[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Order. There is clearly a lot of interest in this very important debate, and it will be nearly impossible to get a quart into a pint pot this afternoon. At least 17 Members would like to speak. I will try to make sure that they all get a chance, but it simply will not be possible for me to do that if Members decide to intervene on each other during the debate. I know that is unfortunate, but to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak, please do not intervene on other Members, then you will all get your say. Speeches are likely to be able to last no more than two or three minutes if everybody is to contribute to the debate.
May I say first, Mr Hollobone, how delighted I am that you are joining us to chair the debate? I am pleased that time has been found for it, and I thank everyone who has joined us in Westminster Hall to take part.
I also thank a number of campaign groups, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks that have met me this week to help shape some of the arguments I am about to make: Labour Friends of Palestine; Palestine Briefing; Yesh Din; Medical Aid for Palestinians; the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network; Forward Thinking; Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and Ray Dolphin from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
I start by saying how pleased I was that last week Britain was one of the 41 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to support the adoption of a resolution on the Gaza commission of inquiry report, which looked into the 2014 Gaza conflict and will now be referred to the UN General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Like many other people, I feel that is an important step in both highlighting and addressing the ongoing conflict, which has blighted lives for more than half a century. It is shameful that the international community has failed to make any real progress towards achieving peace in the region in that time.
Today marks a year since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, a conflict that lasted 51 days, claimed 2,251 lives, including the lives of 551 children, displaced more than half a million people, and destroyed 77 health facilities and 261 schools. Each day, an average of 680 tank and artillery shells pummelled the densely populated areas of Gaza, leaving barely anywhere safe. Although the report recognises that Israel issued warnings to people to evacuate, there was often nowhere for them to evacuate to and no means of escaping the conflict zone.
Gaza is a tiny strip of land, covering just 139 square miles. If we bear in mind that West Yorkshire alone covers 780 square miles, it gives us some perspective of just how small Gaza is, yet 1.8 million Palestinians live in what is increasingly becoming a densely populated open-air prison, and they have nowhere to go. In 2012 the World Bank published a report, “Gaza 2020”, which claimed that Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020 as a result of the blockade, an increase in population size, and insufficient access to clean drinking water, electricity, and health and education services. After last year’s devastation, Gaza has reached 2020 five years ahead of schedule.
Currently, 860,000 Palestinians in Gaza survive on UNRWA food parcels. In addition to the destruction of health facilities, schools and homes, there has been massive disruption of water supplies, sewage disposal and electricity supplies, and they have not yet been repaired. One year on, not one of the 8,377 homes that were totally destroyed in the conflict has been rebuilt, and repairs have been carried out on only 5% of the 23,597 homes that were partially destroyed.
Much of the aid pledged at last year’s Cairo conference for reconstruction in Gaza has not yet materialised, and I hope that the Minister can update us about the UK’s contribution. The UN requested $720 million, but it has received only about $210 million. UNRWA faces a severe funding crisis, as it has a deficit of $100 million, which of course is having a serious impact on its ability to deliver essential humanitarian aid.
I hope the Minister can also say why, at a time of such turmoil in the middle east and when institutions such as UNRWA are delivering vital aid and support to vulnerable communities, the Government are proposing a 17% cut in the Department for International Development’s contribution. Given the fragility of the region, the mass displacement of people and, of course, the rising threat of terrorism, it is in our own interests to invest—both politically and financially—in bringing about a stable middle east, to ensure that Palestinians have a future within their own borders.
There is, of course, one glaringly obvious way in which we can ensure the effectiveness of UK taxpayers’ money when it is spent in Palestine, with a view to achieving long-term reductions. That is to stop Israel levelling projects funded by the EU, DFID and UNRWA, and institutions that are part-financed by Britain. Earlier today, the Chancellor announced, with renewed vigour, further cuts in and scrutiny of public spending. I would like to see the Government apply the same level of scrutiny and accountability to the destruction of those buildings and projects in Gaza. Perhaps the Minister will update us on that and say whether he will send Israel a bill for the damage.
We must consider what cuts might mean for Palestine at this time. UNRWA provides schooling to 500,000 students across the middle east in 700 schools, but it will be unable to do so if its current financial deficit continues. At a time of rising militancy in the region, we have to ensure that young people have access to a good education and have a future beyond schooling. Otherwise, they will inevitably look elsewhere for promises—false ones—of a better life.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said in an interview just last week:
“Palestinian refugees are facing their most severe situation since 1948. They have had 50 years of occupation, nine years of a blockade in Gaza and now five years of conflict in Syria. When you look at all of that, how much more can they absorb?”
That is a stark warning to all of us.
Of course, the UN inquiry will investigate actions undertaken by both sides, which is right and proper. Acts of violence committed by either side against innocent civilians are wholly unjustifiable, and those responsible must be held to account. Although the report finds that both the Israel defence forces and armed Palestinian groups failed to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants during last year’s conflict, the scale of the arsenal available to the IDF makes their failure particularly devastating.
The commission’s report highlights the IDF’s method of issuing warnings, in an attempt to create “sterile combat zones”, as an example of the failure to differentiate adequately between civilians and combatants. Leaflet drops or “roof knocks”, which involved a drop of small missiles prior to a much larger strike, were used to warn civilians of an impending attack. The commission found that those attempts failed to have the desired effect, either because there was not enough time between warnings and the much larger strikes, or because, as was often the case, civilians felt that there was simply nowhere safer for them to evacuate to. The IDF then failed to recognise anyone who chose to stay in the area as a civilian, denying them the protections that would ordinarily accompany civilian status under international law.
The commission’s report also looked at the west bank during the same period in 2014. Between 12 June and 26 August 2014, 27 Palestinians, including five children, were killed and 3,100 Palestinians were injured by Israeli security forces. That was largely due to increased use of live rounds as a means of achieving crowd control.
The commission’s report calls on Israel to bring its systems for investigating alleged violations of the law of armed conflict in line with international standards, and I hope that the UK will also take this opportunity to demand that. The examples that I have given must be the basis upon which we find ways to bring about change. We would be naive to think that these injustices are not feeding into a rise in militancy and unrest right across the region, as well as much closer to home.
Gaza has been under blockade for eight years, and the Palestinian people have been living under Israeli occupation for almost 50 years. That is a damning indictment of the international community, and of our failure to secure peace and justice for the people of Palestine. It is now 21 years since the Oslo accord, and an entire generation of young Palestinians—the Oslo generation—have grown up to witness a worsening situation on the ground. There have been significant expansions of illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank, heightened security threats to both sides, the construction of an illegal separation barrier, restrictions on Palestinian movement, the suffocation of productivity, punitive home demolitions and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and there is no end or hope in sight. It is depressing that, 21 years since Oslo, both sides seem to be further away from peace and security than ever before.
