(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the violence at the Gaza border and its impact on the middle east peace process.
As I said in the statement I put out from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday, the violence in Gaza and the west bank has been shocking. The loss of life and the large number of injured Palestinians, including children, are tragic, and it is extremely worrying that the number of those killed continues to rise. Such violence is destructive to peace efforts.
We have been clear that the United Kingdom supports the Palestinians’ right to peaceful protest. It is deplorable, but true, that extremist elements have exploited the protests for their own violent purposes. We will not waver from our support for Israel’s right to defend its borders, but the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.
The United Kingdom remains committed to a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. All sides now need to show real leadership and courage, promote calm, refrain from inflaming tensions further, and show with renewed urgency that the path to a two-state solution is through negotiation and peace. We agree with the United Nations Secretary-General’s envoy that the situation in Gaza is desperate and deteriorating and that the international community must step up efforts.
We call on the special representative of the Secretary-General to bring forward proposals to address the situation in Gaza. These should include easing the restrictions on access and movement, and international support for urgent infrastructure and economic development projects. We also reiterate our support for the Egyptian-led reconciliation process and the return of the Palestinian Authority to full administration of the Gaza strip.
We must look forward to and work urgently towards a resolution of the long-standing issues between Israel and the Palestinian people. Now more than ever, we need a political process that delivers a two-state solution. Every death and every wounding casts a shadow for the future. The human tragedies should be used not as more building blocks for immovable positions, which will inevitably lead to more confrontation, but as a spur for urgent change. Yesterday’s tragedies demonstrate why peace is urgently needed.
1 am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
Yesterday’s horrific massacre at the Gaza border left at least 58 dead and almost 3,000 injured. Our first thoughts today are with those Palestinians who are mourning their loved ones or waking up with life-changing injuries. What makes yesterday’s events all the worse is that they came not as the result of some accidental overreaction to one day’s protests but as the culmination of six weeks of an apparently calculated and deliberate policy to kill and maim unarmed protestors who posed no threat to the forces on the Gaza border. Many of them were shot in the back, many of them were shot hundreds of metres from the border and many of them were children.
If we are in any doubt about the lethal intent of the Israeli snipers working on the border, we need only look at the wounds suffered by their victims. American hunting websites regularly debate the merits of 7.6 mm bullets versus 5.5 mm bullets. The latter, they say, are effective when wanting to wound multiple internal organs, while the former are preferred by some because they are “designed to mushroom and fragment, to do maximum internal damage to the animal.” It is alleged that this was the ammunition used in Gaza yesterday against men, women and children.
On the very first day of violence, the UN Secretary-General called for an independent investigation into the incidents, and last night the Kuwaiti Government asked the UN Security Council to agree a statement doing the same, only to be vetoed by the United States. Although I agree with every word of that Kuwaiti statement, it is easy to see why the US vetoed it, because the statement was critical of its Jerusalem embassy move.
Will the Minister of State take the initiative, not just in supporting a new Security Council statement but in helping to draft a new statement making no criticism of any party and no link to any other issue, but simply calling for an urgent, independent investigation into the violence in Gaza to assess whether international law has been broken and to hold those responsible to account—a statement to which no country could reasonably object, not even the United States, unless it is prepared to make the case that there is one rule for the Government of Israel and another rule for everyone else
I believe the investigation must be the start of an effort at the UN and elsewhere to bring urgent and concerted international pressure on the Netanyahu Government to lift the illegal blockade of Gaza and to comply with all the UN resolutions ordering them to remove their illegal settlements and end their illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
If yesterday’s deaths can act as a catalyst for that action, at least they will not have been in vain. In the interim, especially as the protests resume today, will the Minister of State join me in urging the Israeli forces serving on the Gaza border to show some long-overdue responsibility to their fellow human beings and stop this vicious slaughter?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for both the question and her response, and I join her in what she says about the victims. We have no side here except with the victims, and all our concerns should be how to prevent there being more victims. She made a series of allegations about the use of live rounds and the like. It is precisely because of such allegations that of course there should be an investigation into this. The UK has been clear in urgently calling for the facts of what happened to be established, including why such a volume of live fire was used; we are supportive of that independent, transparent investigation. Our team at the United Nations is working with others on what we can do on that. Different forms of inquiry are possible through the UN and we have to find the right formula, but it is important to find out more of the facts and we will work on that.
As I indicated earlier, I spoke just this morning to Nikolay Mladenov, the UN special envoy dealing with the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza, about looking forward in relation to Gaza. As the right hon. Lady rightly indicates, and as we all know, the years of pressure in Gaza, which come from a variety of different sources, not just the blockade—this also involves the governorship and leadership in Gaza—have contributed to the most desperate of situations. I am sure she has been there recently, as I was a few months ago. As I said some months ago, compared with when I was last there, in 2014, the situation in Gaza was more hopeless and more desperate, and the need to address that urgently is clear.
May I say in conclusion to the right hon. Lady that an element was missing in her response? She did not mention any possible complicit Hamas involvement in the events. In all fairness, if we are to look at the circumstances of this, we need to take that into account. It is easy and tempting to take one side or the other, and if any of us have made statements about this in the past 24 hours, we see it is clear that the views out there are completely binary. There is no acceptance by those who support the state of Israel of an understanding of the circumstances of Gaza, and there is no understanding by those who have supported the Palestinian cause of any circumstances that might affect Israel and of what the impact would be should the border be breached and there be attacks on the Israeli side of it. The UK will not get into that. As I have indicated, we are clear that we need a political solution to this. At some stage, we need to hear from the sort of people who in the past understood both sides and were prepared to work together. Their voices were stilled not by their opponents, but by extremists on their own side who killed those working for peace in the past. Unless we hear those voices for peace again, we will not resolve this and we will be back again. I am sure the right hon. Lady will help us, with her colleagues, in taking that view, because we have to think of the victims first and see how we can prevent there being more victims in the future.
Even allowing for Hamas’s wicked manipulation of the Palestinians, does my right hon. Friend accept that the response of the Israeli defence force was a wholly unacceptable and excessive use of force, and that it was totally disproportionate? May I also say, to my shame, that I hope our Foreign Office will indulge in a little less limp response to this terrible situation?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for, again, recognising both sides of this. An independent inquiry has been called for precisely to find out the reasons for the extent of the live fire. On the Israeli border, it is clear that repeated statements by the IDF on its concern about a breach of the fence, the statements it has had from Hamas and others, and previous attacks on the Israeli side of the border indicate what would be likely to happen should there be a breach of the border fence by Hamas operatives. Preventing that and stopping the border being infiltrated is a serious thing. But the extent of the live fire and of the injuries beyond the fence, the number of people involved and the sort of people who been caught up in this give a sense of why my right hon. Friend raised that question. If we do not also question that, as well as the engagement of those who might have been involved in inflaming the protests, we would not be doing our job correctly, so we will do both.
Like other Members, I am absolutely appalled by the killing of demonstrators, including children. This is a long and protracted conflict, which is not helped by the reckless move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The UN has an important role to play, and I am glad the Minister acknowledged that. Does he agree with yesterday’s statement by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination? It called for the
“immediate end to the disproportionate use of force against Palestinian demonstrators…an impartial and independent investigation”—
that would of course draw evidence from both sides—
and ensuring that Palestinians “enjoy full rights” under the human rights convention. What moves has he made to ensure that the US will sign up to that as well?
Again, I am not responsible for the actions of the United States in relation to this. We have said what we have said about the embassy; it is not a move we supported. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that it was
“playing the wrong card at the wrong time”,
so our views on that are clear.
In response to other parts of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we think that the need to establish the facts of what has happened means that an independent investigation is necessary. The rights of all, both of Palestinians and of those who might be subject to violence from extremists who have come from Gaza and from those who operate under the rule of Hamas, have to be sacrosanct for everyone. I go back to a position I will speak about again and again in this statement: unless those on both sides understand the needs of the other, we will not get to a solution.
My right hon. Friend said that the blockade was only partly to blame for the bad government in Gaza—in that festering hellhole. But he must concede that one reason it is a festering hellhole and a breeding ground for terrorists is that each and every time there has been an attempt to improve the livelihoods of the Gazans, by doing something about their water, about their refuge or about their quality of life, Israel has blockaded it. That is the problem.
The restrictions on access to Gaza are clearly part of the pressure placed upon Gaza and people in it. The United Kingdom has made repeated representations to Israel about easing those restrictions, and we will continue to do so, but there are activities perpetrated by those who govern Gaza that add to the pressures there. Recently, there have been difficulties between different Palestinian groups in relation to energy, power and salaries in Gaza. I recently met people from the Office of the Quartet to talk about work that was being done on new power plants and on water purification plants. We will continue to support that work because it is one bright spot and we have to continue with that as we deal with the politics as well.
Yesterday’s events were truly horrendous, and it is very important that all the facts surrounding what happened are identified and exposed. Does the Minister have any confidence that this will include the facts about Hamas’s involvement, starting from its role in destroying the chances for peace after Israel left Gaza in 2005 and forcibly removed the settlers and soldiers there? Will this include Hamas’s postings on Facebook over the past couple of days, which advised the demonstrators to hide guns and knives in their clothing before breaking the barrier into Israel’s territory and attacking Israeli civilians across the border?
It is important that any investigation is able to uncover all aspects of what might have happened if we are to do proper justice to those who have been caught up in it. The hon. Lady occasionally speaks bravely about matters that some would perhaps like to gloss over and it is right that she raises those, just as it is right for the Government to recognise that although Israel has the right to protect its border, it must make sure that its actions are commensurate with international human rights law. The concerns that she expressed and the incitement to violence that we know is there cannot be glossed over by any of us. If we are to deal with this issue properly and see a resolution in the future, that has to be understood, rather than wished away.
All the innocent deaths are a real tragedy for the families and for everyone in the middle east. Will my right hon. Friend accept that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired thousands of missiles on to Israeli territory, despite the withdrawal from Gaza; that Hamas has built tunnels to get from Gaza into Israel; and that there have been terrorist attacks on the aid crossing and the pipelines? Is it not the case that Hamas is using some of these civilians as shields to bring terrorists into Israel?
I hear from the House that occasionally colleagues say things that are not agreed with by others, but to deal with this issue sensibly, we have to understand both sides. We know that what my right hon. Friend said has significant basis in truth, in terms of what has come out from Hamas to Israel—the statements, the incitement and everything else. The UK’s role should be clear: we have to understand the origins of this situation, but above all we have to recognise that those who have been in control of events have not grasped the sense of urgency and that this is not a political matter designed to rally their various bases and keep the confrontation going. It is not a matter that will settle itself and it is not something that will manage itself; it is something that has to be ended. Unless they grasp the urgency created by the tragedy yesterday, there will be another. Our voice will be consistent on the urgency of dealing with the matter. That is the position that I hope we continue to take.
Order. If colleagues will forgive me, I think I can probably say without fear of contradiction that the Minister of State is almost universally respected in the House and very widely liked. Nobody enjoys hearing the Minister of State more than Mr Speaker. I say very gently, just as a guide, that I am quite keen to accommodate all colleagues on this matter. The Minister of State’s answers are up to him, but if he can bear that in mind, it would be hugely appreciated.
All countries, Israel included, of course, have the right to defend themselves, but there is no justification—none whatsoever—for the IDF shooting at and killing unarmed protestors inside Gaza. Although I agree with the Minister that the fact that there is currently no peace process at all is the greatest tragedy of all, and that we must continue to strive for one with the courageous political leadership that that will involve, will he not agree in return that the very least we can do in these circumstances is to tell the truth about what is going on? Had it happened anywhere else, I think the condemnation would have been unequivocal.
It is of course crucial that the truth is both uncovered and spoken about. Any breach of international humanitarian law and any use of live fire in circumstances that would breach it would be wrong. I noticed the right hon. Gentleman’s statement yesterday. It is the United Kingdom’s job to support an examination of what happened, partly to expose it but partly to remind people of the importance of bringing these circumstances to an end.
Even the staunchest friend of Israel would recognise that yesterday’s bloodshed was just appalling and deeply, deeply distressing, but when there is such a highly orchestrated and deliberate attempt by the Hamas regime to use legitimate protests as a cover for trying to breach the security zone and bring chaos and bloodshed on to Israeli soil, what role does my right hon. Friend see for the international community in putting pressure on the Hamas leadership to pull back from this really dangerous activity?
It is difficult. As we know, Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation, but the efforts being made in the Palestinian body to try to seek a reconciliation, which can come only with the Palestinian Authority on Quartet terms, where violence has been renounced, are part of that process. We certainly urge that that process continues and succeeds but, where there is clear evidence of extremism that has caused people’s deaths, that must be brought out and condemned.
Similarly to what I said to the Minister, if colleagues could be brief, that would help. There is no obligation to deliver a statement. What is really required is a pithy question, and I think we will get one from Layla Moran.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I am the first MP of Palestinian descent. Where it not for the Nakba—we are commemorating 70 years of that today—perhaps I would not be here, so it would be remiss of me not to press the Government. I absolutely agree that Hamas is partly responsible for this situation, and in between Hamas and a very extreme Israeli Prime Minister, we have the blood of children. Does the Minister not agree, however, that the two sides are not meeting as equals, at whatever peace process table, and that now is the moment to give recognition to the Palestinians, so that we have hope, because that is also what has died this week?
I hear what the hon. Lady says and recognise her background and achievement in being here. The recognition of a Palestinian state remains open to the United Kingdom, at a time when it is best designed to serve the cause of peace. That will remain the UK’s position.
Why are those of us who have had the chilling experience of entering and leaving the prison camp that is Gaza never really surprised, no matter how grotesque the violence gets?
I do not think we are ever really surprised because the seeds of the conflict are so deep and at times there seems to be little attention given to dealing with them rather than using them in various ways. The inevitable consequence of not dealing effectively with the issues on all sides is what we saw yesterday.
The respected Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said yesterday that the use of live fire against demonstrators in Gaza
“evinces appalling indifference towards human life on the part of senior Israeli government and military officials.”
If Israeli human rights defenders can see that, is not the White House’s response, absolving Israel of all responsibility for the deaths, as reprehensible as it is short-sighted for peace? Is it really too much to expect our Government to speak with the same clarity as Israeli human rights defenders?
I respect B’Tselem. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we share the concerns about the use of live fire. This is an issue on which we are not in agreement with the views of the United States of America.
We can all agree that an effective peace process is vital if we are to avoid tragedies of the kind that occurred yesterday. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that Hamas is a serious roadblock to a peace process, and condemn it for that?
It is clear from the allegations and evidence that there is likely to have been extremist exploitation of the perfectly proper march. It is for that reason that an independent investigation must cover all aspects. Those who have contributed to extremism and deaths do indeed need condemnation.
Does the Minister not agree that the large-scale use of live fire against people who are unarmed should be strongly condemned, wherever it happens in the world and no matter what organisations might try to influence or organise protests? At a time when sober, serious foreign policy is urgently needed in the middle east and the US’s reckless and irresponsible embassy move means that it is not providing it, does the Minister agree that EU Governments should be working closely together urgently to pressurise the Israeli Government to change tack?
