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Israel and Palestine: Gaza

Volume 706: debated on Monday 19 January 2009


My Lords, with permission, I shall repeat a Statement on Gaza made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a further Statement to the House on Gaza.

From the outset of the conflict, the UK has called and worked for an immediate ceasefire. I know from questions last week that the whole House will have felt enormous relief when on Saturday night Israel halted its military operations in Gaza, and on Sunday when Hamas stopped its rockets. Our relief at the ceasefire is matched by our distress that it has taken so long to be achieved. The respite has come too late for too many.

A ceasefire, as Security Council Resolution 1860 made clear, was always going to be the essential first step. We urge Israel to complete the withdrawal of its troops from Gaza with all due speed. Hamas must put a definitive end to rocket fire at Israel. That is why the Prime Minister travelled to Sharm el-Sheikh and Israel yesterday to join other world leaders in starting to embed that ceasefire and ensure it becomes the durable and fully respected ceasefire that we—and the Security Council—have called for.

In the 22 days of the Israeli offensive over 1,200 have died and we are yet to know the full extent of the destruction. But horrific accounts and images already fill our news bulletins and we can be sure that life for Gazans, already grim, has become desperate. Systems for power, sewerage and food distribution are broken or under acute strain.

Meanwhile, rockets have reached further than ever from Gaza into Israel. Israel has lost nine soldiers.

The Gaza crisis has reverberated around the world. There have been large demonstrations in the Middle East but also in the West. The conflict has also been used to whip up hatred, including in this country, and I am sure the whole House will want to send a very clear and cross-party message that we all denounce the anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place and vow to work for their elimination.

We are faced with two immediate challenges: stopping the flow of arms and starting the flow of aid into Gaza. In respect of trafficking in arms, as the Prime Minister announced yesterday, we are ready to play our part. The immediate security responsibility lies with Egypt but the origin of these arms stretches way beyond the Egypt-Gaza border. This is where international help aimed at interdiction, using intelligence and a range of military assets, is important.

But it is not just arms that are smuggled. The closure of the crossings has also created a thriving illegal trade in necessities, which has filled Hamas’s coffers without providing Gazans with the basics they require. Hand in hand with closing of illegal traffic must go a vast increase in legal traffic. The immediate priority is to meet the desperate humanitarian needs. That means not simply food and medicine but, for example, sanitation equipment. Then there are all the supplies which are required to repair Gaza’s ruined infrastructure and return power and water. The Government have pledged a further £20 million on top of the £6.8 million we pledged earlier in the conflict. British charities have raised millions more.

The Prime Minister made clear in Egypt and in Israel that reopening the crossings will be vital. The 2005 movement and access agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should provide the framework. We are ready to help, including by reinstating and, if necessary, extending the EU Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah crossing.

Smuggling and the crossings will be at the heart of the discussions this Wednesday evening when all 27 EU Foreign Ministers meet with Foreign Minister Livni, and on Sunday evening when we meet our Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish counterparts.

However, the critical actors in securing progress, never mind peace, are the Palestinians themselves. Full humanitarian reconstruction will be impossible unless accompanied by political reconstruction. Unity in Palestinian politics is vital to so many things: to rebuilding Gaza, to holding elections, to delivering peace. It is for President Abbas to lead this process. The Arab League and Egyptian commitments of November last year point the way forward.

At a time of enormous loss for Palestinians, one thing should not be forgotten: Palestinians on the West Bank did not respond to Hamas’s call for a third intifada. In fact, the Government of Prime Minister Fayyad in the West Bank showed clearly in their management—political, economic, security—that, given half a chance, the Palestinian Government can be hugely effective and provide a real partner for peace.

At the UN and last week in this House, I said the Gaza crisis was a symptom of political failure. To avoid its repetition we need a political process. The Arab League showed in its letter to President-elect Obama in December that it was serious about its ground-breaking offer of peace embodied in the Arab Peace Initiative: the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Arab normalisation of relations with Israel—a genuine 23-state solution.

