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Palestine: Occupied Territories

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories in June, they will make representations to the Government of Israel about the return of those territories.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to the Government Whips’ Office for the opportunity of raising this subject now and for providing time for the debate. I am delighted to see many noble Lords far more distinguished and competent than I am to debate these complex and frustrating issues, particularly when the authorities in Glasgow, London and elsewhere are grappling with the present emergency. For the moment, at least, the near East seems to have gone quietish, but for how long that will last is a matter of conjecture.

Above all this debate is about the search for justice and fairness for the Palestinians and real security for the state of Israel. After what has happened over the years, the time for toying around with endless American pseudo-initiatives for a settlement is over.

I launch this debate above all as an enthusiastic friend of Israel of many years’ standing. It has become a great and impressive country in the effervescent near East cockpit, a normal country with major internal socio-economic problems as we have here in Europe and Britain, but a country none the less of great achievements. The economy is strong and the country is militarily completely safe other than from marginal and often futile bomber attacks, which have anyway declined markedly in recent months. The Hamas long-term hudna appears to be holding, for the most part.

Having quite rightly built up Israel to be the unbeatable military power in the region to ensure its relative high security and the safety of its citizens, the United States, after 1967 and especially since the arrival of the most incompetent and mediocre President in post-war history in 2000, decided that, through the excessive use of US vetoes in the Security Council and elsewhere in the UN—indeed more than 30 times since resolution 242 after the six-day war—Israel should be strangely exempted from the normal obligations of UN members to adhere to international law and to withdraw from the illegally occupied Palestinian territories.

Successive US intermediaries came and went over the years, including the highly distinguished Senator George Mitchell, all with sensible recommendations for peace, all ignored. Was there a secret Bush-Sharon agreement? Many people still think so, but the jury is out on that. On 14 June, I asked the then Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Triesman—whether the Government here would make a further request to the US Government to persuade the Government of Israel to follow international law in response to UN resolutions 242 and 338. He replied:

“We ... have consistently called for Israel to follow international law with regard to its actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We continue to work closely with the US and the EU on the peace process and agree that the road map is the way forward”.—[Official Report, 18/6/07; col. WA 17.]

I welcome that Answer very much. Some sceptical observers think that the Blair Government here were pretending about all that, but I give them the full benefit of the doubt. Far too many years have been wasted already, and it is a total disgrace that the quartet exercise has never even begun because the Israeli Government will still not open proper negotiations with the Palestinians. I believe that the Minister—I thank her very much for coming, listening and winding up the debate—and the new Prime Minister are sincere in wanting a just solution to the Palestinians' hideous plight, and the even greater enhancement of Israel's security and civic safety that will result from that lasting settlement.

A bad moment ensued on 21 June at the special summit in Egypt with Israel and Jordan when Prime Minister Olmert still refused to start substantive talks with President Abbas, after all that the latter had done in recent times by way of deep co-operation and conciliation of Israel’s perfectly legitimate security demands. What will Mr Blair’s role be as some kind of putative peace emissary, not involved in negotiations? We wait to see the clear details of the mandate. Mr Wolfensohn gave up in disgust in spring 2006 and went home, so the jury remains out on that question as well.

Also, can we really trust the Americans after all the sad incidents that have taken place? The jury must be out on that too. When I was in the West Bank in November 2005 with Gerald Kaufman MP, Hillary Clinton was visiting Israel. She went only there; she did not go to the Palestinian territories at all, and she declared the new wall a very good idea. I am not sure you will get an even-handed approach from the Democrats, unless they miraculously bring back Jimmy Carter.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian territories seethe with huge rumours of US plots to split Palestine into two docile future parts. It is up to the Americans to show that those rumours are unfounded nonsense. Naomi Klein, the distinguished writer, recently and vividly described the new boom in Israel as the creation of the,

“fortress state, surrounded by furious enemies ... a 24-hour-a-day showroom”,

with new entrepreneurs inventing equipment to,

“spot terrorists in crowds, seal borders from attack, and extract confessions from ... prisoners”.

She went on to say that such items had all become important exports for Israeli companies, like other military hardware. Why not, but is that the total economy to be created if no lasting security comes?

I understand perfectly that, for many Israeli citizens, it makes much more sense to concentrate on seeking the good life—it is easily available if people work hard in Israel—rather than be bothered with what is happening in the Occupied Territories. It is just like how we Brits used to shrug our shoulders at the unrest and the mistreatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Of course, that cosy stance is a fine piece of self-delusion for a people led by—I am sad to say—a short-sighted and narrow-minded Government under Prime Minister Olmert. For instance, the despair and anger expressed in the vivid report of Álvaro de Soto, the Middle East UN envoy, at his end of mission on 5 May emphasised that western-led peace efforts had failed completely. He also thought that the boycott of Hamas was extremely short-sighted. Sending Hamas into exile had, he asserted, “effectively transformed the Quartet” into a sanctions-imposing body, harming a,

“freely elected government ... under occupation as well as setting unattainable ... conditions for ... dialogue”.

