Palestine

– in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 23rd January 2006.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 7:38 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, the House will recognise that the next debate is an organisational nightmare. First, the good news: one speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, has withdrawn, and therefore we are down to 16 speakers, in addition to the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, who opens the debate. Nevertheless, we will have to stick to the two-minute time limit. I emphasise that all noble Lords will have had their share when two minutes appears on the clock. Those who contribute effectively to the debate will not even see that two minutes register, but those who do see it must sit down immediately, otherwise the debate will not meet its timetable.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Spokesperson in the Lords (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government to ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they will put forward for the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

My Lords, after the wise words of the Whip on duty on the Bench, it behoves me, unfortunately, to rattle through my remarks to stay within the time limit. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I sound presumptuous in saying that the last thing I would want is to have to give way if anyone tried to intervene. That would also impair noble Lords' own chances of speaking for a couple of minutes.

The Times newspaper, normally with an editorial line friendly towards Israel, said it all in its world news piece on 23 December: the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem now includes 15 checkpoints, so Joseph and Mary would have felt the need for patience on their passage. The route actually includes a portion of roadway where Palestinians generally are banned, even in their own territory. A tough friend of mine, an ex-rugby player type, recently visited the West Bank. He is used to harrowing scenes all over the world. I asked him for his reaction, and he simply replied: "I cried".

I too went on the first ever IPU visit to the same areas in November to see the Palestinian National Authority, as well as going briefly to Israel. Our group was led by Sir Gerald Kaufman MP and included Roger Berry MP, Tom Levitt MP and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Incidentally, there was a brilliant debate in Westminster Hall with those MPs last Wednesday, and the first and third of them spoke in it very convincingly, as did David Winnick and Phyllis Starkey, echoing their concerns.

I speak as a longstanding friend of Israel, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, will know from our work together many years ago. I still remain a very enthusiastic fan of what I regard as a truly great and fascinating country. It is only the occupation policies in the occupied territories that I find unacceptable. The Sharon government were allowed by insouciant western and UN inaction in recent years to create an awful kind of open prison for the Palestinians—nearly 700 check points, new apartheid routes for Israeli use only, oppressive queues for shuffling Palestinian citizens and clogged up vehicles and, of course, the burgeoning illegal settlements. Near the old borders—the green line—they are virtually on every hill top. Hebron, for example, has become a bizarre ghost city.

These severe restrictions are all over the West Bank, not only in areas near the border. They are all totally illegal under international law. Now we have the hideous wall as well, nearly complete, at huge cost to Israel's taxpayers. As we know, security preoccupations have been the reason given for all these developments. Ironically, the Israeli intelligence services have often opposed the dafter measures.

If the Oslo accords had been adhered to, then the two countries could already have been on the path of stunning, peaceful co-operation, probably launching a near east common market and talking to other modern-minded Arabian countries nearby about getting together and working together.

Let us look at these two countries now. I use the word "country" deliberately for Palestine because I want it to be one, and very soon. What happened, incidentally, to President Bush's solemn promise of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005? Has Pat Robertson sneaked into the White House briefings? Let us take Israel first—a country, as I say, much admired abroad despite its government's actions towards Palestine. Israel benefited quite rightly from huge world support when it was founded in 1948, endorsed by the UN with the Soviet Union a notable ally. Although the Palestinians lost large chunks of territory and were very bitter at the time, many look back at the mistake they made in not accepting, even if reluctantly, the partition proposals. Israel's existence and future welfare is a major inalienable piece of the near east mosaic for virtually all UN member states now—perhaps the president of Iran is a notable painful exception.

As Israel was struggling it understandably received more and more support over the years. Finally, the USA ensured that Israel became the unbeatable military power in the whole area. Israel acquired nearly 200 nuclear bombs in strange circumstances and refuses to join the NPT effort. That is part of the wider scene. But, amazingly what America did not do reciprocally was to oblige Israel's governments successively to obey international law as the unbeatable military power and, after 1967, negotiate a peace and leave the territories of the Palestinians.

The shameful record of well over 30 US vetoes, stopping Israel from such correct behaviour since 1967 tells its own tragic story. This record alone rendered the US unfit to assume its arbitrational role, but still the US and Israel insisted on this unique role, and everyone else was told to mind their own business.

