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We also need to be putting pressure on Hamas. We should use our contacts, particularly in Damascus, to urge Hamas to come to the negotiating table and to push for a ceasefire. Hamas needs to know that unless
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it makes it clear that it will end violence, it will not get the legitimacy that it seeks in the eyes of the outside world.

If we use the tools of diplomacy to put pressure on Israel and Hamas we can bring about a ceasefire more quickly. I know that an awful lot of democratic action from our Government and others is under way and we hope that that will be successful as soon as possible. Many of us suspect that there will miraculously be a ceasefire in the run-up to next Tuesday and the inauguration of the next President of the United States. That is perhaps a happy timing, but it might also explain why Israel took this action at this time. Let us hope that we can bring about the ceasefire before next Tuesday, because with every hour and every day more people are dying, more children are dying and more people are suffering.

After the ceasefire, we need to redouble our efforts for a permanent peace settlement. The Minister was quite right to say that this is not just about the last few weeks, but is about months, years and decades. When I was in Israel and Palestine last November, I spoke to Dr. Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, who is central to the peace negotiations on the Palestinian Authority’s side, and to Dr. Tal Becker, the policy adviser to Tzipi Livni, who was in the room during the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and was in the room during the Camp David negotiations. The message I got from both sides was that they were making real progress with the negotiations. Some of the substantive detail was being taken forward. They were both saying the same thing to me, even though they were not in the same room at the same time, which I took as rather a good sign.

There are some substantive positive developments, but they are not well known, because the parameters within which the negotiations are being undertaken means that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That means that press releases about the progress that has been made cannot be issued. I was convinced by both sides, however, that there has been progress. However, the problem is that behind the secret progress the Palestinian Authority of President Abbas has not been able to show progress on the west bank to the wider international community or the Palestinian people. The economic progress that Tony Blair has been trying to pursue as a middle east peace envoy has not really happened. The improved security that we have sought is in place in Jenin but in few other places.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, I want to finish. Most importantly, the freeze on settlements that was crucial to the Annapolis agreement has not happened. Illegal settlements continue. That has seriously undermined the peace negotiations and seriously undermined President Abbas. What I fear most of all is that that episode has cut the legs from under President Abbas. I hope that I am proved wrong but I think that the Israelis have made a serious error and they will rue the day that they decided to take this action.

3.33 pm

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): I am most grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. The recent pictures
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that we have seen on television and the harrowing stories that we have read in the press have shocked and angered many people in this country, not least in my constituency. The pictures are so shocking that it could be easy to assume that all Israeli citizens support the actions of the Israeli Government, and it would also be easy to assume that all the people living in Gaza support the elements in Hamas that have been firing regular salvos of rockets into southern Israel. I do not believe that that is the case.

It has been said on many occasions that the first casualty of any conflict is the truth and that would certainly appear to be the case so far as the bombardment by the Israeli army and air force is concerned. Israeli Government spokespersons make nightly appearances on television seeking to justify why, for example, a UN school which had been assigned as a temporary refuge, and whose GPS co-ordinates were given to the Israeli army, was bombed, or why Shifa hospital in Gaza city was attacked. Those justifications are not only disingenuous, but are vehemently challenged by the UN and other aid agencies on the ground. They refute the allegations that those, and similar facilities, are being used as a cover for Hamas military activities. The conclusion that many people have drawn is not only that the “justifications” of the Israelis are untrue, but that they mask the real intention of the onslaught, which is to destroy as much of the civilian infrastructure of Gaza as possible as a form of collective punishment of the people of Gaza for electing an Hamas Government.

The first duty of all Governments is to protect the integrity of their country and to protect their people from attack. I do not mean to trawl through the history of the last 60 years, ever since the United Nations decided to partition Palestine and to approve the creation of the state of Israel, or the subsequent history of conflict and missed opportunities for a lasting settlement based on the creation of a Palestinian state and the so-called two-state solution. However, we surely need to question whether the killing of more than 1,000 Gaza civilians is a proportionate response by Israel to the provocation of missiles being fired into southern Israel.

We also need to question whether the onslaught is not—I regret to say this—part of a parting shot from a thoroughly discredited American President and Administration who have singularly failed, throughout the past eight years, to understand the complexities of middle east politics, and who have naively believed that the promotion of democratic elections in countries with little or no history of democracy will solve everything. That is, of course, exactly what happened in Gaza. Unfortunately, the people elected a Government who were unacceptable to the discredited Bush Administration.

