Once again the world looks utterly impotent in the face of tragedy in the Middle East. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has finally reached the hotspots after slowly meandering through the Middle East. Yet although he saw the effect of the suicide bombing in Jerusalem, he manifestly failed to travel to the West Bank town of Jenin, which the Israeli army has under curfew. Here is a refugee camp where many lie dead and wounded, and the smell of burning and the sound of tanks fills the air.
General Powell will now set off on a further tour of the Middle East but, unbelievably, will still not visit the areas where the Palestinians have been under siege.
It doesn't make sense. If you are expected to bring two sides together, then you need to appreciate the suffering on both sides, not simply on one.
On Friday I was in Jenin with a United Nations convoy. It took six hours before we were able to bring doctors, nurses, medical supplies and food to the local hospitals. We were delayed by continually having to dodge tanks, some with their barrels pointing at us, each one with its mini commander, deciding whether we should be allowed to proceed any further down the road. There was no one else on the roads in the town apart from us, but the Israelis seem to be suspicious of everyone.
I have never seen international humanitarian agencies being denied access like this. When we reached the entrance to the refugee camp, we could get no further. Enormous tanks blocked the way. Neither of the small hospitals in the vicinity had seen one dead body or one injured person, but they were convinced that hundreds were dead or injured and that there were people still alive under the rubble. One of the workers from the Red Cross had been standing by for three days.
A UN ambulance showed bullet marks in its side. We learnt that the driver had been arrested with the keys and the ambulance could not be moved. At one point, when we were surrounded by menacing tanks sending up huge clouds of dust, I managed to speak to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. He was disturbed by the reports and was calling for international human rights organisations to be allowed into the camp to make their own assessment.
Later in the afternoon we met the women and children who the Israelis had sent out from the camp as they started their attack. The women were naturally very upset. They were not interested in the UN food and clothing supplies and instead kept calling for news of their husbands and sons, from whom they had heard nothing for three days. They claimed to have seen people stepping out into the camp's street with their hands above their heads, only to be gunned down by the Israeli military. Some were killed outright while others lay injured and bleeding on the ground.
There was a curfew in Jenin, which wasn't lifted in the eight hours we were there, but we did meet a sea of men returning from an Israeli roll call of every man in the town over the age of 16. The town's mayor was among them, and was very angry and contemptuous of the UN and the international community. He said that there were 1,000 people injured or dead. He claimed it was a massacre which would go down in history like Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, where up to 2,000 Palestinians were slaughtered and for which Ariel Sharon must hold a great deal of responsibility.
All the feeble calls of the international community have had no effect. The Israelis, as Sharon has made quite clear, will stop when they want to and not before. The fact that journalists get all the access they want to areas where the Israelis have suffered suicide bombings but are denied access to the occupied areas is deplorable. Independent monitors on the ground are essential.
No political or security objective can justify targeting and punishing civilians in this way.
It is not enough for the European countries to simply bleat in condemnation. They need to withdraw European ambassadors from Israel. They need to impose an immediate arms embargo, as Germany has done. They should consider what economic sanctions can be put in place. The EU could suspend its agreement giving Israel preferential trade terms, since the European public are certainly demanding a much tougher line. After all, British taxpayers' money already spent on infrastructure in the West Bank is being ground to dust by the Israeli army. This is the moment when the European Union should show its mettle and implement its own plan, regardless of the objections or intransigence of the United States.
Until Ariel Sharon is forced to permit a viable Palestinian state to come into existence, there cannot be an agreement on peace. Sooner or later, Israel will have to end its occupation and give land back to the Palestinians. At the moment, the Palestinian leadership is so beleaguered that they are not in a position to negotiate anything. The Israelis' present policy is not working, and the sooner they realise it the better.
The writer is the Labour MP for Cynon Valley, chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights and is a member of the International Development Select CommitteeReuse content