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Gaza Strip

Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if she will make a statement on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards the situation in the Gaza strip.

We are deeply concerned about the recent violence and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip. The violence we have seen has been completely unacceptable, with summary executions, attacks against hospitals and the cruel treatment of captives. Once again, extremists carrying guns have prevented progress, against the wishes of the majority, who seek a peaceful two-state solution.

Our immediate concern is the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We fully support the statement of the Quartet and efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians. In that regard, we welcome Israel’s decision to facilitate humanitarian access and ensure the provision of basic services. We continue to call on all parties to respect the human rights of those in Gaza and ensure the safety and security of international workers.

It is also important, however, that extremists are not allowed to derail the political process. The international community is united in its desire to continue moving the peace process forward. The Foreign Secretary spoke to President Abbas on 14 June, as well as US Secretary Rice and the Egyptian, Omani and Qatari Foreign Ministers. The Foreign Secretary is discussing the situation with her European counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Luxembourg today, where they will also discuss the situation with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. Prime Minister Olmert is currently in Washington and we look forward to discussions at the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

We welcome the Arab League’s engagement at its meeting on Friday. The Arab world has a key role to play in supporting President Abbas’s efforts to restore order to the occupied Palestinian territories. We also welcome Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote dialogue.

The emergency Government, who were sworn in on 17 June, have our full support. We will continue to work with all those, including President Abbas, who are dedicated to achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The emergency Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has said that his priorities are restoring security and improving the economic and humanitarian situation, and we share those goals.

I would like to reiterate the Government’s commitment to finding a solution that will result in a comprehensive and lasting peace, with two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security.

Our thoughts remain with Alan Johnston. We continue to call for his immediate release and welcome the efforts being taken towards that goal.

The refusal of the United States and Israeli Administrations to do a deal with the Fatah Palestinian Government led to the election of a Hamas Government. The refusal to have dealings with a legitimately elected Hamas Government—with all the repression and suffering in the Gaza strip and the Palestinian territories—led to the Hamas militant takeover in the Gaza strip, and the situation is so fragmented that even Hamas cannot secure the release of Alan Johnston. Will our Government, with their unique credentials for the road map, make it absolutely clear that the only way in which to achieve a settlement is to follow the wise words of the great Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, “You only make peace by talking to your enemies”?

I agree that there must be proper debate, but debate is sometimes extremely difficult for a nation when it involves a party that wants that nation’s eradication, which is precisely what Hamas has declared.

I have heard some very glib statements about the necessity to engage with a Government who have been democratically elected. Similar statements were made in the 1930s about the Nazi Government in Germany, and I think we must take those prior examples into account. We cannot assume that because we engage with a party, it will behave like a democratic party elsewhere and there will be civilised aims at the end of it. If that party wants to see the eradication of Israel, how can we discuss and debate with it meaningfully?

I agree with the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw): until we see some sign that Hamas is moving towards a two-state dialogue, I do not see how we can hold meaningful discussions with its members.

Following five days of fighting between Fatah and the Hamas factions, by Thursday last week Hamas militia had seized control of the Gaza strip. That appears to have come as a surprise to the American and Israeli Governments, and to our own Government. Can the Minister explain why he thinks the seizure of power came about so quickly?

We welcome the Quartet’s prompt action in convening an urgent meeting on Saturday and giving its support to President Abbas, and that of the United States and the European Union in lifting the boycott on the Palestinian Authority and resuming the transfer of aid. However, it is clear that those are only the preliminary steps.

Given that before the latest violence 87 per cent. of the population of Gaza were living below the poverty line, what action do the Government believe can be taken to prevent the development of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza? How quickly will the EU and others be able to convey maximum aid and assistance to the new Palestinian Cabinet to stave off the risk of a breakdown in law and order on the west bank? The EU high representative said this morning that most of the EU funding would go to the west bank, but that some would go to Gaza. What form will the assistance to Gaza take, and is the Minister confident that we can prevent it from ending up in the pockets of Hamas?

