Foreign Secretary's statement to the House of Commons on Gaza flotilla

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The Foreign Secretary addresses the House of Commons detailing the UK's response to Israel's attack on the Gaza flotilla and the latest on the efforts to secure the safety of all British nationals involved in the incident.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House on the events surrounding the interception of boats in the Free Gaza Flotilla, the immediate action the Government has taken, and our planned next steps.

In the early hours of 31st May the Israeli Defence Forces intercepted six of the eight boats sailing in the Free Gaza Flotilla. The incident led to injury and deaths for a number of passengers, mainly on one of the vessel. We await details of all the casualties and fatalities but it is clear that many will be Turkish citizens. The Prime Minister and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively to offer our condolences.

The six intercepted vessels were brought to shore in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Two of the boats have been delayed by mechanical difficulties and remain at sea. We believe they are en route to Gaza. I can inform the House that it appears now that a total of thirty seven British Nationals were involved in Sunday’s events, this is different from the number the Prime Minister gave a short time ago based on what the Israeli Ambassador had said before.

But I’ve spoken to our Ambassador in Tel Aviv in the last forty five minutes or so before coming in to the Chamber and the latest figures are of thirty seven British Nationals including eleven dual nationals. We’ve so far received access to twenty eight of these individuals, one of whom was deported yesterday. We understand that four more British nationals agreed to be deported this morning and that the remaining British Nationals are likely to be transferred to the airport soon.

We have expressed our disappointment to the Israeli Government about the levels of preparedness on their part and the fact that we have not yet been given full information about British Nationals detained and access to all of them. We are urgently pressing the Israeli Government to resolve this situation within hours.

There is real understandable and justified anger at the events which have unfolded. Mr Speaker, the position of the Government is as follows. Our clear advice to British nationals is not to travel to Gaza. However we have made clear in public and to the Israeli Government that we deeply deplore the loss of life and look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of this unacceptable situation. The UN Security Council and the European Union have rightly condemned the violence with resulted in the loss of these lives. We have demanded urgent information about and access to all UK Nationals involved. Their welfare is our top priority at this time, along with support to their families who are understandably very worried.

We are seriously concerned about the seizure of British Nationals in international waters and this aspect of the Israeli operation must form a key part of the investigation into these events. The Prime Minister has spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister, I have spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my Hon Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has been in close contact with the Israeli Ambassador to London. The Embassy in Tel Aviv has been in constant contact with the Israeli authorities.

I am grateful to those Honourable and Right Honourable Members who have already been in contact with the FCO in relation to their constituents and their families and have provided information. We recognise the intense concern for those involved and the need to keep Members updated.

Israel has told us that they want to move as quickly as possible to deport those people from the flotilla currently held in Israel. If they agree they will be deported very quickly. Those who remain unwilling to leave will be allowed to stay for seventy two hours in detention, which is the time limit allowed for them to appeal against deportation. Our understanding is that after that they will be deported.

It is our understanding that the Israelis have also begun to transfer to Jordan detainees from countries that are not represented in Israel. We understand that those individuals who are allegedly involved in violence against Israeli servicemen during the boarding will have their cases examined in line with Israeli legal advice. We do not currently believe there are any British Nationals in this last category though I hope the House will appreciate that this is a fluid situation.

Our partners in the national, international community are working, as are we, to facilitate the swift release of those detained. Turkey is sending six planes to fly out their nationals and the Turkish authorities have indicated that detainees of other countries may join these flights. We believe that some of the British Nationals I referred to earlier are, are now on those flights.

The United Kingdom has played its full part in the European Union and United Nations in agreeing on the need for a full, credible, impartial and independent investigation into the events. Our goal is a process which ensures full accountability for the events which occurred and which commands the confidence of the international community, including international participation. Further discussions are taking place in other international fora, including at NATO and in the UN Human Rights Council. We will take the same principled stand across all our diplomatic efforts and stress to the Israeli Government the need for it to act with restraint and in line with its international obligations, given that its actions appear to have gone beyond what was warranted or proportionate. We need to know whether more could have been done to minimise the risks or to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

Mr Speaker, the events aboard the flotilla were very serious and have captured the world’s attention. However they should not be viewed in isolation. They arise from the unacceptable and unsustainable situation in Gaza which is a cause of public concern here in the UK and around the world. It has long been the view of the British Government, including the previous Government, that restrictions on Gaza should be lifted, a view confirmed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1860 which called for sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and which called on states to alleviate the humanitarian and economic situation. That this has not happened is a tragedy. It is essential not only that there is unfettered access to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza but also to enable the reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and to permit trade to take place.

The Palestinian economy, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, is an essential part of a viable Palestinian state that I hope will one day live alongside Israel in peace and security. As the once productive private sector has been decimated and ordinary Gazans have lost their jobs and their incomes, it is tunnel entrepreneurs and their Hamas backers who benefit.

Hamas now has near total control of the economy. Other groups, even more radical and violent, are finding a place amid the misery and frustration felt by a generation of young people. In this context current Israeli restrictions are counterproductive for Israel’s long term security. We will therefore continue to press the Israeli Government to lift the closure of Gaza, Gaza and plan early discussions with Israel as well as our other international partners about what more can be done to ensure an unfettered flow of aid while ensuring that aid reaches those who need it and is not abused. I discussed this with Secretary Clinton last night and we will be taking forward discussions on this subject urgently.

The House should not forget the role played by Hamas in this conflict. They continue to pursue an ideology of violence and directly to undermine prospects for peace in the region. Violence has continued in recent day, with rocket fire from militants in Gaza and Israeli military incursions and airstrikes in response. We call on Hamas to make immediate and concrete steps towards to the Quartet principles; unconditionally to release Gilad Shalit who has been held in captivity for four years and end its interference with the operations of NGOs and UN agencies in Gaza.

Mr Speaker, it is today more clear than ever that the only long term and sustainable solution to the conflict which produced these tragic events is a two state solution that achieves a viable and sovereign Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel with her right to live in peace and security recognised by all her neighbours. The proximity talks that are currently underway are more important than ever. These events should not undermine these talks but instead underline just how important they are and the Government will make it an urgent priority to give British diplomatic support to buttress that process.

The Government will continue to keep the House informed of developments.