Hugh Robertson makes a statement to the House of Commons on the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the effect on the middle east peace process.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I visited Israel and the west bank from 17 to 19 June last week, just after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. The whole House will share our sadness that last night the Israeli Government confirmed that they had recovered their bodies in the west bank. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, this is an appalling act of terror. There is no reason, belief or cause that can justify the abduction and killing of innocent civilians. We send our deepest condolences to the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach.
The Government remain in close contact with both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The urgent priority is to hold those responsible to account under the rule of law, and we stand ready to do everything possible to help. The Home Secretary has been in Israel and the west bank this week and has had discussions with political leaders on both sides. I welcome President Abbas’s condemnations of the abduction. We are encouraging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to continue to work together to find the perpetrators. I saw evidence of that co-operation during my visit and it is vital that it continues in the days and weeks ahead. It is also vital that all parties avoid action that could escalate the situation further. All security operations must be handled with due care, restraint and a proportionate use of force.
It is too early to be clear about the full implications for the middle east peace process, but we will do our utmost, with our allies and partners, to keep open the prospects for a return to negotiations on a two-state solution, which is, and remains, the only way to resolve this conflict once and for all.
Mr Bone: I thank the Minister for that full answer. I am sure the whole House would endorse his comments about passing our sympathies and prayers to the families directly affected and also to the nation of Israel. I cannot help but reflect on what the feeling of this House would be if three teenagers from Wellingborough had been abducted and murdered by terrorists.
May I press my right hon. Friend on a few issues? It is true, I believe, that overseas aid to the Palestinian Authority has been used to provide salaries for the families of convicted Palestinian terrorists. Given the propaganda celebrating the abduction of the Israeli teenagers, should we review that? Will the Government support the Israeli Government not only in their actions to track down the perpetrators of this evil crime, but in dismantling the infrastructure of the Hamas organisation?
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that part of the Palestinian Fatah-Hamas unity Government is a terrorist organisation that carries out such dreadful crimes? It seems completely illogical that it can be thought of as part of a democratic process. Will he also set out his concerns a little more about how this incident will affect the ongoing peace process? Unless such terrible acts of terror can be stopped, I do not see how we can move the peace process forward.
Hugh Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and, indeed, for securing the urgent question.
On the question of salaries, as luck would have it, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, is sitting next to me, and he absolutely confirms that this is not true; it is an old rumour. The money is paid through a World Bank trust fund to vetted people, who are nominated civil servants.
As for the actions of the Israeli Government, we have had extensive consultations with the Israeli Government. We absolutely understand that this is an extraordinarily difficult time in the region and that tensions are running high. Indeed, for Members of all parties who have not been there recently, it is difficult to understand how this event has consumed Israeli society. While I was there, it was running on the tickertape 24 hours a day. It is crucial that any actions that the Israeli Government take are precisely targeted to find the perpetrators and that, in doing that, they avoid a more general escalation.
On the question of Fatah and Hamas, the technocratic Government are signed up to the Quartet principles. If anybody in that Government were an active member of Hamas, which remains a terrorist organisation, that would absolutely be the end of this Government’s dealing with them and would be a very serious matter indeed. That is not the case at the moment; they are fully signed up to the Quartet principles.
As to the effect on the peace process, it is an absolutely pivotal part of British Government policy at the moment to try to create the conditions under which the peace process can be restarted. Everything we are doing is to try to rebuild those conditions, which is absolutely to the benefit of both sides. If this situation goes on, with further settlement building on the one hand and applications to international organisations on the other, there will not be another chance. I urge all Members, with whichever side they sympathise, to do everything possible to de-escalate the situation and encourage both parties to return to the negotiating table.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his answer to the urgent question.
Today, Israel is united in grief at the appalling murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. The whole House will unite in expressing the most profound sympathy to the families and loved ones of the murdered young men, whose photographs today convey to us the heinous crime that this is. Those of us who are parents can barely contemplate what those close to the young men are going through. It is imperative that those responsible for these crimes be brought to account, and I call on everyone to co-operate to achieve justice. This was an appalling act of terror, intended to increase the suffering, bloodshed and injustice that have too long scarred the region.
With every tragic casualty in this conflict, the prospects of peace seem ever further away, but now is the time for the international community to unite around those parties on all sides that are willing to take difficult steps to make progress towards peace. In the light of that, will the Minister set out what contact he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts in the past 24 hours? Will he set out his assessment of the impact these latest tensions are likely to have on the Palestinian unity Government and the Israeli Government’s policy towards them?
The Minister will be aware of the Israeli Government’s insistence that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of these three innocent young men, but will he provide the British Government’s assessment of today’s claims of responsibility for the murders by the jihadist group, Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem?
These are perilous times and the risk of further bloodshed is high. The US Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Felton was right to say that both Israelis and Palestinians should exercise maximum restraint to prevent tensions from escalating further. I hope the Minister will assure us that the British Government will now seek to work with international allies to call for calm, to encourage dialogue and work towards peace in an effort to overcome this moment of great and grave danger.
Hugh Robertson: I thank the Opposition spokesman for his support and for the way in which he set out his case. We absolutely agree with him that this is a moment for exercising maximum restraint. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s three questions in order.
On contact with our Israeli counterparts, I have already communicated with Minister Livni, who is my direct counterpart, and I saw Minister Steinitz when I was in Israel a week ago, and he saw the Foreign Secretary when he was in this country at the end of last week. The Home Secretary has been in both Israel and the west bank for the past couple of days and has seen interlocutors on both sides. That contact is strong and ongoing.
On the impact on the Palestinian Government, this is a serious moment and I absolutely welcome President Abbas’s strong condemnation of the actions, both overnight and indeed in his speech in Riyadh a week ago. When I was in Israel, both sides acknowledged the security support that had been given by the Palestinians in the early stages of the incident.
As for who is responsible, it is too early to say. The British Government have no firm evidence, and nothing from the Islamic state in Jerusalem. It is fair to say to the hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of openness and honesty, that the Israeli Government are very clear about the fact that Hamas was responsible. When I was in Israel 10 days ago, there was some indication on the Palestinian side that that might be correct, but we have no hard evidence in London to back that up.
Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I sometimes fear that the only thing that unites people in the region is grief for their children. Whatever may be the causes of conflict, children are never the perpetrators, and they never deserve to be the victims.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that men of violence know exactly what they are doing, and know exactly what to provoke in response? There is no justification for this wicked crime, and Israel is right to seek justice on behalf of the families, but will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office urge—even now, at such a critical time—that more effort be put into the peace process?
Until this is settled, there will be another incident, and another, and another, until the men of violence get what they want, which is a conflagration that will add to the explosions in the area, and the men of peace will find that it is too late.
Hugh Robertson: I hope that, if I say that I could not have put it better myself, my right hon. Friend will take that in the right spirit, given that he did my job just before me. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the impact of this on children. As we see in conflicts across the world, they are so often the innocent victims.
My right hon. Friend has my absolute assurance that the Foreign Office will do everything possible to reinvigorate the middle east peace process. We may speculate on the many possible causes of what has happened, but the fact that renegade elements opposed to the peace process have used it to bring down that process is clearly a very likely explanation.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I commend the Minister for his balanced response. May I ask him to send the heartfelt sympathy of, I am sure, every Member in the House—very much including myself—to the grief-stricken families of these abducted and murdered youths? What has been done to them has no conceivable justification of any kind.
Will the Minister also send our sympathy to the families of the five Palestinians whom Israeli troops murdered during their search for the missing youths in a collective punishment which has involved hundreds of arrests and the looting and ransacking of houses? Nothing whatsoever can justify the murder of these Israeli youths, but it is very important indeed to see it in the context of a conflict that will go on until there is a fair settlement.
Hugh Robertson: Absolutely. The sympathy of the Government, and indeed, I am sure, the sympathy of everyone in the House, will be with all those who have lost family members, friends and relatives in this conflict. It has often struck me, in the context of the middle east, that there cannot really be a hierarchy of victimhood, and our sympathy must be with all who have lost their lives. If this tells us anything, it is that we must renew and deepen our search for a peaceful settlement in the middle east, one that recognises the concerns of both sides. It was an absolute tragedy that, having put in so much work and effort personally, the United States Secretary of State was unable to conclude an agreement at the end of March, but that is not a reason for not trying any further, and we must deepen those efforts.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I join the Government in expressing sympathy for the parents of the teenagers and all the people of Israel in this moment of grief, in condemning the killings unreservedly, and in welcoming their condemnation by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Does the Minister agree that this underlines the importance of bringing together in a peace process all parties who are prepared to engage in that process, even when the conflict has involved the ultimate tragedy of the deaths of children on both sides?
Hugh Robertson: Yes. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution; he has made a point that has been made by any others. If this proves anything, it proves that the path of violence will lead only to further escalation and more deaths of children and others across both the west bank and Israel. It proves, if proof were needed, the importance of trying to get the middle east peace process back on track, and of delivering a solution for both sides in the conflict.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): These are cold terrorist murders of three teenagers on their way home from school. What does the Minister think should be done to address the unremitting messages of hate that come from Palestinian media? They are partly responsible for this situation and are a grave impediment to peace.
Hugh Robertson: I shall give the hon. Lady an answer that draws on my personal experience. As she may know, I was a soldier for 10 years, and took part in campaigns against terrorism, and when we lose people—civilians or soldiers—in these situations, that is precisely the time when we need to show leadership and show restraint. Absolutely all efforts should be directed at finding the perpetrators but it is very important that all those actions are directed at doing that, and nothing wider.
Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): One’s heart goes out to the parents of the murdered children and to the Israeli nation which mourns its dead. This has happened just two weeks after the Palestinian unity Government have come into effect. I believe the Minister has just said that if Hamas turns out to be the perpetrator, he will reconsider the British Government’s attitude to the unity Government. Will he clarify exactly what he means by that and the likely consequences if Hamas turns out to be the perpetrator?
Hugh Robertson: Yes I will, and may I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee do in this area? It is important to note that the technocratic Government have absolutely signed up to the Quartet principles and, as far as we can see, no member of Hamas is part of that Government. If members of Hamas are, indeed, proved to be part of this and responsible for these actions, that would clearly be a very serious moment indeed, and we would have to examine very precisely the link between it and the technocratic Government. At this stage it is too early to set that hare running, because we do not have the full facts in front of us, nor do we have any absolute evidence as to who was responsible, so I think that has to be a question for another day.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): There was absolutely no excuse for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the west bank. It was an appalling crime and it is a tragedy for their families and friends. Does the Minister agree that Palestinian teenagers and children who also die, in Israeli strikes and military operations, have names, faces and families, for whom their deaths are equal tragedies? He rightly referred to the importance of the rule of law. Will he say to the House, in the appalling situation we are in at the moment, what he thinks are the responsibilities under international law of the Palestinian Authority and what are the responsibilities of the Israeli Government as an occupying power in the west bank, and will he confirm that collective punishment of the Palestinian people is a crime under international law?
Hugh Robertson: Yes, I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman asks that question, particularly given his role as the chairman of the all-party group on Britain-Palestine. The role of the technocratic Government is very clear. These youths were not abducted in an area that is inside their security control, but it is perfectly possible—but not yet confirmed—that the perpetrators of this crime did come from an area that was controlled by them. It is absolutely their job and responsibility to co-operate with the Israeli Government in bringing the perpetrators to justice, and it is absolutely the responsibility of the Israeli Government to ensure the action they take is precisely targeted at the perpetrators and no wider.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Hamas is Hamas is Hamas: it is a terrorist organisation whether it is part of the so-called unity Government or not, and Hamas has celebrated the kidnapping of these children and their murder. Surely it is now time to cut off relations with the Government given that they are co-opted with a terrorist organisation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from showing restraint, the British Government should give Israel every possible assistance to take out the Hamas terrorist network so that that country can be sure that her children will be secure in the future?