What steps are being taken to prevent the violence from spreading to the west bank? Will the Minister assure us that there will be no weakening of our position on Hamas, and that it must meet the Quartet’s conditions? Has there been any indication that it will do so?

What assessment has the Minister made of any involvement on the part of Iran, which has openly supported Hamas? Does he believe that it will increase its involvement in Gaza and, if so, what is likely to be the reaction of our Government, EU Governments and the United States?

I think that this happened as quickly as it did because Hamas committed nothing less than a coup d’état. Those generally happen quickly, and this one was brutal. The sight on our television screens of people being summarily executed—being thrown from windows and buildings—merely reinforces the reports that we have heard. They point to a coup d’etat. It probably was planned, and some judge that Gaza is now an Islamic statelet that will be used as a safe zone from which to launch attacks elsewhere, if and when Hamas decides to do so. The situation is dangerous.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, because it is serious. The international community is looking into ways of ensuring that the money that was available under the temporary international mechanism gets into Gaza, but does not fall into the hands of Hamas. We are discussing with UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—and all others involved how best to secure the welfare of the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza, most of whom had nothing to do with this coup d’etat, which was performed by a political party that has its own agenda.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there would be any backing away from our demands that Hamas stand by the three principles. No, there will be no backing away: we will demand that it stand by the three principles as the basis for future negotiations.

The hon. Gentleman asks about Iran. We are very worried about Iran. We see a strategy to fund Hezbollah in Lebanon, which also is in a fragile state. We also see the hand of Iran and Syria in Gaza. I have heard talk of civil wars in both those countries being a pincer movement in Tehran’s wider strategy. I hope that that is untrue, but we must take it seriously.

Three months ago, and after considerable effort, the Saudi Government managed to negotiate the national unity Government. Clearly, recent events tear that up. What can Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other “Arab Quartet” nations, and other neighbouring countries, do to return to a position in which the Palestinians are united in one entity that, we hope, can then become a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

It is certainly important that the Arab League continues its work and that the Saudi and Egyptian authorities continue at every opportunity to try to influence events, and to influence reconciliation and discussion. They could have much more influence than us in this area. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend. The Egyptians, in particular, must be very worried about having a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in control right on their border.

We all despair about the events in Gaza last week, which are merely the latest terrible twist in a depressing downward spiral in the occupied territories. We must be clear that the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas has been the cause of the bloodletting, but does the Minister accept that the desperate economic situation in the occupied territories, exacerbated by Israeli, American and European sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, is another of the root causes? Given that the formation of the national unity Government has resulted in little international return for Hamas or Fatah, does the Minister accept that the international community will have to find ways of ending the economic and political marginalisation of the political wing of Hamas if we are not simply to double the number of Palestinian problems and solve none?

The European Union, the United Kingdom and the international community have given more money to the Palestinian people over the past 12 months than ever before. That is important. We would like the customs revenues that the Israelis have collected to be disbursed to the Palestinian President Abbas so that they can be used to reconstruct its sadly depleted economy. I also hope that the Israelis can take the opportunity to remove some of the roadblocks at checkpoints, which are doing such terrible damage to the Palestinian economy. If, however, the hon. Gentleman is asking me to blame the west, Israel and everyone else for a Hamas coup d’etat, I am sorry, but I cannot do it.

I am very glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that; I have heard people say it, and some of them have done so from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I hope he will accept that we have very much in mind the humanitarian plight of the people not just in Gaza but in the west bank, and that concrete steps can be taken to alleviate that and to begin to break the ice in the negotiations between Israel and Mr. Abbas’s Government.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the attacks on Christians in Gaza, including the looting of the Rosary Sisters’ school and the Latin church? Does he believe that that is an indication of the non-negotiable ideology of hate that is Hamas?