Meanwhile, the country, now of nearly 7 million people, including its Arab minority, has, I am very glad to say, prospered economically, also with huge US aid, despite being an advanced country. It offers a great deal to the world as an increasingly normal country in its own right, especially in the fields of medicine, high technology exports, sport, the arts, business acumen, aid and development to the third world, advice on agriculture, its own agricultural activity, trade union traditions and military equipment. The list is very long indeed. It was supposed to be a Zionist secular state, but the religious factor has increased enormously in recent years. I rejoice greatly when I observe all the forces of moderation in Israel who surely will insist on a peace treaty with Palestine as they realise more and more that that gives them the durable absence of terrorism which they understandably crave.

I rejoice when I see the work of Daniel Barenboim, with his joint orchestra, of Steven Spielberg highlighting the futility of the endless cycle of violence, of Peace Now, with its impressive UK support committee, the brave actions of the Israeli ladies who monitor the checkpoints and the harsh behaviour of Israeli soldiers, the heroic work of Bets'Elem, the human rights group and the courageous Israeli military who protest against actions in the West Bank by the IDF. Happily, despite all this tragic history and background, and the awful developments on the West Bank, there are still many examples of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation. I wish I had time to mention some of those on that excellent list, which includes joint factories.

Then we look at Palestine, with roughly half the population, including Gaza. It also has talented people, with a diaspora like that of Israel but much nearer geographically. Palestine has wonderful agriculture, although some of it is deprived through Israeli military action, as we know. Palestine has very good manufacturing companies and very good business people striking potential in a revived fishing sector, and excellent potential in natural gas assets, which belong to Palestine and not to Israel. Palestine also has an inevitably weak government, struggling, as Israel did in the early days, to establish themselves. But for some strange reason it does not receive the US help that Israel did. Palestine is now down to 22 per cent of the total land space.

I find on visits that Palestinian civil society is very similar to that of its neighbour Israel, despite the wars, disputes, rows, setbacks, the intifadas and the IDF violence. The population has mostly remained overwhelmingly moderate Muslim and empirical. The official renunciation of terrorism has not been used by Israeli politicians properly. It is very sad to say that. Israel has had 1,000 casualties since the previous intifada, Palestine 4,000.

Is it not high time that the other members of the quartet asserted themselves, bearing in mind US failure to act properly in getting the two countries together? We leave it to the Americans and I am afraid that we usually regret it afterwards nowadays. Anyway, even if that is a fanciful notion, bearing in mind the primordial stance of the United States in Israeli circles, it is obvious that the EU plans to make a real fuss of the Palestinians in the future by creating, for example, a favoured nation status with a new association agreement, will help to correct the hideous imbalance and asymmetry of power between the two. I remind the House that there are still nearly 8,000 detainees, most of whom have not been through court actions in Israel or elsewhere. Despite all this, Israeli public opinion is in favour of bringing back its settlers from the occupied territories, especially after the Gaza pull-out. We should look at the fascinating latest poll on east Jerusalem.

How irresponsible it was, therefore, for the United States president—sadly, the worst in post-war history—to go back on the Sharm-el-Sheikh solemn agreement for the road map and unilaterally accept the exact words of Sharon in saying, first, that security concerns were a priority rather than concomitant with the other conditions, and, secondly, that the green line could be abandoned at a stroke to fit in with Likud's original plans for greater colonisation. In the immortal words of Gerald Kaufman,

"if Sharon was a centrist, then God help Israel".

Now, sadly and tragically, we will never know whether Sharon's mindset had really changed.

In two days' time, thank goodness, we have the elections for the PLC, amid hopes that a more pragmatic Hamas, having at least diluted its charter aim to remove the Zionist state—its election literature does not include any references to that—will join in a positive managerial and technocratic government to relaunch the shamefully neglected road map framework once the Israeli elections have been held.

I am convinced that Palestinian political restraint has kept new terrorist attacks to almost invisible levels in recent months despite some tragic incidents recently. Once a new government are formed in Israel after the end March elections, if members of the Security Council present a new resolution solemnly obliging the new Ministers to re-open the road map peace talks, will the US dare to veto that again? If so, madness will have definitely taken hold in Washington. It would be much better none the less to see both Israel and Palestine getting together without any United Nations Security Council pressure. Is that possible? It certainly should be if Israel's politicians are genuine about following up Gaza withdrawal with complete departure from the occupied territories, and renouncing the secret agreement made between Bush and Sharon last year. Given wisdom and foresight in Washington DC, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, I firmly believe that it is, despite the dreadful tragedy of recent years. The Palestinian economy must be rebuilt, including with EU support. I hope that the Minister will have time to list some examples of both British and EU plans.

