“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a Statement to the House on Gaza. The House is aware that, despite intense efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, talks between Israel 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
Israel then launched Operation Protective Edge on
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 Palestinian dependants from Gaza, through Israel to Jordan for onward travel. I am grateful to the UN and FCO 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 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 Israel Defense Forces estimate that 5 million Israeli civilians live within range of rocket fire 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 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 the authorities in Egypt, with the support of the international community. All those with influence over Hamas must use it.
We are in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, our partners and allies. The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on
Once a ceasefire is agreed, it will be vitally important 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 ceasefire 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 from Gazan militants 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. Over half of Gaza’s 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 up to 2015, and providing around £30 million a year to help the people of Gaza.
The UK is the third biggest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency general fund. Our support has enabled UNRWA to respond to the crisis by continuing to provide crucial health services to 70% of the population by sheltering 17,000 displaced people, and by distributing almost 30,000 litres of fuel to ensure that emergency water and sewerage infrastructure can operate. DfID is helping to fund the World Food Programme, the ICRC 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. My right honourable friend the Minister 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 that guarantees peace and security for both peoples. I once again pay tribute to Secretary Kerry’s efforts to secure a permanent peace. The prospects for negotiations of course look 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, this must 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 the 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 must also 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 of these areas, the UK will play its role, working closely with the US and European colleagues, encouraging both sides back to dialogue, supporting the Palestinian Authority, keeping pressure on Hamas and alleviating the humanitarian consequences of conflict. There can be no substitute for leadership and political will from the parties. 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 Palestinian state, can end this cycle of violence and it is only the parties themselves, with our support, who can make that peace”.
That concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement of her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place. The spiral of violence that has engulfed Gaza, southern Israel and the West Bank in recent days is bringing terrible suffering to innocent people. Of course the firing of rockets into Israel by Gaza-based militants is rightly condemned by all people of good will. No Government on earth would tolerate such attacks on their citizens, and we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself. In recent days, nearly 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel. At least three Israelis have been seriously injured and there have been other injuries as well.
However, the Foreign Secretary was right to point out that since the start of the Israeli military operation in Gaza only seven days ago, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured. As the Statement said, the United Nations has reported that a large number of those killed, over 80%, were civilians, and 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 by all sides. The truth is, of course, that the life of a Palestinian child is worth no less than the life of an Israeli child. Every life is equal, irrespective of religion and nationality. The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the horrific kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the burning alive of a Palestinian teenager. These were truly shocking events but, while those barbaric acts seem the proximate cause of the latest spiral of violence, the underlying cause for this latest crisis is surely the failure over decades to achieve a two-state solution for the two peoples. Does the Minister agree?
The House will remember our debates in 2008-09 and 2012 on what today seems grimly familiar: in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. The same pattern seems to be repeating itself. In 2008-09, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire; in 2012 the Egyptians brokered one. On both occasions it was clear that the conflict between Israel and Hamas cannot be solved through force of arms alone. I am sure that Her Majesty’s Government recognise that there can be no military solution to this conflict. Does the Minister agree that the scale of the suffering in Gaza, adding to the effects of the continuing blockade, only serves to fuel hatred and embolden Israel’s enemies?
The further isolation of the Palestinian Authority in the face of military action weakens its own domestic legitimacy. Surely that ultimately makes negotiations harder and peace more difficult to achieve. Today, the risk of all-out escalation in the conflict and the threat of a ground offensive action are very real indeed. However, of course—and this should constantly be said—they are preventable if Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel. As Her Majesty’s Opposition, we are clear not only on the need for an immediate ceasefire but that a full-scale ground invasion would be both a disaster for the people of Gaza and a strategic error for Israel. It is vital that our Government, along with allies, now make that position clear to the Israeli Government in the crucial hours and days ahead. I am sure that the Minister agrees with that.
We of course welcome the statements made by the United Nations Security Council on Saturday calling for a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary spoke of Her Majesty’s Government being willing to consider further action at the UN Security Council if a ceasefire was not agreed. Can the Minister set out what sort of further action might be involved? I am sure that we are all agreed that the United Nations has to take a forthright role in seeking to bring the recent violence to an end.
There have been calls for the United Nations Secretary-General to travel to the region as a mediator between the two sides. Do Her Majesty’s Government support such a call? We all know from bitter experience over many years 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, blockades and repeated incursions into occupied lands will make peace and ultimately security much harder, not easier, to achieve. Alas, it appears to be not a strategy for peace, more a recipe for conflict.
