Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We should start to plan now for a Middle East security and co-operation conference, which might develop into a permanent organisation. The OSCE helped to end the Cold War in Europe; the Middle East now needs something similar to overcome the shooting wars that have killed many thousands. The Council of Europe promotes intergovernmental co-operation and acts as the custodian of human rights. Europe, of course, does not have all the answers: every region must find what works and suits it best. The Middle East can build on existing foundations, such as the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Co-operation Council. We should envisage a Middle East Marshall plan, marrying the wealth of the oil producers to the technology and organisational skills of the West.

As an example of what can be done within a single divided country, I shall describe something from Iraq. Its senior religious leaders have been meeting regularly for some years, with an external facilitator. They have thus come to respect and trust each other so that they can work for national reconciliation. Such has progress been made that last August a joint Shia/Sunni fatwa was issued against sectarianism, communal violence and especially suicide bombing. This unprecedented joint message is now being passed to every village, town, mosque, church and school.

I was with the Iraqi religious leaders at their meeting in Beirut last November. Their work is an example of what can be done to overcome divisions that have lasted well over 1,000 years. I suggest that we need to multiply initiatives of this kind throughout the conflict zones. Similar work should be tried with leaders in the media and with opinion formers who can reach the secular populations. In Iraq, work has also begun with the political parties, the militias and the media.

All of us, outside the Middle East and within it, need to enlarge our vision. We should think in regional and multilateral terms. All professions, not just diplomats, can and should contribute to peace-building. I have mentioned religious leaders but parliamentarians, business

6 Feb 2009 : Column 899

people, the media, NGOs and educational institutions can all help to create trust and confidence. Peace has to be built from the ground upwards, as well as from the top downwards. If Northern Ireland has taught us anything, it is that the political and religious extremes on all sides have to be included if peace is to be durable. Nothing less than the widest mobilisation of human energy will suffice if we are to prevent new and repeated destructions of Gaza. Peace is possible but it will require hard and persevering work on all sides. That is another reason for welcoming former Senator George Mitchell as the United States special envoy.

12.46 pm

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I was on a short visit to Lebanon in early January at the time of the attacks on Gaza. I also had an opportunity to visit Lebanon two years ago to look at the cluster munitions that were being cleared in the south following the Israeli attacks there.

I am sad to be critical of Israel, particularly given my personal background, but I think that there is no alternative but to make some criticisms. Of course, it is unacceptable that any town or city in Israel should be subjected to rocket attacks, but it is equally unacceptable that the civilian population of Gaza should have been attacked in the way that it was. Certainly, people in the region who made the comparison talked about the lack of proportion in the two attacks. However, it is also clear that every rocket that lands on Israel increases Israel’s determination to resist. Equally, every shell, every bomb, every injury and every death in Gaza has increased the resistance to Israel on the part of the people of Gaza, and that resistance is now formidable. I think that Israel’s future has been significantly endangered by what it has done in Gaza.

Perhaps I can make one comment about the conflict in Lebanon two years before: the cluster munitions, the bomblets, were not in thousands but in millions and they are still being cleared by United Nations teams and are still causing injury and death to people living in south Lebanon. I understand that even to this day Israel has not supplied the co-ordinates of the shells that were fired, in order to help the United Nations teams to clear them. Surely that should be put right immediately.

I want to talk about three things: I want to say something about Hamas, to say something about the feelings in the region and to offer a few tentative thoughts about possible ways forward. People have said that Hamas does not accept the existence of the state of Israel. My understanding is that, some time ago, Fatah did not either. There has to be a process whereby those things are brought to light and changed. I agree with those Members of this House who have said that the mistake has been not to talk to Hamas. I think the mistake was not to talk to Hamas at the beginning, when it was elected. If we say to people, “You have no political way forward because we do not accept the political debate”, then what are we offering them? Violence, as the only way out? Surely that is so counterproductive. We have to say to people that politics, debate and negotiation are better ways forward

6 Feb 2009 : Column 900

for your people to establish your rights than using violence. Therefore, we must engage in that debate. I think we made a big error in not doing so at the time. Of course, Egypt is acting as an intermediary at the moment, but it would be right if there were more direct talks with Hamas—perhaps that is taking place behind the scenes. I hope that George Mitchell, whose appointment I very much welcome, will help in that.

It is a mistake to talk about preconditions. In Northern Ireland negotiations, we learnt that setting preconditions does not work. These things come out of the process of negotiation. You cannot do it at the beginning and it is no good saying to Hamas, “You have to accept all sorts of things”. I hope that it will in the process of negotiation, but it will not at the outset. If there were an election today in Gaza, I believe that Hamas would win even more convincingly than it did last time; and I suspect that if there were an election today in the West Bank, Hamas would win there as well. That would be a result of what Israel has done.

I came back with a feeling of enormous anger in Lebanon and in the whole region about what happened; an anger which it is difficult to understand unless one is there to feel it; an anger which will last a long, long time; and an anger which will affect the process of moving forward in the region. That anger about what has happened has resulted in a strategic shift in the politics of the region; it is not always obvious at the moment, but deep down there has been a strategic shift. I do not think that we can expect there to be a return to the position before the attack on Gaza; the world there has changed. I repeat that the anger, bitterness and resentment are so strong that they will affect the region for a very long time to come.

In the region, Al-Jazeera was able to produce news—it also interviewed Israeli politicians—and show people what was happening. As the Israeli Government would not allow the BBC in, the BBC had very limited coverage, so if some facts which were favourable to Israel were not coming out, that was Israel's fault for not having allowed the journalists in there to report.

During my visit to Lebanon, I also visited a family in south Lebanon, almost on the Israeli border. It was an ordinary family. I was taken there to have a look at various things, which there is not time to discuss now. The family gave me food and were very hospitable, but it was chilling to hear what they said to me: “We don't want a two-state solution; we want a one-state solution; we do not want Israel to exist”. I reject that proposition entirely, but it is chilling to hear such attitudes from people who are otherwise reasonable and who do not seem to be militants or members of Hezbollah—perhaps they were, but they did not seem to be.

I have a few brief thoughts on the way forward. We cannot demand that Hamas and Fatah have to get together. There are serious differences of view and it is not helpful for us to lecture them and say, “You should get together because it will make it easier”. Where there are different visions of the future, I do not think that that is possible. Of course, there needs to be a process to help the Palestinians towards a united leadership, but we cannot impose that on them. My understanding is that Hamas has made some practical proposals for the resolution of the Rafah crossings

6 Feb 2009 : Column 901

and the management and reconstruction of Gaza, including the introduction of independent monitors. I understand that Hamas will accept shared responsibility with Fatah, but it will not agree to give exclusive responsibility to Fatah for that.

Turkey has played an important part, particularly in facilitating discussions early on between Syria and Israel, although those are now in abeyance. At one time, I thought that Turkey would have a greater part to play, but I think there has been a fundamental disagreement between Turkey and Israel. Nevertheless, I still wonder whether Turkey could not play a larger part in bringing people in the region together.

In the mean time, Egypt has played an important part, and I very much welcome the contribution of George Mitchell. I saw him at first hand in Northern Ireland and his appointment and contribution could prove to be significant. He has patience, he has understanding, and he knows the mistakes being made now that could be avoided. Of course, in the end, we want a two-state solution. We want a legitimate State of Palestine, internationally recognised with proper borders going back to before 1967; and we want a State of Israel living in peace, safety and security with its neighbours. That way, there will be hope for the region. All that we can do is our best to try to achieve that end.

12.54 pm

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, as a member of the Coexistence Trust led by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and as a teacher of Islam and the Middle East at the University of York, I thought that one of my major functions as both a teacher and a participant is to avoid labelling and stereotypes. Just as we feel that anti-Semitism is unacceptable, we must also think that Islamophobia is unacceptable. I worry about terminology about Middle Eastern barbarism, Islamic extremism, taking al-Qaeda, bin Laden and the entire Muslim community as a single cohort, or even saying that my natal country, Iran, is involved in everything. That gives Iran disproportionate power, which it does not have—fortunately. First, I ask for clear thinking about who we are talking about, what we are saying and for us not to demonise anyone in this whole affair.

In my capacity as chair of the Muslim Women's Network, we have already written to the Foreign Office and had meetings about the plight of women and children. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for raising the problem of women and children. The most important thing that we have left in Palestine is its people. We know that more than half of the population of Gaza are children. We also know that more than one third of those who were injured in the conflict were women and children. To cite a recent e-mail from paediatrician Jazir Kawkuby, who works at Great Ormond Street, but is currently working in the Shifa Hospital in Gaza, children have been coming in with multiple trauma injuries: severe burns; amputated legs; multiple penetration injuries; and internal trauma caused by explosion within their bodies. Their suffering continues, not least because of the lack of medication—I support the demand of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that at least medical help must get there.



6 Feb 2009 : Column 902

Traumatised children make for traumatised people and good ground for extremism. The terrible truth about traumatised children is that they cannot be cured by an injection or by saying that one thing is something else—that they have an injury. I am the honorary president of International Services, which is one of the few non-governmental agencies that has continued its presence in Palestine, although not in Gaza. When we send our workers to that context of violence as helpers, as people to cure events, within a year they burn out. Living under conditions in which many people live in Gaza creates a negative future. People who grow up under those conditions cannot think normally. That is why it may well be that when the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, sits with people on the border of Lebanon, they do not want to see Israel.

I had a student who was doing her PhD studying the rise of Hezbollah. Sitting in England, she could not quite work out why Hezbollah was so successful. She was in Lebanon at the border areas when they were being bombed. She sent me a text saying: “Haleh, why is nobody reporting what is happening to us?”. That arrived the day before my daughter’s wedding, and we were knee-deep in flowers and organising. I sat in my office and e-mailed 55 journalists whom I knew personally, asking “Why is this not being reported?”. One journalist, from BBC World Service, reported it.

There are silences that need to be broken. What is more, my student who was still in Lebanon said that afterwards only Hezbollah helped everybody; regardless of religion or affiliation, Hezbollah was in there building. Perhaps I may suggest that Hamas is experiencing a similar legitimacy. I agree completely with noble Lords that it is the group on the ground. The only way forward is to accept that, if the people in the Middle East, including Palestinians, elect people as we wish them to, they have a right to expect their elected representatives to represent them. If the West thinks that it can bomb Iraq into democracy, surely we can talk Palestine into democracy; and if they do it, we should respect it.

Unless and until we speak the same language to both sides, until we use the same definitions for each side, and unless and until one dead body is as important as another, we will not have peace in the region.

1.01 pm

Lord Mitchell: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is in his place, because it gives me the opportunity totally to ruin his weekend: not only did the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, commend him on his speech, but I found what he said particularly illuminating. I will study what he said in Hansard and deliberate over some very wise words.

I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and the wise words she spoke. Along with various other Members of this House and the House of Commons, she has joined me in the Coexistence Trust going to various universities—we started with five—as a group of Muslims and Jews to discuss the issues common to all of us. We have kept the Middle East off the agenda; it is not an easy thing to do, but we have managed to talk about other issues to do with being British and Jewish and being British and Muslim,

6 Feb 2009 : Column 903

and how important it is for us to continue our work, with everything else that is going on in the world at this juncture.

I read the Jewish Chronicle this morning, although it is not my normal reading, and was horrified to hear of some of the activities at our universities. There is a quotation—I cannot believe it is true—where an Oxford academic said this week that in five years’ time he was hopeful that Oxford would become a Jewish-free zone. Nice, yes?

We have heard a lot today about Hamas. There are a lot of rose-tinted glasses worn in regard to that organisation. I would like to say a little more about Hamas; they are really not nice people. Do not take my word for it; listen to their own words. The Hamas Charter is not what I would call bedtime reading but it is worth a glance, as it is interesting:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up”.

It continues:

“Today it is Palestine, tomorrow it will be one country or another. The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying”.

This is in its charter. If it is not true and this is not what it believes, it should remove it from its charter.

Hamas is an organisation that says that it will not recognise Israel, renounce violence or adhere to past agreements that were negotiated by the Palestinian Authority. It has a single objective: a one-state Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, with no Israel but no Fatah either. It wants its Palestine, and it wants it to be part of the Islamic caliphate. That is why it is categorised as a terrorist organisation by us, by the Americans, by the EU, by Canada, by Japan and by Australia, so to noble Lords who advocate a two-state solution and insist on adherence to the road map I say think again. While Hamas sticks to its charter, a two-state outcome is simply pie in the sky. How can Israel negotiate with a Palestinian people who are split into three pieces: one faction in Ramallah, another in Gaza and yet another living a gilded life and pulling the strings in Damascus.

This debate is bound to dwell on the terrible plight of the civilian population in Gaza, and so it should, but I commend the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in a recent debate, who said that we should wait for the evidence before we rush to judgment. In 2002, following a spate of suicide bombings that originated from Jenin on the West Bank, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield. Immediately, the world was up in arms. “The massacre of Jenin”, was the cry of the world’s media. “Three thousand civilians have been killed”. Then the figure was reduced to 500. “They have been butchered by the marauding Israelis”. A Times reporter wrote:

“Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life”.



6 Feb 2009 : Column 904

The Guardian—always the Guardian—said:

“Israel’s actions in Jenin are every bit as repellent as 9/11”.

Does it not all sound so familiar?

A few weeks later, the Palestinian Authority admitted that there had been 56 Palestinian dead, of whom all but three were combatants. There was embarrassment all round, but memories fade fast. When we hear all these condemnations of illegal white phosphorous and pre-meditated attacks on schools and hospitals, we should await the evidence. My Palestinian sources tell me of rockets and artillery located in their own homes, but they are frightened to go public because their lives and those of their families might be at risk.

I have another quotation:

“Hamas gangs are unleashed like packs of animals on the streets of Gaza against Fatah members. Because the military bases and the prisons have been destroyed, they have turned Gaza schools, Al-Nasser Hospital, the radiology department at Shifa' Hospital, the Al-Aqsa University, and other places, including mosques, into centers for the detention, interrogation, and torture of Fatah members and members of other national Palestinian factions”.

This statement was made on 22 January this year by the secretary of the PLO executive committee, Yasser Abd Rabbo.

Sometimes it is by their words that we can best detect where certain nations stand. On the subject of Hamas, there has been an eerie silence. In the recent war, where was the condemnation from Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Indeed, where was the Palestinian Authority? They were all very quiet. Of course they voiced their concerns at the horrors of the destruction, but for Hamas there were no words. Why? Because they loathe Hamas.

Often in the Middle East, things become much clearer after a storm, and today we face a different world from the one that existed in December. Perhaps that is a positive sign. Four countries can have a key role in moving the region forward. The first, of course, is the United States, re-energised by a new President determined to engage in the region and supported by the wisdom and expertise of Secretary Clinton and regional envoy George Mitchell. Only America can bring Israel to the table, because only America fully understands Israel’s concerns.

This time next week, there will be a new Israeli Prime Minister. It will probably be Mr Netanyahu, and I know how people feel about that, but Israel tends to withdraw and make peace only with a right-wing Prime Minister.

The second state is Egypt, which suddenly has become a diplomatic powerhouse. It has strong influence over Gaza, which it used to rule until 1967. The third state, Jordan, is 50 per cent Palestinian. It, too, ruled the West Bank until the Six-Day War. Finally, there is Saudi Arabia.

The 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel full diplomatic relations with all 22 Arab states if it withdrew to the 1967 borders. I believe that this document should be the platform on which all future peace negotiations should be based.



6 Feb 2009 : Column 905

1.10 pm

Lord Pannick: My Lords, an excellent recent book about the first Arab-Israeli war entitled 1948, and published by the Yale University Press, was written by the distinguished Israeli historian, Benny Morris. In the book he quotes the recollection of a Jordanian officer who said that as he drove out of Amman to fight the Israeli enemy, his mother was in the crowd and she shouted, “Don't come back. Martyrdom my son”. More than 60 years later, the primary cause of the very real suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is that for Hamas nothing has changed since 1948. It is still fighting, and still losing, the war of independence. The overriding objective of Hamas, as demonstrated by its own words and actions, remains to remove Israel from the map and to do so, if necessary, by the martyrdom of its own unfortunate people.

Hamas is still committed to the destruction of the state of Israel not as a slogan or a negotiating tactic, as has been suggested in this debate, but as a defining principle. It is a principle which is not susceptible to reasoned debate or compromise. You might as well suggest that al-Qaeda does not really wish to destroy western society and that the problems would be solved if we all sat round the table together.

A responsible Government in Gaza would know that if you encourage the constant bombardment of a neighbouring country by rockets fired from civilian areas in Gaza, the inevitable consequence is that those you attack, however much they long for peace, eventually will respond and that, inevitably, civilians, including children, will be killed.

Sadly, in war, innocent civilians are injured, and they are killed in Gaza, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sensible Governments do not provoke wars by repeatedly firing rockets into the territory of their neighbours. The fact that Hamas is an elected Government, as has been emphasised today, does not make it a responsible or a sensible Government. The problems of Gaza and, indeed, the problems of the Middle East, will not be solved until Hamas, Hezbollah and others like them recognise, as Egypt and Jordan have recognised, some basic facts of political life. First, Israel is a practical and legal reality. It is not going to go away. Responsible Arab Governments have accepted that there is no point in continuing to fight the 1948 war. Hamas and many of its supporters have yet to recognise this truth.

The second fact is that Israel wants nothing more than to live in peace with its neighbours.

Israel's military objectives are not aggressive; they are preventive and they are to stop attacks on its own people, whether by suicide bombers, by rockets or by even more powerful weapons.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page