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7 Jun 2006 : Column 114WH—continued

If we are to ask Hamas to recognise Israel, the point that I made to my hon. Friend about which borders was not one simply of academic significance. It is of real significance. People are living under occupation. If at this stage there are no guarantees about what their state will be and what the Israelis will recognise, what are we asking them to recognise? The deal might be to recognise the 1967 borders, although there needs to be negotiation
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about whether that ends up to be the final settlement. Let us accept that international law is the kernel of a settlement. Such a deal would mean that Israel withdraws from land it occupies and it means that the Palestinians accept the internationally recognised borders of Israel based on the 1967 borders. That would be something real, but it is not the situation that we are in.

This issue is of more than academic significance, because if we are to say vote for recognition to Palestinians, who are suffering the poverty that I was describing, we must be as clear as possible that when the referendum or whatever is used comes, they will vote for that. They should not see, one more time, the international community adopting one set of standards for them and another set for the Israelis. If they were to get that impression, given that they are faced with that grinding poverty, we will probably be heading not for an acceptance of the two-state solution but for greater conflict, with all the tragedies that that will mean for Palestinians and Israelis.

I ask the Minister again to clarify whether, when he is asking the Palestinians to recognise Israel, he is saying that they should recognise Israel within its internationally recognised 1967 borders or within somewhere else? If he is saying the former, does he accept that it is only reasonable also to say to Israel that it should recognise a state of Palestine on those 1967 borders? For good measure, if we are asking the Palestinians to have a referendum, perhaps there could be one in Israel as well.

Will the Minister clarify a couple of other things? The first is about the dividing up of the west bank. It is being split into different “Bantustans”—to use a term that some employ—which are segregated from each other, with no proper transport continuity let alone territorial continuity. That is a real barrier to a settlement. That process, through settlements and the wall, is almost complete. One area is standing in the way of that happening: the E1 area, which is part of the so-called Jerusalem bubble. Israel has said that it will build on E1, but it is illegal and is regarded so by the United States, the British Government and the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister attach the significance that I attach to the E1 plan and what will Britain do to ensure that it does not go ahead?

I want to make two further points. First, while we demand, rightly, that the Palestinians end the violence, will we make the same demand on the Israelis? Can we at least suggest to them—or perhaps more than suggest—that it might be a good idea if they committed themselves unambiguously to abiding by the provisions of the fourth Geneva convention in the occupied territories, because they are not doing so at the moment? In that context, can my right hon. Friend update the House on what is happening in the Hurndall and Miller cases following the decisions of the coroner here?

Secondly, on the humanitarian crisis, I have asked my right hon. Friend to clarify the alternative mechanisms, but will he also explain how Britain intends to respond to the UN appeal? It is estimated that the emergency needs of the Palestinians require approximately $385 million extra. Are we going to respond to that and, if so, how?

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Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): We all take the point absolutely about the grinding poverty and no one wants this terribly difficult position concerning Palestinian aid. Can my hon. Friend tell us from his perspective what the Israeli Government, the international community and the United Kingdom Government are doing about negotiating with, aiding and dealing with a Government who will not recognise the existence of the state of Israel and will not renounce terrorism? How do we deal with that?

Richard Burden: When I was in Gaza three or four years ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), we met a number of Palestinian groups and happened to meet the person who is now the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority and a member of Hamas. Most of the discussion involved us saying why suicide bombings were morally wrong and why they did no good for the Palestinian cause. That discussion led to a dialogue. I am not suggesting that we should say anything other than that Hamas should recognise Israel and give up violence, but my experience indicates that fostering a dialogue would be much more effective than pushing Hamas into a corner. I think Mahmoud Abbas would agree with that.

The final point that I would like my right hon. Friend to address is Karni, and the customs dues and levies that Israel is still withholding and the restrictions on trade to the Palestinian Authority that Israel is still imposing. What are we going to do about that?

3.13 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing this timely debate. He is right to say that this is a crucial time for the middle east and an appropriate moment to consider what steps Her Majesty’s Government can take to help to resuscitate and support the peace process involving Israel and the Palestinians—the conclusion of which would, of course, send a powerful message to the wider region that peace and democracy are the future, as well as providing the conditions for safety and prosperity for their own populations. In recent months and years it has been difficult to identify any clear chinks of light in a rather gloomy scenario, but they are there and I want to focus on a few of them in my brief contribution.

It is important to recognise that although unilateral disengagement by Israel, including withdrawal from certain settlements, the continuation of the security fence and the fixing of its borders, will not amount to a peace settlement, it does represent a courageous and vital attempt to achieve some lasting security for its citizens and an end to occupation of the Palestinian territory. In the current scenario, that is a logical course of action and deserves the active support of the international community, but it is not a peace settlement. Even more so than in the final years of Yasser Arafat's leadership, which was characterised by broken promises and missed opportunities, Israel does not currently have a partner in the peace process, and it needs one. If there were any doubt about that, the election of Hamas in January settled it.

In no sense can Hamas be described as freedom fighter turned statesman. It is a terrorist organisation
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that speaks the language of bloodshed, both against Israel and within the occupied territories. Between 1989 and 2005, Hamas was deemed responsible for murdering 579 and wounding more than 3,200 Israeli men, women and children, 93 per cent. of whom were innocent civilians. The Hamas leadership condones that record and refuses to condemn the attacks that have been carried out since its election. In fact, all the signs are that it sees no incompatibility between being a democratically elected Administration and encouraging terrorist atrocities.

Indeed, Hamas has set up a new 3,000-strong security force led by a former commander of the popular resistance committee. The violent clashes in Gaza city in recent days between Fatah-dominated security forces and Hamas forces have again left the Palestinian leadership with innocent blood on its hands. The United Kingdom and the EU cannot and must not do business with Hamas. Yet we cannot turn our backs on the Palestinian people. We must do everything we can to isolate Hamas and encourage a strong constituency for peace and democracy within the occupied territories—a constituency that will recognise the fundamental need for peaceful co-existence with the Jewish state.

The Palestinian elections represented something of a paradox. On one hand, they brought about the election of an anti-democratic terrorist organisation and, on the other, it must be recognised that they were something of a victory for democracy. They reaffirmed the overwhelming commitment by the Palestinian people to determine their political future by democratic means. In a region where Israel has traditionally stood out starkly as the only real democratic nation, the relatively trouble-free elections sent a signal that there is a strong appetite within the troubled Palestinian territories for democratic solutions. That represents an important chink of light that we must do all we can to foster.

Having read the European Union election observation mission’s report on the January elections, one cannot fail to be impressed with the exercise of democracy in the Palestinian territories. As the report concludes, the elections amounted to

by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. I strongly encourage the Minister to read the recommendations in the report to see what extra support his Department can give to improving electoral arrangements for Palestinians in future.

Another significant chink of light is President Mahmoud Abbas’s intention to call a referendum on Palestinian statehood that would implicitly recognise Israel's right to exist if Hamas will not directly accept his two-state proposal. His dialogue with Hamas on the matter seems to be failing, but all the opinion polling in recent days seems to suggest that if he takes his call for a referendum directly to the Palestinian streets he will win, and that support for Hamas is declining. I have huge sympathy with the powerful point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) who wants Hamas’s destructionist view to be buried by popular opinion.

The border plan drawn up by Palestinian prisoners from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are being
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held in Israeli prisons, forms the basis for the Abbas proposal, but may not represent a final peace settlement with Israel, However, it could at least provide the bedrock for a united Palestinian approach which is committed to peaceful co-existence and which can engage with a meaningful peace process. The Israeli Prime Minister said again at the weekend that his country wants to talk with Abbas and to restart the peace negotiations, but that will bear fruit only when Hamas accepts the three conditions set out by the Quartet.

I am conscious that I have focused overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the peace equation, because I believe that the next substantive steps towards peace must come, and can only come, from the Palestinians, whose people have been impoverished and betrayed yet again by bad leadership.

3.19 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I shall be brief so that other right hon. and hon. Members can speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing this debate, but I note that he was unable to reply to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the final borders of the state of Israel. Clearly that is the kernel of the issue.

Many Members of the House have visited Israel or Palestine or both at various times. No one can go there without realising that the disparity of wealth and power between Israel and Palestine, the sheer misery of daily life for Palestinians and the sense of being in an open prison by merely existing in Gaza must be a cause for concern and must drive people into Hamas and other such organisations. Crossing from Israel into Gaza means crossing from the first world to the third world or worse. It means crossing from tarmac roads to potholes, from cars to donkeys and from prosperity to utter misery.

It is not as if that is a recent phenomenon. Talking to older people in Gaza, I found that their whole life has been one of either getting driven out of their own homes when Israel was established in 1948, or, if they are slightly younger, growing up in refugee camps and relying on the United Nations for food, water and work all the time. If they are lucky enough to be able to get out of Gaza daily to work in Israel, they are required to get up at literally 3 o’clock in the morning to queue at the checkpoint to get through into Israel to do a day’s work on a building site. They then have to go through the same performance again to get home late at night. Is it surprising that the ordinary people of Palestine get very angry about what goes on in their lives?

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I agree that that situation has been ongoing ever since the foundation of the state of Israel, but will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why rich Arab states have not done more to alleviate the poverty in the Palestinian lands?

Jeremy Corbyn: I cannot explain that and I do not intend to. The reality is that Palestine is imprisoned by Israel. It is imprisoned by a wall around the west bank and by border checkpoints all around Gaza, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield
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said, there are now 500 checkpoints and their number has increased in the past few months. It is simply not acceptable to assume that the struggle is between equals and that Israel equals Palestine. It does not. One side has nuclear weapons and F-16 jets, and is high-security in every sense, while the other has very little indeed. Is it surprising that some people are driven to terrorism?