Many international observers consider that all the quartet powers are in breach of international law and the Geneva Convention in allowing the Palestinians to be subjected to huge collective punishment in ghettos separated by often brutal Israeli checkpoints, apartheid roads and no-go areas in their own towns, with the Israelis still holding over 9,000 detainees, mostly without due process. For example, the French press on Monday reported that Said al-Atabeh had had 30 years in detention without any trial whatever. The sad situation goes on unless real action is taken by the international community and the immediate parties concerned: Palestine, the future state, and Israel, the present state.

I ask noble Lords to read the appalling details of Amnesty International's latest report on the misery of the occupied Palestinians and its accompanying letter of 4 June. The fourth paragraph of that letter read:

“Our research has found that a growing number of Palestinians are suffering from malnutrition, anaemia, stunted growth, vitamin deficiency and other health problems as a direct result of measures imposed to restrict movement of people and goods. As the economy fails, poverty and food insecurity are growing. Farmers are prevented from reaching their land and foodstuff is left to rot in containers as checkpoints are closed”.

Most of the assertions in that and other similar reports have been backed up repeatedly not just by the international NGOs of repute, but by the home-grown Israeli and Palestinian ones as well. Once again, I pay tribute to the wonderful work of Israeli groups such as Peace Now, B’Tselem and the brave ladies of the checkpoint watch organisation, trying to stop young and often nervous IDF soldiers misbehaving and harassing the local population. The recent vicious civil war in Gaza and the West Bank has left the majority of thinking, civilised Palestinians in despair.

The West cannot leave the Palestinians to rot in this mess created by Israeli intransigence, American defiance and EU myopia. The situation remains a total disgrace. The real bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should have started years ago. At least a miserable overall scenario is mitigated by the amazing courage of individuals, groups and organisations from both Palestine and Israel who still work together to promote coexistence, despite an atmosphere of deterioration. George Soros's criticisms of the activities of AIPAC in the USA with pusillanimous politicians there is relevant, too. I feel sad that I have to say that.

Why are the Palestinian missions in the capital cities, particularly Washington DC, so feeble and badly organised? I am sad to make that criticism as well.

Israel is an established and successful state, with wide international support. Palestine is fighting a despairing battle for statehood and recognition. Surely the established state has the moral and legal obligation to take the lead in ending its colonial occupation forthwith and asking the provocative settlers to move back to Israel proper, to a prosperous economy with plenty of jobs available in the future. That is the key to Israel's survival as a mainly Zionist-based state, otherwise the population growth statistics will confound the legitimate aspirations of millions of sensible Israeli citizens. That remains the reality.

It took years for the West to stand up to the nauseating evil of apartheid in South Africa. There are no direct comparisons to be made between that and what is happening between Palestine and Israel, but Israel needs to accept the overdue demand of the whole world community to do what is urgently needed. Israel has so much and Palestine so little, with only 22 per cent of the combined territory left if they return to the 1967 lines.

My Lords, now is the time for Israeli generosity, pragmatism, imagination and, above all, courage.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for reminding us of 40 years ago, at least in the Question if not in his speech. Too often, commentators speak as though the whole Palestinian-Israeli problem started in 1967, and it does us all good to remember the real situation then. Israel was under a dire threat from surrounding hostile armies poised for war. Israel expected Egypt and Syria to fight, which they did, Egypt losing Gaza and Sinai and Syria the Golan Heights. However, Israel did not also expect Jordan to attack, which it did—unfortunately for it—losing the West Bank and east Jerusalem, with the old city.

I was in Israel in August 40 years ago and remember, in the weeks after the six-day war, the euphoria and high hopes of peace at last that permeated Israel, and the mad rush of Israelis to see places—many of them holy to Judaism—that they had not been able to visit since 1948. They fully expected that many of those places would, under any hoped-for settlement, not be in Israeli hands for long.

I would like to put on record that I visited Gaza then for the first time. It was a hellhole, and it was only a matter of weeks since it had been Egypt’s responsibility. We now know that the hopes for peace were dashed, and after some ups and many downs we are where we are now. There are some signs of hope again. First, on 25 June, Egypt hosted a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh of Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to advance the peace process and to consider the Saudi initiative. The Saudi peace plan was first proposed in 2002, and it is now being reconsidered by all the interested parties. Israel has restated its commitment to withdrawals of West Bank settlements, and it is releasing funds for the Palestinian Authority under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Last—because it is all I have time for—but by no means least, Tony Blair is now the Middle East envoy of the quartet. He said on appointment that a solution was possible but required “huge intensity and work”. None of us who know him doubts that he is capable of both, as he so amply demonstrated in Northern Ireland and throughout his premiership. Given all his other talents of negotiation and persuasion, we have grounds for hope. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the whole House and all people of good will should wish him well in his formidable task.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this timely debate. I chair the Conservative Muslim Forum, and I am involved in interfaith dialogue promoting peace and harmony among different racial and religious groups. I am convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians want a durable two-state solution.

That being said, history has proven that Israelis and Palestinians, even when they are ready to negotiate directly, will need a credible third party to guide them through the process. Here, the role and full support of the President of United States will be essential. America remains the only power that is acceptable to both sides. I welcome the appointment of Tony Blair as the Middle East quartet’s new envoy. He is likely to obtain support from America and from other countries. He has the skills to engage with Hamas as he did with Sinn Fein.

The UK must continue to work closely with the quartet and with regional partners to negotiate, mediate, help strengthen Palestinian institutions and to improve security. We must offer President Abbas our full support in putting together a “moderate” Government of national unity that is critical to taking forward the peace process. We have made it clear that we would be prepared to move forward on the quartet’s three principles: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations. There are encouraging signs. At a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Ehud Olmert promised to release some $560 million in frozen tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, to free some 250 Fatah prisoners from Israeli jails, to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and to enhance Israeli trade with the Palestinians. Such actions are vital to the Palestinian people and will help to improve the humanitarian and economic situation, which is dire and critical. Greater freedom of movement would produce immediate and significant benefits. A lot of the violence is a result of frustrated Palestinians who are not able to obtain the basic necessities of life.

The peace process ought to be based and concluded on the basis of a two-state solution, and I believe that there is a glimmer of hope emerging for renewed engagement between Israel and the Palestinians.

My Lords, I remind the House that when the clock reaches three, that means that three minutes have passed. This is a timed debate, and we are very short on time.

My Lords, just give me two seconds.

I am impressed by the One Voice movement, which is an organisation that is working towards achieving peace in the Holy Land. One Voice is holding a solidarity event on 25 July on Abingdon Green.

My Lords, to address the issue of Palestine in three minutes is absurd, but I will do my best.

Among all the recent grim news from Palestine, why should we not be sitting back and letting matters take their course? We should not do so because the situation in the Palestinian territories is one of great instability, in a region that is already plagued by instability following the insurgency in Iraq and the fighting in Lebanon last summer. Things could easily spiral out of control again. The split between the West Bank and Gaza, if it continues and deepens, is a threat to the only viable basis for a solution to the Palestine problem; the two-state template to which all Governments and all Arab Governments and Israel are committed. Above all, a negotiated solution to the Palestinian problem is a necessary, if not a sufficient, element of any counter-terrorist strategy worthy of the name. Of course, a Palestinian settlement would not at a stroke bring terrorist attacks to an end; indeed any settlement and those who subscribe to it would no doubt be attacked with the greatest violence by the terrorists and their backers, but a settlement should drain away much of the support for extremism, which feeds on the present mood of helplessness and anger, and it would help to legitimise politically the actions that moderate Governments in Muslim countries take to resist the pull of violence.

What needs to be done urgently, if inaction is a poor option? First, Israel needs to release all the Palestinian money that it is withholding and loosen the stranglehold that its myriad of roadblocks is exerting on the West Bank. Outside donors need to resume structured efforts to build up the institutions of a future Palestinian state. That needs to be done in ways that do not deepen the split between the West Bank and Gaza and which do not deprive the inhabitants of Gaza of money that is rightfully theirs and of access to humanitarian aid. A policy of punishing the citizens of Gaza for the predicament into which they have fallen would be neither viable nor morally defensible. I would like to hear whether the Government share that view and, if so, how in practical terms they intend to proceed.

Short-term solutions will not be enough. There needs to be a resumed peace process that addresses not only the route to be taken but what is called the political horizon, which is current diplomat-speak for final status issues. Any such process needs to be inclusive, reaching out to and involving talking to all those parties, whether in government or not, who are involved in the politics of the region. I was really shocked to read in the fascinating report by Alvaro de Soto that he was forbidden by two successive Secretaries-General, no doubt under strong external pressure, even to speak to Hamas leaders. If we learnt anything from our experience in Northern Ireland, it was surely that exclusion does not advance the cause of peace. We must not fall into that heresy, which is so prevalent on the banks of the Potomac, that one talks to one’s adversaries only when they have fulfilled a whole list of onerous preconditions; that contact with us is something for which they have to make substantive concessions. Should we not be putting that sort of appeal behind us? I can see the noble Baroness rising to her feet; I am about to sit down.

There have been two appointments in recent days that have given some encouragement. First, Ehud Barak was appointed as the leader of the Labour party and the Minister of defence in Israel. The other is the courageous decision by the right honourable gentleman the former Prime Minister to put his efforts at the service of the international community. We need perseverance and inclusiveness in the period ahead.

My Lords, I was very glad that I could at least agree with the last few sentences of the noble Lord, which were after the end of his time. I remember a wonderful Arab proverb that says that one hand alone cannot clap. As an Arab leader said to me, we shall either all live together or we shall die together. What matters is what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, that Muslims and Jews in particular must work together.

There are issues on which we agree, one of which is to deal with peace in Palestine and Israel together. That is the view of Prince Hassan of Jordan, with whom I have worked very closely in the Coexistence Trust, in which Muslim and Jewish Members of Parliament from some 47 parliaments work together with some distinguished people from this Parliament, too. Yes, we work with Israel, but especially with Arab countries, most of which I have visited. If you want a really rough time, try to learn the Arab language and you will know how miserable you can be.

I pay my respects to Salam Fayyad, a member of that organisation, who has been appointed Prime Minister of the West Bank. We wish him luck and peace and we hope that Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, will now help to reunite the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace. There has to be a two-state solution. Shimon Peres, who has pressed for that all these years, will be appointed President of Israel next week, and I am sure that we all wish him luck, success and health. We are proud that someone of his use can cope, as some of us still try to do.

As for the officers, including Prime Minister Olmert and Netanyahu—no, they do not agree, but there is a democracy in that place, unlike in most other states in the area. But they all want peace; they will all take different routes and they will all say that two hands alone are needed to clap. Yes, Olmert repeated last week that he hopes to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, but that must be part of an overall peace plan, so that the miseries that followed the Gaza withdrawal will not happen again.

Let us join in saluting Tony Blair and wish him the best of the luck in a hellish task. Let us hope that two hands will clap together. Let us hope that two sides will live together, not die together. Living in salaam and shalom together should be our hope. We should help in any way that we can and we must do all that we can to assist people in that aim.

My Lords, this is very like a Shakespearian tragedy in brief—I do not know whether you are familiar with them. However much some people like to deny the fact, the injustice which is Palestine is one of the major causes of the rise of terrorism in this world. Ever since 1948, Palestine has been used as a battle cry and a propaganda weapon for Islamists worldwide. I have witnessed this in some African countries and, more recently, in Bangladesh.

Palestine is what the West does to Muslims. That is the message. The Palestinians have been brought to their knees. A cultured and well educated society with high skill levels has been reduced to a third-world country. The statistics are there for all to see. If noble Lords do not believe me or any of the other speakers, the Select Committee for International Development in the other place produced a good report this year. I hope that noble Lords will read it. It tells of injustice—injustice to Palestinians.

The new Government talk of rebuilding the economy in Palestine and of getting the Palestinians back to work, which is very welcome. But how will they do that with road blocks, checkpoints and Bantustans divided by settler-only roads? How can an economy work in this situation? Even education is being destroyed as children are terrorised by raids on their schools. Exams in Nablus, for example, were disrupted only last week by the IDF. An unskilled and illiterate generation will emerge, capable of very little except low-wage labour. The economy cannot be rebuilt unless Israel changes its policies.

Therefore, the problem remains—how do we persuade Israel to change? We want Israel to be a secure and prosperous state—and I say that sincerely. How can anyone in Israel believe that the present situation will give them what they want, long-term security? I am not anti-Semitic, but I am appalled by the racist, apartheid state of Israel. I use the word “apartheid” in its literal sense—it means separation—because that is what is going on.

Policies of the western countries towards Israel must change. Israel must be made to understand. We must consider trade sanctions and boycotts, if necessary, to make that country obey international law. The present situation is a disaster for Palestinians. It is a disaster for Israel. It is a disaster for the whole world. It has to change.

My Lords, the tenor of this Question, in particular that of the previous speaker, is very critical of Israel. They fly in the face of history and the facts as they exist today. The noble Lords ignore the peace negotiations which Israel initiated over the past 40 years. They ignore Israel’s unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip and their hope and expectation that various settlements in the West Bank will go. They ignore the discussions between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, which are crucial if peace is to be procured. They ignore the dramatic and historic meeting on 25 June between the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, at which they agreed the release of 250 Fatah prisoners from Israeli jails, the remission to the Palestinian Authority of £300 million of its funds and humanitarian relief to the people of Gaza. Already a great deal of that has been accomplished.

Above all, noble Lords ignore the shrill cries of Hamas that it will not rest until Israel is driven into the sea. They also fail to mention the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas from Gaza—more than 1,000 in 2006 and nearly 300 in May this year—claiming lives and inflicting injuries. This situation persists.

I do not argue that Israel is without fault. One day, when Hamas renounces its present destructive stance, talks with Israel can take place. But what has been advanced by the noble Lord who asked this Question and, in particular, by the previous speaker, is distorted, one-sided and cannot possibly play a worthwhile role in securing an enduring peace for the region. For all of these reasons, it is puzzling why the supporters of this Question have not backed the Saudi Arabian plan for peace, which only Syria, Iran and Hamas have declined to support.

My Lords, very slowly my speech has been salamied as other speakers have made similar points, but it gives me an opportunity to address the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. The bit of her speech to which I take particular exception is her comment that Israel is an apartheid state. Perhaps we have all forgotten what an apartheid state was like. But, let me say just this about Israel: it has an Arab Minister in the Government and in the Cabinet. There is no ban on races mixing with each other. If you go to any hospital in Israel, you will see Arabs, Israelis and Druze whether they are being treated or whether they are doctors and nurses. In particular, the Weizmann Institute, of which I am the UK chairman, has Arabs and Arab professors who mix closely. Apartheid is a very dangerous word; it has all sorts of meanings and it is absolutely untrue to say that of Israel.

My Lords, as I said, it is a very emotive word. Perhaps I may say a few words on the nature of peace. After the 1967 and 1973 wars, Anwar Sadat, a man of vision and strength came to Jerusalem and met with another man of vision and strength, Menachem Begin. They signed a peace agreement. Israel withdrew from Sinai. Another man of vision, King Hussein of Jordan, signed a peace agreement with Yitzhak Rabin. It is beyond dispute that Israel wants peace and will withdraw from the remaining occupied territories to get it. But, as we know, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there is nothing but the hostility of which we have spoken tonight. They came close to peace in 2000, but Arafat walked away. He was not a man of vision and strength.

Today, we have a better situation. The West Bank is occupied by Israel, and maybe in Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party the Israelis have a partner for peace. Does he have the strength to deliver? I hope so. In Gaza, there is a Hamas mini-state. It will not recognise Israel, abide by previous agreements or renounce violence. Until such time as a Palestinian leader can negotiate and deliver a deal that will endure, it is clear that neither the British Government nor any other Government will be able to make that happen.

My Lords, 40 years on from the 1967 war and UN Security Council Resolution 242, which followed it, it is fair to say that were the situation not now so tragic, it might be described as ironic that, rather than getting closer, the two-state solution appears to be receding with the prospect of a three-state outcome looming ever larger. Hamas’s military takeover of Gaza last month signalled the de facto partition, perhaps, of any future Palestinian state, setting back the prospect of real negotiations with Israel and, with it, a two-state solution.

I fear I am not alone in my concern that the tide may now be shifting towards a situation where President Abbas, unable to bridge the widened gap between Fatah and Hamas, will use the release of the tax revenues by Israel as a stepping stone to attempt to establish a sovereign West Bank state. Though it is a generalisation of course, it is nevertheless being suggested that, with the more educated, advanced and secular Arabs living in the West Bank while Gaza is home to many radical Islamists, separate Palestinian entities may evolve into separate states themselves. That would surely be a road to disaster, with Hamas retaining support, as it does, in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus, while there are more than a quarter of a million Israelis living in illegal, it should be said, settlements in the West Bank, as well as around 185,000 living in annexed East Jerusalem.

I did take some comfort from the Minister's assurance in your Lordships’ House on 18 June that the Government would not wish to have anything to do with a three-state solution, but I hope that she will be able to say in her reply this evening what steps have been taken since then to assist in averting such an outcome. I think that many noble Lords will agree with me that Tony Blair’s appointment as the quartet’s envoy is a positive development.

A Palestinian state can be achieved only by uniting the Palestinian people, but the emergency Government sworn in by President Abbas two weeks ago have, it seems to me, made that less rather than more likely. How can unity be achieved with 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank separated from the 1.5 million in Gaza, leaving it more than likely that Israel will feel the need to protect its own interests by reoccupying Gaza?

I have neither the time, nor indeed, I should say, the inclination to engage with the argument as to whether dealing with Hamas is the better long-term option for our Government and other Governments. What I will say is that the current impasse might have been avoided had the policy of the quartet been less inflexible towards Hamas, who, like it or not, were democratically elected by the Palestinian people. Those Palestinians were then punished for that by the withdrawing of aid. At the very least, I hope that the Minister will signify how she intends to ensure that the inhabitants of Gaza are not deprived of the tax revenues, which are rightly theirs, as well as their share of the aid from the EU and other sources that is so vital for their day-to-day existence.

My Lords, shortly after Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians launched rockets from there into Haifa, Israel’s second largest city. An equivalent for us would be the Welsh Assembly suddenly deciding to launch rockets at Bristol. I do not think we would take too kindly to that.

Israel’s other major cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are out of range from Gaza, but they would not be out of range from the West Bank. Is it unreasonable for the Israelis to fear that what happened in Haifa could also happen to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?

I do not think that the Israeli army is such a great deterrent as one might think. Although it is the best trained and best equipped army in the Middle East, it was quite unable to achieve its objectives in its recent offensive in the Lebanon.

We simply cannot ignore the real security issues facing the Israelis. Last week our new Prime Minister said:

“The first duty of the Government is the security of the people”.

That applies to Israel as well as to us.

This is not an argument against the Palestinians having a viable stake in the West Bank and Gaza. As we have heard, most Palestinians have a wretched life, and they, too, are entitled to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and to do so without going in fear of their lives. Nor is it an attempt to justify the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which, it is now clear, has been a disastrous policy. But it is an argument against, I would say, simplistic appeals to the Israelis to hand back territories in the West Bank without considering the wider issues.

The Israeli Government can negotiate only with a Palestinian Government who, first, recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel, secondly, genuinely desire a political solution, and, thirdly, can persuade their own people to honour any agreements they make. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, certainly satisfies the first two conditions, but, as events in Gaza have shown, he is unable to satisfy the third.

Our task in the West is not to make unrealistic demands on Israel or, indeed, on the Palestinians but to lend our support to Mr Abbas in his attempts to run the Palestinian state, and who is, after all, a sincere and decent man. We should recognise that both the Israeli and Palestinian Governments have enormous problems to overcome with their own people. We should also try to support organisations for coexistence such as One Voice, which is working very hard in hazardous circumstances with both Israelis and Palestinians.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for providing the opportunity. I hope the Government will take a more balanced approach to the Israeli Government, given the sensitivity of the current situation.

If we are to make progress towards a two-state solution—there seems to be consensus around the Chamber that we want to—which would enable peace and justice in the Middle East, surely the role of the UK Government is to encourage dialogue between those parties that are willing to work towards a peaceful solution. We cannot ignore the recent appalling events in Gaza, with which I cannot attempt to deal in a short contribution. However, I hope my noble friend Lady Royall will state whether the Government are supporting efforts by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to restart the peace process based on the Saudi plan, which was supported by the Arab League at the Riyadh summit in March.

Surely we should welcome the positive steps made at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on 25 June. Prime Minister Olmert agreed to take a number of measures to assist President Abbas. The measures include the release of 250 Fatah-affiliated prisoners held in Israeli jails, the release of £300 million of Palestinian Authority funds, and the continuation of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, including water, electricity, food and so on.

Those are positive steps. I welcome what I thought was a balanced contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, who paid tribute to those on both sides who are trying to work towards a peaceful solution. I also recognise the importance of a Middle East peace settlement, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. The difficulty, we all know, is how we work towards this settlement.

I was truly baffled by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. Does she really believe that in this debate, which has gone on for more than 40 years, all we have to do is to persuade one side—just Israel; that we do not need to persuade any on the Palestinian side to stop making rocket attacks? It just will not work, no more than her suggestion that we should encourage boycotts and so on will work. Is that really going to promote dialogue in this complex and difficult situation? I do not think that anybody in this Chamber really believes, or very few believe, that that is the case.

I, like many others, welcome the appointment of Tony Blair. He has taken on another difficult task, but he has the determination and resilience to try to succeed.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was surely right to say that it is absurd to try to deal with the Palestinian issue in a three-minute speech. It is even more absurd to try to sum up a debate of this kind in three minutes. As I am not a party spokesman, I make it clear that I am doing so only because of my long connection with this issue. For seven years I was the president of Medical Aid for Palestinians, a charity which has done such wonderful work in the Palestinian communities.

I was also the first party leader to visit Yasser Arafat and to talk to him at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. In fact, it was not allowed by the Government of the day in 1980 because the PLO was treated as a terrorist organisation like the ANC. I have to say that I think he was a rather successful resistance leader but a pretty appalling administration leader, as the elections recently in the West Bank proved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, was right to remind us that the problem did not start in 1967. The Liberal Party was always “blamed” for the creation of the state of Israel because of the Balfour declaration. I use every opportunity to quote the 1917 Balfour declaration which envisaged the creation of the state of Israel. It said:

“It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Unfortunately, that has not been adhered to. That greatest statesman, Abba Eban, who was Israel's first UN representative, said after the 1967 war, when he was the country's foreign minister:

“The Jewish people fail to understand that there was something contractual in our entry into the world. We promised to share the territory. The present position”—

that is, the occupation of the Palestinian territories—

“is a deviation from our birth. I never knew of a country that could successfully throw its birth certificate away”.

We need to get back to those profound words in order to understand the current situation in the West Bank.

I get particularly annoyed when I listen to Israeli Ministers dealing with the issue of the wall; to say, for example, that every nation has a right to build a wall to defend its security. That is not in doubt: I quite agree. The issue is the continued erosion of the Palestinian territory by the route of the wall. I cannot understand why we have been so weak on this issue. The Israeli Supreme Court itself has ruled that,

“only a separation fence built on the tenets of justice will afford security”.

It ruled that the security wall caused “unjustified hardship” to thousands of Palestinians, yet we have done nothing in the wake of further encroachments on the Palestinian territory.

The Question of my noble friend Lord Dykes, whom I congratulate on raising this debate, refers to the return of territories, but day by day we see more and more territory taken. That is the reality of the situation on the ground.

I hope that we will return to the Beirut Declaration of 2002, to which reference has already been made. The Arab states have offered collectively to give recognition to Israel in return for withdrawal from the territories. That is what we must hope for. We wish Tony Blair every success in his efforts as the new Middle East negotiator.

My Lords, recent events in Gaza have been a huge setback for all those working towards a two-state solution. Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip through the brutal use of force. We welcome the quartet’s prompt action in convening an urgent meeting and giving its support to President Abbas. We also welcome the United States and the EU lifting the boycott on the Palestinian Authority and resuming the transfer of aid. However, it is clear that those are only preliminary steps. Given that before the latest violence, 87 per cent of the population of Gaza was living below the poverty line, what action do the Government believe is required to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza?

The EU High Representative has said that most EU funding will go to the West Bank, but that some would go to Gaza. What form will the assistance to Gaza take? Will the Minister assure the House that there will be no weakening of our position with regard to Hamas meeting the quartet's conditions? The Arab League agreed to establish a fact-finding committee made up of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Qatar to engage with Hamas and Fatah and report back in 48 hours. Can the noble Baroness update the House about the progress made by that committee?

The whole House will be united in calling for the immediate release of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist. Anyone who watched the chilling video of him will feel enormous sympathy for him and his family. Given the public demonstrations by Palestinians demanding his release, I trust that the Foreign Office is taking every possible step to press for his safe return.

Achieving peace in the Middle East and a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, based on a viable two-state solution, is one of the most pressing issues of our time. The challenge for Tony Blair will be to show that he can command the confidence of all parties, which will not be easy. The former Prime Minister's mandate includes mobilising international assistance to the Palestinians and helping to develop their institutions and economy. Inevitably, his appointment has been condemned by Hamas, but we on these Benches wish him well in his new role.

My Lords, this debate shows us once again the fundamental importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for provoking a stimulating debate on this issue, and many noble Lords for putting it into its important historical context. Naturally, I share many of the concerns expressed today. The events of recent weeks have been shocking and we need a sober and measured response from all parties and from the international community as a whole.

The Government are pursuing a two-fold approach. First, we must respond to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. But, the over-riding objective remains the resumption of negotiations, leading to a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel. That is the only realistic basis for a just and lasting peace and it is the very firm position of this Government. It is our position because it is right for the people of the Middle East. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, it is also an important element of our global anti-terrorist strategy. At this stage, however, humanitarian work is our immediate priority.

In addition to our extensive support through the EU and the UN, we announced on 19 June a bilateral contribution of £1 million to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza and the West Bank. Our current commitment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—UNRWA—stands at more than £100 million over five years. I pay tribute to the work of those and other humanitarian organisations. Like the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, I applaud the bravery of those who have distributed aid and provided medical services in these conditions. My condolences go to the families of those who have tragically been killed while undertaking this work.

The senseless violence we saw in Gaza only disrupts humanitarian efforts, which in turn compounds the damage already caused to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Palestinians. Along with EU and quartet parties, we understand why President Abbas had to dismiss the national unity Government. We support his decision to form a new Government. We are now working with that Government and support their efforts to restore law and order to the occupied Palestinian territories. President Abbas and his new Prime Minister face enormous challenges, but they are men of peace. They understand that peace can come only through negotiations, not violence. They deserve our support as they try to bring stability back to the occupied Palestinian territories—all of the occupied territories.

We are working with our international partners to help them in their difficult task. On 18 June, EU Foreign Ministers called for an urgent political solution of the crisis. They also expressed their full support for President Abbas and his decision to declare a state of emergency and to install an emergency Government. The EU agreed to resume normal relations with the Palestinian Authority immediately. We will now develop the conditions for urgent practical and financial assistance, including direct financial support to the Government, support to the Palestinian civilian police, the resumption of the EU Border Assistance Mission, and intensive efforts to build the institutions of the future Palestinian state. The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, is right to point out the importance of a viable Palestinian economy. However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Mitchell that a description of Israel as an apartheid state is rather emotive and therefore unhelpful.

I am delighted that Prime Minister Olmert has given President Abbas his support, and I welcome his decision to release $116 million of Palestinian tax revenues to the emergency Government. That is something that we and our European colleagues have consistently called for. It has been a long time coming and we have fought hard, but it has started to come. I say to my noble friend Lord Watson that for the first time in more than a year, all civil servants, including those in Gaza, will receive their full salary. We welcome that. We do not want a three-state solution.

I attach the greatest importance to talks between Olmert and Abbas. We know that negotiations of this kind are difficult and often emotive. The international community can help, but success depends on Israel and the Palestinian Government working to resolve some of the contentious issues.

My noble friend Lord Bernstein mentioned the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They clearly remain contrary to international law and an obstacle to peace. The road map is clear that Israel must freeze all settlement activity—that is settlement construction and the natural growth of existing settlements—and dismantle all outposts built since March 2001. We will continue to press the Israeli Government on that point.

My noble friend is of course right to say that the Government of Israel have a responsibility to ensure the security of their people. They have a right to self-defence. If they want to build a barrier, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel said, they are entitled to do so. But that barrier must be on or behind the green line. Any barrier on occupied land contravenes international law and must come down. We have made that point to the Israeli Government on numerous occasions and we will continue to do so.

We have given Israel consistent and clear messages on the need to respect and take forward the road map. Of course, Palestinian leaders must do the same. Some today have suggested that the international community has followed a misguided policy towards Hamas. I refute that. We have provided food, shelter and medical supplies to the Palestinian people. Militants have provided guns, violence and death.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made some telling points, but he will understand better than most the importance of a united position around the UN principles. Our policy has not changed. We expect Hamas to adhere to the principles set by the quartet in January 2006. Those are to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept all previous agreements and obligations, as set out in the road map. I hope that it does that and that it takes the opportunity for dialogue and progress, but a political dialogue is impossible as long as Hamas dedicates itself to violence and destruction.

The quartet's engagement is key. We support its statement of 15 June that called for: an urgent end to the violence; the co-operation of all parties to ensure security; and the necessary access conditions for the passage of humanitarian goods and personnel both within the Gaza Strip and at key crossing points. Indeed, as my noble friend Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale rightly pointed out, the engagement of all international partners—the EU, the Arab League and the quartet—is crucial.

Like my noble friends Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Young of Norwood Green, we welcome the ongoing dialogue between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, the efforts of the Arab League to take forward the Arab peace initiative and the quartet's engagement, and the appointment of a new special representative. The meeting last week between President Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas was also a positive step forward. The international community must work together to maintain that momentum. I was asked for further information in respect of that meeting. I regret that I do not have further information this evening, but if I receive further information, I will certainly inform noble Lords.

As noble Lords have rightly said, the work of organisations such as the excellent One Voice is also a vital part of bringing together Palestinians and Israelis better to understand each other and to work for peace. Like my noble friend Lady Ramsay, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I hope that everyone will join me in passing on best wishes to Tony Blair as he takes on his new role helping to build the institutions of a viable Palestinian state. That is vital work.

The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asked, very specifically, whether we intend to make representations to the Israeli Government to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation. The continuing unresolved conflict in the Middle East remains at the core of insecurity in the region. The 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War serves only to remind us of the urgent need to return to dialogue and secure a just, lasting and permanent solution. That means a viable and independent Palestinian state, alongside a safe and secure Israel. The British Government believe that the best way to help to achieve a peaceful resolution is to encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to take the steps necessary for progress through close engagement and dialogue at all levels. We will find peace in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories only through patient negotiation—negotiation which looks ahead to a two-state future, which focuses on the tragedy of the death and poverty of today’s Palestinians and the security of Israeli civilians, rather than old grievances which are no longer in our power to solve.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, was right to remind us of the plight of Alan Johnston. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to work closely with the BBC and the Palestinian Authority to secure the safe release of Alan Johnston. We will continue to call on those holding Alan to release him unconditionally.

The two-state solution is the only realistic basis for a just and lasting peace, but both parties need to fulfil their obligations in order for this to become a reality. The international community has a key role to play in helping to secure this outcome and this Government are fully committed to doing whatever they can to help.

I appear to have finished two minutes early. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for pleasure until 8.27 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.25 to 8.27 pm].