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Middle East

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2006

I should point out that the debate is very well attended. Six hon. Members have already indicated that they want to catch my eye, and there are also the three Front Benchers. That is a fair number in 90 minutes, so contributions, interventions and reactions to them should be brief.

I thank Mr. Speaker and your good self, Mr. Cook, my parliamentary neighbour, for giving me the opportunity to discuss the vital issue of the middle east peace process. This is a crucial time, and 2006 could well be seen as a key year in the peace process. Of course, every year could be seen as key, given the frustrating nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider middle east peace process. I could, for example, mention 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed, 2000, when the Camp David summit was held and the second intifada started, or 2003, when the international Quartet’s road map was published, Prime Minister Sharon commented that Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories must end and the Israeli disengagement policy was unveiled. However, 2006 seems to be emerging as a landmark year in the peace process, with the removal of Sharon from active Israeli politics on 4 January, the Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas into government, and the Israeli elections in March. I shall first discuss those two hugely significant elections—one in Israel and one in Palestine—and then, if possible, widen the scope of the debate to encompass the security barrier and the behaviour of Iran.

The middle east peace process remains full of problems, paradoxes and controversies. Last week, I was privileged to introduce Ambassador Dennis Ross at a meeting of the Labour Friends of Israel, which I chair. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, Ambassador Ross is a distinguished expert on the middle east, who played a leading role in the first Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration and who has dealt directly with Israel and the Palestinians. At last week’s meeting, he stated:

“today we are not in the peacemaking business”.

Instead, there is a pressing need to control and improve the situation on the ground.

The Israeli elections in March saw the formation of a new coalition, led by Kadima, with the Israeli Labour party as senior partner. I congratulate the Labour party leader, Amir Peretz, on that success. I met Labour Members of the Knesset when I led an LFI delegation to Israel and Palestine in February and I was impressed by the party’s domestic social agenda, which had a familiar ring. The party was even using footage from the British Labour party’s 1997 and 2001 election broadcasts to promote their key policy—a minimum wage. That is incredibly encouraging. The success of the Labour party in March demonstrates a willingness among Israelis to debate what sort of society they want theirs to be, and it is clear that that society will be more socially inclusive and embrace a greater redistribution of wealth.

The Israeli Labour party is also progressive and innovative on security matters. It is committed to a two-state solution and a negotiated final status settlement. It has emphasised the importance of sustaining talks with President Abbas’s office and is determined to heighten his status. The appointment of Mr. Peretz as Minister of Defence is also a positive development, and I hope that the Labour party’s leading role in the coalition will see a greater push towards negotiation. In his own words, Peretz is committed to a

“policy to continue waging war on terrorists while trying to ease restrictions on the Palestinian people”

wherever possible.

There is much to support elsewhere in the coalition. The new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, will visit the Palace of Westminster next week for an open meeting with Members of this House and the other place. At that meeting, I hope that he will explain how he will implement the clear mandate that the Israeli people gave him in the March elections to continue withdrawals from the west bank. What is known as the convergence plan involves withdrawing from all settlements east of the fence, dismantling illegal outposts and potentially resettling 70,000 settlers from the west bank. The policy, which is still in its formative stages, would establish provisional borders in accordance with the road map and would not deviate wildly from the map drawn up under the Geneva accords.

Right hon. and hon. Members would be right to have reservations. Obviously, a unilateral plan is far from ideal, and we should continue to strive for negotiation, but we are where we are, and in the absence of a partnership for peace, unilateralism remains the only option. If we are to keep the peace process moving, we should recognise that fact and reluctantly and cautiously welcome that unilateralism. Concessions on the Israeli side could, I hope, catalyse similar developments on the Palestinian side to produce a state of what some commentators have called, perhaps oxymoronically, parallel unilateralism.

That brings me to the Palestinians and specifically Hamas. On the one hand, the fact that there were free and fair elections in January—an event matched in the region only in Israel—is to be welcomed and is a cause for optimism. On the other hand, the fact that Hamas was the victor is a setback. Clearly, the Palestinian Authority, whatever its political complexion, needs to address severe domestic challenges, such as severe economic hardship, the need for social, education and health care improvements and the need to tackle corruption. When I was in Palestine in February, it was evident that it would take time for Fatah really to come to terms with the fact that Hamas was simply better organised politically on the ground, with a shrewd and sophisticated awareness of the simple need to get out the vote. There are domestic challenges, but perhaps parallel unilateralism will allow progress to be made.

However, the election of Hamas remains extremely worrying. The organisation unequivocally calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, which is simply unacceptable in a governing party.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on his speech so far. Are not the Israelis absolutely right to concentrate on doing their best to support President Mahmoud Abbas and ensure that his view, even if he takes it directly to the people through a further referendum, prevails over that of Hamas, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, cannot be part of the solution to this difficult situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He has had Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall about this very issue and has spoken eloquently and decisively about it. I shall talk about the referendum in a moment.

The international community, which provides £1 billion a year in funding to the Palestinian Authority, has asked Hamas to meet three basic conditions for the funding to continue, and I know from reading the report of one of the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debates that he mentioned this very issue. The three conditions are that Hamas should recognise Israel, renounce terror and respect existing international agreements. In the past 24 hours, President Abbas has extended by a number of days the time that he has given Hamas to accept his offer implicitly to recognise Israel, which is part of the 18-point prisoners’ document.

I shall come to that later.

I mentioned three conditions, but Hamas has yet to make any moves towards meeting them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because time is short. Would it not represent some progress if Hamas recognised the right of Israel to exist at all, given that its charter calls explicitly for Israel’s destruction?

I agree absolutely. As I said, time is running out, not only in this debate, but on that wider, more fundamental point.

When a suicide bomber attacked the busy streets of Tel Aviv over the Passover holidays in April, killing nine people and injuring nearly 100 others, Hamas leaders condoned the attack. What could possibly be gained from that? However, I am struck by the recent comments by Rashid abu Shabak, a Fatah leader whom President Abbas appointed in April 2006—against Hamas’s wishes—to the post of security director for the west bank and Gaza. He said:

“Hamas is acting as if it is isolated on the moon and can keep two identities, government and opposition. Hamas jumped overnight from being the group that attacked Israel to the government that has to arrest people who do that.”

In the meantime, the Palestinian people have the most to lose. Regimes that are committed to religious fundamentalism have dangerous consequences for the populations over which they rule—not least for women, minorities and political activists.

Furthermore, there has been the danger that the necessary sanctions may lead to an economic crisis. The international donor community has had to tackle a serious dilemma because of the need to continue to provide aid and assistance to ordinary, decent and innocent Palestinians while bypassing, at the moment, the Palestinian Authority.

A way has been found to do that. On 9 May the international Quartet agreed on a new funding mechanism to be administered by the EU, whereby money can go directly to humanitarian causes such as schools and hospitals. Individual state donors have also increased their humanitarian budgets. That includes the UK, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, whose Department has pledged an extra £15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for humanitarian funding.

I draw right hon. and hon. Members’ attention to the document “Aiding Peace” produced by Labour Friends of Israel, which was submitted to the Treasury as part of the consultation on the economic aspects of the peace process, led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. It details other crucial elements needed for peace, including political stability; improving access to markets and supplies; stimulating employment and building up the Palestinian private sector; and establishing microfinance for Palestinian small and medium-sized enterprises, thereby strengthening the business environment and improving economic competitiveness.

Arguments persist that economic improvement cannot be addressed until Israeli security restrictions are addressed too. I urge understanding, however, that such restrictions are a consequence of the conflict. At last week’s meeting, Ambassador Ross made the point that Israel daily faces about 60 security threats; I shall return to that point shortly. The reason why there are so few suicide bombings is that the Israeli defence force pre-empts many of them. I hope that the reduction in Israeli security restrictions and an increase in Palestinian economic activity and prosperity can, with the right leadership, occur in tandem.

The debate on security must now take in Hamas as well. It may have come to power by democratic means but it has not embraced the democratic tradition and responsibilities of a democracy. Hamas has allowed the streets of Gaza, which was fully evacuated by Israel last year, to be controlled by militant factions engaged in running battles. Members of the Palestinian press reporting on those clashes have received death threats from Hamas because of their critical reporting of the Government and their sympathies with Mahmoud Abbas’s office. Meanwhile, rocket attacks from Gaza on civilian targets in small Israeli towns have continued. Those attacks are crude and relatively inaccurate and therefore, thankfully, unsuccessful, but crucially they add to the Israeli sense of insecurity, especially because of the fear that a hit on the Ashkelon industrial zone, with its fuel and chemical depots and power station, would cause a major disaster. The attacks have provoked retaliation from Israel and the re-spinning of the cycle of violence.

I believe that those daily rocket attacks by Palestinian militants are the biggest short-term obstacle to peace. The Israelis fear that if the attacks cannot be stopped in Gaza, from which they have withdrawn, they will spread to the west bank, from where every major town and population centre in Israel will be a target.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about something that is one of my abiding memories of Israel, from a visit earlier in the year with the Conservative Friends of Israel—a Hezbollah terrorist guarding the border of south Lebanon and presenting the organisation as the legitimate authority in Lebanon? Is that not an example of a dangerous precedent: a terrorist organisation seeking legitimacy as a political party when it is responsible for the murders of innocent citizens?

I agree with those points, and although the hon. Gentleman and I did not go on the same visit, we probably stood in the same place and witnessed the same sort of thing.

Against the background that I have been describing, the new coalition Government in Israel face big, but not insurmountable, challenges as they build their governing momentum following the election. Perhaps the most immediate challenges are domestic security and the barrier, which I shall discuss next, and the wider context of regional security and the threat from Iran, which I hope to mention later.

The security barrier is an unfortunate but sadly necessary consequence of the conflict. Its route and the impact that it has on Palestinians are contentious and the Israelis are conscious of that, but please let us remember why it is there. A few years ago, no one in Israel wanted it. The left opposed it on humanitarian and political grounds. The right opposed it on ideological grounds, fearing, as the Palestinians do, that it represented a border in contrast to their territorial dreams. For many, the financial cost also seemed prohibitive. Then in March 2002, in a single month, there were 37 suicide bomb attacks, claiming 135 lives. The frame of the argument changed dramatically, and changed again when the barrier proved so effective and suicide bombings dropped down the graphs. There has been a 90 per cent. reduction in attacks by terrorists and a 70 per cent. decrease in the number of Israelis killed per year.

I am not going to say that the barrier is welcome. I have seen it myself and have experienced in a very minor manner some of the discomfort and frustration of waiting for hours trying to cross the security barrier. I had to endure it only for an afternoon, so I fully sympathise with those people who have to endure that situation for hours, daily—twice a day—to go to work, take goods to market or see their families. I have seen at first hand the disruption that it causes to people’s lives.

One cannot dismiss fears about the barrier’s status. The international community needs to understand its physical and psychological importance. I mentioned earlier that the Israeli defence force is pre-empting many attempted suicide attacks. The primary reason for that success is the barrier. It slows attackers down, aids their detection and deters their attempts.

The location of the barrier, which seemed to me during an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit in November to be more like a very large wall, is the contentious point. Why must it be drawn so as to confiscate so much Palestinian land?

It would be wrong to say that no consideration has been given to Palestinian territorial claims or human rights. Israel’s Supreme Court, for example, which is open to Israelis and Palestinians alike, has taken a major role in determining the route of the barrier. Israeli judges made a landmark ruling in 2004—this is, I think, the crucial point in response to my hon. Friend—that the fence is legal only if the courts determine it to be proportionate in balancing Israel’s responsibility to keep its people safe with its responsibility to safeguard the rights of Palestinians. In Jerusalem, which is, I accept, where the barrier is at its most controversial, construction is on hold in many areas, pending further rulings from the Supreme Court.

Does my hon. Friend agree that both the Labour party and the trade union movement in Israel have taken the clear view that, for reasons of security, the wall should stay, albeit that they want it within pre-1967 borders?

My hon. Friend and I went on the same visit and saw together, at first hand, the wall and its ugliness—in all senses of the word—but we also saw how it provides security and reassurance to Israelis. I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s point.

In effect, the Israeli courts have had a veto over the route of the fence, and as a result, since February 2005, the proposed route has run for much of its length along the 1967 border, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and is much closer to that line than it previously was in other areas. Where the fence deviates from the green line its aim is as a tactical restriction to fulfil the aims of hindrance, detection and deterrence.

Let me be blunt. In the end, armies can be negotiated to armistice and walls and fences can be negotiated back or down. The victims of terrorism cannot be negotiated back to life. It is the success of the barrier and its halting of the cycle of violence that created the political space for the Gaza withdrawal to take place and, from that, for the concept of territorial concessions to become the consensus approach to the peace process.

The checkpoints and road blocks around the west bank have made it extremely difficult for Palestinians to travel in and around towns in the west bank—a reality that has, as I have said, had a detrimental effect on their trade and business. Israel continues to assess its road blocks policy but has found it hard to reduce restrictions when armed Palestinians are stopped on a regular basis and terrorist networks continue to operate. Similarly, Palestinians have found the Gaza-Israel border crossing at Karni closed for, so far, nearly half of 2006, which means that they have lost millions of dollars in wasted agricultural exports that were unable to leave Gaza. Peretz has promised to try to seek a solution to keep that area open more frequently, but there is apprehension from the security forces, which continue to thwart potential terrorist attacks from militants who hope to use the area to gain access to Israel.

I stress that Israel needs to ensure that all its security measures are proportionate and in accordance with the rights of ordinary, decent and innocent Palestinians. We should continue to press for that, but that pressure will be more effective if there is greater acknowledgement of the concerns of both sides, of the dilemmas Israel faces, and of the effectiveness of constructive, contextual, case-by-case criticism rather than the sometimes hysterical and uniquely disproportionate commentary that the conflict often receives.

Practical work can also be done. The deal agreed in November 2005 on the Rafah border between the Gaza strip and Egypt is an example of how the international community can make a difference not only in wide and impersonal regional politics but in humanitarian issues.

I would like briefly to draw attention to the relaunch on 3 May 2006 of the international women’s commission for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine, which is welcomed by many. I understand that women have been meeting across the political divide for many years, even when there was no discussion and debate elsewhere and talks had completely stalled. All women Members of this House, particularly the new ones, hope to work with women elected to both the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority to support them as they move forward with the commission.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. She is far too modest to tell the Chamber that she plays a leading role in this House in creating awareness and co-operation between women MPs here and those in Israel and Palestine. I pay tribute to her in that regard.

The international community has a role to play. It is hugely important that the situation is not allowed to stagnate into entrenched positions. The newly formed Israeli Government plan further withdrawals to ensure that that does not happen. The UK Government should support that initiative and ensure that the plan is executed in consultation with Mahmoud Abbas who remains in control of Palestinian security policy.

The international community must remain engaged in the conflict. The role of honest broker remains crucial. The UK has embraced that role in the past and must do so again. The London meetings on Palestinian reform in March 2005 were forward-thinking and totally opened the debate into Palestinian self-governance, security and economic policy. The UK also enjoys a fruitful relationship with Israel. As I said, the Israeli Prime Minister will be in London next week, when he will meet my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. No doubt they will engage in an open and productive dialogue.

The UK Government have firmly shown their commitment to the road map and the peace process, but when considering the middle east peace process, we must be careful not to look at the conflict only through the narrow prism of Israel and Palestine. The dispute is being played out on a regional and international stage. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is largely determined by the actions of neighbouring countries. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, I move to the issue of Iran.

Iran’s contribution to the conflict comes in the form of state-sponsored terror, existential threats against Israel, holocaust denial, rhetorical incitement and nuclear proliferation.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that Israel is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and that it has nuclear weapons and a delivery system with which to use them?

Yes, I can confirm that. I am not certain how that advances the argument, but I can confirm those facts.

The regimes in Iran and Syria continue to support, fund and train terrorist organisations that operate in the middle east and threaten regional security. Groups supported, bankrolled, armed and, in some cases, even controlled by Iran and Syria include Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. State-sponsored terrorism undermines prospects for peace in the middle east peace process and the UK's commitment to regional reform, and threatens the UK directly where there are troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hezbollah, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) mentioned, receives most of its funding from Iran. It continues to threaten Israel’s security along its northern border, and only last week it launched attacks against Israel.

Iran’s rhetorical attacks against Israel, together with its attempted procurement of nuclear weapons pose, an existential threat to Israel. There have been calls from right hon. and hon. Members for a nuclear-free middle east, but there have also been calls for a middle east stabilised by nuclear deterrence. I suggest that neither is possible when the president of one nation is unrelenting in his call for another to be wiped off the face of the map.

Once again, the UK has led the international community with patience and innovation, led first by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and lately by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The latter carries with her, in her first few weeks in the job, the support, wishes and hopes of this House and all hon. Members’ constituents in her current endeavours with our European and international partners.

Over the years, we have all seen the ebb and flow of progression and setback which has characterised conflict in the middle east. With each progression, it is easy to become over-optimistic, and with each setback, it is all too easy to slide back into pessimism. I have tried to demonstrate to right hon. and hon. Members that whatever stage we may find ourselves at in that cycle—as I said at the start, 2006 is a key year in this process—the overall trend is and always should be towards democratic negotiation, resolution and peace.

Order. I remind the Chamber that the Chair is required to call the first of the three Front-Bench speakers for winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm. A glance at the clock will tell you that we have very little time between now and then, so I ask all contributors to bear that in mind when making their speeches or accepting interventions.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. The sheer attendance illustrates the importance of this issue.

It is easy for people here and in the middle east to get depressed about the situation given that the state of Israel has existed for 60 years and it has been 90 years since the Balfour decoration. It is almost like a new 100 years’ war that never comes to an end. However, when one looks beyond those bald statistics, one sees that there has been enormous change in that period: the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which has held; an exchange of ambassadors and a peaceful relationship; the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, which is an equally important treaty with Israel’s second neighbour; and, most significantly, both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted that there should be a two-state solution. That would have been inconceivable for the Palestinians and many Israelis until relatively recently.

What made those things possible? One should not underestimate the significance of national leaders. It is rather like the situation in South Africa with the end of apartheid: it needed not only Mandela, but de Clerk—two leaders from each community who were able to look to the future, not just the past. In relation to the middle east, considerations such as Anwar Sadat’s flight to Israel to address the Knesset, King Hussein’s courage with the Jordan treaty, and Yitzhak Rabin becoming a peacemaker having been a warrior all show what can be achieved. The challenge is whether Olmert and Abbas can both come up to those important standards.

Clearly, a negotiated solution is the best way forward. I almost hope that Hamas will reject what has been put to it so that a referendum can go ahead. I can think of nothing more important and significant than a referendum of the Palestinian people endorsing Abbas’s call for a two-state solution, so that thereafter discussions and negotiations could take place with that clearly being the will of the Palestinian people, and Hamas being clearly sidelined on that issue at least. If that turns out not to be possible, for whatever reason, we should not reject out of hand the Israeli commitment to a unilateral approach, because it reflects two fundamental changes that have taken place in Israeli thinking among those who are traditionally on the hard-line right of Israeli politics.

The first change is the recognition that, given the demographic changes taking place, Israel as a democratic society simply cannot hold on permanently to the whole of the west bank and Gaza. In a sense, the Israelis have concluded that in future the state of Israel will not be the same as the land of Israel. The land of Israel may be a biblical concept, but the state of Israel will have to have more modest aspirations.

The second change in Israeli thinking is strategically very important. For many years Israel said, and reminded anyone who went there, “Security requires us to occupy the west bank. Look how small Israel is; look how quickly we could be overcome if a conflict broke out”, but the reality is that it no longer has any fear from conventional Arab armies. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel and there is no Arab state that could conventionally defeat it, and the Israelis are comfortable with that.

Israel faces two kinds of threat: the demographic threat if it holds on to the whole of the west bank and ceases to lose its Jewish identity, and, perhaps more important, a missile threat. Whether nuclear or otherwise, missiles can attack Israel, which is not protected from that simply by holding on to the west bank. For that reason, even those on the right of Israeli politics are now prepared to contemplate a unilateral withdrawal from the west bank, should it prove necessary. That offers a major new opportunity for a peaceful solution to the crisis, which we have not had in the past.

Given the time limit, I shall just make some brief points. I hope that the Israelis will take them on board should the negotiations go forward, or should they not and a unilateral solution is required. The first is that they should not feel too guilty about the wall or fence. It is not aimed at keeping people in, like the Berlin wall was; it is to keep terrorists out. That is a pretty fundamental distinction. However, as part of any ultimate agreement, unilateral or otherwise, the fence will have to go, because the economic future of the region requires close economic co-operation between Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Such co-operation is not possible with the long-term existence of the wall.

Secondly, the 1967 boundaries cannot be an absolute determinant of where the new frontier will lie. If the Israelis want, for understandable reasons, to hold on to some settlement areas, they must be willing to contemplate exchanges of territory, so that the overall Palestinian territory is not seriously diminished as a consequence.

Thirdly, nobody in their right mind wants a new barrier through the middle of Jerusalem. There are solutions to this. The Vatican-type status in Rome does not detract from the sovereignty or security of Italy any more than recognition of the holy places in east Jerusalem as non-Israeli territory would in any way damage any fundamental interest.

Fourthly, the right of return is very important from the point of view of Hamas and some Palestinians. The Israelis cannot be expected to concede that, but they can be expected, perhaps with American help, to offer generous financial compensation as part of an overall package. The current plans of the Israeli Government appear to envisage holding on not just to settlement areas, but to a whole section of the Jordan valley. I do not see any military need from them to do so. I believe, and hope, that that is simply a negotiating ploy so that they will have something extra to concede as part of an overall peaceful solution. They cannot expect to hold on to the Jordan valley; it has to be part of a Palestinian state, although a demilitarised valley should clearly meet Israeli requirements.

Given the time pressures, I should just like to make one final point. Although Israel and Palestine can be a source of deep worry and depression, we should never lose sight of the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, despite the length of time that it has existed, and other disputes, such as those over Kashmir and Cyprus or the Tamil problem. The difference is that we already know what the final structure will be: the Israelis and Palestinians will each end up having their own state. Therefore, the problem is not what kind of ultimate structure there will be; it is exactly how we get there and what the details should be. That is different from any of the other problems that bedevil the world as a whole, and it is a source of hope and confidence rather than one of worry and depression.

I shall be as brief as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on his contribution.

Although I am sure there will be differences of opinion on the substantive issues involved, today’s attendance indicates something. This has been one of several Westminster Hall debates on this subject in recent months, but we have not had one on the Floor of the House for as long as I can remember. It is time that such a debate was held. I think that we all agree that it should take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned that we need to examine the situation on the ground and keep it in mind. He is right about that. Although this is an area where statistics hit us from all angles, we must understand, at this stage more than at perhaps any other time, the grinding poverty that is affecting the Palestinians. We are talking about unemployment levels of 31 per cent.; in Gaza the figure is 40 per cent. Poverty levels are rising. Food insecurity has risen by 14 per cent. in the past 10 months, and the United Nations is predicting that it could reach 51 per cent. this month.

Access for Palestinians in the occupied territories has got worse in the past 12 months. Three ambulances were attacked by Israeli troops in the last week in May. There were 376 road blocks and checkpoints prior to disengagement from Gaza in September and there were 515 by mid May this year. Karni, which is a lifeline of goods going in and out of Gaza, has been closed for 44 per cent. of the time since the start of 2006.

I give those statistics not only because they are part of the reality on the ground that we need to bear in mind, but to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that, while I understand and have a good deal of sympathy with the international community’s demands on Hamas, it is not a simple thing to say, “Cut off assistance from the Palestinian Authority and somehow you can protect the Palestinians anyway.” The Palestinian Authority runs 75 per cent. of all schools, and 62 per cent. of primary health care clinics are run by the Ministry of Health. We are talking about hitting essential operations: water, maintenance of refuse services, sewage collection, and so on. When the Minister sums up this debate, will he say how the alternative mechanisms that will somehow get assistance through to the Palestinians, while bypassing the Palestinian Authority, will work? The statistics that I cited are not from February or March; they are published in a United Nations report from the end of May, after the Quartet’s announcement of the alternative mechanisms.

This week, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, engaged in a brave proposal. I believe that Hamas should recognise Israel. I do not say that Hamas should accept the two-state solution, because one thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool should understand is that, to all intents and purposes, it has already done so. There are legion comments from its spokespeople—most recently, the BBC reported one such comment yesterday by the parliamentary speaker—saying that Hamas accepts the two-state solution. Recognition is a different issue, and it has some way to go on that.

If we are to ask Hamas to recognise Israel, the point that I made to my hon. Friend about which borders was not one simply of academic significance. It is of real significance. People are living under occupation. If at this stage there are no guarantees about what their state will be and what the Israelis will recognise, what are we asking them to recognise? The deal might be to recognise the 1967 borders, although there needs to be negotiation about whether that ends up to be the final settlement. Let us accept that international law is the kernel of a settlement. Such a deal would mean that Israel withdraws from land it occupies and it means that the Palestinians accept the internationally recognised borders of Israel based on the 1967 borders. That would be something real, but it is not the situation that we are in.

This issue is of more than academic significance, because if we are to say vote for recognition to Palestinians, who are suffering the poverty that I was describing, we must be as clear as possible that when the referendum or whatever is used comes, they will vote for that. They should not see, one more time, the international community adopting one set of standards for them and another set for the Israelis. If they were to get that impression, given that they are faced with that grinding poverty, we will probably be heading not for an acceptance of the two-state solution but for greater conflict, with all the tragedies that that will mean for Palestinians and Israelis.

I ask the Minister again to clarify whether, when he is asking the Palestinians to recognise Israel, he is saying that they should recognise Israel within its internationally recognised 1967 borders or within somewhere else? If he is saying the former, does he accept that it is only reasonable also to say to Israel that it should recognise a state of Palestine on those 1967 borders? For good measure, if we are asking the Palestinians to have a referendum, perhaps there could be one in Israel as well.

Will the Minister clarify a couple of other things? The first is about the dividing up of the west bank. It is being split into different “Bantustans”—to use a term that some employ—which are segregated from each other, with no proper transport continuity let alone territorial continuity. That is a real barrier to a settlement. That process, through settlements and the wall, is almost complete. One area is standing in the way of that happening: the E1 area, which is part of the so-called Jerusalem bubble. Israel has said that it will build on E1, but it is illegal and is regarded so by the United States, the British Government and the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister attach the significance that I attach to the E1 plan and what will Britain do to ensure that it does not go ahead?

I want to make two further points. First, while we demand, rightly, that the Palestinians end the violence, will we make the same demand on the Israelis? Can we at least suggest to them—or perhaps more than suggest—that it might be a good idea if they committed themselves unambiguously to abiding by the provisions of the fourth Geneva convention in the occupied territories, because they are not doing so at the moment? In that context, can my right hon. Friend update the House on what is happening in the Hurndall and Miller cases following the decisions of the coroner here?

Secondly, on the humanitarian crisis, I have asked my right hon. Friend to clarify the alternative mechanisms, but will he also explain how Britain intends to respond to the UN appeal? It is estimated that the emergency needs of the Palestinians require approximately $385 million extra. Are we going to respond to that and, if so, how?

We all take the point absolutely about the grinding poverty and no one wants this terribly difficult position concerning Palestinian aid. Can my hon. Friend tell us from his perspective what the Israeli Government, the international community and the United Kingdom Government are doing about negotiating with, aiding and dealing with a Government who will not recognise the existence of the state of Israel and will not renounce terrorism? How do we deal with that?

When I was in Gaza three or four years ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), we met a number of Palestinian groups and happened to meet the person who is now the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority and a member of Hamas. Most of the discussion involved us saying why suicide bombings were morally wrong and why they did no good for the Palestinian cause. That discussion led to a dialogue. I am not suggesting that we should say anything other than that Hamas should recognise Israel and give up violence, but my experience indicates that fostering a dialogue would be much more effective than pushing Hamas into a corner. I think Mahmoud Abbas would agree with that.

