At Nice, European Foreign Ministers met for two hours to review the distressing situation in the middle east. We expressed our concern at the violence in the occupied territories and at the impact of the tension on the wider region. I regret to inform the House that over the weekend there was more violence, as a result of which 10 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed.
There will be no winners so long as the violence continues. We urge both sides to fulfil their commitments at Sharm el-Sheikh to halt the violence. They can thereby create the environment in which negotiations can be resumed on the peace settlement that both Israel and Palestine desperately need.
I welcome the declaration on the middle east made by the European Council at Nice. Among other issues, the declaration flagged up the settlements. Israel has promised to face that question before, but clearly has not done so. Is my right hon. Friend surprised that that part of the declaration has caused so much reaction among Israeli diplomats and the Israeli press, to the extent that they are suggesting that it is a Palestinian incitement to violence?
It was a common theme of the discussion that the settlements were part of the problem. Anybody who has been to the middle east knows that settlements are one of the issues that have caused great tension and resentment in the Palestinian community. Since Oslo, during the many long years of engagement in the peace process, there has been a constant and substantial increase in the population of settlements—an increase that may be inconsistent with the final agreement. I regret that the statement was condemned in Israel as unbalanced because of that. I think that it is a carefully crafted and well-balanced statement that calls on both sides to fulfil their commitments to Sharm el-Sheikh and to cease violence. We will not get out of the spiral of violence if only one side acts; both sides must do so.
Accepting the careful words of the Foreign Secretary, is not it none the less a sad fact that the Palestinian leadership is encouraging the escalation of violence? That was demonstrated last Friday, the day of rage, during which 10 people were killed. I echo the right hon. Gentleman's view that the two sides should sit down. That message that must go to the Palestinian leadership, especially during the next two months. Will he applaud Prime Minister Barak's decision to bring forward the Israeli general election by two months? That will help to create the correct conditions for more talks.
The hon. Gentleman began by congratulating me on my careful words, but finished by inviting me to step into a deep pit. If he will forgive me, I shall not comment on the Israeli general election, which is a matter for the Israeli people.
On the hon. Gentleman's wider point, we have appealed to the leadership of both sides, including that of the Palestinians, for an end to the violence. We must understand, however, that the Palestinian leadership cannot turn off violence as if it were a military general commanding troops. The serious issue must be addressed of ensuring that the Palestinian people see the prospect of hope and progress. That is why we have called repeatedly for confidence-building measures.
I believe that relaxation of internal closures would enable the Palestinian leadership to command more support among the people. I read with concern the statement by an Israeli non-governmental organisation, Physicians for Human Rights, that medicine and food were now in short supply in large parts of the west bank because of those internal closures. Relaxing the closures, which play no part in security, could help to create the confidence within which violence can diminish.
Should not the Israelis, of all people, understand the anger and injustice felt by almost all Palestinians in the occupied territories? Should not those of us who have always taken the view that Israel has a right to exist—that has been my position since 1948, when it came into existence—tell the Israelis bluntly that the line that they have pursued, especially since 1967, will never lead to peace? The Israelis should understand that. In my view, it is our responsibility to tell them so as clearly and as sharply as possible.
My hon. Friend speaks with particular authority because he has long been a friend of Israel. I hope that the Government and people of Israel are aware of the deep concerns about the present situation among all those who are their friends in the outside world. It is also true that nobody else stands to gain as much from a peace settlement as the Israeli people themselves. Indeed, whenever they are given the chance, they consistently vote for peace. I desperately want a few days free from any funerals, so that we can get back to pursuing the peace settlement.
Is it not a matter of some dismay for those of us who wish the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a lasting and just settlement that ceasefires come and go with almost depressing frequency? In view of the antipathy of the Israelis to any monitoring force drawn from the United Nations, will the Foreign Secretary consider the possibility of such a force being drawn from the European Union or from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, so that the next time a ceasefire is declared it will have some chance of succeeding?
I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern about the failure of ceasefires to stay in being and I am particularly appalled and distressed at the level of last weekend's violence.
I believe that an observer force could play a valuable part in confidence building and in ensuring that agreements are honoured on the ground by both sides. I therefore regret that we have as yet been unable to reach agreement on the deployment of observers. They need not be static, they need not freeze present borders, they could be mobile and would not even need to be a military force that could intervene; they would be there to observe and to report. I am glad that the fact-finding mission is now starting its work this week in the middle east, and I hope it will be possible to build on that to provide a corps of observers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that for us to achieve a period that is free from violence and to create the prospect of returning to the negotiating table and the peace process, it is up to leaders on all sides to urge an end to violence? Is it not therefore time that the Palestinian leadership stopped its official media whipping up and orchestrating violence on the streets in the Palestinian Authority? The Palestinian leadership has control over that. Will my right hon. Friend stop the Palestinians from using the media in that way?
I fully endorse my hon. Friend's appeal to the Palestinian leadership not to say or do anything involving incitement. At the same time, we in this House are committed to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and we cannot prevent the Palestinian media from reporting views that are widely expressed in Palestine. I agree that there is a special responsibility on leadership figures, but both sides have to refrain from violence if we are to get a ceasefire lasting more than a day or two. I particularly regret the fact that last weekend 10 Palestinians were killed out of a total of 13 deaths. Both sides must back off from violence if we are to have an end to violence.
If the Palestinian people are to be convinced that there is an alternative to violence in their efforts to meet their legitimate aspirations to peace and freedom, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the international community must display its willingness to put effective pressure on the Israeli Government to end their illegal occupation? In that context, what discussions did he have with colleagues at the Nice summit about the economic measures that might be taken against Israel if progress towards peace is not achieved in the near future?
I say to the hon. Gentleman in all candour—I appreciate the sincerity and good will behind his question—that our present objective is to try to encourage both sides to come back to the negotiating table and to ensure that they understand that Europe, the United States, the United Nations and Kofi Annan are willing to mediate and help. It does not currently assist in that objective to drive Israel increasingly into retreat and to make it feel under pressure from those who may be seen to be undermining its economy. Moreover, it is impossible to take economic measures against Israel without also damaging Palestine. One should remember that the Palestinians require Israel, more than any other country, to secure the opportunity for economic progress.