My hon. Friend reminds us that situations such as this are not just a factional fight between two political parties; there is damaging and immense fallout throughout Palestinian society. We need to remind ourselves that people of all religions have lived alongside each other for a very long time. We see intolerance among those in Hamas, and I will not speak of them as though they were some genuine reflection of the spirit of the Palestinian people; they are a nasty bunch of sectarians and religious bigots who are taking the Palestinian people backwards, not forwards. I hope that they will bear it in mind that the world is watching them, and that the way in which they treat Christians in Gaza is a very important factor.

One person has been caught up in this problem in Gaza for three months now: the British BBC correspondent, Alan Johnston. In the light of changing events such as Hamas having taken over Gaza, will the Minister bring the House up to date on what efforts are being made to return Alan Johnston to the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the issue of Alan Johnston. We have been trying hard to ensure that he is returned safely; indeed, we have been working with the Palestinian authorities and anyone else who will work with us to try to ensure his safe return. A disturbing report is just in regarding the Dagmoush clan, which these days calls itself something else. The Army of Islam is, I think, the latest term it is using, but basically it is guns for hire—thugs who have a nice sideline in kidnapping. According to the report, Hamas has given the Dagmoush clan an ultimatum to release Alan Johnston by the end of the day, or Hamas will use force to ensure his release. Hamas has stated that it will not allow the kidnap to drag on any further. This situation has to be handled with great delicacy. Hamas knows very well that delicate negotiations have been going on, and we hope that it is not using this as a publicity stunt to try to win favour with some elements in the west.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there was no justification for last week’s events in Gaza. He says that he has seen no evidence of any change in Hamas’s direction of travel, but has he seen the 10-point proposal from the national unity Government, including Hamas, that was published only two weeks ago, for a long-term ceasefire with Israel; and, if so, what is his response to it? He says that he wants the boycott to be lifted, and that it must be accompanied by an easing of checkpoints, and so on. I agree, but what will we do in practical terms at this week’s EU summit to say to Israel that those elements are essential prerequisites to a lasting peace? Moreover, is there a role for saying to Israel that if it wishes to have trade preferences for its products, it is about time it started allowing Palestinians to trade out of their own territory, and that there could be consequences for the EU-Israel association agreement in that regard?

My hon. Friend has tremendous knowledge of the area, and he makes a fair point. We have to make Israel understand that it has to do what it can to relieve the humanitarian crisis on the west bank and in Gaza and that it needs to lift the blockades where it feels able to do so, because they are having a dreadful effect. I do not want to discuss boycotts or trade preferences at the moment, because we should be discussing the immediate crisis and how we can try to alleviate it.

My hon. Friend mentions the national unity Government’s 10-point proposal. On many other occasions, not just in the middle east, I have seen that when such coalitions—fronts that have gathered together to try to make progress towards peace—find that they have to stick by proposals and do things that they find unpalatable, such as negotiating with the historic enemy, they start to come apart, unless they are very strong. Perhaps Hamas no longer wanted to be associated with those 10 points. Perhaps it felt that its credibility on the mythical Arab street was now under threat and it mounted the coup d’etat to show that it was different from Fatah and that its heart was not in the rapprochement with Israel. I cannot give my hon. Friend a reason why Hamas decided to rat on those principles and start killing people in Gaza and taking military control. He will have to find that out from Hamas: he certainly will not find it out from me, because I do not know the answer.

In common with others, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru completely condemn the unacceptable violence in the Gaza strip and on the west bank. I am gravely concerned by the message that the Minister just read out about Hamas bringing in a deadline for the release of Alan Johnston. Wednesday will the 100th day of his captivity and everybody would welcome his release, but given the violence of the past few days I have little faith that Hamas’s involvement is anything more than a media gimmick. I am very concerned about whether Mr. Johnston will be released unharmed. Will the Minister assure the House that behind the scenes everything is being done to ensure that he will be released unharmed as soon as possible?

Yes, I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have tried every single avenue that we know of and worked ceaselessly to help all the authorities to secure Alan’s release.