France and Germany came together in spectacular friendship and reconciliation after 1945. How can the Palestinians and the Israelis say that they cannot do the same?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour 7:48 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing this debate at this crucial time, given the current Palestinian elections and the run-up to the Israeli elections. I hope that during this period Her Majesty's Government will continue to talk to both the Israelis and the Palestinians about their shortcomings and successes. In my view those conversations are often best held in private.

You have to be frank with the Palestinians about their problems with security and the economy, and also frank with the Israelis about the illegal expansion of their settlements and the unacceptable route of the barrier, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, heartbreaking at times. We also have to acknowledge their successes. This has been a year of success for the Palestinians in their elections and pushing forward on their economy and for the Israelis in what they have done regarding the withdrawal from Gaza. Those measures have taken real political courage on both sides, and we should acknowledge that if we are to support this peace process.

There has been enormous progress on the loss of life: 51 Israelis killed in 2005, as opposed to 119 in 2004, and a 75 per cent drop in Palestinian deaths over the same period. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is right in that we ought to be giving economic support, but he is not right in suggesting that we have let the United States take all the strain on this. We have not done so. This Government have not done so over the security issues addressed on 1 March, nor over the many meetings the Chancellor has had in the region. Witness the support he had in London with the donor community and the private sector community coming together to support the Palestinian economy. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, should look at the Government's real achievements in that respect. I, for one, believe that what is to be achieved is the continuation of what has been done on security, on political support and on the economy. It is not flashy; it is consistent and methodical and we should go on with those proposals in this run-up to the elections.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop 7:50 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I have two small points, since two minutes and the clerical mindset do not go easily together. First, the Ethical Investment Advisory Group of the Church of England, of which I am vice-chair, has recently had several searing months of exchange about investment in Caterpillar. That exposed us, as many Members of this House will be exposed in other connections, to intense lobbying on both sides of the argument and to an intense parade of the searing realities of the situation in Palestine and Israel. The first point I wish to make is that out of that discussion came the very strong intervention of the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, making the point that if there is to be a viable Palestinian state, it must also make provision for the retention of its Christian population. That is not something he holds against the Palestinian authority, but against the situation in which they now find themselves, and which is causing the steady depletion of the Christian population.

Secondly, out of all the discussion about disinvestment came the very strong and, I think, very important, intervention of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is chair of the Council of Christians and Jews. It was a very non-partisan intervention. He said,

"more important than disinvestment is that we should, together, be talking about investment, in the construction of both those countries; the enablement of both those countries to flourish; and create economies that can, because they have the aspirations and possibilities, be co-operative".

If we do not do that, if we simply apply sticks to the situation and no carrots, it is very unlikely that there will be progress. I hope that this is an aspect to which Her Majesty's Government will give very serious attention.

Photo of Lord Janner of Braunstone Lord Janner of Braunstone Labour 7:52 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I have just returned from a visit to the Middle East, where I talked to and listened to the leaders—Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis. They have one thing in common: they want peace for their people. The question is: how do you achieve peace now? How do you achieve peace, for example, in the face of Hamas retaining in its charter, not as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes pointed out, the demand for the destruction of Israel? Yes, they have removed it from election material, under pressure, but it is still there. They are still a terrorist organisation. How do the Israelis make peace with them? How do they make peace in the face of suicide bombing? Last week, in the middle of the election campaign, suicide bombers murdered innocent people by a bus station in the middle of Tel Aviv. How can they find people to work with? There are excellent senior Palestinians who want peace and we must hope that they will be at the head of their nation after their election this coming week.

