical supplies.”
She describes the situation for people in Gaza.
When there are protests in the west bank, Gaza and, indeed, all over the world about Israel’s actions, surely it is time for the rest of the world to recognise that what is being done by Israel is illegal—it is collective punishment. Settlement building all across the west bank is illegal. It is very hard to see how the much vaunted two-state solution could even be dreamed to be possible given the level of settlements. I will use the word that others get very upset about: a sense of apartheid that has developed in the west bank, where there are settler-only roads, settler-only water supplies and there is settler-only occupation of land. That is the reality of life there.
Yes, there is opposition by Palestinians. Ever since there was an attempt to bring about a unity Government that involved Hamas as well as Fatah, Israel has upped the ante no end on a military basis. However, it is not true to say that everyone in Israel is supportive of Netanyahu or some of the extremists in his Government, or of the far extremists who want to see Israel occupying a large but so far unspecifically identified area. A week ago in Israel, there was a large demonstration of both Palestinians and Jewish people against the policies of the Israeli Government. Indeed, I draw Members’ attention to the Jews for Justice for Palestinians website, which lists eight very interesting points on how peace could come about, including by mutual recognition, by the ending of illegal settlements, and by the rest of the world ensuring that international law is carried out so that Israel is forced to accept that law just as it thinks everyone else should.
We are not going to solve this problem today, but the reaction of the British Government, and of all Governments, to incidents of illegal activity around the world has been rather strange and disproportionate. We have placed sanctions on Russia because of the activities in Ukraine and Crimea; Israel is in breach of a large number of UN resolutions, and it is clearly in breach of international law on both collective punishment and the settlement policy, but no sanctions whatever have been proposed.
In looking for a long-term peace, I urge that we look also at our own historical involvement in the region and the surrounding area. After the first world war, the area was divided up in the interests of the west. The forerunner of that action, the Sykes-Picot agreement, was done in secret and only revealed some years later through files kept in Moscow, and that was followed by the mandate system and the division of the whole region. Israel was established in 1948, and the 1967 war expanded its territory no end. Netanyahu’s policies seem to put no limit on Israeli expansion.
We need to be very serious with Israel about its breach of international law, its expansion policy and its treatment of people. I am critical of anyone who wants to bomb anyone else—I do not see that as a solution—but if a people are kept imprisoned and denied work, hope and opportunity, then consequences follow. Those consequences are great bitterness, great conflict and horrible loss of life. In the past few weeks, 200 Palestinians have died in Gaza, and sadly one Israeli has been killed as the result of one rocket landing. This is wholly disproportionate. It is a horrible way forward, and the demonstrations around the world show just how isolated Israel is and just how isolated are those Governments who think that they can keep on and on apologising for Israel’s behaviour rather than pressure it to do something different. Such Governments are becoming out of touch with the feelings of an awful lot of ordinary people all over the world. Today’s debate gives us the opportunity to say that, at least.
Like others, I commend the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing this debate and opening it with such a comprehensive look at the situation in the middle east and north Africa. I also want to take the opportunity to welcome the new Minister to his brief; I look forward to his response.
I too want to concentrate on the situation in Gaza and Israel. I come to the subject without interests to declare—I have no particular attachment—but with some experience of living and working somewhere that has known conflict and having been involved in practically all stages of a peace process. I am very conscious that in any situation of long-standing conflict, there needs to be a point at which people realise that they cannot be secure against each other; we can only truly be secure with each other. How that security is found, expressed and contained is different in different situations.
The two-state solution is obviously recommended for Palestine and Israel. We MPs repeat that constantly and we hear it repeated by Governments internationally. As someone with experience of a peace process, I must say that peace processes work well when the process itself starts to establish some of the givens that must be part of the solution. Just as our peace process ended up creating inclusion as a given of the process so that inclusion became a given of the outcome, we have to question why there cannot be more of a semblance of a two-state process in the middle east. That is why, along with other Members, I supported the bid for UN recognition on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority and others. That was not going to create an equal or real two-state situation, but it could have created some semblance of that.
