HL Deb 02 November 2004 vol 666 cc147-50

3.8 p.m.

Lord Turnberg asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assistance they will offer to the Palestinian and Israeli Governments during and after the achievement of the plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we will continue, both bilaterally and with the international community, to engage with Israel, ensuring that any withdrawal is as complete as possible, and is a first step towards the two-state solution rather than an end in itself. We are also encouraging the parties to work together and with the World Bank to ensure the economic viability of Gaza after withdrawal. We continue to work with the Palestinian Authority to help improve its security capability.

Lord Turnberg

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her response. I am sure that she will agree that Mr Sharon deserves some credit for taking this difficult but vital first step towards a two-state solution. Will she also agree that Israel cannot be seen to be capitulating to terror, as that will only encourage further terrorism, and that if Israel is to withdraw further from the West Bank, it will be able to do so only through negotiation, not through terror? What are Her Majesty's Government doing to help the moderate Palestinian leadership to overwhelm and overcome the terrorist activities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we agree strongly with the statement issued by the quartet on 22 September that the Sharon plan could provide a rare moment of opportunity in the search for peace. We are trying to help the Palestinian Authority on security questions, as I indicated in my initial response. We are providing technical assistance and training, including on work to prevent suicide bombings. Security work on the West Bank is now being unified through a central operations room to improve the capacity of the Palestinian security forces to work together. We have been undertaking that work for a number of months, and I believe that it is having a positive impact, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow

My Lords, does the Minister agree that early elections in the Palestinian territories would ensure that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority could play a key role in the peace process, particularly taking into account the vacuum created by Yasser Arafat's failing health?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, on that last point, of course we all wish Mr Arafat well and hope that he will have a speedy recovery. We welcome the announcement by the Palestinian Authority on 1 September about local elections, to be held from December 2004 to November 2005. We welcome the progress that there has been on voter registration. But to come to the main point of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, we also welcome the commitment of the Palestinian Authority to legislative council and presidential elections. Work is going on to resolve the questions about the timetable and conditions for those elections, but we believe that it is a positive step.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, with the transition from Israeli control of the Gaza Strip to reasserting Palestinian sovereignty, will security revert directly to Palestinian security forces, or is it envisaged that there may need to be some sort of multinational peacekeeping security force? If so, would Her Majesty's Government envisage that the United Kingdom would make a contribution to it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is an enormous question. If I were to answer it properly, we would be here for some time.

Let me say succinctly that we support both sides taking action in line with the road map. We would of course prefer there to be some discussion about how the process will be carried out. We are calling on Israel to co-ordinate its withdrawal from Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. That is a very important point. But it must be co-ordinated with not only the Palestinian Authority but Egypt and the international community as a whole. So yes, we do think that there is a role for the international community in the withdrawal.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, in addition to us doing all that we possibly can to help this little micro-state or political entity to be viable, can we do everything within our power to encourage other Arab leaders in the whole area to do their part in being very positive towards the Gaza withdrawal and its autonomy? Those leaders currently have plenty of money—the whole Gulf is awash with money, due to the high oil prices—so perhaps it is about time that there was a far more effective offer by the Arab League to help that little area become viable and prosperous and survive in a difficult situation.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is an excellent point and I endorse it thoroughly. Your Lordships may be as horrified as I am to learn that 50 per cent of Palestinians—and 60 per cent in Gaza—are living on less than two dollars a day at the moment. Gaza is in urgent need of aid and financial support. Much of it comes from the United Kingdom. In this financial year, the DfID bilateral funding for the Palestinians is expected to be £28.5 million. Nearly half will be provided to the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, but an enormous amount of money is still needed. I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the responsibilities on others in the region to provide some of that aid.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am very encouraged by what the Minister has just said. The economy in Gaza is in a state of utter ruination, with unemployment exceeding 70 per cent. Will she try to encourage the Israeli Government to provide some prospect of viability for the Palestinian economy in Gaza hereafter by allowing the Palestinians to export direct? At the moment, they are unable to do that, and all their export sales—pathetic though they are—yield resources which are then retained by the Israeli Government, thus further stifling any prospect of development of that pathetic economy.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has a very good point. This is an enormously important issue. If we are to talk about any form of viability for Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, the point that he addressed is crucial. I remind your Lordships that the World Bank launched a multi-donor reform trust fund on 27 April. That fund aims to support the Palestinian Authority budget deficit by setting clear benchmarks for the Palestinian Authority to reach.

The point is that there have been real problems with the Palestinian Authority over corruption, which has meant that some countries have decided that they do not want to donate money to Palestine because they believe that it will not be used properly. However, the intervention of the World Bank substantially undercuts that argument, and ought to encourage others to give more than they have been giving.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, will the discussions between parties after the withdrawal include the bringing together of workers within the Palestinian Authority embryonic trade union centre and Histadrut? Would she agree that the Government should be doing all that they can to help the TUC in promoting such exchanges?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I would hope that there could be all sorts of interchange during that period. I recognise the sensitivity and the difficulty of the situation with which we are dealing. However, the exchanges between trade unions are important, as are those between non-governmental organisations. If I may say so, I believe that the work being done by the Alexandria Group in relation to religious exchange is another important channel of communication. All three of those need to be developed.