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Middle East Peace Process

4.30 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am conscious that I have about three hours of material to cram into 15 minutes. It is a great pleasure to speak in a debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and to see the Minister for the Middle East who has a great and long-term commitment to middle east issues, not least those affecting Israel and Palestine.

I declare two interests at the outset: first, I am an executive member of Labour Friends of Israel, and, secondly, I am patron of the friends of the parents circle and bereaved families forum, which works with communities on both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—who have lost sons, daughters and relatives in the continuing conflict. A fortnight ago I was at Atlantic college in the constituency of our hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). I addressed a meeting of about 80 students, from Jordan, Oman, Israel and the west bank and other parts of the Gulf and Arab nations. They were highly articulate, and I expressed some optimism to them, as I frequently try to do on such occasions. How could I know, however, just how much would change, as things always do in the middle east, in only a fortnight?

I want to rattle through some issues, on which the Minister will, I hope, have time to respond. As to Gaza and Rafah there have been immense developments that hold out positive messages for the future. In short, the breakthrough on the Gaza-Egypt-Rafah border crossing, which is due to be opened on 25 November, is of huge significance. The Palestinians will for the first time have a border of their own to control. Israel has agreed that the EU will have the authority to ensure that the Palestinian Authority complies with the regulations set out in the agreement. Not only are the Palestinians to be in charge of the border, but the EU has for the first time become involved on the ground in Gaza.

We hear more day by day about provision being made for further developments, including the opening of a seaport, a cargo customs crossing, the reduction of road blocks in the west bank and—most crucial, so that it does not perish—allowing immediate export of the 2005 harvest. I rushed through those items, but it is important to examine the terms of the agreement, because they are historic milestones. The text includes the words:

It would be easy to understate the significance of the move in the direction of legitimacy and authority within the Palestinian Authority, which is recognised by not only Palestinians but the international community.

As to security, the agreement states that the Palestinian Authority

How far have we travelled in recent times, away from complete distrust on the Israeli side of any of the Palestinian Authority's attempts to impose its own security, through rapid improvements in recent months,
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to, now, a statement that on the Rafah border the Palestinian Authority will determine security and deal with preventing the transfer of weapons and explosives?

The agreement also states that security services from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the United States and Egypt

I stress those matters because now there is proper co-ordination. It is not unilateralism or one side making decisions on the other's behalf, but, in a very tense and difficult situation, where we still have far to go, all sides working together—the international actors and those on the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As he has mentioned security, does he agree that it is the key to a lasting middle east peace settlement? One reason why so much progress has been made recently is that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians are finally beginning to recognise that.

Huw Irranca-Davies : The intervention is wise. That could not have happened unless the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis had been willing to work together. I am convinced that the Palestinian Authority are committed in a way that they have never been to tackling security, but they will continue to need cross-border intelligence and logistics support from not only the Israelis but the international community to aid them in any way that they can. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that security is pivotal.

I want to touch on the economics of the region, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. In terms of the much-talked-about economic road map, led by the UK there is now an international commitment to Palestinian economic rejuvenation, based on James Wolfensohn's recommendations for the viability of a Palestinian state.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's report—an economic plan—should accompany the political road map to which the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the international community have committed themselves. It is a fundamental step forward that goes with security, political impetus in the region and economic necessities. The Chancellor of the Exchequer last week said:

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): May I register an interest? I am chair of the Labour Friends of Israel. On my hon. Friend's point about the need for economic prosperity, does he recognise that the new leader of the Israeli Labour party, Amir Peretz, is going to move the
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focus towards tackling the big problems of poverty and social deprivation in Israel? That will help reduce turbulence in the middle east.

Mr. Eric Ilsley (in the Chair): Order. I remind the House that Adjournment debates are the property of the Member establishing them, and interventions should be made only with the agreement of the hon. Member raising the debate and the Minister. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

Huw Irranca-Davies : Thank you, Mr. Illsley. I am conscious that my three hours has been extended to three hours and a few minutes. However, I shall try to keep a close eye on the time, because I want to hear the response of my hon. Friend the Minister.

