Gaza

Olympics – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 19th January 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary 4:32 pm, 19th January 2009

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a further statement to the House on Gaza.

From the outset of the conflict, the UK has called and worked for an immediate ceasefire. I know from questions on my statement last week that the whole House will have felt enormous relief on Saturday night when Israel halted its military operations in Gaza, and on Sunday when Hamas stopped its rocket fire. Our relief at the ceasefire is matched by our distress that it has taken so long to be achieved. The respite has come too late for too many.

A ceasefire, as Security Council resolution 1860 made clear, was always going to be the essential first step. We urge Israel to complete the withdrawal of its troops from Gaza with all due speed. Hamas must put a definitive end to rocket fire at Israel. That is why the Prime Minister travelled to Sharm-el-Sheikh and Israel yesterday to join other world leaders in starting to embed that ceasefire and ensure it becomes the durable and fully respected ceasefire that we and the Security Council have called for.

In the last 22 days of the Israeli offensive, more than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed, many more injured, countless thousands displaced and critical infrastructure destroyed. We are yet to know the full extent of the destruction, but horrific accounts and images already fill our news bulletins and we can be sure that life for Gazans, which was already grim, has become desperate. Systems for power, sewage and food distribution are broken or under strain. Meanwhile rockets have reached further than ever from Gaza into Israel. Israel has lost nine soldiers and four civilians.

The Gaza crisis has reverberated around the world. There have been large demonstrations in the middle east, but also in the west. The conflict has also been used to whip up hatred, including in this country, and I am sure the whole House will want to send a very clear and cross-party message that we all denounce the anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place and vow to work for their elimination.

We are faced with two immediate challenges: stopping the flow of arms and starting the flow of aid into Gaza. In respect of trafficking in arms, as the Prime Minister announced yesterday, we are ready to play our part. The immediate security responsibility lies with Egypt, but the origin of these arms stretches way beyond the Egypt-Gaza border. This is where international help, aimed at interdiction, using intelligence and a range of military assets, is important.

It is not just arms that are smuggled, however. The closure of the crossings has also created a thriving illegal trade in necessities, which has filled Hamas's coffers without providing Gazans the basics that they require. Hand in hand with closing illegal traffic must go a vast increase in legal traffic. The immediate priority is to meet the desperate humanitarian needs. That means not simply food and medicine but, for example, sanitation equipment. Then there are all the supplies that are required to repair Gaza's ruined infrastructure and to return power and water. The Government have pledged a further £20 million, on top of the £6.8 million that we pledged earlier in the conflict. British charities have raised millions more.

The Prime Minister made it clear in Egypt and in Israel that reopening the crossings would be vital. The 2005 movement and access agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should provide the framework. We are ready to help, including by reinstating and, if necessary, extending the EU border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing.

Smuggling and the crossings will be at the heart of the discussions this Wednesday evening, when all 27 EU Foreign Ministers meet Foreign Minister Livni, and on Sunday evening, when we meet our Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish counterparts. However, the critical actors alongside Israel in securing progress, never mind peace, are the Palestinians themselves. Full humanitarian reconstruction will be impossible unless accompanied by political reconstruction. Unity in Palestinian politics is vital to so many things—to rebuilding Gaza, to holding elections, to delivering peace. It is for President Abbas to lead that process. The Arab League and Egyptian commitments of last November point the way forward.

At a time of enormous loss for Palestinians, one thing should not be forgotten. Palestinians on the west bank did not respond to Hamas's calls for a third intifada. In fact, the Government of Prime Minister Fayyad on the west bank showed clearly in their management—political, economic and security management—that given half a chance, Palestinian government can be hugely effective and provide a real partner for peace.

At the UN and in the House last week, I said that the Gaza crisis was a symptom of political failure. To avoid its repetition we need a political process—a strong one. The Arab League showed in its letter to President-elect Obama in December that it was serious about its ground-breaking offer of peace embodied in the Arab peace initiative: the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Arab normalisation of relations with Israel, a genuine 23-state solution.

