House of Commons
Tuesday 15 May 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
I visited Cameroon in February and met the Cameroonian Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary met him at the Commonwealth meetings in London in April. In all our discussions with Cameroonian Ministers, we have stressed the importance of inclusive dialogue and not resorting to violence.
A constituent of mine from Cameroon who sought asylum here has been highlighting the ongoing violence and the brutality committed by that country’s Government in Anglophone regions, and the acute refugee crisis that that has caused. I know that the Department has been raising these issues, but what more can Ministers do to help to get a meaningful process going to address the issues and end the violence?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has managed to get this important issue on the Order Paper and up for discussion in the House of Commons, because it is a serious situation. There is violence from all sides in Cameroon and we are extremely concerned about the situation. We are encouraging not only the Government there but all Cameroonians to participate in a process of inclusive dialogue. It is an election year and the election must take place without people resorting to violence.
If every girl in the world had 12 years of quality education, this world would be infinitely safer, vastly more prosperous and better, which is why education for girls is at the heart of Government policy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but I am concerned that, according to UNESCO estimates, 130 million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 are out of school and 15 million girls of primary school age, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, will never enter a classroom. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that tackling this issue will continue to be a top priority for global Britain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the statistics are truly horrifying. There are countries around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa, where female illiteracy is running at 60%, 70% or sometimes 80%, which is why the UK is in the lead in campaigning at the UN, the G7 and the G20 for focus on this issue. That is also why the Prime Minister announced a further £212 million for girls’ education at the recent Commonwealth summit.
As he is the father of lots of daughters, I call Mr Barry Sheerman.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, in many parts of the developing world, educational institutions and orphanages are not quite what they seem? Children are taken into them and trafficked, instead of getting an education. Will he look into that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that problem, which is of course well known to the Prime Minister, who has campaigned on human trafficking and modern slavery for many years. We certainly co-ordinate with the Home Office to tackle the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes.
Girls who do not receive education are more likely to become victims of human trafficking, early marriage and gender-based violence. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what he is doing not only to support girls’ education, but in particular to join up the strategies for ending violence against women and girls?
We continually work to tackle not just female illiteracy and innumeracy but the associated problems, including gender-based violence, and we work continually on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. I recently had a meeting with Lord Hague, whom colleagues will remember championed that issue to great effect.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of Pakistan about girls’ education in that country? What assessment has he made of that Government’s track record?
I am proud to say that I have had repeated conversations with the Government of Pakistan about the UK contribution to the challenge that they face. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, 66% of adult women in Pakistan are illiterate. Through the Department for International Development, the UK is trying to tackle that issue, and I think that 6 million girls in the Punjab have been educated thanks to the UK’s generosity.
Commonwealth: Diplomatic Relations
During the recent Heads of Government meeting at the Commonwealth summit, we announced the opening of nine new missions, to great acclaim throughout the Commonwealth. They include six high commissions in Lesotho, Swaziland, the Bahamas, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. As I have told the House before, we are expanding the UK diplomatic network to become the biggest in Europe.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments. It was great to see so many Heads of Government attending CHOGM last month. Does he agree with Her Majesty that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations under the worthy leadership of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales?
My hon. Friend asks an extremely good question, though he sets a very high bar in asking me in any way to disagree with Her Majesty the Queen, which I will not do because I think that the Prince of Wales will serve admirably as the next head of the Commonwealth.
Intra-Commonwealth trade is expected to increase to £1 trillion by 2020, which is up from £560 billion recorded in 2016. However, Commonwealth nations take just 9% of UK exports of goods and services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, post Brexit, bilateral trade relations with the Commonwealth will be more important than ever and will provide us with an exciting opportunity to sell our goods and services and set up new trade deals with a third of the world’s population?
My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely right: we have a huge opportunity to build new associations and new trade deals with some of the fastest growing economies in the world comprising, as she knows, 2.4 billion people, but without in any way prejudicing our ability to do unimpeded free trade deals with other countries and to maintain the advantages of free trade with our European friends and partners.
Will the Foreign Office review its current position on the plight of the Chagos islanders, who should be granted immediately the right to repatriation in their home in the Indian ocean territories?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are currently in dispute with Mauritius about the Chagossian islanders and Diego Garcia. I have personally met the representative of the Chagossian community here in this country, and we are doing our absolute best to deal with its justified complaints and to ensure that we are as humane as we can possibly be.
Bearing in mind the recent return of Zimbabwe to our Commonwealth family, can the Secretary of State tell us what other countries might be about to join the Commonwealth? Is it too much to hope that perhaps the Republic of Ireland might be one of them?
In these questions, it is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Zimbabwe is a great news story at the moment, but, alas, she has not yet reapplied for membership of the Commonwealth. We await that application to the Commonwealth secretariat. It is certainly something that the UK and other countries would strongly support, as we discovered at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are other countries that are in the pipeline, but they are yet to identify themselves publicly.
Will my right hon. Friend explain how the UK is working with allies such as Australia to bolster Commonwealth ties in the south Pacific as a counter balance to growing Chinese influence in places such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and it has been raised specifically with me by our friends in the south Pacific that they want to see the UK back there. A head of an island there described to me his sense of grief at seeing a vacant UK seat at a recent meeting—I will not name the country in which the meeting took place. We are filling that seat; we will be back there in all the countries that I have just announced.
I do not know whether “Fox and Friends” has broadcast in any Commonwealth countries, but can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether appearing on breakfast TV is now an official part of UK diplomatic foreign policy, or is it reserved only for countries with which we have a special relationship?
I cannot comment on whether “Fox and Friends” is broadcast across the Commonwealth, but what I will say is that we should use every possible means at our disposal to reach out to our friends not just in the Commonwealth, but in the former Commonwealth—the United States of America.
Order. I am sure that colleagues will not wish to be deprived, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will place a copy in the Library of the House for their delectation in the long summer evenings that lie ahead. [Interruption.] The transcript, man.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Malaysia on her recent outstanding elections, which have seen the return of the first ever opposition party since independence? It shows that democracy is alive and kicking in Malaysia. Does he agree that there is much more that we can do together, not least through an extended relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
Not only that; I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work he does to promote relations between the UK and ASEAN. He works tirelessly on that dossier. Malaysia certainly presents extraordinary opportunities for the UK. A massive friendship and partnership already exists with the country, and we look forward to building relations very fast with the new Government of Mahathir Mohamad.
We are all delighted that there was a successful Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this year. Among the valued Commonwealth members are of course the Caribbean countries. We know that Caribbean Foreign Ministers raised the issue of Windrush deportations with the Foreign Office in 2014 and that high commissioners did so in 2016, so will the Foreign Secretary tell us what discussions he and his Ministers had at that time with their counterparts in the Home Office?
I must respectfully tell the hon. Lady what I am sure she knows very well: this is a matter for the Home Office. We certainly alerted the Home Office to the issue, but the question of how to manage immigrants in this country is a matter for the Home Office.
Iran Nuclear Deal
As the House will understand, the UK continues to work hard with all our friends and partners—particularly the other European signatories to the joint comprehensive plan of action—to keep that deal alive. We believe that it is of fundamental importance that Iran was not in breach of the JCPOA last week. It is still not in breach of the JCPOA this week. There are advantages to maintaining the essence of that deal, so we will continue to work for that and to protect the interests of UK business in Iran.
Recent tensions between Israel and Iran underline the importance of the nuclear deal, and we should not forget how close the west and Iran came to conflict over the nuclear issue in 2012. The Government have rightly maintained their full support for the agreement, but exactly how far are they prepared to go, in concert with their allies, to keep this deal alive—including, if necessary, protecting companies that trade with Iran from American sanctions?
My hon. Friend brings a great deal of learning to this subject. This issue is difficult because of the extraterritorial effect of US sanctions; when companies touch the live wire of the American financial network, they find themselves almost immediately sanctioned. I am going to Brussels this afternoon to talk to our European friends about what we can do to work together to protect the interests of UK and other European businesses.
When the Foreign Secretary goes to Brussels, will he explain to our European friends that this country values our defence and security partnership with our European Union partners? Will he also say positive things about whether we will be joining permanent structured co-operation—PESCO—and co-operating with the other European countries in the future?
I can direct the hon. Gentleman to no better text than the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech—fleshed out by her Mansion House speech—in which she made it clear that the UK’s commitment to the defence and security of our friends and partners is unconditional and indivisible.
I wish the right hon. Gentleman a full and speedy recovery.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; that is very kind. The Iranian Government responded to President Trump’s announcement last week by showering Israel with rockets using their own forces inside Syria. What does my right hon. Friend think those forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are actually doing inside Syria? If the Iran nuclear deal was not the thing to encourage Iran to become a more responsible member of the international community, what does he think will be?
My right hon. Friend is completely right to raise the disgraceful behaviour of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the missiles that are fired from Syria at Israel and elsewhere. The JCPOA was not designed to constrain that activity; it was specifically designed to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and it has succeeded in that effort so far. That is why we propose to keep the core of that deal alive, but to work with our friends and partners to constrain the malign activity that my right hon. Friend describes.
Last July, at a conference of the Iranian resistance movement in Paris attended by a number of Conservative Members, John Bolton announced that the Iranian regime is
“not going to change…the only solution is to change the regime…And that’s why, before 2019, we…will celebrate in Tehran!”
Now that Mr Bolton is President Trump’s national security adviser, does the Foreign Secretary believe that regime change is still his objective?
I have a very high regard for John Bolton and his intelligence and vision, but I have to say that I do not believe that regime change in Tehran is the objective that we should be seeking. I must be very clear with the hon. Gentleman that I think that we might conceivably achieve regime change at some stage in the near future, but I cannot with any confidence say that that would be a change for the better, because it seems equally plausible to me to imagine that Qasem Soleimani of the IRGC could put himself in a very good position to take over from Ayatollah Khamenei, for instance.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend that there is a temptation among his allies to point the finger at the United States and heap opprobrium on it when he goes to Brussels. May I urge him to point out to them that, since sanctions were lifted on Iran, it has used the money that it has earned to invest in developing ballistic missiles, to start a proxy war in Yemen and to interfere in Syria? Will he remind them that notwithstanding the fact that it was a narrow deal, there is a real, serious threat from Iran that needs to be dealt with?
My right hon. Friend is completely right, and that is indeed what we intend to do. But we also intend to try to address the substantive difficulties in the JCPOA itself—the fact that it expired, the fact that the sunset clauses are not adequate and the fact that in 2025 it is at least theoretically possible for Iran to proceed very rapidly to break out to acquire a nuclear weapon. That is a legitimate concern of President Trump, and we have to deal with it as well.
Bahrain: Death Penalty
The United Kingdom opposes the use of the death penalty in all countries, in all circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reiterated this in respect of Bahrain in his written statement of 15 January 2017. The Government of Bahrain are fully aware of our position. We continue to have an open and frank dialogue with Bahrain in public and in private covering a range of issues, including human rights.
Amnesty International, Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have all raised concerns about the use of the death penalty and the routine torture of political opponents by the regime in Bahrain. What assurance can the Minister give that the British Government’s integrated activity fund is not being used to undermine human rights in Bahrain?
Our determined efforts to support reform and change in Bahrain are aimed at improving the conditions that I indicated earlier we keep in constant contact with the authorities in Bahrain about. In relation to the death penalty, we welcome the decision by His Majesty the King on 26 April to commute the death sentences handed down in a recent court case.
Is it true that UK-funded institutions in Bahrain have been responsible for covering up torture allegations regarding death row inmates?
No, I do not believe that that can possibly be the case. If the right hon. Lady would write with the specific detail of an allegation, I will look at it, but I do not believe that it is the case.
Yes, I will. As I indicated earlier, the purpose of our engagement with Bahrain is to deal sometimes with difficult practices that have been there in the past in order to change them and improve them, but I think a specific allegation of British involvement and cover-up would not be right.
Israel-Palestine Peace Process
At this highly sensitive time in the region, there is an urgent need to restart the peace process between Israel and Palestine. We regularly press both parties to resume direct negotiations towards the two-state solution.
Last week, the Secretary of State suggested that President Trump could be in line for a Nobel peace prize. Does the Minister welcome the move by the US to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, and does he agree with the White House today that the 52 Palestinians killed and more than 2,200 wounded in yesterday’s violence in Gaza were the responsibility of Hamas?
In answer to the first question, our position is known: we did not agree with the decision, which is a sovereign decision, of both the United States and Israel to move the embassy. We have no plans to do anything similar. In relation to the second question, there is an urgent question after Question Time, and we will go into the difficult circumstances of the past few weeks. I will be happy to deal with that question then.
May I push the Minister a little? Why has he not called for the United Nations Security Council to be recalled so that it can look at this situation? Does he agree with the Secretary-General that there should be an inquiry into what has been happening over the last six or seven weeks?
The House may not yet be aware, but there will be a UN Security Council meeting this afternoon or this evening in relation to this matter. The UK has already said that it supports an independent investigation into the circumstances of what has been happening, and we will continue to take that position.
The simple truth is that the realignment of power in the middle east between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and their now closer friendship with Israel in this increasingly Sunni-Shi’a divide has left the Palestinians marginalised, and in danger of being marginalised further. Will my right hon. Friend, following the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, restate categorically the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Palestinian people and rule out moving the British embassy to Jerusalem?
In answer to the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, as I have indicated, that is the United Kingdom’s declared position: we are not moving our embassy. On the wider issues, as we will discuss later, the United Kingdom’s commitment remains to a just settlement of this issue which recognises the need to respond to Palestinians’ concern at the same time as ensuring the safety and security, and the existence, of the state of Israel. That remains our position.
When the Hamas Prime Minister has said, “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies,” what are this Government doing to build international pressure on Hamas to renounce violence and disarm?
The United Kingdom regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation. It is proscribed and we have no dealings with it. It speaks for itself in relation to its threat to the state of Israel, and that should always be remembered in issues where Hamas is involved and is exerting pressure on the population of Gaza to do its bidding.
Does the Minister agree with the Foreign Secretary that Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move is a “moment of opportunity” for peace?
I always agree with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, because all circumstances in the region, and even the tragedies of yesterday—we will get on to this—have to be used as an opportunity for a springboard to peace, rather than further confrontation. We have made our view clear on the embassy. We did not agree with it, but it is a reality now. It will not be our position, and we will continue to work for peace in the region.
