Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Hugh Robertson: 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.
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. 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.
Peter Bone (Con): May I press my 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 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.
Hugh Robertson: On the question of salaries 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, 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.
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. 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.
Ian Lucas (Lab): 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.
Hugh Robertson: We absolutely agree with him that this is a moment for exercising maximum restraint.
As for who is responsible, it is too early to say. 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.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (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: 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.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Lab/Co-op): 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 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.
Richard Burden (Lab): 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? 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: 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 (Con): 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 Friend agree that, far from showing restraint, the British Government should give Israel every possible assistance to take out the Hamas terrorist network.
Hugh Robertson: 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.
Crispin Blunt (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: 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.
Andy Slaughter (Lab): Does the Minister agree that we should send our condolences to Israeli and Palestinian dead and their families—and we should stress to all sides that retaliation and escalation are not the way forward?
Hugh Robertson: It is crucial that any reaction is targeted very precisely at the perpetrators, and further bloodshed is not the way to resolve this situation.
Michael McCann (Lab): 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.
Hugh Robertson: 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 Member has made, that would be a very serious matter.
Mark Durkan (SDLP): 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?
Hugh Robertson: 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.
Mike Freer (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: 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.
Philip Hollobone (Con): 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 The 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: 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.
Mark Harper (Con): 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: 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.
David Burrowes (Con): 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.