HC Deb 03 June 2003 vol 406 cc1-21WH

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

9.30 am
Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the middle east peace process and the road map. These are significant times. In fact, this is a significant day on the road to peace in view of the meeting taking place today in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. We hope that, ultimately, there will be peace between the Palestinians and the state of Israel.

I come to the debate as a relative newcomer compared with many of those present. In view of that, and the large number of hon. Members who want to speak, I will do my best to keep my comments brief, so that as many hon. Members who want to speak on the subject can do so. I cannot claim to be a scholar on the subject, certainly not compared with others here today. I have not visited the region, but I do not accord with those who take the view that, by visiting a place, one earns the right to be regarded as an authority on it. I have taken a deep interest in the region for many years and I have often challenged the modern myth that travel broadens the mind.

Often, the most ardent advocates of that myth are possibly trying to justify the disproportionate use of non-renewable resources to travel around the world; in fact, people may travel around the world and return with the same teeny-weeny minds they started with. Travel itself does not broaden the mind, but if one starts with a broad mind, there is much to be gained from travel. Many people in the Chamber today and others have travelled in the region and had many experiences that they will want to relate to the Chamber. I accept that, in that sense, I am a Johnny come lately to the debate.

Having initiated the debate and received representations in the last week from people on all sides of the debate, I know how deep the anxieties are, and that to give one smidgen of nuance that implies favour or bias to either side will be picked up very quickly. However, I believe that it is impossible not to come to the conclusion, whether one is an Israeli or not, that the current position of the Palestinians is unacceptable.

I come to the debate with no bias against the Israelis either. My brother-in-law is a Jew. We recently celebrated the wedding of my sister and brother-in-law on the cliff tops in my constituency. It was a joint Hebrew-Cornish Methodist service and a celebration of two rich religions, of which I am very proud. I am therefore concerned about the need for this debate.

I shall briefly construct a canvas for the debate, and others will no doubt add their own comments. The roadmap involves a process of relearning universal truths—those of Sophocles, Homer, Shakespeare and others down the ages. People must learn that they cannot bludgeon others into submission, although they can bludgeon them into retaliation. Indeed, if they try to bludgeon others into submission, they will ultimately face retaliation. Therefore, there must be a process of reconciliation.

Faith and religion can be taken over by those who want to use them as respectable fronts for their own prejudices, agendas and vengeful purposes. Indeed, the idea that religion justifies self-righteousness and dogma, that it gives one a divine right, and that God is on one's side runs through the whole debate.

In that respect, there was a tragic plane crash in South America a few years ago, and a breathless backpacker, who just missed the plane, gave a telling quote in an interview. He missed it by 10 minutes and proclaimed to the world that that proved that "there must be a God", yet 250 or so poor souls were dead on a South American hillside. That disturbingly absurd sense of a divine right and of personal salvation runs through many religions. It sounds absurd, but we understand it to an extent. It is at the core of concerns on both sides of the divide, and those concerns must be resolved if the road map is to achieve a peaceful solution.

It is important that all involved in the process retain pride and dignity. It cannot merely be seen as an elaborate method for getting one's enemy to eat humble pie. The magnanimity of unexpected generosity can lead to a thawing of relations. That is the path along which we must seek reconciliation, and I am sure that the Foreign Office seeks it, too.

We must remain focused on where we want the process to end, because it is not simply a means—there is an end. There are people on both sides whose purpose is war and terror, and they have lost sight of where they want to go, what this is about and why they do what they do.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

In the light of President Bush's intervention this week—we can be grateful for that—does my hon. Friend agree that the Americans' key task is to convince both sides that forsaking violence as a means to an end is the only alternative leading to lasting peace? Using violence as a means will ensure that there is no end at all.

Andrew George

Absolutely—my hon. Friend is right. I shall come to my questions to the Minister in a moment. One key sticking point is the view on both sides that the other side is not doing enough to constrain people and therefore to achieve the peace that they both want, so that they can take the next step on the road to peace. It is extremely difficult to make a judgment about that, because even the leaders of the two regimes cannot constrain every individual.

The context of the road map is not especially promising. Indeed, there was strong cynicism about the publication of the draft in March, which was believed to be timed partly to reassure a wider world and to enable the US and the UK to engage in military action in Iraq. That cynicism about the timing has created a problem and an opportunity for the Government and the US. They must overcome it and demonstrate that the roadmap was not introduced for purely cynical purposes. It must also be recognised that the middle east is a focus for the whole world and for the tension between the west and Arabic and Islamic countries.

On the campaign on terror, the perpetrators of the atrocities of 11 September 2001 must be pursued. However, the only way ultimately to deal with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is the overwhelming retaliation of friendship, not war. We do not want to create a fertile recruiting ground for future generations of terrorists by ignoring the situation, doing too little about the problems of the middle east or stoking up problems by simply attacking Islamic nations.

The road map has been agreed by both Israel and the Palestinians; the first step on the road has been made. However, Israel has listed several concerns, and the Minister will be aware of them. Some have been put in the public domain, and the United States has said that it will address them. Will the Minister outline what he sees as the Israelis' concerns and whether the UK Government agree they should be addressed? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the ability of individuals or ad hoc organisations, neither attached to nor controllable by the Palestinian Authority, to continue with terrorist incursions and suicide bombings in Israel? Is a cessation of suicide bombings a prerequisite for Israeli co-operation? Is that either realistic or achievable?

What confidence does the Foreign Office have that the road map will lead to a lasting and just peace settlement, or does it fear that the journey will be held up by violence and Israeli checkpoints? What justification could the Foreign Office have to argue for the simultaneous rather than sequential implementation of the proposals? Does the Foreign Office agree that certain achievements must be made before progress can be taken a stage further, and what does it believe are likely to be the main mechanisms for applying pressure on both sides? Does it intend to work through the European Union and use the EU-Israel association agreement and its human rights clauses as a lever in negotiations?

