My Lords, we are all once again in the debt of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, not only for introducing this debate but for bringing back her first hand and well considered impressions from the Middle East. I have noticed that when replying to debates Ministers take more than usual care to balance evenly what they say about Palestinians and Israelis. I can understand that and accept that there is violence on both sides. But I hope that as speakers we do not conform too much to that convention and measure our column inches so precisely. Neither do I believe that we should belong to one side or another, although that tends to happen in debates.
We all take up our positions based on our personal experience. In my own case, having worked with aid agencies, I am normally professionally concerned with people who live in acute poverty. That means that I am talking mainly about one group, the Palestinians. I have no doubt that there are some Israelis in that category, but they are not so obviously suffering from a lack of homes, jobs, food or water.
For example, Palestinians in Gaza now have an unemployment rate of 70 per cent and as a result the proportion of people living there in poverty has come close to 85 per cent. In Rafah alone, 9,970 people have been made homeless by demolition or other Israeli actions since the start of the intifada. These are the figures which persuade aid agencies and the United Nations that the Palestinians, for all their educational and other known advantages—I disagree to some extent with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, because the Palestinians have some of the most highly educated people—in their present plight can be compared with some of the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. In addition, they suffer from a national identity crisis which Israel, thankfully, no longer has. One glance at the map reminds us that in spite of their expanding population, Palestinians have to live in an area which is less than one quarter of the size of mandated Palestine. The country was twice the size of Wales, but it is now only as big as two English counties. With the encroaching security wall, it is shrinking in size all the time.
On the political front, Palestinians are also suffering from a loss of leadership, which has been mentioned, not only through extra-judicial executions but through their own divided loyalties which the Israeli Government exploit mercilessly. They also have to live under the government of Prime Minister Sharon, assuming that he survives the latest corruption charges. I tend to agree with Sa'ib Urayqat, the Palestinian negotiator, that there are at least two Sharons for the Palestinians to deal with. There is the familiar old warlord Sharon who ignores the outside world and flouts international law when he decides, for example, to wipe out a whole Hamas leadership. Last week's assassination of Sheikh Yassin was in my view deplorable and counter-productive. How can this act possibly cure suicide bombing? Is it not likely to perpetuate it?
But let us not be hypocritical. The West is just as capable of assassination, if in a more subtle form, as Israel and he knows it. But that does not condone the action. The security wall and the expropriation of more Palestinian land are only the latest immoral and illegal acts of the government.
There is the Sharon of peace who is trying to play along the United States and satisfy Egypt and his own moderates through gestures such as abandoning the Gaza settlements and the partial dismantling of the wall. The jury is still out. The EU and the UN do not matter to Sharon, but the US is his lifeline and President Bush is looking for something in his election year.
While Bush condones anything which can be called anti-terrorism—and Prime Minister Blair seems to go along with that—he will not wish to hand Mr Kerry any card which is even loosely called democracy in the Middle East. This is also Prime Minister Sharon's internal political game. On the one hand he needs to keep Mr Netanyahu and his group in Likud and the settlers at bay and on the other he needs to show the centre and the international community that he has his own alternative to the road map. He is a master at the game, which while preserving Israel will also ensure his own survival.
But the stakes are very high. The pressure on President Bush to force a settlement on Israel, as part of a new diplomatic offensive leading up to the election, can only increase in the coming months. Meanwhile, as far as concerns Europe the road map remains dormant, if not dead, not least because of one fundamental snag. One cannot have a two-state solution without two states. As Tony Benn said on "Question Time" very aptly last week, there is no Palestinian state and it is impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate without the apparatus of a state. To its credit, the United Kingdom is doing its best to bolster the negotiating team, but that is only on the surface.
Again and again the European Union has been humiliated by Israel's demolition of the Palestinian infrastructure it has created—its communications, security forces and political institutions, not to mention the appalling human cost every day at checkpoints in the Gaza suburbs and in local Palestinian communities affected by the illegal wall. What is the European Union doing about that? We who are at one or two removes can easily make suggestions, but it is time for European leaders to offer something new and to say something more than "We are implementing the road map".
I accept the caveats of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, but I believe that the European Union could take more initiative this year in the area of economic development and trade. That was touched on by my noble friend Lord Skidelsky in his final prediction. This is where it does have some muscle if it were only prepared to show it in the Middle East, as it has demonstrated in successive WTO rounds against the United States.
Surely, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, it is time that the Council of Ministers reviewed and even suspended the EU/Israel Association Agreement. No doubt the Minister will have noticed that the International Development Committee has taken up this issue in its recent excellent report Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I quote from the IDC's report, Volume 1, conclusions 23 and 24:
"Israel's restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods, its destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and its total control of the OPTs' borders are denying Palestinian exporters access to EU markets."
It is a simple statement. The committee goes on to urge the Government to propose through the Council of Ministers that it suspends the trade agreement with Israel until it lifts its restrictions on Palestinian trade.
The human rights clause alone would justify its suspension, but the committee is raising a more fundamental principle of fair and reciprocal trade, which this Government hold dear. In her capacity as the responsible Minister, can the noble Baroness say whether this option is now under consideration and why it has always been successively blocked by Britain, Germany and others in the Council in the past?
I note that the Government's response to the committee, which was published yesterday, says rather predictably and understandably that constructive engagement is the best approach and that suspension would not lead to a peaceful resolution. And yet one has to ask what possible political outcome for the Palestinians has come from such an engagement. Why are we still applying double standards as regards Israel?
I know that Israel is a friend of this country. Ministers sometimes speak as though Israel is regarded as the pariah state in the Middle East and deserving of our friendship when even without US backing, it has so many obvious defence and trading advantages over all its neighbours. Surely, "rogue state" would be a more appropriate title.
Noble Lords will also know that for the past three weeks nearly all United Nations and other humanitarian agency vehicles have been prohibited from crossing through the Erez checkpoint. In addition, the movement of food containers through Karni, which is the only commercial crossing point in Gaza, is still being obstructed. Today we have heard that all food aid is now affected.
What are the EU states doing to resist and counter this flagrant and illegal action by Israel? Does it not provide an immediate reason to suspend the trade agreement? Why should the UK deal with a government who make terrorism the pretext for actions which can only terrorise and alienate half of their population?
Finally, what is the UK doing to improve its own relations with the Middle East, to support the wider coalition against terrorism and to encourage peace initiatives by Arab states? This is a vast subject. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, was quite right about the priorities in education. I am glad that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is addressing some of those issues through the British Council and the Global Opportunities Fund.
The noble Baroness may well say that she is sorry that the Tunis summit was cancelled and that the Arab League is in some disarray. But that failure should be a warning for all those engaged in peace, and a further catalyst for some form of EU action, without which the US will continue to block initiatives from the international community.
On behalf of Christian Aid, of which I am a trustee, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for undertaking that visit.