The final point that I would like my right hon. Friend to address is Karni, and the customs dues and levies that Israel is still withholding and the restrictions on trade to the Palestinian Authority that Israel is still imposing. What are we going to do about that?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing this timely debate. He is right to say that this is a crucial time for the middle east and an appropriate moment to consider what steps Her Majesty’s Government can take to help to resuscitate and support the peace process involving Israel and the Palestinians—the conclusion of which would, of course, send a powerful message to the wider region that peace and democracy are the future, as well as providing the conditions for safety and prosperity for their own populations. In recent months and years it has been difficult to identify any clear chinks of light in a rather gloomy scenario, but they are there and I want to focus on a few of them in my brief contribution.

It is important to recognise that although unilateral disengagement by Israel, including withdrawal from certain settlements, the continuation of the security fence and the fixing of its borders, will not amount to a peace settlement, it does represent a courageous and vital attempt to achieve some lasting security for its citizens and an end to occupation of the Palestinian territory. In the current scenario, that is a logical course of action and deserves the active support of the international community, but it is not a peace settlement. Even more so than in the final years of Yasser Arafat's leadership, which was characterised by broken promises and missed opportunities, Israel does not currently have a partner in the peace process, and it needs one. If there were any doubt about that, the election of Hamas in January settled it.

In no sense can Hamas be described as freedom fighter turned statesman. It is a terrorist organisation that speaks the language of bloodshed, both against Israel and within the occupied territories. Between 1989 and 2005, Hamas was deemed responsible for murdering 579 and wounding more than 3,200 Israeli men, women and children, 93 per cent. of whom were innocent civilians. The Hamas leadership condones that record and refuses to condemn the attacks that have been carried out since its election. In fact, all the signs are that it sees no incompatibility between being a democratically elected Administration and encouraging terrorist atrocities.

Indeed, Hamas has set up a new 3,000-strong security force led by a former commander of the popular resistance committee. The violent clashes in Gaza city in recent days between Fatah-dominated security forces and Hamas forces have again left the Palestinian leadership with innocent blood on its hands. The United Kingdom and the EU cannot and must not do business with Hamas. Yet we cannot turn our backs on the Palestinian people. We must do everything we can to isolate Hamas and encourage a strong constituency for peace and democracy within the occupied territories—a constituency that will recognise the fundamental need for peaceful co-existence with the Jewish state.

The Palestinian elections represented something of a paradox. On one hand, they brought about the election of an anti-democratic terrorist organisation and, on the other, it must be recognised that they were something of a victory for democracy. They reaffirmed the overwhelming commitment by the Palestinian people to determine their political future by democratic means. In a region where Israel has traditionally stood out starkly as the only real democratic nation, the relatively trouble-free elections sent a signal that there is a strong appetite within the troubled Palestinian territories for democratic solutions. That represents an important chink of light that we must do all we can to foster.

Having read the European Union election observation mission’s report on the January elections, one cannot fail to be impressed with the exercise of democracy in the Palestinian territories. As the report concludes, the elections amounted to

“an open and fairly-contested electoral process that was efficiently administered”

by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. I strongly encourage the Minister to read the recommendations in the report to see what extra support his Department can give to improving electoral arrangements for Palestinians in future.

Another significant chink of light is President Mahmoud Abbas’s intention to call a referendum on Palestinian statehood that would implicitly recognise Israel's right to exist if Hamas will not directly accept his two-state proposal. His dialogue with Hamas on the matter seems to be failing, but all the opinion polling in recent days seems to suggest that if he takes his call for a referendum directly to the Palestinian streets he will win, and that support for Hamas is declining. I have huge sympathy with the powerful point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) who wants Hamas’s destructionist view to be buried by popular opinion.

The border plan drawn up by Palestinian prisoners from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are being held in Israeli prisons, forms the basis for the Abbas proposal, but may not represent a final peace settlement with Israel, However, it could at least provide the bedrock for a united Palestinian approach which is committed to peaceful co-existence and which can engage with a meaningful peace process. The Israeli Prime Minister said again at the weekend that his country wants to talk with Abbas and to restart the peace negotiations, but that will bear fruit only when Hamas accepts the three conditions set out by the Quartet.

I am conscious that I have focused overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the peace equation, because I believe that the next substantive steps towards peace must come, and can only come, from the Palestinians, whose people have been impoverished and betrayed yet again by bad leadership.

I shall be brief so that other right hon. and hon. Members can speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing this debate, but I note that he was unable to reply to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the final borders of the state of Israel. Clearly that is the kernel of the issue.

Many Members of the House have visited Israel or Palestine or both at various times. No one can go there without realising that the disparity of wealth and power between Israel and Palestine, the sheer misery of daily life for Palestinians and the sense of being in an open prison by merely existing in Gaza must be a cause for concern and must drive people into Hamas and other such organisations. Crossing from Israel into Gaza means crossing from the first world to the third world or worse. It means crossing from tarmac roads to potholes, from cars to donkeys and from prosperity to utter misery.

It is not as if that is a recent phenomenon. Talking to older people in Gaza, I found that their whole life has been one of either getting driven out of their own homes when Israel was established in 1948, or, if they are slightly younger, growing up in refugee camps and relying on the United Nations for food, water and work all the time. If they are lucky enough to be able to get out of Gaza daily to work in Israel, they are required to get up at literally 3 o’clock in the morning to queue at the checkpoint to get through into Israel to do a day’s work on a building site. They then have to go through the same performance again to get home late at night. Is it surprising that the ordinary people of Palestine get very angry about what goes on in their lives?

I agree that that situation has been ongoing ever since the foundation of the state of Israel, but will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why rich Arab states have not done more to alleviate the poverty in the Palestinian lands?

I cannot explain that and I do not intend to. The reality is that Palestine is imprisoned by Israel. It is imprisoned by a wall around the west bank and by border checkpoints all around Gaza, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, there are now 500 checkpoints and their number has increased in the past few months. It is simply not acceptable to assume that the struggle is between equals and that Israel equals Palestine. It does not. One side has nuclear weapons and F-16 jets, and is high-security in every sense, while the other has very little indeed. Is it surprising that some people are driven to terrorism?

I remember very well a discussion that my hon. Friend and I had when we visited Gaza a few years ago. I have been there since, but on that visit, we put it plainly that we thought that suicide bombing was crazy, counter-productive, immoral and wrong. We then launched into what turned out to be an interesting discussion between various Palestinian groups and ourselves. All felt a sense of isolation, because they were not being taken seriously by the rest of the world. If Israel wants to achieve a long-term peace, it must do a number of things. First, it must recognise the state of Palestine, and secondly, it should decide what its borders proposal actually is. Israel has never done that.

As to the idea that the security fence is a benign fence between neighbours, it is at least 25 ft high, it has razor wire on top and surveillance cameras all along it, and it has been built beyond the 1967 borders, taking a further 10 per cent. of Palestinian land. How many more concessions do the Palestinians have to make? Every time talks come around, the idea is that the Palestinians must give up more land. They have suffered enough poverty and they have had enough land taken away from them, and although it is true that there has been unilateral withdrawal from settlements in Gaza, there has been an increase in many illegal settlements in the west bank and Israel has made it clear that it will not halt the settlement policy there.

