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What is to be done now? My noble friend Lord Howell and the Minister have already indicated steps that need to be taken: lift the blockade, open the crossings, seal and destroy the tunnels, restore water
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Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I am the president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. I took over the role from the noble Lord, Lord Steel; it is a role that has circulated between persons in the different political parties. MAP enjoys the support of many people in this country and many within the Jewish community. I, too, have a long and deep relationship with Israelis. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, in her interpretation of history but I believe in the right of Israel to exist.
The scale of the catastrophe arising out of Israels three-week assault on Gaza is now abundantly clear. In the very first hours of the bombardment of this tiny but densely populated strip of land, hospitals struggled to cope, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead and critically wounded. The morgues were overflowing and the injured lay on hospital floors bleeding to death. The Gaza co-ordinator of MAP described the scene at al-Shifa Hospital in those first hours as follows:
Despite the horrors of those first hours, the escalating death toll and the clearly disproportionate use of military force against civilians, there were no international calls for a ceasefire at that time. That should be a source of regret to all.
It is clear that during the assault on Gaza there was a failure to ensure the protection of medical facilities and emergency personnel, alongside documented instances of what appear to be direct targeting of hospitals, clinics and emergency medical personnel. If there was direct targeting, that would be a violation of international and humanitarian law and there will have to be an inquiry into whether it happened.
Hospitals were damaged in attacks in the first days, seemingly purely as an ancillary effect of overall events. In the days that followed, however, a number of other bombings also caused alarm. The first that I shall
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In the early hours of 11 January, a medical centre of the Near East Council of Churches, supported by British and other European charities including Christian Aid, was destroyed in a direct hit. The building was completely razed to the ground and its equipment and medical supplies destroyed.
On 15 January, simultaneous attacks took place on hospitals across the Gaza Strip, on a day when the United Nations compound also suffered. Al-Wafa Hospital, the only rehabilitation hospital in the entire Gaza Strip, sustained a direct hit. Al-Fata Hospital was also hit, and, further south, reports started to come in that the European hospital was completely surrounded by ground troops. This created panic among the patients and staff.
On that day, however, al-Quds Hospital suffered the most. Located in the Tel el Hawa neighbourhood of Gaza city, it was attacked and besieged. The hospital was on fire for hours, and the fire was spreading, but fire trucks were not given direct access to it. The hospital sent out increasingly horrific distress calls, which MAP workers received, as people were unable to reach premature babies in incubators and patients in the intensive care unit.
Another concern is that the military did not seem to allow for the immediate evacuation of all the wounded, civilian and non-civilian alike, so that they could reach medical treatment. From the beginning of the Israeli ground invasion, medical teams were repeatedly prevented from gaining access to areas of the Gaza Strip. They were delayed for critical days and hours, and even when prior co-ordination with the army was achieved our medical teams could still not get in. The ICRC was reporting a number of deaths caused by the denial of timely medical access and evacuation. In one such incident, after being prevented access for four days, ICRC field teams reached the Zaitoun area of Gaza City, where they found four young children, weak and near starvation, huddled together beside the dead bodies of their mothers and 12 other corpses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, raised the issue of whether white phosphorous was used in ways that contravene international law. Again, there has to be an inquiry and investigation into how it was used and whether there is any question of contravention.
The massive bombardment continued and intensified over the three weeks. The Israeli military seemed to widen the range of what it described as a legitimate target. According to one senior Israeli official:
Although it is absolutely right that Israel was being bombarded with these weapons by Hamas, we should always bear in mind the question of proportionality. Any investigation will have to address the issue of what is proportionate and right in self-defence.
I agree with noble Lords who have said that there were avenues for speaking with Hamas. We have to talk if we want to resolve conflicts. The bombardment may have stopped for now but the war on Palestinian civilians seems to continue. The blockade, which has been the cause of great suffering among Palestinian civilians, continues.
We have also not paid much attention to the fact that, while our attention was on the destruction of Gaza, settlement construction on the West Bank and in Jerusalem continued unabated. That is one of the issues. After Israel withdrew from Gazaa gesture which gave hope to many watching from outside, and which was presented as suchsettlement construction continued unabated. Palestinians despaired of any hope of a state of their own.
I have had the great privilege of meeting and knowing Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer. He gave me as a gift a book entitled Help Us to Divorce. It is really about how one seeks to resolve this great tragedyand it is a tragedy, in the ancient and most precise sense of the word.
What is needed is imagination, the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of the other. The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian people. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world where the Jews, as a people and as a nation, could ever call their home. As individuals, yes, but as a people and as a nationno. So both sets of people have rights. One of the components of this tragedy, an aspect that has a certain irony about it, is the fact that many Israeli Jews do not recognise how deep is the Palestinian emotional connection to the land, and many Palestinians fail to recognise just how deep is the Jewish connection to the same land.
There has to be compromise, but compromise is not defeat. Compromise means life; compromise means pain. It means the end to certain dreamsdreams of the right of return, dreams of a greater Israel. But people have to contain some of their dreams if there is to be resolution. The Palestinians will have to sacrifice parts that used to be their own, pre-1948, and that is going to hurt like hell. But the Israelis will have to end this construction of settlements and withdraw behind the pre-1967 lines.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, I managed to secure a one-hour debate on Gaza on 21 January. Almost 40 people put their names down to speak. Therefore, it was decided that there needed to be a second debate. That was scheduled for 27 January. Once again, so many people wished to speak that the time allotted was insufficient, and it was decided that we should sit for an extra day today just to discuss Gaza. I welcome that.
On almost every other day since we came back after the new year, there has been a Statement, debate or Question on what is happening in Israel/Palestine, and there have been numerous Written Questions. That
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We have heard already how disproportionate and surely counterproductive Israels actions have been, from the very moving speech of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire and from others. There is blame going back and forth as to why the attacks happened. Of course rockets should not be fired into Israel, and Israel has a right to security. But on the other side, Israel had broken the ceasefire agreement of the summer by not lifting the blockade of Gaza, a point made recently by Sir Jeremy Greenstock and others.
The life and economy of Gaza was being throttled by that blockade. The pounding of Gaza, the use of white phosphorus, the killing of so many civilians, the bombing of schools, the flattening of industrial areas, the tearing through of agricultural land, olive groves, the university, the American school, the slaughtering of all the animals in the zoo and the devastation of homeshow can that have been proportionate? It would be like flattening Belfast because the IRA detonated bombs at Victoria station. We all know that the casualty rate in Gaza was 100 times that of Israel. We hear of mosques seemingly used as target practice, with the tops of minarets shot off. What was thisyoung recruits out of control? Were they trying to cripple the economy, break peoples spirits?
John Ging of UNRWA spoke of the biggest casualty being the mindset of the people and of this fuelling a sense of injustice. The Gazans were cynical about the rule of law and the prospects for accountability; there was a disconnect between the rhetoric of the international community and the reality of what had just happened; if the target was meant to be military, it had not been hit, and instead they had hit the economic structurejute factories, biscuit factories and a Pepsi factory, with tanks tearing up farmland.
With resolve and urgency, the international community must enable people to have confidence in the rule of law. Of course that must apply to both sides. What is happening to carry out independent investigation of what happened and what arrangements will be made for any found responsible to be held to account? If we cannot demonstrate that the rule of law matters and will protect people, then how do we counter extremism and radicalisation?
Gaza was in a desperate situation because of the siege; now it needs even more help. Humanitarian aid is waiting in the ports; crossings are closed. That has to extend to paper and books for destroyed schools. The children of conflict are always damaged; they and their families must see normality, with schooling resuming. But Israeli Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog has said:
That is utterly at variance with what we are hearing from UNRWA, Save the Children, UNICEF, Christian Aid and all the other NGOs trying to get sufficient aid in. What efforts are the Government making to get Israel to allow unfettered humanitarian access?
We hear how Hamas has stolen goods, which is clearly unacceptable. But how difficult have we made things in Gaza by not allowing the elected Government there to take part in the distribution of aid? Does it make sense to involve only the Palestinian Authority in doing so?
By supporting Fatah against Hamas, the Palestinians ability to speak with one voice has been undermined. One has to ask: in whose interest is that? Hamas was elected and its MPs jailed. It has to be part of the solution. And set aside the pre-conditions, with the exception already agreed, of setting aside violence. Recognising Israel is its last card. One has to acknowledge that Fatah did that and feels that it got little in return. Too often demands are made of the Palestinians without demanding that other conditions, such as withdrawing from the settlements, opening crossings and respect for human rights, are observed by the Israelis. That perceived lack of balance risks fuelling the feeling among Palestinians that negotiation is not the way forward, and that terrible conclusion is in no ones interests, especially the Israelis.
This is a regime about which a lot of inaccurate statements are made, particularly by the Israeli and Washington governments. It is not beholden to Iran .... They are not trying to set up a Taliban-style government in Gaza .... They are not intent on the destruction of Israel. That is a rhetorical statement of resistance.
It was said that the conflict in Northern Ireland would never be solvedit had lasted 400 years. But it is amazing what change was brought about with economic progress north and south and by engaging with all parties.
There are some causes for optimism in a very difficult situation. The election of President Obama and the appointment of George Mitchell, with his long experience of Northern Ireland, are encouraging. I remember hearing George Mitchell speak in the House of Lords a while back and, as ever, I took full notes. He pointed out the self-evident truth that all conflicts can be ended. He said:
He pointed out that it plays into the hands of those who do not want peace to stop negotiations if violence occurs. He saw a high correlation in Northern Ireland between unemployment and violence. These people, he said, had no hope. As he also said:
That is surely why the destruction of the West Bank and Gaza economies is so counterproductive. People have to feel that they and their families on either side of this conflict have the prospect of hope, security and prosperity. Mitchell stated that the Israelis were living in unbearable fear and anxiety and that the Palestinians want a state. In his view, neither side could reach its objective by denying the objective of the other. Those are surely very wise words.
This week, I found myself just behind Martin McGuinness and two of his guests as we all came out of the Commons cafeteria. They stopped to enjoy the wonderful sight of Parliaments Terrace in the snow.
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Conflicts such as this dehumanise people on either side. So often, one side simply demonises the other, and we have heard about that. Yet despite different faiths and histories, it can only be through dialogue and, indeed, through one side putting itself in the shoes of the other, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, put it, that compromises can be reached and progress made.
We are, I hope, at a crossroads. As the new spotlight moves on, we must not. We surely recognise that it is only through very strong international pressure that difficult compromises will now be made. Without that, Israel will never be secure; the Palestinians will never have a prosperous united state; neither side will have justice; and the potential risks to them, the region and the wider world will be all the more dangerous. That affects us all.
Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I hope that I shall not do irreparable damage to the reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, if I say that I agree with virtually every word of his remarkable and balanced intervention in this debate. Perhaps I may also say to my noble friend Lord Luce that his very wise words about keeping close to our friends in the Gulf and talking to Iran brought back memories of the remarkable activities of his father, Sir William Luce, in the Gulf in 1971, when he made a signal contribution to the safe withdrawal of our military forces from the Gulf.
I make no apology for reverting today to a question that I have put many times to the Minister. Why are we not talking to Hamas? The Minister is no doubt briefed to reply that there is agreement within the quartet on the conditions which must be met before any of us can talk with what is still regarded as a fanatical Islamist terrorist group.
I have three questions to put to the Minister. First, is he not aware that the envoy of the quartet, Mr Tony Blair, has now publiclyand, I hope, privately, in his meetings this week with senior members of President Obamas Administrationexpressed the view that we should talk to Hamas? Indeed, there are strong indications that other members of the quartet are already doing just that.
Secondly, does he not accept that Hamas and its elected representatives are the effective authority in Gaza, in so far as any authority can operate effectively in that tragically damaged environment? Is our refusal to talk to that authority not delaying or blocking what the Minister referred to as the flow of aid, either humanitarian or for reconstruction, which Her Majestys Government are donating to the people of Gaza? The Minister referred to the presence of Sir John Holmes in Gaza. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is not constrained as a member of the quartetbecause the United Nations is a member of the quartetand that he is able to have effective contacts with the elected authority; that is, Hamas.
Thirdly, does the Minister not accept that, however much we may deplore the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, as I am sure does the whole House, the responsibility for the repeated breakdown of the ceasefire lies on both sides of the border? There is, I think, no doubt that the ceasefire agreed in December was broken by an unpublicised incursion by the Israel Defence Forces, timed to coincide with the publicity surrounding the United States presidential election. Can the Minister confirm the headlines in the Lebanese press last week; namely, that Hamas had offered the Israelis a one-year ceasefire, but that it had been rejected on the grounds that Israel wanted a ceasefire of one year and a half? But do Israeli politicians really want that? It hardly squares with Mr Netanyahus promise this week that, if he is successful in the forthcoming elections, he will destroy Hamasthe noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked what Israels strategy was; so much for that.
It is high time that we recognise Hamas for what it is: a democratically elected resistance movement, with a readiness to talk, which draws its popular support from deep resentment, not only of the continued and expanding occupation of Palestinian territory but also of the appalling conditions under which the populations of both Gaza and the West Bank are forced to live.
Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, these are very difficult times for both Israel and the Palestinian world, both of which I visit often. Early last month, I was in the south of Israel, when Hamas rockets were firedto which the noble Lord, Lord Wright, correctly referredand one had 15 seconds to get down into an air raid shelter. After one of those attacks, I was taken to the place where the rocket had landed. It had destroyed two cars and the side of a building. Mercifully, nobody had been hurt, but I went past one of the cars and found a tail-light reflector and a piece of the bomb. I have kept them with me ever since as reminders of what this conflict is about. It is all very well making statements about how Governments should get on well and work together, but the reality so far as Israelis in the southern part of the country were concerned was that the bombs were coming all the time, they were dangerous all the time, and they could not come to an arrangement whereby they would not come.
That was partly because the bombs were supplied by Iran. It could not be clearer that Iran plays a crucial and central part in perpetuating the conflict and creates great instability in the Middle East. Its sponsorship and support of Hamas and other terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah are clear and we all know of it. Israel had in my view to act in defence of its own citizens and was right to do so.
That said, we should all be concerned by the humanitarian situation faced by the people of Gaza, and I commend the action taken by Her Majesty's Government, and the efforts of our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and the United Nations Security Council. I welcome the threefold increase in humanitarian aid given by the Government to Gaza. I hope that its delivery will be swift and effective. However, can the Minister explain how Hamas can be prevented from diverting items entering the strip which have a dual use and using them to rebuild its weapons arsenal?
Hamass conduct during the conflict betrays a complete disregard for the people on whose behalf the jihad that it refers to is being held. The widespread use of human shields, the deliberate setting of traps in civilian buildings and the firing from civilian institutions to invite return fire are all despicable examples of its behaviour. They indicate the extremely difficult environment in which the Israel Defence Forces have been operating. Civilian casualties are completely and entirely regrettable, but sadly, in those situations, inevitable.
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