The Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:10 pm on 16th April 2002.

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Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan 9:10 pm, 16th April 2002

I am grateful to the House for the chance to contribute to this very timely debate. This is a grave period for people in the middle east. Colin Powell's intervention is welcome, but he has much to do before he is seen as even-handed. Ariel Sharon suggested an international peace conference, excluding Yasser Arafat, when he met Powell on Sunday. The US Secretary of State now states that Yasser Arafat would not need to attend such an event, which serves only to undermine his leadership among the Palestinians.

According to a statement by the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, Palestinians now identify more strongly than ever with President Arafat. Mr. Powell told reporters that President Arafat

"has the ability to empower people in the Palestinian movement who represent him."

He added:

"The conference does not necessarily require his personal presence to get started."

It is difficult to imagine a key leader being excluded from genuine peace talks anywhere else in the world. It is even more difficult to picture the fair-minded Secretary Powell agreeing with such an unreasonable demand.

New Israeli calls for peace talks will be empty rhetoric if President Arafat cannot leave his front door in Ramallah. Prime Minister Sharon has also omitted the European Union from prospective delegations to such a conference. Discussions will be extremely short if the Israeli leader wishes to talk only with those who agree with him.

I welcome Mr. Powell's recent engagement with other Arab leaders to avert the conflict widening throughout the middle east. The Lebanese Government have said that they will attempt to restrict attacks to the disputed Shebaa farms. President Lahoud also called on Mr. Powell to view the middle east situation with "objectivity and realism" and not to be influenced by Israel's presentation of events. We must all heed that warning.

In particular, we must exercise extreme caution over yesterday's arrest of Marwan Barghouti, the west bank Fatah leader, a view I share with my hon. Friend Mr. Galloway. Mr. Barghouti denies charges of stoking violence and encouraging the suicide bombers. He must not simply be a scapegoat for Israeli retribution against acts of terrorism. The evidence must be openly presented against him. In the same way, the evidence of the horrendous conditions in Jenin must be presented to the world.

According to The Independent today, a monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed in Jenin refugee camp. The International Committee of the Red Cross has finally been allowed into the west bank refugee camp after the Israeli onslaught. The ICRC has found destruction and a terrible smell in the camp. Israeli tanks and bulldozers have reduced much of it to dust. Workers from the Red Crescent and the Red Cross have begun to treat the injured before bringing out the remaining dead. Their task is enormous. The Palestinians say that hundreds died in Jenin, but Israel denies that. Our Government must join with others to uncover the truth.

The indiscriminate force currently being used by the Israeli army in the west bank against a civilian population is a form of collective punishment. According to Oxfam, there has been systematic targeting of medical personnel, denial of medical care to the injured, and threatened violence against clearly identified ICRC staff, Palestine Red Crescent Society staff and UN staff. Damage to water lines and pumps has left approximately 400,000 people in Ramallah, Nablus, Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Tulkarm without access to running water. Almost all hospitals in the west bank are now surrounded by Israeli tanks, which compromise the free and safe movement of staff, patients and emergency vehicles. Hospital generators, electricity and telephone lines and water supplies have been deliberately damaged by Israeli soldiers. United Nations organisations including the UN Development Programme, the UN Fund for Population Activities, the World Health Organisation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Relief and Works Agency issued the following joint statement on 10 April:

"This is a humanitarian crisis without precedent in its destructive impact on the Palestinian people and its institutions".

The UN resolution accusing Israel of "gross violations" of international law must be acted on. Our partners in the European Union have a pivotal role. I am disappointed, however, that European Foreign Ministers have rejected calls for trade sanctions against Israel. However, I understand the reluctance to act while Colin Powell is in the middle east pushing for peace, for fear of undermining him.

I welcome Germany's decision to suspend its supply of military equipment to Israel and urge our Government to consider a similar gesture. The EU, not America, is Israel's largest trading partner. Under a special agreement between the EU and Israel, the latter enjoys preferential trading under an association treaty. The European Parliament has already voted to suspend this agreement. If there is no sign of real progress following Mr. Powell's intervention, will the Minister assure me that the British Government will consider again the issue of trade with Israel?

Ariel Sharon must recognise that there has to be a political solution, which cannot be imposed by force or by killing innocent men, women and children. Israel has been ignoring or breaking UN resolutions for the last five decades, and still enjoys blind support from the United States of America. The USA must adopt an even-handed approach to deal with the UN resolutions if President Bush wants to bring peace and stability to the region.