My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, this is the first time the House has met since the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 last Thursday and I think that it is right to make a Statement about this and the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza. Flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed. It includes 10 of our own citizens, as many as 80 children and victims from nine other countries, including 193 Dutch citizens. It also includes members of an Australian family who had lost relatives on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 earlier this year.
From Adelaide to Amsterdam, from Kuala Lumpur to Newcastle, we are seeing heart-wrenching scenes of grief as communities come together to remember their loved ones. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of everyone affected. Alongside sympathy for the victims, there is also anger. There is anger that this could happen at all; there is anger that the murder of innocent men, women and children has been compounded by sickening reports of looting of victims’ possessions and interference with the evidence; and there is rightly anger that a conflict that could have been curtailed by Moscow has instead been fomented by Moscow. This has to change now.
In the last few days I have spoken to Presidents Obama and Hollande, Chancellor Merkel, and the Prime Ministers of the Netherlands, Malaysia, Poland and Australia. We are all agreed on what must happen. First, those with influence on the separatists must ensure that they allow the bodies of the victims to be repatriated and provide uninhibited access to the crash site to enable a proper international investigation of what happened to flight MH17. Secondly, President Putin must use his influence to end the conflict in Ukraine by halting supplies and training for the separatists. Thirdly, we must establish proper long-term relationships between Ukraine and Russia, between Ukraine and the European Union, and above all between Russia and the European Union, NATO and the wider west. Let me take each of these points in turn.
The first priority remains ensuring proper access to the crash site to repatriate the bodies and investigate what happened. The UK has sent air accident investigators and a police-led victim identification team to help with the international effort. The Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Situations has now searched an area of 32 square kilometres around the crash site and recovered 272 bodies. The work has been made more difficult by the presence of armed separatists. The bodies sitting on a refrigerated train have still not been allowed to leave. The pictures of victims’ personal belongings being gone through are a further sickening violation of this already tragic scene.
It is welcome that international experts have been able to visit the site, but this should not have taken four days, and even now they are still not getting the unimpeded access that they need. I spoke to President Putin last night and made it clear that there can be no more bluster or obfuscation. We expect him to help right now by using his influence with the pro-Russian separatists to secure full access for international investigators and to support the repatriation of the bodies, by handing them over to the appropriate authorities and ensuring they are treated with dignity.
Families want information and answers and we must make sure we get them. The UK and Australia have tabled a joint resolution at the United Nations Security Council demanding proper access in support of a credible international investigation, and we expect this resolution to be voted on this evening. Secondly, I also made it clear to President Putin that we expect Russia to end its support for the separatists and their attempts to further destabilise Ukraine. No one is saying that President Putin intended flight MH17 to be shot down—it is unlikely that even the separatists wanted this to happen—but we should be absolutely clear about what caused this terrible tragedy to happen.
The context for this tragedy is Russia’s attempt to destabilise a sovereign state, violate its territorial integrity and arm and train thuggish militias. Over the past month there has been an increasing amount of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist fighters in Ukraine. There is evidence that Russia has been providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in south-west Russia, including training on air defence systems. Seconds before flight MH17 dropped out of contact, a surface-to-air missile launch was detected from a separatist-controlled area in south-eastern Ukraine. According to expert analysis, an SA-11 is the most likely missile type.
In an intercepted conversation, a known separatist leader was overheard claiming that a separatist faction had downed an aircraft. Another separatist leader claimed on Twitter to have shot down an aircraft at about the same time, while a video on social media over the weekend showed an SA-11 missile system, missing at least one missile, travelling back towards Russia. Those who argue that the Ukrainians could be responsible need to explain all of this. In addition, there is no evidence that Ukrainian forces have fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict and no Ukrainian air defence systems appear to have been within range of the crash. By contrast, pro-Russian separatist fighters have downed more than a dozen Ukrainian aircraft over the past few months, including two transport aircraft, so the picture is becoming clearer and the weight of evidence is pointing in one direction: MH17 was shot down by an SA-11 missile fired by separatists.
Thirdly, this is a defining moment for Russia. The world is watching and President Putin faces a clear choice in how he decides to respond to this appalling tragedy. I hope that he will use this moment to find a path out of this festering and dangerous crisis by ending Russia’s support for the separatists. If he does not change his approach to Ukraine in this way, then Europe and the west must fundamentally change our approach to Russia. Those of us in Europe should not need to be reminded of the consequences of turning a blind eye when big countries bully smaller countries. We should not shrink from standing up for the principles that govern conduct between independent nations in Europe and which ultimately keep the peace on our continent. For too long, there has been reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt.
