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5 July 2007 : Column 312WH—continued

I am clear that Hamas’s military takeover in Gaza a few weeks ago was not justified, even if it does, ironically, appear to be bringing order to the streets of Gaza. However, the EU, the Quartet and ourselves are in a state of denial about our contribution to the creation of the very circumstances that unleashed the bloodshed that we have seen in recent weeks. We told the Palestinians to go down the path of democracy, but then shunned the Government who came out of the elections that we supervised. We told Hamas to turn away from violence and to commit to democracy, so it stood for election, suspended its attacks on Israel and offered a long-term ceasefire. When that happened, we ignored those changes and, as my hon. Friend made clear, we are still not admitting that they took place. Instead, we boycotted Hamas, telling it that its election would be disregarded by the outside world unless it signed up, without qualification, to the full renunciation of violence, the full recognition of Israel
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and the full acceptance of international agreements between Israel and Palestine.

We are absolutely right to say that all those ingredients are essential to a long-term solution, but we made them preconditions to even talking to the elected Hamas Government. We have never applied similar preconditions in other situations and we certainly do not apply them to Israel, despite the fact that it does not live up to them, as was proved in evidence before the Committee. For example, Israel has never, in practice, renounced violence in pursuit of its objectives. It also continues to violate its own obligations under international law and existing agreements through its continued occupation of Palestinian land and its construction of a wall, not along its own lawful borders, but beyond them. That was confirmed in evidence that the Committee received.

The trouble is that our boycott has provided a cover for the economic and military blockade of Gaza, which has cut off most Palestinian trade access by land, sea and air. Last month, Christian Aid reported that more than 80 per cent. of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza are without a regular income. Are we trying to address that through measures such as the temporary international mechanism? Of course we are, but the bitter irony is that we are now having to spend more on emergency food and medical aid to a Palestinian population caged in by the boycott and by isolation than we ever did before we imposed the boycott. That aid is more expensive and less effective than it would have been, because we have insisted on bypassing the very institutions that we would need to use to deliver it effectively. That has helped to increase unemployment among public sector workers and to deepen poverty across the west bank and Gaza. As a result, we now have to put in even more aid to offset the effect of our own policies.

The crisis in Gaza is getting even worse. Only last week, a mother of five, aged 31, died because she was one of thousands of people who were stuck at the Rafah crossing after Israel closed the border. People were stuck outside in the searing heat, in some cases without any shelter. We should remember that the border is not between Israel and Gaza, but between Gaza and Egypt. If we are to help the people of Gaza, we must do something about that. The international community and indeed the EU are meant to have monitors there, but our ability to affect the situation seems to be hampered by whether Israel allows the border to be opened.

If we want to help President Abbas, as I think we should, we should really do something about the continuing conditions of occupation in the west bank. We should insist that the release of tax revenues happens in practice and that it goes further. We should do more about prisoners; even some of our colleague parliamentarians—some of those who were elected in the elections that my hon. Friend the Minister and I supervised—have been abducted by Israel, in contravention, once again, of international law.

Our report makes many recommendations about what Israel should do to solve such problems, and the Government assure us in their response that they regularly raise most of the issues that we have raised in
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our report, including illegal settlement building, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the fact that, under the EU-Israel association agreement, Israel continues to claim trade preferences for goods imported into the EU that are produced on illegal settlements, not in Israel. Apparently, such issues are regularly raised, so let us test what that has meant in practice recently.

The middle of June was a tumultuous time in Gaza and the west bank. A few days later, on 18 June, the Israeli Foreign Minister met EU Foreign Ministers, including the then Foreign Secretary, at the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council. I tabled some questions asking what issues had been raised with the Foreign Minister of Israel. One of my questions was:

I was assured:

That was very good news. So what did they talk about?

Another of my questions was

which is a particular problem,

The answer was:

It then repeated the mantra that settlement building is illegal.

I asked whether there had been any discussions with EU partners in that week

The answer was:

I asked what discussions there had been about the EU-Israel association agreement and its future. The answer I got back was:

I asked whether there had been any discussion at that meeting of the

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The answer that I received was:

I asked whether there had been any discussion of the labelling of goods on which trade preferences were claimed but which were produced in settlements built in the occupied Palestinian territories. The answer was:

That is really not good enough. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the Committee’s recommendations. Let us start again, because change is possible. The Government should look at our report from scratch. Let us see what we can do to fulfil in practice, and not simply in theory, the reassurances that we got in the response to our report.

The recent speech by the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury on an economic road map was very positive. Let us take that logic forward. Dialogue works. We are rightly committed to dialogue with the Israelis, but let us also have more evidence about how to take that forward in practice with the Palestinians, not because we want to support one Palestinian faction against another, but so that we can help, from our end, to rebuild the national consensus under the legitimate President of Palestine, President Abbas. That will be vital to securing a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

3.20 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I am pleased to be called to speak today, and to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. As a member of the Select Committee, you have taken a great interest in its work over many years. I congratulate the Minister as well on his new appointment. I am glad to see him as part of an expanded team responsible for one of the most important Departments of State.

I served on the Select Committee for five years, until just after the report was produced, and I have noticed great changes in that Committee. One of its members, alongside whom I served, has sadly passed away. One has been promoted to Government office, and one has defected from the Conservative party to the Labour party. The Committee not only produces effective reports; it gets up to a lot of other things as well. As I have said, the report was one of the last that I was involved in preparing, and although events have moved on considerably since it was published, it is still useful in outlining the immense challenges that we face. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) mentioned, the Government response was disappointing. However, I shall, I hope, touch on that aspect of the matter later.

In the face of much misery in the region—we saw a lot of that during the Select Committee visit—there is some hope. The release of Alan Johnston earlier this week proves that we should never give up hope. In the future, when we see former Prime Minister Blair as a middle east envoy, I hope we will wish him, and anyone who is working towards peace in the region, well.
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However, we are all aware of the former Prime Minister’s role in the past 10 years, and his special friendship with the US Government. I for one am left wondering what he can do that he has not tried already. Will he be a force for good, or will his presence be a red rag to a bull? US and UK foreign policy in the region has not added much to its stability in recent years.

The ultimate solution must be the two-state solution, to which the UK Government have repeatedly stated their commitment. In time, the new Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will presumably, like their predecessors, confirm that that is still the case: that is at the heart of the report. However, that solution cannot happen if one state is non-viable. At the moment, Israeli occupation of the west bank is making it impossible. If the Palestinians have their own state, it is increasingly likely that Palestine will be a failed state before it has a chance to grow.

The facts on the ground are incontrovertible. GDP is in decline. More than 1.3 million Palestinians are still living below the poverty line. Food insecurity rose by 13 per cent. during 2006, and between 25 June and 12 October 2006, 261 Gazans died—60 of them children—following Israeli air strikes in retaliation for rocket attacks. That is more than 10 times more than during the same period in 2005. During the same period, two Israelis were killed and 15 were injured by home-made rockets fired out of the Gaza strip. The number of checkpoints and road blocks, many of which the visiting members of the Select Committee saw during their visit, has increased by 40 per cent. during 2006, and more than half of the 700 km-long barrier route has been constructed, despite the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which declared the route to be in contravention of international law.

The facts of what is happening on the ground, many of which are detailed in the report and were seen by members of the Select Committee, show the difficulties that exist. Back-to-back transfers of goods at checkpoints have resulted in the destruction of fresh produce. The Select Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to those problems and the fact that checkpoints, the barrier wall and the lack of aid getting through were destroying not only the day-to-day existence of men, women and children, but business life. That business life must develop if development assistance to the territories is to be reduced in future.

As has been mentioned already, Israel’s withholding of the Palestinian Authority’s revenues and the withdrawal of budgetary assistance have come to an end, and the Israeli Government have agreed to release some of the funds to the authority. However, I do not believe that the international community put sufficient pressure on the Israeli Government to do that earlier. The freezing of funds, coupled with the western economic boycott, had crippled the Palestinian Authority, depriving key workers of pay.

The key problem throughout has been the use of aid as a political tool; that does not work. It would be easier to understand Israel’s withholding of such aid for political reasons if there were a track record of such action yielding political results. In reality, the withholding of aid has only worsened the situation in the west bank and increased feelings of distrust among
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many Palestinian people. The temporary international mechanism has been established, and perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us how that is developing now and what is happening.

Practical programmes to combat poverty in the Palestinian community are desperately needed, but we have a ridiculous situation in which some projects funded by UK and EU taxpayers are being blown up by the Israeli Government. When I was last in Palestine, I saw the remains of a bombed Palestinian police station, which was full of computers supplied by the UK Government—the UK taxpayer—to help to combat crime. One reason given to us for the attack, at the time, was that it was to deal with an unknown terrorist: to kill a terrorist who was being held at that police station. He fled when the building collapsed. Such contradictions are commonplace there.

Aid alone, however, will not solve the problem. In the report and in the Government’s response, it emerges that Palestinians are the most aided people on the planet. If aid solved problems, we should not be having today’s debate. We need real moves forward to make Palestine a viable place for inward investment, trade and economic development. On paper, the occupied territories enjoy a liberal market and trading regime; in reality, both internal economic activity and external trade are hugely disrupted every day. Encouraging words are useless unless they are backed by action. That leads me to the double standards applied in our treatment of Israel and Palestine.

Although severe pressure, including the withdrawal of humanitarian assistance, has been placed on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, no comparable pressure has been put on Israel to meet its obligations under international treaties. The Government point out in their response to the Select Committee’s report that the Quartet is asking nothing more than the renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. I accept that, but I argue that what each side does is more important than what people say. That very point was confirmed in an exchange, during a Select Committee evidence session, between the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield and a Mr. Gooderham. He was asked:

Mr. Gooderham replied:

The final comment from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield was:

The reply was yes: and that is what is happening on the ground. Hamas may regularly state its desire to wipe Israel off the map, but it is in no position to do so. Israel, on the other hand, does not explicitly call for the destruction of Palestine and often talks a good talk. Yet its wall-building programme, the theft, I would say,
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of natural resources, and the expansion of settlements amount to doing that by stealth.

I should like the Quartet to focus less on what is said and more on what is done by both sides. Israeli policy on settlements and the building of the wall are dividing the country and enforcing an effective apartheid on the Palestinian people. The details of the construction of settlements in map 1 in the report show, as well as access roads, razor wire, the domination of demand on water supplies and the strategic location of the settlements on hilltops. Those developments are the actions of a regime that has ended all hope for many Palestinians that the west bank will ever become their homeland in a meaningful way, unless those settlements are removed.

Many of the report’s recommendations are identical to those made back in 2004. That shows the absolute lack of any positive movement, despite a number of token gestures. Although it is important that the international community puts appropriate pressure on Hamas to change its position and renounce violence, that is better done through dialogue, rather than using isolation and intimidation.

We only have to look to Ireland to see the importance of getting rival factions round the negotiating table. Much has been made of the part that the former Prime Minister played in the resolution of the long-running problems in Northern Ireland, but we must remember the role of those leaders who were prepared to get round the negotiating table with people they clearly despised.

John Battle: This is an important matter—we are discussing the politics of the situation and the difficulty of having dialogue with people who use violence—but the hon. Gentleman and all of us may recall that the business of getting people to move away from violence and to get round a table and have dialogue is incredibly complex, difficult and takes place by stages. That does not always mean handing over guns immediately, but may involve intermediaries to negotiate that difficult process over a long period. That does not pre-empt the possibility of dialogue.

John Barrett: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The process is long drawn out. It has taken many years to get to the present stage, and clearly it will be many years before anything like a solution is found, but steps along the way—even small steps—are important.

In the end, if development assistance to the occupied territories becomes a thing of the past—that is what we all want—and there is peace in the region, the economy can again grow and support those who live there. We will get there only if there is leadership on all sides, with leaders who are prepared to negotiate without resorting to violence and leaders who show that they have a vision for a peaceful future. Let us hope that, if there is another such report from the Select Committee in three years, we will have moved on further than during the past three years.

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