I welcome Britain’s support for the commission of inquiry on Gaza. However, although the report identifies in great detail the violations against international law and makes recommendations about addressing those, it also recognises that we have been here before, time and again. The empty rhetoric about opening dialogue and, increasingly, getting round negotiation tables has now been ongoing for more than 50 years. It is time to think carefully about why the international community has failed and time to consider all the options available to us, to ensure that we are not still sitting here in five, 10 or 20 years’ time, discussing yet more reports on further conflict.
That leads me on to what the UK could do, unilaterally if we must, to take concrete steps towards peace. We have condemned the illegal settlements in the west bank, as well the collective punishment inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza, in breach of the Geneva convention, which has been described as a war crime by the EU, the Red Cross and the UN. However, we simultaneously continue to trade freely with Israel. We support the commission’s report, which outlines the deaths of innocent civilians in both Gaza and Israel, yet we continue to export arms to Israel.
I am aware that the Government are reviewing the sale of arms to Israel case by case, but in the context of the conflict, surely even the most limited attempts at evaluating risk would conclude that the potential risk of a breach of international humanitarian law would be too high, and that arms should not be changing hands. According to the EU code of conduct on arms exports:
“Member States will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim.”
Yet following the brutal conflict last year, Britain has approved new arms licences for Israel of up to £4 million. Furthermore, The Independent newspaper reports that the Government also approved arms exports to Israel worth nearly £7 million in the six months prior to Operation Protective Edge. Does the Minister agree that turning a blind eye to violations of international humanitarian law when an arms deal is on the table undermines our standing in the world and begins to compromise our integrity?
A new approach to diplomacy must be based on the protection of civilians, on equal respect for the human rights, security and sovereignty of both Israelis and Palestinians, and on the realisation and implementation of international law, beyond just the rhetoric. It is not enough to focus exclusively on negotiations while failing to hold Israel accountable for violating international humanitarian law. In 2010, on a visit to Turkey, the Prime Minister said:
“Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza”,
and called for an end to the blockade, to allow a free flow of humanitarian goods and people. Five years later, under the stranglehold of an eight-year blockade, the situation in Gaza is still precarious and, indeed, worse. I welcome the remarks just days ago by the Minister responsible for the Middle East, who is in his place:
“The UK supports EU efforts to develop options for easing movement and access into and out of Gaza. This includes the possibility of EU assistance in establishing a sea-link from Gaza to another international port. The UK and EU have consistently called on the Government of Israel to ease movement and access restrictions, and will continue to do so.”
I hope that we all support him in making that a reality, beyond the rhetoric.
The crisis in Gaza must be understood in a wider context of a 48-year illegal occupation of Palestine. It is essential that the UK and the wider international community are honest brokers for peace and take practical steps towards addressing the root causes of the conflict, starting by ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and ensuring that Palestinians are able to enjoy their basic human rights and freedoms.
Some 64% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25. The report recognises that, without any economic horizon or sustainable productivity, there is an inevitability about the cycle of conflict and unrest. That will serve neither Israel or Palestine, so it must be addressed. I am proud that the Labour party supported the motion last year to recognise a state of Palestine. Surely that would be an easy starting point.
In 2012, 135 countries voted in favour of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly. Last year, a number of EU member states also voted in their Parliaments in support of recognising a Palestinian state. The argument that the recognition of a Palestinian state should come at a time that is deemed suitable is hollow. Israel should have no right of veto over the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Recognising Israel was not subject to negotiation, and recognition of Palestine should not be either.
We can and should do more with our European partners to hold to account those who commit violations of international law and to promote endeavours such as this report, which is a welcome first step. I hope that the Minster will consider and respond to some my proposals.
Order. I am going to be the most unpopular person in the Chamber, because I am only going to be able to allow Members to speak for two and a half minutes, so all their 30-minute speeches will have to be severely condensed. That way, everybody who stood will get to speak. We have three Front-Bench speakers, under the new arrangements—from the Scottish National party, Labour and the Government —and their speeches will start as near to 3.30 pm as possible. Leading us with the first two-and-half-minute speech is Bob Blackman.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate on an important issue.
Like many colleagues from all parties, I was in Israel at the time of the conflict. I witnessed individuals suffering indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire coming from Gaza. People were fleeing to air raid shelters to avoid completely indiscriminate attempts, made by a proscribed terrorist organisation from Gaza, to kill as many civilians as possible. The reality is this: I mourn any loss of life, but to compare what the Israel defence forces had to do in seeking to combat the terrorist organisation, Hamas—
Had to do—seeking to combat the terrorist organisation Hamas. It is ridiculous to compare the two. The reality is that no other army in the world contacts people in advance, warning them of legitimate military targets and attempting to minimise casualties, as the IDF does. While we are talking about the tragic loss of life in Gaza, we should remember that more people are dying in Syria almost every week, as a result of the disgrace.
I want to take up two issues in the brief time available. On the reconstruction of Gaza, it is clear that humanitarian aid has been allowed in, across the border, to assist the citizens of Gaza to try to create an environment in which they can work. Sadly, the terrorist group Hamas has diverted the construction materials and proudly maintains that it has recreated the tunnels of terror. Yet the UN report says that it is not possible to describe what these tunnels were for. Perhaps they were for tourism between Gaza and Israel—but I suspect that the military uniforms and military ordnance they contained demonstrates that they were used to kill the maximum number of civilians possible.
I challenge the Minister to respond to just one issue. Why did the British Government go along with this UN report, which is deeply and utterly flawed? We should have abstained or voted against, along with our traditional allies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; it was not a pleasure to listen to that contemptible defence of indefensible Israeli actions. The Israelis are murderers in Gaza. They have murdered thousands of people in Gaza. They have achieved nothing by doing so, except to make the lives of the people of Gaza total hell.
When I was in Gaza, I spoke to a girl who told me she was standing between her parents when an Israeli solider came up and shot her father dead in the head, and then shot her mother dead in the head. The Israelis use the holocaust: they use the murder of 6 million Jews to justify their murder of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians.
The issue is every single way in which the Israelis deal with the situation. An Israeli told me that when, in the summer, there was insufficient electricity for air conditioning in the luxury flats of Tel Aviv, the Israelis cut off electricity to Gaza to allow the people of Tel Aviv to be air-conditioned. The horrors mount up and the horrors have mounted up. There are children whose brains will never develop because their inadequate diet prevents them from developing physically and therefore mentally.
It is satisfactory that the Government voted for the UN report, but it is not enough. We have to take action. We have to impose an arms ban and economic sanctions on these murderers, who live a first-world life courtesy of America and the European Union. The Palestinians are a persecuted people and it is time that that persecution was brought to an end. We will not rest until the Palestinians are free.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate, but what a disappointment it has proven to be. We listened in silence to some of the views expressed by Opposition Members; it is greatly disappointing that some people could not do the same when my colleagues on the Government Benches made speeches.