I fully understand the hon. Lady’s position and have already indicated our concern about the use of live fire, which has to be investigated further. On the US position, we will do all we can. The US will remain a central part of what needs to happen in Israel, but it does need to give a greater sense of understanding of some of the underlying issues than on occasions its statements suggest. We will work with our partners because they should be part of the solution. Yesterday’s timing and yesterday’s event—that split-screen—will be one of the images of 2018. We must make sure that we use what happened yesterday as a cause for peace, not as a further cause for confrontation.
The situation in Gaza has been desperate and deteriorating for decades. It is 14 years since British citizen Tom Hurndall received the kind of treatment that is now being meted out to hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians on the border, protesting through the rage and despair that they feel after all this time. Given that it is now some years since William Hague said that the two-state solution was in the last-chance saloon, if we simply repeat platitudes about the need for a two-state solution, are we not limiting our ability to think really constructively about how we are to end this tragedy for both the Palestinians and the Israelis?
Continuing on from what was said by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and by my hon. Friend, there is room for engagement in this situation and in the imaginative opportunities for the future by more than just the United States. These are not platitudes. The fundamentals remain the same: how do we guarantee the existence and the security of the state of Israel, which is fundamental, and yet provide justice for the Palestinians in relation to all that has happened. That is what needs to be worked on, and we will dedicate our efforts to that.
The death toll on the Gazan border was truly terrible, and the violence must stop, but Hamas must end its cynical exploitation of the peace process and the Israel defence forces must show restraint and do all they can to minimise civilian casualties. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me—I think that he does—that the lack of a peace process is at the heart of this problem and that unless we commit to redoubling our efforts to achieve a two-state solution, which is the only lasting path to peace, we will see further violence?
The right hon. Lady is right. We will redouble our efforts, but we cannot want peace more than the people involved. It will need leadership in the region itself to demonstrate the determination to see the answer that we need, but she can be sure that we will do all we can to bend our efforts in that direction.
May I draw the Minister back to his response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) when he referred to the independent investigation? Does he think that that investigation could look seriously at the role of Hamas, a proscribed terror organisation, in this process and get access to the people that it needs? How does he think that it could come to a reasonable independent conclusion that we all want to see in this House?
The short answer to my right hon. Friend is that we do not know. That is important in setting out the terms of an investigation. Again, we can all see the opportunity in this investigation. There will be people calling for it to come up with different answers right from the very beginning, but we can approach it only on the basis of honesty—of wanting to find out what happened and all parts of it. Just because it might be difficult to investigate the circumstances surrounding Hamas is no reason for its involvement not to be included.
At times such as this it is easy to despair and say that there is no solution, but surely what is needed by the Palestinians captured by the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and by the Israelis captured by their dysfunctional political system, is lasting peace, and that can come about only if there is a reactivation of the plan put forward in 2002 by Saudi Arabia and adopted by the Arab League. What are our Government doing to get a regional peace initiative?
There is much in what was just said by the long-standing and respected member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Arab peace initiative remains a strong base as a possibility for the future. It is determination and urgency that we have to bring to this. I suspect both him and the Committee, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), may have something to say and a contribution to make in relation to this.
Hamas has a record of using innocent men, women and children as human shields to cover terrorist activity. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Hamas and calling on it to stop sacrificing the people of Gaza?
As I have answered a number of times already, Hamas’s part in this has to be opened up. It is clear from statements already intercepted that it was prepared to use any breaches in the fence for its own purposes, and it is clearly one part of this terrible event. The questions illustrate my sense of concern about the binary view of all this. There are many parts to trying to solve and deal with this, and it is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to make that clear, but my hon. Friend was right to raise concerns about Hamas’s activity.
Having worked in Gaza for almost a year and a half as a surgeon, I am one of the few people in this Chamber who has seen the result of live ammunition and what it does to the human body. Various Members talk about breaching the fence, but most of those injured were nowhere near the fence. More than 200 children and 17 medics were injured. They were not trying to invade Israel. How will the British Government push for an inquiry, and will they understand that, while Hamas may have manipulated people to encourage the scale of the protest, the despair that I see when I visit Gaza is the underlying cause? If we do not get a peace process, that will get worse.
We all defer to the hon. Lady’s contribution and expertise in terms of her work in Gaza and the efforts that she has made, and there is much in what she says that everyone should acknowledge and take note of. The despair and the hopelessness in Gaza are indeed prime movers in people’s concerns and in their wanting to see a change. The United Kingdom recognises that. That is why some of our efforts today at the United Nations will be in support of the UN Secretary General’s special envoy as he looks to do things in Gaza and for Gaza to seek to relieve that pressure. It is one part of the equation, and the hon. Lady was right to raise it.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his calm and measured approach. What assessment has he made of the role of President Abbas in this whole terrible incident? He has been giving a substantial number of anti-Semitic statements over the past few weeks. Does he not have a role in de-escalating the position?
President Abbas has been a long-time supporter of a two-state solution and a condemner of violence. He apologised for his recent speech in Ramallah in which he made some remarks about the holocaust, and realised that it was not a contribution to the understanding and peace that was necessary. We continue to see President Abbas as a voice for peace in the region and we need to work with him and others, but greater leadership needs to be shown all round, on both sides of the equation, to get the answers that we need.
Under what criteria do we continue to sell arms to the Israelis?
Under the same criteria as we do to everyone else. We recognise that Israel has many threats against it and the sale of arms is covered by the same rigorous criteria as apply to all other arms sales, and that will continue.
The New York Times has published photographs and evidence that some 30,000 to 50,000 people in Gaza have been at the border fence, and that, I believe, is larger than the size of the standing Israeli army, so, sadly, I can understand how these events have happened, tragic as they are. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that taking a unilateral view that it is only Israel to blame merely encourages Hamas to do worse?
My hon. Friend is right: to take a binary view on this issue without any regard to any other side is not right. The only way of getting to the truth of it and revealing who has been most responsible is to understand that there is more than one party involved. Even so, just dealing with this incident in itself will not be sufficient, which is why we must remain fixed on the need for a political process, a better future for Gaza and a solution to the politics that have given rise to this.
Israel has a right both to exist and to defend itself, and there is little doubt that Hamas has been involved in organising, encouraging and exploiting confrontation in Gaza, but it cannot be right to use live ammunition to kill more than 50 protesters and to injure many others. Does the Minister of State agree that those actions will not only cause dismay to Israel’s many friends in this country and around the world, but breed further resentment and hatred in the families of those killed who are grieving today? We should not overestimate the UK’s influence in these events, but will the Government at least use their voice to encourage conciliation and dialogue, and to avoid a repeat of the recent appalling events?
There is a great deal of sense in what the right hon. Gentleman says. I said in the conclusion of my response to the urgent question that the shadows of yesterday will be long—in the deaths and injuries—as they are every time there is a confrontation in which lives are lost, wherever that may be, in relation to this long-running issue. That is why it is necessary to express concern about the use of live fire and find out more about what happened yesterday. Above all, the situation must be used not simply as an opportunity for one side to blame the other, but as an opportunity to try to end these circumstances forever.
May I commend the Minister on his statement following yesterday’s awful events and associate myself with his comments? Will he confirm whether the Government consider the use of mortars, explosive-lined tyres, Molotov cocktails, flaming kites painted with swastikas, meat cleavers and other weapons to constitute a peaceful protest?
