§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. McNulty.]
§ 10 am
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
Given the serious nature of what is happening in the middle east, it is appropriate that it is the subject of the first debate to be held in this Chamber after the summer recess. I shall limit my remarks because I know that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the discussion. Everyone is concerned about what has been happening and the threat not only to Palestine, but to the stability of the entire region. We are all disturbed at the loss of life and the horrific scenes that have been displayed on our television screens during the past few weeks.
One matter that needs to be made clear is that the majority of the people who have lost their lives or who have been shot or otherwise injured have been Palestinian. Such a fact is not new; the majority of those who have been injured or killed each time violence has erupted in the West Bank and Gaza have been Palestinian. That is the inevitable result of both the fire power of the Israeli army and the use of disproportionate force when dealing with demonstrators.
A report in the Israeli newspaper Ha' Aretz last week suggested that the authorisation of live fire orders in response to Palestinian stone throwers for local Israeli force commanders has become more relaxed. That implies that throwing a stone could be life threatening and that it warrants a lethal response. International guidelines for the use of force and law enforcement officials, including the Israeli forces in occupied territories, say that action should be taken that is in proportion to the seriousness of the event and that firearms should be used only in self defence or in defence against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Such authorisation suggests that Israeli forces in flak jackets in armoured vehicles are at risk of death or serious injury from stone throwing.
§ Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)
Does my hon. Friend accept that among the Palestinian crowds are people with guns, although it is true that younger people—perhaps without guns—have been put in the front line?
§ Mr. Gerrard
There is no question but that shots have been fired, but given all the events that have occurred, I have no doubt that there has been excessive use of force. Resolution 1322 of the United Nations Security Council, which was passed a few days ago by 14 votes to zero—with only the United States of America abstaining—states that acts of violence are condemned,especially the excessive use of force against Palestinians, resulting in injury and loss of human life.2WH It states that Israel, as the occupying power, should abideby its legal obligations and its responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.That is the view of the United Nations Security Council.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the horrifying picture, which I am sure shocked everybody, of the little 12-year-old boy cowering next to his father before he was shot, was manifestly a case of somebody being killed who was not in the front line and nowhere near a sniper.
§ Mr. Gerrard
In years to come, when people look back on the events of the past few weeks, the picture to which my hon. Friend referred is the image that will remain in people's minds.
Everyone wants the violence to stop, but we must look beyond what has happened in the past few weeks and the efforts that are now being made to obtain not a peace settlement but a ceasefire, and consider why we have reached this point. I have heard it suggested that the Palestinian leadership was trying to ruin the peace process and orchestrated what happened. There have even been suggestions that we were a small step from a final settlement, that Camp David would provide the solution, and that all that was required was an agreement on Jerusalem. Those suggestions are misleading, as the events that we are discussing show. Whatever the importance of Jerusalem, and irrespective of the fact that Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the al-Aqsa mosque triggered the violence, recent events show that something was happening on a much deeper level and that many Palestinians feel a deep sense of frustration, bitterness and anger.
§ Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that Prime Minister Barak has gone further than any previous Israeli prime minister in agreeing certain points with the Palestinians in the Camp David talks, and that the withdrawal of Yasser Arafat from that process triggered the crisis?
§ Mr. Gerrard
I do not believe that the withdrawal of Yasser Arafat triggered the crisis. The Prime Minister of Israel may have gone further than his predecessors, but that begs the question whether he has gone far enough to deliver a viable and lasting solution.
In the past few years, the peace process has not given all Palestinians better economic conditions, and refugees are no nearer to returning to their homes than they were at the beginning of the process. When we consider the reports of yesterday's violence in Hebron, we must ask the obvious question: what are Israeli troops doing there? I remember from the first time I went to Hebron, some years ago, that right in the centre of that Arab city there is a tiny Israeli settlement of 200 people. At that time, there was a wall down the main road, with Israeli settlers allowed on one side and Palestinians on the other. The settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, in the middle of Arab cities like Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah and so on, mean that the Israeli army has to be present. Those settlements remain, as they always have been, illegal; they are the reason why the West Bank has been carved up, 3WH why Palestinians cannot travel freely and why there is no Palestinian state but a series of bantustans with no free travel or connections between them. The presence of those troops reminds every Palestinian every day that they are living in an occupied land, and that the final arbiters of what they may do and where they can go are not the Palestine National Authority or Yasser Arafat but the Israeli occupying forces. That key question has not been addressed in the past few years. The issue is not simply one of land.
§ Mr. Gerrard
If I may, I will continue as I want to leave as much time as possible for other Members to speak.
This is more than just a question of the occupied land; it is a question of the Palestinian people. I observed on a recent visit to the region that the refugees and displaced people feel most keenly that they have lost their identity as a people. This is also more than a question of land because the carving up and the lack of freedom have left the Palestinian leadership unable to have any normal political contact and involvement with its citizens. It is limited as to what it can do as an authority. That is why calls to Yasser Arafat to stop are futile; they assume mechanisms and a degree of control that simply are not there.
§ Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)
I have a quote on which my hon. Friend might wish to comment. It says:The Supreme Monitoring Committee of the National Arab and Islamic forces call upon the masses of our people to immediately assemble in the streets and public squares in order to express their rage and strong stand against the barbaric Israeli aggression and their determination to continue the intifada.That is a direct quote from official Palestinian television. Will my hon. Friend comment on that in relation to the so-called spontaneous, unorganised acts of protest and violence?
§ Mr. Gerrard
Any suggestion that such a statement, made on Palestinian television, would be sufficient to bring people out on to the streets shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what is happening, of the feelings of the people in the camps and of those who have been displaced. Furthermore, the view that Yasser Arafat is now an unreliable partner also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. All Palestinians, whatever their political opinion, will say that they regard the PLO as the sole legitimate negotiating representative of the Palestinian people. However, if we want a long-term solution, we must recognise that the negotiations that have taken place over the past few years have not been negotiations between equal partners, but between an occupying power and an occupied people. They have been negotiations in which the role of the United States has not been seen by the Palestinians or the Arab countries to be that of an honest broker.
