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Gaza Flotilla

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010


My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the Free Gaza flotilla, the immediate action the Government have taken and our planned next steps.

In the early hours of 31 May the Israeli defence forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the Free Gaza flotilla. The incident led to injury and death for a number of passengers, mainly on the vessel the “Mavi Marmara”. We await details of all the casualties and fatalities but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to offer our condolences. The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats had been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe they are en route to Gaza.

I can inform the House that it appears that a total of 37 British nationals were involved in Sunday’s events, including 11 dual nationals. We have so far received access to 28 of these individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon. We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British nationals detained and access to them. We are urgently pressing the Israelis to resolve the situation within hours.

There is real, understandable and justified anger at the events which have unfolded. The position of the Government is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However we have made it clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The UN Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence which resulted in the loss of these lives. We have demanded urgent information about and access to all UK nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support to their families, who are understandably very worried. We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British nationals in international waters and this aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into events.

The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my honourable Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has been in close contact with the Israeli ambassador in London. The embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities. I am grateful to those honourable and right honourable Members who have already been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in relation to their constituents and their families and have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved and the need to keep Members updated.

Israel has told us that it wants to move as quickly as possible to deport those people from the flotilla currently held in Israel. If they agree, they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for 72 hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. My understanding is that after that they will be deported. It is our understanding that the Israelis have also begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that those individuals who were allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe there are any British nationals in this last category, though I hope the House will appreciate that the situation is fluid.

Our partners in the international community are working, as are we, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to fly out its nationals. The Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join these flights. We are exploring whether this is feasible for British nationals.

The UK has played its full part in the European Union and United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into the events. Our goal is a process which ensures full accountability for the events that occurred and commands the confidence of the international community, including via international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international fora, including at NATO and in the UN Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand across all our diplomatic efforts and stress to the Israeli Government the need for them to act with restraint and in line with their international obligations given that their actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

The events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world’s attention. However, they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza, which is a cause of public concern here in the UK and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted. That view was confirmed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860, which called for sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and which called on states to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation. That this has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential not only that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the Gazan people but also that the reconstruction of homes, livelihoods and trade be permitted to take place. The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state that I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security.

As the once-productive private sector has been decimated and ordinary Gazans have lost their jobs and incomes, it is tunnel entrepreneurs and their Hamas backers who have benefited. Hamas now has near-total control of the economy. Other groups, even more radical and violent, are finding a place amid the misery and frustration felt by a generation of young Gazans. In this context, current Israeli restrictions are counterproductive for Israel’s long-term security.

We will therefore continue to press the Israeli Government to lift the closure of Gaza. We will plan early discussions with Israel as well as our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while ensuring that it reaches those who need it and is not abused. I discussed this with Secretary Clinton last night and we will take forward urgently discussions on this subject.

The House should not forget the role played by Hamas in this conflict. It continues to pursue an ideology of violence and directly to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Violence has continued in recent days, with rocket fire from militants in Gaza and Israeli military incursions and air strikes in response. We call on Hamas to take immediate and concrete steps towards the quartet principles, to unconditionally release Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity for four years, and end its interference with the operations of NGOs and UN agencies in Gaza.

It is today more clear than ever that the only long-term and sustainable solution to the conflict which produced these tragic events is a two-state solution that achieves a viable and sovereign Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel, with her right to live in peace and security recognised by all her neighbours. The proximity talks that are currently under way are more important than ever. These events should not undermine these talks but instead underline just how important they are, and the Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to buttress that process.

The Government will continue to keep the House informed of developments”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. My thoughts, like those of the whole House, are with the families of those killed or injured aboard the “Mavi Marmara”. I shall attempt to keep my remarks brief to maximise the time available to hear the views from the Back Benches and to give Back-Benchers time to express their views on this tragic and deeply vexed issue.

Will the Minister give assurances that every effort is and will be made to ensure that there is safe passage to freedom for all those detained by the Israeli authorities? The UK, as the Minister has said, is in a strong position as a member of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union. I therefore seek assurance from him that the Government will continue to press for the lifting of the blockade on the people of Gaza, which is the only way in which to provide a long-term solution and meet the pressing humanitarian needs of the people. Does the Minister agree that, in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860, all access for all humanitarian and reconstruction aid should be allowed? I very much welcome the comments on this issue from the Minister, but we want to hear that that resolution will be taken into account in its entirety in the deliberations of the United Nations.

Will the Minister confirm that there is full support from the Government for the EU’s call for a full investigation? Does he agree that such an investigation can be full and credible only if it is independent and international? That is an extremely important point. We should not be fobbed off by the notion that, if it is conducted by the Israeli authorities, we can be assured of that independence and international input into the report.

Today the Irish-registered MV “Rachel Corrie” is sailing towards Gaza. On board is a former United Nations deputy security secretary-general and a Nobel laureate, Mairead Corrigan. The Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin, has demanded that the vessel should reach its destination unimpeded. Will the Government give active support to the call made by the Irish Foreign Minister?

All violations of international law should be dealt with thoroughly and speedily. It remains the case that laying siege to a whole population is untenable, callous and tragic, and that should be addressed by Israel and the international community. Storming a ship carrying aid is proof, if proof is needed, of the need to end the blockade. All efforts now must focus on building that peace and security which that troubled region so needs.

I thank the noble Baroness for her acute and expert questions. I hope that I have got them all down and that I will be able to answer all of them efficiently and effectively. Every effort will be made to obtain access to, and get the release of, all those who are detained. As the Foreign Secretary said earlier in his Statement, we think that there are no British nationals among those who have been detained or questioned under Israeli law, but the situation is fluid and I stand open to be corrected if events prove otherwise.

As the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement, we are pressing for a lifting of the blockade. This must be right; if it had not been for the blockade, we would not be facing the ugly situation that has developed. Resolution 1860 requires that all humanitarian aid should be passed into Gaza and allowed to move freely.

Of course we must respect Israel’s complete right to look after its own security and to do what it can to ensure that bombs and dangerous weapons are not also being filtered into Gaza that are then used against Israel—that is a perfectly natural and understandable stance—but that has to be consistent with allowing all other supplies, including humanitarian supplies, to get into Gaza and lift the blockade on all the normal accoutrements of daily life that the Gazan people so desperately need, including all conceivable medical supplies and food. We think that that is a wrong stance by Israel, and we urge the Israelis to change it and to abide by Resolution 1860.

We support the view of the European Union, which has not only issued condolences and taken a strong position but has called, as the noble Baroness rightly says, for an investigation that should be independent and international. We think that that is the right way to go. The United Nations Security Council has also called for an independent and impartial investigation. This must be so; obviously, if it were not of that character and quality, it would not carry any weight at all and would not be worth the effort or the paper that it was written on.

The noble Baroness asked me whether we should somehow give a fair wind to the Irish vessels that are proceeding in the direction of Gaza. Actually, we do not think that the attempt to bust the blockade by sailing towards Gaza with ships loaded in various ways is the right answer. The answer is to lift the blockade, for the Israelis to check, justifiably, that armaments are not going to be pushed into Gaza and for matters to be handled in a much more civilised way than they have been in the past week. So we think that sailing into Gaza is not the best way to try to bust the blockade, but at the same time we believe that if the Israelis interfere further with shipping, as they may well do, they should go about it in ways that are more proportionate and less obviously heavy-handed than the miserable affair in which they have become involved in the past few days.

My Lords, I hope that I will be allowed to add to the earlier compliments to the Minister for his position on the Front Bench and, without being impertinent, to express the hope that he enjoys his relationship with Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service as much as I enjoyed the privilege of being a member of it for 36 years.

Does the Minister agree that one of the tragedies of this recent incident is not just that it has created further, possibly fatal, damage to the reputation and international credibility of Mr Netanyahu’s Government, but that it must have further reduced such chances that there were of moving towards a settlement between his Government and the Palestinians?

If, as we must all hope, there is now a realistic chance of lifting Israel’s inhuman and unacceptable blockade of Gaza, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure those of us who have long argued for contacts with the elected authorities in Gaza that the coalition is now prepared to open talks with those authorities, if only to be able to help facilitate the introduction of necessary and vital supplies to alleviate the suffering and unemployment of the people of Gaza. Of course we should not ignore the role of Hamas in launching attacks against Israel but does the Minister agree that, in almost every case, offers of a ceasefire from Hamas have been broken on the Israeli side?

I hope that the Minister can also reassure the House that the Government will continue to press for an end to the illegal colonisation of the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I am sure I will enjoy working with the diplomats, though I may not agree with every nuance of diplomacy. I see my job as not only to represent the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in your Lordships’ House, but to represent your Lordships’ views in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have to get to the truth of what happened. It is still obscure as to how this came about, although there are some very ugly realities that we have all seen on television. I would not be quite as gloomy as the noble Lord about the future; it could be that this ugly event has jarred people into a new realism. Mahmoud Abbas has already said he believes that we should press ahead with the proximity talks. I think that is right.

The noble Lord went on to talk about whether the coalition Government should talk to Hamas about such detailed practical matters as the release of personnel. Officials have had to talk to Hamas but the Government do not believe that we should talk to Hamas until it is prepared to take concrete steps some degree in the direction of the quartet’s proposals. So far, it has shown that it is not prepared to take those concrete steps. When it does, the situation could change. Until that is so, that is the position of the coalition. I hope that answers the specific questions of the noble Lord. I agree with his broader proposition that the day must come when there is a Palestinian state, many of the present trends are reversed and these two nations can live side by side in security and peace.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. I join in expressing deep sorrow at the awful sadness that this event has created on all sides. It is very tragic. The question now is: how do we get a peace programme that helps ordinary people and isolates extremists? I suggest that our Government should join the quartet and host a conference in London with the Israelis to discuss the easing of restrictions on goods to be allowed into Gaza. I trust the noble Lord will agree with me that neither Israel nor the international community should engage with Hamas in any way until it renounces violence and accepts Israel’s right to exist.

I understand the noble Lord’s expertise and the way he fights for what he believes to be the right causes in this difficult and tragic area. However, I have already made clear at the Dispatch Box the Government’s views about talks with Hamas. I do not have anything to add to that.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comprehensive Statement, which sets out the Government’s position in some detail. I particularly welcome page 5, which refers to the blockade, rather than retaining the focus on the specific issue of this flotilla. That is very welcome. Is it the Government’s opinion that the legal status of the blockade is defensible in international law? It seems to me that blockades can take place only in emergencies; four years is rather a long time for a state of emergency to continue.

Picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, on the “Rachel Corrie”, I heard what the Minister said about not necessarily providing safe passage. However, in calling for an international and credible investigation, will Her Majesty’s Government also be prepared to press that the investigation should look into the allegations of sabotage against the “Rachel Corrie” and its sister ships? It would be very serious if the Israeli Government were acting on several different fronts to undermine the passage of humanitarian aid.

I am grateful to my noble friend for those questions. On the legal status, United Nations Resolution 1860 is pretty clear that the blockade should be lifted. I do not want to tread into the niceties of international law beyond that but, given that the United Nations and the international community have said what they have, Israel must be getting very near illegality in maintaining such a vicious blockade, which clearly has such bad effects in humanitarian terms. We believe that it should be lifted. We cannot see that it is doing Israel any good and it is not doing the situation any good, so it should go. As to the sabotage of ships that my noble friend mentions, the trouble is that many issues and questions are flying round. For example, were these ships sabotaged? Did two of them have to stop in Cyprus? Why were there 400 or 500 so-called activists on a ship if it was meant to be carrying humanitarian materials? Perhaps it would have been better to carry those materials than so many bodies. All sorts of issues are not straight at the moment and need to be looked at in the investigation, but that certainly is one of them.

Do the Government rule out punishment of the state of Israel in all circumstances in the event that it is found guilty on these matters?

That is one step down the line. The first thing is to find out what happened, who is guilty and whether we are looking at a botched operation by the Israeli elite corps, as most people in Israel are admitting, or whether we are looking at crimes that require punishment. That lies far down the line, so I do not think that this is a time for ruling in or ruling out.

The Minister said that there must be an international inquiry. Does he accept that there is every reason for confidence that an inquiry conducted by an Israeli judge—should the Israeli Government proceed along that route—would be independent and thorough, given the well deserved reputation of the Israeli judiciary for independence and protecting the human rights of all those whose interests have been considered by the Israeli courts? Is the Minister aware that the criticisms of these unhappy events from outside Israel are loudly echoed within Israel by many politicians and by large sections of the press and the public? Has he seen the editorial and other articles in yesterday’s well respected Haaretz newspaper, the flavour of which is given by its headlines, “The price of flawed policy”, “A failure any way you slice it” and “Bibi the schlimazel”—that is, a person who stumbles from one calamity to another?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, who is a considerable authority in this area. He is absolutely right about the Israeli judiciary and the quality of judges. What he says will have to be determined when it comes to the investigation. I have read extracts from editorials in Israeli newspapers. The noble Lord is right to say that many wise and highly intelligent Israelis are questioning whether the present policy—not only in relation to this matter but generally—is the right one for the security of Israel. I believe that the security of Israel is vital and should be pursued by somewhat wiser and more subtle policies than those being followed at present.

I acknowledge that this act should never have occurred, but does the Minister agree that a state of war frequently leads to a horrendous and unlawful situation and that this is no exception? Does he also agree that humanitarian supplies should be conveyed to the people of Gaza at this time? However, is it not equally important, as the noble Lord said, that the illegitimate and provocative behaviour of Hamas in Gaza should cease? In no way can it contribute to a peaceful solution to this issue.

My Lords, of course I agree with both those wise propositions. The rocketry must cease and that would begin to open the way to better things. Obviously, as the noble Lord says, war leads to the most terrifying, terrible and horrific situations and violence. We all recognise that. The sooner we can bring peace, instead of this horrific situation, the better.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the role—actual and potential—of Egypt in finding a solution to the immediate and longer-term issues? Egypt shares a border with Gaza. Have the Government been in touch with the Egyptian Government? What fruitful ways forward do they see in that relationship?

I shall have to check on whether we have been in touch with the Egyptian Government. Obviously, the Egyptians are very much part of this story. They have very recently removed their part of the blockade on Gaza. More generally, we are hoping for a more positive and active role in this whole area by Egypt, which is an enormous country, than we have seen in the recent past. This may be because the Egyptians face certain internal problems, but a more active role by Egypt and the regional partners generally in this whole affair would be very welcome indeed.

My Lords, perhaps I may assist the House. I do not think that we have yet heard from a Conservative speaker. I know that my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley has been trying to intervene.

My Lords, in his Statement, my noble friend spoke of the possibility that some of those aboard this ship may be charged with offences against the Israelis who boarded it. What right would Israeli courts have to try anyone for offences apparently committed in international waters on a Turkish ship? What on earth would be the jurisdiction of the Israeli courts over any such offence?

That raises the broader question as to whether the operation in international waters was legal and covered by the provisions of war or whether it will turn out to have been illegal. Obviously, the Israeli authorities consider that those individuals who they believe took violent action against the people parachuted on to the deck of the “Mavi Marmara” are people who attacked their soldiers and should be charged. That is the view of the Israelis and, although we may think that other issues should be resolved first, the Israeli authorities clearly wish to examine whether these people who attacked their soldiers should be charged.

My Lords, while the whole House would deplore the frightening loss of life, both in relation to the Gaza flotilla and in relation to tunnellers killed over the past few weeks on the Egypt-Gaza border when seeking to break through to Gaza, is it not the case that both sovereign states of Israel and Egypt are, as a matter of general precept, within the bounds of international law in seeking to prevent the supply to Hamas of material of a military, or potential military, nature? Having said that, one appreciates that such actions have to be proportionate and reasonable when policing such a privilege.

I am sure that the noble Lord is right but, as my right honourable friend pointed out in his Statement, it is precisely the completeness of the blockade in blockading not merely weapons but all other supplies that has given birth to the tunnel arrangements and the kind of black-marketing and control of trade that have poisoned the whole Gaza scene. If the blockade were lifted, the case for the tunnels would disappear.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s clarity and robustness, first, in saying that the inquiry must be seen to be absolutely independent and rigorous and, secondly, in saying that the blockade must be lifted. The Minister said—I am not sure how precisely he intended that the word should be interpreted—that the blockade must be ended by “civilised” means. We all agree with the word “civilised”, but it does not demonstrate the urgency that is needed in the lifting of the blockade, as we remember the unremitting and continuing suffering of innocent people in Gaza, who as recently as 18 months ago lost 400 of their children in a war. The international community must address the lifting of the blockade as a matter of urgency.

I agree with that and hope that nothing that I said earlier contradicts that view. Israel must urgently find and adopt a better way of limiting any arms and bombs going into Gaza, while at the same time providing for the needs of the people of Gaza, which are desperate and urgent. It is also urgent that the Hamas rocketeers stop firing rockets into Israel. I used the word “civilised” to indicate that, if both sides move away from this violent brutality, we will get urgent progress.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the rockets fired from Gaza into Sderot and other places. I urge him to listen to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and to the quarter or third of the population of Israel who view Israel’s strategy and policy, in particular the colonisation of the West Bank, as being totally self-defeating for its long-term security, totally abhorrent in terms of human rights and totally against international law. I was in Gaza in January, for the third time in eight years. Some debates that one listens to in this Chamber—I mean no disrespect to any noble Lord—seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the abjectness of the condition of not only the Gazans but also the people in the West Bank and of the ritual, systemic humiliation and violence to which they are subject. It is all very well talking about a few home-made rockets—and I do not defend them—but there is an occupying army in the West Bank and there was a pulverisation of Gaza a year ago, in which 1,400 people were killed as against 13. I urge the Government to get real about these issues and not to pretend that there is parity between one side and the other.

I think that my noble friend’s views are very widely shared. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who rightly said that there are a large number of people within Israel, as well as among those who look on and admire Israel from around the world and believe that it has every right to exist as a nation in security, who feel that its present policies are certainly not achieving that aim.