Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Jan 2008 : Column 529WH—continued

24 Jan 2008 : Column 530WH

Europe can offer help to middle eastern countries in finding a solution to their long-standing problems. Our continent has been riven by conflict and violence for centuries, but through institutions such as the Helsinki process and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe we have found ways of dealing with those divisions without recourse to war. We cannot solve the problems of the middle east for them, but with good will and diplomatic action we can offer them a way forward—one on which they might model their solutions.

4.44 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I echo hon. Members’ congratulations on not just the report but the contributions that have been made to the debate. Thank you, Mr. Pope, for the expert and civilised way in which you have chaired it.

Promoting peace, prosperity and security in the middle east remains one of the UK’s key foreign policy priorities. As hon. Members have said, progress on conflict resolution, including a settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict, could transform the region. That would have significant benefits for global security, including our efforts to combat extremism, improve the lives of people in the region and deliver better security for British citizens. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s new strategic framework will ensure that taking forward our objectives in the middle east, particularly on conflict prevention, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, remains a top priority.

Understandably, hon. Members concentrated mostly on the continuing crisis in Gaza. Their recollections and accounts of their visits echo my own. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke of his difficulty in getting into Gaza. I remember going there, I think as the first representative of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, to try to gain some understanding of conditions. It was a mystery even then.

I have here a map of the west bank and Gaza and, being a bit of a map buff, I did a bit of measuring while I was listening to my hon. Friend. The area is 36 miles long, and in most parts about 5 miles wide—about the average length of a south Wales valley. It is extraordinary that it has generated so much misery and suffering. The map is produced by the Foreign Office and illustrates clearly the concerns that were expressed by President Bush when he went there recently. He said that he could not see a future for a Palestinian state whose map looked like a Swiss cheese. I do not know what kind of Swiss cheese he eats—I have not eaten one like that—but I can see what he means. It is a territory that is chopped up and has holes in it.

For the obvious reason that hon. Members wanted to speak about Gaza, there was little talk about illegal settlements and outposts. I was glad that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) recalled his visit to Ramallah. I think that he said he was there when announcements were made of planning permission being granted for the expansion of settlements and more building inside them. It is one of the most contentious issues, and we have pressed hard on it. I have pressed the Israelis on it every time I have met them, because it contravenes their responsibilities in the road map.

I am not trying to push the blame for the lack of progress on to the Israelis, but they must carry their share of blame. The map that I have illustrates how
24 Jan 2008 : Column 531WH
contentious the matter is and how it places a huge question mark on the viability of a future Palestinian state, where people can live in peace alongside an Israeli state. It is important that we remember that.

I shall try to answer hon. Members’ questions, about which I scribbled down notes. Except by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), there was little mention of Annapolis and the peace process. We should not underrate its importance. All of us in this room know each other and have debated the matter before, and we know how little progress has been made. As far as I am concerned, during this very grim period, it is the only show in town.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Aylesbury highlighted the fact there are other players. President Abbas has not had much of a mention in this debate; both he and Prime Minister Fayad are extremely talented and forthright representatives of the Palestinian people who disagree profoundly with the tactics that continue to be used by Hamas.

I have every sympathy with those who argue that we should engage with Hamas, as we have done with other similar organisations. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South mentioned back channels and doing the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) did in Northern Ireland to try and build confidence. I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) say that a much more professional approach to the talks and negotiations is needed. I have said time and again that we cannot take people away to Geneva once or twice a year and expect a lasting and sustainable peace process. It is not possible, especially given the tensions and suffering in the region.

That is important because we must give all the support that we can when we see that progress can be made, as is the case with Annapolis. Many issues are tied to that process. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South talked about the need to engage with the Syrians. I spoke to them at the Iraq neighbours conference held in Istanbul and at the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Lisbon. I have also spoken to Foreign Minister Muallem. On the margins of the conference—at the pre-conference dinner and other unofficial events—they were nice as pie, but at the plenary session, they took as hard a line as one could possibly encounter.

It is difficult to take seriously a policy that, on the one hand, seems to offer the chance of progress, but, on the other, has been involved in the murder of democratically-elected politicians in Lebanon. We know that the Syrians are facilitating the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Damascus, the Syrian Government have been hosting an alternative to the Annapolis conference for so-called rejectionists to ensure that whatever is achieved in Annapolis is undone and undermined. We must be very careful about congratulating and rewarding such public and private policies when they threaten to undermine even the small progress that has been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who feels very passionately about these issues, as does everyone here, raised some very important questions. I think that he asked me who is paying for the fuel going into Gaza. I can tell him that the European Commission pays for the industrial diesel
24 Jan 2008 : Column 532WH
for the power station in Gaza through the temporary international mechanism. The Palestinian Authority pays for the fuel for the hospital generators and so on. Some 10 electricity lines run from Israel into Gaza and one runs from Egypt. Touch wood, all of them are operating.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South asked about what appears to be an inconsistency in us not dealing directly with Hamas, but being prepared to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I am well aware of the connections between the two. However, unlike Hamas, the latter works towards Islamist objectives through non-violent political activism. Our engagement with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is in the context of engaging with a range of Egyptian parliamentarians. As for Hezbollah, it has not played a constructive role in Lebanon since 2005. That is why we currently do not have any direct contact with the organisation. However, we recognise the wider role that Hezbollah plays in Lebanese politics and will calibrate any future contact with its actions.

I have met some very prominent politicians in Lebanon and subsequently been told, “He’s really Hezbollah.” I have also met others who might align themselves with Hezbollah. I defy anyone in this Parliament fully to understand Lebanese politics. The Foreign Office gave me a guide to it the other day. A little note at the bottom stated, “If you think you understand the above, you clearly misunderstand Lebanese politics.” That is absolutely true; the subject is mind-boggling.

One hon. Member said this afternoon—I forget who it was—that we have stood idly by while these terrible things have been happening. We have not stood idly by. We have worked in every way possible to resolve the situation. I suppose the inference was that we should have pressed harder, either through economic measures or the use of sanctions. I do not believe, however, that such action would help this acute situation. It certainly will not help in the short term.

We need to move the Annapolis process along, bring in measures to build confidence, and promote a much more ready discussion between President Abbas and his Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians in Hamas. The damage that was done to the Palestinian cause across the Gulf by the putsch, or the coup d’etat, in Gaza was quite extraordinary. To see one group of Palestinians throwing other Palestinians off the roofs of buildings and murdering them did no one any good.

I want to say many things about this situation. We have heard questions about Iran, Syria and many others. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants peace in the region. We will work ceaselessly to bring that about. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked me why we are not doing more in the Gulf. I spend a lot of time in the Gulf, and will continue to do so. In the end, it is the Arab states themselves who will be the prime movers in this. Many states have reached an accommodation with Israel, but it must go further. They must articulate that demand for justice and a long-term and sustainable peace in a way that they have not done up to now, and I think that they are beginning to do it. The Arab peace initiative is very important, and we will do everything we can to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Five o’clock

    Index Home Page