Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I do not think that there could be a more appropriate topic for today’s debate than the situation in Gaza, and I am grateful to noble Lords for keeping the issue on the table. They will understand as well as I do that, although the fighting has now ceased, it will be a long time before Gaza fully recovers from the conflict.
I cannot emphasise enough the severity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the devastating impact that it has had on innocent civilians. It is clear from pictures beamed around the world that the damage to civilian infrastructure is extensive and the civilian death toll devastating.
The EU clearly outlined, during the General Affairs Council at the beginning of last week, that it will focus its support and assistance on immediate humanitarian relief for the population of Gaza and on the prevention of illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition. The UK fully supports this.
The priority is for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and for reconstruction to begin. Last month, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, John Holmes, was on a five-day mission to review the humanitarian needs. He has established some key priorities on which to focus: the re-establishment of basic services to the population of Gaza, including water, health, food, cash assistance, education and psychosocial support.
A fact-finding team from our consulate-general in Jerusalem visited Gaza earlier this week and had meetings with leading humanitarian agencies, including the Red Cross and the UN. Officials from the Department for International Development are working with implementers on the ground in Gaza to get a clear picture of the immediate needs of the population, the challenges going forward and how best the UK can contribute. The Government have contributed nearly £27 million to help to address the urgent humanitarian needs identified.
It is important that a number of countries, including Israel, share the burden of reconstruction in Gaza. We welcome the $1 billion contribution from Saudi Arabia, which was announced during the Arab League summit in January. However, for the effective distribution of humanitarian aid to be effective, two issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency.
First, we, along with several organisations, including UNICEF, remain concerned about the dangers posed by landmines and unexploded ordnances. Two Palestinian children have already fallen victim, having been killed on 20 January by unexploded ordnance in Az Zaitoun in the Gaza Governorate. Therefore, security, including the marking and clearance of UXOs, is essential not just for the safety of Palestinians but also if we are to ensure the efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance to the population.
Secondly, we must ensure that the flow of aid to Gaza is unhindered. Noble Lords will no doubt want to raise the issue of the crossings and the volume of current aid which is or is not getting through, but I can say that international NGO staff are now working in the territory. However, it is evident that the number of trucks allowed into the Gaza strip needs to be increased, including not just those for humanitarian assistance but also those to support the private sector if the economy is to be put back on its feet. There also needs to be an easing in restrictions on the type of items allowed in. Additional crossings must be opened urgently, including Karni and Sufa, and basic construction materials also need to be allowed in to facilitate the repair of public infrastructure and private homes.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860, introduced in Britain’s name on 8 January, put pressure on both Hamas and the Government of Israel to halt all military activity, and we have seen progress in this direction. On 17 January, a ceasefire was implemented unilaterally by Israel, and the next day by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, and that continues to hold. Israeli troops are now deployed along the Gaza strip border. We, along with the international community, welcome the role played by the Egyptian Government in brokering this deal. However, it is imperative that the ceasefire is permanent and robust, and that responsibility falls not just on the Palestinians and Israelis but on the whole international community. There are two main pillars to support the ceasefire: easing the border restrictions, and strong action against the smuggling of arms into Gaza.
The PM met the Israeli Prime Minister in Jerusalem after the ceasefire in Gaza and made clear the need for an ease in border restrictions. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and other EU Foreign Ministers reiterated this message when they met the Israeli Foreign Minister on 21 January. We acknowledge the concerns of the Israeli Government about the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Obviously we want to ensure that we make a practical difference in respect of that smuggling, which is in part a local issue across the Egypt-Gaza border, but which is also a wider one given the regional and even global flow of arms that takes place. Those two points must be addressed if the humanitarian situation is to improve. However, as I have said consistently in previous debates, the suffering of the people of Gaza will not be alleviated unless in the long term a political solution is found, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1850 in December.
We must now look beyond the ceasefire and redouble our efforts on the peace process more broadly. There is an unprecedented degree of consensus on the way forward, from the Arab League, the US, the EU and the UN. The Arab peace initiative provides a platform for this. A further essential step will need to be an Arab-led process of Palestinian reconciliation. Again, I congratulate Egypt on its mediation efforts. Israel must also recognise and reward the progress already made in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority.
We meet today at a time when Gaza’s reconstruction and development is the most urgent priority task in front of us. But that is just a first step. Beyond it, the ceasefire, which holds precariously, must be made much more robust and durable, and beyond that still, if we are not to fall back into the cycle of violence and retribution of recent years and even decades, we must once more commit ourselves to the peace process. The early engagement in that regard of the new Administration in Washington is to be welcomed, as is that of the Arab neighbours. I beg to move.
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for his report on the Gaza conflict and his reflections on how anyone can move forward from this problem. Without doubt this is a hideous situation, and must be classed as an appalling tragedy. It may be just one in a long list of Middle East savagery and, despite the blotting out of up to 1,000 or so lives, small in the grim arithmetic of humanitarian calamities, but, none the less, it is particularly vivid and ugly, particularly avoidable, and particularly frustrating.
We reflect once again on how prevention is always better than cure in violent conflict—as Mr. Obama's new foreign policy team, rightly, keeps pointing out. But, of course, this time it was too late. Perhaps the most constructive thing that we can do at this stage, amid all the destruction, bloodshed and suffering, and amidst the still very fragile truce conditions, is to try to draw some lessons once again and hope that they can be applied to prevent yet another grim “next time”. Indeed, the Minister was seeking to do that.
Where might one start? First and most obviously, the international community still has a lot to learn about conflict prevention and the protection of civilians when conflict occurs. Despite the whole UN system—about which the Minister knows more than most of us—despite the many brave UN personnel involved on this occasion, despite the condemnations of the UN Secretary-General, despite the whole machinery of the Geneva conventions, and despite all the brave declarations of human rights, apparently nothing could be done to prevent families being burnt to death, industry and agriculture in the Gaza strip being extensively destroyed, infrastructure being deeply damaged and most aspects of normal life being torn apart. Of course the air is thick with accusations. The issue of war crimes is, as the Minister said, being investigated, but it is much too late for the many who are dead. The claim that phosphorous was used, inflicting terrible burns, also has to be investigated.
Secondly, it has to be recognised, and if possible understood, that both sides in this catastrophe were acting in a mood of desperation and fear. Israel could simply no longer tolerate having rockets of increasing range and power rained on civilians indiscriminately day after day after day. This morning there was a report that up to 10,000 rockets have been poured on Israeli towns. That was the Israeli stance and their outlook. For their part, the Hamas rulers of Gaza apparently believe that their only recourse or means of protest at the locking in of 1.5 million people in this tiny area was to keep firing regardless of the riposte it might bring or the way that it put innocent Palestinians right in the firing line, with tragic results, as we have seen.
Thirdly, both parties seemed to lose sight totally—they were not the only ones—of the need for an overarching commitment to a viable and unified Palestinian state. That is the declared objective of statesmen from the Oslo accords onwards, of the quartet and every would-be peacemaker in the region, and yet now it seems further away than ever.
Fourthly, one has to ask not just about the failure of the outside powers—the US and the EU—to prevent the slaughter but the question: where were the key regional actors in the run-up to all this? Surely an obvious lesson for the future is that from now on there must be a very much bigger and more substantial role for nearby countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—mentioned by the Minister—and the Gulf States, in handling the issues, in diplomatic endeavour, and of course in the economic and physical development and the recovery and rebuilding of Gaza. It is interesting to note that Turkey, in particular, has turned into one of Israel's harshest critics, sharing the very widespread judgment that a country that it was always close to, admired and worked with, had on this occasion indulged in a truly ferocious reaction, however sorely tried and provoked it had been.
We now have a string of Arab peace plans for Israel and Palestine, but surely the time for stately conferences and documents is over, and the time for decisive action on all fronts, diplomatic and directly supportive, has come.
What now is needed? The Minister has given us some of his thoughts; let me try to add to them. First, obviously, we need a ceasefire that holds. The Minister said that it must be robust. It is not robust this morning; this very morning, rockets were being fired into Israel. So that is asking a lot, but it is essential. Secondly, humanitarian assistance must go to Gaza on a massive and continuing scale to meet widespread misery, disease, hunger and water and sanitation problems. Thirdly, there needs to be an early agreement on a monitoring force to ensure that entry points for supplies are kept properly open, that tunnels are closed and that continuing rocket-firing is instantly pinpointed and halted.
Fourthly, and most importantly, we need to do everything possible to bolster Palestinian moderates—who are there, such as they are—and to begin to sew together again the Palestinian cause. In my view, that is the heart of the matter. With a united Palestinian cause, the whole process can move forward. If Israel can meet a united and responsible Palestine, with huge international support behind it, including ours, there can be progress with give on both sides and real pressure on Israel to pull back and stop further settlements and settler expansion. We hope that that can be stepped up by Mr Obama and his team among others. With Hamas and al-Fatah in a state of civil war, as now, still killing each other, none of that can be achieved. What are Palestine's real prospects if Hamas still stands between the Palestinians and the viable Palestine state that we all want to work for?
My final conclusion is that although we of course look to the new American Administration to play their part in both safeguarding and, at the same time, firmly restraining Israel, all outside intervention from the Western world will come to nought unless and until all the regional players throw their full and sustained weight behind a settlement, or at least a modus vivendi: an agreement to disagree but to live without constant violence.
We all know the excellent George Mitchell, Mr Obama's new appointee to the region. He will find the scene very different from Northern Ireland, where he did a wonderful job, but that is one formula for how to live while agreeing to disagree on which he may be able to build with the various faction leaders, although he gave a very pessimistic interview this morning about even that.
There are those who go further and say that the days of American, British, French or EU involvement and interest in the Middle East and its whole horror story are just over: we are no longer the major players. It is true that oil, which always used to be the reason cited for Western involvement, is now less significant as the world moves towards a new energy mix, but, in the global order of things, we all have what Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of the new appointees to the Obama team, calls a responsibility to protect. We, the British, can and must make a very significant contribution to restoring stability, basing it on our deep experience of how the Middle East works and sharing that experience with our American friends rather more vigorously and confidently than we have in the recent past. Incidentally, we can also speak to the other new world power centres, such as the rising Asian nations, rather more effectively than the Americans through such networks as the Commonwealth.
The United States now sees itself as part of a team working for peace and different patterns of democracy resting on different cultures—or that is how it needs to see itself, rather than seeking to shape the world according to American values, however worthy those are. The words that Mr Obama used in his inaugural address, “humility and restraint”, are indeed the qualities most required. That is the 21st century pattern: a network of mutually respectful nations that replaces the mindset of superpowers, top dogs and power blocs of the 20th century. If we all approach the immediate future in that spirit, there is just a chance that out of the rubble and spilt blood of Gaza some real progress may yet come.
My Lords, I was thinking about what I should say today as my wife and I attended the Leeds Holocaust Day last Sunday. It was quite an emotional experience. Young Muslims were talking about going to Auschwitz and thinking about the need to ensure that we all live together in peace in this country. The slogan under which the Leeds Holocaust Day met was, “Stand up to hatred”. That is what I suggest we all have to do. It is easy in the circumstances for people on both sides to be partisan and to give way to anger, to go from anger to hatred and to put all the blame on the other side. We may hear some of that in this debate.
We know, because we have been told, how appalling it has been to live in southern Israel, to have to live underground or inside with the threat of rocket attacks coming day by day. We shall hear that. Some may say that that justified what Israel did in Gaza. We will also no doubt hear from others who will say that the destruction of Gaza, with well over 1,000 people killed and many others wounded, the destruction of the university and schools, the killing of people close to and distantly, and the use of white phosphorus justifies revenge against Israel.
It is our responsibility in this country, as we come to terms with those two contradictory narratives of competitive victimhood, outsiders as we are, to talk to the partisans on both sides, to those to whom we feel emotionally most close to say: “Don’t give way to anger, hatred and revenge”. After all, this washes over into our country. In recent months, there have been some very worrying outbreaks of anti-Semitism, threats of renewed radicalisation in the Muslim community, and I have heard worrying rumours of what some imams are saying in some mosques. That is a threat to us and to the peace of our diverse democracy.
We have also seen some defensive drawing in within our Jewish community, feeling itself, as well as Israel, to be under attack. We need to say to the leaders of both communities in this country that they have to reach out, not draw in. The danger for us and for them is that we continue with the cycle of conflict: more embittered martyrdom on the Muslim side; and more—one has to say it—self-brutalising attitudes to conflict on the Israeli side. If the preservation of Israel can be assured only by massive and disproportionate attacks on its neighbours every few years, it will eventually be impossible to preserve Israel. Israelis cannot guarantee that they will win every time, and the cost of winning to Israeli society and Israel's reputation in the world and in the United States, on which it vitally depends for continuing support, will be too high.
I am very sorry that my noble friend Lady Falkner cannot be here today. Her brother died yesterday, and she had to fly immediately to the United States. We had agreed that I would be critical mainly of Israel and that she would be critical of the Muslim world, on which she has much greater expertise. I will now try to be critical of both.
We all feel much anger and sorrow about the immediate crisis, the destruction of Gaza. It is a tactical victory for Israel but, it seems to me, undeniably a strategic disaster. To hear Israelis glorying in how disproportionate their response has been is deeply worrying—there are those who would whisper about possible war crimes. As I listen to this, I recall what was said of Napoleon’s murder of the Duke of Enghien:
“This was worse than a crime, it was a mistake”.
It was a mistake that endangers the future of Israel.
Two weeks ago, some of us had lunch with the deputy leader of Likud, Silvan Shalom. We asked him repeatedly, “What is Israeli’s strategy? Where do you go from here? What do you do after you have destroyed Hamas?” and he kept not answering those questions. As I was finishing reading The Audacity of Hope some days afterwards, I thought that what Barack Obama writes about the United States applies to Israel:
“Without a well-articulated strategy that the … world understands, America”—
“will lack the legitimacy—and ultimately the power—it needs to make itself safer than it is today”.
How easy is it to defend Israel? Last week Ha’aretz published a survey of settlement on the West Bank, which stated that 75 per cent of settlements are built illegally on Palestinian-owned land. Yet the Israeli Government demolish Palestinian houses for which there is no permission. Is that acceptable within the best of the Jewish tradition, which many of us cherish so much? There are rumours about troop behaviour towards the Palestinians both in Gaza and on the West Bank, some of which are sadly likely to be true, and very hard evidence of fundamentalist settlers behaving in a totally unacceptable fashion towards their Palestinian neighbours. We have the rise of Netanyahu and Lieberman. It was Netanyahu who made that dreadful Faustian pact with the nastiest version of Christian fundamentalism in the United States in order that they could avoid facing up to the need for withdrawal from what right-wing Israelis call Judea and Samaria and what we like to call the West Bank and Palestine.
Ellen Dahrehdorf, of Independent Jewish Voices, said to me last week that she fears that this conflict is leading to a coarsening of Israeli society and a brutalisation of its younger generation to a point where, she says, some of us will not think that the Israel to which we were committed is any longer our Israel. Any true friend of Israel in Britain now, therefore, has to be a critical friend. It does not help to give in to the demand that we should support the dreadful mistakes that the Israeli army and Government have made, thrashing out in their frustration and confusion.
On the other side, we also have to ask how easy it is to defend Hamas or Hezbollah and the romanticism of violence which they and their supporters proclaim. How easy is it to defend those Arab regimes which put off reform because they find it easy to blame the West for the ills of the Muslim world rather than tackle the problems of modernising societies, economies and Islam itself? The Saudi pact with Wahhabism is itself part of the problem.
So what is to be done? Looking at the Anglo-Israel Association’s magazine the other week, I was struck by an excellent article by Amnon Aran, written just before the current conflict, in which he says that the Arab peace initiative,
“constitutes the most conciliatory pan-Arab position towards Israel since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict”.
He said that it is an opportunity that Israel could, and should, seize before the window of opportunity that appeared in the early 1990s closes for good.
We need to widen the framework for resolving this conflict, to get beyond Gaza and beyond Israel and Palestine, and to talk about the Middle East as a whole. We need to talk to Syria and to bring in Hamas—that is not so shocking; Israeli has already been talking, indirectly, to Hamas. That is what happens with the Egyptians acting as mediators in the room. We need to bring in external pressure from all sides, not just from what we conventionally call the international community, by which we mean the West; as far as possible, we must involve Russia and, if we can, India and China. There is a need for tough talking to both sides, particularly Israel, since it has been the occupying power for 40 years and is currently the dominant power, and to move with, we hope, at last a constructive American Administration towards the settlement that we desperately need, which will give us a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel in a more peaceful Middle East.
My Lords, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I want to view Gaza against the wider background, because there cannot be stability in that area until there is a long-term comprehensive settlement. Only that settlement can stop this endless cycle of destruction followed by reconstruction.
I first visited the Middle East aged 11, in 1947, and have revisited the area many times since, the most recent being last week as a guest of the Government of Kuwait. It is sobering to think that throughout the lifetime of all of us we have witnessed the steady and almost ineluctable deterioration in Palestine. It is worth reminding ourselves that it was 100 years ago that the early Jewish settlements served as a warning signal of the land disputes to come. The Balfour Declaration then followed, which referred to the creation of a Jewish homeland but also said that,
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
It was possibly a rather careless declaration.
In 1937, a year after my birth, a royal commission in this country concluded:
“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country”.
We are familiar with the steady deterioration since then: the end of the British mandate in 1948; the war in 1956; the war in 1967; and all that followed, with the illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory, the intifadas and the ever-increasing cycle of destruction and extremism.
The result, it seems to me, is that endeavouring to satisfy a gross injustice done to the Jews in Europe, and elsewhere for that matter, has in itself resulted in a gross injustice to Palestinians over a relatively tiny area of land. It has created a kind of cancer, which is spreading outwards, destabilising the Middle East and affecting Europe too, with, for example, the Muslim outrage that we now see and the deplorable anti-Semitism that we have seen in recent times.
Nobody comes out of this well. First, the Israelis, with their aggressive form of self-defence, grabbing land illegally and not appearing to care for Palestinians, take a very self-defeating approach. Secondly, the Palestinians themselves, as Abba Eban said, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity: There has been no leadership—no Mandela in that area—and they are as divided as ever. Then there is the wider Arab world, which is divided, destabilised, often radicalised and lacking in leadership. Lastly, there is the international community. We do not escape criticism, of course, because we have played a major part in this issue, but the lack of even-handedness on the part of the United States has had disastrous consequences. Now we have a new challenging opportunity, provided by President Obama, to move forward, and in a region that Prince Turki al-Faisal recently described as a “basket full of snakes”.
Vision, courage and determination are now required from all parties to work tirelessly towards a comprehensive settlement in a two-state solution. From the United States, unprecedented leadership is needed to bring Israel to understand that its security and its future depend on recognising and dealing with the injustices done to the Palestinians, and that an alternative to a two-state solution could be much worse for it. The United States must be prepared to use what influence it has with Israel—$3 billion a year is not a puny sum—to try to influence it and lead Congress in the right direction. The European Union at the moment needs to be out front while the United States works out its policies, led particularly by the United Kingdom and France in taking whatever initiatives are necessary and particularly in working with our Arab friends and the Palestinians to create a more positive climate.
I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the Arab world must respond to President Obama’s new approach by working together to influence the Palestinians. In Kuwait, which held the economic summit the week before last, there was a massive effort by our friends in the Gulf to create unity about the Arab peace plan of 2002, which some want to drop. They only just managed to keep unity among the Arab states on that plan.
The United Kingdom and Her Majesty’s Government must not underestimate the value of our long-standing links with our friends not only in Egypt and Saudi Arabia but particularly in the Gulf states. We must work vigorously with them. I agree with the view expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Howell, that we must also work with Syria and Turkey and talk to Iran to strengthen the forces of moderation. However, the pressure on the Palestinians to unite must come from the leaders of the Arab world. If the Palestinians want a future at all, they must be persuaded to unite to work through collective leadership; at the moment, they are bitterly divided between Hamas and Fatah. Obviously the main ingredients must be a two-state solution, borders that are broadly in line with the pre-1967 war borders, compensation for refugees in one form or another, stopping new settlements and removing all existing settlements as part of the eventual settlement. Jerusalem must be divided or become an international city.
We in Parliament are entitled to demand a vigorous lead from Her Majesty’s Government, remembering that we played a major role in creating this problem. Her Majesty’s Government must speak frankly and openly to our friends in the United States about what we believe is needed. The alternatives are too terrible to contemplate. Jews and Palestinians must be persuaded that there is a better and more secure future for them, and we must do our utmost to help them to create trust between the two parties.
I end by quoting the words of Martti Ahtisaari, who recently achieved the Nobel Peace Prize. On 10 December, he said:
“Peace is a question of will. All conflicts can be settled, and there are no excuses for allowing them to become eternal”.
It will be a long hard haul, but I hope and pray that in my lifetime we will make some progress.
My Lords, I was enormously grateful to the Minister for beginning by talking about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It underlines for me, as a former chair of Christian Aid, the universal importance in our country of the DEC appeal and the need for it to be properly publicised. This is urgent. May I also say that I am president of the English Friends of Sabeel, which is a Christian organisation in the Holy Land that is working on the issues of Palestinian liberation?
I shall pick up where the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, left off towards the end of his speech. Those of us who have been to the Holy Land will know the experience of passing through checkpoints on the West Bank that are staffed by young Israeli men and women who are barely out of school and controlling people old enough to be their grandparents. It makes you wonder what we are doing to the next generation of people and what people are thinking who have been involved in firing from tanks into Gaza, which has left young children and women dead or injured for life. There is a brutalising effect in all this. Then I think of the 1.5 million people on the Gaza Strip, half of whom are under the age of 21, I guess. What has happened to them now that thousands of their children have been traumatised by violence and brutality? Is the Minister aware of anything that is being done to help that generation with the anger and the trauma that they have experienced?
Every situation is different—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell—but I am reminded of what we experienced in the north of Ireland during the days of the Troubles. We are bound to say, are we not, that no one can win? Both sides may have claimed to have won this conflict, but in fact both have lost. In the midst are millions of people across the community who long for peace but who are locked in conflict. Do not many of us around this House have Jewish friends in Israel and friends among Palestinians? We know that both sides take a totally different view, and that millions of people long for peace on both sides. That means, as noble Lords have said, that we have to return to a political process that must include all parties.
Diplomacy is clearly the starting point, and is surely geared to turning diversity and difference to the task of peace with justice. Ways must be found to bring to the table all, including those to whom some say they will never speak. Diplomacy behind the scenes, whatever the rhetoric up front, clears the ground to make that possible, and I wonder how the international community is thinking of strategies for enabling that diplomatic task to succeed.
Clearly we must use all the strength of our present international community to insist that the parties negotiate a solution. Whatever is said about the wider international community, we all know that the behaviour of the new American Administration will be critical in all this. The friend of Israel must now become an honest broker in this dispute. There are some promising signals, not least the difficult agenda that Barack Obama has opened up in carrying forward his desire to open up negotiations with Tehran. By crossing these divides, the international community can begin to pull the parties to the table. We know that that will sometimes involve them coming kicking and screaming to the table, but the international community must use its influence and power to achieve that task.
I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for saying this from these Benches, but alongside and within this process it is vital that the powerful voices of the faith traditions in the Middle East are brought to bear on this task. Again, when I was last in the region, everyone said that one of the problems with the Oslo accords in the 1990s was that they excluded the faith traditions, which was a mistake. We must mount ourselves over the fantasies that many have that all religious Jews in Israel are fanatical right wingers, that all leaders of Islam are potential terrorists and that the leaders of the Christian Church spend their time arguing about who controls the holy sites. It is time we got out of this mode and got to the substance of the contribution that they and other people behind the political leaders can contribute as community leaders in creating a climate which encourages the process to peace.
Everyone must insist that progress towards a just solution can happen only when the missiles remain on the ground and the tanks remain silent. Of course, we have to be patient and not allow those who want to use violence to knock us off course from doing so in the task of bringing peace. The appalling scenes that we have witnessed in Gaza bring an urgency to the task. It is made more vital by the growing disenchantment among Palestinian people with the two-state solution. That adds an urgency to recovering some sense of hopefulness. A vacuum could open up in the political process, which, to use the biblical New Testament metaphor, if it is not filled, seven worse devils could enter it quite quickly and we could find ourselves worse off. Only the international community can bring hope into all of this. Not only do the people of Gaza need their lives and homes rebuilt, confidence needs patiently to be rebuilt. With it, there needs to be a focus on peace and justice, from which all of us should refuse to be diverted.
My Lords, when speaking about Gaza too many people—although, this morning, with the very notable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Luce—speak as though history began in 1967. But under UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947, which set out the partition of mandated Palestine, Gaza was given to the proposed Arab state. Although not giving either side all that it wanted, the Jewish Agency accepted the resolution and partition, the Arab League rejected it.
On 14 May 1948, the mandate ended and the state of Israel was proclaimed. On 15 May, the regular armies of Syria, Transjordan, Iraq and Egypt crossed the Palestine boundaries to attack the Jewish forces. At the end of the fighting, Israel had established sovereignty over 8,000 square miles of mandated Palestine west of the Jordan. The remaining 2,000 square miles were divided between Transjordan and Egypt.
I shall concentrate on Gaza, our interest today. Egypt took control, but did not annex Gaza, and ruled it harshly. Some 250,000 Palestinian refugees herded into Gaza were kept stateless. Egypt did not give them citizenship, nor did it allow them free entry into Egypt proper. Most of them lived in refugee camps run by UNRWA and their 1.5 million descendants are still largely dependent on UNRWA for food.
I first visited Gaza in August 1967, when Israel had taken control only a few weeks before. As I have said before in this House, I found Gaza an absolute hellhole. It is not easy to understand, and it is even more difficult to forgive, how prosperous Arab countries allowed their Palestinian brethren to live in such wretched conditions from 1948 to 1967. While we all welcome the current pledge of $1 billion from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, as mentioned by the Minister, does he agree that progress in the Middle East peace process depends now on much more practical and active participation from Arab countries, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell? There needs to be more humanitarian aid and more active political support for the Palestinian Authority.
There have been many and varied charges levied against Israel over the most recent conflict in Gaza, and the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe. Before dealing with some of the specifics, I should like to echo the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who I hope will forgive me for paraphrasing him. On 21 January, he advised against using words like condemnation without investigation and proof. He also explained that bad experiences had made Israel sceptical of international opinion, since unfounded allegations were given maximum publicity, which, when they were refuted, were not given the same kind of publicity.
An example that illustrates perfectly both of those points is the alleged Israeli rocket attack on the UNRWA school, which killed 43 civilians who had taken refuge in the school compound—that was the story. As the Canadian Globe and Mail has reported—very few other newspapers have—physical evidence and interviews with several eye witnesses, including a teacher who was in the school yard at the time of the shelling, made clear that all three mortar shells landed in the street outside the quite large compound of the school. Indeed, 43 people were killed, but that did not include anyone who was inside the UNRWA school compound.
One of the UN officers got the story right very briefly when he said that,
“three artillery shells landed outside the UNRWA Jabalia Prep C Girls School”.
But the correct version did not last long. It appeared never to have reached the international media. So is it any wonder that Israelis do not trust it?
I have a lot of detailed briefing and notes on white phosphorus. But time—perhaps to the relief of your Lordships—means that I cannot read them all and I will not try. Let me just say that Israel denies any illegal use of white phosphorous. On 13 January, the International Red Cross said that Israel was firing white phosphorus shells during its operations in the Gaza Strip, but had no evidence to suggest that the incendiary agent was used improperly or illegally. Peter Herby, the head of the Red Cross Mines Arms Unit, told the Associated Press:
“In some of the strikes in Gaza it’s pretty clear that phosphorus was used … But it’s not very unusual to use phosphorus to create smoke or illuminate a target. We have no evidence to suggest it’s being used in any other way”.
Mr Herby also said that using phosphorus to illuminate a target or create smoke is legitimate under international law and that there was no evidence that Israel was intentionally using phosphorus in a questionable way, such as burning down buildings or consciously putting civilians at risk.
No civilised army ever wants civilian casualties. From our experience in Afghanistan, we should know the problems for a disciplined army which is trying its best to avoid civilian casualties, against an enemy which deliberately uses its own people as human shields. British and American forces often abort operations, but still cause civilian casualties. Israelis also abort, but in Gaza, Israel is often in the position where, unlike in Afghanistan, it must take the target and does not have the choice of returning to it on another day.
A leading expert in international law who visited the Gaza region on 13 January said that Hamas is a “case study par excellence” of a systematic violation of international humanitarian law. Irwin Cotler, a Canadian former Justice Minister, a Canadian MP and a law professor at McGill University, said:
“What is happening in Gaza is a tragedy. But there has to be moral and legal clarity as to responsibility. When Israel responds and civilians are killed because Israel is targeting an area from which rockets were launched, then it is Hamas which bears responsibility for the deaths, and not Israel, according to international law”.
Over eight years, Israel warned again and again, with 5,000 rockets raining down on its civilians in south Israel—what some people have called an ugly game of Iranian roulette—to no avail. How long is any country, let alone a democracy, expected to let its civilian population suffer that? Just over a year ago, I visited Sderot, which was the victim of so many of those rockets. A scheduled meeting with some of the leaders of mothers’ organisations was cancelled because they were off on buses to Jerusalem. They went to demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s office, telling him what they thought of him for allowing their children to be subjected to the stress, strain and threat of death almost every day, and to demand of him: where was their army? A senior Israeli politician from the area said to me, “I can’t look these people in the eye, especially the mothers. Some of them were settlers removed forcibly by our army, and I promised them that it was to bring peace to the area. What can I say to them now?”.
I finish by saying that the Palestinian population of Gaza has been exploited since 1948. It is hardly to be wondered that in desperation the people have allowed the monster of Hamas, funded by Iran, to emerge. Let us hope that out of this latest humanitarian tragedy to befall them, a good future can emerge with everyone, including moderate Arab countries, contributing to their success.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness who has just spoken and the noble Lord, Lord Luce, I begin with a brief personal observation. Fairly recently, I had the great privilege of serving for eight years as chairman of the British Lebanese Association, and in that time I had the opportunity to meet many people from the countries of the Middle East, including distinguished leaders and opinion formers. It was a very worthwhile experience. Long before that, more than 50 years ago, I visited Israel as a guest of the Government. I had the experience of staying in a kibbutz and saw the wonderful programme of the greening of the desert, including the planting of thousands and thousands of trees, and imaginative irrigation schemes. Hopes were then high for the future of the state of Israel, but today one may be forgiven for feeling deeply despondent.
Speaking on 4 November 2006 in Tel Aviv, David Grossman recalled the work of Yitzhak Rabin, who came so close to agreeing a settlement with the Palestinians. David Grossman explained how, in his view, the state of Israel had wasted,
“the great and rare chance bestowed upon it by history, the chance to create an enlightened, decent, democratic state that would conduct itself according to Jewish and universal values … An essential part of the Jewish identity of this state, of its Jewish ethos, was to be a thoroughly egalitarian and respectful attitude toward its non-Jewish citizens”—
a point made by the right reverend Prelate—
“And look what has happened”.
It is difficult to speak in moderate terms about the horrendous events in Gaza, and frankly I do not think that we should speak in moderate terms because they were horrendous and totally unjustifiable actions by Israel. It is claimed that what was done was a justified response to the very real suffering inflicted by years of mindless assault from Hamas rockets and suicide bombers. It is also argued that if, after repeated warnings from Israel, the rockets continued, revenge would be swift and terrible. But that was not the only course open to Israel; the sword could have stayed in the scabbard. There could have been a major effort to engage in diplomacy and negotiation. There should certainly have been some understanding of the enormous sense of frustration felt on the part of the Palestinians, who for years have been the victims of Israeli encroachment and who have experienced little but humiliation at the hands of their neighbours. This has resulted in a steady escalation of violence.
The timing of the Israeli action was no accident. The Israeli Government knew that they were free to act because they had the tacit consent of the United States Administration. The assault on Gaza was, I believe, seen in the USA to be a necessary step in America’s worldwide war on terror. Neither Israel nor America seems to have learnt anything from the disastrous Israeli incursions into Lebanon in 2006. That resulted in the rise of Hezbollah and a heavy loss of civilian life. As the Minister referred to the injuries still being inflicted by mines and unexploded artillery in Gaza, he should know that the same is still happening in Lebanon today, where unexploded mines and cluster bombs are causing deaths and injuries to civilians. To our shame, the British Government were as complicit as that of America in letting the Israeli attack on Lebanon proceed without check and without criticism. This time, in Gaza, America has also been silent as women and children have been slaughtered, and hospitals and safe havens destroyed. Both the US President and the then President-elect kept quiet. It is deeply worrying that the pro-Israel lobby has such a stranglehold on US policy. American leaders appear unwilling to give voice to the smallest note of criticism lest they be accused of anti-Semitism and risk losing valuable electoral support.
In the case of the latest Gaza war, the US actually went beyond just being a passive observer. It was probably Israel’s major source of military materiel. Even at the height of the assault on Gaza, America was supplying Israel with deadly weapons from its arsenal, some of them stored at Lakenheath. Reference has already been made to the white phosphorous shells used, but also used were flechette shells which disperse thousands of darts, causing horrendous injuries. Together they burnt and decimated indiscriminately. Also widely used by Israel in heavily populated areas was a bomb called the Dime. As the Independent on Sunday of 25 January made clear, dense inert metal explosives are designed to spray superheated micro-shrapnel comprised of powdered heavy metal tungsten alloy. That substance, HMTA, is chemically toxic; it damages the immune system, rapidly causes cancer, and is genotoxic in that it attacks the DNA. Dime bombs appear to have their roots in depleted uranium research. I find that extremely worrying. Their deployment in the conditions of Gaza should be universally and unequivocally condemned. As Professor Avi Shlaim of Oxford University wrote on 26 January in a letter to the Guardian:
“Gaza was not even a war in the conventional sense of the word; it was one-sided carnage”.
What is to be done now? My noble friend Lord Howell and the Minister have already indicated steps that need to be taken: lift the blockade, open the crossings, seal and destroy the tunnels, restore water supplies and sewage treatment, release the prisoners, including the Palestinian legislators and Corporal Shalit, end the settlements and interpose independent monitors to ensure proper and humanitarian treatment at crossing points and checkpoints. Of course there have to be talks, and the process that is under way is extremely welcome, but these talks need to be engaged by those inside Hamas as well as those inside Israel. I hope the voices of moderation will persist.
I conclude by again quoting the distinguished author, David Grossman. In the New Statesman of 2 February, addressing his fellow Jewish citizens, he wrote,
“when the magnitude of the killing and the devastation become apparent to all … Maybe then we will finally understand something deep and fundamental—that our conduct here in this region has, for a long time, been flawed, immoral and unwise. In particular, it time and again fans the flames that consume us”.
That is a lesson that needs to be learnt, not only in Israel but also in America.
My Lords, I am the president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. I took over the role from the noble Lord, Lord Steel; it is a role that has circulated between persons in the different political parties. MAP enjoys the support of many people in this country and many within the Jewish community. I, too, have a long and deep relationship with Israelis. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, in her interpretation of history but I believe in the right of Israel to exist.
The scale of the catastrophe arising out of Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza is now abundantly clear. In the very first hours of the bombardment of this tiny but densely populated strip of land, hospitals struggled to cope, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead and critically wounded. The morgues were overflowing and the injured lay on hospital floors bleeding to death. The Gaza co-ordinator of MAP described the scene at al-Shifa Hospital in those first hours as follows:
“there were corpses in the corridors of the hospital. The injured were lying on the floor. There were mothers and fathers looking for children and relatives. Medics and families alike were in a state of panic and confusion as more and more injured and dead arrived. Dead bodies were laid out in the street outside the hospital. Once identified by the family, the hospital staff told families to take the bodies away immediately; there was simply no space. The injured were lying there asking God to let them die”.
Despite the horrors of those first hours, the escalating death toll and the clearly disproportionate use of military force against civilians, there were no international calls for a ceasefire at that time. That should be a source of regret to all.
It is clear that during the assault on Gaza there was a failure to ensure the protection of medical facilities and emergency personnel, alongside documented instances of what appear to be direct targeting of hospitals, clinics and emergency medical personnel. If there was direct targeting, that would be a violation of international and humanitarian law and there will have to be an inquiry into whether it happened.
Hospitals were damaged in attacks in the first days, seemingly purely as an ancillary effect of overall events. In the days that followed, however, a number of other bombings also caused alarm. The first that I shall mention occurred on 5 January, in an air strike at the A Raiya Medical Centre. The centre is in a residential area, not close to any military installations or government buildings, and yet it was bombed and almost totally destroyed.
In the early hours of 11 January, a medical centre of the Near East Council of Churches, supported by British and other European charities including Christian Aid, was destroyed in a direct hit. The building was completely razed to the ground and its equipment and medical supplies destroyed.
On 15 January, simultaneous attacks took place on hospitals across the Gaza Strip, on a day when the United Nations compound also suffered. Al-Wafa Hospital, the only rehabilitation hospital in the entire Gaza Strip, sustained a direct hit. Al-Fata Hospital was also hit, and, further south, reports started to come in that the European hospital was completely surrounded by ground troops. This created panic among the patients and staff.
On that day, however, al-Quds Hospital suffered the most. Located in the Tel el Hawa neighbourhood of Gaza City, it was attacked and besieged. The hospital was on fire for hours, and the fire was spreading, but fire trucks were not given direct access to it. The hospital sent out increasingly horrific distress calls, which MAP workers received, as people were unable to reach premature babies in incubators and patients in the intensive care unit.
Another concern is that the military did not seem to allow for the immediate evacuation of all the wounded, civilian and non-civilian alike, so that they could reach medical treatment. From the beginning of the Israeli ground invasion, medical teams were repeatedly prevented from gaining access to areas of the Gaza Strip. They were delayed for critical days and hours, and even when prior co-ordination with the army was achieved our medical teams could still not get in. The ICRC was reporting a number of deaths caused by the denial of timely medical access and evacuation. In one such incident, after being prevented access for four days, ICRC field teams reached the Zaitoun area of Gaza City, where they found four young children, weak and near starvation, huddled together beside the dead bodies of their mothers and 12 other corpses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, raised the issue of whether white phosphorus was used in ways that contravene international law. Again, there has to be an inquiry and investigation into how it was used and whether there is any question of contravention.
The massive bombardment continued and intensified over the three weeks. The Israeli military seemed to widen the range of what it described as a legitimate target. According to one senior Israeli official:
“There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel”.
Although it is absolutely right that Israel was being bombarded with these weapons by Hamas, we should always bear in mind the question of proportionality. Any investigation will have to address the issue of what is proportionate and right in self-defence.
I agree with noble Lords who have said that there were avenues for speaking with Hamas. We have to talk if we want to resolve conflicts. The bombardment may have stopped for now but the war on Palestinian civilians seems to continue. The blockade, which has been the cause of great suffering among Palestinian civilians, continues.
We have also not paid much attention to the fact that, while our attention was on the destruction of Gaza, settlement construction on the West Bank and in Jerusalem continued unabated. That is one of the issues. After Israel withdrew from Gaza—a gesture which gave hope to many watching from outside, and which was presented as such—settlement construction continued unabated. Palestinians despaired of any hope of a state of their own.
I have had the great privilege of meeting and knowing Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer. He gave me as a gift a book entitled Help Us to Divorce. It is really about how one seeks to resolve this great tragedy—and it is a tragedy, in the ancient and most precise sense of the word.
What is needed is imagination, the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of the other. The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian people. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world where the Jews, as a people and as a nation, could ever call their home. As individuals, yes, but as a people and as a nation—no. So both sets of people have rights. One of the components of this tragedy, an aspect that has a certain irony about it, is the fact that many Israeli Jews do not recognise how deep is the Palestinian emotional connection to the land, and many Palestinians fail to recognise just how deep is the Jewish connection to the same land.
There has to be compromise, but compromise is not defeat. Compromise means life; compromise means pain. It means the end to certain dreams—dreams of the right of return, dreams of a greater Israel. But people have to contain some of their dreams if there is to be resolution. The Palestinians will have to sacrifice parts that used to be their own, pre-1948, and that is going to hurt like hell. But the Israelis will have to end this construction of settlements and withdraw behind the pre-1967 lines.
This should no longer be a discussion in which people have to choose whether they are pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. This is a discussion where people should be talking about being pro-peace.
My Lords, I managed to secure a one-hour debate on Gaza on 21 January. Almost 40 people put their names down to speak. Therefore, it was decided that there needed to be a second debate. That was scheduled for 27 January. Once again, so many people wished to speak that the time allotted was insufficient, and it was decided that we should sit for an extra day today just to discuss Gaza. I welcome that.
On almost every other day since we came back after the new year, there has been a Statement, debate or Question on what is happening in Israel/Palestine, and there have been numerous Written Questions. That shows our level of concern about what has been happening in the Middle East and the determination that we have to be at a crossroads. We cannot, for the sake of the Palestinians and the Israelis, the region and the wider world, let things continue as they were.
We have heard already how disproportionate and surely counterproductive Israel’s actions have been, from the very moving speech of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire and from others. There is blame going back and forth as to why the attacks happened. Of course rockets should not be fired into Israel, and Israel has a right to security. But on the other side, Israel had broken the ceasefire agreement of the summer by not lifting the blockade of Gaza, a point made recently by Sir Jeremy Greenstock and others.
The life and economy of Gaza was being throttled by that blockade. The pounding of Gaza, the use of white phosphorus, the killing of so many civilians, the bombing of schools, the flattening of industrial areas, the tearing through of agricultural land, olive groves, the university, and the American school, the slaughtering of all the animals in the zoo and the devastation of homes—how can that have been proportionate? It would be like flattening Belfast because the IRA detonated bombs at Victoria station. We all know that the casualty rate in Gaza was 100 times that of Israel. We hear of mosques seemingly used as target practice, with the tops of minarets shot off. What was this—young recruits out of control? Were they trying to cripple the economy, break people’s spirits?
John Ging of UNRWA spoke of the biggest casualty being the mindset of the people and of this fuelling a sense of injustice. The Gazans were cynical about the rule of law and the prospects for accountability; there was a disconnect between the rhetoric of the international community and the reality of what had just happened; if the target was meant to be military, it had not been hit, and instead they had hit the economic structure—jute factories, biscuit factories and a Pepsi factory, with tanks tearing up farmland.
With resolve and urgency, the international community must enable people to have confidence in the rule of law. Of course that must apply to both sides. What is happening to carry out independent investigation of what happened and what arrangements will be made for any found responsible to be held to account? If we cannot demonstrate that the rule of law matters and will protect people, then how do we counter extremism and radicalisation?
Gaza was in a desperate situation because of the siege; now it needs even more help. Humanitarian aid is waiting in the ports; crossings are closed. That has to extend to paper and books for destroyed schools. The children of conflict are always damaged; they and their families must see normality, with schooling resuming. But Israeli Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog has said:
“There is no problem, no backlog, no problem of inflow of products and services for humanitarian nature into Gaza”.
That is utterly at variance with what we are hearing from UNRWA, Save the Children, UNICEF, Christian Aid and all the other NGOs trying to get sufficient aid in. What efforts are the Government making to get Israel to allow unfettered humanitarian access?
