Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 20th November 2007.

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Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley 2:30 pm, 20th November 2007

What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Palestine; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

As I said in my written ministerial statement this morning, I have returned from the region today more convinced than ever that there is an opportunity for progress towards a two-state solution. The Annapolis meeting later this month and the process that will follow need the support of the whole international community. As the Prime Minister said last week, we intend to make up to $500 million available over the next three years for economic reconstruction in the occupied Palestinian territories and on Sunday I saw in Jericho the basis for the additional £1.2 million for the EU police training mission in the west bank.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In light of Israel's declaration of Gaza as a hostile entity, will he confirm that the Government view any collective punishment of Gazans, in particular the cutting of water supplies, as a war crime under the Geneva convention?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

As the Secretary of State for International Development and I made clear when the announcement was made, we always oppose any form of collective punishment. It is vital that all states adhere to international and humanitarian law. I assure my hon. Friend that in, I think, all my meetings in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories over the past three days, the humanitarian situation in Gaza in the short term, and the political situation in the longer term, have been a feature of the discussions.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

Any possibility of a settlement for the Palestinians has been made immensely more difficult by the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. It is a breach of the fourth Geneva convention and has been opposed by successive British Governments. However, there is a report in The Jerusalem Post that the Foreign Secretary visited one of those illegal settlements. Plainly, it would be a manifest stupidity for someone in his position to have done that. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House that he did not visit one of the settlements and that the Government's position on Israeli settlement-building in occupied territory remains what it has always been?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Of course I am happy to make that clear. I visited Jericho and the EU police training centre there. I am certainly happy to make it clear that, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, successive British Governments have made their position on this issue clear, and there is certainly no change on the basis of any report in The Jerusalem Post or elsewhere.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

While the Foreign Secretary was on his way to Jericho, did he not see the cranes and bulldozers expanding the settlements at Ma'ale Adumim, on Palestinian land, which is doing more than anything else to strengthen the position of extremists and to undermine moderate Palestinian positions, because it is in defiance not only of international law, the Geneva convention and UN resolutions, but the Oslo accords and the road map?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I did see those settlements. I also had a briefing from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which monitors these issues extremely carefully. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is very important that the settlement process that has been started is brought to a close. In that context, however, it is important for the House to recognise the statement made by Prime Minister Olmert yesterday, after his Cabinet meeting. He said, as a confidence-building measure in advance of the Annapolis meeting next week, that he was committed and that it was the position of his Government to fulfil their responsibilities under the first phase of the road map—which is precisely to cease settlement activity.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

In the past year, there have been well over 1,000 identified rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. Thirteen Israeli citizens have been killed and 317 wounded. What are the Government doing to prevent the proliferation of missiles in the Gaza strip, which are the cause of unacceptable daily attacks on Israeli citizens?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. Obviously arms smuggling into Gaza is a major concern of the Israeli Government. I discussed that in detail with the Israeli Foreign Minister and was then able to take up the issue that she raised with the Egyptian authorities—the Egyptian Foreign Minister and others—whom I met yesterday. I know that the hon. Gentleman studies this issue and he is absolutely right to raise the matter of rocket attacks. He mentioned the figure of 1,000 attacks. The House should be in no doubt that such attacks have continued right over the summer and continue to the present day. I know that it is of major concern to the Israeli Government—rightly—but it should be of concern to everybody.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what assurances President Abbas was able to give that he would be able to fulfil the first requirement of the road map—to dismantle the apparatus of terror?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that President Abbas was absolutely unstinting in his commitment to fulfil Palestinian obligations in respect of building a viable Palestinian state not just in economic terms, but in security terms—in relation to both the security of its own people and the security of Israeli people. The issue of the link to Gaza and the representative nature of President Abbas—as a representative of all Palestinian people—is vital. I am sure that the whole House will have seen the scenes last week of hundreds of thousands of Gazans demonstrating and then six of them being killed by Hamas thugs. That is an important issue that of course needs to be addressed in any long-term settlement.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Conservative, Devizes

Does the Foreign Secretary believe, before Annapolis, that it is possible to make genuine progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state without the consent and participation of representatives of all the Palestinian people?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

There are two parts to that question. First, before Annapolis, the best that we can do is maximise the consensus that exists between both sides and launch negotiations for the first time in many years. The process of negotiation has been in deep freeze.

Secondly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers obliquely to the position of Hamas. President Abbas is the elected leader of all the Palestinian people. It is for him to lead any process towards reconciliation across the divide that now exists between Gaza and the west bank. My impression is that much of the activity undertaken by Hamas since the coup in June has shown its true nature, not just to the wider world, but to the Palestinian people.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his visit to the region in the past few days and on his attempts to promote dialogue between Israel and Palestine? I welcome the points that he made about the need for economic development in the Palestinian territories, but can he reassure me that something will be done about the 563 restrictions on movement and access? If something is not done about them, any chance of Palestinian economic development or statehood will be a pipe dream.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have noted the announcement made by Defence Minister Barak yesterday that between 20 and 30 checkpoints are being taken away—a start to the process that my hon. Friend describes. He will also know that Jon Cunliffe and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, in his previous capacity at the Treasury, produced a Government publication on the economic road map to peace. It makes very clear the links between economic development, improvements in security and tackling the checkpoints issue in the west bank.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

May I express the Opposition's support both for the Foreign Secretary's work over the past few days and for his hopes for the Annapolis conference? Everybody in the House will want that conference to succeed. I put it to him that if we are to take a real step towards reconciliation in the middle east, it will require from Annapolis not just a statement with plenty of warm words, but a plan for practical steps on the ground, involving some painful decisions by both sides to start to rebuild trust that has been badly damaged in recent years. How confident is he that there is sufficient agreement, at least about an indicative timetable for such practical steps, so that the conference can be the success that we wish it to be?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am happy to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Annapolis needs to set out the consensus that exists between the parties, including, critically, on the shared goal of a two-state solution—a viable Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel. He did not specifically mention this, but it also needs to launch a negotiating process, the absence of which has been terrible for the political horizon that is necessary if we are to make practical measures really bite. He is right to say that practical, economic and security measures matter. I referred in my answer to what the UK Government hope to do. The work for Tony Blair as the Quartet representative is important, too. On timing, there is a short-term need for progress on practical measures, but the House will recognise that we need a timetable, or at least some sense of the timing, for the negotiating process. The emerging consensus that next year is absolutely critical to making substantial progress can give the process the spur that it desperately needs.