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7 Jun 2006 : Column 108WH—continued

Mr. Wright: It would be wrong to say that no consideration has been given to Palestinian territorial claims or human rights. Israel’s Supreme Court, for example, which is open to Israelis and Palestinians alike, has taken a major role in determining the route of
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the barrier. Israeli judges made a landmark ruling in 2004—this is, I think, the crucial point in response to my hon. Friend—that the fence is legal only if the courts determine it to be proportionate in balancing Israel’s responsibility to keep its people safe with its responsibility to safeguard the rights of Palestinians. In Jerusalem, which is, I accept, where the barrier is at its most controversial, construction is on hold in many areas, pending further rulings from the Supreme Court.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that both the Labour party and the trade union movement in Israel have taken the clear view that, for reasons of security, the wall should stay, albeit that they want it within pre-1967 borders?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend and I went on the same visit and saw together, at first hand, the wall and its ugliness—in all senses of the word—but we also saw how it provides security and reassurance to Israelis. I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s point.

In effect, the Israeli courts have had a veto over the route of the fence, and as a result, since February 2005, the proposed route has run for much of its length along the 1967 border, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and is much closer to that line than it previously was in other areas. Where the fence deviates from the green line its aim is as a tactical restriction to fulfil the aims of hindrance, detection and deterrence.

Let me be blunt. In the end, armies can be negotiated to armistice and walls and fences can be negotiated back or down. The victims of terrorism cannot be negotiated back to life. It is the success of the barrier and its halting of the cycle of violence that created the political space for the Gaza withdrawal to take place and, from that, for the concept of territorial concessions to become the consensus approach to the peace process.

The checkpoints and road blocks around the west bank have made it extremely difficult for Palestinians to travel in and around towns in the west bank—a reality that has, as I have said, had a detrimental effect on their trade and business. Israel continues to assess its road blocks policy but has found it hard to reduce restrictions when armed Palestinians are stopped on a regular basis and terrorist networks continue to operate. Similarly, Palestinians have found the Gaza-Israel border crossing at Karni closed for, so far, nearly half of 2006, which means that they have lost millions of dollars in wasted agricultural exports that were unable to leave Gaza. Peretz has promised to try to seek a solution to keep that area open more frequently, but there is apprehension from the security forces, which continue to thwart potential terrorist attacks from militants who hope to use the area to gain access to Israel.

I stress that Israel needs to ensure that all its security measures are proportionate and in accordance with the rights of ordinary, decent and innocent Palestinians. We should continue to press for that, but that pressure will be more effective if there is greater acknowledgement of the concerns of both sides, of the dilemmas Israel faces, and of the effectiveness of constructive, contextual, case-by-case criticism rather than the sometimes hysterical and uniquely disproportionate commentary that the conflict often receives.

Practical work can also be done. The deal agreed in November 2005 on the Rafah border between the Gaza
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strip and Egypt is an example of how the international community can make a difference not only in wide and impersonal regional politics but in humanitarian issues.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I would like briefly to draw attention to the relaunch on 3 May 2006 of the international women’s commission for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine, which is welcomed by many. I understand that women have been meeting across the political divide for many years, even when there was no discussion and debate elsewhere and talks had completely stalled. All women Members of this House, particularly the new ones, hope to work with women elected to both the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority to support them as they move forward with the commission.

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. She is far too modest to tell the Chamber that she plays a leading role in this House in creating awareness and co-operation between women MPs here and those in Israel and Palestine. I pay tribute to her in that regard.

The international community has a role to play. It is hugely important that the situation is not allowed to stagnate into entrenched positions. The newly formed Israeli Government plan further withdrawals to ensure that that does not happen. The UK Government should support that initiative and ensure that the plan is executed in consultation with Mahmoud Abbas who remains in control of Palestinian security policy.

The international community must remain engaged in the conflict. The role of honest broker remains crucial. The UK has embraced that role in the past and must do so again. The London meetings on Palestinian reform in March 2005 were forward-thinking and totally opened the debate into Palestinian self-governance, security and economic policy. The UK also enjoys a fruitful relationship with Israel. As I said, the Israeli Prime Minister will be in London next week, when he will meet my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. No doubt they will engage in an open and productive dialogue.

The UK Government have firmly shown their commitment to the road map and the peace process, but when considering the middle east peace process, we must be careful not to look at the conflict only through the narrow prism of Israel and Palestine. The dispute is being played out on a regional and international stage. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is largely determined by the actions of neighbouring countries. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, I move to the issue of Iran.

Iran’s contribution to the conflict comes in the form of state-sponsored terror, existential threats against Israel, holocaust denial, rhetorical incitement and nuclear proliferation.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend confirm that Israel is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and that it has nuclear weapons and a delivery system with which to use them?