I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that the rise of Hamas in recent years has been a consequence of the situation in the middle east rather than the cause of it. One of the things that has made the tension and stresses in the occupied Palestinian territories worse over the past couple of years has been the Israeli decision to withhold customs and tax revenues. That money must be released, for reasons of natural justice and because it is urgently needed, although there might be no mechanism for getting it to where it can do most good. Most of the people in most need of the money are in the Gaza strip, so will my hon. Friend put more pressure on the Israelis to release the money and do everything he can to ensure that it gets where it is most needed?

My hon. Friend will know that $100 million has already been earmarked for release to President Abbas’s authority. I agree with my hon. Friend, and, indeed, we have long called for the money to be released. I am sure, however, that he will understand the concern about releasing it to Hamas, when it behaves as it does. There is great reticence to give it to an organisation that might find some way to pass it to suicide bombers or rocketeers, who then try to kill Israelis and their enemies in the Palestinian population.

Has not Hamas shown its true colours by turning with such violence on its fellow Palestinians? Does not that vindicate the refusal of the international community to treat with it? I strongly agree with the Minister of State’s calling on Israel not only to release funds due to the Palestinian Government, but to make some important move on easing the roadblocks. It is very damaging that Palestinians cannot move around the west bank. Does the Minister agree that it would be particularly symbolic and important if Mahmoud Abbas could show that the freedom of ordinary Palestinians is being increased in the west bank, just as a Hamas Administration are likely to be reducing personal freedoms in Gaza?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct. Now is the moment for Israel to do those things and the time that President Abbas needs maximum support. Now is also the time for the men and women of the west bank to see that he can bring them real benefits, which is why Israel must step in to help immediately.

Does not the Minister recognise that some of the antecedence of last week’s tragedy in Gaza has its ancestry in the west’s refusal to provide sufficient funds directly to the Palestinian Authority, thus creating huge unemployment, poverty and misery? Does he also recognise that the independent former Information Minister, Mustafa Barghouti, has refused to serve in President Abbas’s new Government because he wants a democratic mandate of all Palestinians? Will the Minister thus encourage President Abbas to set in motion a process whereby Palestinian opinion can be genuinely reflected so that any Government who emerge have the support of the majority of Palestinian people?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There will have to be democratic elections at some stage, but I cannot imagine their taking place at the moment because as an observer, like him, of the television screen and reports from Gaza, it is hard for me to see how 1.5 million people in Gaza could vote in the present circumstances. I am sure that those kinds of discussions are taking place in Palestinian communities.

I certainly do not accept my hon. Friend’s premise that a coup d’etat by Hamas ultimately has its genesis in our actions, or those of the Quartet, the EU or anyone else. This terrible inter-factional fighting among Palestinians is a result of Hamas’s decision to mount a coup d’etat.

As has been said, the election of the Hamas Government was a result of the failure of the international community, especially Israel, to support the previous Fatah Government. Somewhat late in the day, the international community is rallying around the emergency Fatah Government, but support is needed. Will the Minister tell us specifically how much practical support the United Kingdom is prepared to give at this time of crisis to the emergency Government who have been established in Ramallah? A figure in round millions will do.

More than $600 million has been earmarked as support for the Palestinian people. Over the past 12 months or so, the United Kingdom will have given the best part of £70 million, which is a large sum. The hon. Gentleman says that there was a lack of support, but I doubt that very much. The Palestinian people have received huge support from not just this country, but most other countries that I know of. The dispute has been at the heart of many conflicts elsewhere. It is the one dispute that people quote at me wherever I go in the world. The world understands the centrality of solving the problem. There has not been a lack of support—certainly not financial support. The Administrations, whether they were formed by Fatah or anyone else, have been notorious for corruption. They have been inefficient and money has been filched away to bank accounts where it should never have gone. The Palestinian people have been ill served by their leaders in the past. One hopes that the crisis will focus everyone’s minds—especially, and most importantly, those of the Palestinian leaders led by President Abbas—on the fact that there must be transparency, openness and honesty and that the huge sums must be used properly for the betterment of the Palestinian people.

In such circumstances, is not blaming Israel a little like saying that a victim of domestic violence brought it on herself? Given the connections between Iran and Hamas, is it not about time that the international community used the legal powers available to it to indict the President of Iran on charges of incitement to genocide?

My right hon. Friend probably knows more about international law than I do, but I am not sure that we can do that—[Interruption.] She nods her head and says it can be done. I very much hope that Tehran realises that making the situation in Palestine and Lebanon boil is no way to bring peace to Iran’s own borders. This is a very tough neighbourhood as it is, without Iran causing such trouble. I am sure that there are elements inside Iran who understand that very well and who want to see peace in the middle east. They have to make themselves heard now, because Iran is a much more powerful player in the area than most European countries are. The Iranians have to play a genuine role—not one where they stand up and extol the virtues of peace, co-operation and harmony at the same time as they pass funds to Hezbollah, Hamas and other organisations so that they might kill and destroy any chance of peace.

Is it not high time that the international community recognised the course of conduct on which Iran has embarked, which the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) has just described, and united to send a strong message to Iran about the unacceptability of that conduct, bearing it in mind that, thus far, peaceful and diplomatic engagement with Iran on this and other issues has brought meagre results? Now is the time for a strong message to Iran.

Yes, I think it is time for a very strong message to Iran. I hope that Wednesday’s session of the Security Council, when it debates the middle east peace process, will bring some clarity and transparency about where the blame lies for the financing of these terrible events in the middle east and elsewhere. We could be talking about many other places where we know Iranian money plays a part in causing disruption and mayhem. That cannot be good for the future of the region or for the future of the world.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that there will never be peace in that part of the world unless the underlying justice issues are dealt with. Will he say what the Government have done in the past few days to raise with Israel the problems of illegal settlements and the wall?

My hon. Friend is right. The illegal settlements and the path of the wall are causing great concern and hardship for people in the occupied territories. We have told Israel many times that, if it wants peace and neighbours that it can live with, it must sort out those injustices. The path of the barrier is still a matter on which Israel could act very easily. Many of the settlements are tiny, comprising fanatics who are armed to the teeth; they could be withdrawn to the west of the barrier. I am sure that such action would contribute significantly to easing the great concern and sense of injustice that Palestinians feel.

Obviously, there can be no justification for what Hamas has done in Gaza and how it has done it; nor does it further the Palestinian cause. However, the Minister will be aware that, in January, the Select Committee on International Development published a report on development in the occupied territories that showed that extreme poverty was getting worse. More importantly, we pointed out that the isolation of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas would lead to closer links with Iran, about which he now complains. Does he accept that it will not be possible to exclude Hamas from any part of any negotiation on the future of the Palestinian territories? If there is any sort of election in future, how will the Government deal with the situation if Hamas is elected? Why did the Government not respond to the Government of national unity, which was set up precisely to provide a means of contact with the Palestinian Authority without direct dealing with Hamas?

Order. We are back to the old habit of asking three or four supplementaries. There should be only one supplementary question.

I shall answer the first one, Mr. Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) is right: he accurately observes the link between poverty and lack of development on the one hand and Islamic extremism on the other. The corruption and the lack of will to invest in a viable economy on the part of previous Administrations in the occupied territories has come home to roost in a big way. As I have said a number of times from this Dispatch Box today, if the Israelis really want a neighbour with a viable economy, they have to start lifting the roadblocks that are such a hindrance to trade within the Palestinian territories.

To return to establishing the authority and independence of President Abbas’s new Government, the independent Prime Minister in the west bank and the independence of the Cabinet are in a difficult and possibly dangerous position. Will the Minister tell us what more, if anything, can be done by the UK or the international community to bolster and help establish the authority of that new independent force? Perhaps that could be done through more aid, as aid already seems to have bolstered it.

The international community’s expressions of support for President Abbas and his new Government have been great. The Hamas coup d’état has come as a shock to everyone, and they want to be sure that Hamas does not have the opportunity to try to repeat its military action in the west bank. I very much hope that everybody understands the need to get behind the Palestinian Authority and ensure that the new Government have the wherewithal to start giving people in the west bank some hope of a decent and viable future.

This whole incident of the past week has been one more disaster for the long-suffering Palestinian people. I hope that, at least in the west bank, they can now enjoy some amelioration in their position. Will the Minister find a way of getting two messages through to the Hamas regime in Gaza? One is that there is no substitute for accepting the Quartet’s three conditions, because that essentially amounts to accepting reality. The second is that we simply cannot accept a situation in which it goes on spending enormous sums of money on arms while expecting the whole international community to provide its people with food and medical and other essential services.

Those are two very blunt messages, but I think that they are pertinent ones, and there will be no backing off on the Quartet’s three principles by this Government. All too often, the huge amounts of aid money going into such areas somehow end up in the arms bazaar, and we have to make that point clear, too.

Does the Minister agree that although we hope and pray for the release of Alan Johnston, we do not forget that it is coming up to the anniversary of Corporal Shalit’s being taken hostage? We do not forget other hostages who have been taken by Hezbollah, and we call for the release of all of them. Hamas should take note if it does not want everyone to believe what it has now made clear—namely that it is, and always has been, a terrorist organisation, not a political party.

Yes, I agree. We should not forget that many of the present and most immediate problems go back to the crisis that was caused by the kidnapping that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the kidnapping of two soldiers on the Lebanese border.

What further action can the British Government take to encourage the United States, first, openly to fund the President and the Palestinians, and secondly to put pressure on Israel to release tax moneys and tackle the roadblock situation? Those are prerequisites to peace.

The United States is already the biggest funder of aid to the Palestinians. Perhaps it is not quite as big a funder as the combined EU, but it almost certainly provides the most aid of any individual state. Just a few nights ago, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary Rice and urged her to accept that the United States must now get behind President Abbas unequivocally and give him the support that he requires. I am confident that that has been taken very seriously, and it will be interesting to hear what the United States says during the Security Council debate on Wednesday.

Although the one glimmer of light in this dreadful situation is the opportunity to create a new relationship between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the Quartet countries, the Minister is surely right to warn Fatah against a repetition of the corruption that did it so much damage in Gaza in the past. Will he take the chance, too, to warn it against other activities such as the ill-judged adventure just 10 days ago by its military wing, which sought to seize another Israeli soldier in Gaza, this time by using the mechanism of a vehicle that had been decorated with TV insignia—an action condemned by the Palestinian journalists union? Will he tell Fatah that it is time for those adventures to come to an unequivocal end?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Now is the moment not only for the international community to come in behind President Abbas but for President Abbas to start making strong, serious and sometimes difficult decisions. That means that he must get hold of those factions within Fatah and ensure that they are not allowed to act in that renegade way, which risks, once again, escalating an already difficult situation.

How can the Minister reconcile his statement that the events of last week came as a shock to everyone with the statement by the United Nations representative Jan Egeland that the events of last week were both predicted and predictable?

I heard that statement, but I think that Jan Egeland talked very generally. The coup d’état, as I have called it, took everyone by surprise in its totality. Hamas has seized power, it has murdered its opponents in the most brutal fashion, and it has celebrated being entirely in control of Gaza. That is a traitorous act to the cause of the Palestinian people, and it will not benefit the notion of a viable Palestinian state. With hindsight, we can all say, “Yes, there were signs that it might happen, and there were elements and developments pointed in that direction.” However, I doubt if anyone—and the hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the area and takes enormous interest in it—really believed that there was going to be a coup d’état that was as total in its effect as the one that we have seen in the past few days.