With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Gaza.
The House is aware that despite intense efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, talks between Israelis and the Palestinians broke down at the end of April and are currently paused. Since then, there have been several horrific incidents, including the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the burning alive of a Palestinian teenager. We utterly condemn these barbaric crimes. There can never be any justification for the deliberate murder of innocent civilians.
These rising tensions have been followed by sustained barrages of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Between
We have acted swiftly to ensure the safe departure of British nationals wanting to leave Gaza. Late last night, we successfully assisted the departure of 27 British nationals and their Palestinian dependants from Gaza, through Israel to Jordan for onward travel. I am grateful to the UN, to Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff from London, Gaza, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Amman, and to the Israeli and Jordanian authorities for their work to ensure the success of this operation.
The whole House will share our deep concern at these events. This is the third major military operation in Gaza in six years. It underlines the terrible human cost, to both sides, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it comes at a time when the security situation in the middle east is the worst it has been in decades. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, and the people of Gaza also have the fundamental right to live in peace and security. There are hundreds of thousands of extremely vulnerable civilians in Gaza who bear no responsibility for the rocket fire and are suffering acutely from this crisis; and the Israeli defence forces estimate that 5 million Israeli civilians live within range of rockets fired from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks, but it is vital that Gaza’s civilian population is protected. International humanitarian law requires both sides to distinguish between military and civilian targets and enable unhindered humanitarian access.
The UK has three objectives: to secure a ceasefire, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to keep alive the prospects for peace negotiations which are the only hope of breaking this cycle of violence and devastation once and for all. I will briefly take each of these in turn. First, there is an urgent need for a ceasefire agreed by both sides that ends both the rocket fire and the Israeli operations against Gaza, based on the ceasefire agreement that ended the conflict in November 2012. Reinstating that agreement will require a concerted effort between Israelis, Palestinians and others, such as the authorities in Egypt, with the support of the international community. All those with influence over Hamas must use it to get Hamas to agree to end rocket fire.
We are in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and our partners and allies. The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on
On Saturday we joined the rest of the UN Security Council in calling for the de-escalation of the crisis, the restoration of calm and the reinstatement of the November 2012 ceasefire. We are ready to consider further action in the Security Council if that can help to secure the urgent ceasefire that we all want to see. Yesterday, I held discussions in the margins of the Iran Vienna talks with Secretary Kerry and my French and German counterparts to consider how to bring about that objective.
Once a ceasefire is agreed, it will be vital that its terms are implemented in full by both sides, including a permanent end to rocket attacks and all other forms of violence. Implementation of that agreement must only be part of a wider effort to improve conditions in Gaza. Without that, we are likely to see further such cycles of violence. This should include the restoration of Palestinian Authority control in Gaza, the opening up of legitimate movement and access, and a permanent end to the unacceptable threat of rocket attacks and other forms of violence against Israel.
Secondly, we will do all we can to help alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. At least 17,000 Gazans are seeking shelter with the UN. Hundreds of thousands are suffering shortages of water, sanitation and electricity, and stocks of fuel and medical supplies are running dangerously low. More than half the population was already living without adequate access to food before the crisis, the large majority reliant on aid and many unemployed. The UK is providing £349 million for humanitarian relief, state-building and economic development for Palestinians up to 2015, and providing about £30 million a year to help the people of Gaza.
We are the third biggest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency general fund. Our support has enabled it to respond to the crisis by continuing to provide health services to 70% of the population, sheltering 17,000 displaced people, and distributing almost 30,000 litres of fuel to ensure that emergency water and sewerage infrastructure can operate. The Department for International Development is helping to fund the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN access co-ordination unit. With our support, these organisations are providing food to insecure people, helping to repair damaged infrastructure, getting essential supplies into Gaza, getting medical cases out and delivering emergency medical care. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, has spoken to Prime Minister Hamdallah, and DFID stands ready to do more as necessary.
Thirdly, a negotiated two-state solution remains the only way to resolve the conflict once and for all and to achieve a sustainable peace so that Israeli and Palestinian families can live without fear of violence. No other option exists which guarantees peace and security for both peoples.
I once again pay tribute to Secretary Kerry’s tireless efforts to secure a permanent peace. Of course, the prospect for negotiations looks bleak in the middle of another crisis in which civilians are paying the heaviest price, but it has never been more important for leaders on both sides to take the bold steps necessary for peace. For Israel, that should mean a commitment to return to dialogue and to avoid all actions which undermine the prospects for peace, including settlement activity which does so much to undermine confidence in negotiations. For Hamas, it faces a fundamental decision about whether it is prepared to accept Quartet principles and join efforts for peace, or whether it will continue to use violence and terror with all the terrible consequences for the people of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority should show leadership, recommitting itself to dialogue with Israel and making progress on governance and security for Palestinians in Gaza as well as the west bank.
In all these areas, the United Kingdom will play its role, working closely with US and European colleagues, encouraging both sides back to dialogue, supporting the Palestinian Authority, keeping pressure on Hamas and other extremists, and alleviating the humanitarian consequences of conflict. There can be no substitute, though, for leadership and political will from the parties concerned. The world looks on in horror once again as Israel suffers from rocket attacks and Palestinian civilians die. Only a real peace, with a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, can end this cycle of violence. And it is only the parties themselves, with our support, who can make that peace.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and, indeed, for giving me advance sight of it this afternoon.
Today, a spiral of violence has again engulfed Gaza, southern Israel and the west bank, bringing untold suffering to innocent people in its wake. Of course, I unequivocally condemn the firing of rockets into Israel by Gaza-based militants. No Government on earth would tolerate such attacks on its citizens, and we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself.
As the Foreign Secretary set out, in recent days hundreds of rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel, and at least three Israelis have been seriously injured. However, he was also right to acknowledge that, since the start of the Israeli military operation in Gaza just seven days ago, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured. The UN has reported that more than 80% of those killed were civilians, and that a third of those killed were children. Although this conflict cannot and must not be reduced simply to a ledger of casualties, the scale of the suffering in Gaza today must be fully and frankly acknowledged, because the life of a Palestinian child is worth no less than the life of an Israeli child.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the horrific kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the burning alive of a teenage Palestinian, but although these repellent crimes seem to be the proximate cause of the latest spiral of violence, does he accept that the underlying cause of this latest crisis is the failure over decades to achieve a two-state solution for two peoples?
The spiral of violence of recent days is grimly familiar to anyone who remembers Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. The same bloodstained pattern is repeating itself. In the first operation, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. In the second operation, the Egyptians brokered one. Both times, it was clear that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could not be solved through force of arms alone. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore recognise that there can be no military solution to this conflict? Does he further accept that the scale of the suffering in Gaza, compounding the effects of the continuing blockade, serves to fuel hatred and, indeed, to embolden Israel’s enemies?
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the operating logic of Hamas is terror and the operating logic of Israel is deterrence, then pleas by the international community for restraint alone will be insufficient? Today, the risk of an all-out escalation in the conflict and the threat of a full ground invasion are still palpable—and preventable, if Hamas stops firing rockets.
As the Opposition, we are clear not only on the need for an immediate ceasefire, but that a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel, and a strategic error for Israel. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, and will he now make that position clear to the Israeli Government in the crucial hours and days ahead?
The Foreign Secretary spoke of the statements made by the UN Security Council on Saturday calling for a ceasefire, which I of course welcome. Alongside the Arab League at its meeting today, the UN must be forthright in its role of seeking to bring the recent violence to an end. Will he therefore support calls for the UN Secretary-General to travel to the region to act as a mediator between the two sides?
We know from bitter experience that a spiral of violence that reinforces the insecurity of the Israelis and the humiliation of the Palestinians leads only to further suffering. For Israel, permanent occupation, blockade and repeated military action in occupied land will make peace—and, ultimately, security—harder, not easier, to achieve. Alas, it is not a strategy for peace; it is a recipe for continued conflict.
The Foreign Secretary rightly and generously paid tribute to US Secretary of State Kerry’s considerable personal efforts to advance the middle east peace process, but, in truth, today there is no peace and there is also no process; instead there are continued rocket attacks and continued settlement expansion, growing fear and anxiety, and ongoing occupation.
I of course welcome the humanitarian efforts by both DFID and UNRWA that the Government have set out, but we all know that a humanitarian response, while vital, is not itself sufficient to end the suffering. In the past few days, Israel’s overwhelming military might has been obvious. Hamas, weakened today by Sisi’s rise in Egypt and differences with Iran over Syria, can avert the risk of an imminent ground invasion by stopping the rocket attacks, but Israel needs a strategy for building peace, not just tactics for winning the next round of war. This is a time and this is a crisis that demands not revenge, but statesmanship motivated by justice. Only politics, and a negotiated solution, offers a way forward to peace.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, which show that we share the same analysis of the situation and offer a similar response. He said that he was clear that no Government on earth could tolerate such attacks, and that Israel had the right to defend itself. I also made that clear in my statement. We also share the analysis that, while what he called the proximate cause was the horrific murders that have taken place in recent weeks, the underlying cause is the failure to make progress in the middle east peace process. That is something to which we must continue to give our attention.
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the work of Secretary Kerry. I discussed these matters with Secretary Kerry yesterday afternoon in Vienna, and I can tell the House that he remains determined about the peace process despite everything that has happened, which is a great credit to him. He is determined that the United States will still play a leading role in pushing forward the process, and that this is a pause and not the end of the efforts to push it forward. We will continue to encourage him in that, and to help to deliver the support of the European Union.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no military solution to this, and that calls for restraint are important but not sufficient. We are very clear in our calls for restraint to all sides, including in the conversations I had with Israeli Ministers over the weekend, when I made it clear that we wanted to see restraint, proportionate response, de-escalation and the avoidance of civilian casualties. I think that the implications of such statements are very clear. We will support whatever role the UN Secretary-General can take in this.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the fact that Egypt played an important role in the November 2012 ceasefire. That is why I have been having discussions with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in recent days. On this occasion, other Arab states are also active in trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire. That is why I have been discussing this with other Arab Foreign Ministers before their meeting tonight, and we will continue to encourage them to do that. I believe that there is a common analysis, and a common appeal for a renewal of the peace process instead of a continuation of the violence, right across the House.
I call Mr Nicholas Soames.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just a war about rockets from both sides, and that it is a war about illegal settlements and stolen lands? What is the next big political move? I have sat here these last 30 years and heard the same statement every year; for 30 years, nothing has happened.
My apologies, Sir Nicholas. I thank you for that question and I congratulate you on your richly deserved knighthood.
And I very much join in those congratulations, Mr Speaker.
I am conscious of the point that my right hon. Friend makes about how long we have been hearing these statements. Indeed, I have delivered quite a few of them myself, both in opposition and in government. To be speaking for the third time in six years about an almost identical conflict is deeply exasperating for all of us who deal with international relations. He asked what the next milestone would be. It will be a continuation of the United States’ effort. I believe that, in the end, only the United States can help to deliver Israel into a peace agreement and a two-state agreement. We in Europe have an important role in supporting that, and we have offered unprecedented economic co-operation and partnership with the Israelis and the Palestinians if a peace process can be concluded. Let us hope that both sides can grasp that vision.
Does the Foreign Secretary recall that all Israeli settlers and soldiers left Gaza in 2005? Does he agree that Hamas has carried out a double war crime by targeting Israeli citizens with more than 900 rockets in the past month and launching those rockets from bases in the middle of the Gazan population?
