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12 Jan 2009 : Column 29

The hon. Gentleman raised an important question in respect of the arms embargo, and I want to confirm that our position remains exactly as described. No arms exports are granted where there is a clear risk that those arms could be used for internal repression or external aggression, and that is surveyed very closely. Also, we have no evidence of any of the exports that he has pointed to being used in this operation. As for some of the allegations that are around—for example, in The Guardian on Friday, which the hon. Gentleman did not repeat, but it might help the House if I make this point clear—there is no truth in the suggestion that those exports are used by the IDF or are being used by the IDF in this operation. I assure him that the criteria that we use remain very strict, and they were recently examined in judicial review to confirm the way that they operate.

On Syria, I have indeed twice spoken to the Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem to urge on him that if he does want to advance the Palestinian cause, he needs to argue for the ceasefire that is so desperately needed.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I note the rather cosy consensus between the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), but I can assure the Foreign Secretary that it is not shared by all of us. On armaments for Israel, he said just a moment ago that he would very much like to see the prevention of arms going to terrorist organisations. That is the case for everybody in this House, and on the basis of what we have just heard and what he himself just said, will he undertake to ensure that no arms at all go to Israel at the moment, given that it is guilty in many people’s eyes of state-sponsored terrorism with its activities in the Gaza strip?

David Miliband: As I said in my statement, I do not think that it is right or appropriate to compare a democratic state with a terrorist organisation or an organisation that uses terrorist means, and I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will agree with that. On arms sales to Israel, I wish to emphasise that if there is a clear risk that armaments would be used for internal repression or external aggression, those exports do not take place, and those rules are, in my view, right.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Even at this dark hour, when the situation is clearly desperate, is there not the faint sign of a glimmer of hope on the horizon? Is it not the case that only the President of the United States has the means to secure the concessions from both sides that are necessary to achieve a viable Palestinian state and a lasting settlement? Is it not therefore welcome that President-elect Obama has said that despite all the many other challenges he faces, he will make this region an immediate issue of priority for him, in sharp contrast to the neglect of the current American Administration?

David Miliband: I am worried about any suggestion that there would be a cosy consensus, but it might be more welcome to have a consensus on the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made. He is, of course, right to say that the current crisis in Gaza is, in part, an indictment of a delay in engagement by the international community, including the United States, in resolving this issue. He is also right to say that the issue cannot be resolved without the United States. My
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own sense is that, in many ways, this crisis, this war, this conflict makes the job of the Obama Administration more difficult, but it makes their early engagement more necessary. I believe that there are people at the top of the Obama Administration, led by the President-elect himself, who recognise that this is not just a regional issue, but a global one. It concerns us all and I very much look forward to the engagement from day one, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I agree is necessary, of the new Administration on the issue.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I support all efforts to bring about a speedy and peaceful solution to this dreadful conflict. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that to do that, he must address the responsibility of Hamas for this dreadful situation? That includes the statements in Hamas’s charter that propose to make Israel the subject of an Islamic Waqf for ever, that promote jihad and the cult of death and extol martyrdom, as well as Hamas’s practice of callously booby-trapping civilian areas and deliberately encouraging the deaths of civilians in Gaza today.

David Miliband: Certainly many statements by Hamas are grotesque and chilling, and it is essential that Hamas plays its part in achieving, at least in the short term, the ceasefire that is necessary and, in the longer term, the Palestinian reconciliation that will be essential to provide some leadership for the Palestinian people which can negotiate with Israel. The centrality of the conflict goes to the heart of the fact that for a Palestinian state to be viable it must include Gaza and the west bank—there are 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. At stake in this conflict is the viability of that future Palestinian state, which is essential for Israel’s security as well as for justice for the Palestinians. That is why the stakes are so high and why all must play their part. It was precisely that point that I made late at night in New York when the resolution was adopted; I talked about the responsibilities that there are on all sides—not just on Israel, Hamas and the regional players, but on the wider international community—if this running sore is to be addressed.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In agreeing particularly with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, may I ask that after he leaves the House and goes back to the Foreign Office he will summon the Israeli ambassador and say to him calmly but clearly that many of us who have been in this House for a very long time and who have been proud to call ourselves friends of Israel now feel ashamed because Israel is not behaving as a civilised state should behave?

David Miliband: I am sure that even if the Government of Israel and their ambassador are not watching this statement and discussion, they will be following its contents later in the day. We are in close touch not only with the ambassador of Israel but, directly, with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Israel. It is very important that this does not become an argument about whether or not one is pro or anti-Israel or pro or anti-Palestinian; the peace about which all hon. Members have spoken needs to be peace both for Israelis and Palestinians—that is at the heart of this issue.

