I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I appreciate that the whole House had an opportunity to debate the situation in the middle east yesterday, but I am sure that hon. Members will be tolerant of our having a debate today that concentrates specifically on issues affecting Gaza, given that they have been of so much concern in the past few weeks.
The crisis in Gaza is central to the broader crisis between Israel and Palestine, and that conflict, in turn, is one of the most important in global political terms. It is crucial that British parliamentarians and the UK Government, along with the European Union, the United Nations and the Quartet partners, redouble our efforts to ensure that the blockade of Gaza is lifted. However, that is simply the most immediate step towards a lasting peace settlement, without which we are doomed to see repeats of the present situation. Not least because this point is often misrepresented, it is essential to restate that Israel has entirely legitimate security needs that must be met; but that can happen only if the Palestinian people have the right to a viable and secure state within sovereign borders.
As we are all aware, the latest crisis was triggered on
It is crucial that the inquiry into those events wins the confidence of the international community. Whether that can be true of an internal inquiry with foreign observers, as opposed to the independent investigation requested by the UN, is open to doubt at the very least. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's view of the robustness of the internal inquiry promised by Israel.
However grave the events involving the flotilla were, they also serve to draw attention to the wider predicament of Gaza.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As she is moving on from the events involving the flotilla, may I take this opportunity to ask what her response is to the experience of one of my constituents, Theresa McDermott, who was on one of the other boats in the flotilla? Although live weapons were, fortunately, not involved, Theresa McDermott experienced what can only be described as brutality by Israeli forces, who fired sound grenades directly at people, tasered them and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an independent inquiry into what happened on the flotilla is needed, and that it would also be in Israel's own interests to clear up what happened?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is of course true that in discussing the flotilla, we have, perhaps understandably, concentrated on the terrible events that led to nine deaths, but there are certainly grave allegations about what happened on the other boats in the flotilla. It is in everyone's interests-including Israel's, in my view-that the inquiry is sufficiently independent to win confidence. That is so often the case with such inquiries.
I have visited Gaza twice in the past three years. I spent two days there in March as part of a parliamentary delegation. On both occasions, what I saw shocked and appalled me. As an important preamble, let me say that on my previous visit in late 2007-I was there with other hon. Friends here today-I was able to visit Sderot, one of the southern Israeli towns subjected to rocket attacks from within the Gaza strip. Although it should not be necessary, I restate that rocket attacks on the civilian population, such as those that rained down on Sderot, constitute war crimes. I have no doubt that everyone taking part in this and other debates condemns such attacks without reservation. Israeli civilians have a right to peace and security. It is right that reasonable steps should be taken to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza and to expect that attacks on the civilian population should not take place from within Gaza.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I am listening carefully to what she is saying. Does she agree that the key problem behind the current crisis is the fact that Hamas, which rules Gaza, refuses absolutely to recognise the existence of the state of Israel?
I have not instituted this debate in order to act as an apologist for Hamas. There is absolutely no doubt that Hamas is a critical player in the crisis in the middle east, and neither I nor, I am sure, other parliamentarians are here to defend its role. The conflict is deep and intractable and Hamas must take responsibility for its share. However, with that important caveat, it seems to me that the issue underlying the wider crisis in Palestine and the situation in Gaza is the proportionality of the response and the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Surely there can be no excuse whatever for the acts of terrorism against the people of Israel, and the best way to stop the blockade is by Hamas stopping its terrorism so that people can live together in peace and harmony?
I am grateful for that intervention. I was not aware that I was in any way excusing acts of terrorism; I do not do that. However, although I do not want to be diverted into the chronology of recent events, it is also true that Hamas has instituted truces in the rocket attacks on any number of occasions, but that those truces have not led to the sort of response that would allow us to make progress. I am sure that colleagues seeking to participate in the debate will discuss that further. That is true in respect of both Gaza and settlement building in the west bank. The way forward to peace involves initiatives taken by both sides.
The general tone of the interventions so far seems to suggest that Palestinians have brought this upon themselves by electing a Hamas Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the political issues in the middle east, punishing the Palestinian people collectively for exercising their democratic right is entirely wrong?
I agree totally and that is the main thrust of my contribution today. There are issues of proportionality and collective punishment. The 1.5 million citizens of Gaza should not be subjected to the impact of the siege because of the Government that they chose-or, in many cases, did not choose-to elect.