The challenge is to ensure that this Gaza crisis does not simply provide another grim milestone in an endless conflict. As we help Gazans to rebuild their lives, we must find a way to ensure that this is the last time they will have to do so. That means showing serious progress towards a Palestinian state alongside improved Israeli security. It means a peace process in which closed-door negotiations are buttressed by Israel and the Arab world taking steps to support rather than undermine the peace process.

However, anyone who doubts that peace in the middle east requires the full, intense engagement of the international community needs only to look at the streets of Gaza today. International engagement that is full and intense includes the immediate engagement of the new American President and Administration. President-elect Obama and his Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton have made it clear that they understand the urgency and are committed to acting. This will certainly be the first topic raised when I speak to the new Secretary of State this week.

Palestinians and Israelis will be asking themselves today whether they are fated to permanent conflict. I know that I will have the support of the whole House in doing everything possible to avert that future.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Of course, in common with him, we welcome the ceasefire that took effect at the weekend and the withdrawal of Israeli defence forces from Gaza. I join him immediately in sending the united message from the House to which he referred: whatever the very strong debates about this conflict, they must never be the excuse for anti-Semitism or any other kind of hatred. I also join him immediately in the tribute that he paid to the Administration of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on the west bank, whose conduct is in such stark contrast to that of the Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Although there is no doubt that the immediate trigger for this crisis was the barrage of rocket attacks against Israel from Hamas, I know that the Foreign Secretary will agree with us that it was very much in Israel's own interests to bring the conflict to an end. While it is alleged that Hamas may often have used civilians as human shields and fired rockets from civilian areas, it is also clear that the civilian toll in Gaza and the number of attacks on United Nations-run schools and compounds, which have yet to be explained, have caused damage to the reputation of Israel in the wider world. The Foreign Secretary did not tell us in his statement—I hope he will do so now—whether the Government believe that these incidents should be investigated, by whom they think they should be investigated, and whether the issue was discussed at the summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh at the weekend.

There are three issues on which I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a few quick questions: how we can bolster what is currently a fragile ceasefire, how to ensure a quick and effective aid supply to the people of Gaza, and how to ensure an early return to the middle east peace process. On the bolstering of the ceasefire, can the Foreign Secretary be a little more specific? There is the Israel-US agreement on preventing arms smuggling, and it is reported that under that agreement the United States will act to block the transfer of rockets from Iran to Sinai and the Gaza strip via the sea and through east Africa. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm reports that Israel has approached European states, including Britain, to reach similar agreements? As part of the ceasefire agreement, the Prime Minister has offered Royal Navy support. Can the Foreign Secretary say what form that will take, and what impact it will have on the many competing priorities of the Royal Navy at a time of serious overstretch? Can he also say who will lead this mission? Will it be NATO, the EU or a coalition of the willing, and what will be the legal mandate for the mission?

My second few questions for the Foreign Secretary are about the imperative of getting aid to the people of Gaza. We welcome the announcement of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development that Britain will be making available an additional £20 million in humanitarian aid. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the scale of the relief effort overall is likely to be sufficient, and will sufficient technical assistance be available quickly in Gaza to restore the basic infrastructure and prevent the spread of disease, which is always a great worry in these situations? Given the obvious need to open the crossings if aid and assistance is to enter Gaza on the scale needed, can he confirm that the Israeli Government have indicated that the crossings are starting to open from today? What role will be played by the Palestinian Authority at those crossings, and what will happen to the Hamas representatives who are on the ground there? Are there any plans for a broader international monitoring mission to be put in place? Can the Foreign Secretary therefore say precisely what role the EU proposes to assume on Gaza's crossings, and how close we are to an agreement on how this will operate?

Thirdly and finally, the House is obviously united in agreeing that an early return to the middle east peace process is vital. We all want to see this as a top priority for the incoming US Administration right from tomorrow. When the Foreign Secretary speaks, as he said he would do this week, to the incoming Secretary of State, will he make the point that it is vital in that process that the following three things now happen: international pressure and attention to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary to achieve long-term peace, including over settlements on the west bank; continuous, albeit cautious, dialogue with Syria; and, on Iran, the stepping up of European pressure against her nuclear programme to buttress any new approaches on this issue by the United States? Is it not the case that we need all those three things to happen together in order to set the region on a path to long-term peace and stability—a vital objective for this Government, and so many other Governments, in the months ahead?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I will go through the three sets of specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Before raising them, however, he referred to the investigation of serious allegations of war crimes and other misdemeanours, and he will know that I said very clearly in my statement last week that those allegations must be closely and speedily investigated. Obviously, the three key parties to that investigation are the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Government of Israel, and we are in touch with all of them. I should also point out that however heinous is the crime of using people as "human shields"—a terrible phrase—that does not change the responsibilities of parties to the conflict to spare the lives of civilians; it is important not to forget that.

