Previous Section Index Home Page

What steps are being taken to prevent the violence from spreading to the west bank? Will the Minister assure us that there will be no weakening of our
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1077
position on Hamas, and that it must meet the Quartet’s conditions? Has there been any indication that it will do so?

What assessment has the Minister made of any involvement on the part of Iran, which has openly supported Hamas? Does he believe that it will increase its involvement in Gaza and, if so, what is likely to be the reaction of our Government, EU Governments and the United States?

Dr. Howells: I think that this happened as quickly as it did because Hamas committed nothing less than a coup d’état. Those generally happen quickly, and this one was brutal. The sight on our television screens of people being summarily executed—being thrown from windows and buildings—merely reinforces the reports that we have heard. They point to a coup d’etat. It probably was planned, and some judge that Gaza is now an Islamic statelet that will be used as a safe zone from which to launch attacks elsewhere, if and when Hamas decides to do so. The situation is dangerous.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, because it is serious. The international community is looking into ways of ensuring that the money that was available under the temporary international mechanism gets into Gaza, but does not fall into the hands of Hamas. We are discussing with UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—and all others involved how best to secure the welfare of the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza, most of whom had nothing to do with this coup d’etat, which was performed by a political party that has its own agenda.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there would be any backing away from our demands that Hamas stand by the three principles. No, there will be no backing away: we will demand that it stand by the three principles as the basis for future negotiations.

The hon. Gentleman asks about Iran. We are very worried about Iran. We see a strategy to fund Hezbollah in Lebanon, which also is in a fragile state. We also see the hand of Iran and Syria in Gaza. I have heard talk of civil wars in both those countries being a pincer movement in Tehran’s wider strategy. I hope that that is untrue, but we must take it seriously.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Three months ago, and after considerable effort, the Saudi Government managed to negotiate the national unity Government. Clearly, recent events tear that up. What can Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other “Arab Quartet” nations, and other neighbouring countries, do to return to a position in which the Palestinians are united in one entity that, we hope, can then become a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

Dr. Howells: It is certainly important that the Arab League continues its work and that the Saudi and Egyptian authorities continue at every opportunity to try to influence events, and to influence reconciliation and discussion. They could have much more influence than us in this area. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend. The Egyptians, in particular, must be very worried about having a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in control right on their border.

18 Jun 2007 : Column 1078

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): We all despair about the events in Gaza last week, which are merely the latest terrible twist in a depressing downward spiral in the occupied territories. We must be clear that the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas has been the cause of the bloodletting, but does the Minister accept that the desperate economic situation in the occupied territories, exacerbated by Israeli, American and European sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, is another of the root causes? Given that the formation of the national unity Government has resulted in little international return for Hamas or Fatah, does the Minister accept that the international community will have to find ways of ending the economic and political marginalisation of the political wing of Hamas if we are not simply to double the number of Palestinian problems and solve none?

Dr. Howells: The European Union, the United Kingdom and the international community have given more money to the Palestinian people over the past 12 months than ever before. That is important. We would like the customs revenues that the Israelis have collected to be disbursed to the Palestinian President Abbas so that they can be used to reconstruct its sadly depleted economy. I also hope that the Israelis can take the opportunity to remove some of the roadblocks at checkpoints, which are doing such terrible damage to the Palestinian economy. If, however, the hon. Gentleman is asking me to blame the west, Israel and everyone else for a Hamas coup d’etat, I am sorry, but I cannot do it.

Mr. Moore indicated dissent.