In regard to the region as a whole, the effects on other states must also be taken into account if we are to reach a solution. Other states in the region are now the host 4WH countries to hundreds of thousands of refugees. What attempts have been made over the past few years to examine the rights of those refugees? They have rights that are recognised under international law and in UN resolutions. The most recent UN Security Council resolution, 1322, goes back to the basic questions. It reminds us of the demands of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
We regard at our peril recent events as the product of a single happening in Jerusalem which led to an explosive reaction, and which can be dealt with simply by returning to the Camp David agenda. We need to take a step back and think about what will be needed to deliver long-term peace in the region. That would be in the interests of every country in the region, including Israel. Everyone knows what the elements of a long-term peace are. They are not new. They include Jerusalem and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, which would involve a withdrawal from occupied territories—not a percentage of occupied territories. UN resolutions have made it clear again and again that what is needed is a withdrawal from occupied territories and a recognition of refugees' rights of return.
The problem is not solely for Israel and the Palestinians. It has international dimensions. Anyone who has visited the region will have been reminded time and again of our historic responsibilities there. The problem has an international dimension. International law and UN resolutions are involved. It is not sufficient to leave international involvement almost entirely to the United States. We need to consider our role and that of the EU. The problem may be more difficult now. Although we may be seen to be going backwards at the moment, we need to step back a little to consider the medium and long term, how to deliver a settlement and how to use our influence internationally to do so, rather than relying as we have on what has been unbalanced negotiation between an occupying power and people who have experienced occupation.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate, although I approach the matter from a slightly different point of view. He has done us a service in doing so.
I join the hon. Gentleman in his expression of sadness over the loss of life that has been occasioned in the conflict in the holy land. As is only fair, I recognise, as did he, that the majority of those who have sustained casualties were members of the Palestinian community. There have been casualties on the Israeli side, too, but the majority have been Palestinians. There have been many tragic incidents on both sides.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the events that have taken place. However, it would be a mistake to dwell too long on the mechanics of events in the conflict. I have some sympathy with the balanced approach of Amnesty International in a letter to today's newspapers, which considers Israeli methods of crowd control and the Palestinian authorities' failure to control those who participate in the uprising.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned proportionality. He must recognise the fair point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that, if Israeli 5WH soldiers are fired on by Palestinian gunmen, it is proportional for them to return fire. However, that recognition does not condone everything that has taken place.
The hon. Gentleman gave us his analysis. I disagree with his view that the two sides are unequal. Each side has something to offer the other that only it can give. Israel has a tremendous desire for security. That is the uppermost consideration in the minds of Israeli citizens, a fact that conditioned how they voted in recent elections. The Palestinians want fulfilment of their rights, economic improvement and autonomy leading to eventual statehood, which they have never had.
The hon. Gentleman dwelt too long on the mechanics of what has taken place. He failed to appreciate the wider political context and, especially, to acknowledge that the Government came to power in Israel in May 1999, after a period of stagnation in the peace process, with a clear mandate for peace and security for the Israeli people.
The Israeli Government have kept faith with that pledge, pushing forward the peace process at both Sharm El-Sheikh in September 1999 and Camp David earlier this year. We should not overlook the fact that they have done so in the face of severe internal difficulties. Whatever else one can say about Israeli democracy, besides the fact that it is the only democracy in the middle east—that it is a good thing as a democracy is not an especially good advertisement for proportional representation—in the face of internal difficulties, the Israeli Government have tried to push forward the peace process. There is dispute about exactly how much was offered in the Camp David agreement. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that a large number of commentators—many of them speaking from an objective position—regard Prime Minister Barak as having offered a great deal to the Palestinians in the negotiations. They have also commented on his willingness to compromise on some of the most vexed issues at stake, including the most vexed of all: Jerusalem. Those offers and concessions were made in the face of severe difficulties.
It is sad that nothing came from those offers and that the peace process could not be taken further forward at that stage. I agree that subsequent events were tragic. The hon. Member for Walthamstow said that Mr. Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was provocative. Many members of the Jewish community in my constituency have told me that the visit was provocative and ill judged. Whatever one's view of Mr. Sharon's personality or of the place that he visited, however, one could not suggest that his visit justified the subsequent outpouring of violence. That was a mere visit to a religious site, but at least one of the holiest sites of Judaism has been desecrated—the tomb of Joseph. I do not think, therefore, that particular parties can be regarded to have demonstrated great sensitivity to religious sites.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that Mr. Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was not the cause of what has occurred, but the occasion. It is also hard to resist the suspicion that, even if the violence was not encouraged by some members of the Palestinian leadership, it was at 6WH least condoned. It has certainly been fuelled by the Palestinian media, including its state-controlled elements.
§ Mr. Connarty
The hon. Gentleman has a constituency interest and is playing heavily to it. He appears, however, to have entirely ignored the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He did not mention the 200,000 people who are living in settlements in what is supposed eventually to be an independent and autonomous state for the Palestinians. He did not mention any detail about the so-called offer on Jerusalem. He is dancing on the head of a pin on the issue, presumably for votes, and is ignoring the cause of the problem. The territory is occupied and Israel appears to intend to remain the occupier.
§ Mr. Clappison
I had hoped that I had explained sufficiently clearly for the hon. Gentleman that Israel was seeking security more than anything else. Of course, there are demands on both sides and we could consider in detail the wider background, including refugees. The hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members must be realistic about the matter and accept that there is a framework within which compromise can occur. Furthermore, they should accept that security is the Israelis' main consideration within that framework. I could go back into the past and speak about all the grievances that have arisen, such as the bus bombs in Tel Aviv, various terrorist acts, invasions of Israeli territory by overseas terrorists, the work of the Hamas, the Hezbollah and the Iraqis, and all of the other poison that keeps pouring out of the situation, but it would not do any good. There is a compromise to be made on both sides. I would certainly encourage the Israelis to compromise, but it is my view that the Israeli Government have a clear mandate for peace, have been prepared to offer concessions and compromises and have stretched forward the hand of peace, but have yet to receive an embrace in return. I hope that that will come, but things look very bleak at the moment.
What is Israeli public opinion? Israel is a democracy. At the end of the day, the Israeli Government can make concessions only in line with public opinion. Let me tell the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) that that opinion was strongly in favour of making concessions for peace. What are the Israelis supposed to make of the scenes of the intifada, the resulting violence and the attitude of the Palestinian media? I do not want to go into detail on particular instances, such as a dreadful incident involving a 12-year-old child at a crossroads in Gaza. Another terrible incident involved the lynching of members of the Israeli armed forces in a Palestinian police station. Whatever the reasons why they were there, I presume that they were under the protection of the Palestinian state.