In respect of the ceasefire, we will hear more from the Israeli Foreign Minister on Wednesday. I spoke to her on Friday, and we will have to wait and see where the Israelis' thinking has got to on the smuggling issue and the suggestion of further memorandums of understanding. Obviously, we want to make sure that we make a practical difference in respect of the smuggling, which is in part a local issue across the Egypt-Gaza border, but which is also a wider one given the regional and even global flows of arms that take place.

There are three limits on how much detail I can provide. First, by definition, since the people trying to do the smuggling are acting illicitly, there are natural limits on how much we will ever be able to reveal. Secondly, discussions are under way about the precise combination of different countries and different assets that will be deployed. Thirdly, the legal mandate also needs to be worked through. What was significant about the meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh yesterday, and the one in Israel, was the commitment of the international community to making a difference on that issue. That is definitely a step change.

On the humanitarian situation, it is very important to distinguish between immediate relief—the matter of life and death, in some cases, in respect of medical supplies now—and the reconstruction that will have to take place in due course. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I was confident that there was enough; one can never be confident that there is enough, not least in circumstances such as these. Although I understand that the number of lorries going through the crossings has increased over the past day or two—I hoped to have the exact figure when I came to the House, but it had not arrived by the time I left for here—it would be foolish to say that I was confident that the organisation and the amount will meet the need. That is because the need is huge and, as was pointed out last week, given that journalists have not been to the area, the extent of the need is only now being sketched out. A joint EU-UN mission—a so-called "needs assessment mission"—will go in precisely to get to the bottom of the extent of the need. I think that to pronounce confidence now would be complacent.

On the role of the European border assistance mission, the 2005 agreement provides the basis for it and the personnel are in place and waiting, but, of course, very difficult political issues are associated with it. It was an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, and both insist that they should be the partners of the EU force at any crossings. There are seven crossings in total—one of them into Egypt—and we need to ensure that the management arrangements are appropriate for all of them.

Finally, on the wider comprehensive peace that is sought, one of the casualties of this crisis has, of course, been the Israel-Syria talks, which were broken off at its beginning. The comprehensive peace to which we are committed, as I believe are the right hon. Gentleman and his party, does indeed require compromises, but it also requires a process. That process will have to be akin more to the Madrid process of the early 1990s than to the Annapolis process of the past year—the key difference being the breadth of the Madrid process compared with the relatively narrow focus of the Annapolis process, however worthy and important it has been.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Many hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. May I ask that single questions be put as briefly as possible, so that more hon. Members may be able to contribute to the debate on this important statement?

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Unilateralism is not enough. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that however welcome these temporary ceasefires, they do not necessarily mean that there will be a long-term solution? Will he urgently discuss with his colleagues in the Security Council the implications of the rejection of its resolution 1860 by both Israel and Hamas 10 days ago? Will he try to ensure that if we do get a longer-term ceasefire, it is on a permanent basis? Does he not think that it is necessary to engage with Hamas to secure that?

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have made a request for short questions to the Foreign Secretary.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I admire my hon. Friend's ingenuity in asking those questions. Of course, he is right to say that the focus must be on making a permanent peace. That is certainly what we are focused on, in terms of not only the immediate issues relating to what remains a dangerously fragile ceasefire, but the longer-term issues. We are, of course, in touch with all our Security Council counterparts; a discussion took place last week and there will doubtless be further discussions in future. We will have to think through precisely the sort of discussion that he describes, given that our immediate focus is on the situation on the ground, but I hear what he has had to say.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that Hamas, unlike the Israelis, has committed itself only to a six-day ceasefire and has refused to contemplate a permanent ceasefire? Does he agree that if the Hamas group resumes hostilities unilaterally, it will not only show its indifference to the welfare of the Palestinians, but bear the prime responsibility for any further hostilities that follow such an action?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

