Previous Section Index Home Page

What of Gaza itself? If things carry on as they are—I would not just call it something disproportionate or call it a war; it has become a slaughter, it is so severe—I fear that Gaza will end up as nothing but bandit land when this all over and done with. Ultimately, it will not be Hamas that the Israelis have to deal with but far more
15 Jan 2009 : Column 438
extreme organisations such as al-Qaeda—both the core organisation and its derivatives—which will make life much harder.

In my constituency, in the past few days, I was fortunate enough to spend some serious, good time with young Muslims who are trying to do everything that they can to keep the bonds of community in the local area. Three young girls—Afifa, Tasnim and Suphiya—took it upon themselves to organise a march in the town centre last Saturday. Nearly 300 people attended, and they were determined that it should be about children, women and people of all faiths showing sympathy for people who had been killed on all sides of the conflict. They wanted to make it clear, too, that they condemned the rockets from Hamas, as well as the disproportionate action by the Israeli military.

The TV pictures are graphic. We have seen footage of children with bullet holes caused by bullets that have not ricocheted but have gone clean through their bodies. The United Nations has used the most condemnatory language imaginable after its schools were hit in the incident described by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). Constituents have raised another incident with me that disturbed them a great deal. Children were left starving, clinging to their mothers’ dead bodies, as the Israeli military would not allow rescue workers into a building for four days. All those things, I fear, are likely to heighten the radicalisation in the UK and across the world and, ultimately, will not help the Israeli people or their Government.

There is no military solution. At the end of the day, all parties must get together and talk, and I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that we have heard some extremely interesting contributions on the subject of Hamas and the fact that is a democratically elected organisation. What do we do, and what will the incoming US President do, with regard to the dialogue with Hamas? As difficult as elements of Hamas are to deal with, what do we do to ensure that that dialogue takes place?

In the very brief time that I have left, I want to talk about the meeting that I and a delegation of Labour Friends of Israel had with Shimon Peres. It is worth looking at some of the things that he has said and written over the years about the relationship of Israel and the Palestinian territories with Europe. He has proposed that Israel might one day become a member of the EU, and I have no problem with that. However, we would have to ensure that the necessary leverage and strict provisos were in place to ensure that Israel lived in harmony and peace with its neighbours and that it respected the human rights and territory of the Palestinian people.

If we could get those safeguards in place, it might be that Shimon Peres is on to something. Right now, when so much carnage is taking place, that sounds as realistic as any other solution.

5.5 pm

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I want to use the six minutes available to me to report on a recent visit that I made with European parliamentarians to Gaza, and to try and correct some of the propaganda and untruths that have been spread across the airwaves and that have been repeated here in the Chamber today.

15 Jan 2009 : Column 439

We visited in early November, and we found Gaza to be besieged, with people suffering acute shortages because Israel had closed the crossing-points. Schools lacked paper, pencils and pens, and there were shortages of food, drinking water, drugs, medical equipment and virtually everything else. As a consequence, nearly half the children and most of the women in Gaza are anaemic. The main hospital was under great strain even before the present terrible bombardment began, and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross testified yesterday that it is now in an absolutely terrible condition.

There is also a terrible smell of sewage along the sea front, because Israel will not allow the importation of the parts needed to build an essential sewage treatment plant. Civil engineers are available and money has been committed, but Israel blocks the project, with the result that raw sewage goes into the sea. Also, the Israeli navy fires on and attacks fishermen if they go beyond a few miles out. Hungry people therefore eat polluted fish and are constantly sick.

As we left, Israel blocked the import of EU-supplied fuel, with the result that the power plant—which had already been partly bombed—had to stop operation and most of Gaza was cast into darkness. Thus, the people of Gaza were besieged and suffering even before the terrible bombardment began on 27 December.

The present problems all flow from the response by Israel, the EU and the UK to the Palestinian people daring to vote for a Hamas Government in January 2006. Those elections were monitored by large numbers of international observers, all of whom said that they were free and fair. After the elections, however, the UK and EU adopted an approach that cravenly supported extreme Israeli and, of course, US policy. They refused to recognise the properly elected Hamas Government and instead set out to divide and rule the Palestinian people.

That approach was justified by the claim that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. The claim has been repeated today, but what does it mean? As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said earlier, international law holds that people in an occupied territory are entitled to resist occupation. They are not entitled to target civilians—no power is, although Israel is never held to account for what it does. In fact, Gaza’s home-made rockets cannot be targeted accurately, so they illegally injure civilians. That is wrong and has been denounced by everyone.

However, we need to be clear about proportionality, which is one the conditions of the international rules of war. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, in the seven years between the first of those primitive rockets being launched and the start of the current massacre, the rockets killed 13 Israelis and one foreigner. That is terrible but, in the same period, Israel killed 4,781 Palestinians: nearly 3,000 of them were in Gaza, and one in seven of them was a child. How can the rockets justify the current slaughter? It is all regrettable, but the slaughter is not justified by the rockets. It is disgraceful that the claim that it is has been repeated constantly in this Chamber.

In addition, there was a ceasefire negotiated through Egypt. Hamas held to it for five months, but Israel breached it in an amazing assault in early November and by its intensification of the blockade. The fact that
15 Jan 2009 : Column 440
Hamas agreed to the ceasefire and held to it has been written out of the picture and is never brought to public attention. So all these claims that the rockets justify the attack or that Hamas would not agree a ceasefire are untrue. Just as in the case of the Iraq war, the slaughter is justified by a constant litany of lies. That is one of the things that is enraging young Muslims in our country and across the world.

Once we were in Gaza, we met the elected parliamentarians who were not in prison—there were pictures in the Parliament of all those who had been imprisoned by the Israelis—and we had detailed discussions with Prime Minister Haniya. He said that the west had asked three things of them before it would recognise Hamas’s authority and negotiate with it: first, to recognise Israel; secondly, to halt violence; and thirdly, to accept all previous agreements negotiated with the PLO. He said that Hamas had responded by saying, first, that if a Palestinian state was established on 1967 boundaries, it would recognise the agreement and declare a long-term ceasefire. It has already been made clear that that is its position. That is another thing that is lied about.

Secondly, Hamas had negotiated and held to a ceasefire. That, therefore, dealt with the claim about violence. Thirdly, on previous agreements, notably Oslo, which it thought a very bad agreement—and I agree; it undermined the position of the Palestinian people—it recognised that the agreement was properly reached by the PLO, which had the authority to do so at the time. So it seems to me that Hamas has met the demands of the west, yet still no negotiations and no contact occur. Instead, the present massacre is allowed to take place.

Why will the UK and the EU not recognise Hamas? Why will the UK not hold Israel to international law? Why do we not take action under the Geneva convention? We are completely unbalanced. On the basis of international law, there could be a settlement. The UK and the EU allow Israel to break the law, so there cannot be peace and a settlement. The trouble will go on indefinitely and we will all reap the wreckage of it.

5.11 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) has put some valuable first-hand information on the record this afternoon in what has been a pretty good debate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) asked what Israel was to do in response to the rockets fired at it. In the 1970s and 1980s in this country, we suffered a number of terrorist atrocities that killed large numbers of our citizens and were indiscriminate and absolutely unforgivable, but we did not go and level west Belfast in response. Governments of both persuasions looked for a way of establishing contact with the perpetrators and at seeing what could be done to engage with them. Ultimately, after 20 patient years, we achieved peace.

I hold no brief for Hamas, but I am sorry to say that Israel has only itself to blame for the rise of Hamas. If Israel had made more effort to engage with moderate Palestinians and dealt with its own fundamentalists, the extremist virus, if that is what it is, would have never have taken hold in Gaza.

15 Jan 2009 : Column 441

I shall make three points. The word “unacceptable” has been used by spokesmen on all three Front Benches this afternoon. In the circumstances, the word “unacceptable” is not wrong, but it is wholly inadequate, given what we have witnessed in the past few weeks. I, like others who have spoken, believe that what we have witnessed are war crimes. They are out of proportion to the undoubted provocation that has occurred.

The use of white phosphorous flares has been mentioned. Those are imported from the United States, incidentally. The other day the Israelis dropped a 1 tonne bomb on the house of a Hamas leader in a crowded residential area. They killed him, they killed his family and they killed many of his neighbours. Anyone who drops a 1 tonne bomb on a crowded residential area is not entitled to be surprised by the consequences. Today, I gather, they have been shelling multi-storey housing blocks, in addition to the UN compound. I accept that they do not target civilians, as Israeli spokesmen repeatedly say, but they do not care whether they hit civilians or not. That has been clear. I also agree with those who said that it is utterly counter-productive from the point of view of Israel to proceed in this way. It will not stop the rockets and it will recruit a new generation of young men and women to extremist causes because of the experience that they are undergoing now.

My second point is that I do not believe that, under its current management, Israel has any intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state to be built. One has only to look at the advance of the settlements across the west bank—330,000 people are living there at the moment, and 12,000 came immediately after Israel pulled 8,000 people out of Gaza. It has been importing zealots from all over the world. They are not the original citizens of Israel or their heirs; people from comfortable addresses in Brooklyn have been brought in to colonise the west bank—and those people have a fall-back position if it all goes wrong.

A while ago in my constituency, I attended a talk given by a Christian woman from Bethlehem. She brought slides that showed how this accursed wall that Israel has built surrounds the city and described the humiliation that its citizens, Christian and Muslim, have to go through to get in and out. She told of how the situation has collapsed the economy. The wall appears to be in large part about stealing Palestinian land, because it separated a lot of farmers from their olive groves. The wall diverts to take in places of historic interest and goes right up against people’s houses. It may be about defence in part, but I believe that it is also to a large extent about stealing land. I do not believe that the people who built the wall are fundamentally interested in achieving a two-state settlement.

I understand the position of Her Majesty’s Government. They have tried to adopt a balanced and restrained approach. I commend their efforts to achieve a ceasefire, but it is time to recognise that we and the European Union have no influence whatever on the current Israeli Government. The only country in the world with such influence is the United States, which has chosen consistently and over a long period not to use it.

15 Jan 2009 : Column 442

Clare Short: The EU has a trade treaty with a human rights conditionality that gives Israel privileged access to our markets. Should we not just invoke the conditionality? That is serious leverage, and we should use it.

Mr. Mullin: The right hon. Lady anticipates me—we should indeed do exactly that, and one or two other things besides.

I was discussing America. I hope that things will be different under President Obama, but I am not optimistic given the extent to which the Democratic party is dependent on Jewish votes and how well organised that lobby is in the United States. The only influence that we can use is with the new Administration in the United States; we do not have any serious influence that I have noticed with the Israeli Government, and neither does any other EU country.

Finally, the only way forward for us, faced with what we have witnessed in recent weeks, is sanctions of one sort or another. They could be economic and relate to trade agreements with the EU, as the right hon. Lady mentioned. They could be military—we certainly should not be selling weapons to the Israelis; why we are still doing so is a mystery to me. Sanctions could also be diplomatic. In the circumstances, it would not be unreasonable to think of withdrawing our ambassador to Israel and sending the Israeli ambassador home.

5.18 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): There have been a number of excellent speeches this afternoon. I commend the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) for making some excellent points and I should like to bring light to what was said by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who spoke with passion about the reality on the ground in Gaza.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) touched on the historic nature of the issue, and a number of Members have tried to clutch at some point at which all this started. There is a great temptation for some to say that it all started when Hamas, or whoever, started firing rockets into Israel. That is a very simplistic way of looking at this conflict, and it takes us nowhere.

A couple of years ago, I visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, I bumped into an old lady on the streets and was introduced to her as a British Member of Parliament. She said, “I’m glad you’ve come because you need to sort out the mess that you started.” In some people’s view, the history of the problem goes right back to the 1920s. To argue that a person is guilty for this or that action takes us nowhere.

I wish briefly to discuss a small incident that affects a constituent of mine, and then touch on a general point about war crimes. On 30 December 2008 at about 05:30 hours EMT, an aid ship, the MV Dignity, was 53 miles off the coast of Israel when it was rammed by a coastguard cutter vehicle from the Israeli navy. It bore a Gibraltar flag and therefore sailed with British protection. There were 16 passengers on board, and aid to be taken to Gaza. There were three doctors—one Irish, one English and one Palestinian. Also on board was Cynthia McKinney, an American Congresswoman, and reporters from CNN and al-Jazeera. The ship was organised by the Free Gaza Movement.

15 Jan 2009 : Column 443

The ship left Larnaca, Cyprus, at 7 pm on the evening of 29 December. At 4.55 am on 30 December, it was about 70 miles off the Israeli coast when those on board saw big searchlights at the stern. For about 30 minutes, the searchlights hovered around them, occasionally being taken away and brought back on. Flares were put up into the air by the Israelis. Two gun boats had been circling them for this period, with no radio contact despite calls from the master of the Dignity. The Israelis turned off the searchlights and all went quiet. Then, without warning, there was a massive crash in the bow, the Dignity began to splinter and suffered severe damage to the bow. The Dignity began to take on water but, thankfully, was not sinking. The master of the Dignity immediately put out a mayday call but got no response. The Israelis eventually spoke, stating that those on board were terrorists and threatening to shoot at the Dignity. They demanded that the Dignity return to Larnaca, but it did not have enough fuel to do so. Eventually, the Dignity received help from the Lebanese and headed for Lebanon guided by the Lebanese navy.

That prompts serious questions about the conduct of the Israeli navy, in that it can make an unprovoked attack on a ship taking aid and supplies to the people of Gaza. If the Israelis genuinely thought that there were terrorists on board the ship, why did they not do what any British naval vessel would do—try to board it? Why did they not try to find out what was being carried on the ship? No—instead they rammed it, putting everyone’s lives at risk. I know that the Foreign Secretary has promised to look into this incident, but I hope that there will be a full investigation. If these events are proved to be true, I hope that the Israeli ambassador will be called in to see the Foreign Secretary so that it can be explained to him that this is not acceptable behaviour and is against the laws of the sea.

Let me turn briefly to the issue of war crimes. If white phosphorous has been used—it looks very likely that it has—and one looks at the overall way in which the Israelis have hemmed in and treated the Palestinians in Gaza, they have committed war crimes. People will argue that it was a one-off, that it was an accident and they did not mean to do it, or that it was justifiable in the circumstances. However, if a nation has a track record of breaking international law in such incidents, one has to question what people’s motives were and whether they really knew what they were doing. In Lebanon, 1 million unexploded cluster bombs were left lying on the ground, 90 per cent. of which were fired in the last 72 hours before the deal was done in New York and the start of the ceasefire. If that is not using cluster bombs as mines, I do not know what is, and that is a war crime.

5.24 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): We have heard some excellent speeches, and I associate myself with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). I add my voice to his in saying that the moderate elements of Hamas must be engaged in the discussions on the way forward.

Next Section Index Home Page