In an intractable conflict situation, when we will all say from the outside that give and take is needed on both sides, the fact is that not all the givens can come from the people involved in the conflict. If external authorities and the international community are involved, they can intervene and use their status to create some of the givens, without surrender or compromise on the part of the parties concerned. That is where I believe the international community has been lax and remiss, not only in the context of the current onslaught that the people of Gaza are suffering, but in relation to the wider situation and our aspirations and support for a wider peace process in Palestine and the middle east.
I suppose it is fashionable for many of us to make the point about how one-sided America’s interest and involvement is, but we have to ask why so much of the other western interest or involvement at a wider level seems to amount to something like a screensaver stance. Images are projected, shapes are thrown and impressions are given, but nothing is really going on in terms of having any significant effect on what Israel is doing in respect of the Palestinian people.
I fully recognise and would defend and argue for the full right of the state of Israel to exist. I want to see that fully expressed by all others, not only in Palestine, but right across the region. That would be part of the prize available in the long-standing Arab peace initiative, which would set all the Arab states on the starting point of recognising the state of Israel and affirming its right to existence. However, despite being offered, that initiative has not been taken forward and used as a basis for anything.
I have listened to other right hon. and hon. Members speaking. I know from our situation in Northern Ireland that when people talk about the atrocities and outrages suffered in one community or territory, it is very easy for people to engage in “whataboutery” over what has been suffered and threatened in another community or territory. I hope we can all agree that we do not want to see civilians threatened, targeted or killed, whether they live in Israel or Gaza, or any other part of Palestine.
The word “terrorism” is bandied about, particularly in relation to Hamas. If “terrorism” means targeting and threatening civilians and civilian space to achieve or enforce a political end or to induce a change in someone else’s political thinking, it is a description that can as easily be attached to what the state of Israel is waging on the people of Gaza. That is precisely what Israel is doing—it is violence aimed at achieving a particular purpose and conditioning a change in political attitude.
I do not accept that there is any moral difference in the anti-civilian violence waged through Hamas rockets and that waged through the firepower of the Israeli defence forces against the people of Gaza. There is no moral difference in my book. Nor am I under any illusion that there is military equivalence between that violence, but that does not make the violence on either side right. There is no military equivalence. I am not trying to say that Hamas rockets are primitive and made out of bins—I am under no illusion about their sophistication—but there is no point pretending that there is military equivalence. People should not use such distracting and misplaced arguments to fail to answer the basic questions.
As other hon. Members have done, we all have to ask how long our moderation would last and survive if we were in the situation facing the people of Gaza. Any situation of repression sows the seeds of violence. When the basic conditions for living are denied, the basic conditions in which people strike out and kill are created. If Israel thinks that it will find security by waging destruction and potentially threatening invasion against the people of Gaza, there is no security there.
I am heartened to hear the number of Members who have referred to it being easy to talk about both sides but that there are people of peace and moderation living in Israel who do not support the current violence being waged by the Israeli defence forces and people of non-violence and moderation in Gaza who do not believe that Hamas’s violence will further their interests or rights, either.
I am glad for the opportunity to speak in this debate. It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). The wisdom he brings from his experience of trying to get out of conflict in his part of the world is such that we are fortunate to have his contribution to this debate.
I will concentrate on three main points. First, I will say something about the situation in Gaza. Many Members have already spoken about that, but like every other Member, a large number of my constituents have contacted me with their concerns about the situation in Gaza and I want to give voice to some of those concerns. My constituents who have contacted me are horrified by what they see as the powerful Israeli military machine being directed, to a great extent in its practical consequences, against a civilian population. Hundreds have been killed in Gaza, the vast majority civilians; hundreds more have been injured, and houses and basic infrastructure have been destroyed by that military action.
Like others who have spoken, I unreservedly condemn all violence, from whatever quarter it comes in Gaza. It may indeed be the case that the rocket attacks have killed only one person so far, but I fully accept that the very threat of that type of attack will cause terror among the potential victims, so I entirely condemn it. Like other colleagues, I condemn the horrific killing of the Israeli teenagers and the Palestinian teenager. We have all seen pictures of the deaths on a beach and elsewhere in Gaza, and they have horrified and shocked us all. It has to be said that in no way can that violence or the rocket attacks be regarded as justification for the extent of the response from Israeli forces. It seems to me that by any objective standard, the response has to be regarded as disproportionate and unacceptable, and I hope the British Government would condemn it.
Like colleagues, I want to see how we can move forward from the current situation. There were suggestions earlier today of a possible ceasefire, but the latest reports suggest that that is perhaps not as definite as it seemed. Perhaps they were just the preliminary discussions entertained before a ceasefire is actually declared, so let us hope that the ceasefire is brought about very soon, hopefully today. Even if it does come about, that ceasefire should not be regarded as the end of the process. Too often we have seen a ceasefire declared because of world pressure, world attention and the internal circumstances in Gaza, and then, as the world’s attention moves away, the ceasefire begins to disentangle for all sorts of reasons, it breaks down and any attempts to move forward become impossible. A number of steps need to be taken to ensure that, if a ceasefire does happen, it becomes a more long-lasting ceasefire that allows further movement.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has now left, suggested the presence of international monitors to verify a ceasefire and to ensure that actions are not taken to undermine it. That is a sensible suggestion that should be given more attention by the international community. There also needs to be an immediate supply of humanitarian relief to Palestinians in Gaza as a basis for lifting the blockade of Gaza, allowing the rebuilding of vital services and ending the effective siege that has lasted for such a long time, which has, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle highlighted, encouraged some to turn to violence as the only way forward in what they see as an impossible situation. There has to be an end to the illegal settlements on the west bank, which make it impossible to move forward with the peace process. The international community also has to make yet another effort to try to bring about a peace process, which all of us, whatever view we take on the issue, know is ultimately the only way to resolve the crisis that faces Gaza, Palestine and Israel collectively.
What are the UK Government doing with our partners to bring about a ceasefire and to ensure that that ceasefire works? What pressure will the UK Government put on all parties to ensure compliance with a ceasefire? Even in this difficult time, what is the UK doing to ensure that the peace process resumes in an effective way? We all know that step has to be taken.
I have two further brief points that have a certain bearing on what I said about the situation in Gaza and Palestine, but also have a wider bearing on the middle east more generally. First, the experience of so many of the Palestinian people over 70 years has been one of being refugees and displaced persons. That is a salutary reminder of a situation faced not only by Palestinians but by many in that part of the world and elsewhere. We were recently reminded on world refugee day by the Untied Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that, globally, the forcibly displaced population now tops 50 million for the first time since the second world war:
“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.”
We should reflect on that statement, and on the situation, because the worldwide surge in refugees and displaced persons causes so much instability and suffering.
Finally, and briefly, I was not able to take part in the debate on the Syrian refugee programme yesterday as I was attending a Select Committee meeting. Given the promises we have made, it is disappointing that so far only 50 refugees have been found places in the UK under that scheme. The response of the Minister for Security and Immigration yesterday was disappointing. I hope that the UK Government will give a more positive response and fully support the refugee programme for Syria, as we ought to, so we can play our part in the international community’s response to the immediate and pressing demand in that country.
It is, as always, a privilege to be under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing this important debate. I realise that he originally intended to cover a far greater area, which is hugely necessary. I support that. The debate needs to be far wider, because there are issues in the rest of the area that need a serious hearing. That would be useful.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has been diligent in his approach to this issue for a long time, even before I came to this place. I also pay tribute to his persistence in trying to act as an honest broker to achieve things. Unfortunately, for a long period, we have not been very successful in doing so.
