All 37 MPs who spoke in a short debate on Tuesday were unanimous in condemning the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, but beyond that there was little support for the actions of the Israeli government.
A handful of MPs, led by Peter Bone (Con) and Robert Halfon (Con), called on the Government to support Israel in its wider aims, not just to track down the murderers but to “dismantle the infrastructure of Hamas organisation”.
Middle East minister Hugh Robertson rebuffed them, telling Peter Bone that “it is crucial that any actions that the Israeli Government take are precisely targeted to find the perpetrators and that they avoid a more general escalation”.
He drew on his military background to argue the case for calm, restraint and proportionality, telling Louise Ellman (Lab): “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.
Mike Freer (Con) said his constituents would be disappointed to hear him use the “tired phrase” proportionate respons and asked him sarcastically what he thought the proportionate response was to three teenagers being murdered.
He received a curt reply: “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.”
Hugh Robertson also rejected calls for the withdrawal of British support for the new technocratic government set up under the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement on the ground that it was “backed by Hamas”.
He replied that “they are a non-violent government and have no contact with Hamas”, though he added that if it turned out that any minister was a member of Hamas “that would absolutely be the end of this Government’s dealing with them”.
He had been in the West Bank recently talking to members of Fatah and their relationship with Hamas was desperate. “They hate Hamas and regard it as being responsible for the splits that have occurred.”
Asked whether he thought Hamas were responsible for the murder of the three teenagers, he said he had no hard evidence to back that up, but there was “some indication on the Palestinian side that that might be correct”.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Lab) asked him to send his heartfelt sympathy to the grief-stricken families of the three murdered youths, but added:
“Will he 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?”
Crispin Blunt (Con) made a similar point: “The anger and outrage of the people of Israel at the appalling murder of these three teenagers are wholly understandable …, but equally understandable are the anger and outrage of Palestinians at the death of 1,406 children in the conflict since 2000. Would adding to this awful toll by the threatened Israeli reaction be either legal or wise?”
Richard Burden (Lab) said Palestinian teenagers who also die in Israeli strikes and military operations have names, faces and families, for whom their deaths are equal tragedies. He asked the minister to confirm that collective punishment is a crime under international law.
Friends of Israel MPs also repeated their claim that UK overseas aid to the Palestinian Authority had been used to provide salaries for the families of convicted Palestinian terrorists.
“On the question of salaries,” the Minister said, “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.”
Michael McCann (Lab) said: “I disagree profoundly with the Minister’s statement. 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.”
The minister replied: “I have not yet seen the report of the International Committee, but, clearly, if the Committee has evidence to support the allegations the Member has made, that would be a very serious matter.”
Another Friends of Israel theme was raised by Philip Hollobone (Con) when he complained of a “constant stream of hate and abuse from state-sponsored TV and media in the Palestinian Authority”.
The Minister said he did not know whether there was any truth in this allegation. “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.”