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Middle East Peace Process

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

First, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am pleased that we are having this debate, and it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Marshall. I thank the Speaker for affording me the opportunity to discuss this issue at this important time. There is always a case to be made for debating the peace process, and this topic comes up frequently in parliamentary debates. I am sure that it will not have escaped the Government’s notice that so many Members on both sides of the House display interest in and commitment to this foreign policy issue, and I am pleased that it remains high on the Government’s agenda.

The debate is particularly timely, and I hope that it will refocus attention on the positive developments that are being made following the Annapolis conference. This year got off to a difficult start with the deterioration of the situation in Gaza and the dramatic increase in the number of rocket and mortar attacks being fired into Israel. I will return to that distressing situation a little later. First, I remind the House that, despite the unwelcome developments in Gaza, there have been plenty of good-will gestures and confidence-building measures from both President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert in an effort to sustain the Annapolis momentum and to ensure that dialogue between both sides continues.

Since Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas have had bi-monthly meetings, and Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have continued to sit and talk through the difficult issues on the table in order to realise the objective of reaching final status talks by the end of 2008. I shall return to some of those developments later. First, I shall discuss my experiences of the conflict, drawing on my trip to the region with the Labour Friends of Israel in September. During that visit, my parliamentary colleagues and I spent time in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. We held extensive meetings with Israeli and Palestinian parliamentarians, academics, opinion formers and Government Ministers. When talking to that wide range of people, the complexities involved in achieving the two-state solution for which we hope were obvious at all times.

The trip took place as early discussions about Annapolis were being considered, and the common message that we got from everyone whom we met was that it was time to act—time to return to the road map and to seize an opportunity for lasting peace. It was obvious why so many felt that way. The deplorable daily suffering of Israelis and Palestinians was making life too hard for too many people, and the impetus was clearly there to seek a sustainable, two-state solution, with both parties living side by side in peace and security. However, despite the renewed efforts made towards peace at the end of 2007, tensions between the parties have been rising in 2008 amid increased violence and casualties.

In January, there was a dramatic increase in mortar and rocket attacks fired from Gaza into Israel, causing several serious injuries, including to an eight-year-old Israeli boy, who lost a leg in a Qassam rocket attack on 9 February. A woman was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Dimona on 4 February—the first suicide attack in Israel for nearly a year. The upsurge in violent attacks on Israel has resulted in mounting pressure on the Israeli Government to take action. As a result, Israel has implemented a number of measures to counter the barrages, and the Israel Defence Forces have launched several incursions into Gaza in the past six weeks, with the intention of targeting militant cells responsible for the rocket attacks. As part of that, Israel closed border crossings into Gaza between 17 and 22 January, and imposed electricity and other fuel restrictions to curb rocket production.

Neither the incursions nor the restrictions have proven effective in stopping the rockets. In the past few weeks, hundreds of Israelis have marched in protest to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to demonstrate against their Government’s inability to put an end to the Qassam attacks. In the wake of those events, it is all the more important that we sustain momentum in the peace process, and I urge the UK Government to ensure that it remains at the forefront of their international agenda.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I am listening carefully to the powerful case that he is making. Does he agree that the situation for Israeli citizens that he has so movingly described is absolutely intolerable, and that the rocket attacks have continued every day since Hamas took control of Gaza? Should not the international community share some responsibility for holding Hamas to account for causing or permitting those rocket attacks, which are simply intolerable for people in Israel?

I agree entirely. When we went there in September, we saw the effect on ordinary people living in the towns around the Gaza strip in Israel proper. They are experiencing the barrages on a daily basis, and it is quite intolerable. If they were my constituents in this country, I would demand that my Government did something about it. As a member of the international community, the British Government ought to do all that they can to stop the rocket attacks and to secure daily life for ordinary Israelis who live close to the Gaza strip.

In the wake of such events, it is all the more important that we should sustain the momentum in the peace process. We should actively work to build on the achievements of Annapolis. At the conference, the Israelis and Palestinians committed to meeting their obligations as laid out in the first stage of the re-launched road map, and pledged to agree on final status issues by the end of 2008. General James Jones was appointed as US middle east envoy to monitor the situation and to help Israelis and Palestinians to live up to those commitments. We also welcome the work of our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, as the Quartet envoy, has the difficult task of Palestinian institution-building. We met Mr. Blair when we were out there in September, and he was motivated to try to make the most of Annapolis and to engage the international community fully in this challenge. Some of the fruits of his labour are already being realised.

One of the most encouraging outcomes of the diplomatic momentum engendered by Annapolis was the Paris donors conference on 17 December, at which a total of £3.5 billion was pledged by the international community to support Palestinian institution-building and economic recovery in the next three years. I commend the UK Government for pledging £243 million, which will establish the UK as one of the leading world donors to the Palestinians. The UK has long been at the forefront of the economic road map. When he was Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asserted that political progress had to be underpinned with economic development; that has become accepted wisdom for solving the conflict. I hope that, under his leadership, the Government will remain actively engaged in the economics of peace, and will continue to lead the international community in those efforts.

Let us also recognise that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have taken important, confidence-boosting steps to facilitate the negotiations. Israel lifted 25 roadblocks in the west bank in October and released 429 Palestinian prisoners in December. The Palestinian Authority deployed 500 policemen in Nablus in November, which was an important step towards cracking down on militant cells operating in the area. The Fatah-strong force has won local respect for arresting criminals aligned with its own faction as well as with its Hamas rivals. It, along with the rest of the 7,000-strong force in the west bank, has been bolstered by Prime Minister Fayyad’s security plan, which is being implemented incrementally and in co-ordination with Israel.

Despite those measures, the west bank is still far from secure, and Israel continues to police Nablus at night. It will not hand over fully to the Palestinian Authority until it can be sure that their forces are equipped to deal sufficiently with the security threat. Ordinary Palestinians still face daily challenges because of the roadblocks. I can partly understand their frustration as they attempt to go about their daily lives. On the other side, however, Israel is reluctant to remove those security measures until it can be sure that it will not suffer repercussions in the form of terrorist attacks.

I am following my hon. Friend’s comments with care. Does he agree that it is a little troubling that the number of roadblocks and closures has risen in the past three months rather than fallen?

I hope that those statistics will be reversed as talks between the Palestinians and Israelis continue and as the process gathers momentum. Clearly, at the forefront of Israel’s concern is ensuring the security of the state of Israel and of the people who live within its boundaries. However, I take on board what my hon. Friend says about those numbers rising.

Since Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas have met twice a month, and high-level negotiations teams have been set up to discuss final status issues. On Sunday, those teams agreed to set up three committees to deal with civil affairs issues: water and the environment, legal matters and economic subjects. That is an encouraging step, and it is vital that the UK Government continue to support the negotiations in every way possible.

There are plenty of sceptics who are doubtful as to what negotiations can achieve. They criticise renewed American interest as President Bush’s search for a legacy. They say that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are too weak to deliver, and that the growing political isolation of Gaza spells an end to any peace process. But, in full recognition of the challenges ahead, we cannot let this opportunity pass us by. Whatever the motivations of the Bush Administration, surely the efforts of the United States must be welcomed by us all.

Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas should be congratulated on the very real work that they are doing to bring the two sides together, and we should do all that we can as British parliamentarians to bolster their efforts. To those who argue that Hamas’s Gaza is now a separate entity in the peace process, we need to re-emphasise that a three-state solution is not on the table for negotiation.

We in the United Kingdom and the European Union need to do all that we can to bring Gaza and the west bank back together under the single entity of the Palestinian Authority. I know that some people say that Israel has to deal formally with Hamas as part of the process, but, if that is to happen, Hamas should accept the Quartet’s three conditions: renouncing violence and terrorism, respecting past agreements and recognising Israel’s right to exist. Until it does, the UK Government should continue to work actively with the Palestinian Authority to strengthen President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and they should encourage Egypt in its mediation between the different Palestinian factions.