We should bear in mind that the UN has a long history of criticising Israel, more than it has any other country in the world—so much so that many of us feel that its criticisms are no longer legitimate. In 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism, but only three for the rest of the world combined. The Human Rights Council’s members include Qatar and Saudi Arabia—countries that perform human rights violations against their own people. We know that those things happen.
Only last year, the Prime Minister made three points about the UN. First, he wanted to see
“an end to the outrageous lectures on human rights that Israel receives at the United Nations from the likes of Iran and North Korea”.
I certainly agree with that. Secondly, he wanted.
“an end to the ridiculous situation where last year the United Nations General Assembly passed 3 times as many resolutions on Israel as on Syria, Iran and North Korea put together”.
Thirdly, he wanted to see.
“no more excuses for the 32 countries in the United Nations who refuse to recognise Israel”.
Israel has a right to exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, it is constantly under attack—that seems to be forgotten by the UN Human Rights Council and some Members here this afternoon. It is a great disappointment that we do not have more time to debate this issue, but I urge Members to listen to people from both sides of the situation. As my hon. Friend said, none of us rejoices in the deaths of any human being, but to claim that any country kills people as a result of the holocaust is not only despicable and disgusting, but disrespectful to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on making a balanced introduction to the debate. Because of the time constraints, I will not respond to the speeches of the hon. Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) other than to say this: it might be worth it for them to listen to some voices in Israel other than the Israeli Government. They will find that there is considerably more free thinking about Israel’s actions in Gaza than the kinds of things they have said in trying to justify what went on last year.
In view of the shortage of time, I will restrict my remarks to some questions for the Minister. I congratulate the Government on voting for the Human Rights Council resolution last Friday, but the whole question is about what happens as a result. The background, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, is that we have been here before. The resolution bemoaned the lack of progress on the previous inquiry into the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09. Given that the Human Rights Council has noted a failure by Israel and Hamas in co-operating with legal investigations and that the International Criminal Court is looking into this matter, what can the Minister and the international community do to force that co-operation?
My second question is about recommendation 6 of the Human Rights Council resolution, which:
“Calls upon all States to promote compliance with human rights obligations and all High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention”
to make particular efforts in that regard, particularly in relation to
“penal sanctions, grave breaches and the responsibilities of the High Contracting Parties”.
Britain is a high contracting party to the Geneva convention. What will Britain do to ensure compliance with the provisions of that resolution?
Thirdly, given that the resolution is all about what happens now and does not look back, will the Minister guarantee that a statement to the House will be made before the summer recess on what the Government suggest we should do, in conjunction with other countries, to ensure that that resolution is complied with and taken forward?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate. I want to speak briefly about the independent commission of inquiry and in particular about the points made in the concluding observations of its report. The fourth concluding observation mentions the use of live ammunition and
“the destruction of entire neighbourhoods…the policy itself violates the laws of war.”
I commend to everyone the concluding observations and recommendations. They are important for all the debates in this area.
The report recommends that Palestinians and Israelis should be
“refraining from and taking active steps to prevent statements that dehumanize the other side”.
Having seen the United Nations Relief and Works Agency director general, Pierre Krähenbühl, on his visit to MPs, I note the critical importance of the conflict. Daesh is in the area, and I want all the recommendations to be implemented. As the independent commission has said, the greatest challenge is to implement its fair recommendations.
Last year’s conflict in Gaza was an absolute tragedy for everyone who lost their lives on all sides. It is important to remember the context: a sovereign nation, Israel, defended itself against an attack by the terrorist group Hamas, which was raining rockets directed at Israel’s civilian population. I remind all Members that Israel left Gaza in 2005. It forcibly withdrew its settlers and all its soldiers, hoping that that would lead to peace. Instead, that led to Hamas rule and rockets. The report we are debating recognises that Hamas committed human rights abuses; in recognising that, it follows what Amnesty International found earlier this year.
When the terrorist organisation Hamas deliberately used the civilian population of Gaza as human shields in that conflict, it was tragic but not surprising when many of those people lost their lives. I note that the report from the high-level international military group on the Gaza conflict, whose members include Colonel Richard Kemp, said that in its experience and given the circumstances of the conflict—civilians were used deliberately by Hamas as human shields—Israel took more precautions than any other country to defend civilians.
What is to happen now? Yes, there should be negotiations to end the blockade of Gaza and to restore the area to normality, but what are we seeing? New terror tunnels are being built at this moment and more rockets are being fired, including the two rockets fired last week by an ISIS-affiliated group supported by Hamas. The international community should become more involved. It should recognise the terrorist nature of Hamas and the involvement of Iran in stoking the conflict, and it should realise that the solution to this long-running and tragic conflict is about two peoples being recognised—the Palestinian people and the Israeli people—and two states being set up side by side. The only way to achieve that is through negotiation, so that there can be a long-lasting peace with the rights of both peoples respected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on her measured speech and agree with her that we should welcome the report, even though, in an attempt to placate the Israel lobby, it does not address the issue of asymmetry in last year’s conflict—or, indeed, in previous conflicts.
Israel is a state that is out of control, but this country and others are not prepared to criticise it. Israel is not only engaged in the longest occupation of Palestinian lands, but continues to colonise and settle those lands on an industrial scale. It is indulging in installing an apartheid regime in the west bank; it has not withdrawn from Gaza, which is under a full embargo; and, most shamefully, it engages periodically—I am sure that we will see it again before long—in the murder of civilians and the control and cowing of the Gazan population.
In the invasion last year, more than 500 Palestinian children were killed, compared with one Israeli child. Any death of a child—any death of a civilian—is to be mourned, but we cannot ignore the ratios. Five hundred times as much high explosive was dropped on Gaza as was fired into Israel. I went there after Cast Lead and saw the effects. I saw children who were traumatised, who were permanently disabled and who were permanently crippled by those actions. This is not only a state with which we retain good relations; it is a state that we condone.
During the attack last year, the Minister thought about the possibility of restricting arms sales to Israel, but, by the time he had finished thinking about it, the 50 days of invasion were over. I say it with great reluctance, but I am increasingly of the view that we are going to have to take steps. We are going to have to give encouragement to the Palestinian people by recognising Palestine. It is disgraceful that the Government are not prepared to do that and use every possible excuse. We must also look at sanctions, embargoes, not importing settlement goods and not selling arms to a country that is about to use them for another attack on children and civilians in Gaza.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate.
I am aware of the need to be brief, so want to make only a few points. First, thousands of my constituents have contacted me to voice their concerns about both last year’s crisis and the current situation, particularly with regard to the UN report. Members from both sides have made some hot points, but I want to bring the discussion back to the report so that we can make some progress on how Parliament can move things forward.
