Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 14th March 2006.

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Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire 3:31 pm, 14th March 2006

What steps he is taking to establish channels of communication with Hamas; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We fully support the approach set out by the Quartet. Members of any Palestinian Government must be committed to non-violence, the recognition of Israel and the acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map.

May I take this opportunity to explain to the House what has happened today in Jericho and elsewhere in the occupied territories? First, I must emphasise the Government's condemnation of today's appalling acts of violence. They are totally unwarranted. I am glad to tell the House that all United Kingdom monitors and other employees of the British Government are safe—including British Council employees, all of whom are Palestinian—in Gaza and in Ramallah. We are currently advising against all travel to the occupied territories.

I set out the background to the withdrawal of our monitors from the prison in Jericho in a written ministerial statement to the House this morning. The House will recall that they arrived in Jericho under the Ramallah agreement in 2002, which helped to bring about the end of the siege of President Arafat's compound.

The Ramallah agreement set out clear conditions under which the six Palestinian prisoners would be held. The 14 British and American monitors were there to monitor those conditions, not to detain or protect the prisoners. Regrettably, the Palestinian Authority have never in the past four years met all their obligations under the Ramallah agreement, despite our repeated demands that they do so.

Our monitors faced an increasing threat to their safety. I considered—on advice from officials and security experts—withdrawing them last year, but I judged that, on balance, the risk was just acceptable to allow them to stay. In the light of recent reports, however, I decided that their position was no longer tenable and the security risks were unacceptable. The safety of the British monitors had to be my overriding concern. In my original statement to the House of 29 April 2002, I set out the fact that that was our overriding concern, but also the principal responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.

Given the deteriorating situation, on Wednesday last, 8 March, we—that is, the United States and the United Kingdom consuls general—informed the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, as the Ramallah agreement required us to do, by letter of our intention to withdraw the monitors "with immediate effect"—I quote directly from the letter—unless the Palestinian Authority took a final opportunity to meet their obligations. I regret that they felt or were unable to do so. For obvious security reasons—namely, the safety of the monitors as they withdrew—we could not give precise timings of the withdrawal, but the phrase "with immediate effect" was absolutely clear. We made sure, and were assured, that President Abbas was made aware of our plans. The letter, indeed, was to him.

Just before coming to the House, I spoke to President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. I urged the Government of Israel to show the maximum restraint in their current actions being undertaken in the perimeter of Jericho prison.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

In the light of today's developments and of reports of hostage-taking in Gaza, will my right hon. Friend tell us what wider measures he is taking to ensure the safety of all British nationals in Gaza and on the west bank, to reduce the immediate tensions and to limit any possible spread of today's violence?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We immediately issued changes to travel advice, urging British citizens—British subjects—not to travel to the occupied territories for the time being. We also gave other detailed advice. As I told the House earlier, I have already spoken to the Foreign Minister of the Government of Israel, and urged that the Israeli defence force show maximum restraint in the present difficult circumstances.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

May I return to the substance of the original question? The Quartet has laid down clear conditions for Hamas to comply with its demands. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how much time Hamas has in which to change, and specifically when a cut-off in funding might occur?

The Foreign Secretary is right to attach such importance to the safety of our monitors, and his decision in principle to withdraw from the Jericho monitoring mission is therefore understandable. However, several questions inevitably arise. Did the Government give sufficient consideration to the consequences of a sudden withdrawal, and should an interim arrangement have been sought to avert an outbreak of violence when the monitors withdrew? What was done to alert the British Council and British officers in the region to the possibility of a sudden escalation of violence? Were the Government aware of the likelihood of Israel seeking to take custody of the prisoners by force? Under the terms of the Ramallah agreement, which party has responsibility for the lives and safety of the Palestinian detainees now that the monitoring mission has been withdrawn? In the meantime, what steps are the Government taking to make clear to armed Palestinian groups—or, indeed, anyone else—that the targeting of British property and personnel will in no circumstances advance their interests?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the time that we would give the Hamas Administration. No time scale has been laid down so far. Indeed, for the time being there is no Hamas Administration. We wait to see the nature of that Administration. However, the Quartet's statement is very clear. Meanwhile, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I have sought to ensure that while clear expectations are laid at the door of the new Hamas majority in the Palestinian legislative assembly, ordinary Palestinians are not punished or impoverished for the results of their perfectly free decisions in the election.

