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7.2 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate you on your very well deserved position, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The death of nine people on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May has brought widespread outrage. It is the latest incident to highlight the tragic conflict between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, which will be resolved only by a negotiated, comprehensive peace settlement that establishes two states-Israel and Palestine-living side by side in peace and security. I am very pleased that inquiries into the incident have now been set up. We will have to await the results of those inquiries to get the full picture, but this afternoon I want to refer to some of the facts that are already known-indeed, they are clearly evident.

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The blockade of Gaza came about because Gaza has been run by the Islamist Hamas after Israel dismantled its settlements, ended the occupation of Gaza and withdrew 8,000 settlers and its soldiers. Instead of that being followed by an attempt to build a peaceful society, it was followed by Hamas overthrowing Fatah and establishing a regime set on eliminating Israel. Hamas's ideology is very clear-it is set out in its charter and by the continuing statements of its leaders. Hamas sees it as a religious duty to destroy the state of Israel and it promotes the death cult. It says:

That is in article 7 of its charter. It also invokes the protocols of the elders of Zion-the false allegations that there is a Jewish conspiracy to run the world.

Hamas's position is not just to do with ideology and rhetoric; it is to do with action as well. It has fired about 11,000 rockets and missiles-directed at Israeli civilians-and now it is receiving weapons from Iran that Israelis fear could reach Tel Aviv. It was only last November that a shipment of more than 500 tonnes of Iranian weapons coming to Gaza was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus. So Israel has every reason to be concerned about the Hamas regime continuing to attack Israeli civilians and working continually with Iran, its backer, which is dedicated to the absolute destruction and annihilation of the state of Israel and its people. Israel has every reason to be concerned about that.

There is also every reason to be concerned about what is happening to civilians and citizens in Gaza, many of whom are not involved with Hamas. That can and has to be addressed in the long term by a proper peace agreement, but in the short term it could and should be addressed by the European Union, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority taking their part in ensuring that goods that do and should come into Gaza do not include weapons of destruction. That responsibility had been taken up in the past, but has now ceased to be exercised. It should be resumed, and I hope that today's announcement will facilitate the easing of that blockade and will allow the needs of the people of Gaza to be met without threatening the citizens of Israel.

I want to ask several questions about the incident with the flotilla to Gaza. Six vessels set out to take humanitarian aid to Gaza, from five of which aid was landed at Ashdod as the Israelis requested. Most unfortunately, Hamas then refused to allow that aid to be taken into Gaza. The incident and the regrettable deaths happened on the sixth vessel, so what was different about it? Who was on it? Were the peace activists who most certainly were on the other vessels infiltrated by others with sinister motives? What was the role of the IHH-the Turkish-Islamic organisation that is linked, through the Union of Good, to Hamas and jihadists and even to al-Qaeda-which was involved in promoting the flotilla? When the Israelis asked that No. 6 vessel dock in Ashdod to unload its humanitarian load, a reply came back, which was recorded, "Go back to Auschwitz." What was going on on that specific vessel?

The Turkish press have been making a number of interesting reports in the past few days, including interviews with the families of some of the people in the flotilla who died. Those families have spoken about their partners
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wanting to be martyrs. We saw Hamas flags draped over the coffins of the dead and we have seen videos of the Israeli paratroopers on those ships being attacked with metal pipes and knives and being dragged downstairs in attempts to lynch them. Reuters has issued an apology for clipping from photographs scenes showing weapons being held by activists on that ship. Were they all peace activists? I have no doubt that most of the people who set out for Gaza genuinely want peace, but there was something else going on on that No. 6 vessel-something that we need to know a lot more about.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs Ellman: I am sorry, but there is very little time left.

Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, said on 4 June that the

Clearly, there is something more to this than the giving of humanitarian aid. I hope that those inquiries will show just exactly what that is.

There is something to be hopeful for in the middle east, and that is the resumed negotiations, although they are only indirect, with Fatah in a genuine attempt to find a two-state solution to this very tragic conflict. I hope the work of Senator Mitchell and his team is successful. The only solution to the conflict is mutual recognition by two peoples, justifiably seeking to retain or achieve national statehood and living in peace. The ideology of Hamas, followed by its actions to deny Jewish statehood, is absolutely unacceptable and is the obstacle to peace.

7.10 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Mr Deputy Speaker, I share the pleasure of the House at seeing you in the Chair, loss though you will be to the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

In the few minutes available to me, I shall devote my remarks to policy on the blockade. I start by making it unequivocally clear that I consider that Israel has a totally indisputable right to self-defence as a sovereign national state. Last year, I was able to visit Sderot with the Foreign Affairs Committee. One is left in absolutely no doubt whatever about the intolerable state in which those living in that community and others near the Gaza border are placed by the Hamas rocket attacks.

