HC Deb 30 October 2001 vol 373 cc741-6
5. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

If he will make a statement on the prospects for peace in the middle east. [8789]

9. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

When he next plans to meet his Israeli counterpart to discuss the middle east peace process. [8793]

10. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

When he last met representatives of the Israeli Government to discuss the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. [8794]

14. Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

What role he plans for the United Kingdom in pursuing the middle east peace process. [8798]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

The situation in the middle east is extremely serious and fraught with danger, not only for the parties themselves, but for the wider world. The United Kingdom, like its European partners and the United States, is committed to the path for peace set out in the Mitchell plan. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in repeating my utter condemnation of the murder of Israeli Tourism Minister Ze'evy on 17 October.

We want restraint to be exercised on both sides; effective action by the Palestinian National Authority to detain and hold the extremists implicated in the murder of Minister Ze'evy and of many other Israelis; withdrawal by the Israeli defence force from Palestinian-controlled areas; and an end to extra-judicial killings. In our view, there can be stability only when there is full recognition of the state of Israel and the right of its people to live in peace with security, and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Richard Burden

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware, I think, that in the past 24 hours I returned from the west bank and Gaza, and on Friday was able to get into Bethlehem to see the aftermath of the destruction of homes and shops and of the shelling of the university and a maternity hospital by Israeli forces. I welcome what the international community has done to secure a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian towns, but we need to go further and demand, without pre-conditions, the immediate withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Palestinian areas. We must also respond to the requests put to me by the mayors of Beit Jala, Beit Sahur and Bethlehem for an international observer force, so that the world can see what is going on in that part of the world.

Mr. Straw

I understand the strength of feeling on both sides of the issue, which my hon. Friend reflects in part having visited the west bank and Gaza and seen, among the suffering of many other peoples, the suffering of Palestinian people in the occupied territories and elsewhere. I do not think that a huge purpose would be served by making demands without pre-conditions. We must support the parties in getting back on the track of the very clear agenda set out by Tenet and Mitchell in their reports and in the Mitchell plan. Meanwhile, together with the American Administration, we continue to play our part to try to reduce tension and to get that process back on track. There has long been a case for international observers, and that has been underlined by resolutions of the European Union General Affairs Council.

Mr. Francois

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that both the Palestinians and the Israelis originally accepted the Mitchell plan? Does he acknowledge that the Mitchell plan calls in the first instance for the Palestinians to halt violence in order to facilitate dialogue? Will he urge the Prime Minister to seek assurances once again from Chairman Arafat that he will make every possible effort to halt the current violence so that there is a chance for meaningful talks?

Mr. Straw

We know from the current grave situation that unless there is restraint and understanding on both sides—movement by the Palestinian Authority and President Yasser Arafat to ensure a 100 per cent. effort by them to restrain violence, movement by the Israeli Government to withdraw from areas A, which are exclusively run by the Palestinian Authority, and to end extra-judicial killings and exercise proper respect for human rights, despite the difficulties under which those involved work—the Mitchell plan will not get back on track. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that Mitchell was accepted by both sides and remains the best agenda for peace in the middle east.

Mr. Lansley

I have listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary. Does he share with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), a recognition of the legitimate right of a state to protect its citizens from terrorism? Will he and his colleagues avoid trying to equate exercising that right with terrorism? Will he therefore make it clear to the Israeli authorities that we do not seek to equate their actions with terrorism? Will he also make it clear that we will urge the Palestinian authorities to act against the terrorists, whose activities are the starting point of the Israeli lack of security and, as such, need to be dealt with before Israel can de-escalate violence?

Mr. Straw

Where we can help is to have a balanced approach and avoid being partisan. It is true that a large number of Israelis have lost their lives as a result of action by Palestinian extremists and others in the region, and they were almost entirely innocent civilians. It is also true that an even larger number of Palestinians have lost their lives, almost all of whom were innocent civilians. We need a de-escalation of the conflict.

As for a definition of terrorism, according to international law it does not include acts by states, so it is not relevant to the state of Israel. However, states are capable of acts that are outside international law in other respects, as we well know. We need both sides to exercise restraint, respect international law and get back to the Mitchell process.

Mr. Lyons

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the present escalation of violence, caused by the assassination of Israel's Tourism Minister, to which he referred, and the disproportionate occupation of Palestinian towns and villages, has again underlined the need for the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of attempts to get the peace talks back on track?

Mr. Straw

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been tireless in his efforts to do that, as have I and many others in this Administration. However, we will get the peace process back on track only if we work closely in concert with our European partners and the United States Administration. The history of the conflict shows that if we work together, it is possible to achieve proper success, but if Europe adopts a different agenda to that of the US, it is extremely unlikely for success to arise.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary began by asserting the right of the people of Israel to live within secure boundaries, which is no more and no less than was given to them by United Nations Security Council resolution 242. Does he agree that the Palestinians see the continued expansion of settlements by the Israeli Government as highly provocative and that it makes the peaceful resolution of the problems very difficult? When Mr. Sharon visits London in a few weeks, will the right hon. Gentleman repeat, as successive Foreign Secretaries have at the Dispatch Box, that it is the opinion of the British Government that the settlements policy is illegal and contrary to international law?

Mr. Straw

I do not think that we need a visit by Prime Minister Sharon to this country for him to appreciate the position of Her Majesty's Government, which is, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, that the settlements in the occupied territories are illegal according to international law. We have asked as a minimum for them to be frozen and, in time, for them to be reduced as part of an overall settlement.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

It is clear that one of the most effective actions by the international coalition against terrorism is to seize terrorist assets and freeze their bank accounts. My right hon. Friend will be aware that as part of the wider tragedy in the middle east, the suicide bombers of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others continue to cause enormous bloodshed. In conversations, meetings and discussions with the Governments of Iran and Syria and elsewhere, will he urge them to stop harbouring those terrorists and terrorist organisations and, instead, to join the international coalition throughout the world in seizing their assets and freezing their bank accounts?

Mr. Straw

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I have already done that. I underlined that message at a press conference that I held with my Iranian counterpart in Teheran during my visit there. The Iranians have publicly thanked me, as a former Home Secretary, for proscribing—banning—the Iranian terrorist organisation Mujaheddin e Khalq. The British embassy in Teheran has received 40,000 letters of thanks for that from members of the Iranian public. At that press conference and in private I pointed out that on the same list I had proscribed—and the House had approved the ban—the military wings of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and that there was therefore an agenda that we could discuss based on our unambiguous determination to eliminate terrorism wherever it arose in the world.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

When Mr. Sharon comes to London, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to tell him that there are many right hon. and hon. Members who count themselves friends of Israel and who are totally committed to the continued existence of an independent state of Israel, but who nevertheless feel that many of Mr. Sharon's actions and words have been distinctly unhelpful? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell him specifically that to compare President Bush with Neville Chamberlain in the aftermath of 11 September was a crass thing to do?

Mr. Straw

I cannot say that I was especially impressed by the comparison either. I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman's views.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

While I agree with my right hon. Friend that the way forward is to get both sides around the table, does he agree that it does not help when Opposition Members demand that the Palestinians exercise control over anyone, given that control in the west bank and Gaza is exercised by the only military force in the area—Israeli defence forces? Unless and until security is handed back to the Palestinians, it is daft to ask them to exercise such a role.

Mr. Straw

I am genuinely sorry to depart slightly from what my hon. Friend has said, but I think that it is reasonable of us to expect the Palestinian Authority to exercise effective constraint in the occupied territories. It is not reasonable of the Israeli defence force to mount incursions into areas A. It must be borne in mind that the Palestinian Authority security forces have some 60,000 members. As we have repeatedly told President Arafat and his colleagues, we look to them to exercise 100 per cent. effort to restrain terrorism arising from the Palestinian Authority's areas. We do not and cannot expect—any more than we have in Northern Ireland—such organisations to achieve a 100 per cent. result where the results are wholly outside their control; however, we continue to expect the authority to show 100 per cent. effort.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Further to the Foreign Secretary's answer a moment ago, I applaud his initiative in visiting Iran. I know that he faced some criticism afterwards, but I think that his visit was an important milestone and absolutely the right thing to do.

If we are to take the sting out of Muslim opinion both at home and abroad, the Arab-Israeli peace process must be seen to be making progress. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore welcome the recent restraint shown by Israel in the face of some provocation, and its continuing withdrawal from Palestinian territory? Clearly, that is crucial to events elsewhere. To give new momentum to the peace process, should not the inconclusive negotiations at Taba be revisited and the objectives set out there be explored once again as a serious agenda for progress?

Mr. Straw

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, which I greatly appreciate. I congratulate him on what I believe is his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as an Opposition spokesman at Foreign Office questions.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that one of the effects of the middle east conflict is to undermine support in many parts of the Islamic world for the wider coalition against terrorism—although, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the Welsh Assembly today, that is still holding up. There is no doubt about the linkage in people's minds, and that is one of the reasons why we have to work extremely hard for restraint on both sides and to get people back on to the path to peace.

We welcome the restraint shown this week by the Israeli Government. One of the many tragedies about Minister Ze'evy's assassination was that for 10 days—from 7 to 17 October—before that, there was, I think I am right in saying, no Israeli civilian killed—which given the short and dismal time scales in which people on both sides of the divide live in the middle east, was a relatively long period. We must try to return to that relatively benign path.

As for the agenda at Taba, it is crucial to return the parties to implementing the Mitchell plan, which is then an agenda for a wider peace settlement.

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