Instead of scepticism, let us recognise and build on the momentum of the past six months. Let us offer our support to all who are working on the plans to exchange land for peace, and let us help to build two viable, democratic states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security. Let us be more optimistic about the peace process being back on the agenda.

I am not naively idealistic. Having visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, I am keenly aware of the obstacles that block the road to peace, and of the huge challenges that will need to be overcome to turn hopeful rhetoric into reality. According to the first phase of the road map, the Palestinians must renounce violence in exchange for an Israeli freeze on all settlements. There are many difficulties with that first stage. Prime Minister Olmert has pledged to freeze settlement building in the west bank and immediately dismantle all illegal outposts.

There is, of course, internal settler opposition to the pledges, but more troublesome for the Israeli Government are security fears. Israel’s experience of unilaterally dismantling all settlements in Gaza in August 2005 demonstrated that unilateral gestures are ineffective. Therefore, action in the west bank would need to form part of a comprehensive peace package that would safeguard Israel’s security.

In the past six weeks, Palestinian violence has escalated significantly. In January, there was an increase in rocket attacks launched at Sderot and the western Negev from Gaza, with 241 rockets fired in that month alone. Two thousand rockets have been fired since Hamas took control of the Gaza strip in June 2007. Ninety per cent. of Sderot residents have experienced a Qassam rocket falling on their street, and 70 per cent. suffer from post-traumatic stress. In the past 18 months alone, more than 1,600 cases of trauma have been recorded.

It is the daily rocket barrages that are the biggest short-term obstacle to peace. When we were there, we visited a mother who was clearly traumatised by her experiences. She wanted us, as British parliamentarians, to see how two near-misses that involved her and her young son had destroyed her and her family’s life. It was a truly distressing experience for me, because, as the father of three young children, it brought home the reality of daily life in that part of Israel.

But it is not just the use of Qassam rockets that are of concern. I am particularly concerned about the increasing use of Iranian-produced Katyusha rockets, which are smuggled into Gaza via tunnels from Egypt. They have a maximum range of 20.5 km, and threaten large populations centres in the south of Israel, including the industrial town of Ashkelon, which has a population of 190,000.

Israel has to find a way to halt rockets from Gaza to be able to withdraw from the west bank. One such way is to work closely with Egypt to find, destroy or block smuggling tunnels that run across the border into Gaza by which arms and bomb-making materials are brought into the strip. The British Government must continue to make representations to Egypt and to support the efforts of its authorities.

No sovereign state could reasonably be expected to ignore such daily attacks. Israel has tried everything to protect the civilian population and stop the rockets. Incursions, targeting of rocket-launching cells, fuel blockades and crossing closures have proved futile. Rocket defence systems are expensive and are feared to be incapable of fully preventing attacks. So what is Israel to do?

As domestic pressure mounts on the Israeli Government to take serious action to alleviate the rocket attacks, there is talk of a large-scale ground operation into Gaza as the only option available. Clearly, that concerns me, and I am eager to know how the British Government would respond if Israel was placed in the unfortunate position of having to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza. In the event of such an operation, would the British Government consider supporting a subsequent disengagement of Israel from Gaza, perhaps with the help of a multinational force? I hope that the Minister will shed some light on the British position on the issue.

Israel has been more successful in countering suicide bombings, and there is a clear reason for that—the security barrier. The security barrier is a regrettable consequence of the conflict. I have seen it for myself, and it is ugly and unpleasant. I experienced, for a very short time, some of the discomfort and irritation involved in waiting for hours to cross the fence, and I fully sympathise with those people who have to bear the situation twice a day to go to work or school, or to see their families.

There are areas where the route is contentious, and where the barrier deviates from the internationally recognised green line and cuts Palestinian communities off from each other without any obvious security motivation. Where that is the case, representations have been made to Israel’s Supreme Court, and the Israeli Government have been ordered on several occasions to move the route of the barrier. That does not serve as any sort of justification for it, but I hope that it highlights the strength of Israel’s democratic institutions.

In March 2002, there were 37 suicide bomb attacks in Israel, most of them in the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya. They claimed 135 lives in one month alone. The sad truth is that the barrier has been undeniably effective in preventing suicide attacks. There has been a 90 per cent. reduction in attacks and a 70 per cent. drop in the number of Israelis killed per year.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to consider the regional stage on which the Israel-Palestine conflict is played out, for it does not exist in a vacuum. The flames of the conflict can be fuelled and fanned by the actions of neighbouring countries. I urge the British Government to continue to support those nations that are willing to engage constructively in the peace process to do so. Saudi Arabia played an important role in the creation of a national unity Government, and, together with the Arab League, re-launched the Arab peace initiative to play a role in future negotiations.

Likewise, Egypt has a crucial role to play. I am sure that the Minister is aware that Egypt can play an important role in preventing smuggling and in policing its border with Gaza, as well as in acting as a mediator between the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas.

However, there are people in the region who appear committed to sabotaging the peace process. The regimes in Iran and Syria continue to support, fund and train terrorists who operate in the middle east and threaten regional stability. Groups backed, bankrolled, armed and, in some cases, even controlled by Iran and Syria include Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Iran’s rhetorical attacks against Israel, together with its attempted procurement of nuclear weapons, pose an existential threat to Israel and the wider middle east region.

I commend the British Government for leading efforts to secure a third round of UN sanctions, and I hope that the resolution will be successful when it is voted on in March. It is easy to become cynical about the prospects for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has lasted for decades. We have all witnessed the wax and wane of progress and setback that has characterised the negotiations over the years. However, cynicism and pessimism will achieve nothing. I hope that I have emphasised that our common goal should be to show support for the bilateral peace process, which continues to unfold, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The answer to building two viable states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security will come from focusing on the positive momentum created by Annapolis, facilitating negotiations between the parties and concentrating on constructive solutions to current problems.

The British Government have shown a laudable commitment to the middle east peace process over the years. I hope that their commitment will continue, in spite of whatever challenges and unwelcome developments lie ahead, for eventually that support and assistance will help in achieving a sustainable resolution with the state of Israel sitting alongside a Palestinian state in peace within the family of nations.

As ever, Mr. Marshall, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate. The middle east peace process, as he has told us, continues to be a high priority for the Government and a topic of great interest to the House. With the support of our Quartet partners, the United Kingdom is committed to supporting Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their attempts to negotiate a peace. We recognise that there are huge obstacles to be overcome. However, 2008 has the potential to be a significant year in the progress towards peace in the middle east. The UK will do all it can to aid that progress.

Since the Annapolis conference in November, for the first time in seven years we are able to talk about a real process. At the conference we saw substantial political movement on both sides. President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert committed to fortnightly meetings and both restated their commitment to their road map obligations, meaning the improvement of Palestinian security and a freeze on Israeli settlements. The US undertook to monitor the process and all parties agreed to seek to conclude negotiations by the end of 2008. Furthermore, the conference signalled renewed international commitment to the peace process, led by the United States, and President Bush’s visit to Israel in January has since demonstrated US support. Annapolis was remarkable for the strong Arab attendance, showing that the Arab world is prepared to be involved in the process in a meaningful way.

As my hon. Friend has told us, Annapolis was followed by the donors conference in Paris in December, which matched political engagement with economic support of £3.5 billion raised in donor pledges for the Palestinian reform and development plan devised by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, including a UK contribution of £243 million over three years, linked to tangible progress in peace negotiations. Significant contributions were also made by several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. That money will help to create an economic environment that supports peace and allows the formation of an economically viable Palestinian state.

The political barriers remain considerable. Israel must work harder to implement its road map obligations on settlements. We consider settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal under international law. That includes Israeli settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. Settlement construction is an obstacle to peace. We support President Bush’s view that there should be, first of all, a complete freeze on settlement construction and the removal of outposts. He advocated the removal of outposts and we support him. I have expressed concerns about the issue many times, inside and outside the House. The Foreign Secretary recently made clear our concerns about the matter to his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The Palestinians, too, must step up their efforts towards implementing their road map commitments. A reformed Palestinian security force will continue to be the key to the success of the peace process. The UK has provided senior advisers to the US security mission and the EU’s civil policing mission to help Palestinian security reform. Israeli security and Palestinian hardship can be tackled only through a political process that creates an economically and socially viable Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Those issues must be addressed together.

My hon. Friend asked if we have plans to take part in a multinational force, should Israel decide to mount a large military incursion into Gaza, presumably to help the Israelis retreat from that position after they did whatever they were going to do there. We have no intention of doing that. I saw for myself the situation in southern Lebanon last July during the conflict with Hezbollah. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which is doing sterling work down in south Lebanon, could never have fought its way in during a bombardment, while parties were firing rockets at each other and slaughter and mayhem were continuing on a huge scale. In those circumstances, it is difficult to get a peacekeeping force in. I reiterate what I said a moment ago: the way forward is through a political process. We intend to try to strengthen the political process and to follow it.

The situation in Gaza makes progress difficult for both sides. Since Hamas seized control of the strip last summer, as my hon. Friend told us, well over 2,000 rockets and mortars—perhaps as many as 2,500—have been fired at Israel from Gaza. We fully accept that Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks. We deplore the fact that Palestinian groups fire rockets out of Gaza with the stated intention of harming civilians; they are not aiming at military targets, but at civilians. However, even in the course of self-defence it is imperative that Israel remains committed to undertaking its obligations in international law.

My hon. Friend knows what it is like inside Gaza—I have heard him speak on the subject before—and that we must find a way forward that protects the interests of innocent Palestinian people living in Gaza as well as looking after the real needs of Israeli citizens in towns and villages in respect of decent security and an absence of bombing. The Foreign Secretary has said clearly that restrictions on fuel or electricity supplies will not achieve Israeli security and that the political aspirations of the Palestinian people will not be furthered by rocket attacks. The UK supports Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan to open the Gaza crossings to relieve the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinians.

I should like to take a moment to deal with the events at Rafah last month, when holes were blown in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, demonstrating that attention must be paid to Gaza. There cannot be a settlement if we choose to try to separate off Gaza. We support the Egyptian Government’s efforts, in response to the influx of tens of thousands of Gazans through Rafah, to find a peaceful and orderly solution to the situation on 28 January. On that date, with his European Union colleagues, the Foreign Secretary announced support for the proposal by the Palestinian Authority to take control of the crossings and we support the Arab League in that respect. The EU is ready to consider resuming its border mission at Rafah, which has been dormant since Hamas took over Gaza last summer, as soon as conditions allow. As I have said, we want Gaza to be included in the peace process.

The international community must send a clear message that, whatever the disappointments of the past, peace is possible. It is the job of all of us to send a strong signal that we are prepared to play our part in achieving peace. The international community needs to work in partnership with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to realise the vision of a just and lasting peace in the middle east.

I have just returned from meeting the Saudis and the Omanis. I was glad that my hon. Friend said that we should try to push aside and eclipse the cynicism that exists, because wherever I go in the middle east or elsewhere in the world there is a huge desire among people to see Israel and the Palestinian people living side by side as prosperous, sovereign states in peace. There must be a way of harnessing that good will and energy.

There are countries that are not playing helpful roles. The fact that the Syrians are supporting the rejectionists in Damascus as well as financing other terrorist groups is worrying—

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.