We make the point strongly to Israel about avoiding civilian casualties and observing international humanitarian law, and the hon. Lady is right to say that when those rockets are launched against Israel, their only purpose is to cause civilian casualties there. There is not even a pretence of observing international humanitarian law. As the shadow Foreign Secretary has said, no nation on earth could tolerate that, but it is important that the response should be proportionate and that it should observe international humanitarian law. The hon. Lady is also right to say that what has happened in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal is taken in Israel as a lesson in not withdrawing in the future, and that is a tragedy for all concerned.
I have not been here quite as long as Sir Nicholas Soames, but I certainly share his frustration, and I suspect that it is shared in all parts of the House. It is wholly unacceptable that the people of Israel should be subject to random and indiscriminate rocket attacks, but it is equally unacceptable that the response of the Israeli Government should be disproportionate, contrary to international law and at the expense of civilians, particularly children.
It is. The frustration from all quarters of the House is very clear, and I absolutely share it. The Government have to focus on what we can do to help to bring an end to what is unacceptable for both populations.
I think that that is to work diplomatically to bring about an agreed ceasefire, to do our utmost to provide humanitarian relief and to work to ensure that the peace process can be revived.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that among the 173 innocent civilians slaughtered by the Israelis in Gaza was the inhabitant of a disabled people’s home that was hit by Israel, and that a hospital was also hit? Whatever one says in deploring the role of Hamas— I have told the Hamas Prime Minister to his face that I deplore what it does—if this goes on, we shall have yet another cycle, which will be the third so far, and a fourth, and it will go on. Unless the Israelis are willing to make peace, the day will come when the Palestinians explode in anger and despair.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks passionately and sincerely. I can imagine him saying what he said to the face of Hamas. He is right that if the cycles of violence go on, the prospect of peace in the middle east will get further away. That is after an immense effort has been made in recent years to bring the sides closer together and to work on a final status agreement. His warnings should be well heeded by all in the middle east, and they show that our work on the peace process has to go on.
While I condemn the violence on both sides of the border, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that, despite the deteriorating situation, the Israelis are still facilitating the much-needed delivery of aid. I understand that a large amount of food and fuel went into Gaza last week. What assurances has he had that the flow of aid will continue and will not be stopped by Israel?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that aid is delivered into Gaza. Our message to Israel is that it is important to go further in easing the restrictions on Gaza, including on the movement of commercial goods and persons to and from the Gaza strip. We have not had any assurances about future aid. She raises a very important point. We encourage Israel to do more, rather than less, to ensure that aid is received and that other normal legitimate movements can take place.
The whole House condemns the killing of the three Israelis and the burning of the Palestinian, and none of us has any truck with Hamas. However, for all the vacuous words of the Israeli Government and the Israel defence forces spokesman, is it not clear that they have no regard for international humanitarian law; that they place a completely different and much lower value on Palestinian life than Israeli life; and that the cycle will go on as long as the international community, in an effort to be even-handed, fails to say to the Israelis that the actions that they are taking are completely outwith the United Nations charter and any idea of how a civilised nation ought to behave?
That is why it is important for us to stress the need to observe international humanitarian law, be proportionate and avoid civilian casualties, and work hard on bringing about an agreed ceasefire. I add to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, however. Those who launch waves of rockets from within one of the most densely populated civilian populations in the middle east also bear a heavy responsibility, because they know that any retaliation will severely affect the civilian population. We must bear that in mind as well.
Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against terror, but with every civilian killed and every child hurt, the method by which Israel seeks to protect its citizens is more questionable, as are the tactics of those who deliberately place children in harm’s way. Will my right hon. Friend commend the excellent article in Haaretz recently by His Highness Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia, which called attention to the need to re-engage the peace process, and praise it not only for who said it but for where it was published? Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders know that the only policy and course of action that has the wholehearted support of this House is urgent and bold steps to recommence the peace process, so that this wretched cycle of pointless violence can come to an end?
As ever, my right hon. Friend goes straight to the point on this important issue. The article he mentions by His Highness Prince Turki helps to demonstrate that in many nations across the middle east—including powerful nations—there is a real appetite for that peace process, and for bringing the cycle of violence that hon. Members across the House are deploring to an end. That should be heard clearly by leaders in Israel and among Palestinians as they make decisions over the coming weeks.
It is generally accepted that there can be no military solution to this or any other conflict, and I believe it is accepted by Hamas and Israel that there can be no military solution. The Secretary of State referred my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander to the role played by Egypt in the past conflict. What pressure is being brought on the new Egyptian Government—if indeed both sides are prepared to listen to what they have to say and will sit around a table with them to end this utterly pointless and scandalous destruction of human life, particularly women and children?
The hon. Lady is right to say that both Hamas and Israel know there is no military solution, and right to point to the important role that Egypt can play. I would not express it as “pressure” on Egypt—Egypt is a sovereign state that will make its own decisions in its own national interest and hopefully the interests of the wider region, but I have discussed this matter with the Foreign Minister of Egypt. The Egyptian Government at the time of the last ceasefire had much closer links with Hamas than the Egyptian Government do today, so the situation is a little different in that regard—[Interruption.] Those on the Opposition Front Bench say that that may be an understatement, and it is a deliberate understatement on my part. It is therefore a different situation, and that is why the role of other Arab states becomes even more important, and that is why we are talking to many of them about the role they can play in bringing about an agreed ceasefire.
With nearly 1,000 rockets fired at Israel in the last week, no one can deny Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens. Unlike in the past, however, Hamas looks increasingly isolated in the Arab world, with even Iran failing to declare openly its support. The obvious broker in this is Egypt, but interestingly the Secretary of State just said that he has discussed with other Foreign Ministers the possibility of peace negotiations. Will he say more about those talks and which countries he is talking to?