The Palestinian Authority have tried with great difficulty to run affairs in Palestine. They rely on aid, trade and tax income. Who is Israel to decide that the tax income, to which the Palestinian Authority are legally entitled, should be withheld?

On that point, the tax revenue is due according to agreements that the previous Palestinian Authority and Israel entered into. If the current Palestinian regime will not even recognise Israel or those agreements, it can hardly expect the Israelis to hand over money in compliance with them.

Frankly, that is utter nonsense, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. If the money is due to Palestinians and has been collected by Israel, it should be paid to them. What are the political consequences of not paying them, and what is the likely reaction? Does it benefit anybody to increase unemployment in Gaza from 40 per cent. to 70 per cent., or to increase yet further infant mortality and all the misery that goes with it? I think not.

We need Israel and those outside to continue the aid to ensure that the Palestinian people can live a reasonable life, and we need to move forward to try to achieve a long-term, permanent peace settlement. That requires a recognition that Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected in difficult circumstances. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, I was an observer at that election, and I chose to be an observer in Rafah in Gaza. It was a strange election, because we had great difficulty getting through the settlements to the polling stations for the Palestinian people, and on one occasion, the Israeli watchtowers decided to shoot at the polling stations in Rafah. That was hardly a recognition of an independent, democratic process. Nevertheless, the election took place and Mahmoud Abbas was elected to the presidency.

We have now seen the election of a majority of Hamas members to the Palestinian Authority. I do not agree with suicide bombings or violence, and rapid steps must be taken towards a two-state solution. However, one does not engender a sense of safety or security by not talking to the people who are elected. We must talk to people even if we do not agree with or like them. We must have that debate.

I hope that through the Government’s approach, we can maintain the aid that is essential to the Palestinian people, put as much pressure as we can on the United States and others to promote a peace dialogue and process, and above all, recognise that a democratic process is alive and well in Palestine. We must consider what will happen if we allow the policy of Palestinian impoverishment to continue. We should put ourselves in the position of a young Palestinian whose grandparents were thrown out of their homes and whose parents have lived in refugee camps, and for whom life is security checkpoints, barbed wire, walls and the inability to travel anywhere. What attitude does that place in somebody’s mind? What benign feelings does that give them towards the rest of the world?

If we want peace and we need to get on with our neighbours, that will be best achieved not by building a wall with barbed wire on top, but by talking to them, understanding them and working with them. Israel must remember that it is part of the middle east. It is not an extension of the USA or western Europe.

I shall be extremely brief and pick up on two points. First, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the importance of the economic difficulties. It is simply impossible, however, for Israel to have free economic relations if that is at the expense of the killing of hundreds of Israeli citizens. The fence is a reaction to that security situation, and it has been effective. It can be removed only when the security threat is removed.

My right hon. and learned Friend made his most important point when he spoke about the importance of political leaders. The tragedy of the Palestinian situation and part of the reason why it has gone on so long is that for many years, the Palestinians were led by someone who had a singular skill in missing every opportunity that was presented to him. He let down the people whom he was supposed to lead. The Palestinians now have an opportunity with their new leadership under President Abbas and the Israelis have elected a new Government, which presents them with an opportunity. What we need to do, and what I hope the Government will be able to do, is to give those two leaders the best support from outside the area in order to take the brave and imaginative steps that will allow a two-state solution to succeed. That is the single most important way in which we can help to deal with the security situation and move forward the economic situation, which I agree will help to enable the two sides to live together in peace.

I start, as is obligatory but highly appropriate on this occasion, by congratulating the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. This is the highest attendance I have ever seen for a debate in this Chamber, and it reflects not only the interest in the subject, but, regrettably, the entrenched views in this House, which perhaps mirror the entrenched views of people in the area that we are discussing.

It was a privilege to listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who drew on his expertise as a former Foreign Secretary and, before that, Defence Secretary. In six minutes, he encapsulated the kernel of our entire debate.

Drawing on the contributions, I want to touch on four subjects. First, my party and I strongly believe in the necessity for a two-state solution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s most telling point was that this conflict, unlike others, has an end point, on which almost everybody, regardless of their opinion, can agree. For the Israelis, that end point is security and being seen as legitimate by their neighbours, by people across the middle east and by the world. To balance that, for the Palestinians, it is having a viable state.

Politicians can be so immersed in conflict resolution, especially in troubled areas of the world, that they lose sight of what much of day-to-day politics is about. I was particularly struck by what the hon. Member for Hartlepool said about the minimum wage in Israel and about the elections, in which some slogans and themes of Labour’s 1997 and 2001 campaigns were drawn on, perhaps unwisely—well, given the success of the outcome, perhaps it was wise. Relating politics to people’s day-to-day concerns is extremely important; politics needs to address people’s concerns. Ultimately, politicians should not be judged solely on their ability to strike poses and negotiate settlements in protracted disagreements that have lasted for many decades. They also have to be able to bring tangible economic and social benefits to the people whom they serve.

My second point is on Israel’s place in the wider middle east. It is extremely welcome news that Israel continues to enjoy cordial relations with Egypt and Jordan. That points the way forward for mature relationships with other parts of the middle east. Everyone would agree that the Iranian president’s rhetoric about the existence of Israel is alarming, but there is some cause for optimism even there, although I do not want to exaggerate it. We should not underestimate the leap that the Americans have made in the past week or two in offering to have dialogue with the Iranians. Also, interestingly, the Iranians have shown imagination—something that is not always displayed—by at least engaging in that process. I do not wish to overstate the progress made, but nor do I wish to understate it.

My third point is about the security wall, which has been touched on in nearly every contribution so far. People disagree on how to describe it, but let us call it a wall for the time being. I well understand the reasons why that wall was built. We need only go back to events in London just under a year ago to understand the threat and the terror that suicide bombers pose to people going about their normal business, and we should never lose sight of that concern and that menace. However, it is also reasonable to observe that the wall is aggressively placed, and that it divides communities both economically and socially. I do not particularly wish to make a judgment, other than to say that no wall has ever offered a lasting solution to a political problem, whether it is in Northern Ireland, Berlin or elsewhere. Some people may take the view that it is necessary in the short term, but I caution anyone against thinking that it is anything other than a short-term measure.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I am conscious of the pressure on time. It is precisely on that point that I wanted to speak. Does he accept that people who comment on the security fence or wall that has been developed in the middle east ought to visit Northern Ireland to see precisely the same abomination in Belfast? No matter where a wall is put, it is an aggressive intrusion into communities, but in Northern Ireland, where both Conservative and Labour Governments have built these abominations, the experience of communities on either side is that the immediate relief that a wall brings from snipers, bombs and stonings means that people can begin to refocus on their economic circumstances, on their education and on local well-being. It allows breathing space. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a wall is short term. In Northern Ireland, they have been there too many years—


Jane Kennedy: For the middle east, the wall may be a solution that will be of some benefit in the short term.

I am grateful for that intervention, because it essentially, and eloquently, reinforces the point that I was seeking to make, which is that one can understand why the wall is located there. If one puts oneself in the position of someone who feels under threat, one can understand that even more; but also, if we take a step back, we can see that there is no long-term viability in a political settlement that includes literal barriers between people.