We hear how Hamas has stolen goods, which is clearly unacceptable. But how difficult have we made things in Gaza by not allowing the elected Government there to take part in the distribution of aid? Does it make sense to involve only the Palestinian Authority in doing so?
By supporting Fatah against Hamas, the Palestinians’ ability to speak with one voice has been undermined. One has to ask: in whose interest is that? Hamas was elected and its MPs jailed. It has to be part of the solution, and set aside the pre-conditions, with the exception already agreed, of setting aside violence. Recognising Israel is its last card. One has to acknowledge that Fatah did that and feels that it got little in return. Too often demands are made of the Palestinians without demanding that other conditions, such as withdrawing from the settlements, opening crossings and respect for human rights, are observed by the Israelis. That perceived lack of balance risks fuelling the feeling among Palestinians that negotiation is not the way forward, and that terrible conclusion is in no one’s interests, especially the Israelis’.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock said about Hamas:
“This is a regime about which a lot of inaccurate statements are made, particularly by the Israeli and Washington governments. It is not beholden to Iran …. They are not trying to set up a Taliban-style government in Gaza …. They are not intent on the destruction of Israel. That is a rhetorical statement of resistance”.
It was said that the conflict in Northern Ireland would never be solved—it had lasted 400 years. But it is amazing what change was brought about with economic progress north and south and by engaging with all parties.
There are some causes for optimism in a very difficult situation. The election of President Obama and the appointment of George Mitchell, with his long experience of Northern Ireland, are encouraging. I remember hearing George Mitchell speak in the House of Lords a while back and, as ever, I took full notes. He pointed out the self-evident truth that all conflicts can be ended. He said:
“Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings”.
He pointed out that it plays into the hands of those who do not want peace to stop negotiations if violence occurs. He saw a high correlation in Northern Ireland between unemployment and violence. These people, he said, had no hope. As he also said:
“Despair is the fuel for instability and conflict everywhere”.
That is surely why the destruction of the West Bank and Gaza economies is so counterproductive. People have to feel that they and their families on either side of this conflict have the prospect of hope, security and prosperity. Mitchell stated that the Israelis were living in unbearable fear and anxiety and that the Palestinians want a state. In his view, neither side could reach its objective by denying the objective of the other. Those are surely very wise words.
This week, I found myself just behind Martin McGuinness and two of his guests as we all came out of the Commons cafeteria. They stopped to enjoy the wonderful sight of Parliament’s Terrace in the snow. It was such a human emotion for such a person in such a place. Who would have credited the possibility of that a decade or two ago? That encapsulates where we want to be.
Conflicts such as this dehumanise people on either side. So often, one side simply demonises the other, and we have heard about that. Yet despite different faiths and histories, it can only be through dialogue and, indeed, through one side putting itself in the shoes of the other, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, put it, that compromises can be reached and progress made.
We are, I hope, at a crossroads. As the new spotlight moves on, we must not. We surely recognise that it is only through very strong international pressure that difficult compromises will now be made. Without that, Israel will never be secure; the Palestinians will never have a prosperous united state; neither side will have justice; and the potential risks to them, the region and the wider world will be all the more dangerous. That affects us all.
My Lords, I hope that I shall not do irreparable damage to the reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, if I say that I agree with virtually every word of his remarkable and balanced intervention in this debate. Perhaps I may also say to my noble friend Lord Luce that his very wise words about keeping close to our friends in the Gulf and talking to Iran brought back memories of the remarkable activities of his father, Sir William Luce, in the Gulf in 1971, when he made a signal contribution to the safe withdrawal of our military forces from the Gulf.
I make no apology for reverting today to a question that I have put many times to the Minister. Why are we not talking to Hamas? The Minister is no doubt briefed to reply that there is agreement within the quartet on the conditions which must be met before any of us can talk with what is still regarded as a fanatical Islamist terrorist group.
I have three questions to put to the Minister. First, is he not aware that the envoy of the quartet, Mr Tony Blair, has now publicly—and, I hope, privately, in his meetings this week with senior members of President Obama’s Administration—expressed the view that we should talk to Hamas? Indeed, there are strong indications that other members of the quartet are already doing just that.
Secondly, does he not accept that Hamas and its elected representatives are the effective authority in Gaza, in so far as any authority can operate effectively in that tragically damaged environment? Is our refusal to talk to that authority not delaying or blocking what the Minister referred to as the flow of aid, either humanitarian or for reconstruction, which Her Majesty’s Government are donating to the people of Gaza? The Minister referred to the presence of Sir John Holmes in Gaza. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is not constrained as a member of the quartet—because the United Nations is a member of the quartet—and that he is able to have effective contacts with the elected authority; that is, Hamas.
Thirdly, does the Minister not accept that, however much we may deplore the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, as I am sure does the whole House, the responsibility for the repeated breakdown of the ceasefire lies on both sides of the border? There is, I think, no doubt that the ceasefire agreed in December was broken by an unpublicised incursion by the Israel Defence Forces, timed to coincide with the publicity surrounding the United States presidential election. Can the Minister confirm the headlines in the Lebanese press last week; namely, that Hamas had offered the Israelis a one-year ceasefire, but that it had been rejected on the grounds that Israel wanted a ceasefire of one year and a half? But do Israeli politicians really want that? It hardly squares with Mr Netanyahu’s promise this week that, if he is successful in the forthcoming elections, he will destroy Hamas—the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked what Israel’s strategy was; so much for that.
It is high time that we recognise Hamas for what it is: a democratically elected resistance movement, with a readiness to talk, which draws its popular support from deep resentment, not only of the continued and expanding occupation of Palestinian territory but also of the appalling conditions under which the populations of both Gaza and the West Bank are forced to live.
My Lords, these are very difficult times for both Israel and the Palestinian world, both of which I visit often. Early last month, I was in the south of Israel, when Hamas rockets were fired—to which the noble Lord, Lord Wright, correctly referred—and one had 15 seconds to get down into an air raid shelter. After one of those attacks, I was taken to the place where the rocket had landed. It had destroyed two cars and the side of a building. Mercifully, nobody had been hurt, but I went past one of the cars and found a tail-light reflector and a piece of the bomb. I have kept them with me ever since as reminders of what this conflict is about. It is all very well making statements about how Governments should get on well and work together, but the reality so far as Israelis in the southern part of the country were concerned was that the bombs were coming all the time, they were dangerous all the time, and they could not come to an arrangement whereby they would not come.
That was partly because the bombs were supplied by Iran. It could not be clearer that Iran plays a crucial and central part in perpetuating the conflict and creates great instability in the Middle East. Its sponsorship and support of Hamas and other terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah are clear and we all know of it. Israel had in my view to act in defence of its own citizens and was right to do so.
That said, we should all be concerned by the humanitarian situation faced by the people of Gaza, and I commend the action taken by Her Majesty's Government, and the efforts of our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and the United Nations Security Council. I welcome the threefold increase in humanitarian aid given by the Government to Gaza. I hope that its delivery will be swift and effective. However, can the Minister explain how Hamas can be prevented from diverting items entering the strip which have a dual use and using them to rebuild its weapons arsenal?
It is clear that Hamas is deeply obsessed with the destruction of the State of Israel. I quote its charter:
“There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility”.
Hamas’s conduct during the conflict betrays a complete disregard for the people on whose behalf the jihad that it refers to is being held. The widespread use of human shields, the deliberate setting of traps in civilian buildings and the firing from civilian institutions to invite return fire are all despicable examples of its behaviour. They indicate the extremely difficult environment in which the Israel Defence Forces have been operating. Civilian casualties are completely and entirely regrettable, but sadly, in those situations, inevitable.
Noble Lords may know that the fighting in Gaza has had a most worrying effect on the level of anti-Semitism in this country. The Community Security Trust received reports of more than 250 incidents during the conflict. One was reported today in the Jewish Chronicle. It involved a 12 year-old Jewish girl surrounded by 20 young people shouting, “Death to Jews”. There is an overflow that requires watching. This, of course, is inexcusable. I know that our Government, particularly the Department for Communities and Local Government, are working closely with the Jewish community to ensure that conflict in the Middle East does not result in anti-Semitic attacks here in Britain. I also welcome statements made by prominent British Muslims denouncing the serious rise in anti-Semitism. Noble Lords may know of the growth of a recent organisation called the Coexistence Trust, which consists entirely of Muslim and Jewish members of different parliaments. My noble friend Lord Mitchell is the chairman.
The situation is bad. We all wish to see a peaceful settlement in the Middle East—that is what all Israelis and Palestinians desperately deserve. There must, first, be an end to rocket fire into southern Israel of the kind from which I suffered, which traumatises its citizens and makes their lives unliveable. Secondly, there must be an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza and the network of tunnels that makes that possible. Thirdly, there must be an end to Iran’s financial, moral and political support for Hamas and its equipping of Hamas and other terrorist organisations in the region. Ultimately, there must be an end to the refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel's right to exist. Until Hamas grants that recognition, renewed conflict will sadly never be far away.
As many Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens told me, Israel deeply regrets having to take military action that inflicts suffering on ordinary Palestinians. In my view, Israel had no choice. It had to intervene in Gaza in self-defence to bring an end to this barrage of rockets; I understand that 8,000 rockets have been sent over in the past eight years. But I know the country and I know its leaders. They are ready and willing to live in peace. I have met the leaders of Fatah and talked to and listened to them. There must be a relationship between the two sides. They must get together, otherwise the deaths on both sides will continue. Israel remains ready and willing to make peace and is working to do so with Fatah on the West Bank. Its enemies must be willing to do the same. We must hope that that happens soon.
My Lords, nobody in this House supports the death of innocents. Nobody in this House feels anything but sadness over the death of children. But in the debate over Israel's defensive actions in the Gaza in recent weeks, a terrible misapportionment of blame has occurred. We have witnessed a widespread moral inversion, and not only in this House, in which victims have been painted as aggressors and aggressors as victims.
Israel has the same right as all nation states to defend herself and her people against attack. Israel has in recent weeks been forced, once again, to exercise that sovereign right. It has done so in response to years of sustained rocket attacks by Islamist militants in the Gaza—a barrage that no other nation state has to put up with, or should have to put up with. Hamas fired rockets from territory that Israel completely withdrew from four years ago. Hamas fired those rockets, not into disputed territory, but into Israel proper, which was agreed and mandated more than 60 years ago at the UN. Hamas did so, not because it disputes this or that piece or territory, or because it disagrees with this or that policy of this or that Israeli Government, but because it seeks the annihilation of Israel.
For instance, at the opening of its document, Hamas quotes the Islamist Hassan al-Banna. It states:
“Israel will exist, and will continue to exist, until Islam abolishes it”.
It has been suggested today that that is rhetoric, an extraordinary explanation.
Sometimes, the Islamists of Hamas talk of “abolishing” Israel. Sometimes they talk of “annihilating” it. What they never do is talk of living with it. That is the cause of the continuing tragedy—a tragedy for Palestinians as well as Israelis who wish to live in peace. Hamas is bound not to co-existence with Israel but to ending Israel. Its genocidal ambitions are evident to hear in its words. They are evident to see in its actions.
In debates in this House and elsewhere in recent weeks, observers have compared, critically, Israel's reaction to the terrorists of Hamas with Britain's attitude towards the terrorists of the IRA. But there are huge differences between these situations. Whatever the iniquity of the IRA, that terrorist organisation was never dedicated to the annihilation—the wholesale destruction—of the British state and its people. Its tactic was violence, certainly, but its aims were not fundamentally genocidal. Had we in Britain faced such an existential threat in the IRA, and seen such a force not just supported, but sponsored by, our near neighbours—as Hamas is supported by Iran—then I am by no means certain that this state would have been as restrained as Israel has been in response to the repeated assaults of recent years.
Hamas has chosen to make human shields of Palestinians in the Gaza. Hamas chooses to use schools, places of worship and hospitals as missile dumps. Hamas chooses to use such sites as launch-pads for its missiles. During the recent operation, Israel did everything possible to limit the number of Palestinian victims. It has never been in Israel's intent or interest to cause unnecessary suffering. Israel fires rockets targeted at known missile sites in Gaza, desperately trying to avoid hitting civilians. Hamas fires rockets into Israel hoping to hit civilians. For Israel, the hitting of innocent civilians is always the result of error. For Hamas it is its hope. Israel sent text-messages to Palestinian civilians in the first hours of the conflict warning them to keep clear of sites about to be hit. Hamas hits Israel with no warning. Israel builds bunkers to shelter its population. Hamas builds bunkers to shelter its weapons.
Finally, what this so-called “liberation” movement of Hamas does to fellow Palestinians must not be forgotten. When Hamas seized power in the Gaza, its first action was to kill members of the rival Fatah party. When Israel began the land invasion of Gaza a few weeks ago, the first response by Hamas was to execute and kneecap members of Fatah. Such barbarity continues to be visited by Hamas on its fellow Palestinians.
On 12 January, Hamas seized 100 aid trucks which Israel had allowed through to alleviate Palestinian suffering. Hamas stole the contents and sold them to the highest bidders. It is an organisation which has no respect for Israeli lives, and no respect for Palestinian lives.
Israel’s actions are in defence of her people. Any Government who do not protect their people from assault are not worthy of the task of governance. The terrorist group lamentably now in charge in Gaza not only fails to protect its people, it deliberately puts them in harm's way, all the time feeding them the false and wicked hope that the existence of Israel is up for negotiation.
The attacks in this House and elsewhere are a sad case of people failing to notice the difference between the regional fire-fighter and the regional arsonist. Israel is still doing what it can, under terrible pressure, to add a new state to the United Nations. Hamas is more interested in taking away a state from the UN than in adding one to it. This remains just one of the reasons why Israel must be supported in her war against the terrorists. It remains just one of the reasons why Israel's fight is a fight not just for the people of Israel but for all people who value freedom and life over terrorism and destruction. It is just one of the reasons why Israel’s fight is also our fight.
My Lords, in the weeks after Christmas we were all horrified to witness Israel’s action in Gaza. However that country may plead that it was justified, at the very least the action was, to put it at its most polite, disproportionate—a word that I hate.
Other noble Lords have described the conditions afterwards and the deaths and injuries sustained. I am not going to do that. This debate should not just be about Gaza but about the right of Palestinians to a homeland. We cannot make progress on this unless we engage Hamas in the fullest possible way in negotiations, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, has said. Hamas was legitimately elected by the Palestinian people and has not been destroyed by the recent attacks on Gaza. In fact, it is strengthened: it is more popular than ever. The people of Gaza are resolute.
I had an e-mail yesterday from a young student in Gaza whom I met when I was out there. He says that,
“here in Gaza you can understand and see the meaning of patience and steadfastness the people don't complain, you can see an old man sitting on his destroyed home and saying ‘we will never surrender’”.
This is his English, not mine.
“In this hardship, you can see how people help each other, they may host the destroyed-home-people in their own houses, or they can offer food or money from the first day after the seasefire, you can see the police doing their jobs I feel a little bit safer, although, at the time being there are many shelling from the Israeli army in many areas”.
That was yesterday.
Our party of European parliamentarians met Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and found him and his colleagues not at all what we had been led to believe by our Government, by others and the noble Lord, Lord Kalms, who spoke before me. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and I also met Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, two weeks later. Hamas will recognise Israel. It does not like the term “right” to exist, but it will recognise it. But it needs the borders to be defined. What “Israel”, exactly? The Israel that is now? It would prefer the Israel that was before 1967.
Hamas also talks of a “two-state situation” rather than a solution—surely words that we can negotiate with. It has offered a 10-year truce, and in fact kept one for nearly six months last year until, last December, Israel killed six Palestinians in one of its incursions into Gaza. During those six months the siege was not lifted by Israel. Incursions into the West Bank continued and, perhaps the most contentious action of all, the settlements, illegal under international law, continued to expand. Israel never keeps its part of the bargain.
We were also told that Hamas would honour agreements signed by the PLO but reserved the right to negotiate them if possible. I refer to agreements such as the US/UK-brokered gas deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the involvement of BG International. We do not hear much about that, but it is understandable that they should want to know where the profits will go and who will benefit from these huge reserves of natural gas in Gazan waters. This is just one example.
This is, perhaps, not what Israel and her friends want to hear, but these are perfectly sane and reasonable points for debate and negotiation, if only Israel truly wanted peace. We asked ourselves that many times while we were there.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, mentioned, even Tony Blair, in an amazing volte-face, said, in an interview with the Sunday Times last week, that Hamas must be brought into the peace process, as isolating it would not work. He criticized the Bush Administration and Israel for focusing efforts on the West Bank only. He said:
“It was half of what we needed”.
Over the past few decades Israel stands accused of breaking international law, Geneva conventions and abusing the human rights of Palestinians, and never more so than in these past few weeks in Gaza. Indeed, there have been allegations and-counter-allegations of serious crimes being committed by both parties to the dispute in Gaza, and it is essential to ensure justice for the victims of the conflict. Boycotts are called for, and spreading. I heard yesterday from the students of the University of Strathclyde who had organised a sit-in that the university authorities had agreed to suspend their contract with Eden Springs Water—an Israeli company.
This sort of thing is spreading. It is damaging for Israel. Dockers in Australia and South Africa are refusing to unload ships. However, I should like to see a more international solution. As I remember well from when I was in the other place, when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was concluded in 1998, it was agreed that the UN Security Council would need to have power to refer cases to the International Criminal Court, especially when suspects were not from states party to the Rome Statute. It is therefore essential that the Security Council be requested with the utmost urgency to launch an investigation into all the allegations of wrongdoing in Gaza on both sides since 27 December. Noble Lords will recently have received a letter from Clare Short and me on this subject.
It is very unlikely that Israel will investigate fairly and robustly the actions of its own armed forces. A resolution is needed at the Security Council. It is hoped that the new American Administration will want to be seen to be fair and support the investigation of alleged crimes on both sides of the conflict. Even if, heaven forbid, the USA did continue to exercise its veto, at least the United Kingdom Government could hold their head high because they would have tried.
I am aware and have been told, not least by a former member of the Knesset only last week, that this sort of international action will only increase Israel’s sensitivity and isolation. However, it is no good us in the western democracies using the Security Council and ICC process just to get at third-world dictators and despots if we are not prepared to be fair and use it on our own friends and ourselves where necessary. World order depends on international law being upheld and the United Kingdom should take the lead.
My Lords, the failure to resolve the Gaza crisis by the road map of the quartet bars the road to peace and makes the map irrelevant. More and more voices counsel direct contact between the quartet, Israel and Hamas, for it has been said that this, more than any other, crisis in the Middle East is not resolvable by military means alone. Be that as it may, I submit that psychological warfare is certainly a vital ingredient, and here I cannot absolve the unhelpful attitude of some weighty European, but also many British, media which refuse to distinguish between cause and effect and err in their judgment of what is and is not proportionality in attack and defence. I regret to say that the course of the present debate has been, with its display of good will and compassionate understanding, very one sided and condemnatory of Israel.
I was in Israel the week before the Israeli entry into Gaza and sensed the bitterness of a population being continuously and evermore extensively harassed by rockets, which paralyse civilian life. After Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon, Beersheba has now become a prime target, a city whose university, incidentally, boasts exemplary relations with Arab and Bedouin students. I was for 10 years chairman of its board of governors, so I observed that at first hand. The number of missiles fired from Gaza has risen fivefold since 2001 and now reach within 40 kilometres of one of Israel's most important airports.
What is cause and what is effect in this tragic situation? General Sharon made Israel withdraw its last soldier from the Gaza strip, together with 8,000 settlers, but the rockets continued to fly. The Hamas Government in Gaza refuse recognition of Israel's right to exist and agree to only temporary ceasefires, which they use for replenishment of weaponry before they resume launching rockets, which are financed, refined and increased in numbers by their Iranian taskmasters.
There is no more thankless task than to have to remind people again and again that, in keeping with the age-old tradition of guerrilla warfare, Hamas stores its weapons in tenement buildings, schools and even mosques and holds conclaves of its military leaders in civilian clothes in private homes and in the basement of Gaza central hospital. Students of history can cite similar situations in the Peninsular War against Napoleon in Spain and in the battles of the partisans against the Germans in Greece, France and Yugoslavia in the Second World War. However, what makes the fanatical Islamic terrorism of al-Qaeda or the military wings of Hamas and Hezbollah unique is not only its contempt for the life of the enemy or the innocent bystander but its contempt for the life of its own kith and kin. Nothing is more moving than the image of a mother grieving with a dead child in her arms or of a heap of mutilated corpses, but if you sample terrorist literature, whether it comes from the caves of Bin Laden or the more pretentiously sophisticated desks of journalists in the Yemen, Syria or Saudi Arabia, you may find that it justifies the killing of hostile infidels, whether man, woman or child. Pamphlets argue that children, though innocent today, may grow up to seek revenge. I am afraid I cannot help remembering one of the most satanic documents of the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler’s speech to the gauleiters and SS commanders in Poznan in 1943, which argued in exactly the same words.
Have we become so inured to the crime of sending young people to their deaths as living suicide bombs? Where are the letters to the editor, protest marches, torchlight processions against Governments or forces advocating this kind of death? Why are they missing? What is the attitude to the evil planners of martyrdom meriting rewards both in this world and the next? If this is not infanticide, what is? Why have the media simply accepted, with very little question, any facts and figures issued by Hamas? In 2008, the reputable Reporters Without Frontiers listed the Palestinian Territories as number 163 out of 173 countries on its yearly worldwide press freedom index. Very little has been written about Hamas's attempts to liquidate its political opponents during the first week of the recent fighting. Last week, the Palestinian Ma'an news agency in Ramallah published a detailed list of 181 names and locations of members of Fatah in Gaza who were executed, or, as the noble Lord, Lord Kalms, explained, wounded or imprisoned. All this needs considering too. To those who wish to arraign Israeli leaders for war crimes, I submit that Hamas is culpable of a double war crime against Israeli as well as against Palestinian civilians, and especially young children.
As for Israel, public opinion surveys consistently show that 80 per cent of the electorates longs for a durable peace—the two-state solution—yet the barrage of anti-Israel propaganda coming from European media can only help those who believe that their hatred of Israel is incurable and that there is bile and bias in Europe and in this country. It can only encourage Israelis to elect a Government of robust, intransigent politicians who may claim that there is no acceptable peace-loving Palestinian partner, and therefore no peaceful solution in hand. That must be avoided. Therefore, this is the moment, perhaps the eleventh hour, for a compassionate understanding of both sides.
My Lords, no one can fail to be moved by the scenes of devastation in Gaza. I am far from alone in feeling deeply distressed. But no one—not Israel, not Hamas and, I am afraid, not the EU, Britain or America—can avoid a sense of ownership for the death and destruction in Gaza. We in the West have ignored for far too long the deadly game that Hamas has been playing in firing its thousands of missiles when it was absolutely clear that Israel would have to respond at some point. Of course, accusations have flown back and forth about the behaviour of Israel and Hamas, but we in the West are also culpable for not recognising the danger to Israel and to the Palestinians in Gaza of the smuggling of missiles for Hamas. Everyone, including Mahmoud Abbas and President Mubarek of Egypt, knew. Indeed accusations have recently been reiterated that Hamas was the root cause of the disaster. Even the West Bank Palestinians, although obviously very distressed by the fate of their brothers in Gaza, recognise the role of Hamas, as do many people in Gaza itself, where they have been able to speak out, usually anonymously.
I really was not going to get into the blame game today but, since so much has been made in the media to demonise Israel's role in the conflict, I want to say a few words about where I think the responsibility really lies for these terrible events. My question now is whether there are any grounds for believing that something positive might emerge from all this turmoil because that is where I believe we should be focusing our efforts now and pressing as hard as we can for a two-state solution. The tragedy is that everyone, not least the Israelis and Palestinians, knows what shape an agreement should be and what compromises will be needed: withdrawal of the settlements from the West Bank; a deal on some sort of sharing of Jerusalem on Israel's part; and a compromise on the right of return together with serious security arrangements by the Palestinians. All these must have been discussed ad nauseam, and only weak political wills and the extremists on both sides have delayed their implementation. I say “delayed” because they have to happen at some point.
Are there any grounds now for even a glimmer of hope? I believe there are. First, whatever it might say, Hamas has undoubtedly been weakened by the conflict. Of course, it has not been eliminated, nor could it be. But a large number of its missiles have been destroyed, and its supply of more has been seriously compromised. Thank goodness, there is now a belated but almost universal recognition that more must be done to prevent the smuggling of arms from Egypt and the sea. If—it is a big if, I know—Egypt does stop the smuggling, Israel will feel less threatened by a Hamas without missiles.
As Hamas has been weakened, Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority may have gained some strength. There is some evidence of movement in the West Bank. All the economic aid which is being put in is having an impact. The unemployment rate is falling, average wages are rising and 150 or so checkpoints have been removed. A visit now to Nablus and Jenin sees cities busily getting on with life, no longer under curfew and with the Palestinian Authority police having successfully taken over control from the IDF. Of course, there is an enormous amount more that needs doing and conditions remain very difficult, but these are steps in the right direction. Tony Blair can take at least some of the credit for his quiet, patient, behind-the-scenes work to facilitate these changes.
So there is an opportunity to build on this and for the EU and the US to give Mahmoud Abbas much-needed support, so that he is strengthened in his ability to negotiate. We should be focusing on that. In Israel, despite the misgivings of many about the scenes from Gaza and differing views of the conflict, the vast majority of the population, sick and tired of their people in the south rushing to the shelters every day, were right behind the Government and their actions. Incidentally, I do not recognise the Israel described by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, as being brutalised. When I go there, I see a community that is very worried, concerned and desperate for peace and security.
The leadership, which for once was united, has been strengthened, and whoever wins the coming election will be in a stronger position and will have more popular support than many previous Administrations. Of course, Israeli politics are never predictable, so who knows who will have the leadership next week. A lurch to the right might be seen as unhelpful, especially if the extreme right gains some influence. It is worth remembering, however, that it has usually been a right-wing Likud Government who have been able to do a land-for-peace deal in the past. We have a situation in which the leaders in both Israel and the PA are either in a better position to negotiate a two-state solution or could be helped to get into that position. I will come back to Hamas in a moment.
Then, of course, we have the Obama effect. Despite the innumerable problems on his plate, he no doubt will want to bring his considerable influence to bear on Israel and the PA, and that must be a very positive factor. It is conceivable that we may soon have a situation where strengthened leaders might be able to announce a deal and carry a majority with them against the resistance of extremists on both sides.
No one, I imagine, underestimates the difficulties to be overcome, nor the time it may take, but a signed agreement would be a marvellous first step in showing everyone where the future could lie. I may be hopelessly optimistic and naive, but I would rather have that as an aim than a future without hope, and that is where I believe we in the UK should be focusing all our efforts.
Where does that leave Hamas? Its policy, unfortunately, remains the same as it always was and it is not likely to change soon; it is the total destruction of Israel and a reclaiming of Palestine for radical Islam. Israel is criticised for not negotiating with Hamas but, pace the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, it is Hamas that will not talk to Israel. It goes further and has made it clear that it regards Abu Mazen and Fatah as traitors for speaking to Israel about a two-state solution. Indeed, it has been busy eliminating Fatah sympathisers from Gaza. It wants a one-state, not a two-state, solution.
This has hitherto made it virtually impossible for the PA and Israel to forge a solution. Clearly, Hamas cannot be eliminated, but nor will it include itself in a peace process. So, for the moment at least, the only rational way forward is for it to be marginalised. If I sound bitter about Hamas, I hope noble Lords will recognise why I do. An organisation that is willing to train its five year-olds to hate and kill Jews wherever they are, even here, and to train them to become suicide bombers; an organisation that snatches up its children to stand alongside them as they fire at their enemy, as we have seen on video clips; which booby-traps schools and stashes its explosives in mosques, which incidentally is why so many of them blew up; which fires from among its civilian population; an organisation which kills and maims its fellow Palestinians cannot and should not receive sympathy or support.
It is Hamas which hijacked trucks carrying food and medical supplies from Israel during, and I am afraid since, the conflict, according to UN inspectors, and it is Hamas which has fired on the crossings preventing the movement of fuel and oil to its own population, simply to try to confirm how bad Israel is in allowing aid across. All this is now confirmed by UN and UNRWA inspectors.
While a peace agreement will at some point require Hamas to come on board, the desperate Palestinians on the West Bank can ill afford to be asked to wait for ever until Hamas changes its policies. They deserve much better. We must grasp any opportunity which might come out of this turmoil.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will say more about how we can help both sides, how we can press Egypt and help it really to clamp down on smuggling across the border and, rather than laying blame and criticism, which does nothing for the Palestinians, I hope that we are offering constructive proposals and aid, so that we might have some hope of a just and lasting peace.
My Lords, I care about humanity and I will speak out when I feel that injustice and cruelty are inflicted on people. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House on such subjects, including people trafficking, forced marriages, torture and the rights of Gurkhas.
At the outset, I have no reservation in condemning the Hamas rockets that were directed into Israel’s sovereign territory; neither should we forget the deliberate targeting by the Israel Defence Forces to inflict collective and wholesale punishment on the people of Gaza.
At this stage, I reaffirm my belief in a two-state solution, with Israel’s right to exist and defend its territory. Alongside Israel’s right to exist, we must ensure that there is the creation of a viable Palestinian territory. No one could convince me that the conditions in which the Gaza Strip was held constituted a free sovereign territory. Those who lived in Gaza were detained in what amounted to little more than the largest open prison on the planet, with no control over their air space or their borders. That was not acceptable, and it is not sustainable.
The people of Gaza have, over a period of many months, lived in a cast-iron blockade. A lot has been said about the smuggling of weapons through the tunnels, but we must understand why the tunnels were dug in the first place. They have been used to bring in food, fuel, medical supplies and the basic necessities of life. If the blockade is lifted, the tunnels will disappear.
I regret that Israel chose to use its troops to inflict one of the most disproportionate and excessive deployments that we have seen in the world. The alleged use of white phosphorous and DIME weapons is disgusting and outrageous; to use this material against civilians is against international law. There have been other alleged abuses of international law, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that these will be investigated and that those responsible—if there is evidence to prove the allegations—will be pursued and prosecuted. They must be held to account for their decisions and their actions. Those allegations need to be investigated thoroughly, and I understand that the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Government of Israel will be leading that activity. The Government have confirmed that they are in contact with all three bodies, and I hope that the Minister will provide the House with an update on those investigations.
Israel refused to permit the world media to go to Gaza. We could understand perhaps that the reason could be that they did not want the world to know what was happening. The media were allowed in during the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Notwithstanding the ban, horrific pictures were relayed by Al Jazeera and other channels telling us the reality of what was happening. The Israeli propaganda machine was strong, but watching the people of Gaza suffer on the few TV channels relaying from Gaza caused a great deal of distress to many right-thinking people. Jewish organisations such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Sir Gerald Kaufman in the other place have been very critical of the Israeli action. Countries such as Qatar and Turkey, which were friendly with Israel, are now very unfriendly towards it.
In total, around 1,200 Palestinians were killed during the recent onslaught. A significant number of these were women, children and innocent civilians. People who have been injured have been inflicted with serious burns and other horrific infirmities, and are in need of urgent care. We need to think about providing humanitarian aid to them from our facilities in Cyprus.
However, the damage goes well beyond the human cost, high though that is. There has been destruction of public services, infrastructure, power plants, hospitals, homes, mosques, universities and a number of other structures. The Israelis went on to damage the United Nations’ facilities and compound, causing deaths and injuries. The International Red Cross and the United Nations have condemned the Israeli actions. The Israelis failed to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the injured civilians and, in fact, hindered the Red Cross from doing so. This is contrary to international humanitarian conventions.
I should like to express my serious concern about the possible radicalisation and engendering of extremism among young people in this country and abroad as a result of the Israeli invasion. This should be a source of worry for us all. For my part, I will try to calm the situation.
Gaza's condition was less than ideal before the conflict, and things have become considerably worse. The humanitarian catastrophe will become worse unless we all work together to help our fellow human beings. I deplore the decision of the BBC to refuse to broadcast an appeal to provide assistance to these people. Its actions are a case, in my view, of poor judgment.
We need to move on from conflict and work more actively towards a resolution of the historical events that have caused such misery and pain. I want to see a viable and secure Palestinian state that is able to live alongside Israel in peace. It is the western vision that any such Palestinian state should be a democracy, but there is a problem when we refuse to allow those citizens the right to make their own choice. We need to think again whether or not we should talk to Hamas.
In our deliberation we must realise how peace was achieved in Northern Ireland, with Martin McGuinness as the Deputy First Minister, and how South Africa attained its independence under Nelson Mandela. We need to think about creating unity between Hamas and Fatah, leading to a Government of national consensus. This will require active participation by the United States, the quartet and a number of other countries.
The programme of aid to the Palestinians has been linked to progress with the peace process. I hope that the Minister can confirm to the House that we will do everything we can to reduce and eliminate the suffering and that we will not allow obstacles to get in the way of bringing about an end to the suffering in Gaza.
In conclusion, we need to recognise that this conflict has been the cause of a great deal of suffering to a large number of people for decades. The recent misery must not be allowed to be a catalyst for further horrors. I wish Senator George Mitchell well in his endeavours on behalf of the new American Administration, and urge the Government to do what they can to facilitate engagement from all sides to achieve the destination of conflict resolution. The priority, however, must be, in the first instance, to relieve the horrendous suffering that has been inflicted on the people of Gaza and to ensure that those responsible for this misery are held to account for their decisions. I hope that the Government will not inhibit either of those activities. I would appreciate the Minister’s reply to the points I have raised.
My Lords, last week, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and I disagreed over the euro, but this week I heartily agree with his sagacious words in this debate. He is clearly a man of peace who brings communities and people together. I thank him for his suggestions. We were particularly grateful to the Conservative spokesman on the Front Bench for referring to the change of attitudes in Turkey, which the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, also mentioned. That is a significant factor.
Understandably, there has been repeated mention of terrorism; there is also the phenomenon of terrorism in uniform which, sadly, was practised by the British and American Armed Forces on hapless civilians in Iraq in the illegal invasion in 2003. As a party, we condemned that from our Benches. Terrorism in uniform was inflicted by the IDF on hapless and trapped Palestinian civilians. That may have been a turning point for Israel—I hope in a positive sense of achieving peace as a result of these terrible events. Z. Brezinski described what happened in Gaza as a “massacre”. That is the only word that one can use. The foolishness and recklessness meted out by Israeli leaders—partly, even presumably, to win votes in the forthcoming election next week, which is an astonishing suggestion—was a crime on the Palestinians as well as a huge tragedy for Israel, shortly after celebrating 60 years of dynamic history. What an immense tragedy at this time for that country
Shortsighted Israeli voters may well, according to the polls, be preparing to vote for an extreme right-wing leader and party who apparently believe in perpetual Israeli warfare with the enemy. However, the real thinking voters in Israel know in their ever-sinking hearts that this is the road to total ruin for this important country in the Middle East. As I have been a friend of Israel for many years and, I hope, a thinking and candid friend, I pay the strongest tribute to the huge, never-before seen, Jewish protests at home, in the world diaspora and in Britain against the recent aggression by Israeli armed forces and their political leaders.
Noble Lords should make no mistake about it, this was Israel’s Sharpeville, although, tragically, the killing, maiming for life and injuries were on a much bigger scale in the Gaza open-air prison that was created by western ineptitude as well as Israeli misdeeds. It will never be forgotten, because footage by Al Jazeera television and other Arabian services have made sure that all this was seen on television by Arabian viewers and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Now we hear similar excuses for the killings uttered by shameless Israeli leaders, which make many Israelis feel utterly embarrassed. No wonder this situation is similar to what the apartheid rulers in South Africa used to say before apartheid was eventually abolished. Yet brave, fair-minded and decent Israelis in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, and many fellow Jews abroad, have protested as never before on a massive scale. We must all pay tribute, as has been said, to the tireless work of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, to rabbis who are in favour of Palestine being a state, to B’TSelem and the other outstanding human rights groups in Israel which do fantastic work, and to Peace Now which is a marvellous organisation whose UK committee is chaired by Paul Usiskin, one of the signatories to the recent protest letters. I have long supported those organisations. What a pity that Daniel Barenboim could not stand for the Knesset or do something in the Israeli election after the one next week. What work he has done to bring these two countries and communities together.
While Gaza 2008-09 can never be forgotten, the hope for the future lies in people such as those and the Palestinian moderates. In Israel, it lies with people whose family history of persecution and suffering has honed their sense of doing right for the Palestinians after 41 years of ever more brutal illegal occupation of what remains of Palestinian-owned land. I am thinking also of people such as Gerald Kaufman MP, who has already been mentioned. He is now being insulted by the hard-line IDF and its right-wing supporters for his brave speech in the House of Commons, which I heard. I visited the West Bank with him in November 2005 and saw the appalling—that is the only word for it—situation there, which has not significantly improved since then; in many ways, it has got worse for the ever patient Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority. It is right that such people, as well as this House in this debate, should be protesting about this matter.
This is not only about common sense; it is about generosity. The Palestinian Authority is officially asking for the return of only 22 per cent of the combined territory. Israel has so much and has created so much, but Palestinians are left with so little. Where is that traditional, legendary Jewish hospitality and generosity which we are used to seeing all over the world and which we have always strongly supported? I find it difficult to credit that people such as Olmert cannot properly negotiate after so many years of time-wasting and shoals of US vetoes allowing Israel to misbehave.
The only two countries in the world that now routinely and frequently bomb and kill civilians in other people’s lands are the USA and Israel. I hope and assume that Barack Obama will now change all that poison in America, so can we please ask the Israeli authorities to do the same? Although these terrible events cannot be forgotten, it would then be possible, patiently and slowly, to return to long-lasting friendship between Arabia, Palestine and Israel. The so far disappointingly myopic Israeli politicians should have the courage to grasp this opportunity.
I know that people in Israeli government circles are hoping that, as time passes, the international community will lose interest in the subject of war crimes trials and all the rest of it, but that will not happen; people in the UN and elsewhere will not let this go. Interesting suggestions have been made by the Malaysian Parliament and Government about how to invoke the ICC provisions, as has been mentioned. George Bush could be indicted for war crimes in Iraq under those procedures, while only the ordinary procedure would be needed for Tony Blair, as the UK supports the ICC, I am glad to say, although that may never happen either. If the US dared to use its veto in the future, there would be such disgust with its conduct after what has happened, and after so many of its vetoes over the years have meant that Israel has not had to behave according to international law, that people would say, “Enough is enough”.
It would be truly ironic if, after the election next week, the failure to respond by defiant and myopic Israeli leaders were to be the reason for the loss of their own Zionist state. No fair-minded person in the world wants to harm Israel. It is an excellent country that has achieved much in 60 years. However, that could be the end result, foolishly and unexpectedly, if the Palestinians decide to abandon the two-state solution and ask for citizenship in a single secular state in the combined areas.
There are other imperatives in this awful scenario of bitterness, pain and hatred over what has happened recently. First, Senator Mitchell must be allowed to succeed. There are no excuses left this time. The world is fed up to the back teeth with the endless saga of US Middle East peace envoys being hijacked and destroyed by US-Israeli joint manoeuvrings to prevent Israel from negotiating and obeying 242 and all the other resolutions after 41 years of occupation. We saw all the details of that in the remarkable book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt, published in 2007. Forty-two US vetoes preventing Israel from doing what was necessary have led to this impasse. What short-sighted behaviour by a country that, under President Eisenhower, was much wiser in dealing with imperial powers in the Middle East and with Israel. It is astonishing to me how many people in the US and the UK either do not know about the vetoes or think that they are not important.
Meanwhile, the pathetic road map quartet, especially the cringingly embarrassing EU portion of it, must resolve to reform itself or, indeed, abolish itself if it cannot carry on properly and if it is not up to the task of insisting, at long last, on real, rapid negotiations between the parties. Russia, too, should pull its socks up and insist on all this when it hosts the March quartet summit.
Foreign peacekeeping forces will have to be stationed along these provocative frontiers pending the eventual full peace accord and a deal to set up a fully sovereign and genuine Palestinian state. Hamas must keep to the ceasefire offered, despite any provocations. It must renounce the use of violence and stop the rockets that give such an easy excuse for the Israeli military to go berserk. Then, it must be offered a full place in the negotiations right away. Fatah needs to recognise the legitimacy of Hamas, which in effect is much stronger than its own, and not only in Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas should maybe step down, as he is thinking of doing, and a much more realistic negotiator should be put in place as presidential candidate—perhaps someone such as Barghouti, Erekat or even Ashrawi. Meanwhile, the EU needs seriously to consider trade and other sanctions if Israel is not seen to be complying with the demands of the international community.
The whole of Arabia is watching meticulously and sharply to see that Europe and the USA behave properly, openly and fairly with both sides. Any more blunders or kowtowing to the extreme Zionist lobby—in itself, a grossly exaggerated excuse anyway—and legions of new young Arab terrorist volunteers will be spawned automatically for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad in their many forms. If Israel wants 100 years of war, it will surely have it in full measure, but I do not believe that it does; I believe that sensible people in Israel will avoid that by doing what is necessary. Mr Obama needs to use his Chief of Staff to explain carefully the new realities. Britain, France and Holland were initially foolishly slow to give freedom to their colonies, but they eventually cottoned on and acted pretty rapidly. Now it is the turn of Israel to show modern Judaeo-Christian common sense and wisdom.
My Lords, I believe that this debate, at least in its better moments, is enlarging our horizons by placing Gaza in the context where it belongs. Gaza presents just one facet of related conflicts stemming from the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the later creation of the state of Israel. There are, for example, the unresolved conflicts of Lebanon, the uncertain condition of Iraq and the hardships of more than 25 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. The dry Middle East has further potential for disputes over water supplies.
Fortunately, a new consensus has emerged on Palestine. Ephraim Halevy, Colin Powell, General Zinni, Martin Indyk, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Chris Patten and, rather belatedly, Mr Blair all say that we must now engage with Hamas and promote Palestinian unity. We should distinguish between the Change and Reform platform, which won the 2006 elections, and the al-Qassam Brigades, which have many rockets. Political progress, helped by releasing prisoners, should come first. Decommissioning of weapons and economic progress will then follow.
I regret very much that there has been no multilateral process designed to resolve brutal wars and to prevent new conflicts since the Madrid conference of 1991. That made a promising start but, alas, there has been no follow-up. The lack of effective collective focus partly explains why western policy in the region has been such a failure since the time of the Oslo agreements and the second intifada of 2000. This failure has occurred despite the helpful proposals of the Arab League. Since January 2006, western policies have become disastrous. They set impossible preconditions. They failed entirely to prevent two appalling wars, in South Lebanon in August 2006 and in Gaza in recent weeks. The policies failed to influence Israel and totally alienated Hamas and much Islamic opinion throughout the world.
Given these failures, many people will warmly welcome the Cost of Conflict in the Middle East, a report just produced by the Strategic Foresight Group of Mumbai with wide international backing. This charts spending on wars, plus the vast annual costs of military, police, security, relief and aid. Despite such spending, I am informed that 91 per cent of Israelis still feel insecure. The report points out that the overall standard of living in the Middle East would have doubled had comprehensive peace been available from 1991. It assesses the cost of lost opportunities and the potential of new, linked-up economies. I trust that this report will lead to changed policies in East and West, and will stimulate co-operative behaviour.
