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House of Lords

Friday, 6 February 2009.

10 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Arrangement of Business


10.06 am

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, noble Lords will have noted that there are 34 speakers in today’s debate on Gaza. I should advise the House that, if Back-Bench contributions are kept to eight minutes, we should be able to rise shortly after the target time of 3 pm.


Motion to Take Note

Moved By Lord Malloch-Brown

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, I do not think that there could be a more appropriate topic for today’s debate than the situation in Gaza, and I am grateful to noble Lords for keeping the issue on the table. They will understand as well as I do that, although the fighting has now ceased, it will be a long time before Gaza fully recovers from the conflict.

I cannot emphasise enough the severity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the devastating impact that it has had on innocent civilians. It is clear from pictures beamed around the world that the damage to civilian infrastructure is extensive and the civilian death toll devastating.

The EU clearly outlined, during the General Affairs Council at the beginning of last week, that it will focus its support and assistance on immediate humanitarian relief for the population of Gaza and on the prevention of illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition. The UK fully supports this.

The priority is for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and for reconstruction to begin. Last month, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, John Holmes, was on a five-day mission to review the humanitarian needs. He has established some key priorities on which to focus: the re-establishment of basic services to the population of Gaza, including water, health, food, cash assistance, education and psychosocial support.

A fact-finding team from our consulate-general in Jerusalem visited Gaza earlier this week and had meetings with leading humanitarian agencies, including the Red Cross and the UN. Officials from the Department for International Development are working with implementers on the ground in Gaza to get a clear

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picture of the immediate needs of the population, the challenges going forward and how best the UK can contribute. The Government have contributed nearly £27 million to help to address the urgent humanitarian needs identified.

It is important that a number of countries, including Israel, share the burden of reconstruction in Gaza. We welcome the $1 billion contribution from Saudi Arabia, which was announced during the Arab League summit in January. However, for the effective distribution of humanitarian aid to be effective, two issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency.

First, we, along with several organisations, including UNICEF, remain concerned about the dangers posed by landmines and unexploded ordnances. Two Palestinian children have already fallen victim, having been killed on 20 January by unexploded ordnance in Az Zaitoun in the Gaza Governorate. Therefore, security, including the marking and clearance of UXOs, is essential not just for the safety of Palestinians but also if we are to ensure the efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance to the population.

Secondly, we must ensure that the flow of aid to Gaza is unhindered. Noble Lords will no doubt want to raise the issue of the crossings and the volume of current aid which is or is not getting through, but I can say that international NGO staff are now working in the territory. However, it is evident that the number of trucks allowed into the Gaza strip needs to be increased, including not just those for humanitarian assistance but also those to support the private sector if the economy is to be put back on its feet. There also needs to be an easing in restrictions on the type of items allowed in. Additional crossings must be opened urgently, including Karni and Sufa, and basic construction materials also need to be allowed in to facilitate the repair of public infrastructure and private homes.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860, introduced in Britain’s name on 8 January, put pressure on both Hamas and the Government of Israel to halt all military activity, and we have seen progress in this direction. On 17 January, a ceasefire was implemented unilaterally by Israel, and the next day by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, and that continues to hold. Israeli troops are now deployed along the Gaza strip border. We, along with the international community, welcome the role played by the Egyptian Government in brokering this deal. However, it is imperative that the ceasefire is permanent and robust, and that responsibility falls not just on the Palestinians and Israelis but on the whole international community. There are two main pillars to support the ceasefire: easing the border restrictions, and strong action against the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

The PM met the Israeli Prime Minister in Jerusalem after the ceasefire in Gaza and made clear the need for an ease in border restrictions. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and other EU Foreign Ministers reiterated this message when they met the Israeli Foreign Minister on 21 January. We acknowledge the concerns of the Israeli Government about the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Obviously we want to ensure that we make a practical difference in respect of that smuggling, which is in part a local issue across

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the Egypt-Gaza border, but which is also a wider one given the regional and even global flow of arms that takes place. Those two points must be addressed if the humanitarian situation is to improve. However, as I have said consistently in previous debates, the suffering of the people of Gaza will not be alleviated unless in the long term a political solution is found, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1850 in December.