Britain has sold and still sells arms to Israel on the proviso that they are not used in the occupied territories, but that condition is often breached. What safety mechanisms prevent British arms from being used in the occupied territories and what monitoring is undertaken? What representations have been made about known cases of inappropriate use of British-sold weapons? Has the breaking of that proviso resulted in the withdrawal of or a reduction in arms sales?

What role should Israel's neighbours play in the process? How important are those countries, particularly Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, in the development of the road map, and what contact has the Foreign Office had with them thus far? As we know, an oil pipeline between Syria and Israel is under consideration. What discussions has the Foreign Office had with those countries on that?

Which UN resolutions does the Foreign Office believe are relevant and should be fully complied with for the road map process to succeed? Does the Foreign Office accept that international law and United Nations resolutions should be applied, not simply superseded by the roadmap? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the time scale for the road map's implementation? Many are concerned about the forthcoming US elections, which may stall future progress. Since the road map was discussed in Israel, in some political quarters, politicians are referring to implementation taking years rather than months. It is important that things are speeded up.

Will the time scale be enforced by the Quartet or will the US take the lead? What efforts will the Foreign Office make, in concert with the Department for International Development, to ensure that adequate aid is given in particular to the Palestinians during the process? What contribution will be sought from Israel towards those efforts? Only recently, Ariel Sharon expressed some sympathy for the situation in which Palestinians find themselves.

We are talking about two of the worlds' rich religions, which should be capable of living side by side. We need a two-state solution and to recognise that, unless fundamentalists, literalists and extremists can be removed from the process, the international community may have to accept the need for perpetual peacekeeping in the region. We must find a better way. The road map is the best opportunity, possibly for a generation. I seek a clear indication from the Minister of how Britain will be engaged, and how it will deal with the predictable stumbling blocks on the road.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will commence at half-past 10. A large number of Members have indicated that they want to speak, and it is up to them to accommodate that.

9.46 am
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing today's debate. It is timely because it is held the day before the summit at which President Bush will meet Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon. Few more important issues face the world today. The human suffering that we have witnessed during the past few years bears witness to that: more than 700 Israelis and 2,000 Palestinians have died during that time. There are few more important things about which we can show our determination. The issue has great relevance not just to the people who live in that part of the world but to the entire world and its security.

I pay credit to our Government, and to the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister in particular, for their efforts in moving the road map and the Israel-Palestine conflict up the United States agenda. We must also recognise, however—the hon. Member for St. Ives referred to this—that a good deal of scepticism has surrounded what the road map can offer. Until the past few days, the lack of progress showed that in many ways that scepticism was well founded, but during the past few days there have been some encouraging and hopeful signs. We look ahead with expectation and anticipation, and welcome what the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen—has said about his hopes that a ceasefire will be declared by Hamas and perhaps other organisations. We welcome his efforts to rebuild the Palestinian security services, which were so woefully degraded and undermined over the past few years, principally by Israeli military action.

I am not known for complimenting Ariel Sharon; I take a deep breath before I do so. However, it is fair to say that the first few tentative steps are being taken. It is good to hear the Israeli Prime Minister begin to use the word "occupation"—others have rightly used it for some time. It is also a step forward that he has indicated that perhaps 10 of the 102 illegal outposts that dot the hills around the west bank will be dismantled. That is tempered by the fact that those 10 are unpopulated. Nevertheless, that may be a start—and let us hope for more movement beyond that. It is good to hear that there will be easing of some of the movement restrictions on Palestinians and, hopefully, on others. We await the practical realisation of that. It is also good to hear from the White House, which has not always shown itself to be as even-handed on this issue as we had hoped. President Bush has said that he will devote as much time as necessary to dealing with the issue and seeing the road map through.

There are some hopeful signs, but the important thing about the road map is that it happens, not whether we talk about it. That puts responsibilities on all of us; it certainly puts responsibilities on the parties. For those of us—like me—who come from a background that has, perhaps, been closer to the Palestinian side of the story than the Israeli side, it is important that we make it absolutely clear that violence against civilians is not only wrong morally, but totally counter-productive for the Palestinian cause. It is also correct that we give all the support we can to the reform of Palestinian political institutions, so that Palestinian civil society can enjoy the democracy its people want and which its leaders want, too.

It is also important that those who come from the other perspective make some things clear to the Israeli side. The road map is very clear. It is not a sequential document. The obligations on the parties are in parallel; that must be said without qualification, especially by friends of Israel. It is also important that they—and all of us—express some regret at the string of reservations that the Israelis have put on the road map.

First, the reservations published in Ha'aretz on 28 May, which are strident and right in saying that the Palestinians must unequivocally cease violence, specifically say that the roadmap should not state that Israel must cease violence and incitement against the Palestinians. That is not on. If there is to be an obligation on the Palestinians to cease incitement and violence, there must be an equal obligation on the Israelis as well.

Secondly, there is the right of return, which is a complex issue that is left to the end of the process. There will, no doubt, have to be painful decisions on both sides on that issue: it is complicated. Nevertheless, for Israel to rule out, or to attempt to rule out, the right of return at the start of the process, as it has, will not build the confidence that is needed in the process. The practical way to secure justice for the refugees will need discussion. Refusing to recognise the injustice that was done to the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and subsequently, in 1967, will not make it go away. Quite often, the arguments put forward insisting that Palestinians waive the right of return are about Jewish Israelis not wishing to be outnumbered in future. I understand that. However, those people must understand the message that that sends to Israel's own Arab citizens today: that they may be tolerated as a minority as long as they know their place and stay a minority in their own country. There will have to be some reassessment of that.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, just as it was in relation to Oslo. I will always keep this memory with me: while the world was talking about the Camp David negotiations in 2000, and about what was and was not going on, I and many hon. Members who are here today were over there in Jerusalem and the west bank and we saw what was happening on the ground. The most important thing was not what was or was not happening in Camp David, but that land was still being expropriated and water was still being denied to Palestinian farms. Unless we secure changes on the ground, all the talking in the world will not achieve peace.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I acknowledge the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in his field and his excellent speech. However, does he share my frustration that despite all this talking year in, year out, hopes are raised and then dashed and the Palestinian people are becomingly increasingly poor? They cannot reach their medical services, their children cannot go to school and are malnourished—I forget the percentage—and women are dying in childbirth. It is a terrible humanitarian situation, and the world is simply standing by, watching it.

