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Middle East: Gaza and Syria

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary earlier in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a Statement on Gaza, the Middle East peace process and Syria.

The whole House will be united in concern both at the intolerable situation for the residents of southern Israel, and at the grave loss of life and humanitarian suffering in Gaza, including the particular impact on children.

On 14 November, the Israeli Defence Forces began air strikes against the Gaza Strip in response to a sharp increase in rocket fire. Hamas and other militant groups responded with rocket fire, although these attacks have been reduced in the past two days. As of today, three Israeli citizens have been killed, including one woman and one child, and at least 109 Palestinians have been killed, including 11 women and 26 children.

Although we have made it clear that Hamas bears principal responsibility for the start of the current crisis, we are also clear that all sides have responsibilities. We quickly called on Israel to seek every opportunity to de-escalate its military response and to observe international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. At the meeting I attended in Brussels yesterday, EU Foreign Ministers condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and called for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities. We have also warned that a ground invasion of Gaza could lengthen the conflict, sharply increase civilian casualties, and erode international support for Israel’s position.

We wish to see an agreed ceasefire that stops the rocket attacks against Israel and ends Israeli military operations. Efforts to agree a ceasefire are continuing as I speak, and the United Nations Security Council will continue discussions on the situation today. More open access in and out of Gaza is part of any longer term solution. We pay tribute to the efforts of the Egyptian Government and the United Nations Secretary-General to secure an agreed ceasefire, and have supported these efforts over the past few days. I discussed these with my European colleagues yesterday, and with the Egyptian, Israeli and Turkish Foreign Ministers over the weekend, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Morsi. My honourable friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, the Under-Secretary of State, is in Ramallah today, where he will meet President Abbas, after visiting southern Israel yesterday.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Gaza or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace becomes harder to achieve with each military confrontation, each loss of life, and the creation of facts on the ground. The only way to give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve and the Israeli people the security and peace they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution, and time for this is now running out. This requires Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations, Israel to stop illegal settlement building, Palestinian factions to reconcile with each other and the international community, led by the United States and supported by European nations, to make a huge effort to push the peace process forward as a matter of urgency.

While there is any chance of achieving a return to talks in the coming months, we continue to advise President Abbas against attempts to win Palestinian observer state status at the United Nations through a vote in the UN General Assembly. We judge that this would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian authorities.

Our collective goal must be a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees. So while we support Palestinian aspirations and understand the pressures on President Abbas, we urge him to lead the Palestinians into negotiations and not to risk paralysing the process. But we also urge Israel, equally, to make every effort to restart negotiations before the window for a two-state solution closes altogether.

The urgency is underlined by the conflict in Syria. The whole House will join me in condemning the barbaric violence by the Assad regime, which continues its aerial warfare against Aleppo, Homs and Damascus itself. Thirty thousand people have died already, and more than 100 are still being killed each day. Countless homes, clinics, hospitals and essential infrastructure such as water and sanitation systems have been destroyed or severely damaged. Between 1 million and 3 million people have been displaced from their homes. There are appalling reports of rape and sexual violence by government forces and militia, and as a form of torture in regime detention centres, which the United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry has said could be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. There are now well over 400,000 refugees in neighbouring countries. The impact on young Syrians is particularly acute, since 50% of all Syrian internally displaced people and refugees are children.

We are increasing our humanitarian assistance as the crisis grows and winter approaches, and our appeals to other members of the international community to give far more to UN relief efforts. Our £53.5 million in humanitarian assistance so far includes £9.7 million to the World Food Programme to feed 80,000 people inside Syria each month; £4 million to the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter and other basic relief items; and £9.7 million to other relief agencies for medical services and supplies, food parcels, water and sanitation services, distribution of blankets, and hygiene kits. In neighbouring countries, we have given £10 million to the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter, protection, registration, and water and sanitation services to refugees; £5 million to the World Food Programme to feed 20,000 refugees; and £6 million to UNICEF to provide education and trauma support for children, and water and sanitation services for refugees. In Cairo last week, I called on other countries to increase their contribution to the relief effort, which the UN has described recently as “critically underfunded”.

However, what is urgently needed is a political transition to a new and legitimate leadership that reflects the will of the Syrian people and that can end the violence and begin to rebuild the country with regional and international support. On 11 November there was a major breakthrough in Doha, with the establishment of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been welcomed by many Syrians.

Last Friday, I met the president and two of the vice-presidents of the national council on their first visit to Europe. I sought assurances from them in three areas. First, I urged them to commit themselves to developing their political structures, widening their support among all sections of Syrian society, and agreeing a detailed political transition plan for Syria. Secondly, I encouraged them to use the next Friends of Syria meeting, which we hope will be held in Morocco next month, to set out a plan for Syria’s future in detail. Thirdly, I urged them to show a clear commitment to human rights and international humanitarian law, including the protection of all religious communities and unfettered and safe access for humanitarian agencies.

In response, the national coalition’s leaders stressed their determination to build on the Doha agreement and to leave the door open to other opposition groups to join them. They spoke of their intention to win the trust of Syrians from all communities, to be a moderate political force committed to democracy, and not to repeat the abuses of the Assad regime. They told me that their priority was protecting the civilian population against attack and focusing on achieving a political transition. It would be for the people of Syria, they told me, to approve a future government. These are important and encouraging statements by the national coalition. It has much to do to win the support of the Syrian people and co-ordinate opposition efforts more effectively, but it is strongly in the interests of Syria, of the wider region and of the United Kingdom that we support it and deny space to extremist groups.

On the basis of the assurances I received and my consultation with European partners yesterday, Her Majesty’s Government have decided to recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. As the president of the national coalition said to me on Friday, recognition imposes responsibilities on the coalition, and we will continue to press it to uphold its commitments.

I can also announce a significant increase in practical support for the Syrian opposition by the United Kingdom. First, we will invite the coalition to appoint a political representative to the UK, and we will offer support to it as it sets up its political and humanitarian structures. Secondly, we will provide a £1 million package of communications support, which could, for instance, include mobile internet hubs and satellite phones to improve the coalition’s ability to communicate inside Syria. Thirdly, we will urgently deploy a stabilisation response team to the region to work with the coalition to develop its plan to meet people’s basic needs in opposition-held areas. The team will draw up recommendations for areas for further UK assistance.

Fourthly, and separately, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking at increasing our assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict. This could include increasing our humanitarian medical assistance for wounded Syrian civilians who need access to treatment by providing UK funding for hospitals and mobile clinics, and training for health workers. We intend to launch new work to build on our existing work to support victims of sexual violence in Syria.

This new package of UK support amounts to around £2 million of immediate commitments, and we will look to expand this considerably in the coming months. This comes on top of the training that we have already provided for citizen journalists, human rights advocates, doctors and Syrian activists, and the generators, communications equipment and water purification kits for unarmed opposition groups and civil society organisations that I announced during the summer.

Alongside that increased political and practical support, we are pressing the EU to increase its support to civil society in Syria, and I raised this at the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. We will continue to increase the pressure on Assad and those who support him through EU sanctions, including seeking accountability through the United Nations commission of inquiry process.

We also expect there to be discussions in NATO in the coming days about supporting the security of Turkey, and we will continue to work with all of Syria’s neighbours to help them mitigate the effects of the crisis. We will step up our support for political transition and our planning for the day after Assad.

Finally, we will continue to support the work of the UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and renew our efforts to persuade Russia and China to work with us at the United Nations Security Council. I will take every opportunity to urge my Russian and Chinese colleagues to support a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria. Without such a solution, everything that they and we most fear is coming closer, including ever greater loss of life, instability in neighbouring countries and an opportunity for extremists to pursue their own ends.

The basis for such a political settlement is clear. A credible alternative to the Assad regime is emerging that has the growing support of the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and an increasing number of other countries, and we have an agreed basis for a transition in the form of the Geneva communiqué, which all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council signed up to in June. In the absence of that political and diplomatic solution, we will not rule out any option in accordance with international law that might save innocent lives in Syria and prevent the destabilisation of a region that remains critical to the security of the United Kingdom and the peace of the whole world”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. It is right that the Statement should include in its title the “Middle East peace process” and bridge a number of issues, although I wish later in my remarks to comment on whether there is such a process. However, allow me to start with Gaza.

This outbreak of hostilities is a tragedy for the entire region. If ever there were a day for calm minds, calm reflection and a self-denying ordnance on our part about blame focused on any one side, that is surely today. Today’s task is the achievement of a durable ceasefire and to thank and encourage the Egyptians for their efforts in arriving at that conclusion. All of us will feel the deepest dismay and abhor the acts of violence that are causing a loss of lives on a great scale, and we have witnessed this mounting calamity day by day. Since Operation Pillar of Defense began last Wednesday, as the Minister has reported to us, more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis have died, mostly civilians.

It was in response to rocket attacks from Gaza that Israel launched its military response four years ago. The express goal of destroying the apparatus of terror, as they said at the time, left 13 Israelis and 1,400 or more Palestinians dead. Yet, despite that, over 1,000 rockets have been launched in the past year and, as we know, some of them can now reach Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. The certainty of a greater loss of life in any ground assault should make the objective of the international community and the United Kingdom the immediate cessation of violence and the urgent negotiation of a durable ceasefire.

We support the call by the United Kingdom Government for no extension of the conflict through a ground offensive. We welcome the decision of the Israeli Government not to launch such an offensive at this stage but we also urge that diplomacy is given a chance under Egyptian and United Nations stewardship, and urge all parties not to insist on any artificial deadlines. Experience shows that heightened tension, rather than a desire that propels people towards peace, tends to follow an artificial deadline when a viable negotiation is in play. The rocket attacks on southern Israel are wholly unacceptable. No Government, least of all the Government of this country, would tolerate the targeting of its citizens. The failure over many decades to achieve a two-state solution continues to lie at the heart of the problem.

I join the Minister and her noble friend the Foreign Secretary in saying that this cannot be resolved by military means—it requires a political solution. Do the Government have a view on the steps that they should take to advance the negotiations should a ceasefire be achieved—the ceasefire for which we all earnestly hope? What assistance will the Government give to the quartet and its envoy Mr Blair, who are plainly working hard in the region? Does the Minister agree that steps are imperative to assist the Palestinian Authority if it is to play any truly significant role? Would she agree that leaving Hamas in the key role without the full engagement of the Palestinian Authority would be an ill judged step in this circumstance?

Without a cessation of violence, the concept of the peace process is doomed, and a ceasefire is not the only urgent issue. Those who have seen civilians—men, women and many tiny and terrified kids—in the overstretched hospitals of Gaza will know that the hospitals already lacked many of the basic resources that they needed to treat their patients and they now face even greater burdens. What steps can Her Majesty’s Government take to ensure that medical and humanitarian personnel and the material resources that they require have unrestricted access to Gaza?

The inward flow of those resources is as vital as stopping the inward flow of arms, especially of Iranian rockets, a longstanding objective of the quartet. What discussions are we having with the Egyptians to intercept the rockets that detonated this current crisis? My right honourable friend Douglas Alexander in another place rightly said today of the peace process that there is no peace and there is no process. Mr Hague’s Statement sounds, if anything, a touch optimistic, despite the seriousness and the gravity which he has injected into it. I worry about the realism with which he talks of a peace process involving President Abbas when it is clear that President Abbas’s position is being weakened by the day.

We have called for a full United Nations diplomatic initiative and we welcome the engagement of Ban Ki-Moon in that. As a permanent member of the Security Council, what are the Government’s priorities in discussions with the United Nations? Does the Minister agree that outbursts of military action have never produced a lasting peace, whoever started the action, including those firing the rockets? Does the Minister agree that a key barrier to peace negotiations is the expansion of illegal settlements that undermine the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state and set back almost any realistic prospects?

The Opposition believe that an enhanced status for the Palestinians should be discussed at the United Nations’ General Assembly and should be supported by the United Kingdom as an aid to negotiations. In the absence of peace negotiations, and because the process is paralysed, an initiative is urgent. It is hard to believe that the two-state proposition can survive the current impasse for very long. We believe that the Foreign Secretary does not have the balance right when considering the status of the Palestinians. What will our stance be on this issue at the General Assembly?