Israel has stated frequently that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers. However, as it has at any time since 1967, Israel has remained firmly in control of Gaza's sovereignty, controlling its borders, airspace and coastal waters and retaining the right to enter at will. Gaza is surrounded on three sides by a security fence, and a seam zone extending up to 1 km into the territory is enforced by snipers to prevent anyone from approaching the fence. Palestinian farmers entering the zone are liable to be shot at by border guards, while fishermen seeking to fish away from the highly polluted coastline are regularly fired on by the Israeli navy. Leaving aside the casualties of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 116 injured since the beginning of 2010 alone. On
Since 2007, the control of Gaza's borders has tightened further, to the extent of its being an all-encompassing siege. The people of that grossly over-populated strip-measuring only 10 km from east to west-have been denied all freedom of movement, have extremely limited access to vital goods and services and, perhaps most crucial, have been denied access to construction materials needed to rebuild the many homes and facilities destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.
The agreement on movement and access stipulates that 15,500 trucks a month should be allowed to enter Gaza via the crossing points with Israel. Since June 2007, however, the actual volume has typically been about 20% of that number. Between May and June this year, only 400 trucks entered Gaza-one third of the pre-siege level. The trucks are supposed to contain everything that the 1.5 million people of Gaza need to survive, yet only 73 sanctioned items were permitted. Items that were blocked-there has been very recent movement on this-included pasta, powdered milk, jam, cooking oil, school books and textbooks and T-shirts.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Regarding imports and exports to Gaza, she is aware that one of my constituents, Ibrahim Musaji, travelled recently to the area with Bristol Gaza Link-the third time that that organisation has travelled with humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza. Does she agree that, given the heavy decline in both imports to and exports from Gaza, with 95% of private business in effect going bankrupt, life is no longer normal in Gaza? Restoring the normal pattern of trade and humanitarian aid into Gaza is a crucial element for helping the people of Gaza, but doing so while managing to exclude weapons from being transported there is a conundrum that we hope the Government might be able to help to resolve.
I absolutely agree. That point goes to the heart of everything that I am hoping to say in the debate.
I mentioned a very recent relaxation of the inventory of items permitted to enter Gaza. There are reports that the Israeli authorities have recently approved the entry of 11 new food and hygiene items to Gaza, including jam, halva, soda, juice, canned fruits, razor blades and paste, yet overall Gaza imports have declined by almost 26% compared with last week alone. This week's figure constitutes 17% of the weekly average that entered during the first five months of 2007-2,807 truckloads of items-before the Hamas takeover. A relaxation of the inventory is certainly not reading across into a relaxation in the volume of vital goods. Diesel and petrol for general use have been delivered on only five occasions in the last 18 months. Industrial fuel for Gaza's only power plant is also restricted. Between May and June, only one quarter of the quantity required to operate it at full capacity was allowed through.
Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged 50,000 Palestinian homes, 280 schools and a number of hospitals and medical facilities, which I and other hon. Members in the debate saw for ourselves in early March this year. However, concrete and steel have, broadly speaking, not been allowed into the strip, and glass was allowed in only for a very short period. The result has been an almost complete lack of reconstruction since the war. That is clearly not in line with UN Security Council resolution 1860, which during Operation Cast Lead called for the
"unimpeded provision...throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical treatment".
The Goldstone report, arising from the UN fact-finding mission, further found that the blockade deprives Palestinians in the Gaza strip of their means of sustenance, housing and water, as well as denying them freedom of movement. The report found that Israel has specifically violated
"obligations it has as Occupying Power" spelled out in the fourth Geneva convention, such as the duty to maintain medical and hospital establishments.
I apologise for missing the first part of my hon. Friend's speech. Did she also observe during her visit the psychological damage done, particularly to young people, by the sense of incarceration and imprisonment, lost ambitions and the inability to travel or see anything that the rest of us wish to see of this planet?