No. Again, people have seen what they have seen in relation to parts of the protest. Let me be straight about the situation as far as I can see it. It is as wrong to say that everyone who took part in the demonstration is a terrorist as it is to say that everything was perfectly peaceful. We know that the truth lies in between. Of course, those who went to a protest armed and ready for confrontation may have been playing a part in raising the temperature, with some of the results that we saw yesterday. It is so important to examine the circumstances and call to account all those who may have had any responsibility to ensure that these deaths and injuries do not happen again.
Yesterday’s abhorrent massacre was a fire fuelled by a narcissistic American President who is content to watch the world burn. Never have I felt so strongly that he should not be allowed the visit the UK. If the planned trip goes ahead, I for one shall be joining the tens of thousands of people who will line the streets in protest. I implore the Government to cancel his visit.
The hon. Lady makes her points very strongly. It is not the view of the United Kingdom that the best way in which to engage with any country, particularly an important power and friend such as the United States, is in the manner that she suggests. Engagement, explanation and working together are the best ways in which to deal with the concerns that we have and the areas where we differ on policy.
Too many people in this place have already made up their minds about who the guilty party is in this situation, so may I praise the Minister for his balanced view from the Dispatch Box? He is absolutely right that this is not a binary issue, but I urge him to continue—as I think he has done already—to differentiate between protestors and those who have used children as shields, and have gone to the border with the sole intention of breaching it to kill innocent civilians.
Yes, I do my best to make that distinction. But some of the allegations have to be fully tested until we find out more about what happened. I stand by my remarks that the best way in which to deal with yesterday’s tragedy is to do our best for the victims of killing or wounding and to look forward to a better future for Gaza and the region.
Assault rifles, sniper rifles, components for aircraft ammunition: that is just a small selection of the export licences granted last year by this Government to British firms selling to Israel. I condemn violence on all sides, but given the slaughter in Gaza, the condemnation from across this House and the outrage in the international community, how on earth can this Government continue to allow the arms trade to profit from mass murder by the criminal Israeli Government? There is one practical thing that the Government could do to put pressure on the Israeli Government: end the arms trade.
The United Kingdom continues to operate a very strict arms regime in terms of sales. I have already mentioned the legitimate uses of arms by a country that needs to defend itself. Any allegations of breaches are of course part of our consideration on future sales and the like, as the hon. Lady knows well.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to take this measured tone. As he alluded to, the ratcheting up of the situation over many years has made no small contribution to what happened yesterday. I am sure that we all share the view that the death of any innocent civilian is terrible. What efforts can be made through the UN and the aid agencies to help with infrastructure in Gaza? One reason why the blockade was put in place was that such things were used to build tunnels, and the Israelis probably reacted in the way in which they did yesterday for fear of what would have happened if the border had been breached.
My hon. Friend raises an element of the difficulties in the region, by asking how we can ensure that materials used for rebuilding infrastructure in Gaza are not misused. We have strong and strict controls regarding the diversification of materials, and will continue to keep them under review. It is undeniable that more effort is needed in Gaza to relieve some of the population’s misery. Those who govern Gaza have a responsibility, but so do the rest of us. We will do our best to live up to that responsibility and find better ways in which to support the people of Gaza.
The scenes of death and injury to civilians in Gaza are simply sickening. The Minister is very familiar with international law, so he knows that the requirements on a state using lethal force are very high with regard to necessity, proportionality and precaution. Does he believe that those principles were adhered to by the IDF in this situation?
The short answer is that I do not know. We have made clear our concerns about live fire. Equally, others have made it very clear what the consequences would be if there were a breach of the border, and those in Gaza have said what they might do themselves if they were able to breach the border. The situation is not clearcut, but we are extremely concerned by the extensive use of live fire in circumstances that an inquiry might find were not correct. We have to find out what happened.
Although it is absolutely essential for the Israeli forces to use restraint on the Gazan border, does the Minister agree that it is not acceptable for Hamas to use this situation to manipulate political opinion and that the role of the international community should be to identify partners for peace so that we can get the peace process back on track?
I hope that I have tried to demonstrate that the United Kingdom takes the path that my hon. Friend would suggest is the appropriate one to deal with the tragedies of yesterday and to look towards a better future.
Israel rightly uses security as a reason to continue the blockade in Gaza. While I was over there recently, I met a mother who had just given birth to triplets, but she was to be removed from the hospital in Jerusalem where she was receiving care because she was a security risk. A woman who has just given birth is not a security risk to be removed from her children; but as soon as somebody removed my babies, I would certainly become one. What are the Government going to do to ensure that people seeking desperate healthcare outside Gaza—in Jerusalem—are able to get it?
I have two responses to the hon. Lady. First, the human circumstances that she describes take us back to comments made earlier by colleagues on both sides of the House about the depth of resentment built up over a lengthy period due to the way in which all this has been handled. We have talked about the ability of politics to have divided and separated people and build them into situations where they cannot see one another as anything but an enemy. That is at the root and heart of this issue. Secondly, on the specific aspect of the hon. Lady’s question, we do raise with the Israeli authorities the subject of movement for medical help, but it should also be recognised that there are many occasions when that help is given. That is an undisclosed part of the relationship between the two.
What conversations has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Egyptian Government, who have great influence both through having a dialogue with Hamas and through partnering with the Israelis regarding the Gaza military blockade?
That is a very good question. Personally, I have not had many conversations with the Egyptian Government recently, but I know that our representatives in Cairo do. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Cairo has an important role to play. It has played an important role in dealing with terrorism in the Sinai and relationships with Israel, and in opening up to some degree what is happening in Gaza and helping with the reconciliation process. Egypt is a valuable partner in this push for peace and a better future in the region.
The widespread public distress from Israeli human rights organisations such as B’Tselem reflects the fact that there is deep concern and distress about these horrendous deaths across the spectrum, even given the conduct of Hamas. But the truth is that this is not the first time that such a thing has happened at the Gaza border in recent weeks. The international community knew that the embassy move would be a flashpoint. Like Mr Speaker, I have great faith in the Minister’s persuasive powers, so will he tell us what he did before this week to talk to the Israelis about how they managed peaceful protests, which he has recognised the Palestinians have a right to undertake, and what will he do differently as a result of yesterday?
Since the protests were planned, I have been in contact with his excellency the ambassador to the state of Israel here and with my counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Hotovely, in Israel. We have discussed the background to the protests. On all occasions, I have urged restraint in a likely reaction to those who would challenge the border. In recent times, tactics may have changed in relation to trying to use more tear gas to move people away from the border, but these are matters for the state of Israel. Since these situations were contemplated, we have been in regular contact with the state of Israel about how it would meet the challenges that it was likely to see at the border.
We have seen Hamas officials actively encouraging protestors to be martyrs and bussing rioters to the border for them to sling Molotov cocktails and fireballs across it and to tear down fencing. Does the Minister share my concern that Hamas is using civilians as a cover to incite violence, and will he join me in calling on Hamas to abide by the Quartet’s principles of non-violence?
I think I have used this quote before. In one of Seán O’Casey’s plays about Ireland, a young man said to his mother that he was prepared to die for Ireland, and the mother said, “Everybody is prepared to die for their countries—when are people prepared to live for their countries?” The horror whereby people might be prepared to encourage more bloodshed to demonstrate a political point is very real in the area. If there is anything we can do, we have to break into that, as others have done in other areas of conflict.
Yesterday’s needless bloodshed, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the ongoing abuse of Palestinian human rights demonstrate that Hamas has no better friend, or indeed recruiting sergeant, than the current Israeli Government. Given the realignment of US policy exemplified by its embassy move, is it not time for all friends of Israel, including this Government, to say plainly to the Israeli Government that their actions undermine their own peace and security and that, as B’Tselem’s executive director argued only yesterday, defending the border is not a licence to kill?
The hon. Gentleman makes his own points. I can assure him that we speak regularly and plainly to the Government of the state of Israel, but we also make the point that ultimately a state’s security is not just about its weaponry and walls; it is about the relationship with its neighbours and others. If a peace process is to get anywhere, that has to be an essential part of the future as well as weaponry and confrontation.
The loss of innocent life is completely unacceptable. We have talked about the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, but the other key impediment to peace in the middle east is the expansion of the illegal settlements by the Israeli Government. What is the United Kingdom’s position on this matter?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Our position is very clear and has been restated. We oppose the settlement process, which we regard as one of the obstacles to peace in the area, and challenge what we consider to be illegal demolitions. Again, only an overall agreement will deal with those issues as part of the long-standing difficulties between the Palestinians and the state of Israel.
We are on a very dangerous path when even some respected Palestinian figures are moving away from the idea of a two-state solution towards a struggle for one-state control. Does the Minister not accept that this is exactly why we should be moving swiftly towards recognising the Palestinian state while there is still one to recognise?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, which has been made many times before. I recognise the force of it. However, recognition of itself would not change anything on the ground. It remains for the United Kingdom to make a judgment about that, as I indicated earlier, but we will have to pursue other paths as well. Her point about moving away from a two-state solution is a reminder of the danger that if we cannot find a conclusion to this, others will find it for us, and it will not be good.
The violence at the border in Gaza is deplorable, but the demonstrations were deliberately provocative. While imploring the Israeli Government to show restraint in their actions, does the Minister agree that the Palestinian Authority now need to show calm and courageous leadership to do all they can to help and encourage the people of Gaza to turn away from the evil and manipulative Hamas and back to peace? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend deserves to be heard. The Palestinian Authority have been in regular contact with Hamas. I think that the Palestinian Authority share the despair of many others in relation to the circumstances in Gaza. They have recently made attempts to seek a new political solution in Gaza that will lead to a unified authority that can only be accepted by people outside on the terms of the Quartet. We continue to see members of the Palestinian Authority as those who, if they keep driving for that and driving for peace, will be proper partners in the process.
I recall that in this House on 15 January 2009, the then Member for Manchester, Gorton, Gerald Kaufman, said:
“My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her…in her bed.”
“My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering…grandmothers in Gaza.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 407.]
That should apply to anybody else—whether 58 or 2,000 more. Will the UK Government borrow from the late Gerald Kaufman’s language, and state that Palestinian lives are as precious as Israeli lives and that those who reportedly cheered yesterday in Israel, “Burn them, shoot them, kill them,” are beyond contempt?
All lives are indeed sacred. That anyone, in any circumstances, should cheer the results of actions in which people lose their lives means that they are losing a connection to something very valuable. It is the duty of this House, notwithstanding the anger and upset that we often feel, to try to find a way through. The hon. Gentleman’s concern that all lives should be held in the same regard is absolutely correct.
Bearing in mind that the two-state solution is the only one on the table, who does my right hon. Friend reckon should be the honest broker to take this forward?
Well, I wish there was more on the table than there currently is. There is an urgent need for that process to be rekindled. We await hearing from the US envoys. I know from personal experience that they have been working extremely hard on this, but they have to come up with something that is realistic and just and that provides the possibility of working on both sides, not something that will be too one-sided.
As for honest brokers, as I indicated earlier, the United States position has probably changed in relation to some of the decisions made recently, but it is very clear that it remains an important partner. During the recent visit of Vice-President Pence to the region, and also new Secretary of State Pompeo, we urged that there should be meetings with the Palestinian authorities, and we will continue to urge that. But others will, I hope, have a role to play when proposals come forward.
The fate of the people of Gaza is to be condemned to live in an open-air prison camp and to be shot dead when they protest and remind the world of their despair. The actions of the Israeli military yesterday are indefensible on any measure. So may I press the Minister to agree that now really is the time to take the one measure that we have at our disposal to send a message to the Israeli Government: formally and immediately to recognise the state of Palestine? It may not change realities on the ground, but it would send a message. We have so few options; he should take this one, and take it now.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I have answered the point before. Certainly, looking at what can be done in the circumstances, we are all searching for something new, but that starts from the base of some of the comments made today. We have to find leaders who are prepared to do what Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Rabin did many years ago—to reach out to others and overcome the extremists on their own side. The United Kingdom has to be clear about support for that process and look at any measure that will assist in it.
Order. I just gently observe what will be evident to everybody because you can see the Chamber: all remaining would-be contributors are situated on the Opposition Benches. I would like to accommodate colleagues. May I appeal to people who have pre-prepared scripts that they feel the nation must hear to consider possibly—just possibly—reducing or, dare I say it, even abandoning them and just asking the question? It is up to you, colleagues, but if you ask long questions, you do so in the certain knowledge that you are reducing the chances of one of your colleagues, with whom you normally feel great solidarity, having the opportunity to contribute. I am sure that you would not want to do that because it would be uncomradely, and none of you is going to behave in an uncomradely manner.
Like me, many of my constituents want to know why the British Government refuse to condemn unequivocally the shooting dead of unarmed civilians. Would the Minister care to enlighten us?
I made it very clear in the statement yesterday, as I have today, that we have great concern about the extensive use of live fire. As I said earlier, if there is evidence of a breach of international humanitarian law in the deaths, that should indeed be condemned, but we need to find out more, and that is why we support an independent investigation.
The Minister speaks of balance, but no balance has been expressed by the US Administration, who have rightly condemned Hamas but said nothing about the carnage unleashed on civilians by the vastly superior IDF. The Minister has said that the UK disagrees with the United States Government’s position, but will he undertake to convey to them urgently the fact that their failure to be unequivocal and make absolutely clear that the level of violence was unacceptable will simply delay any political solution to this crisis?
Certainly in our conversations with the United States, particularly when we have differences of policy, we indicate why we differ and why we feel in particular circumstances, whether it is in relation to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or this, that their stated objectives may not be achieved by their policy. That is a part of the discussion that we will continue to have.
In this utterly depressing and heartbreaking situation, in the centenary year of the Balfour declaration, will the British Government undertake to ensure that both halves of that statement are fulfilled—that as well as protecting Israel’s right to exist, we defend the right of the Palestinian people to have exactly the same rights and international status as Israelis?
The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear at the time of the commemoration of Balfour that there were indeed two parts to that declaration, and the second remained unfinished business. That is still the view of the United Kingdom Government.
The Israeli Government have a moral duty to minimise civilian casualties in defence of their borders. The loss of life yesterday was a horrendous tragedy, but to be clear, Hamas members are not freedom fighters; it is a terrorist organisation sponsored by Iran and using civilians as a human shield. Does the Minister agree that a new reality whereby Iran is in Syria, Hezbollah runs Lebanon and Hamas controls Gaza means that Israel faces grave security concerns? Is it not time for the United States and the Arab League countries to show responsible leadership on an equal basis and jointly sponsor a new political dialogue aimed at rebuilding trust and a new peace process between Israelis and Palestinians?
The hon. Gentleman understands this situation extremely well, having held my post in the past, and knows the risks in the area. He is right to explain the risks that Israel feels all around it. He is also right to suggest that, unless we get something new into the situation to understand it and bring the confrontation to an end, we will not see progress. Whether it is led by just the United States or others, it is essential that we put something new into the process, otherwise we will be back here again.
Colleagues are delightfully incorrigible. A number are now developing a little technique of signalling to me that they intend to be very short, therefore trying to persuade me to call them earlier than some other colleague.
Since 30 March, 97 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,000 injured. I have heard words of concern expressed by the Minister, whom I greatly admire, but I implore him to use the word “condemn” and stop the trend of those in the Foreign Office to be mealy-mouthed when these killings happen. I implore our Government to take a leadership role and condemn the attacks.
There is much to condemn all round. We have heard from colleagues on both sides of the House about activities that are rightly to be condemned. As I indicated earlier, deaths that have resulted from breaches of international humanitarian law, whether perpetrated by the IDF or anyone else, would rightly be condemned.
What is the UK doing at the Security Council to ensure that an independent inquiry happens, and where is the Foreign Secretary?
The Foreign Secretary is on his way this afternoon to see the Foreign Minister of Iran about matters we discussed earlier, and he was already committed to work after Foreign Office questions.
As far as the United Nations is concerned, there will be a meeting later on today. We intend that work progresses on some form of independent inquiry, notwithstanding the difficulties that have been put forward, but I think there is widespread recognition around the world that we must get something in place that will enable some of these questions to be answered and act as a springboard to something rather better in the future.
The Trump peace plan is said to be in its final stages and ready to be published following the disastrous move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Will the Minister promise that this Government will not slavishly follow the policy of the United States but look to bolster an alternative with the international community?
I think we have proved relatively recently that we are not a slavish devotee of US foreign policy. There have been other occasions when we have clearly differed. We will make a judgment on what comes forward in relation to a possible peace proposal along the lines that I have indicated earlier. It has to be workable. It has to have the opportunity of bringing in those who would support it from neighbouring Arab states and others. There clearly has to be an element of justice in it. It has to secure Israel’s interests as well. We will make our own judgment on it, but we will work with partners to see that it provides the basis of success. I made the point earlier about urgency—we cannot just kick the can down the road further, because we all see what happens.
If there was proof that UK arms exports were being used by the IDF at the Gaza border, would the Minister feel it was right for the UK Government to suspend those export licences?
If that was proved, it would be likely to add to the element of risk that is considered when an arms sale is contemplated. It is a category that would have to be taken into account when deciding whether further sales could be given. It is a big “if”, but it is already in our very rigorous arms export criteria to make sure that, if such circumstances come about, that is part of the process of considering whether further sales should be allowed.
We have been issuing stern condemnations of Israeli behaviour for decades, and all the while, the occupation has become more entrenched, illegal settlements have mushroomed and Palestinians have less land, rights and freedoms than ever before. Surely it is time now to move from empty words to tangible actions, starting by banning the trade from illegally occupied territories. The trade and products of businesses in the illegal territories should be banned from the European Union, and the British Government should take the lead on making that happen.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but that is not a view that the United Kingdom takes. We are not part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions process. We believe in giving consumers the choice, and that is not a road down which we are going to go.
The South African Government have recalled their ambassador to Israel. The Irish Government have summoned the Israeli ambassador to Dublin. Are the British Government considering either diplomatic route?
I am not aware of a formal calling in, but we are in regular contact with both the Government of the state of Israel and the ambassador here, and that will remain the case.
The Government’s failure to condemn the actions of the Israeli Government and the reckless, inflammatory behaviour of the Trump Administration shames this country, but even more shameful is the equivocation about arms sales to Israel. Last year, this Government approved £216 million-worth of arms export licences to Israel, and they do no checks on how those weapons are used. Given the scenes that we have witnessed in recent days of children being gunned down, how on earth can the Minister stand before the House and continue to justify those arms sales to Israel?
If the hon. Lady wants to make a link between the two, she will need to prove her allegations. We have no evidence to suggest that there is any link. On the checks, before an arms sale is considered, it has to go through the criteria, which consider the possibility of the risk of use in conflict. That work is done and that will continue to be done. That is the way in which we consider whether there is a degree of risk. If she wants to make an allegation that British weapons are particularly used, she may do so and of course that will be considered. We have no evidence to suggest that that is the case.
The Minister said earlier that he did not know whether British-supplied arms were used in the massacre yesterday because it is not the policy of his Government to inquire about what happens to them after they are sold and the checks take place before sale. Will he now make it his policy to find out whether arms supplied in this country were used for the mass slaughter of unarmed protesters in the violence yesterday?
What I said earlier is that we have no evidence to suggest that they were. I also said that all the extant arms sales licences in relation to Israel that are in process would be checked from the start of the protests in order to cover that issue. Of course, should any evidence come forward, we would be extremely concerned. We do not have a policy of checking all the end uses because it is not possible to verify, but consideration of where arms might be used is a part of the criteria in supplying them in the first place. Those are the checks that are made, but of course I am extremely concerned. Should there be any serious allegation and any evidence, of course that would be important to our criteria and to the Commons Committee that looks into that.
The Minister is taking a calm and measured approach in his conversations with the Israeli Government, which is right, but the situation on the border is urgent, so may I ask him whether he is prepared to convey, in the strongest possible terms, a sense of the duty that the Israeli Government hold to tell their soldiers to show restraint, particularly in relation to the use of live ammunition?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s question. In our contact with Israel up to now, we have been very clear in relation to that. The IDF has itself said what it considers to be its rules of engagement and it is a matter for the IDF, but we have persistently—right from the beginning of the risk of the sort of confrontations we saw yesterday—used the term “to use restraint”. We mean it and we know what we mean, and we engage very closely with the Israeli Government in relation to what they have been doing.
There has been much talk today of the terrorism on the Gazan side of the border fence, but if you kill 58 and injure 2,000 unarmed civilians, including children, is that not an act of terrorism and, if it is, should we not proscribe the IDF as a terrorist organisation?
I think the hon. Gentleman is probably taking himself into extremely dangerous and serious waters. It is because of allegations like that that we need an independent inquiry to find out what has happened, but I do not share the view of the hon. Gentleman.
Due in no small part to the myopic and reckless policies of President Trump in moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, it is appalling and very saddening to see the slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters in Gaza. Whether it is protesters being shot in the back or children shot while standing hundreds of metres from the border fence, the Israeli authorities are clearly killing and maiming those who pose no threat to them. If this was Iran, the Government would utterly condemn it, so will the Minister condemn the Israeli authorities today?
I repeat the comments that I made earlier: we are extremely concerned about the use of live fire and the implications behind that, and about the deaths and injuries caused. That is why the United Kingdom supports an independent investigative inquiry into what has happened.
I add my voice to the condemnation of the use of lethal force by the IDF against predominantly unarmed civilians. I do share concerns about the role of Hamas in this. I have huge regard for the Minister, but he has been very hazy on the details of what he is specifically doing and what the Government are specifically doing to restart the peace process. He mentioned leadership, which is absolutely key, and there is too little of it, so will he in the next two weeks come back to this House with a statement on what he is specifically going to do?
I will do my best to help the hon. Lady now. The situation is that, by and large, the work of the envoys appointed by the United States President holds the keys to the middle east peace process, and all parties involved are waiting for those to come forward. Those envoys have been engaged with Governments in the region and with various parties. It is really urgent that they come forward. Until they do, none of us has a clear sight as to what those are. They have held them very close, but they have also made it clear that, when they are ready to announce something, others will be engaged. The test then will be what exactly it is, but as I said in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), if it is not workable, it will have to be and we will make our views clear. However, that is where we are at the moment. Should there be anything else, honestly, I will come to the House very quickly, as would the Foreign Secretary.
Fifty-eight Palestinians were murdered yesterday, six of them children, one of whom was eight months old. Does the Minister really believe that the Israeli response was proportionate to the threat or, coming in this historic week, should we see it as a deliberate attempt to undermine the peace process?
I do not believe that this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the peace process. The Israeli authorities did not start these protests, the marches or anything like that. It is clear from the reaction around the world to the events of yesterday that Israel has a lot of questions to answer in relation to what happened. I cannot therefore see any sensible connection between the two, but it is absolutely true, as I have said, that this is an area of deep concern for all of us.
Following the massacre of unarmed Palestinians by Netanyahu’s apartheid regime, is it not time to support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign until such time as Israel complies with its obligations under international law? If that is a step too far, will the Minister at least press for a review of the arms export licence criteria, because they are clearly not satisfactory if they allow us to continue selling arms to Israel, given the appalling events that we witnessed yesterday?
I do not agree with the first point, for the reasons I gave earlier. On the second point, our arms sales criteria are very strict. They are constantly under review both by the House and by the Government. If there is anything that gives cause for concern in relation to any arms sales to Israel, that will be covered.
The Israeli Government seem to get away with a level of disproportionate violence that is not tolerated elsewhere and they continue to ignore multiple United Nations resolutions, so can the Minister tell us specifically what he can say to the Israeli Government to persuade them to play by the international rules that the rest of us seek to apply?
Israel makes it very clear that it does seek to abide by international rules-based decisions, but there are areas where we continue to have concerns, whether in relation to settlements or anything else. All I can do is make it very clear to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that we repeat these concerns—we are very direct—and, again, there will be no resolution to this if each side digs in and claims that it is already doing everything it can. There are fundamentals relating to the security of the state of Israel that it will never compromise, but we think that ensuring a better relationship with its neighbours and taking some of the actions urged on it by others is a better way to look to its future defence than the direction it sometimes takes.
It is grotesque that the Americans are planning to block the independent investigation, but do we not already know that many of the people killed and injured yesterday posed no threat to the Israeli regime? Does the Minister not recognise that, by failing to come to the Dispatch Box and unequivocally condemn the murder of Palestinian citizens that we saw yesterday, he is actually strengthening in the minds of the IDF the idea that we will support the Israelis, even when we see this appalling slaughter?
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman because I have made it clear that, should there be any investigation and should it be uncovered that any of the deaths or woundings were caused by breaches of international humanitarian law, the United Kingdom will stand four-square for the upholding of international humanitarian law and condemn those who work outside it. However, it is for the very reasons of concern that we have expressed our view about the use of live fire and called for the independent inquiry that we believe is necessary in order to find out precisely what happened. We of course share the concerns about the deaths and woundings that we have seen on film and video.
Is not the killing of unarmed child protesters enough for the Minister and the Government finally to work with others not just to see the end of the blockade of Gaza and stop the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, but to suspend arms sales to Israel and recognise the state of Palestine?
As I have said in response to each of those questions before, the circumstances that we saw yesterday were the culmination of many different things. But of course the death of any child in such circumstances must be investigated to find out how a child might be in such a situation. Each and every death and wounding has to be the subject of inquiry and investigation if we are to find out some of the facts behind it, but again, we must move on to a better resolution to these circumstances.
Does the Minister recognise that recent events have coincided with the clamping down on and shrinking of the space for criticism of Israel and its human rights record? Will he condemn the deportation of Human Rights Watch workers from Israel?
The word “condemn” is easy to use; the issue is about trying to get some practicalities out of the situation. Israel’s immigration policy is a matter for itself as ours is for us, but we have already drawn attention to the fact that Israel’s use of it in some circumstances—in respect of human rights defenders and those with different political views—does not make for the opening up of political space. Some time ago, I gave a clear answer to a question about whether the United Kingdom would be dissuaded from talking to B’Tselem, Peace Now and one or two other such organisations. The answer is absolutely not.
We cannot talk about a peaceful solution while unarmed protesters are killed in search of it. The situation is untenable and intolerable. Does the Minister agree that we need a radical rethink in our approach to the conflict, and that we could start by recognising Palestine as a state, so that both Israel and Palestine are on the same level?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that whatever has been considered until now is not achieving the end objective. We hope for more from the peace process; if that does not come, we will have to think of more radical, in the hon. Gentleman’s word, suggestions. The same basics of protection and security for the existence of the state of Israel, together with justice for a Palestinian state, have to remain the bulwarks of what the international community can take forward, but must ultimately be agreed by the parties themselves.
I express the confident hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), a legendary campaigner, will not require more than 20 words.
The Palestinians have a right to nationhood and Israel has a right to security, but does the Minister not recognise the wise words of the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames)? Now is not the time for a “limp response” from our Government but the time to be unequivocal: there can be no justification for a thousand people being shot and no justification for the intransigence of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Israel, who are a fundamental obstacle on the road to peace.
I think the words were grouped.
The circumstances of yesterday’s killing and wounding of protesters were shocking and tragic, and that is why we need an investigation into all those circumstances. Beyond that, we have to find ways to bring these confrontations to an end. That will take a long political process in which the United Kingdom must be engaged. That is why it must be very clear that it needs to keep up its contact with both sides to make sure that we do not fall behind the binary lines being set up by many to prevent contact from one to the other. We need to make sure that we can keep channels of communication open between those who ultimately have to make decisions.
Consecutive Foreign Secretaries have stated that the building of illegal settlements is narrowing the window of opportunity for a two-state solution. What are the UK Government doing at the United Nations to make sure that the UN resolutions are abided by?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we support resolutions in the terms that he mentions, and we support those such as the Norwegian Refugee Council who provide legal support to those who will take to the Israeli Supreme Court actions against such illegal demolitions. We provide support in a practical way—we support the UN resolutions as well as continuing to make it clear that the settlement process is one of the obstacles to peace in the area.
How does it help the cause of moderate voices in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine when they look to one of the supposedly great diplomatic powers on earth—the United Kingdom—and see a complete refusal to recognise the evil done to people yesterday? How will that help them to persuade the Palestinian people that one day they will be able to trust the United Kingdom as an impartial ally to build a peace process?
Nothing that I have said today should give those people any such thought. The suggestion of evil has come from many quarters in respect of those who have put protesters in the way of harm or those who might have breached international humanitarian law. Our condemnation is perfectly clear.
As I said earlier, we are determined to recognise that these tragedies must not find yet another cause—another date to be remembered and another thing to take people out on marches for in the future. There will be all of that—as I said earlier, the shadow of any these deaths or injuries will be long—but the situation has to be used as an opportunity to go for something peaceful and find a way through the confrontations rather than anything else.
There is a deepening crisis in Gaza when it comes to medical support and equipment—including, following yesterday’s horrific attacks at the border, for amputees, including children—as well as in reconstruction and rehabilitation. What can the Minister practically do to offer more support to the people of Gaza and ensure that they get real medical support and the rehabilitation that they need?
In my role as DFID Minister, I should say that we have already been in touch with those concerned about medical supplies in Gaza. We work through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other UN agencies. Clearly the effects of the past few weeks will have increased the pressures and concerns. I am looking urgently at whether there is even more that we can do, although we have responded to some concerns already.
Given the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the illegal occupation of the west bank, how confident is the Minister that Israel will ever allow any of the kind of investment and development he said is needed in Palestine—in Gaza, in particular?
I have some confidence in that. As I said some time ago, I recently had a meeting with the economic development adviser to the Quartet, looking at infrastructure development in Gaza, in which Israel will take a part. As we know, Israel remains concerned about the governance of Gaza, but ultimately anyone in Israel has to know that the people of Gaza cannot keep on as deprived and hopeless as they are, lacking some of the basic facilities of life. To go there, smell the sea and recognise what is happening with sanitation is dreadful. The United Kingdom will keep up its efforts to work with others and ensure that Israel recognises that it has a part to play, notwithstanding its security concerns in relation to Gaza, which are real.
