Motion to Take Note
My Lords, some years ago while still in opposition, my right honourable friend William Hague said to a group of us, “Get to know the Middle East because it’s going to be the epicentre of the world’s attention”. Nobody could ever have forecast the sheer tragedy and drama that has overtaken the region in the intervening years. Of course, in our western societies we have had a backwash, with increased radicalisation, increased alienation and also the repellent rise of anti-Semitism.
In the Arab world we are viewed with considerable ambiguity. There are those who believe that we should have no involvement in Muslim countries because of religious belief and that this is unacceptable or simply counterproductive. This is why President Obama made it clear that the US cannot take the place of Arab partners in securing the region. Others believe, on the other hand, that western firepower is absolutely essential to contain and destroy extreme radicalism. But now, at least ultimately, most people believe that there has to be a political track in the end to resolve these extremely difficult problems.
In Iraq there is a more consensual Government, which has been welcomed both by Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have good, but very separate, reasons to fear ISIS. In the last few years, the Kurdish region has been very stable, but it has had an influx of almost biblical proportions of Syrian Kurds, Christians and Yazidis and others to deal with. It must continue to be supported generously with humanitarian aid and, indeed, armaments. Turkey’s reluctance to be involved in containing ISIL has been disconcerting, as we saw in its reluctance specifically to get involved with Syrian Kurds in the battle in Kobane; however, it did not want to get involved because it believed that they were fighting under a banner of a terrorist organisation. But the Turks have spent $4.5 billion in feeding and housing the enormous influx of people who have come into Turkey. What they greatly fear, of course, is terrorist activity in Turkey itself, which would undermine not only its security but also its immense and hugely important tourist industry. It has called for a security zone and a no-fly zone as well, not only to protect themselves from the security point of view but to stop the potential huge flow of additional people coming into the country. We should note that fragile Lebanon has now said that it cannot and will not take any more refugees; and getting into Jordan is also very difficult too.
Ten million people have been displaced in the region, 3.2 million Syrians have fled their country and 200,000 have been killed. It is a truly, truly terrible modern-day tragedy. Both the Turks and the Saudis explicitly want to see the removal of President Assad. More moderate anti-Assad elements are now being attacked by him even more remorselessly, leaving ISIS, which controls 35% of the country, to be dealt with by the Americans and others, as he seeks to project himself as the enemy of radical terrorism. However, it is absolutely plain that even if they have frustrations with him, the Iranians and Russians will continue to support and sustain him. Yet as Ban Ki-moon warned last week, using only military means to fight the threat of Islamic State in Syria could radicalise even more Sunni armed groups and create greater violence. The long-term strategic objective in Syria remains a political solution, he said. As somebody who has met President Assad on many occasions and attempted to help the opposition, particularly at the early stages, it pains me to agree. There appears to be no other viable alternative on offer, but once again to try to pursue a political track.
We are all products of our own experiences in life. As a young child I went into a shop one day with my mother. It was a hot summer’s day and the man behind the counter had rolled up his sleeves. I was transfixed by some numbers on the inside of his arm. Of course, I extracted an explanation from my mother. It was my first insight into the horror of the Holocaust and what it meant for the Jewish people, and it has never left me.
However, recently, my noble friends Lord Lamont, Lord King, Lady Morris and I wrote an open letter calling for the formal recognition of Palestine by the United Kingdom. Now, of course, this should ideally be part of a comprehensive peace settlement but, frankly, there is none in sight. There is now a unity Government under Mahmoud Abbas. However imperfect that is, the Israelis are most unlikely to find a more moderate Palestinian leader—whose position and credibility is constantly being undermined by the continuing construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank.
However, there is now a new potential opportunity for Israel to be encouraged and to view a more formal two-state solution more concretely. The new Egyptian Government are working with the Israelis to banish terrorism from the Sinai. They are closing down the tunnels and have made it absolutely plain that the wholly dangerous, provocative and counterproductive firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel has to stop.
The Arab peace initiative of 2002 involved a clear pathway to the recognition of Israel by its neighbours. It should be revisited. As President Sisi said at the United Nations last month:
“The continued deprivation of the Palestinian people of their rights is undoubtedly exploited by some to inflame other crises, achieve hidden goals, fragment Arab unity, and impose control on Palestinians under the guise of realising their aspirations”.
If Israel looks ahead, demographic changes in Israel and Palestine point to the necessity of moving this process on to a final acceptance of the Palestinian reality. It is, quite simply, in Israel’s interests to pursue this. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his latest book,
“the Palestinian issue will have to be faced sooner or later as an essential element of regional and, ultimately, world order”.
No country can escape the reality of its own geography.
The whole House will be looking forward to my noble friend the Minister’s response to the two areas of enormous concern to which I have alluded. However, let us cast our eyes towards the Maghreb, specifically Algeria. In the early 1990s, there was an Islamist takeover there and 150,000 people were killed. It was a foretaste of the horror of ISIS. Since then, however, Algeria has been remarkably stable and the memories of that terrible time have become embedded in the collective consciousness of the Algerian people. In 2006, President Bouteflika came on an official visit here and in January 2012 our Prime Minister went to Algeria. In less than three years our commercial exchanges have soared. Algeria is a reliable energy supplier. The country is rapidly expanding its physical infrastructure and upgrading its education and health services, in which we are fully participating.
With its unstable neighbours and a vast and porous border, we now have a strategic security partnership with Algeria. A double taxation agreement will soon be signed, and we look forward to the visit of its Prime Minister to London for a major conference in December, “Algeria: Open for Business”. The demand for the English language is infinite, and we are actively responding through the British Council and our own educational establishments. It has indeed become a remarkable and problem-free partnership, which is welcome to both sides. In conclusion, it is quite simply and unambiguously a good news story for us both.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, bid a sad farewell to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who was a very good Minister, and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Risby, who is an expert in this area. He spoke wise words about the need for diplomacy. These will be welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, who has been saying this, Cassandra-like, for a long time. The noble Lord, Lord Risby, has also given us the opportunity of looking generally at the region, rather than debating particular areas, as we have done in the past.
I reflect first on the speed of change in the region. The so-called Arab spring began less than five years ago with the self-immolation, in December 2010, of Mohamed Bouazizi. Five years ago, all the Arab dictators seemed securely in place. In January 2011, President Ben Ali stepped down after 24 years. Also in 2011, President Mubarak ceased to lead Egypt after 30 years. In the same year, Gaddafi was killed after 42 years in power. In February 2012, President Saleh ceded power in the Yemen after 22 years. The Lebanon remains divided confessionally. Only the monarchies in Morocco and Jordan are relatively safe and unscathed, as are the Gulf states. Five years ago, ISIL did not exist, at least in that name. Dictators have been replaced by a pharaoh and by anarchy. The region now faces further potential destabilisation because of the fall in oil prices. This is good news for western consumers but it is bad news for regimes which rely on high prices to buy off popular discontent.
As for the Arab spring, perhaps “Bliss was it in that dawn” five years ago, but no longer. Why has it failed? It is significant, perhaps, that three of the most stable countries in the region—Turkey, Israel and Iran—are not even Arab. It is no longer credible for regimes to divert discontent by claiming that their troubles are part of a US-Zionist conspiracy. Fundamental to an understanding of the reasons for that failure is a reading and a re-reading of the UNDP’s human development reports of 10 years ago. These showed basic failures in the human infrastructure and in the role of women and inadequate and irrelevant education in the Maghreb and in the Arab world. These have been underpinned by a booming population, youth unrest and Islamic distractions. Who wants to invest given such difficulties?
Pervasive instability begs the question whether it is now time to look again—albeit in the hurricane season—at some of the continuing difficulties and re-examine some of our assumptions. Time permits only to look speedily at three examples. On Turkey, the UK has been one of the strongest supporters of Turkey’s membership of the European Union. Progress has been slow and there has sometimes been the unspoken fear that Turkey is too big, too poor and too Islamic—and not really European. For the United Kingdom, the balance has been the other way: Turkey has been a relative model of democracy in the region, has a booming economy and is a valuable and trusted ally in NATO. Now, perhaps because of the lack of progress, we need to re-examine that traditional policy and look at alternatives.
Domestically in Turkey, there has been a lurch towards more illiberal policies in areas such as the media and the judiciary. Majoritarianism appears to have triumphed over pluralism, which was formerly the policy. Abroad, Turkey has been less than helpful in combating ISIL and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Does the European Union wish to move its borders to that volatile region? Given the current sensitivities on immigration, can we seriously look at the free movement of labour from that vast country? Should we not stop and look at some of the alternatives—including the one that Chancellor Merkel put forward years ago of a privileged relationship which might ultimately mature into something more solid? At the moment there is glacial movement in the European Union.
A second re-examination should surely be on Israel and Palestine. Yes, of course Israel is right in saying that it is difficult to find a negotiating partner which can deliver. It is also true that Israel has always ultimately had to rely on itself for its own protection. However, the blunt reality is this: in spite of the Bar-Ilan speech of Premier Netanyahu, there have been no serious moves by the Israeli Government to a two-state solution. Indeed, through the settlement policy, all the moves have been to prevent such a realisation. Perhaps the reality is, alas, that no conceivable Israeli Government would divide Jerusalem and no conceivable Palestinian Government would abandon the right of return. Israel, alas, is increasingly isolated at the UN General Assembly, and shortly Palestine may be a new member of the International Criminal Court. So do we still continue to repeat the mantra of a two-state solution? Is it true that the European Union has threatened Israel with sanctions unless the latest moves on settlements are withdrawn? Where does the UK stand on the latest threat?
Finally—and in one minute—I give at least some good news on the region. The good news, of course, is Tunisia. It is all comparative, but Tunisia had a remarkable election last weekend with a change of leadership from the Islamist party, which had made several compromises on Sharia law and women. The constitution was agreed in January, relying in part on advice from the Venice Commission. The secular party won the election. However, in spite of this political change, which is a model for the rest of the Maghreb and the Arab world, there are vast economic problems. How do we respond? I end with this question: how do we build on this remarkable political achievement by ensuring that it is underpinned by economic success? I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about how we might respond to the good news which is Tunisia.
My Lords, when we met here just over a month ago to debate our engagement in another air war in Iraq, much was said about the evil of ISIS but not very much about what the alternatives might be for a solution to the Syrian civil war, which is now in its fourth year, with more than 200,000 people dead, more than 3 million refugees and more than 6 million displaced internally. Several noble Lords who spoke that day voiced reservations, which I share, that degrading or destroying ISIL in Iraq alone would not be the end of the matter.
We also know that this war will be a very long haul. We will have to expend a great deal of time and resources in getting the Iraqi army up to scratch. Some Pentagon estimates put it well into 2016 before the Iraqis can successfully engage a ground war against ISIL, even within Iraq. We also know that the US, and with it the UK, does not have a credible strategy about what happens next, much less how to exit this mess. Since 9/11, no credible strategy seems to have emerged either in the West or in the Muslim world about what we might do to stem the rise of an ideology of totalitarian political Islam that creates the pull for jihadis around the world.
It seems simplistic to dismiss the call of this ideology as either barbaric and medieval, which we do in the West, or to protest that it is not true Islam, which is where Muslims derive their comfort. As a Muslim who has grown up and lived in these parts of the world, I caution against both narratives. The pull of the caliphate is shared by those who would not necessarily be on the extreme end of the jihadi spectrum either. After all, there was a caliph, and a sense of a unified community under him, until well into the 1920s. In the period since 1979, when the Shia world was transformed by the Iranian revolution, the sense of Sunni victimhood, unjustified though it may be, has been growing and clearly feeds the jihadi political narrative.
Without for one moment justifying ISIL or its supporters, I want to touch upon why young Muslims are attracted to this narrative. They share a sense of collective humiliation and frustration with their corrupt and authoritarian rulers, who are so compromised in their courtship of what is seen as the “unjust” West—unjust because it was instrumental in creating the Israeli and Palestinian situation nearly 100 years ago; unjust because it does not seem to have the will to resolve it; and unjust when its own rulers assist the invasions of Muslim lands without any clear sense of purpose about how anything beneficial will come to the people from those wars and killings.
These same regimes suppress their people and deny rights on the basis of a religious culture that does not allow for the ruler to be challenged, yet flaunt the rules when their own elite interests are at stake. In the name of national security, they spend fortunes on armaments but seem to be able to turn those arms on their own populations more frequently than not. Above all—and this is important in Islam—they seem to do little to fulfil the strong religious requirement to support other Muslims in need.
In the period since 1979, when the first jihadi attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca took place—an attack that was motivated to secure a purer form of Islam in Saudi Arabia—we have seen the growth of this Salafi-inspired jihadi ideology. It is not new; the only new thing is that our own citizens are now motivated by its call. As we face the years of airstrikes and bombing, with ever greater civilian casualties, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we will be able to destroy this ideology with force of arms, or whether the struggle for our values will prevail through a more peaceful engagement.
My own preference is for the latter, so let me set out some parameters for what I think is needed. We know that we cannot deal with Iraq without dealing with Syria. We also know that ISIL has proved adept at picking and choosing its opponents. In Kobane it is the Kurds; in other parts it is the Assad regime; and, elsewhere, some version of the Syrian opposition. Its tactics are to form alliances with different groups on the ground as it gives up or consolidates its gains. With so many different actors with the ability to shift alliances and with myriad opponents, our opportunity to destroy those we oppose in a sequential manner is degraded, as the militants can regroup and rebound. Moreover, ISIL is starting to go on the offensive in neighbouring countries, too. It is becoming a serious threat in Lebanon, and if it is successful in extending into Syria’s southern border it will sit on Jordan’s northern border, knowing that it has support already from within that country. It has the potential incrementally to expand its territorial rule beyond just Iraq and Syria.
Our tactical considerations must therefore be focused on reducing the threat that is most dangerous, even if it means that our previous enemy now has to become a partner in the endeavour. What would that involve? As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, we are in a rare situation where it may be possible to engineer a truce in Syria sufficient to buy us time to degrade ISIL, while pulling back from more killing in Syria between those who are not ISIL. Reports indicate that both the regime forces and the Syrian opposition are wearing down and stretched to breaking point. It appears that in July Assad’s losses were about 1,100 killed in operations against ISIL, while another 700 soldiers were lost in the battle for Raqqa. Syrian opposition forces are considered to be unable to hang on to Aleppo, under pressure from the regime, while the northern corridor they hold will fall to Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra, the other extremist group armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, continues to clash with the Syrian opposition, Assad forces and others.
All those who are fighting this proxy war would have to be brought in. For Russia and Iran, now ISIL is a greater threat to Assad than the opposition forces. For us and the Saudi and US side of the equation, Assad may be venal, but he has recently indicated that he would support coalition aims to degrade ISIL. We already know that the US is co-operating through intelligence with his regime on airstrikes. We also know that localised truces between the parties on the ground have taken place and sometimes hold as part of the dynamics of the war.
If, simultaneously with all bar ISIL, truces could be negotiated, with intelligence-sharing, humanitarian support and assistance for all communities on all sides, it would allow for civilian life to resume in some form. Protocols would have to be agreed for delivering food, medicine and fuel, for restoring water supplies and electricity and opening up the besieged area so that displaced internal civilians can return to their homes. The thornier issue would involve stopping torture and human rights abuses on all sides, with the release of political prisoners, who run into the tens of thousands. It is those people who would have to be part of the longer-term solution. The international community would have to provide assurances to the Assad regime and the opposition that any future solution would protect their necessary and vital interests, which may well result in Assad’s successor being part of his circle, but compromise is now necessary.
In concluding, there would be risks in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia onside, but unambiguous Iranian support could clearly break the stalemate as the Assad regime seeks more and more financial support from that country. The US would have to ensure that supporters in opposition cannot block through preconditions, which have stymied efforts in the past, and the Saudis and Qatar would have to deliver Jabhat al-Nusra and lesser jihadis. Every attempt at a solution has floundered on undeliverable preconditions. Perhaps if we can merely secure a truce, without a political solution on the table for the moment, we would at least reduce the suffering. That is the least we owe the people of that region.
My Lords, ISIL can be termed the blackest cloud to have appeared in the Middle East for years. If it can first be contained, it can be defeated, not so much by bombs as by better ideas. Repression is not enough, whether in Egypt or the Emirates. The better ideas are needed to attract the minds of a young generation full of grievances, despair and false ideology. Better ideas must be shown to work. This means pilot projects in Muslim states and in Europe. These will involve training and employment. They should be geared to social justice by giving dignity and helping people to escape from poverty. Volunteers will be needed. Can we imagine a peace corps funded by the oil producers? In parallel, jihadis who return to their countries and accept certain conditions should be welcomed with clemency.
I turn now specifically to Israel and Palestine, and to Gaza, which has been described as the Soweto of the Middle East. It is bad news that the post-ceasefire talks in Cairo have been postponed indefinitely. Will our Government use their diplomatic skills to get those talks restarted, if possible under more neutral auspices? The indefinite closure of the Rafah crossing by Egypt is another bad sign, especially for medical cases, students, exports, et cetera. The August ceasefire agreement provided for Israel to open border crossings to allow in humanitarian aid and construction materials, also for widening the coastal fishing zone to six miles. Has either of these points yet been implemented? If not, will the Government make the strongest possible representations?
Meanwhile, some things could be done in advance of longer-term negotiations, which would enormously improve life for 1.6 million people. Turkey has offered a ship equipped with enough generators to supply the whole Gaza Strip with electricity for six months. This would enable the old power station to be repaired, besides helping hospitals to function, food storage and water purification. The benefit to public health makes it urgent to accept and implement this offer. The technology involved is tried and tested. The UNWRA has funds in hand to restore water and sewage plants, repair schools and build new houses. Supplies for these projects must move through Israel. If Israel requires verification of end use, this should be organised. If new crossings are needed, they should be opened. Cement and aggregates should be allowed in, so that ordinary families can rehouse themselves. This is win-win stuff, providing work and employment, and removing temptations to new violence.
The people of Gaza desperately need freedom to move by land. Israel should be pressed to allow a secure route to the West Bank and on to Jordan. This could start for priorities, such as medical cases, businessmen, hajj pilgrims and students. If this worked, it could be extended to everybody New transport modes should be examined; for example, a hovercraft service to Egypt and Lebanon, which could use existing beaches. Gaza has much offshore gas. This has lain idle for years, because of the political risks. Surely guarantees could be given and insurance cover arranged so that drilling and pipeline work could start. This asset should contribute to employment and help to achieve regional peace.
Will the Government take up these ideas, refine them and present them to our allies and to all those co-operating against ISIL? Remembering what has been done already in the Emirates, Gaza could be the pilot project, bringing stability and hope to a war-ravaged place. It could do so without bringing in migrant workers, using the existing well-educated labour force. Social justice would be served. Many volunteers might be needed. Those in despair might see that life is worth living. It is not beyond all imagination that rehabilitation and development of Gaza, as a new hub, could contribute to the mental and moral defeat of ISIL.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord King, could not stay for the whole debate and kindly sent me a note donating his seven minutes to me.
Last month, I spoke about the regional approach to the Arab-Israel divide and how Egypt was playing a helpful role. In this debate, I will concentrate on Egypt’s own development and on our UK opportunity and responsibility. Trust and inclusion build stability while mistrust and exclusion lead to spiralling instability. We are blessed in this country with a stable democracy and a safe society. We must be generous in supporting both the governance and peoples of partner countries as they seek to grow trust and stability.
We admire the courage of the Egyptian people and their leaders over recent years through some difficult times. First, I would like to offer condolences to the people of Egypt, the army and the President, for those people who died in last Friday’s horrific attack on the army camp by terrorists. We should know that there are many dreadfully injured Egyptian army and police officers being treated here in the UK, and many more in Germany, France and Switzerland.
