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Middle East Peace Process

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2007

The Government believe that the UK must be involved in seeking genuine progress on the middle east peace process. With the combination of the continuing dialogue between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, Tony Blair’s engagement, an international meeting scheduled for November and a rejuvenated Arab peace initiative, the prospect of progress appears more promising than it did at the start of the summer. We will continue to work with international partners to move us closer to a two-state solution.

I thank the Minister for that answer and his robust attitude to the matter. What plans do the Government have for convening a formal meeting of the Quartet and arranging for former Prime Minister Blair to brief Members of the House of Commons on his actions?

I certainly think it is a very good idea for former Prime Minister Blair to come to the Commons to brief an all-party meeting on the issue. I shall certainly put that to him and I hope that he will do so. As for a Quartet meeting, there are of course regular such meetings. There will be one in the run-up to the November conference that is being organised in the United States. It ought to be an important conference and we are pinning a lot of hope on it.

May I tell my hon. Friend that last month I discussed with businessmen in the north of Gaza their plans just to export like businessmen in any other part of the world, but that their ability to do so is being strangled by the Israelis’ continuing blockade of the Karni crossing? The blockade does not affect the firing of rockets from Gaza, but does collectively punish the innocent people of Gaza. What are the Government doing to ensure that the excuses are put on one side and that the Karni crossing is opened as it should be?

I assure my hon. Friend that, along with my right hon. Friends, I have been pressing the Israeli Government to open the Karni crossing. He is quite right and has great experience of the issue. It is interesting to hear that he has held discussions about the issue in northern Gaza, because it is one of the most crucial issues. I cannot for the life of me understand how Israel believes it can have an economic basket case on its border, because there is no more potent way of generating violence and opposition to the idea of a two-state solution than strangling the economy of one’s neighbour.

The Minister is entirely right in what he has just said. However, is he also aware that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is unable to get necessary supplies into Gaza because of what is effectively a blockade and that it is thus unable to help to build temporary accommodation for the many refugees who are in Gaza? The situation in Gaza is getting more difficult as a result and encouraging the sort of behaviour that none of us wants to see.

Yes, we have been very worried that that reading of the situation in Gaza is going to make things worse. We recently gave £1 million extra to the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet some of the extreme humanitarian problems inside Gaza. We are glad to see that UNRWA is now lobbying widely, in Europe and the rest of the world, to make people aware of just how acute the difficulties are inside Gaza. That is something on which we shall continue to lobby, as it is a very important issue.

How does my hon. Friend assess the impact of Iran’s actions on current attempts to reach peace in the middle east, particularly following the statement by Iran’s judiciary chief on 5 October, when he described the rallies in Tehran as a good start to the destruction of Israel?

Iran is playing a mischievous role. The Iranians’ support for the extreme elements of Hamas and for Hezbollah in Lebanon is an indication that they do not want a two-state solution. They want to destroy Israel, and as far as they are concerned, the quicker the better.

May I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden)? I was with him in northern Gaza last month, when we met the businessmen whom he described. Will the Minister stress to the Israeli Government that closure of the borders is now creating a burgeoning humanitarian crisis that will not wait until November to be resolved? It is hurting the ordinary people in the Gaza strip, not the Hamas Administration. We should not confuse one with the other.

Yes, I take that point clearly. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman managed to get into northern Gaza and hold those discussions. We do not want to hurt the ordinary people of Gaza. Nobody wants to do that; indeed, I do not believe that opinion inside Israel is in favour of that. The Israelis have had long experience of suffering as a consequence of the terrorism that has been generated inside Gaza and other areas where such difficulties have occurred.

At the same time, there must be pressure on Palestinian and Israeli neighbours to do their utmost to ensure that the supply of rockets and weapons to Hamas militants and jihadists inside Gaza is also curtailed and that those people are not firing rockets into Israel, because that does not help the argument either. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The issue is immensely important and I agree with him entirely.

To follow up on the points that colleagues have made about the importance of the economy of Palestine, does my hon. Friend recognise that the Balls and Cunliffe report made it clear that there is high and growing unemployment among the Palestinian people and that that is increasingly speedily making the situation worse? What can the British Government do to help to tackle that crisis?

The British Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, have worked very hard to try to raise international consciousness of the need to provide employment and housing for so many people in Gaza. There is a new generation of young people there now who will not have jobs, and of even younger people who will not have an education. It is extremely important that we pay attention to that, and I think that we have a good record of trying to do so. However, we can introduce any plan for economic reconstruction that we like, but if we cannot get the politics fixed, we will never build a house or a road in Gaza, or do any of the things for the infrastructure that we want to do. We have to get the politics right, and that is why these international agreements and the other work that we are doing on the middle east peace process are so important. That is absolutely crucial if we are to take forward my hon. Friend’s agenda for economic reconstruction.