The challenge is to ensure that this Gaza crisis does not simply provide another grim milestone in an endless conflict. As we help Gazans rebuild their lives, we must find a way to ensure that this is the last time they will have to do so. That means showing serious progress towards a Palestinian state alongside improved Israeli security. It means a peace process where closed door negotiations are buttressed by Israel and the Arab world taking steps to support rather than undermine the peace process.

But anyone who doubts that peace in the Middle East requires the full, intense engagement of the international community only needs to look at the streets of Gaza today. International engagement that is full and intense includes the immediate engagement of the new American president and Administration. President-elect Obama and his Secretary of State designate, Hillary Clinton, have made clear that they understand the urgency and are committed to act. It will certainly be the first topic when I speak to the new Secretary of State this week.

Palestinians and Israelis will be asking themselves whether they are fated to permanent conflict. I know that I will have the support of the whole House in doing everything possible to avert this future”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Foreign Secretary in the other place. We welcome the ceasefire announced by the Israeli Government on Saturday, and the reciprocal ceasefire announced by Hamas. We also welcome reports of the continued gradual withdrawal of the Israeli defence forces.

We all want to see the Middle East as the top priority for the incoming United States president and Administration. In the mean time, it is vital that we do what we can to help bolster what, at the moment, is a fragile ceasefire. Clearly, this must involve mechanisms to prevent weapons-smuggling into Gaza. Will the Minister be more specific about how weapons-smuggling through tunnels will be prevented? As part of the ceasefire arrangements, the Prime Minister has apparently offered Royal Navy support. The nature of this support is unclear. Will the Minister be more specific about this? What impact will it have on the many competing priorities of the Royal Navy, which now has so few frigates and destroyers? The Falklands guard ship has just been taken away to east Africa, so there is only one frigate covering west Africa, the West Indies and the Falklands. How can a single ship shuttle between these places and have any effect? Much as the Royal Navy would like to take on this commitment, it is hard to see how the Prime Minister is in a position to offer it, certainly for any length of time.

Will the Minister also confirm that the Prime Minister has offered to help remove unexploded bombs in Gaza? Is the Minister satisfied that we have sufficient service personnel to do this, in addition to what they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their enduring commitments in this country? I declare an interest as honorary colonel of the Royal Engineer Territorial Army Bomb Disposal Regiment.

It is vital that we help to ensure that there is a quick and effective aid supply to the people of Gaza. The Statement rightly points out that life for Gazans, already grim, has become desperate. We welcome the announcement that Britain will make available an additional £20 million in humanitarian aid. What steps will be taken to ensure that the severe constraints on the ability of humanitarian workers and supplies to reach the population are quickly addressed? In particular, what technical assistance will be needed to restore the basic infrastructure and prevent the spread of disease?

Given the obvious need to open the crossings if aid and assistance is to enter Gaza on the scale needed, have the Israeli Government indicated when the crossings will be opened? Did the meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh agree a timetable for the opening of the crossings? Who will monitor the crossings? What role will the Palestinian Authority play, and what will happen to the Hamas representatives who are there on the ground? Are there any plans for a broader international monitoring mission?

Finally, we on these Benches support the Statement’s clear message denouncing the anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place in this country. We will do all we can to work for their elimination.

We welcome this Statement, but it is not enough. We welcome the ceasefire, but it is not enough. This conflict has been about not just rockets fired from Gaza but future relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and whether they are to be based on repeated assertions of military superiority, or on a return to negotiations and the achievement of a negotiated settlement.

The Statement’s aim of,

“a durable and fully respected ceasefire”

is far too limited. We have to get back to a much more active peace process that addresses not just Gaza, but the future of the whole of historic Palestine, or historic Israel, and which involves all interested parties, inside and outside the region, and therefore has to find some way of bringing in Hamas.

Will the Minister comment on the quotation in Haaretz today from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, saying that the Arab peace proposals would not necessarily be on the table for ever? Does he feel that this reflects the degree of urgency we face in saving some sort of wider peace negotiation?

For Israel, this has been a tactical victory and a strategic defeat. We all recognise that Israel has lost the sympathy of public opinion across much of the western world, and has further undermined its claim to moral authority. I spent some time last week talking to a number of Israelis about what their preferred end game was for the Gaza conflict, and was frustrated to discover that nobody could tell me what the Israeli strategy was. Mr Netanyahu said that the aim had to be to destroy Hamas. However, if one does destroy Hamas, who runs Gaza? Does the Minister know how we can reconstitute Gaza without the engagement of the political wing of Hamas?

Some Israelis would prefer to bring in Fatah again, under the approval of Israel—disastrous for the future reputation of Fatah on the West Bank, and of Hamas, it seems to me. Others in Israel say, “Gaza should be nothing to do with us in future. Open the Rafah crossing and push Gaza onto Egypt”. The Mubarak regime is clear that that would threaten to destroy the Egyptian regime, with potentially disastrous results for Israel. Others accept that perhaps no one would end up running Gaza, and out of the chaos, an even more radical terrorist wing would emerge.

We on these Benches find the approach of Her Majesty’s Government deeply frustrating. They have been too close to the Bush Administration in their dying days, and too biased towards Israel after its disproportionate and self-defeating use of force. Having watched our Prime Minister at his press conference in Israel—an image that undoubtedly has gone to Al-Jazeera and the whole of the Arab world—one worries about the hatred issue. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said, real concern about encouraging anti-Semitism in this country. However, encouraging hatred of the West across the Arab world must be deeply against Britain’s long-term interests, and we have to be concerned about that, as well.

Will the Minister tell us about the Sharm el-Sheikh summit? Under whose auspices was it held? What was the framework? Was it an EU summit or was it an ad hoc collection of heads of Government? Did it have any relationship with the quartet, or is the quartet no longer viable?

On the policy of excluding Hamas and talking only to Fatah, one of my Israeli interlocutors told me that, in effect, Israel is already talking to Hamas through the Egyptians. There is a great deal of hypocrisy about how we keep Hamas out of the loop.

The Statement refers to “unity in Palestinian politics”. However, we and others have been promoting disunity in Palestinian politics ever since the 2006 election and the Israeli imprisonment of a number of elected Hamas MPs. The Statement talks about the,

“creation of a Palestinian state”.

“A Palestinian state”? We need the Palestinian state foreseen in the road map, within secure boundaries, which I suspect have to be close to the 1967 boundaries.

It is the same situation with talk about stopping the flow of arms to one side. Those of us who remember the Bosnian conflict recall that an arms embargo disadvantaged one side in a deep and bitter conflict. If we talk about the flow of arms, we must talk about the flow of British components to Israeli arms manufacturers.

When the Statement talks about opening the crossings, will the Minister reassure me that it means opening all the crossings and not just the Rafah crossing? It talks about the contribution that we and others will make to rebuilding Gaza again. Who else will be asked to pay? Will the Israeli Government, as well as Arab Governments, be asked this time to contribute to the rebuilding of Gaza, which must be part of rebuilding a viable economy in the Palestinian land, one of the necessary bases for the negotiated settlement for which we all desperately wish but from which we are now further than we were three weeks ago?

My Lords, both the noble Lords, Lord Astor of Hever and Lord Wallace, have essentially said, “So far so good in terms of the ceasefire, but we need to go a lot further to build an enduring peace”. We on these Benches agree completely with that view—this is a start, but no more than that. We must move quickly to bolster what is obviously a fragile ceasefire.

I shall take the points in order. The issue of the tunnels and the boats is a critical early step to get right because it is a confidence-building step for at least one side. I do not pretend that we yet have all the answers. Egypt has always maintained that as the sovereign power at one end of the tunnels it should be responsible for security in that regard and has never expressed much enthusiasm for an international force in that function. With regard to the boats—there is a big debate about how many of the arms come in by land and how many come in by sea—that is an area where the international community can make more of a contribution, hence the Prime Minister’s offer. It is certainly his expectation that it would not just be the UK but that a group of countries would provide boats if that were useful. Again, though, a whole series of questions need to be thought through about the right of interdiction at sea, the legal basis on which the boats would be operating, and many other issues. These are spontaneous initial responses to the situation and offers made in great seriousness to try to move this thing forward, but an effective regime of controlling arms smuggling, either underground or by sea, must be urgently developed. We will play whatever useful role we can in that, within the limitations of our military and naval capacities, as was pointed to by the noble Lord, Lord Astor.

Both speakers said that we cannot stop there. Equally important in this first phase is ensuring that the crossings are opened. Here there may well ultimately be a role for an international monitoring force, under either the UN or some other international flag—there is some experience of that already. It must involve all crossings in order to ensure that adequate humanitarian access is achieved and that the economy of Gaza can be restarted. The level of destruction, as we have started to see today in the footage from journalists who have been able to regain access to Gaza, is truly horrendous and goes well beyond easily moved supplies such as food, medicines and water to fundamental infrastructure materials, a large volume of which needs to be brought in over a considerable period of time.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, expressed concern that the Arab peace initiative will not be there for ever. It seems like a long time ago, but before this dreadful conflict in Gaza started the Foreign Secretary toured the region, trying to build support for the Arab peace initiative. That was the main thrust of David Miliband’s Middle East visit, now six or seven weeks ago. He and the Government believe that it remains as important now as then, but it is right to say that it will not remain on the table for ever. A cost of this conflict is a polarisation and radicalisation of opinion in the Arab world as well as other places, which means that moderates have difficulty in holding on to their ground. If we are to move forward with the initiative, we must do so quickly.

That takes us to the question of who runs Gaza and the role of Hamas in the political process. It is primarily, as the Statement said, for Palestinians to determine who runs Gaza; there must be a political process that will resolve the differences between the two Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas. There remain several ways that the Palestinians could choose to move that forward. One is to reunite again under the banner of the Palestinian Authority, which recognises the state of Israel and has sought a peaceful means to resolve these conflicts. If the authority became a unifying Government for the two halves of the Palestinian community, that would be a way forward. There is speculation among Palestinians that it may be easier to move to elections and elect fresh leadership. Ultimately, though, the Palestinians must resolve how to come together in a united way and negotiate not just with Israel but with the international community as well.

If I may, I shall defend the Government and our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I am looking at this from the other end of the measuring stick, in a sense, but it seems that the Government have tried to show even-handedness in this conflict and we have not fallen into the trap of blind support for one side. The negotiation of the UN Security Council resolution, in which we played such a leading role, reflects that, and Israel’s anger at that resolution demonstrates that if offending both sides is the measure of neutrality—or if not neutrality, at least some balance—then it was a much better performance than that of several years ago, when the charge that there was not balance quickly enough in British policy in 2006 perhaps had more truth to it.

On the arms issue, we want to stop a conflict that began because the Israelis were reacting to rocket attacks on their cities. We therefore want to prevent a revival of those rocket attacks, so preventing the resupply of those rockets is vital to building peace. There is inequality in arms supply; there is no way around it. Israel has a large domestic arms industry of its own. As I have assured the House before, we have sought, in the limited arms exports that we allow to Israel, not to export material that we think can be used to kill civilians or indeed can be used for repressive means. We will continue to review that policy, which has subsequently been reviewed in a judicial process that confirmed that it was living within the objectives set for it. However, I do not mean to detract from the argument that these issues of military supply and balance are key.

I turn to the final point that was raised, the reconstruction and who will pay for it. I was pleased to hear today that the Saudi Government are contributing $1 billion to reconstruction, and I hope the Gulf countries will play a leading role in that. However, as I have said before in this House, and I think this is a widely shared sentiment, how many more times do we have to rebuild Gaza? There is an obligation on the parties to this conflict to bring this to an end and stop the shameless cycle of reconstruction and destruction.