It is important to recognise that although the report mentioned atrocities committed by both Hamas and Israel, it focused on the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of the attack on Gaza. The report identifies many possible war crimes, including air strikes on residential buildings, the use of wide-area shells and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians by Israelis, as well as the use of human shields and the execution of collaborators by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. That must be recognised as we move forward.
The report recommended that the international community support the work of the International Criminal Court, which is currently conducting a preliminary investigation into the war. Will the Minister lend his support to Palestine becoming a member of the ICC? I am pleased that we signed up to last week’s UN resolution, but will the Minister outline how the Government will be taking forward the elements that relate to the UK? When will the Government be in a position to recognise Palestine as a state? Finally, in September last year I asked about the review of UK-supplied arms and components, and I would be grateful for a response on that as well.
I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this debate. I express regret and sympathy for all those who have lost their lives as a result of the conflict in Gaza.
From the outset, I call into question the usefulness of a report that does not engage the interested parties. Why can America and Great Britain manage to engage with the Israelis, yet the UN, which is supposedly an independent body, cannot? I can well understand why the Israelis made the decision not to engage: the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Having lived through the troubles in Northern Ireland and all too often seen one-sided, biased reporting, I feel that I am more than equipped to recognise it at play, and I believe that there are numerous examples in the report. I do not have time to go into them because of the time restriction, but there certainly is a difference between Palestinian and Israeli losses.
In the background information that I read before the debate, I found some interesting submissions. Colonel Richard Kemp, who is British, makes it clear that he has no affiliation with the Israelis, paid or otherwise, yet calls the report into question:
“In my opinion the actions taken by the IDF were necessary to defend the people of Israel from the ongoing, intensive and lethal attacks by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. It is the inalienable duty of every government to use its armed forces to protect its citizens and its terrain from external attack…As the Gaza Strip is effectively a separate state, outside of Israeli control, these actions amounted to an attack by a foreign country against Israeli territory…I know of no other realistic and effective means of suppressing an aggressor’s missile fire than the methods used by the IDF, namely precision air and artillery strikes against the command and control structures”.
It is clear that Israeli action is necessary to prevent the re-armament that will lead to further attacks by Hamas and other groups. It should also be noted that Egypt takes similar preventive action against Gaza. From the sources I am aware of, Hamas and Islamic Jihad used buildings and vehicles protected under the laws of armed conflict, including schools, hospitals, UN buildings, mosques and ambulances. Use of such facilities for military purposes constitutes a war crime.
If we genuinely want to contribute to peace and to improve human rights for the people of Gaza and Israel, we must have the courage to reject the UN Human Rights Council’s persistent and discriminatory anti-Israel programme and produce a balanced and fair report into these tragic events. I hope that the Government can do just that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate a year since the most recent invasion of Gaza, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate.
In the short time that I have, I want to make a couple of points about respect for international law. It is precisely because Israel suffered no consequences for its earlier crimes committed during the operations in 2008 and 2012, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), that it was able to go on to commit even greater atrocities a year ago today.
International law is only as strong as the parties that are willing to enforce it. We have witnessed generations of failure because of a lack of political will not only to acknowledge but to take action against Israel’s violations. Over the past half century, Israel has placed itself above international law, breaching human rights and failing or refusing to adhere to the duties and obligations placed on it as an occupying power. Its position has been strengthened by an international community that, to varying degrees, has acknowledged significant and persistent violations of international law, whether they be human rights violations during military conflicts, as we saw last year, or the prolonged injustice of Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation and settlement policy.
If the Government are sincere when they claim that we, as a nation, support the rule of law and wish to see a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, we should expect Israel to be held to account for its litany of crimes under international law. I am happy the Government supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and I certainly acknowledge that to the Minister, but if we are to make a positive contribution to resolving the conflict, our foreign policy should be to refuse to profit from the illegal activities of others. Without such a commitment, we will forever stand on the wrong side of history, in that we will be promoting injustice and undermining international law. If the two-state solution is to mean anything and to become a reality, the international community must be willing to take practical action to end the Israeli Government’s illegal behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.
I, too, welcome the fact that the Government voted in favour of the report at the UN Human Rights Council last Friday. I look forward to seeing how they implement the robust recommendations of the report, which highlights Israel’s targeting of residential buildings, including schools, hospitals and apartment blocks, the use of heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians.
Given the way in which Israel conducted its assault—it used 20,000 tonnes of explosives, dropping 120 one-tonne bombs and attacking residential neighbourhoods in one of the youngest and most densely populated areas in the world—the primary victims were always going to be civilians and children. The UN report found that 65% of Palestinian deaths were civilian, including more than 500 children. The images of the four boys killed by explosive rounds while playing on Gaza’s beach are the most enduring of the conflict.
Britain approved the sale of £7 million of arms to Israel in the six months before the offensive. That included components for drones, combat aircraft and helicopters. The Export Control Organisation, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is responsible for assessing arms export licences, with each licence assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. Those include consideration of whether the proposed export would
“provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions in the destination country…be used aggressively against another country…be to a destination where the behaviour of the buyer country raises concerns with regard to its attitude to terrorism or respect of international law”.
If the proposed export fails to meet one or more of the criteria, a licence will be refused.
If more evidence were needed that the Government had little commitment to their own arms export licensing criteria, it was recently reported that, in the few months between the end of hostilities in Gaza last August and the end of December, BIS approved 32 military exports, worth £3.97 million, to Israel. The first licence was granted just six days after the announcement of the Israeli ceasefire. If we play the role of honest broker in the conflict while selling the occupying power the arms it uses to occupy its neighbour, how can we hold our head up?
I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for initiating the debate. Like other Members, I commend the Government for supporting last Friday’s resolution.
Unlike the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I do not see the report as unbalanced. Paragraph 668 states that
“the commission was able to gather substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.”
That is what we should be addressing.
We should also be clear that we need to move forward. Other hon. Members have rightly said that arms sales continue. In the four months following the attacks, arms sales went to Israel, so more has been done to replenish its arsenals, which were depleted in these massive attacks, than has been done to repair Gaza’s battered, blasted and rubbled civic fabric. We also need to remember that the building of that civic fabric, which is now damaged, was supported by aid from this country and others. People have a right to defend health facilities, schools and civil infrastructure, which need to be protected.
The state of Israel needs to recognise that people in the international community are not making an anti-Israel case. Many of us totally oppose conflict and violence. I am not one of those who tries to pretend that there is military equivalence between the violence wreaked by Hamas and the massive violence wreaked by Israel. Equally, I do not pretend there is a moral difference between the violence of the two sides when it ends up killing innocent civilians and putting in dread people who should be living in peace together.
Today, however, we have heard the pretence that Israel has the right to treat Gaza as though it is a foreign state and to attack it on the basis that Israel is under threat from another state. That is from the same Members who then tell us that we in this House do not have the right to call for Palestine to be recognised as a state. How come people can recognise Palestine as a state when they want to justify violence—for military purposes—when the rest of us are not allowed to recognise it as a state for diplomatic and political purposes and to achieve a peaceful resolution?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate. I need to declare an interest because I am vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. I plan to visit Gaza, God willing, this year.
