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Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)

I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me this debate, and the Minister for being here to listen to my remarks.

Today marks 58 years since Israel declared its independence. Israel is a democracy, committed to western values, freedom and the rule of law, located, I am afraid, in a sea of hostile Arab states. Today also marks 58 years that Israel has been fighting for its survival against those hostile neighbours and terrorist groups who, in many cases, still refuse to recognise Israel's right to exist.

I am thinking in particular of Hamas, the radical Islamist terrorist organisation, which won an overwhelming majority in the Palestinian elections in January. Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislative council elections and has filled the Palestinian Authority with Ministers who, I am afraid to say, defend the deliberate killing of innocent Israeli civilians.

The Hamas movement was born out of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is committed to the destruction of Israel through armed struggle and the establishment of an Islamic republic of Palestine based on sharia law. Between 1989 and 2005, Hamas killed 579 Israelis, and wounded 3,235 more, in brutal acts of terrorism; some 93 per cent. of these were civilian casualties. Hamas suicide bombers have attacked Israel at least 58 times—symbolically, one for each year since Israel declared its independence in 1948.

Britain should remain steadfast with regard to Hamas and should not be led to water down the three preconditions set by the Quartet on 30 January. Hamas needs to understand that it needs to recognise Israel, commit to non-violence, end terrorism, and accept previous agreements and obligations signed by its Palestinian predecessors. The Minister should not waver: all three conditions must be fulfilled before Britain and the west should even consider dialogue or meetings with Hamas. The Minister must remain firm and vigilant against Hamas, and lead the international community to pressurising Hamas to commit to a two-state solution: a secure Israel living side by side with a viable state of Palestine.

Hamas must end its violence and terrorism, and it is in the British national interest to promote freedom and democracy against that oppression and terror. Her Majesty's Government should not waver on any of the conditions set for the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

There are those who hope that Hamas will be moderate in office, but I am afraid that its actions show the opposite. Although it has, by and large, respected the ceasefire negotiated by Abu Mazen in February 2005, many Hamas leaders continue to defend terrorism against Israel, and they ally themselves with abhorrent regimes, themselves state sponsors and financiers of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria, that openly call for Israel to be "wiped off the map".

Last month, Tehran hosted a "support for the Palestinian intifada conference", which was attended by Hamas's political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal. Iran has pledged $50 million to finance the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Hamas is an integral part of the fundamentalist regime in Iran, which, as we all know, seeks to export terrorism and wage jihad against western democracy and values. With close links to an Iranian regime hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons and destabilising the whole of the middle east, the Hamas Government are exposed as a regime with the same goals: destruction of Israel and an attack on western democracy and values.

Hamas's Foreign Minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, is openly an extremist and is cultivating links with Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, rather than—as I am sure we would all wish—showing moderation to the west. On 24 March, Hamas's Interior Minister, Said Siyam, who is responsible for Palestinian internal security forces, publicly committed himself not to order arrests of operatives who carry out terrorist attacks against Israel. Siyam's declaration amounts to an open invitation to all terrorists, including al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Fatah militias.

In effect, the Hamas regime, far from being a moderating influence, is facilitating continued terrorist attacks on Israel while disclaiming responsibility. Although the Hamas movement appears to abide by a ceasefire with Israel, the policy of the Hamas Government is to allow terrorists free rein. Hamas failed to condemn the first suicide bombing to take place after it took power in January. Instead, it called it "an act of self-defence".

Not only is Hamas refusing to criticise publicly acts of terrorism, but it has actually been implicated in the attacks itself. For example, an investigation into the attempted suicide bombing at the Karni crossing on 26 April revealed that it was carried out by the popular resistance committees in the Gaza strip, which are under the direction of Hamas.

There are glaring inconsistencies in the messages that Hamas sends out to the western and Arab media on the issues of terrorism, Israel and negotiations. Indeed, Hamas's media strategy is to adapt its various messages to the relevant target audience. To the western media, Hamas attempts to put across a soft image; to the Arab media, including that in Palestine, Hamas presents a defiant and uncompromising image, including on issues such as terrorism, the peace process and recognition of Israel.

