Middle East

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 20th November 2012.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 12:47 pm, 20th November 2012

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement and for giving me early sight of it today. I shall first address the issue of Syria and the announcement that the Foreign Secretary made in his statement, and I wish to note my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has been appropriately registered.

As we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, only a credible and inclusive transition plan and a united opposition hold the prospect of being a bridge between conflict and a sustainable peace in Syria. Until now, not only the Security Council but the Syrian opposition have been disastrously divided. Over many months, the Russians have continued to ask the west, “So if Assad goes, what comes next?” On 11 November, however, we saw the establishment of the new Syrian national coalition in Doha.

Last week, the Opposition called on the Government to recognise the new Syrian national coalition, so I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement today that the British Government have taken the decision to recognise it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Recognition is a vital step forward, but can he tell us whether he intends to use this new-found unity within the opposition as the basis for a fresh diplomatic approach to the Russians?

The Opposition are clear that the correct focus for the UK’s efforts on Syria in the days and months ahead must be helping to unify the Syrian opposition, not helping to arm them, so will the Foreign Secretary give the House a guarantee that the recognition of the Syrian national coalition is not a precursor to arming the Syrian opposition fighters, which he must acknowledge would be against the European arms embargo currently in place?

The emergence of a political process must not distract us from the pressing humanitarian crisis. On my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, I saw for myself the sheer scale of the human suffering that is a devastating consequence of this war in Syria.

As winter approaches, with more than 2.5 million of Syria’s 23 million people now displaced and non-governmental organisations warning that 200,000 Syrian refugee children are at serious risk from freezing temperatures, action is needed. I therefore welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the British Government will be increasing British aid, but will he set out what specific steps he and his colleagues in Government will take to encourage others in the international community to increase their support in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis to which he referred? There is still a significant shortfall in the funds for the UN appeal for Syria. Britain must play its part in encouraging others to contribute and make up this inexcusable shortfall.

Let me turn now to the issue of Gaza. In common with those on the Government Benches, we abhor the loss of life that we have seen in recent days. The Foreign Secretary has reiterated today that principal responsibility for the start of the crisis lies with Hamas. Of course the recent rocket attacks into southern Israel, targeted at a civilian population, deserve our categorical condemnation, but does he accept that although the rockets were the proximate cause, the deeper causes of the latest crisis reflect the failure over years and decades to achieve a two-state solution? Every time a military solution is prioritised over a political solution, greater future problems are generated. Indeed, there is and can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israelis have stressed that their response is justified by the recent escalation of Hamas rocket attacks. No civilian population should have to live in such constant fear, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that acknowledging—as I do—Israel’s right to defend itself does not oblige the British Government to suspend judgment on the wisdom of its chosen actions? As a response to the rocket attacks from Gaza four years ago, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Operation Cast Lead had the aim of

“destroying the apparatus of terror”,

yet four years on Hamas is still in power in Gaza. More than 1,000 missiles have been launched from Gaza into Israel this year, and in recent days rockets have reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since Operation Pillar of Defence began on Wednesday, three Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that the scale of the casualties in Gaza, together with the continuing blockade, fuels hatred and emboldens those seeking to isolate Israel internationally? Does he also accept that the marginalisation of the Palestinian Authority by these events further diminishes the prospects for immediate negotiations—and, indeed, Palestinian unity—and that Hamas will undoubtedly claim itself to be the victor, whatever the outcome of the operation or, indeed, the negotiations currently under way in Cairo?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that if the operating logic of Hamas is terror and the operating logic of Israel is deterrence, then pleas for restraint risk simply falling on deaf ears? We on the Opposition Benches have for a number of days been urging not simply restraint, but an immediate cessation of violence. We have been clear that a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel. It would risk escalating the already spiralling death toll and further damage the hope for peace and security. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, given reports of overflowing wards in Gazan hospitals and the prior degradation of those facilities as a result of the blockade, free and unfettered access, including free passage through crossings, should urgently be guaranteed for medical and humanitarian personnel? Will he also set out what discussions he has had with the Egyptians about humanitarian access and stemming the flow of arms into Gaza—specifically Iranian missile technology—not only in these volatile days of conflict, but in the longer term?

On Saturday, Opposition Members called for a full-scale UN diplomatic initiative to end the violence. We urged the Secretary-General of the United Nations to travel to the region, and we welcome the fact that he has now done so, because sustained international engagement will be vital in helping to bring the conflict to an end. Past military action has failed to bring a durable peace. The fear of the Israeli population today stands alongside the suffering of the Palestinian people. Permanent occupation and blockade is not a strategy for peace; it is a recipe for repeated conflict. Talk of the “middle east peace process” ignores the fact that, sadly, today there is no peace and there is no process. 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? At a minimum, that means that Israel must immediately end illegal settlement expansion, which is currently a key barrier to advancing negotiations.

Labour urges the Government to reconsider their stated opposition—repeated again today—and instead support the Palestinians’ bid for enhanced status at the United Nations at this month’s General Assembly meeting. This is not an alternative to negotiations, but a bridge for beginning them. The Foreign Secretary in his statement argued that recognition at the UN could “risk paralysing the process”, but when will he understand? There is at present no process; there is only paralysis. There is continued illegal settlement building. There are continued rocket attacks. There is continued fear and anxiety. There is continued occupation. There is continued blockade. But there are no meaningful negotiations, and there have not been any for a number of years. The suggestion that enhanced recognition of the Palestinians could somehow imperil progress in the peace process implies that progress is being achieved—and, indeed, that a peace process exists. At present, sadly, neither statement is true. Let us acknowledge this fact. After decades of diplomatic failure, increasingly some are questioning whether a two-state solution is any longer possible. That is why it is vital that as an international community, amidst the undoubted despair and the disappointment, we encourage the Palestinians to take the path of politics and reject the path of violence, and we rekindle hopes that there is a credible route to a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel achieved by negotiations. The British Government, among others, have a heavy responsibility to advance that goal at the United Nationals in the coming weeks.