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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 October 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Middle East

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

9.30 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and it is a pleasure to welcome the Minister for the Middle East, who is one of the few members of the Government who has made any sensible remarks on this subject for a very long time, as we heard when he was in Israel and Lebanon after the events there.

When on 11 September we saw the horrific pictures of the destruction of the twin towers, I said that the people of the United States were more than our friends—they are our kith and kin. I said that they had been the greatest advocates and proponents of freedom and democracy in the 20th century, that without them we and all Europe would have been condemned to live in tyranny of either the Nazi or Soviet type, and that it was not only our duty but our pleasure to stand shoulder to shoulder with them when they were under attack. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and to root out the command structure of al-Qaeda—I do not resile from that support—but then we moved on to Iraq.

Many better people than I opposed that intervention. Indeed, many better people than I supported it. I voted against the war, principally because I did not believe the Prime Minister and his dossiers. I did not know that they were dodgy; they simply did not add up. President Bush’s reason for invasion—regime change—was clear and honest, but the Prime Minister hid behind a smokescreen of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to justify the invasion to Parliament. His key failures were in respect of securing the support of moderate Arab opinion and having a realistic post-invasion strategy. The result was to inflame the Arab world, to create division at home between Muslims and most other United Kingdom residents, to lose our reputation as an honest broker in the middle east, to drive the Arab in the bazaar into the arms of extremists, particularly in Palestine and Lebanon, and to damage domestic race relations, leading to the attacks on 7 July.

Significantly, the Prime Minister committed our forces and their NATO supporters to the subjugation of Iraq, leaving the new democratic Afghan Government naked against a resurgent Taliban. He failed to provide adequate resources for our troops. They were left alone and unduly vulnerable on both fronts. Of course, despite that, they committed themselves to their allocated task with their customary resilience and fortitude. None of us is in any doubt as to their professionalism and skill, and attempts from the Prime Minister down to suggest that any criticism
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of the Ministry of Defence is designed to undermine our troops is a distortion that few are now taken in by.

On 24 July, the Secretary of State for Defence committed himself to providing two extra helicopters in Helmand province of Afghanistan to support our forces there, but he said that it would take more than three months to do so. He told the House:

However, the Scottish Sunday Herald reported on 8 October:

Brigadier Butler is quoted as stating:

The article goes on to state:

The article illustrates two points: first, commanders may be asking for more equipment but are not being provided with it, and secondly, the Prime Minister’s attempt at spin. He described such criticism as “negative reporting” and stated:

It is spin and the constant failure to respond to honest questions in an honest way that characterises the approach of many members of the Government to the problems of the middle east. I exempt the Minister present today from that statement.

To get back to the narrative, we had warnings of an attack by Muslim extremists in this country for many months—indeed, for years—and on 7 July there were such attacks. I shall explore why in a moment. To many, the Prime Minister’s credibility had already been destroyed by the dodgy dossier revelations and Hutton’s incompetent inquiry, and many people believed him to be grandstanding. This time, when he said, “Trust me, we are going to be attacked”, many people did not trust him, and that was the case for months before the general election as well as afterwards.

We were attacked on 7 July, and the Prime Minister denied that the attack had anything to do with conflicts in the middle east. What could be less credible? UK-resident Muslims were beginning to fight the battles of the middle east on our streets.

Meanwhile, in Palestine, elections in 2006 returned a Hamas majority. I realise, of course, that the Palestinians have been guilty of the most vile attacks on civilians in Israel by means of suicide bombers, and I am prepared to believe that those attacks were organised by Hamas—that Hamas was the brain behind them, just as the brain behind the attacks on civilians in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was that of Sinn Fein. The response of our Government was to pretend that the elections had not happened, and to attempt to set aside the result of one of the first democratic elections ever held in Palestine on the grounds that we do not like the outcome.

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Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Would the hon. Gentleman accept that a major obstacle is the explicit refusal of the Hamas-led Government in the Palestinian Authority ever to accept the existence of Israel, and that Hamas continues to commit itself to armed struggle that targets civilians?

Mr. Turner: Of course I recognise that. In exactly the same way, I felt that about Sinn Fein.

The fact is that Hamas expresses several contrary views at the same time and that the people supposedly in government in Palestine are stronger on rhetoric than on action. Of course I accept that they are not making things easy, but I do not believe that that gives us the right to set aside the democratic decision of the Palestinian people, in so far as such a decision can be reached when many parts of what we regard as Palestine remain occupied. I question how in the minds of Labour Members it is right to set it aside when it was so wrong to do the same 50 years ago in respect of Iran.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a reasonable and well-informed case, but does not the approach to Hamas involve rather more than the British Government? The Quartet, the international community, the United States and Mr. Javier Solana have all told Hamas that it must recognise the state of Israel, renounce violence and accept the commitments that had already been entered into by the Palestinian Authority. That has been said to Hamas since the elections.

My hon. Friend says that there is some ambiguity, but the leader of Hamas early this week was completely unambiguous. He stated that Hamas would not recognise the state of Israel. If the international community were to alter its response to Hamas, having already said what it has, what sort of message does he think that would send to Hamas? Perhaps one with which students of the 1930s might be familiar.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend put that. He listed a range of things said by the Quartet, the United Nations and so on, and I agree with him. I do not agree with the presumption that because Hamas will not say certain words we are entitled to set aside the result of the Palestinian election. Let me remind the Chamber that until 1997 the Government of the Republic of Ireland did not accept the right of Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. That did not mean that we pretended that they were not the Government.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Would my hon. Friend agree that there is a subtle difference between not recognising the United Kingdom’s right to be the Government of Northern Ireland and not recognising the United Kingdom’s right to exist?

Mr. Turner: Of course I recognise that. I am asking what is so different; what entitles us to disregard the democratically expressed view—[Interruption.] Yes, to pretend that a Government do not exist and to set aside the democratically expressed view of the people of Palestine.

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The election was followed first not by the matters in south Lebanon but by attacks on Gaza. The first pictures that most of us saw were of children being attacked on beaches. I am quite prepared to believe that they were concealing weapons or terrorists because that is the way in which the terrorists of Palestine behave. The attacks on the beaches, which I believe followed the capture of one Israeli soldier who was approaching the border of Gaza, were followed by attacks on power stations and civilian installations in Gaza.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. Ellman rose—

Mr. Turner: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

Dr. Starkey: Would the hon. Gentleman accept that the chronology was the opposite? The attack on the beach happened before the kidnapping of the soldier.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to be corrected.

Mrs. Ellman: Would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the Chamber that the Israelis correctly withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and that that was followed not by attempts to set up a peaceful administration in Gaza but by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, including the town of Sderot, on numerous occasions? The reaction to that has unfortunately caused civilian deaths but those rocket attacks on Israeli civilians continue despite Israel’s correct withdrawal from Gaza.

Mr. Turner: I am prepared to accept that, too. I am not trying to express the view that one side are the goodies and the others are the baddies in this conflict. There are serious errors on both sides, which it would have been better if our Government had been more equal in recognising. That is the failure of our Government that I so strongly criticise. There were, let us say, few words of condemnation from the Government. There had been plenty of words of condemnation of suicide bombers, but few on the Israeli attacks in Gaza, in particular the attacks on civilian installations, a matter on which our European colleagues, who helped to pay for those installations, were rather less reticent than our Government.

The last act—the last act so far, I fear—has been the conflict in Lebanon and the Government’s failure, in line with that of the United States and virtually no other nation, to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Indeed, they blamed Hezbollah and the seizing of two soldiers for the conflict in Lebanon and Israel’s reaction to the seizing of those soldiers. Human Rights Watch condemns both sides pretty unequivocally for breaches of international law and of internationally recognised human rights. It condemns Hezbollah for hostage taking and using the soldiers as pawns to negotiate the release of prisoners held in Israel, for its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel and for hiding military targets and personnel in civilian areas, and it condemns Israel over the lawfulness of its attacks on south Lebanon, for the extraordinarily high level of civilian casualties that followed, for its repeated attacks on infrastructure, on Beirut airport, roads and
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bridges, and for attacks on fleeing civilians. Those were the tactics of the Nazis in 1939 and 1940: attacking fleeing civilians from the air. I know that that offends the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and I do not mean to do so, but I must tell the truth.

Mrs. Ellman: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously comparing Israel’s defending itself to the genocide of the holocaust and the Nazis? Is that a serious point that he is making rather than a criticism of Israel’s policy?

Mr. Turner: What a stupid intervention, if I may say so. Of course I am not comparing it to the holocaust. If the hon. Lady was a little more careful in the way in which she listened to other hon. Members instead of parading her prejudices, she would have heard what I said, which was that Israel attacked fleeing civilians. That is all that I said.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I went to Lebanon two weeks ago and I have to say that my hon. Friend’s central thesis, which is that the United Kingdom’s policy has not been helpful, is certainly the case in Lebanon, where our Prime Minister is seen as personally responsible for the extension of the conflict beyond the second and third week and for the number of casualties that happened towards the end. I regret to say that my hon. Friend is correct that there are authenticated incidents, with witnesses, when children in pick-ups were machine-gunned by Israeli aircraft until they were apparently dead. That does not condone anything else that was done on the other side but I am afraid that we need to try to deal with the facts as they occurred on the ground and to move forward.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In a similar way I condemn the Palestinians and their supporters for using those children as human shields, as has also happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. There seems to be a significant difference of view of the value of human life between Muslims and Christians and Jews. That is a cultural difference with which we must cope. I am deeply and gravely concerned that the position of our country and the security of our people at home are being undermined because of the Government’s incompetent management of that difficult crisis.

Let me remind hon. Members of what has happened at home. Some 200,000 Muslims supported the actions of the London bus and tube bombers and yet when Muslim leaders wrote a letter to The Times it was condemned by the Government as an excuse for terrorism. That letter warned that there are some people who would already be supporting terror and asked how anyone could believe that those attacks were nothing to do with the events in the wider middle east that had led up to them.

I am gravely concerned that we have a minority in this country who are becoming more extreme or have a significant number of extremists among them. I believe that whether they were born here or move here they should adopt our way of life, our customs and our democratic way of settling disputes. They should not fight foreign battles on our streets.

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Mr. Clappison: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so patient in giving way twice. Before he moves off the point of what is happening in the middle east, will he find time to think a little about the position of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas and about what can be done practically to enhance the peace process from where we are now rather than going through the terrible things that have happened on both sides in the past? My hon. Friend has mentioned Hamas, but he has not mentioned Mr. Abbas, who is prepared to recognise Israel and to be constructive but is in a difficult position at the moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend might want to press the Government on what they can do to help.

Mr. Turner: The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has said, so I shall not prolong my speech. I was hoping to take a quarter of an hour, and have already taken 19 minutes.

Those who accept UK citizenship should leave their old loyalties behind and not fight for the state of Israel or for Arab nations in our country.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about people accepting UK citizenship, as though those responsible for the London bombings came from overseas and had to adapt to our way of life. Does he not accept that those people were British born and bred?

Mr. Turner: As someone once said, to be a British citizen is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and certain obligations go with that citizenship.

When I came to the House, I realised that the Prime Minister was a fantasist, but I had not thought that he was a warmonger. I do not believe that he wilfully lies about such things, but I do believe that he is wilfully careless of the distinction between truth and fiction and intellectually too idle to do the homework necessary to justify the position that he has taken on the middle east. He believes that today’s performance and tomorrow’s legacy are more important than the long-term good of our country and its people.

Bluntly, I think that the Prime Minister saw the middle east in the same way as he has seen other overseas escapades: as an opportunity to parade on the world stage. He never thought that we would lose so many people or so much respect, or that the war would escalate to the extent that it has, and he is not capable of resolving the situation. It was interesting to hear this morning that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not want to go to war, although that is perhaps mischief put out by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).

In taking the approach that he has, the Prime Minister has done grave damage to the Labour party, to community relations in our country and to the peace of the wider world, and I fear that it will take a generation for hon. Members on both sides to remedy all that damage.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. A large number of hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so I appeal for brevity.

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