We must now look beyond the ceasefire and redouble our efforts on the peace process more broadly. There is an unprecedented degree of consensus on the way forward, from the Arab League, the US, the EU and the UN. The Arab peace initiative provides a platform for this. A further essential step will need to be an Arab-led process of Palestinian reconciliation. Again, I congratulate Egypt on its mediation efforts. Israel must also recognise and reward the progress already made in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority.

We meet today at a time when Gaza’s reconstruction and development is the most urgent priority task in front of us. But that is just a first step. Beyond it, the ceasefire, which holds precariously, must be made much more robust and durable, and beyond that still, if we are not to fall back into the cycle of violence and retribution of recent years and even decades, we must once more commit ourselves to the peace process. The early engagement in that regard of the new Administration in Washington is to be welcomed, as is that of the Arab neighbours. I beg to move.

10.14 am

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for his report on the Gaza conflict and his reflections on how anyone can move forward from this problem. Without doubt this is a hideous situation, and must be classed as an appalling tragedy. It may be just one in a long list of Middle East savagery and, despite the blotting out of up to 1,000 or so lives, small in the grim arithmetic of humanitarian calamities, but, none the less, it is particularly vivid and ugly, particularly avoidable, and particularly frustrating.

We reflect once again on how prevention is always better than cure in violent conflict—as Mr. Obama's new foreign policy team, rightly, keeps pointing out. But, of course, this time it was too late. Perhaps the most constructive thing that we can do at this stage, amid all the destruction, bloodshed and suffering, and amidst the still very fragile truce conditions, is to try to draw some lessons once again and hope that they can be applied to prevent yet another grim “next time”. Indeed, the Minister was seeking to do that.

Where might one start? First and most obviously, the international community still has a lot to learn about conflict prevention and the protection of civilians when conflict occurs. Despite the whole UN system—about which the Minister knows more than most of us—despite the many brave UN personnel involved on this occasion, despite the condemnations of the UN Secretary-General, despite the whole machinery of the Geneva conventions, and despite all the brave declarations of human rights, apparently nothing could be done to prevent families being burnt to death,

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industry and agriculture in the Gaza strip being extensively destroyed, infrastructure being deeply damaged and most aspects of normal life being torn apart. Of course the air is thick with accusations. The issue of war crimes is, as the Minister said, being investigated, but it is much too late for the many who are dead. The claim that phosphorous was used, inflicting terrible burns, also has to be investigated.

Secondly, it has to be recognised, and if possible understood, that both sides in this catastrophe were acting in a mood of desperation and fear. Israel could simply no longer tolerate having rockets of increasing range and power rained on civilians indiscriminately day after day after day. This morning there was a report that up to 10,000 rockets have been poured on Israeli towns. That was the Israeli stance and their outlook. For their part, the Hamas rulers of Gaza apparently believe that their only recourse or means of protest at the locking in of 1.5 million people in this tiny area was to keep firing regardless of the riposte it might bring or the way that it put innocent Palestinians right in the firing line, with tragic results, as we have seen.

Thirdly, both parties seemed to lose sight totally—they were not the only ones—of the need for an overarching commitment to a viable and unified Palestinian state. That is the declared objective of statesmen from the Oslo accords onwards, of the quartet and every would-be peacemaker in the region, and yet now it seems further away than ever.

Fourthly, one has to ask not just about the failure of the outside powers—the US and the EU—to prevent the slaughter but the question: where were the key regional actors in the run-up to all this? Surely an obvious lesson for the future is that from now on there must be a very much bigger and more substantial role for nearby countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—mentioned by the Minister—and the Gulf States, in handling the issues, in diplomatic endeavour, and of course in the economic and physical development and the recovery and rebuilding of Gaza. It is interesting to note that Turkey, in particular, has turned into one of Israel's harshest critics, sharing the very widespread judgment that a country that it was always close to, admired and worked with, had on this occasion indulged in a truly ferocious reaction, however sorely tried and provoked it had been.

We now have a string of Arab peace plans for Israel and Palestine, but surely the time for stately conferences and documents is now over, and the time for decisive action on all fronts, diplomatic and directly supportive, has come.

What now is needed? The Minister has given us some of his thoughts; let me try to add to them. First, obviously, we need a ceasefire that holds. The Minister said that it must be robust. It is not robust this morning; this very morning, rockets were being fired into Israel. So that is asking a lot, but it is essential. Secondly, humanitarian assistance must go to Gaza on a massive and continuing scale to meet widespread misery, disease, hunger and water and sanitation problems. Thirdly, there needs to be an early agreement on a monitoring force to ensure that entry points for supplies

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are kept properly open, that tunnels are closed and that continuing rocket-firing is instantly pinpointed and halted.

Fourthly, and most importantly, we need to do everything possible to bolster Palestinian moderates—who are there, such as they are—and to begin to sew together again the Palestinian cause. In my view, that is the heart of the matter. With a united Palestinian cause, the whole process can move forward. If Israel can meet a united and responsible Palestine, with huge international support behind it, including ours, there can be progress with give on both sides and real pressure on Israel to pull back and stop further settlements and settler expansion. We hope that that can be stepped up by Mr Obama and his team among others. With Hamas and al-Fatah in a state of civil war, as now, still killing each other, none of that can be achieved. What are Palestine's real prospects if Hamas still stands between the Palestinians and the viable Palestine state that we all want to work for?

My final conclusion is that although we of course look to the new American Administration to play their part in both safeguarding and, at the same time, firmly restraining Israel, all outside intervention from the Western world will come to nought unless and until all the regional players throw their full and sustained weight behind a settlement, or at least a modus vivendi: an agreement to disagree but to live without constant violence.

We all know the excellent George Mitchell, Mr Obama's new appointee to the region. He will find the scene very different from Northern Ireland, where he did a wonderful job, but that is one formula for how to live while agreeing to disagree on which he may be able to build with the various faction leaders, although he gave a very pessimistic interview this morning about even that.

There are those who go further and say that the days of American, British, French or EU involvement and interest in the Middle East and its whole horror story are just over: we are no longer the major players. It is true that oil, which always used to be the reason cited for Western involvement, is now less significant as the world moves towards a new energy mix, but, in the global order of things, we all have what Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of the new appointees to the Obama team, calls a responsibility to protect. We, the British, can and must make a very significant contribution to restoring stability, basing it on our deep experience of how the Middle East works and sharing that experience with our American friends rather more vigorously and confidently than we have in the recent past. Incidentally, we can also speak to the other new world power centres, such as the rising Asian nations, rather more effectively than the Americans through such networks as the Commonwealth.

The United States now sees itself as part of a team working for peace and different patterns of democracy resting on different cultures—or that is how it needs to see itself, rather than seeking to shape the world according to American values, however worthy those are. The words that Mr Obama used in his inaugural address, “humility and restraint”, are indeed the qualities most required. That is the 21st century pattern: a

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network of mutually respectful nations that replaces the mindset of superpowers, top dogs and power blocs of the 20th century. If we all approach the immediate future in that spirit, there is just a chance that out of the rubble and spilt blood of Gaza some real progress may yet come.

10.25 am

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I was thinking about what I should say today as my wife and I attended the Leeds Holocaust Day last Sunday. It was quite an emotional experience. Young Muslims were talking about going to Auschwitz and thinking about the need to ensure that we all live together in peace in this country. The slogan under which the Leeds Holocaust Day met was, “Stand up to hatred”. That is what I suggest we all have to do. It is easy in the circumstances for people on both sides to be partisan and to give way to anger, to go from anger to hatred and to put all the blame on the other side. We may hear some of that in this debate.

We know, because we have been told, how appalling it has been to live in southern Israel, to have to live underground or inside with the threat of rocket attacks coming day by day. We shall hear that. Some may say that that justified what Israel did in Gaza. We will also no doubt hear from others who will say that the destruction of Gaza, with well over 1,000 people killed and many others wounded, the destruction of the university and schools, the killing of people close to and distantly, and the use of white phosphorus justifies revenge against Israel.

It is our responsibility in this country, as we come to terms with those two contradictory narratives of competitive victimhood, outsiders as we are, to talk to the partisans on both sides, to those to whom we feel emotionally most close to say: “Don’t give way to anger, hatred and revenge”. After all, this washes over into our country. In recent months, there have been some very worrying outbreaks of anti-Semitism, threats of renewed radicalisation in the Muslim community, and I have heard worrying rumours of what some imams are saying in some mosques. That is a threat to us and to the peace of our diverse democracy.

We have also seen some defensive drawing in within our Jewish community, feeling itself, as well as Israel, to be under attack. We need to say to the leaders of both communities in this country that they have to reach out, not draw in. The danger for us and for them is that we continue with the cycle of conflict: more embittered martyrdom on the Muslim side; and more—one has to say it—self-brutalising attitudes to conflict on the Israeli side. If the preservation of Israel can be assured only by massive and disproportionate attacks on its neighbours every few years, it will eventually be impossible to preserve Israel. Israelis cannot guarantee that they will win every time, and the cost of winning to Israeli society and Israel's reputation in the world and in the United States, on which it vitally depends for continuing support, will be too high.

I am very sorry that my noble friend Lady Falkner cannot be here today. Her brother died yesterday, and she had to fly immediately to the United States. We had agreed that I would be critical mainly of Israel

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and that she would be critical of the Muslim world, on which she has much greater expertise. I will now try to be critical of both.

We all feel much anger and sorrow about the immediate crisis, the destruction of Gaza. It is a tactical victory for Israel but, it seems to me, undeniably a strategic disaster. To hear Israelis glorying in how disproportionate their response has been is deeply worrying—there are those who would whisper about possible war crimes. As I listen to this, I recall what was said of Napoleon’s murder of the Duke of Enghien:

“This was worse than a crime, it was a mistake”.

It was a mistake that endangers the future of Israel.

Two weeks ago, some of us had lunch with the deputy leader of Likud, Silvan Shalom. We asked him repeatedly, “What is Israeli’s strategy? Where do you go from here? What do you do after you have destroyed Hamas?” and he kept not answering those questions. As I was finishing reading The Audacity of Hope some days afterwards, I thought that what Barack Obama writes about the United States applies to Israel:

“Without a well-articulated strategy that the ... world understands, America”—

and Israel—

How easy is it to defend Israel? Last week Haaretzpublished a survey of settlement on the West Bank, which stated that 75 per cent of settlements are built illegally on Palestinian-owned land. Yet the Israeli Government demolish Palestinian houses for which there is no permission. Is that acceptable within the best of the Jewish tradition, which many of us cherish so much? There are rumours about troop behaviour towards the Palestinians both in Gaza and on the West Bank, some of which are sadly likely to be true, and very hard evidence of fundamentalist settlers behaving in a totally unacceptable fashion towards their Palestinian neighbours. We have the rise of Netanyahu and Lieberman. It was Netanyahu who made that dreadful Faustian pact with the nastiest version of Christian fundamentalism in the United States in order that they could avoid facing up to the need for withdrawal from what right-wing Israelis call Judea and Samaria and what we like to call the West Bank and Palestine.

Ellen Dahrehdorf, of Independent Jewish Voices, said to me last week that she fears that this conflict is leading to a coarsening of Israeli society and a brutalisation of its younger generation to a point where, she says, some of us will not think that the Israel to which we were committed is any longer our Israel. Any true friend of Israel in Britain now, therefore, has to be a critical friend. It does not help to give in to the demand that we should support the dreadful mistakes that the Israeli army and Government have made, thrashing out in their frustration and confusion.

On the other side, we also have to ask how easy it is to defend Hamas or Hezbollah and the romanticism of violence which they and their supporters proclaim. How easy is it to defend those Arab regimes which put off reform because they find it easy to blame the West for the ills of the Muslim world rather than tackle the

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problems of modernising societies, economies and Islam itself? The Saudi pact with Wahhabism is itself part of the problem.

So what is to be done? Looking at the Anglo-Israel Association’s magazine the other week, I was struck by an excellent article by Amnon Aran, written just before the current conflict, in which he says that the Arab peace initiative,

He said that it is an opportunity that Israel could, and should, seize before the window of opportunity that appeared in the early 1990s closes for good.

We need to widen the framework for resolving this conflict, to get beyond Gaza and beyond Israel and Palestine, and to talk about the Middle East as a whole. We need to talk to Syria and to bring in Hamas—that is not so shocking; Israeli has already been talking, indirectly, to Hamas. That is what happens with the Egyptians acting as mediators in the room. We need to bring in external pressure from all sides, not just from what we conventionally call the international community, by which we mean the West; as far as possible, we must involve Russia and, if we can, India and China. There is a need for tough talking to both sides, particularly Israel, since it has been the occupying power for 40 years and is currently the dominant power, and to move with, we hope, at last a constructive American Administration towards the settlement that we desperately need, which will give us a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel in a more peaceful Middle East.

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