Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:38 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 5:38 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I have listened to many speeches given by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, both in your Lordships' House and elsewhere. Her words are always wise and leave us all with much to think about. This afternoon we have heard the noble Baroness describe in vivid and moving detail the harrowing conditions in Gaza. I must thank her for sponsoring this debate.

I want to start by continuing where my noble friend Lord Hogg left off by quoting statistics. Two weeks ago in Madrid an offshoot of Al'Qaeda simultaneously exploded 10 bombs, killing 200 people and injuring over 1,000. It was an act of pure evil. In the past three years since the second intifada began, nearly 400 Israeli civilians have also been killed by terrorist bombings. As in Madrid they were going about their business: dancing in a nightclub, eating pizza, travelling on a bus, or sitting down for dinner to celebrate Passover.

Four hundred dead Israelis is equivalent to two Madrids. Spain's population is 40 million—seven times that of Israel. So, on a proportionate basis, Israel has suffered 14 Madrids. Closer to home, in 1998 a bomb set off by the Real IRA killed 29 of our own citizens in Omagh. Our population is 60 million—10 times that of Israel. On a pro rata basis, Israel has suffered the equivalent of 130 Omagh bombings. Fourteen Madrids or 130 Omaghs. Which democracy could withstand such an unremitting onslaught and what government could stand by and do nothing when faced with such an existential threat? Israelis, unlike Spaniards, do not have the luxury of throwing in the towel. Have the Israelis over-reacted? Probably. Is the situation for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank truly awful? Certainly.

However, we must be clear. Abject terror is the cause. Without it none of the horrors that the noble Baroness has described would exist. I have no particular liking for Prime Minister Sharon. To me, he is a man without vision and a bully, to boot. But in the face of terror he has acted like any other Israeli Prime Minister would under the same circumstances.

I wish to turn to two events that have been discussed in your Lordships' House today, that are relevant—the Yassin assassination and the building of the security fence. Sheikh Yassin had a sordid history. He had previously been arrested by the Israelis for the murder of two Israeli soldiers. He was serving two life sentences. Several years ago, in a prisoner exchange, he was released from captivity. After his release he resumed his activities as the leader of Hamas—not its spiritual leader, but its political leader. He directly planned and authorised many of the suicide bombings that killed many innocent Israelis. Yassin said the following:

"Islam is against the killing of all civilians. But Israelis are not civilians. We will continue our fight and kill Jews until Israel is an Islamic state".

One might call us over-sensitive, but we Jews are somewhat touchy when people say that they are going to kill us. We tend to believe them. Based on the history of the 20th century we have good reason for doing so. Sheikh Yassin kept to his word and he paid the price. The Israeli strategy with respect to the terrorists is clear. "If you kill our civilians we will attack your leaders—those who institute brute terror will pay the price and pay it personally". Is that not what we believe too?

At this moment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are not our special forces working with the Americans in trying to track down and eliminate bin Laden and the rest of his terror network? And will we not feel just that little bit safer when they, too, pay the price of their evil? Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will explain to me, because I really do not understand, why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary described the Israeli assassination as "unacceptable and unjustified"? In Britain, are we not attempting to do exactly the same to another global terrorist? To me that seems somewhat hypocritical, or am I missing something?

The security fence is a measure of last resort. Since the intifada began, Israel's economy has been in the doldrums. The fence is costing over 1 billion dollars, an amount that the country can barely afford. But again, what other option do the Israelis have? The fence that has been built in the north has already reduced the incidence of bombings, just as the fence that surrounds Gaza has almost eliminated terror attacks from that area. The mistake that the Israeli Government have made has been to build a fence that encroaches beyond the green line. It is a provocative move, although it must be said that under international pressure the Israelis have backed off and rebuilt parts of the fence.

That is no way for the Israelis or the wretched Palestinians to live. We have two obdurate old leaders in Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Arafat, both forged by many years of conflict. Sharon is brutal and ungiving. Arafat is corrupt and slippery. But there are Israelis and Palestinians who are younger and wiser. Those people who negotiated the Geneva accord are such people. The accord differs from many other attempts at peace, in that it is not an opening salvo, but a final peace treaty negotiated, line by line by brave Israelis and Palestinians. The accord sets out a two-state solution that offers Israel permanent security and offers the Palestinians the viable state that they yearn for. The accord has much to commend it.

I pay particular tribute to Daniel Levy, the son of my noble friend Lord Levy, for originating that project and helping to drive it to reach its conclusion. In the end, the Geneva accord, or something like it, will be the final peace treaty that the Palestinians and Israelis will sign. What a pity it is that today neither side has the men of vision or courage to make that happen.

Egypt and Israel signed their historic peace treaty in Washington 25 years ago this week. A brave man, Anwar Sadat, came to Jerusalem offering peace. The treaty was signed, but Sadat paid with his life. Today, a cold peace exists. Whatever else has happened in the region since 1979, the Israeli-Egyptian border has remained quiet.

Ten years ago Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement, also in Washington. Another brave Arab leader, King Hussein, made his peace with Israel. The two countries have also both kept to their commitments. It is often forgotten that Lebanon and Israel also signed a peace agreement in 1983, but Syria, consistent to its hard line and destructive role, forced its neighbour to rescind and tear up the treaty. Several years ago even Syria itself came close to a peace deal with Israel and even now that is not out of the question. Israel does want peace and has shown that it will not only sign peace treaties, but will stick by them.

I want to end by making a comment about Arab society—not my usual area of expertise, but something I feel that needs to be said. A report published in 2002 by the United Nations Development Programme looked at Arab human development. For the most part its authors were Arabs. It highlighted three deeply rooted shortcomings in Arab society. They were lack of freedom, lack of equality for women and lack of knowledge.

The Arab people 600 years ago were the light of world civilisation. Today, despite their huge natural resources of oil and gas, the 22 Arab nations are at the bottom of the league by any measure of human progress. Growth per capita is less than 0.5 per cent per annum; 27 per cent of Arab men are illiterate as are 51 per cent of women. In 1,000 years, the Arab nations have translated fewer books than Spain translates in a year. Only 1.6 per cent of Arabs have computers, compared with 7.8 per cent of people in the rest of the world. Internet access is almost non-existent. Nowhere in the 22 Arab countries is there a universal franchise, or any form of democracy as we would understand it. Out of 250 million Arabs, only 1 million have the full franchise for men and women. And, irony of ironies, all of those live in Israel as fully participating citizens.

The Arab peoples are poor, repressed, unempowered and kept in the dark. No wonder they are driven to excess. They are also fed the most virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. On Arab television, in schools and in newspapers, Jews are demonised. The material would make Dr Goebbels very proud. Stopping that would send out a very positive signal to Israelis and to Jews world-wide.

Yesterday in Britain our security forces prevented what might have been a terrible catastrophe. All of us, particularly those of us who spend our time in this Palace of Westminster, live in the expectation that something terrible is going to happen in our midst. In Israel, the same sense of doom hangs over its population. It is expecting a terrible revenge for the Yassin assassination. Passover is next week and, no doubt, the terrorists will try to outdo last year's gruesome bombing at an old people's home.

Whether it is Al'Qaeda, the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad or Hamas, these people all march to the same beat. Their terror is universal and indivisible—they do not distinguish between Christians, Jews, Hindus, or even moderate Muslims. They will continue their war. It is up to us to stand firm.