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2.58 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Once again, it is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who once again has led the Committee in producing a substantive and significant report in what must be the most complex and difficult area of foreign policy that we face.

As the Committee Chairman said, following the Annapolis meeting, President Bush declared his hopes to achieve a settlement of the dispute between Israel and its neighbours this year. I think that most hon. Members would agree that, if he had made that commitment in the first year of his presidency, rather than in his last, it would have been infinitely better; it would, I believe, have saved many lives lost during the past eight years. However, I am sure that we all wish him well—together with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair—in their strenuous efforts to produce a settlement.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that one of the problems with Tony Blair’s mission is that his terms of reference are restricted to Palestinian organisations that unreservedly recognise the state of Israel and that he can therefore play no part in addressing the Gaza problem?

Sir John Stanley: I am aware of those restrictive terms of reference, but if the former Prime Minister runs true to form, I am confident that he will seek to push the envelope of his terms of reference. I am sure that we wish him well in trying to make a contribution to achieve a settlement of probably the most difficult issue in the world.

The presidential initiative rests on hope, but in the meantime we must deal with the realities: around Israel’s borders, the political situation is fraught with difficulty and the humanitarian situation is, to varying degrees, horrendous. It is no more horrendous anywhere else than in Gaza, and on the television news last night and in the papers this morning, we saw the desperate human manifestation of the realities inside the Gaza strip. We saw Palestinians, in desperation, using explosives to blow apart the Israeli security fence at the Rafah crossing, and Palestinians, in their thousands, pouring out to try to obtain the basic necessities of life—food, fuel, water, milk and so on. There could not have been a more graphic or stark manifestation of the awful reality that is now the Gaza strip.

I was struck by the last publication that I saw from that remarkably brave and accurate Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. It was about life in Gaza, and I thought that the front page said it all:

Effectively, that is what the Gaza strip has now become. I must put it to the Minister that, given the humanitarian awfulness of what is now the Gaza strip, I do not understand and am frankly baffled by the extent to which the British Government and other European and other democratic Governments throughout the world have been so muted in their condemnation of the situation
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that has been created not by accident or by chance, but by the deliberate exercise of specific Israeli Government policy.

I do not in any way make light of the impact of the rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza strip or elsewhere in the west bank, and I totally stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself against those attacks and to take whatever measures are necessary against those who are actively engaged in firing those rockets or in preparing to do so. However, from the figures that I have seen, and as far as I am aware, the casualties that Israelis have sadly suffered as a result of those rocket attacks are extremely small in relation, for example, to the casualties that we suffered in Northern Ireland and on the mainland of the UK during the years of attacks by the IRA and other terrorist organisations there.

What would have happened if we as the British Government had reacted to those attacks in the same way as the Israeli Government now do? What would have been the reaction throughout the world and in the UK if we had erected a security wall around Northern Ireland, effectively trapping the people of Northern Ireland en masse inside it? What would have been the effect if we had used major military forces and their explosives fairly indiscriminately inside that area? What would have been the impact and the international reaction if we had closed the crossings, cut off the fuel and electricity supplies, made access to food and medical supplies difficult and degraded the standard of care in the hospitals and health services? What would have been the reaction? We all know: there would have been an absolute volcanic outcry throughout the world—aside from what would have happened in the House of Commons.

I am deeply struck and perturbed by the extraordinary contrast between that happily hypothetical situation in relation to a British Government reaction to such measures in Northern Ireland and the extraordinarily muted reaction of our Government and Governments throughout the world to the intolerable position and the policy that is being followed towards the civilian population in Gaza as a whole.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman and with his moral case, but does he accept that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict, we are perceived to be complicit in the middle east and further afield? One danger to our foreign policy is that it is difficult to be seen as an honest broker when we apparently support the Israelis, albeit indirectly. That is a real problem for the future.

Sir John Stanley: That is a criticism—if that is the hon. Gentleman’s intention—more of the American Government than of ourselves. The British Government have tried to steer a pretty objective course between upholding the genuine rights of self-defence for the Israelis and trying to uphold the rights of the Palestinians and move Palestine towards a self-governing and self-sufficient state.

I find the muted response all the more extraordinary because the legal position is clear. It was fairly and reasonably stated just a few days ago by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Mr. John Dugard. He referred to recent sad incidents in which a considerable number of Palestinians, including those taking part in a wedding
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party, have lost their lives.

In a statement that the United Nations office in Geneva issued on 18 January, Mr. Dugard said:

I ask the Minister, what are the British Government going to do to try to compel Israel to cease its action against Gaza, to ensure respect for international law and to protect civilian life? I hope that the Minister will not reply to our report, as the Government have done, by simply trotting out figures for humanitarian aid that they and others have given to the people of Gaza. I do not underestimate the importance of aid in the current circumstances, but aid is neither the answer nor the central point.

The central requirement is to get Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories into a position where they no longer need aid, are self-sufficient and can be a properly functioning, independent state. That requires political action, the cessation of violence and the ending of the murderous subjection of civilians in Israel and in the occupied territories to terrorism, as far as Hamas and others are concerned, and to specific military action from the Israelis. I ask the Minister to address that issue.

I turn now to Lebanon. I was fortunate to be among the members of the Committee who visited the country during our inquiry. Too little attention is being paid to the serious situation there. Lebanon is where the last war in the middle east started, and it could well be the place where the next war starts as well. The political position is extremely fragile and dangerous, although I appreciate that the powers of direct intervention of the British Government and other Governments are relatively limited, given that Lebanon is an independent sovereign state and has a reasonable form of democracy, given its complicated religious structure and its history.

However, the country faces three potential disasters: a Hezbollah takeover, which would be a disaster for many of its people and certainly for those further afield; a further Israeli invasion; and military re-entry by Syria. Indeed, it could face a combination of all three. The political issues in Lebanon are of the utmost seriousness, and it would be helpful if the Minister gave us some clarity on how the Government are seeking to prevent such disasters from overtaking the country.

On the brighter side, the Committee saw the remarkable work that the UN is doing in Lebanon. We saw the work being done by the first-rate British non-governmental organisation, the Mines Advisory Group, which is taking up the largest ever amount of cluster munitions to be sown. Those munitions were sown by the Israelis at the end of the last war in the country in the 72 hours between the passage of the UN Security Council resolution and that resolution coming into effect.

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The interest in the House in policy on cluster bombs has led to the Government’s welcome decision to ban the use by British forces of so-called dumb cluster bombs, which do not have a self-detonating device. I believe that that policy decision owed a fair amount to prodding by our Committee and by the Quadripartite Committee. However, there are some differences between us and the Government over whether so-called smart cluster bombs—those with a self-detonating device—should continue to be used.

In our report, we said that the evidence that we received from the UN mine clearance people showed that so-called smart cluster bombs have a 10 per cent. failure rate, while the Government put the figure at 2.3 per cent. However, I put it to the Minister that if there is any failure rate at all, the use of cluster munitions will have exactly the same effect as sowing anti-personnel land mines. It is Government policy that there should be no anti-personnel land mines; indeed, the Government are a signatory to the Ottawa convention and played a significant role in bringing it about. If they are to be consistent with their policy on anti-personnel land mines, they should look carefully at eliminating the failure rate of smart cluster munitions or at banning them altogether.

Let me now turn quickly to Syria. Syria’s history under the Ba’ath party is pretty black, and the country’s adherence to any sort of democratic standards is pretty dubious. After two visits to the country, however, I believe that it is moving fairly gingerly in the right direction. We would therefore do well in the medium-to-long term to provide Syria with further encouragement to keep moving towards being a less dictatorial society and less of a police state. Syria is a secular Muslim state, and that alone should make the democratic world sit up and take notice to a degree.

In our report, we make an important recommendation to the Government:

I very much regret that they have not responded favourably to that recommendation and are taking the line that EU policy remains not to have ministerial contacts with Syria. I believe that that is now mistaken, and I hope that they will change their policy.

I do not want to cause any deep anguish to my colleagues on the Committee by mentioning the excellent report on the foreign policy aspects of the European treaty, which we published for the debate on that treaty. In it, however, some of us expressed concerns about whether the Government would be able to adhere to their red line of an independent British foreign policy. I say that because the Government’s position on ministerial contracts with Syria is being driven much more by the EU common position than by their own independent assessment of what is the right policy.

Let me quickly say one word, although I hope that it is an important word, about Iraq. As we know, the Iraq war was justified on the basis of seeking out and eliminating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, but they were found not to be there. Subsequently, the justification has moved to establishing democracy and human rights, and nothing is of greater significance than what has been said about human rights for women. Those human rights were enshrined in the constitution
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that was supposedly introduced and agreed by the Iraqi political parties, but I am deeply concerned about whether those rights will survive and be respected, even in the Basra area, for which the British forces have had responsibility.

By way of illustration, I want to put on record an account from The Times of8 December 2007, which sets out what happened when a group of young Christian women turned up for their first day at Basra university. Outside, someone ordered them not to go into the university with their heads uncovered, but they decided that he was an isolated individual and took no notice. The Times reports that they returned the next day and says:

The article continues:

Given our history in Iraq and an invasion that was based on a wholly incorrect intelligence assessment, it would be the most appalling compounding of that tragedy if we were to end up with a situation in which the basic human rights of half the population—the female half—became significantly worse than they were before our invasion.

Bob Spink: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that some at least of the bodies of those women had notes pinned to them making reference to their having been killed because of the way they dressed?

Sir John Stanley: There is no specific report of that in the article, but if my hon. Friend says it, I am sure it is something that he has seen.

Lastly, almost by way of a postscript, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has said, we are producing a report on Iran. I would not want to anticipate that, but I want to make one point. We have entered into one war on the basis of a claimed intelligence assessment that proved entirely incorrect. We now have the official United States national intelligence estimate, entitled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities”, which was published in November. Under the heading “Key Judgments”, the report opens:

There is a world of difference between keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons and having operational nuclear weapons in place. Having gone into one war on the basis of a misreading of an intelligence
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assessment, it would be unforgivable to go into or be complicit in another when the intelligence picture was still extremely uncertain, as appears to be the case at the moment with Iran.

3.22 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In view of the number of hon. Members who want to speak and the fact that we are trying to finish at 5 o’clock, I shall be brief. I want to talk mainly about the situation in Gaza and relations with Israel. I commend the Committee for its report and the Chairman for his presentation of it to the House. I have been to Israel and Palestine on five occasions, and on three of them, I have been to Gaza. I have been to all parts of Gaza at various times. Each time I go, I think that the situation is bad, and when I return, it seems worse. From reports now, it is becoming dire.

The first occasion when I visited was a time of, retrospectively, enormous hope. That was post-Oslo. The airport had been built and people were thinking about opening it. When I visited there were a large number of school children saying, “This is the Palestine of the future.” There was great hope and a large amount of British aid was going in. I was very proud of that. We were doing a lot to help, things were going on, and the situation looked hopeful.

On the second occasion, I visited with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who will speak later as chairman of the all-party group on Palestine. We met a number of people, including representatives of Hamas, and had discussions. Without serious political engagement with the process going on in Gaza, we felt that the result would be the bunker mentality of support for Hamas against anyone else, because there was nowhere else to go. I think that I am being fair in saying that.

On my third visit, I was a UN-accredited election observer for the presidential election. I chose to go to Gaza and Rafah. Everyone recommended that I should not make that choice and not go to Rafah, but sometimes it is a good idea not to take advice. I spent hours, with UN accreditation, arguing my way through the border crossing at Erez. The best part of two days was spent arguing our way down to Rafah, where we stayed for the election itself. It was painstakingly carried out. Unbelievable attention was paid to the minutiae of the election procedures. There could be nothing wrong with the process whatever. The only thing that went wrong, as far as I could see, was that Israeli border guards decided to fire at the polling station during the day, while wholly innocent civilians were in there attempting to exercise their right to cast a vote.

I managed to visit some outlying polling stations, which, again, took hours to get to, and it was exactly the same story. Later in the evening, I was back in Gaza city, where there were riot-like conditions, but the officials, to their credit, managed to contain them, because they wanted to ensure that the election proceeded properly. I spent a lot of time talking to the mental health group in Gaza, which I know very well. The group told me that 75 per cent. of the population of Gaza are medically depressed by their situation. That was two years ago.

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