The UK-Egypt partnership needs to get closer. Some 25% of all the people in the MENA region actually live in Egypt. Together, we can build benefits for the region and each other. It will require bold leadership to take the relationship to a new level and fulfil humanitarian, economic and stabilisation needs. Our Prime Minister should invite President al-Sisi to the UK as soon as possible. A group of experienced parliamentarians on our recent visits to Egypt were convinced that we in the United Kingdom have much to offer Egypt and that we can learn from Egypt’s experiences and expertise.
It is always easier to judge but wiser to understand more deeply. Rather than wringing our hands from the sidelines, we must take the opportunity to serve and help shape Egypt’s democratic cause and history. Our APPG on Egypt had a meeting yesterday with the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Tobias Ellwood. Our chairman and members of both Houses called for him urgently to extend an invitation to President al-Sisi to visit the UK in the light of the speed of the changes happening in the area and the rise of terrorism.
In a meeting last Tuesday, the Egyptian Secretary of State gave us assurances that the parliamentary elections are now imminent. He also said that the Government are planning to allow the Nubians, who have been dispossessed of their land for decades, to return to their tribal homes. We could discuss with President al-Sisi how we might continue to assist the Egyptians in following their four-stage road map to develop a first-class secular democracy with improved civil liberties and human rights. We could offer Britain’s experience and support in that endeavour.
The Egyptians have now completed the first two stages of the four-stage road map: first, a new constitution; secondly, an elected president; and now, thirdly, the election of a brand new Parliament with a judicial framework to monitor the election that will start in December and complete next March.
Finally, they plan to create better economic conditions for all of their people. For this they are arranging an investor conference to take place next February so that inward investment will create better lives for all the people of Egypt. We must help them to build the conditions for international business to invest and prepare UK businesses to be first investors. I am pleased that, to this end, the Minister Tobias Ellwood is to lead a trade delegation to Egypt next January. The UK can also continue to build security in the region by acting as a trusted intermediary between Egypt and Israel and facilitating the sharing of technical know-how, which is mutually beneficial to them and good for the UK.
Taking a wider view of the growing conflicts across MENA, the issues being fought over and the characteristics of the combatants are varied, but it seems that the root cause of all of them is similar. Whether it is the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank or the 90 million people in Egypt, whether it is the Syrians and the Kurds, those suffering in Iran and Iraq or those calling themselves Islamic State, it is all about not being allowed to have a say in their own affairs. Individuals and factions in dictatorships are finding no better course of action than to fight and Governments are finding no better credible solution than to clamp down with force on their people. This is where we should be encouraging, engaging, helping and serving. We should have a proactive foreign policy that builds trust and resilience before things get worse, helping to find a pathway from conflict and fragility to stability, investment, development and prosperity, along with helping Governments to listen, build trust and respond, and citizens to reap the benefits of incremental change.
We are paying the price for not proactively building resilience in the past. Foreign policy leadership should create the conditions for good governance, democratic voice and peaceful transition. This is what I suspect UK development and support aims do through the Building Stability Overseas strategy, which brings together the Foreign Office, the MoD and the DfID Growth and Resilience Department. They recognise that a day of conflict can cost more than a year of prevention, but it is not clear what the mechanism is. What is the “theory of change” by which our foreign policy will bring peace and stability to the region? We have learnt from engaging with Egypt that there is an opportunity that is not “empire” and is not “aid”; it is to help provide a platform and mechanisms for building democratic fabric and enabling development and trade with partner countries to support processes that rebuild trust in government and interventions that build the trustworthiness of that Government.
In my days as a retailer—I am pleased to note that we have introduced into our House today a great retailer, the noble Lord, Lord Rose of Monewden—we would put our values to work with Egypt and Israel to build understanding and trust through trading with both of them on the same products, benefiting our customers, benefiting the UK and benefiting both Egypt and Israel. Sometimes the best strategy in business is to transform a difficult economic challenge with an entirely new way of thinking. To this end, I have spoken previously about the Middle East Centre for Civic Involvement. Benefiting from the wisdom and experience of noble Lords from all sides of the House and politicians from the other place, it aims to provide a mechanism for democratic fabric, trust building, stabilisation, and for investment and prosperity.
Let us partner with the MENA region for stability, investment, development and democracy. Let us be part of the solution. Let us consider the cost of our military interventions in the region and the cost of further instability and realise that it would be far better, as a distinct feature of UK foreign policy, to put British values to work in a way that meets national, economic, geopolitical and other interests. I ask the Minister to put it to Her Majesty’s Government that we should invest in a bold initiative for peace, stability and prosperity in the region by partnering more closely—and first with Egypt.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for giving us the opportunity to hold this important debate on one of the most troubled regions of the globe. I will focus on Iraq in my remarks. First, perhaps I may give noble Lords the good news, which is the business news. I have the honour to serve as the trade envoy to Iraq on behalf of the Prime Minister, and a secondary honorary position as the executive chairman of the Iraq Britain Business Council. This is an NGO in Iraq which has been working for some five and a half years to enhance inward investment and outward investment between international businesses and the Republic of Iraq. The trade links in Iraq are focused particularly on companies registered in the United Kingdom, and on building up contracts between those companies and companies inside the country.
I am delighted to report that the IBBC today has 63 members, four of which are United Kingdom universities. We have a new stream of universities to enhance student exchanges. Five members are Iraqi chambers of commerce. All 18 Iraqi chambers of commerce are scheduled to join and have decided to do so. This opens up the entirety of Iraqi businesses to UK-registered ones. At the same time last year, in comparison, we had 46 members, as opposed to 63. Growth is strong and does not seem to be affected by the recent events in Iraq.
Two more major Iraqi companies, one from the KRG and one from Baghdad, have this week applied for IBBC membership. Last month, one of the best known and largest global engineering companies joined IBBC, and is establishing an office in Basra. At the IBBC autumn conference next week, I am expecting approximately 400 guests over two days, 60 of whom will be joining us from all over Iraq. These will include guests from cities that are under ISIS control: Mosul and Salahadin. Some of these delegates have had to cross the front lines between ISIS and the Peshmerga to obtain documents to support their visa applications for Iraq. One delegate from Mosul, who has temporarily resettled in Erbil, went to Mosul to get bank statements to support his visa application.
Most Iraqis know that the ISIS reign will not last. ISIS is not even in full control of the territories that it claims and the delegates are determined to pursue their business links with Britain. At the conference we will have the chairmen of the Iraqi and Kurdish chambers of commerce address the delegates. We will have major oil and gas producers from the south and north of Iraq giving presentations. We will see Iraqi government and KRG official representatives mingling comfortably with each other. The new Iraqi Government is well set for more inclusion and is making good progress in achieving greater unity in the country. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, one of our vice-presidents, will be addressing the conference. Other vice-presidents, the noble Lords, Lord Robertson and Lord Green, will be available.
UK visa procedures are a constant burden for business ties between the two countries. I congratulate UKTI on the huge amount of work done in an impeccable way on this, but the burden put upon our Iraqi friends seeking to visit the UK for business or on holiday is still very high. I will write to the Minister on this and would welcome her attention to such an important matter, as we are losing high-powered friends because of stringent and completely inflexible policies being in place. We plan to have IBBC conferences in Basra, Baghdad and Erbil next year. I have no doubt that these will happen, as did the recent successful IBBC trade missions in Erbil, Baghdad and Najaf in August and September. My next mission will be in mid-November, when I will be revisiting these cities and Basra.
I turn now to the challenge that Iraq is facing with one third of her territory having been taken over by violent jihadists. I had the honour of participating in a diplomacy and violent jihad debate last Saturday at the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Robert H Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, when we discussed this matter. It was followed by an AMAR foundation meeting. The AMAR foundation is a charity of 23 years’ standing, which I chair, and the biggest British charity in Iraq. The meeting was on the fight of ISIL against girls and women. We will be publishing the full report.
I hold the view at the moment that there is a case for charges of genocide, especially against the Yazidis. We might reasonably suggest that an inquiry into the possibility of having IS individuals held accountable in The Hague for genocide, for their acts against the Yazidis. Of course, I am aware of IS’s genocidal-type acts against other minorities, but the Yazidis are a discrete group and I believe that they fall within the context of the convention.
As a past honorary member of the American Bar Association, I believe that this is something that Britain, with our slender hard power but very strong soft power, can rightly pursue at this point. Whether a prosecutor, a court or another tribunal would take on the case, and whether the facts as found by such a court or tribunal would warrant a conviction, are of course open to speculation, but that should not limit our initial conversations about motivating the competent authorities to consider the possibility of investigating charges of genocide.
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide leads me to believe that Articles 2 to 4 cover the scenario that I have in mind, whereby prospective defendants would be members of IS. Under Article 6, such defendants could be prosecuted; for example, in an international penal tribunal created by the UN Security Council. As far as the ICC is concerned, while Iraq is not a party to the Rome Statute governing the court, if individual IS members are nationals of any state party to the Rome Statute—for example, nationals of the UK or a state that otherwise accepts the jurisdiction of the ICC—such individuals could be subject to the jurisdiction of the court, which has jurisdiction to hear charges of crimes against humanity as well as genocide.
I had the opportunity to speak on genocide while giving evidence to the Supreme Court in Baghdad for the victims of the 1991 uprising in Basra and subsequently in the Marsh Arab genocide case. The judgment of that court of crimes against humanity was insufficient in the eyes of most but understandable when the judges’ safety was taken into account. But I believe that IS participants who belong to our nations who have been engaged in these horrific acts against the Yazidis and others could be prosecuted for genocide, specifically against the Yazidis, at the ICC. I would welcome a comment from the Minister on whether Her Majesty’s Government would look warmly on such a route to bringing IS to justice through due process rather than the point of death.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Risby for calling this debate at what is a timely moment to assess the situation in the Middle East and north Africa. These debates are an opportunity to highlight the actions of countries and regimes around the world but, more importantly, they present an opportunity to explain, test and challenge our country’s response to those actions. It is that that I will seek to do today.
Our policy in relation to the Middle East peace process, which I am sure my noble friend will repeat today, is simply this: a two-state solution; a negotiated settlement; a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps and Jerusalem as the shared capital; and a just and fair settlement for refugees. But I would say that our policy is simply not working; that it is flawed; that different strands of our policy are simply not viable and no longer hold true; that in fact we know our policy is not working yet we continue to stick to it; that our policy is not responding to the reality on the ground yet we fail to change it; and that this approach damages our reputation both at home and abroad, and sadly makes us no longer an honest broker.
In 2012 we asked the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to move towards a resolution at the UN General Assembly. We made it clear that this was for the time being and that it would be better to give the US Administration the opportunity to set out a new initiative and move towards a successful Middle East peace process. The Kerry talks were on the horizon, and I commend Secretary Kerry for his efforts and the failure of those talks certainly cannot be laid at his feet. At that time we said that 2013 was going to be a crucial year, and I said so many times at that very Dispatch Box. The then Foreign Secretary said:
“If progress on negotiations is not made next year”—
that is, 2013—
“the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/11/12; col. 227.]
He was right. We said at that time that we may have considered supporting the Palestinian resolution at the UN if it supported a negotiated peace process. Israel made it very clear that if the Palestinians went to the UN, it would no longer negotiate. Therefore, if that was the case and we knew that that was the case, by putting that condition in place, we were effectively giving Israel a veto. My question to the Minister, therefore, is: what is our policy now?
I turn now to the issue of illegal settlements. We condemn them. We say that they threaten the very viability of a two-state solution. But what consequences ever follow from that condemnation? The 1967 borders of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem are not lawfully part of the State of Israel. That is agreed. It is the settled policy of successive Governments. A line was drawn in international law which, ever year, is violated by Israel. The settlement building continues apace. Even during the Kerry discussions, new housing start-ups in the West Bank rose by 120%.
In 1993, at the time of the Oslo peace accords and the peace process, the number of settlers in the West Bank, not including Jerusalem, was 110,000; today, the number is 382,000. Israel’s Housing Minister, himself a settler, said earlier this year that he wanted that number to grow by 50% over the next five years. As my right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan has said, settlements are simply “an act of theft”, initiated and supported by the State of Israel. The strategic planning, including the announcements on the E1 plan and other building programmes, display an even more dangerous intent. They create enclaves of Palestinians cut off from each other; cut off from their future capital and cut off from a viable existence. It is an organised and planned strangulation of what we call the two-state solution.
Another part of our policy is a just and fair settlement for the refugees. Across all parties in our country, there is a strong consensus and support for international justice and for the ICC. However, we continue to take the position that ICC membership makes negotiations impossible. Why do we say that negotiations would be impossible if the Palestinians went to the ICC? Is it because Israel does not wish to be held accountable for any war crimes that may have been committed; or is it because we, who oppose immunity for such crimes elsewhere, are prepared to make an exception in this particular case?
If we are not prepared to pursue justice for those who are suffering now, how can we be trusted to fulfil our commitment to pursue justice for those who suffered and lost many decades ago? The policy simply no longer holds true. The situation on the ground has so changed—and continues to do so—that what we say we seek is unlikely to be achieved. We say we have a position. We condemn, but the actions in respect of that condemnation are not there to be seen and no consequences follow. We take certain positions—for example, on language during the Gaza crisis and at the Human Rights Council of July 2014, when a commission of inquiry was proposed for human rights violations during the Gaza crisis. We take those positions as a way of preserving and promoting our relationship with Israel because we sincerely believe that we want to influence change. We prefer private to public diplomacy—I agree with that—but I fail to see those tough private conversations.
Therefore I ask the Minister the following questions. In July 2010 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that,
“Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp”.
What has changed in Gaza since then? What influence have we been able to exert as a result of not supporting the Palestinians at the United Nations? In the light of the parliamentary vote in the Commons and the lack of any negotiations, will the Government move to a position of recognition? In doing so—with reference to that debate in the House of Commons—will the Government distance themselves from the comments of the Chancellor’s PPS, Robert Halfon, who said that,
“there is already a Palestinian state called Jordan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/10/14; col. 106.]
If we are not prepared to move to a recognition of Palestine, can we lay out the specific conditions that will need to be met? Will the Government set out a pathway in the interests of transparency? What consequences have flowed from the strong condemnation by the Foreign Secretary in September and October of this year of the recent settlement announcements? How have we, since the Gaza conflict, used the so-called influence and capital we built up during that conflict with the Israeli Government to change their position since then?
It was because of the concerns that I have raised today—and not, as some have disturbingly tried to suggest, because I am a Muslim—that, as the then Minister with responsibility for the UN, the ICC and human rights, I concluded that I could no longer defend our policy at that Dispatch Box. Our current position on this issue is morally indefensible. It is not in Britain’s national interests and it will have a long-term detrimental impact on our reputation, internationally and domestically. It is time for us to start to be on the right side of history.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating this important debate. At the outset I declare an interest: I am a Jew. Israel is therefore for me the place where my people were born almost 4,000 years ago; the place to which Abraham and Sarah travelled; where Amos voiced his vision of social justice and Isaiah dreamt of a world at peace; where David composed the Psalms and Solomon built the Temple. This had consequences not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims, who claim Abraham as their ancestor in faith, and whose God they take as their own.
This had tragic repercussions throughout the Middle Ages, because Christians and Muslims claimed, each in their own way, to have replaced Jews as the people of God and thus as heirs to the Holy Land. The otherwise saintly Augustine declared that Jews were cursed with the fate of Cain, destined to be restless wanderers on earth without a home. Islam held that any land that ever came under Muslim rule was henceforth and forever Dar Al Islam: that is, land that rightly belongs to the Umma, the Muslim people, with any other rule being illegitimate. On both of these theologies, Jews had no right to their ancestral home.
A half-century ago, these theologies would have been considered irrelevant. The West had moved on. After a century of religious wars following the Reformation, it recognised the need for the secularisation of power. This allowed the United Nations, in the partition vote of 1947, to grant Jews the right to a nation state of their own after 2,000 years of exile and persecution. Eventually, there were peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and an intensive process with the Palestinians. When power is secularised, peace is possible.
Today, though, throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa, a seismic shift is taking place in the opposite direction. People are desecularising. They feel betrayed by secular nationalist Governments who failed to deliver prosperity and national pride. They consider the national boundaries imposed by colonial powers to be artificial and obsolete. They are uninspired by the secular culture of the West, with its maximum of choice and minimum of meaning. They have come to believe that salvation lies in a return to the Islam that bestrode the narrow world like a colossus for the better part of 1,000 years.
Although their faith is hostile to modernity, they sometimes understand modernity better than its own creators in the West. They know that because of the internet, YouTube and the social media, communication —indeed politics—has gone global; they also know that the great monotheisms are the most powerful global communities in the world, far broader and deeper in their reach than any nation state. The religious radicals are offering young people the chance to fight and die for their faith, winning glory on earth and immortality in heaven. They have started recruiting in the West and they have only just begun.
When ancient theologies are used for modern political ends, they speak a very dangerous language indeed. So, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah, both self-defined as religious movements, refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel within any boundaries whatever and seek only its complete destruction.
The Islamists also know that the only way they can win the sympathy of the West is by demonising Israel. They know that you cannot win support for ISIS, Boko Haram or Islamic Jihad, but if you can blame Israel you will gain the support of academics, unions and parts of the media, and you will distract attention from the massacres in Syria and Iraq, the slow descent of other countries into chaos and the ethnic cleansing of Christians throughout the region. They are thus repeating the very failure of the regimes they have risen against, which for 50 years suppressed dissent by demonising Israel as the cause of everything wrong in the Arab or Islamic world. When you blame others for your failures you harm not only those others but yourself and your people. To be free, you have to let go of hate. If you let hate speech infect the West, as has already happened in some of our campuses, prisons and schools, then our freedom, too, will be at risk.
I and the vast majority of the Jewish community care deeply about the future of the Palestinians. We want Palestinian children, no less than Israeli children, to have a future of peace, prosperity, freedom and hope. That is why we oppose those who teach Palestinian children to hate those with whom they will one day have to live. We oppose those who take money given for humanitarian aid and use it to buy weapons and dig tunnels to take the region back to a dark age of barbarism.
More generally, we say in the name of the God of Abraham—the almighty, merciful and compassionate God—that the religion in whose name atrocities are being carried out, innocent people butchered and beheaded, children treated as slaves, civilians turned into human shields and young people into weapons of self-destruction, is not the Islam that once earned the admiration of the world: nor is its God the God of Abraham. It was Nietzsche, not the prophets, who worshipped the will to power. It was Machiavelli, not sacred scripture, who taught that it is better to be feared than to be loved.
Every religion must wrestle with its dark angels, and so today must we: Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. For we are all children of Abraham, and only when we make space for one another as brothers and sisters will we redeem the world from darkness and walk together in the light of God.
My Lords, may I first refer to the Register of Lords’ Interests? I have been a director of a number of companies in the Middle East on both sides of the Gulf and I have also been for many years the chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce—a post that I took over from the noble Lord, Lord Temple-Morris, whom I see in his place today.
It is a humbling experience to follow the very moving speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. This has been a remarkable debate and there was a remarkable speech from my noble friend Lady Warsi. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Risby on initiating such a remarkable debate and on introducing it with a brilliant tour d’horizon of all the different problems of the region. I very much agree with him that it is extremely difficult to be optimistic about the region.
We seem to have been fighting a never-ending war in the Middle East. The West has indeed been fighting the consequences of our own disastrous policies. In some respects, we have been addressing risks that we ourselves created. After flirting with the Arab spring, we are now back into our old traditional comfort zone of uncritical support of Sunni autocracies. Only now are we waking up belatedly to the fact that many of the citizens—I do not say “Governments”—of our allies have been funding those they are helping us to fight. I pay tribute to the campaign by the Sunday Telegraph highlighting the movement of funds to terrorist groups in the Middle East.
In that paper last Sunday, David Cohen, the US official in charge of financial intelligence, described Qatar and Kuwait as,
“permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing”.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, also wrote recently that Riyadh, Doha and Kuwait City have all enabled religious foundations to channel funds to radical Sunni elements. He referred to lax anti-money-laundering regulations and regimes. Could the Minister comment on this point? What exactly are the Government doing to raise concerns with the relevant Governments?
Some of the citizens of our allies share with ISIS Wahhabi doctrines that the Shias are idolatrous apostates. A recent opinion poll in the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, which I believe is Saudi owned, indicated that 92% of Saudis replied in the affirmative to the question of whether ISIS conformed to their values of Islam and Islamic law. I was rather surprised by that and put it to a Saudi friend of mine. He said that he believed it but thought it referred not to the violence and beheadings but actually to the governance and type of polity that ISIS were introducing. Even so, that was a very revealing and alarming poll result.
Many people have bought into the fantasy that Sunni Muslims—1.3 billion out of 1.6 billion—are somehow a victimised minority. I want to talk about the Shia enfant terrible, Iran, and the nuclear talks. I know that some noble Lords and Baronesses are worried that there will be a successful outcome to those talks. I acknowledge fully the shortcomings and past misdeeds of Iran, its bad human rights record, the unacceptable threats against Israel and the support for rocket attacks through Hamas and Hezbollah. None the less, a nuclear deal is firmly in the interests of both Israel and the wider Middle East.
I did not hear the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, earlier, but for those noble Lords and Baronesses worried about a deal, I have some good news: I do not think there will be a deal at all. Mr Netanyahu and AIPAC have certainly done their best to make this very difficult. The real mistake has been for the negotiations to concentrate so single-mindedly on just the number of centrifuges, rather than on a regime of transparency and openness. It was always going to be extremely difficult to get agreement on the physical destruction of facilities that already exist.
If I am right and the deal fails, what happens then? Are we going to bomb Iran? That would spread a huge conflagration throughout the Middle East. Are we going to have more sanctions? That is what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to be indicating. What will Iran do? Will it go back to the previous level of producing more highly enriched uranium and will it stop converting enriched uranium into fuel rods?
If the talks fail, the important point is that on both sides we do not go back to the position we were in before. Even if the talks fail, something will have been gained in terms of understanding each other’s viewpoints and talking about different issues within the region. President Rouhani made some very wise remarks on this issue when he said, referring to the possibility of failure in the talks, “I want to repeat: we will not return to the past and our situation will definitely change. This is what the world wants”.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister met President Rouhani—the first meeting with an Iranian president for well over 35 years. I gather that it was a good meeting, but I rather regretted the very aggressive comments that the Prime Minister made after President Rouhani’s studiously moderate speech condemning terrorism at the UNGA. The Prime Minister made quite an aggressive speech, the result of which was to undermine President Rouhani’s position in Iran and to lead to renewed calls in the Majles that the British embassy should definitely not be reopened. I know that the date of the reopening has been put off yet again—indeed, there is no date.
The interests of the West and those of Iran overlap in many areas but, of course, this has happened before. It happened at the time of President Khatami, when he helped with the invasion of Afghanistan by America and offered full diplomatic relations and the reining in of Hamas and Hezbollah. For his trouble, he was labelled part of the “axis of evil”. We must be careful that we do not do the same thing to President Rouhani today. Too often, the West seems to think that Iran is part of the problem and that it does not need to be part of the solution. This is wrong. Iran has been part of the problem, but it definitely also needs to be part of the solution.
My Lords, I am a Zionist. I am a Zionist because I believe that, after 2,000 years of exile and 2,000 years of persecution, the Jewish people deserve a homeland of their own and that homeland should be within the biblical land of Israel. I am a Zionist because I believe that in Israel the Jewish people have found fulfilment as a nation. They have turned the desert into orchards, they lead the world in science for the benefit of mankind and they have become one of the world’s centres of 21st-century technology. Most of all, I am a Zionist because Israel today vibrantly maintains its founders’ dream of becoming a fully functioning democracy for all its people, in a region where the rule of law and equality is at a premium. Life for many Israeli Arabs is not all that it should be, but it is undeniable that they have an equal opportunity to vote, to go wherever they choose, to study at any university and to work in any capacity. They are fully fledged Israeli citizens. This is not an apartheid state.
I support the state of Israel because history has cruelly demonstrated that, at any time or in any place, Jews live in peril. France today is one example, but so too are countries in eastern Europe and South America. Israel is the final refuge for Jews being persecuted in the outside world. Indeed, if there had been an Israel in the 1930s the story would have been different and infinitely happier. So, come what may, I and most Jews remain proud supporters of Israel.
However, in saying all this, I am not saying “Israel, right or wrong”. The Naqba was a catastrophe for the Palestinian people, and we Jews should admit it. The occupation of the West Bank is a stain. In my view, the building of settlements is wrong. The road blocks, the pass controls and the goading are all intolerable. For me as a supporter of Israel, they are hard to stomach. If history has taught us anything, you humiliate a people at your peril. Many Israelis yearn for a two-state solution but, in truth, some do not. I am sad to say that this includes many members of Israel’s current Government. I certainly support a Palestinian state, but not quite yet. It must be negotiated with both the Palestinians and with Israel.
Pain me though it does to say this, I agree with Maureen Lipman in today’s Times, who says that Labour and Ed Miliband have got it wrong. When Israel was formed its main enemies were its neighbours: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the other Arab states. Those countries were sworn to its destruction. Today this has changed. There has been an enduring peace with Egypt and with Jordan. Syria is a basket case, and Saudi Arabia in its calmer moments realises that it has more in common with Israel than against it.
Today’s warfare in Israel’s proximity is asymmetric. The rules are different. It is sometimes forgotten that in 2005, Israel unilaterally and surprisingly withdrew from Gaza, but within two years Hamas had routed the PA and begun its reign of terror. Hamas could have built a thriving Gaza. It could have used cement and steel to build a new state within a state, but instead it chose to dig tunnels and build rockets. Hamas has fired rockets at Israel ever since it took control, and never more so than in this most recent terrible summer. Think of it: how would we have reacted if, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the IRA—based in the Republic of Ireland—had fired tens of thousands of rockets at Belfast, Liverpool, or maybe even at London? Would we have stood back? Of course we would not. We would have retaliated with force of arms and we would not have hesitated to put boots on the ground.
Hamas is a vicious terrorist organisation, and is proscribed not only by ourselves but also by the United States, the EU, Canada, Australia and many Middle Eastern countries. It thrives on terror and hatred. Its charter is quite clear: it seeks to destroy Israel. It is joined at the hip with ISIS. They have the same objectives, the same manic obsession with destroying anything that stands in their way, and the same desire to see an Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East. In the recent conflict it was interesting to see who in the Middle East supported Hamas: Turkey did, as did Qatar and Iran. It is even more interesting to see who did not. Egypt hates Hamas, and there was not a word of criticism of Israel from the UAE, with the exception of Qatar, or from Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
So when we see demonstrations in the streets of London which are pro-Hamas with a nasty element of anti-Semitism thrown in, it beggars belief. When I see my good friend the Member of Parliament Luciana Berger receive death threats from anti-Semitic Twitter trolls for her position on Israel, it shows where all this can lead. I ask this question: if the demonstrators are so concerned about countries that commit crimes against humanity, why do they not demonstrate against countries which make no secret of their barbarism?
More than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria. Have there been marches in London against the Assad regime, or any protests outside the Syrian embassy? None. This summer the Russians have behaved appallingly. They have grabbed Crimea for their own. We have seen Putin’s goons down a civilian airliner for no other reason than it happened to be in the sky. Has there been an apology? None. Are there protests outside the Russian embassy? None. Around the world atrocities are being committed and we all wring our hands and do precious little, but when Israel alone defends herself, everybody goes ballistic. At best it can be called hypocrisy, and at worst it is called something else.
My Lords, the last four months have witnessed some of the most distressing and tragic events in a region which for too long has been scarred by violence and turmoil. From the plight of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar to the horrors in Gaza, people have been profoundly moved by what has unfolded. I join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Risby for securing such an important debate, and for opening it with such knowledge and clarity. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lamont about the force of the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, and my noble friend Lady Warsi.
I will concentrate my remarks today on the situation in Gaza and on recognition of Palestine. I declare my interests as chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the Palestinian Territories, and president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. In late May this year, in my role as trade envoy, I visited the West Bank and Jerusalem, and I also attempted to visit Gaza. I sat for three and a half hours at the Yad Mordechai café outside Erez—and very nice it was—drinking a lot of coffee while my papers were finalised: but sadly I was not allowed in.
I had a full programme arranged with many people waiting for me, and so I telephoned everyone I was supposed to meet to apologise. They were wonderfully good humoured, and welcomed me to their uncertain world. Everyone I spoke to was hopeful that the unity Government who had just been announced and who had been welcomed by the international community would lead quickly to free, full and fair elections, and to the lifting of the siege of Gaza. They said quite rightly that people who are economically active want to live in peace.
How cruelly their dreams were smashed. The kidnap and brutal murder of three Israeli teenagers in June and the horrific death of a 16 year-old Palestinian, burned alive in July, led to the escalation of a situation which was already on a knife edge. Accounts of who did what, when—who fired the first shots or launched the first rockets—will differ from side to side. The only certainty is that too many innocent men, women and children have died, and it has to stop.
In the 51 days of attacks on Gaza, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians, including a baby, were killed. In Gaza, 91 entire families were wiped out, 2,131 people were killed—500 of them children—and 1,500 children were orphaned. Every day, more and more children were rushed to Gaza’s hospitals, with tissue blasted apart, bones shattered and limbs missing. One thousand people, many of them children, will be permanently disabled as a result of their injuries.
During the crisis, around 500,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes, and it is estimated that 100,000 of them remain homeless with winter fast approaching. Last year, it snowed in Gaza; this year, there has already been heavy rain, with streets flooding. The promises from the reconstruction conference in Cairo, welcome as they are, need to be translated quickly into practical solutions that will make a real difference to people’s lives. Here, I would like to place on record my thanks to the Prime Minister and the Government for the lead they took in providing much-needed medical assistance to Gaza and for the commitment to further, generous funding, of which MAP is a significant beneficiary, for the necessary long-term medical work that will be required.
A seven year-old child in Gaza will now have lived through three military incursions. The businesspeople and doctors I spoke to who were so hopeful in May will, for the third time in seven years, have to rebuild their homes, their businesses and their shattered families. In the intervening periods between the violence, the decent ordinary people of Gaza are not free to travel, to trade or to enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. If we are to break this cycle of death and destruction, the future for Gaza has to lead to an end to the blockade and to economic freedom.
The future must also hold out the hope of freedom for the whole of Palestine. The occupation of the West Bank, now the longest occupation in history, brings with it the daily disruption and humiliation of the Palestinian people and the continued building of settlements—I was very pleased to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, said on that. My right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan, in a recent searching and brave speech at RUSI, said that the illegal settlements are an offence to democratic principles and the rule of law. In the debate on the recognition of Palestine in another place on 14 July, my right honourable friend Sir Richard Ottaway said very movingly that he had stood by Israel through thick and thin, but that the recent annexation of 950 acres of the West Bank had outraged him more than anything else in his political life. I recommend both speeches to your Lordships.
The Conservative Middle East Council was set up under Margaret Thatcher in 1980 after the then nine members of the European Economic Community signed the Venice Declaration, which, among other things, stated that the continued building of settlements was a barrier to peace. As my noble friend Lady Warsi said, William Hague warned last year that the prospects for a two-state solution were rapidly running out. With yet another failed peace process, something has to change if we do not want that warning to become a reality. That change should be recognition of Palestine.
We cannot uphold the right of others around the world to stand up for their freedom and self-determination and deny that same right to the Palestinians. Through our shared history, Great Britain has a special responsibility to Palestine, which we should discharge by recognising Palestine as a sovereign state alongside the sovereign state of Israel as an important step to peace.
The Palestinians are for the most part just like anyone else around the world—decent and moderate. But moderate people need hope. The Palestinians and the Israelis have no alternative but to live freely, prosperously, peacefully and securely side by side: but unless there is freedom and prosperity and recognition for all, there will be no lasting peace and security.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Risby, on securing time for this debate, and I declare an interest as a vice-president of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. I intend, as did my noble friend Lady Morris in her very moving speech, to use this opportunity to focus on Israel and the Palestinians. Sometimes in politics, there are points that seem so obvious that nobody ought to make them any more, but some basic points about Israel seem often to be forgotten in the British political arena, so I need to restate some of them today.
First, in the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel was not aiming to kill innocent civilians, any more than Turkey was aiming to kill innocent civilians in its recent bombings of the PKK, or the Americans to kill innocent civilians in their attacks on Islamic State, nor any more than NATO ever aimed to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan. In all four of those examples, and many others, many civilians have been tragically killed in bombings undertaken by a country’s forces against a non-state force, be that Hamas, the PKK, Islamic State or the Taliban. Yet I do not hear anyone accusing Turkey, the Americans or NATO of deliberately killing civilians; it is only Israel that is so accused. Surely this is the worst kind of hypocrisy on the part of world opinion.
However much one might criticise the Government of Israel and their sometimes confrontational policies—I would not vote for Likud, just as I am guessing that Mr Netanyahu would not vote for the Liberal Democrats—what other armed forces in the world would send warnings to civilians living close to military targets that they are about to bomb? Israel does, even at the cost of exposing its own troops to greater danger in the process. The world community’s failure to give Israel credit for that shows just how hard it is for Israel to gain a fair hearing on the stage of international opinion. We criticise Israel, but where is the criticism of Hamas for how it puts the lives and property of the people of Gaza at risk by sending more than 4,000 rockets into Israel and using the people of Gaza as the equivalent of human shields? I take all the points made by my noble friend Lady Morris, which were very moving.
Another fact that is completely overlooked is the amount of aid and goods of different types that Israel pumps into Gaza, as well as the amount of aid and goods that Israel allows others to pump in. Need I remind your Lordships that Egypt also has valid security reasons? What makes me despair is the absence of reporting in the media on the support that Israel has consistently given to the people of Gaza. Some formidable forces are lobbying against Israel in the British public arena. It is perhaps the unrelenting campaigns of such formidable forces that drown out the truth about what Israel is doing to help Gaza, even during hostilities.
I would like to give some examples. On 25 August this year, in the middle of a war in which a bombardment of Hamas missiles was forcing many thousands of Israeli men, women and children to run for cover whenever an air raid siren sounded—even in the middle of such a bombardment—111 trucks entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel carrying 2,190 tonnes of food. On that same day, three trucks entered Gaza through the same crossing from Israel, carrying 8 tonnes of humanitarian supplies.
On 24 August, one day earlier, three Israeli taxi drivers were waiting to pick up some residents of Gaza to bring them into hospital in Israel from Gaza through the Erez crossing. And what happened? Mortar shells fired by Palestinian groups wounded the taxi drivers, with two of them being seriously hurt. Israeli soldiers had to evacuate the wounded under Palestinian fire, as Palestinian mortars continued to fall on the Israeli crossing specifically designated for the passage of Palestinians in need of medical and humanitarian assistance. These three Israeli taxi drivers, who were doing their job taking sick people to hospital, were not Jewish, but Arab citizens of Israel—Israeli Arabs being bombed by Palestinian terrorists while attempting to take Palestinians to hospital in Israel.
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer’s reaction to the news that Henry Kissinger had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the world is now so satirical that it is impossible to satirise it any more. Medical aid for the people of Gaza is rarely mentioned. It was revealed this month that the daughter of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh was recently treated at a Tel Aviv hospital. In June, Haniyeh’s mother-in-law was treated in Israel for cancer and his daughter was also transferred to an Israeli hospital last year. However, these are only examples. Ichilov hospital said she is one of more than 1,000 patients from Gaza and the West Bank who are treated every year. This is a nation that cares.
Her Majesty’s coalition Government have made it clear that they will recognise a Palestinian state when one has been created through a process of negotiations between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. I see no ambiguity on that score and I see that as the way forward rather than the one proposed by my noble friend Lady Warsi.
To conclude, if the problems of the Israeli people are ever to be solved, there is no alternative to the difficult, painful and direct negotiations that will bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that peace will include two states living side by side in peace and, hopefully, co-operation? It will only be achieved by Israel and the Palestinians sitting down to negotiate without preconditions. It will include the removal of many, if not most, of the settlements on the West Bank. It will mean a cessation of rockets fired at Israel. It will mean abandonment of Hamas’s claim to obliterate the state of Israel. It will mean that refugees in the West Bank and Gaza will be given citizenship of the Palestinian state—just as, for example, Israel gave citizenship to 600,000 of the 800,000 Jews who fled Arab lands.
My Lords, where is the Muslim peace movement campaigning for an end to violence in Muslim countries? Where is their Gandhi? Where is their Mandela? We are talking today about the failure of the nation state in Islam, and the failure in the region to overcome the demonisation of others.
We have failed to perceive the core of the current conflicts. What is taking place in Iraq and Syria is a single cross-border sectarian war: Shia with its allies, Sunni with theirs. Iraq and Syria were carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by Britain and France, who were also responsible for many artificial new states in the area. They all contain incompatible populations inside artificial borders. Most are marked by instability and poverty, despite the oil revenue flowing into the region. They were held together as states by brutal and powerful dictators. Once those dictators were removed, conflict broke out again along the old fault lines of sectarian identity, which is far stronger than nationality. There are echoes of the former Yugoslavia.
The Islamic State wants to establish a new caliphate, spelling the end of the nation state. What can the West do, except point out the truth, mobilise its few allies and keep the extremism and the demonisation at bay and out of our country? We have to spread the ideas that will end hate. One day, I am sure, the scales will fall from the eyes of the Israel haters, as they did in relation to our views about communism when that came to an end after decades of death. Sixty years ago, who would have imagined that there would be a black president of the United States, that South Africa would be free and that communism would come to an end? We should not give up hope.
But there is a lack of human rights and deficient legal systems in the area. Any criticism of human rights law in this country is barely tolerated, yet in the Middle East we see daily, and have done for years, massacres and hangings, such as in Iran where nearly 1,000 have been hanged since Rouhani came to power. We see stonings for adultery, beheadings, amputation and the persecution of Christians—except in Israel. It is the demonisation and intolerance of minorities and refugees that are the source of much of the conflict. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are barred from working in certain professions and cannot register property. Their situation is equally bad in Egypt, and they are banned from acquiring citizenship in Arab League states. Thousands have died and been starved in Syria. Even in Turkey there is interference with the judiciary and there are bans on social media. Yet, as others have said, we do not see the same level of protest here—only against Israel. Will there be protests against the Egyptian removal of 10,000 people in order to create a trench barrier against Gaza?
In Israel, we know that the Christian population is flourishing. It is a land of human rights, the only place where this is the case in the Middle East. There is equality and universal suffrage. Gay rights are tolerated—again, uniquely in the area. One-third of the students at Haifa University are Arabs. There is collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis over water research at Ben-Gurion University. I think that we can see that this is not exclusively a territorial dispute. Is it not because they are Jewish? The Israel conflict is rooted in demonisation, in dismay at the Arab failure to take advantage of, or contribute to, modern developments—hence, the fear and jealousy.
We should also be very wary of the many millions of dollars being poured into some of our universities by Gulf states. They are the largest source of donors to higher education. Beware Qataris bearing gifts. The funds are almost invariably in support of Islamic studies and Arabic, rather than for general purposes, which raises the suspicion that it is being done in order to change perceptions and gain influence. We have not got peace in exchange, simply a breeding ground for extremism in our student bodies.
It strains credulity that speakers in this debate should perceive the Israel-Palestine conflict as a major issue in comparison with what else is going on. A great deal of time has been spent on the recognition of Palestine as a state. The Palestinians could have had a state in 1947 and on many occasions since. I now wonder whether the demands for statehood, as an end to occupation and refugees, are genuine. Is it, as its leaders have stated, designed to be merely one more step in the ultimate goal, in keeping with caliphate ideology, of overrunning Israel—where, conveniently, 6 million Jews are gathered?
I say this because of the quite extraordinary statement by Palestinian leaders that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of a Palestinian state, whether they reside there or outside, and that they would continue to be supported by UNRWA. So we are not talking about a two-state solution, or even a one-state solution, but a three-state aim: the occupation of Jordan, the originally intended home, now with a half–Palestinian population; Gaza and the West Bank— a second state; and Israel itself.
Palestine, if recognised now, would be just one more failed state in the area, an area not currently wedded to national states. Its leaders have declared that it would be forbidden for any Jews to live there, and one can well imagine how any religious minority would be treated there. It would be a state with no minorities, no income, no support services and, unbelievably, no citizens or returned expatriates. So what would it be for, other than as a launching pad for attacks on territory and in the ICC?
I am sorry that in her resignation letter the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, blamed our policies for radicalisation here. No government can shape its policy for fear that its own citizens will bomb and behead others within its own territories as a result. Given our indecision over Syria, our vacillations over human rights and our failure to acknowledge the territorial and sectarian dimensions, the noble Baroness’s resignation and the lack of UK strategy have not helped to promote peace. Indeed, the UK has less influence than ever before in recent history in the region. It would be wilful to pretend that we could be a major player or a deliverer of peace. All we can do is emphasise human rights and tolerance in the area, and side with our true allies. As a footnote, if our dependence on oil were reduced, self-interest would be less important than moral principles and the achievement of peace.
My Lords, my interest in the Middle East also centres on Palestine-Israel. Like others, I have come to the opinion that Britain should now recognise Palestine. My interest stems from the fact that my wife was born there and, indeed, was the third generation to be born in Jerusalem of western Christian families who went to the Holy Land in the 19th century. Her family, with others, still owns a hotel there and is involved in a children’s charity. I am a trustee of the UK friends of the Palestine music conservatory.
I have therefore been visiting occupied Palestine, primarily east Jerusalem, for more than 45 years. I was last there in August during the latest blitz on Gaza. My visits are for family and charity reasons. I meet friends, businessmen, clergy and so on but rarely politicians. For that reason, I have rarely spoken about the subject in your Lordships’ House. But when you are there you cannot help seeing the politics.
I have seen the settlements grow and grow over the 45 years. My noble friend Lady Warsi gave some figures. I was interested and pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, withheld their support from the settlements policy of the Israeli Government. I have seen the razor wire, the wall and the checkpoints. You only have to go by bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to know how appallingly the Palestinians are routinely treated at the checkpoints.
The two-state solution, which I believe is the only hope of lasting peace for Israel and Palestine, is evaporating before our eyes. Huge new illegal building projects have been announced recently. Another 1,000 homes in Har Homa have been announced this week. This is more modern subsidised housing for Jewish immigrants but no building permits, even for a home extension, are allowed to native Palestinians. On Tuesday, I read in the newspaper that Palestinians are to be barred from using public buses in the West Bank. They are already forbidden from using many of the main roads in their own country.
The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who has just left, made a moving speech but I say to him that it is these actions of the Israelis which make them hated, stoke up violence and act as recruiting sergeants for Hamas. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, objected to the use of the word “apartheid” in respect of Israel, but “apartheid” is not too strong a word to describe Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. Archbishop Tutu used the word after he had been to see it for himself.
On Tuesday, in another place, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said:
“The settlements are illegal and building them is intended to undermine the prospects of the peace process. We must not allow that to happen”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/14; col. 171.]
I agree with that but have we any influence left? It still is happening.
The late General Matti Peled was one of the toughest Israeli soldiers in the 1948 and 1967 wars. After retiring, he became a professor of Arabic literature. Just after the 1967 war, when the Israeli army captured the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan, he told his fellow generals that Israel should offer the Palestinians a state of their own. He forecast that if it kept those lands it would turn Israel into an increasingly brutal occupying power. He was right in his forecast.
Some time ago, Her Majesty’s Government concluded that the Palestinian Authority fulfils the criteria for statehood and UN membership. We were told that recognition was a tactical matter and should wait until there is progress on negotiations. In other words, as has already been said, Israel should have a veto. We know that they will use the time for their extremists to build far more homes over the occupied land, to oppress the people and to drive them out.
If we are to influence it, we need a dramatic gesture from this country to shake the peace process out of the mothballs. I believe, with Sir Vincent Fean, until recently our consul-general, that recognition would advance the peace process by giving hope to Palestinians and by helping the moderates on both sides: that is, the Palestinians who believe in peace and work for peace in co-operation with Israel; and the Israelis who hate what is done in their name—the separation wall, the house demolitions and the imprisonment of thousands without trial—who think about the long-term future and who do not think it inevitable that they should for ever live behind walls in a permanent state of war with their neighbours.
I also believe that recognition could start the sort of process, about which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke, as regards development in Gaza and elsewhere. If we believe, as I do, that the two-state solution can bring lasting peace to the Holy Land, we should act on that basis and recognise Palestine as the second state, just as we recognised Israel all those years ago. Sometimes it seems as if we British are bystanders who can have no influence on what happens. But we helped to create the situation and we have a special responsibility in all this. My father was a soldier in Palestine under General Allenby in 1918. In 1920, we—the British—undertook the mandate to guide Palestine to independence. Recognition is our last duty under the mandate.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. Of all 35 speakers, I am the only one who is not a child of Abraham, which at least relieves me of a lot of responsibility for the situation in the Middle East. I see the Middle Eastern situation as an unsolved problem caused by the First World War. Lots of problems were posed by the First World War and solving them has occupied much of the 20th century. For example, I do not think that the problem of Germany was solved until 1991, when it became a united democratic country and part of the liberal democratic order. The repercussions of the Bolshevik revolution took until 1991 to sort out; eastern Europe was finally freed at that time. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to the Middle East and the problem of the Ottoman Empire.
As a principal ally in the First World War, we knew that the Ottoman Empire would lose the war and decline, and that we would demolish it. As part of that, there was the Sykes-Picot treaty, which I have mentioned before in this House, and the Balfour Declaration. The Sykes-Picot treaty drew arbitrary boundaries and all that ISIS has shown is how arbitrary those boundaries are as to where nations can be formed.
My own view is a very pessimistic one. I do not think there will ever be a two-state solution. I do not think the two-state solution was ever the best thing to do. I remember in Labour Party discussions back in the 1970s, we thought a single multi-faith state was the only solution to the Palestine-Israel problem and that is not going to happen. The single multi-faith state is not going to happen; the two-state solution is not going to happen; there is going to be occupation; there will be things built on occupied territory; and there will be a continual war. It is somewhat like Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, in which two sides fight and fight until they have both destroyed each other— and that is when peace prevails. Maybe I am being too pessimistic but, realistically, after all these years, I do not see why it should be solved.
I am much more concerned, however, about what is happening in the rest of the Middle East. I have spoken on this before. I believe that this is one of the most tragic situations for the Muslim world that we have witnessed in recent years. I think it was the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Nicholson, who mentioned the genocide of the Yazidis. That is indeed a very serious problem. But Muslims are killing Muslims in the highest numbers possible. Sunnis are killing Sunnis, Sunnis are killing Shias and the other way around. It has not just been going on for four years. This Middle East war has been going on for 40 years, more or less since 1973, after the last Arab-Israeli war, which was lost by the Arabs. As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, said in his brilliant speech, at that stage the Muslims lost their faith in a secular democratic alternative. They decided that they had to abandon secularism, abandon all those stories of socialism and so on, and go back to religion.
The religion they have gone back to has been heavily subsidised by Saudi Arabia, and is a particularly extreme form of Islam: Wahhabism. Then you have Islamism, which has done more to destroy Muslim majority states than it has done harm to us. We are all worried about terrorism coming to our shores, but what Islamists have done to Algeria and other countries, in both the Maghreb and the Middle East, is very serious. From Pakistan to Algeria, Islamism is the enemy of Muslim-majority states.
There is nothing much we can do but we have to be aware that, because we have gone in—we have been in and out—this war will not be over any time soon. There is no quick solution to the ISIL or ISIS problem. We will have to, if not destroy it, at least de-fang it. We cannot kill an ideology but it will become less harmful than before.
I will say two more things, which I have said before but are worth repeating. The first is we have never had a large international conference on all the problems of the Middle East. Versailles was not a great success but at least everybody got into it. I have said this before. Again and again from the government Benches, I have been told to forget it, but I will say it once more. The problems of Kurdistan, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and even Israel and Palestine are interconnected. They have a common history. We cannot solve one without solving the others. It is at least worth trying, even while the war is going on. We owe ourselves and the Muslim population of the world, something better than what is going on right now.
Lastly, a lot of people have remarked that many of our young people have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight for ISIL. I think we should not call them extremists and we should not threaten them with immediate arrest and prosecution if they come back. These are our children. Some of our other children take to alcohol, take to drugs and join gangs, and we see the effects of that. When we see that, we feel we ought to do something positive to get them out of their addiction and out of their problems. Now some young people—men and women—have taken to believing in extremism. It happens. It is very attractive to believe that you have a higher cause than your daily living in a rich consumer-oriented society. So they have gone there. However, it is up to us to understand why they have gone there and tell them that when they come back we will try to rehabilitate them and help them re-establish their lives, and not immediately threaten them with prosecution. If they are fed up with ISIL, they will want to come back. We ought to welcome them.
My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for securing this debate. It has been important that so many other noble Lords have talked about Palestine: not just for the sake of the Palestinians, but for the sake of Israel, too, because that country’s future is being put in jeopardy by its present Government.
As we saw yesterday, the propaganda coming out of the Israeli embassy now is to concentrate on Hamas, the so-called terrorists who of course many people in the Middle East see as freedom fighters—we must remember that. Hamas was helped in its creation by Israel, which did not like Fatah, and Hamas won the European Union-monitored election in 2006. Hamas was then refused permission to lead the Government in Palestine. Hamas had its MPs arrested and put in Israeli prisons. Most of them are still there. Yet since 2009, Hamas has been saying—and this is from Khaled Meshaal—that it will recognise the state of Israel in the 1967 borders. No one likes to publicise that. Hamas deserves the right to defend the people of Gaza against the relentless blockade and helicopter gunships over that area, targeting and killing so-called terrorists and, more often, many innocent civilians. The people of Gaza have a right to be defended, too.
I want to discuss what I see as the wider ramifications of failing to deal with the need for the Palestinians to have their own state. Since entering the House of Commons in 1997, I have worked and travelled mainly in the field of international development, working on women's health issues and refugees. I have stayed in the meanest of camps and tents and among the people we are trying to help. One of the things I have heard from the 1990s onwards from refugees and others, especially those who are Muslim, is that Palestine is what the West, through its unquestioning support for Israel, “does” to Muslims. Stories are passed around and film footage is watched avidly over and over. You may say it is propaganda—much of it may be—but it is very effective. I will not take time on personal anecdotes; I have too many.
It is no surprise to me, therefore, that with our continuing support for Israel, more and more extreme Islamic groups have emerged determined to get their own back on the West, through terrorism. It is no surprise either that a recent incident in Canada, and an exposed terrorist plot in Australia, have followed attacks in our country and the USA. Both of these countries have unhesitatingly supported Israel with the USA and the United Kingdom.
Why can our leaders not see what damage we are doing by supporting the unspeakable policies of Israel, which breaks international law and Geneva conventions and totally ignores the human rights of Palestinians? It is time to be honest and ask what the real reason is. Why do we give this rogue Government our support? There are several reasons people will mention: Holocaust guilt—quite right—oil and security. But in my opinion and the opinion of many people who are afraid to say it publicly—but I will—there is none so important as the thing that dare not speak its name. I am talking about the activities of the lobby, in this country and in America, AIPAC in America and BICOM here, plus the groups called Friends of Israel in supporting and cajoling and fundraising and launching websites and letter-writing campaigns and e-mail storms, and not supporting MPs or parties if they refuse to give Israel support. Those of us who challenge the lobby are threatened and disposed of by our leaders as best they can. David Ward, my colleague in the other place, is currently fighting yet another battle against the lobby as I speak.
All lobbies are dangerous and undemocratic; the pro-Israel lobby is not the only one, but it is particularly dangerous in this context. Money and influence win over truth and justice, and the West sinks lower and lower in the world’s esteem because of it. The so-called Islamic State—and it really angers me that we persist in calling it that when it is neither Islamic nor a state—is the latest disgusting manifestation of angst in the Middle East. It marches on, followed by limp bombing campaigns from western alliances and silence over Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank. The Middle East descends into hell, and we will follow if we do not do something to stop the slide.
Stopping Israel’s land and water grab and its brutal treatment of Palestinians would not solve everything—of course I am aware of that; it is too late for miracles—but it is at the root of the problems. Supporting a secure state of Palestine would be a huge and important gesture to show that we really care about western values, and will apply them equally all over the world where there is injustice—especially in Israel.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Risby for instigating this debate. Although it refers to the current situation in the Middle East, I am not surprised that Israel has attracted a disproportionate amount of interest. I can think of no other country that attracts so much attention in this House. I can also think of no other country that it is so completely misunderstood. I declare my interest now as a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I suppose I ought to declare my interest as being Jewish. I do not regard myself as part of a lobby. I regard being open, saying what you have on your mind and being principled as something that we are in this House to do, and to suggest otherwise—that we are part of a lobby—is a slur.
Israel is unique in the Middle East. It embodies those values which we in the United Kingdom hold so dear: freedom, democracy, equality and human rights. It stands alone in the region as a true functioning democracy. Israel has a proud history of ensuring that all its citizens enjoy protected freedoms and human rights. Israel’s universal suffrage and democratic political environment has, as a result, produced a strong civil society. Israel is ranked as the only “free” country in the Middle East and north Africa by the independent organisation, Freedom House, which measures these things.
Israel is comprised of people who practise a variety of faiths and no faith, and all enjoy full rights to do so without fear of persecution or unequal treatment under the law, unlike nearly every other country in the Middle East. Notably, Israel is one of the very few places in the Middle East where Christians are not endangered but are flourishing. Since Israel’s foundation in 1948, its Christian communities have expanded by more than 1,000%. Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Nazareth priest, told the United Nations Human Rights Council only a few days ago:
“Christians comprised 20% of the population of the Middle East … Today they comprise only 4% … Christians in the Middle East are marginalised; their rights denied, their property stolen, their honour violated, their men killed, and their children displaced”.
He went on to say that,
“there’s only one safe place where Christians are not persecuted. One place where they are protected, enjoying freedom of worship and expression, living in peace and not subjected to killing and genocide. It is Israel, the country I live in. The Jewish state is the only safe place where the Christians of the Holy Land live in safety”.
This comes at a time when Christians and other religious minorities in neighbouring countries are contending with state-sponsored repression and the brutality of terrorist organisations such as the reprehensible ISIS. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Palmer said, Jewish people have, over the years, been forcibly expelled from all the Arab countries where they lived peaceably and happily for many centuries. In a region so tragically blighted by totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism, Israel’s remarkable democratic success story deserves far greater credit. The story is the same for women, homosexuals and the press. Uniquely, Israel protects the freedoms of them all.
All this is not to say that Israel is perfect. No country is. My noble friend Lady Warsi will be pleased to learn I, too, have deep reservations about the Israeli Government’s current plan for settlements. Recent announcements by the Israeli Government on settlements are concerning. The announcement in August to appropriate 1,000 acres of land in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank just south of Jerusalem rightly elicited a strong response from the international community. Likewise, this week’s news that plans are advancing to construct 1,000 housing units in east Jerusalem is unfortunate. While settlements are unhelpful to the ongoing peace process, it is wrong to suggest that they are an insurmountable obstacle. They are one of the main final status issues to be resolved in direct peace talks.
Additionally, much of the construction takes place in existing settlement blocs along the so-called green line. It is a long-established principle that those settlements along the green line will be retained by Israel as part of a final peace agreement, with the Palestinians compensated by equivalent land swaps. Israel, driven by the policy of “land for peace”, has a track record of removing settlements to help give momentum to peace. Its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was a major gesture. It now stands as a genuine opportunity missed by the Palestinians to develop Gaza into what could have been a prosperous territory.
Her Majesty’s Government can be proud of their record in supporting Israel and standing by the basic principle that a country has the right to protect itself against rocket attacks on its civilians which have led, and may still lead, to many civilian casualties. Peace talks earlier this year were thrown into disarray when President Abbas violated an agreement to abstain from unilateral action, even after Israel agreed to follow the next steps outlined by Kerry.
A lasting two-state solution requires a negotiated final peace agreement. Unlike Gaza, Israel’s historic peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are testament to what can be achieved by direct negotiations. Unilateral actions and grandstanding by the Palestinian Authority simply drive a wedge between the two parties and make a peace agreement less likely. Even worse, perhaps, grandstanding in the UK and Europe by otherwise respectable politicians for short-term domestic political objectives is really regrettable.
Fatah’s unity Government with Hamas should sound alarm bells. Hamas, it must not be forgotten, is an internationally recognised terror organisation that displays some of the ghastly characteristics of ISIS. I am amazed that so many fail to see the similarities between ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah in terms of their tactics, operations and, even more so, their funding. No peace agreement will be able to guarantee peace in the medium to long term if a generation of Palestinians is growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel and Jews. Sadly, evidence of EU-funded schoolbooks encouraging such hatred has been discovered, which is very depressing and worrying.
In summary, Israel can be described only as a force for good in a region experiencing great transformative turmoil. The UK benefits from its relationship with Israel. UK trade with Israel continues to grow inexorably to more than £2.5 billion. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will join me in hoping that one day in the near future, Israel can be at peace with a viable and successful state of Palestine, and able to share its borders with newly invigorated and genuinely democratic Arab states.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I refer noble Lords to my interests in the register. In the course of my work for a Foreign and Commonwealth Office-sponsored project, I regularly visit Iraq and have been doing so for some time. I am not in any sense an international expert, but I have learnt a lot from this debate and I think it is right that the noble Lord, Lord Risby, has taken the opportunity to give the House a serious, five-hour slot.
I am looking at the Minister when I say that I hope we do not have to rely on party groupings. I pay tribute to the Conservative group for thinking that this is an important enough subject to table it for a five-hour debate but we should not forget that it is the Government’s responsibility to make sure that the House has opportunities to discuss the region as a whole. I hope the Minister will not think that this has now been dealt with for the rest of the Session. There is still important time to be spent on this subject.
I want to make it as easy as I can for the Minister so that she can tick my box very quickly. In the middle of all the high politics and strategy—only a fraction of which I understand—I want to spend a few moments looking at the internal difficulties faced by the new Administration in Iraq. Will the Minister assure the House that she will do everything in her power to assist the new Government? They are at a very critical point and some of the new, major players—Dr Haider al-Abadi and others—are all very well disposed towards the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, and other noble Lords said that soft power is an important player. We may not have the fire power or the economic power that we would like, or have had in the past, but we are listened to with great respect. That is due partly to the excellence of our diplomatic mission and the professionals, particularly the Arabists, who devote their lives to understanding not just the language, but also the internal workings of some of these quite complex cultures and nations. The noble Lord, Lord Wright, knows all about this because he is one of them.
The background to the incoming new Government is seen very differently from Baghdad. On top of everything else, the professional classes are absent. Even if they take the right political decisions and have the money, the implementation of some of these policies is nearly impossible for a unique and understandable set of security reasons; namely, if you can get your family to safety in a European or other country, why would you not take the opportunity to do so? The Iraqi Government have a serious problem in getting done things that they know need to be done even if they have the money. There are all sorts of shortages which can be readily seen on the inside, such as lack of utilities. There are also some big issues of desertification and water resources. Having seen it for myself, I am absolutely persuaded that this new Government are on the cusp of being able to get started and exercise their authority. The early signs are good. I am optimistic about what can be done. They are looking at security; they are looking at public utilities; and they are looking at achieving a stable political settlement. They are dealing with the ideology of insurgency as well as difficult military and security issues. It is also worth remembering that, although it was with the assistance of General Petraeus at the time, al-Qaeda and its ideology have been defeated in the past. Therefore, it is not impossible. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Nicholson whose work in this field is indefatigable.