Let me make it clear that I wholly and unreservedly condemn Hamas attacks and rocket launches. There is absolutely no justification for that, and it should not be a way of trying to move forward. However, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said that there was no disproportionate action by the Israeli Government and the Israel Defence Forces. I beg to differ. I think that significantly disproportionate action has been taken by the IDF and the Israeli Government, and that there is a significant difference in what is going on, particularly in terms of the hardware available to the IDF: their military air, ground and sea power, and the technology of the Iron Dome missile protection shield.
All that is fine. It is protection, and in defence terms, that is needed. However, defence becomes aggression when people are targeted and restricted to living in a limited area, and then told, “We’ll tap you on the roof to tell you that if you don’t leave, there will be a missile to follow, and you’ll be obliterated.” It becomes difficult for a huge populace squashed into a small land mass. The area is under lockdown. People here have called it a prison, and I do not disagree with that description. The people there have no access by sea or air, and no real access by land. We have discussed how we can get people to move out. Sometimes, even when it happens, four children playing on a beach get killed, so where do those people go?
I have no problem condemning it, but I will come to that point later.
A lot of statistics have been bandied about today, particularly by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who is not in his place at the moment. I will give a few statistics as well. According to current figures from the United Nations, 77% of Palestinian fatalities so far have been civilians, which raises concerns about respect for international humanitarian law. Some 23 medical facilities and 81 schools have been damaged by shelling; 214 Palestinians have been killed, including at least 164 civilians, of whom 44 were children and 29 women; 1,585 Palestinians have been injured, of whom 435 are children and 282 are women; 1,660 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, directly displacing 9,900 persons.
We have been talking about people’s ability to move out of that confined space in a difficult area. Whether Hamas uses people as human shields has been mentioned. The problem is that there is no real civil or policing structure left in the area to get hold of what Hamas does. That is the result of continuous bombing of police stations and civil buildings even before Hamas came into power, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was in control. In a way, that policy allowed Hamas to come to power, by continually weakening the authority that wanted to talk and move forward. Day in, day out, their existence was continually eroded. Then Hamas, for all its ills, was elected. That is what happens when people cannot respond to their situation: they turn to what they feel can get them out of it. What happens in those circumstances is an issue.
The people in that area have no choice. We insist that the UN place people in there to protect the people and do something about it. We should speak to the Arab League and say, “You put some people in there, so we can at least have some sort of stability for the people in the area,” because ultimately, it is they who suffer as a consequence. We try to go back to the peace process. For too long, I have heard about the idea of the peace process. We have not had a proper negotiation at any stage about the peace process. That will not and cannot happen, purely because the settlements continue and the Israeli Government have erected the wall, and because of their treatment of the right of the Palestinian population there to life and a decent standard of civil liberties. Until that is addressed, we will never get to a position where things can be dealt with positively and we can have recourse to a settlement between the two peoples.
We all say that a two-state solution is right—that the Israelis and the Palestinians should both have the right to exist—but how do we bring that into being? We are just talking nonsense, by and large. That is not practical in view of what is going on, until somebody has the gall to stand up to Israel and say, “Look, if you want to sort this out, we have to have new measures and new ways of looking at this. Overreaction to what is going on in Gaza is not a way forward and will not help us.”
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I think that I explained the reasons why I was late, and I apologise to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for being late and congratulate him on securing this important debate.
Unfortunately, at this late stage of the debate much of what I was planning to say has already been covered, so I will spare the Minister and the other Members who remain the injustice of hearing the statistics repeated. However, I would like to say that this issue is not only one for the Palestinian or the Arab diaspora here in the UK and in the rest of Europe. I am the MP for Easington and I declare an interest as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, because I want to speak about the situation in Gaza and Israel.
This is a social justice issue. I heard many of the comments that Members made today, and frankly some sense was spoken on all sides. However, when someone starts to stretch the truth too thinly, people—even ordinary people and people of limited intelligence such as myself—can start to see through it, and that is starting to happen.