We should not discount the reality of the situation touched on by the Chancellor when he talked about the gap between the $800 a year typical income in Gaza and the $18,000 a year typical income in Israel. We can drive forward the economic road map only if we are willing to address that issue, and I think that we are committed to doing so.

I shall touch on how the Chancellor said he would take the issue forward. First, the report will be followed by meetings in London with the G8, the EU and Israeli and Palestinian Finance Ministers. I applaud the Government—No. 10, No. 11 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—because they have driven forward many issues, sometimes dragging the international community along behind them.

There will be a final conference on 13 December hosted jointly with the World Bank, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian business men to promote private sector growth. I was sitting at a lunch three weeks ago with Israeli business men on either side of me. Although they applauded the political engagement of this Government and the international community, they were adamant that nothing would be done unless the private sector on the Palestinian and Israeli sides was brought on board to drive forward the area's economy.

There are European Commission plans to double aid to the Palestinian Authority; I shall return to them. The EU has already made available €60 million for quick-start projects, including €25 million for a new cargo terminal at Gaza airport. In addition, as many Members know, in July 2005 the G8 pledged an extra $3 billion in aid to the Palestinians.

There are many positive messages at the moment, but it would be completely remiss to have a debate of this nature without tackling the issue of the fence, wall, barrier, or whatever. In my short tenure as an MP, I have visited Israel and the occupied territories on three occasions, with Labour Friends of Israel and with the Labour Middle East Council. Anyone who saw Israel's security barrier would be completely struck with sadness that it had ever been built, but we have to remember that the barrier is not the cause of the conflict, but a direct consequence of it. It is unlikely that withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the northern west bank would even have been countenanced without the improved security afforded to Israelis by the security barrier.
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The Israeli Labour party was, of course, a supporter of the barrier before the idea was even brought forward. The Israeli Labour party wrote to Labour Friends of Israel last year:

The Israeli Labour party then talked through the figures. It said that there had been a 90 per cent. drop in attacks by terrorists since the barrier was begun, a 70 per cent. decrease in the number of Israelis murdered and an 85 per cent. decrease in the number wounded, and so on. However, it acknowledged that the route of the barrier is hugely contentious and that it is not the long-term solution.

Hon. Members, myself included, have rightly raised concerns about the exact route of the barrier, especially in and around Jerusalem, and the humanitarian impact on Palestinians. We would all agree that the barrier should not be used as an excuse to pre-empt unilaterally a negotiated settlement or agreement about the future of Palestine or any final borders. It is of paramount importance that that principle is accepted in Israeli law. Hon. Members may be aware that, in a series of judgments, the Israeli High Court established the precedent that it is legal for the Israeli Government to build the wall only where that is a proportionate response to the security threat posed.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I saw the barrier with my own eyes last week. If we are to accept what my hon. Friend says about it, can he explain why it is not built on the border, and why up to 10 per cent. of Palestinian territory is behind the wall?

Huw Irranca-Davies : That is the very point that I was making. I accept that the route of the barrier is contestable, but the statistics on what it has done to give security to the Israelis are incontestable. I am looking forward to the awaited Israeli High Court decision on the route through Jerusalem, as are many people.

On Hamas, we are heading towards legislative elections to the Palestinian Authority in January. That is another landmark in extending democracy throughout the Palestinian Authority. The Hamas charter still calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and opposes all peace conferences. If Hamas is to be accepted into the Palestinian political process—I do not rule that out in any way, because we have seen, in conflict zones around the world, the advantages of bringing in those who have at some point seemed irreconcilable to peace, and bringing them in pays dividends—the international community must constantly demand that Hamas accepts the principle of a two-state solution and completely renounces violence.

Let me touch briefly on the political changes that have happened in recent days and weeks. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) said, the new Labour leader Amir Peretz has a very progressive foreign and domestic policy—something for which many of us have been waiting for some time. He is determined to keep up the momentum of disengagement, and is already submitting a Bill offering compensation to west bank settlements if 60 per cent. of residents agree to leave voluntarily. He believes that the peace process is linked to the welfare reform package, and he is much more inclined to move towards final-status solutions.
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Only a week ago, on 16 November, Jonathan Freedland described him in The Guardian as

A week on, Ariel Sharon steps down from Likud and we move towards a complete shake-up of Israeli politics, beyond the role of Peretz and the Labour party. On leaving, Mr. Sharon said:

says the great warrior, the man who built the settlements,

I am sure that the Minister already has the endless press cuttings, some of them cynical and sceptical about Sharon's motives and asking, "Is he building a legacy; is he serious?". In the classic phrase, the kaleidoscope has been shaken. My message to the Minister, with all his experience, and given his recent and future visits to the region, is to continue to press, not only with Peretz and the Labour party but with Ariel Sharon and others and with some of the minority parties, for a situation in which, when the kaleidoscope settles, it settles on something that is tied more closely to the aspirations of the Palestinian people as well as the security needs of the Israelis and that is based firmly on a two-state solution. At the moment, the process has all the potential to go very right, but similarly all the potential to go very wrong indeed.

I had intended to discuss the wider issues, but I see that the Minister is running out of time in which to reply as I aim towards my three hours. Let me set out some things that Labour Friends of Israel would want to happen in terms of both the Israeli and the Palestinian agendas. First, we want to see international development in which technological and agricultural expertise in Israel, alongside its diplomatic and political relationship with some African countries, could play a significant role. Secondly, UK-Israel joint research and development projects should receive specific encouragement, and as the Minister knows, there are already strong links with our Israeli counterparts. Thirdly, we seek greater security and counter-terrorism co-operation, building on the trust already developed by the Gaza-Egypt border control. There is more potential there.

At EU level, we should be looking for other ways to combat terrorism in the interests of supporting the peace process. In particular, we should look again at the UK's proscription of Hezbollah being matched in the EU lists. In respect of Palestinian development, we want a country assistance plan for Palestinians that looks at redrafting the common agricultural policy to reflect disengagement and the increased Palestinian Authority capacity, so that more money goes directly to the Palestinian Authority. I am sure that the Minister has seen the documents, which I will share with him afterwards, as I have no time now, touching on the sensitive issue of whether the money that goes to the Palestinian Authority has all been used for the right and appropriate purposes on the ground.
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Finally, we seek micro-financing for the Palestinians. Funding should be put aside for a Palestinian equity fund directly to support those small businesses and agricultural projects. That is exactly the message that has been given to me by business men.

As patron of the friends of the parents circle and bereaved families forum, and as a Member of the UK Parliament, I think we owe it to those families who have lost relatives and those who are living through these times of conflict to drive this agenda forward. I know of the Minister's commitment to this project, and I look forward to hearing from him how the UK Government at all levels intend to do that.

4.50 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on raising this issue. It remains, as he said, a huge international challenge to make sure that things take a turn for the better, not the worse. Now is a unique moment. My hon. Friend and I are neighbouring MPs and we know about territorial disputes. I have the magnificent Royal Glamorgan hospital in my constituency, while he has the hospital car park. Our equivalent of the River Jordan is the River Ely, but I shall not go into that now.

My hon. Friend concentrated on some important issues. I have never been one of those people who believed that Gaza was a hopeless case. On the contrary, anyone who has gone into Gaza and walked through the fields knows that they are good for growing all sorts of vegetables. It is good agricultural land as well as good for building on. When walking to the beach, we are on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, which should be enough of a sign of what is possible. The area ought to be a tourist paradise. It could become one.

He did not say it as directly as I will, but the most important point that my hon. Friend made is that it will not do the people who live in the area any good to have on their doorstep what amounts to a basket case of a country. They want a vibrant economy. The population of Gaza is young. The west bank has a young population.

