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Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

1. What assessment he has made of whether the recent use of force by the Israelis in Gaza is proportionate; and what steps he is taking to promote a ceasefire in that conflict. (904983)

2. What steps his Department is taking to support projects which foster co-operation and co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. (904984)

11. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts and others on the continuing violence and loss of life in Gaza. (904993)

15. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on progress towards peace in that region. (904998)

May I begin by apologising for the Foreign Secretary’s absence? He is in Brussels attending the EU Foreign Affairs Council. In his absence, I am, of course, delighted to be answering 14 of the 25 oral questions today.

As the Prime Minister said in his comprehensive statement yesterday, we are clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against these attacks. No country would stand by as rockets are fired or terrorist tunnels are constructed into their territory. We are equally clear that Israel’s response must be proportionate, taking all necessary steps to minimise civilian casualties in line with international humanitarian law.

I thank the Minister for his response, but we have seen kids being bombed on beaches, tanks attacking hospitals and hundreds of civilians—babies, mothers, patients—being killed. Thousands of Rochdale people and millions of people in the United Kingdom expect their Government to condemn more and understand less. Will the Foreign Secretary and the Minister call Israel to account over its actions in Gaza?

Nobody can fail but be moved by the incredible heart-wrenching scenes we have seen on television. I spoke to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission to the UK yesterday, and I raised concerns about the civilian deaths and casualties with the Israeli ambassador and urged him to ensure that any allegations relating to proportionality be investigated, and he assured me that this would be the case.

We realise that peace is not just about a settlement between Governments, but about people living together. I know that the Foreign Office invests significant resources in single community projects, but in order to build up confidence and break down barriers between the peoples in the region will the Minister look at how we can support cross-community initiatives?

The right hon. Lady is right to point out that there are some wider issues to be dealt with. Our aim is to support and strengthen constituencies for peace through the tri-departmental conflict pool fund. In 2013-14 we funded 17 projects through the conflict pool programme for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a budget of £4 million.

I welcome the Minister to his post. I support Israel’s right to defend itself and I condemn the actions of Hamas, but may I urge the Minister to redouble the British Government’s efforts not just to achieve a ceasefire but to restart peace talks designed to achieve a lasting peace, so that we can end this recurring spectre of the suffering of thousands of innocent Palestinians?

That is exactly what the Foreign Secretary is trying to achieve in his work in Brussels today, and the Egyptian leadership is making efforts to do the same, bringing parties together in the region. The UK has three objectives: to secure a ceasefire; to alleviate humanitarian suffering; and to keep alive the prospects for peace negotiations, which are the only hope for ending the cycle of violence once and for all.

Will the Minister confirm that if the Foreign Secretary last week, when he was Defence Secretary, had ordered British troops to fire on civilian communities in the way the Israelis have, he would be guilty of a war crime?

I am not going to get drawn into that. I think the hon. Gentleman raised the same issue with the Prime Minister yesterday and I will leave my comments there.

Last week, four boys, all from the Bakr family, aged seven to 11 years—Zakaria, Ahed and two boys named Mohammad—were playing hide and seek among the fishermen’s huts at the Gaza city harbour when, as they ran along the beach, their bodies were ripped to shreds in an instant by an incoming Israeli shell. What threat did those little boys pose to Israeli security, and will the Minister condemn the murderous behaviour of Israel as completely disproportionate and a crime against humanity?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point implicitly, which is that, sadly, the location of this battlefield is one of the most populous areas on the planet. Hamas and Israeli armed forces are conducting these operations in densely populated areas, not least in the Shujai’iya district. Unfortunately, that is also where the tunnel systems are operating and from where, on average, 147 rockets are hitting Israel every day—but, absolutely, as I said before, there are questions to be raised about the civilians, and I put those to the Israeli ambassador yesterday.

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend to what, although it does not look like it at the moment, is the best junior ministerial job in the Government? Although an urgent ceasefire is essential, the reason Gaza is ablaze again remains the same as ever: the inability of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to make the necessary concessions to each other to ensure a middle east peace agreement. Will he use his time in office to ensure that the UK does all in its power, together with friends from Washington to all the Arab states, to drive the parties together again for the negotiations that each must have with the other? Will he ensure that they do understand that whatever the justifications for their actions—God knows, we have heard and sympathised with them all for decades—it is no longer worth the loss of life of any more little boys and girls?

First, I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did as Minister with responsibility for the middle east. I am grateful for the support he has already provided me with, and I hope it continues. He rightly says that we must participate, with other nations, in looking for a long-term solution. A cessation of the violence will allow the opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of instability in the Gaza strip, without which the long-term security of both Israel and Gaza will not be secured.

The Israeli defence forces have detected 18 Hamas-built tunnels and found 45 others extending from Gaza into Israel. Many of the tunnels in Gaza originate in civilian areas, beneath homes, greenhouses and mosques. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite understandable that Israel seeks to find these tunnels and destroy them to protect its country and its civilians?

It is worrying that on 8 July a Hamas spokesman called on civilians in the Gaza strip to serve as human shields. We have seen on television the pictures of those tunnels, and I have seen reports that 20% of the concrete that goes into Gaza is put to use in making them. That is a shocking indictment of the priorities of Hamas and it needs to change.

19. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On 15 July, 17 July and 20 July, Israel agreed to accept a ceasefire, but was greeted by Hamas firing more rockets at Israel. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the refusal by Hamas to accept a ceasefire? (905003)

My hon. Friend rightly points out that Israel has put forward its interest in a ceasefire, and that remains today. We call upon Hamas to join the ranks in Egypt to discuss not just the ceasefire but long-term peace prospects for the area.

Respectable democracies should not meet unacceptable attacks with unacceptable and disproportionate responses, including the bombing of mosques and hospitals, and the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Is the Secretary of State today raising with other European Governments the EU-Israel association agreement, which is supposed to be based on the shared values of respect for human rights, peace and stability?

I will not pre-empt what the Secretary of State will announce at his meeting. I know that his primary objective is to join all the parties and call for an immediate ceasefire.

Does the Minister agree that the terrible carnage in Gaza means that the prospects for the two-state solution we all want are vanishing? It was still very possible back in 2000; I recall that when I was middle east Minister I had discussions with Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat in Palestine, but that all collapsed and Hamas was elected. Now, Israel’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Hamas, coupled with its merciless assault on Gaza, risks inviting in something even worse and more extreme—ISIS. Surely we should learn from Northern Ireland that to end wars people have to negotiate with their enemies or the terror simply gets worse.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his interest and experience in this area. He is right to point out that we face very difficult challenges. On a positive note, we welcome the announcement of the formation of a new interim technocratic Government for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, reuniting Gaza and the west bank under a Government committed to peace, which is a necessary condition for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last week, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency issued a statement showing that Hamas had left missiles and rocket launchers inside a school in Gaza. Does that not show that Hamas is using its civilians to protect its missiles and that Israel is using its missile defences to protect its civilians from attack?

As I implied earlier, it is unfortunate that these events are taking place in one of the most populous areas of the world, and Hamas seems to be taking advantage of that to launch its attacks.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I warned Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, that if he did not make peace with Fatah, he would be left with Hamas? He made the effort and was murdered for his pains by another Jew. Will the Minister make it clear that, with the death toll rising to 600, which includes the murder of 25 members of one extended family, he will join John Kerry, who has derided and scorned Israel’s claim of pinpointing its attacks and warned it that not only will it suffer more casualties but that it will be left with Palestinians who will refuse ever to negotiate with it?

The right hon. Gentleman illustrates how complex these matters are. I join him in congratulating John Kerry on the work he has done. The UK Government strongly support the tireless efforts of the US Secretary of State and his team to facilitate a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I know he is pursuing that now he has arrived in the region.

My hon. Friend will know the impact that white phosphorus shells can have on civilian populations in particular. Many of us were appalled to see the use of them in a previous Israeli incursion into Gaza. Will he inform the Israeli ambassador, and all parties in this conflict, that the eyes of the world are on them, and that, whatever their reasons for prosecuting this conflict, we will be watching them very carefully to see how they are doing that?

The use of white phosphorus and indeed of cluster munitions was raised in the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday. We have seen no evidence to date that they have been used during recent events in Gaza. However, the defence section in Tel Aviv will approach the Israeli defence forces to inquire whether they are being used in this current campaign.

May I welcome the Minister to his post and say that I fully appreciate the reasons for the new Foreign Secretary being in Brussels today. As we have heard, Operation Protective Edge has already cost more than 580 Palestinian lives, most of whom are civilians and many of whom are innocent children. Last week, I warned that an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would bring more suffering for the Palestinians and would be a strategic error for Israel. The Opposition are clear that we oppose this escalation. Do the Government?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; I hope that I get the same warm welcome at every Foreign Office questions. He is right to remind the House of the heavy death toll that is being endured in the region, with almost 600 dead, 3,600 injured and 83,000 displaced so far. These matters are being raised in Brussels as we speak, and I think the Foreign Secretary intends to put out a statement on his return.

That was a troubling answer, even from a colleague whom I welcome to his position on the Front Bench. I welcome the fact that the US Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled to Cairo seeking an urgent ceasefire, but the pattern of rocket attacks, periodic invasion and permanent occupation does not bring security for Israel and brings further humiliation and suffering for the Palestinians. As in the past, this incursion will end with an agreement. The question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached. Does the Minister accept that the absence of such an agreement will recruit more terrorists at exactly the point at which Hamas had been weakened by events in Tehran, Syria and Egypt?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman misses the point. The work that has been going on is trying to achieve a ceasefire, which is why the Foreign Secretary, who is in Brussels at the moment, will be flying to the region very shortly. John Kerry is there and so is Ban Ki-moon. We also must not forget that Hamas is firing an average of 147 rockets every single day. Were that to stop, the situation in Gaza would change significantly.