It seems to me that the Middle East situation today is not unlike that of Europe in 1945, except of course that there are no absolute winners or losers. In this situation, I agree very much with the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Wallace, that it is important to revive multilateral approaches to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Iraq and Iran, calling on the help of Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. This, surely, was the wisdom of the Baker-Hamilton report to the American President. It is so important to transcend the obsessive nature of individual conflicts. We should remember how the small Benelux and the wider European Coal and Steel Community paved the way to the now large European Union. Modest surrenders of national sovereignty can lead to huge gains for the people as a whole.
We should start to plan now for a Middle East security and co-operation conference, which might develop into a permanent organisation. The OSCE helped to end the Cold War in Europe; the Middle East now needs something similar to overcome the shooting wars that have killed many thousands. The Council of Europe promotes intergovernmental co-operation and acts as the custodian of human rights. Europe, of course, does not have all the answers: every region must find what works and suits it best. The Middle East can build on existing foundations, such as the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Co-operation Council. We should envisage a Middle East Marshall plan, marrying the wealth of the oil producers to the technology and organisational skills of the West.
As an example of what can be done within a single divided country, I shall describe something from Iraq. Its senior religious leaders have been meeting regularly for some years, with an external facilitator. They have thus come to respect and trust each other so that they can work for national reconciliation. Such progress has been made that last August a joint Shia/Sunni fatwa was issued against sectarianism, communal violence and especially suicide bombing. This unprecedented joint message is now being passed to every village, town, mosque, church and school.
I was with the Iraqi religious leaders at their meeting in Beirut last November. Their work is an example of what can be done to overcome divisions that have lasted well over 1,000 years. I suggest that we need to multiply initiatives of this kind throughout the conflict zones. Similar work should be tried with leaders in the media and with opinion formers who can reach the secular populations. In Iraq, work has also begun with the political parties, the militias and the media.
All of us, outside the Middle East and within it, need to enlarge our vision. We should think in regional and multilateral terms. All professions, not just diplomats, can and should contribute to peace-building. I have mentioned religious leaders but parliamentarians, business people, the media, NGOs and educational institutions can all help to create trust and confidence. Peace has to be built from the ground upwards, as well as from the top downwards. If Northern Ireland has taught us anything, it is that the political and religious extremes on all sides have to be included if peace is to be durable. Nothing less than the widest mobilisation of human energy will suffice if we are to prevent new and repeated destructions of Gaza. Peace is possible but it will require hard and persevering work on all sides. That is another reason for welcoming former Senator George Mitchell as the United States special envoy.
My Lords, I was on a short visit to Lebanon in early January at the time of the attacks on Gaza. I also had an opportunity to visit Lebanon two years ago to look at the cluster munitions that were being cleared in the south following the Israeli attacks there.
I am sad to be critical of Israel, particularly given my personal background, but I think that there is no alternative but to make some criticisms. Of course, it is unacceptable that any town or city in Israel should be subjected to rocket attacks, but it is equally unacceptable that the civilian population of Gaza should have been attacked in the way that it was. Certainly, people in the region who made the comparison talked about the lack of proportion in the two attacks. However, it is also clear that every rocket that lands on Israel increases Israel’s determination to resist. Equally, every shell, every bomb, every injury and every death in Gaza has increased the resistance to Israel on the part of the people of Gaza, and that resistance is now formidable. I think that Israel’s future has been significantly endangered by what it has done in Gaza.
Perhaps I can make one comment about the conflict in Lebanon two years before: the cluster munitions, the bomblets, were not in thousands but in millions and they are still being cleared by United Nations teams and are still causing injury and death to people living in south Lebanon. I understand that even to this day Israel has not supplied the co-ordinates of the shells that were fired, in order to help the United Nations teams to clear them. Surely that should be put right immediately.
I want to talk about three things: I want to say something about Hamas, to say something about the feelings in the region and to offer a few tentative thoughts about possible ways forward. People have said that Hamas does not accept the existence of the state of Israel. My understanding is that, some time ago, Fatah did not either. There has to be a process whereby those things are brought to light and changed. I agree with those Members of this House who have said that the mistake has been not to talk to Hamas. I think the mistake was not to talk to Hamas at the beginning, when it was elected. If we say to people, “You have no political way forward because we do not accept the political debate”, then what are we offering them? Violence, as the only way out? Surely that is so counterproductive. We have to say to people that politics, debate and negotiation are better ways forward for your people to establish your rights than using violence. Therefore, we must engage in that debate. I think we made a big error in not doing so at the time. Of course, Egypt is acting as an intermediary at the moment, but it would be right if there were more direct talks with Hamas—perhaps that is taking place behind the scenes. I hope that George Mitchell, whose appointment I very much welcome, will help in that.
It is a mistake to talk about preconditions. In Northern Ireland negotiations, we learnt that setting preconditions does not work. These things come out of the process of negotiation. You cannot do it at the beginning and it is no good saying to Hamas, “You have to accept all sorts of things”. I hope that it will in the process of negotiation, but it will not at the outset. If there were an election today in Gaza, I believe that Hamas would win even more convincingly than it did last time; and I suspect that if there were an election today in the West Bank, Hamas would win there as well. That would be a result of what Israel has done.
I came back with a feeling of enormous anger in Lebanon and in the whole region about what happened; an anger which it is difficult to understand unless one is there to feel it; an anger which will last a long, long time; and an anger which will affect the process of moving forward in the region. That anger about what has happened has resulted in a strategic shift in the politics of the region; it is not always obvious at the moment, but deep down there has been a strategic shift. I do not think that we can expect there to be a return to the position before the attack on Gaza; the world there has changed. I repeat that the anger, bitterness and resentment are so strong that they will affect the region for a very long time to come.
In the region, Al-Jazeera was able to produce news—it also interviewed Israeli politicians—and show people what was happening. As the Israeli Government would not allow the BBC in, the BBC had very limited coverage, so if some facts which were favourable to Israel were not coming out, that was Israel's fault for not having allowed the journalists in there to report.
During my visit to Lebanon, I also visited a family in south Lebanon, almost on the Israeli border. It was an ordinary family. I was taken there to have a look at various things, which there is not time to discuss now. The family gave me food and were very hospitable, but it was chilling to hear what they said to me: “We don't want a two-state solution; we want a one-state solution; we do not want Israel to exist”. I reject that proposition entirely, but it is chilling to hear such attitudes from people who are otherwise reasonable and who do not seem to be militants or members of Hezbollah—perhaps they were, but they did not seem to be.
I have a few brief thoughts on the way forward. We cannot demand that Hamas and Fatah have to get together. There are serious differences of view and it is not helpful for us to lecture them and say, “You should get together because it will make it easier”. Where there are different visions of the future, I do not think that that is possible. Of course, there needs to be a process to help the Palestinians towards a united leadership, but we cannot impose that on them. My understanding is that Hamas has made some practical proposals for the resolution of the Rafah crossings and the management and reconstruction of Gaza, including the introduction of independent monitors. I understand that Hamas will accept shared responsibility with Fatah, but it will not agree to give exclusive responsibility to Fatah for that.
Turkey has played an important part, particularly in facilitating discussions early on between Syria and Israel, although those are now in abeyance. At one time, I thought that Turkey would have a greater part to play, but I think there has been a fundamental disagreement between Turkey and Israel. Nevertheless, I still wonder whether Turkey could not play a larger part in bringing people in the region together.
In the mean time, Egypt has played an important part, and I very much welcome the contribution of George Mitchell. I saw him at first hand in Northern Ireland and his appointment and contribution could prove to be significant. He has patience, he has understanding, and he knows the mistakes being made now that could be avoided. Of course, in the end, we want a two-state solution. We want a legitimate State of Palestine, internationally recognised with proper borders going back to before 1967; and we want a State of Israel living in peace, safety and security with its neighbours. That way, there will be hope for the region. All that we can do is our best to try to achieve that end.
My Lords, as a member of the Coexistence Trust led by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and as a teacher of Islam and the Middle East at the University of York, I thought that one of my major functions as both a teacher and a participant is to avoid labelling and stereotypes. Just as we feel that anti-Semitism is unacceptable, we must also think that Islamophobia is unacceptable. I worry about terminology about Middle Eastern barbarism, Islamic extremism, taking al-Qaeda, bin Laden and the entire Muslim community as a single cohort, or even saying that my natal country, Iran, is involved in everything. That gives Iran disproportionate power, which it does not have—fortunately. First, I ask for clear thinking about who we are talking about, what we are saying and for us not to demonise anyone in this whole affair.
In my capacity as chair of the Muslim Women's Network, we have already written to the Foreign Office and had meetings about the plight of women and children. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for raising the problem of women and children. The most important thing that we have left in Palestine is its people. We know that more than half of the population of Gaza are children. We also know that more than one third of those who were injured in the conflict were women and children. To cite a recent e-mail from paediatrician Jazir Kawkuby, who works at Great Ormond Street, but is currently working in the Shifa Hospital in Gaza, children have been coming in with multiple trauma injuries: severe burns; amputated legs; multiple penetration injuries; and internal trauma caused by explosion within their bodies. Their suffering continues, not least because of the lack of medication—I support the demand of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that at least medical help must get there.
Traumatised children make for traumatised people and good ground for extremism. The terrible truth about traumatised children is that they cannot be cured by an injection or by saying that one thing is something else—that they have an injury. I am the honorary president of International Services, which is one of the few non-governmental agencies that has continued its presence in Palestine, although not in Gaza. When we send our workers to that context of violence as helpers, as people to cure events, within a year they burn out. Living under conditions in which many people live in Gaza creates a negative future. People who grow up under those conditions cannot think normally. That is why it may well be that when the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, sits with people on the border of Lebanon, they do not want to see Israel.
I had a student who was doing her PhD studying the rise of Hezbollah. Sitting in England, she could not quite work out why Hezbollah was so successful. She was in Lebanon at the border areas when they were being bombed. She sent me a text saying: “Haleh, why is nobody reporting what is happening to us?”. That arrived the day before my daughter’s wedding, and we were knee-deep in flowers and organising. I sat in my office and e-mailed 55 journalists whom I knew personally, asking “Why is this not being reported?”. One journalist, from BBC World Service, reported it.
There are silences that need to be broken. What is more, my student who was still in Lebanon said that afterwards only Hezbollah helped everybody; regardless of religion or affiliation, Hezbollah was in there building. Perhaps I may suggest that Hamas is experiencing a similar legitimacy. I agree completely with noble Lords that it is the group on the ground. The only way forward is to accept that, if the people in the Middle East, including Palestinians, elect people as we wish them to, they have a right to expect their elected representatives to represent them. If the West thinks that it can bomb Iraq into democracy, surely we can talk Palestine into democracy; and if they do it, we should respect it.
Unless and until we speak the same language to both sides, until we use the same definitions for each side, and unless and until one dead body is as important as another, we will not have peace in the region.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is in his place, because it gives me the opportunity totally to ruin his weekend: not only did the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, commend him on his speech, but I found what he said particularly illuminating. I will study what he said in Hansard and deliberate over some very wise words.
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and the wise words she spoke. Along with various other Members of this House and the House of Commons, she has joined me in the Coexistence Trust going to various universities—we started with five—as a group of Muslims and Jews to discuss the issues common to all of us. We have kept the Middle East off the agenda; it is not an easy thing to do, but we have managed to talk about other issues to do with being British and Jewish and being British and Muslim, and how important it is for us to continue our work, with everything else that is going on in the world at this juncture.
I read the Jewish Chronicle this morning, although it is not my normal reading, and was horrified to hear of some of the activities at our universities. There is a quotation—I cannot believe it is true—where an Oxford academic said this week that in five years’ time he was hopeful that Oxford would become a Jewish-free zone. Nice, yes?
We have heard a lot today about Hamas. There are a lot of rose-tinted glasses worn in regard to that organisation. I would like to say a little more about Hamas; they are really not nice people. Do not take my word for it; listen to their own words. The Hamas Charter is not what I would call bedtime reading but it is worth a glance, as it is interesting:
“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up”.
“Today it is Palestine, tomorrow it will be one country or another. The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying”.
This is in its charter. If it is not true and this is not what it believes, it should remove it from its charter.
Hamas is an organisation that says that it will not recognise Israel, renounce violence or adhere to past agreements that were negotiated by the Palestinian Authority. It has a single objective: a one-state Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, with no Israel but no Fatah either. It wants its Palestine, and it wants it to be part of the Islamic caliphate. That is why it is categorised as a terrorist organisation by us, by the Americans, by the EU, by Canada, by Japan and by Australia, so to noble Lords who advocate a two-state solution and insist on adherence to the road map I say think again. While Hamas sticks to its charter, a two-state outcome is simply pie in the sky. How can Israel negotiate with a Palestinian people who are split into three pieces: one faction in Ramallah, another in Gaza and yet another living a gilded life and pulling the strings in Damascus?
This debate is bound to dwell on the terrible plight of the civilian population in Gaza, and so it should, but I commend the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in a recent debate, who said that we should wait for the evidence before we rush to judgment. In 2002, following a spate of suicide bombings that originated from Jenin on the West Bank, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield. Immediately, the world was up in arms. “The massacre of Jenin”, was the cry of the world’s media. “Three thousand civilians have been killed”. Then the figure was reduced to 500. “They have been butchered by the marauding Israelis”. A Times reporter wrote:
“Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life”.
The Guardian—always the Guardian—said:
“Israel’s actions in Jenin are every bit as repellent as 9/11”.
Does it not all sound so familiar?
A few weeks later, the Palestinian Authority admitted that there had been 56 Palestinian dead, of whom all but three were combatants. There was embarrassment all round, but memories fade fast. When we hear all these condemnations of illegal white phosphorous and pre-meditated attacks on schools and hospitals, we should await the evidence. My Palestinian sources tell me of rockets and artillery located in their own homes, but they are frightened to go public because their lives and those of their families might be at risk.
I have another quotation:
“Hamas gangs are unleashed like packs of animals on the streets of Gaza against Fatah members. Because the military bases and the prisons have been destroyed, they have turned Gaza schools, Al-Nasser Hospital, the radiology department at Shifa' Hospital, the Al-Aqsa University, and other places, including mosques, into centers for the detention, interrogation, and torture of Fatah members and members of other national Palestinian factions”.
This statement was made on 22 January this year by the secretary of the PLO executive committee, Yasser Abd Rabbo.
Sometimes it is by their words that we can best detect where certain nations stand. On the subject of Hamas, there has been an eerie silence. In the recent war, where was the condemnation from Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Indeed, where was the Palestinian Authority? They were all very quiet. Of course they voiced their concerns at the horrors of the destruction, but for Hamas there were no words. Why? Because they loathe Hamas.
Often in the Middle East, things become much clearer after a storm, and today we face a different world from the one that existed in December. Perhaps that is a positive sign. Four countries can have a key role in moving the region forward. The first, of course, is the United States, re-energised by a new President determined to engage in the region and supported by the wisdom and expertise of Secretary Clinton and regional envoy George Mitchell. Only America can bring Israel to the table, because only America fully understands Israel’s concerns.
This time next week, there will be a new Israeli Prime Minister. It will probably be Mr Netanyahu, and I know how people feel about that, but Israel tends to withdraw and make peace only with a right-wing Prime Minister.
The second state is Egypt, which suddenly has become a diplomatic powerhouse. It has strong influence over Gaza, which it used to rule until 1967. The third state, Jordan, is 50 per cent Palestinian. It, too, ruled the West Bank until the Six-Day War. Finally, there is Saudi Arabia.
The 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel full diplomatic relations with all 22 Arab states if it withdrew to the 1967 borders. I believe that this document should be the platform on which all future peace negotiations should be based.
My Lords, an excellent recent book about the first Arab-Israeli war entitled 1948, and published by the Yale University Press, was written by the distinguished Israeli historian, Benny Morris. In the book he quotes the recollection of a Jordanian officer who said that as he drove out of Amman to fight the Israeli enemy, his mother was in the crowd and she shouted, “Don't come back. Martyrdom my son”. More than 60 years later, the primary cause of the very real suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is that for Hamas nothing has changed since 1948. It is still fighting, and still losing, the war of independence. The overriding objective of Hamas, as demonstrated by its own words and actions, remains to remove Israel from the map and to do so, if necessary, by the martyrdom of its own unfortunate people.
Hamas is still committed to the destruction of the state of Israel not as a slogan or a negotiating tactic, as has been suggested in this debate, but as a defining principle. It is a principle which is not susceptible to reasoned debate or compromise. You might as well suggest that al-Qaeda does not really wish to destroy western society and that the problems would be solved if we all sat round the table together.
A responsible Government in Gaza would know that if you encourage the constant bombardment of a neighbouring country by rockets fired from civilian areas in Gaza, the inevitable consequence is that those you attack, however much they long for peace, eventually will respond and that, inevitably, civilians, including children, will be killed.
Sadly, in war, innocent civilians are injured, and they are killed in Gaza, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sensible Governments do not provoke wars by repeatedly firing rockets into the territory of their neighbours. The fact that Hamas is an elected Government, as has been emphasised today, does not make it a responsible or a sensible Government. The problems of Gaza and, indeed, the problems of the Middle East, will not be solved until Hamas, Hezbollah and others like them recognise, as Egypt and Jordan have recognised, some basic facts of political life. First, Israel is a practical and legal reality. It is not going to go away. Responsible Arab Governments have accepted that there is no point in continuing to fight the 1948 war. Hamas and many of its supporters have yet to recognise this truth.
The second fact is that Israel wants nothing more than to live in peace with its neighbours. Israel's military objectives are not aggressive; they are preventive and they are to stop attacks on its own people, whether by suicide bombers, by rockets or by even more powerful weapons.
The third fact that needs to be recognised is that if Israel is attacked, and it constantly is, it will defend itself; it will defend its citizens with force. It is all very well for the international community to criticise Israel for an allegedly disproportionate response, but that same international community did nothing effective to address and to prevent the constant attacks on Israel from the rockets fired from Gaza.
Israel tolerated those attacks, with the resulting deaths and injuries both physical and psychological, and the destruction of property for much longer than any outsider has the right to demand. Those who criticise Israel's response to attacks from Gaza as disproportionate really need to identify what lesser and effective steps Israel could have taken to prevent the constant shelling of its towns and cities. It is no answer to say that Israel should have talked to Hamas. The international community is not talking to Hamas, and understandably so while Hamas remains dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel.
It is, of course, much easier for leaders in Gaza to endanger their own civilian population by encouraging futile assaults on Israel than it is for them to work hard at planning and developing a civil society in which there is a free press, an independent judiciary, and the spending of aid from abroad on schools, hospitals and sanitation rather than on bombs and, too often, on lining the pockets of the elite. The real tragedy of the Palestinian people, a tragedy that many speakers today choose to ignore, is that Palestinians have yet to find a leader who is honest and brave enough to tell his or her people these basic and obvious truths. Indeed, there is no freedom of expression in Gaza for anyone who wishes to express such views. I therefore ask the Minister whether the British Government will now recognise that the best service they can perform for the beleaguered Palestinian people in Gaza is to tell them, politely but bluntly, that their lives will improve immeasurably but only once they and their leaders accept the existence of the state of Israel and resolve to live with it in peace.
My Lords, I am pleased to hear all these views. Last Saturday, I watched a play at the Barbican created by a team made up of Jewish, Arab and Palestinian actors, and directed by Yael Ronen from the Cameri theatre of Tel Aviv. The play was called “Plonter”, a Hebrew word that means tangle; but it involves no ordinary tangle. A “plonter” is more like a Gordian knot that gets tighter and tighter as you try to unwind it. The vibrant cast in this excellent piece showed that the conflict is so complex and the individuals caught up in it so emotionally and psychologically intertwined, that any attempt to depict it in a speech here lasting eight minutes is to do it a disservice. The play also demonstrated that biased headlines, sensationalist soundbites, the instant apportionment of blame and suggested quick fixes are not only unhelpful and insulting but may even be harmful. So I am not going to offer another narrative of the conflict, argue about the apportionment of blame, or suggest any quick fixes.
I decided some time ago to spend my energy in the region trying to move forward with projects and processes that bring the parties together in the same mindset. One way is to create a similar political mindset.
Some noble Lords will know that four years ago the Arab peace initiative was revisited and revised in your Lordships’ House. In 2001, the original Abdullah plan was a good initiative but later the signatories wanted to develop a new plan that was easier for all Arab states to sign and wanted to amend some of the language in the original plan to make it more acceptable to Israel. They wanted to meet on neutral territory and they needed time to talk in safety, comfort and confidence. I was honoured to be asked, through a circuitous route, to host the Arab ambassadors here in the House of Lords for two days when the House was not sitting. The result was that 22 Arab countries agreed to sign the new plan and that the wording is more acceptable to Israel because it avoids certain sensitive issues.
The plan is not a diktat but a statement of principles, and now is the time for Israel to offer its own positive and pragmatic statement to match that of the Arab peace initiative; it is not a critique of the Arab plan but an equally constructive plan. The mindset could then receive a strategy to be put forward to actualise the two-state solution. We spent 30 years arguing about this destination and we now have it; a two-state solution, or situation, and a comprehensive regional peace as envisaged by the Arab peace initiative. The road map is not enough. A map can show where a destination is and where we are now, but it is not a strategy of how to get there.
Tony Klug, an academic with 40 years' experience in this field, has worked out the bones of just such a strategy; it includes effective enforcement mechanisms. The international community must now pledge itself to agree a strategy and I ask the Minister for help in getting this done now, within the first term of the US presidency, while hopes and expectations are high and the president's influence is still potent. If we fail within this time frame, we could be looking at a future of perpetual conflict that is not confined only to the Middle East.
Another way to connect mindsets is through trade. While I was at Marks & Spencer we encouraged our suppliers to try to work across borders to encourage people to come together and combine to create work for people and bring affluence to those who had been excluded. We were able to link Israel with Egypt and produce the finest knickers on the planet. In 2009 we celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel. A few years later, we were able to develop a business in Irbid in Jordan and now we are 15 years away from the peace deal with Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
This can be done now in Gaza and the West Bank. They possess sweet water, good soil, agricultural expertise and an able workforce. They can grow succulent tomatoes and peppers for salads, cucumbers and onions for pickling, and 27 different varieties of the most aromatic and delicious herbs for flavouring, including basil, thyme, sage, coriander, and, of course, olives, olive oil and olive oil soaps.
In the past few weeks, since returning from the region and in the face of this crisis, I have received the most generous and courageous agreements from the chairmen of four of the biggest and best retailers in the UK to help the Palestinian farmers to raise standards, add innovative product development, provide technical assistance and arrange logistics to produce, package and transport their desirable goods to be sold in the UK. We are receiving a great deal of support from Paul Taylor of UK Trade & Investment, the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, the new Palestine British Business Council and, after already having received advice and wisdom from Adam Leach and the team from the International Business Leaders Forum, I am hoping that they can bring their strength to bear on the project. We will work with a company called TechnoServe to ensure that it is the farmers of small and medium-sized businesses who profit from this. I know that the Minister will back this project.
There is also the final mindset that we are all one. Last month, while I was in the greenhouses of these Palestinian farmers and listening to the issues with which they were contending—politics and war, credit crunch and recession, climate change and water shortages—I realised that just doing things better in a fragmented, compartmentalised way is also not going to work on its own. Plonter showed that this is not just about politics, strategy and business; this is a tangle of individual souls.
The late Lord Sieff of Brimpton, my mentor at M&S, would have said that if people were helped to gain trust in an organisation or indeed a community of people from many different religions, regions and cultures who were working together to give everyone a profit and improve the quality of life, they would lift their thoughts to a higher level of consciousness. Then, rather than their anxieties creating a reaction of “us or them” or “fight or flight”, people, particularly in that region, would see that we are all one and their behaviour would change.
I will conclude by giving an example of a series of events that I hope connect people in this way. It is a story of optimism and imagination. Six years ago, Ann McPherson and Andrew Herxheimer set up in Oxford a research-based website and a charity called Healthtalkonline. I now chair it. It allows people with life-threatening illnesses who are scared and do not know what choices to make to hear and see the stories of other patients, and know what choices they made and what then happened, and they share their experiences.
Completely separately, five years ago, the Olive Tree Trust was formed in City University in London by Sheik Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber and Derek Tullett. It has for four years granted scholarships to Israeli and Palestinian students to study here in London any course they choose, but the students must live together and involve themselves in learning about and discussing together the issues of the Middle East. They are able, tortuously, to change their internal narrative and their views of the other. They then spend a year creating some positive project in the region.
Yael Litmanovitz, one of the group's alumni from the first year of the Olive Tree at City, is now working back in Israel to set up a branch of Healthtalkonline that will allow Israelis, Jews and Arabs to share personal experiences of illnesses with each other: the cancers, the heart diseases and the mental illnesses. There are 60 different conditions. She is working with Ben Gurion University in Israel but, because of the experience of Olive Tree, she insisted that as this is now in English, Hebrew and Arabic, we should also make it available to the Bedouin, the Druze and the Palestinians.
While I was in Bethlehem last month, I found another great connection with Stephanie Safdi, a Fulbright scholar from America, who is doing similar work with USAID and Al-Quds University in the West Bank. She is helping to set up a parallel programme for the population there and in Gaza. We are all now working together with the same mindset.
Plonter will unwind only if we all realise that this is all part of the same piece of twine and stop pulling in different directions.
My Lords, I venture into this debate with the story of the visitor lost in our Welsh hills. He came across one of the local people and said, “Excuse me, how do I get to Ysbyty Ifan?”. The answer was, “If I were you, I wouldn’t have started from here”. It is a story often repeated. We would not have started from here, because we are all the victims of history. Some say that this has been going on for 100 years. It has been going on for 3,000 years. We have all received something from that history; we are indebted to it and sometimes we are the victims of it.
It is wonderful to look at the story of the Middle East in hindsight, but then you see the great mistakes that we have made, when France and Britain, mainly, divided the spoils between them. We drew lines, often the wrong lines, and the people of that area had to live within those lines. We talk of the land that makes up the nation of Israel, some of which was bought perfectly legitimately by organisations such as the Jewish National Fund. However, at other times, land, as with the settlements, was not acquired very honourably. We have a history that we have to live with.
Let us look at the history of the Jewish people. I was in the Polish Parliament only a little while ago. I saw there the plaque which describes what happened to the people at the start of the 1939-45 war. I read the names and the places where parliamentarians had died: Dachau, Belsen and Mauthausen. My heart bled for them. That is why I look at history and say that we can never reject the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 after what the Jewish people have suffered century after century, such as the pogroms and especially the Holocaust. Who in 1917 would have imagined the horrors of 30 years on, when 6 million Jewish people were exterminated in Hitler’s era?
We must therefore somehow accept the Israeli State but also, in so doing, support the national home. We should remember also the guarantee that nothing would be done that would be intrusive on the rights of the Palestinian people who were already there. How do you achieve this balance between the Israelis who are settling in and the Palestinians who were already there? This is history. We do not choose our own moment in it. We have to accept the history and make sure that it is honourable for all who are part of it. In Gaza today are not only the victims of history but those who are hostages to it. They need a wisdom and understanding that do not seem to be forthcoming. Where are the Gandhis or the Nelson Mandelas? One name that has been mentioned in speech after speech today is that of the new President of the United States. We expect so much of him. If any person in the world deserves our prayers at the present, whatever our faith might be, it is Barack Obama. He has so much to contend with. He has a first-class band of people around him. We hope that things will work out.
With Hamas rockets and Israeli bulldozers and tanks, it is a period that we would prefer to forget. It is a terrible scar on the nation of Israel. Between 3,000 years ago and today, there was one who came and he said, “If you cause harm to a child, it is better if a millstone is tied around your neck and you are thrown into the depths of the oceans”. In the Bible, there is forgiveness for everything, except for harming children. Whether they are Palestinian or Israeli children, we look at them and say that we have somehow to create a world that is fit for children such as them, a world in which they can live at peace and in understanding.
Let us contrast life in Gaza with that in Israel—I have been to both places in happier times. In Gaza, the annual income per head is under $3,000; in Israel, it is 10 times more. Unemployment in Gaza touches nearly 50 per cent of the people and probably more than that at present; in Israel, it is under 7 per cent. In Israel, the infant mortality rate is four children in 1,000; in Gaza, it is 24 in 1,000. As people are not allowed to leave Gaza, it is like a massive prison camp. There are 1.5 million people there, which is 2,930 people per square kilometre. Israel has 292 people per square kilometre, the West Bank has 342 and Egypt has 70. Children are brought up in Gaza. How traumatised they must be, as a noble Lord said.
We have heard of the dreams of other nations. What can those little children dream of? What can the youngsters dream of? They have so much to offer to the world. They are being suffocated. Somehow, we must make it possible for each of those children to dream and then to reach out to fulfil their aspirations.
The time has come—I am not sure whether I am on message with the Liberal Democrats on this—to look at the future of Gaza. The people of Gaza themselves must wonder whether the territory within can support 1.5 million people. We know what happened when the Israelis took over in other places: the desert bloomed. Is there a way that understanding between Israel and Palestine—and Egypt—can help the desert, which is difficult territory now, to become alive and helpful in fulfilling the dreams of those people? When things change, people will need to be able to travel out of Palestine to other places. This is where our own immigration and borders legislation needs to be generous and compassionate. We cannot close the borders to people from the oppressed places. We must help them, as I have said previously, to fulfil their dreams.
I will not say any more. I have probably flown some kites; we shall see. Of course, we need immediate action to ease the suffering of Gaza. Unless history is to claim new victims, the long-term future of Gaza must also be very high up on the agenda.
My Lords, I turn immediately to my noble friend Lord Stone, whom all of us wish was the leader of the world. All the problems of the Middle East would be solved if his trade plans were followed. Although I applaud his optimism, I do not think that he has all the answers to our present problems.
The situation in Gaza is indeed tragic and complex. No civilised person could fail to be moved by the pictures on our television screens of dying and maimed women and children. But the firing of rockets, some 9,000 of them, into Israel scarcely helps the people of Gaza. Nor does it help for many members of Hamas to proclaim the annihilation of Israel as their goal—an aim that they refuse to retreat from or retract at the present time.
What is Israel expected to do in the face of such intimidation? Should Israel take it bravely on the chin? I do not think that its citizens would stand for that. No wonder a Palestinian in Gaza, someone who lost his father and son, who fears, like so many, being beaten by Hamas, had to say:
“No one from Hamas has come to offer us help. None of the leaders has been here. We were farmers, not fighters with a militant faction. ... After what happened to us here, I hate the name Hamas”.
That is what he had to say as a result of his personal experience.
Of course, war is ugly. We saw it here in England in the last war. We saw it in Germany in many cities there. More recently, we saw it in Sri Lanka with its Government against the Tamil Tigers. We could go on and on. The voices of hate have to be stilled. Tragically, they can be heard from extremists on both sides of the divide. But from Gaza they are accompanied by a desire to kill. The rockets are not aimed in fun; they are intended to kill as many people as possible. The fact that the rockets are in some cases old fashioned does not really matter. They will be secured in the future by Iranian arms, which are not old fashioned at all. Many of them hope that Israel will be extinguished. However, they do not claim that only Israel should be extinguished, but that all Jews should be wiped off the face of the earth. Should the Israelis take no notice of that?
This fundamentalism is echoed by a small minority of Jews, who respect no opinions other than their own and plan for a greater Israel. However, it is utterly false to liken them to extremists in the Hamas movement. There can be little hope of reconciling these two extremes, but it is not impossible that both will come to their senses. Regrettably, I would not like to bet on that.
Within a few days, Israel will hold a general election. Netanyahu may win. I hope not. But, if he becomes Prime Minister, is it likely that this would herald a change of heart? There is little evidence of that. However, it is extremely misleading to compare his opinions with those of Hamas. In my more optimistic moments, I like to believe that the majority on both sides, albeit currently silent, yearn for a peaceful, two-state solution. Who really believes that Hamas speaks with a single voice? Equally, I hope that the majority of Israelis reflect opinions rejected by the bellowing of the extreme right.
Egypt’s role is pivotal. The Government there confronts extremists daily. They know only too well what is at stake, as do the majority in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab word. They live with and understand the problems, which would account for their present refusal to condemn Israel. The overriding issue to be confronted is how the present, not very firm, ceasefire can be converted into a permanent peace. Or is it all just a pipe dream?
The initial problem is how the two sides can come together and canvass the possibilities of an enduring peace. Can a sizeable majority of Hamas surrender its notion of driving Israel into the sea? How can one take a chance on that?
The constructive promise from Hamas has to be clear and specific. There is at present absolutely no evidence of that. Nor is the fact that members of Hamas were elected relevant. It is true—but Hitler was elected, too. We have seen how undemocratic forces can condemn a whole nation, as happened in Germany. The fundamentalism, homophobia, suppression of opponents, recourse to torture and hurling of rockets at Ashkelon and elsewhere in Israel in a clear intention to kill and maim as many as they can illustrate the true credentials of the members of Hamas at present. No wonder Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, could say on 25 January that the Palestinian Authority must end its peace talks and security co-ordination with Israel if it ever expects to reconsider with Hamas the possibilities that exist. I hope he does not speak for all members of Hamas.
Alas, I have some personal experience of what has gone on. My granddaughter and step-grandchild, aged 14, were in Ashkelon on holiday when a rocket landed a few feet away. They were terrified but, happily, they survived. It is abundantly clear that Israel cannot take a chance on survival. I end where I began in the hope that more sensible people can prevail at this important juncture, which tragically can end in even further war, and is equally a tragedy that can be converted into a lasting peace.
My Lord, I recently heard a speech by President Peres of Israel. He said that if we look back 50 years, who would have imagined then that the Soviet Empire would have ended, that the South African system of apartheid would have been dismantled and Mandela would have become president, that the Berlin Wall would have come down and that there would be a black president of America? He said that we should look forward 50 years from now in the same spirit. I want to start on that optimistic note because I believe that if we wait that long—no doubt beyond our lifetimes—there will be change for the better. I want to emphasise that because inevitably much of my speech will be rather gloomy.
No one can accuse this House of not focusing on the distressing situation in Gaza. In the past 12 months, there have been 161 Questions and Statements about Israel, Gaza and the Palestinians compared with, for example, 33 on Sri Lanka and 24 on Tibet. I mention Sri Lanka in particular because noble Lords will be aware that recently there was a well attended protest in Parliament Square about the terrible attacks on the Tamils, the hospitals under siege, the killing of 70,000 people and the many more thousands who are trapped and displaced from their homes. This has attracted little opprobrium and no calls for the obliteration of Sri Lanka or talk of its brutalisation.
I raise that because I am interested in the particular focus on the Middle East that is expressed in this country. Part of the reason is that the war in Gaza has not been seen in perspective, but only as a minute fragment of what is, in truth, a larger picture. There is a wider war, of which Israel and Gaza are figureheads, and there is also a civil war. The talk about what is proportionate—I prefer the word “necessary”—has to be seen in the context of a response to an attack from Hamas designed not just to launch rockets at Israel—5,000 rockets deliberately aimed at Israeli civilians and schoolchildren at 7.45 in the morning—but to end the state of Israel.
Hamas has vowed to have an Islamic state over Gaza, the West Bank and Israel as part of a wider Islamic empire. Israel has a 20 per cent Arab population, but not one Jew is to be allowed to live in this Islamic state. We can well imagine the fate planned for the millions of Israelis were this to come about. The response from Israel was, if anything, as restrained as it could be. We should recall the detailed precautions taken by the Israeli army to avoid wherever possible harm to civilians, bearing in mind the use of mosques, schools and hospitals, as has been referred to earlier today.
The charges of “disproportionate” were not made in relation to other wars that we have recently experienced; Kosovo, Georgia, Iraq or even Afghanistan, where people have died in their thousands. In fact, there has been some praise for the restraint that Israel has shown in trying to avoid civilian casualties. There is also a civil war in Gaza, which makes the prospects of peace unrealistic. The military dictatorship there did nothing to protect its own subjects, but took the opportunity of war to eliminate many of its Fatah political opponents. Other noble Lords have referred to the very cruel details of this. Even the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas said:
“Hamas has taken risks with the blood of Palestinians, with their fate and dreams and aspirations for an independent Palestinian state”.
The wider war is one of destruction of Israel, and those who criticise Israel’s attack on Gaza must realise that they are unwittingly giving succour to that plan.
Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas all share that same aim of destroying Israel entirely and, indeed, Hamas has thanked Iran for its support in the Gaza war. As others have mentioned, the result has been that Jews all over the world have suffered for this. The attacks on Jews that have taken place here in the UK and elsewhere illustrate my theme of a wider war. It is Jews and synagogues in London and Venezuela, in universities, to their shame, and streets, that are attacked, with Gaza as the excuse, not Israelis. It is not Jews who see all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism; it is some of the critics of Israel who vent their displeasure on Jews in general. The hatred of Israel, and sometimes Jews, is almost unique in international politics.
Then there is the propaganda war. I urge noble Lords not to believe all that they read in the newspapers about damage and killings in Gaza. We do not have the evidence. I cite just one case. The tragic killing of the three daughters of the respected Gazan doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish now seems to have been by Gazan rockets, not Israeli fire, according to the post-mortem examination of the fragments of their bodies.
On the humanitarian front, of course, it is exacerbated, because Hamas wanted civilian deaths to increase its worldwide exposure and sympathy. Humanitarian aid is another area where the wrong and pessimistic view has been taken. I noted with interest and approval that the BBC refused to screen the advertisement for aid and that it was backed by its own NUJ branch of journalists. It is not so good to hear talk of a Zionist lobby and Jews mugging protests and stemming disquiet in the United States, when you consider the very small numbers that there are. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has a huge budget. We do not yet know what happened to the millions that Arafat salted away and took to his death. We note the failure of other Arab countries to come to the aid of their brothers. The oil revenue of the Gulf states in 2008 was $562 billion; in Saudi Arabia it was $260 billion—one day’s oil revenue would work a miracle for the West Bank and Gaza, but this is not forthcoming.
On the humanitarian front, Israel’s Supreme Court in the past few days, a court known for its robustness, has examined the application of the Geneva conventions on humanitarian law and found them not to have been breached. Other Arab countries have not only not helped but have literally turned their backs on the Palestinians, as one can read regarding Syria in the report in the Times today.
What of the future? Gaza could have had a future. Every Israeli soldier and civilian was removed from there. Everything was ready for the Gazans a few years ago to start a new period of economic development. There was no blockade, and it remains true that Egypt could open its crossing if it wanted to. It does not, of course, because it no more wants an Iranian state on its borders than Israel does. Instead the rockets and the tunnels came, and the sad destruction of the very greenhouses where flowers and fruit were grown and could have continued to be grown.
What can the UK do? It can support Egypt, which is acting very well in this crisis, albeit for its own reasons of survival. It can help block Hamas from smuggling more arms by sea. It can press for the release of Gilad Shalit, who has been a hostage in Gaza for two and a half years with no access to the Red Cross or any other international agency. It can persuade Hamas to change the charter and remove mention of destruction. Above all, your Lordships should lend your voices to the end of the demonisation of Israel and to calm down the surging anti-Semitism. Your Lordships should recognise the need of Israel to exist and its legitimacy. It is no more arriviste in the Middle East than the other 22 Arab states to be found there. There can be no further removal of 6 million Jews from the Middle East. We must do nothing to feed the hatred that surrounds this issue and we must do everything to look to the future.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a past director of Oxfam and I am able to continue drawing on its insight and experience, based on its direct field experience.
The firing of missiles by Hamas into Israel was wrong. It provoked the massive retaliation by Israel. For Hamas to target civilians indiscriminately in any form cannot be justified. The response by Israel was, nevertheless, out of all proportion. Indiscriminately to kill, maim and bereave such large numbers of innocent people and children was unforgivable, whatever the provocation. It was also counterproductive. It inevitably strengthened the political significance of Hamas.
However, it was not just the military action; it came on top of the prolonged and ruthless stranglehold by Israel on Gaza’s economy, with all its consequent hardship and suffering, not least acute food shortages and ruined agricultural production. The military action was also preceded by repeated attempts by Israel to destabilise and undermine the Administration of Gaza and to destroy its infrastructure. That came against the background of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, harsh imprisonments and allegations of torture.
However, the imperative for us all is to sustain the ceasefire and immediately to start working with Israeli and Palestinian people to find a sane way forward to enduring peace. We should salute the courageous people in Israel, not least those in the armed services, who steadfastly seek reconciliation and a constructive and positive road to peace, and who refuse to endorse the intransigent, confrontational and more violent approach.
In 1967, I was in Israel during the six-day war. As emotional messages of solidarity poured in from across the world, I shall never forget those Israelis who said to me then, “It’s all right for them, but we have to build a viable future here with our neighbours”.
The UK has a special responsibility. The Balfour Declaration and our role in the formation of the State of Israel underline this. We should be second to none in our commitment to the security and well-being of the people of Israel, but genuine commitment and friendship demand that we all face facts. No people paid a higher price for the formation of the State of Israel than the Palestinian people. We will make little progress until we are seen to understand this and to feel the deeply rooted sense of hurt and injustice that resulted. We cannot undo history, but we must constantly keep in mind the cost of the so-called solution to the Palestinian people.
At the same time, we must never—ever—forget the persecution of the Jews across the world for centuries. If the memory of the horror and the appalling significance of the Holocaust were ever to fade, it would be a sinister and threatening day for decent democracy. However, the cruelty and systematic brutality of the Holocaust were as terrible as they were not because those who suffered were Jews but because they were human beings. If we do not stand up for the Palestinian people when they suffer injustice, where will we be when the Jewish people are next under threat?
It is the absolute and universal principles of the rights of men and women that matter. We all of us need to recommit ourselves to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other conventions that relate closely to it. We must take these as the cornerstone of all that we seek to contribute in our work with the Israelis and Palestinians, just as they should be in our own administration of justice in the UK. The great post-Second World War statesmen and stateswomen spelt out powerfully and with vision the indispensability of human rights for lasting peace and stability; indeed, they had just witnessed the Holocaust. I will never forget as a youngster meeting and hearing Eleanor Roosevelt in the summer of 1948. That experience inspired me for life. As for countless others, that inspiration has been regenerated by the election of President Obama. I fervently hope that, in the midst of all the hazards and complexities, he will determinedly stick to his convictions in Middle East policy.
Enduring peace cannot be imposed. It has to be built on sound foundations. It certainly cannot be established by a selective approach to negotiations. Negotiations need to be inclusive, drawing in as wide as possible a cross-section of those engaged in conflict. We discovered this in Northern Ireland. There can be few preconditions to meaningful negotiations. The commitment to what emerge as the essential compromises has to be forged collectively in the negotiating process, generating a deepening sense of shared common ownership.
Right back to President Carter’s Camp David and since, we have obstinately failed to realise that. As a result of this failure, extremism has been strengthened, fuelled by a bitter sense of exclusion. In my view, it is positively dangerous to talk only with those whom we find acceptable. We simply have to include others with whom we may find talking very difficult. Hamas will obviously have to be at the table. In the essential regional dimension, so will Syria and, sooner or later, Iran. Anything less will have within it the seeds of its own failure.
In the immediate future, the humanitarian priorities must be to end the siege of the economy of Gaza by fully opening the crossings and by mobilising and ensuring access for the generous support that is so badly and urgently needed for the massive task of reconciliation.
I hope that I will not be condemned as having turned sentimental, because for me it is not sentimental, but when I hear our debates on this agonising subject and when I see the news coming from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and indeed many other situations in the world, I am constantly reminded, pace Christian Aid, of the words of Brian Wren:
“Say ‘No’ to peace,
If what they mean by peace
Is the quiet misery of hunger,
The frozen stillness of fear,
The silence of broken spirits,
The unborn hopes of the oppressed.
Tell them that peace
Is the shouting of children at play,
The babble of tongues set free,
The thunder of dancing feet
And a father’s voice singing”.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I start by welcoming President Obama’s decision to appoint former Senator George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy. I, like the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Dubs, have experience of Senator Mitchell’s work in the talks leading to the successful negotiations of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and, indeed, for the past several years he has been the chancellor of my own university in Belfast.
It is important to note that not only does Senator Mitchell have the quality of enormous patience—and patience is required when one is dealing with these difficult problems of ethno-religious national sectarian rage—but he also has the quality of enormous political judgment. For example, in the last week of those talks, he was effectively a party to telling Presidents and Prime Ministers that things would not unfold precisely as they expected in accordance with the realities on the ground. Therefore, there can be no finer man than Senator Mitchell for this process at this moment.
However, there is a distinction between Senator Mitchell’s role, which I wish every possible success, and the Northern Ireland analogy to the Middle East that now operates in many quarters. It is with deep regret that I differ somewhat from some of the earlier observations made by noble Lords. That analogy is, I fear, becoming almost an intellectual toxic asset, a giant Ponzi scheme of illusion, and more and more are buying into it, but I am afraid that their disappointment will be equally harsh.
It is not true that the Northern Ireland process was unconditional. The quartet’s Middle East envoy, Mr Tony Blair, has reminded us only in the past few days that the Mitchell principles of peace and non-violence, to which Sinn Fein had to sign up, were among many types of condition on which that process was carried. I understand the seductive hope of many noble Lords that somehow or other, over time, the Hamas charter, as a result of engagement, can come to be seen in a similar light to the IRA’s Green Book, which we now regard as an irrelevant and sentimental piece of nostalgic rhetoric.
However, it is very important to understand that the Northern Ireland process was characterised by a condition of dialogue. I do not dispute in any way that we always have to keep open the question of whom we have dialogue with, and it is always an open question under examination. I also remind noble Lords that the communal anger and recrimination in the Middle East is far greater than was the case in Northern Ireland. Above all, one of the conditions of the success of the Northern Ireland process was the way in which the British and Irish Governments effectively forswore a selfish strategic interest. However, the Middle East is awash with selfish strategic interest, and in the case of Hamas and the relationship with Iran, in particular, we have a difficult problem.
I say with reluctance that the case for dialogue with Hamas is not strengthened by the argument that somehow Hamas is “not obligated to Iran”, no matter how distinguished the source for such a statement. We may choose to disregard those Fatah women who in spring 2007, according to the London Times, demonstrated outside Hamas’s headquarters shouting “Shia, Shia” in order to draw attention to Hamas’s links with Iran. We may choose to disregard those who write in AlJazeera Magazine and talk about the vast sums of money that Hamas has received from Iran, but we cannot deny the evidence before our eyes and disregard what happened this week, when Khalid Mashaal went to Tehran and explicitly thanked the Iranian leadership for “its big role” in supporting Hamas.
The case for dialogue has to be kept under review. It is very difficult to analyse these movements. The case has not been strengthened by some of the claims that are currently being made for such a dialogue, which clearly cannot be sustained. It is extraordinarily difficult to analyse movements like IRA and Hamas. I taught many of the people who were in the IRA, it was close to me, and they spoke the same language. Although I donated many hours and days to thinking about it, much of the time I was wrong about what they may or may not do. We need a certain humility when we talk about Hamas because these problems of analysis are redoubled in so many respects when we analyse that organisation.
We now say that we regard Gerry Adams’s speech at Bodenstown in 1977 and the peace feelers that were sent out to the British Government in 1978 as perhaps the beginning of a new turn in the IRA, which led eventually to the Good Friday agreement. Few saw that at the time, but it has to be acknowledged. It does not follow that the British Government’s refusal of those feelers was wrong; it does not follow that the Callaghan Government made a mistake. They thought about what they were doing and the decision taken by the Callaghan Government may well have been part of a number of steps taken by the British Government which eventually induced war weariness in the IRA, so that eventually, when negotiations began, they began on a realistic basis.
The analysis of movements such as Hamas is difficult but the brutal coup in Gaza against Fatah in 2007 changed things. We have seen tensions in the Hamas leadership, even in the past few days, but that coup seemed to tip the balance towards those who are more hardline and more of a pro-Iranian disposition. We have to take that into account. Iran is crucial.
As noble Lords will be aware, the position of the Iranian leadership is that Israel should be wiped from the face of the earth. That is a very important question because we have rightly raised the issue of proportionality in this debate and it cannot be evaded, but proportional to what? What challenge does Israel face? We have to take that into account as well. It is not possible for Israel to take the view, which I and other noble Lords might take, that Iran’s threats need to be taken with a pinch of salt. We in this House should acknowledge that Iran is well on its way to being the regional hegemon that it seeks to be and, if we are realistic, it is most unlikely that it will not successfully complete its nuclear programme. None the less, I still believe that it is right to take those claims with a pinch of salt and to view some of these threats as somewhat vainglorious. While I might be able to do that, it is impossible for Israel to do so. We have to take that into account in our discussions on this matter.
I have one observation: in the House we have seen how the elites in this country are critical of Israel, in many cases for good reasons. It is certainly disturbing that Mr Lieberman and the forces represented by him may do very well in the forthcoming Israeli elections. However, we should consider where people have been during this conflict, both in Britain and in the United States. The YouGov poll shows that most British people believe, naturally enough, that the two sides are equally to blame, but if asked who is more to blame, they will say 24 per cent Hamas and 18 per cent Israel. In the United States, opinion is even more marked. I make that point because of references that have been made to the Israeli lobby in the United States. The opinion of the ordinary people is 2:1 in favour of Israel. That cannot be achieved by the activities of any kind of lobby and it is important to realise that that is because of public perception of Iran’s role in this conflict.
I conclude by wishing Senator Mitchell the best of good fortunes in his endeavours towards bringing about a two-state solution.
My Lords, the longer I am in your Lordships' House, the more I realise that I am probably regarded as something of the runt of the Conservative litter, because I am always put on to speak at the end, when everything that I would want to say has already been said, but I always believe that we should declare interests.
I found it difficult that interests were not declared in this debate today. I sat down with my list to try to work out who was Conservative, Labour, and Cross-Bench. Then I did something very sinful. I tried to write down their faith on the right-hand side, because I was not sure whether we would have prejudice. We have had a debate of prejudice. Perhaps I should stand between my noble friends, because one feels one way and one the other. There is no ill feeling, but, suddenly, out of all this prejudice come a few interesting thoughts.
I declare my interests. I am a Scot; I am very proud of that. I am a member of the Church of Scotland. My sister and I were brought up in the United States; she is now an American citizen and has become a Catholic. Two of her children are married to Jewish ladies and are trying to argue about the resonance and complications of all that. My brother-in-law was a militant member of the IRA, and Irish. Somehow, I feel that people with strong religions and faith are terrorists. Not we Scots. Your Lordships will know that there are approximately 25 million Scots in the world. There are only 5 million in Scotland; the Scots are everywhere else and they are traders trying to make money. We will deal with anybody. I believe that there are only 22,637,000 Jews in the world: 6 million in Israel, a large chunk in America, some in Sao Paulo and a lot in Dakar, because they were traders too.
I heard the noble Lord, Lord Stone, speak today. He will recall some of my past interests as chairman of the committee for Middle East trade when, for six years, I had responsibility for trading with the Arab world and Marcus Sieff, as he then was, was responsible for Israel. His budget for one country, Israel, was bigger than mine. I argued that there was not much trade with Israel: it was all diamonds that were sent over here and sent back. Then I met the noble Lord, Lord Stone. While we were in Egypt, we thought that we could help the Egyptians after the war. True to form, he was not prejudicial, but they sent two men from Marks & Spencer. One we called “Never mind what it tastes like, look at what it looks like”. He turned a potato into a meal by putting some cream and chives on top and multiplied the value of that potato ad nauseam.
The other one we called “Never mind the quality, feel the width”. He was the textile man. In no time, the team from Marks & Spencer had taught the Egyptians, who had produced some of the best cotton in the world, to do that. They put the buttons in the wrong place. We had a little problem with the label. The Egyptians wanted to have the words “Egyptian cotton” on the back. Marks & Spencer, or their team, thought that was inappropriate; could it be on the sleeve? Perhaps it should be where they sometimes stitch them, under the armpit, but that was not good because we might have smelly armpits. Finally, it was considered that it might go on the tail of the shirt but, to be profitable, the tails had to be short. You could not have those long tails. The real thing was trade.
When we got involved with Jordan, there was no need for me as a Christian. They sat down and worked it all out together. They were traders. One problem we face in this world is economic situations. We can all say that he who forgives from a position of strength is more honourable than he who forgives from a position of weakness, which I think comes from the Koran, or that he who kills shall surely himself be killed, but it is not a question of multilateralism. It is all very well to speak about the international community. The international community is like sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It does nothing.
I always represent someone else's views, because I have never had views of my own. I have the honour to represent the 52 former senior British diplomats who, on 27 April 2004, wrote to Tony Blair. I will quote only small parts of the letter, because otherwise it will take too much time, but it is very appropriate. They wrote:
“We the undersigned former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States”.
They go on to refer to,
“new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood”.
At the end, they simply say:
“We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related issues, and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally”.
Is this a religious situation? When I used to go around the Middle East, I would suddenly be locked up practically. I was allowed to go there when we had no diplomatic relations. When we had good relations, the Foreign Office said that it did not need people involved in trade, but as soon as we had the Salman Rushdie problem, I went out on my own, and when we had the super-gun thing, I went out on my own. I went without a visa because if you had one it meant that someone else knew you were going—they would invite you. Often, I would be sat down and a lecture would begin. In a high-pitched voice, through the interpreter, I would be told, “You are a lackey of capitalist American policies which have destroyed the stability of the world and caused the death of many innocent ‘womens and childs’”. Then I would make my own attack on them.
We have a wonderful opportunity here. Israel, if it could get off its hung-up ideas about everyone wanting to get rid of Israel—it is not true at all; it is a political stance—has some of the greatest technology in production and agriculture, and an efficient organisation which could be harnessed and used. The British still have one of the best reputations and the best relationships out there. We are trusted. People there used to say to me of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, “Oh, here is Lord Wright. He is always right, but we like his right”. Or about Sir Hannay, as the Iraqis called him, they would say, “He is British: we can trust him but we can’t trust the Americans”. The Americans are not untrustworthy; they just do not have the same international requirements that we have. We have to trade, but America is to some extent self-sufficient.
Her Majesty’s Government should simply get together with the Americans, give the noble Lord, Lord Stone, and me a large sum of money and say, “Go out and buy food”, and we will produce food throughout Africa. It is a pity that the Israelis were not given some of the countries in Africa, as they have that remarkable ability to produce wealth.
If we could spare a little bit more time to think less about politics and to think about economics and the creation of wealth and prosperity, stability would follow.
My Lords, at this stage of the debate, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, was implying, all the points that could be made have been made, so I can be quite brief.
Hamas is a terrorist organisation. By its 1987 charter, it is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and, for good measure, to the killing of Jews. It has never repudiated its charter, nor has it even considered doing so. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, dismissed that as mere rhetoric. If it were just rhetoric it would be unpleasant but essentially irrelevant.
Unfortunately, Hamas is in a position to put its declared objectives into practice. Although it commands no international recognition, Hamas has de facto control of the Gaza Strip. It has built or adopted complex tunnel systems through which rockets supplied by Iran have been brought into Gaza from Egypt. Noble Lords may have seen a late-night news item shortly after the end of hostilities which showed a reporter being lowered down 60 feet into such a tunnel, which was still in pristine condition and in full working order. If the engineering skills, physical effort and financial backing that went into the creation and maintenance of those tunnels had been more usefully deployed, the hostilities would have been avoided altogether.
Hamas’s rocket fire has been deliberately aimed at civilian targets in southern Israel. The current capability of those rockets is about 40 kilometres. In a year or two—the precise timing is irrelevant—those rockets will be able to reach Tel Aviv. No Government worth their salt would tolerate such a possibility; to do so would be an abandonment of the duty owed to their citizens.
If a terrorist organisation was in control of territory adjacent to the United Kingdom, from which it fired rockets at the civilian population of, say, Kent, we would not tolerate it. If that territory was part of another country, we would require the Government of that country to do whatever was necessary to stop those attacks. If there were no other Government to do the job, we would undoubtedly do it ourselves.
The Israeli attack was not only foreseeable; it was inevitable. Gaza is densely populated, and innocent people were bound to suffer. This fact is well understood by Hamas, which was storing and firing its weapons in and from the vicinity of mosques, schools and public buildings. The resulting deaths and injuries led to, and were calculated to lead to, a PR success for the Hamas cause as the tragedy unfolded daily and horrifically in our living rooms. This should not blind us to who is responsible for all the suffering. The truth is that Hamas, like the Taliban, has no respect for life, even for the lives of its own innocent people.
It all boils down to a basic issue, which was drawn to the attention of my noble friend Lord Dubs when he met in southern Lebanon the family whom he described to us. If you believe, as I do, that the state of Israel should exist and that its people should be allowed to live their lives in peace, the points that I have been making are obvious and unsurprising. If you believe, as I do, that the Palestinian people should be able to live their lives in peace, what needs to happen is again obvious and unsurprising; if Palestinians want a sovereign state of their own, free from fear of attack from Israel, they must accept that the sovereign state of Israel must be free from fear of attack from the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, as we all know, Hamas will not accept one rather important part of that equation.
My Lords, I am associated with an Arab organisation that is a shareholder in the Gaza power station, and with the offshore Gaza gas fields; the British company, BG, is the operator. For the avoidance of doubt, however, my remarks are purely personal.
Noble Lords may remember the time when Jew and Arab worked not just side by side but together. That was before regional politics and international engagement. Since then, some suggest that Israel has an eretz Israel, a greater Israel, as the endgame; as the saying goes, “From the sea to the river”. That agenda must be stopped dead in its tracks.
The world is the loser as a result of this latest incursion. The UN has shown itself to be impotent, the United States has not been exercising its world status with any distinction, and Israel has shown that it cannot win the war or peace on its terms. Israel is not ready for peace, and the US is not ready to pressure for that peace. The biggest factor that is missing is hope; it is lacking throughout the peace process. Everything can be resolved if the will is there.
We await the answer to the question of whether President Obama can or will deliver. The good news is that during his pre-election visit to Ramallah, it was felt that he was at least saying the right things. In addition, Senator Mitchell’s engagement can be only to the good. Much hinges on his experience. However, the perception hitherto is that the preferred US agenda in the Middle East can be summarised in two words; namely, oil and Israel.
The reality is that nothing has changed since Madrid. Oslo addressed safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, a distance of just 43 kilometres. But what do we have? There is a wall, illegal settlements, a crippled economy and the shut down of movement of the people. Let us be clear, Gaza is a ghetto. To give some idea of the effects of the restrictions, a journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah, that should take 35 minutes with the random checkpoints, can take anywhere from three to four hours.
However, that said, where do we go from here? The short-term goals must be ceasefire first, consolidate the truce and then reconciliation. Beyond that, the breakdown of Fatah and, by extension, the effectiveness of President Abbas; the Fatah/Hamas relationship; the Hamas/Hezbollah question and the Syria/Iran issue all need to be resolved. Let us hope that the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah with Egypt’s good offices will bear fruit and a unified approach can be taken to Palestinian affairs.
A thorn in the side of reconciliation is the Hamas Syria/Iran relationship, as is that of Hezbollah. The influence of Syria in Lebanon with the settlement of the Golan Heights question is key, with outstanding matters in relation to the UN court giving the former angst. The effect of Syria in the fold would be to neutralise Hamas and Hezbollah, and isolate a manipulative Iran from this arena. The UK could do much to facilitate an understanding of the importance of this by the US, allowing for the Iran question to be tackled in isolation. I applaud the potential US position of direct dialogue. My visits in the past to Tehran bore out the benefits of such.
It is crucial that the European Union is recognised as a partner for peace, not to replace the US but to work alongside it as equals. Currently, neither the United States nor Israel wish this, but while the Americans demonstrate only blind support for Israel, they cannot be taken seriously as a mediator. The United Nations and Russia are deemed to be contributing nothing, leaving the Palestinians to take on the US/Israel axis alone.
My immediate wish list would be, first, that the US should be more serious and equal-handed in its engagement; secondly, that there should be a recognition of the two-state solution as paramount; thirdly, that there should be involvement of the world community, but particularly a political will from the European Union, to engage and play a significant role in the process; and, finally, that there should be the creation of an Arab Marshall Plan, with Arabs sharing their wealth for the cause of peace.
The future relevance of the nation state is numbered or, at the least, increasingly irrelevant. Why is regionalism not promoted more? By that, I mean the sharing of resources and responsibilities. After all, Israel’s future and security safety-net are not with the US but with the Arab world, which would allow for two viable neighbouring states to live in harmony.
One of the difficulties that face regional democracies, however, is ever-changing political arenas. Multiple administrations in Israel, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, in one form or another, exercise the minds. What if Hamas won an election, which, again, was deemed free and fair? Would the British Government accept the result? Care has to be taken in professing an agenda for free and fair elections and then expressing concern at the outcome. The effects of the West accepting the Algerian military cancelling pending election results in 1992, favouring the Islamic Front, were a disaster. The reality is that in the future, legitimate Islamic states will be born. Let us hope that there is tolerance of differing ideology. Allow me at this juncture to agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, about the need for dialogue and therefore an understanding of, and the ability to impact, the likes of Hamas. Marginalisation, as we know to our cost, is and will be a root cause of conflict.
In conclusion, I see the final geography of a Palestinian state being that of 1967, free of settlements. That represents just 22 per cent of the original British mandate. Nothing less, in my view, will work. Israel, however, has not signalled its readiness to give up the West Bank, so we live in limbo-land. Until that time, the essence of the problem—self-perpetuating hopelessness and despair—will continue.
My Lords, I thank the Government Chief Whip for allowing this extra Sitting to debate the situation in Gaza, and I thank Her Majesty’s Government for sponsoring the ceasefire resolution at the United Nations. I would also like to thank Jews for Justice for Palestinians and those members of the British public who were so moved by the horrific pictures of blood and death on our TV screens that they demonstrated to demand an end to the bombing of civilians in Gaza.
The noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, has already mentioned the former Israel Defence Force soldier and Oxford historian, Avi Shlaim. In an article he said that,
“mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim. This is indeed a conflict between David and Goliath but the Biblical image has been inverted—a small and defenceless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless and overbearing Israeli Goliath. The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, ‘crying and shooting’”.
Evidence of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing and failure to take care to spare civilians is clearly demonstrated by the following statistics. In the three years since the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in the two years between 2005 and 2007 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children. In the three weeks of this latest Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people, 100 Palestinians have been killed for every one Israeli. Of those, 26 civilians were killed for each Hamas fighter. So if the aim was to eradicate Hamas, you would have had to kill everyone in the whole of Gaza.
Hamas is now stronger than before the attacks in Gaza started. For those who say that Hamas positioned its rockets in residential areas, according to UNICEF’s briefing this morning, some 49 UN stores were attacked. Imagine if that had been Saddam Hussein attacking 49 UN buildings. Imagine if that was done by the Taliban. Think of the outcry we would see in our country: “Forty-nine UN stores! We must send the armies of the whole world to destroy those evil people”. Israel did it, and we remain silent. A cement factory, a Pepsi-Cola factory and even the American school were bombed. Schools, hospitals, ambulances, electricity, water and sanitation systems were all bombed. Please do not tell me that Hamas was hiding its rockets in those places. I am told that even the cemetery for British soldiers in Gaza has been bombed. I wonder when the allegation will be made that even the United Nations is involved in the hiding of arms. I do not know.
It is sad that even in your Lordships’ House there is deliberate propaganda and misinformation. I know that 12 speeches could have been written by the same person. Time after time we are given the example of Hamas looting hundreds of lorries of food and selling it. When we questioned John Ging, UNRWA’s representative in Gaza, he categorically denied this allegation. He is the man on the spot. So either the UN is telling lies or somebody is misinforming us.
Israel’s three year-old blockade restricted the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking gas, canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants and medical supplies. We have heard a great deal about the tunnels and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, has mentioned that when we went to Gaza we saw them. Yes, there are tunnels, but they are used to bring the essentials such as food and medication. I did not see any evidence of anything else going through. I am not here to defend Iran, but either we are saying that there are tunnels running from Teheran into Gaza or that Israel’s great friend, Egypt, is allowing the rockets and ammunition to go through into Gaza from Palestine.
At a press conference last week, John Ging revealed that, shamefully, there are thousands of tonnes of aid waiting on the borders of Gaza with only 100 truckloads crossing daily. This compares with the daily average of 130 trucks in the second half of last year when two crossings were open. A minimum of 500 trucks is needed daily, and that does not include trucks for the necessary development work.
I need to ask many questions in a short time. Time after time I hear the screams for Israel’s security, but what about the security of the Palestinian people? We hear the cry for recognition of Israel’s right to existence, but what about the rights of the Palestinians and respect for Palestine’s sovereignty? I hear the demonisation of Hamas linked with Islam. God forbid I should demonise Israel and link it with the Jewish faith. There would be headlines in the Jewish Chronicle and everywhere else and I would be accused of being anti-Semitic on a regular basis. I have the greatest respect for the religion of the Prophet Moses—I probably have more in common with the Jewish faith than with some of my own so-called Muslims—but we have to be careful not to demonise religion when we are talking politics. I do not want to go down that route.
We should not forget the massacres of Sebra and Shetila, and the massacre of Jenine, into which the United Nations ordered an investigation which was never carried out. In Gaza, the killing of Palestinian children continues. We should be demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners-of-war, political prisoners and the fishermen. It is alleged that arms are coming in from the sea, but the Palestinians cannot even go to the sea to bring in their own food, the fish. Under the Oslo agreement the Palestinians were given a 20 mile territorial waters limit; they are allowed to go only five miles and then they are shot at.
Finally, will my noble friend tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government will make any representations to the United Nations regarding an independent international investigation into war crimes committed by the Israel Defence Forces? Will he assure the House that Israel will not be rewarded by upgrading the EU-Israel Association Agreement and that this must now be suspended? While I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that we must help the Palestinian Authority in providing humanitarian relief, European and British taxpayers should not be made to give money time after time for rebuilding infrastructure, buildings and administration blocks so that the Israelis can destroy them time after time.
My Lords, this has been a sombre debate but also one with a lot of passion and distress. I have listened to Peers describe the situation as they see it and it is difficult not to be moved. The eloquent, detailed and emotional descriptions by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, my noble friends Lady Tonge and Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, the clear description from the noble Lords, Lord Janner, Lord Pannick and Lord Kalms, and others of the fears of Israeli people about what might become of them, show that as we speak here in your Lordships' House, part of our responsibility is to express the deep fears, anxieties, anger—even hatred, sometimes—of those with whom we most closely identify. But we must try to go a little further than that, because if we simply express these things, although we will be doing something very important we will not persuade those who come from another perspective. They will simply feel justified in where they stand.
When I was a little boy, I sometimes did not behave towards my sister quite as well I should have. My mother would sometimes reprove me for these misdemeanours, and I would then proceed to describe how my sister had wronged me first. My mother would say, “John, John, two wrongs never made a right”. We have heard described a whole series of terrible wrongs—historic, current, deep and distressing. Tragically, some of the things that have been done and experienced are not just wrongs for the here and now. There are young Palestinians—children, teenagers and those who are a little bit older—who are now damaged for good, physically and emotionally. Many young men and women in the Israel Defence Force are now damaged because of their experiences. Last time I was in Israel, one of the mothers of a young man in the Israel Defence Force said that she desperately hoped that her son did not kill a Palestinian. She knew, as a mother, what it would do to him in his capacity to relate to his own partner and children and so on.
These are grim and serious matters for all of us. As we try to move our way forward, I fear, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lady Northover said, that this is not just another episode. I think this is a watershed. It is a very dark hour, and it could be a dark hour before an even worse storm. Nothing guarantees that there will not be a more serious conflagration in the wider Middle East. The problems of Israel and the Palestinians are not simply for them; in terms of how we deal with them and what they might lead to, the problem goes much wider.
However, sometimes the darkest hour can be before the dawn. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, I was heartened by the appointment of George Mitchell, with whom I have more than a passing acquaintance. He has extraordinary patience, as the noble Lord said, and he has been appointed by a president who is remarkable at this stage of his presidency in the hope and optimism that he has inspired and in the capacity to think when much presses us to act as we feel.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, there are differences despite similarities and similarities despite differences in the experience of George Mitchell in Northern Ireland and other places, including the Middle East and the job he now has. When he came to Northern Ireland there was already an infrastructure; he was asked to chair a process that was in place. There is no process in the Middle East at present. There is no table and no agreement about who should be at the table. I am familiar with that. And I am very familiar with the ideas that some people might not be at the table, that others might walk away and that we might have to have a process to take us to the point where undertakings are given that will enable us to have a wider conversation.
Some four or more years ago I started to talk to people in Hamas and Hezbollah as well as people in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The most difficult thing in my experience was talking to people whom I believed were interested only in the destruction of some of the things that were important to me. I found that in places such as Beirut and Damascus it was exactly the same as at home in Belfast. When you asked people involved in violence, “Is there another way in which we could explore our differences?”, the answer was, “Of course”. If there is another way let us explore it because none of us wants this for our children. When we say that these people do not care about children, families and so on, it is not true. They care as much as we do, so we must think about what they are going through when they happily—I question that attitude—send out their children or grandchildren to face the possibility, probability or almost certainty of their death. What does that say about the context in which one views the issue?
Our common European home knew much violence and many deaths over many centuries and we have found ways of moving forward. We have become a bit inward-looking and perhaps we have not played the role that we might in some of these ways. As I listened to the noble Lord, I understood clearly the criticisms that were being made and how many times noble Lords have said that this country—this group of people—must do this or that. It is nearly always that somebody else must do something or other. We need to look to ourselves in our own country, and common European home, and ask, “What can we do? Are there things that we can take up?”. The first thing is to take up our own experience, which is that there is no solution to these problems by the use of force by either side.
I was working with Martin McGuinness and Iraqis in Baghdad recently when he said, “We came to the same conclusion as the Brits. They couldn’t beat us, and we couldn’t beat them. We could keep on sending our young people out to be killed for the next 10 or 15 years, and it wouldn’t solve anything. There had to be another way of dealing with the problem”.
We found it. We need to start listening, as well as talking to people with whom we disagree. Talking to your friends does not solve the problem but talking to the people with whom you disagree leads to a solution. There are contexts in which it is possible to do that, but usually the context has to be wider rather than narrower. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the network of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and so on. There is an idea that a wider body within the Middle East, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq, as well as Israel and the Palestinians in some kind of variable geometry, has to be involved in this.
I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, with his extraordinary knowledge of all of these things, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, with his characteristic eloquence, and my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, with his sagacity, all talked about Palestinians coming together and Palestinian unity. What does that mean? It involves Hamas and Fatah and some of the others. But they were together in a national unity Government and Her Majesty's Government indicated privately that they were supportive of that, which made possible an engagement. But when it was elected, that was not what happened. Therefore, when I hear noble Lords on the Government and Opposition Benches speaking about the importance of Palestinians coming together, are we saying on the record and clearly that if they do we will engage in a constructive way? Will we deepen and widen the discussions and make possible the context for talks? I refer to the kind of place where someone such as George Mitchell, with the backing of the new President of the United States can actually take things forward in the way that all of us desperately want to see.
If that happened, the people of Israel could feel secure and at home in their own place and their Palestinian brothers and sisters could feel justifiably safe and secure in their own place. If it did, all of us would have a better chance of feeling safe and secure in our common home.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Government Chief Whip and the Minister for agreeing to this extra debate today. Listening to all the speeches this morning and this afternoon has been a very emotional experience for me.
The House is united in agreeing that an early return to the Middle East peace process is vital. We all want to see that as a top priority for the new US Administration. The swift appointment of the former senator, George Mitchell, is doubly welcome, first, as an indicator of President Obama’s determination to make a difference and, secondly, because, as was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Dubs, Lord Bew and Lord Alderdice—his speech just now was brilliant—we know at first hand of Senator Mitchell’s determination and skill in bringing together historic enemies and persuading them to make and adhere to working arrangements together.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can afford another descent into violence. This requires sustained international diplomacy; indeed, many noble Lords have mentioned the important role that Turkey can play in all this. An agreement must be reached on a way to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza and to open Gaza’s borders on a continuous and safe basis, not just for aid, but for trade, so that the people of Gaza can see a pathway to a better life.
While the longer-range rockets fired by Hamas into Israel are being provided by outside sources—including, as we heard today, Iran—the majority of shorter-range missiles are manufactured in Gaza itself. To stop the manufacture and firing of those and the provocation to Israel requires determined action by Hamas as the de facto public authority in the strip. Above all, as my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Sheikh said, there needs to be a return to negotiations on a two-state agreement that achieves a viable and secure Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel. For that to happen, the Palestinians need a united leadership dedicated solely to that aim and the Israelis need to want peace more than settlements.
My noble friend Lord Eden of Winton said that Israel has forfeited much of the international sympathy to which it was properly entitled by reason of being subjected to years of rockets on its towns, the Palestinian intifada, with its lethal suicide bombings, and Hamas’s ideological attachment to eternal combat with Israel. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Kalms rightly said, Israel has the right to defend itself.
As several noble Lords have pointed out, the existence of organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which both gathered support in response to Israeli occupation, cannot simply be wished away. What will Hamas’s future be? Will it remain a resistance movement—indeed, a terrorist movement, as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said—and therefore a pariah in the eyes of western capitals? Or will it become more flexible to aid a future political settlement?
The right mixture of pressure and inducements, including an end to Gaza’s economic blockade, might well persuade Hamas back into a unity Government, not least because it stands a fair chance of controlling such a Government when next there are elections in both Gaza and the West Bank. But Hamas will not be induced to compromise unless the prospect of a Palestinian state begins to look real. Mr Obama can help by making it clear, preferably before Israel’s election, that America will no longer countenance Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank.
The Israeli pressure group, Peace Now, has disclosed that 1,257 new structures were built in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories during 2008, a 57 per cent increase over the year before. Israel has detained 45 Hamas MPs and some Fatah MPs as well. Have Her Majesty’s Government made any approaches to ensure that these properly elected representatives either stand trial or are released?
Many noble Lords mentioned the use of phosphorus shells, which burn at 800 degrees centigrade, stick to the skin and burn through to the bone. They were used in one of the most densely populated places in the world. We have been told today that the Israeli army is pursuing an investigation into these allegations. Will the Minister say more on what progress has been made by the international community on the establishment of an inquiry into allegations of war crimes?
Despite intensive Israeli bombing, some tunnels remain open. Palestinian sources in Rafah, the Gaza Strip’s southern town, estimate that about 20 per cent of the pre-war tunnels are still in action. Reliable Israeli sources last week suggested that, despite the bombardment, Iran is well advanced with a huge programme of arms resupply for Gaza. The intelligence reports that Iran plans to ship Fajr rockets with a 50-mile range to Gaza. This would bring Tel Aviv, its international airport and the Dimona nuclear reactor within range for the first time, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner.
Can the Minister tell the House what discussions have taken place with the Egyptian Government on the prevention of weapons smuggling through the tunnels? The Government of Egypt have a double responsibility, as the appointed representative of other Arab Governments and as the controller of the other side of the strip’s southern boundary. Our Prime Minister has mentioned possible Royal Navy deployment to help to prevent the movement of weapons at sea. Can the Minister say more on this? There is concern in the Navy that it would be difficult to make any meaningful difference without withdrawing ships from commitments elsewhere.
As days go by, the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is becoming clear. We welcome the humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that the Government have announced. Will the Minister confirm that United Kingdom taxpayers’ money will be properly accounted for and that Hamas will not be able to cream off anything for its own ends?
Israel must now urgently allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid through the crossings into Gaza. The UN Relief and Works Agency estimates that Gaza requires a minimum of 500 truckloads of aid per day. I understand that at the moment approximately 120 truckloads of aid are getting through. Can the Minister say whether there is now free and unhindered passage for the staff of the UN agencies and international NGOs through the Gaza crossings?
The Minister mentioned the programme for reconstruction in Gaza and said that Israel should share the burden. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that we should press on Israel the need for generosity and emphasise the extent to which such generosity is in its long-term interest. We all recognise that what is happening in Gaza and what should happen there are very much unfinished business. It all remains very fragile. I hope that we shall all have better news before the next debate on Gaza.
My Lords, we have all heard a lot to think about in the days that follow this debate. As someone fairly new to this House, this is my first experience of a foreign policy debate where views are growing wider apart not closer together. If I think back to when we began this intense period of debates and Questions following the events in Gaza, at the beginning, there was a high degree of unanimity on all sides about the need to stop this humanitarian catastrophe before more lives were lost. Now that we have entered a period of reflection, inevitably, given the passions and histories of this issue, reflection is quickly followed by recrimination. We would all do well to reflect on that, as a number of speakers have today, because the question of whether we see the will to resolve this conflict has been raised. That will will not come if a mood of anger and recrimination grows. It is only, as so many speakers have said so eloquently, if we can put that behind us and find shared ground and a common commitment to finding peace that we will find it.
The reasons for the anger are so clear and must be acknowledged. The rising tide of anti-Semitism here in the UK is utterly abhorrent, and I find it amazing that such things could happen in our country. There is no point in overlooking or seeking to deny Israel’s absolute right of self-defence when its citizens were subjected to month after month of rocket attacks. Even if they were, luckily, not particularly effective and did not cause that many casualties, their purpose, as a number of speakers have said, was absolutely clear; it was to kill as many civilians as possible. Equally, on the other side, it is not helpful to denigrate the political objectives of Palestinians by somehow painting them all as incorrigible terrorists. The Palestinian people want a home. They want a state. They want rescue from 60 years of living in impossible and appalling conditions, which have got worse as their population has grown, as illegal settlements have spread and as their economic conditions and their security situation has not changed.
Until we can get over this divided sense of grievance and move forward around a common objective, it is all going to be very difficult. It is a little invidious to single any out, but many noble Lords today—including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Alderdice, the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and the noble Lord, Lord Stone, with his description of Plonter—have spoken to this need to somehow find a way of getting past assigning blame and to find ways in which we can work together towards solutions.
I shall discuss the issues raised in the debate before returning to that theme at the end. The first point that I want to address is the direct question that came in a number of forms, latterly whether the UK Government would support a national unity Government of Palestinians. Let me be as clear as I can be about that. Discussions are going on, which have received some exposure in the press, between the Palestinians, largely through the good offices of the Egyptians, to see whether it is possible to reconstitute a national Government under the Palestinian Authority and its President—those remain, if you like, the legal head of state entity—but with the recognition that a combined Government that could address the immediate economic and political crisis that the territories now face would need to move to elections to elect a new Government for a combined West Bank and Gaza. That Government would obviously then have to be recognised by the international community.
Let me, however, immediately turn to what that does or does not mean about the willingness to deal with Hamas. Her Majesty’s Government have not sought to deny the fact that Hamas won an election in Gaza. The issue for us has come, as noble Lords know, from its reluctance to meet the so-called quartet principles—including renouncing terrorism, recognising the State of Israel and other issues. It is equally the case, as so many have said, that a solution will happen only when all Palestinians are involved in the discussion. Everyone involved in this—names from the former Prime Minister Mr Blair to Colin Powell and others have been mentioned in this debate—has essentially made the same point.
Equally, in granting the concession of talking to Hamas, there must be a clear understanding that Hamas is moving towards those principles and indeed accepts that the goals of any such discussions are peace and the ability to live at peace with the State of Israel. Talks which do not have that as the clear, stated objective, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, made clear, are in a sense a dead end and are a redundancy before they begin. This is now an issue where there is clearly going to be movement. The need to see the Palestinians come together again in a national unity Government and the need to engage in a broad-based peace negotiation will lead to a period of shift and transition.
I will return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, at the beginning. He commented bleakly, but not altogether unfairly, on the weakness of the international conflict mechanisms. He said that despite the cascading statements coming out of the United Nations and its different organs, and despite the expressions and demands of world leaders, still this terrible conflict went on day after day, with a terrible toll on life. Surely, surely, the lesson is again that international institutions can say what they want, but unless there is a sense that they are backed by a strong, combined international will of Governments, their protests are meaningless.
It was only when we got to a ceasefire resolution in the Security Council, with 14 in favour and one abstention, that finally we began to get traction. Even then it took days to get to the point of a ceasefire entered into by both sides sequentially. We have to recognise that until the international community comes back around a common strong position which really pushes towards peace in an effective balanced way, these conflict resolutions that we prize so much will remain fairly powerless and impotent.
In terms of the current humanitarian situation, an international issue that has also been raised, it is correct, as a number of speakers pointed out, that we still do not have nearly adequate access through these crossings. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, pointed out, a need for some 500 trucks a day. Well, in the period for which we have the last full report, the week of 26 January to 1 February, the figure was below even 120 a day; it had decreased to 314 for the week. Regarding the point that Hamas must not be able to import materials through the crossings that have potential for double use, I am sure that that is correct, but in reality there is no possibility that the materials being brought in have such double use. In fact, the lists of materials in our view are much too restrictive, with basic building materials needed for restoring homes or for getting the economy moving again being blocked and delayed. This contributes to the failure effectively to get materials in.
On the issue of access for NGOs and UN staff, at a recent co-ordination meeting of NGOs in the area, 75 per cent said that they were having access difficulties. Many who recently arrived said that there was a backlog of at least 25 days in their application for entry. The Israeli authorities have assured us that this is because there has been such a rush of people wanting to go and work in Gaza that the system of approval has gotten overwhelmed. The Israelis have assured us that they will bring down to five days these delays in approving international workers for work in Gaza.
I turn to the question: what are we doing for the children? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and others pointed out that half the population of Gaza are kids who have just been through a most traumatic experience. John Holmes, the UN co-ordinator, has made children and their trauma a major priority of the UN flash appeal, which we support.
I turn to the issue of the international inquiry or investigation into what has happened. My noble friend Lady Ramsay was among a number of those who said that we must be careful not to bandy around unfounded allegations, and who pointed to sort of revisionist news reports about what might have happened in the attack on the UNRWA school. Others similarly spoke about the fact that white phosphorus may not have been used against civilians in as indiscriminate a way as was earlier reported. However, the noble Lord, Lord Eden, and others immediately said, “No, these allegations remain very much alive”, and cited alternative press reports to make a point about some of the apparent breaches of the laws of war.
This all drives towards the fact that everyone in this House would welcome an adequate international investigation and, if necessary, adequate international accountability through international justice systems if, indeed, war crimes have been committed. I was asked to say where these activities stand. The UN Secretary-General has called for a broader inquiry into the attacks on UN facilities, including the UNRWA schools. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we back the Secretary-General in seeking such an inquiry. On 12 January, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to send an international investigating team, which, again, we back. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which always speaks prudently and objectively on such issues, continues with its own internal examination of what has happened. These different processes must be gone through. There also remains an obligation on Israel to investigate, as it is always the country involved that is the port of first call in investigations of this kind.
As to whether there is room or need for an ICC action, we on this side want to see the results of these investigations first. We are conscious that we need the facts and an objective account of what happened before we rush to judgment or to further steps in terms of international judicial activity. As for Israel being a non-signatory to the ICC, any ICC action would have to come as a referral by the UN Security Council. That would happen only if there was a very strong case coming out of these earlier investigations, as such an action would be highly difficult.
It is enormously important to Her Majesty’s Government that any of the investigations that I have mentioned looks at the claims against both sides and is not one-sided. Allegations of wrongdoing must be investigated against both Hamas and the Government of Israel.
My Lords, I can come back to the noble Lord in more detail, but our point remains that the only way in which there can be a referral to the ICC for a non-signatory state is through the Security Council; that is the gate through which this has to go. I can envisage the Security Council acting only if we have reached a point where there seems to be well established evidence that confirms that there is a need to proceed. However, I will return to the noble Lord on this subsequently, if I may.
Let me say a word about the economic recovery. One light moment in an otherwise grim debate was when we heard from the world’s greatest retailer that Israeli-Egyptian co-operation in the past has made for the world’s best knickers. We can hope that that M&S spirit can continue as work is done on economic recovery. We very much support these efforts to get such combined economic programmes moving forward. We think that that is very interesting and a great idea, but I share the doubts that there is an economic solution alone to this conflict—we have tried that before. Reconstruction and private sector co-operation across national borders in the Middle East are important but they are not enough to solve the problem if we cannot move on the politics.
I was asked how we are doing with President Abbas. He is in the UK today, as he was yesterday. He has met the Prime Minister and a number of my senior colleagues, and we have again expressed our support for him in the difficult role that he has to play. He has called for $600 million of additional humanitarian assistance for the reconstruction and has pledged $50 million from the Palestinian Authority itself. The Egyptians have promised a reconstruction conference on 2 March, which we will obviously attend to see what we can do in addition.
On the political side, the Egyptians have emerged as key at this stage, both in trying to facilitate an improvement in the relationship between the two Palestinian political sides and in trying to find a solution to the immediate issue of the ceasefire, as well as an end to the smuggling and the opening of the border crossings. We are extremely clear that, if we can secure a stronger ceasefire, beyond that must lie a renewed political initiative.
Here, I join everyone who has applauded the appointment of Senator Mitchell, whom I knew at the American end when he came back from his sessions in Northern Ireland. He said that the most difficult thing at the beginning, when people referred very passionately to events as the reason for not making peace, was to know whether they were events that had occurred the previous week or 400 years ago. That skill of learning his history quickly will be just as important in the new task that he has taken on. We will obviously support him in every way.
I close by picking up the reference to an evidently very eloquent speech by President Peres of Israel. He said that 50 years ago we realised that the Cold War would end, the Berlin Wall would fall, apartheid would be swept aside, Mandela would be installed and, lastly, that a black man would be President of the United States. Given the debate today, we might add to that that together we would have resolved the conflict in Northern Ireland. Looking ahead, it would seem reasonable also to say that we might find a solution to the problem in the Middle East.
Speaking as someone who has watched that conflict from the outside over many years and who has been involved as a UN official, I think that one could go beyond that and express a certain impatience. Why, when these other extraordinarily difficult conflicts have been resolved, does this one endure? After so much effort by the international community and the leaders of these different countries, and after so much sacrifice by those who have given their lives and borne the costs of the violence and deprivation in the region, why can we still not only get beyond pointing fingers but not even get beyond not pointing rockets? Why is it that every round of the conflict seems to leave the communities even more deeply polarised and divided? How can we now take hold of this opportunity and energy and, for once, channel it, adding this conflict to the list of the others that have been mentioned and say, as has happened, we hope, with the Cold War and other situations, never again.
House adjourned at 3.29 pm.