I know, because I have met most of them—leaders of Palestinians and Israelis, Jordanians and Egyptians—that above all they recognise and require and demand the right for their people to live in peace and without fear. As an Arab proverb has it, this cannot be done "on one hand alone". There is no way in which you can have a handshake with one hand alone; both sides must want it. Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres have taken over together; I know them and they are both peaceniks, both people who seek to find ways to peace. They are both very bright people. They need a partner; they need from the Palestinians people who will work together with them for peace, for a better world for both their peoples to live in; to ensure that there is an advance of democracy; a right of people to vote; a right of people to live in peace; and a right for the terrorists to be removed from Hamas and others who are in authority in Palestine or any other Arab land.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 7:54 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, on the eve of the Palestinian elections, can we for a moment again consider the situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories? Even Gaza has been described, after the Israeli withdrawal, as "one big prison". The United States special envoy, James Wolfensohn, has accused Israel of acting as though there had been no withdrawal. To echo the question of the noble Lord, Lord Janner, how do the Palestinians make peace in these circumstances?

In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Palestinians are still under virtual siege, with the continuing intrusion of the so-called security fence; the isolation of West Bank cities; and the continuing expansion of illegal settlements. Even the United States has criticised the controversial E-1 plan, which not only houses some 34,000 settlers, but allows for a further 14,000. Is it surprising that we are seeing increasing radicalisation of the Palestinians, who face a decreasing prospect of the viable and contiguous Palestinian state envisaged by the road map?

I hope that the Minister can help us to expect some genuine and positive action from the quartet. I hope that she can confirm that, if Hamas does indeed secure a significant share of the vote, that would not mean any lessening of EU financial and political support for the Palestinian authority, and, whatever the outcome of these elections, we will be ready to deal with whatever authority emerges. The situation of the Palestinians is appalling and getting worse. It is time that the international community woke up to its responsibilities. If we do not, the future for both Israel and Palestine is bleak.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 7:56 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza must be the aim of everyone who wishes well the Middle East in general and the Palestinian and Israeli people in particular. I am very pleased that the UK has been and is actively engaged in trying to take forward the road map for peace.

Tony Blair hosted an international conference in London in March 2005, where delegates from the quartet, the World Bank, IMF and the Arab League promised financial support and the Palestinian Authority made commitments, which, in fact, it still has to fulfil. Gordon Brown, in September 2005, commissioned a report on support for the peace process through economic development, and in December hosted a series of discussions between Israeli and Palestinian finance ministers and the G8 on private sector investment, about which my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean has spoken.

As part of the Rafah agreement, for the first time ever giving Palestinians control over one of their own international borders, Israel arranged for the 2005 harvest to be exported from Gaza and agreed truck convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. It is clear that relaxations of Israeli restrictions on movement must be accompanied by deep-rooted political, economic and security reforms on the Palestinian side. Time prevents me from giving concrete examples of exactly what needs to be done under these headings. Much hangs on the Palestinian elections this Wednesday and the Israeli elections in March. Friends of both people have to hope that wise and moderate counsels prevail in both elections.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 7:58 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I submit that a viable Palestine requires a flourishing Gaza. I therefore ask: is the Eretz industrial park on the north side of Gaza functioning now? It has already employed many Gazans. A new fishing harbour for Gaza is an urgent requirement and, I understand, could be ready in six months. Will funds be allocated for that purpose? Land crossings out of Gaza into Israel and Egypt, and into the West Bank, as was mentioned, are essential. What progress is there on the connection with the West Bank?

The airport requires repairs. Can those be put in hand? A new commercial ship harbour will be required. That will take several years, but are plans at least being made for it now?

Sewerage improvements again are urgently needed. Is there any news of them? It so happens that British Gas owns the offshore rights and could develop them for exporting natural gas via Egypt. By 2010, the Palestinian Authority could have revenue of $100 million per year which will last for 12 years. Again, that surely must be started. It would open the way to a desalination plant in Gaza. Prosperity is what is required to replace terrorism, and those matters cannot simply be left until after the elections.

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 8:00 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, a viable Palestinian state is clearly dependent on a complex set of activities by many parties, each of which has to interact with one another. However, at the end of the line, a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel are entirely dependent on those two parties reaching an agreement acceptable to each of them. What we in the UK can best do is maintain the balanced approach, offering encouragement to both parties. In the nature of things, Israel is unlikely to compromise much on its security and the safety of its citizens, but the formation of the new political party Kadima by Ariel Sharon has been a very important and brave step, which has allowed Ehud Olmert to begin to speak at least about East Jerusalem and further withdrawals from the West Bank.

It should be encouraging to the Palestinians at least that that new political party is maintaining strong public support in Israel. But the Palestinians have to be able to take advantage of such opportunities as they now appear to be arising. Terrorist activities have to be curtailed, and the leadership needs to be helped to listen to its own citizens and not to heed the clarion calls emanating from Iran and Syria. If Israel is going to be able to relax its security, Hamas will have to drop its calls for the total destruction of Israel. What sort of negotiating position is that? Even the IRA did not call for the annihilation of England and the English.

Much will depend on the results of the two sets of elections. The UK and the international community should be ready to provide aid and investment for the Palestinians as they begin to emerge from the anarchy that, unfortunately, besets them at present.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Labour 8:02 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Symons paid tribute to the courage of the political leadership in both Israel and Palestine over the past 12 months in taking forward hopes for a negotiated settlement and the creation of two what will be interdependent states. I would like to spend the time that I have tonight paying tribute to the individual citizens on either side of the green line who, often with great personal courage, have put their efforts into civil-society organisations that work across those barriers. They are trying to create a society that is fair not only for themselves, but for their counterparts on the other side of the green line.

The example that I know best is One Voice; I declare an interest because my son works for it. It has enrolled 180,000 citizens—51 per cent of them Palestinian, 49 per cent Israeli—willing to commit to becoming advocates for a peaceful, negotiated two-state solution, and to engage in the process of prioritisation over the difficult issues that will have to be resolved. Often at great personal risk, those people are willing to persuade their fellow citizens that there is a way out of the anarchy. Having read, for example, the report in the Guardian today about the situation in Gaza, none of us can be confident, but those people are willing to stand up. Religious leaders affiliated to the organisation are willing to go on Arab television in 17 countries—they are doing so at the moment—to try to persuade people to participate in the elections and for a negotiated settlement.

From that basis, we should pay tribute to those organisations and to the individuals willing to look forward and represent the 76 per cent of the population in both communities who want peace.

Photo of Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld Labour 8:04 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, the Government have already done a great deal to promote a viable Palestinian state. The commitment to the road map, the London conference in March last year and the Chancellor's initiatives to promote economic development in a Palestinian state all testify to that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, pointed out. The good will is there also in the European Union and global institutions, but I am in no doubt that there needs to be constant pressure on all the countries of the region and the Palestinian Authority in order to make progress. For too long, it has suited some—I stress "some"—to leave the Palestinian question unresolved. One wonders what the objectives of those countries were.

The most immediate need is for the Palestinian Authority to restore law and order in Gaza. It has to be able to control the use of arms and end the activities of militant gangs that do not serve the people's interest. The objective of Hamas—it has been referred to already; I do not share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes—in seeking to destroy the state of Israel condemns the region to perpetual conflict. I cannot see how that can be a position for any party that hopes to have significant representation in Palestine. There must be a clear commitment to end terrorist attacks on Israel, and an equally strong and unequivocal commitment to the two-state solution that assures the security of Israel.

Our Government have done much already and I applaud their efforts. I hope that they will feel encouraged to take matters further forward.

Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 8:06 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, within the week we will know the result of the Palestinian election, and within nine weeks we will know the result of the Israeli election. My guess is that, by the end of March, both the Palestinians and the Israelis will have new governments run by parties that have never previously held office. The real prospect of Hamas winning the Palestinian election is worrying, and is causing Israelis and many in the West very deep misgivings. After all, Hamas has been the prime exponent of the suicide bombings that have killed so many Israelis. But within Palestine, Hamas has grown in stature. Its members are seen as the incorruptibles in a very corrupt society. Palestine suffers some of the most acute poverty and worst unemployment in the world, despite the fact that the PA has been given £6 billion in international aid. Sadly, most of it has been siphoned off to pals and cronies; such is the Arafat legacy. If Hamas wins the election, it will have done it through the democratic process. If we advocate democracy throughout the Middle East, we must welcome the process, even if we are not happy with the result. Hamas may be terrorists, but they will be elected terrorists.

In Israel, the most likely new Prime Minister is Ehud Olmert. He will continue the Sharon plan of gradual disengagement from the West Bank and the quest for peace. To succeed, both parties need strong leaders. Will they appear? I hope so.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 8:08 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I too pay tribute to our Government, who have done a notable job in keeping their counsel wisely and quietly, and doing their very best in the Middle East. In this Chamber as outside it—not in this debate, I am very pleased to say, laudably—extreme views often have not helped the purposes of peace in the Middle East. I hope that one of the things that we might do in this country is to be aware of the need for careful debate rather than the sort of florid hate debate that we so often hear.

