James Cleverly responds to an Urgent Question on efforts to secure a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza and sets out the work that the Government are doing, along with others, to bring about a peaceful resolution.
Since I was last at the Dispatch Box on 13 May, we have sadly seen further violence and more civilian deaths. I am sure the House will join me in offering condolences to all the families of those civilians who have been killed or injured across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Mr Speaker, with your permission I will set out to the House the work that the Government are doing, along with others, to bring about a peaceful resolution. We are urging the parties to work with mediators towards an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of life and a worsening humanitarian situation. We are supporting United Nations, Egyptian and Qatari efforts to that end, and we work closely with the United States.
We are also prioritising our own diplomatic efforts through both bilateral and multilateral channels. The Foreign Secretary and I, with the support of our diplomats on the ground, have been working to progress the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has spoken in recent days with the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister; he reinforced our clear message of de-escalation and our desire to work together to end the violence. I delivered similar messages to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in London.
We have also engaged regional partners at ministerial level. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Minister of Jordan on 17 May and just this morning I spoke with a number of ambassadors from Arab states to reiterate the need for an immediate ceasefire, and I underlined our shared goal of a peaceful two-state solution. We are playing a leadership role in the United Nations Security Council, where we are calling for measures by all sides to reduce further violence. We will participate in the emergency UN General Assembly session later this week.
The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations within Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups, who must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for the targeting of civilians.
Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. We are aware of medical institutions, a number of schools and many homes in Gaza that have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and we are concerned that buildings housing media and humanitarian organisations such as Qatar Red Crescent have been destroyed. We call on Israel to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality when defending its legitimate security interests.
We are also concerned by reports that Hamas is once again using civilian infrastructure and populations as a cover for its military operations. Humanitarian access is essential, and we urge all parties to allow the unimpeded entry of vital humanitarian supplies. Hamas and other terrorist groups must cease their mortar attacks on these crossings. We urge all parties to work together to reduce tensions in the west bank, including East Jerusalem. The UK is clear that the historic status quo in Jerusalem must be respected. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable.
The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution. The UK will continue our intensive diplomatic efforts in the region focused on securing a ceasefire and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace.
I remind people that there are set times that we have to try to stick to.
It is of enormous concern to everyone in the House that in this conflict between Hamas and Israel nearly 300 people have been killed, including 65 children. This is truly appalling. We condemn the rocket attacks by Hamas and the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed so many innocent people and severely damaged schools and medical facilities.
I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say regarding the Government’s position and his statement in favour of an immediate ceasefire. We have heard in the last few hours that the French and Jordanian Governments are making real efforts to bring about a UN resolution that would help to secure an immediate ceasefire. We have heard that there have been discussions with the Egyptians and the Germans. The name of the United Kingdom Government has not been mentioned.
I ask the Minister whether he would care to elaborate on what representations he has recently made to secure the objective of an immediate ceasefire. Could I also press him on what efforts his Government are making to provide humanitarian support for the people of Gaza? I urge the Government to do everything they can to restart a meaningful peace process as a matter of urgency. If further conflagrations are to be prevented, we need a process that will uphold international law, end the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and create a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the diplomatic work that the UK Government have put in. I can assure him that we remain fully committed to an immediate ceasefire, and we are working to that end. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary spoke with his Jordanian opposite number only a few days ago, and I spoke to ambassadors from the region this morning.
Some of the diplomatic efforts are done, quite rightly, very visibly through institutions such as the United Nations. Some—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand why—are perhaps done more discreetly and quietly. The international community is pulling together, both in the region and in Europe and the United States, to try to bring about a meaningful ceasefire and work towards what can only be the right way of bringing permanent peace to the region, which is through negotiated political means.
Israel has the right to defend its citizens from terrorist attack, and I welcome the Minister’s strong confirmation of that this morning. Will he go further, however, and send a message about terrorism by proscribing the whole of Hamas as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is making possible these horrific rocket attacks?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the points that she has made. She will know that the military wing of Hamas is recognised internationally as a terrorist organisation, and the entirety of Hamas has no contact—we have a no-contact policy—from the UK Government. We enjoy good working relationships with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Solutions need to be achieved —they must be—through negotiated political means, rather than through military means. She will also understand that we do not speculate on future proscriptions.
We are witnessing the second week of horrific violence in Israel and Palestine. It has been reported that 10 have been killed by Hamas, and more than 200 have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, including 65 children. The SNP abhors all indiscriminate violence against civilians so, first, what further steps can the UK Government take in demanding an immediate ceasefire? I am incredibly proud that last month my city of Dundee voted to recognise Palestine as a nation state so, secondly, will the UK Government commit today to recognising Palestine as an equal and independent nation state?
The UN Secretary-General has accused the Israeli Government of acting contrary to their obligations under human rights law. Indeed, Amnesty International has highlighted potential war crime by both Israel and Hamas, so, thirdly, what pressures are the UK Government bringing to bear to investigate these shocking breaches? Lastly, UK arms export licences to Israel have increased by over 1,000% in the past two years. This is not neutrality, so, finally, will the UK Government immediately suspend those exports until they have been thoroughly examined?
I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas. As I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times, Israel has a right to self-defence, but we have made it clear that we expect at all times for it to exercise that in accordance with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to minimise casualties. Ultimately, the best way of minimising civilian casualties is to bring this conflict to a conclusion. That is why we are working with both the Palestinian leadership and the Government of Israel, and with our international partners, both in the region and further afield, to bring this conflict to a timely end, and work towards a more permanent ceasefire and, ultimately, a peaceful two-state solution.
Reports indicate that at least 500 Hamas rockets—one in seven of the total number fired—have exploded within Gaza. A Palestinian non-governmental organisation has confirmed that eight Palestinians were killed last week by a rocket that fell short. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas rocket fire not only threatens Israelis, but causes grave harm to ordinary Gazans and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms? Would he also acknowledge that, far from being able to negotiate with a democratic Palestinian Government, Israel is facing existential threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, extreme Islamist terrorist organisations funded and backed by Iran, and that there should be no moral equivalence between democratic Israel and the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah?
The UK enjoys good relations with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I urge all Members of the House and those further afield to recognise that Hamas, the military wing of which is recognised as a terrorist organisation, is no friend of the Palestinian people. We will work with the leadership of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, alongside our friends and partners internationally, for peace. Ultimately, nobody wants to continue seeing images of fatalities—either Palestinians or Israelis.
Last week, I read the names of four of the then 14 Palestinian children and one Israeli child who had died. A week on, the number of Palestinian children dead is now 63 in Gaza alone. My heart was broken before; it is shattered now.
We need a ceasefire. The UK should not have left it to France to be the main sponsor of a UN resolution calling for it. This Government are shirking their historic responsibility and it is time to step up. Today, I wear my keffiyeh in recognition that if we want lasting peace, we cannot go back to how things were before: the police brutality, the demolitions and the oppression. We need a peace process that is not doomed before it begins. If this Government are committed to a lasting peace, why do they not recognise the state of Palestine?
I recognise the hon. Lady’s passion for the Palestinian people and her own background. I completely understand how painful it is for her in particular, and for all of us, to see images of those who have lost their lives. I can assure her that we are working with international partners, both at the United Nations and more broadly, to bring about peace. When I last stood at the Dispatch Box and responded to her urgent question, I made the point that the UK was pushing towards a cessation of violence and a ceasefire and that we are absolutely committed to a meaningful two-state solution.
Palestinian recognition is, rightly, an issue to be debated in this House, but at this point our focus is relentlessly on bringing about an immediate end to the conflict so that we can work in good time to a negotiated political solution and a two-state solution for the benefit of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the commitment to a two-state solution. Will he update the House on the extent to which we are using our presidency of the G7 to help to broker international consensus for a ceasefire?
We are using all our diplomatic contacts and our diplomatic leverage. Understandably, the United Nations is the predominant multilateral body through which we are working, but I spoke to a meeting of the Arab ambassadors just this morning. We are ambivalent as to which organisation helps to bring about peace and will work with whomever, wherever we feel able to apply positivity. I assure my hon. Friend that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to bring about an end to this conflict.
The sad aftermath of a tragedy in which children who are pulled from the rubble are considered lucky among a three-figure death toll is—the Minister said it himself—people newly displaced from their homes, double refugees and destroyed schools, hospitals and cultural centres, all at a time when we are cutting our aid contribution internationally. Does he agree with his two recent predecessors, Alistair Burt and Alan Duncan, that although UK Government policy is against illegal settlements and for a two-state solution, our long-standing lack of proactivity sometimes makes it look as if we do not really mean that? The only real victor in all this is Netanyahu. Until recently he was a caretaker leader after an inconclusive election; he has now well cemented himself.
The outcome of democratic elections in the state of Israel is for the Israeli people. We will continue to work with the Governments elected by the Israeli people. It strikes me, however, that that is an important but fundamentally different issue to the subject of the urgent question. We will work with international partners, the Israelis and the Palestinians to bring peace to the region, both in terms of this specific conflict, which we seek to resolve as quickly as possible, and, ultimately, for a sustainable prosperous two-state solution. That remains the UK Government’s policy.
Iran’s role in this conflict is just one more example of Iranian efforts to undermine peace and stability throughout the middle east via its proxy terror group allies. Given that it was exactly that kind of behaviour that many warned was a blind spot in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give today that the current discussions on resuscitating the agreement will not just repeat that mistake all over again and give a free pass to Iran to continue re-arming its Hamas allies?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We recognise that in our desire to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon we cannot be blind to its broader regional destabilising activity. That will remain one of the UK’s priorities. It is regularly raised with me by my interlocuters in the region and I can assure him that that will be at the forefront of our minds throughout the forthcoming negotiations.
How many more Palestinian children have to be killed? How many more Palestinian homes have to be reduced to rubble? How many more Palestinian schools and hospitals have to be bombed before the British Government take the action necessary to force the Israeli Government finally to stop their war on the Palestinian people? Surely now is the time for all UK weapons sales to Israel to be stopped. Surely now is the time for sanctions on the Israeli Government for their repeated violations of international law. Surely now is the time—this House voted for it back in 2014—to recognise the state of Palestine, because Palestine has the right to exist.
I remind the hon. Gentleman of the sequencing of the events that unfolded in Gaza and Israel. Israel’s actions were in response to indiscriminate rocket attacks from an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. Israel has the right to self-defence. We have urged it at every step to do so proportionately and to take every step it is able to take to minimise civilian casualties. I am sure that like me he is horrified when we see images of fatalities, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian, and that is why, while the issue of recognition is important, it is not for now. Now is about bringing this conflict to an end.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but given our history and our legacy, could Britain lean into this more? We called for a ceasefire. Let us ask the United States to join us there as well. It is difficult to see how any tactical or strategic advantage could be gained by either side from continuing this conflict. Once we get to a ceasefire, the old legacy challenges will remain and Israel will require a partner to work with. My concern is that Palestinian elections have not taken place for about 16 years and Hamas is now supported by the Iranians. It has no interest in working with Fatah in the west bank, let alone the Israelis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps the neighbouring Muslim countries, particularly those that have just signed the Abraham accords, could be invited to help to encourage Palestinians to hold fresh elections, so that we get more representative voices that Israel can work with?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The UK has been fully supportive of elections for the Palestinian Authority, which are now well overdue. We have seen on numerous occasions the Palestinian Authority working and co-ordinating with the Government of Israel, and we are always supportive when that is the case. The actions taken by Hamas are not to the benefit of the Palestinian people. The solution to the conflict, both in the short term and ultimately, will be through a negotiated political solution, and I would urge the Palestinian people to choose a leadership that is respected on the international stage and able to negotiate with international partners.
I thank the Minister for his very balanced response to the questions that have been put. He knows that Hamas is trying to make the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas redundant, to make him appear irrelevant and to present itself as the ultimate defender of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. Our own history in this country proves the folly of doing business with terrorists. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to tell Hamas that the British Government will never do business with terrorists?
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the military wing of Hamas is recognised as a terrorist organisation. Ultimately, the future of the Palestinian people should lie in the hands of people who are able to negotiate on the international stage, and Hamas is not in a position to credibly do that.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s call for both sides to step back from the brink and show restraint. Does my right hon. Friend agree that continued escalation in the region will only lead to further violence and more deaths, and that both sides need to urgently down their arms?
My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point. The images that we have seen of fatalities and injuries of both Israelis and Palestinians are heartbreaking. We continue to work with international partners to work to peace and an ultimate, sustainable, two-state solution.
The images of death, destruction and loss of life all over the region are horrific. The targeted bombing of buildings in Gaza, the tanks on the west bank, and the destruction of education and health facilities is absolutely appalling. Will the Minister explain exactly what is the nature of Britain’s military relationship with Israel? What is the nature of that co-operation with Israel? Can he tell the House whether any munitions sold by Britain to Israel have been used to bomb places in Gaza, and whether any drone equipment supplied by Britain or bought by Britain has been used as a surveillance method on either the west bank or Gaza and followed up by the destruction of civilian life and the death of many people, including the tragedy of the deaths of whole families and children? Our public need to know exactly the nature of that military relationship with Israel. Of course, the Minister rightly says that the occupied territories, which are occupied by Israel, are the places that suffer as a result of this bombardment.
The UK has a robust arms export licensing regime, and all export licences are assessed in accordance with it. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously. I would also remind him that Israel is responding to rockets fired at it from an organisation closely associated with Iran. We would urge all nations to take their arms export responsibilities as seriously as the UK does.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working with international counterparts on calming tensions in the region and bringing an end the violence, to ensure that all sides can move towards a peaceful dialogue? Can he also give assurances that he will work to ensure that the hard-won Abraham accords between Israel and the Gulf nations remain intact?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I can assure him that the conversation I had this morning with representatives of the Arab nations, including the representative of the Palestinian people here in London, was balanced, thoughtful and productive. I can assure him that our friends in the region share our desire to see peace come quickly to the region, and we are all working closely with one other to pursue that particular goal.
The Minister will be aware that, around the world, people want to see an end to the violence and the rising death toll—both of Israelis and Palestinians—and to see a ceasefire, and they welcome efforts to that effect. However, does he also accept that the long-term solution to these issues lies with the UK Government, among others, demanding an end to forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem; the UK Government insisting that sacred sites, including the al-Aqsa mosque, are treated with the utmost respect; the UK Government asking for an immediate halt to new settlements and an adherence to international law; and the UK Government recognising Palestine as a state, with full membership of the United Nations? The Minister said earlier that recognition of Palestine is not an issue for now, but I say to him that if justice for the Palestinians is not an issue for now, in the midst of this violence and death, when will justice for the Palestinians be an issue?
Let me read verbatim a section from my opening speech. I said: “The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution.” So our position on the very questions that the right hon. Lady raised is clear and long standing, and I do not understand why she is raising them. Again, on the issue of Palestinian state recognition, the UK position is clear and long standing. We will do so when it is most conducive to advancing the peace effort.
The Minister’s point on the two-state solution does him great credit and it should be clear for anybody to understand. Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will never be peace in the Levant, never be a two-state solution and never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state, uncouples itself from its regime and rediscovers the dignity, poise and leadership appropriate to its history and its culture?
I thank my predecessor and good friend for the point that he raised. I have already said that the UK encourages Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region. We will continue to work towards a two-state solution with the framework that has been explained from this Dispatch Box many times, and I pay tribute to the work that he did in this role to try to make that a reality.
Gaza has been under a suffocating blockade for almost 15 years, which already undermines the delivery of healthcare. Having been involved in breast cancer projects in Gaza for many years, I am aware from colleagues that 14 Government hospitals and clinics, including the covid laboratory, have been bombed, along with those run by international charities. We have been in this situation before, so once a ceasefire is finally agreed, what is the Government’s plan to achieve a long-term, yet just solution for both the Palestinians and the Israelis?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work in this area and more broadly in the provision of health services to communities around the world. We are aware of the reports and, indeed, footage of medical facilities that have been damaged or destroyed, but we are also deeply concerned about the continued use by Hamas of civilian infrastructure for its military operations. Ultimately, we seek to bring about an end to the conflict so that humanitarian support can get to the people who need it. We remain one of the most generous humanitarian donors in the world and we are working hard to keep those humanitarian access routes open so that our support and the support of others in the international community gets to the people it needs to.
Hamas has consistently chosen to prioritise its goal of the destruction of Israel over the safety and prosperity of Palestinians, but in conflict it is always the innocent, Palestinians and Israelis, who suffer. That must end and a ceasefire must be agreed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot just condemn Hamas, but must ensure that moderate Palestinians’ representatives are supported and championed?
My hon. Friend is right; we seek, as does the international community, a peaceful life for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people. That can be done only through international co-operation, and ultimately it has to be done by representatives of the Palestinian people who respect Israel’s right to exist.
My mother always wanted me to take a side, either for the Palestinians or the Jews. I can never decide which side I should take, but is it not profoundly unhelpful for us to take a side? If we are going to take a side, would it not make far more sense for us to be on the side of the families who have been fleeing rocket attacks from Hamas, of the families who have been evicted in East Jerusalem or in the illegal settlements, and of the doctors who have seen their facilities bombed or who do not have any vaccines to be able to deal with coronavirus? I know this sounds terribly pious, but in the end do we not just have to be on the side of the humanity in this?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with a huge amount of wisdom on this. It is perhaps seductive but ultimately futile to work to reinforce a side of an argument while an argument persists. What we should do is seek to end arguments, end conflict, pursue peace and pursue the right of Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, side by side, in harmony and prosperity. The Government will continue to pursue that as our primary goal in this region.
The Minister says he has a policy on evictions and demolitions in East Jerusalem and the west bank, on the attacks on al-Aqsa and the expansions of settlements, but the illegal settlement and occupation of Palestinian territories has been going on for more than five decades. What is the Minister actually going to do to tackle the causes of violence? What steps are his Government actually going to take?
The hon. Gentleman answers his own question, in the fact that the tensions in this region have persisted for decades and have done so under both Conservative and Labour Governments. If it were simple and easy, it would have been done. The truth of the matter is that we are seeking to have a sustainable future for both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people.
We will work with the representatives of those people and more broadly in the international community to pursue that goal.
I join the Minister in urging both sides to move to a ceasefire to prevent the further loss of life. We have all seen the images of what is happening in Israel and the Gaza strip, and I have to say thank god for the Iron Dome. Were it not for that outstanding piece of Israeli technology, today we would see thousands of innocent Israeli citizens dead and maimed at the hands of Hamas terrorists and no doubt even worse conflict in the region. Does the Minister agree that we must condemn Hamas and weaken its close relationship with Iran, and work to bring moderate Israelis and Palestinians together through co-existence projects?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There are plenty of thoughtful and passionate Palestinians and Israelis who are determined to bring peace to the region, and we must ensure that their voices are heard. We will work alongside them and our friends more broadly in the international community to that end, and he makes an important point about what might have been the situation had Israeli air defence systems not been as effective as they are.
I am utterly horrified by the scenes unfolding in Gaza, as are hundreds of my constituents who have contacted me to express their concerns. The UK Government are absolutely right to condemn Hamas’s rocket attacks, but they must also condemn in much stronger terms the completely disproportionate response from the Israeli Government, which has resulted in the loss of hundreds of civilian lives, including at least 63 children, coming on the back of sustained breaches of international law for many years. So I ask again: given the UK’s historic responsibility in the region, will the Minister urgently intensify and accelerate efforts with international partners to broker an immediate ceasefire by both sides, and will he suspend arms exports to Israel?
I have already made clear our desire to see an immediate end to the hostilities, a permanent ceasefire and a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We have also urged that, in their response to rocket attacks from within civilian infrastructure in Gaza, the Israelis exercise all caution to minimise civilian casualties. That will remain the UK Government’s position on this issue.
Yesterday, Israel facilitated dozens of trucks filled with humanitarian aid, including field hospitals and covid vaccines, to enter Gaza, yet Hamas deliberately fired repeat barrages of mortars at the Israeli crossing terminal, injuring an Israel Defence Forces soldier involved in the aid transfer and killing two foreign workers nearby. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that appalling incident, which shows, as he stated earlier, that the actions of Hamas are categorically not in the interests of Palestinian people?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. As I said in my initial response, the targeting of civilians is unacceptable, and the specific targeting of humanitarian support particularly so. I have urged Hamas and other terrorist organisations to cease their targeting of humanitarian access routes, so that our support and the support of others in the international community can get to the people who need it.
We heard the Minister’s statement of policy; we just do not understand the strategy for advancing it. He has to realise, like the rest of us, that there is no peace without justice. The way to disarm Hamas, to make progress towards peace and to ensure genuine calm and de-escalation can only be through the full realisation of Palestinian rights and the end of systematic discrimination against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It is vital that the UK uses its influence with the United States to insist on a ceasefire. It is vital that the UK Government fully support the International Criminal Court investigation into all alleged war crimes, no matter which party stands accused, including those who are launching appalling rockets and those launching airstrikes. It is vital that we suspend the sale of arms to Israel until we know the outcomes of these prosecutions. Crucially, it is vital that the UK understands that the hope of peace is disappearing because people no longer believe that a two-state solution is possible. That is why we have to act now to sustain hope among Palestinians by ensuring recognition of the state of Palestine. We voted for it in 2014. On 7 July 2020, the Government said:
“The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace”—
Order. I think the Minister has got the question.
I recognise the passion with which the right hon. Gentleman speaks, but there can be no legitimisation of indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilian targets from within civilian infrastructure by an internationally recognised terrorist organisation.
I thank the Minister for his robust support on behalf of the British Government for Israel’s right to defend itself from attack by a proscribed terrorist organisation. Listening to what he said about the prospects for peace, it is clear that Hamas has no interest in dialogue and moving towards peace. What can we do to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which is a credible partner for peace, and to reduce the influence of Iran, which is trying to strengthen the hand of those who are Israel’s enemies and who do not wish to see peace for the Palestinians?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The Palestinian people have many friends and allies in the international community and they have people within their own leadership who are determined to bring about peace and see a peaceful two-state solution. We should find ways of strengthening their voices and their hands and work with them in pursuit of a two-state solution. There are also people who claim leadership or who aspire to leadership who will never accept the existence of an Israeli state, and we cannot, will not and should not work with them.
The nub of this issue, having visited both Israel and Palestine, is a colonial-era mindset of a gradual land grab: the forcible eviction of people from their homes; the building of illegal settlements; the extreme and shameless violation of human rights and international law; and the sheer suppression and humiliation of an entire nation. At this point in time, however, the efforts of the international community should be focused on securing an immediate end to the bloodshed and hostility. So can the Minister explain: where is the logjam and exactly how much aid have we managed to get through to the inhumanely blockaded Gaza?
The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that the priority at the moment is twofold: an immediate end to the conflict and the immediate access of humanitarian aid. The UK remains one of the most generous donors of humanitarian support to the Palestinian people and we are very proud of that fact. I am not able to give him an accurate assessment, as humanitarian access routes have been closed because of their targeting by Hamas, but we will continue to pursue the joint aims of bringing about a conclusion to this conflict and ensuring that humanitarian support reaches the people who need it.
Reports emerged yesterday that Hamas had launched a torpedo at Israel’s natural gas field in the Mediterranean and that an armed unmanned aerial vehicle caused an explosion at Israel’s Ashkelon power station. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s ability to acquire these non-conventional weapons is a very worrying development? Will he join me in condemning Hamas for targeting energy infrastructure that will disrupt energy supplies not only in Israel, but in Gaza?
I am not able to confirm the reports to which my hon. Friend referred, but I reinforce the points that I made about the need for Iran not to be a destabilising influence in the region, for Hamas to step back from this conflict and for both sides to step back and pursue peace so that we can work to a negotiated, permanent two-state solution to the region.
I associate myself and my party with the Minister’s opening words about the wholly unacceptable deaths and casualties, particularly of children.
Self-evidently, the first step to peace is to stop the violence. President Biden has expressed support for the ceasefire, according to press reports. Can the Minister reassure me that all relevant international partners are actively working for an immediate ceasefire as a prelude to a substantial international attempt to secure a permanent and just solution?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that everyone I have spoken to in the international community is absolutely focused on bringing about an end to this conflict and a ceasefire. That is true within the region, and in respect of our European friends and partners and, indeed, the recent conversations that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had with President Biden’s Administration. That will remain, I have no doubt, the focus of the international community.
Of Hamas’s many deplorable aspects, its cynical locating of military infrastructure within densely populated civilian areas is perhaps the worst. This was confirmed again yesterday, as Hamas was found to be launching rockets close to a school. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this double war crime?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The location of military activities within civilian infrastructure is completely unacceptable and demonstrates a disturbing attitude towards the lives of the Palestinians that the leadership of Hamas claim to be defending.
There are many underlying reasons for this most intractable of conflicts, most notably 54 years of occupation of Palestine and 14 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but the most recent violence and devastating damage and loss of life has been inflamed by Israeli violations of the fourth Geneva convention in occupied east Jerusalem and the rest of the west bank. While I welcome the Government’s long-term focus on peace and the two-state solution, can the Minister tell us specifically what consequences the UK is advocating to the international community to deal with Israel’s illegal actions? What steps is he taking, beyond raising it in bilateral talks with Israeli Ministers, to ensure the end of all settlement building and the cancellation of all forcible evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere? He has been asked this before but has not given any concrete details in his response. I would be grateful if he did so now.
The hon. Lady implies that bilateral conversations with partners are somehow invalid, but that is how diplomacy is done. Speaking with our friends and partners around the world and in the region is how we bring about positive change. The UK’s position on settlements, evictions and annexation is well known, and we have been vocal at the Dispatch Box and indeed in our conversations directly with our Israeli interlocutors. That is what we will continue to do. We will continue to work with friends in the international community to seek peace in the region.
Yet again, we see the distasteful spectacle in this place of a pile-on against the democratic state that is under attack from terrorism, while those who hide their murder weapons among children and civilians are given a near-free pass. It is that, and the misinformation circulating from certain groups with regard to access to religious sites, which is directly contributing to the rising hate against some in this country and what we saw on the streets of London this weekend. Will my right hon. Friend call out all those who spread this misinformation?
I think in issues as sensitive as this we all have a duty to speak carefully to ensure that what we say is accurate. On my hon. Friend’s point about some of the scenes that we saw in London and elsewhere over the weekend, the people who would seek any excuse to perpetrate antisemitic attacks or to say antisemitic things should not be given any justification, whether it be from Members of this House or anywhere else.
The Minister will be aware that the United States has specifically blocked the adoption of a joint UN Security Council statement calling for a halt to Israeli-Palestinian violence. I am sure that Members right across the House agree that we need a joint international approach to achieve a ceasefire. So what steps will the Minister take to urge the US Administration to stop blocking any call for a joint ceasefire? Today the Minister has repeatedly expressed support for a two-state solution. I would just like to understand how the Government expect to command the confidence of the public and the House on this matter when they will not recognise Palestine, one of those two states, because one plus zero does not equal two.
The United Kingdom will continue working with the whole of the international community, including our European partners, partners in the region and the United States, towards what is our explicitly shared goal, which is an end to the violence and ultimately peace for both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. That remains our focus and that is what we will work towards.
Everyone in this House hopes that hostilities will end soon, with a permanent ceasefire. However, the reality is that there will be further rounds of fighting unless the international community ends Iran’s bankrolling and arming of Gaza-based terrorist groups such as Hamas. Some Members today appear to be defending the actions of that terrorist group. I am not one of them, so may I ask: as nuclear talks continue in Vienna, can my right hon. Friend outline how the P5+1 intend finally to end Iran’s ability to fuel conflict in the region?
I can assure my hon. Friend that, in addition to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a priority is for it to cease its destabilising actions in the region. That will remain a priority in our bilateral relationship with Iran and in our multilateral work with regard to Iran. We will continue to pursue an end to the specific violence that we see in Gaza and Israel, and we will redouble our efforts to bring about a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
I would like to press the Minister to set out specifically what further actions the Government will take to ensure that there is a co-ordinated international response to secure an immediate ceasefire, and then specifically what the UK will do to address the sources of long-term injustice and insecurity, including forced evictions and the expansion of illegal settlements.
The hon. Gentleman would have heard in my response to the urgent question that we have had a long-standing opposition to settlement expansion, demolitions and evictions. Some of our multilateral diplomatic work is done publicly, and some is done more discreetly and privately, but I assure him that we will work closely with our international partners in the region and further afield to pursue peace in the middle east.
Large numbers of people gather at the al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Does the Minister agree that the attacks that we saw on people praying there, and the large number of civilian casualties that resulted, cannot be justified? Will he urge the authorities there to ensure that there is no repeat?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the ability of the faithful to worship and the importance of the status quo of the holy sites of all religions in Jerusalem. It is the UK Government’s explicit policy that those holy sites need to be protected, and that worshippers should be able to worship in peace and confidence. That will remain the position of our Government.
I am very glad that my right hon. Friend has made it absolutely clear today that the current situation was provoked by Hamas firing rockets into Israel, and that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself. The Minister has also referred to the goal of a negotiated political settlement—the two-state solution. We have to accept, do we not, that the continued building of illegal settlements makes that two-state solution ever harder to achieve? What steps can the Government take to dissuade Israel from this policy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about actions that might make a two-state solution more difficult. The UK’s position is that continued settlement expansion does make a sustainable two-state solution more difficult, and that is why we have been opposed to that and have communicated our opposition to that to the Israeli Government. We will continue to do so, and that will form part of the work that we put forward to make a peaceful two-state solution more likely, rather than less.
The UK Government previously halted military export licences to the Israeli defence forces after the attacks in Gaza in 2014, but since 2015 there have followed £400 million of licences to Israel from the UK to date. There exists a profound asymmetry to this conflict, evidenced by the appalling civilian death toll in each territory, with almost 200 Palestinian civilians and 10 Israeli civilians killed—all victims; all wasted lives. Is the UK content to uphold that asymmetry with continued military sales, or will it promote de-escalation dynamically, with renewed limits on military exports to Israel?
Israel seeks to defend itself against attacks from the military wing of Hamas, which is an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. Our military export licensing regime is very robust, as I have said, and we are proud that we have such a robust arms exports regime in place—all export licences are measured against that. We will work with the Israelis and with the Palestinian people to bring about peace, and once a ceasefire has been achieved we will continue our work to bring about a peaceful, sustainable two-state solution.
May I thank the Minister for his balanced opening statement in response to this urgent question? Securing a ceasefire will be very difficult, but maintaining it will be more difficult still, so can he confirm that once that ceasefire has been secured, we will offer whatever support we can to the Palestinian Authority, so that they can hold free and fair elections, which are the only way that moderate voices can get into power and then take the country forward?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. A ceasefire to this conflict is the beginning of an incredibly important process, which will include ensuring that the Palestinian people have credible voices to speak on their behalf on the international stage, and that we work together—with the Israelis, the Palestinians and the international community—for the thing that we should all aim for, and which I believe the vast majority of people, both in this House and more broadly, seek to see, which is a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous two-state solution.