Israel ignores international opinion on the illegal wall that has turned towns such as Kalkilya and Bethlehem into prisons, and on the illegal checkpoints. It knows
that, whatever it does, no action will follow. It has the most extremist Government it has ever had, under the most extremist Prime Minister it has ever had, and a Foreign Minister who is an avowed racist. Israel is allowed literally to get away with murder. Only punitive international action will make even the tiniest difference. That means an arms ban, and the kind of sanctions that were imposed by the senior President Bush on Yitzhak Shamir to force him to participate in international talks in Madrid.
This is a situation in which one country is holding 1.5 million people in an internal prison and 4 million other Palestinians in a form of detention, but let us be clear about this: no action will be taken against Israel. President Obama will take no action, partly because he has mid-term elections in five months' time, and partly because the odious pressure group, AIPAC-the American Israel Public Affairs Committee-can destroy any United States politician who makes the slightest criticism of Israel. When a Republican Congressman suggested that a tiny sliver of the billions of dollars that the United States gives to Israel should be transferred to alleviate a certain amount of poverty in Africa, AIPAC labelled him an anti-Semite. That is what American politicians, including Obama, have to put up with. We could take action, however. The European Union could take action over trade agreements, for example. Let us be clear that we cannot appeal to the conscience and good will of a country that has not demonstrated that it has either quality.
The situation is now unsustainable. The more the Israelis repress, suppress and oppress the Palestinians, the more precarious the future of their state will be. I saw, as did other hon. Members when we went to Iraq this year, that the Israelis are breeding children who hate them because of their hunger and their lack of schooling, and because of the way in which they are being treated. The Israelis seem to believe that treating the people of Gaza like that is a way of weaning them away from Hamas, but it only makes them support Hamas even more. Nobody is excusing Hamas; it has done dreadful things, as I pointed out to its representatives when I was in Gaza earlier this year. The fact is, however, that the Israelis are creating a generation of children who will grow up hungry and hating them.
This Israel does not want a two-state solution, but the only alternative is a one-state solution, and the existential fact is that, before long, there will be more Palestinians than Israeli Jews. It took the Jews 2,000 years to get their homeland in what is now Israel. After 60 years in that homeland, they now risk throwing it all away.
The Minister and his Labour shadow made wide-ranging speeches about the nature of the various problems in the middle east. I want to confine my remarks to the situation in Palestine, and particularly in Gaza, as did the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). That is not just because of the events that we all witnessed on our TV screens a couple of weekends ago, and which were discussed by colleagues at a Liberal
International meeting in Berlin this weekend. My speech has also been informed by my visit to Gaza in March as part of a cross-party delegation led by my noble Friend, Lord David Steel. The hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck) were also part of the delegation. For me, that visit to Gaza was one of those life-transforming experiences that crystallised the issues in my head and made me see them more clearly than I had done before.
In Gaza, 1.5 million people are being held under siege conditions. First, they are blockaded on land. We saw the wall and, more pertinently, we had to be careful not to get too close to it because of the snipers who patrol it. The people are also blockaded by air, as well as by sea, the tragic result of which we saw a couple of weekends ago. To set this in the context of my own constituency, that is the equivalent of the whole of greater Bristol, Bath and all of Wiltshire being blockaded off from the rest of the United Kingdom and denied access to the most basic goods. This is a humanitarian violation on a quite staggering scale.
There are limited crossing points along the well-policed border. The Rafah crossing from Egypt, which we had to use, is only for foot passengers. No goods are allowed to pass through it. All the crossing points through which goods may be transmitted are controlled by the Israeli army. As we saw, only a limited variety of items are allowed to be transferred across, and the list, which seems quite arbitrary, changes from week to week. When we were there in early March, only 70 items were allowed across the border. If we go into our local corner shop-never mind the supermarket-we can see the thousands of products, including hundreds of different kinds of biscuits and confectionery alone, that are available to us. Imagine being limited to only 70 items in total out of the full range of goods and services that we, as 21st-century citizens, expect to have access to. However, only 70 items were allowed into Gaza in that particular week. This is not just the denial of humanitarian aid; it is the denial, and complete obstruction and destruction, of a fully functioning market economy.
Desperately needed reconstruction materials are not allowed to be transferred across the border either, and in Gaza we saw, of course, the bombed-out schools, the bombed university and hospital, and the housing shortages. It is absurd and outrageous that cement and other construction materials are not allowed across the border.
All of that leads to those 1.5 million people effectively being utterly dependent on a shadow, black-market economy supplied with goods through tunnels dug through the sand from Egypt and controlled by local criminals and Hamas. People with sufficient money and wherewithal can access those goods, whereas the rest are dependent on local patronage or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
What we saw in Gaza is effectively a parallel society. Ironically, people who can prove their status as a descendant of a 1948 refugee are in a slightly better position than those who have lived in the Gaza strip for generations, because they might get access to UNRWA food parcels. We saw that at a food distribution centre, where families came from all over the Gaza strip and took away their very limited supplies of cooking oil and other cooking materials by donkey cart. It was a mediaeval scene, and what is happening in Gaza is mediaeval, too: mediaeval siege tactics are being used that would have been appropriate
at the time of Richard the Lionheart or Saladin but are completely outrageous and unacceptable in the second decade of the 21st century.
My remarks so far have provided an outline of the problem as I saw it for myself just a few months ago, but what can we do about it? The UK Government should use our membership of the European Union to be more active in putting pressure on the state of Israel, and also on Egypt. The objective should be to lift the siege, and not only for humanitarian aid; indeed, I am a little worried about the frequent references to humanitarian aid. The full range of goods and services that we take for granted in our society should be allowed in. That is needed in Gaza to allow people to rebuild a fully functioning market economy.
The EU is in a good position to apply leverage on the state of Israel through our trade agreements with it. The EU can also potentially play an important role in enabling access to goods and services for Gaza. While travelling into Westminster on the train today, I was intrigued by an article in The Times by the EU's foreign affairs High Representative, Cathy Ashton, whom I believe is at this very moment chairing a meeting of all EU Foreign Ministers. The article said that the EU could perhaps be the agency that facilitates and polices the transfer of goods and services into the Gaza strip, and that instead of Israel banning all goods and services, we should have a list that prohibits only those few of them that would be prejudicial to Israel's security, and that the presumption should be that all other goods should be allowed in.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and may I also say what a pleasure it is to see an alumnus of Dynevor grammar school, Swansea, occupying the Speaker's Chair today?
Stephen Williams: I am certainly not going to deny that part of what is taking place is self-inflicted. Obviously, the rocket attacks on villages in the south of Israel are outrageous, and we made it clear in the meetings we had with various political representatives in Gaza that there had been wrong on both sides, but the state of Israel has an army at its disposal, whereas the inhabitants of Gaza are 1.5 million people who are at the mercy of a superpower on their doorstep, and those superpowers, whether Israel or Egypt-or the states that, perhaps, control and influence their foreign policy from much further afield-are, effectively, playing with the destinies of men, women and children, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton mentioned. That is not the way to build peace and understanding for the future, and I think we have a right to expect rather more from the democratic state of Israel than it has shown so far. That leads me to my final point.
My final point is about political engagement. One of the touching scenes we saw while in Gaza city was at an UNRWA school, where children were conducting a
mock election. That shows hope for the future, but I do not think there can be any hope for the future if we do not talk to the people whom their parents have elected. We must have engagement with all the political representatives of Gaza and the west bank. We must lift the siege. We must have constructive engagement, and from that point we might have a chance of building lasting peace into the future.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) spoke with great passion about the situation in Gaza and, based on my experience of visiting there, I completely concur with his analysis. I, too, will concentrate on the situation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Just over a week ago in the town of Ayr, I joined other local people in seeking signatures to a petition about the attack on the flotilla taking aid to Gaza and the resulting loss of life. I was joined by local people from Amnesty International and various other groups, including Sheena Boyle, who is involved in a Scottish charity, Children of Amal. She spends half her year in Nablus, where she provides therapeutic support and training to children who have been traumatised by violence. She also trains psychologists and social workers to provide group therapy through music as an art.
I was taken aback by what I witnessed in Ayr. The people who had volunteered have a long-standing commitment to seeking peace in the middle east, but I do not think those who were lining up to support the petition follow events in the middle east particularly closely. I was struck by the level of anger at what had happened.
All Members must take note that there is widespread concern in our constituencies about the entire situation and the continuing disproportionate actions of the Israeli Government. All too often, the Israeli Government act in an affronted and defensive manner when their actions are questioned and there are calls for independent reports. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) referred to the Goldstone report and the fact that the Israelis' response was to blame the messenger.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, we should welcome an inquiry and input from independent people, including the Houses of Parliament. I understand that Turkey is not happy with the set-up and what is being proposed, and as it is the country that has been most affected by the action, we have to take note of that. In particular, we must make sure that there is transparency in the inquiry.
Over the years, there have been many false dawns interspersed with violence from both sides, although not in equal measure. My hon. Friend was very optimistic, based on his experience of various different situations in his lifetime where peace has been achieved. I am not so optimistic, as I am aware from trying to put myself in the shoes of the Palestinians-and, indeed, the Israeli people-that it is very hard to see any likelihood of progress.
We have heard plenty of words, but they have been interspersed with violence. There have been conferences, accords, mutual recognitions, declarations of principles, assassinations, memorandums, elections, permanent status negotiations, unilateral withdrawals, intifadas, reports, ceasefires, peace initiatives, curfews, a so-called "security barrier" that separates families from their livelihoods and nomadic people from their land, rocket attacks, road maps, air strikes, incursions, prisoner exchanges-we have seen all that and more since 1991. We have heard many words, but we have seen many negative consequences and very little positive impact. UN resolutions have been ineffective and Israel has not been held accountable to international standards of conduct and law.
In the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs visited Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, whose impact was a humanitarian and counter-productive disaster. We could see the resentment being fed by that operation and we could see that it was shoring up the position of Hamas. This Government and the previous one are against holding talks with Hamas, because to do so would apparently make it seem more legitimate. However, we must consider the suffering of the people in Gaza, who live in one big prison, subjected to collective punishment and deprived, as the hon. Member for Bristol West said, of everyday necessities and the means to rebuild their infrastructure and economy. That has made people turn to Hamas in the face of an ongoing failure to find a peaceful solution.
The Committee also visited Sderot and a local college, which are often subjected to rocket attacks. The people there, too, want peace, because they are in the same spiral of despair and distrust as the Palestinian people. The longer the blockade continues, the lower expectations become. Recently, it seems that the US even reached the stage of outlining its own plan, with a view to imposing it on both sides-such is the frustration at the ongoing situation, which does not appear to have a real solution.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the hon. Lady visit Egypt in order to understand from the Egyptians why they have not fully opened the Rafah crossing? Does she understand why they have been conspicuous in their absence from the chorus of disapproval for the flotilla? Does it not have something to do with the fact that they are very much aware of the danger of having Hamas right on their border?
Sandra Osborne: I do not underestimate the danger of Hamas, but the reality is that Hamas is part of the equation, whether we like it or not. Hamas was elected by the people of Palestine and will not go away simply because we ignore it. Some of the actions, far from advancing the cause of the Palestinian Authority, actually undermine it.
I would welcome news today of a breakthrough in the easing of the blockade, whereby fewer goods will be restricted, and commercial goods and civilians will be allowed entry and exit. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, I would also welcome the involvement of the European Union, because that would encourage greater transparency and would leave no excuse for the smuggling of goods through the illegal tunnels. However, that is not a substitute for the lifting of the blockade. It will not achieve a two-state solution. We have heard plenty of words, but turning them into action is what will bring credibility to the Palestinian Authority.
The previous UK Government played their part in the Quartet and some benefits are being reaped from that involvement. I get the impression from the Minister that the new Government will follow a similar policy, and we hope that they will do so with similar determination. The main thing is to ensure that the US does not lose impetus in promoting a peaceful solution, as has happened so often in the past. A two-state solution in the middle east involving the occupied territories and Israel is long overdue, because what is happening in the meantime is a disgrace to humanity.
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I declare my interest: I am interested in Israel, I am the parliamentary chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel and proud to be so. Everyone in this House should have an interest in Israel, because it is a country that embodies the values that we should stand for. It was created in the 1940s, partly as a reaction to the way in which the Jews were treated during the holocaust. Israel was created by the international community and it became a bastion of the rule of law, democracy, free speech, business enterprise and family values. If that is not what this country also stands for, I am disappointed.
Israel is a country that makes mistakes. Its political system of proportional representation taken to a ludicrous degree is a mistake. Because of its political system, it finds it very difficult to change. In my view, the continued existence of the settlements is another of those mistakes-when President Peres was here a year or so ago, he suggested that most Israelis share that view. Again, however, because of the political system that is, unfortunately, extremely hard to change. But what is definitely not a mistake, and what we ought to applaud, is Israel's determination to stand up for its continued right to exist in peace and security.
When that peace is destroyed by Hamas kidnapping Gilad Shalit and continuing to hold him prisoner for years, nobody should expect Israel just to accept it. When that peace is destroyed by rocketing from Gaza, nobody should expect Israel to say, "Yes, flotillas can be allowed to import whatever they like into Gaza, including perhaps explosives and rockets." On one ship, the Karine A, which was not involved in this convoy, the Israelis found tons of weapons for Hamas. Were they simply to assume that this particular flotilla contained no such weapons to be used by Hamas against both Israel and the population of Gaza, whom Hamas treats so cruelly? Surely not. So obviously the flotilla was going to be stopped and boarded.
The fact that five out of the six ships were boarded without incident establishes, to my mind, that those who carried out the operation were well trained and well disciplined, and did not invite trouble. The trouble came from the sixth boarding operation. It seems strange to me, for the following reason, that the Israelis were apparently unprepared for a reaction to that boarding. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) talked about aid, but this flotilla was not about aid for Gaza. Had it been about that, the Israeli and Egyptian offers to allow the aid through at the land crossings would have been accepted, but they were refused, both before the flotilla sailed and after it had
docked in Ashdod. The purpose of the flotilla was simply to create publicity. Therefore, as Israel should have predicted, the flotilla would have been a waste of time and resource unless there was a violent incident that would create that publicity. Given that the flotilla was designed to be provocative and to end in violence, we should not blame Israel for the violence against which it failed to guard itself; the blame lies with those who went on to the flotilla expressly seeking martyrdom.
Jeremy Corbyn: Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the incident took place in international waters, that most of the ships were boarded and that most of the people who were taken were held, handcuffed and illegally taken into Israel from international waters? Surely he should acknowledge that Israel is guilty of a breach of maritime law, never mind humanitarian attitudes.
Mr Arbuthnot: No; as a lawyer, I have, in my time, done international law, and I do not consider that any of this was illegal. If one is trying to prevent people from going into a blockaded area, the only place where one can board the ships is in international waters. I do not accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, although I accept that he strongly believes it.
It is against that background that Israel somehow manages to lose the propaganda battle, and I find that completely baffling. What I do not understand-I hope that someone in this debate can enlighten me-is why Israel is so good at fighting wars, but is absolutely atrocious at managing its public relations. Why does Israel-a country the size of Cornwall that was created out of nothing and that is surrounded by oil-rich countries, at least one of which would like to see it wiped off the face of the map-always allow itself to be portrayed as the aggressor? What is it about the right to exist in peace that is so difficult to get across?