As I said in my statement, we want Hamas to put a definitive end to its rocket attacks, and a six-day ceasefire does not constitute the definitive end that we seek. It is vital that over the next few days those with influence on Hamas should explain the gravity of the situation facing the Palestinian people and put humanitarian need before internal political divisions. In that context, I spoke to the Syrian Foreign Minister yesterday and expressed the very strong view that I hoped that he would use his influence to ensure that Hamas understood its responsibilities.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and totally agree with him that the two key priorities for the next few days must be consolidating the ceasefire and ensuring that the urgent humanitarian aid gets through to all those who need it. May I also immediately agree with him and the Conservative spokesman that we must all fight anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head?

On the ceasefire, will the Foreign Secretary answer in more detail the questions put to him by Mr. Hague about the Prime Minister's proposals for a Royal Navy deployment to help to stop some of the smuggling? What would be the exact terms of such a British naval deployment, not least any terms of engagement? Will he confirm whether he and his fellow Foreign Ministers made it clear to both sides that they would both be expected to implement rapidly the well-known conditions needed for a sustainable ceasefire, whether those conditions were the end of rocket attacks or the opening of the crossings into Gaza?

On humanitarian assistance, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that there is no prohibition on the UN or non-governmental organisations distributing British-funded aid via the Hamas authorities when that is simply the most effective and quickest way of getting aid to stricken people?

On the question of longer-term support for reconstruction, will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the EU and the British Government remain pragmatic and flexible in how we get the best value for money and the quickest results for Gazans? Will he accept that whether we like it or not, urgent reconstruction will require a level of engagement with Hamas that the international community has not previously managed? There is talk of a $2 billion Arab programme for reconstruction in Gaza, but will he ensure that the EU formally requests the Israeli Government to make significant contributions, too?

As the world reflects on the past few weeks, will the Foreign Secretary give more details on the timing of the investigations into any breaches of international law by either side that the UN or others might want to pursue? May I also return to the reassurances that he gave me last Monday, when he said that no British-made weapons or weapons components were used by the Israeli defence forces in their operations against Gaza? In general, will he commit to provide to the House as soon as possible a full report of the evidence used by the Government to monitor compliance with the Government's policies in relation to arms export licences granted for arms sales to Israel? In particular, will he confirm for the record that the Israeli-owned British company UAV Engines did not supply any parts for any of the Israeli drones used?

Perhaps the most ominous words today come from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who said that the Arab peace initiative will not be on the table for ever. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that is the clearest diplomatic signal yet of the grave damage that the conflict has brought on Israel's own long-term interests for peace? Does he agree that such views mean that everyone must now redouble their efforts for a lasting peace in the middle east?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that both the crossings and the rocket attacks need to be addressed. That was certainly at the heart of my statement, and it is at the heart of the work the Prime Minister and I are doing. The hon. Gentleman will know that the redistribution of aid is done through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has a record of putting the needs of the people whom it serves first. We support wholly the way in which it has gone about its work.

The hon. Gentleman talked about engagement with Hamas and it is important to repeat what I said last Monday: the Arab League has nominated Egypt as the interlocutor for the Arab League and has requested that it be the interlocutor for the world community in engaging with Hamas. At the moment, that engagement is about the ceasefire—and rightly so, because the ceasefire must be kept in place. That is the right way forward. Others are talking to Hamas, but in this case it is right that we should follow the lead of the Arab League.

In respect of the timing of the investigations, they must take place as soon as possible. People are finally able to get back into Gaza and it is evident that there needs to be a proper investigation. Delay in such matters has obvious dangers.

In respect of arms, the hon. Gentleman did not quote accurately what I said last week, but I am happy to repeat that it is not yet completely clear what equipment has been used. However, as with all conflicts, we will take into account the recent conflict and the conduct and methods of the Israeli defence force in that conflict in the assessment of future export licences. To put it on record again, as I did last week, the policy is absolutely clear: where there is a clear risk of shipments of exports being used either for internal repression or for external aggression the export licence is not granted. That remains exactly the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a report on whether the so-called consolidated criteria on arms exports—the EU and national criteria that have been brought in over the last 10 years—are being adhered to. I can offer him not just a Government report; in a recent case the High Court ruled that the Government were implementing the consolidated criteria in full and without any of the dangers or breaches that had been alleged. It found our application of the consolidated criteria correct in all particulars.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that investigations take place immediately into the use of illegal weapons by Israel, with reports of re-bombing of places that it has already bombed with white phosphorus to try to destroy the evidence, and that all evidence will be collected, collated and put before the International Criminal Court so that these war crimes can be properly investigated and the perpetrators, be they Ministers or not, brought to justice?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that there are detailed applications of the law on conventional weapons in respect of white phosphorus and it is important that they are followed absolutely and clearly. Certainly, the practice in respect of avoiding its use on populations is very clear and needs to be followed.

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Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Conservative, Devizes

Who does the Foreign Secretary expect to pay for the reconstruction of the non-military targets that were either destroyed or severely damaged in the recent bombardment, and does he expect the Government of Israel to make a contribution towards those costs?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

In a way, it is good that the financing arrangements have not been the centrepiece of the focus of commitments on reconstruction and that what have been absolutely clear are the commitments to reconstruction themselves. I hope that the whole international community will make a contribution.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

In welcoming the increased aid from the UK to Gaza, may I ask my right hon. Friend to clarify the logic whereby we can send the Royal Navy to enforce an arms ban on Hamas while continuing to sell arms to Israel, after a conflict in which 1,200 Palestinians were slaughtered and four Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets? That is an exchange rate of one Israeli life for 300 Palestinian lives.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

It is not least because of those statistics that we have said from the beginning that the response was disproportionate, but that is no comfort to the people at the receiving end. In respect of the logic for which my right hon. Friend asked, the best thing is to repeat that our arms exports criteria remain some of the toughest in the world. They are explicit in saying that where there is a clear risk—not a certainty but a clear risk—that any components would be used for internal repression or external aggression the export does not take place. Given my right hon. Friend's record in tackling the illicit flow of arms around the world, he will see that there is logic and good sense in trying to do everything possible to interdict the arms upstream so that they do not become either a source of insecurity for Israel or a reason for Israeli attacks on Gaza.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Getting fresh water into Gaza and dealing with the sewage problems must be a priority, and should be considered as one. When the Foreign Secretary is discussing access to Gaza with his counterparts in Israel, will he not neglect Israel's blockade of Gaza by sea and does he think that it could be lifted at some point? Although he is absolutely right in saying that UNRWA will lead on the emergency services needed in Gaza, it will not necessarily lead on reconstruction, so given the British Government's recent experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq, will he state today that Britain will take the lead and convene a conference in London to plan the long-term reconstruction of Gaza?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

We certainly want to play a leading role in the reconstruction effort, and the presence of the Department for International Development Minister today in Israel is testimony to that. Of course, in respect of the sea, there are two clear issues: one is how aid comes in; the other is the interdiction of the arms that are going there. The truth is that the main supply of humanitarian aid must be through the crossings, and it can be massively increased, given the blockage that has been in place for quite a long time.

On the UK's contribution to the sea-based interdiction, the Prime Minister's offer on the role for the Royal Navy has been widely welcomed. Mr. Davey asked me for exact details on how that would work. I am not in a position to provide those exact details, because that depends on what contribution other countries make, but we certainly want to ensure that the Royal Navy's expertise is properly used. Its value is being shown around the world at the moment, and I assure hon. Members that we will ensure that the appropriate contribution of the Royal Navy is used to best effect.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I welcome my right hon. Friend's efforts to achieve a ceasefire, and I hope that he will put equal effort into reopening the crossings and lifting the blockade if the ceasefire is to last. Although specific allegations of war crimes must be investigated, does he not agree with the thousands of people who have marched or written to newspapers that Israel's conduct of the war has been not only excessive and disproportionate but inhumane, both in scale and method, and an abuse of human rights?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend knows that some very deep legal questions are engaged in the phrases that he has used. In that context, it is better to stick to the political statements that we have made, which have been clear and unequivocal in our view of the conflict. The legal consequences will of course be investigated, and any legal issues will of course be taken up, but they will rightly be taken up in the courts, rather than here.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Surely, it is not by casualty figures but by the scale of the force that we determine whether action has been disproportionate; but by either yardstick, the Israeli actions in Gaza have been wholly disproportionate. Surely, in the circumstances, it is unthinkable that we should issue export licences to Israel until we have what is not just a ceasefire but a peace deal.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

We should certainly not issue export licences for internal repression or external aggression, and we are agreed on that. That is the existing policy. In respect of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, both those considerations come into play.

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Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The aid that my right hon. Friend has announced for humanitarian purposes to the Palestinians is very welcome. Will he confirm that UK taxpayers' money will be properly accounted for and that Hamas will not be able to cream off any of that money for its own ends?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Yes, of course—through the processes that are very well developed and taken very seriously by the Government.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

The only thing that seems to be balanced is opinion in Israel, where 41 per cent. of people appear to support the action and 41 per cent. opposed it. Will the Government find a way to publish their assessment of the conditions of life in the Gaza strip before Operation Cast Lead and now, afterwards? Will the right hon. Gentleman also find a way to make a statement again on the British Government's policy on the wall and its location, on the settlements and on the future possible conflict involving Iran, Israel and perhaps others?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Those in the UN are the best people to tell hon. Members about the situation on the ground. There was a debate last week in the UN Security Council, with a report from Sir John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, precisely on the situation that existed before the conflict and two thirds of the way through it—at that stage—and, no doubt, there will be a further report from the UN in due course.

I am sure that we will have many occasions on which to debate the wider issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, but the parameters—I use the word advisedly—of a solution are widely agreed. In it, the 1967 borders are, more or less, the borders of a Palestinian state and of Israel; any difference from the 1967 borders being accounted for on a one-for-one basis, with Jerusalem being the capital of both countries. I could almost say that there is consensus. There has been consensus between the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership on the long-term vision at various points. Importantly, in the end, the peace cannot be between Israel and the Palestinians only. It has to be between Israel and the whole Arab world. That is the significance of the comprehensive approach that we advocate.

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Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

When I was in the Gaza strip on 14 April last year, the first thing that we came across, just inside the Erez crossing, was a large lagoon of sewage, in which a five-year-old boy had already died. Raw sewage was pouring into the sea 24/7, and there were piles of rotting rubbish lying in all the streets because the refuse vehicles could not function. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public health situation in Gaza is now even more urgent than it was then, because the population is so traumatised that disease will spread if it takes hold?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Yes, and my hon. Friend did not have time to mention that 13 medical personnel have been killed in the course of the conflict, adding to the dangers of the spread of disease. The emphasis that I have placed on the issue, by talking about not just food and fuel but emergency sanitation equipment, speaks directly to the point that he makes about the sewerage system, or lack of it. That is a significant part of the emergency that still exists, because although things are absolutely terrible now, they could get worse. That is what the whole international community needs to try to avert.

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Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I very much welcome the Government's offer of naval patrol boats as part of an EU force. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that their remit will place equal emphasis on preventing arms smuggling and ensuring the free and fair movement of humanitarian aid and medicines? That is vital. Also, will he assure the House that incidents such as the ramming of the MV Dignity a few days ago by Israeli gunboats will not be repeated when that remit is in place?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The vast bulk of humanitarian aid will go overland, or by air. Certainly, the purposes of the Royal Navy activity relate to the interdiction of smuggling. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the humanitarian advice that we are getting, from the US and elsewhere, is that it is overland work that is absolutely critical to the humanitarian situation.

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Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

Following the point made by Mr. Llwyd, as the Navy will be deployed in preventing the importation of arms, can we at least seriously consider whether it should be deployed to ensure the importation by sea of any goods that the Palestinians need? We would thus restore the Royal Navy to its ancient task of ensuring the freedom of the seas and breaking blockades.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I take my right hon. Friend's point very seriously. If there is any way for the Royal Navy to play a positive role in ensuring that humanitarian relief gets to people who need it more quickly, of course we should find and use that option. I have to say that it has not yet been suggested that my right hon. Friend's idea is necessary, but I know exactly the spirit in which he makes the suggestion, and I assure him that I will look into it.

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Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I was going to ask a similar question. What kind of ports and harbours are there on the coast to the west of Gaza, and are there any plans to extend those ports, temporarily or permanently?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

They are very limited; that is the answer. The hon. Gentleman will know that Gaza airport has been closed for a number of years, and that is the obvious way in which to try to get aid in fast, which is important.

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Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Labour, Crawley

My right hon. Friend rightly says that the ferocious violence has reverberated around the world. Many hundreds of people from Crawley have contacted me to raise concerns and make suggestions. Will he give me an assurance that those concerns and suggestions will get to the heart of Government, so that we can dissuade violent and extremist behaviour, and so that those people can know that he is listening to their concerns?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am happy to confirm that. People all over the country have become engaged, and have focused on the crisis for the past three weeks for good reason. The reverberations do indeed go around the world, and I am happy to hear representations, or discuss further with my hon. Friend the views of her constituents.

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Independent Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood

First, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that there was a ceasefire before, and the consequence was that Israel tightened and tightened the siege, then it started the bombing in early November that broke the ceasefire? Secondly, there is no peace process, because Israel keeps breaking the Geneva convention, building more settlements and the wall, and the roads are subject to closure. We will not achieve progress without action on Israel, requiring it to comply with international law. We need action in the Security Council to set up a war crimes tribunal—that is how we can get action. So what action will the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that Israel is held to account under the Geneva convention? Otherwise, there will be no progress.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I said last week in this House that, although the immediate trigger for the crisis was the upsurge in rocket attacks after 19 December, as the right hon. Lady rightly says, in the preceding six months there was a ceasefire only in name, because there were rocket attacks, a tightening of the blockade, a further closing of the crossings and a deterioration in the humanitarian situation. I do not quite subscribe to the sequence that she put on those three facts, because I think that they all happened at the same time: there were further attacks, a further tightening of the blockade and a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. It is obviously vital not just that the Security Council remain engaged—that is why I was in New York last week, and why we continue to believe that the Security Council has an important role to play. It is also why I emphasised the Madrid model—it is not the exact model for the future, but it engaged the international community fundamentally in those issues. It is important, too, that every signatory to any international convention adhere to its requirements and to international humanitarian law in general.

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Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

May I welcome the Government's early and consistent call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and may I contrast it with the situation in Lebanon, as such a call was not made then? If there is to be an investigation, will my right hon. Friend assure me that it will take account of the frustration and anger at the timing of the attack? The Gaza people have suffered, and they are victims of a double whammy. First, the forthcoming elections in Israel have been used for some perverse reason by Israeli politicians to show their toughness. Secondly, those same politicians have exploited the dying days of the Bush Administration, which should be taken into consideration.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I hope that my hon. Friend understands that I shall not comment directly on the implications for the Israeli general election. It is clear that the peace process of the past year was too slow in making progress, which is at the heart of the ticking time bomb in Gaza that went off to such devastating effect. It is certainly to the return of some sort of inclusive process that we are dedicated.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Is the harsh reality not that those two unilateral ceasefires are extremely vulnerable unless the international community convinces lots of ordinary Israelis that there is a better route to their security that does not involve the slaughter of the past few days, and convinces a great many more Palestinians that there is a route to a viable Palestinian state that depends on engaging with the peace process?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Yes. The drive for an end to the stateless tragedy of the Palestinians and the insecurity of the Israelis has been a race against time for a long time. At the moment, time is winning, rather than the peace process. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it gets, and the more serious the consequences of failure, as we have seen over the past few devastating weeks. That is why I am glad to have, if I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman's support, as well as his party's support, in pursuing a comprehensive approach to the resolution of the problem, which requires every country, not just the United States, to play a part.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Special Envoy to PM on Human Rights in Iraq

My right hon. Friend knows that the people of Gaza made Hamas their elected choice in what were described as free and fair elections. The Israelis have locked up 45 Hamas MPs, and some Fatah MPs as well. What can my right hon. Friend do to secure the release of the properly elected representatives, either to stand trial or to be let go?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My right hon. Friend has made an important point. We should continue precisely to make the case that those people should be either charged or released. They have now been in custody for at least 18 months, I think. That is an unacceptably long period, and they must either face the law or be allowed to go about their business.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

In answering questions, the Foreign Secretary has spoken with confidence to suggest that the strong restriction on the export of weapons to Israel means that they have not been used to repress the Palestinian people. Will he clarify whether he feels that some of the weapons that had been given licences have been used to kill Palestinians? If that is true, is there a case for further restricting the export of such weapons?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I have said repeatedly that we have a clear policy. When there is a clear risk that arms or their components would be used for internal repression or external aggression, those arms are not exported. To repeat what I said earlier, the totality of the equipment that has been used is not yet completely clear. As I also said earlier, any evidence of IDF methods or tactics in this conflict will be taken into account in assessing the clear risk in future licence applications. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the words that he put into my mouth were not the words that I actually used. The words that I have used are very clear. It is not yet completely clear what equipment has been used. Our approach to exports in the past is clear and it is also clear that in future the conduct and methods of this conflict will be used in the assessment.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that of the 1,200 Palestinians killed in the recent conflict, a third were women and children. It is useful of him to keep repeating the British arms export criteria, but I ask him, once again, whether he is confident that no British arms—including those produced by an Israeli-owned arms manufacturer—have been used to repress the people of Gaza.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Perhaps my hon. Friend has a particular case in mind, given how she chose her words at the end. I am not sure; perhaps we could have a word afterwards. We take seriously the commitments that we make about the need for British exports not to be used for internal repression or external aggression. The best thing to say is that we will ensure that any suggestions that there has been such use are investigated fully. Last week, I said in the House that I was confident that an allegation made in one newspaper about one particular weapon was not true—it was not being used by the IDF, but had in fact been for export. I am happy to stick by that. Rather than my saying, "I am confident," which can sound complacent, it is better for me to say that we have a clear policy and that we should continue to assert it and implement it clearly. That is what we are determined to do.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

In the past year, Hamas has launched repeated rocket attacks. Will my right hon. Friend tell me, today or later in writing, what proportion of those rockets have fallen on land militarily stolen from Palestinians by successive Governments of Israel after 1966—land that is now illegally occupied by Israeli colonists?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

That sounded like the sort of question to which my hon. Friend has the answer. I do not want to guess the answer, but I assure him that I will try to find it out. I shall write to him with it and place a copy of my reply in the Library of the House.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is horrendous, but there are reports that Iran has stated that it wishes to rearm Hamas as its proxy. Do the steps set out by the Foreign Secretary deal with that issue?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Obviously, we would deplore such a statement or such an intent. The measures are designed precisely to forestall that eventuality.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I thought you would never ask, Madam Deputy Speaker.

How can we possibly justify allowing the Israelis preferential access to European markets, in view of the enormity of what they have done in Gaza and the relentless advance of the settlements across the west bank?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend will know that the EU-Israel trade agreement is matched by an EU-Palestine trade agreement. It is vital that the access that the Palestinians are guaranteed under that agreement is fulfilled. It is also important that the produce from settlements does not get the benefit of the EU-Israel trade agreement, which was designed to ensure preferential access for Israel and not for the settlements, which we recognise as occupied Palestinian territory. It is for the benefit of both that the agreements that were last signed in 2004 are followed through.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

If this ceasefire is to be more than just a temporary lull in the cycle of violence, must not the Government of Israel somehow be made to recognise that they cannot reserve for themselves, as Israeli politicians seem to want to do, the right at any time to impose total blockades on Gaza, which stop any goods going in and out, stop power being supplied, and even stop medical supplies?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

It must be right that matters that are subject to international negotiation, such as the 2005 agreement on crossings, are implemented in full, and that is certainly what we are determined to see happen. That is absolutely essential if there is ever to be progress for the people of Gaza.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

May I seek some reassurance from my right hon. Friend regarding the opening of border crossings to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza? He has already said that the situation is being monitored in terms of the number of vehicles going in, but can he assure the House that he is taking every active step possible to ensure that Israel recognises its international obligations and tries to make up for some of the considerable damage that it has done to its own reputation?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Yes. I assure my hon. Friend that I am doing everything in my power, as are my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and his Minister of State, who is in the region today. There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. I wish that we were talking about averting a humanitarian catastrophe, but there is one now, and the danger is that more people lose their lives as a result of it. That is what we are seeking to avert, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are working very hard to do so.

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