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The key to the matter is how it began. It began with the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel over a long period. What on earth were the Israelis supposed to do? Were they expected to put up with that over a longer
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and longer period? When was action expected to be taken on it? We have to see the situation from the Israeli point of view.

Mr. MacNeil: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s concern about arms. Given the deaths of 1,000 civilians in the Gaza strip, does he still think the UK should be selling arms to Israel?

Mr. Clappison: I want to stop the current situation, and the hon. Gentleman wants to stop it. The key to that is removing the conditions in which the immediate conflict began. It began through the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. The objective is to stop that. The Israelis are satisfied with that solution. They withdrew from Gaza, they removed their settlements, and they have no wish to expand into Gaza. The conflict is not part of an Israeli attempt to take over Gaza. They simply want to see the end of rockets being fired at their citizens. I ask hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches how thrilled members of the public in their constituencies would be if they were subject to rocket attacks. Would hon. Members expect their constituents to come to them and ask would could be done about it?

Let us see an end to the bombardment and a sustainable solution. That will be a first step towards a wider solution. I do not yet have a great deal of confidence in Hamas. I listened to the very interesting speech from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and I pay tribute to his expertise on the subject. Judging Hamas by its actions and its words, as we must inevitably do, we have not yet seen much open evidence of its peaceful intentions.

I hope very much that a leader of Hamas will feel able to come forward, as my right hon. and learned Friend indicated, and say publicly that they recognise the state of Israel, that they are prepared to abide by the conditions that the international community have set them, and that they are prepared to abide by previous conditions and give up terrorism as a starting point; then, there can be talks. There is little point in Israel having talks with Hamas before Hamas recognises it and those fundamental conditions are observed. However, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend is right and that Hamas will soon do that. It has certainly had no shortage of opportunities to do it in the past.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the crisis in Gaza and the middle east is due to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and the refusal of the Israeli Government to accept United Nations resolutions and withdraw to pre-1967 borders?

Mr. Clappison: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. As I hope I made clear in an earlier intervention, I would like a resolution of the situation and I fully accept that there has to be a viable and sovereign Palestinian state and that there will have to be territorial adjustments. I am not going to stick firmly to one propaganda position or another.

On the other hand, the hon. Gentleman and his supporters have to recognise that Israel has to be secure; that is uppermost in Israelis’ minds. That is the solution before us, and it can be achieved. However, rockets have been fired, a pledge to destroy Israel has been made in
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the Hamas charter, anti-Israeli propaganda has been put out and the Iranian leadership has given words of support for Hamas. None of those things does anything to advance us towards the pragmatic solution that I would like to see.

First, there should be an end to the conflict on that basis and to the suffering on both sides, including among the population in Gaza—suffering that I believe has been caused by Hamas. Then, there should be a wider solution that removes the seeds of conflict and provides a better future for all the people in the middle east. The fact is that what we need to do is simple, although certain hon. Members fail to do it: bring all the pressure possible on Hamas to stop firing rockets, which created the conditions that brought about the current conflict.

3.56 pm

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): What is important today is not any discourse on the past or on what may happen in future, but how we get a ceasefire and stop the carnage in Gaza. Let me say at the outset that Hamas has to bear some of the blame for what has happened; if somebody fires a rocket at my house, I am going to fire one back.

However, the actions of the Israeli Government and military have been completely and utterly disproportionate. The situation is not the result of an aberration on the part of the Israelis—it is not something new. On 30 April 2008, John Ging, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, told the International Development Committee that the humanitarian situation was extremely grave. He said:

What did the international community say? Nothing. What was our response to the crisis that was already happening? Nothing. He went on to say:

This was the situation of the Gazan people at that time. In March 2008, Christian Aid, with other NGOs, published a report that said that

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

Mr. Singh: No—please let me proceed.

The report outlined the gravity of the situation: the rising unemployment, lack of basic medical supplies, blackouts, economic collapse and denial of emergency
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treatment outside Gaza. It described the situation as a “humanitarian implosion”. The blockade of Gaza turned Gaza into one huge prison, and that is the reality that the Gazan people have faced in 2008. The Palestinian people of Gaza were already living in a humanitarian hell, and I cannot find the words to express what they are living in now.

I said earlier that the Israeli response was disproportionate, but I find that word completely inadequate to describe what the Israelis are doing. They have used F-16 jets, helicopter gun ships, missiles, artillery, tanks and even phosphorus. What is the result? One thousand dead and thousands injured; utter destruction of the civilian infrastructure, including schools and power stations; and utter collapse of the sewerage system. Save the Children said in a briefing yesterday that at least 184 children have been killed—I think that the figure is now over 300—and more than 600 injured. An estimated 80,000 to 90,000 people have been displaced, among them 45,000 to 50,000 children. Health services are collapsing, ante-natal care has been suspended, and all vaccination programmes have been interrupted. The list goes on and on, and so does the killing, the brutality, the inhumanity and the disregard for the rules of war.

Yesterday, I read an even more chilling account in The Independent, which quoted B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, as saying that at least three Palestinians in Gaza were shot dead yesterday as Israeli soldiers fired on a group of residents leaving their home on orders from the military and waving white flags. That is absolutely disgraceful. I described the situation as a humanitarian hell. Is there anything worse than hell? Well, if there is, it exists now in Gaza, and the Gazan people are living in it.

Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza. It must be held to account by the international community. What we have to do today is send the strongest possible message to Israel. Arms embargoes or other embargoes are fine, but we must say today that we will expel the Israeli ambassador and recall our ambassador. That will be a shock to the Israeli system, and they may then begin to listen.

4.3 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am, and I am proud to be, the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) said that Hamas must bear some share of the blame. I will read to the House what the Egyptian Foreign Minister said a couple of weeks ago:

I will read what an adviser to President Abbas said, also a couple of weeks ago:

Concentrating on the word “massacre”, there is no doubt that that is what it is. It is awful to watch. During the British involvement in Iraq, there has also been a
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terrible massacre of civilians, as well as of fighters. The same is true of Afghanistan. The same was also true of the second and the first world wars, but that does not make it wrong for the British to have fought. The distinction lies between those who set out to kill and maim civilians and children, and all too often succeed, and those who set out to avoid doing so, and all too often fail. I know which side I am on.

The situation is awful, and it is not as though the Israelis do not know that it is awful. It is not as though the leaders of Hamas do not know that, either, and I have the appalling impression that Hamas has come to a calculated opinion that the more Palestinians who die, the more extreme Israel appears and the better Hamas’s cause is served. That is why it uses civilians as human shields and schools from which to launch rockets. In 2007, I visited Sderot. I spoke to schoolchildren and went into two of their bomb shelters. I spoke to parents and learned about the daily trauma with which their children grow up.

There is absolute unity in Israel on the issue. Any Israeli Government who had failed to react very strongly to the barrage of rockets would have immediately been removed and replaced with a much harder-line Government than one led by Tzipi Livni or Ehud Olmert. Tzipi Livni has been seriously trying to negotiate with the Palestinians, and none of us in the House should wish to see a more hard-line Government.

Mr. Mullin: I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he think that what we have seen in Gaza in the past week is likely to reduce the number of rockets being fired into Israel or increase it?

Hon. Members: Reduce it.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Some of my hon. Friends are saying that it will reduce it, but I really do not know. All that I can say is that the awful carnage can stop, but there is no point in a mere ceasefire if it merely creates a temporary lull. If we go back to the constant cycle of Israel leaving Gaza, Hamas rearming, Hamas killing Israeli civilians so that Israelis live in constant fear and Israel going back into Gaza, everyone will continue to suffer and we will be no further forward. That is not sustainable, and action must be taken now to address the long-term concerns and break that cycle.

On the other hand, the discrepancy between the economic performance of Israel and the grinding poverty of Gaza is also unsustainable. It cannot be acceptable for people living in Palestinian areas to have an income one tenth of that of people living in Israeli areas. We have to address those living standards, but we cannot do that without the international investment that will come only when the security situation is improved. It cannot be acceptable for the free movement of Palestinians to be constrained for ever.

The borders of Gaza have to open, but not for the smuggling of explosives and suicide bombers, as happened all of last year. Until that stops, no Israeli Government will allow free passage, and why should they? To the people of Palestine, we must send this message: there can be hope for the future, but it has to be in your hands. When Israel leaves Gaza, as it no doubt soon will, you have the opportunity to turn away from rockets,
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terror and death and towards development, education and prosperity. The history of the area is littered with missed opportunities. Please let this not be another one.

4.9 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I listened carefully to the speech of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). May I make a suggestion to him, in a spirit of understanding? Although I recognise the pictures of Sderot that he painted, because I have also been there, he may benefit from going to Gaza and speaking to Palestinians there to ascertain whether he has a legitimate and genuine understanding of their position.

To avoid doubt—because of time I cannot take interventions—let me preface my remarks with several matters that I want to put on the record. First, all states, including Israel, have the right to self-defence and a duty to defend their citizens from attack. Secondly, the Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves from attack and, under international law, the right to resist occupation. Thirdly, civilians should not be targeted or have their presence wilfully or recklessly disregarded in conflict. I therefore do not believe that firing Qassam rockets from Gaza at or near predominantly civilian areas in Israel falls within the definition of acceptable resistance.

However, the fact that those rockets are fired provides no justification for the massive attacks by air, land and sea that have already killed more than 1,000 people, 322 of them children. When medical staff, aid convoys, United Nations schools and installations have been hit, even when the high-tech Israeli army has the GPS co-ordinates for those installations, it suggests that Israel is acting in contravention of the provisions of the Geneva convention on the protection of civilians in time of war, and that the term “war crime” should be used.

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making major efforts to secure a ceasefire on both sides and to get the blockade lifted, so that the 1.5 million people in Gaza will not be forced in future to live in an impoverished prison 25 miles long and between three and seven miles wide. However, people in the UK and those whom I met in the middle east last week are not asking when the international community will express disapproval of what is happening in Gaza, but when we will put a stop to it. We need to do more to show that we are serious.

I therefore welcome the EU’s decision to defer upgrading its relationship with Israel, but we need to go further than putting it on hold. Under the EU-Israel association agreement, Israel has clear obligations to respect basic standards of behaviour and of human rights. If Israel is not prepared to fulfil those obligations in practice, it cannot expect to keep receiving the privileges of the agreement, and it should be suspended. If the Geneva convention and international law are being breached so blatantly, proceedings must be brought to hold people to account.

If, as many hon. Members have suggested, there is to be an embargo on smuggling into Gaza weapons which threaten the lives of Israeli civilians, there should also be an arms embargo on the commercial or subsidised sale of arms to Israel when foreign-made F-16 fighters are attacking Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

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However distasteful Israel’s actions have been in past three weeks, and, I would argue, before that; however unacceptable is its refusal to renounce violence to achieve its ends; and however much it has refused to meet its obligations under UN resolutions, the road map, the Annapolis treaty or the agreement on movement and access, the Israeli people still have rights, and we should not put preconditions in the way of their elected representatives being a party to the negotiations that must take place or deny them a stake in the final agreement. However, if that is the case with Israel, it must also apply to the Palestinians.

I want Hamas to accept the Quartet’s three conditions in theory and in practice, just as much as I want Israel to match its theoretical acceptance of those conditions with abiding by them in practice. Israel has not done that. That means finding ways in which to bring Hamas into the process, not excuses for keeping it out, and not as an alternative to dealing with President Abbas or Fatah. Unless there is unity among Palestinians, no deal will ever stick. We did not respond positively when Hamas moved to electoral politics or when it declared several unilateral ceasefires in the past few years. We squandered a second opportunity for progress when a national unity Government, involving Fatah, Hamas, independents and others, was agreed in the summer of 2006. Let us not make that mistake again.

I welcome the comments that the Minister for the Middle East and Africa made in the other place recently, when he said that the British Government would welcome a national unity Government and deal with their membership. When my hon. Friend the Minister makes his winding-up speech, will he assure me that we will not only welcome such a development, but do what we can to bring it about?

4.15 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am pleased to speak after two of my colleagues on the Select Committee on International Development, the hon. Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), both of whom made very pertinent contributions in their own way. Importantly, we on the Committee, which has produced two reports on the occupied territories, have been increasingly depressed at the deterioration of the situation over a long period, and we are obviously horrified at the current situation.

The Department for International Development allocated $10 million for emergency relief, mostly through UNRWA, on top of £243 million that has been allocated over three years to support aid and development in the occupied territories of Palestine. However, not a penny of that money would have been needed if there had been peace. That money could have been spent in parts of the world where poor people need it just as much. It is frustrating for us that aid resources are being channelled in that way—not for development, but simply for first aid—and that conflict is costing our taxpayers.

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