Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We found it. We need to start listening, as well as talking to people with whom we disagree. Talking to your friends does not solve the problem but talking to the people with whom you disagree leads to a solution. There are contexts in which it is possible to do that, but usually the context has to be wider rather than narrower. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the network of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and so on. There is an idea that a wider body within the Middle East, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq, as well as Israel and the Palestinians in some kind of variable geometry, has to be involved in this.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, with his extraordinary knowledge of all of these things, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, with his characteristic eloquence, and my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, with his sagacity, all talked about Palestinians coming together and Palestinian unity. What does that mean? It involves Hamas and Fatah and some of the others. But they were together in a national unity Government and Her Majesty's Government indicated privately that they were supportive of that, which made possible an engagement. But when it was elected, that was not what happened. Therefore, when I hear noble Lords on the Government and Opposition Benches speaking about the importance of Palestinians coming together, are we saying on the record and clearly that if they do we will engage in a constructive way? Will we deepen and widen the discussions and make possible the context for talks? I refer to the kind of place where someone such as

6 Feb 2009 : Column 929

George Mitchell, with the backing of the new President of the United States can actually take things forward in the way that all of us desperately want to see.

If that happened, the people of Israel could feel secure and at home in their own place and their Palestinian brothers and sisters could feel justifiably safe and secure in their own place. If it did, all of us would have a better chance of feeling safe and secure in our common home.

2.56 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I, too, thank the Government Chief Whip and the Minister for agreeing to this extra debate today. Listening to all the speeches this morning and this afternoon has been a very emotional experience for me.

The House is united in agreeing that an early return to the Middle East peace process is vital. We all want to see that as a top priority for the new US Administration. The swift appointment of the former senator, George Mitchell, is doubly welcome, first, as an indicator of President Obama’s determination to make a difference and, secondly, because, as was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Dubs, Lord Bew and Lord Alderdice—his speech just now was brilliant—we know at first hand of Senator Mitchell’s determination and skill in bringing together historic enemies and persuading them to make and adhere to working arrangements together.

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can afford another descent into violence. This requires sustained international diplomacy; indeed, many noble Lords have mentioned the important role that Turkey can play in all this. An agreement must be reached on a way to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza and to open Gaza’s borders on a continuous and safe basis, not just for aid, but for trade, so that the people of Gaza can see a pathway to a better life.

While the longer-range rockets fired by Hamas into Israel are being provided by outside sources—including, as we heard today, Iran—the majority of shorter-range missiles are manufactured in Gaza itself. To stop the manufacture and firing of those and the provocation to Israel requires determined action by Hamas as the de facto public authority in the strip. Above all, as my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Sheikh said, there needs to be a return to negotiations on a two-state agreement that achieves a viable and secure Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel. For that to happen, the Palestinians need a united leadership dedicated solely to that aim and the Israelis need to want peace more than settlements.

My noble friend Lord Eden of Winton said that Israel has forfeited much of the international sympathy to which it was properly entitled by reason of being subjected to years of rockets on its towns, the Palestinian intifada, with its lethal suicide bombings, and Hamas’s ideological attachment to eternal combat with Israel. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Kalms rightly said, Israel has the right to defend itself.

As several noble Lords have pointed out, the existence of organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which both gathered support in response to Israeli occupation, cannot simply be wished away. What will Hamas’s future be? Will it remain a resistance movement—indeed,

6 Feb 2009 : Column 930

a terrorist movement, as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said—and therefore a pariah in the eyes of western capitals? Or will it become more flexible to aid a future political settlement?

The right mixture of pressure and inducements, including an end to Gaza’s economic blockade, might well persuade Hamas back into a unity Government, not least because it stands a fair chance of controlling such a Government when next there are elections in both Gaza and the West Bank. But Hamas will not be induced to compromise unless the prospect of a Palestinian state begins to look real. Mr Obama can help by making it clear, preferably before Israel’s election, that America will no longer countenance Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank.

The Israeli pressure group, Peace Now, has disclosed that 1,257 new structures were built in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories during 2008, a 57 per cent increase over the year before. Israel has detained 45 Hamas MPs and some Fatah MPs as well. Have Her Majesty’s Government made any approaches to ensure that these properly elected representatives either stand trial or are released?

Many noble Lords mentioned the use of phosphorus shells, which burn at 800 degrees centigrade, stick to the skin and burn through to the bone. They were used in one of the most densely populated places in the world. We have been told today that the Israeli army is pursuing an investigation into these allegations. Will the Minister say more on what progress has been made by the international community on the establishment of an inquiry into allegations of war crimes?

Despite intensive Israeli bombing, some tunnels remain open. Palestinian sources in Rafah, the Gaza Strip’s southern town, estimate that about 20 per cent of the pre-war tunnels are still in action. Reliable Israeli sources last week suggested that, despite the bombardment, Iran is well advanced with a huge programme of arms resupply for Gaza. The intelligence reports that Iran plans to ship Fajr rockets with a 50-mile range to Gaza. This would bring Tel Aviv, its international airport and the Dimona nuclear reactor within range for the first time, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner.

Can the Minister tell the House what discussions have taken place with the Egyptian Government on the prevention of weapons smuggling through the tunnels? The Government of Egypt have a double responsibility, as the appointed representative of other Arab Governments and as the controller of the other side of the strip’s southern boundary. Our Prime Minister has mentioned possible Royal Navy deployment to help to prevent the movement of weapons at sea. Can the Minister say more on this? There is concern in the Navy that it would be difficult to make any meaningful difference without withdrawing ships from commitments elsewhere.

As days go by, the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is becoming clear. We welcome the humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that the Government have announced. Will the Minister confirm that United Kingdom taxpayers’ money will be properly accounted for and that Hamas will not be able to cream off anything for its own ends?



6 Feb 2009 : Column 931

Israel must now urgently allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid through the crossings into Gaza. The UN Relief and Works Agency estimates that Gaza requires a minimum of 500 truckloads of aid per day. I understand that at the moment approximately 120 truckloads of aid are getting through. Can the Minister say whether there is now free and unhindered passage for the staff of the UN agencies and international NGOs through the Gaza crossings?

The Minister mentioned the programme for reconstruction in Gaza and said that Israel should share the burden. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that we should press on Israel the need for generosity and emphasise the extent to which such generosity is in its long-term interest. We all recognise that what is happening in Gaza and what should happen there are very much unfinished business. It all remains very fragile. I hope that we shall all have better news before the next debate on Gaza.

3.06 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we have all heard a lot to think about in the days that follow this debate. As someone fairly new to this House, this is my first experience of a foreign policy debate where views are growing wider apart not closer together. If I think back to when we began this intense period of debates and Questions following the events in Gaza, at the beginning, there was a high degree of unanimity on all sides about the need to stop this humanitarian catastrophe before more lives were lost. Now that we have entered a period of reflection, inevitably, given the passions and histories of this issue, reflection is quickly followed by recrimination. We would all do well to reflect on that, as a number of speakers have today, because the question of whether we see the will to resolve this conflict has been raised. That will will not come if a mood of anger and recrimination grows. It is only, as so many speakers have said so eloquently, if we can put that behind us and find shared ground and a common commitment to finding peace that we will find it.

The reasons for the anger are so clear and must be acknowledged. The rising tide of anti-Semitism here in the UK is utterly abhorrent, and I find it amazing that such things could happen in our country. There is no point in overlooking or seeking to deny Israel’s absolute right of self-defence when its citizens were subjected to month after month of rocket attacks. Even if they were, luckily, not particularly effective and did not cause that many casualties, their purpose, as a number of speakers have said, was absolutely clear; it was to kill as many civilians as possible. Equally, on the other side, it is not helpful to denigrate the political objectives of Palestinians by somehow painting them all as incorrigible terrorists. The Palestinian people want a home. They want a state. They want rescue from 60 years of living in impossible and appalling conditions, which have got worse as their population has grown, as illegal settlements have spread and as their economic conditions and their security situation has not changed.



6 Feb 2009 : Column 932

Until we can get over this divided sense of grievance and move forward around a common objective, it is all going to be very difficult. It is a little invidious to single any out, but many noble Lords today—including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Alderdice, the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and the noble Lord, Lord Stone, with his description of Plonter—have spoken to this need to somehow find a way of getting past assigning blame and to find ways in which we can work together towards solutions.

I shall discuss the issues raised in the debate before returning to that theme at the end. The first point that I want to address is the direct question that came in a number of forms, latterly whether the UK Government would support a national unity Government of Palestinians. Let me be as clear as I can be about that. Discussions are going on, which have received some exposure in the press, between the Palestinians, largely through the good offices of the Egyptians, to see whether it is possible to reconstitute a national Government under the Palestinian Authority and its President—those remain, if you like, the legal head of state entity—but with the recognition that a combined Government that could address the immediate economic and political crisis that the territories now face would need to move to elections to elect a new Government for a combined West Bank and Gaza. That Government would obviously then have to be recognised by the international community.

Let me, however, immediately turn to what that does or does not mean about the willingness to deal with Hamas. Her Majesty’s Government have not sought to deny the fact that Hamas won an election in Gaza. The issue for us has come, as noble Lords know, from its reluctance to meet the so-called quartet principles—including renouncing terrorism, recognising the State of Israel and other issues. It is equally the case, as so many have said, that a solution will happen only when all Palestinians are involved in the discussion. Everyone involved in this—names from the former Prime Minister Mr Blair to Colin Powell and others have been mentioned in this debate—has essentially made the same point.

Equally, in granting the concession of talking to Hamas, there must be a clear understanding the Hamas is moving towards those principles and indeed accepts that the goals of any such discussions are peace and the ability to live at peace with the State of Israel. Talks which do not have that as the clear, stated objective, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, made clear, are in a sense a dead end and are a redundancy before they begin. This is now an issue where there is clearly going to be movement. The need to see the Palestinians come together again in a national unity Government and the need to engage in a broad-based peace negotiation will lead to a period of shift and transition.

I will return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, at the beginning. He commented bleakly, but not altogether unfairly, on the weakness of the international conflict mechanisms. He said that despite the cascading statements coming out of the United Nations and its different organs, and despite the expressions and demands of world leaders, still this terrible conflict went on day after day, with a terrible

6 Feb 2009 : Column 933

toll on life. Surely, surely, the lesson is again that international institutions can say what they want, but unless there is a sense that they are backed by a strong, combined international will of Governments, their protests are meaningless.

It was only when we got to a ceasefire resolution in the Security Council, with 14 in favour and one abstention, that finally we began to get traction. Even then it took days to get to the point of a ceasefire entered into by both sides sequentially. We have to recognise that until the international community comes back around a common strong position which really pushes towards peace in an effective balanced way, these conflict resolutions that we prize so much will remain fairly powerless and impotent.

In terms of the current humanitarian situation, an international issue that has also been raised, it is correct, as a number of speakers pointed out, that we still do not have nearly adequate access through these crossings. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, pointed out, a need for some 500 trucks a day. Well, in the period for which we have the last full report, the week of 26 January to 1 February, the figure was below even 120 a day; it had decreased to 314 for the week. Regarding the point that Hamas must not be able to import materials through the crossings that have potential for double use, I am sure that that is correct, but in reality there is no possibility that the materials being brought in have such double use. In fact, the lists of materials in our view are much too restrictive, with basic building materials needed for restoring homes or for getting the economy moving again being blocked and delayed. This contributes to the failure effectively to get materials in.

On the issue of access for NGOs and UN staff, at a recent co-ordination meeting of NGOs in the area, 75 per cent said that they were having access difficulties. Many who recently arrived said that there was a backlog of at least 25 days in their application for entry. The Israeli authorities have assured us that this is because there has been such a rush of people wanting to go and work in Gaza that the system of approval has gotten overwhelmed. The Israelis have assured us that they will bring down to five days these delays in approving international workers for work in Gaza.

I turn to the question: what are we doing for the children? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and others pointed out that half the population of Gaza are kids who have just been through a most traumatic experience. John Holmes, the UN co-ordinator, has made children and their trauma a major priority of the UN flash appeal, which we support.

I turn to the issue of the international inquiry or investigation into what has happened. My noble friend Lady Ramsay was among a number of those who said that we must be careful not to bandy around unfounded allegations, and who pointed to sort of revisionist news reports about what might have happened in the attack on the UNRWA school. Others similarly spoke about the fact that white phosphorous may not have been used against civilians in as indiscriminate a way as was earlier reported. However, the noble Lord, Lord Eden, and others immediately said, “No, these

6 Feb 2009 : Column 934

allegations remain very much alive”, and cited alternative press reports to make a point about some of the apparent breaches of the laws of war.

This all drives towards the fact that everyone in this House would welcome an adequate international investigation and, if necessary, adequate international accountability through international justice systems if, indeed, war crimes have been committed. I was asked to say where these activities stand. The UN Secretary-General has called for a broader inquiry into the attacks on UN facilities, including the UNRWA schools. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we back the Secretary-General in seeking such an inquiry. On 12 January, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to send an international investigating team, which, again, we back. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which always speaks prudently and objectively on such issues, continues with its own internal examination of what has happened. These different processes must be gone through. There also remains an obligation on Israel to investigate, as it is always the country involved that is the port of first call in investigations of this kind.

As to whether there is room or need for an ICC action, we on this side want to see the results of these investigations first. We are conscious that we need the facts and an objective account of what happened before we rush to judgment or to further steps in terms of international judicial activity. As for Israel being a non-signatory to the ICC, any ICC action would have to come as a referral by the UN Security Council. That would happen only if there was a very strong case coming out of these earlier investigations, as such an action would be highly difficult.

It is enormously important to Her Majesty’s Government that any of the investigations that I have mentioned looks at the claims against both sides and is not one-sided. Allegations of wrongdoing must be investigated against both Hamas and the Government of Israel.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, what is the Government’s reaction to the suggestions made by the Government and Parliament of Malaysia on this matter?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I can come back to the noble Lord in more detail, but our point remains that the only way in which there can be a referral to the ICC for a non-signatory state is through the Security Council; that is the gate through which this has to go. I can envisage the Security Council acting only if we have reached a point where there seems to be well established evidence that confirms that there is a need to proceed. However, I will return to the noble Lord on this subsequently, if I may.

Let me say a word about the economic recovery. One light moment in an otherwise grim debate was when we heard from the world’s greatest retailer that Israeli-Egyptian co-operation in the past has made for the word’s best knickers. We can hope that that M&S spirit can continue as work is done on economic recovery. We very much support these efforts to get such combined economic programmes moving forward. We think that that is very interesting and a great idea,

6 Feb 2009 : Column 935

but I share the doubts that there is an economic solution alone to this conflict—we have tried that before. Reconstruction and private sector co-operation across national borders in the Middle East are important but they are not enough to solve the problem if we cannot move on the politics.

I was asked how we are doing with President Abbas. He is in the UK today, as he was yesterday. He has met the Prime Minister and a number of my senior colleagues, and we have again expressed our support for him in the difficult role that he has to play. He has called for $600 million of additional humanitarian assistance for the reconstruction and has pledged $50 million from the Palestinian Authority itself. The Egyptians have promised a reconstruction conference on 2 March, which we will obviously attend to see what we can do in addition.

On the political side, the Egyptians have emerged as key at this stage, both in trying to facilitate an improvement in the relationship between the two Palestinian political sides and in trying to find a solution to the immediate issue of the ceasefire, as well as an end to the smuggling and the opening of the border crossings. We are extremely clear that, if we can secure a stronger ceasefire, beyond that must lie a renewed political initiative.

Here, I join everyone who has applauded the appointment of Senator Mitchell, whom I knew at the American end when he came back from his sessions in Northern Ireland. He said that the most difficult thing at the beginning, when people referred very passionately to events as the reason for not making peace, was to know whether they were events that had occurred the previous week or 400 years ago. That skill of learning

6 Feb 2009 : Column 936

his history quickly will be just as important in the new task that he has taken on. We will obviously support him in every way.

I close by picking up the reference to an evidently very eloquent speech by President Peres of Israel. He said that 50 years ago we realised that the Cold War would end, the Berlin Wall would fall, apartheid would be swept aside, Mandela would be installed and, lastly, that a black man would be President of the United States. Given the debate today, we might add to that that together we would have resolved the conflict in Northern Ireland. Looking ahead, it would seem reasonable also to say that we might find a solution to the problem in the Middle East.

Speaking as someone who has watched that conflict from the outside over many years and who has been involved as a UN official, I think that one could go beyond that and express a certain impatience. Why, when these other extraordinarily difficult conflicts have been resolved, does this one endure? After so much effort by the international community and the leaders of these different countries, and after so much sacrifice by those who have given their lives and borne the costs of the violence and deprivation in the region, why can we still not only get beyond pointing fingers but not even get beyond not pointing rockets? Why is it that every round of the conflict seems to leave the communities even more deeply polarised and divided? How can we now take hold of this opportunity and energy and, for once, channel it, adding this conflict to the list of the others that have been mentioned and say, as has happened, we hope, with the Cold War and other situations, never again.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 3.29 pm.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page