Tags: armscontrol

UK MP Describes His Visit to Gaza

This is an excerpt (or at least, the bit I found most interesting) from:

Westminster Hall debates

Thursday, 26 March 2009


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair] — Arms Export Controls 

Photo of John StanleyJohn Stanley (Tonbridge & Malling, Conservative) Link to this | Hansard source

Last week I went with members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza. I want to tell the House what I saw with my own eyes in Gaza. I want to make it clear at the outset, as I have done every time I have spoken on this subject, that I condemn absolutely and unreservedly the sending of rockets by Hamas into Israel. We started at a hospital in the centre of Gaza City. It was burnt out, through the use of phosphorous munitions. It was not possible tell whether, or to find anyone who would say whether, there were any Hamas fighters in the hospital. I have no grounds for believing that there were any, but equally I cannot say absolutely that there were not. However, there could not be any conceivable justification for burning out an entire hospital on the ground that one or two Hamas fighters, or a small group of them, were in the vicinity, or possibly on the roof of the hospital.

We then went to one of the two very large Commonwealth war grave cemeteries in Gaza. In the cemetery, which has 4,000 headstones, we met the splendid Palestinian gentleman who is in charge of it and keeps it immaculately. He came to meet us in his suit and tie, wearing his decoration, an honorary MBE. He showed us the 300 headstones that had been destroyed or seriously scarred, which will all now have to be replaced. He also showed us, a considerable distance away, the Israeli tank firing-points from which shells had come into the cemetery. I asked him whether any Hamas fighters had been in the cemetery at any point, to which he replied, "Absolutely not."

We went to a relief distribution centre, run by Islamic Relief—a very good charity among the Islamic countries—and funded by the Department for International Development. It distributed food, tents, kitchen equipment, sanitary items and so on. I had heard and read about—and hon. Members will have seen in the press—the extent to which the Israelis targeted food production and Palestinian farms during the recent offensive. I met a Palestinian farmer who told me his farm had been destroyed; his orange trees had been smashed. He told me it would take at least 10 years to replant those orange trees and bring them to maturity for fruit. I asked him, "Were there any Hamas fighters in your farm?" He said, "Absolutely not."

Then, perhaps most disturbingly of all, we went to one of the largest industrial estates in Gaza. If there had been Hamas fighters there one might, yes, have expected one or two of the factories and warehouses to be destroyed, and a few others to be damaged. It was a huge estate, providing employment opportunities and income to what must have been many thousands of people. It had been flattened. Not a single building was standing. It had been destroyed, brought down to the ground, for as far as one could see. It was a horrendous sight. I came away with only one conclusion. The engagement was not military to military, with armed people on either side engaging each other. It was an engagement about collective punishment, and that is what has been inflicted on Gaza.

That brings me to my next point, about an interesting and important piece of information given to me about the rules of engagement under which the Israelis operated during the recent Gaza conflict. I was told on very high authority, completely independently and not by Palestinian or Israeli sources, that in the rules of engagement—I have not had sight of them, which is not surprising, as they are highly classified—the members of the Israeli defence force were told that above all else they must avoid being captured.

Hon. Members will know the extent to which Israel is transfixed by the Corporal Shalit case. Corporal Shalit was kidnapped and is still a hostage. He has been a hostage for three years. Indeed, outside the Prime Minister's house in Jerusalem we saw the demonstrations and the tents of the people there who are calling for Corporal Shalit's release.

If someone's rules of engagement include an overriding requirement that they should under no circumstances allow themselves to get captured, an absolutely certain military consequence is that the fire positions in which they engage will be of a stand-off nature and will be at a considerable distance. Indeed, I was told that the vast majority of the IDF forces that were engaged did not at any point see a Hamas fighter. If someone engages at a great distance, they can also be certain that they will maximise civilian casualties.

So, I ask the Minister to consider what happened in southern Lebanon three years ago, when, as he knows, a vast number of cluster munitions were sown over the whole of southern Lebanon—including in the civilian areas—in the 72 hours after the ceasefire had been agreed and before it came into effect. He should also consider the degree of destruction of Gaza, where there were nearly 1,500 civilian casualties—including hundreds of women and children. Against that background and the background of what I have said about the rules of engagement, which are likely to be the same in any future conflict and are likely to lead to a high level of civilian casualties, the Minister and his colleagues must look extraordinary closely at the compliance by the British Government in respect of weapons systems and the components of weapons systems sold to Israel—either directly or indirectly—in relation to the EU combined code.


Photo of Gordon PrenticeGordon Prentice (Pendle, Labour) Link to this | Hansard source

The Gaza strip is twice the size of my Pendle constituency, but it has a population 17 times as large. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is saying that it is impossible for the military to strike surgically in the circumstances to which he has referred. Is he also telling us that he believes that Israel committed war crimes during the attack in December because civilians would inevitably be caught up in the fighting in the way that he describes? 

Photo of John StanleyJohn Stanley (Tonbridge & Malling, Conservative) Link to this | Hansard source

The hon. Gentleman is asking about an issue that can only be adjudicated on in a court of law, but he will know that I am not a court of law. What I am saying is that the way in which the operation was conducted and what I was told were the rules of engagement made it, I believe, certain that significant numbers of civilians would lose their lives—and they did.

I come to the criteria in the combined code, which is the basic policy framework for the Government. Will the Minister carry out a review of arms exports to Israel? In doing so, will he look closely at two criteria in particular and say whether the British Government are compliant? I refer him to criterion 2 (c), which states that member states shall

"deny an export licence if there is clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used in commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law."

I also ask him to look at the Government's policy in relation to the whole of criterion 7, which states:

"Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions."

Those are two absolutely key criteria against which the Minister should evaluate the Government's policy on arms exports to Israel.

In conclusion, the British Government may have been in breach of one or more of the EU's criteria under the combined code for some years. However, having seen what I have seen in Gaza, I am in no doubt that they are in breach of the code now.