We are at a tipping point for the middle east. The UK Government have a critical role to play, and members of the wider international community could act as honest brokers for peace and take some practical action to tackle the root cause of the conflict, which is—let us be plain about it—the illegal occupation of Palestine. Tackling that would prevent extremism from escalating on both sides.
I will echo the comments not of a member of my party but of the right hon. Gentleman’s party, who spoke during this week’s exchanges following the urgent statement and told the House that he had heard the same responses to the same events for 30 years. I think that was the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames).
The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex said that he had heard the same responses for 30 years. I ask the Minister this: is it not beyond time that the international community, with Britain at the forefront, lived up to its obligation to end this humanitarian disaster? For 30 years we have seen this happening, and we are having the same debates over and over again, with no progress to report. We can no longer continue to focus exclusively on negotiations. I will do everything I can—I think I will be protesting outside the Israeli embassy on Saturday—to further the cause of peace and a ceasefire. We have to go beyond focusing on negotiations. We cannot continue to ignore the main barriers to peace, which include the failure to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations. The annexations—
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. There is no doubt that in this long-running tragic dispute there is fault on all sides. However, does he think that the Palestinians are in any way culpable for jeopardising the possibility of peace, when after the Oslo accords were signed the Palestinian Authority—under the leadership of Yasser Arafat—unleashed a series of suicide bombings on the young people of Jerusalem?
I was going to come on to the Oslo accords and their consequences. I know that my hon. Friend raised issues earlier relating to some of the things that had happened—the reactions and so on—but we have to move on. It is 20 years since Oslo. On the undertakings given, particularly in respect of the withdrawal from Gaza, we are talking about illegal settlements that were set up by Israel and were against international conventions.
The Deputy Prime Minister recently acknowledged the collective punishments dished out to the Palestinian people, which have consequences in terms of brutalising people. As was said earlier, the current military action will, I am sure, degrade the capability of Hamas and other extremist groups to wage an armed campaign against Israel, but sadly it will be counter-productive, because it will radicalise many thousands, or potentially millions, of others in Gaza, the west bank and a number of countries, perhaps even in Europe. The Israelis, who hold all the cards and have all the power and might, have to recognise that the way to peace and justice for both Israel and Palestine is a just and negotiated settlement. We have to tackle the root cause, and we have to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations, the annexation of Palestinian land and the continued expansion of illegal settlements; they are illegal in international law.
I have had the opportunity to go and see some of these settlements. I was accompanied by Jewish human rights groups, who share the concerns of the international community about some of the things that have been happening, such as the infrastructure network being available exclusively to Israeli settlements and the restrictions on the water resources, which particularly affect the Bedouin Arabs. They have a miserable existence. When I went to see them, I had a vision of a “Lawrence of Arabia”-type situation, with lovely tents and so on, but they live in absolute squalor, moving from place to place, and they are restricted, with the Israeli authorities declaring areas—on a whim, it would appear—to be military training areas or national parks. That is just a clear abuse, and a collective punishment, and it has to stop if we are to see a just and lasting peace.
The Minister is new to his post and I wish him well, because we have had these arguments before, even though I have only been a Member of this House for four years. It is a serious issue and I do not mean to laugh, but his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire, will know that we have had lengthy debates and informal meetings, and we have tried every which way to push these things forward in a reasonable and businesslike fashion. I want the UK Government to be serious, and I hope that when my party is sitting on the Government Benches in a year’s time, we will be much more proactive.
We need to replace rhetoric with actions and demand an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza. We have heard from right hon. and hon. Members, including those who have visited Gaza, about the suffering of the people, and about the impact on the water supply, the sewerage system, and the hospitals. We must insist on an end to this blockade, and a complete freeze on illegal settlement growth. We must also halt trade with and investment in illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. We should support a phased approach to ending the occupation of the west bank and East Jerusalem, and have greater international mediation, with a larger role for the EU. Most importantly, the international community must set out clear parameters, targets and consequences to the failure to end violations in order to make progress. I know that targets are not popular with the Conservatives, but those targets should include sanctions when Israel does not comply.