Richard Burden

I totally endorse the hon. Lady's remarks. Her passion and anger are shared by many of us.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

My hon. Friend mentioned the Oslo process. He will recall that we travelled together to speak to Hanan Ashrawi when she left the negotiations over the much vaunted Oslo process for the reasons that he mentioned—the continuing increase in the number of settlements and the increasing withdrawal of water from Palestinian villages. It was, in fact, a cul-de-sac and a trap for the Palestinian people. The problem can never be resolved until we deal with the question of settlements and a land divided by the Israeli Government; the road map can lead to nowhere but a cul-de-sac.

Richard Burden

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not lose sight of the fact that some 72 new settlements—more than 8,000 new dwellings—have been built in the occupied territories since 2001. He is right that we will not secure peace unless we deal with that.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) talked about the humanitarian catastrophe. It is difficult to overestimate the problems. More than 70 per cent. of people in Gaza and more than 50 per cent. of people on the west bank live on less than $2 a day. The poverty is grinding. I ask the Minister, when he replies, to say something about non-governmental organisations operating in the occupied territories and about foreign nationals who visit the occupied territories for different reasons.

The international aid agencies wrote a letter to the Quartet envoys on 12 May. That was followed by a press release from the United Nations dated 18 May, which talks about the closures of borders into Gaza, checkpoints, and new visa restrictions leading to a Catch-22 situation in which aid agencies can get into the occupied territories only if they have a particular sort of visa that is very difficult to obtain.

According to the letter to the Quartet of 12 May, the end result is that the feeling of disempowerment and outright despondency amongst international staff is now overwhelming. It would seem that the GoI does not want to facilitate our work in the GS, and does not want an international presence there. In addition, there is no evidence, or feeling, amongst INGOs that the situation will improve in the near future, despite the recent introduction of the 'Road Map'. Only a few days later, the United Nations said: The closure of Erez has made the operations of all UN Agencies, NGOs and other humanitarian and development agencies unreasonably difficult, inefficient and costly. If these new restrictions persist, a number of international and non-governmental humanitarian organisations may be forced to stop their operations in the Gaza Strip. It then lists organisations that have been affected.

I am pleased that the Minister of State, Dept of State for International Development, expressed the Government's concern about these matters in an answer to a parliamentary question that I asked a couple of weeks ago. However, although concern is one thing, the important thing is that we do something about it, because in the meantime there is poverty and people will simply die unless we can somehow sort out the problem.

Lastly, I want to talk about foreign nationals who, for different reasons, may be in the occupied territories and who have died or been injured as a result of their work there. Last year, Ian Hook, a United Nations worker, was shot by Israeli troops in Jenin. This March, Rachel Corrie, a United States citizen wearing a bright orange jacket, was crushed under the tracks of an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent house demolitions in the Gaza strip. Brian Avery, another American, was shot in the face in Jenin, again by Israeli troops. Tom Hundall, who is a British citizen, and who, as a photographer, was observing the work of the international solidarity movement in the Gaza strip, was also shot in the head, and today lies in a coma in a London hospital. When he was shot, he was trying to rescue Palestinian children from Israeli bullets. He was wearing a bright orange jacket when the bullet struck, as Rachel Corrie had been.

I met Tom's father at the weekend: he and Tom's mother are witnessing our proceedings today. Not surprisingly, they are asking some fundamental questions, to which they are owed answers by the international community and particularly by Israel. They ask how it was that Tom, a photographer, rescuing children in Rafah, was shot in the head by the Israeli military.

We understand that the Israeli military have undertaken some inquiries, but that the results of those inquiries have been partial. The document produced resembles a Powerpoint presentation rather than an inquiry report, and the arguments in it focus as much on why the international solidarity movement should not be there, as on addressing the issue of how Tom Hundall came to be shot. It is important that Israel undertakes a full, proper and independent inquiry into the shooting of Tom Hundall in Rafah. It is also important that his family and, indeed, the world should have access to all the evidence about what happened.

I welcome the fact that Tom's family will meet the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs later this month, and that he has written to Mr. Hundall expressing the British Government's concern about what has happened. In that letter he said that the British Government have continually pressed the Israeli Government for a full and transparent enquiry into Tom's shooting. He also said that the British Government asked the Israelis to review their rules of engagement to try to avoid further civilian casualties in the future. That issue was raised by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), on 19 April.

Will the Minister clarify in his response today what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office means by a "full and transparent enquiry" by Israel? Does the Minister agree that if that inquiry is to be transparent it must be independent, and that all the evidence should be made available both to Tom's family and to the public? Will he also tell us what Israel's response has been to the request from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a review of the rules of engagement?

I ask those questions because we owe it to Tom's family, to Tom, and to Rachel Corrie and other foreign nationals who have been shot to insist that such an inquiry takes place. However, I also want answers to those questions because that would help to ensure that the road map has meaning, and to remind us why Tom was there and why he was shot—he was trying to rescue Palestinian children.

If Tom had not been shot, would one or more of those Palestinian children have been shot instead? Those children are not in the Gaza strip by choice—they are there because that is where they live, and there is no escape for them. We need to find out what happened to Tom, to ensure that that does not happen to any more foreign nationals, or to Palestinian children. If we can stop such things happening, end the occupation and also end the violence by Palestinians, that will ensure that the road map means something in practice, and will determine whether we can achieve what we all wish to see—peace in the middle east.

10.4 am

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. I have not been to Israel and Palestine but grew up partly in Cyprus. I worked in the Persian gulf and I have a longstanding interest in Lebanon, which I have visited on several occasions and about which I have a considerable concern.