I turn to Syria, briefly but not with any implication that it is secondary. On the contrary, I have had the opportunity at this Dispatch Box to say how seriously I believe we should all take the crisis in Syria. I have said in your Lordships’ House that this murderous regime, venting unspeakable violence and terror on its citizens, is an affront to the entire civilised world, and all parties in the Security Council should long since have recognised that fact. It is clear that the different communities in Syria are ever more estranged and hostile to one another, and that the prospects of an agreed solution are becoming ever more remote. The likelihood of events intruding into other countries in what is already a febrile region becomes ever more likely and, for those reasons, continuously more dangerous to us all.

In our judgment, the Security Council has failed the United Nations and, perhaps even more significantly, it has failed the people of Syria. Some members have argued that all that this does is reflect the divisions in the Syrian opposition. However, we are now in new terrain that in my judgment the Russians cannot ignore. On 11 November in Doha, agreement was reached on the first vital steps to establish a new Syrian national coalition. These are early steps but they are very encouraging steps; I share that view with the Minister. The Labour Party has called on the Government to recognise the coalition, and for those reasons we strongly welcome today the announcement that they do so. That is a great encouragement.

If this coalition is to be a unifying force, what will Her Majesty’s Government do to ensure that it is well resourced with peaceful materiel? Will the Government say today that they will sustain the European arms embargo in order to make clear the distinction between peaceful materiel and non-peaceful materiel? I say, with genuine respect, that the £1 million worth of communications equipment is unlikely to do the job of sustaining the initiative; it is not the significant amount that is needed to do so.

Among the peaceful needs lies the need for humanitarian aid, as the noble Baroness has said in repeating the Statement. What proposals do the Government have to increase substantially the flow of that aid, which is now so desperately needed? What steps will the United Kingdom take in New York to encourage the Russians to shift from a candidly disastrous position? Even now, perhaps especially now, Russia could add its weight to diplomacy rather than to protecting Assad’s repression. What role do the Government believe NATO can play in this current crisis? It is quite right to emphasise Turkey’s security and, as a member of the alliance, Turkey will no doubt be focused on that. What are we adding to the argument?

I look forward to hearing from all sides of the House the same degree of concern about Syria that is often reserved for others in the region. It is a porous region with porous borders and levels of aggression that are, on occasion, enormous, not least as a result of the Syrian dictatorship, which poses massive risks to us. The detonator in this region could go off anywhere. Syria is a loose cannon. It is essential for us to deal with that fact as with any other if we are to see an overarching peace in the Middle East.

My Lords, first, I apologise on a personal level. Unfortunately I suffer from migraines which, among other things, impair my speech. I apologise in advance if I do not sound completely coherent today.

The noble Lord makes some very important points and there are very few with which I would disagree. He says that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I are optimistic about what can be achieved in relation to the current crisis; I would argue that we have no option. For too long the international community has failed in relation to the Middle East peace process and our overriding objective now is to ensure that we secure an agreed ceasefire on both sides and, in the mean time, to avoid civilian casualties. We must also call for both sides to abide by international and humanitarian law while the crisis continues.

I can assure noble Lords that, almost on an hour-by-hour basis, we are engaged with discussions about the region. The Prime Minister has spoken with the Prime Minister of Israel and with President Morsi of Egypt, which is playing an important and constructive role in this matter. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is in touch with his opposite interlocutors and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the Minister responsible for the Middle East, is in the region. We engaged with our EU colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday and all efforts are being made to try to achieve a ceasefire. There is some hope but we cannot say what the outcome of those ongoing discussions will be; we are however hopeful and optimistic at this stage.

We have also made it absolutely clear that an escalation of this matter, a ground invasion, is not the way forward. Huge international condemnation would follow. The noble Lord is right, however, when he asks where the peace process will be taken thereafter. Let me assure him that no decision has been made about how the United Kingdom would vote at the General Assembly. We recognise the pressure that President Abbas is under but we are trying to encourage him and all sides to continue to give a negotiated peace agreement another opportunity. We are running out of time; many Ministers have stood at this Dispatch Box and said that this is a vital moment. Let me say, this is a vital moment. I think we have a year, the next year, to make real progress on this matter. It is why we are stressing to our colleagues in the United States that they must take a leading role in this and why we are making all efforts to ensure this matter is raised in their minds.

