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15 Jan 2009 : Column 396


2.24 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): I beg to move,

The situation in Gaza and southern Israel is a grave crisis of enormous concern to every Member of this House. The Government know that hon. Members wanted an opportunity to debate the situation and to question the Government. I am pleased that we have been able to make Government time available during the first week back to enable that to happen. Accordingly, I shall be as brief as I can to allow as many hon. Members as possible to contribute. I ask hon. Members to take account of that need when it comes to making interventions.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all come to the House this week to reiterate the Government’s determination to achieve an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza. We have been working intensively since the crisis began to end the violence but, as everyone in the House is all too well aware, the situation is not improving. The Palestinian death toll has passed 1,000—including a chilling 300 children—and dozens more rocket attacks have been fired into Israel in recent days.

The conflict has had a devastating impact on innocent civilians, women and children among them. Gazans have no way of escaping the violence. They are trapped as services collapse still further, as food and medicines dwindle and violence surrounds them. But this did not begin on 27 December. For many months, rockets fired from Gaza have terrorised the citizens of southern Israel, and Gazans have lived under suffocating restrictions that have deprived them of even the basics.

The Gaza ceasefire between June and December 2008 provided only a very limited lull. Over 300 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. Over 15 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli action, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza continued its decline. Few were surprised when that unhappy lull finally cracked, first in November and finally with Hamas declaring it “dead” on 18 December, after which it fired almost 300 rockets in eight days.

Hamas made a brutal choice to step up attacks against innocent civilians. Its whole ethos is one of violence. It has rejected the legitimate Palestinian Authority and ejected that authority by force from Gaza. Nothing, not the restrictions on Gaza nor its frustration with the peace process, justifies what Hamas has done and continues to do. In December, I was in Ashkelon near the Gaza border and I heard the sirens. The fear was palpable: this is daily psychological and actual warfare.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. I understand and appreciate the fear felt by Israelis, but reports that appear to be substantiated suggest that white phosphorus is being used in the very cramped areas of Gaza. I have used white phosphorus: it is legitimate only as a smokescreen, although it is an incendiary. If it hits a person’s skin, it will burn until it is wasted out. That appears to be happening and it is, I
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fear, totally unacceptable. Will he confirm whether he knows that white phosphorus is being used in civilian areas?

Bill Rammell: I share the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I shall deal with that point explicitly later in my speech.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned Hamas a moment ago, but is he aware that the former Foreign Office diplomat, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, takes a quite different view? He has very detailed knowledge of the area, and his characterisation of Hamas is very different from what the Minister has put to us today.

Bill Rammell: I know former ambassador Jeremy Greenstock very well, as does my hon. Friend. I believe that Hamas has a consistent track record of using terror and violence. We should oppose that, but I shall try to give a more balanced picture as I develop my remarks, and to take some other interventions.

It is also true that the Israeli operation has wrought a terrible toll in Gaza. With the conflict continuing and journalists barred from entering, the picture that we have is partial, but the reported death toll has risen past 1,000 dead, including over 300 children. In Gaza, 80 per cent. of the drinking water is not safe for human consumption. Gaza’s already crumbling infrastructure has been degraded still further. Those trying to help must run the gauntlet of fighting, or work only during the inadequate three-hour window. Too many are paying with their own lives—13 medical personnel have been killed since 27 December, and attacks on medical personnel and ambulances have hampered organisations’ ability to assist the injured.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I, too, have been in both Sderot and Gaza and I accept that there are two sides to the story, but they are not equal—100 Palestinian children have died for every Israeli citizen. Will my hon. Friend comment on the legality of the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza, which is what we are witnessing?

Bill Rammell rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the Minister replies, the House will have noticed that Mr. Speaker has put a time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but under the ruling one minute is added for every intervention. If there are too many interventions, much as the Minister is amenable to taking them, I am afraid that other Members who want to make a contribution later in the debate may be prejudiced by that.

Bill Rammell: That point is well made, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), I should say that I understand the concerns about disproportionality. We have made clear our view that the Israeli reaction is disproportionate. I will come on to address the other points as I make progress.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Before my hon. Friend moves on—

Bill Rammell: No. I shall make progress, if I may. The point about the number of hon. Members wishing to speak is clear.

We recognise Israel’s right to self-defence but, as I said, the EU presidency stated on 27 December that the Israelis’ use of force is disproportionate. We supported that statement and we continue to support it.

There has also been a real concern about the use of white phosphorous by Israel. The use of white phosphorous is not banned under international law, but we have made it abundantly clear to the Israelis that it should not be used as an anti-personnel weapon, and most certainly not in a civilian environment. Its use in built-up areas such as Gaza is, bluntly, unacceptable.

The shelling this morning in Gaza of the UN compound is indefensible and unacceptable, and Israel has acknowledged that fact.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Exactly. Is it my hon. Friend’s intention to report the Israeli Government to the International Crisis Group or to the war crimes tribunal?

Bill Rammell: If I may make some progress, I shall address that specific point later in my remarks.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Bill Rammell: Very briefly.

Tom Levitt: Anyone who has visited Gaza knows exactly how dependent ordinary people are on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Is not the bombing of the UNRWA compound the height of cynicism in what is already a very cynical military attack?

Bill Rammell: I have made it very clear, and it is the collective view of the Government, that that bombing is indefensible and unacceptable.

As the Foreign Secretary said earlier this week,

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider economic sanctions? They are an effective tool of non-violent intervention. Surely with the right to trade comes the responsibility to uphold basic humanitarian principles.

Bill Rammell: I respect the passion and conviction of my hon. Friend. She has spoken to me privately about her concerns. I genuinely do not believe that economic sanctions will help us. There is nothing like consensus for them within the European Union, and our overriding
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focus at present is to get that urgent, immediate and sustainable ceasefire. I do not believe that sanctions would help us to do that.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: I will make some progress and take some more interventions.

One of my real fears is that current actions risk fuelling extremism in the region and undermining those who argue for negotiation and peace.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the Minister join me in hoping that the peace negotiations currently going on in Egypt, which I am sure everyone in the House prays will bring peace to the region, must include firm commitments that Egypt will police its border to make sure that much-needed humanitarian aid gets in, but that no weapons get in with it.

Bill Rammell: I will take care with what I say on that. The talks that are taking place are critical. We are doing our level best to push those talks forward and I hope that they can reach a conclusion very shortly.

There needs to be a balance in this debate. We should be absolutely clear that Hamas is not a benign organisation. It commits acts of terrorism, it is committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and its statement last week that it was legitimate to kill Jewish children anywhere in the world was utterly chilling and beyond any kind of civilised, humanitarian norm.

All this has to stop. A ceasefire is an absolute imperative if innocent civilians are to be spared. We have long called for an end to the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians and for greater access to Gaza. And since the Israeli operation began, we have consistently called for an immediate and sustainable halt to the violence, and we have been at the forefront of those arguing for this to stop.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): How near are we to a permanent ceasefire as a result of the current discussions in Egypt? What Israel is doing in Gaza at the moment is totally unacceptable.

Bill Rammell: It is unacceptable on all sides. In the midst of this, and given the incredibly detailed and sensitive negotiations that are going on, it would be foolhardy of me to pluck a prediction out of the air. What I can promise my hon. Friend is that the Government, through the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, me and others, are doing everything they can to bring forward the ceasefire.

Mr. MacNeil: Sadly, Israel’s behaviour at the moment makes it look like a rogue state to those of us who have not been involved with the situation. I am hearing the Government’s words of condemnation, but what will they do to make Israel understand that its behaviour is beyond the pale for a democracy?

Bill Rammell: We have communicated that directly to the Israeli Government both privately and publicly in respect of the use of white phosphorous. On the other
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issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I should say, as I have said a number of times, that I will come on to address them directly.

Several hon. Members rose

Bill Rammell: I shall make some progress, then take a further intervention.

On 27 December, with our support, the UN Security Council called for an immediate halt to the fighting. Since then, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been working intensively with their international counterparts to deliver such a ceasefire. In a meeting with EU Ministers on 30 December and at the UN Security Council on 8 January, the Foreign Secretary secured international consensus around that call. I am proud that our Government led the way in securing last week’s Security Council statement urging a ceasefire. The British-drafted Security Council resolution 1860 shows real agreement on a clear set of objectives: first, an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire; secondly, meeting the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza; and, thirdly, meeting Israelis’ security needs, which must be tackled through new measures on illegal arms trafficking.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): When that resolution was being negotiated, I was meeting some 30 constituents in Slough. The carnage wreaked by Israel in Gaza has created a sense of alienation among them, because they believe that our Government are not delivering peace and security for the people of Palestine. They believe that we ought to be able to do that and feel let down by the Government, because there has been so little effect.

Bill Rammell: I say in all sincerity to my hon. Friend that I understand that concern. In the past two weeks, I have talked with numerous groups in detail about the issues. I cannot give a guarantee; the British Government do not have the capacity to mandate a ceasefire. We are doing our level best in the circumstances. We were at the forefront of those calling immediately for a ceasefire. We led the way at the United Nations to secure resolution 1860. Whatever people feel and whatever criticisms they may have made in the past—about what happened in Lebanon in 2006, for example—that is not where we are today, and that is not what the British Government are doing.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Will the Government take a lead on a further UN resolution? The Minister has called the attacks with white phosphorous unacceptable, but he will be aware that Israel has not ratified the treaty setting up the International Criminal Court. The only way for the court to have jurisdiction to investigate the matter is if the UN refers it via another resolution. Will the Government take a lead on that issue and ask the UN to do that?

Bill Rammell: We have consistently argued that all states should accede to the International Criminal Court, and we will continue to make that call.

Several hon. Members rose

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Bill Rammell: I shall make some progress and then take a couple more interventions, but I am very conscious of the time scale this afternoon.

The final objective is that we must re-energise the peace process. The crisis is an indictment of the international community’s collective failure—over years and decades, not just months—to bring about the two-state solution and create a positive vision for the future. The Foreign Secretary has set out our vision for a more comprehensive approach bringing peace between Israel and the whole Arab world. The crisis has deepened popular scepticism about such a peace and further entrenched the division in Palestinian politics, with real economic progress on the Palestinian Authority-controlled west bank while Gazans suffer ever more. We do not underestimate the challenge, but we must ensure that we work to resolve the real issues at stake, or we will simply stumble on to the next crisis.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend accept that Israel is correct in trying to stop its citizens being the target of Iranian rockets—that it is right to take that action? Will he also accept that the Israeli action will stop when the rockets stop?

Bill Rammell: Let me say to my hon. Friend that I understand that concern. Israel does have a right to self-defence. I was in Ashkelon, and I have experienced the psychological and military aspects of the terror on Israel—but the Israeli action has been disproportionate. On both sides, we need to get to that ceasefire as quickly as we possibly can.

Several hon. Members rose

Bill Rammell: With respect, I want to proceed with my speech, and then I will take one more intervention.

It is now a week since the Security Council passed resolution 1860, but the violence goes on. Every day that it does, more people suffer. Egypt, which brokered the previous lull, is now leading efforts to broker a more sustainable ceasefire. The issues are complex. We all wish that these talks would move faster, and we are doing everything we can to bring that about. The European Union is ready to send its border mission back to the Rafah crossing or to expand its mandate. We are pressing hard for action and ready to assist in making a ceasefire sustainable.

Very serious allegations have been made against both sides. We take those allegations very seriously indeed, and they have to be fully investigated. The reality is that the allegations cannot be properly investigated while the violence continues. The Israeli authorities have said that they are already investigating specific incidents raised by the aid agencies. The United Nations human rights bodies also have a mandate to report on any such violations. As soon as there is a ceasefire and proper access to Gaza, thorough investigations must—I repeat, must—begin in earnest. We will consider very carefully the results of investigations once they are available, and at that stage the parties and the international community will need to decide on further action.

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