[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:52 am on 15 June 2010.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 11:52, 15 June 2010

The detail of what happened on the ship will come from the inquiries, but the information that I have brought to this debate-I think very damning condemnation of what happened-does not come from Israeli sources. It comes from the Turkish media and what has been shown on Hamas TV. Those facts might be very inconvenient for people who do not want to know about them, but they are there and they are part of the picture.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I understand the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend and her view on the issue, but does she agree that the differing accounts that are being given are themselves a good reason why the inquiry into the incident should be seen as genuinely independent and international, and as having credibility on all sides? Will she at least agree that that would perhaps provide some way forward from that unhappy incident?

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

There are indeed differing accounts of what happened, and that is to be expected in an exceedingly fraught and tragic situation such as the one that occurred. That is why I agree that it is important that inquiries should take place; but it is not possible to ignore the facts that I have stated: what happened on that flotilla, what was involved in its planning, the statements that have been made on the TV, the information that has been in the Turkish media, and the context in which Gaza is run, by an organisation with a charter that is simply genocidal.

There is a way forward. The statements made by Tony Blair, the middle east envoy, point a way forward to dealing with the issue of the crossings, but more than that must be done. The most constructive thing would be for Hamas to review its situation, withdraw its charter and state its agreement to accepting the existence of the state of Israel, and join Fatah in negotiations to secure a two-state solution to this tragic problem.

To pick up a comment from one of my hon. Friends about going to Gaza, I have been there-a long time ago, in 1967, just after the six-day war. That was certainly not a golden age for the people of Gaza, which had at that time been administered by Egypt under the armistice agreements of 1949. The people of Gaza were deeply distressed and dissatisfied with the rule of Egypt. They were in poverty and distress. After that war it was hoped that there might be a negotiated solution to the whole conflict, but the Khartoum conference, where the Arab states said clearly "No recognition, no negotiation, no peace" put an end to that. I hope that, whatever our different perspectives on why we are in the current position, we can all make a new start and there can be a negotiated peace on the basis of two states living together in peace and security.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Winding-up speeches will start at 12.10 and three hon. Members have said they want to speak, so I suggest brevity if possible.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 12:03, 15 June 2010

Before what I hope will be brief remarks, I point out by way of a declaration of interest that my constituency party has received donations from individuals and organisations supporting the rights of Palestinians, and I made several visits to Palestine, Gaza and the west bank in the previous Parliament.

As to the flotilla, about which we have heard quite a lot in the debate, we clearly have heard very different versions of what happened. As my hon. Friend Richard Burden said, perhaps for that reason more than any other, an independent inquiry-one that is seen to be independent-is demanded. The way the news came out was entirely predictable-an entire news blackout and suppression of information by the Israeli authorities for the first 48 hours. They gave their version of events, and with regret I must say that some of the highly partisan and unsupported accounts, blackening the name of people who were travelling on that flotilla by way of exonerating the Israeli actions, have been repeated in this debate and yesterday on the Floor of the House. That does not help, and nor does the way the Israeli information services deal with those matters.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I do not think that I have time to take interventions.

Travelling on that convoy were many independent, well-respected people, including an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, and Henning Mankell, the respected Swedish author. All those people have given eye-witness testimony as to the brutality and violence of the Israeli forces, who wholly unnecessarily stormed the convoy in international waters in the middle of the night. No real explanation can be given as to why that was necessary. I have heard a number of those eye-witness accounts, which are compelling and have the ring of truth about them. However, the solution to the absolutely black-and-white situation that we have heard described by the two sides so far is an independent inquiry.

I have three sets of questions for the Minister. On the responsibilities of the British Government, the treatment of British citizens needs to be looked into. Issues include the violence and brutality that many of them allege the Israeli forces meted out to them over a prolonged period, and the confiscation of their belongings. There is also the refusal of consular access. There has been great criticism of the embassy in Tel Aviv for not pressing as hard as other countries' embassies to get access to our citizens. All those matters require answers.

The second issue on which the Government should be prepared to act is the search for a more independent role for the inquiry. It would be useful to hear the Minister talk about the effectively tokenistic gesture of appointing Lord Trimble, who is known as a supporter of the boycott of Hamas and a friend of Israel, and who cannot be seen as impartial, and a judge who does not believe in an international element to the inquiry. That is not an independent inquiry; it is the basis for a whitewash, and it would be useful if the British Government asked for a genuine international inquiry.

Thirdly, the Minister was quoted as saying that he did not think that

"the British Government is talking about lifting the blockade" on Gaza. That quotation, which was in The Guardian last Thursday, may be wrong, but it would be disappointing if it was correct. We need to lift the blockade on Gaza; we need not to ease the restrictions or simply to see a greater number of supplies going in, but to restore full commercial and civil life to Gaza. Again, that is something that the Government should strongly support.

We are talking not about factional organisations, but about organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have said clearly and in terms over the past few days not only that the blockade is "illegal" and a "humanitarian catastrophe", but that it constitutes

"a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law."

I would like the British Government to make similar pronouncements and at last to put pressure on the Israelis to lift the wholly unjustifiable and inhuman punishment of 1.6 million civilians, which they have imposed simply because they have the ability to do so and because the rest of the world is not, at the moment, prepared to stand up to them.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East 12:08, 15 June 2010

The firing of rockets from Gaza into the south of Israel presents a menacing and deadly threat. It is completely wrong and it needs to stop because it is taking innocent lives. It is wrong because it provides the justification for Israel's retaliation, although not for its disproportionate response, which is merciless at times.

The question that I am constantly asked in Bradford East is why the state of Israel is allowed to get away with this. People simply cannot comprehend why international action is not taken. The answer, I have to conclude, is that Israel can get away with it and regularly does. Yes, Hamas is proscribed, but why is the state of Israel not proscribed? Everyone says that a peaceful solution is necessary, but why on earth should the state of Israel agree to a peaceful solution when brutal force has achieved so much for it over such a long period? In my view, the two-state solution is almost an impossible dream. The situation has gone too far. I hope that that is not the case, but I fear that it is.

Why should we take a lead? We should do so because the British are up to our necks in responsibility for the situation in the Palestine region. From 1917 onwards, we gave away something that was not ours; we turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing that took place after the second world war; and now we are participating in the international acceptance of an apartheid state. People say that that would not be allowed anywhere else. In fact, it was not allowed anywhere else-certainly not in South Africa.

Unless things change, they stay the same. We must take a lead with our European partners, as has been said. We must go back to Obama, who started by making a very positive speech in Cairo. However, we must also consider boycotts, divestment and sanctions, because those were the only things that carried any weight in South Africa. Those policies must extend not only to weapons but to sport and academic boycotts as well. The United Nations has made a score or more resolutions. It is not resolutions we need; it is resolve-

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Order. I apologise, but my earlier plea for brevity failed. I call Ivan Lewis.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:11, 15 June 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Buck on securing this debate and on her passionate, balanced and highly effective contribution, which was an extremely good start.

There is absolutely no doubt that the plight of the people of Gaza is both a humanitarian tragedy and a political crisis. The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable, and it is now essential to remove all obstacles not only to humanitarian assistance but to the materials and resources required to begin rebuilding homes, public infrastructure and the Gazan economy. However, that will happen only if Israel can be assured that systems are in place to ensure that arms and arms components cannot be smuggled or got in any way into Gaza. It is therefore essential that the Quartet and the Arab League work with Israelis and Palestinians to come up with a credible plan to end the blockade while meeting Israel's legitimate security concerns, which is the basis of resolution 1860. The Opposition warmly welcomes the work of Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton on those matters.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What do the British Government believe should be the EU contribution to such a plan? How quickly can a plan be put in place? Neither in this debate nor in yesterday's did anyone refer to the Egyptians putting in place security infrastructure to close the tunnels and prevent smuggling. Has that been done and, if so, what effect has it had on the tunnels?

On the Israel defence forces' raid on the Gaza flotilla, I made it clear during last night's debate that we welcome the Israeli Government's decision to set up an inquiry with the involvement of two international observers. However, we will watch closely to ensure that the inquiry meets the tests of independence, transparency and credibility. My questions to the Minister about the flotilla relate to many of my hon. Friends' contributions. Will British citizens who were on the flotilla have the opportunity to give evidence to the inquiry, and what efforts will the British Government make to facilitate that? What happened to the humanitarian assistance on the flotilla? We hear different accounts.

On aid, this country can be very proud of the aid that we provided to both the west bank and Gaza. The sad irony of this debate, for reasons that many hon. Members have raised, is the contrast between progress on the west bank and in Gaza. We should always pay tribute in such debates to the leadership of Prime Minister Fayyad and to President Abbas for the improvements in security and economic growth on the west bank. We should also continue to support the two-year plan launched by Prime Minister Fayyad towards Palestinian statehood.

I have some specific questions for the Minister. Will the new Government maintain our commitment to £210 million in aid over three years for the west bank and Gaza? Was the £19 million for UNRWA in Gaza announced by the Secretary of State for International Development last week new money, or part of the £210 million that was already committed?

Let me briefly raise the continued detention of Gilad Shalit. I think that all Members agree that his detention is unacceptable and that he should be released without delay or precondition. It was very moving for me to meet his father not that long ago and hear the human misery that the family is going through. What more does the Minister think that the UK and the EU can do to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, particularly in their dialogue and contact with Arab states?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

As we are on the subject of the release of prisoners, does my hon. Friend think that the Palestinian parliamentarians should also be released?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I think that I dealt with that question last night, and my hon. Friend heard my answer then. He probably was not satisfied with it, but I give him the same answer now. Clearly, if people are being held without trial and without charge and there is no evidence that they have committed criminal offences, they should be released. If there is evidence of criminal offences, that evidence should be brought before the courts, and whatever the person's status-we have recently had a debate about status and parliamentarians in this country-they should be charged. That is my very clear position.

Finally, I have some specific questions about Hamas for the Minister. Do the Government stand by the three conditions laid down by the Quartet that Hamas must meet to be brought into the political process? Are the Government reviewing Britain's position on that issue, or is Britain arguing within the EU or the Quartet that that position should change? A question that is never sufficiently asked in these debates is whether we have an assessment of the treatment of Gazans in terms of human rights, and of Hamas's attitude and behaviour towards UN agencies and non-governmental organisations in Gaza. What is the international community's assessment of the people of Gaza's experiences of the Hamas Government? How many rockets have been fired into Israel in the past 12 months? Can the Minister give an assessment of where we believe Hamas's financial support comes from? Some hon. Members have referred to the relationship between Hamas and Iran; it would be useful to know what the British Government's assessment is of the nature of that relationship.

I also wish to ask a question that nobody has asked for some considerable time. We, as a Government, were giving tremendous support to Egyptian efforts to reunify the Palestinian leadership. I think that we all accept that that would ultimately be in the best interests of a peace process. Things have gone very quiet, however, and it is not clear whether the Egyptians have stopped playing that facilitator role or whether the process is ongoing and the British Government continue to support the Egyptians in fulfilling that role.

In conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said at the start of the debate, what matters most is political progress towards two states. The current proximity talks are important, but until we move to direct talks on the comprehensive issues that will lead to a fair and just two-state solution, the vacuum is dangerous because it could lead to a return to serious violence. I hope that the British Government will continue to do everything in their power to support the move towards direct negotiations as quickly as possible.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:20, 15 June 2010

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I begin by echoing the thanks of Mr Lewis to the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington North-

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

None of us should forget that. I congratulate Ms Buck on securing the debate and on the balanced way in which she put her case, marking out clearly what she believes, but also making due reference to the needs of Israel and its security on a number of occasions. All of us, I believe, appreciate the way in which she made her points. I also welcome the work that she has done with the all-party group and the report that she has produced, which illustrated her remarks.

I will do my best to cover as many questions as I can, but I will not go through all of them as there are many. It is quicker to ask questions than to answer them, but I will do what I can. I also appreciate the engagement of the hon. Member for Bury South with my office on the debate and the issues that he raised, about which he knows a great deal.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yes, I remember. It is difficult for a while to stop, and the hon. Gentleman is clearly in that mode, but he is doing extremely well.

I shall remark on the incident itself and then say a little about the situation in Gaza. The Government unequivocally deplore the deaths of the nine people who lost their lives as the result of the recent events. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister were in touch with the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to offer our condolences, recognising that most of those who died were Turkish citizens. We have consistently made the following point clear to the Israeli Government, both in public and in private: we look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the unacceptable actions.

The hon. Member for Bury South asked about the United Kingdom's role in the events and the investigation. The UK has played a key role, working closely with the international community, including the EU and the Quartet representative Tony Blair, to stress to Israel the importance of an investigation that ensures accountability, commands the confidence of the international community and includes international participation. The Government have discussed those matters with Israeli counterparts on a number of occasions, most recently on 13 June, when the Prime Minister spoke directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu just before Israel announced a public commission to investigate the incident.

It is important that the investigation ensures full accountability and commands the confidence of the international community. The announcement yesterday by the Israeli Government of a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge and including David Trimble and Ken Watkins, a Canadian, as international observers is an important step forward. We welcome the commission's international membership and broad mandate. It is important that the inquiry is truly independent and the investigation is thorough. We will watch the progress and conduct of the inquiry before we make any further remarks.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour, Walthamstow

I thank the Minister. Please forgive me, as it is my first time participating in such a debate, but I am a little concerned that we have not heard many details about the remit of the inquiry, particularly on the question of consular access, which was incredibly important to a number of people from Walthamstow, members of whose family were on the flotilla, and on the lack of information that we, as the British Government and as British MPs, were able to get hold of. It does not seem clear to me, as far as we have seen the remit of the inquiry, that the issues about how international citizens are treated in such kinds of incidents and what lessons can be learnt will be covered. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Clearly, we are not responsible for the remit of the inquiry, but a number of Members have mentioned the consular problems that occurred. I will make some inquiries with the Israeli authorities on that matter. I would like to say a little about the consular problems, because a number of Members raised them.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

No, because I have only six minutes.

The consular service is one of the most important aspects of the Foreign Office's work. Our travel advice clearly advised people against travelling to Gaza, and we made that specifically clear in relation to the flotilla as well. I will meet those who were involved in the incident tomorrow. The meeting was set up at my request so that people could discuss their experiences both with me and other consular officials at the Foreign Office. I shall listen to them very carefully.

As far as I am aware, our consular staff in Israel worked tirelessly from the moment that they were alerted to the situation to ensure that they could get access to those involved and that people had everything they needed. We raised with the Israeli authorities the need for immediate consular access, and that was granted the following day. Our officials spent several hours visiting those who were in detention and in hospital before they were deported, and we had a large presence in Istanbul to meet those who arrived there. We are also aware that some people's passports and luggage have not been returned. We will raise that issue with the Israeli authorities because such goods must be returned.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Does the Minister believe that the Israeli Government's inquiry has the confidence of the international community? Furthermore, Does he believe that it should be an international inquiry rather than an internal inquiry with an international dimension?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

No, the inquiry meets the United Nations Security Council resolution requirement of an independent and impartial inquiry with an international element, but we will wait to see how it evolves. We believe that it has met the initial requirement set out by the international community, which was not for an international inquiry or a UN inquiry; it was exactly as the UN resolution delivered. The point is we should not be distracted by the remit or the structure of the inquiry. The important thing is what it looks at and what emerges from it to give some credibility to the assessment of what happened. We know that there are competing versions of events out there, and we know that the world will not be satisfied unless there is a process that gives everyone the chance to say what they saw and what conclusions they came to. The state of Israel understands that as well as anybody else, and we have made that point very clearly. We should not get hung up on the structure of the inquiry, because, in testament to those who died or who were involved, we should let the inquiry get on and see what emerges, and that is what we are concentrating on.

It is very important to see the incident not in isolation, but as part of the continuing misery and drama of Gaza. We and other members of the international community have underlined the need to lift current restrictions in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860. As for the blockade itself, the UK's position is that there is a role for the EU, both diplomatically and as part of the Quartet, in dealing with the easing of the restrictions.

In terms of semantics, when I talked about not lifting the blockade last week, I meant not lifting the blockade to allow completely free access to Gaza of everything that anybody wants to bring in. No one is talking about that. If conventional wording means to allow the unfettered access of goods that are both humanitarian and necessary to help with the reconstruction of Gaza, but not including arms, that is what I meant, so there should be no disagreement between us there. We support the attempts that have been made to change the nature of the blockade and to get the right goods in.

As far as our support for the UN work is concerned, we announced £19 million for UNRWA's work with Palestinian refugees across the region. That is part of the tranche of money that was already agreed. In relation to the question of the hon. Member for Bury South about continuing that flow of money, such a decision is subject to the same concerns about Government expenditure generally. None the less, I share his belief that that support is necessary and should continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government's commitment to international aid and development.

The position of Hamas was raised by Mrs Ellman and a number of others. Hamas does play a part in the whole tragedy of Gaza; it is wrong to ignore it or to ignore its part in that tragedy. There is no suggestion that the United Kingdom will change its position in relation to contact with Hamas; we intend to keep that as it is.

The hon. Member for Bury South asked a number of questions about Hamas, but he also called for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit and asked what we can do about that. We in the Conservative party have also pressed for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit for a number of years. As a Government, we will continue to do that-

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Order. We must now move to the next debate.