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Gaza Strip

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

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2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will consider taking a joint diplomatic initiative with the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Israel to try to reduce tension in Gaza; and if he will make a statement.

The Arab-Israel conflict and the situation in Gaza have figured prominently in our recent discussions with Egyptian and Israeli leaders. We also remain in close touch with other Governments concerned. We are ready to play a full part in efforts to reduce tension and to achieve a lasting settlement.

As America is now preoccupied with the presidential election campaign, and as the position in Gaza should not just drift along, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Egypt and Israel should meet at the highest level to try to make the Camp David accords work in relation to Gaza and, if successful, move on to negotiations on the West Bank?

I am certain that the search for progress in the peace process should not be set to one side on the ground of elections of one kind or another anywhere. We attach importance to the possibility of cooperation with the Government of Egypt. I had long talks with the President and Foreign Minister during my visit in the autumn. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State had useful discussions with the President and Foreign Minister at the end of last month. The best basis on which to carry the peace process forward remains on the footing of two principles—the right of Israel and other states in the area to a secure existence, and the Palestinian right to self-determination. We think that the best way of carrying that forward is by means of the international conference, which is now supported by many people, including President Mubarak.

I agree with what the Secretary of State has just said about the future in general, but does he not agree that the situation in Gaza is immediate? Has he given any thought to the proposal that Gaza might in some way be administered by the United Nations in the short term? If so, has he discussed that with the Israelis or the Egyptians?

I agree that what has understandably intensified world concern about the Arab-Israel dispute is the position not only in Gaza but elsewhere in the occupied territories. There can be no doubt that Israel should withdraw, as part of a comprehensive peace settlement, from the territories occupied in 1967, and that, meanwhile, she should administer the occupation of those territories in compliance with international law and human rights standards.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend stress in any initiative the enormous damage that this is doing to the state of Israel, not least by increasing awareness in the United States of the fact that Israel is an occupying power in other people's territory? Will he seek to involve the United States in any initiative in which he is able to assist?

I very much appreciate the points made by my hon. Friend. We deplore violence from any quarter in this situation, which is so fraught with conflict. We are seriously concerned about the current unrest, which has been particularly evident in Gaza. It illustrates the dangers of leaving the conflict unresolved, the urgency of the search for a peaceful settlement—and the urgency of those objectives from Israel's point of view, too. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the longer the situation continues, and the longer one finds Israeli occupation forces failing to handle disturbances in a fashion compatible with her obligations, the sharper will be the attention that is focused on the situation. We want Israel to be established within secure boundaries as a state which is not itself threatened by violence. The people of Israel want to achieve that, too. So, in their own interests, they need to address themselves to the situation of which my hon. Friend has complained.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, in the meantime, there is a need for something to be done to ensure that Israel complies with the Geneva conventions that relate to an occupying power's role in such a situation? How did our representative vote when those resolutions came before the United Nations?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need for effective action, so far as that is possible, in relation to non-compliance with international obligations in these territories. That is why we supported United Nations resolutions Nos. 605, 607, and 608, and the most recent one, introduced this week, by voting in support of them. Indeed, we played a prominent part in drafting this week's resolution. However, that is not all that needs to be done, but it is a mark of international concern. It is important also to do what can be done to help conditions in the territories by aid and access for trade. We have actively supported all those things.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the conditions in the camps in Gaza are no worse than those in the camps in the Lebanon and Jordan? Does he also agree that it is high time that the Arab world, which encouraged the creation of those camps 40 years ago, used some of its oil-based wealth to solve the problem that it encouraged in the first place?

I understand why my hon. Friend is anxious to be sure that the other side of the matter is represented and taken into account in the House. As I said in my original answer, it is important to recognise that we should take account not only of the right of the Palestinians to self-determination but of the right of Israel to a secure existence within secure borders. It is right also to accept that there have been some improvements since Israeli administration in some areas. However, the point does not stop there. There is a stark contrast between the conditions of those who live in refugee camps and, for example, the Israeli settlers, who live in illegal occupation of the land alongside them. The presence of Israel in such territories is contrary to international law, as resolution after resolution of the United Nations has recognised. It is on that basis that I repeat the objectives that have been common ground to all searches for peace. Above all, it is in Israel's interest to hasten forward the process of looking for a peaceful settlement along those lines.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the Prime Minister meant by her statement yesterday? She said that the Government favour

"an international conference as a framework conference within which bilateral negotiations should take place between King Hussein of Jordan and Israel."—[Official Report, 2 February 1988; Vol. 126, c. 852.]
Although Jordan's participation is essential and indispensable, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that no conference can possibly succeed—nor will any such conference be acceptable to other parties —without the participation of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and, above all, the Palestinians, whose plight and rights will be the central core of any such conference? Therefore, will the Foreign Secretary repudiate what the Prime Minister said? If Britain is so unclear about her policy, overcoming the obstructiveness of Mr. Shamir and of the United States Government will be impossible.

The right hon. Gentleman should not draw such dramatic conclusions from the point that he has made. The United Kingdom, together with the Twelve and most of the international community, have come out firmly in favour of an international conference. We believe that that is the right framework within which negotiations can take place. The precise method of setting that scene, of course, remains for discussion, but it is quite plain that the Palestinians and several other people will have to be participants in the discussion. I am quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman should not conclude that that is a prescription for some narrower definition of the conference that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has vigorously and energetically supported in forum after forum around the world.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned settlements. Does he agree that the Israeli Government have plans for further settlements and that to build settlements in such densely populated areas as Gaza is a great affront to Palestinian refugees? What action will the Government take to try to prevent the creation of further settlements at present?

My hon. Friend is right. If the existing settlements are an infringement of international law, by the same token the extension of such settlements is a still further infringement. More than that, they cannot help to advance or consolidate the cause of peace. They seek to entrench the occupation of illegally occupied territory. They act as a challenge to violence in the opposite direction, which itself poses a threat to the state and people of Israel. It is because of my passionate belief in the right of Israel and its people to exist as a state within secure borders that I urge the people of Israel and their leaders to recognise the need to turn from the path of the entrenchment of illegality and to embark upon the process of negotiation that is so important.