What is Israeli opinion meant to make of all this? My conclusion—I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate—is that, if there is to be a peace process in the future, and the prospects look bleak at the moment, it can happen only on the lines that were discussed at Camp David and previously, with concessions on both sides. The basic framework for those concessions, and for that peace process, is security for Israel in return for Israel meeting the aspirations of 7WH the Palestinian people, and making the concessions that are sought in return. Up to now, many among the Israeli electorate and leadership have been prepared to make those concessions, but that does not diminish the fact that things look extremely bleak at the moment.
In the brief time remaining, I should like to stress two things. I ask the Government to impress on the Palestinian leadership that resorting to, condoning or allowing uprisings and violence as a negotiating tactic and way of seeking further concessions will not, in fact, bring further concessions. It is a way of driving the parties away from the peace process. I would encourage our Government to use whatever offices they have to impress on them that violence will not bring returns at the negotiating table, and that if the violence continues, the aid that this country gives to Palestine, which I and my constituents, as taxpayers, are happy to give to Palestinians to improve their lamentable economic conditions, will be put in doubt. Surely we cannot justify giving such aid if the Palestinians continue to resort to violence of such proportions.
We must also be concerned that the violence and tension do not spill over into this country. People on both sides of the debate hold strong views, and should be free to express those views. They should do so without any violence or threat of violence. People should not be put in fear because they are a member of a particular religion or race. I know that there are concerns within the Jewish community about certain incidents. I do not want to overplay those, but I urge the Government to ensure that the violence does not spill over into this country, and that people and the right of free speech are protected.
Things look bleak at present, but I hope that one day the parties will be able to return to the peace process. There are other factors in favour of a peace process, and each side has something to offer the other, although a great deal lies in the way of that at present. I hope that, at some stage in the future, the obstructions to peace can be cleared.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I remind all hon. Members that this is a short debate in which many people want to take part. Hon. Members should be brief to allow as many people as possible to speak.
§ Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)
In mid-September, before the current disturbances began, a festival called Palestine 2000 took place in Rubery church centre, about half a mile from where I live in Birmingham. The idea behind the festival was the promotion of a greater understanding of the Palestinian people, who they are, where they live, and the conditions under which they live. One of the main speakers was a visitor from Israel, a Melkite priest called Abuna Elias Chacour. He is a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen, and has been involved in the Mar Elias education institution for the last 30 years, in the village of Ibullin in Galilee. The objective of that institution is to promote greater 8WH understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims. One of the brightest students of one of the schools involved was a young man called Asel Asleh, who was 17 years old. He was involved in an organisation called Seeds of Peace, an American programme involving more than 800 Arab and Israeli teenagers and other young people who go to summer camps together. This was all designed to promote dialogue. To quote from The Washington Post, Asel wasby all accounts, a model of what a Seed should be—an immoderately prolific e-mailer and letter writer and phone caller who invested time and energy into making Jewish friends and keeping them.Asel is now dead. The report in The Washington Post continues:What happened with Asel—how he died—is in question. He was killed in a clash on Monday with Israeli forces on the outskirts of his village, Arabeh, in Upper Galilee. Whether he was throwing stones, helping the wounded or simply watching the action is unclear. More than a half-dozen Israeli Arabs were killed that day, and Israeli police say all died in the riots that swept the region. A spokesman said he could provide no specific information about Asel's death. Asel's family, which saw his body before burial on Tuesday, say his wounds, including extensive bruises to the back, arms and face, suggested he had been beaten with rifle butts before being shot. No autopsy was conductedinto Asel's death.
I mention the case of Asel, not because his death is any more tragic or painful to his relatives and community than any other death in the region—Jewish, Muslim or Christian—but to make the point that it took place not in Gaza or the West Bank, but inside Israel itself. That seems surprising, and, in such circumstances, we, as an overseas Parliament, should ask questions about how an Israeli citizen was denied access to the laws of the land of which he was, apparently, a citizen. It is strange that no autopsy took place, and that no investigation has taken place.
Having made this speech, I reflect on the possibility that we may see a report from the Israeli authorities saying that I have over-simplified the matter and that events were not as I have said. That may be right. I cannot comment on that. However, I can comment on the fact that I find it a little strange that the Israeli authorities reject the notion of an international investigation into what is going on there so that we can establish the truth. If this can happen to a Palestinian who is an Israeli citizen, is it surprising that they feel like second-class citizens in their own land? Is it surprising that they feel that they are, at best, tolerated in the land of Israel, and that they are not equal with other citizens of that country? Is it surprising that they feel such an affinity with Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? If that is how Palestinian citizens of Israel feel, what must the situation be like for those who live on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
§ Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
I accept what my hon. Friend says about this horrific incident. However, although there is clearly a problem in Israel with the relationship between some Israelis and some Palestinians, does he also accept that 20 per cent. of the electorate in Israel is Arab, and that there are Arab members of the Israeli Parliament, even Ministers, including the Deputy Foreign Minister, who came to the Labour party conference, where I had a chance to 9WH discuss these matters with him? The circumstances are not as simple as my hon. Friend suggests. They are far more complex.
§ Mr. Burden
The statistics that my hon. Friend quotes are absolutely right. I would not deny that. However, if one talks to Arabs who are Knesset members in Israel, including Asmi Bishara, who stood for Prime Minister of Israel, they will not say that they are treated as equal citizens alongside Jewish Israeli citizens.
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
Does my hon. Friend accept that, when I met the Deputy Foreign Minister, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) referred, in Israel, soon after the then Labour Government had taken power, he told us that, in his view, part of his role as an Arab member of the Labour party was to point out to fellow party members the gross discrimination against Arab Israelis? Of course, he does not say that when he is speaking on a platform at the British Labour party conference as a Deputy Foreign Minister, but he has made it clear.
§ Mr. Burden
I shall not give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) again, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg).
§ Mr. Twigg
I do not think that any hon. Members who are friends of Israel would deny discrimination against Israeli Arabs. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South pointed out, the situation is more complex than that outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). Attacks in Israel by Jewish extremists have been condemned by Prime Minister Barak and by other Israeli political figures. The problem is that Palestinian leaders do not engage in similar condemnation of attacks on Jewish people in the West Bank and other occupied territories.
§ Mr. Burden
I shall return to the complexities of the situation in a little while. I mentioned Asel to say something about the circumstances of Palestinians in Israel. If that is the position of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, what is that of Palestinians who are denied citizenship and are not Israeli citizens—those who live under occupation? My hon. Friend said earlier that the present Israeli Prime Minister had offered more concessions than any previous one. That may be the case, but we must ask why an entire people feel the need to say no and to rise up in the manner that we have witnessed during recent weeks.