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful for much of what was said in the Statement and for some of the Minister’s replies to questions. I have three brief points. First, will the Government make it clear that the taxpayers of the world cannot be expected to repair and replace the wanton damage caused by Israel to civilian and United Nations premises? Israel, surely, should initiate a worldwide Marshall plan for both Gaza and the West Bank. Secondly, given that the present ceasefire is not necessarily permanent, and that there is still no agreement about crossing points, will the Government insist on access by sea to Gaza for relief and emergency supplies? Ships carrying such supplies should, if necessary, be escorted by NATO and other allied navies. Finally, will the Government ensure that tankers carrying pure drinking water by sea to Gaza, to prevent widespread kidney disease and other diseases caused by polluted supplies, can get there?

My Lords, I sympathise deeply with the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that it is not fair to turn to the international community time after time for this kind of reconstruction. Israel, too, has a responsibility in this. That is absolutely correct. However, equally, we cannot make the reconstruction a political football when people are in need and their lives are at risk today. We have to start this and, once more, it will be those with a reputation for generosity in such humanitarian activities who, I fear, will get a large portion of the bill. It is worth it; lives that have been so deeply jeopardised by recent events will be saved.

As to access from the sea for humanitarian supplies, the UN Secretary-General has sent a humanitarian assessment mission to the region and a DfID Minister, Mike Foster, is also there looking at the humanitarian issues. We will need to wait and see what is the best way to achieve the supply that we all want to see on an urgent basis.

My Lords, I welcome the ceasefire with no reservations whatever. Many of us want to put on record our appreciation of the very constructive part played by the Secretary of State and indeed by the Minister of State himself and other members of our Government. Does my noble friend accept that this is only a very fragile ceasefire? As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has said so well, getting on with the job of renewing the peace process is urgent. If that peace process is to be meaningful and to have any chance of fulfilment, is it not essential from the outset that those involved are drawn from as wide a spectrum as possible, and that we avoid the mistake—repeatedly made in the past—of limiting negotiations to those with whom it is convenient to negotiate? Is it not essential to be prepared to talk to those with whom it may be very difficult to talk? Meanwhile, does my noble friend agree that there is very little that is more urgent in humanitarian terms than to lift the siege of the Gaza economy?

My Lords, I think the answer to my noble friend’s questions is “yes”. The peace process does need to be expanded. In the Statement the Foreign Secretary used the phrase “23-state solution”. That reflects the idea that we need to get the whole Arab world—friends and not such friends alike—involved if we are to get a durable peace that will hold for all. Equally, I confirm my noble friend’s second point about the urgency of access.

My Lords, we are all grateful for the Statement and, of course, for the ceasefire itself. Clearly, immediate humanitarian aid should have priority. Does the Minister agree that rebuilding the economy of Gaza is vital and urgent? I do not only mean rebuilding it to its position before the bombardment, when around 50 per cent or more of Gazans were unemployed, but rebuilding it to a much more normal position. The Statement seemed to say that we will work for full political agreement before trying to rebuild the economy. That is almost the wrong way around. We need a Marshall plan of an enormous kind for the economy of Gaza. As the Minister said, Saudi Arabia is promising $1 billion and is hoping to raise another $1 billion from the other Arab states quite shortly. We should back them up to get the economy moving, almost regardless of politics. That means opening the crossings—particularly into Egypt—and sea wharves in full for trade, and, as soon as it can be arranged, the airport, to which the Minister referred the other day. Freeing the economy and allowing the people to work and earn will make the politics much easier. The effect of Israeli actions in beggaring its neighbour has made the situation infinitely more difficult.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, I have always been attracted to the idea of a Marshall plan for Gaza and the West Bank. He and I are not alone; our own Prime Minister proposed such an idea when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shimon Peres, that grand elder statesman of Israel, has frequently proposed a Marshall plan. I must say that I have come to the reluctant conclusion not that the politics has to follow the economics, but that—at the very minimum—both have to go together. The prospect of reconstruction without moving forward on this political agenda, demonstrating to potential donors and investors that this time peace is for real, tests faith to the limit. You cannot raise the resources without demonstrating a real political will for peace as well.