Of course we welcome all the humanitarian efforts that the Foreign Secretary has set out and that are being made by the Government on behalf of this country. It is very good that Britain plays such a major role. We also welcome the good news concerning the departure of British nationals and Palestinian dependants from Gaza. However, do we not all know after all these years that a humanitarian response, while absolutely vital, is not sufficient? That is obvious from the past few days, and from Israel’s overwhelming military might. I repeat: Hamas, weakened today by el-Sisi’s rise in Egypt and differences with Iran over Syria, can itself revert the risk of an imminent ground invasion by stopping the rocket attacks.
Israel needs more than just tactics for winning the next round of war. It needs a strategy for building peace. This is a time and a crisis that demands not revenge but statesmanship motivated by justice. Only politics and a negotiated solution offer a way forward to peace.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support at what is an incredibly difficult time. He speaks with a sombre tone; I speak with a heavy heart. There is no doubt that, as long as the cycle of violence goes on, the prospects of peace recede. That is why we have called for an immediate de-escalation and a restoration of the November 2012 ceasefire, to avoid further civilian injuries and the loss of innocent life.
The noble Lord referred specifically to the fact that there was no military solution. I agree with him on that. Even as it stands, it is vital that we ensure that all military actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and collaborated in a way to avoid further civilian casualties.
On the inability to resolve this conflict, the noble Lord spoke about what more could be done. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on many occasions and talked about how the window of opportunity is slowly closing. I quote Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East chief, who said the inability to resolve this conflict—we all carry the responsibility of that—
“inevitably means more tension, more resentment, more injustice, more insecurity, more tragedy, and more grief”.
We have seen that over the past few days. However, I once again return to the fact that only the US can truly move this forward and, among other things, deliver Israel into an agreement. Secretary Kerry is on his way to the region but the noble Lord quite rightly identifies that the situation has now changed, even from 2012. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been in discussions with a number of Foreign Ministers from the Arab League, discussing how we can ensure that the different parties to this dispute can be brought to the table, because—I go back to saying what I have always said—only a negotiated solution will bring this matter to an end.
My Lords, I declare my interests as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for the Palestinian territories. Even before the current hostilities began, health services in Gaza were in steady decline, with drugs running dangerously low and 300 pieces of essential equipment not functioning. That was before the horrendous lifetime disabilities that have been suffered by hundreds of Palestinians, many of them children. Will the Government do all they can to ensure the necessary medical supplies reach Gaza? MAP is one of only three NGOs to have contributed to dealing with the drug shortage so far, so there is quite a worrying lack of take-up. Will the Government put all the pressure that they possibly can on the relevant authorities to ensure that the patients who need skilled reconstructive surgery outside Gaza are able to leave Gaza? At the moment, only a trickle of patients are getting out.
I thank my noble friend for that update. She comes to these matters with great expertise and understanding of the region. On a number of occasions, including before the current situation arose, I have said that it is only right that we work together to ease the restrictions on Gaza. We continue to urge Israel to ease the restrictions, including the movement of goods and persons from and to the Gaza Strip. However, my noble friend will be aware that the United Kingdom is one of the largest donors to the region and we will ensure we continue that support.
I thank the Minister for all the work she and the Foreign Secretary are doing to seek to alleviate this truly tragic situation. She referred to a cycle of violence. In addressing this problem, would she agree that it is vitally important not to lose sight of the fundamental point that Hamas is a terrorist group that applauds the killing of Israeli students and which is seeking to kill by missiles as many Israeli civilians as possible? By contrast, the state of Israel pulled out of Gaza and is now trying to protect its population from intolerable missile attacks, which are launched from bases in civilian locations. Israel is doings its best to give warnings. This fundamental distinction between the two parties is symbolised by the actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who telephoned the father of the Palestinian boy who was savagely and inexcusably murdered—that is the incident to which the Minister referred—to express the outrage and condolences of the Israeli Government and their people. That action is quite inconceivable from the leaders of Hamas in relation to Israeli citizens.
My Lords, I agree that the actions of Hamas in no way add towards bringing this matter to an end. Nor, indeed, do they add to the peace. In fact, the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel means this matter is prolonged and made much worse. However, it is important for us to hold on to positive moments, such as the one the noble Lord referred to: the moment when Prime Minister Netanyahu rang the father of the boy who was tragically burnt. We should also hold on to the positive moment when President Abbas said he would give all the support he could to ensure Israel found the kidnappers and killers of the three teenagers. It is important that we hold on to those small positive moments, even in these difficult times.
My Lords, the question I ask may be provocative to some, as I take a diametrically different view to that of, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. Therefore, I first make absolutely clear my total commitment to the right of Israel to exist in peace behind its borders, and make clear that the rights in this convoluted and awful area of the world are not all on one side—not by a long chalk. At the same time, I have been to the West Bank and Gaza four times in the past 12 years, and I have seen for myself the quite appalling circumstance in which the Gazans live. It is not just the Gazans; the people of the West Bank live in a state of permanent humiliation, with the occupying army of Israel, the check-points and all the rest of it.
I ask my noble friend this question. Nowhere in the Statement—it was quite a long one—does one find any reference to the overriding strategic injustice in the region. Israel is not content to exist within the borders set by the United Nations, not forgetting that no one asked the Palestinians; vast numbers of them were pushed out. As I say, I support totally the right of Israel to exist peacefully, but the truth of the matter is, for the last—
The question will come soon. Does she not agree that the constant, tenacious determination of Israel to colonise the West Bank—one is told that nearly half a million colonists live in that country and often take the greater part of the resources, water and so on—is the casus belli in this situation? I know from speaking to its leader, Dr Haniyeh, that Hamas withheld any rocket attacks and violence at all for several years, but the extremists in Gaza had to put up with provocation that the Israelis, if the positions were reversed, would not contemplate. Is it not time we said to Israel that we will not go on countenancing this colonisation and, unless they stop it, we, in conjunction with other members of the European Union, will have to apply sanctions to them?
I suppose the issue that I take with my noble friend is this: it is important we do not draw parallels between Hamas and the Israeli Government, or indeed try to describe them in a way where we treat them as having equal responsibility. On the one hand, we are dealing with an organisation that is considered to be a terrorist organisation, on the other a state that is a liberal democracy. Israel would be horrified to feel it was being judged by the standards of Hamas.
On the specific issue of settlements that my noble friend raises, we have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcement to expand settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including in east Jerusalem. We have consistently said that, as well as being illegal under international law, settlements undermine the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those who are working for a sustainable peace.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned that 80% of those killed have been civilians and that a third of those have been children. How many children have been killed in the three Israeli offensives in 2008, 2012 and 2014? How many Israeli children and how many Palestinian children have been killed?
I concur with the noble Lord opposite who said that the life of a Palestinian child is worth no less than the life of an Israeli child and that the life of an Israeli child is worth no less than the life of a Palestinian child. Every child is equal, irrespective of race, religion or nationality. In relation to civilian deaths, I can inform the House that during the 2008-09 Cast Lead operation there were nine Israeli civilian casualties and 759 Palestinian civilian casualties, of which 344 were children. In relation to the 2012 Pillar of Defense operation, there were four Israeli civilian casualties and 90 Palestinian civilian casualties, of which 30 were children. In the current 2014 Protective Edge operation, there have so far been no Israeli civilian casualties and 133 Palestinian civilian casualties, of which 36 were children.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Foreign Secretary was right to talk of the mounting horror of the watchers at what is going on. Israeli friends often accuse one of double standards. They say that we hold them to a higher standard than their neighbours, and that atrocities perpetrated by Israelis are condemned more loudly than those from around. They are completely right: we do hold Israel to a higher standard. Respect for Israeli civilisation, values, culture and history is widespread in this country and that raises the bar, so we take more seriously the behaviour of the Israeli armed forces in recent days. What new action will the Government take to bring home to Mr Netanyahu our abhorrence of the barbarities being perpetrated by a great civilisation?
The noble Lord is probably referring to what I said in response to my noble friend—that Israel is a liberal democracy and we therefore hold it to account against liberal democratic standards. There is no doubt that Israel would like to be held accountable against liberal democratic standards because those are the values that it upholds and stands for. It would be wrong for us to try to compare the conduct of Israel as a liberal democratic state with that of a potentially designated terrorist organisation.
Does my noble friend not agree that the tragedy of Gaza is that, following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there was a golden opportunity to give Israel the confidence that she could subsequently withdraw from the West Bank but, instead, Hamas took over from Fatah? Rather than building infrastructure and creating a tolerant society, Hamas acquired and fired some 11,000 rockets from 2005, mainly, as my noble friend Lord Pannick said, from densely populated civilian areas, which led to terrible human tragedy. Because they were fired from densely populated human centres, the inevitable action, which had to be taken, led to those terrible deaths, whether they were of Israelis or Palestinians. I do not think it is meaningful to compare one with another; any death in that area is a tragedy. Does the Minister not agree that international pressure on Iran is now needed to stop it supplying these rockets and to stop it supplying funding to the terrorist organisation that Hamas now is?
My noble friend makes an important point. This is a matter that has border connotations. The discussion that we are currently having with Iran about its nuclear ambitions and its wish to be part of the international family will also involve discussions with it in relation to its support for terrorist organisations.
My Lords, we have had 2008, 2012 and 2014, and no doubt when this little incident finishes there will be a 2016 and a 2018. It is very clear that action needs to be taken to solve this problem once and for all. We all have to make a distinction: this is not a Palestinian issue per se; it is also a Hamas issue, and Hamas is a terrorist organisation as every member of NATO would agree. Does the Minister agree that we have to continue making the differentiation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as a terrorist organisation?
The noble Lord will of course be aware that one of the challenges to the Middle East peace process has always been about making sure that the partners for peace on both sides are those who represent everybody—that is, part of the Israeli state and of the Palestinian people. That is why the Government felt that the technocratic Government who were committed to the quartet principles were a step in the right direction and provided an opportunity for real discussions to take place. We sincerely hope that the current matter is de-escalated and that we get to a point of ceasefire so that we can get back to the negotiating table.
My Lords, I draw to the Minister’s attention the first two sentences of the editorial in today’s Times:
“When Hamas fires rockets into Israel, it is attempting to kill ordinary Israeli citizens. When Israel assaults Gaza, it is attempting not to kill ordinary Palestinian citizens”.
That is perhaps the difference that we ought to emphasise. I am sure that everybody wants an immediate ceasefire. Bearing in mind what the Minister said earlier, is that immediate ceasefire of any real benefit if Hamas, as well as Fatah and the PA, refuses to accept the quartet conditions? Finally, does my noble friend agree that the strategic objective of Israel is to halt the rocket fire? Can she tell the House what she believes Hamas’s strategic objective to be in firing rockets into Israel?
Of course, I cannot say what Hamas’s strategic objective is; I speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. In relation to the important point that my noble friend raises, intent is significant. What Hamas is intending by targeting civilians is a matter that we must take into consideration, and of course intent is important so far as concerns the Government of Israel. However, I think that my noble friend will agree that output is also important. Although you may not intend to kill children, if dozens of children are being killed then it is time for a ceasefire.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that this is a time for recognition of certain realities and for magnanimity? One reality is that 170 people have been killed in Gaza and that is an unspeakable humanitarian tragedy. Another reality is that Israel is surrounded by many enemies who are sworn to bring about its total destruction and elimination. As concerns the hundreds, if not thousands, of rockets that have been fired into southern Israel over the past years, each one was fired in the hope, desire and expectation that it would claim life or bring about maiming. It may be said that rockets have been fired from Israel into Gaza. I ask the House to accept that that is by way of counterbattery fire to try to eliminate the sites that bring about death and destruction in Israel.
What would we do if we were in that situation? During the war, when we were fighting for our existence, we had to bomb Brest and Lorient, the U-boat pens, and we killed thousands of French people. Does the Minister accept that situation? They were not our enemies but our allies. It was part of total war, and part of our defence and the position that we were occupying. Is this not a situation where there must be magnanimity and a complete ceasefire? There must be magnanimity on the part of Israel too as regards the siege of Gaza.
The noble Lord makes an important point. It would be almost impossible for us to predict what it would feel like for us to be in that position. I can honestly say that I would not want to envisage being Israeli or Palestinian right now.
My Lords, the Statement clearly says:
“International humanitarian law requires both sides to distinguish between military and civilian targets and enable unhindered humanitarian access”.
The fact is that there has been indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel but, at the same time, the fact is also that Israeli fire has killed 173 Palestinians. Will the noble Baroness tell us what is being done to apply the international humanitarian law to which the Statement refers? She said that there has been contact with Egypt, Jordan and Qatar over what is happening in Palestine. Has there been any contact with some of the very powerful Arab states which also clearly have a very strong influence over Hamas and the Palestinians?
I think I said at the beginning that it is important that those who exercise influence in relation to both parties use that influence to make sure that we bring both parties back to the negotiating table. The situation is different from what it was in 2012. The situation in Egypt has changed. The number of people who seek to have, or have, any influence over Hamas is much reduced. It is therefore important that we keep open our discussions with our allies and partners in the Arab world to make sure that they do all that they can to bring this matter to a ceasefire. Certainly, we will do all that we can with our allies and partners to do the same.