I did indeed. We hear a great deal about the public health impact of the siege, and there is clear evidence that a shortage of minerals and vitamins in the diet of children is leading to very serious bone and dental health problems and broader public health problems, but mental health is of critical importance. It is of critical political importance as well. It is hard to measure and often people do not see mental health problems as representative of a traditional humanitarian crisis, of the type that we saw in the days after the Haiti earthquake, but it is arguable that a graver problem is being stored up, not just for the people of Palestine and Gaza, but for the Israeli people and for the future benefits of the peace process. Half the population of Gaza is under 18. Some 900,000 children and young people are trapped in an open prison. What that is doing to them and to the next generations of political leaders does not bear thinking about.
That is one of the reasons why I feel so sad. It seems that, again and again, we see a behaviour that is not necessarily in Israel's own best interests and is really counter-productive. The other example of that is the destruction, referred to in an intervention, of the private economy as a consequence of the siege. We have seen the virtual total destruction of private commercial enterprise in Gaza. That, of course, has contributed to poverty because it contributes to unemployment, but it has also-this is a perverse consequence-strengthened Hamas in important ways.
The siege has contributed to the thriving tunnel operation-the means used for smuggling on a massive scale from Egypt into Gaza. We saw for ourselves some of the estimated 1,200 or so tunnels under the border, which permit about 4,000 items to enter Gaza, from cars and satellite dishes to the fabled lion that was brought into Gaza zoo and even basic medicines and food. That further disrupts the operation of the economy. The tunnels take a significant toll in human life. Some might say, "That's the price you pay for what is in effect a criminal operation," but it is seen as a lifeline-a way of breaking some of the most destructive elements of the siege. Because it provides revenue in the form of taxation on the smuggling operation, it strengthens Hamas's hold on the economy, which is surely not what critics of the Hamas regime want.
Steps to close the tunnels, which are now being executed, will deprive Hamas of revenue, but tighten the screws still further on the siege of 1.5 million people. No doubt Israel is worried-I understand why-that a lifting of the blockade would be claimed by Hamas as a victory, yet it is hard to see a viable alternative strategy, unless it is believed that sheer desperation will lead the people of Gaza to punish Hamas in favour of a more moderate strategy, which they have yet to see will read across into an effective political solution, as we have seen with the settlement building on the west bank. I suggest that anyone holding such a belief is doomed to be disappointed.
I hope that the Minister will give us his assessment of the independent inquiry into the events on the Gaza flotilla. I hope that he will report back from the EU Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels and advise us on what progress the EU can make, by itself and in discussions with other Quartet members, to lift the blockade urgently. Does he believe that any easing of restrictions will not merely ease the humanitarian situation, but underpin a strategy of reconstruction and the rebuilding of the private economy? Will the British Government do all that they can to strengthen the accountability of all parties in this conflict for war crimes and transgressions of international law leading up to, during and subsequent to Operation Cast Lead?
I shall conclude now, because many other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I remain convinced that, whatever the larger politics of the situation in Gaza and the middle east, we must act with the utmost urgency to resolve the crisis afflicting 1.5 million civilians in Gaza-one of the gravest in the world today. Britain's longstanding connection with the area should be used even more effectively to achieve a resolution.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank Ms Buck, who regularly does this House a service by choosing topical issues, which she has done again. I hope that the way in which she spoke-her carefulness and informed contribution-will commend her comments to all parties.
I welcome you to the chair, Mr Streeter, not only because you are a good chair, but because you, with John McDonnell and I, co-chaired the all-party group on conflict issues in the previous Parliament. If there is one strategy that we as a Parliament and the new Government need to deploy, it is to use our skill in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. In that context, I also welcome my very good friend Alistair Burt to his new ministerial responsibilities. He was sensitive when participating in the debate on the middle east yesterday in the House, and I know that he and his colleagues come to the subject with huge understanding and dedication.
To make a passing comment to link those words, those of us of the Jewish, Muslim or Christian faith-of course, other people in the House have other faiths or have no religious faith-should have a particular responsibility in this matter. If followers of the three great world faiths, for whom the part of the world that we are discussing is so important, cannot understand that the logic of our faith is that we should seek to accommodate followers of other faiths who share the same belief in the same God, not much of an example is set to the rest of the world when we seek to preach to them.
I have always described myself as both a friend of Palestine and a friend of Israel. I have been actively supporting the case for a Palestinian state since I was a teenager and have always argued that Israel has a right to exist with secure boundaries. I have had the privilege of visiting the area on several occasions, and although I have yet to have the opportunity to go to Gaza, I have frequently visited the west bank.