It would be worth while to spend a few moments looking at the history of the region. My father served extensively in the middle east. He was in Palestine from 1945 to 1948 and his father also served extensively in the region. My grandparents met in 1916 in a military hospital in Basra; the first world war has a certain amount to answer for in producing me. It is important to understand that our concerns are not just about a grave and monstrous injustice but about one half of a dreadful fracture that runs across the world—Kashmir is the other half, the other side of the region—which, if these matters are not addressed, threatens to cause generations of trouble on a scale that is difficult to exaggerate.

The current miserable situation in the Holy Land, which is sacred to three faiths, is grounded in an original terror—that of the Jewish settlers who arrived in what was then the Turkish province of Palestine before the first world war and between the wars under the British mandate. That terror was stoked first by the pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe, then by the unimaginably worse situation in the growing Nazi republic and by the concentration camps. It inevitably knocked on into their attitudes and their determination to have a state of their own where such things could never happen again, and that is understandable. It was shown in the attitudes towards the indigenous people, which, even in the 1930s, were expressed in language that would be regarded today as utterly unacceptable. It was made very clear that those people of "inferior" stock had no long-term role in the country, as accounts like Nicholas Bethell's remarkably impartial book on the subject testify, with many quotes. As one Palestinian writer put it, very sadly, the terrible evils visited on the Jewish people by the Europeans are being progressively repaid by the terror currently being visited on one small group of people, the Palestinians.

In 1948, a week or two after my father left the country in one of the last attachments of British soldiers to leave, the Jewish third of the population, which had almost all the weapons—they were provided mostly by America—seized 70 per cent. of the country. The Arabs were herded at gunpoint into the rest, and a number were killed on the way. I shall not dwell further on the history, except to say that, in 1967, the Arab nations tried to throw Israel into the sea. I will not go into who fired the first shot. The rhetoric was clear. Israel seized the balance and since then the remaining 30 per cent. of the portion of Palestine has contained a growing, deeply unhappy, dispossessed people who are virtually prisoners in their own country. There are 3.5 million people with no economic prospects, no rights and, above all, little hope.

I want to give two brief examples from the press of what it is like to live in the area. The first, which includes a comment from the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, describes a typical incursion by the Israeli army. The article states: Israeli soldiers demolished 62 shops at a market yesterday, destroying the livelihood of hundreds of Palestinians. In the early morning, about 300 troops streamed into the market, just outside … Nazlat Issa. They brought seven bulldozers. Villagers poured out to protest as the bulldozers tore down the village market, the main source of income for Nazlat Issa's 2,500 residents. The village was once a place of peaceful co-existence. Nazlat Issa is among several Palestinian villages along the Green Line … Israelis travelled here to shop. The market is now the site of one of the biggest Israeli demolitions in the West Bank for years. The article makes the point that there is no suggestion that bombings or terrorists were involved, only that the market was not wanted.

I come next to a remarkable article that appeared in The Spectator a couple of weeks ago. It was written by Emma Williams, who has lived in Israel for some years. It states: Qalqilya, a once thriving market town of 45,000, is now shut off from the world by a fence and wall of concrete 24 feet high. There is one exit, guarded by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), who determine whether the occupants, their produce, their food and medicines may or may not pass. She reminds us: The start of the Intifada set the scene: before a single Palestinian shot was fired, the world was shocked to see `riot control' that consisted not of baton charges … but of shooting dead scores of stone-throwers and bystanders. Almost all studies of violence in the occupied territories have found countless cases of Israelis firing on children, onlookers, old women; of pregnant women dying at … checkpoints because they cannot pass through. For every Israeli child killed by a terrorist bomb, two Palestinian children have been killed by the Israeli army.

The horror has knocked on into Lebanon, a country that I particularly love. Between the twin horrors of the Syrians and the periodic Israeli incursions, the once democratic jewel of the middle east has been ruined. The hon. Member for St. Ives referred to the disadvantages of travel. I have done the Lebanese extremely badly: on my first visit to the Lebanon the Syrians overran Beirut and, on my second visit, the Israelis bombed the town—a Christian town that has never produced any anti-Israeli terrorists.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

It would have been better if my hon. Friend had stayed away.

Mr. Brazier

My hon. Friend is right. The situation is one of the world's most terrible injustices. It is an injustice that is felt passionately by hundreds of millions of people in the Islamic world. I refer to one conversation that I had with an ambassador to one of the most moderate, reasonable and westernised states. I shall not disclose his name, but I know his country well. He said, "You cannot imagine what it is like for our children and teenagers. They are growing up to hate the west because they see America and her ally Britain propping up the monstrous situation, which they see morning after morning, evening after evening on their television sets."

I shall end on a positive note. I am sick of people who constantly knock President Bush. He is the first American President to make a clear and specific commitment to a Palestinian state. He is the author of the road map. He is on his current tour to sell it. He has convinced Prime Minister Sharon—probably the most unreasonable leader that Israeli has had for a generation, since the former terrorist Prime Minister Begin—to accept that America means business. More important than that, the moderate, decent voices in the Israeli and the international Jewish community, who must be central to any deal, see hope in the road map, as do those various groups from that part of the world that send us e-mails. They are conducting a dialogue and want to see an Israel that can survive as a state in the long run.

I urge the Government in the strongest possible fashion to accept that the road map must not simply be a process; it must arrive at a destination that leaves the small part of the original state of Palestine—the 30 per cent. that is in the west bank and Gaza—as Palestinian, not dotted and balkanised by a mass of settlements. The message must be clear. There must be an end not just to suicide bombing but to Israeli army brutality or there will be no peace process. It will be not only the Palestinians who pay the price but the whole world.

10.14 am
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I, too, welcome the publication of the road map, and I do so for one essential reason. It is currently the only internationally backed initiative. That backing is the key. Let us consider what has happened in the past few years. Whenever apparent progress has been made in the middle east, it has happened only in the context of international involvement. We all recognise that a solution will be possible by direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The other international issue that must be borne in mind is that the road map does not stand alone. It is a framework—a mechanism. It cannot override established international law and United Nations resolutions over many years that lay out clearly what the basis for the future of the region should be.

The road map rightly and understandably makes demands of both Israel and Palestine. When we look at progress towards negotiation we must bear it in mind that the two sides are not equally balanced. On the one side is the state of Israel and on the other the Palestinian people who have lived under occupation for many years. They are not two equal powers. Far too often the peace process is discussed as if what was happening, or might be happening was negotiation between two equal powers. That is a further reason why international involvement is crucial. There are omissions from the roadmap. The building of the security fences and the attempt thereby to appropriate land are missing. They had not been built when the road map was drawn up.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that an important signal that the Israeli Government could send now to demonstrate that they are serious about implementing all phases of the roadmap is to stop building the walls and associated fences immediately?

Mr. Gerrard

I could not agree more. That is a simple and important point. The Israeli Cabinet has said that it accepts the road map, but at the same time it has tried to attach a range of conditions to it. Settlements have been mentioned. The Israeli Cabinet says that it will not discuss settlements in Judea, Samaria or Gaza, excluding a settlement freeze and illegal outposts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, 10 illegal outposts will be removed. That is 10 that are not occupied out of 102. Let us remember that the definition of an illegal outpost that is being used by the Government of Israel is not the same as the definition of a settlement. En international law, every settlement on the west bank and in Gaza is illegal, not just the 102.

My hon. Friend spoke about the right of return of refugees. The Israeli Cabinet states that in both the introductory statements to the road map and the final settlement reference must be made to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel. Again, the right of return of refugees has not been dreamt up in the road map: it is recognised clearly in international law. That right cannot just be written away, and if an attempt is made to do so, any solution will not work. We are talking not only about people in Gaza and in the west bank, but about people in the refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and especially Lebanon, where the conditions in the camps and the prospects for the people are probably worse than elsewhere.

If the aim is a viable Palestinian state—everyone says that that should be the aim—the obvious question is what constitutes a viable state. The only possible state that I can envisage in that region is a state that is based on the 1967 borders. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) and I visited refugee camps in the region two and half years ago, and every Palestinian to whom we spoke accepted that the 1967 borders provided the possibility for a viable state and that there could be no going back. However, a state will not be viable if it is made up of Bantustans and if settlements on the hilltops scattered in the west bank are still regarded as outside its control.

Although we are admittedly talking about a provisional Palestinian state with provisional borders and certain aspects of sovereignty, Israel has said that that state can have only police and internal security forces, and no authority to undertake any defence alliances. Israel will control the exit and entry of all persons and cargo, as well as the state's airspace and electromagnetic spectrum. That is not viable in the long term. Even in the short term, those demands will mean that anyone travelling from Amman to Jerusalem will go through Israeli checkpoints—Israeli soldiers and the Israeli army will be within that provisional state. I do not believe that that can last for very long if there is to be progress.

On the ownership of the road map, one of the Israeli Cabinet's reservations is for the monitoring mechanism to be under American management. That is not acceptable. The road map is not the property of the US—it is the property of the Quartet. Since that means that the United Nations is involved, the road map is the property of the international community. The Israeli Government cannot unilaterally allocate monitoring to one state. That is unacceptable, and we ought to say so now.

There is an opportunity that needs to be pursued. I very much welcome the fact that President Bush is today meeting both the Prime Minister of Israel and Abu Mazen. That needs to continue, because if the process fails, the situation could be catastrophic and there could be long-term problems in the area. However, I shall finish where I started by saying that our Government and the international community must take on the responsibility of ensuring that the road map is pursued, that negotiations are supported and encouraged and that, where necessary, pressure is put on either side to ensure that those negotiations develop.

10.24 am
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on his exquisite timing in securing the debate, with the Sharm el Sheikh summit in effect under way and with the active intervention of President Bush.

I share the perspective of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on the issue. In a passionate speech, my hon. Friend made it clear why hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens on this planet, particularly those from the Islamic community, feel so passionately about the issue. That cause has to be addressed in terms of future global stability, let alone righting what many people in the United Kingdom now believe is a wrong. Over the past two or three decades, public opinion in the UK has moved from seeing the little assailed state of Israel trying to defend itself against what appear to be stronger armies and countries surrounding it. Israel has established its own security, so now people do not see the justice of this affair in that small state heroically trying to protect itself, given the appalling history of oppression that the Jewish people have suffered. They see that oppression now being meted out to the Palestinians by the Israelis in turn.

Last year, I saw Israeli security policy for myself on a visit to Israel and the occupied territories. My conclusion is that it is not only cruel, but wholly counter-productive. In a sense, one now sees Israel as boxed into a corner. Talking to Israelis out there, I was made aware that they see no way out, except through an extreme and tough security policy, which has almost no policy objective other than defending the immediate interests of their people by defending them as best they can against the threat of suicide bombers. Of course, the consequence of that policy is simply to breed more suicide bombers, not only among the Palestinian population, but among Islamic radicals, who join the Palestinian cause in a wholly unwelcome way.

I saw what are perhaps the more cynical parts of Israeli policy. The Palestinian Authority was expected to detain the people whom the Israelis identified as terrorists. The authority did detain a terrorist identified by the Israelis. He was put into prison in Nablus, under the control of the authority. Then, on the basis of information received and having identified the cell that they believed he was in, the Israelis sent a fighter-bomber to attack the prison and to attempt to kill the prisoner inside the jail.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I have only three minutes.

The prisoner crawled wounded out of the wreckage, but what does one say to the families of the prison officers who are dead as a result of that Israeli policy? One saw the action of the Israeli Government systematically destroy the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority as an act of policy. Then it becomes wholly unreasonable for the Israelis to turn round and ask, "Why is the Palestinian Authority incapable of acting against the terrorists among its own population?"

However, it is important for those of us who see the injustice being meted out to the Palestinians to rotate the chessboard and to see it from the point of view of the Israeli population. I see the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) here, who represents a significant proportion of the Jewish population in the UK. In the short time remaining to me, let me say that it is crucial that we understand the perspective not only of the Jewish people living in Israel, but of the Jewish diaspora.

We accept that the role of the British Government will be to support the road map and to do all they can to bring about a settlement, but there is one community in our country that has a very important role to play in recognising the injustice that is being done to the Palestinians and in understanding that this is a historic moment—the Jewish community. The Jewish community in the United States is even more important in that respect.

It is an historic moment, when compromise is available. If anyone can deliver a solution to the settlement issue, it is surely a Prime Minister who is seen as a champion of the settlers. If anyone can face up to the need for a historic compromise and return to boundaries giving the Palestinians 22 per cent. of the land of the original Palestine to establish their state, it is Prime Minister Sharon, with the reputation that he has built, rightly or wrongly, in his past 50 years of involvement in Israel's army and politics.

Considering that, I hope that the Jewish community in the United Kingdom will support the voices of moderation and those seeking compromise in the Jewish community in Israel. I hope that the hon. Member for Hendon, who will not be able to speak today, and other hon. Members who represent significant numbers of Jewish people will focus on the fact that it is not only ordinary British and other citizens who want a solution based on justice. The self-interest of Israel and Jewish people around the world, and the security interests of us all, are now tied up in the historic opportunity of taking the road map to a successful conclusion. We must wish it well.

10.30 am
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

This has been a typically passionate debate on an important subject and I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). He asked some important questions. to which I hope the Minister will turn his attention in a few minutes.

There were other important contributions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) spoke about the scepticism that had greeted the slow progress on the road map and the reality of the past few days. He highlighted the humanitarian plight of many caught up in the conflict and, importantly, the personal tragedy that touches the lives of people even here in Britain. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made a strong contribution, describing the terrible fracture that the conflict represents through the whole of the world and the dangers that failing to resolve it will create for us and any hope that we have for a wider middle east peace settlement.

The significance of today's debate is not lost on any of us here, safely ensconced in Westminster Hall. It is lost even less so on the people whose daily lives are blighted by the threat of violence and death. Since September 2000, there have been 3,000 deaths, which is just one ugly snapshot of the human misery and destruction that has characterised the conflict in Israel and Palestine for many decades. We all recognise that there will be huge benefits for the wider region and world as a whole if a peaceful outcome is achieved under the auspices of the roadmap, but we must never lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, it is the Israelis and Palestinians who have the most to gain or to lose.

Summits in Egypt and Jordan are the latest in a long history of attempts by external parties to help to find a peace solution. Their significance is that they demonstrate a renewed and welcome commitment by the United States to push the parties along the road.

There has been great frustration about the delay in the publication of the road map and concerns that the timetable is already slipping. In phase one, which was due to be completed by the end of May—we are already past that deadline—we were supposed to see the ending of terror and violence, the normalising of Palestinian life and the building up of proper institutions. In a couple of years, we are hoping for an agreement that will ensure a permanent status for both Israel and Palestine and the end of the conflict itself. The timetable is ambitious to say the least and, as I have noted, it is already slipping.

The onus is on all sides to establish as a starting point the basic features of a peace process, which are set out at the beginning of the road map. For the Palestinians, that means reiterating Israel's right to exist in peace and security and an immediate and unconditional end to violence against Israelis everywhere. For Israel, it means that it must affirm its commitment to a two-state solution and an independent viable sovereign Palestinian state, and end all violence against Palestinians wherever it occurs. Without those basic steps, nothing else can be achieved. The summit in Jordan must surely be the key to making that start. Above all, the steps must be taken together. One side must not watch while the other takes the first step.

There are concerns that the commitment of the parties is not as wholehearted as we might hope. Certainly, the Israelis have endorsed the road map and the Cabinet statement of 25 May, which is welcome and important for the process. At the same time, however, they have listed 14 different reservations, some of which are hugely significant. If all of them were taken on board, they would substantially alter the roadmap as it exists at present. The Palestinians and the wider Arab world watch the response to those Israeli reservations with some concern.

Mr. Frank Cook

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Would he join me in paying tribute to the substantial portion of the Israeli population that has disagreed vehemently and passionately with the stance that the Israeli Government have adopted and is as anxious to see a peaceful solution as anyone else in the world?

Mr. Moore

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution. He is right to highlight the fact that there is substantial hope in Israel that progress with the road map can be made.

I hope that the Minister highlights what he believes are the important steps in the process and confirms the status of the road map. In June last year, President Bush signalled the beginning of his personal involvement in the middle east peace process when he said: This moment is both an opportunity and a test for all the parties in the Middle East: an opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace; a test to show who is serious about peace and who is not. The choice here is stark and simple … The time has arrived for everyone in this conflict to choose peace, and hope and life. That moment may soon pass.

The summit taking place today and tomorrow is the latest in a long list of initiatives designed to create conditions for peace and security for the Palestinians and Israelis. We must hope that the declarations at the end will not become another sad, irrelevant footnote in this dreadful conflict. To avoid that, both sides must honour their commitments to and support for the road map. The members of the Quartet must hold each side, and each other, to those commitments. The bloody status quo should not be an option, but for too long it has been the only reality known by Israelis and Palestinians alike. Sustained and constructive engagement by all the parties is now more important than ever.

10.38 am
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for securing time for it.

The road map's recent publication must stand as potentially one of the most important developments in the politics of the near middle east and of the wider region that we have seen for 50 years, and I took slight issue with the hon. Gentleman when he said that its origins are not auspicious. The road map is on paper and has been designed collectively by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. It contains a detailed schedule towards a defined objective of a Palestinian state, which is a first. What is more, it engages the United States from beginning to end—so often in the past, it has gone in and out and any process has been interrupted—and it does so across the timetable of a presidential election. That, too, is a first. This is all happening at a time when the domestic popularity of the President is uniquely based on his foreign policy actions in that very region, which is another first. When all those factors are taken together, the provenance of the document and the process it defines give grounds for optimism, not pessimism. That opportunity must not be squandered.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has proved not only to be one of the most intractable international conflicts, but has demonstrated its capacity to bedevil international relations with the entire region, to which it still remains the main geopolitical backdrop. It colours the attitudes of many Muslims to the west. America, in particular, is perceived as having a one-sided policy.