For example, Hamas's Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, has been labelled a pragmatist in some of the western press. Yet it was Haniya who took credit for a Hamas suicide bus bombing in 2003, which killed 23 Israelis and wounded 130. In March this year, in the Arabic press, Haniya said the following on the issue of the recognition of Israel:

"One of the basic principles of the new Government is not to surrender to international threats and to refuse to recognize Israel."

However, days earlier, in the western media, he had said:

"We will respect the agreements which will ensure the establishment of a Palestinian state on the '67 lines, as well as the release of prisoners. If Israel withdraws to the '67 lines, we will formulate peace in stages."

That dual message speaks for itself. Hamas continues to support terrorism, refuses to recognise Israel and shows no sign at all of accepting the notion of a two- state solution. Sadly, the evidence suggests that, far from a democratic Palestine, we could be witnessing the emergence of an Islamist state on Israel's doorstep, with vested interests from fundamentalist regimes such as Iran and Syria and terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Will Her Majesty's Government grant assurances that they will remain steadfast against Hamas and remain committed to all the preconditions set by the Quartet on 30 January? Will the Minister also make assurances that Her Majesty's Government will not become lenient in interpreting the preconditions set by the Quartet? It is unacceptable when the Foreign Secretary says, as he did in Riyadh only a few weeks ago, that recognition of Israel does not mean a formal declaration by Hamas, but just a practical acceptance of the "reality" of the Jewish state. Hamas, in its entirety, is a terrorist organisation proscribed by the European Union. Will the Minister join me in condemning the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the EU for recently meeting the Hamas Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament?

In conclusion, Britain should stand united with Israel against Hamas and remain vigilant that Hamas recognises Israel, ends terrorism and accepts a two-state solution based on the road map to peace.

4:41 pm
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Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)

Thank you for calling me, Mrs. Anderson. It is a double pleasure to have you chair the debate, because you chaired another Adjournment debate earlier today—we must be the only Assembly in the world that has six Adjournments a day. That debate was on Nepal, another troubled part of the world, and, since the majority of the world's conflicts come under my brief, we will no doubt share the Room again.

I congratulate Mr. Hollobone on tabling this Adjournment debate. It has come at a crucial time for developments in the middle east, not least because today is Israeli independence day. As he has explained, it is important that we work to ensure that that independence is protected and that the Israeli people are allowed to enjoy a life free from the threat of terrorism, violence and murder that they have faced for so long. Of course, on 25 January a new Palestinian Government were elected and on 28 March the Israeli people also elected a new Government.

As I made clear to the House on 25 April, we recognise Hamas's democratic mandate as a result of free and fair elections, but that mandate comes with responsibilities. Democracy is about more than elections but, as I have also made clear, it is essential that the Hamas-led Government commit to non-violence, recognise Israel, and accept previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. I say that in all humility because I cannot see another way in which we will reach the two-state solution that, in my view, is absolutely vital in the middle east peace process. The road map remains the best way forward.

We are watching developments closely. Hamas needs to start to implement the three principles and to make clear the path it intends to take. Its response to the Tel Aviv suicide bomb attack on 17 April was unacceptable and reprehensible. I thought that the hon. Gentleman's explanation of the expert way in which Hamas manipulates the news media to communicate dual messages to suit its different audiences was valuable and insightful. Never underestimate it because, like Osama bin Laden, it uses the media in a clever and effective way.

There has been a great deal of controversy about what we should do about pledged support and continued support for the Palestinian people. That is important, as the Palestinian people have been hugely subsidised for a long time. I have made known my sadness at going to Ramallah and seeing luxury apartments surrounding the city, despite the fact that the local economy has allegedly collapsed. One wonders where that money came from. A lot of it came from the donations that countries such as ours gave, over the years, to Yasser Arafat and, I am afraid, a lot of it was distributed to his cronies through corruption. The last people to benefit from it were the Palestinians. That rankles, and certainly goes a long way to explain why Hamas did so well in the Palestinian elections. People were looking for an organisation that would challenge corruption, which is something that we must take into account and treat seriously.

The international community and the UK will continue to support the Palestinian people and to help provide for their basic needs. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary have all made it clear that the United Kingdom will continue to support the Palestinian people. Although donors have stopped direct budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority, they continue to provide support to the Palestinian people and help to provide for their basic needs. Only a co-ordinated response by the international community will achieve that.

We, along with our EU partners, have a strong record of support for the Palestinian people. On 25 April the Department for International Development announced a £15 million payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The United Kingdom alone has given £147 million to the Palestinian people since 2001. That is an enormous sum of money. We want to restart our funding to the Palestinian Authority, but we cannot do that until Hamas takes the necessary steps. In the meantime, we are actively looking at how we can help meet the Palestinian people's basic needs.

Of course, this is the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate and he has acquitted himself well. However, I remind him that the middle east peace process is a process, and that we should also take the opportunity to remind the new Israeli Government, for whom we have great hopes, that they must stop any action that contravenes the agreement that should be part of the road map. They must stop building illegal settlements and stop the construction of the separation barrier on Palestinian land.

I have been there and I have seen for myself the damage that the separation barrier is doing. I am very much a supporter of the two-state solution, but I have heard some shocking statistics, such as that only 20 per cent. of the barrier is on or behind the agreed green line. Some 80 per cent. of the barrier is in Palestinian territory. That does not help. It does not help those of us who are passionate supporters of Israel and the Israeli people, as much as we are supporters of the Palestinians. It is very important that we recognise that what I have described is contrary to international law and threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution.

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Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)

I thank the Minister for his remarks thus far. Although he has concerns about the location of the barrier, does he recognise that Israel never wanted to build it in the first place, but has been faced with an unprecedented scale of assault on its citizens through suicide bombing? We have had our own recent, unfortunate experience of suicide bombing in this country, but the level of such attacks in Israel is out of all proportion to anywhere else in the world. That is the fundamental reason for designing the barrier in the first place.

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Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)

I understand that completely. On my last visit to Israel I went to talk to what one might call old friends on the Israeli left who were born and brought up on kibbutzim, one of which was, if I recall rightly, on the old road to Jerusalem. They told me very reluctantly that life was a lot easier now the barrier had been built. They admitted that reluctantly because they always wanted to live alongside Palestinians. They did not want divisions. They believed that it was possible for people to live together.

I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman's point. If the Israelis want to build that barrier, that is up to them, and of course that is what they have done. However, the route that the barrier takes is an extremely important issue. If it incorporates Palestinian land—as it certainly has done—there are problems, as the Israeli High Court has admitted. Sometimes it has overruled the proposed routes, saying, "No, it mustn't go that way, because it's illegal." I very much hope that the Israelis, even at this point, listen to pleas from countries such as ours to reconsider that route, because it allows the wound to fester, and there have been too many festering wounds in that part of the world. I understand entirely why the Israelis have built the barrier, but hope very much that they understand that we feel strongly about the route that has been taken.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee in March that we remain committed to key Security Council resolutions Nos. 242, 338 and 1373. We believe that the Israeli Government should adhere to international law, and we remain concerned by Israeli policies on settlements and the barrier—and especially on access to Jerusalem, which threatens to cut off Palestinian east Jerusalem from the west bank. Those policies will have serious economic, social and humanitarian consequences for Palestinians, and they risk reducing the possibility of reaching a final status agreement on Jerusalem.

I shall develop my argument. Although I understand the security considerations, those whom I met in the kibbutz told me that the last thing they want is an economic basket case on the borders of Israel. The Palestinian state must be economically viable, and that will require some rapid rethinking of the way in which blockades can prevent the development of the economy and so on. There has to be a balance. There is never an easy answer to the question of how to protect one's own citizens and at the same time allow the proper economic development of a neighbouring state. It is extremely important.

I shall move on, as I have only a few minutes left. The hon. Gentleman asked if I would give him an assurance that we will remain steadfast against Hamas, at least with its present policies and statements. We stand fully behind the Quartet's three principles of a Hamas commitment to non-violence, its recognition of Israel and its acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. We are monitoring the situation closely. Hamas will be judged not only on its words but on its actions. If Hamas shows real political leadership and imagination, it could make the necessary change; and it should understand that if it makes that change the international community will respond.

I have chosen my words carefully because I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matter. I am sure that many in the new Israeli Government will feel that they have to make progress, but they cannot make progress for as long as they adopt their present actions and words. The aftermath of the Tel Aviv bombing reminded us, if we needed reminding, of a ruthless streak in those political thoughts.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Union. We have made clear our policy on Hamas. I am sorry that the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament chose to take the action that he did. I had hoped for a degree of solidarity, but individual Members of Parliament, including Members of the European Parliament, may view the situation differently. That is their prerogative. However, we have made our views clear.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would take steps to ensure that other British political parties and western allies abided by the same set of tests for the unreformed Hamas Government. There will be a Quartet meeting on 9 May in New York to discuss the middle east peace process. We are working very closely with the Quartet and our EU partners along the lines that I have set out, so I hope that he can take some comfort from that.

I have lost track of time, Mrs. Anderson; despite the fact that there are clocks all over the place, they tell different times. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we remain committed to the principles of a negotiated two-state solution, and we continue to work towards a just, viable and lasting peace and the establishment of a viable and secure state of Palestine and a secure state of Israel consistent with the Security Council resolutions and the principle of land for peace. If Hamas can move towards the Quartet's three principles, then the peace process can advance. The only viable future for a Palestinian state lies in its having a peaceful relationship with its neighbour Israel.

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Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)

I suspect that we may have more time than the Minister imagines. I appreciate what he said about our EU partners. Does he detect any softening in the stance of our EU partners towards Israel, which could disconcert the Israelis as they confront the terrorist threat from Hamas? Traditionally, it has been the US and the UK that have remained steadfast on these issues and some of our continental neighbours have backtracked at crucial times.

Photo of Kim Howells

Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)

I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that the EU and the US, together with the other major donors, such as Japan, Canada and Norway, have suspended direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, but remain committed to supporting the Palestinian people. Those donors provide the majority of funding to the Palestinian Authority. Some other states, including those in the Arab world, view the situation in a different way, which is their prerogative, but I have not detected any breaking of ranks, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to.

The hon. Gentleman knows full well, because he is very familiar with this part of the world, that different Governments will have different views about how far to move in one direction, and about who to talk to and who not to talk to. There will be situations where some of the aid we give to the United Nations will have to be signed off by someone who turns out to be a Hamas representative or councillor. Inevitably, such things will happen.

I am old enough to remember the early days of our engagement with the Provisional IRA under Prime Minister John Major. That process was fraught with difficulty and a lot of it took place in secret. I have not noticed a great breaking of ranks or people trying to engage with Hamas—or other people—in various ways. We expect the Palestinian Authority to take long-overdue action against people firing rockets into Israel, trying to provoke confrontations at the borders or identifying, recruiting and arming suicide bombers. Despite the barrier, they still get through; they got through to Tel Aviv.

I have not picked up an indication that there is any desire among any of our partners or allies to break ranks in that respect. I cannot answer for other Governments. Very early on, the Russian Government met Hamas. They were very cautious about that meeting, from what I can tell. I think that Hamas got the message from Russia that the latter was very much part of the Quartet, which was helpful. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's trepidation.

As I say, the only viable future for a Palestinian state lies in its having a peaceful relationship with its neighbour, Israel. We welcome the commitment of Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to negotiations, and we urge both sides to resume negotiations as soon as possible. We want the peace process to make real progress. The Palestinian and Israeli people suffer in the end. There ought to be enough good will there, and enough diplomatic expertise; they have been at it for long enough to make progress now on the middle east peace process.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject; it gives us the opportunity to say once again that this country, this Government and I am sure his party, too, want this terrible conflict to draw to a close so that people in that area can live in peace and stability and look forward to a decent future for their children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock.