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5.52 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who has again demonstrated his passion and knowledge of this subject. Whenever middle east matters are debated, one cannot fail to be struck by the depth of feeling, experience and knowledge that is

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consistently displayed. That has been borne out so far today. There was a remarkable consensus between members of both Front Benches, and we are privileged to debate in relative calm, which is currently foreign to those who live in Israel.

We are debating a genuine crisis. As the Prime Minister said last week:

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton has shown that. The Prime Minister continued:

Despite the variety of views that are likely to be expressed, I agree with that.

Although I speak as chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, I shall try to argue as even-handedly as I can. It must be obvious to all that, whatever our views, if we call on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories and on the Palestinian Authority to tackle the terrorism of the suicide bombers, we also must try to understand the viewpoints of both sides. It helps no one for us to replicate here arguments, the results of which we condemn in the middle east, without at least attempting to understand others' points of view. This time, the messages are not mixed. Both sides must exercise restraint and put an end to violence.

As chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel for the past four years, I have visited Israel several times. I have had the opportunity to meet members of the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority, our ambassadors and consuls in Israel and Israeli ambassadors in Britain. It would be safe to say that my views do not differ from those of my counterpart, the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), who is in his place and from whom we may hear later. I have frequently hosted meetings with him for the Jewish community and others when Israeli politicians have visited the House.

Others have described circumstances in the Palestinian areas, notably the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), whose memories are so fresh and raw. I should like briefly to describe the state of mind as I perceive it—perhaps from the outside—of people living in Israel, not only now but since the state of Israel was established.

We do not remind ourselves frequently enough that Israel is a tiny country, one third the size of the state of Florida. It has been said several times that it is a democratic state, where politics are fiercely argued and as vehemently valued. It is surrounded by much larger nations, some of which make no secret of their violent opposition to its very existence. Its only international airport is in easy rocket range of potential aggressors, as are its major cities and its main highway. It has been invaded by its neighbours three times in living memory: in 1948, 1967 and 1973. During the Gulf war, it was a target for Scud missiles. It is no place for the paranoid.

The escalation of terrorist suicide bomb attacks in the past few weeks has created fear and dread for people who are trying to live their lives. In the wake of the events of

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11 September, the Israeli Government believe that they are justified in claiming that their military action is intended to root out terrorism. They also claim that documents recovered from Palestinian camps prove links between terrorist attacks, those sustaining the terrorists and Chairman Arafat.

David Horovitz wrote in The Independent on 11 April:

Furthermore, Israelis feel overwhelmingly strongly that although Israel as a democratic state can deliver a ceasefire, Chairman Arafat cannot deliver an end to the suicide bombings as a quid pro quo. That is a major blockage to a peaceful solution. However, I believe that Chairman Arafat's recent condemnation of suicide bombings is welcome. The importance of guarantees cannot be overstated.

Israel, in its current preoccupation with its security and the rightness of its cause, must take note of international opinion. As the Foreign Secretary said, 450 Israelis have died in the current conflict, but 1,300 Palestinians have died and 1 million Palestinians have been living under curfew. The world has seen the terrible destruction of Jenin.

In this country, we have suffered the terrible insecurity caused by terrorist attacks and bombings. We know what they can do for national confidence. However, there must now be movement on both sides. Israel must withdraw from Palestinian Authority territory and terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians must cease. Arab states must recognise publicly the right of the state of Israel to exist, and there must be a reciprocal agreement on the way forward for Palestinians.

In one sense, tragically, things have gone backwards since the Camp David agreement when, under the leadership of Prime Minister Barak, a deal was on the table. For whatever reason—one has been adduced this afternoon—Chairman Arafat could not accept that deal. The non-acceptance of the deal has, understandably, increased cynicism in Israel as to whether Mr. Arafat can deliver any agreement. The fact that Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative is consonant with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 1397 represents some indication of a possible political way forward.

It must be clear to everyone, however, that military or terrorist solutions are not the way forward. Nor can those acquainted with the situation endorse the view that Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat can, as a result of international pressure, somehow just shake hands and move straight on to high diplomacy. With passions running as high as they are, and with wounds so deep, it is not possible to think that they could, at this time, discuss the future of the settlements, the partition of Jerusalem, or the status of refugees. Those questions will have to be tackled, but only when there has been some sort of return to order and normality, when both Israelis and Palestinians can focus on the bigger picture.

For the moment, Prime Minister Sharon must give the world an end date for his incursions into the west bank, and the world must be given the facts about what has gone

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on in Jenin. Chairman Arafat must continue to make it clear that he condemns terrorist suicide bombings, that he endorses a ceasefire and that he will return to dialogue.

The question of guarantees for Israel is, of course, the nub of the problem for the Israeli Government, and it is one of the reasons why the Israeli military action seems to be set on defying world opinion. First must come an end to the violence. The international community cannot reiterate too often that, no matter how long the conflict goes on and no matter how many innocent lives are lost, the state of Israel will still be there, and so will the Palestinians. The players on the ground, however, are the democratically elected Israeli Government and Chairman Arafat. They must move.

6.2 pm

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): I welcome this debate. There have been calls from other speakers that we should be calm, and I respect that injunction. This Chamber can also be a place in which to express anger, however, especially when we see the injustice that we are witnessing now. There is anger on the streets in my constituency about what is going on. My Muslim constituents cannot understand why there are threats from America, backed by our Prime Minister, to attack Iraq while we are doing nothing about the massacre of Palestinians.

After supporting the Palestinians' calls for a homeland for so long, I have to ask whether there will ever be an end to the despair of the Palestinian people. In 1947, they were dispossessed of their homes, their land and their heritage. Seventy per cent. of their land had been taken by 1949, and the remainder was illegally occupied in 1967. Even in that remainder, settlements grow apace; there have been 34 more settlements since Sharon came to power.

The Oslo peace accord, signed in 1993, gave a glimmer of hope, as did Camp David. The reality, however, is that those on the right in Israel never accepted those agreements. They never wanted them. While Rabin was alive, and while Barak was in power, there was a road to peace. That was partially destroyed by the assassination of Rabin and the fall from power of Barak.

Mrs. Ellman: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Singh: I am sorry, I shall not have time.

The peace process has unravelled not because of Palestinian terrorism but because of the continued expansion of settlements in the west bank, and because those who succeeded Rabin never wanted that peace process. Sharon was elected on a ticket of peace and security, but he is presiding over a massive escalation of violence and killings. He is not interested in peace. He is interested only in destroying the Palestinian people and continuing the illegal occupation of the west bank and Gaza that has gone on since 1967. If anybody doubts what makes Sharon tick, they need only think back to the massacres at the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in the early 1980s. He is continuing that policy, as we are now seeing in Jenin.

Sharon calls this present invasion Operation Defensive Shield. He says that it is intended to destroy the infrastructure of terror. It is neither of those things. A suicide bomber does not need an infrastructure of terror.

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The truth is that this operation represents Israel's—Sharon's—reign of terror against the Palestinian people. Nobody wants to see the death of anyone on any side, but in the last 18 months, hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians have died, not counting the deaths in recent weeks.

Nobody supports suicide bombers, but we must ask what motivates a young girl to carry out such an act. What is the frustration and despair that makes her give her life? This is not an even battle. It is hard to be even-handed when the sides are not even. One side is an occupier; the other is an occupied people fighting against helicopter gunships, jet fighters and tanks. Against that, the Palestinians have only their lives to give. That is what creates the suicide bomber.

What is happening in the west bank is an atrocity. Why have journalists, aid organisations and human rights organisations been banned from Jenin? The answer is simple. It is because Sharon does not want us to know what has been going on there. The truth is emerging, however. It is a horrible truth involving civilians under siege and being murdered, their houses being reduced to rubble, assassinations, executions, gunship attacks, tank attacks and rocket attacks. The Palestinian people have not even been allowed to bury their dead.

The United States of America could have stopped this. I am sure of that. I wish that Bush junior had followed some of the examples set by Bush senior in trying to resolve this issue. It is clear, however, that the silence—until very recently—of the American Administration and the American President was a green light for Sharon. I am convinced that that green light existed, and I am convinced that that is why Sharon has not withdrawn now. He knows that, intrinsically, the American Administration support him.

Do not the United States Administration understand the danger to the region, or the danger to their own policies on the coalition against terror? Do they not also understand that, if Saddam Hussein is this great tyrant who needs to be removed—I do not support the latter proposal—there is a danger that that will never happen in the present circumstances? So much of the damage being inflicted now is going to take a long time to repair. The USA and the international community should hang their heads in shame for allowing this situation to develop for the Palestinian people over the last 35 years or so. Yes, Israel should be entitled to its security, but that question has moved on. The question now is: when will the Palestinian people be entitled to security? When will they be entitled to peace, a homeland and dignity?

The United States calls on Arafat to rein in the suicide bombers. Arafat is in a room somewhere without electricity, surrounded by tanks and machine guns. I do not know about him, but most people in that position would not be able to control their bowels, let alone suicide bombers. Bush's call on Arafat to control the suicide bombers is ridiculous. The infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority has been destroyed; security forces have been arrested and killed. In no way is Arafat in a position to do anything of that nature at present.

If Sharon's name were Milosevic, we would be acting now. If Sharon's name was Milosevic, we would be talking about war crimes and war criminals. It is time that the international community acted. It is time to give the

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Palestinian people a homeland and a home. It is time, now, for sanctions—economic and military—against Israel. It is time, for once, that we helped the Palestinian people.

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