Previous Section Index Home Page

1 May 2008 : Column 463

Mr. Lidington: Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. If the wall had been constructed along the green line of 1967, the Israeli Government would have a much stronger case than they do at present. The route that the barrier has taken is clearly in breach of international law.

Let me return to the issue of a regional settlement between Israel and her Arab neighbours. I want to put on record my belief that statements such as those made recently by King Abdullah of Jordan and Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia indicate that there are senior, respected figures in the wider Arab world who can see that if a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved, the door will be open to normal relationships between neighbouring countries in the region, and to opportunities for co-operation on economic and political development, which will be of huge benefit to Arab countries and to Israel.

The decision by His Highness the Emir of Qatar to invite the Israeli Foreign Minister to attend the recent Doha forum on democracy, development and free trade should be applauded. I hope that many more such gestures will be made by Arab leaders, and that the British Government will encourage our friends in the Arab world to make it clear to Israel that huge regional opportunities will flow from a settlement with Palestine and the Arab world more generally.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Like my hon. Friend, I was at the forum. Was he, like me, impressed by the comments of Mr. Ben-Meir, the lecturer from New York university, who said that the Arab peace plan was of immense importance—indeed, was central—to achieving a solution, but that it needed to be accompanied by soft diplomacy? I think that that was my hon. Friend’s point. That is why the policy of the Arab states needs to be directed very much at the people of Israel, as well as at its Government.

Mr. Lidington: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me move on to the situation in Iraq. The Government recently announced that the planned reduction in the number of British troops in Iraq will be postponed. In his opening speech, the Minister talked about the political progress that still needs to be made in Iraq if a stable, democratic Government are to be established there; that progress will involve political leaders from all the main religious and ethnic groups in that country. He referred specifically to the provincial elections planned for later this year. Is he able to say anything further about the extent to which the continued presence of the current number of British soldiers in Iraq is dependent on that political progress in Baghdad and outside? For example, in the Government’s mind, are they tying the deployment of the current number of British troops to a successful, peaceful outcome in the provincial elections in the autumn?

We know from recent comments by General Petraeus that the Americans believe that the authorities in Iran have been supplying weapons that have been used to attack United States and British soldiers deployed in Iraq. Is it the British Government’s assessment that the Government in Iran have indeed been directly involved in the supply of such weapons, and are actively supporting attacks on members of our country’s armed forces? Clearly, if the Government have evidence that there is such a direct relationship, that has grave
1 May 2008 : Column 464
implications for the future of our relations with Iran. Like the Minister, I hope that we can establish better relationships with Iran in future—it is an important regional power—but we need progress, both in dealing with the potential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons and on the potential threat to our soldiers on active service in Iraq.

12.44 pm

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): The conflict in the middle east is the biggest challenge that the world faces. Resolution of this issue is the key to peace in the region, and its stability will affect many countries around the world. It is more than 40 years since UN resolution 242. That is 40 years of disappointment, failure, and failed opportunities for peace, for which the entire international community, particularly the United States, should take responsibility.

It is clear that Palestine is in crisis. There is an obvious political crisis in the region, and there is an economic crisis, with few jobs and little prosperity, but more urgently there is a real humanitarian crisis, particularly in Gaza. The UN has declared Gaza to be

Israel has closed Gaza’s borders, surrounding it with a wall that, in effect, makes Gaza an open prison with 1.5 million inmates, and placing the area under siege. The shutdown has left the area without fuel, regular electricity, vital medical supplies and food. More than 70 per cent. of the population are unemployed, and 80 per cent. rely on food from UN food programmes.

The largest hospital in the Palestinian territories, the al-Shifa hospital, is on its knees, with scant resources and staff who frequently go unpaid. The hospital has run out of up to 130 of the 450 medicines that the World Health Organisation considers essential, and has less than three months’ supply of another 80. The blockade means that there is a fuel shortage, and fuel is five times more expensive in Gaza than in Jerusalem. Electricity is supplied to Gaza for only 12 hours a day, and the hospital relies on generators, but the fuel shortage means that they, too, will one day stop, with potentially devastating consequences. Dr. Hassan Khalaf, director of the hospital, estimates that if the hospital were to lose all electricity, 80 patients, including 15 premature babies in incubators, would die within 30 minutes. It is not only basic medical supplies that are not being allowed in; vital machinery and spare parts are not getting through, although they would allow maintenance work to be done on damaged equipment that could help to save so many more lives.

Added to that are almost daily air strikes and land incursions from Israeli forces that have targeted homes, schools and hospitals and have killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The strikes have also damaged water pipes, meaning that raw sewage is being pumped into the sea, destroying the fishing industry and contaminating any fish that are caught. We must be clear that denying people medicines, fuel, food, employment and hope has nothing to do with security. That unjustified action is collective punishment of 1.5 million people because of the actions of a few individuals.

We must not allow the people of Gaza to feel as though the world has forgotten them or that they are
1 May 2008 : Column 465
second-class citizens. The international community must do everything that it can to alleviate their sufferings. Peace is not an impossible dream; peace is possible, but only if the international community and those on both sides of the conflict recognise that every life, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is equal. Every life is equal, and every life is precious.

The Israelis must first end the siege, let basic supplies in and show the people that they should have hope. We can then negotiate a fair and just political settlement, so that Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace. If either side is serious about peace, the only way is through dialogue. Bombings and the siege will only prolong the problem.

We must ensure that we support the peacemakers on both sides of the conflict and help them to fend off the radicals and extremists on both sides, who seek to divide for their own ends. The international community, including America, must recognise three basic principles. First, the killing of innocent people in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon by bombs, missile attacks, assassinations or any other form of violence cannot be condoned and must be condemned. Secondly, Israel has the right to exist within recognised borders and live in peace. That must be recognised by all its neighbours. Thirdly, Palestinians must be able to live in peace, dignity and without fear in their own land, as specified by international law. We should give the Palestinians the support that they need to build institutions, and ensure that those institutions are respected by Israel and the rest of the world.

12.50 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I agreed with much of what the Minister said in his tour de force across the middle east. I hope he will excuse me if I do not comment on all the issues that he dealt with. I shall focus on Israel-Palestine.

The Minister did not mention the Government’s view on reports that Israel and Syria may be thinking about talking and actively pursuing peace negotiations. The worrying intervention by the Americans almost seemed designed to try to stop those talks at first base. Will the Minister support that initiative? It reflects some of the movement with a number of Arab states in the region, to which the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred.

Many of those states are concerned about the growth in the strength of Iran. We all know that one of the many damaging consequences of the Iraq war has been to strengthen the hand of Iran in the region, whether through the proliferation of their weapons of mass destruction or their influence through funding Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest. The appalling hand of Iran is all over that region, and many of the Arab states are extremely concerned about that. Many of those states are therefore willing to try to go the extra mile to persuade the Palestinians and other Arab countries that they need to act. Part of the solution to stopping Iran is to get a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation. Talks between Israel and Syria, which may be symbolic of the movement of many Arab states, should be supported by us. If Israel is keen to go that extra mile, it should be encouraged.

1 May 2008 : Column 466

Hon. Members in all parts of the House support a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state that is genuinely viable and sustainable. That is why many will have been concerned to see the recent comments of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she believes the window for a two-state solution is closing fast. I do not think she welcomes that at all; she is merely reflecting some of the concerns on the ground, where the strength of the moderate Palestinians is being undermined. The increasing new settlements and the existing settlements in the west bank make the geography of a Palestinian state there even more difficult, turning that territory into a Swiss cheese, in President Bush’s words.

Peace talks are always urgent, but never more urgent than now. We all recognise the need to make a success of Annapolis. Hopefully, the talks of the Quartet in London tomorrow will go well. There is the prospect of a future conference in Moscow. Let us hope that that can happen. There are continuing talks promoted by Egypt to see whether there can be a ceasefire that Israel is prepared to accept. Let us hope that that happens. Whether through the Egyptian talks or otherwise, it is vital to persuade Hamas to stop firing rockets on Israel. It is equally vital that Israel is persuaded to stop the economic blockade of Gaza.

There are many barriers to progress on those fronts. The weakness of both sides in negotiations is probably the main one. If Hamas could meet the criteria of the Quartet, not least by recognising Israel and ceasing violence, that would be a major step forward, but given that that is unlikely in the immediate future, we must consider some of the small steps that can be made if the sides are to show willing.

One of those small steps relates to the economic blockade. Israel should move first on that. There is a moral case for Israel to move forward on removing parts of the blockade, particularly on health and water and sewage. In Palestine now there are lakes of untreated sewage, which are a massive health hazard and could contaminate water supplies for Israel. It is against their own interests, so I call on the Israeli Government—and on our Government to pressurise them—to enable that sewage to be dealt with urgently, through fuel supplies, electricity supplies or whatever other support is necessary. I was reading a BBC report which referred to a massive lake. If the dykes burst, there would be a tsunami of sewage, potentially swamping an area inhabited by 10,000 people. Do the Israelis want to allow that to happen? We must act on that. It is very much in the Israelis’ interest to do so.

I read another report from the BBC which would be another small step towards building confidence. Former Israeli generals who had responsibility for security on the west bank, working with senior Palestinian officials, proposed dismantling checkpoints. As the Minister knows, there are 500 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks on the west bank, which throttle the west bank economy. The report, published recently, spoke about dismantling 10 of the main ones. That could give a boost to the west bank economy and be a major step forward in promoting good will.

In the six minutes that we have to cover the middle east, those are a few brief comments, which I hope the Minister finds constructive.

1 May 2008 : Column 467
12.56 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am grateful to be called in a debate which, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, is timely not just for the reasons that he gave, but because it gives me the opportunity to report back briefly on the trip to the west bank, Gaza and Israel that four of us undertook two weeks ago. I was accompanied by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather).

What we saw in Gaza was exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) described, but it was worse than that. What we saw was a place being starved of aid and help. Ninety-three million dollars of UN money is sitting there in the bank to be spent on housing for homeless people and people in bombed-out houses. The money cannot be used because Israel will not let the cement or the concrete through the border. For the same reason the sewage works that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned are not being repaired. It is not lack of money, but the fact that the cement and the concrete are not available.

Gaza is half the size of my High Peak constituency, but there are 1.5 million people living there, of whom 1 million are living in poverty, and it is getting worse. We met two boys in Shifa hospital, an 18-year-old who had had both his legs blown off by an Israeli missile three days earlier, and a 14-year-old with one arm and the whole of his abdomen removed by an Israeli weapon three days earlier who had been denied permission to move to a hospital in Israel in order to get treatment. I am certain, two weeks on, that that young man is dead, like many other victims of the conflict.

Our trip to Gaza was marked in its final seconds by being 50 yd away from a Kassam missile going off as we went through the Erez crossing. That gave us, for a brief moment, a feeling of how people on both sides of the border feel in the pervading air of uncertainty, never knowing when that weapon is going to come across. No notice is given—such things happen out of the blue. I was told that of all those sad and pathetic missiles that are launched by individuals out of Gaza at random at the people over the Israeli border, a third do not even reach Israel and fall on Gaza territory. Things cannot get more sad, pathetic and amateurish than that, against the might of the sophisticated military force deployed by the Israelis in that area.

We made a point of going to Sderot in Israel, where we saw the same thing. It is a city in which 7,000 of those weapons have fallen in recent years. They have killed 11 people. I know that the issue is not one of score cards and scoring off one side against the other, but the day after we were there the Israelis killed 18 in retaliation for the bombs that had been sent over the border. In Sderot, 500 people had been injured and countless houses and property had been damaged. The people there are angry because they do not think that they are getting the support that they want from the Israeli Government; last year, they were in Tel Aviv protesting about that.

I think that there is an insidious reason why those people have to stay and are being kept in Sderot. When
1 May 2008 : Column 468
the Israelis left Gaza, they destroyed factories and jobs and, in effect, exported the jobs to Israel. Unemployment in Israel is at 8 per cent.; unemployment in Sderot is at only 3 per cent. If someone wants to leave Sderot, how will they find a job elsewhere and sell their house? I think that it is in the Israelis’ interest for the people of Sderot to be sitting ducks next to the border and targets for the sad and pathetic weapons that come over daily. In Israeli eyes, that justifies what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central correctly identified as collective punishment.

I want to finish by talking about Azzun, the village that we visited on the west bank. I had never heard of it before; it is a village of 10,000 people just outside Kalkiliya. From the border of Azzun, the Israeli wall, mentioned earlier, can be seen. At that point, the wall is 20 km from the internationally agreed green line. Azzun has lost a third of its agricultural land to new settlers, who have moved in not only from Gaza, having been relocated, but from America, Ukraine and all over the world, and for whom settlements have been built illegally by the Israelis in the occupied territories.

In the centre of Azzun is a fountain, only about 100 m from the main road that passes the village. In January, there were a series of incidents in which children were throwing stones at settlers’ passing cars. That month, Israeli forces came in and set up roadblocks—mounds of earth—on every road around Azzun, put razor wire on top of the mounds and did not let anyone in or out of the village for weeks. Children coming from other villages for their education, and vehicles with food, were turned back. The major employers of the village lost three quarters of their employees within days, and were simply not able to trade.

I do not know whether those children had been put up to throwing stones; my guess is that children will be children, and children in occupied territories tend to express their parents’ frustration. Whether prompted by the stones or anything else, the Israeli forces went in and on 30 separate occasions—both during and prior to that period—imposed a total 24-hour curfew, not letting people out of their houses. Israeli soldiers were smashing street lamps at night and playing loud music after midnight to keep people awake. That really is collective punishment. Thirty-five children from Azzun disappeared during the weeks of the siege. Many were taken without charge to a prison in the Negev desert—taken to another country to be put in prison illegally. Two weeks ago, 15 of them had not returned and they were not allowed visits from their families, or representatives of them, while they were away.

The week before we went to Azzun, most of the roadblocks came down; the day before we arrived, the last of the military patrols left. Although the main roadblock was still in place, pedestrians were at least using that route, and vehicles were using other routes, in and out of the village. It was collective punishment—people were being made to pay the price for having settlers on their doorsteps and daring to live on the route planned for the wall.

Today, the people of Israel are observing Holocaust remembrance day, and it is absolutely right that none of us should ever forget how Jewish people suffered during the holocaust. However, that suffering must never be an excuse for the collective punishment by means of the illegal wall, which takes 10 per cent. of
1 May 2008 : Column 469
the west bank into Israel. It is not an excuse for illegal settlements with their own road networks and whose economies are split on a principle of separate development—or apartheid, as it used to be called in South Africa. Nor is that suffering an excuse for the economic strangulation of the west bank and Palestine. It is not an excuse for the disrespect for human rights on detention or for collective punishment—which is illegal, whatever form it takes.

I commend my hon. Friend the Minister, his Department and the Department for International Development for their work in trying to get aid through—especially to that prison called Gaza. I am not a religious person, but I do pray that the talks will be successful in the end.

Next Section Index Home Page