As for the withdrawal decision that I announced earlier today, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the understanding that he showed. He asked whether sufficient consideration had been given to whether there was any alternative. The answer is yes. The matter had been under active consideration by me for getting on for a year. When I was first asked to agree to the withdrawal I decided not to do so, because at that stage, after further questioning of the security assessments, I judged—although it was a risk, for which I took responsibility—that it was just acceptable for the monitors to stay.

There comes a moment, however, when it is impossible to be irresponsible about such risks. My judgment then became, last week, that the risk to the people for whom we were directly responsible was too great. I also considered whether there could be some kind of phased withdrawal. The problem was that, according to the advice that I received and according to my judgment, if we gave notice our own monitors might end up being subject to kidnap or siege inside the prison. I am in no doubt about that. For that reason—and although we made it absolutely clear in the letter that was sent to President Mahmoud Abbas, a copy of which is in the Library of the House, that unless there was any change the decision would have immediate effect—we could not give either the Palestinians or the Israelis advance notice.

Did we alert the British Council? I cannot give the House the precise details, but I can say that British Council staff, who were all Palestinians, became aware of the possibility of demonstrations and that all those staff in both Ramallah and Gaza were withdrawn, so happily they are safe.

Were we aware of the likelihood of the Israelis' seeking to take people into custody or seeking, effectively, to lay a siege around Jericho prison? Indeed we were, and that was part of what I had to consider. The House will recall the background—these detainees had been accused by the Israeli Government of complicity or involvement in the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister. The Israelis wished to arrest them, but they took refuge in the Muqata'a, President Arafat's compound. There was then a siege of President Arafat and those prisoners, the resolution of which was that the prisoners would be held in a Palestinian jail but with British and American monitors. The Israelis only agreed to that provided that we agreed to monitor the situation. It was for that reason that we kept saying to the Palestinians, "Please improve security, ensure that the conditions of the Ramallah agreement are observed and ensure the security of our personnel."

Who is responsible for the detainees? Legally, I believe it is the Palestinians but, so far as the Israelis are concerned, the detainees are prisoners at large under charge in Israel. That is currently the subject of intensive diplomatic efforts with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

Whatever revulsion Hamas arouses, is not it a fact that its election victory was as valid as that of the Israeli Government and a good deal more valid than that of George W. Bush in 2000? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Israelis continue to create their own do-it-yourself ghetto behind a wall encroaching deeply into Palestinian territory, while maintaining 350,000 illegal Israeli settlers and carrying out pre-election stunts like they have just done in Jericho, peace will be impossible and support for Hamas will rise still further?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The Quartet has accepted and acknowledged and, indeed, congratulated the Palestinian people on,

"an electoral process that was free, fair and secure."

In the same statement, the Quartet reiterated its view that settlement expansion by Israel had to stop, reiterated its concern regarding the route of the barrier and noted acting Prime Minister Olmert's recent statements that Israel will continue the process of removing unauthorised outposts. This is a difficult situation—it has been on many occasions in recent years—and we urge all sides to show restraint.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

This is a tragic development and whatever the Israelis' calculations and concerns, their actions have turned a sensitive situation into a highly volatile one, and that is utterly counter-productive. The Foreign Secretary is right that our first priority must be the safety of British citizens in the west bank and Gaza. We agree that retaliatory attacks against them and others are a disgrace and must be completely condemned. Will he clarify the steps that are being taken to mobilise the Quartet in response to these events? Will he confirm when he personally most recently discussed the Ramallah agreement with his opposite numbers in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority? What additional security measures at the prison were requested and refused?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his understanding and acceptance that the first priority for any Foreign Secretary must be the security of his own personnel. Frankly, if I am open to criticism, it is on the basis that I kept them there as long as I did, and not that I had to remove them earlier today. On mobilising the Quartet, I have spoken to the United States' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and I will speak to other members of the Quartet, including High Representative Solana, later today. Earlier today, I spoke to Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian Foreign Minister, who holds the presidency of the Foreign Minister's Council of the European Union. In any event, I am clear that all members of the Quartet will be of the same view as the British Government.

