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Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Regarding imports and exports to Gaza, she is aware that one of my constituents, Ibrahim Musaji, travelled recently to the area with Bristol Gaza Link-the third time that that organisation has travelled with humanitarian aid for the
people of Gaza. Does she agree that, given the heavy decline in both imports to and exports from Gaza, with 95% of private business in effect going bankrupt, life is no longer normal in Gaza? Restoring the normal pattern of trade and humanitarian aid into Gaza is a crucial element for helping the people of Gaza, but doing so while managing to exclude weapons from being transported there is a conundrum that we hope the Government might be able to help to resolve.
I mentioned a very recent relaxation of the inventory of items permitted to enter Gaza. There are reports that the Israeli authorities have recently approved the entry of 11 new food and hygiene items to Gaza, including jam, halva, soda, juice, canned fruits, razor blades and paste, yet overall Gaza imports have declined by almost 26% compared with last week alone. This week's figure constitutes 17% of the weekly average that entered during the first five months of 2007-2,807 truckloads of items-before the Hamas takeover. A relaxation of the inventory is certainly not reading across into a relaxation in the volume of vital goods. Diesel and petrol for general use have been delivered on only five occasions in the last 18 months. Industrial fuel for Gaza's only power plant is also restricted. Between May and June, only one quarter of the quantity required to operate it at full capacity was allowed through.
Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged 50,000 Palestinian homes, 280 schools and a number of hospitals and medical facilities, which I and other hon. Members in the debate saw for ourselves in early March this year. However, concrete and steel have, broadly speaking, not been allowed into the strip, and glass was allowed in only for a very short period. The result has been an almost complete lack of reconstruction since the war. That is clearly not in line with UN Security Council resolution 1860, which during Operation Cast Lead called for the
"unimpeded provision...throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical treatment".
The Goldstone report, arising from the UN fact-finding mission, further found that the blockade deprives Palestinians in the Gaza strip of their means of sustenance, housing and water, as well as denying them freedom of movement. The report found that Israel has specifically violated
"obligations it has as Occupying Power"
On 1 March, I and other parliamentarians present saw, during my second visit to the area, that sites continue to lie in ruins or badly damaged a year after Operation Cast Lead, including the American international school, which was destroyed by Israeli missiles in January 2009. Rubble has been cleared, but apart from some innovative "earth dwellings" to help the homeless, little reconstruction has taken place. In the southern town of Khan Younis, we visited some of the 2,600 housing units commissioned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that have stood unfinished since the start of the siege. In total, $100 million-worth of UNRWA
projects are on hold. Sewage treatment and the provision of safe drinking water are among the most urgent public health necessities, yet there too, materials are on hold for that crucial project.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I apologise for missing the first part of my hon. Friend's speech. Did she also observe during her visit the psychological damage done, particularly to young people, by the sense of incarceration and imprisonment, lost ambitions and the inability to travel or see anything that the rest of us wish to see of this planet?
Ms Buck: I did indeed. We hear a great deal about the public health impact of the siege, and there is clear evidence that a shortage of minerals and vitamins in the diet of children is leading to very serious bone and dental health problems and broader public health problems, but mental health is of critical importance. It is of critical political importance as well. It is hard to measure and often people do not see mental health problems as representative of a traditional humanitarian crisis, of the type that we saw in the days after the Haiti earthquake, but it is arguable that a graver problem is being stored up, not just for the people of Palestine and Gaza, but for the Israeli people and for the future benefits of the peace process. Half the population of Gaza is under 18. Some 900,000 children and young people are trapped in an open prison. What that is doing to them and to the next generations of political leaders does not bear thinking about.
That is one of the reasons why I feel so sad. It seems that, again and again, we see a behaviour that is not necessarily in Israel's own best interests and is really counter-productive. The other example of that is the destruction, referred to in an intervention, of the private economy as a consequence of the siege. We have seen the virtual total destruction of private commercial enterprise in Gaza. That, of course, has contributed to poverty because it contributes to unemployment, but it has also-this is a perverse consequence-strengthened Hamas in important ways.
The siege has contributed to the thriving tunnel operation-the means used for smuggling on a massive scale from Egypt into Gaza. We saw for ourselves some of the estimated 1,200 or so tunnels under the border, which permit about 4,000 items to enter Gaza, from cars and satellite dishes to the fabled lion that was brought into Gaza zoo and even basic medicines and food. That further disrupts the operation of the economy. The tunnels take a significant toll in human life. Some might say, "That's the price you pay for what is in effect a criminal operation," but it is seen as a lifeline-a way of breaking some of the most destructive elements of the siege. Because it provides revenue in the form of taxation on the smuggling operation, it strengthens Hamas's hold on the economy, which is surely not what critics of the Hamas regime want.
Steps to close the tunnels, which are now being executed, will deprive Hamas of revenue, but tighten the screws still further on the siege of 1.5 million people. No doubt Israel is worried-I understand why-that a lifting of the blockade would be claimed by Hamas as a victory, yet it is hard to see a viable alternative strategy, unless it is believed that sheer desperation will lead the people of Gaza to punish Hamas in favour of a more
moderate strategy, which they have yet to see will read across into an effective political solution, as we have seen with the settlement building on the west bank. I suggest that anyone holding such a belief is doomed to be disappointed.
I hope that the Minister will give us his assessment of the independent inquiry into the events on the Gaza flotilla. I hope that he will report back from the EU Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels and advise us on what progress the EU can make, by itself and in discussions with other Quartet members, to lift the blockade urgently. Does he believe that any easing of restrictions will not merely ease the humanitarian situation, but underpin a strategy of reconstruction and the rebuilding of the private economy? Will the British Government do all that they can to strengthen the accountability of all parties in this conflict for war crimes and transgressions of international law leading up to, during and subsequent to Operation Cast Lead?
I shall conclude now, because many other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I remain convinced that, whatever the larger politics of the situation in Gaza and the middle east, we must act with the utmost urgency to resolve the crisis afflicting 1.5 million civilians in Gaza-one of the gravest in the world today. Britain's longstanding connection with the area should be used even more effectively to achieve a resolution.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who regularly does this House a service by choosing topical issues, which she has done again. I hope that the way in which she spoke-her carefulness and informed contribution-will commend her comments to all parties.
I welcome you to the chair, Mr Streeter, not only because you are a good chair, but because you, with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I, co-chaired the all-party group on conflict issues in the previous Parliament. If there is one strategy that we as a Parliament and the new Government need to deploy, it is to use our skill in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. In that context, I also welcome my very good friend the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) to his new ministerial responsibilities. He was sensitive when participating in the debate on the middle east yesterday in the House, and I know that he and his colleagues come to the subject with huge understanding and dedication.
To make a passing comment to link those words, those of us of the Jewish, Muslim or Christian faith-of course, other people in the House have other faiths or have no religious faith-should have a particular responsibility in this matter. If followers of the three great world faiths, for whom the part of the world that we are discussing is so important, cannot understand that the logic of our faith is that we should seek to accommodate followers of other faiths who share the same belief in the same God, not much of an example is set to the rest of the world when we seek to preach to them.
I have always described myself as both a friend of Palestine and a friend of Israel. I have been actively supporting the case for a Palestinian state since I was
a teenager and have always argued that Israel has a right to exist with secure boundaries. I have had the privilege of visiting the area on several occasions, and although I have yet to have the opportunity to go to Gaza, I have frequently visited the west bank.
Let me make some brief comments following the worthwhile contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) to yesterday's debate. First, we all hope that what Tony Blair said publicly yesterday will soon come to pass. The work done by the Quartet to bring about an end of the blockade, either wholly or significantly, is hugely welcome. Achieving such an end will be great progress, not least because the current situation is clearly nonsense, in the sense that although it is a terrible imposition on the people of Gaza by virtue of the tunnels and other things, it is a blockade with a conniving exemption. The whole thing has become a sort of international fiction, and the sooner we achieve orderly relations between people on either side of the border, the better.
Regarding the Government of Gaza, people must be allowed to choose their own Governments. They are not always comfortable choices, but the world must understand that it does not help by alienating those Governments entirely. I understand the difficulty. The Government of Gaza, Hamas, must understand-as they were moving to do-that the renunciation of violence and acceptance of the right of the state of Israel to exist have to be preconditions for international acceptance. However, that cannot mean that the people of Gaza or the west bank are not allowed to choose Hamas as their Government. The reason why they do so, as I understand it, is that that party stands strongly for the welfare of the people whom it seeks to represent. In many ways, it has done that more effectively than the other parties in the west bank. We must understand that. We must also understand that we may well have to deal with Hamas for a long time to come. I know that there are forces of enlightenment in the Government that want to make progress, and other Governments are helping them to do that. May we please be clear that precluding Hamas from being participants in the future is not a realistic option?
Israel is a democracy. As colleagues made clear in the House yesterday, it should be praised for being a democracy, although I share the view that certain forms of proportional representation are not helpful and that the Israeli system with a single chamber of Parliament might be one of them. The implication of a democracy is that the country respects international law. It cannot have it both ways. It cannot say, "We uphold democracy at home," as it does, "and an enlightened social and other policy," but then deny international law outside its own territorial waters or abroad.
I have talked to Israeli Ministers and officials about such matters. They really have to understand that international law has to apply to us all or it is discredited. When an inquiry such as the Goldstone report takes place, Israel cannot just then cast it aside because it does not like the findings. The eminent Judge Goldstone clearly did his job appropriately and properly. I heard the cautious words of the Minister yesterday; the Israeli Government must understand that their credibility regarding the events on the flotilla at the end of May
will be established only if there is an international inquiry rather than just an Israeli Government inquiry with some international observers. I really believe that.
I and others have met constituents who were on the flotilla. I have heard vivid accounts of how they saw Israeli troops in large numbers-for example, 400 troops on the sixth boat-descend on the fighting. There is video footage and recordings, so there is no shortage of evidence. I just ask the Israeli Government to reconsider their limited willingness to hold an inquiry and for it to be conducted only by them. I want it to be done in a way that they find acceptable, but under the UN's authority, as it has requested.
In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West referred yesterday to the motion of the executive of Liberal International, the organisation that represents all Liberal parties throughout the world, which met on Sunday in Berlin. To summarise, it
"Deplores the use of force by Israel commandos"
"Deplores the violence caused by some activists on board the flotilla".
"shock at the resultant deaths and injuries"
"Demands the restoration of liberty of the Israeli Arabs who have been on board the flotilla".
"Supports the UN Security Council's call for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent inquiry"
"Strongly calls on the Middle East quartet, and the US government in particular, to urge all parties to return to the Road Map and observe international law."
Let me make one last point about the future. Gaza has a very difficult future. It is a small enclave surrounded by other countries, as the hon. Member for Westminster North rightly described. The history of enclaves in international law is not happy. Berlin is the last one that springs to mind-separate from the rest of its country with a corridor established. I understand the policy of both my party, and that of the Government. The traditional policy of countries such as ours is to accept a two-state solution: a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. That might be right but, just as there will need to be an imaginative solution to the future of Jerusalem, which will have to be the capital of both countries if there is to be lasting peace, so there needs to be an imaginative solution to how Gaza is linked with the west bank.
To have simply two separate territories without connection will not be an adequate way forward. There might have to be a special and protected connecting strip. There might have to be a renegotiation of land settlements that would include those settlements that are illegal as part of the package, as well as a return to old boundaries. There may have to be in the long term a United Nations presence to give security on what was mandated territory for us between the '20s and the '40s, and other international friends to support it. We, as a country, may have to play a significant role with the Quartet and other countries in guaranteeing the territories, the boundaries and the peace of Israel and Palestine if
we are to persuade both Governments to feel confident about the future. I hope that my friend the Minister and his colleagues will be positive and think laterally about the way in which a solution might work, as well as work enthusiastically to make sure that the matter is one of the highest foreign policy priorities of the Government in the days and months ahead.
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I rise to my feet as a friend of Palestine, and much to the furious incomprehension of a large number of my constituents, I do so as a steadfast friend of Israel, despite the provocation. Last summer, I sponsored an Adjournment debate on the Spirit of Humanity-a boat carrying humanitarian supplies that was trying to break the siege of Gaza. On that occasion, Israeli forces intercepted the boat-we presume in international waters, although the Israeli Government refused to provide details of the boat's position, despite requests from British Ministers-but thankfully there was no violence. In the light of that and other previous incidents, should not the British Government have been alert to possible problems with the latest flotilla? Given that the Israeli media reported threats from the Israeli defence forces, making it clear that the ships were likely to be attacked, what actions, if any, had the British Government taken to avert those attacks, particularly knowing that British citizens were on board?
My constituent, Alex Harrison, was on board the Spirit of Humanity last year, and undeterred by that experience, she was also a passenger on the Challenger 1 ship, which formed part of the flotilla that was attacked again by Israeli forces on 31 May. Could the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the legality of the Israeli attack on the humanitarian convoy? What assurances has he had from the Government of Israel about whether there will be any more attacks in international waters on boats carrying British citizens?
Over the weekend, we heard more detail about the inquiry that is to be set up by Israel. We understand that it will include a foreign element and observers such as David Trimble. Will the international community have full confidence in that inquiry and its findings? Will it be independent and transparent? Will the Israelis, the Palestinians and, perhaps most importantly, the people of Turkey have full confidence in its findings? As Cathy Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union put it in The Times yesterday, will that inquiry be "credible, rigorous and impartial"?
In the debate yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) stated the obvious: there have been inquiries in the past on Israel, and perhaps one need go no further than to ask Tom Hurndall's family about their experience of Israeli inquiries to explain why some people might be slightly cynical about an Israeli inquiry. Another issue is just how wide that inquiry will be and who will be questioned.. Will Alex Harrison be asked about her experience on that boat?
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