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I pay tribute to John Ging and the UNRWA team in Gaza, who are not only supporting the Gazan people through this time, but effectively sharing their suffering. UNRWA has given us detailed day-to-day information on just how horrific the situation has been. Bad and
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intolerable as the situation has been over the past two years, what has happened in the past three weeks has escalated the suffering, stress and humanitarian trauma to the civilian population beyond anything that can be justified by any provocation. Indeed, I am appalled at Members of this House trying to justify that degree of disproportionate action. Those 322 children have absolutely no responsibility for anything that has happened, and they are now dead. The House should acknowledge that we cannot stand by and accept that.

Not only that, but comments have been made about the role of Hamas. Hamas was democratically elected, and however much we might dislike it or condemn some its utterances and many of its actions, the actions of the past few weeks are likely to make Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank more likely not only to support Hamas rather than less, but even to begin to wonder how they will ever live in an independent Palestinian state alongside an Israel that behaves in the way that it has behaved in the past two or three weeks. It is important to recognise that if we do not take firm action and give a lead in delivering a proper peace process, we may well create a united Palestinian entity—but it will be Hamas. Then the international community will have to determine how to deal with it.

Our Committee did not agree on how we should deal with Hamas, but most of us took the view that we had to engage in some way. The irony is that the United Kingdom has a long history of doing precisely that kind of thing. We had to deal with Mau Mau, with EOKA and with the IRA. No agreement was ever achieved other than by talking to those groups before agreeing the conditions for concluding an agreement. That seems to be a lesson that we can reasonably take from history.

In a very good statement on Monday, the Foreign Secretary said that the United Kingdom

However, I would suggest that that resolution goes further than that. This is the crucial point that the Foreign Secretary was making. It is not just that Israel must recognise its responsibility as a legitimate state and a member of the United Nations, with all the obligations that that entails. The point is that the international community, particularly the United Kingdom, which played such a crucial role in creating the state of Israel, would be tainted by association with breaches of international law, flagrant disregard for UN resolutions and the possible perpetration of war crimes if we failed to ensure that a member state with which we are closely associated complied with international law on terms that we subscribe to. If we fail to act, we will be tarnished with collective guilt by association.

That is what our citizens are saying so strongly to the Government. They feel that they share responsibility for the conflict, and they want the Government to accept their responsibility to use their initiative, in concert with others, to try to ensure a resolution. Surely we have to seize an opportunity from the worst and darkest hour. All this death and conflict—and the possibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, that Israel has made a tactical error—can be turned around if the new Administration in the United States, with a lead from the United Kingdom
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and Europe, say that Hamas has to recognise the mistakes it has made, that Israel has to recognise its responsibility and, above all, that we all have to recognise that the Palestinian people should not be exposed to this degree of suffering in future. We have to ensure that the regime that operates in Israel and the Palestinian states is designed to give prosperity, peace and a functioning state to Israel and Palestine, because the alternative is the disintegration of the entire region.

4.20 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): There is no doubt whatsoever that the loss of civilian life, particularly that of children, as shown on our television sets every day, is truly horrifying. It is extremely important that we understand who is responsible for this deplorable situation. Responsibility in general for what is happening lies firmly with the Iranian-backed Hamas. Hamas is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, Canada and the USA, and it is an uncompromising Islamist, anti-Semitic organisation, as shown by the principles set out in its charter and shown through its actions. That includes sending out suicide bombers with the deliberate intent of murdering as many Israeli civilians as possible, calling for jihad as the only solution to what it calls the Palestinian problem, seeing martyrdom as the greatest of virtues, and stating that Jews worldwide are corrupt, control the media, run the world through the protocols of the elders of Zion and stir up revolutions throughout the world. It refuses to recognise the existence of the state of Israel on the grounds that it is a religious edict to refuse to do so, and states that the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews.

Hamas is not only about what is written in its charter, but its actions, and it has sent more than 5,000 rockets and missiles, targeted at Israeli citizens, since Israel—correctly—left Gaza. It used the ceasefire to extend its rocket range, importing Chinese and Iranian rockets with longer and longer ranges. Indeed, there are now 900,000 Israeli citizens in the range of rockets being fired from Gaza by Hamas, and it was Hamas that refused to extend the ceasefire. The action that Israel is now taking, difficult as it is, concerns targeting not civilians, but Hamas activists, its weapons, its infrastructure and its tunnels. The reason why so many civilians are, tragically, being killed is that Hamas callously places them in the line of fire.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Ellman: No, I have no time.

That is why, on 14 January, Israel made a complaint to the United Nations Security Council about Hamas using children as human shields. There is a Hamas war room under the Shifa hospital—an absolute disgrace. On 9 January, the Israeli defence forces found a map of al-Atatra, a neighbourhood of Gaza, which was used by Hamas to record the location of explosive devices. That map showed that houses in that area were booby-trapped to put civilians in the line of fire, knowing that that would cause the maximum number of civilian deaths. That is callous, outrageous and deplorable. I am surprised as well as outraged that the same people who express genuine concern about the loss of civilian life—I
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share those concerns—do not also condemn Hamas for its callous use of civilians as a human shield. Let us remember that the organisers and leaders of Hamas not only extol the virtues of martyrdom and jihad but proclaim, “We love death. You love life.” That is what Hamas is all about.

When we rightly show our concern about the number of civilians who are injured and who die, we should remember the complaints made by Egypt, on 28 December, that Hamas has been preventing the injured from going across the border into Egypt for treatment. That is the nature of Hamas. When people jump so readily to condemn Israel for protecting its civilians, after claiming that it has a right to do so, they should not ignore the nature and deeds of Hamas, which sets out deliberately to kill as many civilians as possible.

What is the way forward? It is through the enactment of resolution 1860 by both Hamas and Israel. That can only be done through steps being taken so that rockets stop being fired on Israeli citizens on a permanent basis. Hamas has no right to fire rockets and missiles on Israeli civilians. The Israeli settlers and soldiers have left Gaza: 8,500 settlers left, many of them removed by force, yet Hamas—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.

4.26 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The bombing of the Shij’ia family health care centre in Gaza city, run by the Near East Council of Churches, was an outrage. The Israelis rang 15 minutes before to say that an attack was imminent. Why, therefore, was a deliberate attack being made on such a centre?

Journalists are not allowed into Gaza, as is the case in Zimbabwe, and precious little is being reported as it happens. We see things on television, but we are given only a partial view. There are many Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including democratically elected members of Parliament. Will Israel confirm the number of Palestinian prisoners it currently holds, and when, if ever, it will release political prisoners? My party has always campaigned for a two-country solution, which is the only common-sense approach.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) was saying that innocent people will be killed from time to time. However, as Gaza is only the size of Wrexham town in north Wales, with a population of 1.5 million any bombardment is bound to create collateral damage, as anyone can see. I echo the many calls for a ceasefire, but I am not optimistic that it will happen immediately. One concrete step that has been referred to is for the European Union to suspend Israel’s privileged trade agreement with Europe, which requires Israel to respect human rights. That would send a clear signal of the need for an urgent ceasefire.

There is a great deal of urgent feeling in the House about the issue, and I refer hon. Members to early-day motions 400, 408 and 423. What is the middle east envoy—the ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who has not yet set foot in Gaza—currently doing? His premises in Jerusalem occupy the entire floor of a hotel at a cost to the public purse of £700,000 per annum. I ask myself, “Is that proportionate?”

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Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) would not give way to answer questions, so I wonder whether he will have a shot at answering this one. If there is any truth in the allegation that there is a deliberate and normal use of civilians as human shields—in other words, that they bring the attacks on themselves—why are journalists banned from Gaza when they could see precisely what is being alleged?

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. If there was nothing to hide, journalists would obviously be free to go in. Indeed, it would be in Israel’s interests to allow them free access, so that the whole world could see that, transparently, there was nothing going on that should not be going on.

Several Members have pointed out that more than 1,000 people in Gaza have been killed, including many women and children. A United Nations watchdog said recently that Israel was showing a “manifest disrespect” for the protection of children in Gaza. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that although Israel signed a UN protocol condemning attacks in places where children were likely to be present, those are still continuing, day after day. Obviously I want a ceasefire. I believe that we need an accord between Israel and Palestine, but of course there must be a ceasefire first.

I am disgusted by the present situation, with Israel’s complete disregard of the Geneva convention in respect of protected people and with its continued illegal occupation of territories outside its pre-1967 borders. What is the United Kingdom Government’s position on Israel’s targeting of United Nations schools? Do they support calls from United Nations officials for a full UN-backed investigation of the bombing of Palestinian schools by Israel, with the aim of bringing those responsible to book? How do they view Israeli claims that Hamas fighters were present at al-Fakhura school in Jabaliya before it was bombed? Do they believe that the presence of fighters legitimises the bombing of a United Nations school? Those are some of the questions that urgently need answers, and no doubt they will be answered in due course.

We now know that white phosphorous is being used. Unless it is being used for shielding purposes, that in itself constitutes a contravention of the Geneva conventions.

I ask the Government to consider immediately an arms embargo on Israel similar to those imposed in 1982 and 1994. We all want to see a ceasefire, but previous calls for one have been totally ignored. The disproportionate—I use that word again—military intervention in Gaza is nothing short of a war crime, and it galls me that the international community’s call for a ceasefire is being studiously ignored by Israel.

A couple of years ago, we debated whether Iraq had been in breach of United Nations resolutions. Indeed, it was the alleged breach of those resolutions that led to the British Government’s justification for the subsequent attacks. On 8 January, the United Nations Security Council, through resolution 1860, called for

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Israel’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, responded that Israel would continue its campaign, and the BBC reported that at least 50 air strikes had hit Gaza as the United Nations was passing the resolution.

Israel has form, in that its current conduct clearly mirrors its conduct in Lebanon in 2006. Why do we have these double standards? Why is Israel considered to be above international law? Could that be linked to the fact that Britain exported nearly £19 million-worth of arms to Israel in the first quarter of last year? Is that the reason? I do not know what the reason is, but it is apparent to me that Israel is acting as though it were above international law, and that cannot be right. I believe that until it starts acting responsibly and comes to the table to discuss peace, it should be considered an international pariah.

4.34 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The violence that we continue to see in Gaza and Israel is a horrible tragedy. While no one can help but be moved by the tragic images of dead and injured innocent Palestinian women and children and the large loss of civilian life, it is important to understand why Israel felt forced to embark on military action.

For the past eight years, Israel’s southern communities have faced more than 8,500 rocket, missile and mortar attacks. Over 5,500 rockets have been fired since August 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in a bid to stimulate the peace process. That means, on average, one missile being fired at Israel every three hours for each of the last three and a half years. The rockets have brought death, injury, destruction and disruption to the people of southern Israel, including both Jewish and Arab people.

Despite the continual rocket fire, Israel agreed a ceasefire with Hamas. When that ended six months later, in December last year, imperfect though it was, Israel wanted to renew it. This was despite the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups used the ceasefire to fire more than 400 rockets at Israel, to build more illegal tunnels, to rearm with smuggled Iranian weapons and to train their fighters for future terrorist attacks against Israel. It was Hamas that rejected a renewal of the ceasefire—indeed, it fired 60 rockets at Israel while Foreign Minister Livni was going to Egypt to try to renew it. Along with other Palestinian groups, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas fired more than 170 rockets, missiles and mortars at Israel in the six days that followed. Israel submitted two protest letters to the UN Secretary-General and the president of the UN Security Council about the increase in rocket fire. In an interview on Arabic television, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert warned Hamas to stop the rocket attacks. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit have put the blame for the current escalation of violence squarely on Hamas. It is clear that the international community ought to have been more engaged earlier, as the confrontation in Gaza and southern Israel developed over the previous months.

Israel’s operations in Gaza have attacked Hamas command centres, weapons-smuggling tunnels, training camps, rocket-manufacturing facilities and armament storage warehouses. Israeli forces alerted Palestinian civilians ahead of planned targets, using leaflets and phone messages to urge civilians to leave the immediate
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area, yet a further 500 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel, killing four Israelis and injuring many others since 27 December. Hamas is firing Iranian Grad-Katyusha missiles, which are hitting Israeli cities almost 40 km from the Gaza strip. Almost 1 million Israelis are now in range of rocket fire. No Government can sit idly by as their citizens come under attack from rockets, missiles and mortars on a daily basis. Israel has the right to defend herself.

Attributing blame does not end the fighting, however, and I fully support our Government’s efforts in working for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. I welcome the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1860, which called for just that. The text, which was introduced in Britain’s name, should be immediately implemented by both Hamas and Israel.

To achieve a sustainable and durable ceasefire, there must be an end to arms trafficking. This means a complete arms embargo on Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. No longer can rockets be permitted to be fired at Israel, and no longer can the dire economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza be tolerated. That is why we must also see a full reopening of the Gaza crossings, with safety and security for both sides. There must be increased and improved access for humanitarian and economic assistance for Gaza, which must be properly distributed. Neither side can secure peace and a solution to their problems through military action.

Israel did not seek this war and wants to live in peace and security with her Arab neighbours. Peace agreements were reached many years ago with Jordan and Egypt. Israel has been actively pursuing talks with President Abbas since the Annapolis conference in November 2007, and also indirect talks with Syria.

In stark contrast, Hamas, while originally democratically and fairly elected, carried out a coup in the Gaza strip in June 2007. Since then, Hamas has suppressed all forms of opposition, including killing Fatah activists. Hamas uses its own people as human shields, positioning its firing positions and arms dumps among homes, schools and hospitals, inevitably increasing civilian casualties, which it then exploits for its own propaganda aims. It is Hamas whose charter still calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. It is Hamas which persecutes its own people in Gaza who are Christian, trade unionists, Fatah members or gays.

Hamas knows what it must do if it wants to be accepted into the international community. The Quartet principles require it to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previous international agreements and obligations. This asks no more than was asked of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1988, which the PLO accepted.

However, in these depressing times it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that there is still an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That process needs the full support of the international community and renewed and increased engagement by the incoming President Obama Administration if we are to see real progress.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I wonder if my hon. Friend can answer the following question, which I also put earlier. If there is systematic use by Hamas of civilians, schools, hospitals and the like in order to shield weaponry, why are journalists not allowed into the Gaza strip so that that can be verified independently?

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