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman off-hand when I last discussed the Ramallah agreement with either the Palestinians or the Israelis. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that our staff in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have constantly raised the issue, especially with the Palestinian Authority. Following the dispatch of the letter by fax to President Abbas's office last Wednesday, the consul-general, John Jenkins, to whom I spoke just two hours ago, made four separate phone calls to Mahmoud Abbas's chief of staff to ensure that the letter had been received and fully understood. When I spoke to Mahmoud Abbas, who happened to be in Vienna, earlier today, he confirmed that he was indeed aware of the content of the letter. He expressed concern about the fact that we had not given them a precise date and time for the removal, but I have dealt with that issue: if we had, the monitors could have been kidnapped. The security problem has not been the willingness of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to act, but the inaction of the security personnel on the ground in the Jericho prison.

What we required of the Palestinian Authority was very straightforward—that they kept to the detailed conditions of the operational procedures for the Authority, as agreed in an annexe to the Ramallah agreement. That agreement included no use of mobile telephones, but they were used. Mr. Sa'adat, the leader of the Palestinians who stood in the Palestinian election, ran an election campaign from his cell with his telephone. There were supposed to be restrictions on visitors—they were ineffective—and on correspondence. Moreover, conditions for the monitors became so difficult that they could not carry out cell searches. A fundamental part of the Ramallah agreement was that the six prisoners in question should be kept separate from all other prisoners. However, the monitors were unable to be within the prison; instead, they had to stay on the roof, making effective monitoring increasingly difficult. That was the fundamental problem and putting it right could have been very straightforward—simply by following the Ramallah agreement. I regret that the Palestinian Authority did not have it within them to do so.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Labour, Liverpool, Walton

As the Foreign Secretary said, these are accused, not convicted, men. However, can he give unequivocal confirmation that there was no collusion with the Israelis on the timing of the withdrawal of the monitors, and will he condemn what I can only describe as state-sponsored terrorism, involving attacking a prison with tanks and rockets?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I can absolutely give that undertaking to my hon. Friend—there was indeed no collusion. Under the terms of the Ramallah agreement, we had to give formal notice in writing of our intention to withdraw not only to the Palestinian Authority, but to the Israeli Government. That letter, a copy of which was put in the House Library this morning, spelled out that we were indeed giving a copy of it to the Israelis. We deliberately decided not to tell anybody about the exact timing of the withdrawal because of the risk to the safety of our monitors, but also precisely to ensure that there could be no collusion with the Israeli defence force. The truth, given the nature of surveillance in the occupied territories, is that if we had told anybody in the occupied territories, we would in practice have been telling the Israeli defence force at the same time.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The week before last, two of my hon. Friends and I visited the west bank. I shall allow them to speak for themselves, but it was quite apparent to me that relations between the Israeli defence force and the Palestinians were hardly cordial, and today's events will not have improved that. Can the Foreign Secretary persuade me that what he is doing is going to have a practical diplomatic and political consequence, and that it is not simply a well-motivated exercise in appearing to do something? What practical steps can he and his friends in the other members of the Quartet take to achieve some form of progress with this very vexing problem?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

What I have announced today is a matter of regret, but had I come to the House and instead announced the death of British monitors as a result of my taking too high a risk, that would have been a matter of condemnation, not regret. That is the dilemma that I faced and, as I have said to the House, I was extremely reluctant to take these steps, which is why I held off from taking them, kept asking for more information on the security assessments and insisted that we gave proper notice to President Mahmoud Abbas. But there we are—I took that decision and I happen to think that it was the right one, even though there have been consequences, which we did anticipate.

As for the future, all I can say is that notwithstanding these difficulties there has been some progress, if we look back to April 2002 when the situation was dire and killings were taking place daily on both sides. There is now a ceasefire and the numbers of deaths on each side have been reduced. We have to build on that. It is fundamental to the interests of the Palestinians for Hamas to understand that just as we have responsibilities in terms of recognising the legitimacy of the election, the Hamas leadership has a responsibility to recognise that democracy is incompatible with the pursuit of terrorism.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I have allowed Question Time to continue for a further 20 minutes, but we must now move on.