Often, the concessions and the peace process are discussed in an almost theoretical manner, but it is different if one visits the area and sees what the process has meant to Palestinians on the ground. I was there in June and I saw that Israeli settlement building, which was then the subject of international discussion, was 10WH continuing. The evidence of my eyes was such that I did not perceive a great deal of difference between the circumstances that I witnessed this year and those that I saw two years ago when Likud was in power. On that visit, we were warned by a number of Palestinian academics about the road plan that was being designed for the West Bank and Gaza, splitting the area up. Two years later, I found that those roads were either built or were being built. They bypass Palestinian towns and villages and link up settlements that are illegal under international law. I saw Palestinians who felt that their lives and livelihoods were being bypassed and that they were treated as guests in their own land.
This year, I visited a small village called Issawiyya, just outside Jerusalem. I saw with my own eyes Palestinian homes that had been demolished and Palestinian farms that were denied the water that they needed to irrigate their land, when an Israeli settlement across the valley received water in much greater quantities. These are the realities of what has been happening in the area. If we want to end the problems and achieve a settlement in the middle east rather than merely comment on it, we must, sooner or later, confront the realities. Afif Safieh, the Palestinian general delegate to the United Kingdom, made a comment the other day that said a great deal. He remarked that often when the peace process is discussed, it is almost as if we want to achieve an everlasting peace process rather than everlasting peace. We must do all we can to achieve the latter.
My hon. Friends and, indeed, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), have pointed out that we must recognise the strength of feeling in Israeli public opinion, which I accept. The hon. Gentleman said that it could be tested because Israel was a democracy with an elected Government. However, I ask hon. Members also to consider Palestinian public opinion. Public opinion is not easy to express in an occupied country. What is it that makes a people do what the Palestinians have been doing during the past few weeks? What makes them say that their lives under Israeli occupation can no longer be tolerated? There is no future in the idea, which the Prime Minister of Israel appears to be considering, that the parties involved should take some time out from the peace process and establish firmer borders, possibly splitting the West Bank off on a permanent basis. Israel rightly demands security, but there can be no security in that part of the world unless the peoples there agree to live together and recognise their interdependence. That will not be achieved by fencing people off, destroying their homes and building settlements on land that is illegally occupied.
The fears of Israeli Jews are real and understandable, and the history of the Jewish community bears testament to that fact. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertsmere that those of us with a background of sympathy to the Palestinian cause have a responsibility to state clearly that the issue is not one of religion, and that it should not be allowed to degenerate into a religious issue in this country or anywhere else. However, Israelis must recognise that there is no security in the path that they are currently taking. They need to ensure, if they are to hold up their heads as a democracy in the international community, that they behave as a democracy by respecting international law no less than any other country. They should not allow a 11WH situation to occur whereby the Palestinian community in Gaza and the West Bank is relegated to living in conditions akin to those of a bantustan.
The international community is right to call for calm and the end of the violence because while the violence continues the chances of a settlement are that much less. However, we must address the causes of the violence. We must tell Israelis that they have the right to live in peace, within secure borders, and we must stand by that, but we must also tell them that they are not above international law. If the words of United Nations resolutions in relation to the Balkans and Kuwait are precious to us, those in relation to the middle east and Palestinian rights should be equally precious to us. Palestinians say that they hear about what the west has done in Kosovo and how it cares about the United Nations, but that there are refugee peoples who lost their homes in 1948 and that United Nations resolution 194, which states that they have the right to return, has never been implemented. They know about resolutions 242 and 338, which have also never been implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate is right to say that the situation is complicated. There can be no quick-fix solution, but sometimes it is important to state that there is a bottom line. We in the international community have an obligation to discuss the bottom line, which is that international law must be the basis of any just settlement, and that that involves the withdrawal from occupied territories, recognition of Palestinian rights and a just solution to the refugee problem.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
Before I call the next speaker, I repeat the plea made by my predecessor in the Chair for short speeches. This is an important and current debate in which everyone is interested, so I should like to call as many Members as possible. If hon. Members keep their contributions to three minutes, we shall be able to hear a lot more speeches.
§ Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)
I believe that it was Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian peace negotiator, who said to me a year ago that there were friends of Israel and friends of Palestine, but that today there were also friends of peace. The House must consider itself a friend of peace. The values that we are expressing today should be shared by all Members. The difficulty for those who have spoken and will no doubt speak this morning in defence of the Israeli Government is that it is becoming clear that their values and approach, methods or "mechanics", as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) described them, are not in the same frame as ours.
I come from a family whose origins were in southern Africa. We had kith and kin in what was then called Rhodesia and in South Africa. As I grew up, it became clear to me that the values that my family had imbued in me were not shared by the people we had previously regarded as our kith and kin in that part of the world. The challenge today for members of the Jewish 12WH community in this country and in the United States is to face the prospect that people living in Israel, whom they regard as their kith and kin, may no longer share or act on the values in which they fundamentally believe.
What is at stake is not merely property. My hon. Friend is wrong. Jerusalem is not the major issue in today's debate. The issue is not property but people; it is the Palestinian people and their basic human rights. The fact that those basic human rights were not covered at Camp David sent a signal back to the region that neither side's leadership was in tune with the people whom they represent. Although Prime Minister Barak, a brave man, no doubt went further than any previous Israeli leader in his own terms, it was well known at the time that his coalition was collapsing about his ears, and that there was no certainty that he could go home and deliver even on the promises that he was prepared to make.
A presidential election is being held in the United States, which I visited last week with the Select Committee on Education and Employment. In that context, I was struck by how much more even-handedly the threat to the peace process in the middle east is being presented. There is an increasing awareness in the United States that two sides are involved in the debate, and I hope that following this morning's discussion we can take that awareness forward.
It is the duty of those who represent the Israeli cause in the debate to make it clear to their side that the basic human values to which everyone in this Chamber subscribes must prevail in the middle east, and that we are not prepared to accept even a regime with the patina of respectability and democratic government unless it conforms to international standards.
Like many others, I was horrified by not only the pitiful death of an innocent Palestinian boy but the butchering of two Israeli soldiers. I am reminded of another tragic incident in another place, the butchering of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland, and I ask myself what happened after that incident. Our troops did not go around the streets of Belfast singling out Catholic boys to have them shot and maimed with sniper bullets. The response to the butchering of those Israeli soldiers—
§ Mr. St. Aubyn
I shall give way in a moment.
As the Israeli response was reported on the front page of all newspapers in this country, it sent a clear message that we are dealing with a regime that is becoming increasingly detached from the ethos and morals to which we subscribe.
