[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair] — Global Security (Middle East)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 24th January 2008.

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[Relevant documents: Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, on Global Security: The Middle East, HC 363 and the Government response, Cm 7212.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:30 pm, 24th January 2008

Today we debate the eighth report of 2006-07 of the Foreign Affairs Committee, published on 13 August last year, and the Government response thereto, published on 9 October. Because the middle east is such a complex and difficult region, a great deal has happened since publication. Sadly, most of it has not been positive. I know that other hon. Members will want to speak in great detail on specific aspects, but in my introductory remarks I intend to sketch out the Committee's overall conclusions and some of the enduring messages that I believe need to be taken into account by the Government, the Quartet, the international community as a whole and the countries of the region.

I am aware that we may need to make more rapid progress today than might otherwise be the case, given that there will be a series of Divisions in the Chamber from 5 pm, so I shall keep my remarks unexpectedly and uncharacteristically brief. I hope that will assist other Members.

Much of the report concentrates on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. We published the report soon after the forcible takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June last year. The Committee visited the region in March for the purposes of our report, but we were not able to go to Gaza. We had been there on a previous visit, in December 2005, but on our visit in March we went through Egypt, flew to Jordan and then went by road through the west bank to meet Palestinians and Israelis; even then, we were not able to go to Gaza because of the security situation. At the time the British BBC journalist Alan Johnston was being held hostage, and a number of other events took place, which are touched upon in the report.

Since then, we have seen some positive political developments—the agreement at the Annapolis meeting in November and a renewed commitment from President Bush to establish a peace agreement by the end of this year. That is a significant commitment, but one that will be extremely difficult to achieve. We all know of the history before, during and after the Oslo negotiations and agreements in 1993 and of the aborted negotiations at Camp David and Taba and the difficulties caused by the inactivity of the current US Administration over recent years.

Now, in his last few months in office, President Bush seems to be serious. He said that he does not want a Swiss cheese solution. I wonder, as we point out in our report, whether he will be content with a salami-slice solution—in other words, a west bank-Israeli agreement, but one that does not take account of the fact that to have a viable and contiguous Palestinian state we need to address the problems of Gaza.

We know, because we see it on our televisions and in our newspapers every day, that the situation in Gaza is extremely difficult. Last week, a headline in the International Herald Tribune stated "18 dead as violence flares in Gaza". For the first time in months, responsibility was explicitly taken by Hamas for rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The Israelis have had an internal debate, which is ongoing, about re-intervention in Gaza on a longer-term basis. According to the Herald Tribune, Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Olmert last week seemed to rule out the immediate prospect of a large-scale military operation in the Gaza strip, telling the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee that

"it is highly advisable not to become entangled in operations and cost that are not in proportion to the pressures that we are facing."

As a result of the blockade established last week, there have been successful attempts by people, apparently from Hamas, to blow holes in the wall that separates the Gaza strip from Egypt near Rafah. Members of the Committee visited the Rafah crossing; indeed, Mr. Pope, you were with me on that visit. We saw the crossing operating as it should do, with people coming in buses, going through a security system much like those at airports and going out the other side. That was in 2005. We now see pictures of people not crossing that border by bus but walking through rubble—things that have been destroyed and blown up because desperate people are trying to find ways to get food and other essentials, including cigarettes, into Gaza in large quantities as a result of the events of recent months.

Fundamentally, there is a big dilemma if the Annapolis process is successful. Even if people can agree on all the difficult issues to do with settlements and on all the problems to do with the future negotiations or agreements on Jerusalem being the capital of the Palestinian state and of Israel, what will happen to the refugees? Many of them are still treated appallingly, as I have seen in Lebanon. They have no status and although they are two or three generations on from 1948, they are still in a difficult situation. Even if everything was agreed, what are we to do about the 1.5 million people living in Gaza who are in such a desperate situation?

The Committee's recommendation was thought controversial not only by the Israelis but by the Palestinian leadership. We said that we had to find ways to engage with moderate elements in the Islamist Hamas movement to move them towards endorsing and agreeing the Quartet principles of non-violence, recognition of previous agreements and recognition of the state of Israel.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman comes to the nub of the matter, which is engagement with Hamas. Does he agree that talking about engagement with Hamas is pretty meaningless? It presumes that Hamas has a single view, but as a movement it covers a broad range of views; we ought to be engaging with people on the basis of what they say and what they stand for rather than the label that circumstances have applied to them.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

The question is who one engages with, how one does it and for what purpose. The Committee suggests not tearing up the Quartet principles but that ways have to be found to assist the process of movement of people and an organisation. The situation is not identical to what we have been through over decades in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, some lessons can be drawn from that experience. Sometimes one has to find intermediaries, back channels and ways to assess whether there is a possibility of movement. Sadly, because of the internal conflict in the Palestinian Authority, it is more difficult to do that now than when we wrote the report last August.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Does my hon. Friend believe that we are now seeing a collective punishment of the people of Gaza and the unfolding of a humanitarian catastrophe? Does he think the effect of that will be to increase radicalisation and make it more difficult to work with constructive elements to move both Hamas and the people of Gaza towards constructive engagement?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

There is always great danger of that outcome. On the one hand, people may get into a mindset of complete despair and hopelessness and may not accept that a political way forward exists. In that case, many of the brightest and most able might leave. That has been a tragedy of the Palestinian people for decades. On the other hand—this is what some people in the Palestinian Authority leadership think—the situation could get so bad that the Hamas leadership will be blamed, which will then lead to a political change. I am not sure whether that is likely to happen in the short term. The despair, poverty and deprivation that might be necessary before such a change occurred are too awful to contemplate.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office

Like other hon. Members, I consider the Committee's report a very good one. The situation in Gaza is desperate. As my hon. Friend Ms Buck said, the humanitarian crisis is in effect holding to ransom the entire population of Gaza. Clearly, the situation breaches international law and order and basic standards of civilised and international behaviour. Obviously, Hamas should stop firing rockets into Israel, but such action does not justify the blockade. What should the international community do to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, and how should the UK Government contribute to that process?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

While rockets are being fired and people in border towns are living in fear of such attacks, one cannot expect them to believe in the greater good. We should be talking not just to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians. That is another reason why there has to be engagement with the Hamas people and their leadership and the moderate elements to try to bring about a change of approach. I do not believe that we in the UK—or in the European Union collectively—are in a position to say, "Stop this," and it will happen. We all know that the key player in the process is the United States. It has been for decades and still is.

The American Administration at last seem to be serious about engagement. Clearly, they need to follow through with a number of questions for the Israelis. For example, is there a possibility of reopening the Rafah crossing, as was agreed in 2005 under the influence of Condoleezza Rice? Linked to that is the reopening of the Karni crossing, which I have visited. Trucks and other goods pass very slowly over the crossing, but if it was properly reopened—not just for humanitarian supplies—it would assist the Palestinian economy in Gaza. I must make some progress. No doubt other hon. Members will want to say more about the situation in Gaza.

The wider question relates to the basis of the Government's response. The Government did not agree with the Committee's recommendations on Hamas, but interestingly they took a different approach to our conclusions about Egypt. Our report recommended that we should engage with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In paragraph 86 of the Government reply to our report, they state:

"We share the Committee's analysis that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is an important movement in Egypt...We have a long-standing policy of engaging with Egyptian parliamentarians from all backgrounds, including those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. We will continue to follow this policy."

Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It evolved from that organisation.

A similar paradox exists in respect of Lebanon. The Government take a pragmatic view of Lebanon. Paragraph 71 of their response, which refers to paragraph 120 of our report, states:

"Government policy on contacts with Hizbollah's political wing is based on our assessment of their behaviour."

That view is not as specifically against elements within the political wing of Hamas as it appears. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government have an overall view about Islamist politics and Islamist movements, or is their approach based on behaviour? If so, why do they make distinctions between Egypt and Lebanon and the Palestinians?

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

In the context of Egypt and the engagement of parliamentarians, does my hon. Friend recognise that even if the Government do not want direct links, they should make greater use of organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is engaging with parliamentarians in Egypt and the middle east?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Absolutely. I was pleased to meet a group of Egyptian parliamentarians yesterday. They were in the UK under two auspices, with an Inter-Parliamentary Union hat and a Westminster Foundation hat—the Westminster Foundation had partly facilitated their visit. Interestingly, we had a robust exchange. Some of the Egyptian parliamentarians are not very happy about the fact that we say that we should engage with the Muslim Brotherhood because they come from alternative political positions. Many of them were from the governing party in Egypt, and a few were from the opposition—the non-Islamist, more moderate opposition. Clearly, a debate is going on in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I pay tribute to hon. Gentleman for a substantial and balanced report. I know that getting the balance right must have been difficult, but we have to tread gently. May I refer him to paragraph 158? The Minister for the Middle East stated that

"the most progressive elements among the chattering classes, or the political classes, are very worried about the prospect of greater democracy" which Ms Stuart was talking about. He went on:

"They are very worried about the distinct possibility that the extreme Islamic parties could make great progress if the elections were freer and fairer, and that the secular state of Egypt, as it exists at the moment, would come under great threat."

We must tread very gently—there is a fine balance.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

It is not for us to prescribe to the people of any country the political system they should adopt. However, experience shows—for example, the situation in Iran that resulted from the Shah's repression—that if a country does not have political reform, when change happens it can be more extreme, more violent and have more serious consequences than a transition regime, which progresses in a managed and gradual way towards democratisation. There are real dilemmas. I do not believe that we should be on a crusade to democratise the Arab and Muslim world. However, we ought to promote democratic standards and values, and the careful, pragmatic and effective Westminster Foundation for Democracy is an example of how best to do that.