A settlement of the dispute would bring immediate benefits to both sides. In the long term, it would see Israel safe and secure within her borders and living peacefully alongside a viable, independent Palestinian state, thus fulfilling the aspirations of millions of Palestinians who feel humiliated and stateless. The key components to any agreement have existed in the past. They were tantalisingly close at Taba, and the negotiations there and at Camp David, although not perfect, showed that agreement on the four main components—the Palestinian right of return, the settlements, borders and Jerusalem—was possible.

The goal of the road map, over its three stages, is the creation of a viable independent Palestinian state, with roughly the same borders as the ones that existed in 1967, and an Israel recognised and unreservedly accepted by its neighbours and free from the horrors of terrorist attack. The creation of such a Palestinian state is probably the best means by which Israel can enhance her security in the long term.

The road map also refers to the need for a comprehensive settlement between Israel and all her neighbours. Settlements with Syria and Lebanon are vital components of the eventual solution. Anyone who says that neighbouring Arab states will never recognise Israel are simply wrong: in the right circumstances, there is a clear collective willingness to do so.

We have, of course, been here before. The road map is no magical talisman, but previous talks have also shown how close the two parties can become. The key is to get the two sides talking. The road map contains a time scale, although, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we must be realistic—the peace process will move at its own pace. We must also be wary of tying the process to rigid dates, which the road map document recognises when it states that the process can move faster or slower than envisaged depending on how quickly the two parties fulfil their obligations at each stage.

Early this year, the appointment of Abu Mazen as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority and the formation of a Cabinet were very positive developments. Despite the horrific bombings and the loss of innocent lives on both sides, I believe that both Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Sharon are now determined to make the peach process work. Their groundbreaking talks last week, which I believe lasted for more than two and a half hours, showed that they were both willing to talk and to engage. They also produced positive results. Abu Mazen made the all-important commitment to improve security and to prevent future bombings. According to press reports, he is working towards ceasefire agreements with all the organisations that have carried out attacks in Israel and on Israelis. Although Hamas appears unwilling to co-operate at this stage, I am confident that Abu Mazen will make every effort to secure agreement and that neighbouring countries that have supported such organisations will lend their weight to a process that gives Israel security.

Equally, I welcome Mr. Sharon's release of several Palestinians from prison and the easing of restrictions on the movements of Palestinians, enabling a large number of them to return to their jobs on the Israeli side of the border. Those are small but important first steps, without which the road map process would not get under way.

I also welcome Mr. Sharon's openness and political courage in pushing acceptance of the road map through his Cabinet and in referring openly to the west bank as occupied. He has also said that he is prepared to give up settlements as part of a deal. Those illegal settlements in another people's country are a source of constant dismay, and their eventual abandonment is essential.

In passing, it is worth remembering that it was Ariel Sharon who removed the settlers from Yamit in Sinai to return it to Egypt as part of the peace settlement then, which is often forgotten. I am not saying for a moment that Mr. Sharon's past is faultless, but he demonstrated a willingness to make a concession for peace then, which might be a hopeful pointer to what will happen now. Let us put his determination to secure peace and his willingness to make concessions to the test. He knows, as we all do, that the world is watching and hoping.

Reciprocity is at the heart of the road map and is vital to its success. The central tenet of the document is that both sides have obligations and must meet them in parallel. Attempts by either side to corrupt or alter that central principle should be resisted because they would undermine the basis on which the Quartet structured the road map.

Quite apart from the obvious benefits, Israelis and Palestinians stand to benefit in other ways from the peace dividend. Economically and socially, they are tied to each other in many tangible and intangible ways. Their futures and prospects are largely interdependent. The Palestinians have much to gain from a settlement with Israel, including the economic benefits of jobs in Israel, technological assistance in "making the desert bloom", the day-to-day fostering of trade links and the ability to travel freely to see relatives on the other side of the border.

Anyone in either country would prefer peace, a normal life and hope for their family to constant conflict and employment in the army rather than in a normal job. Above all, a just and balanced peace settlement for Palestinians and Israelis alike will give their children a future—one that is not dominated by violence, but in which they can grow up learning skills that will enable them to provide for their families, improve their lot and develop their country.

We all recognise that the reinvigorated middle east peace process must be accompanied by sustained and balanced American interest and encouragement to both sides if it is to be a success. Without the application of American political interest, no peace process will be seen through from beginning to end. American support and, on occasion, pressure, coupled with the realities of America's power and its ability to act as a guarantor of any settlement, are vital to success. Indeed, President Bush's speech on 24 June and his promise to see things through helped to kick off the current peace process. The forthcoming summit in Aqaba between Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon and Abu Mazen will be a very public demonstration of that commitment.

It may be important for America to take the international lead in supporting the peace process, but there is also an important role for the British Government. We have a unique understanding of and standing in the region. I am sure that the Minister will be able to reassure us that his interest and that of his colleagues in the issue, and the Prime Minister's determination, which I applaud, mean that the UK will continue to assist the process.

We are all united today in our desire for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the vast majority of them are united in the same cause. To quote loosely something said by, I think, Shimon Peres, we now have the road map, but what we need is a vehicle. In the desire for peace and the willingness to talk demonstrated by Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen in the past few weeks, we now have that vehicle, and I look forward to steady progress towards a lasting peace. It is my genuine belief that the vast majority of Israelis and Arabs want peace to replace conflict, harmony to replace hatred, and hope to replace despair. The process could achieve that, and I hope that it does.

10.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this important and timely debate. It is significant that interest in the issue and, indeed, well-informed opinion about it stretch right across the House. I am also struck by the fact that there is near unanimity about its importance and about how we should resolve it together.

In the short time available, let me respond to some of the points that have been made. It is undoubtedly true that the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has claimed more than 2,500 Palestinian and 750 Israeli lives since the start of the intifada just two and a half years ago. That must be brought to an end. We condemn the suicide bombings and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Terrorism is inexcusable in any circumstances. The Palestinians' legitimate national aspirations will not be helped or secured through the use of violence. Indeed, worldwide support for their cause is undermined and weakened by the suicide bombings. Such practices can only make the peace process more difficult to achieve. We call on the Palestinian Authority to do everything it can to stop further attacks.

Israel, like all states, has the right to ensure the security of its citizens. However, we remain deeply concerned about certain actions taken by Israel in the occupied territories, which have undoubtedly resulted in civilian casualties and the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and farmland. The humanitarian situation, which is a concern for all hon. Members, continues to deteriorate. Such hardship serves only to fuel hatred and violence, making a comprehensive settlement more difficult to achieve.

It is against that background of violence and despair that a political solution must be found. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important precondition for long-term peace in the middle east. It is in the interests of everyone—certainly of the UK—that the violence cease and we see movement towards a final settlement. A negotiated settlement in the dispute between Israel, the Palestinians and her neighbours is long overdue. However, I share the view of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan): there are grounds for cautious optimism.

The outline of a just, lasting settlement based on UN Security Council resolutions is clear: a viable state for the Palestinians and security for Israel within recognised borders. Israel and Palestine alike deserve to enjoy security from attack and the freedom to run their own lives. The Quartet road map clearly sets out the steps to achieve that: a three-stage process with a clear indication of time scales moving towards an eventual settlement in 2005. It is true that the road map talks about the pace being faster or slower, depending on progress, but we regard that time scale objective as important and we will urge all parties to adhere to it.

This Government and this country have played a central role in pressing for the publication of the road map and the Prime Minister has stated his personal commitment to working for its implementation. We welcome both parties' acceptance of the road map and the recent meetings between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas are a positive step towards renewed dialogue. Various hon. Members have commented on that. The immediate obligations on the parties are clear. Israel should withdraw its forces from Palestinian-controlled areas and it should ease curfews and closures. Settlement activity is undoubtedly an obstacle to peace. That has to stop. Similarly, the Palestinians must continue to promote reform. They must take action to prevent terrorist attacks. The Palestinians can achieve their legitimate aspirations only through peaceful means.

Andrew George

Surely the Minister must accept that Israel will hold the process to ransom. I fear that that will happen. Who will interpret what is sufficient in constraining suicide bombings? The Israelis may demand an absolute end to suicide bombings. Mahmoud Abbas cannot be omnipresent in constraining the frustration and hopelessness of individual Palestinians. There is not only that reason, but the reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Does the Minister not share the sense of frustration, and the concern that the process will be held up?

Mr. Rammell

We have to encourage progress and reform on both sides, and we call for an absolute end to the suicide bombings. A complete cessation of suicide bombings cannot be a precondition for the Israeli Government engaging with the process. We are saying that very clearly, and we will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for St. Ives talked about the cynicism around the timing of the publication of the road map. I wholly reject the implication that the timing was related to the conflict in Iraq. That assertion is not consistent with the actions and activities of this Government and our Prime Minister, who have been pressing for months and months to get the road map published. I know we live in cynical times, but it is important to put that issue into context.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the time scale and the impact of the United States elections next year. It is important to point out that President Bush is the first American President unequivocally to call for a two-state solution. The proof is in the pudding, and we need to see how that process is taken forward. The indications of his personal commitment on the issue are strong and developing. Undoubtedly, within any election campaign there will be pressures and forces in the opposite direction, which is why it is doubly important that we remain engaged with the United States on the process and seek to move that issue forward.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the 14 concerns about the road map that the Israeli Government want to be addressed. The process has to start. If there are concerns, they can be addressed as that process is under way. Undoubtedly, there should be further discussion of the road map, but there has to be that clear commitment to start the process. There are strong indications that that is what we have seen. He also asked whether the commitments should be undertaken in parallel or on a sequential basis. It is important that both sides recognise the need to move forward in parallel. It is simply not practical for one side to insist that the other fulfil a series of near impossible conditions before there can be any response. We are expressing that view strongly to both sides.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the UN Security Council resolutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) raised that concern, too. Our position is that the roadmap does not override those UN resolutions. UN Security Council resolution 1435 is key. It calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, for a meaningful ceasefire and for the Palestinian Authority to bring those responsible for terrorist attacks to justice, leading to the resumption of political negotiations. The UK Government played a key role in securing that resolution, and we will continue to push for its implementation.

The hon. Member for St. Ives raised the issue of the export of weapons to Israel. He rightly pointed out that Britain sells arms to Israel on the proviso that they are not used within the occupied territories. We continue to put forward that view. There was one breach in March 2002, which was reported to Parliament. We have not identified further breaches of Israeli assurances about the use of UK-supplied equipment in the occupied territories since then. On that occasion, we asked the Israeli Government for an explanation, and we made it clear that their assurances under our arms export control guidelines would no longer be sufficient to allow those arms sales.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the oil pipeline between Syria and Israel. We have seen nothing specific about such a pipeline. If he wishes to write to me about that, I will follow it up. He also raised the important concern about international aid. We are a significant contributor: we contributed £22 million in 2002 and another £22 million to the special emergency appeal for the west bank and the Gaza strip. We will continue to assess what is the most effective and practical way to bring forward our aid contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow raised the issue of refugees. We recognise the importance to Palestinians and Israelis of the right to return. Undoubtedly, a just resolution of the refugee issue must be agreed. consistent with UN General Assembly resolution 194, which calls for the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees. We believe that a solution to that issue can be agreed and implemented without threatening the existence of the Israeli state.

Finally, and briefly, on the tragic incidents recently in the Gaza strip, we are regularly in contact with the families of people who have been affected. We have called for a full and transparent military police inquiry. We continue to urge that way forward and have called on the Israeli authorities to review their procedures. We have as yet not received a response, although the Foreign Secretary recently raised—

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair)

Order. Time is up.

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