House of Commons debates UK foreign policy in the Middle East
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP this week called the situation in Gaza “unacceptable and unsustainable” and declared that it is “essential that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza in order to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and to permit trade to take place.”
The comments were made during a debate on UK foreign policy in the Middle East on Monday (June 14th) in the House of Commons. This was followed on Tuesday (June 15th) by a more specific debate on Gaza, secured by MP for Westminster North Karen Buck.
However further remarks by the Minister were not quite as forceful, as he backed the Israeli proposed inquiry into the raid on the Gaza aid flotilla. He declared the inquiry, which will be internal and not involve any questioning of those involved from either side, as meeting “the United Nations Security Council resolution requirement of an independent and impartial inquiry with an international element.” This international element being Lord Trimble, founder this week of a new international friends of Israel group, and former Judge Advocate General to the Canadian forces, Ken Watkin. Neither of whom will be allowed to vote on the findings.
Karen Buck, who CAABU took on a delegation to Gaza in March which she frequently cited, declared that the situation in Gaza is an issue of “proportionality and collective punishment” and that “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…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.”
She finished by adding that the government’s role she be more active and that “Britain’s longstanding connection with the area should be used even more effectively to achieve a resolution.”
Chair of the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group, Richard Burden MP, made similar comments a day earlier in the Commons chamber declaring:
“People can get food and medical treatment in a prison, but that does not alter the fact that it is still a prison…the blockade is a collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Not only is it unlawful, but it condemns the people of Gaza to living in a prison. It is not enough for the people of Gaza to get by on more food parcels. It is not just an international humanitarian charity case. The people of Gaza need to be able to travel. They need to be able to rebuild a functioning economy.”
He called on more serious action to be taken to lift the blockade of Gaza, arguing that:
“The European Union has an association agreement with Israel that carries not only rights but responsibilities. It carries the right to trade preferences and various other preferences, but it carries the responsibility of Israel abiding by standards of international humanitarian law. Israel is simply not abiding by those standards. The terms of the EU-Israel association agreement are not being carried out. Therefore, until Israel changes its attitude, that agreement needs to be suspended.”
New Liberal Democrat MP David Ward re-iterated this argument for stronger action to be taken against Israel, saying:
“We must take a lead with our European partners, as has been said. We must go back to Obama, who started by making a very positive speech in Cairo. However, we must also consider boycotts, divestment and sanctions, because those were the only things that carried any weight in South Africa. Those policies must extend not only to weapons but to sport and academic boycotts as well. The United Nations has made a score or more resolutions. It is not resolutions we need; it is resolve.”
Fellow Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams MP, newly elected treasurer of the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group, made reference to his recent delegation visit with CAABU and spoke of hope for the future.
“For me, that visit to Gaza was one of those life-transforming experiences that crystallised the issues in my head and made me see them more clearly than I had done before. To set this in the context of my own constituency, that is the equivalent of the whole of greater Bristol, Bath and all of Wiltshire being blockaded off from the rest of the United Kingdom and denied access to the most basic goods. This is a humanitarian violation on a quite staggering scale.”
“One of the touching scenes we saw while in Gaza City was at an UNRWA school, where children were conducting a mock election. That shows hope for the future, but I do not think there can be any hope for the future if we do not talk to the people whom their parents have elected. We must have engagement with all the political representatives of Gaza and the west bank. We must lift the siege. We must have constructive engagement, and from that point we might have a chance of building lasting peace into the future.”
Members from both parties of the governing coalition urged the Government not to completely rule out negotiating with Hamas, given their status as an elected government, whether it is to the liking of the UK or not. Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat deputy leader argued that:
“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… 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?”
While also acknowledging that Hamas had responsibilities too:
“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.” He argued for the need for an international inquiry into the flotilla raid, “We cannot expect people to trust an inquiry carried out by one of the parties to the event. It has to have international credibility.”
Conservative MP John Barron asked the minister if, “he will do what he can, and get his Department on board, to try to impress on the Israelis the fact that Hamas is more than just a terrorist organisation?”
MP’s from across the house including Conservatives Sir John Stanley and Stephen Philips, and Labour MP Emma Reynolds all argued against the futility of the blockade and how, despite Israeli protestations, it was in fact doing no harm to Hamas and that the justification of self-defence by Israel could not always be used.
In response to the launch of the inquiry by Israel into the flotilla raid Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman argued that Israel has been allowed to flout international law repeatedly and as it continuous to do so only entrenches feelings of hate further in its enemies.
“Israel has invaded Lebanon three times. It facilitated the Sabra and Shatila massacres. It also conducted Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza blockade and the attack on the Gaza flotilla. Let us also dispose of the distractions that impede action. It makes no difference whether the inquiry into the attack on the flotilla is conducted internally by Israel or internationally. Even an international inquiry would not change Israeli policy. The Goldstone inquiry into Operation Cast Lead had no influence at all, and Goldstone was vilified as a Jewish anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. We have heard mention this afternoon of the dreadful situation involving Gilad Shalit, the young man who was taken into captivity four years ago this week. I feel great sorrow for his family, but he was a soldier on military duty. About 15 members of the Palestine National Council are being held without charge by the Israelis, and about 300 children are being held in prisons by the Israeli Government. It is a distraction to propose, as Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton have done, to change the terms of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Neither of them has challenged the principle of the blockade, yet it is that principle that contravenes the Geneva Convention…the Israelis are creating a generation of children who will grow up hungry and hating them.”
A full text of both debates can be read via the following links to the Parliament website:
Commons Chamber debate on UK Foreign Policy in Middle East. Here
Westminster Hall debate on Gaza. Here