My Lords, the Minister spoke of the radicalising effect of this conflict and we have seen the emphasis that has been placed, certainly in the United Kingdom, on this conflict. How does the Minister think that we can continue to keep the international spotlight on this? Does he not see this as a very dangerous moment? Is this not a much more dangerous conflict even than previous ones? If we do not keep that international spotlight on the Middle East, we will be in a very serious situation. Following what was said earlier, how do we ensure that the Gazans are not simply imprisoned again, that a port and an airport are open and that the Gazans are able to trade freely? On accountability, although it may seem politically difficult, will the investigation of war crimes be pursued?

My Lords, on the first point, urgency is everything. At the end of the Lebanon conflict in 2006 a Security Council resolution was adopted with a much fuller set of stages for building the peace than Resolution 1860. It laid out a whole series of territorial and disarmament objectives, which were meant to be reached in sequence. Most of that sequence has been honoured in the breach rather than the achievement because once a kind of peace settled back down, monitored by UN peacekeepers, the pressure on the two sides to resolve these difficult issues dissipated and fell away. We must make sure that the same does not happen to Gaza. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, is absolutely correct. We have to ensure that we push through and get these political arrangements locked in and agreed to as quickly as possible. I hope that a new American Administration will become part of dealing with that.

On war crimes, the UN has now seen this tragic attack on an UNRWA school, following the attack on the main UNRWA compound. It is in a good place, through its own processes, to make that case to the right international authorities if it believes that the evidence is there.

My Lords, I am grateful. May I join all noble Lords who have so sincerely tendered their congratulations to the Government and to the Minister on the honourable and effective part played in the achievement of the albeit fragile peace described by the noble Lord, Lord Judd? Does the Minister accept that the fragility of that peace is bound to be very greatly affected by the success or otherwise of interdicting the resupply of rockets to Hamas? I appreciate that that is not the only factor but it is a crucial one. Does he accept that interdiction on the high seas would be entirely consistent with the most classical principles of international law? Has any hint been given of support for Britain—this is not a matter for which we can be responsible alone—from the United States, the European Union and particularly, if that were humanly possible, from any of the Arab League states?

My Lords, I reconfirm that while the noble Lord is right to say that it is only one element, the interdiction as regards the resupply of these rockets is a key part in building the confidence between the two sides which will allow for a long-term peace. The offer as regards interdiction at sea did not come out of the blue but emerged from discussions with a number of parties, including the Israelis, the Americans and others. I think that it will enjoy widespread support. I hope that it will happen under an international flag and that a number of us will combine to make it effective.

My Lords, as regards the relationship between Hamas and Fatah and talking to the “Palestinians”, can my noble friend enlarge a little further on his reply to my noble friend Lord Judd? If we talk to only one of these two parties, it begs the question whether they are both more or less representative in the West Bank and Gaza respectively. In so far as I understand where the Government are going, they both ought to be at any round table meeting and we cannot require prior agreement between them. Can he explore further with European Union colleagues how that could be arranged, and then discuss it with President Obama?

My Lords, my noble friend knows that he is stepping on a very sensitive issue, but one that I think all of us in this House agree needs to be advanced and progressed. We have to find a way for the Palestinians to come together in a way that allows them to engage with the international community as well as to negotiate with Israel. I laid out two possibilities for that: to reunite under the flag of the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas in a way that created a united Government to whom the international community could talk and who met broadly the conditions of the quartet principles; or, as an alternative way of arriving at this point, to offer the potential prospect of elections. Both options are being discussed among the Palestinians. However, I cannot assure the House that it is as straightforward as my noble friend has suggested and that we shall instantly be able to sit down around a seminar table with the two Palestinian leaderships equally represented. That kind of statement would be highly inflammatory in this context. We have to understand that we need to work to arrive at a point where we can deal with the whole Palestinian community, but we cannot cut corners in a way which undermines these first limited political steps before the baby can walk, if you like.