Let me make some brief comments following the worthwhile contribution of my hon. Friend Stephen Williams to yesterday's debate. First, we all hope that what Tony Blair said publicly yesterday will soon come to pass. The work done by the Quartet to bring about an end of the blockade, either wholly or significantly, is hugely welcome. Achieving such an end will be great progress, not least because the current situation is clearly nonsense, in the sense that although it is a terrible imposition on the people of Gaza by virtue of the tunnels and other things, it is a blockade with a conniving exemption. The whole thing has become a sort of international fiction, and the sooner we achieve orderly relations between people on either side of the border, the better.
Regarding the Government of Gaza, people must be allowed to choose their own Governments. They are not always comfortable choices, but the world must understand that it does not help by alienating those Governments entirely. I understand the difficulty. The Government of Gaza, Hamas, must understand-as they were moving to do-that the renunciation of violence and acceptance of the right of the state of Israel to exist have to be preconditions for international acceptance. However, that cannot mean that the people of Gaza or the west bank are not allowed to choose Hamas as their Government. The reason why they do so, as I understand it, is that that party stands strongly for the welfare of the people whom it seeks to represent. In many ways, it has done that more effectively than the other parties in the west bank. We must understand that. We must also understand that we may well have to deal with Hamas for a long time to come. I know that there are forces of enlightenment in the Government that want to make progress, and other Governments are helping them to do that. May we please be clear that precluding Hamas from being participants in the future is not a realistic option?
Israel is a democracy. As colleagues made clear in the House yesterday, it should be praised for being a democracy, although I share the view that certain forms of proportional representation are not helpful and that the Israeli system with a single chamber of Parliament might be one of them. The implication of a democracy is that the country respects international law. It cannot have it both ways. It cannot say, "We uphold democracy at home," as it does, "and an enlightened social and other policy," but then deny international law outside its own territorial waters or abroad.
I have talked to Israeli Ministers and officials about such matters. They really have to understand that international law has to apply to us all or it is discredited. When an inquiry such as the Goldstone report takes place, Israel cannot just then cast it aside because it does not like the findings. The eminent Judge Goldstone clearly did his job appropriately and properly. I heard the cautious words of the Minister yesterday; the Israeli Government must understand that their credibility regarding the events on the flotilla at the end of May will be established only if there is an international inquiry rather than just an Israeli Government inquiry with some international observers. I really believe that.
I and others have met constituents who were on the flotilla. I have heard vivid accounts of how they saw Israeli troops in large numbers-for example, 400 troops on the sixth boat-descend on the fighting. There is video footage and recordings, so there is no shortage of evidence. I just ask the Israeli Government to reconsider their limited willingness to hold an inquiry and for it to be conducted only by them. I want it to be done in a way that they find acceptable, but under the UN's authority, as it has requested.
In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West referred yesterday to the motion of the executive of Liberal International, the organisation that represents all Liberal parties throughout the world, which met on Sunday in Berlin. To summarise, it
"Deplores the use of force by Israel commandos" on that occasion. It
"Deplores the violence caused by some activists on board the flotilla".
The executive expressed
"shock at the resultant deaths and injuries" and
"Demands the restoration of liberty of the Israeli Arabs who have been on board the flotilla".
"Supports the UN Security Council's call for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent inquiry" examining the actions of all parties, and
Let me make one last point about the future. Gaza has a very difficult future. It is a small enclave surrounded by other countries, as the hon. Member for Westminster North rightly described. The history of enclaves in international law is not happy. Berlin is the last one that springs to mind-separate from the rest of its country with a corridor established. I understand the policy of both my party, and that of the Government. The traditional policy of countries such as ours is to accept a two-state solution: a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. That might be right but, just as there will need to be an imaginative solution to the future of Jerusalem, which will have to be the capital of both countries if there is to be lasting peace, so there needs to be an imaginative solution to how Gaza is linked with the west bank.
