Many people will know that I visited Gaza in 2010, not long after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, and wrote extensively on that and on a later visit to the West Bank (Hebron and East Jerusalem in particular) and the military detention courts.
As a result of our visits we did help get access for UNRWA reconstruction materials via the Gaza border with Israel and the regulations at the detention courts improved. There has been no improvement on key issues like the illegal settlements, the wall and the destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.
And the core problem of Hamas’ determination to destroy Israel and Israel’s ruthless response remain.
Against that background the events of the last few weeks are deeply depressing – a further cycle of violence that benefits no-one.
Here is Yesterdays (17 July) ‘s debate in Parliament:
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): It is a pleasure to join today’s debate. The plaudits heaped on my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have been considerable. I will not add to those, because he already knows of my respect for him. May I also warmly welcome my former colleague at the Foreign Office to his new place as Minister with responsibility for the middle east? He comes to the fray at a difficult and sensitive time, and we should all wish him good luck in his difficult task.
Today we debate a region that is large; its overall situation is dire and the scale of its humanitarian disaster is enormous. Britain’s contribution to dealing with some of the regional humanitarian crises is considerable. Let me focus, in the brief minutes available, on the situation in Gaza and Israel. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who I think has just left, referred earlier to an Israeli policy of “muscular enlightenment”. I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, who has led the way on several enlightened policies adopted by the Government, but I do not think that that phrase is his happiest one. Nor do I think that it is a good description of current Israeli policy.
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The truth is that those who make play of the cynicism of Hamas in putting military assets beside, or even inside, schools and hospitals, to explain civilian deaths, need to provide a compelling explanation of how four children on a beach represent a threat, let alone a target. Those who make play of being a democracy answerable to the people need to be able to explain how immediate military action is taken, without charges, against those suspected of murdering three Jewish teenagers, when progress in resolving the murder and burning of a Palestinian teenager so soon afterwards looks very slow. Those who make play of the rule of law must explain what is legal about the entirely illegal settlements, the continued appropriation of traditional Palestinian grazing lands in the west bank, and the destruction of Palestinian homes, particularly in East Jerusalem. Those who make play of shared values cannot be surprised when British citizens, including Jews, who see the level of apartheid on the ground in cities such as Hebron say that that does not reflect our values.
Before anyone leaps to conclusions, my remarks so far are not the opening salvo in a pro-Hamas speech—far from it. Hamas’s continued commitment to the complete destruction of Israel, and its importation of military hardware from Iran, whose leaders share similar views, is intolerable. None of us who live in this country has to deal with the concept of a neighbour whose approach to us starts with the idea of our complete destruction. However, the violence and deaths on each side will achieve little. As the Israeli ambassador recognised the other day, there is no real victory to be had. When a truce is struck, as surely it will be—we must pray for it to happen as soon as possible—Hamas’s military capacity will have been significantly damaged; but its recruitment of enraged young teenagers in Gaza will probably expand, and the emotional support for it, from British Muslims and others, is likely to increase. We will have to see what the impact will be on international support, such as further Palestinian efforts to involve the International Criminal Court.
That will leave us all frustrated, though not, I believe, half as frustrated as the many peaceful citizens whom I have met both in Israel and in Gaza. I therefore think that the Minister is likely to face more pressure, first to support sanctions as described by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) against Israeli businesses based in illegal settlements; and secondly to support with intensity all efforts to get the peace talks started again. Thirdly, perhaps, there will be a question of pressure in some of the international areas that I alluded to. The months ahead, dealing with his new brief, will be difficult for the Minister. We can only hope that we will all try to stand back from being pro-Palestine, pro-Gaza, pro-Hamas or pro-Israel, and look at the issue as a monumental humanitarian disaster, from which few of us emerge with great credit.
Mr Ellwood (Middle East Minister):
I have limited time to respond to what was an amazing debate. Hon. Members can imagine my delight, given the expertise of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, that on day two of my appointment I am called to reply to a three-hour debate on the middle east. He paid tribute to the expertise of the House, and I echo that. It has been reflected in today’s debate. I will not be able to cover the 21 countries under my brief, or the details. I have already made a commitment to myself—given the short amount of time and to give time for my right hon. Friend to respond—that I will write to Members in response to the details they brought up. There are, however, a couple of issues that I would like to get on the record.
The Government’s long-term commitment remains as supporting a more secure, prosperous region, with political stability based on open, inclusive political systems and economies, but as my right hon. Friend has outlined so articulately, countries in the region continue to face serious challenges. Over recent weeks, we have seen the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, and the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which I saw first hand on a visit to northern Iraq only a month ago.
The situation in Syria is particularly bleak, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths and more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Elsewhere, many countries that witnessed uprisings in 2011 continue to take steps towards reform, but their successes are fragile, as we have heard, and need continued support. Recent elections in Libya may be an important step in the country’s transition to a more democratic future, but serious security challenges remain. In Egypt, as has been mentioned, we continue to urge President al-Sisi to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights and to open up the political space.
We have seen progress in Yemen’s political transition, but instability and economic challenges threaten to undermine those efforts. On a more positive note, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has articulated, Tunisia’s drive for an inclusive transition has produced marked progress on the development of political systems needed to bring long-term stability, although the economic situation remains critical.
In the limited time available, I turn to Gaza, which has been the focus of many Members’ attention. As the Foreign Secretary made clear to the House on 14 July, we remain deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks, but
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it is vital that Gaza’s civilian population is protected. The UK has three objectives: to secure a long-term ceasefire agreed by both sides, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to keep alive the prospects for future peace negotiations. The UK remains in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and continues to work with international partners, including the US, Egypt and Arab partners, to support those objectives.
I spoke to our embassy in Tel Aviv today and our consulate general in Jerusalem, which represents British interests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Implementation of any 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. We continue to judge that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict once and for all. The UK will continue to do all it can to support and advance US efforts to that end. I am sad to report that there are unofficial reports that, while the temporary ceasefire has closed, rockets have been moving from both sides, which is not good news, if that is the case.
To conclude, the region is facing numerous serious challenges and change will continue to be led by the region, not external actors. The UK has an important role to play with the international community in supporting those working to tackle conflict and to build a more stable, prosperous middle east and north Africa, based on strengthened consent and popular participation.
To meet the challenges of this volatile and ever-changing part of the world, we have continued to develop our approach since the uprisings of 2011. Through our Arab Partnership reform—I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has done, and we have seen £65 million put into that project this year—we are supporting those who are tackling conflict and implementing reform. We are striking a balance between addressing short-term insecurity and laying the foundations for long-term stability, based on open, inclusive political systems and economies. We must accept, however, that that is the work of a generation, and we should not be deterred by setbacks along the way because, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the success of the middle east and north Africa is not only in the interests of the region, but of the UK and the world.