Mr. Wright: Yes, I can confirm that. I am not certain how that advances the argument, but I can confirm those facts.

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The regimes in Iran and Syria continue to support, fund and train terrorist organisations that operate in the middle east and threaten regional security. Groups supported, bankrolled, armed and, in some cases, even controlled by Iran and Syria include Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. State-sponsored terrorism undermines prospects for peace in the middle east peace process and the UK's commitment to regional reform, and threatens the UK directly where there are troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hezbollah, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) mentioned, receives most of its funding from Iran. It continues to threaten Israel’s security along its northern border, and only last week it launched attacks against Israel.

Iran’s rhetorical attacks against Israel, together with its attempted procurement of nuclear weapons pose, an existential threat to Israel. There have been calls from right hon. and hon. Members for a nuclear-free middle east, but there have also been calls for a middle east stabilised by nuclear deterrence. I suggest that neither is possible when the president of one nation is unrelenting in his call for another to be wiped off the face of the map.

Once again, the UK has led the international community with patience and innovation, led first by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and lately by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The latter carries with her, in her first few weeks in the job, the support, wishes and hopes of this House and all hon. Members’ constituents in her current endeavours with our European and international partners.

Over the years, we have all seen the ebb and flow of progression and setback which has characterised conflict in the middle east. With each progression, it is easy to become over-optimistic, and with each setback, it is all too easy to slide back into pessimism. I have tried to demonstrate to right hon. and hon. Members that whatever stage we may find ourselves at in that cycle—as I said at the start, 2006 is a key year in this process—the overall trend is and always should be towards democratic negotiation, resolution and peace.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I remind the Chamber that the Chair is required to call the first of the three Front-Bench speakers for winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm. A glance at the clock will tell you that we have very little time between now and then, so I ask all contributors to bear that in mind when making their speeches or accepting interventions.

2.57 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. The sheer attendance illustrates the importance of this issue.

It is easy for people here and in the middle east to get depressed about the situation given that the state of Israel has existed for 60 years and it has been 90 years since the Balfour decoration. It is almost like a new 100 years’ war that never comes to an end. However,
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when one looks beyond those bald statistics, one sees that there has been enormous change in that period: the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which has held; an exchange of ambassadors and a peaceful relationship; the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, which is an equally important treaty with Israel’s second neighbour; and, most significantly, both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted that there should be a two-state solution. That would have been inconceivable for the Palestinians and many Israelis until relatively recently.

What made those things possible? One should not underestimate the significance of national leaders. It is rather like the situation in South Africa with the end of apartheid: it needed not only Mandela, but de Clerk—two leaders from each community who were able to look to the future, not just the past. In relation to the middle east, considerations such as Anwar Sadat’s flight to Israel to address the Knesset, King Hussein’s courage with the Jordan treaty, and Yitzhak Rabin becoming a peacemaker having been a warrior all show what can be achieved. The challenge is whether Olmert and Abbas can both come up to those important standards.

Clearly, a negotiated solution is the best way forward. I almost hope that Hamas will reject what has been put to it so that a referendum can go ahead. I can think of nothing more important and significant than a referendum of the Palestinian people endorsing Abbas’s call for a two-state solution, so that thereafter discussions and negotiations could take place with that clearly being the will of the Palestinian people, and Hamas being clearly sidelined on that issue at least. If that turns out not to be possible, for whatever reason, we should not reject out of hand the Israeli commitment to a unilateral approach, because it reflects two fundamental changes that have taken place in Israeli thinking among those who are traditionally on the hard-line right of Israeli politics.

The first change is the recognition that, given the demographic changes taking place, Israel as a democratic society simply cannot hold on permanently to the whole of the west bank and Gaza. In a sense, the Israelis have concluded that in future the state of Israel will not be the same as the land of Israel. The land of Israel may be a biblical concept, but the state of Israel will have to have more modest aspirations.

The second change in Israeli thinking is strategically very important. For many years Israel said, and reminded anyone who went there, “Security requires us to occupy the west bank. Look how small Israel is; look how quickly we could be overcome if a conflict broke out”, but the reality is that it no longer has any fear from conventional Arab armies. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel and there is no Arab state that could conventionally defeat it, and the Israelis are comfortable with that.

Israel faces two kinds of threat: the demographic threat if it holds on to the whole of the west bank and ceases to lose its Jewish identity, and, perhaps more important, a missile threat. Whether nuclear or otherwise, missiles can attack Israel, which is not protected from that simply by holding on to the west bank. For that reason, even those on the right of Israeli politics are now prepared to contemplate a unilateral withdrawal from the west bank, should it prove necessary. That offers a major new opportunity for a peaceful solution to the crisis, which we have not had in the past.

