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24 Jan 2008 : Column 517WH—continued

So we have the very real threat now that the restrictions are seen not as temporary actions in response to the firing of rockets but as a permanent plan. That is what the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel said today. To me, that is scary and worrying. It offers no prospect of a good path toward peace.

Mr. Simon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Richard Burden: My hon. Friend has had a lot of goes. I will give him this one, but after that I will have to make some progress.

Mr. Simon: On that point, perhaps my hon. Friend can explain what all this mistreatment has to do with, if not the rockets. What is it about the Israelis that makes them treat the Palestinians so badly? Why do they do it? What is going on? If it is not to do with the terrorism of Hamas and the Gaza leadership, what is it to do with? What is his explanation? Are they just bad people?

Richard Burden: That is a question that my hon. Friend must address to the person who is responsible for the quote that I gave: the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel, Matan Vilnai.

Time is short, and I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a few questions about how we move on from this desperately dangerous situation. It is right to say that the British Government have done their best to try to bring about a reasonable settlement, perhaps even more so in the past few months, and I certainly welcome the increasing engagement with this issue of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary since he took up his post. There is no doubt that the British Government are expressing their displeasure at what is happening in Gaza, but the fact is that it is still happening.

I ask the Minister what, in practical terms, we can do, not to express displeasure about the fact that 1.5 million people are living in a prison, but to stop 1.5 million people living in a prison. Not only do the British Government and, indeed, the international community rightly condemn the rockets, but they impose sanctions on organisations that may be responsible for them if there is a refusal to engage. If that action is appropriate in respect of the firing of rockets against civilians in southern Israel, what is the appropriate action for a country that has been responsible for collective punishment, that has launched that amount of air strikes, and, even
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by the most generous interpretation, has been involved in grossly disproportionate military action against Gaza? What are we going to do, apart from expressing displeasure?

I ask the Minister also to explain not only what we do at diplomatic level but what our role is as a high contracting party to the fourth Geneva convention, which is being breached. What will we do about the situation?

Before I sit down, I want to mention just two other things. As we know, fuel supplies have been restricted since October. The restrictions have been stepped up in the past few weeks, and, according to the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel, supplies may be cut off altogether in the future. When Hamas was in government, the international community adopted a temporary international mechanism to ensure one of its objectives, which was that fuel supplies got through so that power and water supplies could be kept going. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to explain the current status of the temporary international mechanism, and what the international community can do to ensure that fuel supplies get through.

Perhaps my hon. Friend can also explain who is paying for the fuel supplies that are not going into Gaza. As far as I am aware, a great deal of the payment that is going to Israel to supply fuel to Gaza is coming from the international community, particularly the European Union. Am I right about that? If so, we are paying for a service that is not being provided. What are we doing about that?

I was on the west bank over the new year holiday. I found a contradictory situation there. At one level, I saw within the towns economic buoyancy of a kind that I have not seen in recent years. The markets were busy, and hotel tourism seemed to be up in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere. That is not really surprising, given the unfreezing of international aid to the Palestinian authority, which means that people’s salaries are being paid, and the release of the tax revenues that were owed by Israel to the Palestinian Authority. So, at that level, the west bank felt better than I have known it for some time.

At the same time, however, movement restrictions inside the west bank are as great as they have ever been. In fact, they have increased, according to the UN and my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who responded to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week. They have gone up, not down, in recent times. Settlement building is continuing apace. The west bank is still being chopped up into different cantons. If that continues, it will prevent a viable Palestinian state from ever being formed.

As well as urging economic road maps and providing the aid that allows economic activity in Palestinian towns, what are we doing to ensure that real economic activity can take place, that people can move around the west bank, and that Palestinian businesses can trade both within the west bank and with the outside world? What are we doing, in practice, not just to say that settlement building is against international law and that Israel should stop doing it, but to ensure that settlement building stops so that the chances of a viable Palestinian state are not squandered?

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3.57 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and members of the Committee on a fine analysis of the situation as they saw it when they produced the eighth report of the 2006-07 Session.

I make no apology for concentrating on the current situation in the Gaza strip. Indeed, I have always believed that the existing conflict between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian people creates so much tension not only in the middle east but elsewhere that the Government must devote as much time to settling it as they successfully devoted to tackling the Northern Ireland situation. I once heard someone say that the only way to do that is to talk and to carry on talking—night and day, if necessary—and never to stop the talks until a settlement is reached, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to do that. The debate is timely for that reason, obviously.