Over the weekend, I agreed with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande that we should push our partners in the European Union to consider a new range of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia. We should take the first step at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels tomorrow. If Russia does not change course, then we must be clear that Europe must keep increasing pressure. Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, capital, knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbours. We must do what is necessary to stand up to Russia and put an end to the conflict in Ukraine before any more innocent lives are lost.
Let me now turn to the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza. The crisis was triggered by Hamas raining hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities, indiscriminately targeting civilians in contravention of all humanitarian law and norms. In the last fortnight, Hamas has fired 1,850 rockets at Israeli cities. This unprecedented barrage continues to this moment, with Hamas rejecting all proposals for a ceasefire, including those put forward by the Egyptian Government.
I have been clear throughout this crisis that Israel has the right to defend itself. Those criticising Israel’s response must ask themselves how they would expect their own Government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities today. But I share the grave concern of many in the international community about the heavy toll of civilian casualties. The figures are very disturbing. Over 500 people have now reportedly been killed in Gaza and over 3,000 people injured. The UN estimates that over 83,000 people have been displaced so far. Israel has also faced loss of life, with 18 soldiers and two civilians killed, including 13 soldiers yesterday alone.
I spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu again about this crisis last night. I repeated our recognition of Israel’s right to take proportionate action to defend itself and our condemnation of Hamas’s refusal to end its rocket attacks, despite all international efforts to broker a ceasefire. But I urged him do everything to avoid civilian casualties, exercise restraint and help find ways to bring this situation to an end. Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear that Israel had been ready to accept each of these ceasefire proposals and had unilaterally implemented a temporary ceasefire in the hope that Hamas would follow suit. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to President Abbas to welcome his support for a ceasefire and underline our wish to see the Palestinian Authority back in Gaza.
The UN Security Council met in a special session last night and issued a call for an immediate ceasefire. The council expressed serious concern about rising casualties and called for respect for international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians. We strongly endorse that call. It is vital that Hamas recognises the need to enter serious negotiations to end this crisis. In particular, we urge Hamas to engage with the ceasefire proposals put forward by the Egyptian Government. It is only by securing a ceasefire that the space can be created to address the underlying issues and return to the long and painstaking task of building the lasting and secure peace that we all want to see. I commend this Statement to the House”.
That concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. I am also grateful to the Chief Whip for extending the time for Back-Bench questions to 30 minutes.
The shooting down of MH17 over the skies of Ukraine was a tragedy which shocked the world. From these Benches, I join the Leader in expressing our heartfelt and deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives. We share the feeling of anger mentioned in the Statement. We have all been greatly saddened and dismayed by the images of the site, strewn with bodies and belongings, telling the tale of what was normality and hope but is now despair and destruction.
We have been outraged about the way in which the site has been dealt with—first, access barred to the OSCE by drunken rebels, then the site left open for anyone to trample over and the casual indifference in how the bodies of the deceased have been handled. These are the remains of human beings who were loved by families and friends. One can only imagine what it must be like for them to see the disregard and disrespect with which their loved ones are treated.
The families face not only grief and loss but at the same time multiple practical issues. I would therefore ask the noble Baroness if the Government will identify a senior Minister to co-ordinate support for them—as was done by my right honourable friend Tessa Jowell after 9/11, 7/7 and the tsunami. I would be grateful for an assurance from the noble Baroness that the Government will do everything they can to enable the international community to help secure the site, repatriate the bodies and gather the evidence that shows who is responsible. We welcome the resolution of the United Nations Security Council this evening. Does the noble Baroness agree that as soon as the investigation into the disaster is complete there should be an emergency meeting of European Heads of Government to consider what further steps should be taken?
It would appear that international civil aviation regulators imposed no restrictions on crossing this part of eastern Ukraine. Could the noble Baroness confirm that the necessary safeguards are now in place over this area—and also over any other conflict zone in the world? The evidence is growing that this was not simply a tragedy but a terrible crime. In light of the vile attack on flight MH17, can the Leader say whether there is now any specific travel advice to British citizens planning to go abroad?
This is the moment for a strong and determined EU to step up to its responsibilities and confront Russian actions. Europe must show its sorrow but also its strength. If we, the European Union—born out of conflict and with a mission to keep peace—act together, we can and will be strong. So I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to seek a toughening of EU sanctions against Russia at tomorrow’s European Council meeting. Can the noble Baroness tell us what measures the Government want to see considered? Will the Government support decisive steps to extend sanctions, not just against specific individuals but also against Russian commercial organisations to dissuade President Putin from the supply of arms and support for the separatists that he is now providing across the Russian border?
Turning to the horror unfolding in Gaza, I am sure that other noble Lords, like me, wept when witnessing on our television screens the unnecessary death and destruction which grows by the hour. It is intolerable to see the harrowing images of hospitals overwhelmed, mortuaries overflowing and parents devastated as they cradle their dying children. With each day the situation worsens.
Since the start of this conflict, 20 Israelis have been killed—18 of them soldiers. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed, including countless innocent young children. Their short lives ended in the most brutal and horrific of circumstances. No one would suggest that reducing this conflict to a ledger of casualties is right but I am sure the whole House would agree that we must acknowledge the scale of the suffering in Gaza. The life of a Palestinian child is worth just as much as the life of an Israeli child. Every death will fuel the hatred, embolden Israel’s enemies and recruit more supporters to terrorist groups. We abhor the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel and we abhor the escalation of Israeli military action. Both must cease. It is innocent people who are suffering most.
The Israelis have the right to live without constant fear for their security; the people of Gaza have a right to live with dignity and peace. We stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself but does the noble Baroness agree that self-defence must be proportionate? The escalation of military action will not bring Israel lasting security. Rather, it deepens the insecurity and brings suffering and death to individuals and the devastation of innocent lives. Does the noble Baroness agree with the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, that we must continue to press for an immediate ceasefire, an immediate end to the Israeli military operation in Gaza and rocket fire by Hamas, that all sides must respect international humanitarian law and that Israel must exercise maximum restraint? Does the noble Baroness share the concern expressed about Israeli use in Gaza of flechette shells, which spray out thousands of lethal metal darts? I am sure the whole House will agree that the only way to avoid the cycle of violence and perpetual insecurity in the region is to address the root causes of the conflict, and that there must be an immediate return to the negotiating table, and talks for a two-state solution. In the words of Mr Ban:
“Israelis but also Palestinians need to feel a sense of security. Palestinians but also Israelis need to see a horizon of hope”.
My Lords, I welcome the response of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to this Statement and for her support. I think it is fair to say that we both speak for the whole House in sending our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of the appalling incident in Ukraine. At moments such as this, both Houses of Parliament, the Government and the Opposition speak with one voice to ensure that the deceased are treated with respect and dignity. Above all else it is a matter of human decency that recovery officials in eastern Ukraine are allowed to get on with the task of repatriating the bodies of the deceased and of investigating the crash site fully and unhindered.
I turn now to the noble Baroness’s questions. She asked whether we would identify a senior Minister to co-ordinate support for families. I can confirm that Mark Simmonds, who is the relevant Minister of State in the Foreign Office, is that person. The Prime Minister also said this afternoon, in another place, that he would also want to discuss directly with the families how best we can take care of their needs and concerns.
The noble Baroness asked whether there should be an emergency meeting of the European Council Heads of Government. The Prime Minister has not ruled out such a meeting but tomorrow evening the meeting of European Foreign Ministers takes place, and it is in that forum that we should set out the tough measures necessary to show that Europe is very firm and resolute in its requirements from Russia.
The noble Baroness also asked about specific travel advice for those planning to go abroad. Eurocontrol is the organisation that sets parameters for where aeroplanes can or cannot fly, while we give advice about individual countries where citizens should or should not travel to. This information is set out on the Foreign Office website, where it is regularly updated.
The noble Baroness asked about sanctions. Clearly, I agree with her that this is a moment of reckoning for Europe and I hope the European Council will not be found wanting. Regarding specific steps that should be taken, we already have what we describe as tier 2 sanctions, some of which are already in place, and the Prime Minister has said that more can be done, which might include naming individuals and increasing the number of asset freezes and travel bans. When the Prime Minister was at the European Council last week, he suggested that this could be broadened to include cronies and oligarchs around President Putin and other leaders—even those without a direct link to Ukraine and Crimea. He made some progress on that and hopes to make more.
The Prime Minister also said this afternoon that it is time to go into tier 3 sanctions, which might extend, for example, to stopping future military sales by any European country going ahead. We have already stopped sales from Britain. There are a number of other suggestions about airlines and banks, particularly ones connected with Crimea, that have not yet been acted on. There are, therefore, a whole set of things which should be set in train and a very clear message sent.
I turn now to the points the noble Baroness made about Gaza. It is most important to stress from the start that the loss of any innocent civilian life is a tragedy and I wholeheartedly endorse her comments about that. The first priority must be a ceasefire and an end to the bloodshed on both sides. I agree that we should not look at this—I think she described it thus—as a ledger of casualties. It is, rather, a deeply human tragedy and what is happening in Gaza is heartbreaking. In the longer term—beyond an immediate ceasefire—we want an end to this cycle of violence once and for all. That would make the Israelis secure and ease the suffering of ordinary people inside Gaza.
The noble Baroness referred to the comments of Ban Ki-moon. We have to be absolutely clear that the quickest way for the situation to be brought to an end is for Hamas to stop the rocket attacks on Israel. I agree that we need to make progress towards a two-state solution but that will not happen while there is no ceasefire and Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. That is the root cause of this and it needs to change—and change quickly—to bring peace to the Middle East.
My Lords, I extend my sympathy to the Governments, people and families affected by the MH17 tragedy. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to insist that the UN Security Council demands proper access in support of a credible international investigation. He is also right to insist on hardening the economic sanctions. The question I put to my noble friend the Minister is: what would be the impact on the British economy of this measure and could we count on the wholehearted support of the EU, in particular Germany?
The most important thing is for the sanctions put in place to have a direct effect on Russia. The existing sanctions have already had some impact—Russia’s economy has shrunk as a result. As far as the future is concerned, and how any additional sanctions might affect the UK economy, we should recognise that our success is based on our security. That also applies to Europe more widely, so in looking at possible further steps we need to make sure that, as member countries of the European Union, we apply measures fairly in terms of their impact. We must, however, not lose sight of the fact that security is a very important part of our success.
Can the Minister please give us some figures on the Israeli casualties arising from the 1,850 rockets? Will she also acknowledge that there is a slight disjunct in this Statement between the robustness in the Government’s response on Russia and their response on Israel? Will she recall that Israel is becoming a serial offender in this area? Israel, under Operation Cast Lead, killed hugely larger numbers of Palestinians in its response to rockets fired over. It is a repeat of what happened there. Those of us who went to Gaza and saw what the Israeli forces had done in Gaza to civilians—not to Hamas militants—as a result of Operation Cast Lead are now seeing this repeated. Will the Government not consider taking the kind of robust resolution to the United Nations that they are doing with Russia, in relation to the disproportionate action taken by Israel?
It is important for me to say that this conflict is taking a terrible toll. Along with the rest of the Government, I am deeply concerned at the high number of civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact of the conflict. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security and the people of Gaza have the right to live safely and in peace. The most important thing is that we bring this current conflict to an end and that steps are taken to make this ceasefire durable so that it is not repeated. That is the only way in which we can ensure the safety and security of all people in the region and make steps towards a longer two-state solution.
Does the noble Baroness agree that there is something distasteful about this concentration on numbers and proportionality? In recent months, some 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Syria without, I gather, much notice being taken in this House. The reason for the civilian casualties in Gaza appears to be that Hamas hides its weapons and rockets in schools, mosques and hospitals and is prepared to use civilians as a shield. One simply cannot therefore make a parallel between the two. If a country has to defend itself, I cannot imagine what the answer is to proportionality when the entire population of Israel is only 6 million, including 1 million Arabs. I hope that the noble Baroness will encourage the Government to complain to UNWRA about the rockets hidden in schools and to the Red Cross about the use of civilians as human shields.
As I said when I repeated the Statement made by the Prime Minister in another place, we have been absolutely clear in our remarks to Israel about the needs for its response to be proportionate and to minimise any civilian casualties. The most important thing that we are trying to encourage is an end to this bloodshed on all sides, and we continue to press for an urgent agreement to that end.
My Lords, perhaps I may return us to the tragic event of the downing of flight MH17 to join others in expressing deep and profound condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those who died. In particular, I express the deep sympathies of those of us who spend quite a lot of our time caring for those who are bereaved and, in so doing, I pay tribute to the Protestant, Anglican, Old Catholic and Roman Catholic ministers who have been trying to care for the stricken families at Schiphol Airport. They have a very demanding task.
As we have heard, the bereaved are suffering from a deep and dreadful trauma. The deaths were sudden and led, of course, to shock on the part of those bereaved. They were inflicted by violence, leading to anger. They took place in foreign lands where, as we know, the bodies are out of reach—not only that but lying around in the heat, in body bags, in full view of the world’s media. Now, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, powerfully explained, they are being disregarded and disrespected. It is a psychological, pastoral and spiritual nightmare of unspeakable proportions. My question is simply: will the Government continue to use appropriate means to ensure that the bodies are treated with dignity in this period and, of course, returned with urgency?
Our first priority over the last few days has been applying pressure to Russia to use what influence it has to ensure that what occurs is exactly what the right reverend Prelate asked for. While this has not yet been confirmed, I hear that there are now reports that the refrigerated train has left Torez and is now en route to Kharkiv. That is exactly the kind of progress we need to see continue so that people are able to grieve, while knowing that their families and friends are being treated properly and being looked after by the people who they would want to be doing so.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. At the beginning of this crisis in Gaza, my right honourable friend William Hague called for an immediate ceasefire and a fundamental transformation of the situation in Gaza. Can my noble friend the Leader of the House say whether the Government are talking to Qatar to see whether it might be best placed to broker a ceasefire, following yesterday’s talks in Doha? Regarding the long-term fundamental transformation of Gaza, does she agree that economically active people seek peace and that all Palestinians should be free to trade, travel, hope and dream, and lead ordinary lives?
The Foreign Secretary is in contact with a range of countries in the region to try to progress the situation there. My noble friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure a durable ceasefire, so that all people who are desperately affected by this current situation find some peace and security as soon as possible.
My Lords, my first question is about the part of the Statement dealing with MH17. During the course of the weekend there were widespread reports that the black box had been removed from the wreckage of the aircraft, so that investigators—independent people—could not look at it. Do the Government have any independent evidence to indicate whether the black box has indeed been taken away already?
On Gaza, perhaps I may return to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Warner and referred to from the Cross Benches about proportionality. Proportionality is important in international law, so can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government believe that it is proportionate for Israel to have taken 500 lives and made 83,000 people homeless as a result of its recent action? Do the Government believe, since the Prime Minister raised this question with Mr Netanyahu, that his response has indeed been proportionate?
On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, I cannot stress enough how much the international community is united in its call for a swift, transparent and credible investigation into the incident in Ukraine. We understand that there were two black boxes on board the aircraft and are aware of reports that one of those black boxes has now been found. We urge that this should be passed on to the International Civil Aviation Organization at the earliest opportunity. It is so important that all the proper and relevant authorities are able to do their work in response to this situation.
As to the noble Baroness’s question about Gaza and Israel, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, he was clear during his call last night to Prime Minister Netanyahu that he should do everything to avoid civilian casualties, exercise restraint and help find ways to bring that situation to an end.
My Lords, while I join my noble friend in offering the deepest condolences to all those who have suffered from this appalling outrage with the Malaysian airliner, there was one sentence in her Statement that I found difficult to accept. It was when the Statement said:
“It is unlikely that even the separatists wanted this to happen”.
This is a disaster for everybody concerned and it has obviously made the position of President Putin even more difficult than it was before. The separatists are now pilloried right across the world and, if they are responsible for this, have done their own cause enormous damage as well.
This has happened against a background of bombing of this area by the Ukrainian air force and of the separatists shooting down some aircraft in self-defence. It is important to recognise the situation in which this has happened. I say in passing that I find it extraordinary that the European organisation responsible for flight safety gave airlines permission to fly over this area. Having said that, two weeks ago, while on their way to the World Cup, Angela Merkel and President Putin called for Ukraine and the separatists to stop fighting and start talking. That is the background against which this has happened. There must be a cessation of violence and an opportunity must be given for an independent inspection of what has happened. Efforts must be made at the earliest possible opportunity to get constructive talks on the tragedy that has followed this episode of violence.
As the Statement says, even the separatists did not want to target a commercial airliner: that is the point we are trying to get at. It is not a question of evidence being gathered to show that there was that intent; it is about the aircraft that they were focusing on. As regards my noble friend’s point about the fly zone above this area, it is important to note that the controls that were in place extended to a specific height, and that this commercial airliner was above the height determined to be safe. However, those controls have now been extended and there is a complete lockdown of the whole area at any height. My noble friend rightly said that the fighting needs to stop and talking needs to start. We are very clear that Russia needs to take steps to de-escalate the action in Ukraine. We need to ensure movement to bring security to Ukraine very soon.
The shooting down of MH17 was clearly an unexpected atrocity. However, we must not be surprised at that because atrocities happen every day in civil wars, as we see in Syria and Iraq and saw in Bosnia. I am afraid that these irregulars will behave in a very inhumane way: that is what happens in civil wars. There is no doubt whatever that Putin has been caught on the back foot. He has been caught out in this situation for the second time. The first time was the revolution in Kiev, where he was very badly caught out. We must think very carefully about how the Russians perceive this. They conflate NATO, the EU and America and see them all as a threat. We never gave any credit whatever to the fact that Crimea has a special status. There is no love lost between me and Putin, but does the Minister really believe that forcing him even further into a corner will help the settlement within Ukraine? Would it not be far better to aim to stop all fighting and have a conference whereby we can leave Russia primarily to broker some sort of agreement because, in the end, the Minister must agree, it is only with the Russians that we can get peace in this region?
The UK has been at the forefront of calling for a ceasefire, for the fighting to stop and for Russia to de-escalate the situation. However, because of the aggression that Russia has shown, we believe that it is vital that we also show strength in response to that, and that we are clear about the sanctions that are necessary to try to resolve this situation.
My Lords, will my noble friend please explain what is meant on page 6 of the Statement, where the Prime Minister says:
“Those criticising Israel’s response must ask themselves how would they expect their own Government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities today”?
Will she tell me—perhaps in writing if she cannot tell me now—what is meant by drawing an analogy between what might happen in British cities with what is happening between Israel and Palestine, particularly what is happening in Gaza this week? I respectfully say to her that, even at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, this was not an analogous situation, and any idea that it is disregards the history of the Middle East over 100 years. Finally, will she also say—in writing if she cannot do so now—whether she recognises the importance of proportionality and distinction in international humanitarian law?
The Prime Minister’s Statement is very clear in the terms that he is using. We are absolutely clear that the loss of any civilian life is an absolute tragedy. We are also clear that the first step to bringing about peace is for Hamas to stop firing rockets at Israel. As I said when I repeated the Statement, Israel has taken steps to introduce a temporary ceasefire that was not reciprocated by Hamas. Clearly, the Government are looking to ensure that all sides in this argument work together to bring forward peace. That is what we want to see happen as soon as possible.
As regards what has happened over the past few days, there was a meeting last week of the European Council where it was agreed that further steps were necessary in terms of strengthening sanctions. That decision was taken before the tragic incident on Thursday. We have been talking to our European partners throughout the weekend and have had extensive discussions. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will work very hard to ensure that there is clarity tomorrow and that further steps are taken in accordance with what I have already said we believe is necessary—to force Russia to withdraw and de-escalate.
My Lords, on Russia, I welcome the Prime Minister’s suggestion that it is time to make our power, influence and resources felt. May I make a practical and proportionate suggestion that one measure would be to suspend all civil air flights to and from Russia? Ideally, this would cover the whole EU and the USA. Although, Mr Putin would, of course, find methods to fly people in and out of Russia, it would be at a heavy cost, both economically and in terms of Russia’s status in the world.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness reply by not reading the reply to a question she has not heard? She seems to be reading all these answers. Will she answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Warner earlier about why there is such a big difference between the way that Israel is being treated in the crisis that it has created by occupying the West Bank of the Jordan and the far more vigorous treatment being meted out to the Russians when they have not even invaded a country?
I have been very clear in responding to the points raised in the course of this Statement. In respect of Gaza, there are three situations that need to be dealt with. The first concerns an immediate ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and stopping the fighting and bloodshed that are occurring there. Then we need a durable ceasefire to ensure that this kind of situation is not repeated; all parties involved in that need to play their part. Clearly that is the only way of our then moving towards the longer-term situation of ensuring that the Middle East peace process has some prospect of succeeding.
