Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, read a government statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday in which he called for an urgent de-escalation of the current violence in Gaza and Israel. Reiterating his previously stated position that there is no military solution to the conflict, Hague also restated his belief that Hamas bore principal responsibility for the current escalation. He went on to raise concerns that the window of opportunity for a two state solution was running out and also refused to confirm which way Britain will vote on the upcoming bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN.
Responding to the Foreign Secretary, his shadow Douglas Alexander said that the deeper cause of the crisis lies in the failure to reach a two state solution and that whilst Mr. Hague talks of the Middle East peace process he is ignoring the fact that there is neither peace nor a process.
A large number of MPs from all parties contributed to the debate on “the Middle East”, with former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calling on William Hague to explain the government’s current position towards the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid. He said that he failed to understand the Foreign Secretary’s reasoning; the Labour Party’s policy is to support the UN bid and it has called on the British government to do the same. Mr. Hague refused to confirm how the UK would vote but did say that he was in talks with EU partners on the issue and felt that more negotiations are needed, and the peace process could be harmed by going to the UN.
Veteran Liberal Democrat MP and former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell reflected on the duties that came with Israel’s right to defend itself; he asked the Foreign Secretary if targeted assassinations, the destruction of infrastructure and the killing and wounding of women and children were part of those duties. Hague reverted to his main argument by claiming that the cause of the current distress was in fact the firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas.
Whilst some MPs attempted to cast blame solely upon Hamas for the current escalation, ignoring the reality on the ground, a number of MPs focused upon the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza and its effect on the political situation. David Ward MP noted that Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza is an act of aggression that was a cause of the current violence. Jeremy Corbyn MP called on William Hague to ask Foreign office Minister Alistair Burt MP, currently in the region, to visit the Gaza Strip and witness the destruction for himself; Mr. Hague replied that he “was very busy in the region today” and refused to reveal Burt’s schedule for security reasons.
The debate also reflected concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and William Hague was called on a number of times to explain why Britain is not allocating additional humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The call from aid agencies to open border crossings between Gaza and Israel to allow the free movement of people requiring urgent medical treatment and supplies to ease the growing shortages in Gaza’s hospitals was given some attention. The Foreign Secretary noted that the situation is being monitored closely by the Department for International Development to see if and when additional support might be necessary.
Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP highlighted the disproportionate impact on civilians caused by Israel’s actions but William Hague refused to be drawn into arguments on proportionality.
Veteran MP Sir Gerald Kaufman reflected on the “discriminatory attitude” towards the killings in Syria and those in Gaza inflicted by Israel and said that whilst this continues there will be no peace. When David Winnick MPs commented that there was a failure by Israel to recognise the dignity and rights of the Palestinian people, and furthermore that the “burning of innocent children” in Gaza was in fact a war crime, Mr Hague did not agree; the Foreign Secretary reiterated his feeling that there had been failings on all sides.
Hague was compelled to commend Egypt’s current role in the situation, calling on Cairo to act not only to broker the ceasefire, but also to work with Hamas and Israel to try to improve the overall political situation. He referred to the importance of Egypt’s role a number of times, asserting that it was crucial for bringing an end to the current conflict; this was despite the assertions from some MPs that Egypt is in fact providing arms to Gaza.
The need to abide by international humanitarian law in finding a solution was stressed by Mr. Hague. Rather unusually he was pushed to ensure that Israel would be held accountable for its contraventions, particularly in reference to the Rights of the Child.
He also went on to confirm that arms exports licenses are reviewed within the context of components being used for the purpose of conflict or internal repression and said that within this context some licences to Israel had been refused. Although others were granted, he said that future licences would be reviewed within the context of recent events.
The most poignant moment of the debate was the reading of the names of four dead Palestinian children by Andy Slaughter MP. “Palestinian victims of Israeli atrocities are so many that they often go unnamed” he said. “I would like to name the four youngest members of the Al-Dalou family: Sara, 7; Jamal, 6; Yusef, 4; and Ibrahim, 2.” They were four of nine family members and 26 children killed in Israeli air strikes in the last week, Mr. Slaughter said to a chastened House.
By humanising the Gazan tragedy in this way he not only emphasised the human cost of Israel’s brutal tactics, but also made a complete ass of Conservative MP Gordon Henderson who suggested straight after Slaughter’s intervention that, for Israelis, “restraint is difficult… with the daily threat of seeing their family and friends wiped out by the rockets fired from Gaza”. Five Israelis have lost their lives to rockets from Gaza in the past week; 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombs and missiles this week alone (more than 200 have been killed in 2012). The Foreign Secretary refused to be drawn on Israel’s “disproportionate response” and insisted that “Hamas bears principle responsibility for the start of the current crisis”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.