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15 Jun 2010 : Column 100WH—continued

In preparation for this debate, I spoke to Alex. As I said, she was on board Challenger 1. It was flagged in the United States. She would like me to highlight the illegality of the Israeli action. The men who were killed
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were on the Marmora, which was registered in the Comoros islands, which are off Madagascar. It is her view, and that of many others, that the seizing and killing of the flotilla's passengers while in international waters is nothing less than piracy. She says that they were some 80 miles away from Israel and were sailing away from Israel when they were boarded.

The Israeli action on 31 May may constitute breaches of international law that could be tried in the International Criminal Court. Alex was one of the boat's crew. She told me that the Israeli forces came on to the boat, firing plastic bullets. All the glass on the boat broke. People were then pushed to the ground on to the glass. She was the last to be stopped, as she was on the bridge. Two members of the Israeli defence forces came up. Two Australian journalists-Kate and Paul from The Sydney Morning Herald-were with her, and they identified themselves. In response, they were tasered. It was a completely terrifying experience.

There was no violence from Alex's boat towards the Israeli defence forces, yet those on board were treated with huge violence. She says that she has hand marks on her arms and legs from when she was picked up and carried from the boat. Once they were carried from the boat, all their items were bagged up and labelled. They have not had them back. The Israelis now say that they do not know where they are. She was told that she would be deported to Turkey. She had the clothes she stood up in. She had no passport and no money. She had not been to Turkey-she had come from Greece-and yet the Israelis said that they would deport her to Turkey.

Alex refused to go and so was one of the last to be deported. She was in a pen with 15 other women, and she witnessed some women next to her being hit about the head. They were not treated as badly as the men. She saw some men at the airport who were badly beaten, including Ken O'Keefe, who was so badly injured that he was not able to board the plane. She was some 5 yards away from an Irishman called Fiachra O'Luain as he was beaten around the head-she saw that going on. She also saw Turkish men, who had been injured and come out of hospital, being put on to the plane. Well, to say that they were put on to the plane is inaccurate-they were walking on to the plane as best they could. Some had been shot in the feet and were on crutches. There were no wheelchairs. She was not allowed to assist the men. If any attempt to try and assist them was made, people were hit again. Although she had experienced brutality from a distance in the past, she had never experienced such face-to-face, one-to-one brutality over such a sustained period. She said that they were sworn at, abused and laughed at throughout. That was unnecessary-gratuitous, in her view-and she certainly would like to give evidence to any inquiry. If necessary, she would like the matter to be taken to the International Criminal Court. One can understand why, given her experiences.

Mark Lazarowicz: May I put it on the record that the constituent whom I referred to was also one of the protestors on the Challenger 1? She reports a similar account of what happened on the boat and in Israeli custody. Her account illustrates the real issues being raised by a number of credible people from the UK, and I hope that the Government will respond to them in the positive way that my hon. Friend requests.

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Emily Thornberry: Many hon. Members have constituents who have been on the flotillas. I suspect that we have many constituents who will be on them again. Alex Harrison has said that she will go back.

The terrible events of 31 May have brought the eyes of the world back to what has been going on in Gaza, highlighting the suffering of its people. The three-year blockade of Gaza has been compared to a mediaeval siege. There are some similarities: there is no free movement of people; no goods can leave Gaza, leading to the complete collapse of most businesses; no building materials have been allowed in to repair the damage caused by the Israeli attack of December 2008; one in 10 babies in Gaza are malnourished; one third of babies have anaemia; and a large proportion of the population is food insecure. However, the big difference between a mediaeval siege and the siege of Gaza is that the third crusade, when besieging Acre for two years, was intended to topple the garrison and not to behave in such a way that actually bolstered the garrison. That is effectively what has been happening. Instead of undermining the regime-which they seek to do-the Israelis are, by their actions, bolstering Hamas. Israel has got this fundamentally wrong. It is incumbent on those of us who are genuine friends of Israel to tell the truth: this is wrong, and to continue to behave in that way towards Gaza and Hamas undermines the security of Israel.

Mrs Ellman: Does my hon. Friend accept that approximately 15,000 tonnes of goods a week have gone into Gaza, although that is clearly inadequate? Does she agree that if the European Union and the Palestinian Authority had been able to carry out their responsibilities in manning the crossings, goods could have gone into Gaza at a much faster rate?

Emily Thornberry: In the end, if Gaza were treated how it should be treated, the gates would be open and the tunnels would be closed. Yes, I fully understand. I have been to Sderot and have seen how Israeli children are terrified of incoming bombs that rain down on their town. I fully understand why it would be necessary to search trucks going in-to make sure that they do not have weapons in them. However, it is not a challenge to Israeli security to stop biscuits going into Gaza, and that is the fundamental point. Gaza is being treated completely differently and in a way that is fundamentally unfair. It is incumbent on us to say loudly and clearly that that is wrong.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The hon. Lady referred to biscuits. On the visit that I attended with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), we saw the bombed biscuit factory that, ironically, produced goods for export to Israel. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in controlling the substances that are allowed into Gaza, Israel has been entirely arbitrary? Such substances change from week to week and include random items such as jam and pasta, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Westminster North. When we were there, we were told that nappies-or diapers, as they were called-were not being allowed in. The sole purpose of that seems to be to play with people's minds and do psychological damage to the civilian population.

Emily Thornberry: It goes further than psychological damage: the fact that there is not a steady stream of proper goods going into Gaza also undermines people's health. Moreover, the fact that no exports are allowed
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out of Gaza means that the economy has been undermined and that the people are dependent on Hamas, which allows and taxes the tunnels. Civil society is therefore undermined even further and people become increasingly dependent upon Hamas. When a poor woman wakes up in the morning wondering how to feed her six children, she does not think to herself, "This is Hamas's fault," but, "This is Israel's fault." That continues to feed extremism and undermine the very security of Israel. Those of us who believe in a two-state solution are fundamentally worried about that and are very concerned about what is happening.

I will not go through all my examples-I am sure that hon. Members are aware of them-but Cadbury's creme eggs somehow get through the tunnels and nobody can afford them. Some 12,000 buildings need to be rebuilt, and 44% of Gazans are unemployed and so on. The fundamental point, however, is that the siege of Gaza is not hurting Hamas; it is destroying the lives of thousands of ordinary Gazans. The EU is the largest donor to Palestine, but aid is not enough. It is also Israel's largest trading partner, and we have some clout at EU level. We in the EU must be more confident and do more to put pressure on Israel to ensure that the people of Gaza are treated fairly. I very much hope that EU Foreign Ministers will adopt a united position and that Britain will fully support it. That may include questioning whether an internal Israeli investigation of what happened to the flotilla on 31 May is sufficient.

It is also important for us to be more active diplomatically in the middle east. The problem is not going away-we must address it. We must end the blockade, which is morally outrageous and politically self-defeating, and as I said here last summer, we must open the gates and close the tunnels. Many organisations based in my constituency-such as Medical Aid for Palestinians, Save the Children, UNICEF and Merlin-work very hard to support the people of Gaza; but, ultimately, their good work simply gives us the space to exert moral and political courage to ensure a two-state solution and peace for everyone.

11.42 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Streeter. I apologise for missing the start of the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing it. It is extremely important.

I have had the good fortune to visit Gaza on five occasions over the past 10 to 12 years, and I was last there with many of my colleagues as part of a European delegation led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), during which we saw for ourselves what the situation was like in Gaza. As I said in an intervention, we saw the people of Gaza's sense of imprisonment and its psychological effect on young people. I also noticed for the first time-I had never seen it before-a sense of youth disaffection, with higher levels of drug taking, vandalism and antisocial behaviour, which was never previously a factor in the life of Gaza.

Gaza has a very young population. Teenagers and young people often have a good education-the UN schools are pretty good-and there are high levels of university education. Palestine has the highest level of
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graduation of any country in the region, but people have no possibility of employment unless they can get a job with the UN, a non-governmental organisation, or the Government of Gaza. NGOs clearly require sufficient resources, because the private and business sectors have virtually completely collapsed. The two basic ingredients for running a small business or a store are customers and goods to sell. In Gaza, there are no customers, because they have no money, and there are no goods to sell, because they cannot be got in. One therefore walks down streets and streets of boarded-up stores and shops, and there is a sense of deep depression in the environment.

During our visit, we had a lengthy meeting with members of all parties of the Palestinian Parliament in Gaza in the bombed-out ruins of the Parliament building. What possible purpose was there in Operation Cast Lead specifically bombing the debating chamber of the Palestinian Parliament? What kind of message was that trying to give? Why were mortar shells fired through the upper floors of a school? The last time I had been in that school was as an election observer the year before, when it was teeming with people queuing up to vote. The school was bombed, which was clearly gratuitously insulting to the people of Gaza. There was no point or purpose to it whatsoever. There was no possible military objective; nor was there in the destruction of many homes, among other things.

As we left Gaza on our way to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt, our bus was filled with an unbelievable stench from the sewage works. They had been damaged and bombed and no chemicals had been allowed through to operate the sewage treatment system. The result was tens of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the Mediterranean. At some point, that sewage will start polluting the beaches of Israel when presumably public opinion in Israel will say something should be done to allow equipment in to repair the sewage works in Gaza. That kind of gratuitously insulting behaviour makes people so angry and is utterly counter-productive.

I have spoken to many people who were on the flotilla the week before last, and listened to their descriptions, including that of Alex Harrison, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). The way in which the Israeli soldiers behaved was disgusting: people were shot, imprisoned and denied access to phones, legal advice and, particularly in the case of older people, food and water.

I was at a meeting last week when an al-Jazeera journalist, who had been on the vessel, described in excruciating detail what he had observed. He clearly has a vivid and photographic memory. That account needs to be told because it was of an incident taking place on the high seas in international waters. An inquiry headed by a series of Israeli judges-with all due respect to David Trimble, the only international observer-is not good enough. We want an international inquiry from the United Nations with an international committee of jurists. I guess Israel would not be happy about that because the last international observation of Israel's behaviour was the Goldstone commission on Operation Cast Lead. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what progress has been made on the Goldstone commission and its process through the UN Security Council.

I do not want to go on too long because many others want to speak. In reality, the situation is simple: Palestine is under occupation. In the case of the west bank, it is
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under occupation through checkpoints, endless military intervention, targeted assassinations, the construction of the wall, denial of water, trade and ordinary life, and the sense of collective fear of many people living on the west bank. In the case of Gaza, it is encircled by walls, barbed wire, aerial buzzing-including targeted bombings-and by Israeli naval vessels off the coast to prevent fishermen going further out and the flotilla and aid vessels getting in.

Although public opinion in Israel undoubtedly supports what the Government are trying to do, a significant number of people argue, demonstrate and act collectively to say that the strategy is complete madness, collective punishment and illegal, and creates a sense of isolation in Israel. Israel is now more isolated in world opinion than it has ever been. It broke the law, in my view, in the case of the flotilla. The Goldstone commissioners reported on Operation Cast Lead. British and other passports were used in the Dubai assassination. There are numerous examples of how UN law and resolutions have been flouted by the state of Israel. So we come to the conclusion: what do we do about the situation?

First, we send all the aid that we possibly can to the people of Palestine to allow them to survive. I was at a fund-raising event last week for medical aid for Palestine. The organisation, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury, does fantastic work. Many of us have also supported many other charities. Why do we have to send medical aid to Palestine? Why do we have to send aid at all? The people of Palestine and Gaza are suffering not from a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano, a hurricane or a tropical storm but from something specifically designed to punish, to hurt and to damage people's lives. That is what the occupation and imprisonment of the people of Gaza are all about.

Why, then, do we not impose some kind of sanction against Israel for its constant illegal behaviour? Why do we not suspend the EU-Israel association agreement by which Israel survives so well economically? Why does the US continue to pour aid into Israel, including military aid and a new missile defence system, other than because it sees Israel as an extension of its own foreign policy in the region? If we want a nuclear-free middle east and peace in the middle east, the siege must end. The blockade must be lifted, and the people of Palestine and their legitimate right to live peacefully and to survive must be recognised.

I sat down with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and others at several lengthy meetings during our visits with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the Hamas Government and parliamentarians in Gaza. The one thing that came across in the last two meetings with the Hamas Government and the other parties was that they want to be part of the process. They want to be part of the future, and of a settlement. Isolation, ignorance, occupation, killing and murdering, which is what it is, are not making things better. They are making the situation worse, and we look to the Government to be assertive in their policies towards Israel's ending the blockade.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. Colleagues, winding-up speeches will begin at 10 minutes past 12, so we have 18 minutes to go. I have two colleagues on my
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list and two new Members have just indicated that they would like to speak, and we will try to get everyone in. You can do the maths yourselves.

11.52 am

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): It is important that we discuss the shocking events of 31 May, but it is also important that we discuss the context in which they occurred, even though some of the facts about that context disturb a number of people. There may be things that they would rather not hear or know about. However, the facts are that Israeli settlers left Gaza in 2005, but that was followed not by Palestinians and the people of Gaza trying to build a new society and attract international investment. It was followed by the violence of Hamas overthrowing Fatah and engaging in a civil war with it, and by Hamas continuing to state its absolute opposition to the very existence of Israel.

Hamas's charter is readily available. It constantly puzzles me why people who are legitimately and genuinely concerned about social justice wilfully ignore the contents of that charter in a way that they would not if it belonged to any other organisation. The charter includes statements about killing the Jews. It says that the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews. It says that there is no way except jihad, and that peace conferences and negotiations are a waste of time. It talks about the protocols of the elders of Zion, and the false allegation that Jews run the world. It claims that Jews are responsible for all revolutions, including the French and Russian revolutions. Indeed, the charter goes beyond being anti-Israeli: it is clearly anti-Semitic, and when it is combined with Hamas's actions in targeting rockets at Israeli civilians, is it surprising that Israelis are genuinely concerned about their security?

There is increasing concern about the involvement of Iran with Hamas in Gaza. That concern was intensified when, last November, a vessel was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus, filled with armaments coming from Iran on their way to Gaza. Those weapons were aimed not only at Sderot, which has suffered too much and for too long, but at Tel Aviv. Israel's concerns about security are real.

Something needs to be done about the crossings and the current state of affairs. Last June, the European Union said it was willing to contribute to post-conflict arrangements, yet what has happened? Very little. Egypt was also involved in addressing what was happening with the crossings, but it has withdrawn. I hope the statement made by Tony Blair yesterday about new proposals will become a reality, so that the long-suffering people of Gaza can have their needs addressed.

Disturbing questions must be asked about the events of 31 May. Six vessels were involved, and it must be asked why five of those six vessels landed at Ashdod as requested and unloaded their humanitarian aid, while on the sixth vessel something was very different. When those five vessels landed their humanitarian aid at Ashdod, Hamas refused to allow that aid to be delivered to Gaza. That is deplorable, and I do not hear cries of concern and criticism directed at Hamas for taking that action.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aiming her fire at something nobody in the debate has sought to defend. Why does the picture that she paints of Gaza appear to be so different from
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the weekly reports given by the United Nations and other agencies about the situation, and about the causes of that situation and Israel's responsibility for it? Those agencies are there, so why does she think they have got it so dreadfully wrong? I suggest that it might be a good idea for her-and a number of other hon. Members-to visit Gaza and talk to people there and get their views on their situation.

Mrs Ellman: The reality is that Gaza is run by Hamas, an Islamist organisation that is proscribed by the EU, the USA and Canada as a terrorist organisation. Its regime has led to this dreadful situation for the people of Gaza. That cannot be ignored; it is a fact. More questions need to be asked about that flotilla, focusing on that sixth vessel. What is the role of the Turkish IHH-again, a charitable organisation linked to Hamas and other terrorist organisations? What about the recording that was made in relation to that sixth vessel, showing that when the Israelis repeatedly asked it to land at Ashdod, the reply came back, "Go back to Auschwitz"? What about the fact that people on that sixth vessel were armed with metal rods with knives, and that a lynching of Israelis was attempted? I have no doubt that the majority of people on those vessels were genuine peace activists, but were they infiltrated by somebody else with other ideas?

What about the reports that we have seen since those events in the Turkish media? Families of people who were regrettably killed on that vessel have stated that their partner-the husband in one case-said that he wanted to be a martyr. Even more damning, what about the broadcast that was made on Hamas TV on 30 May, the day before the incident happened, when a university lecturer said that the participants in that flotilla wanted to die as martyrs even more than they wanted to reach Gaza? What a condemnation.

Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is repeating the information-if I can call it that-put out by the Israeli authorities in the immediate aftermath of the incident, for which no evidence has been produced. Is she seriously saying that, because Israeli forces normally get away with abseiling heavily armed on to ships in the middle of the night, when, on one occasion, people resist and nine of them are shot dead, they had it coming to them? My hon. Friend should consider the language she uses, even in putting forward her case so strongly.

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