If the Israeli Government are realigned and turn their back on the peace process, that will be as decisive a moment in our consideration of our relations with people in that region as were the Soweto riots of 1963 and 1975 to the attitude of white people in this country to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
I should like wholeheartedly to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) in opening the debate, and 13WH for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), and those of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). I shall concentrate on how the Israeli Government are flagrantly breaching the fourth Geneva convention, which clearly sets out the obligations under international law of an occupying power, which is what Israel is in Gaza and the West Bank.
I draw heavily on a press release issued in Israel by B'Tselem, the highly respected Israeli human rights organisation. Many extraordinarily courageous people in Israeli society stand up, putting themselves in great personal danger, in support of the principles of human rights and democracy that I share with most hon. Members in this Chamber. We must remember that, and we should support them because they are the correct voice of Israeli and Jewish values, not some of the acts that are being perpetrated by the Israeli Government.
B'Tselem's press release clearly sets out the need to protect civilians and to distinguish between armed and unarmed persons. It also makes it clear that the fact that the other side does not necessarily stick to the rules does not relieve the Israeli Government from sticking to their obligations under international law. It is clear from the huge number of Palestinian deaths, many of them children, that lethal firearms are being used excessively and inappropriately by the Israeli Government. Of those people who have been wounded or killed, 42 per cent. were under the age of 18 and 40 per cent. had head and eye injuries. It is clear that the Israeli forces are aiming deliberately at people's heads. Furthermore, 72 per cent. of those who have been wounded were injured by live bullets, some even by dumdum bullets that cause appalling injuries.
As for the distinction between armed and unarmed people, I shall read from the e-mail of an American charity worker that was sent to me and to his contacts throughout the United States. Describing what he saw at Netzarim junction in Gaza, he said:As ambulances ferried the dead and wounded we spent nearly an hour in the Red Cross/Red Crescent triage center where skilled medical staff were working under the protection of the ICRC…to stop the bleeding before the casualties were taken to hospital operating rooms or morgues. Most of the wounds were from American Apache helicopter gun ships or snipers. Several people far from the onerous fortress intersection dropped to the ground from head woundsThe charity worker said that the people were shot by snipers from 1,000 m or more away, who were picking people out of the crowd from the roof tops. He wrote:Four of the awful gunships kept flying over the residential area spraying it with machine gun fire and directing LOW antitank missiles at homes and apartment buildings.Such action is disproportionate violence and is wholly at variance with Israel's obligations under the Geneva convention. Moreover, it is clear that snipers are being used to shoot unarmed people who are participating in demonstrations against an occupation. The right to demonstrate against occupation is recognised under international law. We are discussing people who are resisting an unlawful occupation.
I refer to other ways in which the Israeli Government have flouted the Geneva convention.
§ Dr. Starkey
No, I shall not give way.
14WH The Israeli Government have not protected wounded persons, medical personnel or ambulances. I draw attention to the infamous shooting of the 12-year-old boy in Gaza. The ambulance man who was attempting to rescue him was also shot and killed. The security forces have not attempted to stop the violence that has been perpetrated by Israeli civilians, yet they are obliged under the Geneva convention to protect Palestinians. On 7 October, settlers attacked the village of Bourin and destroyed two medical clinics. They shot and killed 22-year-old Fahed Mustafa Baqer in Biddiya and besieged villages around Nablus. The recent shooting in that area was provoked by armed settlers under the protection of the Israeli army, which tried to reassert its illegal occupation of settlements around Nablus.
§ Dr. Starkey
No, I shall not give way.
There has been interference with the freedom of movement of ordinary civilians in the West Bank. There have been widespread closures in the area. Sick patients have been unable to reach medical care. A 37-year-old man died of renal failure because he was unable to reach hospital for his regular dialysis because of closures. Three journalists were shot and wounded by the military near Ramallah on 21 October, one of whom reported for Paris Match—not a journal that is usually associated with such situations. The two other journalists reported for Agence France Presse and one for Wattan Television. The day before that a photographer was shot near Khan Younis.
There has been collective punishment—again, in flagrant disregard of international law. The closures are collective punishments of the whole civilian population because of the violence of a minor fraction of that population. Water has been cut off to villages near Jenin. Buildings have been demolished.
§ Dr. Starkey
If we are to have a just and viable peace in the middle east, we must have a new peace process, which is built on international law and UN resolutions. One of the few good things that came out of the Sharm El-Sheikh agreement was that the European Union and United Nations, which do believe in international law, were involved. They may be able to start injecting a correct framework into the peace process—one built on international law and UN resolutions.
I want to address my colleagues who say that they are friends of Israel. The international community must insist that Israel acts responsibly and respects the Geneva conventions. Israel has recently joined the group of western nations at the UN. However, that implies responsibility on the part of Israel to behave like a western nation and respect international law.
§ Mr. Stephen Twigg
Surely responsibility is a two-way process. We have heard a lot from my hon. Friend about what Israel has done. Does she have any criticisms of the Palestinian leadership's handling of these events?
§ Dr. Starkey
They have been well aired by other hon. Members. I simply make the point that the Palestinian 15WH authority is not yet a recognised state. It is not in occupation of anybody else's land. Israel is in occupation of other territories, which it took by force. It would be a dangerous precedent if the international community were to turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel has acquired territories by force, is annexing those territories, is settling them illegally with its own citizens, and has expropriated huge quantities of Arab land in order to settle Jewish Israelis. Only Jewish Israelis are settled on that land. My hon. Friend will be aware that, even within Israel, the high court has only just been able to make the point that it is illegal for public funds to be used exclusively for the benefit of Jewish Israeli citizens. However, we have yet to see that high court ruling being put into effect, and Israeli Arabs being allowed to acquire homes within areas in Israel designated for Jewish settlement alone.
Israel is rightly proud of being the only democracy in the middle east. However, democracy is based not only on the will of the majority but on the rule of law and international law. In terms of respect for the rule of international law, Israel does not qualify as a democracy as most democracies would wish to do. Israel and the occupied territories are falling into an abyss. A deep corrosion has entered Israeli society as young people in the armed forces are being encouraged to have a casual disregard for the lives of Palestinians, which is carrying over into the treatment of Israeli Arab citizens. When Israeli Arabs in Galilee demonstrated against their Government, they were met with soldiers using live bullets. When Israelis of Jewish origin demonstrate and take vigilante action, in mob form, against Arab citizens, they are met with water cannons—
§ Dr. Starkey
That is the appropriate way in which democracies control demonstrators—with the minimum of force. It is not to Israel's credit that the crowd control methods that it uses against Jewish Israeli citizens are different from those that it uses against Palestinian Arab citizens. That shows a casual disregard for the lives of Palestinians, which is corroding Israeli society deeply. That is a much greater danger to Israel, as a democracy in the middle east, than the supposed threat from outside. Britain has an obligation, as the former mandate power, to be much more active in trying to make Israel live up to its obligations under international law. The situation is so grave that we should press for a UN monitoring force on the ground between occupier and occupied. Only then can we start to rebuild the bridges—such as the Seeds programme that my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield mentioned—between Israel and Palestine, and construct a peace which delivers to both communities and, therefore, has a chance of lasting.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I shall call one more speaker, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), and I shall ask him to speak for just two minutes because the Minister and the Opposition spokesman both need time to speak.
§ 11 am
§ Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I speak in this debate with a great sense of sadness. The debate in the House in recent years has not been about the basis of the peace process but about the pace of change and progress. It is sad that we are here today debating the current outbreak of violence. As a friend of Israel—I think that I speak on behalf of all friends of Israel in the House—I want to say that we remain totally committed to the concept of a just and lasting peace in the middle east. There is no doubt about that commitment from the point of view of those who proudly say that they are friends of the state of Israel.
I also speak as someone who is proud of having a multi-faith constituency, in which Jews, Christians and Muslims live alongside one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect, friendship and tolerance. I hope that every responsible Member of Parliament will join me in condemning those who would use this delicate situation in the middle east to whip up tensions between Muslims and Jews in Britain. Recent increases in anti-Semitic attacks do not reflect the mainstream views of Muslim people in this country. They are the actions of the fundamentalist few.
I also want briefly to mention the presentation of the current situation. Certain sections of the media—and, indeed, certain Members of Parliament—seem unable to view the situation objectively or with any sense of balance. I have not heard one person today say that it is unacceptable to sit at the negotiating table one day and, a day later, when one does not get what one wants, to turn to violence. I have heard hon. Members talk today about the historical grievances and the historical sources of tension and conflict between both sides. However, that is exactly why we have had a peace process that has made so much progress in the middle east in a relatively short period of time: to resolve that conflict and those tensions.
If we look at the chronology of events, it was at Camp David that the Prime Minister of Israel offered the best deal that has ever been offered in a peace negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. When Yasser Arafat walked away from that negotiating table, he went to visit a variety of world leaders and tried to enlist their support for the fact that he had refused to make progress on that offer. Those world leaders made it crystal clear that they could not support his walking away from the negotiating table. That was when the violence began. I illustrated in my earlier intervention how that violence is not spontaneous, but orchestrated and encouraged. That does not mean that there are not strong feelings among the Palestinian people. One reason for the strong feelings is that those people have not seen a great improvement in their living standards as a consequence of the peace process. A primary reason for that is the misuse of foreign aid by the Palestinian authority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr. Savidge) spoke earlier of the tragic vision of a young Palestinian boy being killed. That will live in the memory of many people. So, however, will the lynching of the two Israeli soldiers and the brandishing of the hands, dripping with blood, from that window. That is why those of us who see both sides, and who try to have an objective perspective on the situation, reject the bias 17WH and lack of objectivity with which this tragic and longstanding conflict is often presented by some hon. Members and by large sections of the media. We should focus on ending the current violence, initiating a period of reflection and trying to restore co-operation on the ground. It is to be hoped that we can then rebuild confidence, enabling both sides to return to a peace process that is the only way forward for Palestinians, Israelis and all who live in the region.
§ 11.5 am
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate, the most powerful that we have had in Westminster Hall. Emotions have been forcefully expressed and I accept that all hon. Members have strong views on the matter.
I visited Jerusalem in June. I went there with no strong emotions and no attachment to any side of the argument. I went also from a new generation that did not have the student hang-ups—if I may put it that way—that featured in the debates that occurred decades ago. I saw two things that had a profound impact on me. First, the Israelis took me to the holocaust museum, where I saw things that made me cold and which have stayed in my mind for a long time. Secondly, the Palestinians took me into a refugee camp. I had not seen poverty in my life, in which I have been very lucky. What I saw in the camp, where I witnessed at first hand the conditions in which Palestinian children were living, had a profound impact. I learned then and have grown to understand why the emotions and anger that we have seen this morning are so strong.
The visit was also optimistic. Speaking to politicians on all sides, I felt that the peace process was making good progress. I would have predicted then that a deal could have been struck by Christmas of this year. The Camp David agreement in July had seen progress on many core issues, and it is right to acknowledge that President Barak had moved further than many people had said he would. But the problem then is the problem now: Jerusalem.
Two people who seemed to be a whisker away from peace six months ago are now separated by a gulf, as they are sucked regrettably towards the orthodox position in both camps. Since Camp David, things have fallen apart and it is frustrating that we cannot take and bank some of the agreements that were made. There was agreement on 70 to 80 per cent. of the issues, but that is now falling away. However, we are where we are. The attempt to obtain a ceasefire is in ruins and violence occurred again last night. There may be encouraging signs as the violence seems to be less intense and might be reducing, but it is alarming for all of us to see how quickly a peace process can unravel.
Some argue that the closer to peace that we come, the more violence will occur. They cite the example of South Africa and say that, as the peace process gets closer to a conclusion, the militants bed in and become harder. Such people suggest that we might be seeing merely the last throes of violence before peace is established. I doubt that. How many last chances can the region have? Israel's internal party politics will play a key role during the next 48 hours. Barak seeks a coalition and he is talking to Sharon. Obviously, that is not an issue in 18WH which the United Kingdom should become involved. Israel must decide how it governs itself. However, it would be regrettable if conditions were imposed to end the peace process as part of a coalition agreement.
It has also been suggested that Mr. Sharon is playing it tough in order to remain leader of his party. Some people say that his visit to the Temple Mount was more about internal party politics than the exercise of his religious rights. If that is true, it is to be regretted, but it is not helpful for me or others to participate in a blame culture, a little of which we have seen in today's debate. I shall not do so and I do not think that others should do so. The United Nations took great care to avoid mentioning individual names in its recent resolutions, although we must note that it condemned Israel's use of excessive force.
What are the steps forward and what should happen now? The language must change and the violence must stop. There is no chance for the time out proposed by President Barak. However, Palestinians must recognise that he has moved some way. He should be cautious about domestic deals that make a return to the peace table much harder and Israel should be open to allowing the international community to step in and consider the United Nations claims. The United Kingdom also has a role to play, working with its European Union partners. I hope that the Minister will set out his plans in that respect, especially as a gulf will be left when President Clinton ends his term in office next month.
We are not discussing a party-political issue. It is not about being pro-Arab or pro-Israeli, oil reserves or memories of the holocaust. It is about 14 and 15-year-old children throwing stones and 17 and 18-year-old soldiers retaliating. The grown-ups should become involved. Where are they at the moment? Deep down they must know that without a ceasefire there will be no progress, and that without progress there will be no peace.
§ Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate. This has been a remarkable parliamentary occasion and the situation in the middle east has been aired from every possible point of view.
Recently, the world rejoiced at the disappearance of Milosevic in Serbia and at the return to democracy. Similarly, we have recently seen North Korea and South Korea come together. I welcome the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Many good things have been happening in the world during the past few weeks, so events in the middle east seem all the more tragic and unwelcome, especially after seven years of painstaking and halting progress. It is very disappointing that Camp David was not a success.
As well as those in the region, British citizens have also been affected. Our Muslim minority has been affected by anti-social activity that has arisen from the problems. We have in Britain a long-standing and distinguished Jewish community that contributes richly to our national life. Events in the middle east have, therefore, come into Britain not only through the television screens in our living rooms, but in the mindless attack on the young Jewish student in north London and attacks on synagogues. British citizens 19WH have felt anxiety that derives directly from events occurring many miles away. I hope that in today's meeting, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews will receive assurances from the Home Secretary that protection will be provided for all British citizens and their religious buildings at this difficult time.
At Sharm El-Sheikh, President Clinton delivered to the press an address that set out the basis for the agreement. It is worth while to look back at that agreement. Of course, it called for an end to violence, but it also set out specific ways in which progress could be made. Disappointingly, that has not happened and the reality has been very different.
Before we consider the events and prospects in detail, I should pay tribute to the way in which Arab leaders have sought to calm down the situation. There is always a risk that anti-Israel protests will take on a momentum of their own and spill into domestic grievances. The role of King Abdullah and of President Mubarak in trying to stabilise the situation—a role that they have played with considerable statesmanship—deserves unstinting praise from the international community. I also welcome on behalf of the Opposition the visits made to the region by the Minister of State and, most latterly, the Foreign Secretary's attempts to be of direct help. Obviously, it is the United States that overwhelmingly influences the situation, but we in Britain have historic links to the region and ties of trade and friendship—a relationship that we value immensely.
Although Arab leaders in general are to be commended for their moderation and desire for a cessation of hostilities, that cannot be said of Saddam Hussein. He is a man who will seek to gain advantage for himself through any instability in the middle east. If violence continues, he may be tempted into some unwelcome actions. His confidence is growing as sanctions are, as the Minister knows all too well, being flouted by an increasing number of countries. That is a serious cause for concern.
Since the Oslo accords, Israel has boomed economically. It is at the forefront of biotechnology, communications and information technology. It is a considerable and admirable success story. However, juxtaposed against that is the fact that Palestine is absolutely and relatively poor. I greatly welcome the recent offer made by Arab countries, now richer on the back of the oil price, to give more aid. Young Palestinians in particular, their political passions inflamed, do not have anything like the same economic opportunities as their Israeli neighbours. In the longer run, it is fundamentally important that the question of the economic viability of the West Bank and Gaza be addressed. Two situations polarise the problem. The extent to which Chairman Arafat can control the situation on the ground is not clear, nor is the extent to which he can accept any son-of-Camp-David terms that may emerge in future. The violence will have given fresh support to Hammas in the south and Hezbollah in the north.
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, we elected a new Speaker by a rather arcane route and, in this mother of Parliaments, we saw how bizarre circumstances can arise. However, nothing in the House of Commons compares with the difficulties of 20WH trying to run a Government, even with a parliamentary majority, in the Knesset. Religious parties have a wholly disproportionate influence in that body. As we have seen on our television screens, specific events have inflamed the situation dramatically. Even Mr. Barak has described Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount thus:I cannot say that it was the most brilliant idea of the month.Indeed. Terrible images of young people, including young boys, being shot and killed, haunt everyone who saw them. Similarly, the deaths of the two Israeli reservists in the police station in Ramallah tore at the emotions of the Israeli people. The catalogue of horror continues day by day.
For the moment, the drawbridge is effectively up, and there is fury and anger on both sides. However, it is imperative that the ceasefire should begin to take hold, as agreed at Sharm El-Sheikh. The Israelis have endorsed the ceasefire, and it is important to have the Israeli army's rules of engagement spelt out clearly. It is to be hoped that an enduring basis can be agreed for an impartial inquiry into what led to the tragic events of the past few weeks.
It has always been at the heart of British foreign policy that the state of Israel should be kept secure and independent, and that the Palestinians have the right to national self-determination in a viable political and economic entity. Much progress was made at Oslo. Israel withdrew from South Lebanon earlier this year. There is every hope that the new Syrian leader will come to an agreement with Israel about the Golan heights. There are still enormous hurdles to overcome, but there is no alternative to trying again when tempers have cooled. This is a small corner of the world which is precious to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Miracles have happened elsewhere in the world in resolving suspicion and hatred between peoples. I can only pray that the same also happens between Israelis and Palestinians.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Peter Hain)
I welcome the debate. The strong views that have been expressed here by well informed Members show the Chamber at its best. I also welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), which was valuable in the current situation. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for giving me the opportunity to express the Government's deep concern about the tragic situation in Israel and the occupied territories, and I agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) that this presents an opportunity for the House to show that it is a friend of peace and to take that process forward.
I acknowledge the long-standing and expert interest in the problem taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. He has long been an eloquent advocate of the cause of the Palestinians. I agree with him—because it is factually self-evident—that the vast majority of those killed have been Palestinians. The latest estimates put the number of dead at more than 130, of whom at least 125 are Palestinians. The killing of Palestinian children has made the horror even worse. The lynching of two Israelis by Palestinians in Ramallah confirmed the bleak darkness that has shut out the peace process.
21WH I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that Israel must not be above international law. Indeed, with full United Kingdom support, on 7 October the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1322, which condemned the violence, especially the excessive use of Israeli force. It called for an end to all violence and the immediate resumption of peace negotiations.
