Middle East

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:03 pm on 7th June 2006.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 3:03 pm, 7th June 2006

I shall be as brief as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Wright on securing the debate and Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his contribution.

Although I am sure there will be differences of opinion on the substantive issues involved, today's attendance indicates something. This has been one of several Westminster Hall debates on this subject in recent months, but we have not had one on the Floor of the House for as long as I can remember. It is time that such a debate was held. I think that we all agree that it should take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned that we need to examine the situation on the ground and keep it in mind. He is right about that. Although this is an area where statistics hit us from all angles, we must understand, at this stage more than at perhaps any other time, the grinding poverty that is affecting the Palestinians. We are talking about unemployment levels of 31 per cent.; in Gaza the figure is 40 per cent. Poverty levels are rising. Food insecurity has risen by 14 per cent. in the past 10 months, and the United Nations is predicting that it could reach 51 per cent. this month.

Access for Palestinians in the occupied territories has got worse in the past 12 months. Three ambulances were attacked by Israeli troops in the last week in May. There were 376 road blocks and checkpoints prior to disengagement from Gaza in September and there were 515 by mid May this year. Karni, which is a lifeline of goods going in and out of Gaza, has been closed for 44 per cent. of the time since the start of 2006.

I give those statistics not only because they are part of the reality on the ground that we need to bear in mind, but to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that, while I understand and have a good deal of sympathy with the international community's demands on Hamas, it is not a simple thing to say, "Cut off assistance from the Palestinian Authority and somehow you can protect the Palestinians anyway." The Palestinian Authority runs 75 per cent. of all schools, and 62 per cent. of primary health care clinics are run by the Ministry of Health. We are talking about hitting essential operations: water, maintenance of refuse services, sewage collection, and so on. When the Minister sums up this debate, will he say how the alternative mechanisms that will somehow get assistance through to the Palestinians, while bypassing the Palestinian Authority, will work? The statistics that I cited are not from February or March; they are published in a United Nations report from the end of May, after the Quartet's announcement of the alternative mechanisms.

This week, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, engaged in a brave proposal. I believe that Hamas should recognise Israel. I do not say that Hamas should accept the two-state solution, because one thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool should understand is that, to all intents and purposes, it has already done so. There are legion comments from its spokespeople—most recently, the BBC reported one such comment yesterday by the parliamentary speaker—saying that Hamas accepts the two-state solution. Recognition is a different issue, and it has some way to go on that.

If we are to ask Hamas to recognise Israel, the point that I made to my hon. Friend about which borders was not one simply of academic significance. It is of real significance. People are living under occupation. If at this stage there are no guarantees about what their state will be and what the Israelis will recognise, what are we asking them to recognise? The deal might be to recognise the 1967 borders, although there needs to be negotiation about whether that ends up to be the final settlement. Let us accept that international law is the kernel of a settlement. Such a deal would mean that Israel withdraws from land it occupies and it means that the Palestinians accept the internationally recognised borders of Israel based on the 1967 borders. That would be something real, but it is not the situation that we are in.

This issue is of more than academic significance, because if we are to say vote for recognition to Palestinians, who are suffering the poverty that I was describing, we must be as clear as possible that when the referendum or whatever is used comes, they will vote for that. They should not see, one more time, the international community adopting one set of standards for them and another set for the Israelis. If they were to get that impression, given that they are faced with that grinding poverty, we will probably be heading not for an acceptance of the two-state solution but for greater conflict, with all the tragedies that that will mean for Palestinians and Israelis.

I ask the Minister again to clarify whether, when he is asking the Palestinians to recognise Israel, he is saying that they should recognise Israel within its internationally recognised 1967 borders or within somewhere else? If he is saying the former, does he accept that it is only reasonable also to say to Israel that it should recognise a state of Palestine on those 1967 borders? For good measure, if we are asking the Palestinians to have a referendum, perhaps there could be one in Israel as well.

Will the Minister clarify a couple of other things? The first is about the dividing up of the west bank. It is being split into different "Bantustans"—to use a term that some employ—which are segregated from each other, with no proper transport continuity let alone territorial continuity. That is a real barrier to a settlement. That process, through settlements and the wall, is almost complete. One area is standing in the way of that happening: the E1 area, which is part of the so-called Jerusalem bubble. Israel has said that it will build on E1, but it is illegal and is regarded so by the United States, the British Government and the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister attach the significance that I attach to the E1 plan and what will Britain do to ensure that it does not go ahead?

I want to make two further points. First, while we demand, rightly, that the Palestinians end the violence, will we make the same demand on the Israelis? Can we at least suggest to them—or perhaps more than suggest—that it might be a good idea if they committed themselves unambiguously to abiding by the provisions of the fourth Geneva convention in the occupied territories, because they are not doing so at the moment? In that context, can my right hon. Friend update the House on what is happening in the Hurndall and Miller cases following the decisions of the coroner here?

Secondly, on the humanitarian crisis, I have asked my right hon. Friend to clarify the alternative mechanisms, but will he also explain how Britain intends to respond to the UN appeal? It is estimated that the emergency needs of the Palestinians require approximately $385 million extra. Are we going to respond to that and, if so, how?