Hugh Robertson: Let me answer those two questions in reverse order. The British Government will give the Israeli Government every possible assistance to find the perpetrators of this appalling crime. We have made that commitment to the Israeli Government, and I made that commitment when I was in the west bank 10 days ago. That remains the case. As far as Hamas is concerned, nobody should be under any illusions about this at all: Hamas is a terrorist organisation and remains a terrorist organisation, and one that is proscribed by the British Government. The key thing about the technocratic Government was that they signed up to the Quartet principles and renounced violence and no member of Hamas is a member of that Government.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Minister’s commitment to doing everything he can to support the peace process in the light of this heinous act, but can he share with the House what recent reports he has received on statements made by the new Palestinian unity Government and President Abbas on the murder of the three Israeli students?
Hugh Robertson: I did not see President Abbas when I was there 10 days ago because he was in Riyadh, where he made a speech that was unequivocal in its condemnation of what had happened. He made another statement last night along the same lines, and Israeli interlocutors whom I saw in Israel were very clear that they had received full security co-operation from the technocratic Government.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The anger and outrage of the people of Israel at the appalling murder of these three teenagers are wholly understandable and shared here because of our special links to Israel, but equally understandable are the anger and outrage of Palestinians at the death of 1,406 children in the conflict since 2000, including 270 in Gaza under air and ground attack in 2009 alone. Would adding to this awful toll by the threatened Israeli reaction be either legal or wise?
Hugh Robertson: In a sense my hon. Friend makes the case for the reconstitution of the peace process and for everybody in this House doing everything possible to avoid an escalation and to get both parties back to the negotiating table. The death toll on both sides throughout this conflict is appalling. This is merely the latest in a long line of incidents that has tried to derail the peace process, and it proves once and for all that there is no future in violence and underlines the importance of getting both parties back to the table.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Israeli ex-combatants organisation Breaking the Silence responded to these murders by saying:
“We all bow our heads in mourning for the victims from both sides in the past weeks, in the hope for an end to this cycle of bloodshed and occupation.”
Does the Minister agree that that is the right response—that we should send our condolences to Israeli and Palestinian dead and their families—and that, particularly given what the Prime Minister of Israel has said about retaliation, we should stress to all sides that retaliation and escalation are not the way forward?
Hugh Robertson: In a sense the hon. Gentleman makes a point that many others have made. As I have said, it is crucial that any reaction is targeted very precisely at the perpetrators, and further bloodshed is not the way to resolve this situation.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Speaker: Ah! I call Mr Andrew Selous.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I utterly condemn these foul murders, and commend the Minister for his measured responses. What is his assessment of the viability of the two-state solution in terms of the availability of land?
Mr Speaker: My sigh was explicable, as the Whip on duty has helpfully pointed out, by the embarrassment of riches from which I had to choose.
Hugh Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is difficult at a time like as this, when tensions are high on both sides and there is obviously the prospect of a further conflagration. Getting the middle east peace process back on track is more difficult now than it has been for a while, as everybody would admit if they were being honest, but the situation also demonstrates why that is so important. The two-state solution, within the parameters of which everybody is aware, remains the best basis to do that. It will require a very particular formulation of land swaps, which will be difficult, as everybody is aware, but the events of the past two weeks show just why it is so important.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): May I place on the record my condolences to the families involved in this tragedy? Having returned from a middle east investigation by the Select Committee on International Development, I have to say that I disagree profoundly with the Minister’s statement on DFID funding to the Palestinian Authority. We do provide funding to the PA and it is absurd to suggest that that money can be ring-fenced; the Palestinian Finance Minister confirmed to me that they do pay Palestinian prisoners in jail, depending on how long their sentences are. Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will support and assist the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in their search for the murderers of these three young boys?
Hugh Robertson: Let me deal with the easier part of that first. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is yes, we will do everything we can to assist both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the search for the murderers. I have followed the progress of the International Development Committee carefully across the region. I have not yet seen the report, but, clearly, if the Committee has evidence to support the allegations the hon. Gentleman has made, that would be a very serious matter, which I am sure the International Development Secretary will wish to take up.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): May I join hon. Members in utterly condemning these brutal murders? I can well understand that today those in charge in Israel would want to retaliate, but as a good friend of Israel may I ask that we encourage them and men of good will to exercise restraint? Could we use every possible avenue—after all, we have good channels of communication with both sides and with the Americans—to see whether we can row back from a bleak place towards a peace process?
