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It is not just arms that are smuggled, however. The closure of the crossings has also created a thriving illegal trade in necessities, which has filled Hamas’s coffers without providing Gazans the basics that they require. Hand in hand with closing illegal traffic must go a vast increase in legal traffic. The immediate priority is to meet the desperate humanitarian needs. That means not simply food and medicine but, for example, sanitation equipment. Then there are all the supplies that are required to repair Gaza’s ruined infrastructure and to return power and water. The Government have pledged
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a further £20 million, on top of the £6.8 million that we pledged earlier in the conflict. British charities have raised millions more.

The Prime Minister made it clear in Egypt and in Israel that reopening the crossings would be vital. The 2005 movement and access agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should provide the framework. We are ready to help, including by reinstating and, if necessary, extending the EU border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing.

Smuggling and the crossings will be at the heart of the discussions this Wednesday evening, when all 27 EU Foreign Ministers meet Foreign Minister Livni, and on Sunday evening, when we meet our Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish counterparts. However, the critical actors alongside Israel in securing progress, never mind peace, are the Palestinians themselves. Full humanitarian reconstruction will be impossible unless accompanied by political reconstruction. Unity in Palestinian politics is vital to so many things—to rebuilding Gaza, to holding elections, to delivering peace. It is for President Abbas to lead that process. The Arab League and Egyptian commitments of last November point the way forward.

At a time of enormous loss for Palestinians, one thing should not be forgotten. Palestinians on the west bank did not respond to Hamas’s calls for a third intifada. In fact, the Government of Prime Minister Fayyad on the west bank showed clearly in their management—political, economic and security management—that given half a chance, Palestinian government can be hugely effective and provide a real partner for peace.

At the UN and in the House last week, I said that the Gaza crisis was a symptom of political failure. To avoid its repetition we need a political process—a strong one. The Arab League showed in its letter to President-elect Obama in December that it was serious about its ground-breaking offer of peace embodied in the Arab peace initiative: the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Arab normalisation of relations with Israel, a genuine 23-state solution.

The challenge is to ensure that this Gaza crisis does not simply provide another grim milestone in an endless conflict. As we help Gazans to rebuild their lives, we must find a way to ensure that this is the last time they will have to do so. That means showing serious progress towards a Palestinian state alongside improved Israeli security. It means a peace process in which closed-door negotiations are buttressed by Israel and the Arab world taking steps to support rather than undermine the peace process.

However, anyone who doubts that peace in the middle east requires the full, intense engagement of the international community needs only to look at the streets of Gaza today. International engagement that is full and intense includes the immediate engagement of the new American President and Administration. President-elect Obama and his Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton have made it clear that they understand the urgency and are committed to acting. This will certainly be the first topic raised when I speak to the new Secretary of State this week.

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Palestinians and Israelis will be asking themselves today whether they are fated to permanent conflict. I know that I will have the support of the whole House in doing everything possible to avert that future.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Of course, in common with him, we welcome the ceasefire that took effect at the weekend and the withdrawal of Israeli defence forces from Gaza. I join him immediately in sending the united message from the House to which he referred: whatever the very strong debates about this conflict, they must never be the excuse for anti-Semitism or any other kind of hatred. I also join him immediately in the tribute that he paid to the Administration of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on the west bank, whose conduct is in such stark contrast to that of the Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Although there is no doubt that the immediate trigger for this crisis was the barrage of rocket attacks against Israel from Hamas, I know that the Foreign Secretary will agree with us that it was very much in Israel’s own interests to bring the conflict to an end. While it is alleged that Hamas may often have used civilians as human shields and fired rockets from civilian areas, it is also clear that the civilian toll in Gaza and the number of attacks on United Nations-run schools and compounds, which have yet to be explained, have caused damage to the reputation of Israel in the wider world. The Foreign Secretary did not tell us in his statement—I hope he will do so now—whether the Government believe that these incidents should be investigated, by whom they think they should be investigated, and whether the issue was discussed at the summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh at the weekend.

There are three issues on which I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a few quick questions: how we can bolster what is currently a fragile ceasefire, how to ensure a quick and effective aid supply to the people of Gaza, and how to ensure an early return to the middle east peace process. On the bolstering of the ceasefire, can the Foreign Secretary be a little more specific? There is the Israel-US agreement on preventing arms smuggling, and it is reported that under that agreement the United States will act to block the transfer of rockets from Iran to Sinai and the Gaza strip via the sea and through east Africa. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm reports that Israel has approached European states, including Britain, to reach similar agreements? As part of the ceasefire agreement, the Prime Minister has offered Royal Navy support. Can the Foreign Secretary say what form that will take, and what impact it will have on the many competing priorities of the Royal Navy at a time of serious overstretch? Can he also say who will lead this mission? Will it be NATO, the EU or a coalition of the willing, and what will be the legal mandate for the mission?

My second few questions for the Foreign Secretary are about the imperative of getting aid to the people of Gaza. We welcome the announcement of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development that Britain will be making available an additional £20 million in humanitarian aid. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the scale of the relief effort overall is likely to be sufficient, and will sufficient technical assistance be available quickly in Gaza to restore the
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basic infrastructure and prevent the spread of disease, which is always a great worry in these situations? Given the obvious need to open the crossings if aid and assistance is to enter Gaza on the scale needed, can he confirm that the Israeli Government have indicated that the crossings are starting to open from today? What role will be played by the Palestinian Authority at those crossings, and what will happen to the Hamas representatives who are on the ground there? Are there any plans for a broader international monitoring mission to be put in place? Can the Foreign Secretary therefore say precisely what role the EU proposes to assume on Gaza’s crossings, and how close we are to an agreement on how this will operate?

Thirdly and finally, the House is obviously united in agreeing that an early return to the middle east peace process is vital. We all want to see this as a top priority for the incoming US Administration right from tomorrow. When the Foreign Secretary speaks, as he said he would do this week, to the incoming Secretary of State, will he make the point that it is vital in that process that the following three things now happen: international pressure and attention to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary to achieve long-term peace, including over settlements on the west bank; continuous, albeit cautious, dialogue with Syria; and, on Iran, the stepping up of European pressure against her nuclear programme to buttress any new approaches on this issue by the United States? Is it not the case that we need all those three things to happen together in order to set the region on a path to long-term peace and stability—a vital objective for this Government, and so many other Governments, in the months ahead?

David Miliband: I will go through the three sets of specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Before raising them, however, he referred to the investigation of serious allegations of war crimes and other misdemeanours, and he will know that I said very clearly in my statement last week that those allegations must be closely and speedily investigated. Obviously, the three key parties to that investigation are the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Government of Israel, and we are in touch with all of them. I should also point out that however heinous is the crime of using people as “human shields”—a terrible phrase—that does not change the responsibilities of parties to the conflict to spare the lives of civilians; it is important not to forget that.

In respect of the ceasefire, we will hear more from the Israeli Foreign Minister on Wednesday. I spoke to her on Friday, and we will have to wait and see where the Israelis’ thinking has got to on the smuggling issue and the suggestion of further memorandums of understanding. Obviously, we want to make sure that we make a practical difference in respect of the smuggling, which is in part a local issue across the Egypt-Gaza border, but which is also a wider one given the regional and even global flows of arms that take place.

There are three limits on how much detail I can provide. First, by definition, since the people trying to do the smuggling are acting illicitly, there are natural limits on how much we will ever be able to reveal. Secondly, discussions are under way about the precise combination of different countries and different assets that will be deployed. Thirdly, the legal mandate also
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needs to be worked through. What was significant about the meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh yesterday, and the one in Israel, was the commitment of the international community to making a difference on that issue. That is definitely a step change.

On the humanitarian situation, it is very important to distinguish between immediate relief—the matter of life and death, in some cases, in respect of medical supplies now—and the reconstruction that will have to take place in due course. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I was confident that there was enough; one can never be confident that there is enough, not least in circumstances such as these. Although I understand that the number of lorries going through the crossings has increased over the past day or two—I hoped to have the exact figure when I came to the House, but it had not arrived by the time I left for here—it would be foolish to say that I was confident that the organisation and the amount will meet the need. That is because the need is huge and, as was pointed out last week, given that journalists have not been to the area, the extent of the need is only now being sketched out. A joint EU-UN mission—a so-called “needs assessment mission”—will go in precisely to get to the bottom of the extent of the need. I think that to pronounce confidence now would be complacent.

On the role of the European border assistance mission, the 2005 agreement provides the basis for it and the personnel are in place and waiting, but, of course, very difficult political issues are associated with it. It was an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, and both insist that they should be the partners of the EU force at any crossings. There are seven crossings in total—one of them into Egypt—and we need to ensure that the management arrangements are appropriate for all of them.

Finally, on the wider comprehensive peace that is sought, one of the casualties of this crisis has, of course, been the Israel-Syria talks, which were broken off at its beginning. The comprehensive peace to which we are committed, as I believe are the right hon. Gentleman and his party, does indeed require compromises, but it also requires a process. That process will have to be akin more to the Madrid process of the early 1990s than to the Annapolis process of the past year—the key difference being the breadth of the Madrid process compared with the relatively narrow focus of the Annapolis process, however worthy and important it has been.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Many hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. May I ask that single questions be put as briefly as possible, so that more hon. Members may be able to contribute to the debate on this important statement?

