Palestinian Authority

Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 11 July 2007.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

On 18 June, the then Foreign Secretary met her European Union counterparts and agreed to resume normal relations with the Palestinian Authority. The EU is now working to put in place practical and financial assistance. My predecessor spoke to Prime Minister Fayyad on 27 June about this. British and European Commission officials are now on the ground, arranging the details.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC (as Leader of the Commons)), Leader of the House of Commons

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new responsibilities and I say on behalf, I think, of all Members of the House that we are particularly proud of the Government's record in this area, and we look forward to his taking that forward.

On Palestine, does my right hon. Friend accept that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and on the west bank is now so acute that, however fierce the battles between Fatah and Hamas, and however fierce the face-off between Israeli and Palestinian, we cannot simply walk by on the other side? The rich nations need to ensure that there is social justice for the Palestinians.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for his generous welcome to my new position at the Dispatch Box. I reciprocate by paying tribute to my predecessor, who I believe has support throughout the House for the efforts he made in the Department for International Development in recent years.

I concur with the rather more dispiriting prognosis offered by my hon. Friend of the scale of the challenge currently faced in Gaza. We are gravely concerned about the humanitarian situation. Since 15 June, more than 140 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies have been imported to Gaza, which reflects the scale of the challenge and the problem faced on the ground. Across the west bank, the humanitarian situation is more stable, but the priority for Gaza is to get access in order that we can continue to provide the humanitarian assistance that is needed.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post. The ambitions of his Department carry strong support throughout the House and we wish him well in achieving them.

On the problems of Palestine, does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that although we work, as we must, with President Abbas, he is not the sole spokesman of the Palestinian people, and that his Prime Minister, able as he is, is not the popular choice of the Palestinian Authority? How can the Secretary of State ensure that aid is delivered effectively in Gaza, with the temporary international mechanism and where the Administration is not one with which the Quartet is prepared to engage? Can he ensure that services will be delivered effectively in the long term in Gaza?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I begin by paying tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's leadership of the Select Committee on International Development. I am glad to say that it is in a spirit of co-operation and consensus that I arrive at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State, and with a due sense of humility about the range and scale of expertise throughout the House on issues of international development. I am mindful that there has been a recent debate on the issue of Gaza and the west bank in which a number of hon. Members participated, which reflects the scale of concern about ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches Gaza.

As I made clear, notwithstanding the situation that emerged in relation to Hamas's actions in Gaza, humanitarian assistance has continued to be provided directly to the Palestinian people there. It is also the case that the temporary international mechanism will continue until September and efforts will continue to ensure that we work directly with the Prime Minister and President Abbas. In the meantime, while the situation on the ground continues to be difficult, we shall ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided directly to those who need it.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on his appointment and expressing my confidence that he will build on the superb record and reputation of his predecessor among the Palestinians, may I ask him whether he will take an early opportunity to visit the Palestinian territories, so that he can see for himself the terrible oppression, degradation and poverty from which a huge majority of Palestinians suffer? Will he ask the Israeli Government to return all the tax revenues that they have stolen from the Palestinians?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I have in the past had the opportunity to visit Gaza and see for myself the real burdens and suffering experienced by many Palestinians. It is with regret that I say that, even since the visit I paid a number of years ago, the situation has deteriorated. We should bear in mind, for example, that amidst the economic growth that is being witnessed in many areas of the world, the Palestinian economy contracted by 10 per cent. last year. If I recollect the most recent figures correctly, the gross national income for the Palestinian Authority is about 7 per cent. of that of its neighbour, Israel. That shows the scale of the challenge faced to secure the economic development that all of us in this House want to see as part of finding a way forward in the middle east. My immediate travel plans are still being formulated, but I assure my right hon. Friend that I will give consideration to visiting the Palestinian territories, along with other areas.

Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick Conservative, Bosworth

Will the Secretary of State remind his counterparts when he speaks to them that much of the equipment that the EU supplied to the Palestinians in the past was destroyed during Israeli incursions, including the air traffic control equipment at Gaza airport, and many of the computers used in the civil administration? Will he make it clear through channels to the Israelis that it is totally unacceptable for that to happen to European aid to Palestine?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

Of course, there is consensus in the House about wanting the aid not only from the United Kingdom but from the European Union—and the broader support of the Quartet—to be in the hands of those who need it, and ensuring that it does not suffer the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman described. Of course, as well as the contact that has already taken place between the new Prime Minister and President Abbas, contact will continue with the Israeli Government. I assure the House that we discuss such issues in our continuing dialogue.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. If we are to alleviate the humanitarian position in Gaza, it is vital to do something about the crossing at Rafah, where literally thousands of people have been stranded because Israel closed the crossing, even though it is not Israel's border. Will he consider the presence of EU monitors there and the role that they can play in alleviating the suffering that is taking place?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I am at one with my hon. Friend in recognising the difficulties that are being experienced at Rafah. My understanding is that approximately 6,000 people are in Egypt waiting for Gaza's border with Egypt at Rafah to open. Indeed, between 400 and 700 people are receiving help from Bedouin in a deserted area around Rafah. The tragic death of a mother of four children occurred recently, and that has added a specific poignancy and urgency to trying to find a way forward on Rafah. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last addressed the House on those matters, he made clear his intention of speaking directly to the Egyptian Foreign Minister. I assure my hon. Friend that I will consider his point about the UN monitors.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his role and wish him well.

The stringent restrictions of movement that are imposed on the Palestinians continue to exacerbate the humanitarian position. They undermine all the aid and humanitarian work that is going on. What will the Secretary of State do to persuade Israel to remove those restrictions?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last addressed the House, he made clear the three principles whereby we will move our work forward on the matter in the months ahead. He said that first, we would be unyielding in our support for finding a two-state solution; secondly, we should express a genuine willingness to work with all those who would renounce violence as a way forward; and thirdly, we need to continue to address the immediate humanitarian challenge while recognising the social and economic development needs of the Palestinians. It is right to place on record the fact that restraints on movement and access are a severe constraint on the capacity of the Palestinian economy to grow. Although, of course, it is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance with immediate effect, there is no substitute in the longer term for a sustainable, developed Palestinian economy. For that to happen, we need the restrictions on movement and access to be removed.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

The recent Select Committee report underlined the effectiveness of the temporary international mechanism in providing much needed support to the most vulnerable Palestinian groups. Given that the mechanism was set up to avoid distributing funds to Hamas, and in the light of recent events in Gaza, does the Secretary of State believe that the fund is still an acceptable method of delivering aid to the Palestinian population beyond its current extension to September?

J

Gordon Brown is causing havoc and a lot of ill feeling up north, and all you can ask about is Palestine.
Disgraceful!

Submitted by Jenny Rogers Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

Following a decision that the former Foreign Secretary made on 18 June, we are now working to put in place practical and financial assistance to establish normal relations with the Palestinian Authority. That will inevitably take time and it is entirely appropriate for the EU to have reached a recent judgment that we should continue the temporary international mechanism until September. We have provided £15 million to the temporary international mechanism to date. That support was necessarily provided to both the Gaza strip and the west bank. While we are in the process of transition, and given that the position continues to be fluid, I support the actions to extend the temporary international mechanism to September.