We must understand the crisis in the wider context, which is a seven-year blockade of Gaza that has left its people facing an absolute humanitarian crisis. We had an excellent debate here in Westminster Hall, in which the impact of that crisis was elaborated on, but it is time to go beyond rhetoric. We need action from the British Government; they must take a lead.
It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and to listen to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who gave a powerful and, of course, knowledgeable introduction to the topic.
I want to range more widely than simply focusing on the Israel-Gaza issue, because there are so many hugely important issues in the middle east and north Africa. I am conscious that that we have said very little at all about North Africa, but of course in the circumstances it was inevitable that we would talk a great deal about Israel and Gaza. The violence and deaths in Gaza, and the firing of rockets into Israel and the casualties arising therefrom continue, regrettably, today. It is imperative that the immediate conflict stops, that we secure a ceasefire, and that we begin a political process that will secure enduring peace. As we all know, that demands leadership and compromise by all parties. However, there is no alternative if this cycle of violence is not to intensify, with more people dead, maimed and traumatised. That is in no one’s interest. There is no purpose in the violence continuing. It achieves nothing; there is no point.
We have had conversations like this before. The Minister is new to his post; he is the third middle east Minister that I have dealt with since I have had this brief. I sense an atmosphere at present of profound change in the attitude towards this intractable issue. I hope that the ceasefire will come, and that we will see that as an opportunity for intense political activity to try to address the problems and issues that we have been discussing.
Of course, we need to extend the ceasefire for as long as possible, but we must take immediate action to offer support on the humanitarian issues in Gaza. We need to work hard to secure a resolution to this conflict, because the other important thing about Israel-Palestine in the middle east is that it is an issue right across the Arab world. It is important to the Arab world’s view of countries such as the United Kingdom, and of Europe and the United States, and it is at the heart of the views of some Arab people that major powers in the region have double standards. Until we take action and secure real progress on this issue, that will undermine our relationships with many of the emerging Governments in the region. That issue demands our attention.
We are, of course, seeing profound change in Iraq. The recent announcement of a proposed referendum by the Kurdish Regional Government casts doubt on the future of Iraq. This, coupled with the horrific violence meted out by ISIS and other terrorist groups, both in Iraq and Syria, has created a febrile environment across the middle east in which established states no longer appear to be in control of their borders. Will the Minister please update the House on what recent discussions the Government have had concerning a referendum in Iraq? What discussions have they had with Iran—I know that there are efforts to have discussions with the chargé d’affaires from Iran—and Turkey about their view of developments in northern Iraq?
In the context of what is happening in the middle east, the four largest powers in the region, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, can play an even more important role than previously. It is striking to me that countries such as Turkey and Iran, with what appear to be fundamentally different foreign policy perspectives in the region, still maintain a working bilateral relationship, despite areas of profound disagreement, for example, on Syria. That means that they can still have a relationship that works. This is a time when the ending of violence and re-establishment of order across the region requires those regional powers to talk and agree to influence those people they communicate with to secure peace and more stability.
The middle east’s current state of ferment is not in the interest of its peoples. legitimate Governments in the region need to find a way of securing stability together, so that economic development can take place. We have not spoken a great deal about that since the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire mentioned prosperity in the region, although that is important. He knows that I have travelled a great deal in the region, although not quite as much as he has. It is a region with a huge number of ambitious young people, who have great expectations and want to make progress in their lives, but all the political difficulty is preventing economic stability from being secured. Unless we can get a stable political situation, to enable economic progress to occur, those disappointed expectations will result in a much more dangerous situation. This is something that the Governments of the middle east must ultimately secure for themselves.