Yesterday was the worst day of violence in Gaza for four years. Will the Minister look at yesterday’s violence and agree with me that the embassy move was reckless and irresponsible and stoked tension? Does he also agree, in terms of long-term peace, that there is a need for an impartial and independent investigation?
In relation to the second part of the question, I have made it clear that the UK supports an independent investigation into what has happened, and I repeat: the move of the United States embassy yesterday was not supported by the United Kingdom. We do not see that as being conducive at present to peace in the region, and the timing, of course, was incredibly difficult.
The Minister has already mentioned the importance of face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Would he please say how important that is for the future of the area?
The events of yesterday were the culmination of many things, but one of the things they were the culmination of was the failure of respective leaders over time to grapple with the situation and to realise how urgent and desperate it has become. The situation in Palestine and Gaza and the occupied territories will not simply be managed; it will get worse unless it is grasped and something is done to make it better.
At this moment of abject crisis, following yesterday’s events in Gaza and west Jerusalem, the Palestinian people are sorely pressed to retain hope and faith in a two-state solution. Will the Foreign Secretary give them some hope and faith today by choosing this moment officially to recognise the state of Palestine, and will he lead a global effort to persuade other countries to do the same?
We have said before that we will recognise the state of Palestine at a time when it is most conducive to securing peace in the area, but the hon. Lady is absolutely correct in saying that the absence of hope and the increase of despair in the area is of great concern to all of us and needs to be recognised and dealt with.
Palestinian Refugees and Displacement of Palestinians
We are committed to protecting the human rights of Palestinian refugees. In 2017 and 2018, we provided £50 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to support Palestinian refugees across the middle east. Ultimately, to promote stability across the region, there must be a fair, agreed and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee question.
This year, the United States more than halved its aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, piling further pressure on people trapped in an already hellish situation. In the light of that, can the Minister tell us what representations he has made to his American counterparts about this decision and whether he intends to bring forward a new funding settlement?
I have indeed made representations to US counterparts in relation to this. We have brought forward our own next tranche of support to UNRWA, and we continue to believe that support for UNRWA is vital, particularly in the present circumstances. We will be further reviewing what we can do—not just ourselves, but with other donors as well.
Today, Nakba Day, is the 70th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from what is now Israel. Israel chooses to mark it by escalating the murder and maiming of civilians in Gaza, including hundreds of children. Can we hear from the Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as we have from the shadow Foreign Secretary, an unqualified condemnation of the actions of the Israeli Government and security forces, and support for international law, including the right of return? Is the Minister prepared to take action, starting with the suspension of arms sales to Israel?
That were three questions in one there. I will deal with the centrality of the issue in Gaza later. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that our statements make it clear that we deeply regret the extent of the use of live fire yesterday. We understand the reason why Israel would seek to protect its border and its border fence—it knows what would happen if there were a significant breach of it—but we are also concerned about the events that will have led to people being pushed towards the fence. However, it is a complex situation and we will cover it in more detail shortly.
Ah, yes. I think the House must hear the cerebral voice of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I call Mr Tom Tugendhat.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful. As we are talking about the status of refugees in the middle east, does the Minister agree that his excellent work in the region has promoted peace but, more than that, does he also agree that many others could contribute to it? I am particularly thinking of the Iranian Government, who rather than spending their money on missiles and terrorists in Syria and elsewhere, could instead spend some of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps money on the fate of refugees in Lebanon, Syria and indeed the areas of Gaza and the west bank. Those Palestinians are so often linked through political means to the Iranian regime, yet somehow the money seems to go only on weapons, with none of it going on education, schools or hospitals.
There are elements of my hon. Friend’s question that I cannot comment on, but I can say that in the longer term the engagement of Iran with the region, in a supportive rather than a disruptive manner, towards the causes that he mentioned, is, of course, what we look for. But we are some way away from that yet and we will continue to press the case with Iran in relation to its behaviour.
Russia: Diplomatic Relations
Russia’s use of an illegal nerve agent in Salisbury was met with an unprecedented global diplomatic rebuff, in the sense that 28 countries expelled a total of 153 diplomats. The House will understand, therefore, the balance between the UK and Russia in expulsions of operatives: we lost a handful of people involved in the security side, while they lost about 153 across the world—a massive net loss for Russia and a significant gain for the UK. But we remain committed to a policy of engaging with Russia, while being wary of what it does.
Despite the fact that oil and gas exports make up 70% of Russia’s international trade, they are not currently covered under the EU sanctions regime due to the high reliance of the EU on Russian gas exports. After our exit from the European Union, would that be a sensible extra measure for us to take that might assist with our diplomatic efforts?
We will, of course, consider all possibilities once we exit the European Union and take back control of our sanctions policy.
