15th January 2009
Keith Simpson winds up the debate for the Opposition calling on the UK Government to use whatever diplomatic influence it has and its commitment to humanitarian aid to stem the frightening prospect of the conflict in Gaza developing into a regional war.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): As a number of hon. Members have said, this has been an excellent debate. There have been somewhere in the region of 20 speeches, many of which were made with great passion. In the two years in which I have been a member of the shadow foreign affairs team, I have attended many debates on the middle east, and I recognise that many hon. Members who speak in these debates often take one side or another, but they usually speak with a great deal of generosity. This week we have debated the tragic subject of Gaza three times: after the statement on Monday, during Foreign Office questions on Tuesday and in this debate.
I shall touch briefly on the contributions of five of my right hon. and hon. Friends. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) spoke with a great deal of knowledge not only of the middle east, but of the difficult task of trying to negotiate between two groups of people whose policies and views it is almost impossible to reconcile. He has done that in Northern Ireland, and he is doing it now in the middle east. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has always been a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, and is a pragmatist in many respects. He argued strongly that whatever immediate solution came about, we needed to move beyond a ceasefire.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, is a firm supporter of the state of Israel, and he spoke in a considered, sympathetic and balanced way. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) spoke with great conviction and knowledge about the situation in Palestine, and emphasised the point that, in many respects, the situation among the Palestinians in Gaza was more representative and democratic than that in the west bank. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is also proudly a keen supporter of the state of Israel and-I say this in the best possible way-a true Christian gentleman, argued about the almost conflicting situation of bringing together an independent state of Israel and a truly independent state of Palestine.
I want to touch on three or four themes. Hon. Members quite rightly emphasised the impact of the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians under the assault of the Israeli defence forces. I recognise that most hon. Members have accepted that that is perhaps down to the law of unintended consequences, and that those civilians were not directly targeted. Hon. Members on both sides know, however, that fighting in built-up areas with a civilian population will lead to civilian casualties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and the Minister said, if accusations are made about war crimes or the breaking of the rule of the law of war, they should be fully investigated and, if necessary, charges should be brought.
One of the problems in this debate is how, if we are to hold Israel to account, we are to hold to account a political party such as Hamas, which might also break the laws and rules of war. How are we to bring to account people who use civilian sites and use weapons against civilians? That is much more difficult to achieve, and we should not resile from that point of view.
The Minister and others argued about how to establish a ceasefire. I am with the majority of colleagues who spoke in today's debate in saying that a ceasefire or truce will once again be only a temporary band aid to the problem. In the case of other ceasefires, not only in Gaza but on the border with Lebanon, the problem has merely been freeze-framed for a certain period. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes and others have said, we will only succeed if we involve the international community directly, and it will take many months, if not years, of great commitment.
As several Members have said, without such commitment by a United States Government over a long period, I suspect that we will not get the movement that we want, on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. It is not just a question of the United States of America bringing pressure to bear on Israel, but of the United States having the political, diplomatic, military and economic clout to bring pressure to bear on other regional powers. Several Members referred to the importance of the role of Egypt and Syria, but countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states must also be directly involved. If we do not do that, we will be back here in a few months' time, having had a ceasefire or a truce. Another international problem will have emerged, while this one will have gone back down the agenda, and we will face another crisis.
I am particularly concerned about the state of public opinion in Israel. As a consequence of any immediate ceasefire, it seems to me that the Israelis will think that they have only bought themselves a temporary truce. They will not have beaten Hamas militarily-they will perhaps have pushed Hamas back through a limited military action. However, as many Members have said, they will have been damaged in world opinion as a result of the images that have been projected of the suffering of the Palestinian people. That will be a political defeat.
What is the role of the United Kingdom? We have diplomatic influence. We have a great commitment to humanitarian aid, which is of fundamental importance and is supported overwhelmingly by the British people, who want to see more of it. We also perhaps have some influence over an Israeli Government, who, I fear, will get into a siege mentality. As several Members have emphasised, our own Jewish and Muslim communities will be continually radicalised by the escalation of the conflict. The blowback from that will affect all of us. Any young Muslim or Jewish person watching the conflict is in danger of bringing it back here on to our streets and into our schools. It is therefore in our most narrow, pragmatic interests to be seen to be doing all that we can to resolve the problem.
My final point is that we have so far been fortunate that the conflict in Gaza has not spread to the west bank, or, apart from a few rockets, to the border with Lebanon. We are always in danger of an outbreak of conflict, as we have seen, developing into a regional war. A regional war with missiles, and with at least one country possessing nuclear weapons, and another that might be about to have nuclear weapons, is a frightening prospect."