There are shafts of light. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Tunisia. We both mention it because it is an example of a difficult political situation that was addressed by politicians from different parties and traditions with different views, who went through difficult times—individuals, including politicians, were killed because of their views—but they reached an agreed constitution with so-called Islamist parties and parties from a secular tradition and are moving forward. The constitutional committee in Tunisia chaired by Mustapha Ben Jaafar has achieved a great deal and shows that progress can be made. I commend the work of the British Government, through the Arab Partnership, in supporting that. It is important that we use that as an example and give the Tunisian people all the support we can, so that we have an example of progress being made. Tunisia is where the Arab spring started. If there is to be real progress in the region, we need to hold on to that example.
Morocco has also taken positive steps, through initiatives for reform of its constitutional monarchy. It is to be hoped that Algeria—another hugely important country that we have not touched on today—following recent presidential elections, can find a way forward with Morocco to address their historical differences, so that both countries can progress economically. Two countries with a closed border between them cannot achieve progress in trade worldwide when they will not even trade with each other.
We need to try to build on areas of stability, because there are further threats within the region: in the Sahel, extending south into sub-Saharan Africa, where conditions in South Sudan, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya—
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for his comments.
I am grateful to be able to respond to a wide-ranging, intelligent and informative debate. I join other hon. Members in paying an enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was a formidable Foreign Office Minister and did this Government, and indeed Parliament, proud in strengthening relationships in the middle east and North Africa. I am proud and honoured to follow in his footsteps, as well as those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).
Although I found myself in the opposite camp over arming the rebels in Syria, I say to my right hon. Friend who secured this debate that I was amazed at the courtesy and forbearance that he always showed, even though we were totally at loggerheads over the issue. I know that was not unique to me; that is the way he behaves with everybody.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention—and grateful that it was brief.
I have limited time to respond to what was an amazing debate. Hon. Members can imagine my delight, given the expertise of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, that on day two of my appointment I am called to reply to a three-hour debate on the middle east. He paid tribute to the expertise of the House, and I echo that. It has been reflected in today’s debate. I will not be able to cover the 21 countries under my brief, or the details. I have already made a commitment to myself—given the short amount of time and to give time for my right hon. Friend to respond—that I will write to Members in response to the details they brought up. There are, however, a couple of issues that I would like to get on the record.
The Government’s long-term commitment remains as supporting a more secure, prosperous region, with political stability based on open, inclusive political systems and economies, but as my right hon. Friend has outlined so articulately, countries in the region continue to face serious challenges. Over recent weeks, we have seen the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, and the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which I saw first hand on a visit to northern Iraq only a month ago.
The situation in Syria is particularly bleak, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths and more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Elsewhere, many countries that witnessed uprisings in 2011 continue to take steps towards reform, but their successes are fragile, as we have heard, and need continued support. Recent elections in Libya may be an important step in the country’s transition to a more democratic future, but serious security challenges remain. In Egypt, as has been mentioned, we continue to urge President al-Sisi to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights and to open up the political space.
We have seen progress in Yemen’s political transition, but instability and economic challenges threaten to undermine those efforts. On a more positive note, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has articulated, Tunisia’s drive for an inclusive transition has produced marked progress on the development of political systems needed to bring long-term stability, although the economic situation remains critical.
In the limited time available, I turn to Gaza, which has been the focus of many Members’ attention. As the Foreign Secretary made clear to the House on 14 July, we remain deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks, but it is vital that Gaza’s civilian population is protected. The UK has three objectives: to secure a long-term ceasefire agreed by both sides, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to keep alive the prospects for future peace negotiations. The UK remains in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and continues to work with international partners, including the US, Egypt and Arab partners, to support those objectives.
I spoke to our embassy in Tel Aviv today and our consulate general in Jerusalem, which represents British interests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Implementation of any ceasefire agreement must only be part of a wider effort to improve conditions in Gaza. Without that, we are likely to see further such cycles of violence. We continue to judge that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict once and for all. The UK will continue to do all it can to support and advance US efforts to that end. I am sad to report that there are unofficial reports that, while the temporary ceasefire has closed, rockets have been moving from both sides, which is not good news, if that is the case.
