By Stuart Littlewood – London
After seeing American politicians pass resolutions giving unconditional support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza – the Senate unanimously and Congress by 390 to 5 – readers might like to know how their British counterparts viewed things in a Commons emergency debate on 12 January, when foreign secretary David Miliband rose to make a statement.
He said, among other things, that "the immediate trigger for Israeli military action on 27 December was the end of the truce. Hamas refused to extend the lull and instead fired almost 300 rockets into Israel between 19 and 27 December."
He went on: "The Prime Minister and I have been in close touch with the Israeli Government since the onset of the crisis. The Israeli Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister argued strongly against any UN resolution. Their argument is that there can be no equivalence between a democratic state and a terrorist organization.
"There is and can be no equivalence. Hamas has shown itself over a number of years ready to be murderous in word and deed. Its motif is ‘resistance’ and its method includes terrorism. Israel is, meanwhile, a thriving, democratic state with an independent judiciary."
So straightaway our foreign secretary was in difficulty with the facts. Hamas kept to the 6-month truce, fired no rockets or mortar shells into Israel and was largely successful in restraining other more militant Palestinian groups, which include Fatah elements. Israel however failed to honor its pledge to lift the economic blockade. Then on November 4, Israelis raided Gaza killing six Palestinians – an act which served to provoke a retaliation and thus the ‘excuse’ Israel needed to launch its pre-planned, meticulously timed all-out war on an already blockaded, weakened and largely unarmed Gaza population, who had nowhere to run.
As for "terrorism", it’s a label used by Israel and the US to vilify and de-legitimize anyone that has the gall to resist their interference and oppression – in this case the unending occupation and siege of Palestine – in an attempt to criminalize them.
Suffice to say that an increasing number of British MPs are disgusted by the mindless destruction in Gaza and the sickening slaughter of innocents, although some still defend the indefensible. Here is a selection of the exchanges in Parliament:
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Labour): On armaments for Israel, he [Miliband] said just a moment ago that he would very much like to see the prevention of arms going to terrorist organizations. That is the case for everybody in this House, and on the basis of what we have just heard and what he himself just said, will he undertake to ensure that no arms at all go to Israel at the moment, given that it is guilty in many people’s eyes of state-sponsored terrorism with its activities in the Gaza strip?
David Miliband: As I said in my statement, I do not think that it is right or appropriate to compare a democratic state with a terrorist organisation or an organisation that uses terrorist means, and I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will agree with that. On arms sales to Israel, I wish to emphasise that if there is a clear risk that armaments would be used for internal repression or external aggression, those exports do not take place, and those rules are, in my view, right.
Mr. Marsha Singh (Labour): Will my right hon. Friend accept that condemnation has brought no relief to the people of Gaza? The killing goes on. Is it not time for stronger action? Is it not time that we expelled the ambassador of Israel and brought our ambassador back from Israel? Is it not time that we called for international sanctions against Israel?
David Miliband: …The internationally expressed will of the community of nations has not been followed either by Hamas or by Israel. However, I do not agree that a policy of isolation would help either Britain’s influence or the prospects of peace in the middle east. It is very important that we continue to speak without fear or favour on these issues—that we speak publicly, using occasions such as this, but that we use the opportunity to speak privately as well.
Mr. George Galloway (Respect): The Foreign Secretary is not in favour of the isolation of Israel but he was in favour of the isolation of the Government elected in Palestine, in the only free parliamentary election ever held in any Arab country, because the people voted the wrong way. He joined the siege of the Hamas Government and helped create the desperation that led to the barrage of rockets—largely ineffectual, as he has conceded. Action speaks louder than words. Why will the Government not recall our ambassador from Tel Aviv, ask the Israeli ambassador to leave, and, above all, stop selling British weapons to the mass-murderers who are taking so many lives and limbs in Palestine today?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has no evidence at all of British arms being used to take lives and limbs in Gaza. Withdrawing our ambassador from Israel, or kicking the Israeli ambassador out of London, may be the sort of gesture politics that the hon. Gentleman thinks is effective, but I do not think that it would achieve anything when it comes to making the sort of progress that all of us in this House want to see in the middle east.
Richard Younger-Ross (Liberal Democrat): In the early hours of the morning of 30 December, the Gibraltar cargo ship, the Dignity, was rammed by an Israeli gunboat. It was carrying aid and three doctors to Gaza, one of whom was my constituent… In response to that attack, a Foreign Office spokesman said that “we told the Israeli Government that we take the safety of our nationals seriously”. Can the Secretary of State say what that means, and what action he will take to ensure that a ship sailing under British protection is protected? Will he make sure that that crime on the high seas is brought firmly to the attention of the Israeli ambassador?
David Miliband: The first action I will take is find the details of the case and write to the hon. Gentleman as a matter of urgency. I will make sure that I place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Conservative): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that while most of life is a matter of varying shades of grey, it is a black and white matter that Hamas is a terrorist organisation which sets out to kill civilians?
David Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman is right that Hamas uses terrorism to further its ends…
Sir Patrick Cormack (Conservative): May I ask that after he [Miliband] leaves the House and goes back to the Foreign Office he will summon the Israeli ambassador and say to him calmly but clearly that many of us who have been in this House for a very long time and who have been proud to call ourselves friends of Israel now feel ashamed because Israel is not behaving as a civilised state should behave?
David Miliband: We are in close touch not only with the ambassador of Israel but, directly, with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Israel…
Richard Burden (Labour): At a time when the UN has estimated that the death toll stands at 884 people dead in Gaza, 275 of them children, we should now say to Israel that abiding by international law is not an optional extra to be implemented at a time that it finds convenient, but a requirement on it.
David Miliband: It is important to condemn all loss of innocent life, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It is also important, to reiterate what I said in my statement, that member states of the UN and democratic states are deliberately held to higher standards. They should certainly adhere to the various conventions to which they have appended their signatures.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Conservative): Has the Foreign Secretary warned the Government of Israel that despite the very grave provocation they have suffered, they are acting contrary to the laws of war?
David Miliband: I have not given Israel any legal position of that kind, but at all stages I have stressed the importance of the commitments that all member states of the United Nations have, both in advance of the conflict and during it. It is right, therefore, that we say that any abuse should be properly investigated promptly and expeditiously.
Ann Clwyd (Labour): I was present some years ago in Jenin, during the siege of Jenin. I saw then the refusal of the Israelis to allow humanitarian aid to be provided to those who were injured and sick. Now we see that yet again. It is an absolute disgrace that any country that calls itself a democracy refuses to allow the humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to those who are desperately in need.
I also think that the exclusion of journalists from the area is totally unacceptable. Were it not for al-Jazeera, we would see no pictures on television of the suffering and destruction taking place in Gaza at present. Will my right hon. Friend make the point that it is essential to allow journalists access?
David Miliband: I agree on both points with my right hon. Friend—the entry of journalists, to which I referred in my statement, and the essential nature of the humanitarian obligations that Israel needs to follow.
Mr. David Winnick (Labour): Would my right hon. Friend accept that the reason why there is such strong emotion in the House of Commons today is that, in the past week, the Israelis have shown total indifference to the suffering and lives of Palestinian civilians, and that some of the Israelis’ actions amount to war crimes against humanity? In those circumstances, is it not clear that a stronger approach is required by Britain, and that it should tell the Israelis that what they are doing is totally unacceptable and an affront to humanity?
David Miliband: My hon. Friend’s diagnosis is right: that is why there is such passion in the House, allied to the fact that the repercussions of conflict in the middle east echo around the world. The truth is that the easiest recruiting sergeant for extremism anywhere in the world is the absence of a Palestinian state… If words brought peace, they would have done so a long time ago, not just in this conflict but in the wider middle east, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to speak loud and clear, publicly and privately.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Labour): Has not the time come to recognise that neither the British Government nor other EU Governments have any serious influence at all over the Israelis? We should recognise, as other Members have suggested, that these are war crimes that we are witnessing in Gaza, and start talking with our EU allies about organising sanctions and, at the very least, stop selling weapons to the Israelis, and perhaps about the withdrawal of our ambassador, because those are the only things that will make any impression on the people currently running Israel.
David Miliband: We have covered some of those issues in the course of our discussions, and I take seriously my hon. Friend’s views, although he will know from my earlier answers that I do not agree with him on all those points.
Mike Gapes (Labour/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary said that the Arab League and Egypt are engaged in dialogue with Hamas. In the process of getting a conclusion to this conflict and the beginnings of the necessary settlement, is it not time that the Quartet allowed its representative, Tony Blair, and other representatives to engage directly with Hamas, too, in order to move them to the Quartet principles of non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel and abiding by previous agreements?
David Miliband: It is important to say that a lot of people are talking to Hamas. Egypt is talking to Hamas—mandated by the Arab League to speak on its behalf. Turkey, Syria and Qatar are speaking to Hamas, and Norway has made it clear that it speaks to Hamas as well. So there is no shortage of people speaking to Hamas.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Labour): In congratulating my right hon. Friend on steering resolution 1860 through the United Nations Security Council, may I ask him what the international reaction would be if Hamas had slaughtered nearly 900 Israelis and subjected nearly 1.5 million Israelis to degradation and deprivation? Is it not an incontrovertible fact that Olmert, Livni and Barak are mass-murderers and war criminals? — Yes. And they bring shame on the Jewish people whose star of David they use as a flag in Gaza, but whose ethos and morals go completely against what this Israeli Government are doing.
David Miliband: I think that the history and origins of the state of Israel make this conflict especially acute, especially distressing and especially painful. However, Israel should be held to the same standards as other nation states… The democracy that Israel rightly treasures, which is rightly seen as a beacon throughout the world, needs to ensure that the actions of its Government fully adhere to the country’s obligations. (Source: Hansard)
Many more MPs were waiting to speak when the debate ended.
In another exchange Miliband said he did not believe that economic sanctions were the way to engage or to influence Israel—[cries of “Why not?”] – or that isolating Israel would do any good. He didn’t explain.
At another point in the proceedings Miliband said: “People talk about Hamas being the representatives of Palestinians, without recognising that there is an elected leader of all the Palestinians—a President of the Palestinian Authority, elected in 2004 by all Palestinians to represent them. A further President will be elected this year or next year. That is a vital part of the issue, and we should not fall into the trap of allowing Hamas’s leadership in Gaza to claim that it represents all the Palestinians.”
But the 2006 election established the right for Hamas to govern all of Palestine. And unhappily for western conspirators Abbas’s term as president has come to an end. Under the Basic Law this US-backed Fatah chief is now officially an ex-president, although any challenge is on hold while the Gaza crisis continues. If full and fair elections are held they might produce a Hamas replacement… However, as we’ve seen, democracy is not allowed to flourish in Palestine unless ‘doctored’ to suit the US-Israel axis.
Judging by the performance of the US Senate and Congress they they read too much Israeli propaganda and don’t bother to check the truth (did they never learn from Iraq?).
The increasingly robust attitude of British MPs might help stiffen America’s political sinew enough to challenge the tide of PR lies that are sweeping the West to disaster in the Middle East.
-Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.