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Unilateralism is not enough. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that however welcome these temporary ceasefires, they do not necessarily mean that there will be a long-term solution? Will he urgently discuss with his colleagues in the Security Council the implications of the rejection of its resolution 1860 by both Israel and Hamas 10 days ago? Will he try to ensure that if we do get a longer-term ceasefire, it is on a permanent basis? Does he not think that it is necessary to engage with Hamas to secure that?

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have made a request for short questions to the Foreign Secretary.

David Miliband: I admire my hon. Friend’s ingenuity in asking those questions. Of course, he is right to say that the focus must be on making a permanent peace. That is certainly what we are focused on, in terms of not only the immediate issues relating to what remains a dangerously fragile ceasefire, but the longer-term issues. We are, of course, in touch with all our Security Council counterparts; a discussion took place last week and there will doubtless be further discussions in future. We will have to think through precisely the sort of discussion that he describes, given that our immediate focus is on the situation on the ground, but I hear what he has had to say.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that Hamas, unlike the Israelis, has committed itself only to a six-day ceasefire and has refused to contemplate a permanent ceasefire? Does he agree that if the Hamas group resumes hostilities unilaterally, it will not only show its indifference to the welfare of the Palestinians, but bear the prime responsibility for any further hostilities that follow such an action?

David Miliband: As I said in my statement, we want Hamas to put a definitive end to its rocket attacks, and a six-day ceasefire does not constitute the definitive end that we seek. It is vital that over the next few days those with influence on Hamas should explain the gravity of the situation facing the Palestinian people and put humanitarian need before internal political divisions. In that context, I spoke to the Syrian Foreign Minister yesterday and expressed the very strong view that I hoped that he would use his influence to ensure that Hamas understood its responsibilities.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and totally agree with him that the two key priorities for the next few days must be consolidating the ceasefire and ensuring that the urgent humanitarian aid gets through to all those who need it. May I also immediately agree with him and the Conservative spokesman that we must all fight anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head?

On the ceasefire, will the Foreign Secretary answer in more detail the questions put to him by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about the Prime Minister’s proposals for a Royal Navy deployment to help to stop some of the smuggling? What would be the exact terms of such a British naval deployment, not least any terms of engagement? Will he confirm whether he and his fellow Foreign Ministers made it clear to both sides that they would both be expected to implement rapidly the well-known conditions needed for a sustainable ceasefire, whether those conditions were the end of rocket attacks or the opening of the crossings into Gaza?

On humanitarian assistance, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that there is no prohibition on the UN or non-governmental organisations distributing British-funded aid via the Hamas authorities when that is simply the most effective and quickest way of getting aid to stricken people?

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On the question of longer-term support for reconstruction, will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the EU and the British Government remain pragmatic and flexible in how we get the best value for money and the quickest results for Gazans? Will he accept that whether we like it or not, urgent reconstruction will require a level of engagement with Hamas that the international community has not previously managed? There is talk of a $2 billion Arab programme for reconstruction in Gaza, but will he ensure that the EU formally requests the Israeli Government to make significant contributions, too?

As the world reflects on the past few weeks, will the Foreign Secretary give more details on the timing of the investigations into any breaches of international law by either side that the UN or others might want to pursue? May I also return to the reassurances that he gave me last Monday, when he said that no British-made weapons or weapons components were used by the Israeli defence forces in their operations against Gaza? In general, will he commit to provide to the House as soon as possible a full report of the evidence used by the Government to monitor compliance with the Government’s policies in relation to arms export licences granted for arms sales to Israel? In particular, will he confirm for the record that the Israeli-owned British company UAV Engines did not supply any parts for any of the Israeli drones used?

Perhaps the most ominous words today come from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who said that the Arab peace initiative will not be on the table for ever. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that is the clearest diplomatic signal yet of the grave damage that the conflict has brought on Israel’s own long-term interests for peace? Does he agree that such views mean that everyone must now redouble their efforts for a lasting peace in the middle east?

David Miliband: Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that both the crossings and the rocket attacks need to be addressed. That was certainly at the heart of my statement, and it is at the heart of the work the Prime Minister and I are doing. The hon. Gentleman will know that the redistribution of aid is done through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has a record of putting the needs of the people whom it serves first. We support wholly the way in which it has gone about its work.

The hon. Gentleman talked about engagement with Hamas and it is important to repeat what I said last Monday: the Arab League has nominated Egypt as the interlocutor for the Arab League and has requested that it be the interlocutor for the world community in engaging with Hamas. At the moment, that engagement is about the ceasefire—and rightly so, because the ceasefire must be kept in place. That is the right way forward. Others are talking to Hamas, but in this case it is right that we should follow the lead of the Arab League.

In respect of the timing of the investigations, they must take place as soon as possible. People are finally able to get back into Gaza and it is evident that there needs to be a proper investigation. Delay in such matters has obvious dangers.

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