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Before I come to the matter on the Order Paper, let me say that there is, finally, this advantage that I also enjoy: I have the very considerable honour to represent one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country,
with some of the very best people one could hope for. From my village of Thorpe on the Hill in the north to Barrowby in the south, Long Bennington in the west to Metheringham in the east, hon. Members on both sides would do well to pay us a visit. It is a great shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) is no longer in his place. He would particularly enjoy some of the real ale and some of the best pub food in the country, but I shall look forward to welcoming him and as many others as possible to the constituency.
The House can expect contributions from me perhaps on the middle east, and I hope to speak in future debates at somewhat greater length than I have time to do today. I hope also to speak about special educational needs. As many in the House will know, I was the chairman of governors at one of the last remaining signed bilingual schools for deaf children in this country. Close to my heart are issues about the education of deaf and autistic children and those who are less able.
I come to the matter that is on the Order Paper, conscious of the fact that I have heard contributions of great weight, not merely from Front Benchers but from Back Benchers, and that many Members on both sides of the House know a great deal more about this than I do. As is evident from those contributions, Members on both sides of the House well know the physical suffering that the continued blockade of Gaza is causing to a civilian population already laid low by the effective destruction of its infrastructure. Members obviously recognise the unsustainable policies that have been pursued in the past by the Government of Israel, of which I count myself a considerable friend, but which have, whether we like it or not, had the effect of entrenching a de facto Government with a vested financial interest in the maintenance of the tunnel economy that has been created by the blockade.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke about building materials. There is no shortage of building materials available to Hamas. The leaders of Hamas, should they wish to, construct villas, as they do, and have no problem getting cement through the tunnels. It is even possible to get a 4x4 through them. The argument that the blockade is based on the security of Israel is, I am afraid, fallacious, and I join other Members in saying that it should quickly be abandoned. Israel should concentrate on its strengths and on the values that it offers and demonstrates to the world.
Members on all sides have also been appalled, as have I, by the inability of the Palestinian Government, of whatever colour, to offer security to Israel. There is only one way forward-the two-state solution. Change has to come to Gaza and to the entirety of Israel and the Palestinian territories established under the Oslo accords. Change is something that we all talked about during the election, but this is a change that is desired by the vast majority of the civilian population throughout the middle east, and indeed in Palestine and in Israel, and is supported by the Government here as well as by our allies, as resolution 1860 demonstrates. It is that resolution with which Israel would do well to comply, as long as, of course, its security is guaranteed, and for that reason I hope that in this Parliament we will have the opportunity of seeing some form of lasting peace-the lasting peace that has for so long evaded previous Administrations in this House and indeed across the world.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I, too, congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and welcome you to the Chair. Before making my brief remarks, I mention, by way of declaration and pending the publication of the register, that my constituency party has received donations from individuals and organisations supporting the rights of Palestinians, and I made several visits to Palestine, Gaza and the west bank in the last Parliament.
I wish that there were more time to debate this issue today. There is a debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), which may give more opportunity to address the issue of Gaza. We have heard very powerful speeches about that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) which will help me to confine my remarks. I wish that I had more time to deal with some other issues. I would like to comment on Yemen, Syria and Iraq, but the time simply does not allow that, save for one point, which is topical and relevant to my constituents.
In opening the debate the Minister mentioned in an impassioned way the contribution that this country had made to security in Iraq. I do not in any way denigrate the efforts that have been made by our forces there, but Iraq remains very insecure. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has commented on the forcible removal of people from this country to central and southern Iraq in conditions that put their safety at risk, and I ask the Government to look at that matter. A longer, all-day debate on the issue in the Chamber would be helpful in order to test the Government's emerging policies on the middle east. I am lucky enough to have in my new constituency the Iraqi Association UK, which I know is particularly concerned about deportations that continue from this and other European countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said that he wished there could be more of a meeting of minds between interests representing the Palestinian and Israeli sides. I echo that. It does occur, but perhaps not frequently enough. I am afraid that in the debate today we have seen people taking entrenched positions again, and I will try not to do that in my remarks. I have noticed an unprecedented co-operation between the groups representing the interests of Palestinians and in the three main parties, which now meet on a relatively regular basis. That is to be welcomed, but I think it is a response to the appalling situation that the attack on the Gaza flotilla has brought to light.
Following my several trips to Gaza, I would highlight three points that have come home to me and, I think, other hon. Members who have also made that journey in the last two to three years. First, there is a desire for justice. Yes, there is a desire for cement and security, but there is an overwhelming desire for justice among the Palestinian people. They believe that they are not getting that and that the balance of force is set very much against them, whether in the region or in the world. The hope given by the Goldstone report has so far been dashed, and now the prospect of an independent inquiry into the attack on the Gaza flotilla appears also to have receded.
"whether Israel's Gaza blockade and the flotilla's interception conformed with international law".
With respect to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), he may need to brush up on his international law a little if he is going to practise again, because every opinion that I have read from respected international lawyers is very clear that there is no right to attack a ship bearing the flag of another country in the high seas to enforce a blockade, even were it a legal blockade. On that and many other grounds, this is an action of little more than piracy, and it will not much trouble the inquiry, if it is an impartial inquiry, to investigate that.
"investigate the actions taken by the convoy's organisers and participants."
In other words the victims-those who were killed and the many who were injured-are to be put on trial. Thanks to the way the Israeli media typically manipulate publicity-we have heard some examples repeated verbatim in the House tonight-there is very little chance of the inquiry being impartial and of the world being presented with what actually happened.
I took the opportunity to attend press conferences held by British citizens from the flotilla immediately on their return from Istanbul, where they were flown from Tel Aviv, and to hear their first-hand accounts. I may be able to say a little more about that in the debate tomorrow. Suffice it to say that it gives a totally different picture from most of what has been reported even in the British media and certainly in the international media about what happened during that unprecedented attack, in the middle of the night, in international waters, by armed troops, in a way that was deliberately provocative and ended with the entirely predictable result that many people were killed.
Simon Hughes: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that although we understand the careful wording of what our Government said today, people such as his constituents and mine, who have come back with their stories, having been on the flotilla, particularly if they are of Palestinian origin, as the person whom I saw was, would be reassured only by an independent inquiry, rather than a partial one. We cannot expect people to trust an inquiry carried out by one of the parties to the event. It has to have international credibility.
Mr Slaughter: I am grateful for that intervention. Those who heard the response of the Israeli Prime Minister's official spokesman, both during the Gaza invasion and more recently, will realise the deep cynicism that underlies most of what Israel says and does to justify what has happened.
We have heard a lot said about Hamas today, and I have again heard the same points trotted out. I do not in any way defend what Hamas has done or said in the past, but let us look at the inequality in arms, and at the violence done and the deaths caused in the region over the past few years. There have been 1,400 people killed-mainly civilians, including many children-in the invasion,
and nine people on the flotilla were killed. Just this year, six Palestinians have been killed, and 18 injured, on the west bank; 31 were killed and 116 injured in Gaza. Of course we must condemn rocket attacks, and the now relatively isolated attacks on Israeli civilians and on the Israeli military, but the question of proportionality must enter into the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton mentioned the lockdown on the west bank and the repression that, every day, in a thousand ways, crushes the spirit of the Palestinian people there.
I end by putting a further question to those on the Government Benches: does an end to the blockade mean an end to the blockade? In The Guardian last Thursday, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was quoted as saying that that was not necessarily the case, and that we could not expect an end to the blockade immediately. I believe that we need an end to the blockade, and I would like to hear the Government say today that that is what they intend. I echo what was said by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley): there should be entry of supplies not only for UN purposes, but for general purposes so that the population of Gaza, who simply wish to live ordinary lives, can succeed and thrive-to trade, to eat, and to behave in a way that we in this country would think normal. The blockade is a form of collective punishment, not a way of controlling terrorism. It would be helpful to hear the Government say that in terms today.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Many congratulations to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your current position, some 30 years after we first met in a Committee Room elsewhere in this noble House.
The first, fundamental duty of any Government is to safeguard their citizens and borders, and to look after their people at home and abroad. As we come up to the 70th anniversary of the battle of Britain, we may ask, who would have denied our nation the right and duty to safeguard ourselves against the Nazis? Who would condemn Britain's historical roles, both in the middle east and blockading the African coast to enforce the abolition of slavery back in the 19th century?
Many of our noted justifications for invading sovereign countries have been based on safeguarding our safety and security. Our reason for invading Iraq was that weapons of mass destruction could be implemented on our sovereign soil within 45 minutes. We are still searching for those weapons of mass destruction, but that was the reason that we were given. Our justification for occupying Afghanistan is, of course, to prevent al-Qaeda and other forces from setting up camps, planting bombs and damaging British sovereign territory. We must say to the Government of the day that as we win that fight, we must ensure that al-Qaeda and other such dark forces do not set themselves up in other countries, such as Yemen. We must remember that that is a big danger that we face.
Israel has fought a number of wars over the years since it was set up in 1948. Its recent experience of rockets and bombings, including suicide bombings, has
been traumatic for all residents. The people of Israel have witnessed frequent suicide bombings, and suffered as a result of them. When the Israeli Government set up the wall, the incidence of suicide bombings dramatically reduced. If one were an Israeli citizen, one would say that the Israeli Government had done a wondrous thing. However, if one were a Palestinian, one would say, "You have done terrible things to us."
Equally, what is Israel's justification of the blockade? It is quite clear that since the blockade was implemented, the incidence of bombings and rockets coming into Israel has reduced, although such incidents have not ceased. The reality is that given the state of war between Israel and Hamas, Israel has the absolute right to enforce the position that rockets, bombs, missiles and ammunition must not enter Palestine or any area that can then attack the state of Israel.
We are challenged on the position of humanitarian aid, yet the state of Israel allows some 15,000 tonnes per week of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. However, there is the role of Hamas: it holds up the aid. It uses it as an incentive to control the people of Palestine, and as a means of repression. Until it ceases its repression, the people of Palestine will not see the benefit of having a properly, democratically elected Government who truly represent them.
As has been said in many speeches today, Hamas says in its founding statement that it wants to destroy the state of Israel and wipe it off the face of the planet. It is very difficult to negotiate with people whose fundamental aim is to destroy one's Government and one's very being.
We must challenge the position taken on the flotilla and ask what its purpose was. Was it to deliver humanitarian aid? Absolutely; most of the people on those ships wanted to make sure that the citizens of Palestine and Gaza received humanitarian aid. However, behind it was IHH, an organisation with fundamental links to Hamas and al-Qaeda. The reality is that it sponsors terrorism, and it wanted to breach the blockade so that subsequently, once the blockade was removed, guns, rockets and other ammunition could be brought in, so that bombs could rain once again on Israel. It is understandable that the Israeli defence forces sought to prevent that from happening. On five of the six ships, they did so in a perfectly reasonable way, and people went about their business properly.
Let us look at what happened on 31 May, particularly on the Mavi Marmara. Many of the individuals concerned appeared to wish to be martyrs to the great cause. They attacked Israeli soldiers-remember, Israeli soldiers were injured during the boarding, and the reality is that they were attacked with weapons. There are two sides to the issue. Is it any surprise that Israel is concerned about inquiries? The Goldstone inquiry was almost certainly perceived in Israel as being biased against that state. When the inquiry came before the United Nations, the Labour Government's representative refused even to vote on the issue.
The state of Israel rejected the inquiry as being biased and unfair. The reality is that the British Government refused even to vote on the issue; they did
not vote for or against it. They did not even abstain. They just refused to vote. It is perceived as being not a fair and reasonable inquiry. On that basis, the state of Israel will most certainly say, "If we are to have another such inquiry, that can hardly be perceived to be fair or reasonable." That is one reason why there is a difficulty with the whole approach.
There is, of course, a way forward on the situation. First, Hamas and Hezbollah must renounce violence, stop bombing Israel and recognise Israel's right to exist. Israel must then lift the blockade, allow humanitarian aid in and ensure that a two-state solution can prosper and grow in an atmosphere of negotiation, peace and tranquillity. That will be hard on both sides, but that is what is required in the region to ensure that we move forward to two independent states able to exist side by side. Until all the nations that surround the state of Israel can accept Israel's right to exist, and Iran retreats from its stated position of trying to destroy the state of Israel, potentially with nuclear weapons, the situation in the middle east will remain fragile.
Like many colleagues on both sides of the House, I shall concentrate my remarks on the situation in Israel. I visited Israel and the west bank last year and met politicians from both sides. The best and most hopeful meetings were those with politicians with moderate views, who were willing to make compromises and could see the conflict from the perspective of the other side. In that vein, I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who said that there is no contradiction between being a friend of Israel and a friend of the Palestinians, supporting a viable two-state solution.
During my visit, I was struck by the range and depth of those agreements, and I ask the Government how they will strengthen the voices of those moderates. Recent events filled me with great pessimism. The horrific incident on the Mavi Marmara sent a shock wave around the world, with widespread condemnation of the deaths of the nine civilians. The inquiry into the incident-I believe there should be an inquiry-must be judged by the international community as comprehensive, impartial and independent. Anything that falls short of those criteria will not be credible. I do not want to prejudge the conclusions of the inquiry, but questions about the conduct of soldiers aboard the ship must be complemented by searching questions about the planning of the military operation.
There must also be a wider understanding by the Israeli Government and the Israeli defence forces that they cannot use the justification of self-defence for any action that they choose to take. They must understand that there are severe doubts about the proportionality of their response in this case and others, and that the blockade of Gaza, in the wise words of my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, is self-defeating-a policy that has long been discredited and continues to push power into the hands of Hamas.
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