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Israel was born out of Jewish terrorism. Jewish terrorists hanged two British sergeants and booby-trapped their corpses. Irgun, together with the terrorist Stern gang, massacred 254 Palestinians in 1948 in the village of
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Deir Yassin. Today, the current Israeli Government indicate that they would be willing, in circumstances acceptable to them, to negotiate with the Palestinian President Abbas of Fatah. It is too late for that. They could have negotiated with Fatah’s previous leader, Yasser Arafat, who was a friend of mine. Instead, they besieged him in a bunker in Ramallah, where I visited him. Because of the failings of Fatah since Arafat’s death, Hamas won the Palestinian election in 2006. Hamas is a deeply nasty organisation, but it was democratically elected, and it is the only game in town. The boycotting of Hamas, including by our Government, has been a culpable error, from which dreadful consequences have followed.

The great Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, with whom I campaigned for peace on many platforms, said:

However many Palestinians the Israelis murder in Gaza, they cannot solve this existential problem by military means. Whenever and however the fighting ends, there will still be 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and 2.5 million more on the west bank. They are treated like dirt by the Israelis, with hundreds of road blocks and with the ghastly denizens of the illegal Jewish settlements harassing them as well. The time will come, not so long from now, when they will outnumber the Jewish population in Israel.

It is time for our Government to make clear to the Israeli Government that their conduct and policies are unacceptable, and to impose a total arms ban on Israel. It is time for peace, but real peace, not the solution by conquest which is the Israelis’ real goal but which it is impossible for them to achieve. They are not simply war criminals; they are fools.

3.10 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has made a powerful speech containing a great deal of knowledge and feeling. While I may not choose all the words that he chose, I entirely share many of his sentiments, and particularly agree with his point about the arms embargo. All the Liberal Democrats agree with him on that point of substance.

I also agree, however, with much of what the Minister said. I thought that he had the balance right in some of his criticisms of Hamas, which were very valid and must be made—were, indeed, made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. He was right not to shirk from using the word “disproportionate” to describe the Israeli action. But I urge the Government, in their discussions with the Israeli Government, to make clear that we in the House of Commons consider the Israeli action to be a disaster for Israel. It may achieve some tactical victories in destroying Hamas infrastructure, it may succeed in killing Hamas fighters and it may even reduce the frequency of some of the rocket attacks, but I believe that this is already a strategic defeat for Israel. I believe that we are seeing Hamas strengthened, not just in Gaza but on the west bank and elsewhere. I think we are seeing serious international damage done to the reputation of Israel. I really am very sorry about that, and hope that Israel will begin to realise that it is happening.

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When I visited Israel and the west bank last November and talked to people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to Dr. Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority, there was a feeling that Hamas was beginning to lose the PR war and the support of many Palestinians, and was becoming isolated internationally. It was not being seen as delivering, and even on the streets it was being opposed by increasing numbers of Palestinians. The effect of the Israeli action has been to reverse that in just a few days.

The Israelis ought to know better. Hamas is an organisation that enjoys martyrdom, and seeks it for many of its activists. Unfortunately it is strengthened by that, despite all the efforts of the Israelis to put their side of the argument—and there is a side. We all know of the horrendous nature of the rocket attacks on Ashkelon and Sderot, for instance. We know about the civilian casualties—about the 311 children killed, the 76 women killed, the 1,459 children wounded. Numbers like that are unacceptable, and we should say loud and clear to the Israelis that this does their case no good whatsoever.

There is suffering on a scale that I do not think we have seen in recent times. There is a humanitarian catastrophe, with a lack of food, clean water, electricity and medicine. Blockades are preventing people who are wounded from seeking treatment. There is trauma for children and families. This is something that we cannot sit back and allow, and our voice should be loud against it.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): My hon. Friend has made the point that the Israelis are not learning lessons, and that their actions strengthen not just their enemies but their enemies who are extremists. The invasion of Lebanon led to a strengthening of Hezbollah, and not just in Lebanon: Hezbollah posters were seen in Ramallah for the first time. Is that not a lesson that the Israelis need to learn?

Mr. Davey: I fear that my hon. Friend is right. According to the assessments that I have seen of what has happened to Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon, it has already been politically strengthened and is now being militarily strengthened. It is rebuilding its arsenals, which is completely contrary to the intentions of the Israeli attack. I am not sure if there are direct parallels with the attack on Hamas in Gaza, but I think that, certainly in terms of the politics of the situation, the Israeli invasion is very counter-productive.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a very sensible argument about how terrorist organisations—and in the case of Gaza, a terrorist regime—deliberately try to provoke overreaction from their enemies, but I think he should pay more attention to the following aspect of the Israelis’ point of view. I doubt if they ever thought they were going to win a propaganda war in the current situation, but let us consider it in relation to the invasion of Lebanon. That met with a similar degree of opposition worldwide, but is it not the case that there was an element of delayed deterrence in that the rocket attacks from that part of Israel’s neighbourhood have almost died away completely? Should we not recognise that if the primary
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purpose of the current Israeli action is to stop the rockets, they may be making the calculation that it is worth losing a propaganda war in order to achieve that?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman studies these issues in great detail and has a great deal of knowledge and understanding of them, but I fear that the reduction in the number of rocket strikes from southern Lebanon—indeed, there has been a period of calm there—is not necessarily because Hezbollah cannot fire the rockets, but because it is choosing not to do so and is biding its time. Therefore, I do not think the case the hon. Gentleman makes is necessarily backed up by the fact that rockets have not been fired.

I do not think Israel has a real solution to the endgame in Gaza. What is the objective? We hear three different options from Israeli commentators and politicians. The first—and perhaps the most realistic—option is that they want to teach Hamas a lesson, get some good ceasefire terms and get the rockets stopped. To a certain extent, that would seem to be a reasonable objective, but the problem is that Hamas would claim a victory in those circumstances; it would be strengthened, and it would, therefore, get more legitimacy as a result of this escapade than it ever had before. This action is very counter-productive, and there is a danger that even if Israel gets that outcome, with some messy ceasefire terms, the legitimacy and strength of the Palestinian Authority of President Abbas will be seriously undermined, and the Israelis may find that they end up having to talk to Hamas, which is something they have refused to do for many years.

Some Israeli politicians put forward a second objective: that they want to destroy Hamas, to replace it in Gaza with Fatah, and to have the peace talks only with Fatah. While people might think that is a desirable objective in many respects, it is so unlikely as to be ridiculous. The idea that a movement such as Hamas can be defeated in a military sense is nonsense. Hamas does not just exist in Gaza; it exists in people’s minds—it exists in the west bank. Therefore, that is a ludicrous objective—although we do hear it being put forward.

I also think Fatah is too weak to take control in Gaza if Hamas were defeated. That is partly because of some of Hamas’s appalling activities in executing Fatah activists, but it is also because Fatah lost the political support of many people in Gaza. I fear that if the Israelis defeat Hamas, rather than it being replaced by Fatah, there would be something far worse: there would be the danger of some al-Qaeda-type offshoot taking its place. That would set back the cause of peace many years.

A third, and possibly even more ludicrous, option is being touted around by some commentators: that Israel could force Egypt to take responsibility for Gaza. That is madness, but it is being advocated. President Mubarak simply would not agree to that. One problem is that this action is undermining him; it is playing into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. What does Israel want? Does it want a radical Islamic Government in Cairo? How damaging would that be to Israel’s security? But if it continues along this path, that is what will happen. It has simply not thought this attack through.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): In terms of dealing with the unintended consequences, is there not also a danger of spreading the loss of political
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security, even for us in this country? Are we being asked to underwrite the risks that our constituents now face as a result of this irresponsible behaviour by Israel in Gaza?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall come on to that later. I just want to deal with one other explanation for this particular conflict that one hears from some Israelis. Some people argue that because Iran is getting closer to obtaining nuclear weapons and because, in its appalling way, it funds and supports Hamas, nuclear weapons would get into Gaza and Iran would use it as a launching pad. I have heard that argument advocated by, among others, Binyamin Netanyahu. There is no doubt that Iran is a serious threat—I understand how and why such people see Iran as an existential threat—but linking Iranian nuclear weapons and this attack on Gaza is a theory that is not backed up by any evidence or, crucially, by any logic.

First, it is not clear that Iran would need Hamas to launch a nuclear attack if it were minded to do so; unfortunately, Iran has far too many other options. Secondly, exploding a nuclear device anywhere in Israel would not be a particularly clever act for people who care about Palestinians to carry out. This is a small territory, so it is beyond me why Hamas, which is fighting for Palestinians, would want to kill Palestinians and see the fallout spilling out all over Gaza and the west bank. We have to say to the Israelis, who are making this bizarre argument, that it does not justify their actions, because it does not stand up to any analysis.

Clare Short: A number of hon. Members have said that Iran is funding and arming Hamas. Could anyone explain how Iran gets the primitive explosives into Egypt, up to Rafah and through the tunnels in order to make these primitive rockets? How do such weapons possibly come from Iran? This is just a scare story, for which there is absolutely no evidence.

Mr. Davey: I do not agree with the right hon. Lady. Some of the rockets being used by Hamas, such as the Katyusha and Qassam rockets, are primitive and appear to be made within Gaza. However, some of the Grad rockets and others that have been used genuinely appear to have come from Iran.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the dangers to Israel in the current strategy, but I think that he is looking too hard for explanations. Most ordinary Israelis want somebody to do something to stop the rockets, and they have been told by their leaders that not only is this action more likely to reduce the amount of rockets, but Hamas is much more likely to seek some kind of peace settlement if the military action continues. Unless the international community offers Israel a better option, many Israelis will continue to believe that.

Mr. Davey: I certainly agree that the international community needs to offer a better peace settlement, but the Israeli people are being told these things by Israeli politicians—I am not making them up—who are seeking election next month, and they are confusing the argument. We need to enter that democratic debate to tell the Israelis, “These are not excuses. They are not justifications. They are completely wrong.”

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Mrs. Ellman: Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that two months ago President Ahmadinejad told Hamas that Iran would continue to support it until Israel was obliterated?

Mr. Davey: Of course one is very concerned about many of the statements that President Ahmadinejad has made over the years, but I do not think that is relevant to this particular battle and the way in which Israel is going about it.

I believe that friends of Israel—people who believe in Israel’s right to exist and want to support Israel—have to be very frank with her at these times, because she is making such an historic mistake. In doing that, we must put strong pressure on Israel, as well as on Hamas, to stop its actions. Israel needs to know that it is not just dealing with words; we will take actions and there are consequences to what she is doing.

Paul Rowen rose—

Mr. Davey: No, I will not give way for a while.

Israel needs to be reassured that we are with her against the Hamas rockets, but she needs to know that we will not stand by and see her jeopardise her own long-term future. We need to put pressure on Israel for another reason: the rest of the world needs to know that we mean it. The truth is that this action is radicalising, and will radicalise, people across the world. They are being radicalised not just against Israel, but against the west. They are blaming us too, as happened with the disastrous war in Iraq. For our security and global security, we need to use foreign policy to prevent a further spurt in the growth of extremism throughout the world.

What should that pressure be? We started with a resolution from the United Nations Security Council. We strongly welcome that, and the Government’s role in securing resolution 1860. We wish that it had come sooner, and we wish that there had been no United States abstention, but it is clearly a step in the right direction. However, we need to go further, and Liberal Democrats have argued almost from the beginning of the conflict that there are two measures that the Government should take. The first is suspension of the new upgraded EU-Israel co-operation agreement, and I was pleased that the European Union agreed to that yesterday afternoon. Interestingly, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) first proposed that on 30 December, the Foreign Secretary said that he was naïve. It now seems that he was not so much naïve as right. The Government and the EU should lead public opinion, but their decision eventually to suspend that new agreement suggests that they are following public opinion, so the measure is not as powerful as it should be.

Our second proposal for action is an arms embargo. It is inconceivable for Britain to send arms to Israel now. How can we condemn its action as disproportionate, as the Government have done, when we are willing to send arms? That is ludicrous. Even if the Government reject that embargo proposal, as it appears they will, the House needs to be assured that arms control policy on Israel is being strictly enforced.

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Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, I will not give way.

On Monday, the Minister gave me some reassurance, but we need to hear more about how we are monitoring the use of British arms that are sold to Israel and how the inspection process works. The Minster should give more detail. Will he also tell us how we can be assured that arms that we sell to other countries—whether the United States or elsewhere—do not end up in Israel’s hands? We sell components for F-16s to the United States, which we know it has sold to Israel. There are concerns, and I hope that the Minister will reassure me.

Paul Rowen: Does my hon. Friend agree that a third area in which the UK should take a lead is in ensuring that the Security Council refers the atrocities on both sides—by Hamas and by Israel—for proper investigation as war crimes, because they are unacceptable? I agree that Britain should lead public opinion and not follow it. It is clearly unacceptable that more than 1,000 people have been killed—the UN headquarters in Gaza was bombed today—and nothing is being done about it.

Mr. Davey: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, although I would not necessarily use all his words. However, we need an investigation. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary early this week, following his statement on Monday that the Government support an investigation as soon as possible. I am grateful for the Minister’s elaboration on that, but I urge him or his colleague, when responding to the debate, to say a little more. He rightly said that the investigation would have to wait until there is a ceasefire, but who does he envisage carrying out the investigation, and under what remit?

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: I shall give way, but this is the last time.

Dr. Murrison: I am sure that most hon. Members agree that Israel has a right to defend itself against almost uniformly hostile neighbours, and that we must view arms exports in that light, but does he agree that a litmus test might be the veracity of the story from Israel that white phosphorus has not been used as a munition? That is the Israeli army’s line, and if it is true we might take one view, but if it turns out to be false, as the UN is saying, we might have to take an entirely different view.

Mr. Davey: Our position on an arms embargo is not related to the use of white phosphorus, but to the need to get a ceasefire and to put pressure on Israel to move towards that ceasefire. The use of white phosphorus should be the subject of an investigation, because, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, white phosphorus can be used in a way that is against international law, particularly if it is used against civilians, and that would have to be investigated.

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