Tuesday 9 September
Foreign Affairs Committee questions the Foreign Secretary on developments in UK foreign policy:
Transcript of section concerning Palestine-Israel:
Richard Ottaway: Can I move the subject on to Gaza and to Israel-Palestine, Foreign Secretary? How would you characterise the UK’s role in introducing the ceasefire? What steps did we take to facilitate it?
Philip Hammond: Ah, well, obviously we welcome the ceasefire… It wasn’t the first one of course. We’ve been actively engaged in urging the parties to these talks to agree a ceasefire as a necessary first step, certainly not in itself sufficient, but a necessary first step. We haven’t been direct participants in the ceasefire negotiations, but we’ve been strongly encouraging of the government of Egypt in the role that it has taken on. I visited Egypt very shortly after I was appointed and met the Foreign Minister Shukri and the President al-Sisi to urge them to leave no stone unturned in bringing the parties to a ceasefire. And we continue to engage both directly with the parties and indirectly with others who can influence them, to try to ensure that out of this ceasefire which has now held for… what…. just over a week, nearly two weeks [ed: ceasefire was agreed 26 August], we get a substantive and meaningful negotiation which leads to measurable delivered improvements for ordinary Gazans trying to go about their business. So, an easing of restrictions on them, increased flows of humanitarian aid, a resolution of some of the long outstanding problems around fishing rights, payment of civil service salaries, and so on, and that will lead to the reintroduction of the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, which we regard as a crucial next step to allowing matters to develop further.
RO: Mike Gapes.
MG: As you are very well aware, the policy of the Government towards Gaza has been very controversial, and your former ministerial colleague Baroness Warsi said it was morally indefensible and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said that our policy, the UK’s response, has risked damaging our reputation in the region. What’s your response to those comments?
PH: Well, the Deputy Prime Minister said we risked damage; that’s a statement of the obvious, of course. Whenever we take a position we risk our reputation in some sense. But we are very clear that the resolution of the problem in Gaza has to be through a ceasefire, negotiations around improving the situation in Gaza, the reintroduction of the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, and then a resumption of the broader discussion about the two-state-solution as a final resolution of this very long-running conflict.
MG: And you don’t therefore agree that the Government could have said more or been more outspoken on the issues?
PH: I’m not sure what you mean by more outspoken on the issues. We’ve been very
clear from the outset that Israel has a right to defend itself. First of all, Israel has a right to exist, which Hamas still denies. Israel has a right to defend itself but it has an obligation in so doing to comply with the rules of armed conflict and the principles around protection of civilians, inflicting the minimum damage possible…
MG: Have they done that?
PH: Well, this is an area…. of course there is a lot of noise about it. There will need to be a proper examination of the conduct of both sides during this period of conflict. The one thing that we do know for certain is that Hamas launched rockets out of Gaza into Israel aimed at the civilian population. That much is clear. Israel is conducting its own internal enquiries. Clearly, to be credible with the outside world there will have to be significant independent element in those. But there will also be international…. the UN Human Rights Council has established its own enquiry into the events that took place and we will encourage the parties to engage openly with that enquiry. We will also be looking very carefully to ensure that that enquiry is itself conducted impartially.
RO: John Stanley.
JS: Foreign Secretary, I just want to preface my question by saying that I have been to Sderot, the target of probably the largest number of Hamas rocket attacks, and I condemn unreservedly all use of rocket attacks against Israel by Hamas, which are clearly indiscriminate. I visited Gaza after the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza, and there I saw an entire industrial estate flattened, and I saw an entire hospital burnt out with phosphorus shells. My question to you is: Does the British Government consider that it is legitimate against a terrorist target to use military force against purely economic and employment targets and against key social service institutions and buildings like hospitals?
PH: Well, the law of armed conflict is clear and the laws around humanitarian protection are clear. It would not be legitimate to target that kind of infrastructure unless it was being used for the purposes of military activity. And clearly, one of the accusations that is made is that Hamas during this conflict deliberately and systematically positioned offensive military equipment in areas of sensitive infrastructure like hospitals and schools and in areas of dense population, seeking to use members of the civilian population effectively as human shields. Now, that in itself would be illegal activity. These are allegations. There are huge numbers of allegations on both sides. They need to be investigated. And what happened needs to be properly established.
JS: Can I just turn from buildings to people? Does the British Government consider it is legitimate that if a government like the Israeli Government believes it has identified a particular Hamas terrorist, or perhaps one or more Hamas terrorists, it is then legitimate to destroy, using air-to-surface missiles, tank shells, artillery shells, entire buildings and neighbourhoods, resulting in very substantial civilian deaths of completely innocent men, women and children? And can I just add as a rider to that, speaking as a former Northern Ireland security minister, that if a British government had dealt with a terrorist in Northern Ireland using military force in the same way as has been used by the Israelis, then I am absolutely confident that the outrage in the House of Commons would have been such that the entire government would have been forced to resign.
PH: Well, I think you’re probably aware, Sir John, of the rules about proportionality in response, and so the question that you pose cannot be simply answered. For a military response in pursuit of a military target to be lawful it has to be proportionate. And it’s not possible to make a generic statement about types of attack or types of responses without knowing the full circumstances of each individual incident. It isn’t possible to make that evaluation. People can speculate and people have speculated. What is now needed is a proper analysis of each incident that occurred. Now, this will not be easy, but I think it has to happen. There will be mistakes made in prosecution of any military campaign; there will be incidents that occur which are not justified. And then the question will arise whether they have occurred by inadvertence, by an error, by a failure, or whether they have occurred as a result of deliberate targeting. So there are many questions that will have to be answered in analysing exactly what did happen over that period of time. But I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate and to seek generic categorisations of types of incident without knowing the details of the individual incidents in question.
RO: Mark Hendrick.
MH: Well, Foreign secretary, I would totally agree with you if it were just one or two incidents. But to get the death toll of between two and three thousand, we are not talking about one or two incidents. We’re talking about vast numbers of incidents, tv footage of which were seen: ambulances being fired at, health facilities being attacked by tank shells. This idea that there’s going to be some kind of forensic enquiry at some stage in the future that’s going to bring Israel to justice beggars belief…..
PH: Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’ve rather prejudged the case, haven’t you? There are going to be actions be both sides that need to be judged.
MH: My point is, it isn’t one case, there’s literally hundreds of cases, many of which were captured on film, many of which were given by eye witness accounts from UN officials. The Government itself said that this death toll in Gaza was unacceptable, but the Prime Minister…
PH: I said it, my words.
MH: Well, I remember what the Prime Minister said in the Chamber; he used every word other than disproportionate. And after repeated questioning a death toll of 2-3,000 compared to 60 something on the Israeli side ….[Hammond says “no”] is by no means a proportionate response to the toll of the attacks that were received by the Israel side.
PH: No, I’m afraid that’s a mistaken understanding of the proportionality test. First of all let me say that the level of civilian deaths was horrific. I‘ve said so on many occasions…
MH: That’s stating the obvious.
PH: …. Outrageous. And we want to do everything possible to ensure that such a conflict cannot happen again. But the proportionality test does not require us to look at the number of deaths on each side in the conflict. It requires us to look at the number of responses that were delivered to each individual military action.. .. And of course..
MH: I understand that, I understand that Foreign Secretary. But the point that I am making is that if you look at the outcome as a whole then statistically at the very least, the fact that so many people died, is one to believe that even if a fraction of those attacks were disproportionate you wouldn’t have had the results that you‘ve had. The point I‘m trying to make as well is that earlier in your responses to different questions, for example on Russia you were very eager to say how effective sanctions were in determining the behaviour for example of Russian forces, in terms of how they might behave in the future. Why hasn’t the Government talked for example about EU sanctions, and more in the purview of this Committee, withholding arms sales in the way we would have expected it?
PH: Because the Government doesn’t think that in this case sanctions would be appropriate or effective. There has been a conflict, there have been significant numbers of deaths and we deplore the fact that those deaths occurred and we’ve been very clear about that throughout. Then there are very clear legal constraints on the parties involved in this kind of conflict. And there are accusations on both sides of unlawful conduct, and they need to be investigated. We can’t do that here in this Committee. We don’t have the information. You know, you’re taking the gross numbers and you’re drawing extrapolation from them. But of course, many of the rockets that were launched against Israel were intercepted by the Iron Dome system. They therefore didn’t cause casualties. That doesn’t mean they were not unlawful. The launch of them remained an unlawful act, every one of them.
MH: I condemn those rockets, and the actions of Hamas. But if this was a boxing match it would have been stopped after the first round.
PH: Well, Mr Chairman, we and many others would have loved to have stopped it after the first round, and I can assure members of the Committee that we have spared no effort in seeking to stop it.
MH: What I am saying, my colleague Sir John has made the point, that had he been a minister in government, the government would have fallen, or at least resigned over an action like this, and how the Prime Minister and yourself….
PH: If you don’t mind me saying so, with respect, Sir John was referring to action by the British Government; we’re not talking here about action by the British Government.
MH: The parallel was drawn between action that could have been taken in Northern Ireland and actions that were taken by the Israeli Government here.
PH: The record will speak for itself.