Hugh Robertson: Let me give my hon. Friend some comfort on all this. If he looks at the international reaction to it, he will find that it has absolutely reflected the points he makes. President Obama’s statement last night contained enormous sympathies for the families of all those involved; one of the victims was a dual Israeli-American citizen and President Obama absolutely expressed that sympathy. He went on to make the point that any reaction must be targeted and proportionate. That is absolutely a line that our Prime Minister has followed up, and that is being followed up in all our ministerial contacts and by our embassy in Tel Aviv.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): May I, too, associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister, the shadow Minister and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)? May I also place on record my sympathies to the families of the murdered young Israeli men? May I also press the Minister further about what specific measures the Government are taking to help to de-escalate tensions, which are rising quickly, and to restore some balance between the Israeli and Palestinian Governments, and in the region?
Hugh Robertson: That is a difficult question to answer briefly, as I am sure you would wish me to do, Mr Speaker. The British Government give long-term and short-term support. The long-term support relates to the work we are doing with the Palestinian Authority to build up capacity and to relieve poverty. I saw many of the schemes during my visit last week, including the training at the police academy and the schemes where we are helping Palestinians with planning issues. Our shorter-term support is about the work we are doing with our ministerial contacts, our embassy’s contacts and the consul-general’s contacts in east Jerusalem to work not only for de-escalation but, crucially, to find the perpetrators of this appalling crime.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I very much welcome this urgent question on what I have described elsewhere as brutal and sickening murders. Does the Minister agree that if urgent questions were sought each time a Palestinian was treated brutally and murdered by the Israeli defence forces, we would, sadly, be here most weeks? Does he also agree that the violence perpetrated by both sides must be condemned equally, and that such violence is not and cannot be in the interests of the Palestinians or the Israelis if we are going to work towards a solution to this dreadful conflict?
Hugh Robertson: I doubt that anybody in the House, or anybody involved in the politics of the middle east, believes that a further escalation between the two sides in this conflict is in anybody’s interest—that way lie more deaths similar to the ones we have seen overnight. On whether a life is worth more or less one side of the line or the other, I say it absolutely is not; there is no hierarchy of victimhood, and people suffer equally.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The Minister will not have been surprised that everyone in this House has condemned the cold-blooded murders of the three boys. Obviously, we send our sympathy to their parents, as we do to the parents of children on both sides of the conflict who have lost their lives. Does he not agree, however, that the Northern Ireland situation presents the way out, to a large extent? The killings took place over many years on both sides; many argued and fought for a settlement, which fortunately came about. If it has not entirely resolved the situation in Northern Ireland, it has certainly substantially reduced the number of people killed—children and adults alike.
Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I do not know whether he knows this, but I served as a soldier in Northern Ireland in 1987-88. I remember that when I left the Province at the end of my six-month tour, I thought it was utterly inconceivable that the problem would ever be solved, yet, through the good work of good people on both sides, a peace settlement has now been achieved. That probably reveals the central theme of this morning: when the situation seems bleakest is precisely when we need to strive hardest to try to find a solution.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): May I associate myself with all the words of condolence? If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, may I also add, at the start of the mourning period for the families, a Jewish condolence and wish them long life and no more suffering? Does the Minister agree that one way to bring this current crisis to and end would be for the Palestinian Authority to turn in the people who committed this heinous crime, so that justice can be done through the legal process?
Hugh Robertson: May I start by associating myself with my hon. Friend’s expression of condolence? In answer to his question, I say yes, absolutely. Let me give him reassurance by saying that while I was there, it was abundantly clear to me that the technocratic Government were co-operating in security terms with the Israelis, as the Israelis acknowledged. If that Government have any information that they have not handed over that would help bring those responsible to justice, I urge them to hand it over now.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend both the weight and the balance of the Minister’s words. As well as condemning the dreadful murder of these three teenagers, in response to the terrible abduction I join other hon. Members in deploring the unjustified deaths of Palestinian youths in recent times. Does the Minister recognise that in any conflict there comes a point where both sides have to recognise that they cannot be secure against each other and that they can be truly secure only with each other? We hear about “both sides”, but does he accept that many people on both sides in the middle east do not see themselves in the violence of either side in the middle east? It is to those peace-minded people, Palestinians and Israelis alike, that we should offer solidarity today, as we offer sympathy to the mourning families?