My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, South-West and for Walthamstow, together with the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), asked whether Britain's role in the peace process could be greater. Before I deal with that question, I welcome the acknowledgment of the hon. Member for West Suffolk of the Foreign Secretary's hard work in the region between 11 and 13 October when, in an intensive round of contacts, he met President Mubarak of Egypt, President Assad of Syria and King Abdullah of Jordan. He met Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat twice and he also met the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. I think that his work paved the way for the Sharm El-Sheikh summit. Last week in Cairo, I received a firsthand report about the summit from Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa. It is important that we continue to engage in such a process.
The American presidential transition may provide an opportunity for the European Union, and Britain in particular, to continue to engage in the peace process. We have a unique friendly relationship with the Palestinian people, the Israeli Government and their people, the Americans and the Arab world, and can perhaps play a more prominent role in the process than we have been able to do. If we are asked to do so, we shall, but we can do so only with the consent of the other parties involved, including the Americans who have been in the lead up to the present time.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that the Israeli Government under Prime Minister Barak had faced enormous internal difficulties. As an elected Prime Minister, he must take account of volatile public opinion, yet he has pushed forward the peace process. The hon. Gentleman was right to acknowledge that and to praise it. I caution him, however, against making a demand for aid to be cut to the Palestinians. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) made a similar point. Britain contributes about £25 million worth of aid to the Palestinians and will continue to do so. We shall not turn our back on them, especially at this time. It is vital that we continue to stand together with them and the Israeli people to find a way in which to bring them together in peace not conflict.
§ Mr. Ivan Lewis
I never suggested, nor do I believe, that aid should be withdrawn from the Palestinians. We should ensure, however, that that aid is used properly and not spent in a way that cannot be accounted for. It must directly benefit the Palestinian people.
§ Mr. Hain
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's clarification. I agree that there is far too much corruption within the Palestinian authorities.
I also agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hertsmere that there is a real danger of the conflict spreading. I felt that myself when I received a 22WH delegation of Muslim leaders at the Foreign Office last week. Indeed, the new leader of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said in her introductory statement at a reception last night that there is a real danger of the conflict spilling over into British society. Attacks have already been made on Jewish synagogues and Muslim citizens, and we do not want our community relations poisoned by the conflict spreading to this country. We must make efforts to ensure that it does not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield is another longstanding advocate of the Palestinian cause, and rightly so. He said that one of the really serious consequences of the conflict was the deaths of Israeli-Arab citizens and referred most movingly to the experience of his friend Asel. We must discourage such a development. The hon. Member for Guildford made the important point that, if reconstituted, the Israeli Government must not turn its back on the peace process. It is a matter for the Israeli people, and the Prime Minister is currently deciding who should be members of the Government. Whoever is a member of the reconstituted Israeli Government must be a friend of the peace process. Britain will stand firmly by that position.
§ Mrs. Ellman
Will my hon. Friend also assure us that he will make it clear to the Palestinian leaders that they should rejoin the peace process? Will he point out that they have breached one of the agreements of Oslo and the Wye accords by resorting to violence, rather than negotiating to resolve difficulties?
§ Mr. Hain
I am happy to say that I spoke to the Palestinian foreign spokesman, Nabil Shaath, this morning and urged the Palestinian leadership to re-engage with the peace process and make every effort to stop the violence. They should have made more effort to stop the violence than has been the case in recent weeks.
It is equally important to point out that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership also have a domestic constituency. It may not have elected them, but there is a strong feeling and a danger that the moderate leadership that he has driven forward will lose out to a much more hard-line and extreme opinion in the community, especially in the current situation.
§ Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)
In trying to discover the reasoning behind the violence, will my hon. Friend go so far as to accept that the British Government ought to back calls for an international inquiry? I had the misfortune to be in Gaza and the West Bank during the worst of the violence, and witnessed individual children being targeted with live rounds from the Israeli defence forces. On visiting a hospital in Gaza, I saw children who had been hit by dumdum bullets that had exploded inside their brains. Given my first-hand evidence, does he feel it necessary for the Government to call for an international inquiry so that we can find out where the violence came from and who was responsible for those deaths?
§ Mr. Hain
It is precisely because of the points raised by my hon. Friend that we support the decision of those who took part in the Sharm El-Sheikh summit to agree on an internationally based inquiry. There will be one as 23WH a result of that summit. It was agreed to by all concerned, including the Israeli Government. No doubt the summit will deal with the matters he identified.
I should briefly tackle a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West about a United Nations force, as demanded at the Arab summit. I pay tribute to that summit for urging that the peace process be resumed, and showing a moderate leadership in difficult circumstances. I do not rule such a force out but it is difficult to put a UN peace-keeping force in the middle of warring parties, as we have seen in Sierra Leone, where there was a peace agreement, and can still see in the Congo.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South said that, as a friend of Israel, he was a friend of peace. Given the passions displayed this morning, it is important that we remember that the majority of Israeli citizens backed Prime Minister Barak in his seeking to resume the peace process. I am convinced that the majority still back a peace settlement, even after the events of the past few weeks.
It is a tragedy that the parties know how close they came to an agreement at Camp David. They were in reach of a deal that would have changed the face of the middle east. There is a contrast between what we have seen recently and what I saw on my visit at the end of August. Within a few hours, I spoke to Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat, and it was clear that they were close to a deal. Sometimes that is the most difficult time of a peace process, as we saw in Northern Ireland and South Africa in the early 1990s.
§ Mr. Hain
No. I am sorry, but I do not have time.
The agreement would have led to the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state with clearly defined and secure borders. It is inconceivable that any other route will lead to such an achievement, so the Palestinians must persevere on it. Further delays in the peace process will lead to the Palestinians being offered less than they have been. The Palestinians must realise that they will have no better partner for peace than Prime Minister Barak, and the Israelis must realise that they will have no credible partner for peace other than President Arafat. It is vital that they continue to work together for peace.
Only peace will enable the Palestinians to express fully their right to self-determination and enable the Israelis to enjoy the security that they rightly demand. Only peace will remove the instability and uncertainty that hangs over Israel. Once it has been achieved, the two peoples—who share not only land, but a history and a future—might realise that reconciliation and co-operation will achieve much more than conflict and confrontation. It is our responsibility, through patient diplomacy and constant engagement with all our friends in the region, to promote that peace settlement. We have had a lot of experience, and compromises will be needed, as in Northern Ireland and many other areas of the world, in order to secure that peace.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I congratulate hon. Members on an excellent debate on an important issue. The next debate will be initiated by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley).