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Lest we forget, there is another bleak and desperate situation in Gaza. Today and on many other occasions, there will be long and angry debates about the origins of this part of the crisis. But in the short term, let us understand that Israel had a right to respond to the kidnapping of its soldier. It is estimated that, since 28 June, the Palestinians have fired more than 150 home-made rockets towards Israel. For their part, the Israelis have fired more than 600 artillery shells into
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Gaza, and the Israeli air force has conducted 168 aerial bombings on the territory. People there are also living in terror.

One Israeli defence force soldier has been killed and 12 Israelis have been injured; 100 Palestinians, including 30 children have been killed, with 300 Palestinians injured. The bombing of Gaza’s central power station has deprived some 750,000 Palestinians of electricity, with terrible consequences for essential sewage and water systems. Other vital infrastructure has been destroyed, causing thousands to flee their homes. UN programmes such as schools and clinics have been damaged or destroyed. It is estimated that as many as 80 per cent. of Palestinian households are living below the poverty line. Beyond that, Israel has abducted members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including eight Ministers as well as other officials. Those and other detentions violate due process, are unlawful and should end.

In sum, the scale of the Israeli actions in Gaza are again disproportionate and amount to collective punishment. The world must respond, and so far the international reaction has been utterly baffling and depressing. Let us be clear about one issue in that respect: whatever the roles of outside Governments such as those of Iran and Syria in fuelling the conflicts, they must end. We cannot risk the broadening of this conflict across the region, and we must not allow a proxy war in the middle east. Those countries outside the region who have influence over those Governments must make that absolutely plain.

We must be absolutely clear that the first priority of the whole international community is to call for a ceasefire and to create the conditions in which it can be sustained. I do not understand the reluctance of the Government to describe Israel’s actions in clear terms as disproportionate. What is impossible to fathom, however, is our nuanced attitude to a ceasefire. Our relationship with America is fundamental in that regard. Whether real or not, even the perception that the United States Government are willing to give a green light to Israeli military action for a few more days is deeply damaging. Of course, if it is for real, it is utterly deplorable. For us to go along with that would be a disgrace.

Susan Kramer: Does my hon. Friend think that the Minister should address a phrase used by the Foreign Secretary, who essentially said that she did not wish to see the events in Lebanon and Gaza continue longer than is necessary. The term “necessary” should be explained, so that we understand what approval she is giving through its use.

Mr. Moore: I am sure that the Minister has heard that point.

Margaret Beckett: What I meant was that I would not wish to see the events continue for a second longer. I advise the hon. Lady not to read anything more than that into my words.

Mr. Moore: The Foreign Secretary has made her position abundantly clear.

Unfortunately, the divisions in the international community have been rather too obvious. Some of
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them are tactical, and many are longer term and as deep-seated as the unresolved peace process itself. Regardless of those divisions, surely there is now an imperative to overcome them and recognise the simple truth that, without a ceasefire there can be no prospect for peace on whatever terms. If that can be achieved, an appropriate UN force ought to have the support of all of us. Surely that must now be the priority for the Security Council. If the Quartet as an institution is to maintain any credibility, all its partners must be engaged as one, including the European Union. European Union countries have long-standing commitments to the region, as the level of aid from the EU and trade with Israel and the Palestinians demonstrates. We should make it clear that Israel has obligations under the EU association agreement, which it must fulfil. A middle east further destabilised by this conflict, or worse, will surely undermine the very security and freedom from threat that Israelis properly crave. As part of the broader process, we need to persuade Israel of that.

The broader peace process appears further away than ever, with the road map shredded and looking hard to repair, but we will have to make every effort in that regard. Ludicrous as the timetable in the original document now appears, it remains the main starting point. We will have to return to the need for Hamas to recognise the key principles—accepting Israel’s right to exist, adherence to the principle of non-violence, compliance with previous peace treaties and commitment to the road map. As the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out earlier, we need to highlight the fact that the construction of the barrier in Israel is a manifest violation of international law, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice. There must be a halt to ongoing settlement expansion on occupied territory, and illegal outposts need to be dismantled. There are many other legitimate, long-standing issues, which, I hope, can be addressed as soon as possible. I hope that Israel, as well as others, will observe all United Nations resolutions in full.

There are issues to be considered beyond the immediate crisis. As others have said, the situation in Iraq can clearly only be complicated by what is going on. Others have also mentioned the delicate situation in relation to the Iranian nuclear plans.

The Leader of the House said yesterday that the debate would be widely drawn, but there is a clear reason for it. Obviously many Members want to speak about what is happening in the middle east, but, in keeping with the spirit of what the Leader of the House said about revisiting the allocation of time for foreign affairs debates, may I ask for a debate to be scheduled soon after our return in October? Our eyes may be diverted at present, although we must pray that that is temporary; but the turning of our attention to Iraq and Iran is long overdue. As the Foreign Secretary’s final remarks about Doha and Darfur made clear, there is much else to debate.

While we debate, people continue to die or flee for their lives in the middle east. There must be a ceasefire: that is urgent. The soldiers must be returned, and a new peace must be kept. In all that, the international community has been making different efforts but remains divided. Those divisions must end if there is to be hope for the swift establishment of peace.

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4.13 pm

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I think we would all agree that all human beings should deplore the killing, injuries and destruction of infrastructure in Gaza, Lebanon and Israel. Leaders on all sides should note the warning from Louise Arbour, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, who has a distinguished record as a judge in Canada and as an international prosecutor. She warned yesterday that the scale of the killing in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories could involve war crimes. Hers is an authoritative voice, not to be swept aside. She made it clear that the obligation to protect civilians during hostilities was laid down in international criminal law, and concluded:

That would of course include the leadership of Hezbollah, but it would also include the Government of Israel.

I had the honour of working with Louise Arbour when she was an international prosecutor, trying to ensure that there was no impunity for those who had caused the genocide in Rwanda. She is a very considerable woman, and her analyses should be taken very seriously. I would love to think that leaders on all sides would be held accountable by the international community in the way that she suggests, and that if they were, the use of excessive force would be restrained; but we know from the record of the international community that that will not happen.

Israel has been in breach of UN resolutions for many years. It has also breached international law in building settlements in the Palestinian territories, in building the wall—not on the 1967 boundary, but taking in a large amount of Palestinian land—in carrying out targeted killings, in kidnapping Palestinians including members of the Government and holding them without trial, and in killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians. We should deplore the killing of any civilian—indeed, the killing of any person—but the number of Palestinian deaths is much greater than the number of Israeli deaths, and the number of Lebanese deaths is much greater than the number of Israeli deaths.

The way in which we talk suggests that we are saying that an Arab life is not as important as an Israeli life. That is profoundly wrong, but it is the balance of the discourse far too often, and it is the cause of the rage of the Arab and Muslim world. I also have no doubt that the massive killing of innocent Lebanese civilians and the destruction of infrastructure is so disproportionate that it too is a war crime, as was implied by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore).

What is the position of our Government? Does it follow the analysis of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? It does not; it follows what is called for by the United States in always backing up Israeli Government policy. The US denounces Hezbollah and Hamas and supports Israel’s right to defend itself in this way, and it blames Iran and Syria for Hezbollah’s actions, thus spreading the fear
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of a widening military action and encouraging the use of irregular forces throughout this very dangerous region.

In my view, our Government’s policy is so unbalanced and so disrespectful of international law and of the equal human rights of all people in the region that it inflames the situation, inciting large numbers of angry young Arabs and Muslims to the conclusion that there is no political route to justice. We know from history that where that view prevails, there is an increase in support for the use of violence by irregular forces. In my view, UK policy is not just unbalanced and morally wrong, but totally counter-productive and likely to increase the problem of terrorism, even though it is supposed to be a central feature of our foreign policy to try to constrain that threat.

There is, however, one point that the Prime Minister keeps making with which I agree. As soon as a ceasefire can be agreed to end the violence in Lebanon—it should be called for unequivocally and immediately, and Israel should not be allowed all this time to continue; it has obviously been licensed by the US Administration—it is essential to turn attention to the core problem that destabilises the middle east, which is the unbearable suffering, oppression and impoverishment of the Palestinian people.

The answer to that problem is a two-state solution based on 1967 boundaries, with east Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. That proposal—accepted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation at Oslo and outlined in the road map, to which the Prime Minister constantly refers—is a solution favoured by the majority of Israeli and Palestinian people. Let us be clear about that; it is undoubtedly the way forward. It is perfectly clear from all the evidence and all the facts on the ground that Israel does not accept the right of the Palestinian people to a state based on the 1967 boundaries with east Jerusalem as its capital. The road map and the chance of a two-state solution is evaporating before our very eyes. The Prime Minister constantly refers to the road map, but does nothing to bolster it.

Israel’s wall—not based on the 1967 boundaries, but taking in large swathes of Palestinian land—has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice, but nothing has been done about it. Israel’s massive settlements in the occupied territories are illegal in international law. If we also take into account the network of roads, the constant destruction of Palestinian houses, the domination of water resources and the containment of Palestinians, preventing them from travelling across their territory or trading with the outside world, it is quite clear that the terrible impoverishment and constant humiliation of the Palestinian people has been systematically put in place so that Israel can impose a unilateral settlement, as former Prime Minister Sharon and now Prime Minister Olmert acknowledge. Israel wants the maximum territory with the minimum of Palestinian people within it.

Mrs. Ellman: My right hon. Friend holds Israel solely to blame for the failure to reach a solution on the
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setting up of a Palestinian state. Does she agree with the views of Saeb Erekat and former President Clinton, who laid the blame fairly and squarely at Yasser Arafat’s stall for rejecting a proposal that would have led to a Palestinian state, living at peace with Israel?

Clare Short: No, I do not, and I very much regret the fact that my hon. Friend is so absolutely unbalanced in her attitude to these matters. I do not believe either that her comments are helpful to the people of Israel, whom she seeks to defend and protect.

Israel’s dilemma—and this is the view of many serious scholars and commentators, but it is not said often in the House—is that it wants the maximum territory, way beyond the 1967 boundaries, as is clear from all its actions, with the minimum of Palestinians. It has now become clear that the issue is to be resolved by confining the Palestinians to a series of Bantustans, exactly as the apartheid regime in South Africa attempted to do. The plan is for a second ugly, legally and morally wrong, apartheid settlement. It is clear that President Bush has given the green light and it follows, of course, that our Prime Minister—whatever he says about the evaporating road map—will follow wherever President Bush goes and whatever the error of the US Administration’s ways. I am afraid that that will ensure continuing violence, destabilisation of the middle east and recruitment of ever-growing numbers to the use of violence for decades to come. The irony of that is that it is likely to lead in the end, no matter how long it takes, to the demise of the Jewish state as, just as with apartheid, more and more people support the call for the establishment of a secular Palestinian state—because that is the logical answer if we cannot have two states—where Jews, Arabs, Christians and all others can live together as equal citizens. We are, I am afraid, heading for further violence and catastrophe, and I am sad to say that our Government are following President Bush’s errors and pouring petrol on the flames.

4.15 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): It is difficult to speak in a debate like this without feeling a sense of sadness and despair. Here we are, talking about Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese dying. I came to this House just after the Yom Kippur war in 1974 and we were talking about exactly the same thing then. It is difficult sometimes not to despair that the problem is intractable. I have never believed that and I hope that the House does not make the same mistake.

I thought that the speeches by the Front Benchers were comprehensive and well balanced. The one by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary was also more realistic, in that he accepted that some of what is happening is disproportionate. It is important that we are realistic in how we address this problem.

I speak on this subject as a friend of Israel of very long standing and a friend of Palestine. When people say to me that I cannot be both, I say that if one believes in the two-state solution, one has to be both. We have to be able to say that we are not standing on the sidelines shouting abuse at one side or the other, as we so often do in this House, but that we want to be part of the solution and that, therefore, we are going to take an even-handed approach.

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I will discuss why I believe Israel’s reaction to terrorism is justified, but when I consider the conflict and what is happening today I am also reminded that in all the conflicts in history military action has never resolved them. Military action has often helped to contain them, but in the end they have been resolved only by dialogue and negotiation. When we talk about the short term, it is no substitute in the middle east for returning to the negotiation without which there will be no immediate answer.