The Minister gives sincere answers at the Dispatch Box, but the reality is that demolitions and settlement expansion continue, as well as the illegal blockade of Gaza. Now there has been this unprecedented violence against unarmed protesters. As others have said, actions speak louder than words. Can the Minister explain to my concerned constituents why he does not support their call for an arms embargo on Israel?
That is simply because Israel does face defensive threats, and a complete arms embargo would not be the right response or called for. The hon. Gentleman could go through the arms export criteria with his concerned constituents and see how the House and the Government handle them, how they are challengeable in the courts and why that remains the basis for any decision made on arms exports, which are constantly reviewed.
Our Government back a two-state solution, but recognise only one of the states. Given yesterday’s shocking events, surely they could send a powerful signal, make good on the overwhelming vote in this House in 2014 and, along with 137 other nations, recognise Palestine. If the time is not right now, will it ever be?
I recognise the force of the hon. Lady’s question, as I did earlier. We have no definitive set rule on this matter. It remains open to the United Kingdom to make such a decision when we consider it is most conducive.
Israel has a right to exist and a right to defend its borders, but it has to use that right with responsibility and there is no doubt that it well and truly overstepped the mark. Was the Prime Minister given a pre-warning before the US decided to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem? If so, what was her response? If not, what does that say about our relationship with America?
I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. If I remember rightly, if there was advance notice it was pretty short, simply because it is a sovereign decision for the United States and Israel.
On the relationship, this is always a very difficult point: if the relationship is such that our views are always in line with the United States, people claim that we are a poodle of the United States. Where our views clearly differ, we are accused of losing the special relationship. The truth is that if we disagree, we disagree openly and clearly. We did not agree with this decision on the embassy, for some of the reasons we have seen and experienced.
We still feel great concern about the symbolism of the move. It means one thing in Israel and to Israelis, and something completely different to others. We were alert to that and to the sensitivity of others, and we will continue to press those in the United States. Notwithstanding its rightful support for the state of Israel, the US sometimes does things that it thinks are in support of the state of Israel when they actually might make its life rather more difficult.
Not a single Palestinian needed to be killed or maimed in the current protest. That they were was the result of the choice of munitions and tactics deployed by the Israelis. I appreciate that the Minister wants to see all sides of the issue in the longer term, but does the current crisis not demand a more robust response from the Foreign Office, which might just save some lives in the short term?
In terms of saving lives in the short term, we have continued today, as a result of yesterday’s events, to maintain our contacts with both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian authorities through our consulate in Jerusalem and through the embassy in Tel Aviv. We do not need to draw attention to the events of yesterday to say that the pleas for restraint we have made over many weeks have clearly not had the desired effect on those who might have been in a position to exercise it. It has not happened. We will continue to make them, but the evidence of the dreadful circumstances yesterday should make everyone who played a part in it pause and realise what they have done, and bring the conflict and violence to an end so that we can get a chance to get other things moving forward.
The reality is that even as we stand here today, the blood of innocent men, women and children continues to spill on the streets of Gaza. I join other hon. Members in condemning the attacks on civilians in the strongest possible terms. Will the Minister inform the House what steps he has taken, along with the international community, to put an immediate stop to this unlawful massacre? Why will he not accept the call from Members that now is the time to recognise the state of Palestine?
I think the power and emotion with which the hon. Gentleman speaks is shared by an awful lot of people throughout the Arab world and in many other places. The sadness is that that voice has been heard before and heard way too often. It is the Government’s job to try to make those who are responsible for the circumstances that give rise to such upset and anger realise that there may be steps they can take to make sure those circumstances do not occur again. That is what we are doing. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is that at present we do not agree with him that the time is right, but should the time come we will.
Does the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, share my outrage and sorrow that the Israeli Defence Minister, the man in charge of the Israeli snipers killing Palestinians, has declared that there are no innocents in Gaza?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments, which I appreciate very much. The statement she quotes is not one with which I agree. I think there have been other statements from Israeli Ministers that everyone in Gaza is a terrorist or that there is no such thing as a peaceful march. The truth is that a lot of people were taking part in the march for perfectly proper reasons: to express their concern about the despair and the hopelessness that we talked about earlier. Equally, it is true to say that there were those who knew that they could exploit it and did so. But the blanket condemnation of everyone in these circumstances does not help a proper understanding of those circumstances, and the hon. Lady is right to draw attention to such comments.
In the festering hellhole that is Gaza, everyday life is extremely difficult. The World Health Organisation has long raised concerns about access to adequate medical care on a routine basis for Palestinians living in Gaza. What assurances can the Minister give to the 3,000 victims injured yesterday that they will be supported with proper medical care?
As I indicated earlier, we take such concerns extremely seriously, and they are one of the issues we raise. If we want a normalisation of relations, and if we want to decrease the sense of bitterness and upset, ordinary humanitarian considerations have to be a prime concern. We will continue to raise these issues and work very closely with UNRWA and the WHO. We recognise that there are particular pressures at the moment, but joint and combined work between Israel and those in Gaza might help to break down some barriers. We will do all that we can to support it.
The Minister says that recognising the state of Palestine will not change the facts on the ground, but he must accept that the facts on the ground are changing now because hope is bleeding to death. He says he is waiting for the right moment. If he goes ahead with the appalling President Trump’s ill-advised visit to this country, that is the moment at which we should say to the President and to the world: we recognise the state of Palestine.
I will hear many suggestions for when the right time to recognise the state of Palestine might be, and there are many reasons why that might be connected with other things. All I can do is assure the right hon. Gentleman that the decision to make a declaration will remain ours, independent and based on the best consideration we can give it. Tempting though particular offers may be, we have to make our own decision on that at the right time.
What fresh impetus can be given to the resettlement of the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees across the middle east region who are now grandparents? That terrible situation can fuel a lot of resentment, anger and fear.
Again, the hon. Lady raises a factor that does not always get the attention it needs: those who are confined in camps around the region, hosted by states that have been supportive over time and supported by the excellent work of UNRWA. We continue to support that work, but she is right. The right of return has been a key part of the discussions between the various parties who will ultimately make the agreement in relation to the peace process. It will remain a key part of the issue, but the parties themselves must come to a solution. We support those who are in these difficult circumstances, and the sooner their position is regularised the better.
I have written to Ambassador Johnson to condemn, in the strongest terms, the provocative action by the Trump Administration in moving its embassy, which led to the depressingly predictable bloodshed on the border. Is the Minister really saying that he has not done the same?
I would not put it in the same terms as the hon. Gentleman. Just because the United Kingdom seeks to be measured in its responses, we should not make the mistake of thinking that they do not come without emotion, determination and a real concern for affecting change.
I think I have said before at the Dispatch Box that I have done this for too long. We have all been here. We have had debates for years about the future of the area. We cannot go on with this, because each time it gets worse and more difficult. We must not use tragedies to find yet more reasons to build up support for the particular position of one side or the other. Over 30 years in the House I have seen the binary nature of this dispute get worse. The people who used to reach out to each other are no longer able to. The organs that used to be able to put forward a moderate position in Israel and on the other side find it more difficult to do so. That has only given those who want to build more barriers the freedom to do so. We have to challenge all that.
In dealing with the United States, a valued partner in the region but one that does not always get it right, we are very clear and very direct. We hope that the events of the past few days will lead people to realise that this situation cannot be managed and cannot simply drift. It will not go away of its own accord. We all have a greater determination to bring it to its end. Members’ comments will be valuable in that.