The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): During my visit to Israel on 24 November, I raised this issue with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. I reiterated the British Government's opinion that, while we understand Israel's legitimate security concerns, the construction of the barrier in occupied territory is unlawful and causes unacceptable humanitarian hardship for many Palestinians. With other EU colleagues, we voted in favour of a resolution to that effect in the UN General Assembly on 20 July.
Dr. Iddon: The wall is being built in such a way that it divides east Jerusalem into two cantons. New gates are being opened, and old ones closed. That is causing more Palestinian families to be separated and more land to be annexed. In addition, it will make final status talks on the future of the city of Jerusalem extremely difficult. Has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with the Israeli Government on that point?
Mr. Straw: Yes, indeed I have, and those discussions took place during my visit to Israel on 24 November. The illustration that my hon. Friend gives is further evidence of the hardship caused by the separation barrier where it is outwith the internationally accepted 1967 lines. As far as final status is concerned, those matters remain to be negotiated under phase 3 of the road map. However, both sets of Israeli Ministers to whom I spoke made it clear that they fully understand that they may have to move the separation barrier as part of any final status settlement. They pointed out that they had done that when there was a final settlement in Israel's disputes with Egypt.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
(Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although the security fence has undoubtedly been effective in reducing terrorism and saving lives, it would be better still if the people of the region had the benefit of a durable and peaceful solution? Does he accept that the encouraging progress and momentum towards peace that has been evident in Israel recently should be met by a Palestinian leadership with a genuine determination to eradicate terrorism?
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Mr. Straw: In his first remark, the hon. Gentleman states a fact: it is a reality of Israeli politics that, although it is highly disputatious about almost every issue, there is general agreement across the parties about the separation wall. That illustrates the degree to which the Israelis have been traumatised by the terrorism. That does not justify their decision, but it explains it.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point: we want there to be an active and responsible Palestinian leadership. We have every reason to expect that that is what we shall get as a result of the elections on 9 January.
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): On the behaviour of the Israeli Government, does my right hon. Friend accept that Israel is acting more like a tyrannical regime than a democracy in its treatment of one of the most courageous peacemakers of our timeMordecai Vanunu?
Mr. Straw: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I do not believe that we should characterise Israel, which is a democracy, as a tyrannical regime. We have made representations in respect of Mr. Vanunu and I am happy to pass on those of my hon. Friend.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the best way to a lasting solution in the middle east is through implementation of the road map? To that extent, does he agree that it should be amended to include some form of dispute resolution and would he consider introducing a central figure who would do his best to bring both sides together to try to come up with a solution?
Mr. Straw: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, given the difficulties of getting the road map agreed in the first place, we should not make the best the enemy of the good. What is crucial now is that we progress with implementing phase 1, phase 2 and then phase 3 of the road map as quickly as possible. Crucially, the withdrawal from Gaza and from four settlements in the north of the west bank needs to take place as quickly as possible, with international support so that it does not leave a vacuum that is filled by the terrorists but enables the Palestinian Authority to establish the beginnings of an independent and viable state of Palestine.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw):
The EU has provided €6 million to support voter registration and a further €4 million for the election. It is also sending a substantial observation mission, including UK observers. Key assistance by the UK, including our continuing work to help to improve the Palestinian Authority's security structure in the occupied territories, will be sustained. During my recent visit, I saw the central elections
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commission and expressed UK support for its work. I also pressed, and received undertakings from, the Israeli Government in respect of their facilitation of the elections in the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. I have to say that both the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis were well aware of the potential for rejectionist terrorists to disrupt the electoral process and to damage democratic Palestinian causes as much as the Israelis. In that respect, I wish to condemn Hamas unequivocally for its attack and the killing of five Israeli defence force soldiers two days ago and for its boycott of the Palestinian Authority presidential elections.
Richard Burden: I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and put it to him that if we are to enable Palestinian electors to participate fully in the elections it is important that they can meet candidates, and that means that candidates have to be able to move around. Does he therefore share my concern that last week Dr. Mustafa Barghoutinot to be confused with Marwan Barghoutiwas held up between Jenin and Ramallah at a checkpoint? He and his colleagues were beaten by Israeli troops and forced to lie down for more than an hour. If we are to facilitate elections, it is important that the Israelis are told that such behaviour is not acceptable and that the freedom of movement guaranteed by the Israeli Foreign Minister really must be respected.
Mr. Straw: The Israeli Foreign Minister gave me clear undertakings, which were repeated in public, that the Israeli Government would, so far as is possible, respect the 1995 interim agreement, which was the basis for the arrangements for the 1996 Palestinian Authority elections. We are watching the situation carefully, as are our international partners, and we are happy to follow up any representations made to us in this House or by members of the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I join the Foreign Secretary in his condemnation of the behaviour of Hamas. I welcome the fact that the elections on 9 January will be held under the same rules and dispensations as in 1996 and I confirm that the Israeli Foreign Minister made the same undertaking to me. Members of the Palestinian Authority also told me in Ramallah last week that their concerns about the election in East Jerusalem have satisfactorily been met by the Israeli authorities, and that is encouraging.
Given that the elections are seen on all sides as a significant step in the return to the road map, is it not in the interests of all sides that the next Palestinian leader is elected with the strongest democratic mandate possible to carry the fraught peace process forward? Is it not also important that the courageous forthcoming disengagement of Israel from Gaza is seen, alongside the elections, not as a one-off but as another significant step towards the eventual resumption of dialogue upon which alone a final status settlement is possible?
I agree with everything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. The withdrawal from Gaza is welcome and courageous. It has, for example, led to most serious divisions inside Prime Minister's Sharon's coalition, yet he has none the less persisted with that decision and I am happy to say that it now
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looks as though he will be joined in government by our Socialist International partners, the Israeli Labour party. However, it is crucial that the withdrawal from Gaza and the four settlements in the north of the west bank is seen as a necessary step towards implementation of the road map, although by no means a sufficient step.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State's outright condemnation of Hamas and any terrorist activity that may happen in the run-up to the election, and also his urging the Israeli Government to bend over backwards to ensure that every Palestinian and delegates in every area have access to the election. Does he agree that this is a unique opportunity to find a way forward for the voices of moderation and that we should put back in the box those with the most strident voices and the extremists?
Mr. Straw: It is a unique opportunity and I was struck by the determination of both Israelis and Palestinians to seize it. However, it has to be made clear that the one group that could prevent the elections from taking place at all, or in a sensible and fair way, are the rejectionist terrorists who are not only fighting the Israeli people but seeking to disrupt their own elected Palestinian Authority and their own democratic institutions. It is utterly cynical of Hamas to boycott the elections as well as to take the kind of terrorist action that they took two days ago, and I hope that they hear the complete condemnation not just from people in this country but around the world. It would not even serve their real purpose, which is trying to improve the lot of poor Palestinians, were they to succeed in that disruption.
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): The Foreign Secretary must understand that the behaviour of Israeli troops at the checkpoint last week endangers free and fair elections just as much as actions by terrorist groups. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), what demands has the Foreign Secretary made of the Israeli Government following that incident? Why were those men beaten up? Was it because they were presidential candidates or simply because they were Palestinians?
Mr. Straw: I do not know the full circumstances of what happened, although I am happy to make inquiries into them. I do not defend excesses by the Israeli defence force; I never have, and I have always been happy to follow them up. However, the hon. Lady makes a grave error if she is suggesting that there is some kind of moral equivalence between the position of the Israeli defence force and desperate, horrible terrorists such as Hamas.