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Westminster Hall

Thursday 24 January 2008

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Global Security (Middle East)

[Relevant documents: Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, on Global Security: The Middle East, HC 363 and the Government response, Cm 7212.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

2.30 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Today we debate the eighth report of 2006-07 of the Foreign Affairs Committee, published on 13 August last year, and the Government response thereto, published on 9 October. Because the middle east is such a complex and difficult region, a great deal has happened since publication. Sadly, most of it has not been positive. I know that other hon. Members will want to speak in great detail on specific aspects, but in my introductory remarks I intend to sketch out the Committee’s overall conclusions and some of the enduring messages that I believe need to be taken into account by the Government, the Quartet, the international community as a whole and the countries of the region.

I am aware that we may need to make more rapid progress today than might otherwise be the case, given that there will be a series of Divisions in the Chamber from 5 pm, so I shall keep my remarks unexpectedly and uncharacteristically brief. I hope that will assist other Members.

Much of the report concentrates on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. We published the report soon after the forcible takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June last year. The Committee visited the region in March for the purposes of our report, but we were not able to go to Gaza. We had been there on a previous visit, in December 2005, but on our visit in March we went through Egypt, flew to Jordan and then went by road through the west bank to meet Palestinians and Israelis; even then, we were not able to go to Gaza because of the security situation. At the time the British BBC journalist Alan Johnston was being held hostage, and a number of other events took place, which are touched upon in the report.

Since then, we have seen some positive political developments—the agreement at the Annapolis meeting in November and a renewed commitment from President Bush to establish a peace agreement by the end of this year. That is a significant commitment, but one that will be extremely difficult to achieve. We all know of the history before, during and after the Oslo negotiations and agreements in 1993 and of the aborted negotiations at Camp David and Taba and the difficulties caused by the inactivity of the current US Administration over recent years.

Now, in his last few months in office, President Bush seems to be serious. He said that he does not want a Swiss cheese solution. I wonder, as we point out in our
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report, whether he will be content with a salami-slice solution—in other words, a west bank-Israeli agreement, but one that does not take account of the fact that to have a viable and contiguous Palestinian state we need to address the problems of Gaza.

We know, because we see it on our televisions and in our newspapers every day, that the situation in Gaza is extremely difficult. Last week, a headline in the International Herald Tribune stated “18 dead as violence flares in Gaza”. For the first time in months, responsibility was explicitly taken by Hamas for rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The Israelis have had an internal debate, which is ongoing, about re-intervention in Gaza on a longer-term basis. According to the Herald Tribune, Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Olmert last week seemed to rule out the immediate prospect of a large-scale military operation in the Gaza strip, telling the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee that

As a result of the blockade established last week, there have been successful attempts by people, apparently from Hamas, to blow holes in the wall that separates the Gaza strip from Egypt near Rafah. Members of the Committee visited the Rafah crossing; indeed, Mr. Pope, you were with me on that visit. We saw the crossing operating as it should do, with people coming in buses, going through a security system much like those at airports and going out the other side. That was in 2005. We now see pictures of people not crossing that border by bus but walking through rubble—things that have been destroyed and blown up because desperate people are trying to find ways to get food and other essentials, including cigarettes, into Gaza in large quantities as a result of the events of recent months.

Fundamentally, there is a big dilemma if the Annapolis process is successful. Even if people can agree on all the difficult issues to do with settlements and on all the problems to do with the future negotiations or agreements on Jerusalem being the capital of the Palestinian state and of Israel, what will happen to the refugees? Many of them are still treated appallingly, as I have seen in Lebanon. They have no status and although they are two or three generations on from 1948, they are still in a difficult situation. Even if everything was agreed, what are we to do about the 1.5 million people living in Gaza who are in such a desperate situation?

The Committee’s recommendation was thought controversial not only by the Israelis but by the Palestinian leadership. We said that we had to find ways to engage with moderate elements in the Islamist Hamas movement to move them towards endorsing and agreeing the Quartet principles of non-violence, recognition of previous agreements and recognition of the state of Israel.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The hon. Gentleman comes to the nub of the matter, which is engagement with Hamas. Does he agree that talking about engagement with Hamas is pretty meaningless? It presumes that Hamas has a single view, but as a movement it covers a broad range of views; we ought to be engaging with people on the basis of what they say and what they stand for rather than the label that circumstances have applied to them.

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Mike Gapes: The question is who one engages with, how one does it and for what purpose. The Committee suggests not tearing up the Quartet principles but that ways have to be found to assist the process of movement of people and an organisation. The situation is not identical to what we have been through over decades in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, some lessons can be drawn from that experience. Sometimes one has to find intermediaries, back channels and ways to assess whether there is a possibility of movement. Sadly, because of the internal conflict in the Palestinian Authority, it is more difficult to do that now than when we wrote the report last August.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend believe that we are now seeing a collective punishment of the people of Gaza and the unfolding of a humanitarian catastrophe? Does he think the effect of that will be to increase radicalisation and make it more difficult to work with constructive elements to move both Hamas and the people of Gaza towards constructive engagement?

Mike Gapes: There is always great danger of that outcome. On the one hand, people may get into a mindset of complete despair and hopelessness and may not accept that a political way forward exists. In that case, many of the brightest and most able might leave. That has been a tragedy of the Palestinian people for decades. On the other hand—this is what some people in the Palestinian Authority leadership think—the situation could get so bad that the Hamas leadership will be blamed, which will then lead to a political change. I am not sure whether that is likely to happen in the short term. The despair, poverty and deprivation that might be necessary before such a change occurred are too awful to contemplate.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like other hon. Members, I consider the Committee’s report a very good one. The situation in Gaza is desperate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) said, the humanitarian crisis is in effect holding to ransom the entire population of Gaza. Clearly, the situation breaches international law and order and basic standards of civilised and international behaviour. Obviously, Hamas should stop firing rockets into Israel, but such action does not justify the blockade. What should the international community do to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, and how should the UK Government contribute to that process?

Mike Gapes: While rockets are being fired and people in border towns are living in fear of such attacks, one cannot expect them to believe in the greater good. We should be talking not just to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians. That is another reason why there has to be engagement with the Hamas people and their leadership and the moderate elements to try to bring about a change of approach. I do not believe that we in the UK—or in the European Union collectively—are in a position to say, “Stop this,” and it will happen. We all know that the key player in the process is the United States. It has been for decades and still is.

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The American Administration at last seem to be serious about engagement. Clearly, they need to follow through with a number of questions for the Israelis. For example, is there a possibility of reopening the Rafah crossing, as was agreed in 2005 under the influence of Condoleezza Rice? Linked to that is the reopening of the Karni crossing, which I have visited. Trucks and other goods pass very slowly over the crossing, but if it was properly reopened—not just for humanitarian supplies—it would assist the Palestinian economy in Gaza. I must make some progress. No doubt other hon. Members will want to say more about the situation in Gaza.

The wider question relates to the basis of the Government’s response. The Government did not agree with the Committee’s recommendations on Hamas, but interestingly they took a different approach to our conclusions about Egypt. Our report recommended that we should engage with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In paragraph 86 of the Government reply to our report, they state:

Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It evolved from that organisation.

A similar paradox exists in respect of Lebanon. The Government take a pragmatic view of Lebanon. Paragraph 71 of their response, which refers to paragraph 120 of our report, states:

That view is not as specifically against elements within the political wing of Hamas as it appears. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government have an overall view about Islamist politics and Islamist movements, or is their approach based on behaviour? If so, why do they make distinctions between Egypt and Lebanon and the Palestinians?

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): In the context of Egypt and the engagement of parliamentarians, does my hon. Friend recognise that even if the Government do not want direct links, they should make greater use of organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is engaging with parliamentarians in Egypt and the middle east?

Mike Gapes: Absolutely. I was pleased to meet a group of Egyptian parliamentarians yesterday. They were in the UK under two auspices, with an Inter-Parliamentary Union hat and a Westminster Foundation hat—the Westminster Foundation had partly facilitated their visit. Interestingly, we had a robust exchange. Some of the Egyptian parliamentarians are not very happy about the fact that we say that we should engage with the Muslim Brotherhood because they come from alternative political positions. Many of them were from the governing party in Egypt, and a few were from the opposition—the non-Islamist, more moderate opposition. Clearly, a debate is going on in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I pay tribute to hon. Gentleman for a substantial and balanced report. I know that getting the balance right must have been
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difficult, but we have to tread gently. May I refer him to paragraph 158? The Minister for the Middle East stated that

which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) was talking about. He went on:

We must tread very gently—there is a fine balance.

Mike Gapes: It is not for us to prescribe to the people of any country the political system they should adopt. However, experience shows—for example, the situation in Iran that resulted from the Shah’s repression—that if a country does not have political reform, when change happens it can be more extreme, more violent and have more serious consequences than a transition regime, which progresses in a managed and gradual way towards democratisation. There are real dilemmas. I do not believe that we should be on a crusade to democratise the Arab and Muslim world. However, we ought to promote democratic standards and values, and the careful, pragmatic and effective Westminster Foundation for Democracy is an example of how best to do that.

I have touched on Lebanon, and I suspect that some of my colleagues may say more about it. The political situation there is extremely difficult; there is no agreement yet on the new President and there is a question about the stability of the political system. The system is unusual; it is not democratic in the sense we understand, but the outcome of a vicious civil war and the kind of conflicts that, sadly, we have seen in many parts of the world. In such circumstances, sometimes, political systems are required that are based on entrenched accommodations between different factions or groups. The problem in Lebanon is that the system is under great stress. Hezbollah is strong and growing in importance. The fact that it recently started firing rockets into Israel, after a long period of not doing so, is an indication of the possibility that the conflict could resume—a conflict to which our report refers in great detail. Committee members saw its consequences when they visited southern Lebanon and were shown the cluster munitions.

The report refers to the malign influence of Hezbollah and Iran. We highlighted the fact that some countries outside Israel, Palestine and Lebanon have foreign policy objectives to work against any agreement that might result from the Annapolis process. Syria was present at Annapolis, which is important, but Iran was not—our Committee is carrying out an inquiry on Iran and will produce a detailed report in a few weeks. However, we need to be aware that there are players outside the region who are neither Arab nor Israeli but who have an interest in the outcome and could have a malign influence through arming or financing rejectionist groups that do not want the process taken further.

The Committee commented in passing on the situation in Iraq, about which we were probably unduly pessimistic. We concluded that the surge in Iraq did not look as though it would succeed. However, from the outside, judging by certain criteria—the number of casualties has fallen sharply—there seems to have been a significant
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improvement in the living standards of a large number of people in at least parts of Baghdad. If that is so, we must recognise it.

None the less, difficulties remain in the political process, some of which we touch on in the report. Although it has been agreed that former Ba’athists can return to jobs in the Government, there has been no resolution on the hydrocarbons law and on the sharing of oil and gas receipts. Furthermore, political problems remain over the ongoing power struggle between different groups and factions, particularly within the Shi’a community in Basra and the south, where a reduced but important British military presence remains.

Bob Spink: What is the hon. Gentleman’s feeling about the allied policy of training, putting in uniform and arming opposing militias, and putting them on the streets? Although it might have a short-term impact for good—except of course for women in the wrong sort of dress—in the longer term, it might prove a very dangerous and explosive policy.

Mike Gapes: In post-conflict societies, people are often taken out of factions and groups, brought under the new arrangements and used in the new forces. That has happened with some of the Palestinian groups and in other countries and conflicts.

I have visited Iraq three times and have seen the work and training carried out by our military and police. I saw Gurkhas and the British Army doing the same in Sierra Leone as well. The quality of that training is excellent, but it takes time to create the new structure of a professional army. We probably do not have 10 or 15 years to train people in new ways of thinking and working, in order to find the perfect solution, which means that we might have to deal with people from different groups and organisations. Certainly the Kurdish peshmerga who fought so bravely for many years against Saddam have shown their commitment to different values from those of the Ba’athist regime. We need to be pragmatic and not absolutist.

Near the end of our report, we recommended that the Government publish a public strategy paper on the middle east and reassess their approach to the region. Paragraph 122 of the Government’s response states:

Will the Minister update us on those further reflections? Is there now greater clarity on future Government policy on those wider issues?

The conflicts are interrelated. Anybody who watches satellite television knows that what happens in Palestine, Iraq or any other part of the Arab world is seen by millions of Arabs and Muslims, and many non-Muslims and non-Arabs, through al-Jazeera and other television channels. That is why we need a specific and comprehensive approach to the countries of the region, and to consider how Government policy can influence and improve the situation for the hundreds of millions of people suffering from great difficulties in that region.

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