Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 12th January 2009.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 3:31 pm, 12th January 2009

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement? In common with him, we on the Conservative Benches deeply regret the loss of life on both sides in Gaza, in particular among civilian populations. The situation for Gaza's civilians is clearly desperate, particularly for the 3,000 injured, for the families of the 257 children who have lost their lives, to whom the Foreign Secretary referred, and for the many people in Gaza who may not even support Hamas and who simply want to live in peace, but who find that rockets are being launched from inside their neighbourhoods, which are then targeted by Israeli military operations. We therefore concur with the Foreign Secretary's description of the situation for them and with his calls for action.

It is also a fearful time, we must not forget, for many Israeli civilians, who live under the threat of ever-longer-range rocket attacks that are expressly intended to kill them. We as the Opposition support the international community's demands and the Government's demands for a ceasefire on both sides. We welcome the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1860, Britain's sponsorship of that resolution and the $10 million in aid that Britain has promised for Gaza.

The immediate trigger for this crisis, as the Foreign Secretary has described, was the barrage of hundreds of rocket attacks against Israel on the expiry of the ceasefire or truce. Does that not underline the utter tragedy of Gaza in recent years, which has slid further into isolation and poverty, just when the first steps towards greater stability and economic activity are being witnessed on the west bank? I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree that whenever we discuss Hamas we should remind ourselves that it has made no progress towards the Quartet principles of recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous peace agreements, and that it must do so before it can be accepted as a negotiating partner.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is nevertheless not in Israel's interests that this conflict should continue for a long time, because it risks escalating the situation on other borders, such as that with Lebanon, because it may allow Hamas to declare victory simply by surviving the onslaught, and because it risks damaging the whole middle east peace process? Bringing the conflict to an end clearly requires a ceasefire on both sides. It is surely right that Egypt is looking in its mediation for a ceasefire that involves not only an end to military operations, but the effective prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza, in particular if the crossings are to be reopened.

Given that the Security Council resolution has failed to bring a stop to the violence, despite all the international efforts, and that the Foreign Secretary rightly urged that talks between Egypt and Israel come to a conclusion as soon as possible, does he have any indication that that might happen in the coming hours or days? Will he say a little more about the initiatives taken by Turkey and whether he expects those to bear fruit in the coming days?

The Foreign Secretary spoke of acute shortages of medicine. Can he tell us whether any international aid is getting into Gaza's hospitals at all? Can he also say what assessment has been made by the UN of the damage in Gaza and of the steps needed to restore its electricity and water supply, and supply shelter for those whose homes have been destroyed? Can he say more about the potential for a mechanism to prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza? What exactly might that involve, and what role could be envisaged for Britain in that mechanism?

Does the Foreign Secretary expect any ceasefire agreement to provide for the opening of Gaza's borders? This is a question not simply of aid but of trade and of the movement of people, so that the people of Gaza can hope for a better life. Can he say whether steps are being considered to resume the EU's border monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing into Gaza, and under what conditions that might happen?

The immediate priority must be to achieve a ceasefire and to address the humanitarian crisis, but we must not lose sight of the need to push the middle east peace process forward urgently when those things are in place, in order to break the vicious cycle of ceasefires and violence, and to achieve a peace settlement that will deliver a Palestinian state. We all look to a new US Administration to provide the sustained leadership and impetus needed if all sides are to make the necessary compromises, including on the part of Israel with regard to settlements on the west bank.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the long-term security of Israel will depend on its readiness to be as bold in seeking peace as it has been in using military force? We hope that the Government will take every opportunity to urge the new US Administration, supported by their allies, to place the middle east peace process among their top foreign policy priorities, so that, out of the terrible bloodshed of the past two and a half weeks, some hope for the future might at last emerge.

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