My hon. Friend touched on some interesting issues, not least of which is communications. He drew attention to the welcome developments on the Rafah crossing, as well as on other crossings. Now is a great moment of liberation for the people of Gaza. They will be able to move back and forth to Egypt. I was in Cairo recently and I know that Egypt wants to play its part. The Jordanians want to play a part, too. They are happy with recent developments and want their borders opened up. As my hon. Friend said, now may be a real turning point. I certainly hope that it is.

We need to go further. We welcome the fact that bus convoys will take the people of Gaza and the people of the west bank to visit each other. We cannot have a situation similar to that in the two Germanys before unification took place; that is absurd in the 21st century. There must be proper communications, such as a specially designed road, a railway line or both. At
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present, we are building the world's most sophisticated railway line into St. Pancras. I hope that we can use our expertise to help Jim Wolfensohn and his team take his project forward. That would be marvellous.

My hon. Friend described vividly the continuing problems. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) spoke of the wall. I do not know which part of it he saw; I saw the part that was in and around Jerusalem. It is a horrifying sight. It is 28 to 30 ft tall. Architecturally, it is certainly no great wall of China. It is ugly. It stands as a reminder to all of us that such a solution will only be temporary, until the two countries see their economies grow and realise that they need each other. There is a symbiotic reciprocity between the countries, which was understood in the early days of Israel. There is no question about that.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore on this: I went to a kibbutz on the old Jerusalem road a month or so ago and, although the left wingers there were reluctant to admit it, they said that life had become immeasurably easier since the barrier went up. That should tell us something—we do not have to agree—about the psyche and the mood that it has generated.

I went to see a Palestinian who is living in Jerusalem and is married to a British citizen. He works in a hospital just up the road from where he lives in a nice house. He is a hard-working doctor and instead of getting to work in four minutes, it will take him 40 minutes.

Huw Irranca-Davies : Does my hon. Friend accept that if the High Court decision in Israel suggests re-routing or even dismantling part of the wall, again the Israeli Government should respond favourably?

Dr. Howells : That is the strength of the Israeli state. Palestinians told me that their greatest weapon at the moment is the Israeli High Court, and we should remember that.

The debate inside the Palestinian Authority at the moment is interesting because there has been a feeling that Palestinians should not use the Israeli legal system. I think they should certainly try to use it if it enables them to obtain some justice in the routing of the barrier.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): In relation to the barrier and the reference that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made to economic development, does the Minister acknowledge that the barrier in separating Palestinians from their land and preventing people from moving—I was with my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and the Palestinian Authority last week—does not just delay them and that many have lost their jobs because they can no longer get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem? The extremely time-consuming road blocks that we experienced on occasions are not just an inconvenience for Palestinians; they are a real humiliation. Those are obstacles to the development of the Palestinian Authority. Should they not go as quickly as possible, to enable that development to take place?

Dr. Howells : Yes, that was a very fine speech. The obstacles should go as quickly as possible. I know that
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the United Nations has a mission in Jerusalem that is looking at the matter, but we must be careful. I tried to illustrate the effect of the barrier on Israeli psychology. It is no use assuming that if one side does something, the other will follow. We must take everyone along. It is disgraceful that people have lost their livelihood and the ability to come out of their home and stroll in areas where they have loved to stroll in the past. That is a disgrace; there is no question about that. I would like to see everyone press as hard as this Government have done to get that barrier re-routed. We will not back down on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore could have mentioned the real problem of a north-south division of the west bank and of the whole area. That is something about which we will keep banging away.
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In the moments left to me, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter. His work in the middle east to try to bring reconciliation and peace to an area that has been so terribly torn by war and conflict is well known and much appreciated. We should all be grateful to him, especially for his work with the parents circle and bereaved families. All too often we forget the victims, some of whom are British. Some fine people have been killed in Gaza and the west bank who were doing very good work, and we should not forget them.

We now have a moment when we can perhaps start to take the process forward to much better times. I hope that everyone approaches that with the best will in the world and tries to bring about changes.

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