A second question that has to be considered is whether the policy of isolating Gaza and imposing an economic blockade has not been a major factor in precipitating the current carnage. Of course Israel and its protector, America, would have been concerned by the rhetoric of Hamas when it was elected, and its avowed commitment to destroying the state of Israel, but many seasoned commentators on the middle east have pointed out that Hamas was elected by the people of Gaza as a reaction to the incompetence and corruption of the previous Fatah Administration, and because of the work that Hamas carried out on the ground in helping ordinary people. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, won political support in Northern Ireland using the same tactics.

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Many people would argue—I have come to this view myself—that if Israel had sought to engage with the Government and people of Gaza when its troops and settlers left; if it had, as a gesture of good will, left intact the illegal settlements for the people of Gaza instead of pursuing a scorched earth policy of destruction; and if it had subsequently sought to promote trade and economic development with the people of Gaza instead of building a wall around Gaza and taking even more Palestinian land to construct that monstrosity, there would have been a better chance of persuading the people of Gaza that co-operation was better than continuing conflict.

Prior to 1967, Israel was surrounded by four countries, three of which—Egypt, Jordan and Syria—opposed its right to exist. However, that has not stopped Israel from making lasting peace with both Egypt and Jordan, or from entering into negotiations, albeit through intermediaries, with Syria to bring about a lasting peace with that country. The idea that the people of Gaza should suffer collective punishment for electing an Hamas Government, and that they should be blockaded into submission until that Government renounce their reason for existence, was, frankly, disingenuous and symptomatic of the simplistic view of the world that the Bush Administration have had, particularly since the traumatic events of 9/11.

The most pressing need is for a ceasefire, properly monitored by the United Nations. Above all, there has to be a just settlement with regard to the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, so that there can be lasting peace in the middle east.

3.39 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I apologise in advance, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I cannot be here for the winding-up speeches, as I have to catch a train.

The events of the past three weeks in Gaza are a tragedy in which there are no winners, except those who do not wish to see a peace settlement in the middle east. There will be time for recriminations when the fog of war clears, but it is vital that we understand the depth of tragedy. It is a tragedy for the people of Gaza, who cannot even become refugees, because there is nowhere for them to flee to in the face of bombardment. It is a tragedy for Israel, of which I have been a friend for a long time and whose great peace rally in Trafalgar square five years ago I not only attended but addressed. It is a tragedy for Israel, because it has forced it from the moral high ground of self-defence into a strategy in which it has met terror with greater terror. By following that course, it has lost many friends, and I still ask how a member of the United Nations can turn its back on a UN Security Council resolution.

It is a tragedy for President Abbas who, for all the co-operation that he has tried to achieve with Israel and for all the protestations that he has made over the past three weeks, has not been able to protect the Palestinians in Gaza. It is a tragedy for the elements of Hamas—and there are such elements, because I have spoken to them—that sought to direct that movement towards the democratic path and that saw themselves ostracised when they won their election victory. That handed power to the militants.
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It is a tragedy for them, because it will be much more difficult for them to return to that path. It is a tragedy for the peace process, because peace processes, as I know, depend on confidence, which has been shattered by what has happened over the past three weeks. It is a tragedy for the security of the international community, because of the radicalisation of many people in the Arab world, as a result of which, in the end, we will all suffer.

What we have seen is a dark moment in the effort to try to find a peaceful solution in the middle east. Many people say that it may well have derailed a two-state solution. I sincerely hope not, but there are steps that must be taken if we are to see this dark night end and a new dawn come. First, Israel must be persuaded as a member of the UN to accept the UN ceasefire, to open the borders and to allow Gaza to exist again socially and economically. If it does so, we can put pressure on Hamas to abide by agreements that weapons will not be transferred into that state, and we can make sure that we use our influence to that end. I would like efforts to be made, because one problem in the middle east peace process is Israel’s inability to find the partner with which it can make the deal. I would like efforts to be made to bring together a representative body of Palestinians which does not, as is the case at the moment, represent Fatah on one side or Hamas on the other, but which genuinely represents Fatah, Hamas and Christian Palestinians on the west bank, as well as the 11,000 prisoners, and with some form of representation from the refugee camps, so that when an agreement is made, that is done not on the basis of Israel and one faction but Israel and a body that represents all the Palestinian people. That is an essential part of the way forward.

I would like the international community to begin to engage with Hamas. It should look behind the rhetoric, about which we hear so much, at the reality of what its members talk about privately As hon. Members know, I have been talking to Hamas for two years, and it talks about accepting the existence of the state of Israel, and accepting that a Palestinian state will live alongside the state of Israel. Those may not be the words that the Quartet is looking for, but surely it is enough to open a dialogue and take the matter forward.

I should like to press the new United States Administration to make a real effort to bring about a settlement. I was involved in Northern Ireland, and in the end what really helped was the US sending Senator George Mitchell over. He did not just turn up for two or three days here and there—he came over permanently, and he presided over a peace process that, in the end, was successful. That type of commitment is needed, and I hope that, under the new US Administration, we will see that level of commitment again.

We must accept, too, that any settlement must be comprehensive, not just between those Palestinians and the Israelis, but including the surrounding states, including Syria and the political entities in Lebanon. Those are areas where there is a sense of hope for the future, but the night is very dark at the moment. It is also very dangerous, for the region and for the rest of the world.

When the ceasefire comes, I hope that our Government will be able to use their influence to move the process forward—not in the piecemeal fashion of the past but
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in a comprehensive way that might at last remove this terrible situation from the face of the earth. In that way, we can create peace in a land where no one deserves the horrors of the past three weeks.

3.45 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and I agree very strongly with what he said. He referred to Northern Ireland, and one of the lessons of that conflict is that sometimes one needs channels for engagement with people. That need will not always arise at times of one’s own choosing, but such channels are a necessary preparation for political solutions later on.

One of the tragedies of the situation today is that everything could have been so different after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. The Foreign Affairs Committee went to Gaza in December 2005: we drove from north to south, and we were able to see the greenhouses left behind by the settlers after they had left, and to get to the Rafah crossing. We saw the controls that were in operation there, and they were a bit like the controls at an airport terminal. The Italian carabinieri were in charge, and police officers from Romania and Denmark were working with them as part of the EU mission to Gaza. They were all performing a very important role. Coaches would arrive from Egypt, and people would get off and go through the Rafah crossing. Their bags would be checked and scanned, and sometimes goods would be held back because they were being proposed for sale or importation illegally. Those goods could be collected later.

Families were being reunited at that time. The House must understand that, for many years, the town of Rafah had expanded into Egypt, with the result that families had members on both sides of the crossing. As a senior Israeli politician who was in London this week told me, many of the tunnels in the area run from a family’s home on one side of the crossing to its home on the other side. The tunnels were used to bring food through, as well as weapons of all kinds. Those weapons included things from Iran via Yemen and Sudan, which presumably came through Egypt before being sent through the tunnels.

The circumstances of what is happening in Rafah today are very different, because of the closure of Gaza and the incidents that have taken place. It is not only after the breakdown of the latest ceasefire that we can talk about people dying: in 2006, more than 680 Palestinians and more than 20 Israelis were killed as a result of the continuation of the conflict.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, got engaged, briefly and actively, in trying to work out a channel with regard to the Philadelphia corridor. There were further breakdowns but finally the ceasefire was agreed that lasted for six months between June and December last year. I do not have time to go into all the circumstances of how that broke down, but it is clear that, even before the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1860, we needed a ceasefire to stop the conflict in Gaza and the deterioration that will follow.

In the past week, we have seen the impotence of the international community, which the general public around the world do not understand. They believe that our
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Government and other Governments must be able to do something to stop the fighting. They see pictures of the horror every night on their televisions, and they do not understand why it continues.

Yet the conflict in Gaza is not the only one going on in the world. Today, as part of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan army is bombarding areas in the north-east and killing many people—but we are not seeing that because the television cameras are not there. Only members of the Tamil community in this country and a few others are really engaged with what is going on in Sri Lanka.

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

Mike Gapes: I am afraid I do not have time.

Killing is still going on in Darfur and in Congo. The international community needs to engage and to be more active. We hope that when President Obama comes to office on Tuesday, he can make a difference, but let us not be misled. He is not a miracle worker. It will take sustained engagement—sustained engagement by the United States, unlike the disasters of the past eight years, when there has been sporadic engagement from time to time.

We will also have to make sure that the Arab world takes a more responsible attitude to a solution to the conflict. We need a comprehensive agreement between Israel and its neighbours. We need a two-state solution. Reference has already been made to Syria, and Egypt has a key role in providing the guarantees for security to allow the opening up of Gaza for trade with Israel and with Egypt—the opening up of those borders, but the prevention of the weapons coming in.

The British people, and particularly many of our young Muslim people, are very angry. We need a political solution now.

3.51 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): This subject engages sympathies across the House and there is often a marked lack of detachment. On this occasion, however, I commend—it is not often that I commend the Government—the speeches from the Minister and from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). We have had balanced speeches from two of the Front Benches in the debate.

I support what I regard as the pragmatic search for a solution that will bring an end to the scenes that we have seen over the past few days and over the longer period in which the rockets have been fired. I urge the Government, through their representations, to seek a sustainable solution. The key to the durability of a solution is an end to the firing of the rockets and an end to the supply of armaments into the Gaza strip. What on earth do people want weapons coming into the Gaza strip for? What possible purpose can that serve? That should be followed in short order by the supply of humanitarian aid, which is much needed, to the population of Gaza.

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