Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Jan 2010 : Column 201WH—continued

I highlight these points because they are too often overlooked. Although our Government were right to call for Israel to conduct an inquiry into possible breaches
12 Jan 2010 : Column 202WH
of international law during the Gaza conflict, although the Goldstone is merely an indictment not a proven fact, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said-unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) who, on introducing the debate, effectively took it as proven fact-and although Israel's current investigations may not be perfect, it is right that we give Israel the opportunity to show the international community that it is taking these allegations seriously.

We should at least wait to hear the outcome of Israel's investigation before offering premature condemnations, such as we have heard today. Israel may establish a fully independent inquiry.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dismore: No, there is not time.

Several prominent Members of the Knesset, including Kadima party MK and chair of the Israel-United Kingdom Parliamentary Friendship League, Nachman Shai, have called for such a judicial inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in response to Goldstone.

Israel is entitled, as a liberal democracy, to time to respond to the Goldstone report fully. I do not see any sign of Hamas setting up an inquiry into the war crimes that it is alleged to have committed, with considerable evidence behind the allegations, such as rocketing Israeli civilians indiscriminately or using its own citizens as human shields effectively to maximise casualties to create the pressure on Israel that we have seen. Only last week, there were three rockets fired into and 10 mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza, endangering innocent lives as well as the efforts of the international community to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations restarted. The situation in Gaza is unlikely to improve while these attacks are still occurring and Hamas refuses to renounce violence.

Although I disagree with the level of restrictions imposed by Israel at the crossings into Gaza, we should not forget the threat that Israel faces. Removing these restrictions means that Hamas and other terrorist groups will have greater opportunity to smuggle in weapons and carry out terrorist attacks. Hamas has, in the past, used such building materials to fortify its military infrastructure and construct weapons. Egypt's recent blocking of crossings from Egypt into Gaza, and the fact that it deported the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), are signs of its changing attitude to some of the problems that it is now seeing, which Israel has seen for a long time.

Mr. Hood, I do not want to take up any more time. Our Government have the right approach to both international universal jurisdiction and the Goldstone report. I commend them on their stance so far and hope that that will continue and that there will be an early announcement on how they intend to deal with universal jurisdiction.

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I hope to start winding up round about 12 o'clock.

11.58 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Mr. Hood, I take your hint.

12 Jan 2010 : Column 203WH

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, I was an eye witness to the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Gaza-as were my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)-as part of the first parliamentary delegation into Gaza after the withdrawal of the IDF. Therefore the report has a certain poignancy, in addition to that felt by other hon. Members who have taken the trouble to read it.

Yes, we did see the destruction of entire villages, hospitals, some of the 280 schools and some of the 95 per cent. of private industry that was destroyed. We saw the destruction of civil society, including police stations. Nearly 250 police officers were killed in deliberate bombing attacks, most on the first day of the bombing. Yes, we did stand in the rubble of the legislature in Gaza and we spoke to some of its democratically elected Members. I thought that that would have some resonance for hon. Members in this House, even those who seem to have a blind spot in discussing this issue-unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea-and seeing both sides of the argument.

Yes, there were atrocities on both sides, but disproportionately and massively, more atrocities were committed by Israeli forces. If the deaths of 352 children are not a murderous act as my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said, I do not know what is. We saw the evidence of white phosphorous having been used; it was still reignitable three weeks after the troops had left. Yes, I have been to Ashkelon and seen the conditions that people live in and yes, that is intolerable, but it is a functioning modern city, as Sderot is. One cannot make a comparison between the suffering of people in Gaza and the suffering of people in Israel in that respect.

I shall mention two other points. The first, which is dealt with in the Goldstone report, is the suppression by the Israeli authorities of organisations such as Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, and the bombing of UNRWA-the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-facilities. Again, the eyewitness reports that we received and the people we met, mainly through the facility of those well respected organisations, are also unable to tell their story to the outside world. Of course, the siege continues. Only 15 per cent. of the trade that was getting into Gaza before the blockade started is getting there now.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister two questions. First, please will he address what the Government's attitude to the Goldstone report is now and why, given the time that has elapsed, the Government cannot come off the fence and say that the allegations made in Goldstone ought to be investigated? Secondly, the universal jurisdiction point is not about the dark arts of diplomacy and Government-to-Government discussions; it is an important point about civil liberties for this country. Many hon. Members, as well as many of our constituents, will not stomach attempts by the British Government to remove traditions that we are very proud of in this country simply because somebody described as an international partner requests us to do so.

In the context of what is happening in the middle east, the failure to secure a settlement freeze, the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, the effect that has on moderates and particularly President Abbas at the moment, in the west bank and the Gaza strip, the Goldstone
12 Jan 2010 : Column 204WH
report and universal jurisdiction are vital not just as arcane debating points here, but to our constituents and to the Palestinian people in Gaza and the west bank.

12.2 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has done the House a great service by proposing the debate. All the contributions so far show that people are engaged and feel very strongly on both sides.

When an action such as Operation Cast Lead happens, it is right that we get to the facts. Those of us who saw the pictures on television, whether from al-Jazeera or other sources, and who heard the reports coming out of Gaza at the time said we felt that the action was disproportionate and there was a case for investigating allegations of war crimes on both sides.

I was delighted to be invited and felt strongly enough to go to Gaza to see the situation for myself, as part of the parliamentary delegation that was mentioned. The facts that we saw on the ground in a limited, restricted way, given our time and ability to verify things, only confirmed what we had seen on television-that the destruction was huge and wanton. Some of the villages we saw had been targeted not just for military targets, but for civilian targets. We talked to people who lived there, who said that first they had been fired on from the air, then the tanks had fired on their houses and, because some were still standing, the troops then came in, laid charges and blew the rest of the houses down. We went to that village, stood on the rubble and saw house after house that had been destroyed, so if anyone tells me that they think that was correct action, fair action and along the lines of international law, I cannot accept it.

Mr. Carswell rose-

Mr. Davey: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman; I hope he will answer that point.

Mr. Carswell: We all recognise that there have been many victims of the conflict and many horrific things happened, but will the hon. Gentleman also recognise that some of the victims are casualties of the terrorist tactic of launching attacks from close proximity to civilian centres?

Mr. Davey: We visited Ashkelon and saw the damage that had been done by Hamas rockets, and the report is very clear, quite rightly, that firing by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups from Gaza indiscriminately on Israeli civilians is a war crime and a crime against humanity. I condemn every single one of those rockets fired indiscriminately against civilians. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is talking about where they were fired from, but I do not know how he knows where they were all fired from. Some were clearly fired from civilian centres, but if he thinks that justifies wiping out-razing to the ground-a whole village, he is coming at this from a different political perspective from mine.

We did not just visit homes and speak to people. We saw the hospitals and schools that had been destroyed. We went to an ice cream factory. The report talks about the cement factory, the flour mill and the water and sewage works, but we also saw ice cream factories. We
12 Jan 2010 : Column 205WH
met a Palestinian entrepreneur who had been working with Israeli businesses for 20 or 30 years, supplying ice cream to Israel, and had been one of the moderates in Gaza, trying to get free enterprise going in Gaza. He told us that he was absolutely disillusioned by the Israelis, how his business had been destroyed, how people had been thrown out of work and that it was completely unjustifiable because he had never allowed any Hamas militant anywhere near his factories.

Those are the facts about what we saw, but I readily confess that it was limited and could not be verified on every account. The question is how far Judge Goldstone's report gets to the truth. It cannot get all the way there. Israel refused to take part, so the mission did not hear from both sides, which is a limitation of the report, but Judge Goldstone can hardly be criticised for that.

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the fact that the Israelis refused to take part enhances the perception of bias in the whole report and that it would have been much more helpful if there had been co-operation from the Israelis?

Mr. Davey: Of course. My point is that the Goldstone report cannot be criticised because one party refused to give evidence.

There are some valid criticisms of the report. One is that the resolution tabled at the UN to create the debate on the report and the follow-through from the report was biased. It was not as balanced as the report itself. The Government did not actually abstain-they were not in the room-but I can understand why they would have abstained if they had been in the room, because of the limitations of the resolution.

However, some of the other criticisms levelled at the Goldstone report do not stand up to analysis. People talk about a biased mandate. Judge Goldstone amended the mandate to ensure that it was balanced and brought in the issue of rockets fired on civilians from Gaza.

People say that the report is politically motivated; they talk about many of the shortcomings of the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, the report was written not by the Human Rights Council, but by one of the world's greatest jurists, who is an expert at looking into war crimes as a result of his experience in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

One criticism says that the report did not adequately recognise Israel's right to protect its citizens. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the report's mandate. The report was not set up to look into the legality of the war, but to look into the behaviour of all parties during that conflict. Therefore, I do not think that criticism can undermine the findings and thrust of the Goldstone report.

I am particularly taken by the findings of the expert meeting convened at Chatham House at the end of November last year, referred to briefly by the hon. Member for Battersea. It involved a number of experts in international and humanitarian law: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, whom people will know as the former Foreign Office legal adviser, Professor Matthew Craven, Dr. Catriona Drew, Professor Charles Garraway, Professor
12 Jan 2010 : Column 206WH
Steven Haines, Professor Françoise Hampson and Professor Sir Nigel Rodley. Together, they were an extremely experienced and expert group to consider issues of international law. They looked into the criticisms of the procedural aspects of Goldstone and their report concluded:

That is the judgment of independent academics who are experts in the field, and therefore I do not think that the report can be dismissed. I hope that the Government will tell us what they intend to do at the UN and regarding their relations with Israel, to ensure that the report is answered; it cannot be shelved. We need to hear the full answers, and to ensure that people are held to account. Any moves to undermine the need for accountability on such matters should be opposed.

12.10 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who would have responded to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, has asked me to express his apologies. He is visiting Tokyo at the invitation of the Japanese Government.

The contributions that we have heard this morning from both sides of the House show the strength of feeling about Gaza that exists among members of all political parties. What happened in Gaza during the Israeli military action 12 months ago was an appalling human tragedy, and today the people of Gaza-1 million or more of our fellow human beings-continue to suffer. The debate has also shown how opinions about events in Gaza have become polarised, which reflects the stark division of opinion in the middle east itself. To most Israelis, Operation Cast Lead was a necessity, a national duty even. Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza strip-dismantling its settlements and evicting settlers by force-and she hoped for peace. Instead, she saw Gaza taken over by a group dedicated to Israel's destruction and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. When I talk to Israeli representatives, I find that they express regret about the loss of life among civilians in Gaza, but they point to the fact that in 2008 and 2009 more than 1,750 rockets and more than 1,500 mortar shells were fired into Israel. To most Israelis, including men and women passionately committed to peace and to a two-state solution, military action in Gaza was justified by the need to protect their fellow citizens.

In the Arab and the wider Muslim world, an utterly different narrative is heard. The argument there is that an imperfect but more or less effective ceasefire was wrecked by Israeli incursions into Gaza, which prompted retaliatory attacks from Hamas. Night after night, television screens showed shocking graphic images of women and children killed and maimed by Israeli bullets and shells. Not only Syria and Iran, but traditionally more moderate countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, reacted with anger.

We can understand why Israel felt compelled to take action to protect her citizens from rocket attacks, but there can be no doubt that the war in Gaza has damaged prospects for peace in the middle east and Israel's hopes for permanent security along with it, and has caused an
12 Jan 2010 : Column 207WH
immense and continuing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip. We shall not get an enduring peace in the middle east unless that legacy can be addressed, and both political and economic progress can be made with regard to Gaza. That includes addressing the serious and grave allegations of human rights violations that have been made against both the Israeli defence forces and Hamas. Throughout the conflict, we called for those allegations to be fully investigated, and we have supported the establishment of a UN fact-finding mission to Gaza and the work of Judge Goldstone. It is a pity that the Israeli Government decided not to engage with the commission, because the consequence is that the report lacks an authoritative Israeli perspective on the military and legal criteria that the Israeli defence force used.

Like the Government, we think that the Goldstone report has flaws. It refers to the rocket attacks on Israel, describing them in paragraph 108 as probable war crimes, and it also denounces how Gilad Shalit is being held and criticises Hamas for the murder and abuse of its political opponents inside Gaza, but those paragraphs make up only a small proportion of a report, the bulk of which deals with allegations against the Israeli forces and makes severe criticisms of them. It does not adequately recognise Israel's legal right to protect its citizens; nor does it pay sufficient attention to the actions of Hamas.

We continue to believe that the allegations listed in the Goldstone report need to be fully investigated, and addressed by both Israel and the Palestinians. It is a pity that the resolution tabled at the UN Human Rights Council was so utterly one-sided, failing even to mention Hamas by name. That is why we called on the Government to vote against the resolution. The Government's action in instructing the British delegate to leave the room rather than to vote either way, or even record a formal abstention, was an abdication of responsibility.

The Goldstone report also deals at length with the humanitarian problems in Gaza, which were made much worse by the war and continue today. We want to see the crossing points reopened as soon as possible, to allow food, medical and hospital supplies to be brought in without limit. The Israeli authorities have told us that they believe such humanitarian aid is being allowed through but that Hamas activists prevent it from reaching ordinary people. The aid agencies tell us that basic needs are still not being met. Will the Minister give us the British Government's assessment of the adequacy of food and medical supplies reaching Gaza, and what action they are taking to improve matters on the ground?

In a written answer dated 2 November 2009, the Government said that the United Kingdom had not yet been able to spend any of the £20 million of funding earmarked for reconstruction in Gaza because of restrictions imposed by Israel on the entry of building materials. The essential reconstruction of homes, schools and health facilities is not happening, and well over half of Gaza's population does not have daily access to water. That state of affairs is morally wrong, and can surely only add to the bitterness that will make political reconciliation even more difficult to achieve. What actions are the Government taking both bilaterally and through the European Union to find ways to accelerate the pace of reconstruction in Gaza? What is the status of negotiations to reopen the crossing points, and does the Minister believe that there might need to be some kind of
12 Jan 2010 : Column 208WH
international presence on the ground to help to overcome the political obstacles to restoring the normal flow of goods for civilian use?

One consequence of events in Gaza has been the increased risk to Israeli politicians of arrest if they visit the United Kingdom, as we have heard in today's debate. It is essential that Israeli leaders should be able to come to this country to talk about bilateral relations, and in particular about the middle east peace process. I note that the Attorney-General said recently that the Government intended to address that problem, possibly by changes to legislation, but I hope that the Minister will give us a bit more detail when he replies.

It is in the interests of the United Kingdom to see a genuine and enduring peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. In our view, that settlement has to be based upon a two-state solution in which Gaza forms an integral part of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. Such a solution is vital to the future safety and security of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Next Section Index Home Page