To conclude, the region is facing numerous serious challenges and change will continue to be led by the region, not external actors. The UK has an important role to play with the international community in supporting those working to tackle conflict and to build a more stable, prosperous middle east and north Africa, based on strengthened consent and popular participation.
To meet the challenges of this volatile and ever-changing part of the world, we have continued to develop our approach since the uprisings of 2011. Through our Arab Partnership reform—I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has done, and we have seen £65 million put into that project this year—we are supporting those who are tackling conflict and implementing reform. We are striking a balance between addressing short-term insecurity and laying the foundations for long-term stability, based on open, inclusive political systems and economies. We must accept, however, that that is the work of a generation, and we should not be deterred by setbacks along the way because, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the success of the middle east and north Africa is not only in the interests of the region, but of the UK and the world.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I want to talk about ISIS and Kurdistan. Has he begun to consider a scenario where Baghdad is no longer functional and whether we would then support the Kurds in their fight against ISIS? My other point is the one that I made on oil exports. We remain neutral on that, but other countries, such as Morocco, do not. Has he considered making representations to Morocco and other countries, asking them to remain neutral on that?
Will the Minister fulfil our obligation under international law by ending trade with illegal settlements? Will he investigate the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on whether British arms that we supplied are being used in the current conflict by the Israelis? If they are, what will the Minister do about that?
Again, that is one of the issues that I would have loved to touch on, had there been time. I made some notes on the case as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield was speaking, and if I may, I will come back on that. I have some detailed notes, and I would be delighted to respond.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire for bringing this important debate to the House. I hope that we will return to the issue. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, and I apologise that I cannot reply in detail now, but I will write to each of those who made a contribution today individually and respond to their questions.
I thank all colleagues for taking part in the debate, which demonstrated how important it is to speak rather more about the middle east and north Africa in the House. I hope that we can do so in the future. I thank both Front Benchers, and my hon. Friend the Minister was right to pay tribute to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who did a great job. I thank the Minister for his response. I also thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas); we have been around the world a bit together over the past couple of years and it has always been a pleasure. I have enjoyed his company and the assiduity with which he approaches his role, and I pay tribute to that. It helps the whole House to know that almost every colleague who speaks on the subject is full of knowledge.
The Minister and Members will have found that I was right when I spoke about the experience and knowledge in this place, and I am grateful for the odd reference to things other than Gaza during the debate, not least Bahrain. Bahrain is one of those states that responded quite extraordinarily to the events of February 2011. It got things wrong at the beginning, but its independent report was unique in the context. Nevertheless, it has to continue with the process of reform. The United Kingdom is right not only to keep pressing on that, but to encourage opposition and Government there to come together.
I was also right to recognise at the beginning of the debate that there would be passion and grief associated with our respective views on Israel and Palestine. We have heard a very articulate representation of the differences between competing points of view. As I said in my opening remarks, we have heard all the historical stuff. We know all that. There are rights and wrongs on both sides—we get it. The question is how to move on from where we are. There is more than one disputed explanation of any agreed set of facts in the area.
We are united in the view that we cannot go on like this. The cycle of attack and reprisal is not delivering peace or security to either Israelis or Palestinians. We grieve for each and every life lost, particularly the children. We urge that those responsible move away from cataloguing the rights and wrongs and, this time, tie up a cessation of violence with the bold political steps that are needed. It will be for President Netanyahu and President Abbas to deliver the agreement to their people that we all want to see. If that cannot be done, sooner or later the situation will get still further out of control. As I have said to both on many occasions, each has to recognise that they are no longer each other’s worst enemy. There are things that are worse in the region. Sooner or later, something cataclysmic will happen and we will look back and regret that the opportunity that was there to secure an agreement and secure peace was not taken. The British Government must continue to work with all sides to do as much as we possibly can to secure the agreement that is absolutely necessary.
Question put and agreed to.