At the European championships in 2016, Russian hooligans showed themselves to be organised, well armed and extremely violent. British fans’ safety must be our top priority at the World cup. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the British diplomat responsible for fans’ safety at the World cup was expelled by Russia? If so, how can the Government even contemplate relying on Russian reassurances that our fans will be safe?
We are not actively trying to dissuade fans preparing to go to Russia for the World cup, as we do not think that would be right. They should look at our “Be on the Ball” website and the risks that we believe may be associated with any particular venues. But it is up to the Russians, and on their honour, to guarantee the safety of not just British fans, but fans from around the world.
I assure my right hon. Friend that we in the UK Government are well aware of the deep controversy surrounding Nord Stream 2. We raise it not just in Ukraine but with other European friends and partners.
Earlier, the Foreign Secretary indicated the diplomatic headcount exchange. How would he describe current diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Russia? Are they likely to change in the near future?
I can sum up our policy, which I repeat to the House: engage but beware. We will continue, where necessary and possible, to engage with Russia diplomatically and culturally across the field. But relations are currently, of course, difficult.
In firmly supporting the Government’s robust response to the malign actions of the Putin regime, may I remind my right hon. Friend that in the cold war we had the best civil servants and an enormous infrastructure based on preparation for strategic arms limitation talks? That kind of engagement is as vital today, and I hope that the Government are putting equal resources into it.
My right hon. Friend raises an extremely good point. As I think he is indicating, we are increasingly concerned about a Russian breach of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. There will have to be much more international engagement to keep that treaty intact.
We are working closely with the UN, the Syrian opposition and our international partners to encourage a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. We support the non-governmental organisations and UN mechanisms gathering evidence and preparing future prosecutions for the most serious crimes committed in Syria.
I thank the Minister for that response. I think we all want the prosecution of the Assad regime and any other parties responsible for using chemical weapons, but does the Minister agree that for indiscriminately bombing civilians, for targeting medical facilities and for using starvation as a weapon of war, the regime already deserves to be prosecuted for war crimes?
The short answer is yes. It is a question of gathering the evidence and providing the right forum, but undoubtedly war crimes have been committed. We are working continually with authorities to see what mechanisms can be used to hold people to account. I wish we could be certain of the outcome.
Given the limited impact of the United Nations Security Council to date, does my right hon. Friend agree that when it comes to resolution by consensus its terms must be adhered to?
Absolutely, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We actually got resolution 2401 through by consensus. It called for a ceasefire and humanitarian access, particularly in relation to eastern Ghouta but it applied all over Syria. The resolution was then not adhered to by some of the parties who had signed up to it. If we are going to make any progress on Syria, UN resolutions have to be adhered to.
Save the Children and the Royal United Services Institute published an excellent report last week on children in conflict, which highlighted in particular the devastating effect of the use of barrel bombs. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with our allies about a joint approach to civilian protection in civilian areas?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight this further aspect of the atrocities perpetrated on the Syrian people. As well as calling out such behaviour and considering international mechanisms for holding people to account, the support for civilians is necessary and, at the recent Brussels conference on Syria and the region, working with donors, we pledged to provide at least £450 million this year and £300 million next year to alleviate that extreme suffering.
Although I agree that President Assad should be held accountable, a lot of opposition groups have committed human rights violations and some terrible atrocities. There has to be a very careful and balanced approach. We need to ensure that we focus on those groups, too.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I met the director of the Independent, Impartial and International Mechanism recently, and we have been offering help and technical support through legal services in the United Kingdom. There should be absolutely no distinction between those who have committed such crimes.
As the Minister and other hon. Members have said, accountability for war crimes in Syria is crucial, but so is prevention. How can we stop the bombing of hospitals?
Again, I wish there were a simple answer to such an honest and direct question. Without physically intervening and without a physical no-fly zone, which has been considered but would be immensely difficult to implement, the best thing we can do at present is to draw attention to such attacks on facilities—sometimes with information that has been given in all good faith to authorities to keep these places safe— support the work of the doctors and those involved in humanitarian expertise, and make clear that this is happening. It has no place in warfare. It has no place in the modern world. Hopefully, those responsible will ultimately be held accountable.
Myanmar: Rakhine and Kachin
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised concerns about the treatment of the Rohingya of Rakhine in a meeting in Naypyidaw with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on 11 February. I reiterated those messages when I summoned the Burmese ambassador on 6 March. Moreover, I called for the Burmese military to show restraint and protect civilians in Kachin on both 28 April and, most recently, in a public statement on 11 May.
Multiple rapes, airstrikes and genocide—the crimes of the Burmese security forces against the Rohingya, as well as against the Kachin and Shan people, are well documented. The UK Government can refer Burma to the International Criminal Court from the UN Security Council. Will the Minister therefore meet the new Justice for Rohingya Minority initiative to discuss its call for universal jurisdiction and accountability for those who commit these atrocities?
