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24 Jan 2008 : Column 510WH—continued

The situation now is unbelievable. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) described it extremely well. The population of Gaza are
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in prison—a prison of mediaeval mentality, created by Israel—and the effect is not to make the people love Israel, but to make them opposed to Israel in every way. Probably, that has enhanced rather than reduced support for Hamas. It is fairly obvious that if people are treated in that way they will not love their captor; they hate their captor even more. That is what has happened, before our eyes.

Can it be conscionable that, in this day and age, one state is allowed to imprison more than 1 million people, deny them medical aid, food, energy and the right to travel and work, and force their businesses into receivership, or whatever the equivalent is in Gaza now? Can there be surprise when people manage to bomb their way through the wall to Egypt to get basic supplies, simply to survive? There is a humanitarian crisis, which we know about because satellite TV reports it, but apparently, there is little we can do about it.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully, and he obviously knows far more about Gaza than I do. The Committee did not go there during the trip to the area that I went on. It seems to me that, if the hon. Gentleman talks of a prison, that prison is the sea, two perimeters with Israel and one with Egypt. Are the Egyptians as culpable as the Israelis for the imprisonment of the Palestinians in Gaza?

Jeremy Corbyn: As the hon. Gentleman will know, Israel presumes to have control of all borders between Palestine and the outside world. He is correct that there is a border with Egypt, but until recently it was completely controlled by Israel. The shooting that took place when I was in Rafah came from the Egyptian side of the border through the Israeli watchtowers on the border itself. Legitimate criticism can and should be made—and is being made—of Egypt for its unpreparedness to open the border with Rafah to ensure that the necessary supplies and aid get through. I accept that and have made the same point on Egyptian television and to people from Egypt whom I have met. I should imagine that colleagues who have met Egyptian MPs have probably made the same points.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Is not the reality that, after the war with Egypt, part of the treaty was intended to prevent the Egyptians from moving more of their military up to the border with the Gaza strip?

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. Relations with Egypt are not normal by any stretch of the imagination, and that is the subject of a huge political debate in Egypt. I am pleased at the Committee’s recognition that discussions that include all elements of opposition in Egypt are very important to protect and develop any kind of democracy there. I suspect that the fact that the Government of Egypt could do nothing about the large number of people who have managed to get out of Gaza into Egypt will have a long-term and profound effect on Egyptian politics. One should examine that situation with interest.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling made the correct point that Mr. Dugard, on behalf of the United Nations—one can only presume that it was
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on behalf of the UN high officials, since the report was made public by them—said in all seriousness that, as far he was concerned, Israel was in breach of the fourth Geneva convention on collective punishment, which is a war crime. That is a very serious allegation, and it was made not on the street by some unnamed individual or an odd group somewhere around the world or as a rhetorical allegation in a public meeting, but by a senior UN official. He has said that Israel should be arraigned on a war crime for the collective punishment of individuals. That is a serious point, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to it.

This country has close relations with Israel. We trade with it, have supported the EU-Israel trade agreement and, as far as I am aware, supply some military parts to it. I hope to hear from the Minister that the Government are putting the strongest possible pressure on the state of Israel to lift the siege of Gaza and, if necessary, will introduce some form of economic sanction against it, because of what it is doing to the people of Gaza.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that, since Annapolis, 146 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, of whom 136, including a child, were in the Gaza strip. Some 496 Palestinians have been injured, 360 of them on the Gaza strip, and 807 Palestinians have been arrested, the majority of them—731—on the west bank. There have been 675 Israeli attacks, of which 415 have been on the Gaza strip, and two Israeli soldiers have been killed. I regret every one of those losses of life, and I regret and condemn absolutely the use of Qassam rockets, which have been fired out of Gaza on to Israeli civilians, which will not bring about peace and justice.

Those figures are for the period since Annapolis, and the fundamental flaw of Annapolis is coming out. The western countries have essentially got together and said, “We will support and give aid to President Abbas on the west bank, give a great deal of economic aid to the west bank and ignore what is going on in the Gaza strip and hope that the problem goes away.” The problem is not going away; it is getting worse.

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that he regretted the rockets being fired out of Gaza into Israeli on to people’s homes and schools, but he kind of dismissed it as a random act and not particularly relevant. I wonder when he will come on to the bit of his analysis that factors in Gaza being controlled by an extremist terrorist group that is dedicated to the violent overthrow of Israel and continually fires rockets from Gaza on to people’s houses and schools in Israel. I wonder when he will explain to us where that fits into his analysis and what the Israeli Government are supposed to do about it.

Jeremy Corbyn: I think that my hon. Friend will find that I used the word “condemn” rather than “regret”. I do condemn and oppose it, and I have made it clear all along that I do not think that attacks on Israeli civilians will bring about any kind of peace. Political engagement and a political solution will bring that about.

My hon. Friend may not have heard what I said, and I shall repeat it for his benefit. There have been 675 Israeli military attacks on Gaza since Annapolis, mainly by air, but also by land. A first-world country is attacking people who can be described only as living in the fourth world. It is not a war of equals; it is a war of oppression
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and occupation. I want peace, and I want people to be able to live in peace. A political solution requires political engagement. Israel’s refusal to engage with a large part of the Palestinian population, in which it is supported by Britain and the United States, will not bring about peace.

Mr. Simon: Perhaps I did not hear, but one thing that prompted me to intervene was that I do not think that my hon. Friend listed the number of terrorist attacks, over any period, from Gaza into Israel. I do not think that he listed the number of rockets. He gave the number of Israeli attacks, according to his figures. If he is so keen to condemn it, why are we not getting the number of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli homes and schools?

Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s inquisition. Perhaps he can help us with the exact number. I have condemned those rocket attacks and do not know the exact number of them, but I wish that he and others who hold his view on Israel would recognise that, unless Israel engages with the political dimension in the region, peace will not come.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Perhaps I can help my hon. Friends. Between 1 January and 30 November last year, 1,204 Qassam rockets were recorded as being fired from Gaza into Israel, causing 96 injuries and two deaths.

Jeremy Corbyn: We now have the figures. We now know the number of people who were injured and died, all of which I regret. As I keep saying, if we are to bring about peace, it has to be done by a process of engagement and negotiation. I hope that the world will recognise that what is going on in Gaza is illegal, immoral and a collective punishment that is going on before our very eyes. We can do something about it, and I wish that we would. If we do not, we will be condemned by the rest of the world as standing idly by while a large number of wholly innocent civilians, who want merely to live a decent, ordinary life in Gaza, are condemned to a life behind bars, in a prison, for no reason other than that their neighbours continue to rain on them their military power and presence. The debate is timely and important, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

3.36 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Again, I congratulate the Committee on this excellent report on a difficult matter.

I shall speak on a narrow subject. In chapter 5 of the report, on Egypt, I note that the part entitled “Human Rights and Democratisation” does not address a certain issue. I understand the Committee’s difficulty in visiting every point on human rights, but minority rights in Egypt are important, and I wish to flag them up.

The inception of a new system of computerised ID cards in Egypt compelled its citizens to identify themselves as members of one of three constitutionally recognised religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Members of Egypt’s Baha’i minority have been unable to register as
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citizens of their own country. On 16 December 2006, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Government’s position that forces Baha’is either falsely to claim to be a member of a religion or to go without an ID card. Egyptian Baha’is are therefore unable to register the birth of their children, denying those children access to education, jobs and medical treatment. They are effectively unable to live as citizens in the country of their birth. That is a minority issue, and it is understandable why it is not covered in the report. Other religious groups in Egypt, including the Copts, who have changed their religion, have also faced a problem in getting ID cards.

Denying fundamental freedoms to Egyptian citizens on that basis appears to be a breach of Egypt’s obligations under article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, as was asserted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It would be useful for future reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee to examine minority rights, if possible.

Mike Gapes: For the record, each year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produces an annual human rights report. The Committee always produces our commentary on it, and we consider human rights issues such as religious and minority rights in a number of countries as part of that. However, we do not always repeat in every regionally focused report what we have done at other times.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Committee for that explanation, which I accept. I hope that he has heard what I have said about the Baha’is.

3.39 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Like everyone who has spoken so far, I welcome the report. It is comprehensive and balanced, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on the way in which he presented it. I shall devote most of my comments to the situation in Gaza. Time is short, but if there is time, I might say a few words about the west bank.

Let me start by putting on the record as clearly as I can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) did, the fact that the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel are to be condemned. I condemn them without qualification. That is why we know, record and monitor the numbers who—

Mr. Simon: My figures say that there have been 200 rocket attacks in the past 10 days from Gaza into Israeli schools, houses and homes, killing and wounding people. It is easy to condemn them as though they do not have any consequences or as though that is an isolated piece of the argument. My hon. Friend condemns the attacks, but does he accept that they are the fundamental cause of the problem? Does he accept that the attacks are a problem that the Israeli Government have to deal with.

Richard Burden: Are they the fundamental cause of the problem? No, I do not think they are.

Mr. Simon: A fundamental cause.