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): In welcoming the genuine efforts that my right hon. Friend has made to bring about a ceasefire and the emphasis that he has put on the need for rocket attacks on southern Israel to cease, will he agree that at a time when the UN has estimated that the death toll stands at 884 people dead in Gaza, 275 of them children, we should now say to Israel that abiding by international law is not an optional extra to be implemented at a time that it finds convenient, but a requirement on it? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as a high contracting party to the fourth Geneva convention, Britain has a responsibility to ensure the protection of civilians in time of war? Finally, when there are rumours of an international force being deployed in Gaza or on its borders, can he assure me that such a force, if deployed, will have a remit that includes the protection of Palestinian civilians just as much as of Israeli civilians, and the ensuring of access into Gaza just as much as preventing the smuggling of arms into Gaza?

David Miliband: It is important to condemn all loss of innocent life, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It is also important, to reiterate what I said in my statement, that member states of the UN and democratic states are deliberately held to higher standards. They should certainly adhere to the various conventions to which they have appended their signatures. That is why I referred in my statement to the importance of international humanitarian law.

In respect of a force in Gaza, it would be premature to pre-empt some of the discussions that are going on, and some of the very difficult issues that are associated with them, but certainly any observer or other force would need to ensure that it defended civilians without fear or favour. It is premature to talk about that at this stage, given the emphasis on opening the crossings and the smuggling issue. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): But is not the blunt truth that while we discuss this the Israeli Government persist in disproportionate military action, using F-15s, F-16s, Apache helicopters and tanks at a terrible cost to human life? If any other democratic state were behaving in that way, would we not by now be considering what other economic and diplomatic steps were available to us? Are the Government considering any such steps?

David Miliband: We do not believe that economic sanctions on Israel are the way to engage or to influence Israel—[Hon. Members: “Why not?”] We do not believe that the isolation of Israel is the way to achieve influence with it. We should give the same clear message in public and in private, as the Prime Minister and I—and every other representative of the Government—have done over the past three weeks. Of course, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that the scale of the killing has put this issue on the global agenda in a way that is, even in the middle east, unprecedented in the nature of its coverage. That is why everything must be done to deliver the ceasefire that we all agree needs to happen immediately.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I was present some years ago in Jenin, during the siege of Jenin. I saw then the refusal of the Israelis to allow humanitarian aid to
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be provided to those who were injured and sick. Now we see that yet again. It is an absolute disgrace that any country that calls itself a democracy refuses to allow the humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to those who are desperately in need.

I also think that the exclusion of journalists from the area is totally unacceptable. Were it not for al-Jazeera, we would see no pictures on television of the suffering and destruction taking place in Gaza at present. Will my right hon. Friend make the point that it is essential to allow journalists access?

David Miliband: I agree on both points with my right hon. Friend—the entry of journalists, to which I referred in my statement, and the essential nature of the humanitarian obligations that Israel needs to follow. The points that the humanitarian NGOs made today—not only about the medical situation, but about food and fuel—deserve not just to be heard, but to be acted on.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Would the Foreign Secretary not agree that those who so vigorously criticise Israel would carry greater credibility if they had made similar criticisms over the years of the suicide bombings and rocket attacks deliberately aimed at civilians in Israel? I completely agree with him that we need to see a two-state solution, but may I urge him to recognise that if we are to achieve such a solution it will be achieved largely with the leverage of the United States not through the United Nations, the Quartet or the European Union? With a new United States Administration there is really a chance, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to use whatever influence he has with them to get their full commitment. We very nearly got there in 2001 at the end of the Clinton Administration at Camp David and then at Taba. Those positions could now be built on because they are endorsed by most of the Arab countries in the Arab peace initiative. There truly is an opportunity for Mr. Obama.

David Miliband: The whole House can be in no doubt that that will be at the top of our agenda when I meet and talk to Mrs. Clinton straight after 20 January.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In congratulating my right hon. Friend on steering resolution 1860 through the United Nations Security Council, may I ask him what the international reaction would be if Hamas had slaughtered nearly 900 Israelis and subjected nearly 1.5 million Israelis to degradation and deprivation? Is it not an incontrovertible fact that Olmert, Livni and Barak are mass-murderers and war criminals— [ Interruption. ] Yes. And they bring shame on the Jewish people whose star of David they use as a flag in Gaza, but whose ethos and morals go completely against what this Israeli Government are doing.