My final point is on Hamas and the government of Palestinians. People can interpret the result of the elections differently, but I would like to think that some of Hamas’s support—perhaps even the bulk of it—was more the result of a social cry than a political statement. By that I mean that one should never underestimate the desire of people voting in elections to concentrate on the basics—on jobs, prosperity and the future of their families. That is a point that I tried to make earlier, and that the hon. Member for Hartlepool also made. Sometimes, people feel the need to make a dramatic statement in order to underline their desire or desperation.

To draw on a point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others, it is important that we continue to recognise that there is huge social deprivation in the Palestinian territories, and it is potentially perverse for us to make that worse, or to cause ourselves greater difficulties, by making the situation more problematic. Even if we see that as a potential political solution, the likelihood is that it will turn out to be quite the opposite, and that it will lead to greater militancy and a greater desire on the part of rank-and-file Palestinians to seek more radical solutions to their problems.

My party and I agree that Hamas should renounce violence against the Israelis and should recognise Israel as a state. Indeed, it is in the Palestinian interest to do both those things; it is not just of benefit to the Israelis, because the scope for politics and a political solution is very limited until the Palestinians put themselves in a position with which the Israelis can more reasonably negotiate. They will inevitably find that easier if both those concessions are made.

In summary, my party and I—and, I think, people across the parties in the House—favour negotiation. Imposed solutions are likely to be short-term solutions, particularly with regard to borders and land. Although there is not often cause for optimism in that part of the world, we hope that at least with the rapid political change that is taking place there, there may be more reason for being optimistic looking forward, than there has been looking backwards.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. He has spoken in similar debates over the past six months with great eloquence and commitment. The one thing on which we can all agree is that, in a period in which so many political commentators—and, indeed, political leaders—in the United Kingdom say that politics is dead and that it is all about packaging, spin and a feel-good factor, one need only come to Westminster Hall for a debate such as this to hear real issues being debated with real passion by people who believe in what they say and take a line that may not be consensual, because this is not a subject on which it is easy to find consensus.

In this debate, I am struck, as was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), by the historical anniversaries: this year is the 90th anniversary of the Arab revolt and the 50th anniversary of the Suez operation. The point about that—and we can draw other historical analogies—is that Britain had, and still has, a deep, important role in the middle east. At least some of the things happening today are a direct consequence of actions taken by previous Governments, so Britain has an interest and, to a certain extent, a responsibility.

Another point that I draw from this debate has already been made by a number of Members. I suspect that the actions of the Israeli Government, in terms of their security policy—what they refer to as defendable frontiers—and the election of Kadima, have bought a period of negotiations. The Israelis believe that they have established security against terrorism in the short term, and that they have placed themselves in a strong negotiating situation. I agree with Members who say that those who have suffered terrorist activities within their borders will feel a powerful motivation for anything that can prevent those activities. However, that is not a long-term political solution. Israeli security officials tell us, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said, that people will undoubtedly find other ways of directly attacking Israel in the medium term. A political solution is likely to be the only answer.

Several hon. Members referred to the plight of the Palestinians—I and many people in this Room have seen it—and brought it graphically to life. There is no doubt that the plight of the Palestinians is not just related to the fact that, compared with Israel, they appear to be a poor people, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said. Their plight is not just a result of actions taken by the Israelis, the United States of America or any of the other western powers. It is also a direct result of a failure of their own leadership and corruption on a scale that makes that in many other parts of the world look puny. When I went to Palestine, I was struck by the large number of people wandering around wearing designer clothing and driving modern cars. There is a lot of money in Palestine and the ordinary people are being cheated, not just by outside organisations but by the Palestinian authorities.

I will not because I have very little time, and I want to keep my comments short so that the Minister has time to speak.

The crucial question that I draw from the debate and similar previous ones is simple, but it is the most difficult one to answer—I do not expect the Minister to answer it. What is Israel, and what is Palestine? It is almost impossible to agree immediately on what the definable borders of Israel and Palestine are. That will be the most difficult problem to resolve. The question the Minister has to face is what role the British Government have in keeping those negotiations open and persuading the two sides to come together. I suggest that we do so in the following way. We have a responsibility in the historical context. We also have one because we have been—and still are—directly in contact, both formally and informally, with a wide range of those involved in the conflict. We still have tremendous influence among the bordering states, and I would like more action to be taken by the neighbours of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Many of them stand on the sideline criticising what is going on, but they could make a much greater effort. It is a question not just of providing money, but of political support for dialogue as well.

In addition, we have influence on the United States of America. It seems that the United States is sometimes very heavily engaged in this area, but at other times, it seems totally disinterested and not engaged at all. We have a responsibility and duty to encourage the US, whatever the Administration, to continue direct engagement, showing the sort of imagination it has shown recently in giving diplomacy a chance in negotiations with Iran. The United Kingdom also has a responsibility to continue direct practical support, which has taken place under this Government and previous ones, to Israel and Palestine. We do so by giving advice, supplying officials, assisting security and through United Nations and other humanitarian aid.

Sometimes, we hear colleagues say that Westminster Hall debates are irrelevant. After all, we are out of sight. Who sees us? It would seem only a few people sitting at the back of the Room. But most of us know, from talking to those directly involved in Israel and Palestine, that they watch, listen and hear what is said. I urge the Government to continue their good offices in bringing the sides together, as far as possible, to seek a solution. That will not be found in the next few months, but there is a window of opportunity because of the actions taken by the Israeli Government.

I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) for raising this issue for discussion in the House. It is appropriate to examine the way forward in the middle east at this time, four months after the election of the Hamas-led Government in the Palestinian territories and two months after the Israeli elections.

Others have reflected on their visits to the region, and I shall do so as well. Nearly seven years ago, I went to Israel and Gaza to negotiate final status issues. Negotiations took place on borders, water rights, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) is right to be optimistic because it is clear that the actions of the two new Governments will determine whether the path of peace in the middle east, which we all want to see taken, is actually pursued.

While listening to the debate, I was greatly struck by the number of Members in all parties who have recently visited the middle east. The Minister has described his own, not-so-recent visit. However, I would like to put on the record that it is a long time since I was able to visit the middle east. There may be people listening to this debate who are able to change that.

I am not entirely sure how to respond to that. [Laughter.] Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

The British government have consistently made it clear that Hamas came to power as a result of free and fair elections and that, as a consequence, it has a democratic mandate. However, those who take part in the democratic process must play by the rules of democracy. Democracy is about more than elections: it is about assuming the responsibilities of government. We expect the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority to assume their prime responsibility to the Palestinian people by working actively towards a lasting peace with the state of Israel. Peace remains indispensable for the creation of the vibrant, fully functioning Palestine that we all want to help to develop.

The way towards that is set out in the road map, endorsed in 2003 by both the Israeli and Palestinian Governments of the day. It sets out clear steps to be taken by both sides and the international community, culminating in the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel in peace and security. We and our international partners are profoundly attached to that vision, and we regard it as the best possible means of achieving the two-state solution.

