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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): All of us who have been to Israel and Palestine know the yearning and the need for peace, but many of
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us have been here and heard talk of Quartets, route maps, Annapolis and all these things, and they have not delivered. Can the Minister take the message that once we have a new President of the United States there will need to be more serious commitment by our Government and by other Governments, with the new Government of Israel after the elections, to make sure that there is progress—not just talk of a future that is peaceful but actual pressure so that there can be no option but a peace settlement in the foreseeable future?

Bill Rammell: I share the view that part of the reason we are where we are today is a collective failure on the part of the international community, not just over months, but over years and decades. With a new Government in Israel, with a new President in the United States, and with our commitment as a Government, we have to re-inject urgency into this middle east peace process.

In recent debates in this House, some have suggested that by sanctions or embargoes we could accelerate the process. I do not believe that that is the case. We have made it clear that we agree with the EU presidency that the Israeli action is disproportionate, and we have been clear in our calls for a ceasefire, but there are real issues at stake that need to be tackled. They undermined the ceasefire last year, and they will undermine a future deal if they are not tackled. The answer to this crisis lies in bringing people with us. Sanctions and embargoes on Israel will not make Israeli citizens safer, nor will they re-establish normal life in Gaza. We already have a very vigorous and rigorous arms export regime, and we already speak very frankly to those at the heart of the conflict. The genuine way forward is to work with those committed to peaceful progress towards a two-state solution, and with them immediately to find practical ways to end the violence, stop arms smuggling and open the crossing—and, in the longer term, to work with them to strengthen the political process and create real hope that justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis is possible. That is what is so desperately needed.

2.44 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Anyone who has followed the crisis in Gaza over the past few weeks will have been confronted by a spectacle of horror and of the most appalling human suffering. Even before the outbreak of this war, the people of Gaza had to bear the impact of economic isolation over many months. Food, fuel, clean water and medical supplies were already subject to severe shortages and frequent interruptions. Now those people, including many who want no part in violence, and did not vote for Hamas, are caught in the crossfire and fear for the lives and safety of themselves and their families.

As the Minister said, anyone crossing the border and going to Sderot, where I was some months ago, will experience the anger and terror of Israeli civilians and understand why there is overwhelming pressure on the Israeli Government, from their own citizens, in support of the current military action. Anyone wanting to bring about an immediate end to the fighting must take on board the fact that opinion surveys are showing that more than 90 per cent. of the Israeli public remain in support of the action that their Government are taking.

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Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but although I am normally willing to take many interventions, like the Minister, I shall be parsimonious because to do otherwise would be unfair to other Members who wish to speak.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall be quick. Does he not agree that notwithstanding his comments, the Israeli Government’s response has been totally disproportionate?

Mr. Lidington: The key point to make is that we need an immediate end to both Israeli military action and rocket attacks on Israel. I would make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition condemn the disproportionate use of force, and particularly the targeting of civilians. We regard the attack today on the United Nations headquarters in Gaza as wholly unacceptable, and it is welcome that the Israeli authorities have swiftly recognised the folly of that step. I hope that it will not be long before a ceasefire can be reached.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also condemn Hamas’s disgraceful habit and tactic of planting its rockets in civilian areas, storing them in hospitals and blocks of flats and putting civilians at risk? Secondary and tertiary explosions occur, causing collateral damage.

Mr. Lidington: The actions of Hamas in the current conflict and in the past have demonstrated that it is an organisation that is prepared to use violence in the most ruthless fashion against not only Israelis, whether military or civilian, but the Palestinian people themselves. We have to understand the sort of organisation that it is and the events that took place when it staged its coup d’état in the Gaza strip a couple of years ago.

The trouble is that the longer the violence continues, the greater the anger and the deeper the bitterness on both sides of the conflict and throughout the region. It is in the strategic interests of both Israel and those Palestinians who genuinely want their own sovereign state, rather than to engage in a never-ending campaign of violence, to see the war brought to an end as swiftly as possible. The truth is that more Israelis today are now asking whether the experience of Gaza shows that the very idea of swapping land for peace is fool’s gold, and more Palestinians are questioning whether Israel will ever permit a truly independent Palestinian state to come into existence.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, because at some time in future, there must be a settlement on the west bank, and Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations must be addressed. However, the Israeli evacuation from Gaza and the removal of settlements was followed by Hamas causing or permitting an ever-increasing number of rockets to be fired over a wider and wider area of Israel. That does nothing to advance the cause.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend explains the reason for the genuine resentment and anger—even among Israeli parties and citizens who have been committed to
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a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians for many years—about what happened after the disengagement from Gaza. However, it is essential not only to get a settlement in the west bank, as he said, but to ensure that the Palestinian state includes Gaza.

There will be enormous risks for Israel if the violence persists. The longer the fighting continues, the more Hamas can claim victory simply by surviving. The temptation for Israel to press on until, as some say, Hamas is deposed, carries even greater risk. If Hamas is removed from power, who will govern Gaza in its place? How will that happen? The prospect of Somalia in Gaza is even worse than the position in recent months.

Israel needs to be aware of the risk of violence spreading to her other borders. The position on the Israeli border with Lebanon is already fragile, and there have even been incidents across the Israeli-Jordanian border in the past week. There is also a risk for Israel that continuing violence in Gaza will undermine the entire middle east peace process, on which hopes for Israel’s long-term security must rest.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Would not it have helped if the evacuation of 8,000 settlers from Gaza had not been followed by an increase of 12,000 settlers in the west bank, many of them the same settlers who were moved from Gaza? Is not that the reason for the Palestinians remaining suspicious of the peace process?

Mr. Lidington: I have said in other debates in this place, and I am happy to repeat it, that I believe that the Israeli Government should have made concessions on the illegal settlements much earlier and that their failure to do that, even after the Annapolis conference, is one reason for even the most moderate Palestinian leaders, such as President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, feeling that their position has been undermined. However, instead of arguing about the events of the past and trying to attribute blame, we should argue today for the immediate cessation of violence and then for energetic diplomatic and political activity towards the comprehensive peace that the region needs.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about looking to the future, and we are certainly going through a bleak period of middle east history. However, should not we also try to ensure that the Qassam and Katyusha missiles that are manufactured in Iran and end up in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas are prevented from coming into Gaza and Israel?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. It is not possible to separate the different parts of the middle east dispute from one another. Any permanent settlement to the Israel-Palestine question must somehow involve addressing the role that Iran plays in regional politics.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. Is it not worrying that the possibility that is emerging in Cairo of some serious discussion between Hamas and the other partners has been created by Israeli violent attack, and that that is a mark of the international community’s failure to get Hamas talking, unwelcome and difficult though that process is, until now? It should not be only violence that can achieve that.

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Mr. Lidington: The right hon. Gentleman is right that it should not only be violence that achieves that, but many countries and individual envoys have been able to talk to Hamas in recent years. The essential problem has been the refusal of Hamas to accept those Quartet conditions and to recognise that the way forward is through the renunciation of violence and a wholehearted commitment to achieving Palestinian national aspirations through politics and negotiation, rather than through the bomb and the bullet.

Mrs. Ellman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady must forgive me.

We need an immediate cessation of violence, the implementation of that ceasefire by both sides and immediate access to Gaza to be given to the emergency relief that is now desperately needed. There must follow, as quickly as possible after that cessation of violence, the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, monitoring arrangements to ensure that rocket attacks cannot be resumed and agreement on measures to allow the reopening of border crossings, so that reconstruction work and normal economic life can start to be renewed. That agreement on the crossings will once again have to include measures to stop the use of tunnels to smuggle arms and explosives into Gaza.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: No, I am not going to give way.

The Minister in his comments today and the Foreign Secretary earlier this week talked about the welcome commitment on aid that the Government are giving to the people of Gaza. I would be grateful if the Minister replying to this debate could say something about the Government’s estimate of whether the attack on the UN headquarters today is likely to cause serious disruption to the distribution of essential United Nations aid. I would also be grateful if they can say what help the Government are now providing, either bilaterally or through multilateral institutions, to offer immediate relief to suffering civilians and how far the Government’s plans have now advanced to contribute to the large-scale relief work and longer-term reconstruction work that will be essential if, once a ceasefire is achieved, we can start to recreate anything resembling a normal life and hopes for a better future for the people of the Gaza strip.

But we need not just to provide practical, material relief. The history of Gaza shows us that a truce is inherently unstable. The weaknesses in the old ceasefire arrangements, which collapsed three weeks ago, were analysed well by the International Crisis Group. The ICG pointed out that the ceasefire was unwritten, that it was negotiated via a third party and that the interpretations of its terms, by Hamas on the one hand and Israel on the other, differed substantially. Hamas believed that it had achieved a six-month period providing phased access to and for Gaza, whereas Israel viewed the agreement on a ceasefire as open-ended, with a modulated opening of the crossings, depending on the degree of calm in the south and progress towards the release of Gilad Shalit. The incompatibility of those differing interpretations of a ceasefire agreement that was never written down is an important part of the explanation of why it collapsed when it did.

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It is dangerous to think that if we can get a new ceasefire in place, the international community can then sit back and take its time before making moves to rekindle the broader peace process. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and others have said, what we have seen in recent years and even decades is a failure of political energy and political will by the entire international community.

Efforts to seek a comprehensive peace settlement should be a priority for the new United States Administration and for the European Union. I do not pretend for a moment that that will be an easy and straightforward task. I spent most of last week in Syria and Lebanon, and I saw how the Arab media are using images of death and mutilation in Gaza that are far more vivid than anything published or broadcast here. I got a sense of the rage being felt by Governments and ordinary citizens in those countries, and we have to remember that in virtually every Arab country 60 per cent. of the population is under 30. Moderate Arab leaders are fearful of the impact of Gaza on opinion in their countries, and even states such as Turkey and Malaysia have denounced Israel’s action in the most strident language.

Yet the signs are not altogether those of pessimism. The Syrian leaders to whom I spoke told me that they certainly could not talk to Israel now, but that they would be willing to return to talks about Golan in the future, after a ceasefire in Gaza had been re-established. We all know the political objective: an Israel living safely behind internationally recognised borders and alongside a Palestinian state that is sovereign, and economically and politically viable. That has to be coupled with Israel’s right to live in peace and security, recognised by all of her neighbours. In essence, we need to ally the Oslo-Annapolis process to the regional settlement proposed in the Arab peace initiative, which involves tackling some difficult issues that are worthy of another day’s debate in themselves. The process has to address the issue of Hamas and the rejectionist Palestinians. We have heard frequent statements from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others calling for an end to the state of Israel, saying that there can never be any compromise and using language that, at times, moves from being anti-Israeli to being forthrightly anti-Semitic. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that those organisations enjoy a measure of genuine electoral support in the Palestinian territories. Are those organisations prepared to commit themselves genuinely to a political process whose objective would be a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel?

The role of Iran was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). Iran, with her population, natural resources and the entrepreneurial traditions of her people, could be a key economic and political force for good in the region, but at the moment Iranian policy far too often exercises a malign influence on the search for peace and stability. Iran has got to choose what type of influence she wishes to exert. Does she want a durable peace in the region and the recognition of her role as a significant player in regional affairs, or does she seek the path of confrontation? I have believed for a long time that the policy of seeking to isolate Iran—refusing to engage with her—was a mistake. I welcome the fact that the new US Administration are committed to a policy of engagement, and I hope
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that they will test to the full the readiness of the regime in Iran to work for peace, rather than for instability and confrontation.

To conclude, the interests of the United Kingdom lie not only in a ceasefire, and not only—vital though it is—in bringing an end to the suffering of 1.5 million people, but in an enduring peace that will at last give to all the countries of the middle east the assurance of security and the chance for their people to prosper.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

3.5 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I was brought up as an orthodox Jew and a Zionist. On a shelf in our kitchen, there was a tin box for the Jewish National Fund, into which we put coins to help the pioneers building a Jewish presence in Palestine.

I first went to Israel in 1961 and I have been there since more times than I can count. I had family in Israel and have friends in Israel. One of them fought in the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 and was wounded in two of them. The tie clip that I am wearing is made from a campaign decoration awarded to him, which he presented to me.

I have known most of the Prime Ministers of Israel, starting with the founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Golda Meir was my friend, as was Yigal Allon, Deputy Prime Minister, who, as a general, won the Negev for Israel in the 1948 war of independence.

My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland. Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the holocaust. My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed.

My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli Government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count.

On Sky News a few days ago, the spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians—the total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that

That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose that the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.

The Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asserts that her Government will have no dealings with Hamas, because they are terrorists. Tzipi Livni’s father was Eitan Livni, chief operations officer of the terrorist Irgun Zvai Leumi, who organised the blowing-up of the King David hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 victims were killed, including four Jews.

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