I have touched on Lebanon, and I suspect that some of my colleagues may say more about it. The political situation there is extremely difficult; there is no agreement yet on the new President and there is a question about the stability of the political system. The system is unusual; it is not democratic in the sense we understand, but the outcome of a vicious civil war and the kind of conflicts that, sadly, we have seen in many parts of the world. In such circumstances, sometimes, political systems are required that are based on entrenched accommodations between different factions or groups. The problem in Lebanon is that the system is under great stress. Hezbollah is strong and growing in importance. The fact that it recently started firing rockets into Israel, after a long period of not doing so, is an indication of the possibility that the conflict could resume—a conflict to which our report refers in great detail. Committee members saw its consequences when they visited southern Lebanon and were shown the cluster munitions.

The report refers to the malign influence of Hezbollah and Iran. We highlighted the fact that some countries outside Israel, Palestine and Lebanon have foreign policy objectives to work against any agreement that might result from the Annapolis process. Syria was present at Annapolis, which is important, but Iran was not—our Committee is carrying out an inquiry on Iran and will produce a detailed report in a few weeks. However, we need to be aware that there are players outside the region who are neither Arab nor Israeli but who have an interest in the outcome and could have a malign influence through arming or financing rejectionist groups that do not want the process taken further.

The Committee commented in passing on the situation in Iraq, about which we were probably unduly pessimistic. We concluded that the surge in Iraq did not look as though it would succeed. However, from the outside, judging by certain criteria—the number of casualties has fallen sharply—there seems to have been a significant improvement in the living standards of a large number of people in at least parts of Baghdad. If that is so, we must recognise it.

None the less, difficulties remain in the political process, some of which we touch on in the report. Although it has been agreed that former Ba'athists can return to jobs in the Government, there has been no resolution on the hydrocarbons law and on the sharing of oil and gas receipts. Furthermore, political problems remain over the ongoing power struggle between different groups and factions, particularly within the Shi'a community in Basra and the south, where a reduced but important British military presence remains.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

What is the hon. Gentleman's feeling about the allied policy of training, putting in uniform and arming opposing militias, and putting them on the streets? Although it might have a short-term impact for good—except of course for women in the wrong sort of dress—in the longer term, it might prove a very dangerous and explosive policy.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

In post-conflict societies, people are often taken out of factions and groups, brought under the new arrangements and used in the new forces. That has happened with some of the Palestinian groups and in other countries and conflicts.

I have visited Iraq three times and have seen the work and training carried out by our military and police. I saw Gurkhas and the British Army doing the same in Sierra Leone as well. The quality of that training is excellent, but it takes time to create the new structure of a professional army. We probably do not have 10 or 15 years to train people in new ways of thinking and working, in order to find the perfect solution, which means that we might have to deal with people from different groups and organisations. Certainly the Kurdish peshmerga who fought so bravely for many years against Saddam have shown their commitment to different values from those of the Ba'athist regime. We need to be pragmatic and not absolutist.

Near the end of our report, we recommended that the Government publish a public strategy paper on the middle east and reassess their approach to the region. Paragraph 122 of the Government's response states:

"The Government notes the Committee's recommendations and will reflect further on how best to set out its strategy on the various aspects of the Middle East in the light of the Government's National Security Strategy and the Public Service Agreement on Conflict Prevention, both of which will be published in the coming months."

Will the Minister update us on those further reflections? Is there now greater clarity on future Government policy on those wider issues?

The conflicts are interrelated. Anybody who watches satellite television knows that what happens in Palestine, Iraq or any other part of the Arab world is seen by millions of Arabs and Muslims, and many non-Muslims and non-Arabs, through al-Jazeera and other television channels. That is why we need a specific and comprehensive approach to the countries of the region, and to consider how Government policy can influence and improve the situation for the hundreds of millions of people suffering from great difficulties in that region.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 2:58 pm, 24th January 2008

Once again, it is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, who once again has led the Committee in producing a substantive and significant report in what must be the most complex and difficult area of foreign policy that we face.

As the Committee Chairman said, following the Annapolis meeting, President Bush declared his hopes to achieve a settlement of the dispute between Israel and its neighbours this year. I think that most hon. Members would agree that, if he had made that commitment in the first year of his presidency, rather than in his last, it would have been infinitely better; it would, I believe, have saved many lives lost during the past eight years. However, I am sure that we all wish him well—together with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair—in their strenuous efforts to produce a settlement.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that one of the problems with Tony Blair's mission is that his terms of reference are restricted to Palestinian organisations that unreservedly recognise the state of Israel and that he can therefore play no part in addressing the Gaza problem?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I am aware of those restrictive terms of reference, but if the former Prime Minister runs true to form, I am confident that he will seek to push the envelope of his terms of reference. I am sure that we wish him well in trying to make a contribution to achieve a settlement of probably the most difficult issue in the world.

The presidential initiative rests on hope, but in the meantime we must deal with the realities: around Israel's borders, the political situation is fraught with difficulty and the humanitarian situation is, to varying degrees, horrendous. It is no more horrendous anywhere else than in Gaza, and on the television news last night and in the papers this morning, we saw the desperate human manifestation of the realities inside the Gaza strip. We saw Palestinians, in desperation, using explosives to blow apart the Israeli security fence at the Rafah crossing, and Palestinians, in their thousands, pouring out to try to obtain the basic necessities of life—food, fuel, water, milk and so on. There could not have been a more graphic or stark manifestation of the awful reality that is now the Gaza strip.

I was struck by the last publication that I saw from that remarkably brave and accurate Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem. It was about life in Gaza, and I thought that the front page said it all:

"The Gaza Strip—One Big Prison."

Effectively, that is what the Gaza strip has now become. I must put it to the Minister that, given the humanitarian awfulness of what is now the Gaza strip, I do not understand and am frankly baffled by the extent to which the British Government and other European and other democratic Governments throughout the world have been so muted in their condemnation of the situation that has been created not by accident or by chance, but by the deliberate exercise of specific Israeli Government policy.

I do not in any way make light of the impact of the rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza strip or elsewhere in the west bank, and I totally stand up for Israel's right to defend itself against those attacks and to take whatever measures are necessary against those who are actively engaged in firing those rockets or in preparing to do so. However, from the figures that I have seen, and as far as I am aware, the casualties that Israelis have sadly suffered as a result of those rocket attacks are extremely small in relation, for example, to the casualties that we suffered in Northern Ireland and on the mainland of the UK during the years of attacks by the IRA and other terrorist organisations there.

What would have happened if we as the British Government had reacted to those attacks in the same way as the Israeli Government now do? What would have been the reaction throughout the world and in the UK if we had erected a security wall around Northern Ireland, effectively trapping the people of Northern Ireland en masse inside it? What would have been the effect if we had used major military forces and their explosives fairly indiscriminately inside that area? What would have been the impact and the international reaction if we had closed the crossings, cut off the fuel and electricity supplies, made access to food and medical supplies difficult and degraded the standard of care in the hospitals and health services? What would have been the reaction? We all know: there would have been an absolute volcanic outcry throughout the world—aside from what would have happened in the House of Commons.

I am deeply struck and perturbed by the extraordinary contrast between that happily hypothetical situation in relation to a British Government reaction to such measures in Northern Ireland and the extraordinarily muted reaction of our Government and Governments throughout the world to the intolerable position and the policy that is being followed towards the civilian population in Gaza as a whole.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman and with his moral case, but does he accept that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflict, we are perceived to be complicit in the middle east and further afield? One danger to our foreign policy is that it is difficult to be seen as an honest broker when we apparently support the Israelis, albeit indirectly. That is a real problem for the future.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

That is a criticism—if that is the hon. Gentleman's intention—more of the American Government than of ourselves. The British Government have tried to steer a pretty objective course between upholding the genuine rights of self-defence for the Israelis and trying to uphold the rights of the Palestinians and move Palestine towards a self-governing and self-sufficient state.

I find the muted response all the more extraordinary because the legal position is clear. It was fairly and reasonably stated just a few days ago by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Mr. John Dugard. He referred to recent sad incidents in which a considerable number of Palestinians, including those taking part in a wedding party, have lost their lives.

In a statement that the United Nations office in Geneva issued on 18 January, Mr. Dugard said:

"Recent action violates the strict prohibition on collective punishment contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention. It also violates one of the basic principles of international humanitarian law that military action must distinguish between military targets and civilian targets. Israel must have known about the wedding party in Gaza near to the interior ministry when it launched missiles at the ministry building. Those responsible for such cowardly action are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished for their crimes. The United States and other States which attended the Annapolis conference are under both a legal and a moral obligation to compel Israel to cease its actions against Gaza and to restore confidence in the peace process, ensure respect for international law and protect civilian life."

I ask the Minister, what are the British Government going to do to try to compel Israel to cease its action against Gaza, to ensure respect for international law and to protect civilian life? I hope that the Minister will not reply to our report, as the Government have done, by simply trotting out figures for humanitarian aid that they and others have given to the people of Gaza. I do not underestimate the importance of aid in the current circumstances, but aid is neither the answer nor the central point.

The central requirement is to get Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories into a position where they no longer need aid, are self-sufficient and can be a properly functioning, independent state. That requires political action, the cessation of violence and the ending of the murderous subjection of civilians in Israel and in the occupied territories to terrorism, as far as Hamas and others are concerned, and to specific military action from the Israelis. I ask the Minister to address that issue.

I turn now to Lebanon. I was fortunate to be among the members of the Committee who visited the country during our inquiry. Too little attention is being paid to the serious situation there. Lebanon is where the last war in the middle east started, and it could well be the place where the next war starts as well. The political position is extremely fragile and dangerous, although I appreciate that the powers of direct intervention of the British Government and other Governments are relatively limited, given that Lebanon is an independent sovereign state and has a reasonable form of democracy, given its complicated religious structure and its history.

However, the country faces three potential disasters: a Hezbollah takeover, which would be a disaster for many of its people and certainly for those further afield; a further Israeli invasion; and military re-entry by Syria. Indeed, it could face a combination of all three. The political issues in Lebanon are of the utmost seriousness, and it would be helpful if the Minister gave us some clarity on how the Government are seeking to prevent such disasters from overtaking the country.

On the brighter side, the Committee saw the remarkable work that the UN is doing in Lebanon. We saw the work being done by the first-rate British non-governmental organisation, the Mines Advisory Group, which is taking up the largest ever amount of cluster munitions to be sown. Those munitions were sown by the Israelis at the end of the last war in the country in the 72 hours between the passage of the UN Security Council resolution and that resolution coming into effect.

The interest in the House in policy on cluster bombs has led to the Government's welcome decision to ban the use by British forces of so-called dumb cluster bombs, which do not have a self-detonating device. I believe that that policy decision owed a fair amount to prodding by our Committee and by the Quadripartite Committee. However, there are some differences between us and the Government over whether so-called smart cluster bombs—those with a self-detonating device—should continue to be used.

In our report, we said that the evidence that we received from the UN mine clearance people showed that so-called smart cluster bombs have a 10 per cent. failure rate, while the Government put the figure at 2.3 per cent. However, I put it to the Minister that if there is any failure rate at all, the use of cluster munitions will have exactly the same effect as sowing anti-personnel land mines. It is Government policy that there should be no anti-personnel land mines; indeed, the Government are a signatory to the Ottawa convention and played a significant role in bringing it about. If they are to be consistent with their policy on anti-personnel land mines, they should look carefully at eliminating the failure rate of smart cluster munitions or at banning them altogether.

Let me now turn quickly to Syria. Syria's history under the Ba'ath party is pretty black, and the country's adherence to any sort of democratic standards is pretty dubious. After two visits to the country, however, I believe that it is moving fairly gingerly in the right direction. We would therefore do well in the medium-to-long term to provide Syria with further encouragement to keep moving towards being a less dictatorial society and less of a police state. Syria is a secular Muslim state, and that alone should make the democratic world sit up and take notice to a degree.

In our report, we make an important recommendation to the Government:

"In our view, the EU ban on ministerial contact with Syria is not helpful in the context of engaging constructively with the Syrian Government. We recommend that the Government resume such contacts without delay."

I very much regret that they have not responded favourably to that recommendation and are taking the line that EU policy remains not to have ministerial contacts with Syria. I believe that that is now mistaken, and I hope that they will change their policy.

I do not want to cause any deep anguish to my colleagues on the Committee by mentioning the excellent report on the foreign policy aspects of the European treaty, which we published for the debate on that treaty. In it, however, some of us expressed concerns about whether the Government would be able to adhere to their red line of an independent British foreign policy. I say that because the Government's position on ministerial contracts with Syria is being driven much more by the EU common position than by their own independent assessment of what is the right policy.

Let me quickly say one word, although I hope that it is an important word, about Iraq. As we know, the Iraq war was justified on the basis of seeking out and eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but they were found not to be there. Subsequently, the justification has moved to establishing democracy and human rights, and nothing is of greater significance than what has been said about human rights for women. Those human rights were enshrined in the constitution that was supposedly introduced and agreed by the Iraqi political parties, but I am deeply concerned about whether those rights will survive and be respected, even in the Basra area, for which the British forces have had responsibility.

By way of illustration, I want to put on record an account from The Times of8 December 2007, which sets out what happened when a group of young Christian women turned up for their first day at Basra university. Outside, someone ordered them not to go into the university with their heads uncovered, but they decided that he was an isolated individual and took no notice. The Times reports that they returned the next day and says:

"This time a man in the black clothes of the Shia militia stopped them at the entrance and took them aside. 'He said, "We asked you yesterday to wear a hijab, so why are you and your friends not covering your hair?". He was talking very aggressively and I was scared,' Zeena recalled.

The girls explained that they were Christians and that their faith did not call for headscarves. 'He said: "Outside this university you are Christian and can do what you want; inside you are not. Next time I want to see you wearing a hijab or I swear to God the three of you will be killed immediately",' Zeena recalled."

The article continues:

"In the past five months more than 40 women have been murdered and their bodies dumped in the street by militiamen, according to the Basra police chief. Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf said that some of them had been killed alone, others gunned down with their children. One unveiled mother was murdered together with her children aged 6 and 11."

Given our history in Iraq and an invasion that was based on a wholly incorrect intelligence assessment, it would be the most appalling compounding of that tragedy if we were to end up with a situation in which the basic human rights of half the population—the female half—became significantly worse than they were before our invasion.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that some at least of the bodies of those women had notes pinned to them making reference to their having been killed because of the way they dressed?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

There is no specific report of that in the article, but if my hon. Friend says it, I am sure it is something that he has seen.

Lastly, almost by way of a postscript, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has said, we are producing a report on Iran. I would not want to anticipate that, but I want to make one point. We have entered into one war on the basis of a claimed intelligence assessment that proved entirely incorrect. We now have the official United States national intelligence estimate, entitled "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities", which was published in November. Under the heading "Key Judgments", the report opens:

"We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

There is a world of difference between keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons and having operational nuclear weapons in place. Having gone into one war on the basis of a misreading of an intelligence assessment, it would be unforgivable to go into or be complicit in another when the intelligence picture was still extremely uncertain, as appears to be the case at the moment with Iran.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 3:22 pm, 24th January 2008

In view of the number of hon. Members who want to speak and the fact that we are trying to finish at 5 o'clock, I shall be brief. I want to talk mainly about the situation in Gaza and relations with Israel. I commend the Committee for its report and the Chairman for his presentation of it to the House. I have been to Israel and Palestine on five occasions, and on three of them, I have been to Gaza. I have been to all parts of Gaza at various times. Each time I go, I think that the situation is bad, and when I return, it seems worse. From reports now, it is becoming dire.

The first occasion when I visited was a time of, retrospectively, enormous hope. That was post-Oslo. The airport had been built and people were thinking about opening it. When I visited there were a large number of school children saying, "This is the Palestine of the future." There was great hope and a large amount of British aid was going in. I was very proud of that. We were doing a lot to help, things were going on, and the situation looked hopeful.

On the second occasion, I visited with my hon. Friend Richard Burden, who will speak later as chairman of the all-party group on Palestine. We met a number of people, including representatives of Hamas, and had discussions. Without serious political engagement with the process going on in Gaza, we felt that the result would be the bunker mentality of support for Hamas against anyone else, because there was nowhere else to go. I think that I am being fair in saying that.

On my third visit, I was a UN-accredited election observer for the presidential election. I chose to go to Gaza and Rafah. Everyone recommended that I should not make that choice and not go to Rafah, but sometimes it is a good idea not to take advice. I spent hours, with UN accreditation, arguing my way through the border crossing at Erez. The best part of two days was spent arguing our way down to Rafah, where we stayed for the election itself. It was painstakingly carried out. Unbelievable attention was paid to the minutiae of the election procedures. There could be nothing wrong with the process whatever. The only thing that went wrong, as far as I could see, was that Israeli border guards decided to fire at the polling station during the day, while wholly innocent civilians were in there attempting to exercise their right to cast a vote.

I managed to visit some outlying polling stations, which, again, took hours to get to, and it was exactly the same story. Later in the evening, I was back in Gaza city, where there were riot-like conditions, but the officials, to their credit, managed to contain them, because they wanted to ensure that the election proceeded properly. I spent a lot of time talking to the mental health group in Gaza, which I know very well. The group told me that 75 per cent. of the population of Gaza are medically depressed by their situation. That was two years ago.

The situation now is unbelievable. Sir John Stanley described it extremely well. The population of Gaza are in prison—a prison of mediaeval mentality, created by Israel—and the effect is not to make the people love Israel, but to make them opposed to Israel in every way. Probably, that has enhanced rather than reduced support for Hamas. It is fairly obvious that if people are treated in that way they will not love their captor; they hate their captor even more. That is what has happened, before our eyes.

Can it be conscionable that, in this day and age, one state is allowed to imprison more than 1 million people, deny them medical aid, food, energy and the right to travel and work, and force their businesses into receivership, or whatever the equivalent is in Gaza now? Can there be surprise when people manage to bomb their way through the wall to Egypt to get basic supplies, simply to survive? There is a humanitarian crisis, which we know about because satellite TV reports it, but apparently, there is little we can do about it.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully, and he obviously knows far more about Gaza than I do. The Committee did not go there during the trip to the area that I went on. It seems to me that, if the hon. Gentleman talks of a prison, that prison is the sea, two perimeters with Israel and one with Egypt. Are the Egyptians as culpable as the Israelis for the imprisonment of the Palestinians in Gaza?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

As the hon. Gentleman will know, Israel presumes to have control of all borders between Palestine and the outside world. He is correct that there is a border with Egypt, but until recently it was completely controlled by Israel. The shooting that took place when I was in Rafah came from the Egyptian side of the border through the Israeli watchtowers on the border itself. Legitimate criticism can and should be made—and is being made—of Egypt for its unpreparedness to open the border with Rafah to ensure that the necessary supplies and aid get through. I accept that and have made the same point on Egyptian television and to people from Egypt whom I have met. I should imagine that colleagues who have met Egyptian MPs have probably made the same points.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Is not the reality that, after the war with Egypt, part of the treaty was intended to prevent the Egyptians from moving more of their military up to the border with the Gaza strip?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. Relations with Egypt are not normal by any stretch of the imagination, and that is the subject of a huge political debate in Egypt. I am pleased at the Committee's recognition that discussions that include all elements of opposition in Egypt are very important to protect and develop any kind of democracy there. I suspect that the fact that the Government of Egypt could do nothing about the large number of people who have managed to get out of Gaza into Egypt will have a long-term and profound effect on Egyptian politics. One should examine that situation with interest.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling made the correct point that Mr. Dugard, on behalf of the United Nations—one can only presume that it was on behalf of the UN high officials, since the report was made public by them—said in all seriousness that, as far he was concerned, Israel was in breach of the fourth Geneva convention on collective punishment, which is a war crime. That is a very serious allegation, and it was made not on the street by some unnamed individual or an odd group somewhere around the world or as a rhetorical allegation in a public meeting, but by a senior UN official. He has said that Israel should be arraigned on a war crime for the collective punishment of individuals. That is a serious point, and I look forward to the Minister's response to it.