Dr. Howells: I am very glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that; I have heard people say it, and some of them have done so from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I hope he will accept that we have very much in mind the humanitarian plight of the people not just in Gaza but in the west bank, and that concrete steps can be taken to alleviate that and to begin to break the ice in the negotiations between Israel and Mr. Abbas’s Government.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware of the attacks on Christians in Gaza, including the looting of the Rosary Sisters’ school and the Latin church? Does he believe that that is an indication of the non-negotiable ideology of hate that is Hamas?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend reminds us that situations such as this are not just a factional fight between two political parties; there is damaging and immense fallout throughout Palestinian society. We need to remind ourselves that people of all religions have lived alongside each other for a very long time. We see intolerance among those in Hamas, and I will not speak of them as though they were some genuine reflection of the spirit of the Palestinian people; they are a nasty bunch of sectarians and religious bigots who are taking the Palestinian people backwards, not forwards. I hope that they will bear it in mind that the world is watching them, and that the way in which they treat Christians in Gaza is a very important factor.

18 Jun 2007 : Column 1079

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): One person has been caught up in this problem in Gaza for three months now: the British BBC correspondent, Alan Johnston. In the light of changing events such as Hamas having taken over Gaza, will the Minister bring the House up to date on what efforts are being made to return Alan Johnston to the UK?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the issue of Alan Johnston. We have been trying hard to ensure that he is returned safely; indeed, we have been working with the Palestinian authorities and anyone else who will work with us to try to ensure his safe return. A disturbing report is just in regarding the Dagmoush clan, which these days calls itself something else. The Army of Islam is, I think, the latest term it is using, but basically it is guns for hire—thugs who have a nice sideline in kidnapping. According to the report, Hamas has given the Dagmoush clan an ultimatum to release Alan Johnston by the end of the day, or Hamas will use force to ensure his release. Hamas has stated that it will not allow the kidnap to drag on any further. This situation has to be handled with great delicacy. Hamas knows very well that delicate negotiations have been going on, and we hope that it is not using this as a publicity stunt to try to win favour with some elements in the west.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend that there was no justification for last week’s events in Gaza. He says that he has seen no evidence of any change in Hamas’s direction of travel, but has he seen the 10-point proposal from the national unity Government, including Hamas, that was published only two weeks ago, for a long-term ceasefire with Israel; and, if so, what is his response to it? He says that he wants the boycott to be lifted, and that it must be accompanied by an easing of checkpoints, and so on. I agree, but what will we do in practical terms at this week’s EU summit to say to Israel that those elements are essential prerequisites to a lasting peace? Moreover, is there a role for saying to Israel that if it wishes to have trade preferences for its products, it is about time it started allowing Palestinians to trade out of their own territory, and that there could be consequences for the EU-Israel association agreement in that regard?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend has tremendous knowledge of the area, and he makes a fair point. We have to make Israel understand that it has to do what it can to relieve the humanitarian crisis on the west bank and in Gaza and that it needs to lift the blockades where it feels able to do so, because they are having a dreadful effect. I do not want to discuss boycotts or trade preferences at the moment, because we should be discussing the immediate crisis and how we can try to alleviate it.

My hon. Friend mentions the national unity Government’s 10-point proposal. On many other occasions, not just in the middle east, I have seen that when such coalitions—fronts that have gathered together to try to make progress towards peace—find that they have to stick by proposals and do things that they find unpalatable, such as negotiating with the historic enemy, they start to come apart, unless they are very strong. Perhaps Hamas no longer wanted to be
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1080
associated with those 10 points. Perhaps it felt that its credibility on the mythical Arab street was now under threat and it mounted the coup d’etat to show that it was different from Fatah and that its heart was not in the rapprochement with Israel. I cannot give my hon. Friend a reason why Hamas decided to rat on those principles and start killing people in Gaza and taking military control. He will have to find that out from Hamas: he certainly will not find it out from me, because I do not know the answer.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): In common with others, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru completely condemn the unacceptable violence in the Gaza strip and on the west bank. I am gravely concerned by the message that the Minister just read out about Hamas bringing in a deadline for the release of Alan Johnston. Wednesday will the 100th day of his captivity and everybody would welcome his release, but given the violence of the past few days I have little faith that Hamas’s involvement is anything more than a media gimmick. I am very concerned about whether Mr. Johnston will be released unharmed. Will the Minister assure the House that behind the scenes everything is being done to ensure that he will be released unharmed as soon as possible?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have tried every single avenue that we know of and worked ceaselessly to help all the authorities to secure Alan’s release.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that the rise of Hamas in recent years has been a consequence of the situation in the middle east rather than the cause of it. One of the things that has made the tension and stresses in the occupied Palestinian territories worse over the past couple of years has been the Israeli decision to withhold customs and tax revenues. That money must be released, for reasons of natural justice and because it is urgently needed, although there might be no mechanism for getting it to where it can do most good. Most of the people in most need of the money are in the Gaza strip, so will my hon. Friend put more pressure on the Israelis to release the money and do everything he can to ensure that it gets where it is most needed?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend will know that $100 million has already been earmarked for release to President Abbas’s authority. I agree with my hon. Friend, and, indeed, we have long called for the money to be released. I am sure, however, that he will understand the concern about releasing it to Hamas, when it behaves as it does. There is great reticence to give it to an organisation that might find some way to pass it to suicide bombers or rocketeers, who then try to kill Israelis and their enemies in the Palestinian population.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Has not Hamas shown its true colours by turning with such violence on its fellow Palestinians? Does not that vindicate the refusal of the international community to treat with it? I strongly agree with the Minister of State’s calling on Israel not only to release
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1081
funds due to the Palestinian Government, but to make some important move on easing the roadblocks. It is very damaging that Palestinians cannot move around the west bank. Does the Minister agree that it would be particularly symbolic and important if Mahmoud Abbas could show that the freedom of ordinary Palestinians is being increased in the west bank, just as a Hamas Administration are likely to be reducing personal freedoms in Gaza?

Dr. Howells: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct. Now is the moment for Israel to do those things and the time that President Abbas needs maximum support. Now is also the time for the men and women of the west bank to see that he can bring them real benefits, which is why Israel must step in to help immediately.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does not the Minister recognise that some of the antecedence of last week’s tragedy in Gaza has its ancestry in the west’s refusal to provide sufficient funds directly to the Palestinian Authority, thus creating huge unemployment, poverty and misery? Does he also recognise that the independent former Information Minister, Mustafa Barghouti, has refused to serve in President Abbas’s new Government because he wants a democratic mandate of all Palestinians? Will the Minister thus encourage President Abbas to set in motion a process whereby Palestinian opinion can be genuinely reflected so that any Government who emerge have the support of the majority of Palestinian people?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There will have to be democratic elections at some stage, but I cannot imagine their taking place at the moment because as an observer, like him, of the television screen and reports from Gaza, it is hard for me to see how 1.5 million people in Gaza could vote in the present circumstances. I am sure that those kinds of discussions are taking place in Palestinian communities.

I certainly do not accept my hon. Friend’s premise that a coup d’etat by Hamas ultimately has its genesis in our actions, or those of the Quartet, the EU or anyone else. This terrible inter-factional fighting among Palestinians is a result of Hamas’s decision to mount a coup d’etat.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): As has been said, the election of the Hamas Government was a result of the failure of the international community, especially Israel, to support the previous Fatah Government. Somewhat late in the day, the international community is rallying around the emergency Fatah Government, but support is needed. Will the Minister tell us specifically how much practical support the United Kingdom is prepared to give at this time of crisis to the emergency Government who have been established in Ramallah? A figure in round millions will do.

Dr. Howells: More than $600 million has been earmarked as support for the Palestinian people. Over the past 12 months or so, the United Kingdom will have given the best part of £70 million, which is a large sum. The hon. Gentleman says that there was a lack of support, but I doubt that very much. The Palestinian
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1082
people have received huge support from not just this country, but most other countries that I know of. The dispute has been at the heart of many conflicts elsewhere. It is the one dispute that people quote at me wherever I go in the world. The world understands the centrality of solving the problem. There has not been a lack of support—certainly not financial support. The Administrations, whether they were formed by Fatah or anyone else, have been notorious for corruption. They have been inefficient and money has been filched away to bank accounts where it should never have gone. The Palestinian people have been ill served by their leaders in the past. One hopes that the crisis will focus everyone’s minds—especially, and most importantly, those of the Palestinian leaders led by President Abbas—on the fact that there must be transparency, openness and honesty and that the huge sums must be used properly for the betterment of the Palestinian people.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): In such circumstances, is not blaming Israel a little like saying that a victim of domestic violence brought it on herself? Given the connections between Iran and Hamas, is it not about time that the international community used the legal powers available to it to indict the President of Iran on charges of incitement to genocide?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend probably knows more about international law than I do, but I am not sure that we can do that —[ Interruption. ] She nods her head and says it can be done. I very much hope that Tehran realises that making the situation in Palestine and Lebanon boil is no way to bring peace to Iran’s own borders. This is a very tough neighbourhood as it is, without Iran causing such trouble. I am sure that there are elements inside Iran who understand that very well and who want to see peace in the middle east. They have to make themselves heard now, because Iran is a much more powerful player in the area than most European countries are. The Iranians have to play a genuine role—not one where they stand up and extol the virtues of peace, co-operation and harmony at the same time as they pass funds to Hezbollah, Hamas and other organisations so that they might kill and destroy any chance of peace.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is it not high time that the international community recognised the course of conduct on which Iran has embarked, which the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) has just described, and united to send a strong message to Iran about the unacceptability of that conduct, bearing it in mind that, thus far, peaceful and diplomatic engagement with Iran on this and other issues has brought meagre results? Now is the time for a strong message to Iran.

Dr. Howells: Yes, I think it is time for a very strong message to Iran. I hope that Wednesday’s session of the Security Council, when it debates the middle east peace process, will bring some clarity and transparency about where the blame lies for the financing of these terrible events in the middle east and elsewhere. We could be talking about many other places where we know
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1083
Iranian money plays a part in causing disruption and mayhem. That cannot be good for the future of the region or for the future of the world.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that there will never be peace in that part of the world unless the underlying justice issues are dealt with. Will he say what the Government have done in the past few days to raise with Israel the problems of illegal settlements and the wall?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. The illegal settlements and the path of the wall are causing great concern and hardship for people in the occupied territories. We have told Israel many times that, if it wants peace and neighbours that it can live with, it must sort out those injustices. The path of the barrier is still a matter on which Israel could act very easily. Many of the settlements are tiny, comprising fanatics who are armed to the teeth; they could be withdrawn to the west of the barrier. I am sure that such action would contribute significantly to easing the great concern and sense of injustice that Palestinians feel.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Obviously, there can be no justification for what Hamas has done in Gaza and how it has done it; nor does it further the Palestinian cause. However, the Minister will be aware that, in January, the Select Committee on International Development published a report on development in the occupied territories that showed that extreme poverty was getting worse. More importantly, we pointed out that the isolation of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas would lead to closer links with Iran, about which he now complains. Does he accept that it will not be possible to exclude Hamas from any part of any negotiation on the future of the Palestinian territories? If there is any sort of election in future, how will the Government deal with the situation if Hamas is elected? Why did the Government not respond to the Government of national unity, which was set up precisely to provide a means of contact with the Palestinian Authority without direct dealing with Hamas?

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are back to the old habit of asking three or four supplementaries. There should be only one supplementary question.

Dr. Howells: I shall answer the first one, Mr. Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) is right: he accurately observes the link between poverty and lack of development on the one hand and Islamic extremism on the other. The corruption and the lack of will to invest in a viable economy on the part of previous Administrations in the occupied territories has come home to roost in a big way. As I have said a number of times from this Dispatch Box today, if the Israelis really want a neighbour with a viable economy, they have to start lifting the roadblocks that are such a hindrance to trade within the Palestinian territories.

Next Section Index Home Page