David Miliband: I think that the history and origins of the state of Israel make this conflict especially acute, especially distressing and especially painful. However, Israel should be held to the same standards as other nation states. The Jewish people have suffered enough for their history and deserve to be held to the same standards as every other nation state. I believe that the obligations that they have need to be fully implemented without fear. They need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The democracy that Israel rightly treasures,
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which is rightly seen as a beacon throughout the world, needs to ensure that the actions of its Government fully adhere to the country’s obligations.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Has the Foreign Secretary warned the Government of Israel that despite the very grave provocation they have suffered, they are acting contrary to the laws of war?

David Miliband: I have not given Israel any legal position of that kind, but at all stages I have stressed the importance of the commitments that all member states of the United Nations have, both in advance of the conflict and during it. It is right, therefore, that we say that any abuse should be properly investigated promptly and expeditiously.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend agree that any ceasefire must involve both sides and, in particular, an end to rocketing by Hamas and the smuggling of arms? Would he also confirm that the Foreign Ministry of Egypt, which also has a closed border with Gaza, warned Hamas immediately before the Israeli action that it should cease the rocketing when it fired 60 rockets at Israel immediately before the visit of the Foreign Minister of Israel to Egypt to try to broker peace?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend is right that leaders across the Arab world had been warning Hamas for some time not to provoke Israel. Equally, they had been warning Israel not to respond to the provocation.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary agree that Hamas appears to love Palestine more than it loves the Palestinians, given its willingness, as far as we can understand, to put rocket launchers and other military assets in the vicinity of mosques, schools and other civilian institutions? Will the Foreign Secretary indicate whether the information available to him confirms that that has been part of Hamas’s tactics in the recent past?

David Miliband: I would put nothing past Hamas. It is important to remember that there is not only a Hamas leadership in Gaza but a Hamas leadership in Damascus, which is rather a long way removed from the conflict and is participating in all the talks while perhaps suffering less of the immediate pressure that the Hamas leadership in Gaza is under. Gaza, as everyone has read in their newspapers over the past few weeks is, quote, unquote, the most densely populated place in the world. I have no direct evidence of the sort that the right hon. and learned Gentleman provides but it is obvious to anyone who wants to look that Hamas makes at a minimum no effort to shield its civilians. There is a pretty good suggestion that it is quite happy to see the distinction between the interests of Palestinians and the notion of Palestine for which it claims to speak to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend accept that condemnation has brought no relief to the people of Gaza? The killing goes on. Is it not time for stronger action? Is it not time that we expelled the ambassador of Israel and brought our ambassador back from Israel? Is it not time that we called for international sanctions against Israel?

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David Miliband: My hon. Friend is right to say that there has been a collective failure, because the internationally expressed will of the community of nations has not been followed either by Hamas or by Israel. However, I do not agree that a policy of isolation would help either Britain’s influence or the prospects of peace in the middle east. It is very important that we continue to speak without fear or favour on these issues—that we speak publicly, using occasions such as this, but that we use the opportunity to speak privately as well.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): If and when the terrible bombing of Gaza ever finishes, what hope does the Foreign Secretary have for the reconstruction of Gaza? It is all very well international Governments pledging aid to the Palestinian people, but if there is still an embargo on concrete and construction materials crossing from Israel to Gaza, we shall not be able to do the rebuilding that those people desperately need.

David Miliband: That is precisely why the opening of the crossings on the 2005 basis is so important. However, it would be the height of complacency to stand here watching the conflict and talk about hopes for peaceful post-conflict reconstruction. The truth is that none of us yet knows the full scale of the devastation that has taken place or the extent to which the infrastructure has been destroyed, but I can tell the hon. Lady that aid agencies as well as Governments are thinking about both the immediate and the medium term, which we desperately need to do. However, political infrastructure as well as concrete infrastructure will be important if the people of Gaza are ever to be relieved from their current suffering.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Would the Foreign Secretary agree that the terrible horror unleashed in and around Gaza represents an epic failure of foreign policy on all sides and that we need a new approach? The messages coming from President-elect Obama’s team, reported at the end of last week—making direct contact with opponents, including Hamas and seeking to negotiate an end to the conflict—stand a much better prospect of succeeding, because in the end we do not solve conflicts such as this by military means, as we learned in Northern Ireland. We solve them politically.

David Miliband: We do indeed solve them politically and I believe a new approach is on the table. It is a comprehensive approach to the problems of the middle east, recognising that while the Israel-Palestine conflict is the core of the middle east problems, issues in respect of Syria and of Lebanon and the Golan heights and the Shebbaa farms are also part of the picture, as is the fundamental fact that in the end security for Israel does not come from the Palestinian state alone—it comes from the normalisation of relations with the whole of the Arab world. That is why before the Christmas break we were talking in the House about the importance not just of a two-state solution but of a 23-state solution. I believe that new approach will be essential, more akin to the approach of the Madrid negotiations than the Annapolis negotiations.

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