In the time I have left I should like to make some suggestions. The new ambassador needs support. I have not met Mr Baker yet, but he needs support in handling some of the situations that he is facing. I was very pleased that the Foreign Secretary took the trouble to go to Baghdad himself. That visit was extremely successful. I was also pleased that the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place took the time and trouble to visit. That has made a difference too. I know that the Minister does not have direct responsibility for that part of the world, although she is in charge of everything she surveys—once a Chief Whip, always a Chief Whip—but I am relying on her to rattle a few cages. It is not just Foreign Office Ministers; sometimes it is Education Ministers who need to go to pick up some of the problems and give assistance where it is required. The Minister said previously that there was a real drive for decentralisation in Baghdad. If Dr al-Abadi’s Government can sort some of their other problems and have the trust that they need for devolving power, that would make a huge difference to building the trust which is absent at the moment.
There are other things which we can do more directly ourselves. Why do we not have an Iraqi business group? My noble friend Lady Nicholson is executive chairman of the Iraq-Britain Business Council which does extremely valuable work. Other countries, such as India and China, have dedicated business groups which focus government activity in Whitehall on the problems of the respective countries. Will the Minister consider whether the time is right to do that in Iraq? Will she also reflect with her ministerial team whether it is possible to give our new ambassador more discretion in giving visas to key people? Business people and politicians who are visiting this country still have to go through a very arduous process. Until recently, they had to have a job to get a visa. That is ridiculous. There are other countries, such as China and India, where ambassadors, who know and can speak personally for potential visitors, have more discretion over visas.
Finally, there are three areas where Iraq is seeking help from the United Kingdom because of the connections that already exist. These are in health care, in education—particularly through some of the excellent work done by Universities UK—and in financial services. In all of these areas there are contracts to be won and business to be done. Of course the security is difficult, but it is manageable if proper precautions are taken. People watching the television might think that Iraq is a wrecked country. It is nothing of the kind. With a fair wind and with support from friends, it has a future, but it will not be able to do it by itself. It needs help from people like ourselves.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby for opening this debate and I agree with everything that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said about recognising the state of Palestine. It is 15 years since the European Union agreed the Palestinian right to self-determination. When the Minister comes to wind up this debate, I hope that she will be able to give us some encouragement to believe that Her Majesty’s Government might now be prepared to follow up that important vote in the other place with formal recognition.
In my brief remarks, I propose nevertheless to concentrate on our attempt to confront the threat of the so-called Islamic State—ISIS, ISIL, or Da’ish as it is now called in an Arabic acronym—in both Iraq and Syria. Let us remember that this is something which not only threatens us in the West but also, ironically, presents a serious threat to those states in the Arabian peninsula from which much of its funding appears to have originated.
Many others, better qualified than I, tell me that air attacks on ISIS-controlled areas are having, or are likely to have, very little significant effect. One wonders whether any western military action can expect to defeat a movement which is now reported to have 60% support among young Jordanians and 90% support among Saudis, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said. I hope the Minister can tell the House whether the Syrian national coalition, described recently in a letter to me from one of her ministerial colleagues as,
“the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people”,
are playing any effective part in confronting this threat.
I believe that there are strong arguments, both security and consular, why we should now be talking to the Government in Damascus, even though, or rather because, they have been involved in appalling breaches of human rights. Yesterday’s report in the press of a 17 year-old Briton, who died as a jihadist in Syria, carried a Foreign Office comment that it was difficult to get confirmation,
“since Britain has no diplomats in Syria”.
Surely, we should be talking to not only the Government in Damascus but also their principal supporters in Moscow and Tehran, who are reported to be trying to co-ordinate their operations in Syria and Iraq. Surely, our diplomats should be talking to all three Governments about how to confront a threat which has not only occupied a significant portion of Syria’s sovereign territory but which also poses a threat, perhaps even more imminent, to Russia’s southern borders and to Iran than it does to us.
I understand the reasons why Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine makes us reluctant to be seen to enter into a dialogue with Russian diplomats on other subjects of interest to both of us. I also understand why our American allies have been reluctant to be seen to be talking to the Iranian Government about subjects other than their nuclear development. As I suggested to the Minister at Question Time today in the context of Iran, surely the threat of ISIS to all of us is serious enough to require a reassessment of our diplomacy and of where our interests lie. I hope that the Minister, when she comes to reply, will be able to give the House some reassurance on these points.
My Lords, previous speeches have illustrated that this is a region of mixed news. There is good news about the second peaceful elections in Tunisia, where the Islamist party has accepted that it has lost the election. There is also good news about Egypt. Although it has a state of emergency in the Sinai and daily terrorist attacks, it is moving towards democracy again—not perfectly, as the imprisonment of journalists illustrates, but, as the Anglican Bishop Mouneer stated,
“For the first time Egyptians feel that they own their country. Every shortcoming is brought into the light by the people. Indeed the wall of fear of the government has been demolished”.
Of course, there is bad news again in Iraq. Winter is descending and the humanitarian needs are acute. While militarily arming the Kurds is the only option at the moment, it is not without risk, as Turkey with its PKK issue fears. The Iraqi army needs air strikes and the Kurds need modern weaponry, but a ground offensive to remove IS will take many months.
Is not now the time, ironically, to obtain reassurances from the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish regional government to secure a political settlement for the Iraqi minority communities in the east of the Nineveh plain? The Assyrian Christians, Turkmen and Shabak Muslims and the Yezidis are not Arab and are not Kurdish and have been a particular target for IS. There was an initial call by some in the West for a mass exodus, but this would just give IS what it wants. In fact, the leaders I have met want a safe haven so they can remain in the region. This would not be yet more unwelcome international interference, as Article 125 in Iraq’s constitution states:
“This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”.
In fact, earlier this year, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that the Iraq Council of Ministers had approved a proposal for a new province in the Nineveh plain bordering the Kurdish areas, which has—or had—the largest population of Assyrians in Iraq. This represented a state attempt to curb the exodus of Christians from Iraq and would have given them some political and economic autonomy. I would be grateful to know what representations have been made on this by Her Majesty’s Government to the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish regional government. Otherwise, there is a risk that, once IS is removed from the region, UK weapons could get into the hands of the Kurds and might be used to prevent these people returning to the Nineveh plain—an area rich in natural resources which the Kurds allegedly wish to annex.
IS is in extreme denial of Article 18 rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states, “You cannot choose your religion, you must choose ours or you die”. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group looking at Article 18. Recent developments in the region are acute reminders of how deeply religious it is and how deeply religious beliefs interact with issues of governance, conflict and security.
I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. We should heed the world renowned sociologist, Peter Berger, who was one of the leading sociologists at the forefront of advocating the secularisation thesis in the 1960s. In 1999, he recanted his earlier claims and said:
“The world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken”.
Only yesterday, the Egyptian Foreign Minister told MPs and Peers that what they need to defeat is a religious narrative given to young people—young people who at a pivotal point in their lives are forming their ideas via Twitter and Facebook. And this region is young. Nearly 37% of Iraqis are under the age of 14 and 50% of Egyptians are under the age of 24. Therefore, I very much applaud the welcome focus by Her Majesty’s Government on understanding the place of religion and religious actors in countering violent extremism. The Foreign Office has increased its responses to human rights abuses emerging from denial of freedom of religion or belief by state and non-state actors.
However, there is still a substantial gap in UK responses to issues of ethno-religious conflict not only in the Middle East but across Africa and south Asia. I sense that western Europe has woken up abruptly to religion as an intrinsic aspect of developments in the world. Have the UK Government evaluated whether their structures have the relevant expertise in analysing the dynamic relationship between religion, conflict, democracy, peace and stability so that we are equipped to offer timely policy proposals and guidance to policymakers? The Foreign Office has taken the challenge on board to engage with religion and human rights issues and offers religious literacy training to its staff. Has this model spread across our Government?
The UK’s primary agency in addressing conflicts, peace and state building, DfID, seems to be lagging behind. DfID has substantial resources and a pool of highly educated staff, and there is synergy between the Ministry of Defence, DfID and the FCO in the conflict stabilisation unit. Does this unit have the expertise, training and programming focus on how the UK should understand and respond to increasingly religious-related challenges in today’s world? Developing such a response will not add any substantial burden to either staffing or budget but would be a good step in the right direction by providing relevant training to staff and inviting external experts as advisers.
This is not an optional extra for UK engagement with the world but a grounded response to a world that is deeply religious—more than 80% of the world’s population has a religious affiliation and identity—and where religious actors, organisations, languages and ideas play a major role in preventing conflicts but also creating new ones. This speech may remind your Lordships of debates at university student unions entitled, “Does religion cause war?”, but at our peril we do not ask, or equip ourselves to answer, the converse question, “How do wars affect religions and religious people?”.
My Lords, I, too, very much appreciate the balanced and impressive way in which the noble Lord, Lord Risby, introduced this debate. Just as he said, the Arab spring came as a complete surprise, and the terrible winter that has followed seems to have caught most people unawares, too.
It is not impossible to imagine that we will see the establishment of an extreme fundamentalist Islamic state across a large swathe of the Middle East within a few years; and if you think that this will be dangerous for the West and a severe threat to many countries in the Middle East, then just imagine what it must mean for that 15 or 20 mile-wide narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast known as Israel.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a burning issue that desperately needs resolving but it is hard to credit the idea of some that this is the cause of all the rest of the problems in the Middle East. But it is undoubtedly the case that the rise of ISIS, the unstable situation in Egypt, and a nuclear Iran all have a marked influence on Israel and the Palestinians as they search for peace. There should be no doubt that Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbours; its future is entirely dependent on it. However, it is negotiation between the two parties that is the key there.
Even though the overall shape of what a two-state solution might look like has been clear for some time, nothing is so simple and there are many sticking points. Israeli Government settlement policies are clearly problematic and win them few friends around the world. However, it is clear that the settlement issue is not the only problem or even the main one, as we saw a couple of years ago when there was a freeze on settlements for 10 months in the vain hope that this would bring Mr Abbas back to the table and when, instead, he raised new pre-conditions. The right of return and the status of Jerusalem remain open for discussion and the inability of Mr. Abbas to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is problematic.
From Israel’s point of view it is always the three problems: security, security and security, which now is even more significant as the fundamentalist threat of ISIS looms large just a few miles away. Israelis are all too aware that withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon was immediately followed by the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, each posing considerable threats with their rockets and missiles, backed up by repeated threats to remove Israel from the face of the earth. Imagine, then, what would happen after a peace deal if Hamas gains power in the West Bank, as is entirely possible. What, too, if the long, currently peaceful, border with Jordan is changed into a severely dangerous one in which an ISIS-driven fundamentalism sweeps across Jordan? Either case would leave extremely antagonistic forces within a mile of Israel’s Parliament and its international airport.
Furthermore, Israel does not view with any equanimity the unstable position in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood overflowing into the Sinai desert along another long, exposed border with Israel. When some say, therefore, that Israel should not be so concerned with security, they clearly cannot have heard the voices of Hamas and others spewing out a rhetoric of death and destruction to Jews in general and Israel in particular. If some suggest that Israel should rely on an international peacekeeping force to act as a buffer, they have not noticed what happened when the UN forces in the Golan were captured recently and had to flee, or the ineffectiveness of the UN in southern Lebanon in preventing the build-up of huge numbers of long-range missiles in the villages there. Nor do international bodies now seem to be capable of preventing the avowed aims of Hamas to rearm and rebuild its tunnels into Israel.
Of course, Israel has its own problems, with many within Israel voicing strong opposition to government policies. But the point here is that it is a democratic, multicultural society, where almost a quarter of its population is Arab and, somewhat surprisingly, there is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood among its Arab-elected Members of Parliament. Opposing views are frequently and vehemently expressed without fear of being shot, as happened recently in Gaza when a dozen citizens were dragged out of a mosque and shot in the head for daring to voice opposition to Hamas. The terrible, tragic loss of civilian life in the recent conflict in Gaza was greeted with distress by many in Israel, but when accusations of “proportionality” are levelled, they wonder why similar accusations are not being levelled against the West when, in our efforts to bomb ISIS, we are killing large numbers of women and children in Syria and Iraq. Where is the proportionality there—or, indeed, in Kosovo a few years ago?
Israeli society is far from uniform and has very mixed views about its conflict with the Palestinians. However, the vast majority believe that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, and that can happen only through negotiation with Israel. After all, each party is most concerned with what their neighbour will look like; where their borders will be; whether they will choose conflict or peace; or what position they will adopt about Jerusalem. Only negotiation with Israel will do it. It is negotiation that we should be pressing on both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, not encouraging a vain search for a status from a world that is in no position to grant it.
We in the UK should be seeking allies in the Middle East that Britain sorely needs. What conversations are our Government having with the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Saudi Arabians about their reactions to the jihadi threats? Qatar seems to be playing a particularly cynical and dangerous role in all this mix and mayhem. What reassurances did the Prime Minister receive in his recent conversations with the Emir of Qatar about the funding of terrorist groups in ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah?
I hope that the Minister will expand on these questions and on the Government’s position on the Palestine and Israel negotiations.
My Lords, today I would like to focus particularly on the role of Islam in the conflicts we are seeing in the Middle East. I believe that it is important for the honest, peace-seeking, law-abiding majority of Muslims in this country and overseas to speak out against those who commit evil in the name of our religion. The so-called jihadists in Iraq and Syria do not understand the principles of Islam. They are harming women and children, forcibly converting people of other religions to Islam and committing barbaric acts. There are clear rules of engagement in Islam relating to warfare, which were laid down by Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—and Caliph Abu Bakr.
Those rules include the following: give diplomacy a chance before battle starts; respect treaties; do not harm women, children, the elderly and religious persons; do not destroy crops and trees; protect all places of worship; treat well all prisoners of war; and allow the bodies of soldiers slain in battle to be buried in dignity. These rules of engagement were laid down well before the Geneva conventions. The acts of the so-called jihadists are totally unIslamic and we utterly condemn what they have done and are doing.
In the 7th century when Muslims conquered Jerusalem, Caliph Omar signed the first Jerusalem declaration, which preserved the rights of existence and ensured the well-being of everyone in Jerusalem. Subsequently, when Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1187, he allowed people of all faiths to live in peace. Before him, when Christians conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they mercilessly massacred all Muslims and Jews. In time of warfare Muslims should follow the examples set by Caliph Omar and Saladin.
The so-called jihadists are forcibly converting people to Islam. That is not allowed in Islam. It is written in the Holy Koran that there is no compulsion in religion. In regard to treatment of non-Muslims by the so-called jihadists and our relationship with other communities, I emphasise that it is written in the Holy Koran that Allah says:
“O mankind! We created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, that you may know one another”.
We live in the United Kingdom, which is very much a multicultural society, and it is important that we maintain and strengthen relationships with everyone in the country. Unfortunately there is a tiny minority of Muslims who have committed acts of terrorism in the United Kingdom and also countries overseas. Islam forbids act of terrorism and suicide bombings. It is written in the Holy Koran:
“If anyone killed a person … it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind”.
In regard to our military involvement in Iraq and Syria we must have a clear plan about what we should do when the conflict is over. Defeating an enemy is not enough; we must have a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people and create peace after the conflict. We invaded Iraq without an effective plan to be put in practice when Saddam Hussein was defeated. What was the result? The result was that a million people have died and we have created fragmentation and division between different communities and religious groups. It has led also to infighting between the Iraqis and the involvement of outsiders. I am pleased that we now have an inclusive Government in Iraq.
In regard to the present military conflict, we need to be careful who we supply the arms to. The situation is complex and the scenario is changing. The arms may fall into the hands of people who may create further problems in Syria, Iraq and friendly countries such as Turkey. In regard to Libya, there was no clear strategy after Gaddafi was toppled, and infighting and chaotic conditions prevail at the present time.
A tiny minority of young Muslims in the United Kingdom have chosen to join terrorist groups overseas. These young people have been radicalised. Parents, community and religious leaders have a role to play in ensuring that individuals do not fall prey to extremists’ teachings. We must listen and communicate with the younger generation and gently put them right in order that they can follow the right path. We need to ensure that the imams are appropriately trained and can effectively communicate with the young. In this regard, I commend the courses being started by the University of East London.
A pattern has emerged whereby a growing number of individuals are being radicalised via the internet. Scotland Yard deserves praise for creating an internet referral unit that liaises directly with online companies such as Google in removing extremist material from the web. There also needs to be constructive parental involvement in the education of Muslim children. The students must receive a well rounded education in order to succeed in their future careers in the country.
We must maintain and strengthen the harmonious relationship between the Armed Forces and the Muslim community. I am actively involved in promoting this, both on the ground and at the various meetings that I have addressed. I am committed to this cause; in fact, I am wearing a Royal Navy tie given to me by Commander Richard Moss after a recent talk I gave at HMS “President”. I am also hosting a meeting on this subject in this House in three weeks’ time.
Finally, on a different subject, I should like the British Government to now recognise the statehood of Palestine as a prelude to achieving peace in the region. I ask my noble friend the Minister to comment on this point.
My Lords, the misnamed “Arab spring” has not yielded the arrival of democratic government, the rule of law and human rights anywhere in the region. In Palestine, as we know, creeping occupation of the West Bank makes a two-state solution increasingly implausible. In Iraq, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, one sees the legacy of the misguided 2003 invasion by Anglo-US forces. Now the state has lost one-third of its territory to the Daesh. In Egypt, the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule was marked by political ineptitude and repression, leading back to domination by a military strongman. The removal of Gaddafi produced anarchy, and now disputed sovereignty between the east and west of the country. Syria was already suffering a devastating civil war when the Daesh erupted onto the scene.
The actual revolutions in the region have led to far worse conditions for ordinary people; peaceful transitions, which may take far longer, are the right way forward. In Tunisia, mentioned earlier, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party of Rached Ghannouchi, who lived here in exile for 20 years, lost the election this week to secularists in a peaceful transition. The same could still happen in Algeria and Morocco, where the leaderships talk about reform, although the pace is leaden.
The Gulf states have followed a completely different path. All are ruled by hereditary autocracies, and only in Bahrain has there been an opposition with mass popular support. The response of the ruling family has been to impose long prison sentences on the most effective political and human rights activists, to violently suppress peaceful demonstrations, to deprive people of their citizenship without due process, to recruit a large number of foreign Sunni security personnel and grant them nationality in a medium-term plan to outnumber the native Shia population, and to invite in troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in an unsuccessful attempt to cow the people into submission.
Our Government say that they raise human rights violations with the Bahrain authorities, but they do it sotto voce, going along with the fake reforms initiated by the rulers. This is a country where the Prime Minister, who is the King’s uncle, has been in office for more than 40 years, and the King appoints all the Ministers. The judges, too, are appointed by the Government; so the rule of law is absent. There is a rigged Parliament.
Saudi Arabia played a key role in the creation of the Daesh, as Patrick Cockburn demonstrates in his book The Jihadis Return. It tried to stop its citizens from travelling to Syria only in February when it realised that the supreme target of the jihadists was Saudi Arabia itself. If the Daesh could usurp the title, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, its claim to be the successor of the caliphate would be enormously enhanced.
We need to point out that in funding mosques abroad, particularly in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is promoting an ideology that carries within it the seeds of terrorism. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out, Qatar and Kuwait are joining in the funding of terrorist operations. The Daesh can probably be eradicated so that it no longer has a territorial base, but the organisation and its ideology can and does metastasise; it already has footholds elsewhere in the region and well beyond, particularly in south Asia. It even has tentacles in the UK, as we see from the 500 young people who are said to have abandoned their families here to join the brutal and inhuman heretics in Syria.
