Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:16 am on 30th January 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 11:16 am, 30th January 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this important debate. I know how passionately he feels about the plight of the Palestinians, and that he understands the need for urgency and care in resolving the long-standing political and security problems that continue to generate the crisis in Gaza. He is right to describe it as a crisis.

The Government recognise the impact and scale of the problems and the need to address all of them. We understand the political and economic pressures that nurture and drive them, and that, for example, Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks. I join my hon. Friend in deploring the fact that so-called rejectionist Palestinian groups—including Hamas, I am afraid—fire those rockets indiscriminately from Gaza, with the intention of killing and wounding Israeli civilians. However, in the course of self-defence, it is imperative that Israel remain committed to undertaking its obligations under international law. The United Kingdom continues to monitor the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said clearly that restrictions on fuel supplies will not achieve Israeli security. He is dead right. Nor will the political aspirations of the Palestinian people be furthered by rocket attacks, so the United Kingdom urges restraint on all parties.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is an immediate cause of concern for the Government. In statements made on 11 and 21 January, my right hon. Friends the Foreign and International Development Secretaries made clear our concerns. On 21 January, they said:

"We do not support Israel's decision to close all crossings into Gaza, preventing the delivery of vital humanitarian supplies as well as fuel to the Gaza power station."

Such restrictions have an impact on water and sewerage systems, both of which are powered by electricity generated from Gaza's power plant. On 20 January, there was a blackout in Gaza—apparently owing to reduced fuel supplies.

We welcome Israel's announcement that it will increase the amount of goods and fuel going into Gaza to pre-17 January levels, and we look forward to the resumption of normal operations of the crossings under Palestinian Authority control. Just two days ago, the Foreign Secretary, with his European colleagues in the General Affairs and External Relations Council, called for the continuous provision of essential goods and services, including fuel and power supplies, from Israel to Gaza.

I shall interrupt my contribution to answer the question that my hon. Friend asked about the UN Security Council resolution. I have not seen the wording of the initial draft, and I have certainly not seen the wording of the modified draft. My information is that all members of the Security Council except Libya had agreed to a text on Gaza. Libya made changes that were unacceptable to the United States, which was why the text fell. I shall examine the wording; my hon. Friend has been around a long time and he knows that words matters in such resolutions—people can become sensitive about them. I shall certainly try to find out what happened in the debate on the resolution.

Recent events at Rafah, where Palestinian militants smashed holes in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, have demonstrated yet again how incendiary the position is in Gaza. With his EU colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced on Monday support for the Palestinian Authority's proposal to take control of the crossings, and we support the efforts of the Arab League, particularly Amr Mussa, in that respect. The EU is ready to consider resuming its border mission at Rafah, which has been dormant since Hamas took over Gaza last summer, as soon as conditions allow.

I understand the overriding imperative for the Palestinian people and their supporters around the world to advance a political settlement that affords them the justice, security and democratic rights that the great majority aspire to, but there is also a need to ensure in the meantime that life and limb can be sustained throughout the crisis that my hon. Friend described. The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Palestinians in Gaza. We have pledged £100 million over five years to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which works to provide essential supplies and services to Palestinians in Gaza. Last year, the UK provided £15 million to UNRWA and a further £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross for its work in the west bank and Gaza. Another £15 million reached Palestinians directly from the UK through the European temporary international mechanism.

We can give that vital help, but it will not solve the problem. It simply helps people to survive in the meantime. We must understand that Gaza is an integral part of any future Palestinian state. It is crucial that we continue to strive for peaceful progress in the region, and Gaza cannot be separated from that progress. As well as the continuation of crucial humanitarian aid, the international community, Israel and the Palestinians must work for a peaceful, political solution involving all Palestinian people.

We welcome the efforts to bring Gaza further into the peace process. The situation there was severely complicated by Hamas's military takeover of the strip in June 2007, which caused the national unity Government to break down and led to Gaza becoming politically isolated. We continue to call on Hamas to adhere to the Quartet's principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. Those principles are not set unreasonably high, and they remain the fundamental conditions for a viable peace process. A political dialogue is impossible as long as one party is dedicated to violence and the destruction of the other. The option of engagement is in the hands of Hamas.

The best way to provide a long-lasting solution to the political, economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza is to secure real peace in the middle east. Our aim is to help the peace process be sufficiently robust to survive any setbacks. Since Annapolis, there have been major setbacks. The bedrock of our approach to the middle east peace process is still to give unstinting support for the principle of a two-state solution, to give every support to those who are committed to peaceful progress in the region, and to support economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Annapolis conference, which took place on 26 and 27 November, saw substantial political movement. Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas committed to meeting each other fortnightly and agreed to a joint bilateral steering committee for specific negotiations. Both parties renewed their commitment to the road map, with the United States providing a much-needed monitoring mechanism. The Paris donors conference in December raised more than £7 billion in pledges for the Palestinian reform and development plan devised by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, including a significant and welcome contribution from regional partners. As the single greatest contributor at Paris and also through the EU action plan, the EU has demonstrated its commitment to the process.

The Annapolis negotiations are continuing, as is the financial support for Palestinian reform and development that is crucial to a successful peace process. Those are significant breakthroughs, and the UK stands ready to support that progress, but there is a long way to go. Israel must display to the world that it is prepared to take and implement hard decisions to achieve its road map obligations on settlements. We consider settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories illegal under international law, including Israeli settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. Settlement construction is an obstacle to peace. We support President Bush's view that there should be a complete freeze on settlement construction and that outposts should be removed. The Foreign Secretary has made clear our concerns on the matter to his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The Palestinians, too, must step up their efforts to implement their road map commitments. A reformed Palestinian security force will continue to be the key to the success of the peace process. Militias and gangs that fire rockets and mortars indiscriminately at Israeli civilian targets must be prevented from carrying out their murderous activities by the Palestinians themselves. Israeli security and Palestinian hardship can be tackled only through a political process that creates an economically and socially viable Palestinian state, at peace with Israel. Those issues must be addressed together.

I appreciate the contribution that my hon. Friend makes. I assure him that we have exerted serious—as he put it—and consistent pressure on the Israelis either to charge the elected representatives of the people with a crime or to release them. He is right to pursue that point; the situation is unacceptable and does nothing for the reputation of Israeli democracy. We call on all sides to take the crucial measures, clearly set out in the road map, that will lead to peaceful co-existence between two viable states. I urge my hon. Friend to continue his work on the matter. I shall continue mine, and between us we will try to take a balanced approach that will bring relief to the people of Gaza and sustainable peace to the middle east in the near future.