I support a two-state solution, but it must be recognised by neighbouring countries, it has to be sustainable, and peace has to prevail. Part of that must be about educating and empowering a new generation of young people on both sides. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have in that regard, including working with organisations such as OneVoice? Palestinian statehood is not a gift to be given, but a right to be recognised. It should be recognised to kick-start the debate on this issue.
When we speak in the House, we must be careful, because we are speaking about the loss of many lives, and the numbers were very disproportionate. During the year of tension, cross-border rocket attacks led to a military offensive by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 2,100 people in Gaza, with 11,000 injured, as well as the deaths of 64 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli citizens. We need to avoid all such deaths, and some Members need to be careful about how they talk about the loss of such innocent lives.
One priority, which the Minister could perhaps address in his comments, should be rebuilding the houses and hospitals that have still not been rebuilt. It must be the international community’s priority to make sure we provide humanitarian aid and rebuild basic infrastructure. Thousands of people from my constituency contacted me last summer, and some were crying—there was such devastation. We need to address this issue in the best way possible to ensure there is a sustainable two-state solution.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I welcome the report, but it stops short on many points. I struggle to reconcile the Government’s position of arming Israel and breaking the EU restrictions, and of condemning the illegal settlements yet allowing free trade with the UK and EU markets.
We need to achieve a peaceful and sustainable settlement. In the current climate, without the recognition of Palestine, that will not happen. I call on the Government to go further and to change our position from one that allows arms into Israel and breaches international laws. David Miliband revoked five licences in 2009. Why are we not doing that now? Why are we allowing this arms trade?
Why are we trading with Israel’s occupied territories? Are we not, by definition, handling stolen goods if we recognise that that land is stolen and continue to trade with Israel? To me, it is common sense that we should stop.
Would the recognition of Palestine by the UK not help the peace process? The recognition of Israel was not subject to negotiation, and neither should the recognition of Palestine be. Israel should have no right of veto over the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
We have an open prison in Gaza. When will the Government take bold and brave steps to recognise that this is not a race issue or a religious issue but a humanitarian crisis that we have a duty to respond to, rather than hiding behind language that is not conducive to the peace process?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate.
It is 21 years since Oslo, and peace does not seem any closer. To put that in context, I am not the only Member of the House who was still at primary school at the time of the Oslo agreement. There have been 45 years of illegal occupation of Palestine, including the west bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. In Gaza, 80% of the population have been living in poverty and 61% in food insecurity since the blockade. That is the effect on the humanitarian situation.
As time is short, I will address my questions to the Minister now. Does he agree with Baroness Anelay, the Minister in the Lords, who said on Monday:
“All countries…have a legitimate right to self-defence”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2015; Vol. 764, c. 67.]
If so, when the UK finally joins the 137 countries that already recognise Palestine, will he recognise that it too has the right to self-defence when it comes under attack?
A new report by Medical Aid for Palestinians highlights the fact that 17 hospitals and 56 primary healthcare facilities were hit during the 2014 attack. How much damage was done to UK-funded projects in last year’s attack?
It is right that we should mourn the deaths of all those killed in last year’s attack; but is it possible truly to mourn and to continue to export arms to Israel in breach of the EU arms export rules? By ignoring Israeli violations of international law the Government weaken Britain’s authority and influence on the world stage.
As a former Oxfam aid worker for many years, I have worked for far too long on and in the conflict that we are debating, but I still believe that there will be a resolution in my lifetime—hopefully in the next few years.
Because of the time constraints, I will focus on three things. First, I would love a response from the Minister about what confidence-building action the Government are taking, particularly on Gaza. The Gaza reconstruction mechanism is clearly not working, but it is also not a substitute for easing the closure. There is a need for urgent expansion of access to Israeli markets for Palestinian exports. What measures are the Government taking to that end? We also need to remove the last restrictions on the export of Gazan products to the west bank.
I would like construction materials to be allowed into Gaza urgently. The facts are clear: only one home has been rebuilt in the past year, since the bombing, and the projections are that it will take hundreds of years to rebuild at the current rate. There is a need for materials to get into Gaza so that people can rebuild their lives. What is the Government’s view on that?
In addition, people need to get in and out of Gaza. In 2000 about 500,000 people were leaving and returning to Gaza, for work or to see family members. This year the number is 18,000, which is very low, and we need to raise it quickly. We also need the Israeli Government to continue to believe that there will be a cost to their allowing further settlement expansion in the west bank. I would love to know what the Government are doing to get that message clearly heard by the Israeli Government. I would be interested also in the Government’s view of the Israeli Government’s silent policy of retrospectively legalising illegal outposts.
Finally, the allegations—including allegations of war crimes—in the commission of inquiry’s report must be investigated fully by Israel and Hamas. Both sides of the conflict deserve access to justice and accountability. For the most part domestic mechanisms and investigations are poor; they are either rejected quickly or not run to international standards. Indeed, the report notes that Israel has a
“lamentable track record in holding wrong doers accountable”
and that investigation by Hamas is “woefully inadequate”. Following the UK’s welcome endorsement of the report last week, I would love to hear what the Government intend to do to support international mechanisms to pursue justice and accountability, particularly in relation to preliminary work by the International Criminal Court.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.
The report, much like the issue of Gaza, is about proportionality. Although its conclusions are 60% devoted to what Gaza endured, they are 40% devoted to what Israel endured. Yet those figures do not stack up. When we consider that 551 Palestinian children and one Israeli child died, we begin to see how massively the issue of proportionality figures not just in Operation Protective Edge but in the report. I am delighted that the British Government endorsed the report, but it does not reflect the proportionality of the situation.
Looking forward to how to rebuild Gaza, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) that it is currently simply not working. It is pretty clear that Gaza is not going to be a viable place to live in. Why is the Department for International Development cutting its contribution to UNRWA by 17% in this budget year? UNRWA plays a critical role in the reconstruction of Gaza, so it seems a completely counterintuitive and counterproductive thing to do.
As to the broader issues around the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I had the pleasure of making a visit recently and it is clear to me that, with 700,000 settlers based illegally in the west bank, many of us would agree with President Obama, who said in June that the world no longer believes
“that Israel is serious about the two-state solution.”
Does the Minister believe that it is? Should we now start to look into the detail of the potential for a one-state solution? That is the elephant in the room.
The threat and application of EU sanctions proved very successful. What measures are we taking to ensure that they are applied fully and comprehensively to businesses that trade illegally in the west bank?
I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate.
