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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

8.4 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Today is yom ha'Zikaron, the Israeli day for remembering the fallen soldiers who died fighting for Israel. They were fighting for a Jewish homeland. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, three years after the end of the second world war. That was a war during which 6 million Jews were systematically and brutally murdered in a plan to wipe out Jewry everywhere.

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I am not Jewish, nor do I have a large Jewish community in my constituency. However, I am a strong supporter of Israel. That is because in the period ending only 15 years before I was born, across the channel just a few hundred miles south-east of my constituency, Jewish men, women and children were being gassed. The Jewish people need a homeland.

In discussing the middle east, and especially the situation in Israel, we have become accustomed to using phrases such as the cycle of violence, intransigence on both sides and the failure of negotiation. They are phrases that seem to imply that each side is as bad as the other; that each is equally worthy of our support or, more usually, our condemnation.

There are however, important different differences between Israel and its opponents. Israel is a democratic country that upholds the rights of its citizens and uses military force only for self-defence. It is surrounded by countries that are, to a greater or lesser extent, hostile to its very existence. Every day, Israel faces fierce and even deadly opposition to its very survival from enemies who seek their ends through force and terror rather than through democracy.

As UN Security Council resolution 242 declared 34 years ago, it has

That right is still not recognised in full by many of Israel's neighbours.

The Palestinian Authority is a haven for terrorism. It glorifies suicide bombers through its media and tells them that they are martyrs. It has authorised the Tanzim militia, an organ of Yasser Arafat's Fatah PLO faction, to fire upon Israeli civilians and soldiers. It tries to import arms and ammunition from terrorist allies such as Iran. It tells its people and educates its children to believe that every ill is the fault of Israel.

The unfashionable truth is that the greatest obstacle to peace in the middle east is not a breakdown in diplomacy. The biggest obstacle is terrorism on the citizens of Israel. That is terrorism which Yasser Arafat, as President of the Palestinian Authority, has done nothing to end. At Oslo, in 1993, and elsewhere Arafat has renounced terror and agreed to control it, but terror continues unabated. If Arafat can call an end to the terror, why has he not done so? If he cannot, what possible claim does he have to a place at the negotiating table?

It has come to be accepted that the cause of the current crisis in Israel was the visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000. Like many things that come to be accepted about Israel that is wrong. The roots of the present crisis can be found two months earlier at the summit at Camp David. Palestinian spokesmen have said so themselves. Communications Minister Imad Al-Falouji, for example, was reported in the semi-official Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Ayyam on 6 December 2000 to have said that

It added that this was a

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The Camp David summit illustrates in microcosm the story of Israel's relations with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. This was a summit at which hopes were high for real progress. The world called for flexibility on both sides and Israel responded. Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered unprecedented compromises—real sacrifices—to achieve a workable and enduring peace. He offered 94 per cent. of the remaining land of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He offered Arab and Christian east Jerusalem, and he offered an additional parcel of the Negev to make up for the additional 6 per cent. He could not meet every Palestinian demand but he offered genuine concessions. What was the Palestinian response? The proposal was rejected out of hand and then we had the current intifada. That is how we find ourselves now.

Israeli civilians are subjected every day to violence and mayhem. People in Jerusalem, Haifa and every town in Israel are afraid to leave their homes and Israeli leaders and soldiers struggle every day to protect and defend them. An accusation often levelled at Israel is that it is not really interested in peace. It is alleged that it prefers to remain in military conflict rather than negotiate with the Palestinians. This accusation is unjust. After generations of conflict, the people of Israel yearn for peace. Their leaders are willing to achieve it through negotiation, hence the offer made by Mr. Barak.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: No. The change of Government in Israel has not destroyed that willingness at all. Prime Minister Sharon—I am no great defender of him—expressed his readiness to return to the table to make painful concessions for a true peace. He has stated his acceptance of the Mitchell plan. But Israel understands that peace cannot exist in the shadow of terrorism. We should respect its leaders' firm resolve not to negotiate under fire and their determination to take action, which the Palestinian Authority should have taken, to destroy terrorist capability.

In recent days, attention has focused on the Jenin refugee camp. The pictures emerging of the aftermath of the battle are ugly and brutal. But it is easy to overlook the facts: between September 2000 and the beginning of Israel's action there, Jenin was the source of no fewer than 23 terrorist attacks on Israel, including suicide attacks on Afula and Hadera. The Palestinian Authority knew Jenin was a centre of terrorism, but did nothing to prevent the attacks or to apprehend the perpetrators. There were pitched battles in Jenin; 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed, and 23 soldiers were killed in total. We have yet to see what did happen in Jenin, but Israel has been careful to minimise civilian casualties, which is why the mission has taken so long, and why Israeli forces have suffered. The Israelis could have done what we did in Afghanistan: they could have conducted aerial bombing of the area, which would have resulted in far higher casualties overall, but fewer Israeli casualties—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Gibb: It is said that the military action against terrorists will simply encourage more fanatics to join the militant brigades to wage war on Israel; there is some

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truth in that. But those people, like the young woman who blew herself up in Jerusalem on Friday killing six Israelis, cannot supply their own explosives, plan their campaigns, finance their operations or import their own arms. Israel is therefore taking action against the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure—a task that Arafat should have undertaken himself.

Our Prime Minister said last week that the only way to resolve the conflict is not to take sides. With respect to the Prime Minister, who is undoubtedly committed to do everything in his power to help bring about peace in the middle east and whose support for President Bush in the fight against terrorism has been inspiring, he has got it precisely the wrong way round on Israel. First, terrorism has to stop, and we must side with those who oppose terrorism and oppose those who support terror. We must not equate the perpetrators of terrorism with its victims.

Some people say that the situation in Israel can be compared with that in Northern Ireland; the parallel to be drawn is that if only the two sides will negotiate, peace can be achieved. But like the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I believe the lesson is quite different: progress towards peace can be made only when terrorists decide that they will not succeed through violence. President Arafat has done nothing to suggest that he has yet made that decision.

Many people argue that the situation in Israel is not quite as simple as I have described. In some ways that is true; there are many questions, not least about land, that go back many generations and myriad grievances will need to be addressed if a lasting settlement is to be achieved. Those things are a matter for negotiation, to the success of which Israel is committed. One does not have to be a committed Zionist to understand Israel's stance against terrorism; one merely has to favour democracy over terror.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

8.14 pm

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): With the obvious exception of the last contributor, hon. Members have been reluctant to apportion blame for the current conflict. However, it is possible to do so. It is not just Israel and Palestine that are responsible; others should shoulder blame for what is happening in the middle east, including nation states such as our own, other European democracies and the United States of America. They have long remained inactive, allowing Ariel Sharon to take his war to the occupied territories over an extended period.

In his recent statement to the House on the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, developed the message of his address at the George Bush Senior Presidential library in Texas on 7 April and said:

He was, of course, referring to our response to the worsening situation in Iraq. I accept that there are different views about what should or should not be done about that, but most hon. Members believe that the Prime Minister and the President of the United States would have been wiser to call for action against the genocide and bloodletting in Israel and Palestine which, as we know, has led to the deaths of 1,500 Palestinians and more than 400 Israelis. That death toll has risen substantially over the past few days.

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In addition, we have seen on our television screens not just pictures of the refugee camp in Jenin but disturbing reports suggesting that the conflict could extend beyond Israel's borders to other Arab nations. When we see scuffles and military action in and around other Arab states, we must take a step back and see what we can do to try to prevent the crisis from worsening and spreading.

President Bush's "axis of evil" speech was rightly criticised; it was not well received in this country or across western Europe. President Bush did himself and the office of President a great disservice by lumping together countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an evil threat to western democracy. He must have had criteria for judging those countries—a way of determining their ranking in the league table of evil. He would have had to include the following in his list: whether nation states aggressively occupied others' territory; whether they were in breach of United Nations resolutions; whether they were willing to defy international law and opinion; and whether he thought them capable of using military force against a civilian population.

If President Bush used those criteria, he would have to include Israel in his statement about countries that form an axis of evil. Those double standards have led to much unrest and disagreement, both in the United Kingdom and across the world, about what action should be taken in the middle east, not just in Israel and Palestine but in Iraq. Such double-speak has led to people like me arguing that without renewed UN authority, and while the situation in Israel and Palestine remains unresolved, UK military action in Iraq would be at best immoral and at worst illegal.

I said that we should shoulder some of the blame and guilt. There have been many warnings in the House and elsewhere about Ariel Sharon's endgame since he came to office. I tabled an early-day motion on 30 October 2001, which received 102 signatories. Like many other Members who tabled early-day motions on the same subject, I was trying to highlight for the Prime Minister and the Government our concerns about what would happen unless action was taken. My motion welcomed the Prime Minister's statement calling for a viable Palestinian state and asked the Government to hold Ariel Sharon to account. It talked about his incursions and his continued occupation of the west bank and Gaza in defiance of American calls for Israel to withdraw. What hope is there of Israel listening to President Bush now, if way back in October 2001 when the USA and President Bush were calling on him to withdraw from the Palestinian territories, Ariel Sharon took not one jot of notice? The early-day motion warned that unless the peace process is restarted, the Palestinian Authority will be undermined and the region further destabilised.

Since then, the situation has deteriorated. I had the pleasure, and the displeasure, of being in Israel and Palestine at the start of the intifada. I believe that the hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) do the House a disservice when they suggest that Ariel Sharon's walkabout, as it was described at the time—Ariel Sharon's setting foot in the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount—was not the cause of the latest unrest and the intifada.

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As someone who was on the streets of the west bank at the time, I can tell the House that there was only one reason for the unrest. There was only one reason why Palestinian youth took to the streets and started to engage Israeli troops, and the reason was Ariel Sharon's actions that weekend. Let history show that to be the case, and let apologists not suggest that there were other reasons for the start of the intifada at that time.

During my visit to Palestine, I visited villages in the west bank—Batir, Husan and Wadi Fuquin—where I saw some of the forerunners of the present conflict. We were shot at while visiting charity projects for World Vision. Israeli forces entered villages, answered stone-throwing youths with live bullets and dumdum bullets, which are illegal under international law. I then visited Bethlehem and Rachel's tomb and witnessed the shooting of a young man within 20 yards of where I stood. I felt that I as a westerner was clearly picked out and allowed to walk within gun-sight of Israeli defence force soldiers without being shot. They were clearly targeting individuals for assassination and have continued to do so ever since.

I went to Gaza city and visited the Shiffa hospital. I walked around the intensive care ward. It must have been clear to all the consultants and surgeons that none of those occupying the 14 beds would survive their injuries. I spoke to the parents and relatives of those lying there. Anybody who wants to know why there are martyrs and why people become so desperate that they will give up their own lives should speak to the relatives of those who have been butchered and assassinated by Ariel Sharon and the Israeli defence force over many years. One can then start to understand the pain that they feel and why they feel so hopeless that they resort to such terrible acts of terrorism.

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