In a statement to the Commons on Wednesday the UK Government condemned Hamas and other groups for “acts of terrorism”, but failed to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza, other than to say “we are concerned” that buildings housing media and humanitarian organisations had been destroyed.
Having started by saying that Israel had “a legitimate right to self-defence”, the Middle East minister James Cleverly would only go as far as saying it was vital that Israel’s actions were “proportionate” and that Israel made “every effort to avoid civilian casualties”.
Official United Nations figures show that if Israel has been making “every effort” to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. At the time at least 119 civilians had been killed in Gaza since May 10, including 59 children, yet the Minister did not utter one word of criticism.
The most he did was to “call on Israel to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality when defending its legitimate security interests”.
It took Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Wayne David to introduce a modicum of even-handedness when he condemned both the rocket attacks by Hamas and the Israeli airstrikes into Gaza, which had “killed so many innocent people and severely damaged schools and medical facilities”.
He contrasted the pro-active approach of the French and German governments with the apparent inactivity of the UK government.
“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.”
The Minister’s response was to hint darkly at behind-the-scenes activity: “Some of the diplomatic efforts are done very visibly through institutions such as the United Nations. Some are perhaps done more discreetly and quietly.” With an Egyptian brokered ceasefire due to start on Friday, there is still no sign of UK involvement.
The SNP’s Chris Law called on the Government to recognise Palestine (read our article, 17 reasons to recognise Palestine) and also to back the International Criminal Court inquiry into potential war crimes by both Israel and Hamas and to suspend arms exports to Israel, which he said had increased by over 1,000% in the past two years.
Liberal-Democrat spokeswoman Layla Moran, wearing a keffiyeh, said the UK “should not have left it to France to be the main sponsor of a UN resolution. This Government are shirking their historic responsibility and it is time to step up.”
She asked why the Government had not redeemed its promise, first made nearly a decade ago, to recognise the state of Palestine.
The Minister came back with his stock answer to this question. He repeated this several times during the debate: “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.”
This became the theme of the debate. Can you just end a conflict without addressing its causes? Won’t it just start up again? Don’t you need to address the causes in order to end the conflict?
Labour’s Liam Byrne expressed the latter view: “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.”
He stressed the need for the Government to drop its opposition to the International Criminal Court inquiry which will look even-handedly at Hamas rockets and Israeli air-strikes and to suspend the sale of arms to Israel “until we know the outcomes of these prosecutions”.
He said it was also vital to keep the hope of peace alive. “That is why we have to act now to sustain hope among Palestinians by ensuring recognition of the state of Palestine.”
Recognition was top of the list of steps advocated by MPs, but they also included the suspension of arms exports and trade sanctions. Parliamentarians called for the Government to encourage Palestine to resume the delayed election – which would have been held this weekend (read our article on the delay of elections). Calls came from Conservative MPs Tobias Ellwood, Antony Higginbotham and Mary Robinson, who said: “We cannot just condemn Hamas, but must ensure that moderate Palestinians’ representatives are supported and championed.”
Jeremy Corbyn asked whether arms or drones sold by the UK to Israel had been used to bomb Gaza or for surveillance leading to the death of civilians. “Our public need to know exactly the nature of that military relationship with Israel,” he said.