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15 Jan 2009 : Column 432

Mr. Dismore: It might surprise my hon. and learned Friend to learn that I agree with him. I think journalists should be allowed in, because I think that would be in Israel’s interests. Indeed, I understand that The New York Times, no less, which has a reporter in Gaza, has confirmed Israel’s account of the use of a school as a missile-launching site.

Mrs. Ellman: It might be helpful for my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to note that journalists have now been allowed into Gaza; indeed journalists from, among others, The Times and TV stations are there.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention.

The Gaza tragedy should make the international community more determined than ever to facilitate a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel, together with the Palestinian Authority, must actively demonstrate progress in their ongoing negotiations. Only a process that demonstrates real improvements in the situation on the ground will have the support of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, with increased security and better lives for both. The ultimate goal is that elusive two-state solution: the creation of a viable Palestinian state living next to a safe and secure Israel.

We also need more active engagement from the Arab world. In that context, I welcome the Government’s actions in supporting the Arab peace initiative, which offers the full normalisation of relations in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied land. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is absolutely right when he speaks of

Only a peace agreement that has the support of the wider region can succeed.

In the few moments left available to me, I simply wish to refer to some of the impacts of the conflict in the United Kingdom. Since the start of the fighting in Gaza, more than 150 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported to the Community Security Trust from around the UK; more than 130 incidents have been reported in January, making it the worst month on record. The Gaza conflict is being used as an excuse for racism; anti-Semites are using an overseas conflict to justify their actions. Although most demonstrators voice their protests in an entirely legitimate way, there have been reports of many examples of anti-Semitic chanting, and of anti-Israeli demonstrations where Jewish, rather than specifically Israeli, symbols have been used on placards. It is despicable that we hear people on demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington calling for the closure of Jewish shops in that area, that we hear incitement to violence and that there is violence against the police as a consequence. That is not the way that people in this country should behave. We have had a passionate but measured debate in this Chamber, and that is what we should see in the outside world. People feel strongly on both sides of this argument—Jewish people and Muslim people, those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians—but the UK is a democracy and we must debate these issues properly
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and fairly, without anti-Semitism and without islamophobia interfering in the discussions, passionate though they may be.

4.42 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Those of us who were rather cynical about the prospects of the Annapolis conference always thought it was not a question of if Israel went into Gaza, but when. It has been clear for some time that America has decided that the only way to deliver a two-state solution is to marginalise Hamas and promote Fatah. It is worth remembering that almost 43 per cent. of the people of Gaza voted for Hamas, largely because of the corruption and inefficiency of the Fatah-based Government in Ramallah. Unpalatable though it may be to some, although Israel is always cited as the only democratic country in the region, Gaza is being run by the representatives for whom it voted—Hamas won 74 out of 132 seats.

In fact, if there is a democratic deficit anywhere in the region, it is, unfortunately, perhaps in Ramallah itself: the Palestinian Legislative Council has not met for more than 17 months; not a single piece of legislation has been passed in 2 years; and President Abbas has ruled by decree since 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza. The greatest irony is that it could be argued that under basic Palestinian law, President Abbas is no longer legitimately President, as his term of office ran out last week, on 9 January—although I do concede that the law has been amended in order to say that presidential elections and legislative elections should take place at the same time. Violence has been meted out in equal measure by Hamas senior figures to Fatah senior figures and vice versa.

It is also worth remembering a point that I raised with Majalli Whbee, Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister, when I was last in Jerusalem: that 46 democratically elected members of the PLC are under arrest in Israel, most of whom are from Hamas, including the PLC’s Speaker. The deputy Foreign Minister told me that he had no knowledge of that, which was curious, and that he would get back to me. If he is listening to this debate, I am still waiting.

I was cynical about Annapolis because of the weakness of President Abbas and his ability to negotiate, even on behalf of the west bank. I was cynical about Annapolis because I could not understand how President Abbas could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians when no one from Gaza was represented at the conference. I was cynical about Annapolis because it was President Bush’s last desperate throw, and I was cynical because it was Prime Minister Olmert’s last throw.

Why did Israel decide to go into Gaza with such violence now? It would be interesting to know whether it had planned to do so before, during or after Annapolis, and again I ask the Minister whether he has any knowledge of that. It is a good time for Israel because Livni, Barak, Netanyahu and Mofaz can show how demonstrably strong they are in the run-up to the February elections. The Israeli defence force had to show that it could reach out and hit hard against its enemies following the failure of the last war in Lebanon. It needed to demonstrate to Iran, through Iranian-backed Hamas, that Israel retained the ability, capability and desire to hit out at its
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enemies. It took the opportunity to fill a vacuum in the White House, created by an inert outgoing President and an incoming President who, regrettably, has given mixed messages to date on his attitude to the middle east process.

I have the honour and pleasure of being chairman of the Conservative middle east council. I, too, have visited Sderot, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that what has happened there is intolerable. I have met children who are traumatised by what has happened, and I have seen their parents and their teachers. No one can defend what has happened. However, unlike my right hon. Friend, I heard from people there who felt let down by the Israeli Government because they were not given sufficient early warning or sufficient protection. It is no good saying that the Israelis cared for them in the way that has been suggested this afternoon.

It is worth pointing out that, according to Israeli Government figures, the number of rockets fired from Gaza was reduced from hundreds in May and June to total of less than 20 in the subsequent four months. Twenty is still unacceptable, but can the Israelis be sure that they were launched by Hamas? Could they conceivably have been launched by another organisation, such as Islamic Jihad, over which Hamas has little or no control? As there was no international monitoring mechanism, it is difficult to say with authority who is to blame for the breakdown of the ceasefire, although it clearly broke down when the Israeli forces launched major air and ground attacks on 4 November, killing six Hamas operatives.

It is impossible in the short time that we have been given this afternoon to discuss what is going on in the middle east. I have been to Gaza, and the problems have not arisen in the past 19 days; they have gone on for the past 19 months.

4.48 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am certainly not an apologist for Hamas. I do not support its general attitude towards Israel or its philosophical attitude in wanting a religious state. I certainly do not support rocket attacks on Israel. They are not right, and I doubt whether that is how the Palestinian people in general want the dispute with Israel to be pursued. In connection with what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, there can be no justification whatever for attacks on individuals in this country, whether Jews or Muslims, because of the situation in Gaza or anywhere in the world. Such attacks must be deplored, and I am sure that we all do so.

The way in which Israel has acted, however, since the invasion of Gaza has rightly horrified international opinion. It has certainly horrified me. Israel has demonstrated what can only be described as a totally callous indifference to civilian casualties. I do not accept the view that has been expressed by some who have put the Israeli viewpoint today that the reason for the civilian casualties is that Hamas has used schools, mosques and so on. I believe that Israel simply does not care how many casualties it has caused among civilians. It is indifferent, unfortunately, to Palestinian lives.

Reference has been made to the 315 Palestinian children who have been killed, as well as the 95 women, quite apart from the number of those who have been seriously injured. Some have been paralysed for life. I read yesterday
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of a four-year-old who has been paralysed for life, since her chances of a successful operation are very remote indeed. Her two sisters, aged eight and two, were killed outright as a result of Israeli action attacking their house. Can that be described as collateral damage?

I referred to international opinion, and if I am horrified by what has happened it is easy to understand what is felt in Arab streets. Would things be any different if what was happening had resulted in so many Jews around the world being treated in such a way? What would be the attitude of the international Jewish community if that was the case? I know what I would feel, and I am of Jewish origin. I would be protesting in the strongest possible way. If I would do that, should I not protest today, and at every opportunity, about what is happening to Palestinians? Are the lives of Palestinians worth less than those of Israelis? I cannot accept that for one moment.

Bearing in mind the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), let me say that it is wrong to come to the conclusion that Jews all over the world somehow unanimously support what Israel is doing. Quite a number of Jews, in Britain and elsewhere, are not only opposed but are strenuously opposed, in every possible way, to what is being done. It certainly should not be considered that it is being done in the name of Jews.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) is right: inevitably, there is a cynical feeling that as the election in Israel approaches, rival attempts are being made to show who can be stronger and who can stand up more to Hamas. It is very difficult to come to any conclusion other than that what has occurred since 1 January has to some extent at least been determined by the coming election.

Again, incidents have occurred and I want to mention just two, apart from what has happened today to the United Nations headquarters. Two UN schools were bombed, and 40 died. One other incident should not be overlooked. Israelis took more than 100 Palestinians to what was considered a safe house. What happened? Twenty-four hours later, the Israeli military shelled that same house, killing 30 or more. I only wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who put the Israeli point of view—I respect her point of view, however much I disagree with it and however strongly I feel that she is wrong—had found herself in some way able to criticise what Israel has done.

I have always advocated a political solution. There cannot be a military solution. Israel cannot be destroyed and can defend itself against any group or state, so we need a political solution. I am afraid that I am not persuaded that Israel has yet reached the point where it genuinely wants a Palestinian state—not some kind of statelet or satellite, but a genuine, viable and independent state. When Israel comes to that point of view, and is really willing to negotiate in an honest manner to end the injustice that the Palestinians have suffered for so many years—more than 60, now—that will be the time for a political solution that, hopefully, will end the kind of bloodshed that we have seen in the past few weeks.

4.54 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a privilege to take part in a debate in which extraordinarily well-crafted and well-expressed strong views have been
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stated with passion and honesty on both sides. I am a Conservative Friend of Israel, and have been for as long as I can remember. The organisation was started by my Conservative predecessor in Bury, Michael Fidler. I do not know any friend of Israel who is not profoundly saddened and distressed by the events that led up to the conflict in Gaza, and by the conflict itself.

I am also a strong supporter of the Christian relief organisation World Vision, and I have visited its work in Bethlehem. I was in touch with Charles Clayton, the director in Jerusalem, only today. I support the statement that World Vision issued, which says:

We pray for all the work that the people in that organisation do, and for their safety.

My stance is the same as that which we have heard expressed by so many others. There is no argument about the horror of Gaza. The issue is what can be done to prevent the conflict from being yet another bloody chapter in a cycle of bloody chapters, with more still to come. I was at school in 1967 in Bury in north Manchester. I grew up with the 1967 war, not as a gentile inflicted with the guilt of the holocaust, but understanding what the phrase, “sweep Israel into the sea”, actually meant to the families of the Jewish children with whom I was at school. As I became an adult, I thought that that expression of feeling about Israel had gone for ever. There was slow, gradual progress in the middle east, as enemies became perhaps not friends, but at least partners in doing something about the situation. Bilateral agreements were made, land was given back, and Israel came out of Sinai and Gaza. Slowly but surely, people managed to make something of the tragedies of the past.

However, there have always been those who would undermine that progress; those who resorted to terror—to suicide bombings or indiscriminate terrorist acts—and those who used terror as a cover for their state’s views. There were those who had a mindset that just could not accept 1948; it was not that they did not know what to do with the occupied lands, but they actually did not accept the fact of 1948 at all. Eventually, it became possible for a state, Iran, to say, at the highest level that the state of Israel should be wiped from the map—again, that phrase comes back. Iran’s proxies, Hamas, took action.

What was Israel to do about that, time and again? Nothing? Should its hands be tied? The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) put it accurately: what do the Israeli Government do when their citizens are constantly terrified? Nothing? Do they say, “There’s nothing we can do?” What is a state to do when its opponents hide their weapons among children and in villages? Should it say, “We can’t attack because there’s a disparity in firepower?” That did not stop the NATO allies from attacking Serbia. Disparity in firepower does not stop our work in Iraq and Afghanistan. So what is Israel to do?

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Alistair Burt: No.

Sooner or later, the attacks and the rockets become Gaza, today. If the tragedy of Gaza, and the lives now being lost, are not to be part of a bloody chapter and lost in vain, the peace and the ceasefire that come about as a result of the conflict have to be lasting. There is only one way in which that can be ensured. Hamas, its allies and the states that support it have to move, and have to be seen to be moving, inexorably towards an acceptance of the state of Israel and an absence of terror. The situation has to stop. If that acceptance were stated tonight, the Israeli troops would be out of Gaza. We have to find a way in which that can be done.

It has started to become acceptable to say, “Perhaps there’s an answer with no Israel.” That mindset has crept into world politics again; it has to go. The terrible conflict will continue until those who give any form of support to that mindset can be prevented from going to the people who have it and saying, “Israel has to go.”

History in the middle east is important. It is important anywhere, but perhaps it is more important in the middle east than in most places. However, sooner or later, the past of our fathers and grandfathers has to be seen as less important than the future of our children. Every great conflict between peoples and nations has had its answer, with somebody, somewhere being prepared to let go.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Alistair Burt: Over a period of decades, Israel has let go a number of times. Now we have to see another side be prepared to let go of its past to make progress in future. Only if the future and the present become more important in the middle east than the past will we see an end to this.

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

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech.

5 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I was fortunate to represent the Government for a year as Minister for community cohesion. One of my roles was to try to tackle radicalisation, particularly in the Muslim community, and to work with the Jewish community to try to protect it from anti-Semitism. I support but also pity my successors, because what is going on in Gaza will make their lives extremely difficult. I am pleased and proud about the bonds and relationships that we managed to strike up, not least those with the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies, and I think that we achieved some great things. However, I am afraid that we are going to see—and Jewish friends tell me that it is already starting to happen—a greater incidence of anti-Semitism as a consequence of what is happening and, I can only assume, greater radicalisation in the UK, as people become angry about the scenes that they see on their television sets.

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