On Syria, it was right for us to increase our support to the opposition as it became more coherent. Noble Lords would accept, I think, that our support has been on a stepped basis as we have engaged and encouraged the various factions within the opposition to come together. We now have some specific assurances and it is upon those assurances that we can give the more specific support.

Embargo and licensing of arms is an ongoing matter. We will keep under constant review what we can and cannot give and sell to nations around the world. Resourcing has to be there and I hope the noble Lord will accept from what I said in my opening statement that this is the case. We have ensured that we are playing our part but we are encouraging the wider community to play its part also. It is important, for financial and political reasons, that there is broad-based resourcing and we are encouraging other nations to play their part.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear his views on how the United Nations Security Council had failed Syria. I do not think he could have been any clearer in the words that he used at his address to the General Assembly. We are using all opportunities during discussions with Russia and China; indeed my own discussions with the Russian ambassador were very much focused on movement that we hope they can accept over time.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Israel has the right to defend its citizens from rocket attacks from Gaza and to try to destroy Hamas’s arsenals? Does she further agree that the international community must now focus on de-escalation and finding a sustainable ceasefire—with emphasis on “sustainable”—because a temporary ceasefire will do no one much good; on finding a political solution to the present Gaza crisis; and on reviving the Middle East peace process, which has been allowed to go dormant but is not dead? Does the Minister agree that the peace process is still the best show in town and the only hope for achieving a two-state solution, which is surely the answer to a lot of the problems?

The reality check for the region is in the matter raised by the noble Baroness—that is, that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is quickly closing. We are stressing that in our discussions with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is in their interests, as it is in ours, for there to be a negotiated solution. We are also stressing that in our discussions with the United States. That is why we think that, at this stage, it would be better to encourage the Palestinian authorities to move down the path of a settled solution as opposed to a vote. We have also made it clear that we have not made a decision in relation to that vote, and whatever decisions are taken are not permanent decisions.

My Lords, I am slightly surprised at the tone of the Statement. It seems to imply that the United Kingdom Government have ruled out support for a UN vote and yet, on the same hand, the noble Baroness said that she thinks there is only about a year left in the peace process. Does that mean that if the Palestinians come to us at the end of a year and ask for our support, we will give them a positive assurance that we will support them? Hoping against hope for talks to result in a peace process may well be overoptimistic. On Syria, we heard on 15 November that the Security Council was looking at options and I notice that a stabilising response team is now going to be deployed to the region. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that if further materiel is given to the Syrian coalition forces, all safeguards will be put in place to ensure that it does not get into the wrong hands?

My Lords, yes, I can absolutely give my noble friend an assurance on the second part of her question: these matters are being looked at extremely carefully. That is why we have a stepped approach in relation to support. I can assure my noble friend that these are ongoing discussions. The immediate crisis is at the forefront of our minds and it must be dealt with now. I can assure her that the decision on the United Nations General Assembly vote has not been taken. We are using our relationships and all efforts to make sure that the ultimate aim of a negotiated two-state solution is achieved, and we keep reminding people of the best way of achieving that.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her repeated assurances that no decision has been taken about the vote in the General Assembly on the status of Palestine. However, does she not recognise that the way in which the Statement was cast was highly negative in that effect and that the reference to the possibility that a voting of a resolution might paralyse the peace process is, frankly, a travesty? The peace process is paralysed by the position of the Prime Minister of Israel, who has been refusing to enter negotiations with President Abbas for a very long time. The idea that some action of the United Nations—which would, in any case, not involve recognising Palestine as a member of the United Nations but would be an intermediate status—could not possibly be said therefore to paralyse something that is already paralysed. Does she not further recognise that the consequences of Britain’s negative vote in those circumstances could be quite serious and would be very damaging to the position of President Abbas, who is already in great enough difficulties as it is?

That is exactly why it is important for these Statements to be repeated in this House. It is important that the views of this House are taken on board. I and officials who are listening will make sure that this is taken back. We make it very clear in all our discussions with Israel that time is running out for a negotiated two-state solution. We have made it clear that of course they have to make progress in relation to the building of illegal settlements and in getting back to the negotiating table. As I said in the Statement, we use the same approach in relation to President Abbas. We encourage him to take the necessary steps to ensure that this matter is resolved through negotiation.

My Lords, the missiles into Israel are wrong and they are totally counterproductive. That cannot be said too strongly. But the settlements, with all their security arrangements, roadblocks and the rest, are wrong and totally counterproductive in the irritation and humiliation that they cause every day to ordinary Palestinian people. So, also, was the prolonged blockade that was undermining the whole economic, educational and health infrastructure of Gaza.

Both sides have been strengthening the intransigent and extremist arguments on either side. As friends of both, we cannot overemphasise the counterproductivity too strongly. But will the Minister agree that any lasting peace has to belong to the people of the region and cannot be imposed? In that sense, talks must be as inclusive as possible. If they are not inclusive—as we learnt in Northern Ireland, it is a matter of talking to people with whom it is not very comfortable to talk—the danger again is that one is strengthening the extremists and the militants.

The noble Lord raises some important points. I think he would agree that success in the challenge of getting to the negotiating table those who do not even accept the basic principles laid out by the Quartet is probably much further away. But the challenge we have at the moment is that we are finding it difficult to engage those who do abide by the Quartet principles. Therefore, what is needed more than ever is political will on the part of those who, as the noble Lord says, consider themselves to be friends of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. That political opportunity is now: the United States has had its elections and the President is in his second term; and Israel is in election mode, with its elections being concluded by early next year. This provides an opportunity when, as I have said many times now, the window of opportunity is shrinking.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement from the Minister today. The experience of peacemakers in all situations is that there are certain defining moments. From what she has said, she believes that there have been a number of defining moments in these two conflicts—in Israel/Palestine and Syria. For a peace process to be effective, it has to be managed on a multilayered level, not just from a political perspective but from a community perspective as well. In what ways can Her Majesty's Government encourage and nurture that process both in Syria and in Israel/Palestine to build that kind of construct so that there can be, as it were, a cohesive approach to this peacemaking task?

The situation is slightly different in relation to the two areas. In Syria, in terms of the immediate violence, we have been dealing with a crisis over a lengthy period. However, as I said in my Statement, we have through the DfID programme been funding a number of individuals including journalists and human rights activists who are logging and recording information. If you send out a clear message that there will not be a culture of impunity in these matters, that starts to build the reconciliation process.

On Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, there are a number of programmes of which I am sure the right reverend Prelate will be aware. Some are based on religious grounds, where religious leaders have come together to build peace, and some are being done through educational projects and through the voluntary and charity sector. I had the privilege of seeing a sports project when I visited. I agree that peace cannot just be imposed from the top down; it has also to be built from the bottom up. However, in a situation such as this, I fundamentally believe that real progress will be made when we start showing real political will.

My Lords, I think that it is now this side’s turn and then perhaps those on the opposite side who are trying to come in might stand up in a queue, so to speak.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and, in doing so, declare an interest as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians. What is being done to address the critical shortages faced by hospitals in Gaza, where 40% of essential medicines and 60% of medical disposals were already at zero stock before the escalation, because of the blockade?

I know that my noble friend works tirelessly for the region and is deeply knowledgeable on the area. The humanitarian situation is extremely fragile, as she is aware, and has been exacerbated by events of recent days. Our assessment is that there is not at this stage a humanitarian crisis, because aid continues to flow from Egypt through the Rafah crossing and, intermittently, from Israel. A convoy of medical supplies managed to get to Gaza on Sunday, and food distribution is functioning—we understand that there is probably about 30 days’ worth of food stock—but I absolutely take my noble friend’s point on the base from which we started.

My Lords, the Minister’s Statement was very full and I am sure that the whole House thanks her for that. I should also like to thank her right honourable friend Mr Alistair Burt for all the work that he is doing—I think that he is an excellent Minister for the Middle East.

My noble friend Lord Triesman asked whether there is a Middle East peace process and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, emphasised that the process is in effect paralysed—a dreadful word to use but, alas, an accurate one at the moment. Does the Minister really believe that a two-state solution is still possible? She said that time was running out; she has given it a year. Yet Israeli settlements continue to be built and, on the other hand, there is a hopelessly split leadership in Palestine between Fatah and Hamas. The demographics in Palestine tell their own story about the Palestinians simply waiting for time to deliver the solution that they want.

Can the Minister also tell us what more we can do to help address Syrian violence when the United Nations is hopelessly split on what is going on in Syria? Syria is a client state of Russia. We have to face up to that and the United Nations process seems, again, to have become paralysed. This weekend in the United States, all the newspapers were talking about war—a terrible word to use. Will the Minister please continue to give us briefings in this House? In this time of acute danger, will she arrange for regular briefings—they need not necessarily be on the Floor of the House—so that those of us who are interested in these issues can be fully updated?

I can of course ensure that that briefing happens, whether it is from me or the specific Minister in charge. It is absolutely right that noble Lords, many of whom have so much experience and expertise in this matter, are kept up to date and that we hear their views. I do not think that there is any option other than still to have hope and a commitment to the two-state solution, which is the only way in which we can give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve and the Israeli people the security and peace that have eluded that region for so long. The priority is now for the United States to lead a major push to restart negotiations, and we have made this clear to the Obama Administration. It appears to be the right time for a newly elected President in a second term to take this initiative. That offers the best opportunity of progress towards the ultimate goal of a two-state solution. I am optimistic but also realistic so, even with that optimism, I have said that time is running out.

My Lords, I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on their recognition of the coalition Opposition in Syria. It is an act of wise diplomacy, entirely in kilter with the most basic rules of public international law. Can the Minister tell the House whether there are prospects of other countries, particularly other members of the Security Council, taking the same role? Am I right in thinking that up until now the only other member of the Security Council to have recognised this regime is France?

These discussions are ongoing. I know that there are specific discussions with a number of states, including the United States, on how progress can be made. It is up to individual nations to go through that process but what has been important in recent weeks is the way in which the various opposition forces have managed to come together to form some sort of coherence as to initial progress and what can be done in the immediate future. It was right that while we built that relationship and before we formally recognised it, we sought specific assurances in this House. Many noble Lords have raised concerns about human rights abuses that have been committed in Syria on all sides. If Her Majesty’s Government are to be engaged with a recognised Opposition, it is right that they seek some specific assurances beforehand.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Statement that she read. I have only one small point and I will not take too long to make it. Can the Government not look on this disastrous situation as an opportunity? Opportunities come out of disasters and this is an opportunity to get not only the Americans to act, as the Minister suggested, but the Arab League. There was an Arab League initiative to bring both parties to the negotiating table without any preconditions whatever. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said it was Prime Minister Netanyahu who has refused to come to the negotiating table. Some of us would disagree with that. Let us put it to the test by getting the Americans and the Arab League to get people to come to the negotiating table now, to talk about not truces and ceasefires but a durable situation where there is a genuine cessation of hostilities.

The noble Lord raises an important point. There is a famous saying in Urdu which loosely translates as, “It rarely rains when the fires are raging”. To try to reach final agreement on these matters when there is a crisis is difficult. It is important to have the agreed ceasefire. Foreign Ministers from the Arab League have been meeting in the region. Egypt and Turkey have been playing an extremely important role in trying to negotiate that. As part of that initial discussion to resolve the current crisis, discussions are ongoing in relation to a long-term solution.

My Lords, part of any ceasefire agreement will surely include international monitoring to ensure compliance. Are we and our allies ready, if the call comes, to comply with military personnel to do just that, remembering that Israel will be very cautious because of its experiences of UNIFIL in Lebanon and the time when it left Gaza, with its effect on that frontier? On Syria, how can we properly call the coalition legitimate when it has been subject to no election to ensure its legitimacy? We are apparently prepared to receive a political representative, whereas France calls that representative an ambassador. Why the difference?

In relation to the noble Lord’s suggestion about observers, we will respond to that situation as and when it arises. In relation to recognition, I think he would accept that it would be impossible to expect the Syrian opposition factions to be holding elections in Syria at the moment and to try to obtain legitimacy through the ballot box. We are trying to work with the various groups that have come forward in setting their own priorities. As they themselves say, this is a transitional council. Eventually, it is for the people of Syria to decide their future Government.