This country has close relations with Israel. We trade with it, have supported the EU-Israel trade agreement and, as far as I am aware, supply some military parts to it. I hope to hear from the Minister that the Government are putting the strongest possible pressure on the state of Israel to lift the siege of Gaza and, if necessary, will introduce some form of economic sanction against it, because of what it is doing to the people of Gaza.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that, since Annapolis, 146 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, of whom 136, including a child, were in the Gaza strip. Some 496 Palestinians have been injured, 360 of them on the Gaza strip, and 807 Palestinians have been arrested, the majority of them—731—on the west bank. There have been 675 Israeli attacks, of which 415 have been on the Gaza strip, and two Israeli soldiers have been killed. I regret every one of those losses of life, and I regret and condemn absolutely the use of Qassam rockets, which have been fired out of Gaza on to Israeli civilians, which will not bring about peace and justice.

Those figures are for the period since Annapolis, and the fundamental flaw of Annapolis is coming out. The western countries have essentially got together and said, "We will support and give aid to President Abbas on the west bank, give a great deal of economic aid to the west bank and ignore what is going on in the Gaza strip and hope that the problem goes away." The problem is not going away; it is getting worse.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

My hon. Friend said that he regretted the rockets being fired out of Gaza into Israeli on to people's homes and schools, but he kind of dismissed it as a random act and not particularly relevant. I wonder when he will come on to the bit of his analysis that factors in Gaza being controlled by an extremist terrorist group that is dedicated to the violent overthrow of Israel and continually fires rockets from Gaza on to people's houses and schools in Israel. I wonder when he will explain to us where that fits into his analysis and what the Israeli Government are supposed to do about it.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I think that my hon. Friend will find that I used the word "condemn" rather than "regret". I do condemn and oppose it, and I have made it clear all along that I do not think that attacks on Israeli civilians will bring about any kind of peace. Political engagement and a political solution will bring that about.

My hon. Friend may not have heard what I said, and I shall repeat it for his benefit. There have been 675 Israeli military attacks on Gaza since Annapolis, mainly by air, but also by land. A first-world country is attacking people who can be described only as living in the fourth world. It is not a war of equals; it is a war of oppression and occupation. I want peace, and I want people to be able to live in peace. A political solution requires political engagement. Israel's refusal to engage with a large part of the Palestinian population, in which it is supported by Britain and the United States, will not bring about peace.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

Perhaps I did not hear, but one thing that prompted me to intervene was that I do not think that my hon. Friend listed the number of terrorist attacks, over any period, from Gaza into Israel. I do not think that he listed the number of rockets. He gave the number of Israeli attacks, according to his figures. If he is so keen to condemn it, why are we not getting the number of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli homes and schools?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's inquisition. Perhaps he can help us with the exact number. I have condemned those rocket attacks and do not know the exact number of them, but I wish that he and others who hold his view on Israel would recognise that, unless Israel engages with the political dimension in the region, peace will not come.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friends. Between 1 January and 30 November last year, 1,204 Qassam rockets were recorded as being fired from Gaza into Israel, causing 96 injuries and two deaths.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

We now have the figures. We now know the number of people who were injured and died, all of which I regret. As I keep saying, if we are to bring about peace, it has to be done by a process of engagement and negotiation. I hope that the world will recognise that what is going on in Gaza is illegal, immoral and a collective punishment that is going on before our very eyes. We can do something about it, and I wish that we would. If we do not, we will be condemned by the rest of the world as standing idly by while a large number of wholly innocent civilians, who want merely to live a decent, ordinary life in Gaza, are condemned to a life behind bars, in a prison, for no reason other than that their neighbours continue to rain on them their military power and presence. The debate is timely and important, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 3:36 pm, 24th January 2008

Again, I congratulate the Committee on this excellent report on a difficult matter.

I shall speak on a narrow subject. In chapter 5 of the report, on Egypt, I note that the part entitled "Human Rights and Democratisation" does not address a certain issue. I understand the Committee's difficulty in visiting every point on human rights, but minority rights in Egypt are important, and I wish to flag them up.

The inception of a new system of computerised ID cards in Egypt compelled its citizens to identify themselves as members of one of three constitutionally recognised religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Members of Egypt's Baha'i minority have been unable to register as citizens of their own country. On 16 December 2006, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Government's position that forces Baha'is either falsely to claim to be a member of a religion or to go without an ID card. Egyptian Baha'is are therefore unable to register the birth of their children, denying those children access to education, jobs and medical treatment. They are effectively unable to live as citizens in the country of their birth. That is a minority issue, and it is understandable why it is not covered in the report. Other religious groups in Egypt, including the Copts, who have changed their religion, have also faced a problem in getting ID cards.

Denying fundamental freedoms to Egyptian citizens on that basis appears to be a breach of Egypt's obligations under article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, as was asserted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It would be useful for future reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee to examine minority rights, if possible.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

For the record, each year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produces an annual human rights report. The Committee always produces our commentary on it, and we consider human rights issues such as religious and minority rights in a number of countries as part of that. However, we do not always repeat in every regionally focused report what we have done at other times.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Committee for that explanation, which I accept. I hope that he has heard what I have said about the Baha'is.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 3:39 pm, 24th January 2008

Like everyone who has spoken so far, I welcome the report. It is comprehensive and balanced, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Gapes on the way in which he presented it. I shall devote most of my comments to the situation in Gaza. Time is short, but if there is time, I might say a few words about the west bank.

Let me start by putting on the record as clearly as I can, as my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn did, the fact that the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel are to be condemned. I condemn them without qualification. That is why we know, record and monitor the numbers who—

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

My figures say that there have been 200 rocket attacks in the past 10 days from Gaza into Israeli schools, houses and homes, killing and wounding people. It is easy to condemn them as though they do not have any consequences or as though that is an isolated piece of the argument. My hon. Friend condemns the attacks, but does he accept that they are the fundamental cause of the problem? Does he accept that the attacks are a problem that the Israeli Government have to deal with.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Are they the fundamental cause of the problem? No, I do not think they are.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

I do not think they are a fundamental cause. They are to be condemned and they are unjustified. I have also visited Sderot; I hope that my hon. Friends who have visited Sderot have also been to Gaza and talked to people there. The pain that families suffer from rocket attacks is real pain, and the fear that they experience, not knowing when the next attack will come, is real fear. It helps nobody to say that either side somehow has a monopoly on pain, or on compassion for the other side. That gets this debate nowhere.

My hon. Friend Mr. Simon talked about the number of rocket attacks in the past week. As far as I know, one person has been killed in those attacks. I am sure that he has studied the figures, so he will also know that in the first week of this year, there were 11 Israeli air strikes into Gaza, during which 26 people were killed and 63 were injured. I do not say that because it will help the family of the two Israelis who died in 2007 to know that more Palestinians have been killed. My hon. Friend needs to understand that for a Palestinian in Gaza whose son, daughter, mother or father has been killed by a missile from an Apache helicopter or an F-16, it does not count any less; their pain is no less than that of someone whose family members are killed in Sderot by Palestinian rockets.

One fundamental cause of the situation in Gaza is the blockade. Even though things have got a lot worse in recent months and weeks, restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza did not start this week, this year or even last year. Many of them existed even before Israeli disengagement in 2005. Certainly, they were stepped up at the start of 2006 and there were rocket attacks on Gaza at that time—interestingly, not from Hamas, which was then on a ceasefire. It was not rocket attacks that led to the increased blockade on Gaza; it was an election. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, the election in which Hamas was elected was internationally monitored and regarded as fair. Records show that it was the election that led to an increase in the blockade. The international community mistakenly went along with that by boycotting that Government, and ended up in the rather strange situation of having to increase its aid to Gaza through the temporary international mechanism. That had less effect because the very mechanisms needed to deliver services to people there were being boycotted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South talked about the Committee's views on engagement, which I recognise and agree with, but the Government take a different view.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

My hon. Friend must be aware that, following the parliamentary election, a large number of those elected to the Palestinian Authority were subsequently arrested by Israeli invading forces and are being held in Israeli prisons. That does not show much respect for democracy.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It must be a matter of concern to all parliamentarians that elected parliamentarians are in jail. That matter is rightly being looked into by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

Does my hon. Friend agree that if one is a terrorist who is dedicated to using death and murder to achieve one's ends, one is not a democrat? The two are absolutely antithetical. Does he agree that the act of being elected, albeit legitimately, does not make one a democrat if one is a terrorist?

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

The arrests of Palestinian parliamentarians have taken place by and large on the basis of membership of a particular organisation. If we are serious about trying to achieve a settlement in that part of the world, as opposed to point scoring—as far as I know, hon. Members from both sides of the House agree on that—a situation in which the majority of parliamentarians from the Palestinian Parliament are in jail does not contribute much towards that end.

The situation in Gaza has got a lot worse since the unjustified takeover of Hamas in Gaza last June. It became even more serious in October when Israel decided to restrict further fuel supplies into Gaza. That has been stepped up again in the past few weeks. The position in Gaza was illustrated graphically last year by John Ging, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, when he visited here and laid on the line the consequences of what was happening in Gaza. The position has also been illustrated graphically by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Were it not for the work of the UN, certainly the OCHA, painstakingly monitoring incidents in Gaza and the west bank—closures and so on—this debate would be all the poorer. It does absolutely vital work.

As a result of the UN's investigations, we know that more than 80 per cent. of people in Gaza live below the poverty line. Some 80 per cent. of Gazans are dependent on food and humanitarian aid. When I say dependent I do not mean that they are getting enough; one thing that John Ging told us when he came to Parliament last year was that the UN estimates that the daily calorie intake for Gazans is about 61 per cent. of what is required, so malnutrition is a real and present threat.

Fuel shortages have threatened essential services and the water supply, and there are power cuts for about eight hours each day. Hospitals are running on emergency generators. Emergency generators are just that: they are meant to cut in when there is a power cut. If they are used all the time, the likelihood of breakdown is greater than ever. Many life-saving treatments are not available in Gaza and there are shortages of medicines and delays in their delivery. Some 17 per cent. of patients who have been referred outside Gaza for treatment have been refused exit by Israel.

On the economy—as Sir John Stanley rightly said, aid is not the answer in that part of the world—the closure of the Karni crossing has meant that export is virtually impossible and that imports of spares and raw materials are often impossible. Nearly 90 per cent. of industrial establishments have closed since last June and thousands of labourers have lost their jobs because of the collapse of the building industry. Perhaps the most surreal problem is what has happened to the fishing industry. Fishing has been a staple part of the economy of that coastal strip of land for centuries, but because of Israeli restrictions on fishing limits, the areas closest to the coast are being overfished. The crazy situation is that the food aid coming into Gaza includes fish. Importing fish to an area that should be based on a fishing economy is absolutely crazy.

That is the situation, and it is getting worse. I received information today that, as far as the power cutbacks are concerned, the promises that were made by Israel to introduce emergency supplies of fuel to Gaza have been reversed, and that is now not happening. Haaretz reported the response of the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, to the blowing up of the wall at Rafa:

"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it. So we want to disconnect from it."

That is what he told army radio. He then went on to say that Israel's effort to disengage from Gaza, which began in 2005 with the evacuation of settlers,

"continues in that we want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so that it would come from another place."

So we have the very real threat now that the restrictions are seen not as temporary actions in response to the firing of rockets but as a permanent plan. That is what the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel said today. To me, that is scary and worrying. It offers no prospect of a good path toward peace.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

My hon. Friend has had a lot of goes. I will give him this one, but after that I will have to make some progress.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

On that point, perhaps my hon. Friend can explain what all this mistreatment has to do with, if not the rockets. What is it about the Israelis that makes them treat the Palestinians so badly? Why do they do it? What is going on? If it is not to do with the terrorism of Hamas and the Gaza leadership, what is it to do with? What is his explanation? Are they just bad people?

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

That is a question that my hon. Friend must address to the person who is responsible for the quote that I gave: the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel, Matan Vilnai.

Time is short, and I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a few questions about how we move on from this desperately dangerous situation. It is right to say that the British Government have done their best to try to bring about a reasonable settlement, perhaps even more so in the past few months, and I certainly welcome the increasing engagement with this issue of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary since he took up his post. There is no doubt that the British Government are expressing their displeasure at what is happening in Gaza, but the fact is that it is still happening.

I ask the Minister what, in practical terms, we can do, not to express displeasure about the fact that 1.5 million people are living in a prison, but to stop 1.5 million people living in a prison. Not only do the British Government and, indeed, the international community rightly condemn the rockets, but they impose sanctions on organisations that may be responsible for them if there is a refusal to engage. If that action is appropriate in respect of the firing of rockets against civilians in southern Israel, what is the appropriate action for a country that has been responsible for collective punishment, that has launched that amount of air strikes, and, even by the most generous interpretation, has been involved in grossly disproportionate military action against Gaza? What are we going to do, apart from expressing displeasure?

I ask the Minister also to explain not only what we do at diplomatic level but what our role is as a high contracting party to the fourth Geneva convention, which is being breached. What will we do about the situation?

Before I sit down, I want to mention just two other things. As we know, fuel supplies have been restricted since October. The restrictions have been stepped up in the past few weeks, and, according to the Deputy Defence Minister of Israel, supplies may be cut off altogether in the future. When Hamas was in government, the international community adopted a temporary international mechanism to ensure one of its objectives, which was that fuel supplies got through so that power and water supplies could be kept going. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to explain the current status of the temporary international mechanism, and what the international community can do to ensure that fuel supplies get through.

Perhaps my hon. Friend can also explain who is paying for the fuel supplies that are not going into Gaza. As far as I am aware, a great deal of the payment that is going to Israel to supply fuel to Gaza is coming from the international community, particularly the European Union. Am I right about that? If so, we are paying for a service that is not being provided. What are we doing about that?

I was on the west bank over the new year holiday. I found a contradictory situation there. At one level, I saw within the towns economic buoyancy of a kind that I have not seen in recent years. The markets were busy, and hotel tourism seemed to be up in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere. That is not really surprising, given the unfreezing of international aid to the Palestinian authority, which means that people's salaries are being paid, and the release of the tax revenues that were owed by Israel to the Palestinian Authority. So, at that level, the west bank felt better than I have known it for some time.

At the same time, however, movement restrictions inside the west bank are as great as they have ever been. In fact, they have increased, according to the UN and my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who responded to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week. They have gone up, not down, in recent times. Settlement building is continuing apace. The west bank is still being chopped up into different cantons. If that continues, it will prevent a viable Palestinian state from ever being formed.

As well as urging economic road maps and providing the aid that allows economic activity in Palestinian towns, what are we doing to ensure that real economic activity can take place, that people can move around the west bank, and that Palestinian businesses can trade both within the west bank and with the outside world? What are we doing, in practice, not just to say that settlement building is against international law and that Israel should stop doing it, but to ensure that settlement building stops so that the chances of a viable Palestinian state are not squandered?

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 3:57 pm, 24th January 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and members of the Committee on a fine analysis of the situation as they saw it when they produced the eighth report of the 2006-07 Session.

I make no apology for concentrating on the current situation in the Gaza strip. Indeed, I have always believed that the existing conflict between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian people creates so much tension not only in the middle east but elsewhere that the Government must devote as much time to settling it as they successfully devoted to tackling the Northern Ireland situation. I once heard someone say that the only way to do that is to talk and to carry on talking—night and day, if necessary—and never to stop the talks until a settlement is reached, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to do that. The debate is timely for that reason, obviously.

When the Israelis disengaged from the west bank and removed their settlers in 2005, I had great hope that there was some sincerity about following the then road map. I, too, was a UN observer for the presidential elections in the early part of 2006 when President Abbas was elected. In Ramallah that night, there was great hope. In fact, there was great hope all over the Palestinian territories that there had been a proper democratic election. There was very little criticism of it, apart from in Jerusalem, where people were prevented by the Israelis from voting properly—they had to vote in post offices—but I do not want to concentrate on that today.

My hope was not dashed when Hamas came to power in the democratic election that took place a year later. We have been urging democracy on the peoples of the middle east, and the west's biggest mistake was ignoring the Hamas Government elected then. The west did not engage in talks with them; in fact, it did quite the opposite.

The conflict has repercussions all around the middle east region. For some time, I have believed that the tensions between the Israelis and neighbouring Arab countries are provoked by the situation. If we can reach a settlement, some of the tensions in the middle east would begin to subside—I would be naive to think that they would disappear completely. However, the repercussions of the conflict spread wider than the middle east. Hon. and right. hon. Members who represent a constituency such as mine, with large numbers of Muslim constituents, will know that the repercussions are strongly felt in those communities. I do not think that pouring money into community cohesion will heal those deep-seated wounds until we show some sincerity about tackling the conflict.

At the moment, I am completely exasperated. Israel—this is an important point—is damaging further its reputation by the actions it has taken in Gaza in recent weeks and months. Anyone who looked at the inside pages of The Guardian today to see pictures of the barrier between the Gaza strip and Israel crashed down, and read about the 17 explosions that blew up concrete sections of the wall, will find the event remarkable. To me, it is almost like the night when I heard that the Berlin wall was crashing down. I wish that the dividing barriers—the walls surrounding the west bank and between Gaza and Egypt—would come down, and that the countries could have proper diplomatic relationships.

What happened yesterday demonstrates the desperation of the Palestinian people, as someone else said. They cannot even get mattresses for their children to sleep on—they have been sleeping on the floor. People carried cigarettes back—although admittedly, I do not approve of that and I do not smoke—but they also carried back basic materials that had run out, such as cooking pots. Everything that came back through that barrier yesterday did so because some materials are no longer available in the shops in Gaza.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

For the record, I think that my hon. Friend meant to refer to the barrier between Egypt and Gaza, and not what he said. He said that the barrier between Israel and Gaza had come down, but it was between Egypt and Gaza.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I appreciate my hon. Friend's correction. That is exactly what I intended to say.

Gaza is a prison, but there are people there whom we would not normally put in an ordinary prison. Young children live there, babies are born there, very elderly people live there, as do some very sick people. We should not lose sight of that. I have read reports in recent months of surgeons becoming desperate. Obviously, they have only limited access to medicines, which makes surgery more difficult in the Gaza strip.

I have read reports of surgeons accompanying very sick people to crossings in the hope of getting into the west bank, or even into Israel to its hospitals. They have communicated by radio while the ambulance is travelling or waiting at the checkpoint to see whether the Israeli Government would accept the patients as they have in the past, but surgeons have been reduced to tears because their patient has simply died. Many women die in childbirth for the same reasons—they are unable to access proper medical care.

Hospitals without electricity or generators to produce electricity because of a lack diesel obviously cannot function. The operating theatres cannot be used, which means that many people are dying and that many will die. Not only that, but 400 kidney patients are unable to access dialysis because the machines cannot function. If we do not deal with the situation as an urgent humanitarian crisis, those 400 people are on their way to death, for obvious reasons. Children are born in temperatures of minus 3° C. People think that the middle east is a warm place, but temperatures plunge at night, and babies who are born in hospitals or homes in such temperatures, particularly sick babies, will not survive.

There is no way to sterilise hospital equipment, even to carry out basic operations. Obviously, without electricity, people cannot live properly.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman is painting a picture of a dire situation in Gaza. No one can listen to what he is saying without some sympathy, but he waxed lyrical about the political imperative and the importance of Hamas gaining a democratic victory. Do the politicians of Hamas care about their own people? Does he agree that if they stopped firing rockets and revoked their intention to obliterate Israel, things might change for the better?

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I am sure that the politicians who run Hamas care about their own people. In fact, that is the reason why they came to power in the first place. They probably cared more about their own people, at least in the people's perception, which might have been true, than Fatah politicians. That is why Fatah lost control in the Gaza strip and why Hamas took control. I did not wax lyrical about Hamas taking control; I simply pointed out the pure fact it was democratically elected and that western Governments have ignored it to date. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to engage with Hamas in talks, even secret talks, to try to move forward a resolution to the situation.

We are talking about the longest occupation in my lifetime. People in an occupied country have the right to resist occupation, and we often ignore that fact. I do not condone suicide bombers or rocket attacks, but people have a right to resist occupation.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

Surely it is important to understand that those politicians are not politicians as we understand the word—they are terrorists. They are explicitly committed to the destruction of the state of Israel by violence and murder, which is what is happening. The reason why their hospital generators are being closed, when they still receive 70 per cent. of the fuel that they previously received, is that they have chosen to close down their hospital generators, yet they continue to build and fire 200 rockets in 10 days, which takes an enormous amount of fuel and electricity.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Of course there are some extremists in Gaza—I do not deny it—and, obviously, some people fire rockets. However, I do not accept my hon. Friend's statement if he is saying that all Hamas politicians are as he described.

There must be proportionality. In the first 21 days of this year, 72 Palestinians, but no Israelis, died. Of the Palestinians, six were children and eight were women. Many of them were innocent civilians—people not engaged in a war. The lack of fuel, food and medicine, and the situation in the hospitals in the Gaza strip that I described, cannot go on much longer. There is a terrible humanitarian crisis on the Gaza strip.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Is my hon. Friend aware that on 26 January—this Saturday—humanitarian groups and human rights organisations in Israel will assemble a food and aid convoy that will attempt to enter the Gaza strip with very necessary medical, food and fuel supplies to support the people of Gaza? They represent a powerful voice as ordinary, decent people of Israel who are appalled at the behaviour of their Government.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

We must welcome that and hope that the aid is allowed across the crossing points. I shall be looking at that initiative with some interest.

There is a blockade. What do we do when there is a blockade? My hon. Friend Richard Burden quoted what deputy Defence Minister Vilnai said. He wants to cut off the Gaza strip completely, with no supplies going in at all from the direction of Israel. Where else can they come from? The sea, the air and by land from Egypt—those are the only alternatives.

Right hon. and hon. Members have heard what I said about the Gaza-Egyptian crossing. I do not think the Israelis will want to see too many supplies coming in by land there and they guard the sea, as my hon. Friend said, so there is only one alternative to such a blockade, which is to airlift in materials. However, the Israelis have bombed the airfield—paid for, by the way, partly by the UK. The port, also paid for partly by taxpayers in this country, has been there for many years, and one can imagine the state of it now, so the only way to airlift material in is by helicopter. That means moving goods by shipping them into the Mediterranean and offloading them into the Gaza strip.

Has the Minister been involved in any talks about the possibility of an airlift, hopefully in the near future, to relieve the huge suffering that is already going on in Gaza but will get worse as the days proceed? If we are sending a ship to the Mediterranean to help the Gazans, I make a plea for it to have a decent operating facility on board, because there are some very sick people in Gaza, who need to be airlifted out and given proper medical attention as soon as possible. The situation is desperate, and I suggest to the Minister that desperate situations often need radical solutions. I accept that the airlift solution I am proposing this afternoon is radical, but it is a solution to a desperate situation.

In response to my hon. Friend Mr. Simon, who asked a question that was not answered earlier, I have seen no evidence at all for what was described and I have been analysing over many years what the Israelis—in fact, it is not all Israelis, but a small number of Israelis called Zionists—have been doing in Israel. People can shoot me down on this if they do not believe me or do not want to accept the argument, but my firm belief is that the Zionists will not stop until they have control of all the biblical lands. We can analyse what happened following the talks in Oslo, Camp David, Madrid and, recently, Annapolis. After all those so-called peace talks, the Israelis have given very little. The situation has just gone on and on and on, for 60 years altogether, and we still have not seen a settlement.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

If my hon. Friend wants to ask me a question, will he answer this: what have the Israelis done to move peace along between them and the Palestinians?

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

That is exactly what I was going to talk about. Surely the truth is that the whole history of the previous century is that at every crucial point, from the early years of the century through the 1930s, 1948, 1967, 2000 and Oslo, the Israelis have consistently demonstrated commitment to a two-state solution, and the Palestinians have consistently, at every point, drawn back from that. To characterise the Israelis as the ones determined to drive the Palestinians into the sea is a mangling of history.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Well, there is a Mr. Lieberman in the coalition Israeli Government who wants to drive the Arabs into the sea and I do not suppose that he is the only member of the Knesset or the only Israeli who wants to do that.

Finally, I have to say, especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, that not only Jewish people in the various diasporas around the world, including the UK, but thinking Jewish people who live in Israel are desperate for a solution. Polls carried out in Israel show that 75 per cent. of the people are not happy with their Prime Minister because of what has happened in Gaza and Lebanon, so I urge everyone—

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I am about to finish. I urge everyone in the Chamber, whatever their opinions—opinions are polarised on this question—to work for the common good, which means creating a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire 4:15 pm, 24th January 2008

I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, and all its members on the authoritative and wide-ranging report that we are debating. We have heard from many esteemed hon. Members. The hon. Member for Ilford, South opened the debate very well with a summary, in as much as one can have a summary of the middle east. He took us on a rapid tour around the various countries involved and, crucially, provided an update on what has been happening since the report was published last July. It is obviously a part of the world where events move quickly.

Sir John Stanley made an eloquent and passionate contribution about the situation in Gaza in particular. Jeremy Corbyn made a characteristically powerful speech. I commend his courage and that of others who went to monitor the elections in Gaza. Bob Spink made a brief but welcome contribution about minority rights in Egypt and the discrimination against the Baha'i, which picked up on the similar point that we heard about religious discrimination against Christian students. Obviously, both types of discrimination are appalling and need to be on the agenda of our Ministers and diplomats in their relations with the countries involved. Incidentally, he made a very good argument against identity cards in general.

The hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made excellent contributions on Gaza. I found particularly interesting the at times tense exchange between the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) and for Birmingham, Northfield. That brought to mind the opportunity that I had when I visited Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding mission back in 2000. I was struck by the fact that, wherever I went, there was a great fear about security. People in the UK find that quite hard to imagine as they go about their daily lives. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some terrorist attacks in this country, the atmosphere there is hugely different. It seemed that there were armed soldiers everywhere, which was even more shocking, because I was not yet used to the armed police officers around the House.

What I took from that visit was the complexity of the situation. We went to the Golan heights and learned about the politics of the water supply. We spoke to some of the settlers. We went to the Palestinian Authority and, of course, Jerusalem, which is the focal point for three of the main religions in the world. Therefore, I can well understand the tension and the fear that Israeli citizens and Palestinians experience in their daily lives—they must be atrocious to live with.

When we note the intensity of the debate that we have had in this Chamber today, we can begin to imagine the challenge involved in getting people around the table when it is a case not just of polarised opinions, but of people who have lost family members and friends in terrorist attacks. To achieve some form of reconciliation will obviously be immensely difficult, as the past few decades have shown. However, we need to retain some optimism and hope that there can be a peaceful solution.

We can look to the excellent work that has been done by successive Governments of different political parties in this country with regard to the situation in Northern Ireland and the success that has been achieved, bit by bit, in the peace process there. Obviously, we must remain committed to a peaceful resolution of this situation and a two-state solution. It is incredibly important that everybody signs up to the three Quartet principles.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Lady mentioned Northern Ireland. We have to be very careful not to read across from the Northern Ireland situation. It seems to me that, if there is to be a peace process, both sides must have a deep desire for peace. The Northern Ireland process began with a message, through unusual channels, from the IRA that more or less said that the war was over and it wanted to negotiate. It will deny that, but at least there was an intention on its part to enter negotiations. Does hon. Lady agree that, at this point, it would appear that organisations such as Hamas have no intention of entering such negotiations?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We obviously need to get to that point, but the two scenarios have different histories and one cannot generalise too much. Nevertheless, as he said, elements of Hamas are clearly extreme. For example, it does not recognise the right of Israel to exist.

I have not had the advantage of visiting Gaza, like some hon. Members, but I suspect that, if we took polls in Gaza and in Israel, the ordinary people, not those who make the decisions, would still have a desire for peace. They might have different views about how to arrive at a settlement, but the important thing to remember is the wish for peace. No one wants to live in the current situation.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Does the hon. Lady agree that, although things are now very serious and the implication is that some of the more hard-line elements in Hamas are now in control in Gaza, there was a massive wasted opportunity between 2005 and early 2007, when Hamas, although not a different organisation from the one it had been previously, was on ceasefire and had offered a long-term truce? The Northern Ireland experience tends to indicate that we should have picked that up to see how far it could be pushed, rather than rejecting it, as the international community did.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is vital that movement from either side should be picked up and the opportunity taken. There is a difficulty with Hamas not recognising the right for Israel to exist, but we must get it to the stage where it does. Nevertheless, I agree with the Committee's recommendation that not engaging at all with Hamas is problematic and that we need to get to the situation where we can have a dialogue. The Government need to engage, as they did over the case of the Alan Johnston; indeed, I congratulate them on their efforts in that case.

There is also an issue with the Quartet not having an Arab representative, such as the Arab League. Perhaps we should have a Quintet. The hon. Member for Ilford, South pointed out that the US has traditionally been the key player in the peace process.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The Quartet works closely with the Arab League, and I am constantly in contact with Amru Musa, its secretary general. We try to conduct initiatives in concert.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I very much welcome that statement. The US has been the key player in the peace process, but we need to recognise the reality that the US is not necessarily seen as an honest broker by many Arab nations in the middle east—after the Iraq war, that is even more so—and it might be instructive to consider alternatives, perhaps asking the UN to take the lead in such a process.

Interestingly enough, the Minister and I served on a European Standing Committee this week, and I found out much more about the Euro-Mediterranean forum, which seems to be one of the few places where we can get the Israelis, the Palestinians and the other nations around the table. It has a much wider remit, but I wonder whether a similar kind of forum—an Israeli-Palestinian congress—could be set up on an ongoing basis to provide a channel for dialogue.

The Gaza situation has taken up a great deal of time in the debate. We must make it absolutely clear that the attacks by Hamas on Israel are entirely unacceptable, as is Hamas's denial of Israel's right to exist. However, we must recognise also the dire humanitarian situation, which has been referred to by many Members. Ms Buck spoke of the collective punishment, and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was right to quote the headline; Gaza is essentially one big prison. The fact that the Committee could not visit Gaza demonstrates the international community's failure to respond to the conflict.

Egypt's response to people breaking through the wall and obtaining basic food and supplies has been quite welcome in some ways. I say that with caution, but a heavy-handed response would have inflamed the situation. Those events underline the need for a renewed focus on solving the situation in that troubled part of the world.

On Lebanon, I welcome the following conclusion by the Committee.

"We conclude that the Government's decision not to call for a mutual and immediate cessation of hostilities early on in the Lebanon war has done significant damage to the UK's reputation in much of the world."

The Committee is quite right, and it was not the only one to reach that conclusion. The UN Deputy Secretary-General said that the UK's diplomatic efforts at the time were counter-productive, which is surely a damning indictment of our position then. I had hoped that the Government would take stock and learn from the situation, but sadly, their response to the report suggests otherwise. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point.

The Lebanon conflict brought up the issue of cluster munitions, of which 3.5 million were dropped in the 72 hours after the Security Council passed resolution 1701. It is estimated that 1 million of those bombs remain unexploded. I was concerned to read in the report that the work to clear the munitions had been hampered by Israel. The Committee did well to highlight that point, but there seems to be a conflict in the report. It says that, on 2 July 2007, the Israeli ambassador wrote to the Committee saying that he had handed over the maps, and that it had been done voluntarily. However, the report then states that the Minister said on 3 July 2007 that he had "not had that co-operation", so I should be interested to find out from him what further pressure the Government put on Israel after that and whether Israel is still not fully co-operating or whether the situation has been resolved.

The Government's banning of dumb cluster munitions has been welcomed by others, and I add my voice to that welcome. However, I cannot get my head around the so-called smart bombs, of which 10 per cent. are still left unexploded. The Government said in their response that they need to balance

"military necessity with humanitarian concerns", but how can they possibly justify the continued use of those immoral weapons when they know that those weapons will kill and maim innocent civilians long after a conflict ends? I should obviously welcome a signal from the Minister that the Government will ban them, too, although I shall not hold my breath about that today.

The Committee is undertaking a separate inquiry on Iran, which will give a more detailed assessment of the security situation there, but I should like to make one point about it. Notwithstanding the embarrassing media debacle after the release of the British sailors, the Government should be warmly applauded for securing the sailors' release, especially as they seemed to come to no harm. On a related point, however, about which my hon. Friend Richard Younger-Ross has asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not yet received a reply, did the UK recover the naval vessel from the Iranians? If not, will the Government pursue the issue?

There has not been much discussion about Iraq today, but it is relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, particularly because the war in Iraq diverted so much energy and attention away from dealing with it. Others have mentioned the missed opportunities of the past few years. I was not in the House in 2003 when the votes and debates took place; I was marching through the streets of Glasgow in protest at the Iraq war with 50,000 others. It was an illegal war on a flawed prospectus, and just this week at a tribunal, the Information Commissioner said that the Government should publish a secret document drawn up by John Williams, the FCO's top spin doctor at the time. It may have influenced the dodgy, sexed-up dossier that we know so much about. In its ruling, the tribunal said that

"information has been placed before us, which was not before Lord Hutton, which may lead to questions as to whether the Williams draft in fact played a greater part in influencing the drafting of the Dossier than has previously been supposed."

I hope that the Government will respect the information tribunal ruling and agree to publish that report.

This is a valuable report and we have had an excellent debate. I again pay tribute to the work of the Committee in undertaking the inquiry and raising several important issues, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:29 pm, 24th January 2008

I congratulate Mike Gapes and the Foreign Affairs Committee on a thought-provoking and comprehensive report. I hope that the Chamber will forgive me if I do not respond to every subject raised and point made this afternoon, let alone provide a point-by-point response to the many important issues signalled in the debate. I shall confine myself to a small number of issues and put a number of questions to the Minister.

Quite rightly the debate has focused on the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and, in particular, on the situation in Gaza, which Jeremy Corbyn described as a humanitarian catastrophe. As Jo Swinson said, it is easy to allow a sense of disappointment, pessimism and frustration to overwhelm all one's thinking about the middle east. However, it is worth reflecting on three rays of light amid the current difficult situation.

The first ray of light is the series of civil society organisations in Israel, to which the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Islington, North alluded, which are committed to peace, reconciliation and civil rights, and campaign actively for justice for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs as well as for Jewish Israelis. Whatever criticisms anybody in the United Kingdom might have from time to time of one or other Israeli Government, we should all acknowledge that there is something admirable about a state that fosters that sort of vigorous, plural, political debate within its society, despite the fact that it considers itself under a threat to its very existence and that its future at the hands of its neighbours remains insecure.

Secondly, in my judgment, the Israeli Government have recognised that the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories will make it more and more difficult to sustain Israel as both a democracy and a Jewish state—Prime Minister Olmert has said as much. Dr. Iddon drew attention to comments by Mr. Lieberman. It is worth reminding ourselves that he has said that he and his party will withdraw from the Government coalition in Israel, because they disagree with the peace initiatives that Mr. Olmert and his Government signed up to at Annapolis.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Is that not the crux of the problem in Israel? Every time we move towards a radical solution, one member of an extreme left or right party collapses the Government. The electoral system is the main reason why we cannot make real progress in Israel.

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

The hon. Gentleman has identified one of the major problems with taking forward the Annapolis proposals with the vigour and speed that one would hope for. However, we also need to recognise that there are difficulties from the Palestinian side as well. I think that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad are committed to a two-state solution, want a peaceful settlement with their Israeli counterpart and are ready for compromise. However, they too have to contend, not just in Gaza, but on the west bank, with those who argue for a more extreme approach and against compromise.

There is no doubt that the current position looks fairly bleak. I was in Ramallah when the news came through that permission had been granted for the expansion of settlements at Har Homa. I recall how people such as Saeb Erekat were utterly consumed by a mixture of rage and near despair at what they believed to be a betrayal of an agreement, entered into at Annapolis, the first time that it was put to the test. The political reality is that further expansion of existing settlements, let alone the creation of new ones, undermines the position of those in Palestine who argue passionately for peace and compromise. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad need some quick wins, both economically and politically, to show a young and very frustrated population, who are suffering from high unemployment, that engagement and compromise deliver real benefits. What are the Minister's hopes for that and will he say whether the British Government are confident that the admirable work that Tony Blair is doing to ensure economic progress will be matched by a willingness to open up transit points, with proper security checks that will satisfy the Israelis, because without freedom of movement for goods, we will not have economic growth? As long as trucks have to be unloaded every time they cross the barrier, people will not want to invest in the west bank, which means that there will be no jobs or prosperity.

The problem in Gaza is the complete lack of trust on either side. I was glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who has consistently championed the Palestinian cause, made it clear how utterly he rejects the use of rockets on Israeli civilians by elements in Gaza. It was very important that someone with his political views on the middle east should express such views so trenchantly.

Do the Government believe that there is a prospect of the two sides reaching some undeclared agreement whereby the rocket attacks cease and the blockade is eased? I know that we will not get direct talks between the two sides. It is clear that some powers are able to talk honestly to the Israelis, but who is it, in the Government's view, who has comparable influence over the Hamas regime in Gaza? Can we look to the Saudis and Egyptians to perform that role? Or has the situation moved so far that the Hamas leadership is, in effect, looking to Tehran for influence and support, and the leaders of moderate Arab countries, even powerful ones, no longer have significant influence?

That brings me on to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its relationship to wider conflicts within the middle east. My right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley was quite right to stress the importance of Lebanon and the need for sustained diplomatic effort to resolve the stand-off there. I also agreed with him that this country should do whatever it can to try to cajole Syria along the path towards playing a constructive rather than a malevolent role in the politics of the middle east.

We must consider our relations with Iran in this broader context. Iran exercises influence beyond its own borders—within Lebanon through Hezbollah, within Gaza through Hamas, as well as within Iraq. How are British Ministers approaching the dilemma of how to engage with Iran and seek to encourage it to accept that it has a legitimate and significant place in the politics of the middle east, but one that it has a duty to exercise responsibly and in the interests of peace? Is that a forlorn hope, or is it an objective that the Minister believes can be attained?

Because of the pressure of time, I shall not dwell upon the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions except to say that I hope the Minister will ensure that there is an early statement to the House—oral or written—about the terms of the draft UN resolution agreed at Berlin this week and about the current state of affairs concerning the possibility of further European Union sanctions against Iran.

I shall speak briefly about Iraq. It seems to me that we have had some progress in re-establishing order, but that has been nowhere near matched by progress on political reconciliation. When I consider the situation in Iraq, I see few signs of that happening. How confident is the Minister that we can see movement forward on things such as the distribution of petroleum revenues, or on new arrangements for the election of local and provincial authorities on the status of Mosul? If those matters are not settled amicably, it seems to me that there is a real risk that Iraq will slip into a situation in which it will effectively be carved up between rival armed groups, each representing a different ethnic or religious interest.

We hear in the context of Basra but also elsewhere in Iraq, that the police are frequently corrupt, often operating as militias on behalf of one or other of the religious or political factions. Is that the Government's judgment as well, or do they see signs that the quality of the Iraqi police force is now improving?

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke about yesterday's decision by the Information Tribunal. I offer the Minister one sentence, which is that that decision reinforced the case yet again for the Government to authorise the inquiry by Privy Councillors into the decision to go to war, which I believe is long overdue, and which Ministers have acknowledged ought to take place at some stage. The issue will not go away, and it is time that the Government got to grips with that challenge, setting an inquiry in motion.

Finally, I shall speak briefly about the Gulf. I believe that we need to give a much higher priority to our relationship with friendly Arab states than has been the case in recent years. When I talk to representatives from those countries, I am told how active the Chinese and Russians are in the middle east, and how active the Germans, the Italians and the French are in those countries in the Gulf where British interests and influence have historically been strong. It is important that Ministers should not take historic British interests and British relationships for granted; perhaps they should treat President Sarkozy's visit the other week as a wake-up call for more intense diplomatic action on our part.

Europe can offer help to middle eastern countries in finding a solution to their long-standing problems. Our continent has been riven by conflict and violence for centuries, but through institutions such as the Helsinki process and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe we have found ways of dealing with those divisions without recourse to war. We cannot solve the problems of the middle east for them, but with good will and diplomatic action we can offer them a way forward—one on which they might model their solutions.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:44 pm, 24th January 2008

I echo hon. Members' congratulations on not just the report but the contributions that have been made to the debate. Thank you, Mr. Pope, for the expert and civilised way in which you have chaired it.

Promoting peace, prosperity and security in the middle east remains one of the UK's key foreign policy priorities. As hon. Members have said, progress on conflict resolution, including a settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict, could transform the region. That would have significant benefits for global security, including our efforts to combat extremism, improve the lives of people in the region and deliver better security for British citizens. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's new strategic framework will ensure that taking forward our objectives in the middle east, particularly on conflict prevention, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, remains a top priority.

Understandably, hon. Members concentrated mostly on the continuing crisis in Gaza. Their recollections and accounts of their visits echo my own. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his difficulty in getting into Gaza. I remember going there, I think as the first representative of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, to try to gain some understanding of conditions. It was a mystery even then.

I have here a map of the west bank and Gaza and, being a bit of a map buff, I did a bit of measuring while I was listening to my hon. Friend. The area is 36 miles long, and in most parts about 5 miles wide—about the average length of a south Wales valley. It is extraordinary that it has generated so much misery and suffering. The map is produced by the Foreign Office and illustrates clearly the concerns that were expressed by President Bush when he went there recently. He said that he could not see a future for a Palestinian state whose map looked like a Swiss cheese. I do not know what kind of Swiss cheese he eats—I have not eaten one like that—but I can see what he means. It is a territory that is chopped up and has holes in it.

For the obvious reason that hon. Members wanted to speak about Gaza, there was little talk about illegal settlements and outposts. I was glad that Mr. Lidington recalled his visit to Ramallah. I think that he said he was there when announcements were made of planning permission being granted for the expansion of settlements and more building inside them. It is one of the most contentious issues, and we have pressed hard on it. I have pressed the Israelis on it every time I have met them, because it contravenes their responsibilities in the road map.

I am not trying to push the blame for the lack of progress on to the Israelis, but they must carry their share of blame. The map that I have illustrates how contentious the matter is and how it places a huge question mark on the viability of a future Palestinian state, where people can live in peace alongside an Israeli state. It is important that we remember that.

I shall try to answer hon. Members' questions, about which I scribbled down notes. Except by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, there was little mention of Annapolis and the peace process. We should not underrate its importance. All of us in this room know each other and have debated the matter before, and we know how little progress has been made. As far as I am concerned, during this very grim period, it is the only show in town.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Aylesbury highlighted the fact there are other players. President Abbas has not had much of a mention in this debate; both he and Prime Minister Fayad are extremely talented and forthright representatives of the Palestinian people who disagree profoundly with the tactics that continue to be used by Hamas.

I have every sympathy with those who argue that we should engage with Hamas, as we have done with other similar organisations. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South mentioned back channels and doing the things that my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy did in Northern Ireland to try and build confidence. I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon say that a much more professional approach to the talks and negotiations is needed. I have said time and again that we cannot take people away to Geneva once or twice a year and expect a lasting and sustainable peace process. It is not possible, especially given the tensions and suffering in the region.

That is important because we must give all the support that we can when we see that progress can be made, as is the case with Annapolis. Many issues are tied to that process. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South talked about the need to engage with the Syrians. I spoke to them at the Iraq neighbours conference held in Istanbul and at the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Lisbon. I have also spoken to Foreign Minister Muallem. On the margins of the conference—at the pre-conference dinner and other unofficial events—they were nice as pie, but at the plenary session, they took as hard a line as one could possibly encounter.

It is difficult to take seriously a policy that, on the one hand, seems to offer the chance of progress, but, on the other, has been involved in the murder of democratically-elected politicians in Lebanon. We know that the Syrians are facilitating the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Damascus, the Syrian Government have been hosting an alternative to the Annapolis conference for so-called rejectionists to ensure that whatever is achieved in Annapolis is undone and undermined. We must be very careful about congratulating and rewarding such public and private policies when they threaten to undermine even the small progress that has been made.

My hon. Friend Richard Burden, who feels very passionately about these issues, as does everyone here, raised some very important questions. I think that he asked me who is paying for the fuel going into Gaza. I can tell him that the European Commission pays for the industrial diesel for the power station in Gaza through the temporary international mechanism. The Palestinian Authority pays for the fuel for the hospital generators and so on. Some 10 electricity lines run from Israel into Gaza and one runs from Egypt. Touch wood, all of them are operating.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South asked about what appears to be an inconsistency in us not dealing directly with Hamas, but being prepared to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I am well aware of the connections between the two. However, unlike Hamas, the latter works towards Islamist objectives through non-violent political activism. Our engagement with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is in the context of engaging with a range of Egyptian parliamentarians. As for Hezbollah, it has not played a constructive role in Lebanon since 2005. That is why we currently do not have any direct contact with the organisation. However, we recognise the wider role that Hezbollah plays in Lebanese politics and will calibrate any future contact with its actions.

I have met some very prominent politicians in Lebanon and subsequently been told, "He's really Hezbollah." I have also met others who might align themselves with Hezbollah. I defy anyone in this Parliament fully to understand Lebanese politics. The Foreign Office gave me a guide to it the other day. A little note at the bottom stated, "If you think you understand the above, you clearly misunderstand Lebanese politics." That is absolutely true; the subject is mind-boggling.

One hon. Member said this afternoon—I forget who it was—that we have stood idly by while these terrible things have been happening. We have not stood idly by. We have worked in every way possible to resolve the situation. I suppose the inference was that we should have pressed harder, either through economic measures or the use of sanctions. I do not believe, however, that such action would help this acute situation. It certainly will not help in the short term.

We need to move the Annapolis process along, bring in measures to build confidence, and promote a much more ready discussion between President Abbas and his Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians in Hamas. The damage that was done to the Palestinian cause across the Gulf by the putsch, or the coup d'etat, in Gaza was quite extraordinary. To see one group of Palestinians throwing other Palestinians off the roofs of buildings and murdering them did no one any good.

I want to say many things about this situation. We have heard questions about Iran, Syria and many others. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants peace in the region. We will work ceaselessly to bring that about. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked me why we are not doing more in the Gulf. I spend a lot of time in the Gulf, and will continue to do so. In the end, it is the Arab states themselves who will be the prime movers in this. Many states have reached an accommodation with Israel, but it must go further. They must articulate that demand for justice and a long-term and sustainable peace in a way that they have not done up to now, and I think that they are beginning to do it. The Arab peace initiative is very important, and we will do everything we can to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Five o'clock