I remember very well a discussion that my hon. Friend and I had when we visited Gaza a few years ago. I have been there since, but on that visit, we put it plainly that we thought that suicide bombing was crazy, counter-productive, immoral and wrong. We then launched into what turned out to be an interesting discussion between various Palestinian groups and ourselves. All felt a sense of isolation, because they were not being taken seriously by the rest of the world. If Israel wants to achieve a long-term peace, it must do a number of things. First, it must recognise the state of Palestine, and secondly, it should decide what its borders proposal actually is. Israel has never done that.

As to the idea that the security fence is a benign fence between neighbours, it is at least 25 ft high, it has razor wire on top and surveillance cameras all along it, and it has been built beyond the 1967 borders, taking a further 10 per cent. of Palestinian land. How many more concessions do the Palestinians have to make? Every time talks come around, the idea is that the Palestinians must give up more land. They have suffered enough poverty and they have had enough land taken away from them, and although it is true that there has been unilateral withdrawal from settlements in Gaza, there has been an increase in many illegal settlements in the west bank and Israel has made it clear that it will not halt the settlement policy there.

The Palestinian Authority have tried with great difficulty to run affairs in Palestine. They rely on aid, trade and tax income. Who is Israel to decide that the tax income, to which the Palestinian Authority are legally entitled, should be withheld?

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On that point, the tax revenue is due according to agreements that the previous Palestinian Authority and Israel entered into. If the current Palestinian regime will not even recognise Israel or those agreements, it can hardly expect the Israelis to hand over money in compliance with them.

Jeremy Corbyn: Frankly, that is utter nonsense, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. If the money is due to Palestinians and has been collected by Israel, it should be paid to them. What are the political consequences of not paying them, and what is the likely reaction? Does it benefit anybody to increase unemployment in Gaza from 40 per cent. to 70 per cent., or to increase yet further infant mortality and all the misery that goes with it? I think not.

We need Israel and those outside to continue the aid to ensure that the Palestinian people can live a reasonable life, and we need to move forward to try to achieve a long-term, permanent peace settlement. That requires a recognition that Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected in difficult circumstances. Along with my hon.
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Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, I was an observer at that election, and I chose to be an observer in Rafah in Gaza. It was a strange election, because we had great difficulty getting through the settlements to the polling stations for the Palestinian people, and on one occasion, the Israeli watchtowers decided to shoot at the polling stations in Rafah. That was hardly a recognition of an independent, democratic process. Nevertheless, the election took place and Mahmoud Abbas was elected to the presidency.

We have now seen the election of a majority of Hamas members to the Palestinian Authority. I do not agree with suicide bombings or violence, and rapid steps must be taken towards a two-state solution. However, one does not engender a sense of safety or security by not talking to the people who are elected. We must talk to people even if we do not agree with or like them. We must have that debate.

I hope that through the Government’s approach, we can maintain the aid that is essential to the Palestinian people, put as much pressure as we can on the United States and others to promote a peace dialogue and process, and above all, recognise that a democratic process is alive and well in Palestine. We must consider what will happen if we allow the policy of Palestinian impoverishment to continue. We should put ourselves in the position of a young Palestinian whose grandparents were thrown out of their homes and whose parents have lived in refugee camps, and for whom life is security checkpoints, barbed wire, walls and the inability to travel anywhere. What attitude does that place in somebody’s mind? What benign feelings does that give them towards the rest of the world?

If we want peace and we need to get on with our neighbours, that will be best achieved not by building a wall with barbed wire on top, but by talking to them, understanding them and working with them. Israel must remember that it is part of the middle east. It is not an extension of the USA or western Europe.

3.27 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I shall be extremely brief and pick up on two points. First, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the importance of the economic difficulties. It is simply impossible, however, for Israel to have free economic relations if that is at the expense of the killing of hundreds of Israeli citizens. The fence is a reaction to that security situation, and it has been effective. It can be removed only when the security threat is removed.

My right hon. and learned Friend made his most important point when he spoke about the importance of political leaders. The tragedy of the Palestinian situation and part of the reason why it has gone on so long is that for many years, the Palestinians were led by someone who had a singular skill in missing every opportunity that was presented to him. He let down the people whom he was supposed to lead. The Palestinians now have an opportunity with their new leadership under President Abbas and the Israelis have elected a new Government, which presents them with an opportunity. What we need to do, and what I hope the Government
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will be able to do, is to give those two leaders the best support from outside the area in order to take the brave and imaginative steps that will allow a two-state solution to succeed. That is the single most important way in which we can help to deal with the security situation and move forward the economic situation, which I agree will help to enable the two sides to live together in peace.

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