One of the key problems at the moment is the huge difficulty for the Palestinians. They basically want good health and hygiene, better local government, security, a normal sort of existence and, above all, prosperity. Sometimes in the past, their prosperity depended on employment in Israel. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, railed against the security fence, but that is an inevitability given the risks to the Israeli citizen at the present time. It is not unique. An 1,800-mile security fence exists in India and Pakistan. There is a security fence between Saudi Arabia and Yemen; there is a fence in Kyrgyzstan; and there is a fence in parts of Malaysia. Sadly, there are fences all over the world because of the threats of violence. I hope that that situation will change, but it is difficult to see that when one has the risk, on the one hand, of a very corrupt government, led by Fatah, and, on the other, a government who are notoriously, apparently, implacably opposed to Israel existing at all. That remains a major problem. We can only hope that that will change, but we must be cautious and make certain that the kind of words that we use do not inflame the situation.

Photo of Lord Bernstein of Craigweil Lord Bernstein of Craigweil Labour 8:10 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, in a modest way, I have tried to improve Arab-Jewish relations in Jerusalem. I believe strongly that the Palestinians are entitled to live a secure and decent life in a state governed by their own people. The problem is how they can achieve that when they are faced by the realities on the ground.

An article in the Guardian today, headlined Lawless in Gaza, gives an alarming and dispiriting account of the violence that is taking place there, with Palestinians turning guns on each other in a way that they previously had done against the Israelis. This breakdown in society is sometimes blamed on Israeli policies, but it is largely a legacy of the irresponsible and corrupt leadership of the late Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority, now under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, is well aware of the need to improve both the political and economic situation, but with continuing corruption and massive unemployment, it may not have the ability to do so.

The increasing political power of Hamas adds a further complication. Possibly, Hamas is beginning to believe that its involvement in the political process may further its cause more than violence. But that is an optimistic view, and optimism in the Middle East has seldom been justified. Will Fatah and Hamas be able to settle their differences without yet more violence?

The British Government have been constructive and forceful in trying to achieve a just settlement in the Middle East. I hope that they will continue to do so, in particular to help the Palestinians establish a peaceful and just society. The Israelis also need to be convinced that a future Palestinian state will not be a lawless and violent neighbour. Without that, it will be extremely difficult for Israeli politicians to convince their public to accept the inevitable compromises that any settlement will entail.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour 8:12 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I shall make a couple of brief points. Most of the points have been made already. I welcome progress on the Israeli side. It needs to be welcomed; it needs to be encouraged. While we all want to see faster progress, movement is in the right direction. Interestingly, despite what looks like the final departure of Mr Sharon, Kadima has created a base and it looks like it is going to make real electoral progress. It is going to be supported by the acting Prime Minister. Surely that is a movement in the right direction. The withdrawal of all settlements from Gaza and a small number in the West Bank during the summer; the Rafah border agreement in November; the acceptance of the need to reduce movement restrictions; and a widespread acceptance in Israel ahead of the elections that further withdrawals from the West Bank will be necessary in the future are surely all welcome signs of progress.

It is not to blame everything on the Palestinians, but we have to recognise that there has been a lack of reform in the Palestinian Authority which stands in the way of Palestinian state-building and makes it harder for Israel to make progress on easing the burden on Palestinians.

I wish to make a final point. Will the Minister say what practical steps the Government can now take to ensure that Palestinians fulfil their commitments to put in place democratic and accountable institutions of state, ending the reign of violence, chaos and corruption? What developments will it take for Israel to further relax its restrictions on Palestinian movement?

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 8:14 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting his flow in my enthusiasm to get to my feet. He and many other noble Lords have set out so eloquently the fact that we are being drawn to treat with Hamas by virtue of the likely outcome of a democratic process in the Palestinian legislature. It presents us, the European Union, the United States and indeed Israel with both threats and opportunities in pursuit of the peace process.

The threat is the challenge to Israel's very existence by Hamas Islamists, and to the western and moderate Arab nations who regard Hamas as a terrorist movement. The opportunity lies with both Hamas and Israel changing their methods, with the US and the EU rethinking their approach to the peace process. We need to accept the democratic outcome of the Palestinian elections, and conditionally to engage with Hamas.

Hamas needs to extend the current truce and cease all attacks on civilians in recognition of its democratic mandate and responsibility. We should be urging the US in particular to put pressure on Israel to halt the construction of new settlements and to halt the land grab. Without such action, at the very least, stability in the region will not be achieved. The creation and acceptance of two states, secure within defined borders, will remain a forlorn aspiration.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 8:15 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, we must do everything that we can to assist Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate an agreement that guarantees a secure Israel and establishes a viable democratic state of Palestine.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had given hope to a renewed peace process, but instead has seen the area plunge into in-fighting. What investigation have Her Majesty's Government taken into the allegations that Iranians are delivering missiles that can reach targets deep into Israel?

The political landscape looks set for change and uncertainty. Many noble Lords have mentioned the prospects of Kadima in Israel. The Palestinian Authority has been accused increasingly of political ineptitude and rampant corruption. Some 80 per cent of people in Gaza are unemployed and 68 per cent live below the poverty line. What action are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that the Palestinian authorities are being made transparent and accountable? International financial assistance is needed, but, in light of the levels of corruption, it is vital that we take steps to check that the aid gets to the people whom it is designed to help. The situation in Gaza is winning Hamas unprecedented popular support.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip 8:17 pm, 23rd January 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for tabling this timely debate. Its importance is underlined by the number of speakers. It is clear that a longer debate is needed and I trust that we will have one in the near future, perhaps to coincide with the important elections in Israel.

As many noble Lords have said, this is a key moment for the peace process, with the first elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council since 1996 due to take place in just two days. The actions of the legislative council and of the Palestinian Authority in the coming weeks and months will truly have a significant impact on the viability of a future Palestinian state, as will developments in Israel.

The noble Lords, Lord Wright, Lord Janner and Lord Mitchell, understandably raised the issue of Hamas. As my noble friend Lord Triesman stated in the House last week, our position is clear: we welcome the participation of a wide range of parties in all elections, and it must be for the people of the area to make their decisions. That is democracy; but I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment at this stage on the outcome of the elections.

However, after the elections, together with the international community, we will of course have to consider our position. I should make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that the recent suspension of EU funding has nothing to do with the elections. That decision was taken last month because the Palestinian Authority has not met the financial benchmarks that have been agreed. However, we hope that disbursement will be possible in the spring or summer. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that that is a good example of the way that we are trying to ensure that the Palestinian Authority works in a much more financially accountable way.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in another place on 29 November that the prospects for peace in the Middle East were better now than at any time in the past four and a half years. Much has happened since then, including the tragic illness of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His plan for disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank was a significant first step towards the creation of a separate and viable state of Palestine, alongside a secure state of Israel. Naturally the Government welcome all efforts to bring that about at government and official level. We salute what has been happening.

We also salute and pay tribute to those working with civil society. My noble friend Lady Hayman referred to One Voice, which is a fine example of an organisation that is nurturing understanding and trust across borders. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, mentioned the sterling work of Daniel Barenboim and many others. He is right to say that both Israel and the state of Palestine would have much to offer both as people and the wider world.

We fully support the work of quartet special envoy, James Wolfensohn, in following up that plan to support the Palestinian Authority in creating strong and viable institutions to improve the economy and governance. That is imperative for the future of the peace process. My noble friend Lord Bernstein and other noble Lords referred to the need to create jobs because unemployment has been such a problem in the Palestinian Authority. I am pleased to report that we fully support the job creation initiatives of Mr Wolfensohn. In working with UNRA, we assisted with the creation of 7,000 jobs in the West Bank and Gaza last year, and we hope that a further 14,000 will be created in 2006.

As part of the road map commitments, the Palestinian Authority is undertaking a series of comprehensive political reforms in preparation for statehood, including drafting a constitution, and free, fair and open elections. The elections have given a renewed democratic mandate to the PA. The EU supports this process and has sent a substantial election-monitoring mission. We are pleased with the progress being made, but more concerted action needs be taken by the PA to take these initiatives forward to make their institutions credible. We, along with the international community, will do all that we can to help, but it is up to the PA to push the agenda forward. As my noble friend Lord Winston said, the Palestinian people want normality.

The security situation in the West Bank—especially Gaza—is a cause of growing concern. The PA needs to take steps to effectively tackle terrorism and impose law and order for the sake of wider peace, but just as importantly in the interests of its own people. The work of James Wolfensohn and US security co-ordinator, General Dayton, and his predecessor, General Ward, has been vital. The Palestinian Authority has begun the task of strengthening the capacity of its security forces. The challenge is huge, but the international community, including the UK, is providing active support.

As my noble friends Lady Ramsay and Lord Hogg have noted, the EU has been, and will continue to be, a key investor and catalyst for change in the region, helping to bring about much needed reform. The EU is strengthening its EUCOPPS programme to help transform the Palestinian civil police. Our focus is not just on security but on working to ensure the long-term economic viability of a Palestinian state. Last month Her Majesty's Treasury and the World Bank jointly hosted a conference called, "Promoting Economic Growth in the West Bank and Gaza through the Private Sector". It brought members of the business community together to discuss options for investment in Gaza and the West Bank.

A strong economy will provide Palestinians with greater opportunities, more jobs and ultimately, prosperity. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right when he says that we must focus on investment. That is what Her Majesty's Government are doing, and will continue to do. We certainly have not been waiting for the elections to foster prosperity, as has been suggested. We have been working bilaterally and with our EU partners for many years.

Also last month, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-chaired the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the international co-ordinating body for donors, attended by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The meeting focused on economic developments in 2005, Palestinian reform and mid-term development planning, and looking ahead to a possible pledging conference in spring 2006. Most delegates concluded that they were willing to provide the Palestinian Authority with more assistance but that more work was needed from the PA to ensure that the money that it is given would be used effectively, to create stronger institutions and improve the conditions for wider prosperity.

A key aspect of long term economic viability is access to the outside world, and freedom of movement within the Occupied Territories, as regards which Israel has an important role to play. Last November's agreement on movement and access, including the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, was a huge step forward. The Rafah crossing point has remained open since 15 November, with the first truck loaded with merchandise leaving Gaza for Egypt on 19 December. The EU has played a vital role in allowing that to happen, providing a standing team of monitors able to vouch for the proper functioning of the agreement and building confidence between the two parties.

Together with improvements to the movement of goods between Gaza and Israel, those seemingly technical issues are making an important contribution to creating a viable Palestinian state. We hope that other parts of the agreement can be implemented soon, most notably the opening of the sea and air ports—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton—but also truck convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. It is of course for the parties themselves to discuss parts of the agreement such as the construction of the airport and the seaport, but both sides have naturally been preoccupied with the elections. However, we trust that as soon as the election period is over they will resume dialogue on the issue.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians remain committed to implementing the road map. As my noble friend Lady Symons said, we must be frank with both sides, but we must pay tribute when they have achieved many great things. Considerable further action is required from the Palestinian Authority on security issues, good governance and the economy, but there is also more that Israel could do. The road map is clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts built since March 2001. Settlement building is contrary to international law and is an obstacle to peace.

There is more that Israel could do to increase confidence and help ensure the viability of a future Palestinian state. We hope that Israel can ease restrictions on movement and access to all parts of Gaza and the West Bank. That includes dismantling checkpoints and roadblocks; all "Marys and Josephs" should be able to pass. The route of the barrier must be amended to ensure that it is on or behind the green line. It is illegal for the barrier to be built on occupied land. We have raised our concerns about that with the Israeli Government on many occasions, and we will continue to do so.

We have also made clear our concerns about Israeli policies in Jerusalem, which threaten to cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Those policies include the routing of the barrier on occupied territory, settlement activity both within and around East Jerusalem, and increasingly restricted access to Jerusalem for Palestinian residents who have blue Israeli identity cards but who live east of the barrier. That risks Palestinian territorial contiguity throughout the West Bank. Those practices fuel Palestinian anger, threaten to cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank and make it more difficult for there to be a viable Palestinian state.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who mentioned Iran and the non-proliferation treaty, the British Government have on a number of occasions called on Israel and other states who accede to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states and to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and we will continue to do so. We take appropriate opportunities to discuss all aspects of non-proliferation with representatives of Israel and other governments.

We believe that the road map remains the best way forward in creating a two-state nation and the establishment of a just and lasting peace, but both parties need to fulfil their obligations in order for that to become a reality. The road map provides for a viable and secure state of Palestine and a secure state of Israel, consistent with UN Security Council resolutions and the principle of land for peace. The coming period will be politically charged for both parties, but I hope and trust that their commitment to the principles of the road map will remain undiminished.