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Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In welcoming the tone of the Foreign Secretary's statement and his condemnation of the loss of innocent life, may I ask whether he recognises that those innocent lives might well have included any of the 37 United Kingdom citizens present when the Israelis committed a war crime of piracy in international waters, kidnapping and murder-and all in pursuit of upholding an illegal blockade on Gaza that amounts to collective punishment, as I saw for myself when I led an international parliamentary delegation there early this year? Will he assure the House that, if the Israelis fail to comply with the perfectly modest and satisfactory request that he has made of them, further action will be taken to make Israel rejoin the international community?
Mr Hague: Yes, it is very important that Israel responds to the call from across the whole world, to which we have added our voice, for a prompt, independent, credible and transparent investigation or inquiry. As I mentioned earlier, in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, if no such investigation or inquiry is forthcoming, we will want to advocate such an inquiry under international auspices. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is right that whatever precise words we use, a blockade of Gaza is counter-productive; it is wrong and it does not even serve the interests of the security of Israel. He is also right to point out that fatalities could have occurred among the British nationals who were caught up in this. It is our strong advice to British nationals, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, not to travel to Gaza-let me make that absolutely clear-as they would be going into a dangerous situation, but it is absolutely wrong to maintain the blockade. That is the clear position of the Government.
Mr Speaker: Order. Another 29 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and the debate to follow this statement is very heavily subscribed, so I need short questions and short answers.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who were able to enter Gaza in the aftermath of the last Israeli incursion could only come to the conclusion that there had been a wholly disproportionate use of lethal force of very, very dubious legality? Does he agree that there has now been a repeat of precisely that? What will the British Government do to try to ensure that there is not the same repetition again and again and again?
Mr Hague: Hopefully, I covered that point in my statement. I referred to the actions that have been taken by Israel as appearing to go beyond what was warranted or proportionate, and I weigh those words very carefully. I also said that that is unacceptable and that Israel must act with restraint and in line with its international obligations, so we have given a very strong message to Israel. In the conversations that I had with the Israeli Foreign Minister and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the Israeli Prime Minister, there could be no mistaking how strongly we feel. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) adds force to how we feel.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Bearing in mind that the ship was a peace ship in international waters, is not attacking such a ship against international law and should it not be condemned by the Foreign Secretary as an illegal act?
Mr Hague: One has to agree that to board a ship in international waters can legally happen only in the most exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, so that is the basis we are working from.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): My constituent Hasan Nowarah was injured when the flotilla came under attack, although he is now, thankfully, safely at home with his family. He was motivated by a desire to help people in the most dire need, but the 45 tonnes of medical equipment that he helped to collect is currently floating aboard the ship, the Rachel Corrie, in the Mediterranean. Will the Foreign Secretary use his diplomatic efforts to persuade the Israeli Government to let that vital medical aid be delivered to hospitals in Gaza?
Mr Hague: Yes, I very much take that point. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has just undertaken, as we were listening to the hon. Lady's question, to look into what is happening to that specific shipment. I believe that some of the aid on some of the ships involved is now arriving in Gaza, but we will look into the shipment that she mentions.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): This is a dreadful and deplorable tragedy, but will the Foreign Secretary tell us what urgent steps he will take to ease the transfer of essential goods through the crossings so that Israel's security needs can be met? Does he accept that Israel has legitimate security needs against the enemy that is determined to destroy it?
Mr Hague: Of course Israel has legitimate security needs. That is why I stressed in my statement the role and responsibility of Hamas and the need for it and anyone else in Gaza to end rocket attacks on Israel. That is a very important part of the entire situation as well. We need to find a way in which Israel can be assured that the smuggling of arms into Gaza does not take place while the flow of humanitarian aid and general economic trade can take place. Clearly, some additional assurance is going to be necessary for that to happen, and that is what we are working on urgently.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): May I welcome the clear but restrained way in which the Foreign Secretary dealt with this very difficult matter? May I ask him a very precise question: has it not been clear for a long time now that the blockade of Gaza is illegal? Does it not therefore amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and is it not contrary to all international law and the Geneva convention?
The argument that I make is that, whatever the arguments about the blockade's legality, it is unwise-it does not achieve its objective. In a practical world, it is not the right thing for Israel to do. No doubt, the Government of Israel would make a different legal argument from that of my hon. Friend: they maintain
that the blockade is lawful because they are acting in their own self-defence. Therefore, the thing that they must be persuaded of is that the blockade does not serve their security interests and that a change of policy is urgently required.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I note the Foreign Secretary's demand for free and unfettered access to Gaza but, in the absence of a blockade of shipping into Gaza, how does he believe that the people of Israel can be protected from the unprovoked assaults by rockets and other armaments that are being imported into Gaza by the supporters of Hamas terrorists?
Mr Hague: That is why I have referred to the international work that needs to take place to try to give assurance that such importation of arms cannot take place while humanitarian and economic aid, and general economic trade, is going on. However, I stress again that it does not serve the interests of Israel's security to maintain the current position, which is putting more power into the hands of Hamas and driving the people of Gaza into its arms. That does not serve the security of Israel.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ask Israel to desist from using selective footage to make its case through the media rather than engaging in the full inquiry into this terrible incident that should take place?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, although we will be doing very well in the world if we can persuade everyone to stop using selective footage in the media. It may be a little ambitious to think that we will be able to persuade Israel to do that, but that underlines the need for the impartial and credible inquiry for which we have called.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): In the past 18 months, Israel has killed 1,400 people during Operation Cast Lead. It has also carried out an assassination in Dubai using false passports, and now it has killed people on the high seas. On each occasion, there has been ritual condemnation, as there is today. I support that condemnation, but is it not time for us to take sanctions against Israel, such as lifting the EU-Israel trade agreement? Israel must understand that it cannot act illegally with impunity, and that it cannot kill people on the high seas in the way that it has just done.
Mr Hague: Israel will be listening to the condemnation in this House, including from the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt about that, but I do not think that the right policy is to impose sanctions. I think that the right policy is to urge on Israel the course of action that I have set out today. The restrictions and the blockade of Gaza should be lifted, and a truly credible and independent investigation should be set up. They are part of the practical way forward that we should concentrate on, and therefore they are the right foreign policy for this country.
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con):
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but does he agree that the effect of the brutal Israeli blockade of Gaza is to drive all trade into the tunnels? Some of the tunnels are now
large enough to accommodate 4x4 vehicles, and of course there is no restriction whatever on the importation of weapons through them.
Mr Hague: Yes, and my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. What in effect happens is that Hamas is able to tax the importation of goods through the tunnels, providing funds for itself while further impoverishing the people of Gaza. That is a further reminder that the blockade is not an effective policy.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Is it at all possible that the Israelis are aware of the worldwide revulsion at what has happened this week? The killings on the high seas had no justification whatsoever, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about other measures that Israel has taken. Is it not clear that Israel seems to show no concern at all for international opinion, and that it is out of control? Unless firm action is taken by the international community, will we not see further tragedies of this kind?
Mr Hague: I would not necessarily reach the conclusion that there is no awareness or concern about international opinion in Israel. In fact, there has been a good deal of criticism of the Israeli Government in the Israeli media over the past couple of days. Remember that Israel is a democracy. There is free expression of opinion. Sometimes that is bitterly critical of their own Ministers, and sometimes of their own armed forces. We saw that in the aftermath of the Lebanon war four years ago. I think it would be over-simplifying the situation to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did a few moments ago. There is a consciousness in Israel of international opinion. That is why we have to express ourselves in a way that is forceful but responsible, and ask them to do reasonable things that are in their own best interest. That is the position that we have taken.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there has been up to 1 million tonnes of aid from Israel to Gaza since January 2009? Will he also acknowledge that the reason for the blockade, which we all want to end, is continued terrorism by Hamas, the hijacking of aid convoys and the smuggling of arms from Iran into Gaza?
Mr Hague: It is very important to remember the role played by Hamas. It is important to remind people all the time, as I did in my statement, that we need to see an end to the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, as well as the other measures that we have called on Israel to take. My hon. Friend brings that necessary balance to the questions asked today.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): The Foreign Secretary will know that the terrible siege of Gaza has been ongoing now for three years, with huge suffering caused to people, but given that the condemnations and criticisms of Israel never seem to change the Israeli authorities' actions, what further action does he propose to take? In the EU association agreement with Israel, for example, there is a clause that provides for its suspension in the light of human rights abuses on either side. Will not his refusal to consider suspending that EU association agreement give the message that we are not serious about taking action with Israel, and that we are not serious about our EU agreements either?
Mr Hague: I do not think Israel will be in any doubt about the seriousness of the message. The fact that a Security Council statement was agreed so rapidly, with the support of the United States as well as of the United Kingdom, will have made an impact on Israel; the hon. Lady can be sure of that. If she could have heard the conversations that we have had with out Israeli counterparts, she could also be very confident that they are aware of the strength of opinion and our deep concern about these issues.
The EU-Israel agreement is not exactly progressing at the moment anyway. I take the point that she makes about that, but it is not an additional measure for this particular situation. As I have explained in answer to previous questions, I want to concentrate on trying to make sure that that credible and independent investigation takes place, and that the case is understood in Israel for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza in their own best interests. It is important that we put it in that way.
Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The flotilla, which was probably doomed to fail, was an expression of the frustration of ordinary people at the failure of the United Nations, and in particular of the Quartet, to get Israel to comply with its UN obligations. The Foreign Secretary has had conversations with Mrs Clinton. I understand that he is also meeting the EU High Representative. Does he believe that between us we can encourage the Quartet to take firmer action with Israel, which still in its statements today seems not to understand the gravity of the situation?
Mr Hague: There is a real international focus on these matters now, and that is true in the United States. I was with the EU High Representative, Baroness Ashton, last night in Sarajevo, and she certainly has the same focus on these issues, as do many other EU Foreign Ministers. This morning I was at the EU-western Balkans high-level meeting in Sarajevo, and many of the Foreign Ministers discussed the issue in the margins of that. One of the results of the action was to bring the issue centre stage. It has shone a spotlight on the problems of Gaza, to which so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred. It is now important for us to take the momentum from that and make sure that the necessary work continues over the coming weeks and months to improve the situation.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary not accept that what he said today really amounts to saying that the United States, Britain and Europe will continue to tolerate the Israeli blockade of Gaza? Does he not agree that this toleration should be brought to an end, and, if necessary, Britain and the other European members of NATO should say that if another flotilla sets off for Gaza, we are willing to give it naval protection, with the Royal Navy reverting to its traditional role of protecting the freedom of the seas?
I understand, in every case in which right hon. and hon. Members express their outrage at what has happened, the strength of feeling in many parts of the House and of the country. As I have explained, in the pursuit of practical foreign policy we should concentrate on the two things that I have identified-the setting up of the right kind of investigation and inquiry, and
doing so quickly, and making the coherent case, including to the Israelis, for lifting the blockade on Gaza. Those are the right things to concentrate on. The right hon. Gentleman refers to British naval protection and deployment, but the previous Prime Minister promised a British naval deployment in the Mediterranean to try to stop arms smuggling to Gaza, and no ship was ever sent. I will not make empty promises; we will concentrate on the two issues that we have identified as necessary.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given the importance of the investigation that the Foreign Secretary referred to, does he not also believe that there is a very powerful case for referring this to international arbitration and/or the international court at The Hague? After all, this involves not only questions of international law. The political causes are well known, but they have not yet been resolved by the political intervention of the Quartet, and so forth, and international arbitration may well be a very good move to adopt.
Mr Hague: The position that we have taken does not exclude those things, but they are quite difficult things to bring about and seek agreement to, so the priority is to have an inquiry and investigation established as soon as possible that meets the criteria that I have set out. However, we have not excluded advocating other courses of action if that is not heeded.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I think that we have pussy-footed around Israel for long enough. The only language that it understands is not the language of diplomacy but the language of the hobnail boot, by which I mean sanctions, telling it to stop building any more settlements, and insisting that it has talks with people-both sides-who represent the Palestinian people, as the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will develop a much more robust foreign policy towards Israel.
Mr Hague: Again, the right hon. Lady illustrates the strength of feeling in the House. I have not immediately donned my hobnail boots, because the right way to approach the matter, which will make sense to people in Israel as well as to the rest of the world, is to advocate the measures that I have called for today. That is a crucial ingredient for Israelis themselves to see-that this needs to be properly investigated to international standards in a way that the international community can respect and take seriously, and that the blockade of Gaza makes no sense even from their own point of view. Israel is a democratic country. It is possible to make these arguments and to have them heard there, so I favour concentrating on that method of proceeding rather than the hobnail boots that she wants me to put on.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear this afternoon that he thinks that the blockade is counter-productive because of the suffering that it causes to the people of Gaza. Will he therefore press the international community to lift the blockade as a precursor to a full middle east peace settlement?
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