Richard Burden: I do not think they are a fundamental cause. They are to be condemned and they are unjustified. I have also visited Sderot; I hope that my hon. Friends
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who have visited Sderot have also been to Gaza and talked to people there. The pain that families suffer from rocket attacks is real pain, and the fear that they experience, not knowing when the next attack will come, is real fear. It helps nobody to say that either side somehow has a monopoly on pain, or on compassion for the other side. That gets this debate nowhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) talked about the number of rocket attacks in the past week. As far as I know, one person has been killed in those attacks. I am sure that he has studied the figures, so he will also know that in the first week of this year, there were 11 Israeli air strikes into Gaza, during which 26 people were killed and 63 were injured. I do not say that because it will help the family of the two Israelis who died in 2007 to know that more Palestinians have been killed. My hon. Friend needs to understand that for a Palestinian in Gaza whose son, daughter, mother or father has been killed by a missile from an Apache helicopter or an F-16, it does not count any less; their pain is no less than that of someone whose family members are killed in Sderot by Palestinian rockets.

One fundamental cause of the situation in Gaza is the blockade. Even though things have got a lot worse in recent months and weeks, restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza did not start this week, this year or even last year. Many of them existed even before Israeli disengagement in 2005. Certainly, they were stepped up at the start of 2006 and there were rocket attacks on Gaza at that time—interestingly, not from Hamas, which was then on a ceasefire. It was not rocket attacks that led to the increased blockade on Gaza; it was an election. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, the election in which Hamas was elected was internationally monitored and regarded as fair. Records show that it was the election that led to an increase in the blockade. The international community mistakenly went along with that by boycotting that Government, and ended up in the rather strange situation of having to increase its aid to Gaza through the temporary international mechanism. That had less effect because the very mechanisms needed to deliver services to people there were being boycotted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South talked about the Committee’s views on engagement, which I recognise and agree with, but the Government take a different view.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend must be aware that, following the parliamentary election, a large number of those elected to the Palestinian Authority were subsequently arrested by Israeli invading forces and are being held in Israeli prisons. That does not show much respect for democracy.

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It must be a matter of concern to all parliamentarians that elected parliamentarians are in jail. That matter is rightly being looked into by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Mr. Simon: Does my hon. Friend agree that if one is a terrorist who is dedicated to using death and murder to achieve one’s ends, one is not a democrat? The two are
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absolutely antithetical. Does he agree that the act of being elected, albeit legitimately, does not make one a democrat if one is a terrorist?

Richard Burden: The arrests of Palestinian parliamentarians have taken place by and large on the basis of membership of a particular organisation. If we are serious about trying to achieve a settlement in that part of the world, as opposed to point scoring—as far as I know, hon. Members from both sides of the House agree on that—a situation in which the majority of parliamentarians from the Palestinian Parliament are in jail does not contribute much towards that end.

The situation in Gaza has got a lot worse since the unjustified takeover of Hamas in Gaza last June. It became even more serious in October when Israel decided to restrict further fuel supplies into Gaza. That has been stepped up again in the past few weeks. The position in Gaza was illustrated graphically last year by John Ging, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, when he visited here and laid on the line the consequences of what was happening in Gaza. The position has also been illustrated graphically by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Were it not for the work of the UN, certainly the OCHA, painstakingly monitoring incidents in Gaza and the west bank—closures and so on—this debate would be all the poorer. It does absolutely vital work.

As a result of the UN’s investigations, we know that more than 80 per cent. of people in Gaza live below the poverty line. Some 80 per cent. of Gazans are dependent on food and humanitarian aid. When I say dependent I do not mean that they are getting enough; one thing that John Ging told us when he came to Parliament last year was that the UN estimates that the daily calorie intake for Gazans is about 61 per cent. of what is required, so malnutrition is a real and present threat.

Fuel shortages have threatened essential services and the water supply, and there are power cuts for about eight hours each day. Hospitals are running on emergency generators. Emergency generators are just that: they are meant to cut in when there is a power cut. If they are used all the time, the likelihood of breakdown is greater than ever. Many life-saving treatments are not available in Gaza and there are shortages of medicines and delays in their delivery. Some 17 per cent. of patients who have been referred outside Gaza for treatment have been refused exit by Israel.

On the economy—as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) rightly said, aid is not the answer in that part of the world—the closure of the Karni crossing has meant that export is virtually impossible and that imports of spares and raw materials are often impossible. Nearly 90 per cent. of industrial establishments have closed since last June and thousands of labourers have lost their jobs because of the collapse of the building industry. Perhaps the most surreal problem is what has happened to the fishing industry. Fishing has been a staple part of the economy of that coastal strip of land for centuries, but because of Israeli restrictions on fishing limits, the areas closest to the coast are being overfished. The crazy situation is that the food aid coming into Gaza includes fish. Importing fish to an area that should be based on a fishing economy is absolutely crazy.

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That is the situation, and it is getting worse. I received information today that, as far as the power cutbacks are concerned, the promises that were made by Israel to introduce emergency supplies of fuel to Gaza have been reversed, and that is now not happening. Haaretz reported the response of the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, to the blowing up of the wall at Rafa:

That is what he told army radio. He then went on to say that Israel’s effort to disengage from Gaza, which began in 2005 with the evacuation of settlers,

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