Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 4:58 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for introducing this debate, and for speaking so clearly and in such a balanced way. I much appreciated what she had to say.

Everyone involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is suffering terrible hardship. The Palestinians feel helpless and hopeless and are suffering badly, while the Israelis are damaged, fearful and desperate. No one is winning, and everyone suffers. The situation seems to worsen day by day. Virtually everyone seems to believe that a just, two-state solution is the answer. Here in the UK and in Europe, there is a tendency to believe that Israel is largely to blame, and that if only Israel pulled down the fence, withdrew from the West Bank, and allowed free movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel, all would be well and the conflict would end. However, while the conflict would be over, it would be because Israel no longer existed. Not only Hamas, but Fatah, and other terrorist groups have repeatedly made clear that their avowed aim is the total destruction of Israel. One just has to look at Fatah's official web site to see that. It states:

"Complete liberation of Palestine and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence . . . armed public revolution is the method to liberating, and this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished".

That seems fairly unambiguous to me.

"Have no mercy on the Jews and wherever you meet them, kill them", and so on; was the message that poured out of Palestinian television in the wake of 9/11. That sort of propaganda inciting hatred, death and destruction continues day after day in the kindergartens, schools and mosques. Much of it was inspired directly by Sheikh Yassin. Is it any wonder that the young are brain-washed into violence; and is it any wonder that cynical terrorists can send out 12 and 14 year-olds as human bombs in that most cowardly and despicable of acts?

It is the terrible and long-standing antipathy to the existence of the state of Israel constantly inflamed by propaganda and the deliberate grooming of kindergarten children that fuels the terrorism, rather than the poverty and deprivation which the Palestinians undoubtedly suffer but which alone has never been a justification for terror anywhere else in the world. In any event, many of the suicide bombers turn out to be educated and relatively better off rather than deprived.

It is against that background that I come to the killing of Sheikh Yassin which was greeted with such an interesting range of responses. In the EU and UK it seemed often condemned as the assassination of a crippled old man in a wheelchair, a spiritual leader coming away from his prayers in a mosque—what could be more dastardly?—and among Hamas and in other Muslim countries as a disaster with vows of revenge and extreme retaliation. But can anyone doubt that Hamas is uncompromising in its implacable opposition to Israel and that its avowed aim, constantly reiterated, is the total destruction of Israel? The key point here is that it wants no truck with the idea of a negotiated agreement. Withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank is merely the first step on the way to the complete extinction of Israel and its people. That is Hamas's message and that is what Sheikh Yassin inspired his followers constantly to achieve. He would never have dreamt of denying it and he revelled in the fact that his hands were steeped in the blood of Israeli citizens. He continued to inspire his followers to pursue these ends until the day he died.

However, given that he was built in the mould of Osama bin Laden, it has been questioned whether it was wise to kill him now or indeed at any time. Would not it just inspire further terrorist activities? But terrorism against Israel is a daily way of life and death; and no doubt that will continue so long as it is not prevented. Indeed, one could say that our own Government's efforts to remove Osama bin Laden will not stop terrorism but we cannot simply roll over and leave him to get on with his activities; nor could Israel be expected to leave Sheikh Yassin.

To paraphrase Ferdinand Mount in the Sunday Times in a somewhat different context, Israel feels "damned if it fights terror, dead if it doesn't". We cannot uncouple Yassin from Mr Sharon's proposal to remove the settlers from Gaza and some of the West Bank. Here in Europe and the UK this has been greeted with a mixture of suspicion and anxiety and something less than enthusiasm. One might have thought that a little encouragement would not have been out of place, but instead there is suspicion that, first, Sharon did not mean it. While he can be accused of many things, and often is, I do not think that he can be said not to be blunt, outspoken and to mean exactly what he says. He does not prevaricate. Furthermore, he risks his political future by pressing ahead with this idea. So he means it and he has been saying it for over 12 months. It is also said that it is far too little and limited. But surely it is an important first step towards a negotiated settlement and deserves more generous recognition.

If that is the response in Europe, the response in Gaza has been even more confused. The Palestinian Authority has found it difficult to come to terms with and is uncertain how to respond, as it must now be seen to respond, while Hamas has greeted the news as a great victory. While Israel desperately wants peace, Hamas desires victory and the withdrawal from Gaza is seen as a victory for terrorism. It provides great encouragement to press on with more terrorism. If they can achieve withdrawal without negotiation, who needs to negotiate?

I imagine that in this war with Hamas—and it is a war—Israel has to show that withdrawal from Gaza is not only not a sign of weakness, as withdrawal from Lebanon was construed, but is a sign of strength and a willingness to take the first step in a negotiated agreement. That, too, is another reason for targeting the Hamas leadership now; and, furthermore, it might also help to redress the balance in favour of the moderates in the Palestinian Authority who, with a little more help from the West, might begin to exert some pressure on the terrorist infrastructure. It was encouraging to read of that brave group of Palestinian intellectuals who called for a repudiation of terrorism as a way of achieving a just settlement for the Palestinians. It was encouraging, too, to read of the UK Government's efforts to bolster the Palestinian Authority for this purpose. I hope that the Minister may give us some details of what we are doing to help improve security in Gaza and to provide more aid to those unfortunate people caught in the middle.

It is also against that background that the security fence has to be viewed. I do not refer to the barriers we have been putting up around the Palace of Westminster to prevent the possibility of a terrorist attack but to Israel where that possibility has been realised every week for the past couple of years. It is an everyday fact; and Israel's right and indeed responsibility to try to defend its citizens seems entirely proper.

The objections raised are, first, that it is a wall although less than 10 per cent is a wall—and that incidentally was built a little while ago and is right on the Green Line, as I recently learned from our ambassador to Israel—and the rest is a fence. It is undoubtedly a strong, secure fence and one which has proved to be pretty effective—hence the outcry from Hamas. Nevertheless, it is one which can be moved given the possibility of negotiation between the Palestinians and Israelis. Indeed, some of the fence has already been moved. But negotiation is the key. Once the threat of terrorism is removed, there would be no need for a fence. Its position is negotiable if anyone were willing to talk without the threat of violence.

The potential dividends for both sides, given only the beginning of a meeting of minds, are enormous. Even a modest reduction in the language of terrorism could bring tremendous benefits. Within Israel, the fact that Muslim and Jew can live together is shown in innumerable ways every day. When in Israel recently, I visited a number of hospitals and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In contrast to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I was struck by the fact that large numbers of patients, staff and students from both religions were living and working together. I learnt that of the Members of the Knesset some 10 per cent were Arab Muslim. That seems rather larger than the proportion in any of the political parties in this country or, indeed, in any other western democracy.

The head of the transplantation services at Hadassah Hospital was a Muslim. While I was there, I heard about a Muslim patient who was receiving a liver transplant from a Jewish patient who had died. A Supreme Court judge is a Muslim. I am not sure that we have any. Sixteen per cent of the heads of departments at Afula Hospital are Muslim. No less than 34 per cent of the new medical student intake at Hadassah Hospital this year are Muslim. That is twice the proportion in the population.

There are myriads of examples of Arab and Jew living, working and playing together within Israel. Israel has shown, too, that it can live in peace with its neighbours in Jordan and Egypt. It is also the unfortunate case that no such admixture of Jew and Arab can exist in other Middle East countries when we know that over 700,000 Jews have been driven out of Iran, Iraq and Syria in the past few years.

But Israel is showing that it is possible for the two to live together and it is that which we must try to build upon. So I ask the Minister, first, for more details of the UK Government's efforts to bolster moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as it strives to improve security. There is time before Israel starts to withdraw from Gaza. Secondly, will my noble friend give more details about the humanitarian effort that the UK and the EU are making to relieve some of the grinding poverty in much of Gaza? Finally, can she indicate what efforts the United Kingdom Government are making to persuade Syria and Iran in particular to cease their support for training and funding for terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank?