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12.17 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley): I had intended to make a longer speech at this point, because the title of the debate covers such a wide area, and so many important matters have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members. However, unfortunately I have been left with even less time than I would usually have in a normal half-hour Adjournment debate.

I wanted to heap fulsome praise on the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale(Sir D. Steel), who is a good friend, and has worked closely with me on foreign affairs for nearly two years. I also wanted to pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who is also a good friend. However, I know that they will both allow me to express on another occasion my feelings about their contributions to the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) on his choice of debate. Because the contributions to the debate have been long, my comments must be short. I hope that the House will accept that my brevity is a sign not of rudeness, but of the fact that I must now get down to business.

I know that many hon. Members share my concern about the situation that has developed in Israel and the occupied territories. Sadly, events since January have largely dissipated the good will generated by the Hebron agreement. The start of the construction of the settlement of Har Homa in one of the few gaps in the ring of Israeli settlements around the Arab area of East Jerusalem can do nothing but harm to the peace process, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary pointed out yesterday. The international community agrees that this settlement, like all settlements, is illegal. It also goes against the spirit of the Oslo agreement.

It is very disappointing that the Israeli Government have decided to go ahead, against all the advice of the international community. The fact that they have done so damages the peace process and, I believe, damages Israel too--not only in her relations with other states, but in the prospects for the peace and security desired by the vast

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majority of Israelis. Regrettably, the tension caused by this issue has caused mistrust in other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

We welcomed the fact that the first stage of Israeli redeployment on the west bank was announced on time, but we are aware that its extent caused disappointment among the Palestinians. We must remember that the Palestinian track remains central to the peace process, and indeed to the whole question of security in the middle east. Since the start of the process, when there were positive moves on that track, there has been greater optimism and stability across the region. When there have been difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians, dangerous tensions have arisen.

Events since the start of the year have demonstrated that contrast starkly. The signature of the Hebron agreement showed that the Government of Mr. Netanyahu regarded themselves as bound by the Oslo process, which had made such gains under the previous Israeli administration. Indeed, the strong majority in the Knesset for the Hebron agreement was an encouraging signal for further progress on the Palestinian track. The first subsequent stage of Israeli redeployment on the west bank was set for early March, and the start of final status talks for mid-March. As I have said, Hebron lifted our hearts somewhat.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting this week to see if they can find a way to return to the process that had resumed after Hebron. We hope they will succeed. One casualty of the current inflamed situation has been the scheduled start of the final status talks. These talks are to determine the shape of an overall settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and we have urged both sides not to allow the timetable to slip further. If final status talks are to succeed, an atmosphere of confidence will need to be restored--above all, there must be an end to unilateral moves that create mistrust and the risk of violent reaction.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear repeatedly our views on settlements and related issues. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), as I have done so often on this matter, that there is solidarity in the House. There is a need for both sides to do all that they can to reduce the tension that has arisen. We took a firm line in the UN Security Council debate, and at the General Assembly. We have played a leading role in the efforts of the EU--particularly through its special envoy Miguel Moratinos, to whom we give our full support and co-operation. He is doing an excellent job, and we hope that he can restore the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating relationship.

We have heard this morning about the EU-Israel association agreement, which was debated at length in Committee a month ago today. The agreement is part of the Union's efforts to support the stable and prosperous development of the region. A parallel agreement with the Palestinians was signed by the General Affairs Council last month. The final decision to adopt the EU-Israel agreement will need to be taken by Ministers in the General Affairs Council after all member states have ratified it. While the peace process continues to make progress, there is no good argument for holding this up. But if progress is halted, EU-Israel relations generally could not fail to be affected. I therefore cannot say whether this will be a succesful negotiation.

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As for the Syrian-Lebanese tracks, we must understand there can be no comprehensive peace in the region without peace between Israel and Syria, and we very much hope that negotiations broken off last year can be restarted on the basis of land for peace. Progress on that track could lead to movement on the Lebanese track, and an end to the tragic on-going fighting in southern Lebanon which has claimed so many lives on both sides, including in the Lebanese civilian population. The people of Israel want to see no more of their young men and women dying in south Lebanon. It is up to Israel to make progress.

On aid to the Palestinians, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, Central for his comment. The UK will disburse some £28 million in aid to the Palestinians this financial year and we are giving the EU a great deal of support, which is included in that figure.

I shall put the question of middle east security in the context of our prime interests in the Gulf. In the past 15 years, the stability of the region, and thus the economic well-being of the Gulf states, has twice been threatened by aggression. With two thirds of the world's proven reserves of oil in the Gulf--in a world increasingly dependent on oil--the western nations, including Britain, have a paramount interest in secure access to the Gulf. It is now over six years since the end of the Gulf war, and our Gulf friends know that, as we demonstrated in 1994, they can count on our help. Our long-standing association with the Gulf and a wide range of shared interests mean that the UK in particular has a strong interest in securing and underpinning peace and stability in the Gulf, and containing any threats.

A key strand of our policy in that region is our enthusiastic support for the Gulf Co-operation Council--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport referred--which we have supported since its inception in 1981. We are committed to helping the GCC states establish co-ordinated defence forces, which are essential for their assured future. Those arrangements need to be matched by greater political co-ordination and co-operation. I am happy to give credit where credit is due, and I heartily welcome the recent agreement between Bahrain and Qatar--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport also referred, in his excellent speech--to improve their bilateral relations and to appoint ambassadors. We hope that that process of consultation and consolidation will continue. We shall also continue to take the lead in promoting constructive dialogue between the EU and the GCC.

We are also concerned by the continuing dispute between the UAE and Iran over Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands. We have urged both parties to seek a peaceful resolution and are happy to support the UAE proposal to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice. I urge the Iranians to enter into serious negotiations to resolve that dispute.

Britain makes an extensive military contribution to Gulf security. We contribute to operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. We have maintained a naval presence in the Gulf since 1980, through the Armilla patrol. We also work closely with the Gulf states to see how we can best help support them in their defence needs. These are a few examples of Gulf security, but we stand ready to offer any additional help that might be needed with training or in supplying defence equipment.

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Gulf trade has increased dramatically. Combined exports to the six GCC countries in 1996 totalled almost £5.25 billion--an increase of 26.8 per cent. over 1995. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were, respectively, our 13th and 24th largest export markets. Saudi Arabia is our foremost non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development market, and our exports there rose by 51 per cent. last year. I was pleased to attend the inaugural meeting of the UK-Dubai joint trade committee on board Britannia. The enormous strides made by the UAE on the economic front in recent years provide good opportunities for the UK and Europe. Our fundamental interests in the Gulf are almost identical with those of the GCC countries, and our perception of the threat is also identical.

As for Iraq, Saddam Hussein poses a serious threat to middle east security. As recently as October 1994, he threatened to invade Kuwait once again, and only the swift and robust response of the international community stopped him. He is a danger to his own people, and I cannot understand why the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) supports him. Only last year, Saddam Hussein used his considerable military machine to attack civilians in Irbil--a clear flouting of Security Council resolution 688. I say yet again to the hon. Member for Linlithgow that food and medicines have never been subject to sanctions. If there are starving children in Iraq, it is the fault of Saddam Hussein, who builds glorified palaces to his name and his honour when people are starving. Blame him, do not blame this House, Sir.

Following the Gulf war, we established a special commission to oversee the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. We provide strong support to that commission. I must again tell the hon. Gentleman that members of the United Nations special commission in Iraq carry out vital work. They are trying to spot weapons of mass destruction, which it is said could kill the world's population six times over. All the hon. Gentleman wants to do is to make cheap criticism of their work and their accommodation. I should have thought that they should be congratulated on their achievements instead of subjected to unjustified criticism.

We now have United Nations Security Council resolution 986. There is a greater amount of money--

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