The hon. Lady will be well aware—she touched on this—of the idea of universal jurisdiction, but that is not in place at present. Of course, I am very happy to meet, along with her, the representatives of the Rohingya community, as I have done before. The UK is a staunch supporter of the ICC and we remain committed to working with all our international partners to secure justice for what has taken place in Rakhine. It will be a long process. The Burmese Government have told the UN Security Council that they are ready to proceed with the domestic investigation. That will need to be credible, transparent and impartial and will need, in our view, to have an international component.
As a result of the tens of thousands of rapes in Rakhine province, there are many thousands of pregnant women whose babies may well be abandoned in Bangladesh. Will my right hon. Friend update us on what will happen to those children, should they be born as a result of rape?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that she does on this. Like many Members throughout the House, I have been absolutely appalled by the reports of extensive sexual violence in Rakhine, including in graphic and harrowing testimonies on television programmes on both Channel 4 and BBC 2 in the last two evenings. I reassure her and the House that UK aid is already providing comprehensive counselling and psychological support for 10,000 women in trauma and more than 2,000 survivors of sexual violence. Medical aid is also being provided to assist 50,000 safe births.
Save the Children estimates that 60% of the 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children. What action will the Government take at the UN Security Council to avoid a lost generation from that community?
I fully appreciate those grave concerns. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the issue of the Rohingya is not one that has emerged only since last August. In many cases, it goes back to the late 1970s. There have been various episodes leading to this, and as he rightly points out, the risk is that it will have an impact on forthcoming generations. We will continue to work with all our international partners, as we are with the EU, to get sanctions to ensure that there is no impunity for those who have brought about these terrible crimes. This is a long-standing issue that will require a patient approach within the international community. Please rest assured that we are very much taking a lead in our role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Apart from UK humanitarian aid, what review is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office carrying out to ensure that we do not support the military regime in Rangoon in any other ways?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in these matters. It is important to recognise that, although we were at the forefront of stopping support for the Burmese military last September, there has been a military dictatorship since 1962, and it is for our diplomats on the ground in Naypyidaw and Rangoon to identify the elements—and there will be elements—in the military with whom we need to maintain open discussions. It has perhaps been rather easy to blame all this on State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, but there are elements within the military with whom we will need to maintain an engagement.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), two weeks ago the Government proposed a draft UN statement arguing for a credible, transparent investigation into war crimes against the Rohingya and stated that those responsible must be held to account. What is the current status of that proposed statement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that there has been a great deal of co-operation with the Opposition Front-Bench team. We all recognise that these are terrible issues on which the UK political parties, irrespective of colour, need to work together on behalf of the international community.
We are awaiting the ICC’s decision on whether it has jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh on the basis that Bangladesh, unlike Burma, is a signatory to the Rome statute. The Security Council could refer Burma to the ICC, but we know that currently there is insufficient support on the Security Council, and a vetoed attempt at referral would, in our view, do little to further—[Interruption.] It is wonderful to do this as a duet, Mr Speaker, and I could continue doing so, but I hope you will appreciate that these are very serious matters about which people feel very strongly across the House and the country, so I hope you will indulge me for one more moment. We will ensure as far as possible that we do nothing to enhance the role of the Burmese military, and an early push for a Security Council resolution would, in our view, undermine our position.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister of State. I say this principally for the benefit of new Members who might not have heard me say it before: I once asked a predecessor of the Clerk of the House why it was that Foreign Office questions always seemed to take longer than other Question Times, to which, having consulted his scholarly cranium, he replied, “Mr Speaker, I think it is on account of the fact that when Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office address the House, they feel they are addressing not merely the House, or even the nation, but in fact the world.”
The most important conclusion of the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting was that we condemned roundly Russia’s disruptive activity and, at the suggestion of the UK, launched a new G7 group to tackle malign state behaviour, building on a Canadian initiative, and to defend democracies from foreign interference.
I welcome the statement from the G7 on support for effective measures to promote further verifiable nuclear arms control and disarmament. Will that be on every agenda of G7 Foreign Ministers meetings, and will the UK be taking a lead?
As my hon. Friend knows, and as I said in answer to an earlier question, we are increasingly concerned about nuclear proliferation. As the House can readily see, that issue is now at the absolute top of the global agenda, and he can be sure that the UK will continue to push it at the G7 and elsewhere.
Order. We come now to topical questions. Needless to say, those who lost out on substantives can well hope to be called in topical questions, so they should not beetle out of the Chamber unless they are exceptionally busy people with many commitments and fuller than average diaries.
I am deeply saddened by the loss of life in Gaza, where peaceful protests are being exploited by extremists. I urge Israel to show restraint in the use of live fire, and I take this opportunity to repeat the UK’s commitment to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital.
My other priority is to preserve the gains made through the Iran nuclear deal. I am working closely with my French and German counterparts and will see them in Brussels later today.
My constituent Tofla Ndele, a British citizen, was arrested when visiting family members in Congo last September. There has been no explanation for his arrest, and no charges have been levelled against him. I was grateful to the Secretary of State for raising the subject with the Congolese Foreign Minister in March. What progress has been made since then in securing Mr Ndele’s release?
UK officials have visited Mr Ndele regularly since his detention in September last year, most recently in March. They have lobbied for improvements in the conditions of his detention, and recently secured the first visit from a family member since his arrest. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa raised the matter with the Congolese Foreign Minister in April.
Order. From now on, obviously, we need a sentence from each colleague.
Yes. Tunisia has worked extremely hard at reviewing and improving its security. We are in constant contact with the Tunisian authorities, and we hope that many British tourists will visit the country this summer and beyond.
May I begin by thanking the Foreign Secretary for leading our cross-party efforts over the last two weeks to destroy the Prime Minister’s “customs partnership” proposal? I trust that he finished off the job earlier this morning. Unfortunately, however, that leaves us with his own crazy Mad Max—I mean max fac—proposal. May I ask him a very simple yes or no question, which has already been asked several times by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee? Does he believe that cameras are physical infrastructure?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising this matter, because it may provide her with an opportunity to elucidate the Labour party’s policy on the customs union for the benefit of the nation. I seem to remember that at the last general election, Labour Members campaigned on a platform to come out of the customs union. Now they say that they want to stay in “a” customs union—a customs partnership. Their policy is absolutely clouded in obscurity. If the right hon. Lady wishes to part those clouds of confusion, this is her moment.
We are quite willing to exchange places with those on the other side of the House. All we would ask of them is that they call a general election.
I do not think that that constituted even an attempt to answer the question that I asked. Like the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary seems to be unable and unwilling to state the blindingly obvious. So much for plain-speaking, bluff authenticity.
Let me try another key question about the max fac proposal. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm—[Interruption.] He does need to listen, otherwise he will not understand the question and will be unable to answer it. Can he confirm that if the technology on which his proposal relies takes five years to become fully functional, the UK will be obliged to remain part of the customs union, and to be bound by single market rules, until at least 2023?
The right hon. Lady had an opportunity to be clear about what Labour wants to do. Conservative Members have been absolutely clear. The Prime Minister has said it time and time again: we are coming out of the single market, we are taking back control of our borders, our laws and our money, and we are coming out of the customs union. In her Mansion House speech, she gave plenty of indications of how we will deal with the problems that the right hon. Lady has described.
I can tell the House that this is a subject that arouses the grave concern of the entire British people. The illegal wildlife trade is currently worth about £1.7 billion, and it is of course associated with many other criminal activities. That is why, in October, we are holding a global summit in London on that very matter, which I think will attract the interest of the world.[Official Report, 16 May 2018, Vol. 641, c. 3MC.]
Order. What we need from the hon. Gentleman is a sentence with a question mark at the end. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, of whom I am very fond, but we are very short of time. Blurt it out, man.
Craig Mallon died six years ago, after just one post-mortem; his mother died recently, broken-hearted. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that case?
May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to a new all-party group that has been set up to investigate deaths abroad in suspicious circumstances?
I certainly can, and I can tell my hon. Friend that at the Commonwealth summit I was able, as she may recall, to announce the opening of 10 new UK delegations, many of them in the Caribbean or the Pacific.
Ever since it became clear that these protests were going to continue and the risk of confrontation was very real, we have been at pains to work with both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to minimise and reduce the tension. It is a matter of horror and regret to us that yesterday’s events happened; we will continue to urge restraint on all responsible and seek the peace agreement that is so urgently needed.
Would my right hon. Friend like to take this opportunity to congratulate the former Prime Minister of Malaysia on his re-election after an interval, and pass on the best wishes of the British people to the Malaysian people during this important transition?
I thank my hon. Friend for his thoughts. The recent election in Malaysia was historic: the outcome, while a surprise, represents a genuine victory for democracy and is a testament to the Malaysian people. Our relationship with Malaysia is of course both deep and long-lasting, and I look forward to working closely with the new Prime Minister and his Government on many of our shared interests.
We are pleased that the elections have passed off as peacefully as they have. We look forward to working with the new Government, and the reconstruction and stability situation, which has been encouraged by recent conferences in Kuwait and other places, should help the future of Iraq.
Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets supplied by Iran is now estimated at 150,000. Does the Minister share my concern at Iran’s malign influence in the region, and what recent discussions has he had with his Israeli counterparts about the threat posed by Hezbollah?
We are in regular contact with the state of Israel about threats to it. Hezbollah’s increased weaponry is part of that, and the supply of weapons to Hezbollah contravenes UN resolutions. That threat to Israel is very real.
After years of kleptomaniac behaviour by the Kirchner husband and wife team in Argentina, President Mauricio Macri is struggling to get the Argentinian economy back on course. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to helping Argentina and President Macri with the International Monetary Fund and other organisations?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about Argentina. I will be going there at the end of the month to pursue the current improvement in relations taking place between our two countries.
President Erdoğan of Turkey, who is currently visiting this country, has called snap elections for 24 June. Those elections will be held under a state of emergency, severely curtailing the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and the right to take part in public affairs. They will also introduce an executive presidency with wide-ranging powers that many see as an attack on democracy. What is the Government’s view?
I can tell the right hon. Lady that we had a conference with our Turkish friends only the other day and that, although the relationship between the UK and Turkey is very strong, as she knows, we took every opportunity to raise our concerns about human rights and the repression of the media.
The stated position of all British Governments for a long time has been support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the heightened violence on the Israeli-Gaza border and the casualties coming from it now make that possibility look even more remote?
It may be difficult, and it may be remote, but if it is the right answer we should continue to pursue it, and we will.
A sentence each, short and preferably without subordinate clauses, the first to be delivered through the brilliant brain of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry).
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
When the Prime Minister meets President Erdoğan later today, will she raise with him the Turkish military invasion of Afrin, the numerous civilian deaths and the persecution of the Kurds, who have so often stood side by side with the United Kingdom in resisting ISIS?
I can certainly reassure the hon. and learned Lady that the Prime Minister will be raising the very difficult situation in the north of Syria.
What assessment have the Government made of the human rights and political situation in Burundi at the moment?
We are very concerned about the situation in Burundi. There is a referendum there this week and, as my hon. Friend will know, Her Majesty’s Government continue to send messages about the need to respect the Arusha peace accords and to respect democracy in Burundi.
This Christian Aid week, the charity is campaigning to highlight inflexibility in the approach to internally displaced peoples. Will the Minister, along with officials from his Department and the Department for International Development, agree to meet representatives of Christian Aid to see how best we can address that growing situation?
I am very happy to do that. The situation of internally displaced people is very important to the UK, and we are working with others on the possibility of a UN high-level panel later this year. I would be very happy to meet Christian Aid once again.
Peter Grant: a sentence.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the Zimbabwean Government understand the importance of proper reparations for UK citizens who have been the victims of serious crimes committed allegedly by associates of the present and previous Governments of Zimbabwe?
As we call on the Zimbabwean Government to hold free and fair elections this year, we are also making representations to them. I have personally made representations on behalf of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to the Zimbabwean Foreign Minister.
The Foreign Office website says that the European single market is key to Europe’s and the UK’s place in the global economy. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with that?
I think that whatever the website used to say about the single market, it will shortly no longer apply to the UK.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Socotra has reportedly become the latest front in the war in Yemen, with Saudi troops landing there in response to the United Arab Emirates apparently occupying the island. What is the Minister going to do to protect that unique and special environment and its people?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I would advise the House to be a little cautious about some of the reports coming out in relation to Socotra. I spoke just this week to the Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the circumstances on the allegations being made are not particularly clear at present, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that we will be able to make a further statement about that in due course.
The Bahraini criminal court has today locked up and taken citizenship from 115 people in a mass trial, of whom 53 have been given life sentences. Will the Minister look again at the co-operation between this Government and the Bahraini authorities, which only gives credence to their farcical regime?
As was indicated earlier, the relationship with Bahrain recognises the pressures brought about on that Government, but the challenges that they are trying to meet in relation to human rights and other matters will continue to be part of our dialogue. We will continue to raise difficult issues publicly and privately with the Government of Bahrain.
Before I call the shadow Foreign Secretary to put her urgent question, it may be helpful to the House if I respond to the point of order that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) raised yesterday, in which he suggested that advice had been given by those offering advice on behalf of the House authorities that, in order to comply with the new data protection regime due to come into force on 25 May, personal constituency data gathered prior to the recent general election should be deleted. Despite vigorous inquiry yesterday by the House authorities and the contractor commissioned by the House authorities to support Members and their staff, no trace has been found by those responsible of such advice having been given.
It may be of help if I set out the actual situation as has been advised to me, and therefore as I understand it to be. Under the general data protection regulation and, indeed, existing legislation, there is no prescribed retention period. It is up to each Member to have a policy that either states for how long he or she will keep data, or sets out the criteria that that Member will use in making such decisions. That is clearly set out in the templates provided by the training company commissioned by the House. Members will shortly receive a letter from the Leader of the House. The Chair of the Administration Committee also wrote to Members last week with advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office addressing typical cases encountered by Members.
The Commission discussed the programme of GDPR assistance to Members at its meeting yesterday evening, and I can confirm that training and advice will continue to be provided for some time. I understand that the ICO accepts that full compliance on 25 May is unlikely to be achieved by many organisations or individuals, but it will expect the basics to be in place: a demonstrable plan of action and an evident will to implement it.
Our casework supporting constituents is invaluable, but as it involves processing often sensitive personal data, it is particularly important that we engage seriously with the GDPR regime. I am sure that we will all strive to do so.
Gaza Border Violence
(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.