In my statement I gave something of a list of Foreign Ministers with whom I have discussed this matter over recent hours, including, for instance, those of Jordan and Qatar. I do not want to say more, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that real efforts are going on among Arab states to make progress. However, I do not think it would be helpful for me to set it all out on the Floor of the House.
The health system in Gaza is under real pressure given the large number of men, women and children who have been injured, and higher-level more complicated medical support is especially difficult. How is the international community able to help supply those services in Gaza, and will the Foreign Secretary update the House on offers that have been made from outside the middle east—such as that from the Scottish Government—to help provide specialist medical provision from outside the region?
I mentioned in my statement how the funding provided by DFID for several international programmes does help with medical supplies and in taking urgent medical cases out of Gaza. It is very difficult to deliver increased assistance under these circumstances, but every effort will be made to do so if circumstances deteriorate further. Other offers of assistance from all quarters, including of course from Scotland, are greatly appreciated.
My right hon. Friend referred to the fragile situation in the middle east, saying that it is one of the most fragile situations for many a decade. The United States has key influence with many of the key players, including Israel and Egypt. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts with Secretary Kerry to see what influence we, combined with the US, can do to stop the cycle of violence? This very weak situation could spiral way out of control.
Of course we have to maintain those efforts. I would hesitate to say to Secretary Kerry that he should redouble his efforts, because I cannot imagine how anybody could make a greater effort. He has conducted literally dozens of meetings himself with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past 18 months. I know he is determined to continue that work and it is very important that other nations support it. In the European Union in December, we agreed to make an unprecedented package of economic partnership and support available to Israelis and Palestinians if the peace process succeeds. We will continue with that important offer as all efforts to revive the peace process go on.
Given that Secretary Kerry and his own middle east Minister have clearly said that it was the Netanyahu regime’s relentless expansion of illegal settlements that bore prime responsibility for the collapse of the Kerry talks, when, instead of this routine language of condemnation about the settlements, can we instead have some real and meaningful action?
We have said that a heavy part of the responsibility lies—not only this; there have been failures on both sides to take full advantage of the opportunities of the peace process—with the illegal settlements on occupied land. We make our condemnation of that, but we have also taken certain actions, including supporting the recent EU statement of guidelines on doing business with settlements. The right hon. Gentleman will be conscious that our prime effort here is to revive and succeed in the peace process. We therefore use language and adjust our pressure to try to do that, and that remains our best hope.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to call for a permanent end to these intolerable rocket attacks on Israel, but right too that too many Palestinian civilians and children are dying. Will he consider whether the favourable economic and political relationship between Israel and the EU should now be reconsidered in the light of the Israeli Government’s disproportionate response to these attacks?
As I said to Mr Bradshaw, we have an important difference on settlements. However, our differences throughout the middle east have not led us to economic sanctions or boycotts on any of the parties to the middle east peace process. I do not judge that that would be the best way to advance the peace process now, or in the immediate future. I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but our effort has to be focused on reviving the peace process.
The Foreign Secretary is of course correct that the latest escalation of tit-for-tat rockets and military strikes brings peace no closer; it just brings death and destruction. He may be aware that I, with other hon. Members, was in Gaza just weeks after the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead. We saw for ourselves that UN humanitarian centres had been hit by Israeli strikes. As he said, 17,000 Palestinian civilians are now sheltering in UN centres and the UN reports that 49 of them have already been damaged. As a high contracting party to the Geneva convention, what can Britain do about this, and will he confirm that hitting humanitarian centres is a war crime?
What we do about this is to stress to all involved, as I said, that the response must be in line with international humanitarian law and be proportionate and should not target civilians. I say again that the responsibility for civilians being caught up in this is a wide one, including those who decide to launch waves of rockets from heavily populated civilian areas. Of course, that does not absolve Israel of its responsibilities, and we will continue to remind it of its responsibilities.
I ask my right hon. Friend to remember that Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and has faced not just 950 missiles in recent months, but 11,000 missiles since the withdrawal. We know, too, that Hamas uses civilians to protect its missiles, whereas Israel uses its missiles to defend its citizens. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to resolve this terrible situation is to take out Hamas from Gaza in the same way as we would deal with other extreme Islamist groups and stop the funding of Hamas by Iran and the supply of long-range missiles from Iran to Hamas?
Many of those things would help greatly, although they are not things that are within our gift to supply. Part of our message to Iran is to stop the funding of extremist, terrorist or sectarian groups throughout the middle east. We hope there will be a change in Iranian foreign policy; we hope that the authority of the Palestinian Authority will be restored in Gaza; and we hope that Hamas will accept the Quartet principles. We are certainly in favour of all of those things, but they are, of course, quite difficult to bring about in practice.
In 2010, our Prime Minister described Gaza as being like an “open-air prison”, with its people
“living under constant attacks and pressure”.
The latest escalation of the violence and killing has made matters unbearable. When will our Government, working with the international community, actually apply pressure on the Israeli Government to adhere to international law and humanitarian requirements, because this is just completely unacceptable?
As we have all lamented over the last half hour, the situation is unacceptable, but it is important to bear in mind the wider responsibility for that situation. It is very important for us all to give a clear message to Israel about humanitarian law, but it is also important for those launching rockets from Gaza to stop such unacceptable attacks on Israel—that is very important, too, and it is an indispensable component of trying to deal with the situation. Our effort must be directed at the three objectives I set out in my statement: to bring about an urgent and agreed ceasefire, to provide humanitarian relief and to support a revival of the peace process. There is not a better path than that.
I unreservedly condemn the rocket attacks on Israel and strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s call for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. What assessment has he made of the possibility of establishing that state, given the settlements that have taken place on occupied territories?
It is still possible to establish such a state. That has been the objective of the work done by the United States, which we have supported and which I mentioned several times, to bring the middle east peace process to success, but the opportunity for that is diminishing as the years and months go by, partly because of the pace of settlement activity on occupied land. Largely because of that, the opportunity is diminishing, and if it is not already, it will soon be the last chance to bring about a two-state solution. That shows the urgency of the situation for Israelis and Palestinians, which adds to the urgency to stop this cycle of violence.
I agree that it is important to ease restrictions on Gaza. The Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people do tremendous damage to the economy and the living standards of the people of Gaza, and, in our view, that serves to strengthen, not weaken, Hamas in the long term. An improved economy is essential for the people of Gaza, including the children of Gaza, but it is also ultimately firmly in the security interests of Israel.
I do not have specific information about that, but the Israeli Government argue very strongly that civilian facilities are used in Gaza to shield rocket launches and military operations by Hamas, and there is a good deal of credibility in those assertions.
The tragedy of the loss of life in the whole region surely stems ultimately from the occupation of the west bank, the settlement policy, and the current siege of Gaza. What practical steps has the Foreign Secretary taken to criticise Israel for its collective punishment of the people of Gaza, the destruction of water supplies and sewage plants, and the killings of large numbers of civilians, and what sanctions does he now propose to take against Israel for acting against international law in punishing a civilian population?
I go a little further back in my analysis of the root causes, or, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, the ultimate causes, in terms of Israel’s policy. The ultimate cause is the failure to bring about a two-state solution, and there are failings on both sides in that regard. There is the failure to take opportunities in negotiations, and there is the failure by Hamas to adopt peaceful principles that would allow the world to welcome it into negotiations. Those failures exist on both sides, and therefore, for us, it is not a question of sanctions on one side or the other; it is a question of our effort to bring about a viable peace process, and that is where we must continue to place our emphasis.
My right hon. Friend has rightly said that the only foundation for lasting peace and a safe and secure Israel must be a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Does he agree that there can be no peace until there is an end to the blockade of Gaza in respect of even the most basic economic materials, such as building materials, and withdrawal from the illegal settlements, which prevent any possibility of a contiguous state on the west bank?
Our views on settlements are well known. My hon. Friend is aware of them, and I have reiterated them today As I said in response to earlier questions, we urge Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza, including restrictions on the movement of commercial goods and persons from the Gaza strip, which only serve to undermine Gaza’s legitimate economy and strengthen Hamas, and we will continue to make that case.
Following the question from Martin Horwood—and while condemning the violence on both sides—I must say to the Foreign Secretary that the right to trade surely comes with the responsibility to uphold basic humanitarian principles. May I urge him to investigate the possibility of a consensus on economic sanctions within the European Union as an effective means of non-violent intervention, delivering Israel to the negotiating table for the desperately needed two-state solution?
I can say honestly to the hon. Lady that there would not be a consensus in the European Union on that. There is a consensus on the statement of guidelines on dealing with settlements that the EU adopted on
When the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Hugh Robertson, answered the urgent question two weeks ago following the dreadful murder of the three Israeli teenagers, the Palestinian children death toll due to the conflict had reached 1,406. On Saturday it reached 1,430, including the killing of four toddlers in the course of the last week. Will the Foreign Secretary now say what he has implied: that the Israeli action is disproportionate?
Having been through several of these conflicts, I know there is always pressure in the House, or from others, to adopt totemic words of one sort or another, but I feel our diplomatic effort has to be directed at the things I have described—bringing about an urgent and agreed ceasefire, giving humanitarian relief, supporting the revival of the peace process—while calling for proportionate actions all round, and that is what we will continue to do.
Order. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s candour. I rarely fail to notice his movements, but I had not noticed that he toddled out and beetled back, but we can always do with a bit of information.
The Foreign Secretary has referred to the role of Egypt on a number of occasions. It is reported today that Hamas has said it does not wish to have the Egyptian Government as a mediator, and at the same time seven civilians and one military person were killed in Sinai from fire that was apparently coming from Gaza, or near to it. What does he think can be done to improve the relationships in that part of this area, so the Egyptians can play a positive role in this process to get a solution?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to those difficult relations, and I made the point earlier—I do not know whether that was during his unnoticed absence—that Hamas’s relations with this Egyptian Government are nothing like as warm, to put it mildly, as with the previous Egyptian Government at the time of the last Gaza conflict. That means there is a less natural role for Egypt in bringing about a ceasefire, as its influence on Hamas is less. Nevertheless it is important to find ways of working with Gaza, including easing humanitarian access through the Rafah crossing, and I hope that Egypt, which is the major Arab nation in the region, will use its full weight to try to bring about a ceasefire agreed on all sides.
Can the Foreign Secretary give us a bit more insight into the thinking of his Israeli counterparts? While we all accept the need for Israel to defend and deter, when he talks to the Israeli Foreign Minister does he get any sense that it must be more difficult for Israel to defend and deter if it is holding an entire people in the largest prison camp in the world in appalling conditions? Does he get any impression that common humanity calls out for peace and justice for the Palestinian people?
Israeli Ministers stress their need to defend themselves against rocket attacks and say any nation in the world facing a barrage of rockets on its major cities would mount a military response. It is, of course, always important to look beyond that, as we are in all our comments across the House today, and to ask how we can break this cycle of violence in the long term, and that means a two-state solution and a viable sovereign state for Palestinians, which is why we have to continue to work for that.
We should not equate the occupied with the occupier. We should not equate a refugee population of 1.7 million imprisoned in a tiny strip of land with the prison guards. We should not equate terrorists firing rockets with a supposedly civilised state systematically killing women and children and elderly and disabled people. Will the Secretary of State accept that if his and other western Governments fail to discriminate between the actions of Hamas and Israel, hundreds of Palestinian civilians will continue to die and the annexation of Palestine by Israel will continue?
I do not see it as a matter of discrimination or failure to discriminate. I think we all agree across the House that there is in the end only one solution to this—not the military solution, as the shadow Foreign Secretary and others have said, but a successful peace process. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the responsibilities of occupiers; the responsibilities of all civilised and democratic states. But we do have to point also to the responsibilities, as I did earlier, of anyone who chooses to launch hundreds of rockets from a densely populated area. They have responsibilities, too.
Large numbers of my constituents have expressed the view that the people of Gaza are suffering collective punishment. But is it the deliberate policy of Hamas to put those same people in harm’s way?
There is a good argument for that, and one of our hon. Friends who has now left the Chamber gave an alleged instance of this earlier. The Israeli Government argue that Hamas in effect uses civilians as shields—that one of the reasons for civilian casualties is that rockets are launched deliberately from within heavily populated areas, Gaza itself being a very densely populated area. It is in the nature of the conflict that that happens and that civilians are therefore in the front line, and Hamas bears responsibility for that.
No Member of the House can fail to be horrified by the escalation of violence on both sides and by what appears to be the disproportionate response of Israel. More than 200 of my constituents have written to me to ask me to ask the Foreign Secretary what action he has taken to help to secure a ceasefire and, to echo the words of Sir Nicholas Soames and my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw, what action he will take to help end illegal settlement and to help to continue the economic development in Palestine.
I will not repeat everything I said in my earlier statement, but I hope that the hon. Lady will send to her constituents what I said about everything that the UK has done in recent days to promote a ceasefire—the work we have been doing at the UN Security Council and in the discussions I have had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and many Arab nations to help bring about an agreed ceasefire. I also gave examples in my statement of what we are doing to help the economic development and state-building of Palestinians. The UK is one of the largest donors in the world to that, and we will continue that effort.
The Secretary of State is right to say that one of the only ways to break the cycle of violence is to improve conditions in Gaza, where many of the people whom I represent feel that civilians—women and children—are being collectively punished, and certainly are bearing the heaviest price of the terrorist acts committed by Hamas. What more can we do to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza and improve the general condition of people living there?
This is likely to require a more peaceful situation and a much better atmosphere than the one that prevails now. But in any such atmosphere, we will continue to advocate that Israel should ease restrictions on Gaza, including on the movement of commercial goods. I listed what we have done in terms of humanitarian relief and said that the Department for International Development stands ready to do more. The UK will remain in the forefront of providing humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people.
If I wholly and unreservedly condemn attacks by Hamas, will the right hon. Gentleman wholly and unreservedly condemn the excessive force used by the Israeli Government in targeting residential areas in Gaza, resulting in the indiscriminate killing of civilians—women, men and young children—which is clearly a grave breach of the Geneva convention, while we wait for the middle east process to kick off?
It is important for all of us, on all sides of the argument—I think there is a strong consensus here on the need for a peace process and to break this cycle of violence—to deplore violence and the murder of innocent civilians on all sides. That is what I have done in my statement. That is the clear sentiment, of course, across the House. We want to see a situation where Israel is not subject to rocket attacks from Gaza and Palestinians in Gaza are not subject to Israeli airstrikes in retaliation. That is what we are trying to bring about.
I am listening carefully to the Foreign Secretary, but sometimes I reflect that if we in this country were subject to the same rocket barrage as the Israelis, we would hear many voices urging swift retaliation. Given that and given the difficulty that any Israeli Government would face in not responding to such attacks, will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about what he is doing with neighbouring states to put pressure on Hamas to stop the rocket attacks on Israel so that we can move towards restarting the peace process?
My hon. Friend is right that any nation faced with this situation would respond to such rocket attacks and would be under immense pressure to do so from its own domestic population. It is important for Hamas to feel the pressure to stop such attacks. That happened after the previous two conflicts, and we saw a ceasefire. It is important that that happens again. I have mentioned the conversations that I have had with Egypt, Jordan and some of the Gulf states about this, so there is Arab pressure and Arab engagement with Hamas to try to bring this to an end. The UK will continue to support that process behind the scenes.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that what is needed is a ceasefire to provide relief to the people of Gaza and to restart the peace process. But is it not too late? In all the 17 years I have been in this House, progress towards a two-state solution has been in reverse. Just last year, the UN predicted that potable water in Gaza would run out by 2016. Palestinian officials are reporting that the Israelis are targeting water and sewerage systems. Before this latest attack, the people of Gaza were spending 30p out of every pound on safe drinking water. How will we ensure that they can live while we carry on this argument?
The hon. Lady asks a very good question on water and sanitation. I think that I pointed out in my statement that some of the aid that we supply through DFID and international agencies is absolutely to help with that, because there are several hundred thousand people without adequate water and sanitation. She is also right that the cycles of violence in Gaza are getting worse. Each one seems to be worse than the preceding one in terms of the devastation that is brought about, the range of rockets that are fired from Gaza into Israel, and the intensity of the Israeli retaliation. The warning is clear to all those involved that without a viable peace process this cycle of violence will only get worse in the years ahead. That is what we want them to remember whenever a ceasefire is agreed in this conflict.
Like many Members, I have been contacted by a large number of constituents who are deeply concerned about the security situation in Gaza. On behalf of them, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to continue to press all those involved to ensure that they find a peaceful solution through the US-led process?
Yes, I know that there is very strong feeling, and great anxiety, among many people in this country. We will certainly continue those efforts through this US-led process. We will also do our best, through our humanitarian assistance, to relieve the suffering of many people in every way we can.
With half of the population in Gaza aged under 18 locked in an open prison in one of the most densely urban concentrations in the world, there was never any prospect that children would not be the disproportionate victims of this military action. Now we see tens of thousands of homes without electricity and a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation. What urgent representations can the Foreign Secretary make now to ensure that while we wait for the ceasefire, which will inevitably come, we do not see a further worsening of a catastrophic humanitarian situation?
Those are the urgent representations that we are making, including all the ones I have been making over this weekend. The hon. Lady is right to refer to the loss of electricity. However, it seems that 70,000 homes in Gaza lost electricity because of a rocket fired from within Gaza that brought down a power line coming from Israel. So such power loss can be brought about by fire from both sides. We must bear that in mind, but, of course, our urgent representations will go on.
The tragedy of Gaza is that, following the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, the Palestinians had a golden opportunity to create a model of how a Palestinian state would be run to give the Israelis the confidence ultimately to withdraw from the west bank. Instead, however, Hamas took over from Fatah and decided to spend all its money not on vital infrastructure but on building up an arsenal of 11,000 rockets. Where did those rockets come from to get into the Gaza strip? Is my right hon. Friend confident that the Egyptians have closed down the tunnels, the tolls from which fund Hamas in all its criminal activity in the Gaza strip?
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. The history of the past nine years would be different had Hamas or any other Palestinian leaders in Gaza been able to take it in a different direction. However, I have also reiterated today the many criticisms that have been made of Israeli policy. The rockets or their components have clearly been smuggled in, probably largely through such tunnels. Egypt has closed many of the tunnels, which is one thing that has put Hamas under more pressure in recent months, but Hamas has to see that it is pointless to continue with this cycle of violence.
We have had several contributions about the proportionality of Israel’s military response, but we are ultimately discussing innocent people and children dying. With that in mind, at what point does the Foreign Secretary think that we should move from a proportionate to a disproportionate response? Surely the current death toll in Gaza is the clearest sign of a disproportionate and indiscriminate response. Will he declare it as such?
The tragedy is that there are innocent civilians on all sides. People are suffering terribly in Gaza, but the 5 million Israelis who live within rocket range and are running for their underground shelters every few hours are also innocent civilians. Our emphasis must therefore be on doing the things that I have described: promoting a ceasefire; providing humanitarian relief; and reviving the peace process. Those are three clear planks of our policy and I am sure that they are right.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that there is fault on both sides of the argument, and I know that he is doing all that he can to create the conditions for a ceasefire. Does he agree that peace will be possible only if conditions in Gaza, which, incidentally, are appalling, are improved? What more can the UK do to help ordinary Palestinians, who suffer such intolerable conditions even when no military conflict is taking place?
That is an important point. I pointed out earlier that we are providing £349 million of assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, to which we are the world’s third biggest donor. Some of that assistance is going into Gaza, but more will be necessary in these circumstances. We are also looking to Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza, because conditions for the people, as my hon. Friend rightly says, are an important component of future peace.
The Foreign Secretary has already acknowledged the importance of access to water and sanitation. What assessment has he therefore made of reports that Israeli aircraft have been targeting water wells? If they have, that is a clear breach of international law.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that we do not at the moment have enough detailed information to be able to assess that ourselves. Those accusations are made against Israel. Equally, as I have mentioned, Israelis allege that Hamas stations military headquarters, facilities or weapons in the proximity of civilian infrastructure and homes. Accusations are made on both sides and we cannot conclusively distinguish between them, which is why we must concentrate on what I have set out.
I think that that relates to the question that I have just answered from Cathy Jamieson, in that it is not possible for us at this distance and without a presence on the ground to assess every single thing that happens within Gaza. Strong accusations are made about the targeting of civilian areas and Israelis make counter-accusations that military infrastructure is positioned in those civilian areas, so rather than try to judge things from London it is important for us to concentrate on bringing about an agreed ceasefire.
The Foreign Secretary has quite rightly drawn attention to the role of the international community in securing a ceasefire, but can he give his assessment of how likely it is that we will get a cessation of violence in the days ahead?
We must guard against any excessive optimism, because the situation is dire. Nevertheless, in previous such conflicts there has been recognition after some days, as others have said, that there is no military solution and that there is a need for a ceasefire on both sides. I hope that that recognition is there and that the efforts to promote it, which are going on now, will fall on receptive ears on both sides.
On these occasions—sadly, there are too many of them—the House becomes polarised, so I commend my right hon. Friend for his balanced responses. He will be aware that after the last ceasefire in 2013, 74 rockets and mortars were fired, quite routinely, into Israel and in the first six months of this year, before the kidnapping of the three young Israelis, 133 rockets were fired into Israel. What hope does he have that after the inevitable ceasefire this time round we will not meet again in two years’ time in similar circumstances?
My hon. Friend is quite right about that and that was why I was saying earlier that the cycle of violence has got worse. He is right that, even between ceasefires, a large number of rockets have been launched against Israel, although usually in between ceasefires they have been launched by other groups and not necessarily by Hamas. What distinguishes a period such as this one is that Hamas is engaged in large-scale rocket fire against Israel, which it could control and prevent. He is right to sound a cautionary note about what will happen after any ceasefire and that further intensifies the message that reviving the peace process is very important.
Israel’s right to defend itself, of which the Foreign Secretary speaks, is not an unconstrained right, yet Israel’s response has been unconstrained. It has been disproportionate and wrong. Heavy bombing in a densely populated area with 100,000 civilians, causing the death of 170 people, a third of them children, is not self-defence, it is barbarism. What leverage does the Foreign Secretary have and will he now apply it to make the Israeli Government reappraise this barbaric and unproductive strategy?
My hon. Friend Michael Fabricant spoke about the polarising aspects of this issue and there are passionate feelings about this and about what is happening to people in Gaza. As I said earlier, we must also remember that many hundreds of rockets have been launched indiscriminately against people living in Israel and rather than refine each day our value judgments we are concentrating on bringing about an agreed ceasefire and urging all sides to abide by international humanitarian law. I think that that is the right thing to continue to do.
Mona El-Farra, a doctor working on the Gaza strip, has described in graphic detail the pain and damage caused to civilians in this collective punishment of Palestinian people. I agree with Members on both sides of the House that in the long term we need to tackle the underlying issues with blockades, access to justice and the settlements, but in the short term, what additional pressure can we place on the Israeli Government—particularly as regards the disproportionate and indiscriminate action that they are taking on the people of Gaza—and on Hamas? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure all Members of the House that the tone of today’s statement and the comments being made are being conveyed to them?
Absolutely, and the tone that I have taken today, which I think, judging by the reaction, is shared widely across the House, is exactly the tone of our discussions with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and with others in the region over the past few days. The pressure really takes that form of trying to find the formula for the ceasefire, which other nations are involved in and which we have supported at the UN Security Council—it is diplomatic pressure that is most likely to succeed and has succeeded previously—and then we have to resume the search, as the hon. Lady rightly says, to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas, but does he understand that his unwillingness to condemn as disproportionate the current response by the Israeli Government feeds into a view held by many of our constituents that the lives of Palestinians are not regarded equally with the lives of Israelis in this conflict and does very little to put additional pressure on the Government of Israel to act in a proportionate way when it is under attack?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the constituents of all those in this House that we are clear about the equal value of lives all over the world; that applies to Israelis and Palestinians as well. I think our efforts have to be geared to trying to achieve what I set out in the statement, and I do not think it would be helpful to refine our judgment each day about the tactics of each side. We need to bring about an agreed ceasefire, and the diplomatic processes we are engaged in are the best way to do that. That is the best way to save all lives, including Palestinian lives. I do not judge that any other way of doing that would be more effective.
The air strikes, the commando raids and the rocket attacks have got to stop before any more children are killed, but may I press the Foreign Secretary on resolution 1860, on which Britain led back in 2009 and which stated that justice required
“sustained and regular flow of goods and people through…crossings”.
Does the Foreign Secretary not agree that without progress restoring the normality of trade, jobs and growth, we risk trapping the Palestinian people in a cycle of not only violence but despair from which there is no escape?
Yes, I agree. That was an important resolution, and with our EU partners and the office of the Quartet we will continue to press the Israeli Government at ministerial and official levels to ease the restrictions on Gaza. This is an argument that we have never won—that no British Government have won—with Israel, but we will continue to make it. Israeli restrictions on movements of goods and people do tremendous damage to the economy in Gaza and to the long-term prospects for peace.
The bleak situation facing the middle east so adequately reflected in today’s exchanges calls for an enhanced role for the United Nations Secretary-General, at least in the context of de-escalation and achieving a ceasefire—it may be that other parties would want to carry the peace process forward. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with that summation that there is a role for the UN Secretary-General, and will he support that at the Security Council and in other forums?
Yes I do. The UN Secretary-General has made clear statements about the need for bold choices on both sides, and the Security Council agreed a statement on Saturday calling for an agreed ceasefire. The UN Secretary-General has to judge what he can achieve in any conflict in the world, but this is certainly an area where we support a strong role for him, as well as for the work of others behind the scenes in trying to lay the groundwork for an agreed ceasefire by both sides.
Like all Members I condemn the rocket attacks, but like many Members I consider the bombings and aggression that has led to the loss of many innocent children’s lives, damage to schools and destruction of homes to be disproportionate—indeed, many of my constituents feel that it amounts to collective punishment. I am sure the Foreign Secretary agrees that there is an urgent need for increased humanitarian assistance. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency thinks that there is a shortfall in its emergency appeal. What representations can the right hon. Gentleman make to his counterparts to ensure that UNRWA has all the resources it needs?
My ministerial colleagues from the Department for International Development were here earlier, and of course I will update them on all other comments made in the House. The scale of our support through DFID for UNRWA will continue, and DFID stands ready to increase that support, as I made clear in my statement, so if the situation continues to worsen, we will intensify our efforts to get humanitarian supplies through to the people of Gaza.
I add my voice to those of all the Members who have unreservedly condemned the violence in all the forms it takes in this tragedy. Looking towards the ceasefire, which cannot come quickly enough, will the Foreign Secretary please tell the House what support the British, the EU and the UN will give to projects that foster co-operation and co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis, to build that capacity for a new generation of leaders who are committed to dialogue, peace and the two-state solution?
This is a very important point. The hon. Gentleman will know that our embassy in Tel Aviv and our consulate-general in Jerusalem support such projects, with the encouragement of Members of Parliament on all sides. They are often difficult to bring about because of such a tense and acrimonious situation, but we will continue to do that and we will look at how we can broaden such work in the future.
We understand the immediate need for a ceasefire and for humanitarian aid, but we must look at the underlying causes, with Gaza under siege and 60% of the west bank now under direct military rule and a seemingly complete failure to halt the continuing expansion of the Israeli settlements. The Foreign Secretary has mentioned how difficult it is to influence Israel about the treatment of Gaza, but those settlements in the west bank are illegal, so surely more could be done there. Can he explain what more could be done to put pressure on Israel in order to deal with the way that it is behaving and therefore to bring forward the peace process?
This, too, is a very important point. Illegal settlements on occupied land are a major obstacle to peace. We believe they should stop. We have our own guidelines on settlement produce in this country, as the hon. Lady knows. We have recently agreed across the European Union a common statement of guidelines on doing business with settlements. This reflects increased international pressure, but of course the ultimate answer to the issue of settlements is a two-state solution; it is to resolve the final status issues. That is the only way in which the issue of settlements will be resolved in the end, and that is why the work led by Secretary Kerry on this is so important.