Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 12th January 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary 3:31 pm, 12th January 2009

Let me address some of the right hon. Gentleman's questions. First, in respect of Hamas, it is important to recognise that talks did take place, sponsored by Egypt, on a so-called reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority, led by President Abbas, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Those talks were due to conclude in November at a meeting which Hamas decided not to attend or to participate in. The hopes for a so-called technocratic government—or even a national unity government—for 2009 were therefore dashed. That is obviously a significant part of the split that currently exists, and does no good at all to the Palestinian cause or, I would argue, to Israel's search for a proper partner to negotiate a peace process.

The right hon. Gentleman wondered whether the current conflict was in Israel's interest. It is obvious from the fact that we have been calling for an immediate ceasefire, as has he, that we think that it is in Israel's interest as well as in the interest of the Palestinians who are under fire that the war needs to end as soon as possible—immediately. I think that he asked for a prediction on whether it would end in a matter of hours or days, but I am sure that he will understand if I say that it would be foolish to make such a prediction. I can tell him, however, that the two conversations that I had yesterday with the Egyptian Foreign Minister suggested that, while there is a degree of urgency—representatives of Hamas were in Egypt yesterday—there are also fundamental issues that need to be overcome if the two sides, which are currently saying that they do not want a ceasefire, are to embrace one.

In regard to the situation on the ground in Gaza, some aid and medical equipment are getting in. In my meeting with the non-governmental organisations today, it was important to note that they are fully focused on the need to get aid in while the crisis continues as well as on planning for the post-conflict efforts. At some level, it must seem absurd to be talking about humanitarian aid in a condition of war, but of course, for some people, that can mean the difference between life and death. It is therefore important that we support it, and that is also why I believe that the Israeli Government should co-operate with the NGOs. In regard to a UN assessment, I think that we shall have to wait, in the short term, for the Secretary-General's report after his visit this week. However, it will take longer for more people to be able to get in and make a proper assessment.

In respect of the smuggling of arms, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the estimate of the number of tunnels is now above 200. Their presence is incentivised not least by the fact that the closure of the crossings means that even non-arms trade has to go through the tunnels. That is why the issues of smuggling and of the tunnels go together. Action needs to be taken on the smuggling simultaneously with the opening of the crossings. Unless the crossings are open, we will not be able to crack down on the smuggling, which is getting flour, never mind arms, into Gaza.

There is technical support that can be offered to the Egyptian Government, however, and that is being done. Also, under the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, a multinational force of observers is posted in Sinai, providing some international presence. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as well as the issue of tunnelling from Egypt into Gaza, there is the matter of traffic through Sinai and Negev and working with the Bedouin on that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the European presence. European observers ready to man or provide a European presence at the crossings are in the middle east now, but they have not been able to deploy because the crossings are closed. The presence is ready to deploy as soon as the crossings are open, and it is certainly our view that they should be opened as part of a ceasefire deal.

The right hon. Gentleman talked in passing about the west bank. I want to say a word about this, as many people will have been deeply concerned at the prospect of a call by Hamas for a third intifada on the west bank creating a further source and scene of carnage in the middle of this crisis. It is hugely to the credit of the Palestinian Authority—of President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and their security forces—that no such intifada has taken place. That is partly a product of security, but it is also a product of the economic and political leadership that has been significant over the past year. The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that if a final settlement is to create the viable Palestinian state that we believe is necessary not just for the Palestinians but for the security of Israel, it needs to be based on the 1967 borders.

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