Hugh Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He makes a key point about the importance of the peace process and what is needed to achieve it. It has often struck me when dealing with the politics of this region—this is not something that is confined to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories—that it is always easier for people to return to violence than it is to make the difficult compromises and decisions necessary to move the peace process forward. That is why, throughout history, those who have achieved peace processes are held in such high regard.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Many of my constituents will be disappointed to hear from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the rather well used and tired phrase “proportionate response”. Perhaps the Minister, who I know is a decent man, could advise me on what I say to my constituents about what the FCO regards as a proportionate response to three teenagers being murdered and missiles being fired at Israel on a daily basis.
Hugh Robertson: I am sorry that my hon. Friend feels that way. Let me be absolutely clear about this: it is utterly unacceptable that people in the Gaza strip fire missiles at Israeli citizens. As he knows, I attended a funeral in January on the edge of the Negev. Precautions had to be taken because we were under threat from missile attacks, which is utterly unacceptable in any way, shape or form. The correct response to the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers is to find the perpetrators and to bring them to justice. We expect exactly the same response in that part of the world as we would find here—no more and no less.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Like everyone else, we must condemn the terrible murder of these three teenagers, and the same must apply to Palestinian teenagers as well. I ask the Minister to urge restraint on the Israeli Government, because we have a volatile situation throughout the middle east, and we do not want to give to these terrorist organisations any cause to use the Palestinian-Israeli situation as an excuse for further violence.
Hugh Robertson: Absolutely, yes. Everything that we and leaders right the way across the world have done is about ensuring that the reaction to this is properly targeted and—to use that slightly woolly term—proportionate. The key thing is that all the resources are targeted at finding those responsible, but that will clearly not be the case if people are pursuing other agendas. Such a targeted campaign will, I have no doubt, be carried out by the Israeli Government. The Palestinian Authority must play a full part in helping them to achieve that. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that was clearly the case when I was there 10 days ago.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I applaud the Minister for his response to these appalling murders, but with respect may I say that he did not answer as fully as he might the question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)? These murders take place against the background of the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners by the Israelis as a signal of good intent for the peace process, and of a constant stream of hate and abuse from state-sponsored TV and media in the Palestinian Authority. Surely this House and Her Majesty’s Government need to make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that this background of hate and contempt for Israel must stop if we are to have a meaningful peace process.
Hugh Robertson: I am very sorry if I have not given my hon. Friend the reassurance that he needs that the British Government are absolutely 100% committed to making that message clear to the Palestinian Government. We have made it absolutely clear to the Palestinian authorities that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. As I have already said, I did not realise that there was any truth in these allegations. I have been specifically reassured that there is not. If the International Development Committee has evidence that that is not the case, we will be keen to see it. To be fair, when the technocratic Government were formed, they were very clear that they would sign up to the Quartet principles, which is an internationally agreed standard. They were absolutely clear and unequivocal on that, and they gave those undertakings to us, the Americans and the Israeli Government.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The whole House is right to condemn these truly horrific murders, but we should not allow them to diminish the quest for peace in the middle east. What measures are the Palestinian unity Government taking to ensure accountable and effective governance to bring about that transformative change that the Minister talks about to renew the Palestinian economy, create jobs, bring about hope for the Palestinian people and ensure that funds are not diverted to terror activities?
Hugh Robertson: There is a whole bundle of questions there. The approach of the Palestinian Government on economic regeneration is led by Prime Minister Hamdallah, whom I met during my recent visit. He is English educated and extremely impressive. He is very fixed on what needs to be done to regenerate the Palestinian Authority. He is absolutely right to point to the need to eliminate corruption in the Palestinian Authority, because that has bedevilled the region and its prospects for economic growth for some time. The Palestinian Authority have given us a series of assurances that they understand the importance of that and that they are taking the necessary action.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the murdered teenagers. A constant stream of evidence substantiates the fact that UK taxpayers’ money is finding its way to the evil terrorist organisation Hamas. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look again at all the evidence—from the Select Committee on International Development, from Israel and from the Palestinian Authority areas—with the objective that not a single penny of UK taxpayers’ money should find its way to the evil terrorist organisation Hamas?
Hugh Robertson: Let me give my hon. Friend some comfort. It is absolutely the position of the Government that UK taxpayers’ money should not go to fund terrorists. That is 100% the case. If, following the International Development Committee’s visit to the region, evidence has emerged that points to the fact that that is not the case, it would be a very serious matter and I can give him an undertaking that that is something into which the Secretary of State will look as a matter of urgency.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s words that the best way to resolve this issue is to ensure that the peace process moves forward and that a viable two-state solution is found. With that in mind, may I ask him what conversations he has had with the American Government on moving the peace process forward? At best, President Obama has been rather lacklustre in this area, but the process has moved forward under Secretary of State Kerry. What conversations has the Minister had with our American allies about these terrible events and about getting the peace process moving forward again?
Hugh Robertson: Like others, we should place it on the record—indeed one can never do it enough—how much we appreciate the work of the American Secretary of State. He has been tireless in his pursuit of this process in a way that no other American Secretary of State in my lifetime has been. Ultimately, he has become frustrated by the actions of both parties. He has called for a pause in the process for both parties to face up to the consequences of not pursuing the peace agreement, which, I believe, will be very profound for the whole region. I urge him to join us and everyone else to do everything we can not to escalate the situation further and to encourage both parties to get back to the negotiating table.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the response of the Palestinian unity Government. Perhaps one of the things that they can do to demonstrate that they are committed to peace is to work closely with the Israeli authorities to bring to justice the people who perpetrated this crime. If it turns out that there is persuasive evidence that Hamas was indeed behind these evil murders, will the Minister return to the Dispatch Box to set out what implications that has for the British Government’s recognition of that Palestinian unity Government?
Hugh Robertson: Yes. In a sense it is a puzzle in two parts. The first thing is who was responsible for this crime. The Israelis are very clear about who they think is responsible. The Palestinian Authority have indicated that that view may be sensible. We need to find out who the perpetrators were, and then we need to find out what, if any, association they may have with the technocratic Government. At the moment, the technocratic Government are absolutely clear that they are fully signed up to the Quartet principles and that they are a non-violent Government and have no contact with Hamas. Indeed, talking to members of Fatah, it is clear that their relationship with Hamas has been desperate. They hate Hamas and regard it as being responsible for the splits that have occurred, so there is some small reason for hope.
Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Very little shocks me about what occurs in the middle east, but the depravity of the murder of these young men is beyond comprehension for many of my constituents and for me. The Minister asserted that no money from British taxpayers goes to Hamas, but he has now accepted the position of the International Development Committee that that might be the case. Will he put his efforts into facilitating a meeting of a cross-party delegation of MPs so that we can speak to the DFID Minister and present the evidence we have been talking about for many years already?
Hugh Robertson: I gave the answer that I did to an earlier question because I was assured, as I have been in the past, that there were no grounds for believing that. If a Select Committee of this House has uncovered evidence that firmly proves that that is not the case, that is a very serious issue. I can offer my hon. Friend a cast-iron guarantee that we will take that up. Indeed, the very fact that it has been found by a Select Committee will ensure that the Department responsible has to answer those questions.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Would the Minister care to reflect that, in rightly praising Secretary of State Kerry, he might have been slightly unfair to Madeleine Albright? Will he, in the context of this situation, tell us not only what might be proportionate for either side but what signals either side might send to the other that would advance rather than regress the situation?
Hugh Robertson: In my remarks, I intended no slight to Madeleine Albright. I simply meant that the most recent iteration of all this has been led by John Kerry with extraordinary energy and vigour, which is why I pay tribute to what he has done. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we will of course look at that very closely.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise. Does the Minister agree that the people who carried out these murders—a minor act of genocide, in a way—are no friends of the peace process and certainly no friends of the Palestinian cause?
Hugh Robertson: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. If someone wanted to derail the peace process and the prospects of peace, I could think of no better way to do it than to carry out such actions. One needs only to go there or to watch events from here to sense the angst that this has caused. That absolutely shows the importance of getting the peace process back on track.
John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): My constituent, Rev. Pat Clegg, is a frequent visitor to the west bank and a frequent correspondent with me on Israeli-Palestinian matters. She wrote to me last week, deeply concerned about how universities, colleges and newspaper offices were being stormed, as she put it, by Israeli forces searching for the missing teenagers. Although I am mindful of the significant challenges in securing accurate information in the circumstances, is the Minister aware of those reports and can he comment on them?
Hugh Robertson: Yes. I am very aware of the impact that any form of military action has on life in the west bank, as are many others. My hon. Friend’s constituent and others have properly drawn the international community’s attention to that. On the other hand, we have to understand that Israel is the one liberal democracy in that part of the world and that it lies in an arc of countries where instability is everywhere. Security is Israel’s key concern, and we understand that, but it is important that the actions taken in this regard are precisely targeted to identify and deal with the perpetrators and not a wider objective.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): These appalling and heinous acts of terror have been equally condemned on both sides of the House and by all apart from Hamas. Further to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), may I question how he can draw an equivalence between such an act taking place here and such an act taking place in Israel when it comes to a proportionate response to bring the perpetrators to justice? When Hamas and terrorists are throwing rockets over the border and on to innocent civilians and when Hamas itself sees Israeli teenagers as legitimate targets for terrorist attacks, how can we draw any equivalence when it comes to the response?
Hugh Robertson: The correct response as regards the war on terror, which we have faced in this country for many years through the threat from Irish republicans, is to target what we do very precisely, to avoid escalation and to abide by the rule of law. That is precisely how we relieve the underlying causes of conflict. If one goes further than that, the lessons of history show that that inevitably stokes the conflict and makes things worse.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): Notwithstanding the Minister’s remarks about the need for restraint, does he not agree that Israel faces a toxic combination of brutal terrorism, as revealed in this particular incident, and of rocket attacks from Gaza and that as a sovereign country it has the absolute right to defend and protect its citizens against these threats?
Hugh Robertson: In a sense, I agree with both parts of my hon. Friend’s question. Israel absolutely faces a toxic combination of such factors and, as I have said, it is the one liberal democracy in that part of the world and is threatened by a sea of instability around it. We would absolutely expect the state of Israel to protect its citizens, but the point that I am making—do not get this wrong—is that it needs to do that in a way that precisely targets the response at those who are responsible for this action and not at a wider political aim.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): In view of this sickening crime and the celebration of the kidnapping in state-sponsored Palestinian media, what assurances can the Minister give me that the words of condemnation given by President Abbas to an international audience will be repeated for his domestic audience?
Hugh Robertson: I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, because I was in the west bank when it happened and the domestic price that President Abbas was paying for taking that stance internationally was abundantly clear. He is absolutely doing what the international community wants to see him do and we expect the Palestinian technocratic Government to live up to their responsibility to co-operate fully in security terms with the Government of Israel.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s statement today. He will know that Hamas is backed by Iran, as is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran also backs President Assad’s horrific regime in Syria as well as the Maliki Government in Iraq, with its sectarian violence. Will the Minister assure the House that Iran will not be involved in any further middle eastern issues without first giving up terrorism?
Hugh Robertson: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In a sense, his question sheds some light on precisely why the Israeli Government are concerned about security and are right to be concerned about security.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Does the Minister agree that no moral equivalency can or should be drawn with other incidents? This was a deliberate and calculated abduction and murder of teenagers. Does he agree that such wickedness cannot go unpunished and will he and Her Majesty’s Government support the Israeli Government if they seek to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas, which is, after all, an entity that destroys and seeks to destroy its own people when they disagree with it, as well as Israeli youths, children and other victims of strikes from the air and on land?
Hugh Robertson: In a sense, my hon. Friend makes the point that I was moving towards in my answers to some of the earlier questions: an escalation of the crisis in that part of the world will serve only the men and women of violence on both sides. If there were to be a further escalation, that would absolutely play into the hands of all those who seek to sabotage the peace process and to pursue their aims through violence and not through peace.