The reality is that in Sderot the warning time between the siren sounding and the rocket exploding is between 15 and 17 seconds, which means that there has to be a shelter within a few metres of where people are living. Shelters have even had to be dug underneath bus stops so that people queuing for the bus can go to them quickly. We were told by the Israelis there that, since the rocket attacks started in 2001, more than 800 Israelis had been wounded and 15 had lost their lives. That is 15 too many, but it is fair to point out that the number of those who lost their lives during the last Israeli incursion into Gaza was approximately 1,400-overwhelmingly non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.

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I shall focus on the critical issue of getting building supplies into Gaza to rebuild the area. One needs to go to Gaza to see at first hand the scale of the destruction that has taken place. We saw huge numbers of homes that had been shattered. We saw the hospital in Gaza City that had been burnt out with incendiary phosphorus Israeli tank shells. We went to a large industrial estate spreading over many acres where not just an isolated factory or warehouse had been destroyed, but every building had been razed to the ground and flattened-a scorched earth policy. I am at a loss to know why the Israelis believe that depriving hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians of viable employment and driving them into the hands of Hamas can be in Israel's interest, but that was the policy that was followed.

The policy is justified on the grounds of security, but that argument simply does not hold water, for the simple reason that Hamas has all the building materials it wants. Hamas controls the tunnels through which come all the cement and steel reinforcing rods it wants. Hamas can build bunkers to its heart's content, so the security grounds do not hold up. However, a huge rebuilding programme is needed for the civilian population of Gaza.

This morning, on the "Today" programme, I heard what was said by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. If we are to reach a position where the Israelis agree that a limited amount of building supplies linked to UN projects can go into Gaza, it will certainly be a step in the right direction, but that does not go far enough. Among the 1.5 million population of Gaza, large numbers of people need building supplies, but they are not part of a UN project. People want to rebuild their homes. People need to rebuild their farm buildings, their businesses, factories or warehouses, to create a viable economy. I point out to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that, if the proposal is to allow in building supplies only for UN projects, I hope the Government will say that we should go wider than that. There is no security risk in increasing the amount of building supplies going into Gaza to private individuals and private companies, provided that all those supplies are subject to the right of search by the Israelis.

I fully accept that the Israelis have every right to ensure that no weapons go into Gaza. We insisted on the same right in Northern Ireland. We did our utmost, with varying degrees of success, to prevent the IRA from getting weapons by sea from countries such as Libya. The Israelis have every right to interdict weapons and explosives, but I hope the Government will take a robust attitude and make every possible case for allowing the free flow of building supplies to Gaza. Hamas has all the building supplies it wants. There is no security case for stopping building supplies, which are critical in allowing the people of Gaza to rebuild their lives and their businesses.

7.17 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I add my welcome to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to your new position. Just as the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) declared his interest as chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel, I declare my chairmanship of the all-party Britain-Palestine group. In that capacity I offer my thanks to the 133 Members from all parties who have signed the
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early-day motion on the Gaza flotilla, which underlines the widespread concern across the UK about what happened on 31 May.

Today, we have heard that Israel has set up what has been described as an internal inquiry into that incident. I hope that Members will forgive me for being a little sceptical, because Israel's record on inquiries has not been a good one; we have only to ask the British mother Jocelyn Hurndall about the hoops she had to jump through to get to the truth about the shooting of her son Tom by an Israeli sniper in Gaza in 2003.

Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said that his inquiry meets the standards of

We shall see whether that is the case. There are worries about the evidence to which the inquiry will have access. It is described as an internal inquiry, but the incident was not internal. The interception of the Gaza flotilla took place in international waters, so why is there not an international inquiry? The approach of the Government of Israel to Gaza, and to Israel's occupation of the west bank, appears to be that the international community can advise-even the Palestinians can advise-about what should happen, but Israel decides what happens, not only within its borders but beyond them. If we are to have peace, that mindset has to change.

Will the Government confirm whether they still support the concept of an international inquiry? The Under-Secretary referred to an international dimension of the Israeli inquiry, but the Secretary-General of the United Nations described it as an inquiry to international standards, which is not necessarily the same thing. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) that, to get to the bottom of what happened on the Gaza flotilla, why can we not have an inquiry to international standards, run by the international community? What is the problem with that if we are to get to the truth?

Today, we have also heard that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, expects a significant easing of the Gaza blockade in the coming period. In particular, he has predicted a change in Israeli policy from allowing into Gaza only items that are on a list of permitted items to letting in items if they are not on a list of prohibited items. As we know, Israel has prohibited things such as cement and steel-things that are vital to the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and homes. I refer hon. Members to the two reports of the all-party Palestine group that are based on eyewitness reports in 2009 and 2010 about the importance of such things going through.

It will be a step forward if Israel allows those materials to enter for UN projects, but it is not just UN projects that are important, even though their work is absolutely vital. Israel has said, for example, that medicines have no problems getting into Gaza. Well, actually, they do have some problems, but most medicines slowly and intermittently will get through eventually. They are not the same as medical equipment. We know from those two all-party group reports-when I was there, I witnessed this-that tubes needed for diagnostic equipment could not get in because they were seen as goods that could be used for terrorism. The last all-party group visit found the same experience with X-ray equipment.

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Let us assume that those things get through. People can get food and medical treatment in a prison, but that does not alter the fact that it is still a prison. That is the issue, because the blockade is a collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Not only is it unlawful, but it condemns the people of Gaza to living in a prison. It is not enough for the people of Gaza to get by on more food parcels. It is not just an international humanitarian charity case. The people of Gaza need to be able to travel. They need to be able to rebuild a functioning economy.

It is interesting that the United Nations Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance reported just last week that more items were going into Gaza by category but that imports had declined by 26% compared with the week before, and there is still a ban on exports from the territory. That is not only wrong, but it undermines the cause of peace. As many hon. Members have already said, it is also madness: goods can get into Gaza through the tunnels illegally, but most of the people of Gaza cannot afford them, because poverty has risen exponentially. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that the number of people in abject poverty has tripled since 2007.

It is not Hamas that is saying these things. John Ging, the UNRWA co-ordinator, is saying them. I pay tribute to him, because he is one of those who are trying to give the children of Gaza some glimpse of a normal childhood by running summer camps. He has received threats from extremist groups for doing so, and they have also set fire to equipment. As a friend of Palestine, I say very clearly that those threats and attacks must stop, but that does not alter the fact that, for that to happen and for trust to be rebuilt, the blockade of Gaza must not be eased; it must be ended.

In the minute that I have left, I want to say one other thing. There has been a lot of focus on Gaza today-rightly so; it is understandable in the circumstances-but let us not forget the west bank. Although there has been a partial easing of checkpoints and movement restrictions, it is still under occupation. Since the start of this year, there has been an escalation of attacks by settlers on Palestinians-up to 132. Land confiscations continue. Demolitions of homes continue. There has been a particularly pernicious systematic eviction of Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem from their homes-often virtually in sight of the United Kingdom consulate general.

If we are to bring such things to an end, we must do more than talk. It is time to say what action can begin to be effective. The European Union has an association agreement with Israel that carries not only rights but responsibilities. It carries the right to trade preferences and various other preferences, but it carries the responsibility of Israel abiding by standards of international humanitarian law. Israel is simply not abiding by those standards. The terms of the EU-Israel association agreement are not being carried out. Therefore, until Israel changes its attitude, that agreement needs to be suspended.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. In calling the next Member, I remind colleagues that the convention of the maiden speech applies.

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7.25 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am, of course, grateful to you for the opportunity that you give me, terrifying as it is, to make my first contribution to a debate in the House. I confess to hesitating before doing so in a debate that touches so many people so seriously and that is of such a serious nature.

I am naturally sensible of the very great privilege that I enjoy in addressing the House on this occasion-and, no doubt, for the last time-without interruption. Members on both sides of the House will recall their own maiden speeches, and many of them have been kind enough to give their advice about what I should say, whether or not it has been asked for. The principal injunction of course has throughout been to be short. Well, as those who are in the Chamber will observe, that is an injunction with which it will not be difficult for me to comply. Indeed, the entire purpose of my having delayed my speech for this long was to try to avoid the incongruous spectre of appearing in the Chamber at the same time as my new neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), but I see that I have singularly failed to achieve that.

As I rise to address the House, I am conscious of a number of advantages that I enjoy. First and foremost among them is, of course, that I have the honour and privilege to follow in this place a very distinguished parliamentarian indeed. Mr Douglas Hogg, as he was known in the House, was, as Members on both sides of the House will know, respected and beloved throughout his constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham and before that of Grantham. He was generous with his time for those who sent him here to represent their interests, thoughtful in his contributions to the business of the House and unstinting in his support for the rights of this place against any interference from the Executive-something that he addressed in his own maiden speech. All that will be sorely missed. They are big shoes to fill, as Members on both sides of the House have made very clear.

That brings me perhaps to the second advantage that I enjoy as I make my maiden speech-namely, that the electors of Sleaford and North Hykeham, who chose me as a candidate at an open primary even before they had the opportunity to put their crosses in the boxes in May, were evidently satisfied with the make and model that they had returned to the House for the past 30 years, for they have chosen as their new MP another silk-another dinosaur-and another Member with a wife cleverer and more successful than he is. As Douglas himself has put it,

I caution, though, and certainly add at this juncture that the unoriginal question that has occurred to wags on both sides of the House receives the answer no. I leave that as a puzzle perhaps for my successors, but given that I represent Sleaford and North Hykeham and follow Mr Hogg, many Members will know what question has arisen in their minds.

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