The report makes clear the scale of the mass slaughter committed during last year’s war on Gaza, and the escalation of violence and disregard for life perpetrated by all involved. I am deeply concerned that those events, and the failure of Israel in particular to engage with the investigation into them, pose a great challenge to the chance of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Let us be clear; the actions last year of the Israeli Government and their armed forces were criminal and murderous. They were committed with a complete disregard for the taking of civilian lives, including those of hundreds of women and children. The report is absolutely clear about that. Israel showed a callous disregard about who was being hit by its bombs, and that was emphasised by the fact that it did nothing to modify its behaviour when the results were evident to all.
The question that I want to ask, which I think is central to the debate, is why the Israeli Government are allowed constantly to flout international law and UN motions. Why are they allowed to act with impunity, not just in this case but in the illegal land grabbing on the west bank? The fact that they refused even to engage with the investigation speaks volumes about how they continually ignore international law. It is time for that to end. It is time that Israel was held accountable for its actions and those of its military.
The events of last year were, as the report makes clear, a worrying escalation with attacks by Israel on residential buildings resulting in the deaths of entire families, ground operations that levelled urban neighbourhoods, and a continued land grab. That escalation could happen precisely because Israel regards itself as somehow adjacent to international law.
The report makes some critical recommendations, in particular with respect to international human rights, but none of them will mean anything if they are not adhered to. Prosecutions, convictions and punishments must be applied, and must not stop with the individual soldiers involved; they must include those who are responsible for giving the orders, and the military and political establishment. Israel should address all the issues that fuel the conflict and impede respect for human rights. In particular, it should lift the blockade on Gaza and stop building illegal settlements.
Order. We have had contributions from 18 Back Benchers. We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. Unfortunately, I am unable to time-limit the Front-Bench speeches, but the clock will be set for nine minutes. If you all speak for nine minutes, that will allow Holly Lynch three minutes to complete the impossible task of summing up the debate.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on achieving this debate; it is a pity that it could not have been larger and longer.
I must declare an interest. I worked in Gaza for 18 months as a surgeon in 1991 and 1992, just after the first Gulf war and during the first intifada, when George Bush was President of America. During the second Gulf war and second intifada, another George Bush was President, so we have all been here before. I was in Gaza at the time of the Madrid conference. The hon. Lady said it was 21 years since Oslo, when she was in primary school, and I find it a little depressing to realise that it is 24 years since the Madrid conference, when I was working in Gaza. Age catches us all.
On the morning of the Madrid conference, there was absolute chaos in Gaza, and we had no idea how things were going to go. I had five patients with chest wounds in A&E by half-past 7 in the morning and we did not know whether Hamas and Fatah were going to turn the situation into a total civil fight. By half-past 4 in the afternoon, the shebab, or young men, known at that time for throwing stones in protest at the IDF, were on armoured cars with olive branches. People saw this as their chance for change, 24 years ago.
The problem is that all of us—all of Europe and all the rest of the developed world, especially America—took our eye off the ball. We have been busy doing other things. We come back and we talk about the running sore of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It was talked about by Colin Powell after 9/11, and four weeks later normal service had been resumed: Israel had the absolute right to do within its territories what it chose.
Like many people here, I was brought up to be pro-Israel because of what the Jewish people suffered in the second world war. However, living there and watching how people were treated—watching people being lifted; watching my hospital being raided and having to hide injured people in panels in ceilings and walls, like something out of a world war two movie—made me realise that one of the saddest things was that a lot of what is done to Palestine and Palestinians is like a pale version of what happened 70 years ago.
People in Israel want peace. There are many groups in Israel who want peace and want the attitude to change. We need to realise that that is not going to happen by itself. We also need to realise that we have a vested interest. I hate hearing how Hamas “seized power”. Hamas was elected. There have not been any new elections, but Hamas was elected because 11 years after the peace process, life was worse for people in Gaza. They had no work. Young people there know nothing other than how they are treated. They have zero future and no investment. Is it any wonder that they can be attracted to terrorism or extremism? It has been mentioned that recent rockets may have been associated with ISIS.
What do we expect? People in Gaza are trapped in a large open-air prison. We talk about the warnings that people got from the IDF, either from leaflets or roof knocks. I am still in touch with people in Gaza through the wonders of Facebook. The gaps to get out were far too short, and people fed back to me that they had no idea where to go because schools and vulnerable buildings had been bombed. They stayed put because they thought that going out on the street was probably dangerous.
The place is intensely populated. Almost half of it was being saturation-bombed. Where were they meant to get to following a five-minute warning? They had nowhere to go. If we look at the maps in the report, Shejaiya, which is at the east end of Gaza City, where I lived, was almost carpet-bombed. There is no way that those people could have got anywhere.
Proportionality has been mentioned. Of course Israel needs to be secure. We will never get Hamas to recognise Israel if there is no safety for Palestine. Hamas sees the situation as a war. I am no fan of Hamas—I was no fan of Hamas when I lived there—but we must realise that the more we do not allow a future for the Palestinians, the more we offer people into the hands of extremism.
If we were to go back to before 1987, before the first intifada, we would find that the Palestinians were one of the most educated populations in the world. They had lost their land, so people invested in education for their children. They sent them to eastern Europe. Doctors and engineers were their biggest production. I visited people and saw their wedding photographs with women in modern clothing and people travelling everywhere. They were very secular and pro-western. What drove them to the intifada were years and years of occupation and seeing no alternative.
The intifada has not worked, either. We are not far from a 30-year anniversary of the first intifada in 1987. Palestinians are being driven to become more and more extreme, and we need to see our culpability in that. We must not sell arms that we know will be used in that way. We should not import arms that we know have been tested by being used in the occupied territories. We absolutely need to stop settlements.
I went back in 2010 and I could not get into Gaza because of the blockade, but I spent time working with a doctor I had trained, who is now a consultant in East Jerusalem. I spent a day in the breast cancer clinic, because that is my specialty. At every appointment, half the time was spent on how the person had got through the wall and through the checkpoint, on how we were going to get them back, and on making sure we did the paperwork so that they could come back for their next breast cancer clinic appointment. It dominated everything.
The west bank is being eaten up into a Swiss cheese, and the two-state solution is not far from being totally unviable unless there is a withdrawal. When I visited Bethlehem, all I could see was tsunamis of modern buildings coming across the hills, and in East Jerusalem many settlements are being either purchased or possessed, because families do not have the paperwork that goes back to when the house was built. Little mini-settlements of three or four houses are being created. That allows the IDF to get on the roofs. The flags and barbed wire go up, and then the pressure on the people around starts. We need to see our culpability.
I commend the Government for supporting the vote, but we need to go a lot further. Only America can bring Israel to the table. One country that has the ear of America through our special relationship is Britain. We need to get America round the table, or we will not be talking about this problem, but about ISIS and the horrors that are coming out of the occupied territories, because the people there do not see anywhere else to go. We need to realise that the issue is for the people of Israel as much as for the people of Palestine. People in Israel want normalised lives. They will never get that while living next door to the largest open prison in the world.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I have taken part in many debates on this subject during my 10 years in the House, but hers is one of the most powerful speeches that I have heard, based as it is on her own experience of working in Gaza. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate. She has chosen an incredibly important issue for her first Westminster Hall debate, as evidenced by the turnout today. I do not have time to refer to the many excellent speeches made in this debate, but I will touch on some of the issues that were raised.
Each and every death during this conflict on both sides was a tragedy. The appalling bloodshed underlined once more that there cannot be a military resolution. The only way forward is the diplomatic route and a negotiated two-state solution that recognises the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. As such, we welcomed the Egypt-brokered ceasefire last August. If we are finally to end the cycle of violence, we have yet again to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned from this most recent conflict. That includes holding accountable those responsible, and securing access to remedy for the victims.
As we have heard, the UK abstained on the resolution that initiated the commission of inquiry last year. The Foreign Secretary at the time said that the resolution was “fundamentally unbalanced” and would not help to achieve a lasting ceasefire. The UK Government subsequently encouraged all sides to co-operate, but I suspect that the Foreign Secretary’s initial rejection of the inquiry might have undermined the UK’s influence in that regard. It was certainly disappointing that Israel declined to co-operate and that that prevented the commission from investigating Israel’s claims. UK support for the resolution at the Human Rights Council last week, though, was welcome. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he now feels that the report has made a positive contribution.
The report makes disturbing reading in identifying serious breaches of international law, by both Israel and the Palestinian armed groups, that it warned could amount to war crimes. Last summer the Opposition condemned Hamas’s rocket fire, tunnels and extra-judicial killings, and I reiterate our condemnation. The commission report conveys the sense of fear that the tunnels in particular stoked up among innocent Israelis. Rocket fire, however, by the very nature of such weapons systems, was indiscriminate and in violation of international humanitarian law. We recognise, too, Israel’s right to defend itself, but we agree with the commission that the conduct of Palestinian armed groups does not
“modify Israel’s own obligations to abide by international law”.
In that respect, there were clear differences between the Government and the Opposition last summer. We felt that the Prime Minister had remained silent and should have spoken out when the victims were predominantly civilians, in particular given the number of children killed. We felt that he was too unequivocal in backing Israel’s right to defend itself, despite the disproportionate manner in which it exercised that right. The commission concluded that Israel might have failed to do everything it could to adhere to the three principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. The implication is that the terrible death toll could have been avoided.
The report documents some of the issues already touched on by other Members: how residential areas were targeted; how strikes came in the evening or at dawn, as families were gathering during Ramadan; how ineffective the roof knocks were as a warning system; and how artillery and mortars with a wide-area effect were used. The report attempts to convey the extent to which Palestinian civilians felt trapped. Even if they had received warnings, there was nowhere obvious for them to flee to where they would be safe, as we have heard. It is difficult to imagine the sense of terror that that would engender in such a densely populated area. There were also distressing allegations that civilians carrying white flags were attacked.
The cumulative impact of all that last year became evident all too soon. The Israel defence forces and/or the Israeli Government failed to re-examine their approach or to alter their tactics. In light of the report, I hope that the Minister will be able to reflect on whether the UK Government, and others, could have done more last year to press Israel to re-evaluate its response to the rocket fire. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister could have questioned the proportionality, the legality and the morality of Israel’s use of force, and questioned at the time what it would ultimately achieve?
The commission noted that
“Israel’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘military objective’ may be broader than the definition provided for by international law”.
I hope that that is one of the many findings that the Foreign Office will discuss with its Israeli counterparts, in addition to expressing concerns about such things as Israel’s choice of weaponry. Does the Minister believe that Israel could have done more to uphold those three principles of proportionality, distinction and precaution?
Several Members have touched on the issue of arms export licences. The Government, of course, chose not to suspend any such licences for export to Israel last year and sales have continued over the past few months. Members have no doubt received emails from their constituents concerned that £4 million in arms sales to Israel was approved in the four months following the conflict last year. In light of the commission’s findings, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills intend to review the licences, or Israel’s use of arms sold by the UK. Baroness Anelay, the Minister of State, said in the debate in the other place on Monday that we are “most cautious” when we issue export licences. She ruled out a blanket arms embargo. I will be grateful if the Minister touches on whether a case-by-case arms embargo, or the revoking of certain licences, has been or will be considered.
We cannot neglect the lasting legacy of last summer’s incursion and the humanitarian catastrophe that it triggered. As well as the loss of life, more than 11,000 Palestinians were injured, more than 3,000 of them children. It has been reported that 10% of them suffered a serious disability, and 1,500 children were orphaned. Furthermore, as we have heard, 18,000 homes were destroyed. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to the questions asked about the international support available to the victims of the incursion, about Department for International Development support to UNRWA being cut and about what we are doing to help people in Gaza rebuild their infrastructure and homes.
Looking to the future, the commission acknowledged that its report is only the latest in a long line of inquiries and missions seeking to aid accountability and end violence for the people of Israel and Palestine. The report rightly highlighted that there has been a
“persistent lack of implementation of recommendations”.
With Israel and Hamas already rejecting the report and the US voting against the Human Rights Council resolution last week, how can the international community ensure that the report is not yet another footnote in the history of the suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people, or that last summer’s incursion was not simply another chapter in the cycle of violence in Gaza, which is doomed to be repeated? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how the Government will work with Israel, Palestine, and the Human Rights Council and UN to end the culture of impunity that has prevailed, to support new dialogue and to promote co-operation with the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the commission of inquiry recognised that it could not investigate the events of last summer in isolation; it also needed to look at the west bank. It rightly expressed its concerns about administrative detention, torture and ill treatment. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the UK’s discussions with Israel in that regard, on talks to lift the blockade and end the illegal settlements, and on efforts to strengthen moderate voices within Palestine.
Well, there’s a task! Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to respond even in brief to the debate. May I express my frustration that this debate has not taken place in the main Chamber and that we do not have three hours for it? I am looking at the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who I think is a member of the Backbench Business Committee. I feel frustrated that I have little time to reply and simply cannot do so properly.
As hon. Members might be aware, I try to do my best on such occasions, and I will certainly write to them with the details, but even to list all the questions would take all my time before I gave any reply. Such debates are important and should not be conducted in Westminster Hall for 90 minutes. We do not do the subject matter any justice, and if I feel frustrated, hon. Members who have been given only two to three minutes to speak must also feel frustrated. I hope that the usual channels—if they are listening, read Hansard or hear the debate—ensure that next time we have such a debate, we do it properly, because the world, the nation and our constituents are watching, and we need to do the subject justice.
I welcome, I think for the first time, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She shows a grasp and understanding of and a genuine interest in the subject. I also welcome other hon. Members to Parliament—it is my first opportunity to do so for some—and their contributions to such debates as this. Britain thrives on international affairs, which is something we do well, and it is good to see that this Parliament is taking the issues very earnestly.
I, too, congratulate the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), on a formidable speech—I echo the comments of the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—and she is another person to come to the Chamber with real knowledge of the subject matter. She is most welcome here today.
I will outline the Government’s position on the vote and the report, on what Britain is doing in Gaza unilaterally and multilaterally on the humanitarian front and so forth, and on the longer-term aspects—although I will have probably run out of time by then. I will do my best.
We deeply regret the loss of civilian life during the Gaza conflict last summer and the terrible toll of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict on citizens of both sides. The UN commission of inquiry report brings the scale of human suffering into sharp relief. It notes the victims’ continued hope that leaders will
“act more resolutely to address the root causes of the conflict so as to restore human rights, dignity, justice, and security to all residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel”.
As many hon. Members have said, this is not the first time that we have been around this buoy—Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence—and it seems to be something that we do every two years, with Gaza getting destroyed and rebuilt. We must break that cycle if we are to hope to move forward. We continue to believe in the critical importance of a negotiated two-state solution to end the conflict once and for all. We strongly condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza strip, as detailed in the report. On the seeming imbalance of munitions going from one side to the other, hon. Members will be aware of the Iron Dome project in Israel, which has stopped many of the munitions fired by Hamas. That is why there is the disproportionate number of fatalities or injuries on one side. I simply state that as a comment, not to justify anything.
As we have made clear, we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself. Every country, including ours, has a right to defend itself from terrorist groups and organisations, such as Hamas, and attacks. But it is a principle of international humanitarian law that the use of force in self-defence must be proportionate. The commission of inquiry report calls on all parties to fully respect the main principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law that the hon. Member for Bristol East articulated—distinction, proportionality and precaution—and to establish credible, effective, transparent and independent accountability mechanisms promptly. We echo those calls.
I am afraid I simply cannot—it would be unfair to anyone else—but I will certainly speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.
We note that the report highlights
“substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes”.
Those allegations must be fully investigated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the authorities in Gaza. We welcome the fact that Israel is already conducting its own internal investigations into specific incidents. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing by either party, those responsible must be held accountable.
The UK, along with our EU partners, voted in favour of the resolution on the report at the Human Rights Council last week. We would have preferred to see a text that gave more weight to Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence, and to the threat Israel faces from militant groups operating from inside Gaza, including Hamas. However, despite those concerns, we supported the resolution. I make it clear to hon. Members, who will be familiar with this from texts agreed behind the scenes in this place, that we need to find a balanced text to support; we found that resolution to be a balanced and appropriate text.
A number of hon. Members have raised concerns about the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza. We must do everything we can to avoid another conflict. The ceasefire agreement reached in 2014 holds, by and large, but there has not been the necessary progress toward a durable solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Indeed, worse than that, we are aware that the tunnels are being rebuilt and that Hamas is re-engaging and purchasing new weapons systems. We are also aware that other extremist groups such as ISIS are taking an interest. Where would it take this conflict if we were to see that extremist operation move into the area?
The current situation in Gaza is unacceptable. As has been articulated by others, the humanitarian situation remains bleak. More than 100,000 people remain displaced, there are power outages for up to 12 hours a day and 120,000 people across Gaza remain without a water supply. I am afraid, however, that the Palestinians have not taken the steps needed for progress on reconciliation and for the Palestinian Authority to resume control of Gaza. That is one of the main causes of frustration here: the Palestinian Authority are denied access because of Hamas. Israel has eased some of its restrictions, but far more needs to be done to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and there is more that Israel can do. Egypt, too, is wary of extremists in Sinai—the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis—and is reluctant to reopen the Rafah crossing in the south. It opens it sporadically, but is further restricting the movement and access of both people and goods.
Hon. Members have asked what can be done. It is clear that there is an urgent need to do more to address the terrible situation now. We need bold political steps: without addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, we will never break the cycle of violence I alluded to earlier—there is no alternative that can deliver peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
We welcome the recent positive steps that Israel has taken in easing some restrictions, including doubling the water supply and permitting an increase in exports from Gaza. However, we want to see Israel go much further, as I have articulated on every visit I have made to Gaza, Israel and the west bank, and to visitors from there to the UK. We call on Israel to ease restrictions much further, on President Abbas to take concrete steps to return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza and on Egypt to show maximum flexibility in opening the Rafah crossing once and for all.
I will conclude, as I want to leave the hon. Member for Halifax time to respond to the debate. I reiterate my promise to write to hon. Members in more detail and apologise for not being able to answer them more fully in this debate.
I am grateful for the way in which the debate has been conducted and I thank the Minister for his considered words. Inevitably, some questions have gone unanswered but I appreciate his comments. This is a complex debate, and there are lots of issues that we could have explored much further. I hope we can all work together to try to take a debate on this subject to the Floor of the House for a fuller discussion later in the year. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and echo her sentiments about the wise words of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who shared her personal experience with us.
I will reiterate some key points. A key concern for me is the young people of Gaza. We have already heard that the population is increasingly dominated by young people. At this point, they are without a future. While that remains the case, there is an inevitability about any unrest or increase in conflict. For as long as we cannot address that issue, we will be in the same position time and time again. There is currently no economic horizon in Palestine, and in the Gaza strip in particular. Productivity has been suffocated, there are no jobs and 860,000 Palestinians are reliant on food parcels provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency. That is unsustainable, and we have to look at how to reconcile some of those issues.
A number of hon. Members made the connection between Hamas and Daesh. That is precisely why we need a real commitment to a peace process. As we have talked about, it seems inevitable that the conflict will go in that direction, but that is why we have to look with renewed vigour to resolve the issue and find peace for the region, so that it does not slip further into turmoil that has an impact not just on the region but on our shores. It is in all our interests to work towards resolving the situation.
That is one reason why we need to look at all the options available to us, simply because of the international failure to bring about more progress through dialogue alone. We end up in this position time and again, so what other options are now available to us to make a real commitment and to make progress? Our commitments to dialogue have failed to make that progress thus far.
The report acknowledges that the warnings saved lives. I am not here to make excuses or give justifications for Hamas. The civilian deaths across the board are inexcusable. However, again, that is why we need a real commitment to investigative procedures on both sides and to look with more clarity at why so many civilian deaths occurred. Although the warnings saved lives, they failed to adequately create the sterile combat zone that Israel was looking to achieve, so we have to look at that again.
I echo the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): 40% of the report focuses on acts committed by armed Palestinian groups, so it is not one-sided. It looks into atrocities committed on all sides. There will inevitably be gaps in the report, as one or two hon. Members pointed out. That is partly because Israel failed to co-operate with the UN and provide the evidence needed to plug some of the gaps and allow more informed decisions to be made and reported.
I will leave it there, although—like the Minister—I have much more I could say to wrap up the debate and pull it together. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict.