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13 July 2009 : Column 133

Mr. Lewis: I will go on to deal with the specific issues to do with the "Spirit of Humanity" in a moment, but the Government have made it very clear that we believe that the cessation of illegal settlements is an absolutely crucial starting point for the peace process. We welcome the recent speech by the President of the United States in Cairo, in which he made that point. Progress on settlements is fundamental to any progress with regard to the peace process, but I want to return to the "Spirit of Humanity". I also want to make the point that those who want to go to Gaza should co-ordinate their entry and exit with major international organisations and should not attempt to enter Gaza without approval from the Israeli or Egyptian authorities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury has said, the Israeli navy took control of the "Spirit of Humanity" on 30 June and diverted it to Ashdod port in Israel. The Israeli navy handed all those on board, including the six British nationals, to Israeli immigration officials, who then placed them in detention.

Jeremy Corbyn: Surely the Minister has skipped over something. There is an issue about the legality of the Israeli navy's action in apprehending a civilian vessel in international waters. If he is accepting Israel's control of the waters off Gaza, that is surely accepting the occupation.

Mr. Lewis: I will come to my hon. Friend's point in a moment.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The constituent of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was educated in my constituency and her parents live in Croydon. They expressed concern to me that Alex Harrison was detained for 23 hours without food and water by the Israeli authorities, and I wonder whether the Minister has any information on that. Her parents also expressed concern that the FCO, although admittedly contacted late at night, was fairly unhelpful for quite a long time in terms of responding to them about her treatment and, indeed, in its attitude to the incident in question.

Mr. Lewis: I can deal with that point directly. Officials at the British embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed that they were given good access to the British nationals and that all the British nationals with whom they had contact confirmed that they were treated well during their detention. So that seems to be at odds with the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the incident directly with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on 1 July. The Israeli authorities then deported the British nationals on 6 July, and as hon. Members are aware, they are now back in the United Kingdom.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Minister wrote to me last week about the issue. When the Foreign Secretary met the Israeli Foreign Minister, did he protest at the interception of a civilian vessel in international waters?

Mr. Lewis: My right hon. Friend sought clarification of the series of events that took place, and I shall go on to talk about where the vessel was intercepted. My right hon. Friend raised that issue directly with the Israeli Foreign Minister. We have raised that issue directly with the Israeli Government. At this stage in terms of reporting
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back to the House, we are unable to confirm whether the vessel was intercepted in international waters or in Gazan waters. Whatever the situation, it is clear that all states must respect international law, including the law of the sea.

Lynne Jones: The Israelis' view is that they were enforcing international agreements, which means that they have responsibility for what they do in response to external threats, and the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement on the west bank and Gaza strip means that foreign vessels may not approach closer than 12 nautical miles from the coast. Is that the Foreign Office's view of the situation?

Mr. Lewis: As I have tried to say to hon. Members, we have sought clarification from the Israeli Government about where the ship was and what, in international law, was the appropriate course of action. We still seek that clarification, but it is absolutely clear from the point of view of the UK Government that the Israeli Government must act consistently with international law, and that must apply in terms of the laws of the sea. We have raised this matter with the Israeli Foreign Minister; we have sought clarification and we await further information. I am not able to give the House any further information on that particular incident this evening.

Lynne Jones: The information that the Israeli Government have given to me is that they intercepted the "Spirit of Humanity" in Gazan waters, not in international waters, so does Israel have the right to intercept vessels in that location?

Mr. Lewis: As far as I am aware, although there may be a debate about whether that is appropriate, it is not in itself a breach of international law. The accusation that is being made about this intervention is that it in some way contravened international law. If the vessel was in Gazan waters, people may have a political debate about whether that action was appropriate, but it would not have breached international law.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: There is an argument about whether the vessel was in international waters, and certainly my constituent has made it clear that, from his point of view, it was. Setting that aside, is it not bizarre as well as obnoxious that the Israelis should abduct all those on that ship into a country that they had no intention of visiting and then deport them from it?

Mr. Lewis: I hear my right hon. Friend's view of the situation. We have sought to clarify with the Israeli Government why they felt the need to take this action and whether it was consistent with international law, taking account of not only their security concerns but the desire of people to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza. That is the position of the UK Government. My right hon. Friend is entitled to his opinion, but the information that we have at our disposal means that, at this stage, we do not share it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend been convinced by Israel's explanations?

Mr. Lewis: We have sought clarification about what took place, where it took place and what conditions prevailed at the time. We will continue to seek that clarification. We have made it clear to the Israeli Government that, as ever, we expect them to behave in a
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way that is consistent with international law. We also respect the fact that the Israelis have a right to take reasonable measures to protect the security of their citizens and their border.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Minister is giving the impression that Israel can act with impunity and that we are relying on Israel itself to give us the information on which we can make a judgment. I suggest that we need an independent investigation into this matter. British citizens were detained and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, they were taken to a country that they did not wish to visit and then deported from it. In any other circumstances and with any other country we would be taking diplomatic action.

Mr. Lewis: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. He claims that I have suggested from the Dispatch Box that Israel should be able to act with impunity when I have said throughout my contribution that Israel has a responsibility to act consistently with international law. We have sought clarification from the Israeli Government as to whether, on this occasion, they acted consistently with international law in where they intercepted the vessel. We shall continue to seek further information. How that implies impunity, I am not sure.

Paul Rowen: Whatever might be said about Israel's security arrangements-they are a matter for Israel-and given that the ship was unarmed, when the Minister gets a statement from the Israeli Government, what action will he propose that the British Government should take to ensure that, in future, unarmed vessels trying to deliver aid to Gaza are not impounded in such a way?

Mr. Lewis: I have made it clear that we expect individuals and organisations who seek to get aid to Gaza to do so in consultation with the appropriate authorities. We advise that that is the best way to proceed if organisations and individuals genuinely want to get humanitarian aid through to the people of Gaza. I will not give a running commentary on what the United Kingdom may do in circumstances that may prevail at some stage in future; that would not be appropriate in this debate. I shall make some progress now.

We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We know that the conflict earlier this year intensified an already difficult situation. It is true that the pace of deterioration has slowed since the ceasefire in January, but it is evident that the humanitarian situation remains extremely serious. The strict border restrictions, including on legitimate aid, reconstruction materials, trade goods and the movement of people, are having a major impact on the lives of ordinary Gazans, who suffer serious hardship. Approximately 90 per cent. of Gazans depend partly on food aid. During May, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of truckloads of goods allowed entry into Gaza was approximately 2,960.
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However, that is not enough; it represents less than a quarter of the monthly average of truckloads that entered Gaza in the first five months of 2007, before the tightening of the border restrictions in June of that year. We are concerned that those restrictions, and Hamas's control of the economy and the smuggling tunnels, mean that the people of Gaza are being denied hope, access to the means to rebuild their lives, and the chance of economic growth and education.

Although there is no permanent, physical Israeli presence in Gaza, Israel retains significant control over Gaza's borders, airspace, and territorial waters. It therefore retains obligations under the fourth Geneva convention. The convention is clear that an occupying power must co-operate in allowing the passage and distribution of relief consignments. It is therefore essential that the Government of Israel ease the restrictions on the Gaza border and allow an immediate increase in the flow of essential aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, as well as the legitimate flow of trade, goods and people. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the United Kingdom's concerns on that general issue in his meeting with the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, on 6 July, and in his conversations with the Israeli Foreign Minister-I referred to one of those conversations-which took place on 13 May and 1 July.

Together with the European Union, the United States, and the wider international community, we will continue to press the Israeli Government at the highest levels to reduce the restrictions, but Israel is not the only party that should move. Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel, accept previous agreements, and work with the Palestinian Authority towards a positive outcome in the current national dialogue negotiations presided over by Egypt. Hamas must also release Gilad Shalit, whom it kidnapped and has held illegally for more than three years without contact with his family, or access for the Red Cross. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated on the third anniversary of Gilad Shalit's abduction on 25 June, we call on Hamas for his immediate, unconditional and safe release. We share the Shalit family's dismay at Hamas's refusal to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Gilad.

In conclusion, I plan to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in the summer. I intend to develop my first-hand experience, as a Minister who is new in this role, of the challenges faced by both Israelis and Palestinians. I shall take the strong message that the United Kingdom intends to pursue a leadership role in securing a two-state solution in the middle east. The recent speech by President Obama in Cairo gives us a new sense of hope and a way forward. We welcome the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has for the first time acknowledged that the two-state solution was the objective. However, there is a long way to go, in terms of the Israelis' willingness to move on settlements. We also believe that the Arab peace initiative offers a promising basis for future negotiations.

Question put and agreed to.

10.39 pm

House adjourned.

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