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6.14 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I shall concentrate solely on the middle east and on the part of the Gracious Speech that referred to the determination of not only Her Majesty's Government but everyone in all parts of the House to pursue the middle east peace process.

I had the good fortune to meet Yitzhak Rabin in March this year, although I knew of his actions and his activities, when he attended the socialist international middle east committee, which met in Tel Aviv. He spoke passionately of his determination to achieve peace and security. He impressed everyone, even those who, perhaps, had disagreed with him in the past over the way in which,

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when he was the military commander of the west bank, he introduced his policy of breaking bones in an effort to break the intifada--the uprising by the Palestinian community on the west bank. From a man of war, he turned into a man determined to work for peace and security in that area, and he impressed everyone who listened to him at that time.

Yitzhak Rabin was very clear in his determination to pursue that peace process, despite the opposition against him and despite the narrow majority that he had in the Knesset. He made it quite clear to all of us who were present that, as long as he had a majority, even if it was a majority of only one, he would pursue peace. We now know that he paid for peace with his life. To that extent, we all owe him a great debt of gratitude. It is the responsibility of those of us who have been involved in that process for many years to continue that work and ensure that the middle east comes to peace.

It is difficult to say that any good can come out of anyone's death, but just occasionally when someone dies something happens as a result that helps to ease the pain. I have been very impressed to hear people who have recently returned from the region speak of the role that has been adopted by Yitzhak Rabin's widow, Leah Rabin. It would appear that she has become the conscience of the state. She is an extremely forceful presenter of her husband's agenda and is determined to see its implementation. There seems to be a new mood among the Israeli public. Visitors who have just returned from the region speak of a deep soul searching going on within Israeli society as a result of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Much more importantly for all of us who are involved in the middle east is an opinion poll, which has been published in the past few days in Israel, that indicates a dramatic upsurge in support for the peace process--up from the low 50s to 74 per cent. We have been gratified by the fact that the new Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, is just as committed in his determination to press ahead with the peace process. In particular, we welcome his decision to bring forward the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jenin. It was a bold and very reassuring move, welcomed by all in the middle east, and it is certainly one that needs support. It is important that that withdrawal continues to move ahead, because, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, there are areas of concern other than Gaza and Jericho. The Israeli forces have now withdrawn from Jenin. They are due to withdraw from Tulkarm by 19 November; from Nablus and Kalkia by 26 November; from Bethlehem by 3 December; from Ramallah by 10 December; and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, from Hebron. No specific timetable is attached to that withdrawal.

We know that there are specific problems associated with Hebron, and we must allow the Palestinians and the Israelis to work them through. We should, however, be concerned about one area of Hebron, which has been mentioned in the House before--certainly I have raised it on a number of occasions, most recently in correspondence with the Minister of State. On 16 October, I asked him about the new Oslo B agreement relating to the new temporary international presence that is intended to help the withdrawal in Hebron.

Replying to my letter, the Minister wrote:


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I readily agree with that comment, but I should like to know whether the European Union and Israel have drawn the correct conclusions from the mission to ensure that the structural inadequacies and operational shortcomings that featured in the 1994 operation do not occur again. As I have said in the House before, the last international presence in Hebron ended up being protected by the local population, rather than the other way around.

We know that Norway has been asked to lead the operation, and that two other European states will be involved. We have a responsibility to ensure that, if a new temporary international presence is introduced, we get it right this time.

In the last few days, the Centre for International Human Rights Enforcement has published a report on the subject. Not only does it review the last TIPH but, more specifically, it sets out guidelines that I suggest the Government should use in their dialogue with our European partners. According to the report, the following questions need to be addressed:



    b) the human rights and humanitarian law standards to be applied by the mission;


    c) the transparency of the mission and its ability to build confidence among the Palestinian population of Hebron; and


    d) the related requirement of regular reporting on the activities and efforts of the mission in a manner available to the Palestinian public, as well as to the constituencies of the participating states."
We have a unique opportunity to get it right--and it is essential that we do get it right. If the withdrawal of Israeli troops does not go ahead, the Palestinian elections cannot take place either.

Those Palestinian elections are one of the principal objectives of those of us who have been involved in the middle east peace process over many years. We all know that what is needed is a democratically elected Palestinian authority that can not only take control of the west bank and Gaza, but sit down as an equal partner with an elected Israeli Government to pursue the process to a successful conclusion.

Let me compliment the Foreign Secretary on his first visit to meet the chairman of the Palestine National Authority, Yasser Arafat: I know from my contacts that it was well received. Announcements of further aid will undoubtedly go a long way towards helping the peace process.

After a very shaky start, the Palestine National Authority is now settling down to its task. The collection of taxes has greatly improved the position, helping to ease the financial difficulties confronting the authority; the signing of the Oslo B interim agreement has also eased the concerns of donor countries. Much remains to be done, however, and I urge the Secretary of State to continue the assistance that the British Government have given so far and to ensure that it reaches those who need it--the Palestinian population on the west bank and in Gaza--as soon as possible.

We now know that the European Union unit that will oversee the Palestinian elections on 20 January 1996 has been established. The advance guard has been set up on the west bank, and we look forward to the good work that it will do in helping the Palestinians to move towards democracy through democratic elections. Those elections are essential--and I was very pleased to see Andrew

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Sackur's report on last night's "Channel 4 News", which included the registration of Palestinians for the elections by the electoral authority. We wish them every success.

Even in that area, however, we can do more. Earlier this year, through its Westminster foundation management committee, the Labour party launched a project to involve Palestinian women in the elections in a positive and practical way. The project was launched in April 1995; 139 Palestinian women from all over the west bank and Gaza, representing the different political parties--including the opposition--attended the course. According to a report from Palestinians to the Westminster foundation,


One of those women said:


    "To become a candidate is no longer a mystery . . . My fears and concerns have disappeared, not because I think it is an easy job, but because now I know what my weaknesses are and I know what to do about them."

The project was carried out over a two-week period in five different locations: Hebron, Tulkarm, Nablus, Ramallah and Gaza. As I have said, local organisations firmly believe that, if there are women who are likely to participate in the elections, it is more probable that they will come from the group that participated in that project.

If we are committed to the peace process, we must also welcome the possibility of a dialogue between the Palestine National Authority and Hamas. That also reflects a growing confidence among the Palestinians in their ability to move forward, as one, to the elections. In the House, there has been a good deal of concern about what are regarded as fundamentalist groups--and, where the Palestinian community is concerned, Hamas is certainly regarded by some as one of those groups.

We should, as I have said, welcome the forthcoming dialogue, which was first hinted at when a member of the Knesset, Talib al-Sani, visited Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, the leader of Hamas, who is currently in an Israeli prison. At that meeting, the leader of Hamas committed himself to the agreement signed by the Palestine National Authority and Israel indicating that Hamas


Since that announcement, there has been an unofficial dialogue--which will shortly become official--between the Palestine National Authority and Hamas. I welcome the most recent report that I have read, which came from the BBC's monitoring service and which suggested that Dr. Mahmud al-Zahhar, the official spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, had said that it had been agreed that a dialogue should be held in Cairo, rather than Khartoum. He emphasised that the choice of Cairo had positive practical significance for Hamas and its political progress, and said that the early announcement of the formation of a political party for Hamas supporters within a broad Islamic front was intended--along the lines of the Islamic action movement in Jordan. He said that the front would have no interest in military concerns and added that it would operate democratically and that its members would have the right to decide whether to participate in elections.

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Those of us who are committed to the peace process welcome the current dialogue between the Palestine National Authority and Hamas as a further sign of the success of the peace process. If that process is to be successful it must be comprehensive, and Syria and Lebanon must play their part. That is why I welcome the Foreign Secretary's visit to Damascus. He was able to liaise between the Government in Damascus and the Israeli Government. I commend his activities and encourage him and other hon. Members to do all that they can to encourage the Syrian and Lebanese Governments to work closely for a more comprehensive peace in the area.

For the first time, a joint middle east councils delegation from the House visited Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in July. We were particularly impressed by the commitment to a comprehensive peace in the middle east based on international law and on Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425. That was set out in great detail by all the Syrian officials whom we met and also by Syria's Foreign Secretary, its Vice-President and its Prime Minister.

We were deeply impressed by the Lebanese commitment to the principled stand of peace based on international law and Security Council resolutions. The President spoke to us about Hizbollah, an Islamic group that concerns everybody who is involved in the middle east peace process. He made it clear that the members of Hizbollah were Lebanese citizens and that they had the right to participate in Lebanese democracy. The only conditions that they could be asked to accept would be loyalty to Lebanon and a refusal to act on instructions from any other country.

The Foreign Minister assured the delegation that when Israel committed itself to full withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the Lebanese Government would send their army to stop the resistance and restore democracy. When the Lebanese Government have full control of all Lebanese territory, there will be no cause for Hizbollah to launch attacks on Israel. He welcomed Israel's positive statement that it had no further claims on Lebanese territory or resources, but he wondered when Israel would back that statement with movement on the ground. He insisted that Hizbollah was a political rather than a military problem and said that the day that Israel commits itself to withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hizbollah will lose 60 per cent. of its raison d'etre. He also assured us that a full security programme for southern Lebanon could be achieved only within the framework of Security Council resolution 425.

While we were in the area we raised the question of the Palestinian refugees, and everyone, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister made it clear to us that it was an international problem and had to be dealt with by the international community. Although Lebanon could be asked to absorb perhaps a small number of the Palestinian refugees, 400,000 Palestinians could not be left in Lebanon as a continuing focus of resentment and resistance.

The middle east peace process faces outstanding difficulties. There are refugees not only in southern Lebanon but in other parts of the Arab world. Other problems are Jerusalem, the right to return, settlers,

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boundaries and sovereignty, and the Palestinians and Israelis will have to find solutions. We must also be involved where we can. The international community must be involved with the Palestinian refugees.

The delegation was struck by the principled position of Syria and Lebanon on the bilateral peace negotiations. We were convinced that it was not just a negotiating tactic but rather that the insistence on a peace agreement that was based firmly on the principles of humanitarian law and Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425 was sincerely felt and that a practical stand offered the best chance of a comprehensive and sustainable peace in the region. We are close to achieving peace in that area, but it requires the whole House to be committed to the peace process. I commend the actions so far of the Foreign Secretary in the short time that he has been in his job.


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