Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I care about humanity and I will speak out when I feel that injustice and cruelty are inflicted on people. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House on such subjects, including people trafficking, forced marriages, torture and the rights of Gurkhas. At the outset, I have no reservation in condemning the Hamas rockets that were directed into Israel’s sovereign territory; neither should we forget the deliberate targeting by the Israel Defence Forces to inflict collective and wholesale punishment on the people of Gaza.
At this stage, I reaffirm my belief in a two-state solution, with Israel’s right to exist and defend its territory. Alongside Israel’s right to exist, we must ensure that there is the creation of a viable Palestinian territory. No one could convince me that the conditions in which the Gaza Strip was held constituted a free sovereign territory. Those who lived in Gaza were detained in what amounted to little more than the largest open prison on the planet, with no control over their air space or their borders. That was not acceptable, and it is not sustainable.
The people of Gaza have, over a period of many months, lived in a cast-iron blockade. A lot has been said about the smuggling of weapons through the tunnels, but we must understand why the tunnels were dug in the first place. They have been used to bring in food, fuel, medical supplies and the basic necessities of life. If the blockade is lifted, the tunnels will disappear.
I regret that Israel chose to use its troops to inflict one of the most disproportionate and excessive deployments that we have seen in the world. The alleged use of white phosphorous and DIME weapons is disgusting and outrageous; to use this material against civilians is against international law. There have been other alleged abuses of international law, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that these will be investigated and that those responsible—if there is evidence to prove the allegations—will be pursued and prosecuted. They must be held to account for their decisions and their actions. Those allegations need to be investigated thoroughly, and I understand that the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Government of Israel will be leading that activity. The Government have confirmed that they are in contact with all three bodies, and I hope that the Minister will provide the House with an update on those investigations.
Israel refused to permit the world media to go to Gaza. We could understand perhaps that the reason could be that they did not want the world to know what was happening. The media were allowed in during the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Notwithstanding the ban, horrific pictures were relayed by Al Jazeera and other channels telling us the reality of what was happening. The Israeli propaganda machine was strong, but watching the people of Gaza suffer on the few TV channels relaying from Gaza caused a great deal of distress to many right-thinking people. Jewish organisations such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Sir Gerald Kaufman in the other place have been very critical of the Israeli action. Countries such as Qatar and Turkey, which were friendly with Israel, are now very unfriendly towards it.
In total, around 1,200 Palestinians were killed during the recent onslaught. A significant number of these were women, children and innocent civilians. People who have been injured have been inflicted with serious burns and other horrific infirmities, and are in need of urgent care. We need to think about providing humanitarian aid to them from our facilities in Cyprus.
However, the damage goes well beyond the human cost, high though that is. There has been destruction of public services, infrastructure, power plants, hospitals, homes, mosques, universities and a number of other structures. The Israelis went on to damage the United Nations’ facilities and compound, causing deaths and injuries. The International Red Cross and the United Nations have condemned the Israeli actions. The Israelis failed to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the injured civilians and, in fact, hindered the Red Cross from doing so. This is contrary to international humanitarian conventions.
I should like to express my serious concern about the possible radicalisation and engendering of extremism among young people in this country and abroad as a result of the Israeli invasion. This should be a source of worry for us all. For my part, I will try to calm the situation.
Gaza’s condition was less than ideal before the conflict, and things have become considerably worse. The humanitarian catastrophe will become worse unless we all work together to help our fellow human beings. I deplore the decision of the BBC to refuse to broadcast an appeal to provide assistance to these people. Its actions are a case, in my view, of poor judgment.
We need to move on from conflict and work more actively towards a resolution of the historical events that have caused such misery and pain. I want to see a viable and secure Palestinian state that is able to live alongside Israel in peace. It is the western vision that any such Palestinian state should be a democracy, but there is a problem when we refuse to allow those citizens the right to make their own choice. We need to think again whether or not we should talk to Hamas.
In our deliberation we must realise how peace was achieved in Northern Ireland, with Martin McGuinness as the Deputy First Minister, and how South Africa attained its independence under Nelson Mandela. We need to think about creating unity between Hamas and Fatah, leading to a Government of national consensus. This will require active participation by the United States, the quartet and a number of other countries.
The programme of aid to the Palestinians has been linked to progress with the peace process. I hope that the Minister can confirm to the House that we will do everything we can to reduce and eliminate the suffering and that we will not allow obstacles to get in the way of bringing about an end to the suffering in Gaza.
In conclusion, we need to recognise that this conflict has been the cause of a great deal of suffering to a large number of people for decades. The recent misery must not be allowed to be a catalyst for further horrors. I wish Senator George Mitchell well in his endeavours on behalf of the new American Administration, and urge the Government to do what they can to facilitate engagement from all sides to achieve the destination of conflict resolution. The priority, however, must be, in the first instance, to relieve the horrendous suffering that has been inflicted on the people of Gaza and to ensure that those responsible for this misery are held to account for their decisions. I hope that the Government will not inhibit either of those activities. I would appreciate the Minister’s reply to the points I have raised.