To have simply two separate territories without connection will not be an adequate way forward. There might have to be a special and protected connecting strip. There might have to be a renegotiation of land settlements that would include those settlements that are illegal as part of the package, as well as a return to old boundaries. There may have to be in the long term a United Nations presence to give security on what was mandated territory for us between the '20s and the '40s, and other international friends to support it. We, as a country, may have to play a significant role with the Quartet and other countries in guaranteeing the territories, the boundaries and the peace of Israel and Palestine if we are to persuade both Governments to feel confident about the future. I hope that my friend the Minister and his colleagues will be positive and think laterally about the way in which a solution might work, as well as work enthusiastically to make sure that the matter is one of the highest foreign policy priorities of the Government in the days and months ahead.
I rise to my feet as a friend of Palestine, and much to the furious incomprehension of a large number of my constituents, I do so as a steadfast friend of Israel, despite the provocation. Last summer, I sponsored an Adjournment debate on the Spirit of Humanity-a boat carrying humanitarian supplies that was trying to break the siege of Gaza. On that occasion, Israeli forces intercepted the boat-we presume in international waters, although the Israeli Government refused to provide details of the boat's position, despite requests from British Ministers-but thankfully there was no violence. In the light of that and other previous incidents, should not the British Government have been alert to possible problems with the latest flotilla? Given that the Israeli media reported threats from the Israeli defence forces, making it clear that the ships were likely to be attacked, what actions, if any, had the British Government taken to avert those attacks, particularly knowing that British citizens were on board?
My constituent, Alex Harrison, was on board the Spirit of Humanity last year, and undeterred by that experience, she was also a passenger on the Challenger 1 ship, which formed part of the flotilla that was attacked again by Israeli forces on
Over the weekend, we heard more detail about the inquiry that is to be set up by Israel. We understand that it will include a foreign element and observers such as David Trimble. Will the international community have full confidence in that inquiry and its findings? Will it be independent and transparent? Will the Israelis, the Palestinians and, perhaps most importantly, the people of Turkey have full confidence in its findings? As Cathy Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union put it in The Times yesterday, will that inquiry be "credible, rigorous and impartial"?
In the debate yesterday, my hon. Friend Richard Burden stated the obvious: there have been inquiries in the past on Israel, and perhaps one need go no further than to ask Tom Hurndall's family about their experience of Israeli inquiries to explain why some people might be slightly cynical about an Israeli inquiry. Another issue is just how wide that inquiry will be and who will be questioned.. Will Alex Harrison be asked about her experience on that boat?
In preparation for this debate, I spoke to Alex. As I said, she was on board Challenger 1. It was flagged in the United States. She would like me to highlight the illegality of the Israeli action. The men who were killed were on the Marmora, which was registered in the Comoros islands, which are off Madagascar. It is her view, and that of many others, that the seizing and killing of the flotilla's passengers while in international waters is nothing less than piracy. She says that they were some 80 miles away from Israel and were sailing away from Israel when they were boarded.
The Israeli action on
There was no violence from Alex's boat towards the Israeli defence forces, yet those on board were treated with huge violence. She says that she has hand marks on her arms and legs from when she was picked up and carried from the boat. Once they were carried from the boat, all their items were bagged up and labelled. They have not had them back. The Israelis now say that they do not know where they are. She was told that she would be deported to Turkey. She had the clothes she stood up in. She had no passport and no money. She had not been to Turkey-she had come from Greece-and yet the Israelis said that they would deport her to Turkey.
Alex refused to go and so was one of the last to be deported. She was in a pen with 15 other women, and she witnessed some women next to her being hit about the head. They were not treated as badly as the men. She saw some men at the airport who were badly beaten, including Ken O'Keefe, who was so badly injured that he was not able to board the plane. She was some 5 yards away from an Irishman called Fiachra O'Luain as he was beaten around the head-she saw that going on. She also saw Turkish men, who had been injured and come out of hospital, being put on to the plane. Well, to say that they were put on to the plane is inaccurate-they were walking on to the plane as best they could. Some had been shot in the feet and were on crutches. There were no wheelchairs. She was not allowed to assist the men. If any attempt to try and assist them was made, people were hit again. Although she had experienced brutality from a distance in the past, she had never experienced such face-to-face, one-to-one brutality over such a sustained period. She said that they were sworn at, abused and laughed at throughout. That was unnecessary-gratuitous, in her view-and she certainly would like to give evidence to any inquiry. If necessary, she would like the matter to be taken to the International Criminal Court. One can understand why, given her experiences.
May I put it on the record that the constituent whom I referred to was also one of the protestors on the Challenger 1? She reports a similar account of what happened on the boat and in Israeli custody. Her account illustrates the real issues being raised by a number of credible people from the UK, and I hope that the Government will respond to them in the positive way that my hon. Friend requests.
Many hon. Members have constituents who have been on the flotillas. I suspect that we have many constituents who will be on them again. Alex Harrison has said that she will go back.
The terrible events of
Does my hon. Friend accept that approximately 15,000 tonnes of goods a week have gone into Gaza, although that is clearly inadequate? Does she agree that if the European Union and the Palestinian Authority had been able to carry out their responsibilities in manning the crossings, goods could have gone into Gaza at a much faster rate?
In the end, if Gaza were treated how it should be treated, the gates would be open and the tunnels would be closed. Yes, I fully understand. I have been to Sderot and have seen how Israeli children are terrified of incoming bombs that rain down on their town. I fully understand why it would be necessary to search trucks going in-to make sure that they do not have weapons in them. However, it is not a challenge to Israeli security to stop biscuits going into Gaza, and that is the fundamental point. Gaza is being treated completely differently and in a way that is fundamentally unfair. It is incumbent on us to say loudly and clearly that that is wrong.
The hon. Lady referred to biscuits. On the visit that I attended with Ms Buck, we saw the bombed biscuit factory that, ironically, produced goods for export to Israel. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in controlling the substances that are allowed into Gaza, Israel has been entirely arbitrary? Such substances change from week to week and include random items such as jam and pasta, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Westminster North. When we were there, we were told that nappies-or diapers, as they were called-were not being allowed in. The sole purpose of that seems to be to play with people's minds and do psychological damage to the civilian population.
It goes further than psychological damage: the fact that there is not a steady stream of proper goods going into Gaza also undermines people's health. Moreover, the fact that no exports are allowed out of Gaza means that the economy has been undermined and that the people are dependent on Hamas, which allows and taxes the tunnels. Civil society is therefore undermined even further and people become increasingly dependent upon Hamas. When a poor woman wakes up in the morning wondering how to feed her six children, she does not think to herself, "This is Hamas's fault," but, "This is Israel's fault." That continues to feed extremism and undermine the very security of Israel. Those of us who believe in a two-state solution are fundamentally worried about that and are very concerned about what is happening.
I will not go through all my examples-I am sure that hon. Members are aware of them-but Cadbury's creme eggs somehow get through the tunnels and nobody can afford them. Some 12,000 buildings need to be rebuilt, and 44% of Gazans are unemployed and so on. The fundamental point, however, is that the siege of Gaza is not hurting Hamas; it is destroying the lives of thousands of ordinary Gazans. The EU is the largest donor to Palestine, but aid is not enough. It is also Israel's largest trading partner, and we have some clout at EU level. We in the EU must be more confident and do more to put pressure on Israel to ensure that the people of Gaza are treated fairly. I very much hope that EU Foreign Ministers will adopt a united position and that Britain will fully support it. That may include questioning whether an internal Israeli investigation of what happened to the flotilla on
It is also important for us to be more active diplomatically in the middle east. The problem is not going away-we must address it. We must end the blockade, which is morally outrageous and politically self-defeating, and as I said here last summer, we must open the gates and close the tunnels. Many organisations based in my constituency-such as Medical Aid for Palestinians, Save the Children, UNICEF and Merlin-work very hard to support the people of Gaza; but, ultimately, their good work simply gives us the space to exert moral and political courage to ensure a two-state solution and peace for everyone.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I apologise for missing the start of the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Buck on securing it. It is extremely important.
I have had the good fortune to visit Gaza on five occasions over the past 10 to 12 years, and I was last there with many of my colleagues as part of a European delegation led by my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman, during which we saw for ourselves what the situation was like in Gaza. As I said in an intervention, we saw the people of Gaza's sense of imprisonment and its psychological effect on young people. I also noticed for the first time-I had never seen it before-a sense of youth disaffection, with higher levels of drug taking, vandalism and antisocial behaviour, which was never previously a factor in the life of Gaza.
Gaza has a very young population. Teenagers and young people often have a good education-the UN schools are pretty good-and there are high levels of university education. Palestine has the highest level of graduation of any country in the region, but people have no possibility of employment unless they can get a job with the UN, a non-governmental organisation, or the Government of Gaza. NGOs clearly require sufficient resources, because the private and business sectors have virtually completely collapsed. The two basic ingredients for running a small business or a store are customers and goods to sell. In Gaza, there are no customers, because they have no money, and there are no goods to sell, because they cannot be got in. One therefore walks down streets and streets of boarded-up stores and shops, and there is a sense of deep depression in the environment.
During our visit, we had a lengthy meeting with members of all parties of the Palestinian Parliament in Gaza in the bombed-out ruins of the Parliament building. What possible purpose was there in Operation Cast Lead specifically bombing the debating chamber of the Palestinian Parliament? What kind of message was that trying to give? Why were mortar shells fired through the upper floors of a school? The last time I had been in that school was as an election observer the year before, when it was teeming with people queuing up to vote. The school was bombed, which was clearly gratuitously insulting to the people of Gaza. There was no point or purpose to it whatsoever. There was no possible military objective; nor was there in the destruction of many homes, among other things.
As we left Gaza on our way to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt, our bus was filled with an unbelievable stench from the sewage works. They had been damaged and bombed and no chemicals had been allowed through to operate the sewage treatment system. The result was tens of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the Mediterranean. At some point, that sewage will start polluting the beaches of Israel when presumably public opinion in Israel will say something should be done to allow equipment in to repair the sewage works in Gaza. That kind of gratuitously insulting behaviour makes people so angry and is utterly counter-productive.
I have spoken to many people who were on the flotilla the week before last, and listened to their descriptions, including that of Alex Harrison, the constituent of my hon. Friend Emily Thornberry. The way in which the Israeli soldiers behaved was disgusting: people were shot, imprisoned and denied access to phones, legal advice and, particularly in the case of older people, food and water.
I was at a meeting last week when an al-Jazeera journalist, who had been on the vessel, described in excruciating detail what he had observed. He clearly has a vivid and photographic memory. That account needs to be told because it was of an incident taking place on the high seas in international waters. An inquiry headed by a series of Israeli judges-with all due respect to David Trimble, the only international observer-is not good enough. We want an international inquiry from the United Nations with an international committee of jurists. I guess Israel would not be happy about that because the last international observation of Israel's behaviour was the Goldstone commission on Operation Cast Lead. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what progress has been made on the Goldstone commission and its process through the UN Security Council.
I do not want to go on too long because many others want to speak. In reality, the situation is simple: Palestine is under occupation. In the case of the west bank, it is under occupation through checkpoints, endless military intervention, targeted assassinations, the construction of the wall, denial of water, trade and ordinary life, and the sense of collective fear of many people living on the west bank. In the case of Gaza, it is encircled by walls, barbed wire, aerial buzzing-including targeted bombings-and by Israeli naval vessels off the coast to prevent fishermen going further out and the flotilla and aid vessels getting in.
Although public opinion in Israel undoubtedly supports what the Government are trying to do, a significant number of people argue, demonstrate and act collectively to say that the strategy is complete madness, collective punishment and illegal, and creates a sense of isolation in Israel. Israel is now more isolated in world opinion than it has ever been. It broke the law, in my view, in the case of the flotilla. The Goldstone commissioners reported on Operation Cast Lead. British and other passports were used in the Dubai assassination. There are numerous examples of how UN law and resolutions have been flouted by the state of Israel. So we come to the conclusion: what do we do about the situation?
First, we send all the aid that we possibly can to the people of Palestine to allow them to survive. I was at a fund-raising event last week for medical aid for Palestine. The organisation, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury, does fantastic work. Many of us have also supported many other charities. Why do we have to send medical aid to Palestine? Why do we have to send aid at all? The people of Palestine and Gaza are suffering not from a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano, a hurricane or a tropical storm but from something specifically designed to punish, to hurt and to damage people's lives. That is what the occupation and imprisonment of the people of Gaza are all about.
Why, then, do we not impose some kind of sanction against Israel for its constant illegal behaviour? Why do we not suspend the EU-Israel association agreement by which Israel survives so well economically? Why does the US continue to pour aid into Israel, including military aid and a new missile defence system, other than because it sees Israel as an extension of its own foreign policy in the region? If we want a nuclear-free middle east and peace in the middle east, the siege must end. The blockade must be lifted, and the people of Palestine and their legitimate right to live peacefully and to survive must be recognised.
I sat down with Malcolm Bruce and others at several lengthy meetings during our visits with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the Hamas Government and parliamentarians in Gaza. The one thing that came across in the last two meetings with the Hamas Government and the other parties was that they want to be part of the process. They want to be part of the future, and of a settlement. Isolation, ignorance, occupation, killing and murdering, which is what it is, are not making things better. They are making the situation worse, and we look to the Government to be assertive in their policies towards Israel's ending the blockade.
Order. Colleagues, winding-up speeches will begin at 10 minutes past 12, so we have 18 minutes to go. I have two colleagues on my list and two new Members have just indicated that they would like to speak, and we will try to get everyone in. You can do the maths yourselves.
It is important that we discuss the shocking events of
Hamas's charter is readily available. It constantly puzzles me why people who are legitimately and genuinely concerned about social justice wilfully ignore the contents of that charter in a way that they would not if it belonged to any other organisation. The charter includes statements about killing the Jews. It says that the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews. It says that there is no way except jihad, and that peace conferences and negotiations are a waste of time. It talks about the protocols of the elders of Zion, and the false allegation that Jews run the world. It claims that Jews are responsible for all revolutions, including the French and Russian revolutions. Indeed, the charter goes beyond being anti-Israeli: it is clearly anti-Semitic, and when it is combined with Hamas's actions in targeting rockets at Israeli civilians, is it surprising that Israelis are genuinely concerned about their security?
There is increasing concern about the involvement of Iran with Hamas in Gaza. That concern was intensified when, last November, a vessel was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus, filled with armaments coming from Iran on their way to Gaza. Those weapons were aimed not only at Sderot, which has suffered too much and for too long, but at Tel Aviv. Israel's concerns about security are real.
Something needs to be done about the crossings and the current state of affairs. Last June, the European Union said it was willing to contribute to post-conflict arrangements, yet what has happened? Very little. Egypt was also involved in addressing what was happening with the crossings, but it has withdrawn. I hope the statement made by Tony Blair yesterday about new proposals will become a reality, so that the long-suffering people of Gaza can have their needs addressed.
Disturbing questions must be asked about the events of
My hon. Friend is aiming her fire at something nobody in the debate has sought to defend. Why does the picture that she paints of Gaza appear to be so different from the weekly reports given by the United Nations and other agencies about the situation, and about the causes of that situation and Israel's responsibility for it? Those agencies are there, so why does she think they have got it so dreadfully wrong? I suggest that it might be a good idea for her-and a number of other hon. Members-to visit Gaza and talk to people there and get their views on their situation.
The reality is that Gaza is run by Hamas, an Islamist organisation that is proscribed by the EU, the USA and Canada as a terrorist organisation. Its regime has led to this dreadful situation for the people of Gaza. That cannot be ignored; it is a fact. More questions need to be asked about that flotilla, focusing on that sixth vessel. What is the role of the Turkish IHH-again, a charitable organisation linked to Hamas and other terrorist organisations? What about the recording that was made in relation to that sixth vessel, showing that when the Israelis repeatedly asked it to land at Ashdod, the reply came back, "Go back to Auschwitz"? What about the fact that people on that sixth vessel were armed with metal rods with knives, and that a lynching of Israelis was attempted? I have no doubt that the majority of people on those vessels were genuine peace activists, but were they infiltrated by somebody else with other ideas?
What about the reports that we have seen since those events in the Turkish media? Families of people who were regrettably killed on that vessel have stated that their partner-the husband in one case-said that he wanted to be a martyr. Even more damning, what about the broadcast that was made on Hamas TV on
My hon. Friend is repeating the information-if I can call it that-put out by the Israeli authorities in the immediate aftermath of the incident, for which no evidence has been produced. Is she seriously saying that, because Israeli forces normally get away with abseiling heavily armed on to ships in the middle of the night, when, on one occasion, people resist and nine of them are shot dead, they had it coming to them? My hon. Friend should consider the language she uses, even in putting forward her case so strongly.