I believe that the two-state solution is a workable outcome. I listened to what was said at Camp David and I read what was said at Taba. I have heard what has been said since then in response to the road map and the indications suggest it is possible to achieve a solution on the two-state basis. But that will happen only if there is mutual confidence on both sides of the argument—a belief in Israel that they can live secure from terror and attack within their own boundaries and a belief among the Palestinians that theirs will not be an oppressed and vassal state, but a real and viable state that can live properly alongside Israel. Without such confidence, the two-state solution will simply not come about.

I turn to the present situation. I have no doubt about Israel’s right to pursue terrorists who carry out acts of violence against it, whether from Gaza or by Hezbollah from Lebanon. In the current context there can be no doubt that the action of Hezbollah, which is an exclusively external terrorist organisation, was responsible for the beginning of this crisis and continues to light its fires. But Israel does not only have the right to pursue terrorists in order to protect its people. If a two-state solution is to be reached, Israelis must be confident that they will not find hostile states on their borders firing at will into Israel. Unless the Israeli Government of Ehud Olmert can show that withdrawal from the territories from which withdrawal must be made does not mean greater vulnerability, and that the terrorist challenge can be met, the two-state solution will be stillborn.

I do not question the action that Israel is taking against Hamas and Hezbollah. I do not gainsay Israel’s right to take proportionate action. But I am concerned and dismayed by what appears, to me at least, to be disproportionate action in Lebanon. Given modern intelligence and military technology, it must be possible to pursue terrorists on a surgical basis, knowing where the terrorist problem is and then rooting it out. We had to do that in our time in our own terrorist context; we did not blast communities on the basis that there might be terrorists there. It is absolutely essential that we say to our friends in Israel, who, after all, have one of the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world, that they, of all people, should be able to deal with this terrorist problem without creating a wider problem for those around them.

Nor, in my view, is destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure acceptable. Not only Lebanon but Israel and the rest of the world need a stable Lebanon in the future. A ruined, impotent and bankrupt Lebanon is not only a cause of despair to the people of Lebanon themselves; it becomes a danger to the region, and beyond. If what is happening now creates a failed state of Lebanon, it will be antagonistic to Israel and distrustful of its wider friends, who did not help it
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in its time of need. It will be a breeding ground for future anti-Israeli sentiment and for anti-American resentment, and it will, of necessity, be the ground from which the next generation of terrorists will be born.

That is why the onslaught on Lebanon must now cease. I am happy to see precision attacks on the terrorists continue and I wish them well, because the right exists to root out that terrorism. But I have to say that I doubt whether an international stability force is a workable suggestion. Stability forces in conflict zones do not have a great record throughout history and we, on our side, should be very careful about claiming to support such a force when our own forces are so stretched between Iraq and Afghanistan that it is highly unlikely that we could even take part in it ourselves. We must therefore concentrate on those areas where we can at least be constructive.

I want the level of violence to be decreased. I hope that we can persuade the Government of Israel that the time has come to scale down—

Mr. Newmark: I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the fact that since 12 July, 1,600 missiles have rained down on northern Israel—100 have done so in the past 24 hours alone—and that 1 million Israeli citizens are threatened. In addition to the UK and the US putting pressure on Israel, as he suggests, what pressure does he think could be put on Syria and Iran?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, and I am just coming to the question of Syria. At the moment, it would be very difficult to persuade Iran to take a view different from the one that they are currently taking. But I have always believed that, through diplomatic pressure, Syria is open to changing the direction that it has been taking—wrongly, in my view—for so long. We can show the Syrians that there is a better future for them—if they change their ways and go down another path. That is something that the British Government should be doing.

The middle east is a vicious circle, and that circle will not be broken in the flames of war; it can be dismantled only by a return to dialogue and negotiation. We should help to facilitate that, using the vast number of contacts that we have in Israel, Palestine and the rest of that region to get the dialogue going again. Building bridges is what we should all be about now—not destroying bridges, as we have seen happening over the past few days.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Is not the problem that the attacks by Hamas in Gaza, and by Hezbollah in Lebanon, were intended precisely to disrupt that negotiation and dialogue?

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