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7 Jun 2006 : Column 101WH—continued

In view of the time, I shall now discuss the York to Beverley railway line. Before its closure, the line served a number of settlements, and in recent years there has been interest in reopening the line. The most recent local transport plan refers to the potential for reopening, bearing in mind the need for careful evaluation and the realities of funding constraints. I am aware of a study commissioned by the Countryside Agency and published in 2003, which examined the possibility of reopening
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disused railway lines in Yorkshire and the Humber. The study identified a number of potential benefits of reopening the line in question, but it also highlighted several major obstacles in the form of development across the track bed. It suggested that those might be dealt with through new alignments, but it also noted that at Stamford Bridge and Market Weighton, creating new alignments would be more difficult due to the level of development that has occurred. The study concluded that although the York to Beverley line should be considered for reopening in the longer term—10 years or more into the future—it should be protected from further development in the meantime.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a further study was undertaken by the consultants at Carl Bro for East Riding of Yorkshire council, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to consider it. As he also said, it reported that the operation would not be financially self-supporting from fare income and would require ongoing public subsidy.

The decision to protect a section of railway is a matter for local planning authorities, in line with national, regional and local planning policies. I would expect such decisions to be based on discussion with relevant stakeholders, including Network Rail, and consideration of the costs involved.

It is important to note that, although the railways are growing faster than ever and we have not closed our mind to the expansion of rail, the Government’s investment priorities must be driven by an objective assessment of where the greatest benefit, economic and environmental, is to be delivered. Generally, that follows strong patterns of established demand.

For that reason and because of the poor historical performance of a range of branch lines and experimental services, it would be unfair of me to suggest that consideration of the proposal outlined by the hon. Gentleman is likely to be a realistic priority for the Government in the immediate future. Of course, it is always open to local planning authorities to produce their own proposals on the basis of their own committed funding, but such a proposal must also be subject to rigorous scrutiny, starting with consideration of whether it offers the most effective transport option. The production of a business case involves a considerable investment of time and resources, and any authority would consider carefully its own priorities in the context of local, regional and national plans, just as central Government do.

This year, the Government are spending £110 million every week to improve the railways. That commitment to our rail network is helping to bring in further substantial investment from the private sector. In addition, there have been significant improvements in the railways in recent years, which have led to a considerable increase in the number of rail passenger journeys. For example, in 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made. Importantly, the Government recently announced £370 million to deliver access improvements to stations across the network in line with the new provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

I confirm that we are working to improve transport connectivity in east Yorkshire as a whole. The local transport plan system has provided more certainty of
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funding for local authorities, so that they can tackle local issues. We are making progress on improving transport and we are committed to continuing to do so.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Middle East

2.30 pm

Frank Cook (in the Chair): I should point out that the debate is very well attended. Six hon. Members have already indicated that they want to catch my eye, and there are also the three Front Benchers. That is a fair number in 90 minutes, so contributions, interventions and reactions to them should be brief.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker and your good self, Mr. Cook, my parliamentary neighbour, for giving me the opportunity to discuss the vital issue of the middle east peace process. This is a crucial time, and 2006 could well be seen as a key year in the peace process. Of course, every year could be seen as key, given the frustrating nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider middle east peace process. I could, for example, mention 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed, 2000, when the Camp David summit was held and the second intifada started, or 2003, when the international Quartet’s road map was published, Prime Minister Sharon commented that Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories must end and the Israeli disengagement policy was unveiled. However, 2006 seems to be emerging as a landmark year in the peace process, with the removal of Sharon from active Israeli politics on 4 January, the Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas into government, and the Israeli elections in March. I shall first discuss those two hugely significant elections—one in Israel and one in Palestine—and then, if possible, widen the scope of the debate to encompass the security barrier and the behaviour of Iran.

The middle east peace process remains full of problems, paradoxes and controversies. Last week, I was privileged to introduce Ambassador Dennis Ross at a meeting of the Labour Friends of Israel, which I chair. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, Ambassador Ross is a distinguished expert on the middle east, who played a leading role in the first Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration and who has dealt directly with Israel and the Palestinians. At last week’s meeting, he stated:

Instead, there is a pressing need to control and improve the situation on the ground.

The Israeli elections in March saw the formation of a new coalition, led by Kadima, with the Israeli Labour party as senior partner. I congratulate the Labour party leader, Amir Peretz, on that success. I met Labour Members of the Knesset when I led an LFI delegation to Israel and Palestine in February and I was impressed by the party’s domestic social agenda, which had a familiar ring. The party was even using footage from the British Labour party’s 1997 and 2001 election broadcasts to promote their key policy—a minimum wage. That is incredibly encouraging. The success of the Labour party in March demonstrates a willingness among Israelis to debate what sort of society they want theirs to be, and it is clear that that society will be more socially inclusive and embrace a greater redistribution of wealth.