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Given the time limit, I shall just make some brief points. I hope that the Israelis will take them on board should the negotiations go forward, or should they not and a unilateral solution is required. The first is that they should not feel too guilty about the wall or fence. It is not aimed at keeping people in, like the Berlin wall was; it is to keep terrorists out. That is a pretty fundamental distinction. However, as part of any ultimate agreement, unilateral or otherwise, the fence will have to go, because the economic future of the region requires close economic co-operation between Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Such co-operation is not possible with the long-term existence of the wall.

Secondly, the 1967 boundaries cannot be an absolute determinant of where the new frontier will lie. If the Israelis want, for understandable reasons, to hold on to some settlement areas, they must be willing to contemplate exchanges of territory, so that the overall Palestinian territory is not seriously diminished as a consequence.

Thirdly, nobody in their right mind wants a new barrier through the middle of Jerusalem. There are solutions to this. The Vatican-type status in Rome does not detract from the sovereignty or security of Italy any more than recognition of the holy places in east Jerusalem as non-Israeli territory would in any way damage any fundamental interest.

Fourthly, the right of return is very important from the point of view of Hamas and some Palestinians. The Israelis cannot be expected to concede that, but they can be expected, perhaps with American help, to offer generous financial compensation as part of an overall package. The current plans of the Israeli Government appear to envisage holding on not just to settlement areas, but to a whole section of the Jordan valley. I do not see any military need from them to do so. I believe, and hope, that that is simply a negotiating ploy so that they will have something extra to concede as part of an overall peaceful solution. They cannot expect to hold on to the Jordan valley; it has to be part of a Palestinian state, although a demilitarised valley should clearly meet Israeli requirements.

Given the time pressures, I should just like to make one final point. Although Israel and Palestine can be a source of deep worry and depression, we should never lose sight of the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, despite the length of time that it has existed, and other disputes, such as those over Kashmir and Cyprus or the Tamil problem. The difference is that we already know what the final structure will be: the Israelis and Palestinians will each end up having their own state. Therefore, the problem is not what kind of ultimate structure there will be; it is exactly how we get there and what the details should be. That is different from any of the other problems that bedevil the world as a whole, and it is a source of hope and confidence rather than one of worry and depression.

3.3 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I shall be as brief as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on his contribution.

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Although I am sure there will be differences of opinion on the substantive issues involved, today’s attendance indicates something. This has been one of several Westminster Hall debates on this subject in recent months, but we have not had one on the Floor of the House for as long as I can remember. It is time that such a debate was held. I think that we all agree that it should take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned that we need to examine the situation on the ground and keep it in mind. He is right about that. Although this is an area where statistics hit us from all angles, we must understand, at this stage more than at perhaps any other time, the grinding poverty that is affecting the Palestinians. We are talking about unemployment levels of 31 per cent.; in Gaza the figure is 40 per cent. Poverty levels are rising. Food insecurity has risen by 14 per cent. in the past 10 months, and the United Nations is predicting that it could reach 51 per cent. this month.

Access for Palestinians in the occupied territories has got worse in the past 12 months. Three ambulances were attacked by Israeli troops in the last week in May. There were 376 road blocks and checkpoints prior to disengagement from Gaza in September and there were 515 by mid May this year. Karni, which is a lifeline of goods going in and out of Gaza, has been closed for 44 per cent. of the time since the start of 2006.

I give those statistics not only because they are part of the reality on the ground that we need to bear in mind, but to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that, while I understand and have a good deal of sympathy with the international community’s demands on Hamas, it is not a simple thing to say, “Cut off assistance from the Palestinian Authority and somehow you can protect the Palestinians anyway.” The Palestinian Authority runs 75 per cent. of all schools, and 62 per cent. of primary health care clinics are run by the Ministry of Health. We are talking about hitting essential operations: water, maintenance of refuse services, sewage collection, and so on. When the Minister sums up this debate, will he say how the alternative mechanisms that will somehow get assistance through to the Palestinians, while bypassing the Palestinian Authority, will work? The statistics that I cited are not from February or March; they are published in a United Nations report from the end of May, after the Quartet’s announcement of the alternative mechanisms.

This week, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, engaged in a brave proposal. I believe that Hamas should recognise Israel. I do not say that Hamas should accept the two-state solution, because one thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool should understand is that, to all intents and purposes, it has already done so. There are legion comments from its spokespeople—most recently, the BBC reported one such comment yesterday by the parliamentary speaker—saying that Hamas accepts the two-state solution. Recognition is a different issue, and it has some way to go on that.

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