When the Israelis disengaged from the west bank and removed their settlers in 2005, I had great hope that there was some sincerity about following the then road map. I, too, was a UN observer for the presidential elections in the early part of 2006 when President Abbas was elected. In Ramallah that night, there was great hope. In fact, there was great hope all over the Palestinian territories that there had been a proper democratic election. There was very little criticism of it, apart from in Jerusalem, where people were prevented by the Israelis from voting properly—they had to vote in post offices—but I do not want to concentrate on that today.

My hope was not dashed when Hamas came to power in the democratic election that took place a year later. We have been urging democracy on the peoples of the middle east, and the west’s biggest mistake was ignoring the Hamas Government elected then. The west did not engage in talks with them; in fact, it did quite the opposite.

The conflict has repercussions all around the middle east region. For some time, I have believed that the tensions between the Israelis and neighbouring Arab countries are provoked by the situation. If we can reach a settlement, some of the tensions in the middle east would begin to subside—I would be naive to think that they would disappear completely. However, the repercussions of the conflict spread wider than the middle east. Hon. and right. hon. Members who represent a constituency such as mine, with large numbers of Muslim constituents, will know that the repercussions are strongly felt in those communities. I do not think that pouring money into community cohesion will heal those deep-seated wounds until we show some sincerity about tackling the conflict.

At the moment, I am completely exasperated. Israel—this is an important point—is damaging further its reputation by the actions it has taken in Gaza in recent weeks and months. Anyone who looked at the inside pages of The Guardian today to see pictures of the barrier between the Gaza strip and Israel crashed down, and read about the 17 explosions that blew up concrete sections of the wall, will find the event remarkable. To me, it is almost like the night when I heard that the Berlin wall was crashing down. I wish that the dividing barriers—the
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walls surrounding the west bank and between Gaza and Egypt—would come down, and that the countries could have proper diplomatic relationships.

What happened yesterday demonstrates the desperation of the Palestinian people, as someone else said. They cannot even get mattresses for their children to sleep on—they have been sleeping on the floor. People carried cigarettes back—although admittedly, I do not approve of that and I do not smoke—but they also carried back basic materials that had run out, such as cooking pots. Everything that came back through that barrier yesterday did so because some materials are no longer available in the shops in Gaza.

Mike Gapes: For the record, I think that my hon. Friend meant to refer to the barrier between Egypt and Gaza, and not what he said. He said that the barrier between Israel and Gaza had come down, but it was between Egypt and Gaza.

Dr. Iddon: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s correction. That is exactly what I intended to say.

Gaza is a prison, but there are people there whom we would not normally put in an ordinary prison. Young children live there, babies are born there, very elderly people live there, as do some very sick people. We should not lose sight of that. I have read reports in recent months of surgeons becoming desperate. Obviously, they have only limited access to medicines, which makes surgery more difficult in the Gaza strip.

I have read reports of surgeons accompanying very sick people to crossings in the hope of getting into the west bank, or even into Israel to its hospitals. They have communicated by radio while the ambulance is travelling or waiting at the checkpoint to see whether the Israeli Government would accept the patients as they have in the past, but surgeons have been reduced to tears because their patient has simply died. Many women die in childbirth for the same reasons—they are unable to access proper medical care.

Hospitals without electricity or generators to produce electricity because of a lack diesel obviously cannot function. The operating theatres cannot be used, which means that many people are dying and that many will die. Not only that, but 400 kidney patients are unable to access dialysis because the machines cannot function. If we do not deal with the situation as an urgent humanitarian crisis, those 400 people are on their way to death, for obvious reasons. Children are born in temperatures of minus 3° C. People think that the middle east is a warm place, but temperatures plunge at night, and babies who are born in hospitals or homes in such temperatures, particularly sick babies, will not survive.

There is no way to sterilise hospital equipment, even to carry out basic operations. Obviously, without electricity, people cannot live properly.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman is painting a picture of a dire situation in Gaza. No one can listen to what he is saying without some sympathy, but he waxed lyrical about the political imperative and the importance of Hamas gaining a democratic victory. Do the politicians of Hamas care about their own people? Does he agree
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that if they stopped firing rockets and revoked their intention to obliterate Israel, things might change for the better?

Dr. Iddon: I am sure that the politicians who run Hamas care about their own people. In fact, that is the reason why they came to power in the first place. They probably cared more about their own people, at least in the people’s perception, which might have been true, than Fatah politicians. That is why Fatah lost control in the Gaza strip and why Hamas took control. I did not wax lyrical about Hamas taking control; I simply pointed out the pure fact it was democratically elected and that western Governments have ignored it to date. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to engage with Hamas in talks, even secret talks, to try to move forward a resolution to the situation.

We are talking about the longest occupation in my lifetime. People in an occupied country have the right to resist occupation, and we often ignore that fact. I do not condone suicide bombers or rocket attacks, but people have a right to resist occupation.

Mr. Simon: Surely it is important to understand that those politicians are not politicians as we understand the word—they are terrorists. They are explicitly committed to the destruction of the state of Israel by violence and murder, which is what is happening. The reason why their hospital generators are being closed, when they still receive 70 per cent. of the fuel that they previously received, is that they have chosen to close down their hospital generators, yet they continue to build and fire 200 rockets in 10 days, which takes an enormous amount of fuel and electricity.

Dr. Iddon: Of course there are some extremists in Gaza—I do not deny it—and, obviously, some people fire rockets. However, I do not accept my hon. Friend’s statement if he is saying that all Hamas politicians are as he described.

There must be proportionality. In the first 21 days of this year, 72 Palestinians, but no Israelis, died. Of the Palestinians, six were children and eight were women. Many of them were innocent civilians—people not engaged in a war. The lack of fuel, food and medicine, and the situation in the hospitals in the Gaza strip that I described, cannot go on much longer. There is a terrible humanitarian crisis on the Gaza strip.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is my hon. Friend aware that on 26 January—this Saturday—humanitarian groups and human rights organisations in Israel will assemble a food and aid convoy that will attempt to enter the Gaza strip with very necessary medical, food and fuel supplies to support the people of Gaza? They represent a powerful voice as ordinary, decent people of Israel who are appalled at the behaviour of their Government.

Dr. Iddon: We must welcome that and hope that the aid is allowed across the crossing points. I shall be looking at that initiative with some interest.

There is a blockade. What do we do when there is a blockade? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) quoted what deputy Defence
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Minister Vilnai said. He wants to cut off the Gaza strip completely, with no supplies going in at all from the direction of Israel. Where else can they come from? The sea, the air and by land from Egypt—those are the only alternatives.

Right hon. and hon. Members have heard what I said about the Gaza-Egyptian crossing. I do not think the Israelis will want to see too many supplies coming in by land there and they guard the sea, as my hon. Friend said, so there is only one alternative to such a blockade, which is to airlift in materials. However, the Israelis have bombed the airfield—paid for, by the way, partly by the UK. The port, also paid for partly by taxpayers in this country, has been there for many years, and one can imagine the state of it now, so the only way to airlift material in is by helicopter. That means moving goods by shipping them into the Mediterranean and offloading them into the Gaza strip.

Has the Minister been involved in any talks about the possibility of an airlift, hopefully in the near future, to relieve the huge suffering that is already going on in Gaza but will get worse as the days proceed? If we are sending a ship to the Mediterranean to help the Gazans, I make a plea for it to have a decent operating facility on board, because there are some very sick people in Gaza, who need to be airlifted out and given proper medical attention as soon as possible. The situation is desperate, and I suggest to the Minister that desperate situations often need radical solutions. I accept that the airlift solution I am proposing this afternoon is radical, but it is a solution to a desperate situation.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), who asked a question that was not answered earlier, I have seen no evidence at all for what was described and I have been analysing over many years what the Israelis—in fact, it is not all Israelis, but a small number of Israelis called Zionists—have been doing in Israel. People can shoot me down on this if they do not believe me or do not want to accept the argument, but my firm belief is that the Zionists will not stop until they have control of all the biblical lands. We can analyse what happened following the talks in Oslo, Camp David, Madrid and, recently, Annapolis. After all those so-called peace talks, the Israelis have given very little. The situation has just gone on and on and on, for 60 years altogether, and we still have not seen a settlement.

Mr. Simon Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Iddon: If my hon. Friend wants to ask me a question, will he answer this: what have the Israelis done to move peace along between them and the Palestinians?

Mr. Simon: That is exactly what I was going to talk about. Surely the truth is that the whole history of the previous century is that at every crucial point, from the early years of the century through the 1930s, 1948, 1967, 2000 and Oslo, the Israelis have consistently demonstrated commitment to a two-state solution, and the Palestinians have consistently, at every point, drawn back from that. To characterise the Israelis as the ones determined to drive the Palestinians into the sea is a mangling of history.

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Dr. Iddon: Well, there is a Mr. Lieberman in the coalition Israeli Government who wants to drive the Arabs into the sea and I do not suppose that he is the only member of the Knesset or the only Israeli who wants to do that.

Finally, I have to say, especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, that not only Jewish people in the various diasporas around the world, including the UK, but thinking Jewish people who live in Israel are desperate for a solution. Polls carried out in Israel show that 75 per cent. of the people are not happy with their Prime Minister because of what has happened in Gaza and Lebanon, so I urge everyone—

Mr. Moss: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Iddon: I am about to finish. I urge everyone in the Chamber, whatever their opinions—opinions are polarised on this question—to work for the common good, which means creating a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

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