Will my noble friend confirm that of the more than 500 civilians killed in Gaza, more than 100 were children? Will she therefore give the figure, which has been repeatedly asked for, for the number of Israeli citizens killed by Hamas rockets so that we can understand what the word “disproportionate” means? Will she accept from me, as someone who visited Gaza in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, that that amount of carnage and mayhem manifestly did not stop the rockets coming into Israel then, and nor will this? That is surely the point. There is no substitute for the painstaking talks of the kind in which John Kerry was engaged to get Hamas to stop violence against Israel and to get Israel to cease its settlements in the West Bank.
The number of Israeli civilians killed and injured by Gaza rockets amount to two killed and 13 treated for shrapnel-related injuries; 13 Israeli soldiers have been killed during the ground operation. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said in her response to my Statement, this is not about comparing numbers. All loss of life is a real tragedy. It is important that we acknowledge that the rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel are indiscriminate. Clearly, we want Israel to respond proportionately and minimise the loss of civilian life. More than anything, we want this situation to stop and the bloodshed to end. That is possible only when both sides cease fire. Certainly, the most important first step in that would be for Hamas to stop firing its rockets.
On Ukraine, is it not reprehensible that the tragedy of MH17 is being used for so much international political rhetoric? Would it not be better to have some tact and diplomacy? We have heard that the Prime Minister had a 30-minute conversation with Mr Putin. We have heard what financial sanctions were proposed, but presumably during the 30-minute telephone call Mr Putin had something to say. Will the Minister tell us exactly what he said and whether he confirmed that he wished to have an international investigation into the downing of MH17?
The current calls for Russia to de-escalate and the sanctions that we are putting in place are in response to Russian activity in Ukraine, which predates last week’s incident. It would be wrong of the noble Lord to suggest that all our efforts being made now are only on the back of the terrible crime committed on Thursday. What happened on Thursday has focused minds, but it has not led to the start of our demands for Russia to take all the necessary steps to withdraw from its aggression in Ukraine.
As for what President Putin said in response to my right honourable friend, I do not have details of that. I can say to the noble Lord that clearly the conversation that the Prime Minister had with President Putin has had some influence. Thankfully and finally, we are starting to see some co-operation from the separatists in Ukraine to help ensure that the bodies there are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve, that the right authorities are properly able to do their job, and that we can get to the bottom of just what happened.
My Lords, building upon the wise words of my noble friend a moment ago and on the extremely sensible comments of the noble Lord, Lord West, does my noble friend accept that if we are not sensible we shall drift into another cold war from which no one will benefit? Could we not ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations to summon a special conference of all the parties to address the Ukrainian situation: to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a proper recognition of the legitimate interests of Russia, and an end to this drift—as I say—into a new cold war?
My noble friend is right to raise the United Nations. I repeat what I have already said: the UK is playing a leading role to secure UN action. There is a meeting of the UN tonight. There is an Australian-led draft resolution, which the United Kingdom very much supports. Along with Australia, we have accelerated discussions on this, which welcomes a Ukrainian-led investigation, containing strong language on access to, and dignity in dealing with, the bodies and incorporating tougher UK language from the draft press statement.
My Lords, in the course of a week we have seen two terrible tragedies claiming hundreds of innocent lives. Other noble Lords have suggested that behind both crises, whether in the Middle East or in Ukraine, we need to see a more proactive diplomacy that is not limited to 30-minute telephone conversations or meetings of the EU Council, but one that resembles diplomacy of the past that confronted international crises. In the dark days of the Cold War, high-level western envoys went to Moscow to meet Kruschev or Brezhnev to address the great crises of the day and try to find solutions. We are not doing that in the case of either Ukraine or the Middle East. Of course it is awful that lives been lost in both cases, but we need to find a diplomacy that meets these crises.
In the case of the Middle East, diplomacy has collapsed. Perhaps it is no accident that events in Gaza follow on six weeks after the collapse of the Middle East peace process. We saw the resignation of the American envoy, Martin Indyk, because of the unwillingness of the Government of Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to an agreement with President Abbas. This is the background to this crisis and this Government must join with others in looking for diplomatic ways forward. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Government have avoided political solutions. We must impress on him the need for those.
For the United Kingdom, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are engaged in diplomatic talks and processes, and I assure all noble Lords that these will continue and that all our energies will be applied to achieving the kind of resolutions that we think are important for all parts of the world where there is conflict.