The people of Israel risk being seen as oppressors and the country is losing the battle of world public opinion by maintaining its blockade of Gaza leaving ordinary Palestinians destitute, a former minister has said.
Tory Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) expressed his outrage at Israel’s “punishment” of Palestinians for the actions of a few by maintaining its tight control of what enters and exits the territory.
Sir Edward, who was Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary, said he was a supporter of Israel but he demanded it extends the rights to health, dignity and freedom to Gaza.
Israel began its blockade after Hamas seized power in the strip in 2007 and maintains it is necessary to prevent itself from rocket attacks. Gaza’s economy has since collapsed.
During a Westminster Hall debate on Gaza, Sir Edward told MPs: “We must do our bit for articulating a sense of outrage, outrage that our fellow human beings are being treated like that and we must spare no effort in trying to persuade our Israeli friends that they are losing.
“Put it this way, they are losing the battle of world public opinion. They are not helping their cause. By all means if you are attacked reply strongly in military terms.
“But don’t punish a whole people, don’t reduce them to utter poverty and destitution. There is a real danger, I say this honestly as a strong supporter of the state of Israel, that more and more people in the world are believing that a people formerly oppressed are now becoming the oppressors and that the state of Israel is losing its soul.
“What is its soul? It is of an oppressed people that have made a great and wonderful nation. But there are other nations in this world and they must be treated and must have an equal right to health and dignity and freedom.”
Tory Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury), who led the debate, said Israel’s legitimacy came from the United Nations and so it should listen to international lawyers working for the general assembly who call for an end to the collective punishment of Gaza.
Sir Tony, who represents the Church of England in the Commons, said: “The state of Israel was created by the United Nations. The state of Israel’s legitimacy owes its whole de jure legitimacy to a vote in the United Nations in 1948.
“And I would just urge you before you try to draw the House on to Hamas to focus on the views and opinions of international lawyers whose mandate was also given to them by the United Nations general assembly.
“Because so long as you and other supporters of the state of Israel of which I am one, if you remain dead to the clear advice which is given about the illegitimacy of collective punishment of the people of Gaza for the actions of a few then we are never going to see a resolution of this particular tragedy affecting so many people in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, Tory James Clappison (Hertsmere) claimed Israel had no interest in maintaining the blockade but needed to because of the threat of attacks.
Mr Clappison argued that since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005 it has suffered 8,000 rocket attacks and said no other country would live under a similar threat.
He said: “I don’t believe it is the case that the state of Israel has any interest in imposing these conditions on the people of Gaza for the sake of it.
“I don’t believe that that is the case. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon and it was hoped then that that would bring about a solution as far as Israel was concerned to the immediate problems they were facing there.
“It didn’t and since then there have been about 8,000 rocket attacks on Israel, certainly numbers in many thousands of rocket attacks.”
He added: “No country, certainly not this one, would permit its citizens to live under the threat of rocket attacks so we have to see some progress of bringing about a peaceful situation and an improvement in the security situation.”
International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone said it was not in Israel’s interests to maintain the blockade as poverty drives radicalisation.
She said: “We understand Israel’s legitimate security concerns but only and only recently we have seen an increase in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and we condemn those actions wholeheartedly.
“But these are the actions of a few and should not automatically mean increased suffering for the many. We continue to push Israel to ease these restrictions.
“Moreover a stifled economy is not in Israel’s security interests. Poverty and hopelessness drive radicalisation.
“Take the restrictions on legitimate trade – this drove transactions through the tunnels which benefited Hamas to the tune of about £90 million a year in taxation. The Israeli restrictions on fuel and construction material imports are the route of many, many problems in the area.
“Undoubtedly actions by Egypt to close the illegal smuggling tunnels made the situation worse.
“But ultimately the responsibility lies with Israel as the occupying power to ease the restrictions that make life for Gazans so very difficult and we do make this point to them very strongly and regularly.”