The Israeli Labour party is also progressive and innovative on security matters. It is committed to a two-state solution and a negotiated final status settlement.
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It has emphasised the importance of sustaining talks with President Abbas’s office and is determined to heighten his status. The appointment of Mr. Peretz as Minister of Defence is also a positive development, and I hope that the Labour party’s leading role in the coalition will see a greater push towards negotiation. In his own words, Peretz is committed to a

wherever possible.

There is much to support elsewhere in the coalition. The new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, will visit the Palace of Westminster next week for an open meeting with Members of this House and the other place. At that meeting, I hope that he will explain how he will implement the clear mandate that the Israeli people gave him in the March elections to continue withdrawals from the west bank. What is known as the convergence plan involves withdrawing from all settlements east of the fence, dismantling illegal outposts and potentially resettling 70,000 settlers from the west bank. The policy, which is still in its formative stages, would establish provisional borders in accordance with the road map and would not deviate wildly from the map drawn up under the Geneva accords.

Right hon. and hon. Members would be right to have reservations. Obviously, a unilateral plan is far from ideal, and we should continue to strive for negotiation, but we are where we are, and in the absence of a partnership for peace, unilateralism remains the only option. If we are to keep the peace process moving, we should recognise that fact and reluctantly and cautiously welcome that unilateralism. Concessions on the Israeli side could, I hope, catalyse similar developments on the Palestinian side to produce a state of what some commentators have called, perhaps oxymoronically, parallel unilateralism.

That brings me to the Palestinians and specifically Hamas. On the one hand, the fact that there were free and fair elections in January—an event matched in the region only in Israel—is to be welcomed and is a cause for optimism. On the other hand, the fact that Hamas was the victor is a setback. Clearly, the Palestinian Authority, whatever its political complexion, needs to address severe domestic challenges, such as severe economic hardship, the need for social, education and health care improvements and the need to tackle corruption. When I was in Palestine in February, it was evident that it would take time for Fatah really to come to terms with the fact that Hamas was simply better organised politically on the ground, with a shrewd and sophisticated awareness of the simple need to get out the vote. There are domestic challenges, but perhaps parallel unilateralism will allow progress to be made.

However, the election of Hamas remains extremely worrying. The organisation unequivocally calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, which is simply unacceptable in a governing party.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on his speech so far. Are not the Israelis absolutely right to concentrate on doing their best to support President Mahmoud Abbas and ensure that his view, even if he takes it directly to the people
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through a further referendum, prevails over that of Hamas, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, cannot be part of the solution to this difficult situation?

Mr. Wright: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He has had Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall about this very issue and has spoken eloquently and decisively about it. I shall talk about the referendum in a moment.

The international community, which provides £1 billion a year in funding to the Palestinian Authority, has asked Hamas to meet three basic conditions for the funding to continue, and I know from reading the report of one of the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debates that he mentioned this very issue. The three conditions are that Hamas should recognise Israel, renounce terror and respect existing international agreements. In the past 24 hours, President Abbas has extended by a number of days the time that he has given Hamas to accept his offer implicitly to recognise Israel, which is part of the 18-point prisoners’ document.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Which borders of Israel does my hon. Friend want Hamas to recognise?

Mr. Wright: I shall come to that later.

I mentioned three conditions, but Hamas has yet to make any moves towards meeting them.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because time is short. Would it not represent some progress if Hamas recognised the right of Israel to exist at all, given that its charter calls explicitly for Israel’s destruction?

Mr. Wright: I agree absolutely. As I said, time is running out, not only in this debate, but on that wider, more fundamental point.

When a suicide bomber attacked the busy streets of Tel Aviv over the Passover holidays in April, killing nine people and injuring nearly 100 others, Hamas leaders condoned the attack. What could possibly be gained from that? However, I am struck by the recent comments by Rashid abu Shabak, a Fatah leader whom President Abbas appointed in April 2006—against Hamas’s wishes—to the post of security director for the west bank and Gaza. He said:

In the meantime, the Palestinian people have the most to lose. Regimes that are committed to religious fundamentalism have dangerous consequences for the populations over which they rule—not least for women, minorities and political activists.

Furthermore, there has been the danger that the necessary sanctions may lead to an economic crisis. The international donor community has had to tackle a serious dilemma because of the need to continue to provide aid and assistance to ordinary, decent and innocent Palestinians while bypassing, at the moment, the Palestinian Authority.

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A way has been found to do that. On 9 May the international Quartet agreed on a new funding mechanism to be administered by the EU, whereby money can go directly to humanitarian causes such as schools and hospitals. Individual state donors have also increased their humanitarian budgets. That includes the UK, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, whose Department has pledged an extra £15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for humanitarian funding.

I draw right hon. and hon. Members’ attention to the document “Aiding Peace” produced by Labour Friends of Israel, which was submitted to the Treasury as part of the consultation on the economic aspects of the peace process, led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. It details other crucial elements needed for peace, including political stability; improving access to markets and supplies; stimulating employment and building up the Palestinian private sector; and establishing microfinance for Palestinian small and medium-sized enterprises, thereby strengthening the business environment and improving economic competitiveness.

Arguments persist that economic improvement cannot be addressed until Israeli security restrictions are addressed too. I urge understanding, however, that such restrictions are a consequence of the conflict. At last week’s meeting, Ambassador Ross made the point that Israel daily faces about 60 security threats; I shall return to that point shortly. The reason why there are so few suicide bombings is that the Israeli defence force pre-empts many of them. I hope that the reduction in Israeli security restrictions and an increase in Palestinian economic activity and prosperity can, with the right leadership, occur in tandem.

The debate on security must now take in Hamas as well. It may have come to power by democratic means but it has not embraced the democratic tradition and responsibilities of a democracy. Hamas has allowed the streets of Gaza, which was fully evacuated by Israel last year, to be controlled by militant factions engaged in running battles. Members of the Palestinian press reporting on those clashes have received death threats from Hamas because of their critical reporting of the Government and their sympathies with Mahmoud Abbas’s office. Meanwhile, rocket attacks from Gaza on civilian targets in small Israeli towns have continued. Those attacks are crude and relatively inaccurate and therefore, thankfully, unsuccessful, but crucially they add to the Israeli sense of insecurity, especially because of the fear that a hit on the Ashkelon industrial zone, with its fuel and chemical depots and power station, would cause a major disaster. The attacks have provoked retaliation from Israel and the re-spinning of the cycle of violence.

I believe that those daily rocket attacks by Palestinian militants are the biggest short-term obstacle to peace. The Israelis fear that if the attacks cannot be stopped in Gaza, from which they have withdrawn, they will spread to the west bank, from where every major town and population centre in Israel will be a target.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about
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something that is one of my abiding memories of Israel, from a visit earlier in the year with the Conservative Friends of Israel—a Hezbollah terrorist guarding the border of south Lebanon and presenting the organisation as the legitimate authority in Lebanon? Is that not an example of a dangerous precedent: a terrorist organisation seeking legitimacy as a political party when it is responsible for the murders of innocent citizens?

Mr. Wright: I agree with those points, and although the hon. Gentleman and I did not go on the same visit, we probably stood in the same place and witnessed the same sort of thing.

Against the background that I have been describing, the new coalition Government in Israel face big, but not insurmountable, challenges as they build their governing momentum following the election. Perhaps the most immediate challenges are domestic security and the barrier, which I shall discuss next, and the wider context of regional security and the threat from Iran, which I hope to mention later.

The security barrier is an unfortunate but sadly necessary consequence of the conflict. Its route and the impact that it has on Palestinians are contentious and the Israelis are conscious of that, but please let us remember why it is there. A few years ago, no one in Israel wanted it. The left opposed it on humanitarian and political grounds. The right opposed it on ideological grounds, fearing, as the Palestinians do, that it represented a border in contrast to their territorial dreams. For many, the financial cost also seemed prohibitive. Then in March 2002, in a single month, there were 37 suicide bomb attacks, claiming 135 lives. The frame of the argument changed dramatically, and changed again when the barrier proved so effective and suicide bombings dropped down the graphs. There has been a 90 per cent. reduction in attacks by terrorists and a 70 per cent. decrease in the number of Israelis killed per year.

I am not going to say that the barrier is welcome. I have seen it myself and have experienced in a very minor manner some of the discomfort and frustration of waiting for hours trying to cross the security barrier. I had to endure it only for an afternoon, so I fully sympathise with those people who have to endure that situation for hours, daily—twice a day—to go to work, take goods to market or see their families. I have seen at first hand the disruption that it causes to people’s lives.

One cannot dismiss fears about the barrier’s status. The international community needs to understand its physical and psychological importance. I mentioned earlier that the Israeli defence force is pre-empting many attempted suicide attacks. The primary reason for that success is the barrier. It slows attackers down, aids their detection and deters their attempts.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): The location of the barrier, which seemed to me during an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit in November to be more like a very large wall, is the contentious point. Why must it be drawn so as to confiscate so much Palestinian land?

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