My Lords, I wish to ask a few questions which I hope may help to resolve our thinking on the way forward. First, I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Cope that the economic aspect must come first, even before the political one, although I understand that the political discussions are ongoing. Secondly, does the Minister agree that if Hamas could be persuaded to drop from its charter the desire to destroy Israel completely, that would very much help the thinking of the Israeli public and Government? If and when the border crossings are opened, I should be very much in favour—I hope that the Minister agrees with me—of them being policed by a joint force to ensure that Israel acts properly and that the people coming out of Gaza, and goods going into Gaza, are properly handled.

My final point is slightly off the wall. We have been talking a lot about the tunnels and the arms smuggling. Is it not a worthwhile idea to sink a deep trench along the “Philadelphia corridor”, with the permission of Egypt, and flood all the tunnels from the Mediterranean Sea?

My Lords, while I consider the answer to the noble Lord’s final point, I shall reply to the first two. I have already said that the economic and political aspects need to proceed in parallel, but we certainly need to accord enormous importance to the economic aspects. As regards Hamas dropping the destruction of Israel from its charter, the quartet principles, which also call for the renunciation of violence, are the principles we have always required of Hamas before it participates in negotiations, or we participate in negotiations with it. As has been discussed, we need to find a way to move forward and not fall back into the previous arid stand-off. We must find a way of bringing Hamas forward, ultimately as part of a united Palestinian delegation, into negotiations on a final peace.

On the border crossings, it is clear that two issues require to be addressed. The first is the need for some kind of international presence to ensure access. There is also the issue of how the Palestinians manage their side of these border accesses.

On the noble Lord’s final point, we may need a new Ferdinand de Lesseps to come back and do a few of his magnificent tricks digging big drains in the region. However, I shall certainly pass the point on to those more qualified to deal with it than myself.

My Lords, while accepting that the Minister has to be—and, indeed, is—even-handed between the combatants in this matter, does he not accept the reality that Israel is the established state?. The Palestinians are still seeking their independence and their state, which President Bush originally promised in 2005. Does the Minister therefore agree that the British Government have a duty to warn Israel about the stage it has reached with this monumental mistake of the invasion in Gaza? This is the equivalent of Israel’s Sharpeville. Gaza will now be remembered throughout Arabia as Israel’s Sharpeville. The whole tone has now changed towards Israel in that whole area. This is tragic as it is unfair on the millions of moderate, decent Israelis who want a settlement and a two-state solution. Will the British Government remind the Israeli Ministers—some of them inept and incompetent to a degree which understandably caused the fury and rage of Gerald Kaufman in another place in Thursday’s debate, despite the histrionic language—that they have a solemn duty to resume these negotiations with the Palestinians as quickly as possible, whatever the structure may be, to ensure that Hamas is included? It is absurd, is it not, to exclude Hamas from these processes to create that state as quickly as possible?

The negotiations with President Abbas were going on far too long with no results at all, and no one lifted a finger in the EU part of the quartet or in Britain to protest to the Israeli Government about the lack of response on their part. Does the Minister agree that this must now surely be done as quickly as possible? That means accepting the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg—we are both friends of Israel, but we have somewhat different views on the way to achieve outcomes—insisting that Israel immediately opens all the crossings on the Israeli side into Gaza.

My Lords, I absolutely share the noble Lord’s impatience. The process had taken much too long, it was much too dilatory, and it was not getting anywhere. There could be no better lesson to all of us—Israelis, Palestinians and all of us in the international community—that this neglect of international negotiations does not lead to a static situation; it leads to one of potentially enormous, overwhelming tragedy and violence. That is what has happened.

As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in a previous reply, there absolutely must be the will and urgency for a solution now, before somehow the sense of concern dissolves and it is back to business as usual. We must find a solution. Israel carries very special responsibility to find a solution after the events of recent weeks; but so does the Palestinian leadership. It is time now to build the peace that has eluded us for so long.