The US has woken up to the importance of saving Kobane, recognising. as the New York Times wrote, that the fall of the city would show the fragility of the American plan, and put the Daesh in a position to cross the border and directly threaten a NATO ally. It would also facilitate the flow of terrorists into Europe and, of course, the UK in particular. As a result of the US policy reversal, arms and humanitarian supplies have been airdropped, as I suggested in our debate on October 14.
The first contingent of Peshmergas from Iraq arrived yesterday with artillery and mortars to reinforce Kobane. Ankara is said to have demanded that for any extension of this programme the coalition should also attack Assad. However, because the Syrian armed forces are the only large-scale provider of boots on the ground against the Daesh we need a reappraisal of the attempts to change the regime in Damascus, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, advised. This is not my party’s policy but simply acceptance of the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
I hope that at the end of this debate we shall hear not only of plans to join the US in supplying humanitarian goods and arms to the heroic defenders of Kobane, but that we have in train a strategy to combat the much wider threat from a false doctrine of murder and religious cleansing that the Daesh espouses. At the same time, we must demonstrate to the Arab people that we are sympathetic to their needs.
I congratulate Sir Alan Duncan MP on his appointment as special envoy to Yemen, an FCO “country of concern” and the poorest state in the Middle East. Yemen is probably not going to meet any of the millennium development goals; it has a weak economy, poor social services, high population growth and internal conflicts that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In spite of these challenging conditions, in 2012, with the help of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation—to which the UK is also a major contributor—Yemen introduced vaccination for rotavirus, which causes extreme diarrhoea and accounts for 11% of under-fives’ deaths there. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Child Health and Vaccine Preventable Diseases, of which I am co-chair, suggests that DfID should now assess how the vaccination system in Yemen should be integrated with the WASH agenda—programmes on clean water, sanitation and hygiene—and with the eradication of infant malnutrition as part of its post-2015 development master plan.
My Lords, I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Risby for bringing the attention of the House to this critically important region. The current turmoil sweeping across the Middle East to North Africa is blighting communities across the region, with the resulting insecurity causing terror and chaos to men, women and children everywhere it touches. While clearly the suffering is felt by all, when we watch the news on television, we see and hear almost exclusively from the men in these countries. I would like to draw your Lordships’ attention to the significant and disproportionate impact these events are having on the women in these countries and therefore on the children, too.
Warfare is by its nature a male-dominated activity. But today war is not fought by armies on a battlefield; it is fought in communities where women are more physically vulnerable and thus less able to defend themselves and their children. It is a chilling fact that today nearly 90% of war casualties are civilians, the majority of whom are women and children. When conflict sweeps through a country, it is the women who are left struggling to care for their children amid the danger and the chaos. Of course, the men are victims, too, and many millions of widows and wives of the disappeared have been created in countries like Syria and Iraq, where it is so difficult to survive as a woman on your own. All too often in these places rape is used as a weapon of war. I sit on the steering board of William Hague’s ending sexual violence in conflict initiative and I would like to pay great tribute to him for his ground-breaking work on shining a light on this terrible war crime that shatters lives and communities.
Many countries across the region have an embedded patriarchal culture, but over the past decades progress has been made in many places, with more women receiving education and holding down professional jobs. However, the turbulent events of the past few years have caused this progress to stall. Initially, the Arab spring offered so much hope for this momentum of progress for women to be built on, with the central role that women played in these uprisings being viewed as something of a watershed. However, the sad reality is that, since 2011, there have been substantial increases in the security and safety concerns experienced by women across the region.
A report by Saferworld in October 2013 concluded that across Egypt, Libya and Yemen, women are facing targeted violence and encountering harassment, sexual assault and slander, all on a regular basis. Not least, they faced the mass harassment and public rapes that occurred during demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo that were widely reported across the world. These incidents took place while others looked on, and the women were often blamed simply for being there or for what they were wearing. Across the region the presence of women in public spaces has been decreased and their rights are rolling backwards. I was shocked when I met a Tunisian former parliamentarian here in Westminster two weeks ago. Her head was covered—something that would have very rarely been seen in Tunisia before the revolution.
In Syria, many of the women were too frightened to remain alone once their husbands had gone to fight. According to the UNHCR, over the past three years 2.8 million people have had to flee the terrible civil war there. Nearly four in five of them are women and children, many penniless and without support. Visiting Lebanon last year, I met some of these refugees—it was indeed a harrowing experience. In the Shatila Palestinian camp in Beirut one woman wept as she told me that she had had to marry off her very young daughter because she could not afford to feed her. Another told me that her 16 year-old son had head injuries from shrapnel and the hospital would not treat him because she could not pay. I do not think I will ever forget the sight of a woman in the Bekaa Valley struggling to look after her seven children in a makeshift tent, or the mother who approached us, hopeful that one of us was a doctor, as she had a very sick baby and there was no medical care.
Nowhere are these challenges more evident than in the current conflict with ISIS across Iraq and Syria. The United Nations has stated that women are being explicitly targeted in what are obvious war crimes and crimes against humanity. In particular, as has been mentioned before, women from the Yazidi and other minority groups have been subject to barbaric acts of sexual violence, used against them and their families. Iraq’s only Yazidi Member of Parliament has recently reported how IS militants are kidnapping, raping and selling Yazidi women. They are taken away, in some cases across the border to Syria, provided to militants as “brides”, and often raped and sold on to fund the terrorist cause. There are even reports of women committing suicide to avoid such sexual enslavement.
The UN has also previously reported that women and girls in Mosul were being ordered to undergo female genital mutilation. There seems to be very little acknowledgement of all this from the international community. When we are deliberating about our strategy for engaging in military action, is consideration being given to the potential impact on women and children?
With specific regard to Iraq, it is crucial that we are proactively talking to the women and civil society on the ground where the air strikes are taking place, to ensure that we are not making life even more difficult for them. I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification in this respect. Of course the current situation there is extremely complex and difficult, but surely it is important to involve women in negotiations to help find solutions, because security needs to be found for all.
Women can be powerful agents of change in their communities, and this needs to be properly acknowledged and capitalised on. I hope that our Government will lead the way in ensuring that women’s voices will be heard and in setting new, higher standards in accountability with regard to women across the Middle East and North Africa and ultimately embrace them as a pivotal part of resolving the ongoing conflicts, ensuring that they are at the heart of any new political settlements.
My Lords, my interests are declared in the register, most notably a recent visit to Bahrain, funded by the Bahraini Government, from which we produced the report in my hand, which I will happily make available to any Member of this House. It was written by myself and the other four members of the visiting group, from both Houses, and published by the noble Lord, Lord Noon. It is an important item, to which I want to return. Before I do, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Risby, on this debate. I know of his great interest in Syria and the tragedy there. He will, I think, know that Assad was a constituent of mine and I always feel that this is something of a reflection on me, but I am not sure how real that is.
We are debating the Middle East generally. When I have taken part in debates before, we have often talked about the region in terms of gloom and doom. There is a lot of gloom and doom and some of the speeches today have been very powerful, most notably, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who made an excellent speech and is a great loss to the Front Bench—it probably will not do her any good for me to say so–not least because she always mastered her brief. That is a big plus for any Minister from any political party. None of that reflects on the current holder of the post, I hasten to add.
All is not gloom and doom and I want to focus my remaining comments on two countries: Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, part of the Emirates. I was interested in Bahrain because it had an enormous flair up of trouble in 2011. Bahrain is in what many people would describe as an impossible geopolitical situation. It is joined as an island by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. Just across the gulf is Iran. A very large section of the population of Bahrain—some would argue up to 80%—are Shia. The Government, or the royal family, are largely seen as Sunni, although to the king’s great credit, he said to me when I discussed this with him that he saw himself as a Muslim and not as a Sunni or a Shia. I respect that and I know that he is trying to hold a difficult balance. I also know that since the ayatollah took over in Iran in 1979, the gulf between Sunni and Shia, which was always there, has been greatly aggravated and I fear that younger generations identify themselves much more as Sunni and Shia.
Following the riots in 2011, the Bahraini Government set up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, with some very significant international figures running it. An independent report was produced and the recommendations made in it were all accepted by the Government, although the problem is that of translating them into reality. I think that the Government are doing a good job. If anyone doubts that, I would ask them to read my report and challenge or question it where necessary. What I felt was so positive about it was something that I have been arguing for over the past 10 to 15 years. I began to realise that the rule of law is infinitely more important to many of these countries than democracy. In the past it has been a mistake on the part of the West to think that somehow or other we can hand democracy out on a plate; we cannot. What people in these countries are often looking for, apart from jobs and a decent economy, is justice and fairness. The rule of law is what brings that about. It is important.
The Bahraini Government are focusing on that and we were all very impressed by the efforts being made both within the prisons and outside with the police and the judiciary to modernise their approach. I do not have the time to do so, but I could give the House the details of a number of things they are doing that make me feel confident that they are moving in the right direction. However, we must recognise that this has to be a slow movement. It is not easy for them because the proposals that the king and other members of the Government have made are not universally accepted throughout Bahrain. There is opposition to them and I was very sorry to see that members of al-Wefaq, the main opposition society but what we would call a political party, have actually resigned and refused to take their seats. Yet this is a country which has introduced universal suffrage for elections to the Council of Representatives for everyone over the age of 20. Obviously there are shortcomings in the structure, but I will say, as I said to members of al-Wefaq who I hope to see again shortly, that if they do not take part, they simply aggravate the position. They do not make it better. That is an important message and we in this House should be doing all we can to help the Bahraini Government with these matters. I hope that at some stage we might be able to offer a bit of help to some of these elected representatives on how to work with Select Committees and so on.
I also want to mention the role of Bahraini women, which brings me neatly on to Abu Dhabi because in both cases the role of women is rapidly improving. I met a number of women judges in Abu Dhabi and often the greater number of people attending classes at the university are women. They are becoming increasingly important to the economy and in society. The reason I got involved with Abu Dhabi was because I had a battle with the authorities over what I thought was probably an injustice which should have been resolved by the rule of law, but it was not. As a result, and to their credit, they asked what I would suggest. I said that a postgraduate course should be established in the university and that because the injustice had involved a Palestinian, there should be some outreach to Palestine. I am pleased to say that there is now a course at the University of Zayed being taken by some 26 Palestinians who are being funded in all ways by the Government of Abu Dhabi. I did that with the help of the head of mission for Palestine here and the British Foreign Office, which has been immensely helpful both here and in Palestine.
I hope that the course is continuing, although I have to say that I need to check on it again. However, I am pretty confident that it will do so. I tried to persuade the university to host an annual lecture on the rule of law, but I probably failed on that. There was one lecture but we have not had another. That is because one of the things I want to say—I will end on this note—is that if we can get people over there talking about the importance of the rule of law in order to bring about stability and allow the freedom to expand progressively, we will do a very great deal for the region without sounding too judgmental in how we speak about it.
My Lords, there are serious fissures in the worldwide alliance against ISIS and new hurdles in the sluggish race for peace in Palestine. History repeats itself with terrifying precision. Seventy years ago, the Warsaw rising of Poland’s military elite was brutally suppressed by the SS and the Wehrmacht. It lasted for 63 days and claimed nearly 250,000 victims. Yet in all that time, the Red Army stood idly by just across the Vistula. Anglo-American requests for aerial landing places were gruffly rejected.
Now, 70 years later, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, an authoritarian Islamist who all but dismantled the western and secular republic of Kemal Ataturk, at first denied his NATO allies air landing rights and land access, and refused to help the gallant Kurds defend Kobane against the ISIS hordes. Temporary and partial relief at America’s persistent urging was ultimately conceded, and it must be hoped that it is not too late. The Turkish leader apparently disapproves of the Kurdish defenders more than he does the barbarous ISIS, whose ambitious plans for an Islamic caliphate extending over most of the Middle East is of course a thorn in his flesh. But he distrusts the Kurds as he fears that they are on their way to achieving sovereignty. All this bodes rather ill for NATO, where Turkey fields the second largest army, and indeed it bodes ill for Europe.
Nor is the attitude of other Muslim allies towards ISIS quite clear. It can be assumed that the reigning families of oil, gas and cash-rich countries such as Qatar support the American-led alliance, yet hugely rich individuals and groups in those countries are known to finance ISIS quite substantially. We have the absurd and surreal situation in which money flows from Qatar at the same time to pay for cultural programmes on American television networks and vivisection on the Mesopotamian battlefields. Reliable sources such as refugee priests relate that some of the female slaves of ISIS from their Christian communities end up in harems or worse in member countries—I repeat: member countries—of the anti-ISIS alliance.
It may be worth mentioning that there is now a Jewish initiative to provide help on a significant scale for persecuted Christian children in the embattled territories of the Middle East. They are to be given shelter in Christian homes in the free world, in the spirit of Pope John Paul Wojtyla’s famous verdict: the Jew is the older brother of the church. I feel that there are indeed links between the war against ISIS and the peace of Palestine. The campaign to recognise a Palestinian state prior to conventional negotiations between the parties, with a definite view to establishing peace and reaching a viable two-state solution, is an extremely dangerous and negative development because, in spite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said earlier, it puts Hamas, a terrorist organisation, into the limelight, rendering it a decisive factor, when it is indisputably and recently on record as saying that it wishes to destroy the Jewish state of Israel. Its joining of the Cabinet of the more moderate Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has already caused a stiffening of attitude and coarsening of language on his part. Far from bringing the parties closer together, this widens the gulf and encourages intransigence on both sides.
The Gaza campaign was not a routine punitive expedition. To Israelis, it was an existential necessity to prevent the ever-increasing and increasingly effective rocket campaign from burgeoning into a decisive war, endangering major cities and the country’s one main airport. Those of us who lived through the Second World War know what aerial warfare can mean and what it meant to people living in Coventry, Berlin and Dresden; they will understand what has happened in Gaza. That Hamas did not hesitate to practise a policy of human shields cannot be denied. I have been shown the layout of a typical residential house in Gaza where the roof had special facilities for snipers, the ground floor ample space for arms and the cellar extended into tunnels, ready for a breakout of jihadists. In between those were two, or sometimes even three, residential floors housing families with several children. To exculpate Hamas from risking human lives is an absurdity when you consider its constant reliance on suicide bombing, where so often parents send their own children up into the air. There must be other ways of bringing the parties to the conference table than presenting one side with a fait accompli.
Many unsung examples of serious economic and social initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians exist, and could be greatly expanded. There is still much good will, and a majority for a negotiated peace and a two-state solution, among the people of Israel. While today war is raging in large parts of the Middle East, Israel’s military situation is safe. There are also, as we have heard before, signs of serious rethinking in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco about the future of the Middle East. We in Europe, and particularly here in Britain, should support and guide all forms and forces of conciliation.
My Lords, I am very privileged to follow the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, and to welcome him back to the House. I have always been in some ways one of his pupils. All that I have known about Israel has come out of his mouth in one form or another.
I suffer from a difficulty here. For many years I was chairman of the Committee for Middle East Trade. I thought that in this great debate we would be talking more about trade. It seems that nobody has mentioned this at all. The Middle East as such is one of our greatest potential markets. As is written in the Koran, it is the duty of every good Muslim to trade. When I was that committee’s chairman, it was long before the Government decided to get rid of the Board of Trade and change the name of everything to a word that I cannot remember—it is called BIS, which is totally inexplicable to many people abroad. We have to look at our balance of payments and our trade with the Middle East, which has been considerable.
We have not really mentioned today oil revenues from the Middle East countries, and their application and use. Turning to Iraq, I have one suggestion that was made to me when I was last there on my own: what could we do to re-establish NIOC, or the equivalent of the National Iranian Oil Company, which could be one of the biggest oil companies and for a brief period was partially owned, I believe, by the United States, BP and others. With the potential production of oil in Iraq, vast funds could be released and applied in an appropriate direction.
The same is true to some extent of the countries of north Africa—even moving right across to Mauritania, which is one of the biggest iron ore-producing countries in the world. We have made no mention today of their oil revenues or purchasing powers. We look too at the co-operation that could exist between Libya, Algeria and, through them, with France.
How can we help develop and finance trade with the Middle East that can produce the revenues that it may need to rebuild various disabled societies? It is not too difficult. With the ability of the ECGD and some of the government grants, there are great opportunities. The difficulty is that when there is fear about personal security, people are reluctant to travel.
The Koran, as I said, says that it is the duty of every good Muslim to trade. Trade therefore is important, but it seems not to be mentioned any more. It is as though trade in this country has gone below the salt. We have organisations that one cannot necessarily understand, such as the one spelt BIS, but for the international world trade becomes more important. It is the lifeblood of the United Kingdom. Our ability to fund things is quite significant. Within the United Kingdom we have resources of finance that are second to none in the world. Our difficulty is how to identify the projects that we need to pursue.
I have one simple example. I got into trouble one day when we had what was called the Salman Rushdie affair. I was asked if I would be willing to go to Iraq. I was chairman of the Committee for Middle East Trade and I assume the Government could not think of anyone who would be allowed to go. I went to see the Iraqi ambassador, who did not want to see me. Still, I pressed the buzzer outside and asked, “Ambassador, if you are listening, I have been asked if I could go to Baghdad—do you think that this is a good time?” I waited a moment and got an answer, which was “Your Excellency, the answer is yes”.
I got on a British Airways plane and went off to Baghdad. Half way through the flight the pilot, who was a New Zealander, came down and sat beside me, and said, “Well, sir, we have a bit of a problem. We have just had a message from headquarters that the Prime Minister in his office in the House of Commons is seeing Salman Rushdie. Is this going to cause you any problems? You are the only British subject on board. If you like we could turn the plane round and go back”.
One can be a coward without having to admit it. The plane got in touch with the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office said that all was quiet there and we found that the ambassador was at the residence, which is outside Iraq. I supposed that I had better go. The plane said that I would be surrounded with British Airways staff when we get there. I asked, “Are they all British?” The answer was that none of them was.
I went out of the plane, rushed through, and was waved through straightaway. They all seemed to know that I was coming. I then met a hooded lady—I would call her a singing nun—who looked me up and down, and she said: “Hello, Malcolm. How nice to see you. How is your sister Gail?” I never knew who she was, but apparently they had been in the same lacrosse team some time before. The next thing that I knew is that I was sent off up to Isfahan in a private plane to sit with the mayor who wanted to know if we could help with the beautification of the city. It did not have any roses, and roses were important. He then introduced a fining system. This was with British technology from London. People were fined a duck if they exceeded the speed limit, or stood upon a tree or a rose bed.
I found that I had a new vision of Iraq. In looking down at the things that they had done, I believed that it could be one of our great partners; there was a certain pro-British feeling about it. The same is true, even these days, in Sudan and in north Africa. The relationship that we have with so many of these countries is something upon which we can play.
I am grateful that this debate has taken place and I hope that action can be taken by the Government.
My Lords, they often say that in history if one avoids taking anecdotal experience and making it a generalisation, one is wise because it is dangerous to do so. There are many occasions when that it is true. But there are some occasions when the reverse is true.
I had the great honour and privilege of being one of the European Community official observers in the South African elections in 1994. I visited township polling stations—this was the first time that they had been set up. I went to posh polling stations in the white suburbs in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The clerk in charge of an important polling station in Weinberg, a wealthy Cape Town suburb that some colleagues in the House will know, was hard pressed because the other staff had not got there due to transport difficulties. The phone rang. He was dealing with people who were coming in to get their ballot papers. He asked me if I would answer the phone, and told me that there should be no politics; I should just give them the time of polling and the time that the station closed, and any other technical details.
A very grand, English-sounding voice in Weinberg said in rather a fierce way, “Young man, I do not know who you are, but I am coming down to vote in a general election today, as usual”. This woman had been told what she called a “very funny thing”: someone had told her that her maid could come down and vote as well. I replied, “Yes, madam—bring her down”. The woman asked: “What, in the same car?” I told her to bring her down in the same car if she was coming by car. She then asked: “Do you mean, through the same entrance?” I told her to come through the same entrance with the maid. She asked: “Are you sure?” I replied yes. I had been observing the scene, with voters coming in—black voters as well, registered to vote for the first time—and an hour and a quarter later this lady came in and thanked me for the advice. But she came in through the one entrance, arm-in-arm with her maid. The scales had fallen from her eyes. The anxiety, the fear of apartheid, had left her at that very moment. They went out good friends and they remained good friends afterwards, people who considered themselves equal for the first time—she was quite an elderly lady; it was a remarkable transformation—under the new law of a society that had been transformed by the intelligence, energy and long-range view of de Klerk, who was amazingly brave in that situation, coming together with the wonderful, heroic Nelson Mandela.
How do you achieve breakthroughism in the terrible continuing turmoil of Israel-Palestine, which is one of the main themes of today’s debate, because it is poisoning the atmosphere in both Israel and Palestine? I speak as a long-standing friend of Israel, ever since I first went there in 1970, with many years’ experience; with impeccable credentials, if I may add, as a person getting Soviet Jews out of the Soviet Union to make the Aliyah to Israel—some went to the United States instead; very unwisely, of course, but there it is—and helping them in other things as well. I dealt with the anniversary of the Kindertransport in Harrow, where we had a big commemoration with the Home Office Minister of State in those days, now the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who is not here today. Such things are wonderful occasions of reminiscence and memorialising all the suffering of the Jewish people and the reason for the existence of the state of Israel.
However, at the same time, there are two states there, two countries—and I call Palestine a country already; its recognition is long overdue. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for her comments on this matter, and embarrass her by praising her immense courage in leaving the Government because of the dreadful events in Gaza and the killing of large numbers of civilians, including many, many children. Break- throughism is possible if the people in those two great countries—Palestine smaller than Israel, of course, physically and in population—have the courage to seize the moment and come together in a dynamic future.
The main move has to come from the established state—the state of Israel—because that is more powerful than the weak, ailing semi-state of Palestine, struggling to become a state as soon as possible, with still a lower population if you take out Gaza for the moment. That can be done. I believe sincerely that it will be done. Israel is a wonderful country with a wonderful people but it has a lousy Government. This is the tragedy of the moment. They are not so much a lousy Government on internal matters—although there are some people in Israel on low incomes who complain about the economic situation there as well; so that shows it is a normal country—but the leaders and the foreign policy, in the need to seek reconciliation and friendship with the Palestinians, do not make the necessary moves.
Israel’s leaders must remove the poison of the settlements. I am very glad that the pro-Israeli speakers in this debate—the noble Lords, Lord Mitchell, Lord Turnberg and Lord Leigh, who is not here now—have referred to that as well. That must be dealt with; otherwise, there will be no movement. Israel is quite rightly an unbeatable state militarily. It has to be to protect its own citizens. But once you are the unbeatable military state, you have the strength to negotiate with the weaker partner and offer concessions. That is the solemn truth facing the Israeli leaders. Are they capable of facing up to it? Will they reach for the challenge as de Klerk and Mandela did in South Africa?
There should not be another comparison between South Africa and Israel-Palestine but there is, and this is my final comment. The Israeli settlement policy started by Sharon as Housing Minister, was a fatal, big mistake and lots of Israelis are upset about it and say so in Haaretz and B’Tselem and all those other very virtuous groups and newspapers in Israel that speak the truth about that country and its future survival and existence. Together they must now reach for the first step to accommodate the Palestinians by saying that the settlements will be removed, or, if some stay, they will be negotiated in free negotiations between the two. The Palestinians cannot respond as the weaker partner unless Israeli leaders do that. I do not think Mr Lieberman is capable of it; I am not sure about Netanyahu. I have my severe doubts. I do not think he is really, but there are others in that coalition grouping in Israel who are capable of these things. It is increasingly what the Israeli people know in their heart of hearts.
In an article I wrote six months ago for the English language quarterly newspaper in Berlin, the Jewish Voice From Germany, I paid tribute to the unique, magisterial contribution of the Jewish community to the welfare and the social, economic and financial development of this country. It is a very small community—only 300,000-plus people now, much smaller than our Muslim population coming from all different countries—but because it did that, it is revered and respected and so will the Israeli Government leaders be revered and respected if they come together with the Palestinians. It can be done, and once they do shake hands and become friends, the two dynamic territories working together to create a near east common market, that transformation will be much quicker than anybody here can imagine.
My Lords, for almost two decades, one piece of received wisdom in particular has hovered over the subject we are discussing today. It has been received as wisdom in many departments of state and successive Governments of all political persuasions, as well as the Governments of many of our closest allies and friends. That piece of perceived wisdom is that all the problems of the region, all the troubles and challenges of north Africa and the Middle East, would be solved by a final border arrangement between the Government of Israel and that of the Palestinians.
That idea—that Israel is the key to unlocking all the problems of the region—was always absurd, not least because it ignored all the other terrible problems of the region. Would Yemen’s economy really boom if only Israel and the Palestinians came to a final status agreement? Would Saudi Arabia or Iran immediately become governed by nice, secular democrats? To ask the question is to answer it. The claim was absurd. Desirable though a final status agreement would be, it has nothing to do with the real and deep-seated problems of the region.
If we ever doubted that—and for years very significant figures in authority did—the beginnings of the Arab spring should have answered us. For when that happened, when the people of the region began to rise up against the tyrants of the region, they had many demands. The most potent were that they wanted a say in their own future; they wanted to share in the wealth, including the natural resources of their countries; and they wanted to have opportunities, a future and a say in how they were governed.
Of course, we know how badly much of that went. We know that in many cases those protesters were simply gunned down, imprisoned, tortured, executed or otherwise disappeared. We know that in some cases the revolutions were stolen from the liberals, who were too weak, by the extremists, who were too strong. In other cases, fragile, careful states have emerged. We will see how they do. But of all the crowds that came out, from Tunisia to Yemen and beyond, not one protested about Israel. Not one came out demanding a resolution in East Jerusalem. They came out asking for the rights that we in the West tend to take for granted but which they often seem light years away from achieving.
So what is the problem for the region? What are the solutions? They are not easy. In particular, there is no one key or one lock that will somehow magically address all the problems of a deeply troubled region. But if solutions are thin on the ground, they will at least become easier to comprehend if we accept one of the major factors of the region, which no discussion such as this can truthfully be held without—radical Islam. This year alone has presented an unusual amount of evidence to suggest that one of the overwhelming problems—if not the overwhelming problem—of the region is that presented by Islamic fundamentalism.
Earlier this year, we saw Boko Haram abducting hundreds of Christian girls in northern Nigeria for the crime of going to school and not obeying a fundamentalist Islamist interpretation which demands that girls must not undergo anything but an Islamist semi-education. Shortly afterwards, Hamas started the latest phase in its interminable and genocidal war against the world’s only Jewish state. Later in the summer, we watched as ISIS rampaged across Syria and Iraq, massacring, beheading and crucifying people as they went—not just anybody but all Muslims who do not share their fundamentalist worldview, Yazidis who refuse to convert to Islam, and all Christians who refuse to give up their faith and submit to Allah.
Sometimes it is Christians, sometimes Jews, sometimes Yazidis and very often it is other Muslims, but what we are seeing across north Africa, the Middle East and further afield is the same pattern. I do not say that these fundamentalist movements have everything in common: they often have disagreements. For instance, ISIS and Hezbollah are fighting each other in Syria, but they have far more in common than in difference. We cannot even begin to address the problems in the region unless we recognise that what we are dealing with is not simple. It is not about the old paradigms; it is about a region covered in many problems that can be helped on to the right track only if we—and they— admit to what they are up against. If we tackle the dominance of radical Islam, the region about which we are talking at least stands a chance of making a meaningful contribution to the 21st century, rather than retreating to a position more akin to Europe’s situation in the 17th century.
In the mean time, a certain amount of humble pie must be eaten in foreign policy establishments both here and in much of the rest of the world, for recent events have surely shown once and for all that Israel is not the cause of the Middle East's problems. Israel is pluralistic and technically advanced. It is a world leader in medical research and information technology. It is 100% committed to human rights for all its citizens—Christian, Muslim, Arab and Jewish. It extends those rights and advances to its neighbours whenever it has an opportunity to do so. It is a society in which prosperity is shared as much as anywhere else in the world. It is a society with all the complexities of a democratic Government and all the rigours of an independent and powerful supreme court. There is no country in the world that could claim better governance. Yet this is the country in the Middle East that many people have spent recent years trying to defame. So let it be said clearly here, and for all time, that Israel is not the problem for the Middle East. Rather, it is an exemplar and a proof of solutions to those problems.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating this most welcome debate. I also declare a long interest in Turkey, stretching back politically over 30 years, so I will start my speech with a word about that country.
There are many misconceptions. First, there seems to be a misconception that the problems between the Kurds and the Turks are of recent origin; they go back at least to Ataturk. Indeed, the present Government in Turkey have initiated discussions with the Kurdish population that have gone some way to solving at least some of the outstanding problems. We must remember that the PKK is still listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, the European Union and NATO as well as by Turkey itself. That therefore adds considerable problems to how Turkey deals with a number of the problems on its border, particularly the problem of Kobane.
Let us be clear: the Turkish Government have spent some $4 billion on aid for refugees in this conflict. They have allowed 200,000 citizens of the Kobane region to come into Turkey to live. Carol Batchelor, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey, was recently quoted as saying that, when it came to saving lives,
“the UN could not catch up with Turkey”.
They have, in other words, done extremely well with the cards that they have got.
Saving Kobane is part of a much bigger and widespread problem. The present Prime Minister, who was Foreign Minister, and the present President, who was Prime Minister, have both addressed this in great detail. One of the problems that Turkey has is that it seems to have made an enemy of absolutely everybody. It has crucially made an enemy of President Assad. I think that we have to start being realistic about Syria. President Assad presided over a regime that was—shall we say—suboptimal, to be kindest about it. None the less, the country was a damn sight more stable then than it is today. People were not being killed in the streets. It is going to survive because it has the support of Russia and Iran; in the present mix-up in that area of the world, President Assad, I predict, is going to come through in the end. It is in our interests to look at that area and see what we can do to try to help Turkey to get back on good terms with the regime in Syria.
I now turn to another subject in the region, and that is human rights. I know that the Minister has recently received a letter from the TUC—I know because it sent me a copy of it—about the human rights situation in Iran, particularly the rights of trade unionists and workers in Iran. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how the Government propose to respond to that letter, because it seems to me that we have a different view of human rights: it really depends on who is violating them, does it not?
If you look at the British papers, you will see quite rightly the absolute outrage over recent beheadings. We all share that outrage, but somehow the newspapers avoided mentioning—maybe they mentioned it on days I did not read them—that more than 100 people have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia within the past 12 months. I am told by the Foreign Office that it makes quiet representations to Saudi Arabia about this, but those are not doing much good, are they? The Saudis are not taking much notice of these representations. We need to look a little more clearly at having a consistent view on human rights and the way we put our human rights case forward.
In short, we cannot rest back on applying a Treaty of Westphalia system to the rest of the world—that is, the system where you say, “Well, countries can do what they like within their borders. If we recognise them as a legitimate Government, they can go round beheading people and do what they like. We won’t intervene”. We cannot do that any more. We do not do it in the European Union. Given the amount of attention that we pay, quite rightly, to human rights in Turkey, it is ironic how little attention we pay to the same subject in many states not that far to the south.
In closing, I suggest that the situation may change in a way we did not really anticipate. The energy scenario, which has of course driven our relations with that part of the world for the past 100 years, is rapidly changing. Many people have not noticed that the United States is no longer a net importer of energy. Many people have not noticed—or, if they have noticed, they have not tied it together—that new technology and the rising price of energy makes it easier to recover energy. The discovery of new energy fields such as the one off Cyprus, the advent of fracking and the developments in physics—I declare an interest as a governor of the pension fund of CERN, which is the major physics laboratory in the world—will probably put the energy crisis behind us in the next 20 to 30 years. That might sound rather astonishing at a time when we are concentrating on it. Of course, this is not a debate on energy, but from all I have heard and seen the energy scenario is changing faster than we realise. As it changes, the need and dependency on the near and Middle East will change significantly to a point where, maybe, we can have some consistency in our approach on human and civil rights, so that we can look forward to a time when we might be able to stand a little taller because we adopt the same principles in dealing with all countries in that region.
My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating what has been a very interesting debate. I also must say how impressed I was by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Her courage, integrity and commitment to truth are a challenge to us all.
I serve as chairman of the Committee on Middle East Questions of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Its purpose is to try to persuade and encourage Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other. We recently decided in that committee that we cannot do our work meaningfully without looking at the region as a whole and we are extending our work in that way. Recently in Geneva, we had a very interesting round table. The noble Lord, Lord Risby, spent quite a lot of his rather important speech talking about Syria, as have other noble Lords. The Speaker of the Syrian Parliament was with us at our round table and made a contribution. I will quote from the official report of that—it is better as chairman that I stick to the official report. It said:
“The Speaker of the Syrian Parliament stressed that the Syrian People’s Assembly was the only legitimate body entitled to make statements about the situation in Syria and the Syrian people, who were paying a high price for the terrorist acts committed by ISIL, Al Nusrah Front and the Army of Islam. He added that if the world was serious about effectively combating terrorism, the international community would have to cooperate with Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Government was fighting terrorism but was stymied in its efforts by the support, funds and weapons supplied to terrorist groups by some western and Middle Eastern countries.
He referred to UN Security Council resolution 2170, which called for respecting the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. He emphasized that the Syrian Government rejected any regional intervention in Syria, especially the imposition of a buffer zone along its northern border, highlighting that the coalition had been formed outside the framework of the UN Security Council by countries that had contributed to the emergence of ISIL and the proliferation of terrorism.
The Speaker requested IPU support for a political solution to the conflict in Syria and for its national reconciliation efforts. He highlighted that Syria rejected any attempt to violate its sovereignty by forming new armed groups under the banner of a moderate opposition”.
I totally align myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said. I was one of those who was highly critical of Syria and its appalling human rights action—and, actually, this was reported absolutely outrageously across the world—but I think that we have to listen to what the Syrians themselves say. We must face up to that.
As that same round table—it was a very interesting occasion—the Deputy Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament also contributed. Here is another brief quote from the report:
“The Deputy Speaker … described the increasingly acute consequences of the regional conflict for Jordan. The basic population of 4 million had become 11 million with refugees from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The social and political impact of this was potentially highly destabilizing”.
We have talked a lot about the present situation and what in the past has led up to it, but if we are intelligent then we should be talking about the future. I put it to noble Lords that the refugee problem in this region will make many of the things with which we are grappling at the moment seem like child’s play. The political consequences are incalculably great.
It is fair to ask what I have learnt from my work on the committee. In the past 18 months I have made several visits to the region. I have been able to meet with the speaker of the Knesset, with President Abbas and others, and to have very important conversations which have deeply helped my own understanding. I have learnt that peacebuilding first of all requires—and this is difficult with all the pressures involved—the qualities of patience and persistence.
We must forgo the temptation to think that we can just manage peace, and have deadlines and get people to meet deadlines and enforce a peace. That does not work. A peace has to be grounded, and a peace that is grounded involves talk, negotiation and patience, as I have just said. It has to be inclusive; it is important to be talking to the people with whom it is difficult to talk, because they are key to the solutions. It is no good just picking the friendly, easy people to talk to. Anyone can do that and make agreements. That is why it has been so important to get around eventually to the view that Hamas is part of the solution and not just part of the problem.
It is also important to recognise that in these matters negotiations can too easily become the preserve of the negotiators. There is a sort of institutionalised game of negotiation. Fine work and great commitment go on in those negotiations, but we need wider understanding and wider concern among the wider public about the need for a settlement and for reaching accommodations. That means that we really should be promoting discussions between, for example, Israelis and Palestinians on issues of mutual concern, such as water or the problems and issues faced by women. We on our committee are determined to try to do something in that respect.
My convictions about the danger of counter- productivity have also been reconfirmed. Of course, so much of Israel’s behaviour is totally counterproductive and cannot possibly contribute to its long-term security. Equally, the firing of rockets into Israel was wrong, irresponsible and totally counterproductive.
I conclude simply with this. We must look at ourselves. It is no good reacting emotionally to young people—however misguided—who go off and fight with the cruel and horrible ISIS. Many of them become disillusioned; they want to come home. We should not stigmatise them and their friends and communities as somehow a threat to our future. The challenge is to win them back into our society, with rehabilitation and understanding. Young people make mistakes; they have always made mistakes. Our job is to win them back and integrate them, not to stigmatise them and thereby aggravate the problems in our own society.
My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition in this House, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating and securing this debate. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken in what has been a remarkable debate. I do not intend to cover even in broad terms the vast areas—both geographically and in terms of the issues—that this debate covers. No one who has heard the debate could be under any illusions about the many dangers and the many issues of great importance, the various and varied examples of man’s inhumanity to man and—yes—some examples, too, of hope. These issues and where they lead affect us in the UK just as much as they affect the world outside.
On many of these items I say straightaway that we are broadly in agreement with the Government. In this field above all others there can be no point in artificial or pretend disagreements for their own sake. Both for the good of the UK itself and for the way that we appear to the world outside, it is a positive when we do not disagree. However, when we do—and we will do on one important topic at the end of what I have to say—it is essential that we should say so and ask questions and test Ministers. If an Opposition fail to do that in a democracy, we are acting against the spirit of democracy and democratic government that distinguishes us from so many of the countries we have been discussing today.
There are a number of discrete subjects that I intend to address and a number of brief questions that I wish to put to the Minister. The issue of Palestine and Israel has taken up a huge amount of the debate today. It is a sore that has lasted such a long time and it could be argued that it is at the root of so many of the problems, disputes and unresolved issues that we have discussed.
I was very taken by the practical suggestion for helping Gaza made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. We should ask the Government to consider that very seriously. I pay tribute to the many brilliant, powerful and often passionate and committed speeches that we have heard from one side or the other on this issue. Who could not be moved by hearing the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi—who was an excellent Minister in this House with large responsibilities for, for example, faith and human rights in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and whom this House much respected as a Minister and much respects today—making her powerful case against government policy and arguing, among other things, for United Nations recognition of Palestine? My party, as she and the House know, voted for recognition in the House of Commons a few weeks ago. That is not an easy decision for a political party to make, but it was the right decision, and we very much hope the Government will follow suit—in a short period of time rather than a longer one.
And who could not be moved by the extremely powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, in defence of the idea of Israel, and by his plea for peace? It was a privilege to listen to him. Perhaps I may also mention what a privilege it is for all of us to hear the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld—sitting in his place today—and his words of wisdom.
It is vital for any Government in the UK, of whatever party, to take a balanced view on the Palestine-Israel question, however unpopular it makes them. We on our side feel that Her Majesty’s Government did not criticise Israel early enough or strongly enough during the recent Gaza war—if I can call it that. Hamas was an intolerable provocation to Israel and remains so, of course, but a legitimate question can be asked: did Israel’s reaction result in the unnecessary death of too many innocent citizens?
I turn briefly—not because it is unimportant; it is vital—to the coalition against ISIL, which we debated in this House a month ago. Here, we do support the line that Her Majesty’s Government are taking and I pay tribute today, as others have, to those who have fought to protect Kobane, a medium-sized city, from the ravages of ISIL. We of course wish them success.
I want to concentrate for a moment on Turkey, as have the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and other noble Lords, and make a couple of points. First, it is obvious that Turkey is in a crucial position in the struggle against ISIL and much more besides. No one underrates the difficulties that Turkey faces in making these decisions, for historical and modern political reasons— I commend an article in the Guardian a few days ago by the new Foreign Secretary of Turkey which set out some of these difficulties. Ankara’s decision to allow the Kurdish Peshmerga to cross through Turkey to support the Kurds fighting ISIL in Kobane is important, demonstrating perhaps that Turkish policy on this issue is in flux and in part reacting to Kurdish protests and unrest. Secondly, as has already been pointed out, Turkey is facing a major refugee crisis, and its impact should not be underestimated. More than 1 million Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey. That is very significant as far as Turkey is concerned.
Turkey is also facing fundamental questions about its role in the region, as its soft power approach appears not to have succeeded. The new Prime Minister was the architect of recent foreign policy as Foreign Minister. It is incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government and on other Governments allied to Turkey, which is of course a long-standing member of NATO, to try to persuade Turkey to play the role that many of us feel it should in facing down ISIL.
I turn to the Lebanon, which has hardly been mentioned today. I visited it this month. Four million people have over the past 30 years known ghastly civil war, foreign military occupation and now a Government who, because they have to include representatives of different religions and factions, find it difficult to reach the required unanimous decisions. There is pressure, too, from extremist cells that manoeuvre and try to best one another in that small country.
The Lebanon now also has 1.3 million refugees from Syria—a population increase of one-fifth, just like that. These refugees do not live in refugee camps but settle where they can, often side by side with Lebanese citizens who are poor and unemployed. Syrian children have to be brought into the Lebanese education system. The numbers are such that the analogy could be made to all the schools in Birmingham and Manchester closing and all the children in those schools transferring into London schools. How would we cope? That is the position facing the Lebanese Government. I am very pleased that the British Council, with the help of the British embassy, has been absolutely in the forefront of a new programme with the Lebanese authorities to make it easier for teachers to be trained so that Syrian children can be taught. It is something we are doing practically, on the ground, in that country.
I turn briefly to Tunisia, which has already been discussed. The noble Lord, Lord Risby, mentioned it himself. It is one of the gleams of light in the rather dark picture that has been drawn today. We are all delighted that last Sunday’s elections have resulted in what seems to be a peaceful, democratic result with a proper transfer of power from one side to the other. That is not to be underrated. As has also already been stated, the country still faces enormous difficulties, with very high unemployment and the unfortunate fact that of all the countries that send, as it were, young jihadists to Syria, Tunisia sends the largest number.
I conclude, slightly more controversially, with the refugee situation in the Mediterranean. This does affect the debate because those refugees come from the Middle East and north Africa. To their credit, the Italian Government have successfully run the Mare Nostrum search and rescue scheme, saving 150,000 lives in the last year and a bit. The European Union is, as we understand it, to stop search and rescue from the day after tomorrow. This is an agreement that the British Government have signed up to. FRONTEX will operate only within 30 miles of the Italian coast and will not conduct search and rescue missions. This will of course mean that many more men, women and children die in their desperate journey to Europe.
The justification for this change of policy is that it will somehow deter would-be refugees from undertaking the journey in the first place. It seems to me that this justification is spurious and morally repugnant. It is wrong in practical terms because desperate people fleeing their homeland will not be put off taking the risk themselves. I am sorry to have to put it so strongly but, in moral terms, it represents a view that human life is so cheap that it is satisfactory to turn a blind eye to those in danger. Jonathan Swift would have known how to satirise this change of policy.
In our view, the Government should stand back and ask themselves this question: is this a path that Britain, with its proud record of protecting people in trouble, wants to go down? Of course there is a massive problem for us and the EU to tackle—often with the countries from which these people come. This solution should not be acceptable to this House or the country. I know that the noble Baroness has a lot to answer in her 25 minutes. She is a Minister widely respected in this House. Will Her Majesty’s Government please reconsider this policy as a matter of urgency? It is not worthy of our country.
My Lords, I of course add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Risby on securing the debate today and on attracting such a significant audience, not only those who have taken part but those who have listened to the debate. It has been wide-ranging and I certainly am grateful for the important contributions from around the House.
North Africa and the Middle East face immense challenges. We have heard that in detail. As has been hinted at by colleagues around the House, a number of those issues merit their own debate: Syria’s horrific war; ISIL’s appalling atrocities and the refugee crisis that it has created; and the need for reconstruction in Gaza and a comprehensive solution to that. My noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger was right to remind us of the impact of violence and conflict on women and children. I agree with her that it is vital that we always take them into account in any and all negotiations we enter into to resolve conflict.
The region matters to the UK’s security and prosperity. It is crucial that we counter the threat from terrorist extremism, we build our energy security, as my noble friend Lord Balfe said, and we sustain and grow our bilateral trade, as my noble friend Lord Selsdon stressed. That already is worth about £35 billion annually. As my noble friend Lord Kirkwood said, it is important for us to do business even in difficult areas such as Iraq.
In the long term, our security and the security of the whole region of north Africa and the Middle East depends not only on managing the immediate crises and threats but also on tackling the grievances which the extremists exploit. These grievances—the deficits in political and economic governance—are embedded and well documented. We need to support those in the region who are pursuing political stability based on open, inclusive political systems and economies. This is not only about addressing threats: in the longer term we will need to support a more stable and economically successful region.
On a daily basis, we hear accounts of human rights abuses, including those against religious minorities of all backgrounds. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, reminded us of that in graphic detail. Let me be clear: the UK condemns in the strongest terms possible any instances where individuals are persecuted or made to leave their homes due to their religion or belief. We believe in the importance of fundamental freedoms and the need to tackle human rights abuses, not only to help end the cycle of violence but because they are important building blocks for a prosperous and stable society. My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about Iran and a particular letter from the TUC. I will shortly provide a full response to him, but I can say immediately that the UK strongly believes in the right of freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions.
We are proud in this country of remaining at the forefront of our humanitarian response in the region. Let me immediately tackle one point raised at the end of the debate—as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said, controversially—about the Mare Nostrum policy which had been adopted a year ago by Italy with regard to the way in which it sent out a search-and-find operation using its navy across the Mediterranean. We made it clear today—my honourable friend Mr Brokenshire has said—that it is inconceivable to suggest that if a boat were in peril support would not be provided. It is a despicable mark of traffickers that any of this happens.
The people who are evil here are the traffickers who take people’s dignity, their money and their background. They give them false promises, they get them into debt, they hire a rusty bucket that they know cannot make the journey, and they load people at sea. Reports say that they give them a mobile phone so that they can phone the Italian navy. Whether that is true or not, this is a despicable trade and we need to unite in the fight against that and deal with the humanitarian aid, to which I know my Government are absolutely committed.
We remain at the forefront of the humanitarian response in the region. Our total humanitarian funding for Syria and the region is now £700 million, more than three times the size of our response to any other humanitarian crisis. This is making a real difference, providing shelter, blankets, and clothing for more than 300,000 people; water for up 1.5 million; and more than 5 million monthly food rations last year.
My noble friend Lady Berridge asked about refugees—the Yazidis, for example—being able to go back to their homes. She asks a broader question: what is it for all refugees to go home, some of whom are away from what they consider home for decades, and when they go back they have a difficulty recognising it? It is a decision they should be able to make, but a decision against the background of a peace and stability that we try to help to provide.
Efforts to address the region’s challenges have to be led principally by the regions of north Africa and the Middle East. But we do have an important role to play. I was deeply impressed today by the way in which so many Peers, including my noble friend Lady Falkner, the noble Lords, Lord Hylton, Lord Sacks and Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, addressed the philosophical background. How do we overcome extremism? Where has it come from? What challenges does it give us as individuals as well as societies? There has been the growth of Salafism—not the peaceful Salafism we see in Saudi Arabia, but the extreme, violent Salafism that has suddenly broken out elsewhere. I shall certainly take away with me the words of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, that we need to let go of hate.
We need to support our partners to tackle conflict and better manage the threat that violent extremism poses to their people—and indeed to ours. We need to help them put in place what the Prime Minister has called the building blocks of open and inclusive societies: the rule of law, a free media, parliamentary reform, and the structural economic reforms to create growth and jobs. That is why we are continuing to reform and work on the conflict work with the Arab partnership and the Government’s conflict pool. That is why we are working closely with international partners, including key partners in the region. My noble friend Lady Berridge asked whether we have the skills for that and asked what training we are doing. With regard to staff, the FCO holds a one-day freedom of religion or belief training course every three months. It is open to all government staff. Since January 2013, of the 107 attendees, one-third have come from other government departments, including DfID and MoD.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh was right to describe the historical context in which all this has developed, as indeed was the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld. It is important to hear, from those who have lived it, what that history is. It gives it extra vibrancy. The noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Anderson, reminded us that the Arab spring started in Tunisia four years ago. Since then the country has indeed made striking process with the development of the political systems needed to bring longer-term stability. I echo the Foreign Secretary’s congratulations to the Tunisian Government and people on the legislative elections held there last Sunday. However, success is fragile and needs continued support. We will continue to provide that support in a number of ways.
It is important that, throughout this, when we see successes we continue to support those who are still facing severe challenges and finding it difficult to move forward. My noble friend Lord Risby referred to Algeria. He rightly mentioned the work that we are doing in partnership with Algeria on several issues. I pay tribute to his successful work as the Prime Minister’s envoy for economic partnership with Algeria. We want to keep improving our co-operation with Algeria across a range of interests: security, defence, trade, prosperity, English language and higher education.
Libya, of course, continues to have difficulties. We want to continue working with our international partners to support the Libyan people. As an important first step, we need an inclusive political settlement. At the moment it is in great difficulty, but the Prime Minister’s envoy to the Libyan political transition, Jonathan Powell, is working with the UN special representative on this.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, referred to Egypt. I am grateful to him for bringing out the aspects that he did. It remains an important and influential country in the region and we clearly want it to succeed. We continue to provide practical and serious support to help it achieve a more prosperous and democratic future. We are working in partnership with reformers and others to reduce the economic difficulties and to tackle the immediate security threats. We are Egypt’s largest foreign investor. To foster Egypt’s development, we want to continue our support beyond technical reform assistance, to education, research and scholarships.
However, at the same time, we are urging Egypt’s leaders to implement the rights contained in Egypt’s constitution, including protecting the right to freedom of expression and association, and to lead the country towards more open and democratic governance, underpinned by strong and accountable institutions, as the noble Lord explained in his speech. We will speak up on cases that threaten these principles, whether it is mass death penalties in Minya, the prosecution of journalists, the detention of people engaging in peaceful political expression, or restrictions on NGO freedoms.
I turn to the Gulf, where the UK enjoys deep relationships based on our shared background in the area over the years. More than 160,000 British people currently call the Gulf home. It is one of our largest global export markets, and Gulf states continue to invest heavily in the UK. We work with our allies on a wide range of vital issues, from energy security to defence, with UK assets stationed in the region and providing military training expertise. We value enormously our close work with Gulf partners on many of the challenges that I have mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the difficulties in this area. My noble friend Lord Lamont talked about individuals and funding in Qatar. I will come to that shortly. My noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, spoke about Bahrain.
My noble friend Lord Lamont asked about the funding of extremist groups in the Gulf states and what the Governments are doing. I can say that we welcome the steps that the Gulf Governments are taking to address the threat, but we are encouraging much greater progress on that to prevent terrorist financing from the individuals. I know that my noble friend is not saying that the Governments are doing the funding; the difficulty is preventing the individuals. It is important that legislative vehicles are put in place to prevent those transfers of funds. We have what is called an “honest and robust” conversation; I have taken part in one, and I can say that it is both honest and, certainly, robust.
On international affairs, yesterday my right honourable friend the Prime Minister met the Emir of Qatar. They discussed the role that both countries are playing in the coalition to tackle ISIL. In particular, the Prime Minister welcomed the recent legislation passed in Qatar to prevent terrorist funding and looked forward to the swift implementation of these new measures. They also agreed that both countries should do more to share information on matters of concern. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, also raised that.
My noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, raised the issue of Bahrain where human rights defenders have played a brave role. I welcome the announcement by His Majesty of the legislative elections on 22 November. It is unfortunate that the opposition al-Wefaq has decided not to participate. We are certainly supportive of the reforms under way in Bahrain. We commend the steps taken by the Government there to implement the recommendations set out in the independent commission of inquiry. As outlined in our recent human rights case study report on Bahrain, progress has been made in a number of areas, but there is more to be done. We shall keep up the pressure.
Two areas attracted the most attention of noble Lords—for natural reasons of security and interest of this House. First, I turn to the situation we face across Iraq and Syria. We know from the past few months how desperate the situation has been for those living there as they face an enemy which knows no shame, no morality and no religion in the way in which it indiscriminately murders, beheads and crucifies people in its way. My noble friend Lady Falkner tried to give a background as to why it is not Islam we should blame for this. I appreciate the thoughtful way in which she presents her views; they are always a pleasure to hear.
ISIL fighters have carried out appalling atrocities. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and they operate freely in much of Syria and Iraq, posing a threat to the UK and to the stability of the wider region. My noble friend Lady Nicholson said that they should not be able to have impunity—they should not get away with it. Yesterday, I gave a speech at a meeting at which we were talking about international humanitarian law. I agree with her that impunity is not something we should have as a resource so that, if there is a difficulty, we can let people get away with it. Where there is potential genocide of the Yazidis, we have a long-standing commitment to the importance of accountability. We welcome the commitment of Prime Minister al-Abadi to holding to account those responsible for any atrocities. We look forward to supporting any work which sees those commitments translated into action. We are a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court but any decision to involve the ICC must be made on the basis of whether the court would prove to be an effective means of bringing the perpetrators of those atrocities to justice.
Throughout the difficulties in Syria and Iraq, we have made it clear that air strikes alone will not defeat ISIL but they—and other actions that we have been taking—show our resolve to degrade and ultimately to defeat ISIL. We will proceed carefully, working in lockstep with our partners to deliver a comprehensive plan. We are taking military action in Iraq and, along with other noble Lords, I pay tribute to our superb Armed Forces who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. We support air strikes in Syria conducted by the United States and our Gulf allies. We heard from several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Nicholson and Lord Kirkwood, and the noble Lords, Lord Kalms and Lord Judd, about these matters. I was intrigued that my noble friend Lord Kirkwood made it clear that we need to concentrate on commercial engagement as part of the solution to the problem of stability. He asked why we do not have an Iraqi business group to lead commercial engagement with Iraq. British business is engaging in Iraq and there is some notable success despite the difficult environment. As my noble friend knows, earlier this year the Prime Minister appointed my noble friend Lady Nicholson as trade envoy to Iraq. I have never doubted either her courage or her determination to achieve success.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood also asked about visas, which were referred to obliquely by one or two other noble Lords. We opened a visa application centre in Baghdad in 2013 and have opened mobile centres in Erbil and Basra, which means that applicants no longer have to travel to Oman to obtain those visas. However, I appreciate that some individuals still face considerable security problems and difficulties in getting the relevant documents.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked whether we agreed with his analysis of the new Iraqi Government of al-Abadi being more inclusive, and said that we should support that. I absolutely agree with him. Al-Abadi has shown his willingness to include significant appointments from the country’s main Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities. That is most welcome. He has committed to reforms, including decentralising power, reforming and restructuring the security forces and improving relations with Iraq’s neighbours. However, I have no illusions. This is an encouraging start but we have a great struggle ahead in which we need to maintain the good will of the British public. When we had a Statement on this matter a couple of weeks ago, I spoke of a time when the red-top newspapers no longer have this issue at the top of their reports and when the news bulletins about it on the radio and on Twitter start to decline. We do not need to give publicity to ISIL but we do need to strengthen the resolve of our colleagues around our country that we are doing the right thing in undermining ISIL and, ultimately, defeating it for the security of that area and for that of our own country.
I wish to refer briefly to Turkey as the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Bach, and my noble friend Lord Balfe mentioned very properly the role that Turkey has played and can play. We are very grateful to Turkey for its humanitarian effort. Over the past 48 hours it has been working out in a helpful way how to adjust that. Clearly, it is a crucial partner for all of us in our counterterrorism work. I know that Turkey has difficulties with the Kurdish region because of the PPK issue but it is working as hard as it can to be a very effective partner in the degrading and defeat of ISIL. The noble Lord has been to Lebanon and he was right to remind us of that country, which has borne so much of the brunt of the humanitarian aid. What a brave country. It has absorbed people who now form a great proportion of its population. We stand firmly by Lebanon’s side and offer full support, assistance and training to the Lebanese armed forces in their struggle.
My noble friend Lord Avebury mentioned Yemen. I pay tribute to our embassy staff and FCO staff who travel there on a regular basis to give assistance in that country. They face great personal danger and we are grateful for all that they do. My noble friend is right to point out the danger to human rights.
Noble Lords have referred to Iran. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, reminded us that we should not forget about Iran when we are concentrating on ISIL. My noble friend Lord Lamont asked what would happen if a deal with Iran fails? We will not let it fail. I suggest that he looks in detail at the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.
Obviously, we have discussed the Middle East peace process in detail before. We had contributions today from my noble friends Lord Risby, Lady Warsi, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, Lord Cope of Berkeley, Lady Tonge, Lord Leigh of Hurley and Lord Dykes, and from the noble Lords, Lord Sacks, Lord Mitchell, Lord Turnberg, Lord Weidenfeld, Lord Kalms and Lord Bach. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, provided us with a list of practical suggestions about how to rebuild Gaza. I would like to reflect on that further.
Noble Lords asked whether our policy on Gaza and Palestine has changed. Our policy is clear: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel, living alongside a viable sovereign Palestinian state. We are urging both parties to show leadership and a commitment to return to dialogue. I realise of course that the dialogue has broken down; the terrorist attacks in Sinai on 24 October have prevented that dialogue. However, we are making every effort to ensure that that is recommenced as soon as possible. The process has not failed; it will continue.
We are also urging both parties to avoid all actions that undermine the prospect of peace. That is why we were particularly disturbed when Israel brought forward advanced plans for 1,060 new housing units in east Jerusalem. We consider that to be an ill judged and ill timed decision, which makes it harder to achieve a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital. Such announcements make it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend it against accusations that it is not serious about peace.
The EU sanctions remain in place. I was asked about those by my noble friend Lady Warsi. We have consistently made it clear through the EU that there will be consequences to further announcements on settlement. Discussions are under way in Brussels at this moment on what further measures the EU could take to discourage any further settlement expansion, including in Givat Hamatos, E1 and Har Homa. The EU is working closely with other member states to that end.
A one-off recognition of the state of Palestine is not something that we wish to pursue at this stage. We are saying clearly—as I did last week and the week before—that negotiation is the way forward. We want to recognise Palestine, but we want to do so when there has been an agreement with both sides that we end up with two states that can live alongside each other. In the mean time, it is important that the agreements reached so far in Egypt are being put in place. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Hilton, that the fishing limit is indeed in place.
I know that we will return to this subject in depth again and again. I will be debating it with many colleagues off the Floor of the House in another venue next Tuesday morning and I am looking forward to that.
My Lords, I say in all humility that it was the greatest privilege for me to be able to introduce this debate because of the quality of the contributions we have heard today, which have reflected such astonishing knowledge, interest and passion about the region, to which we are all committed. As I listened to the speeches, I wondered how many parliamentary Chambers in the world could have held a debate in this way and so effectively. It was remarkable.
In terms of expertise, we heard contributions about Iran, Egypt, Iraq and other countries which reflect this so admirably. I pay tribute also to our diplomats, who have to work in very difficult circumstances sometimes, and to those engaged in humanitarian relief in different countries in the region. Our history dictates, whether it was the Balfour Declaration, Sykes-Picot or our colonial experience, that we will continue to have involvement, because this is such an important part of the world.
On the Israel and Palestine situation, wherever we come from, all we want is for the security of the Jewish people in Israel to be assured and the dignity of Palestinians to be recognised. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their magnificent contributions, not least the Minister, who summed up so brilliantly and comprehensively and is destined richly to contribute to all our debates on foreign affairs in the months to come.