However, we cannot advance the agenda for peace—the road map—as long as one party refuses to recognise the other. It is essential that the Hamas-led Government commit themselves to non-violence, recognise Israel, and accept previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. Those are the principles set out by the Quartet on 30 January, and endorsed by Palestinian President Abbas and most of the international community. We are firmly committed to them. We are asking nothing more than we asked of the previous Palestinian Government, but so far Hamas has not signalled a readiness to accept the principles.

We naturally welcome the process of national dialogue launched by President Abbas on 25 May. We are encouraged by the President’s clear desire to establish himself as the international representative of the Palestinian people, and we recognise him as such. I sincerely hope the outcome of the national dialogue is positive for the Palestinians, and positive for the peace process. The UK is certainly eager for Israel and the Palestinians to re-engage with the peace process as soon as possible.

On the point of trying to bring forward that re-engagement, I mentioned earlier the international women’s commission, which is convened by Unifem—the United Nations Development Fund for Women—and supported by European countries, particularly Belgium. Given that women MPs in our party and throughout the House are interested in supporting both that initiative and elected women in Israel and Palestine, will my right hon. Friend advance possible membership and support of that organisation from the UK? We have been asked to support it, but that matter has not been resolved yet. Given the interest from women MPs, now is a suitable time to do something about it.

We welcome any practical way of furthering dialogue and understanding. If my hon. Friend would care to write to me or the Minister directly responsible, we can consider that in more detail.

We welcome President Abbas’s call on the Hamas Government to endorse the prisoners’ accord. Their doing so would be a step in the right direction towards meeting the Quartet’s three principles.

The UK, along with most of the international donor community, continues to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Along with our EU partners, we have a strong record of support for the Palestinian people. On 25 April, the Department for International Development announced a £15 million payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The UK alone has given £147 million to the Palestinian people since 2001, and we continue to be one of their largest donors.

I anticipate that my hon. Friend will want to intervene after I have made my next point. If I may make it first, I shall certainly give way to him once I have done so.

In the present circumstances, the UK and the international community cannot renew direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority institutions. Given Hamas’s position and, in particular, its support for terrorism, we simply have no choice. We are, however, determined to continue to support the Palestinian people and to help to provide for their basic needs. We have been at the forefront of the debate on how best to do that. The international funding mechanism endorsed by the Quartet and now being worked up by the EU was based on a UK proposal on how to channel funding to meet the Palestinians’ basic needs while bypassing the Palestinian Authority. The mechanism should be in place soon and the United Kingdom is, of course, willing to contribute funding.

Can the Minister confirm that pressure will be placed on Israel to pay the tax due to the Palestinian Authority, to which it is clearly legally entitled? In his discussions through the UN work, has he received any assurances from the Israeli Government that they will no longer prevent the United Nations from moving around by impounding vehicles and by doing all the other things that they do that make life impossible for the UN administration?

I shall deal with those points in due course, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

We are concerned about the deterioration of the Palestinian economy. We continue to press Israel to open crossings into the Gaza strip to enable Palestinian goods to be exported. We want to do more, but it is a fact that the true regeneration of the Palestinian economy—which would require public and private international investment and access to regional and international markets, and would make a sustainable difference to Palestinian living standards—can be achieved only through a lasting peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has spoken on several occasions about his ideas for further withdrawals from the west bank, although those ideas have yet to be set out in detail. We certainly support the principle of further withdrawals, just as we supported disengagement from Gaza last summer, as a step in the right direction, but we and international partners, including the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary-General, have been clear that the final status issues, such as borders, must be determined through a process of negotiation.

The UK and the international community have on numerous occasions set out their strong views that there should be a negotiated solution. President Bush repeated that to the Israeli Prime Minister in Washington two weeks ago. We are encouraged by Prime Minister Olmert’s and President Abbas’s commitment to negotiations. We hope to see those two leaders act on their commitment in the near future.

To encourage such a solution, Israel must stop any action, such as settlement activity and the construction of the separation barrier on Palestinian land, that is contrary to international law and threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution. All final status issues—including borders—are for both parties to negotiate. The Israeli Government should not take any actions that might prejudice these negotiations.

My right hon. Friend has clearly outlined well established UK policy. Given that Israel continues to build settlements and says that it will go ahead with the E1 plan, what, in practical terms, can Britain and the international community do to try to ensure that the objectives that my right hon. Friend wants to be achieved will be achieved, rather than precluded by further settlement building, particularly in E1?

We have continued to set out the clear view in international law as well as getting the two parties into negotiation. In the end, the history of this tragic situation demonstrates that only the Israelis and Palestinians can reach conclusions. They might have help, assistance and guidance from the international community, but only if they sit down together and negotiate the issues—including the question of settlements—can there be real and lasting progress.

We believe that the Israelis should adhere to international law and we remain concerned by Israeli policies on settlements, the barrier and access to Jerusalem, all of which threaten to cut off Palestinian East Jerusalem from the west bank. Those policies will have serious economic, social and humanitarian consequences for the Palestinian people, and risk reducing the possibility of reaching a final status agreement on Jerusalem. The Government have therefore called on both parties to implement the 15 November agreement on movement and access and for Israel to take steps to improve the humanitarian and economic situation of the Palestinians, including by resuming transfers of the withheld Palestinian tax and customs revenues.

The Karni crossing is the only access point for Palestinian goods from the Gaza strip and is the major point for the import of goods. The Israel defence forces closed Karni on 26 April following a suicide bomb attempt that was foiled by Palestinian security, and reopened it on 21 May. We continue to raise the importance of crossing points with the Israeli authorities at all levels.

We remain concerned at the worsening security situation in Gaza and parts of the west bank. The Palestinian Authority must take action to stop the rocket attacks from Gaza on nearby Israeli villages. We also urge the Israeli Government to act with restraint in response to those attacks. The impact of Israel’s military operations in the occupied territories continues to cause concern. Israel, like all states, has the absolute right to defend itself against terrorism but it must respect international humanitarian law. IDF operations have resulted in Palestinian civilian deaths, including those of children. Such civilian casualties are unacceptable. In addition, the destruction of infrastructure only deepens Palestinians’ despair and hinders efforts to achieve a comprehensive settlement. The conflict cannot be solved by military means alone.

We are also concerned about the increase in intra-Palestinian violence, the effects that has on people’s daily lives, and the potential repercussions on the delivery of aid and on the political process. Legally constituted security services must take action to maintain law and order in the Gaza strip and the west bank.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raised two consular cases. Tom Hurndall’s family met the Attorney-General on 5 May 2006 and will meet the Foreign Secretary shortly. We will decide on future actions once the Foreign Secretary has been able to discuss the case with the family. In relation to James Miller’s case, the Foreign Secretary met the Miller family on 11 May 2006 and is considering follow-up action in consultation with the Attorney-General.

In conclusion, the UK Government remain committed to a two-state solution to the middle east conflict and are eager to work with Israelis and Palestinians to achieve that. The only solution, as I have made clear repeatedly, remains a secure Israel and a viable, independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. We are encouraged that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have made commitments to negotiations and look forward to early progress. We and the international community stand ready to support them in any way we can. We also look to the Hamas-led Palestinian Government to commit to the Quartet’s three principles and thereby come into line with the international community’s views on how to make progress towards a lasting and permanent settlement.