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Middle East

3.32 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Government policy in the light of recent events in the middle east.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for asking this private notice question.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing once again the shock and anger that I felt when I heard the news on Saturday night and on Sunday morning of the series of terrorist atrocities in Jerusalem and in Haifa, in north Israel. These atrocities killed at least 25 and injured more than 180 people. They came on top of a series of other terrorist attacks that have caused many deaths and that, in turn, have put the people of Israel in fear of going about their normal lives.

On Sunday, I spoke by telephone to Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and then to President Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. To Mr. Peres, I expressed my sincere condolences and those of Her Majesty's Government. To President Arafat, I stressed the imperative that the Palestinian Authority now properly detains terrorist suspects in Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups, and the imperative of the need for him to take other action to remove the continuing threat that terrorists pose to the stability of the whole region.

Israel is entitled to take steps to ensure its security. Our approach to the peace process has been well set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by myself, including in my address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 11 November. We have backed fully the initiative set out by the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on 19 November, and his appointment of General Zinni and Ambassador Burns as US envoys to the region.

Although the situation is grave—indeed, precisely because it is—the case for peace remains as strong as ever. We in the United Kingdom and in Her Majesty's Government stand ready to do all that we can to help the parties to resume substantive dialogue and to bring about the swift and full implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell committee recommendations. Distant and difficult though that aspiration may appear, we work towards a day when two states—Israel and Palestine—live peacefully together within secure and recognised borders, as called for by Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Campbell: In the spirit of the day, I draw attention to an entry in the Register of Members' Interests against my name in relation to the Liberal Democrat middle east council.

May I begin by sharing the expression of sympathy that the Foreign Secretary gave, not only to the Israeli community but, of course, to the Palestinian community as well? Even though it appears that the middle east is staring into the abyss, does he agree that it is necessary urgently to restate two cardinal principles: first, that Israel is entitled to live in peace and security within its boundaries; and, secondly, that the Palestinians are

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entitled to justice and a viable homeland, as both the Prime Minister and President Bush have said in recent weeks, although, unhappily perhaps, not in the past 72 hours?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that whatever President Arafat's faults, and they are by no means negligible, it is wholly unreasonable to equate him with Osama bin Laden? Does he also agree that to target Arafat personally, or to encourage others to do so, will have grave consequences in the middle east, both in moderate and in radical states, and not least for the coalition against terrorism, which may simply fall apart?

Finally, whatever violence may be committed against the people of Israel and whatever military action may be taken against the Palestinians, is it not the case—as I think the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged—that sooner or later dialogue will have to resume? Does he agree that that dialogue is much more likely to succeed if President Arafat makes serious, sustained and credible efforts to apprehend terrorists, and Israel, in return, exercises restraint and orders an immediate cessation of the policy of the expansion of settlements, which causes so much discontent and creates an atmosphere in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad can flourish?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks, and express my sympathy for his current condition. I agree with what he said about peace, security, justice and a viable homeland. Indeed, I said exactly that in my remarks. As for equating President Arafat with Osama bin Laden, that is not a description that I or any member of the British Government has used or would use. There are many criticisms of President Arafat, but he is the head of the Palestinian Authority and needs to be recognised as such.

My criticism of President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority is that they have not done sufficient to pick up the terrorists. I have had many conversations with President Arafat and other members of the Palestinian Authority. Their good intentions are not in doubt, but there is a failure to take action on the ground to pick up those terrorists who are known to them and everyone else. Those people have no love whatsoever for the Palestinian Authority, any more than they do for peace in Israel, the occupied territories and the middle east in general.

Even at this late hour, it is essential that President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, in recognising the gravity of the situation, take action to pick up those known terrorists and terrorist suspects, not just to arrest them, but to detain them securely and in circumstances in which the international community and Israel can see that they are detained securely.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): We in the Opposition are horrified and outraged by the recent bombings in Israel. Only today, we heard of six more innocent civilians injured and, as the right hon. Gentleman stated, 25 young people were killed and many more critically injured on Sunday. Our thoughts are very much with the families of all those who have suffered so grievously since the intifada started. We hope that those who suffer in that way will, at some stage, feel a greater sense of security.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that no matter how difficult or even impossible the current position, it has never been more imperative to create the conditions for

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negotiations to start, based on the Mitchell process, and that, ultimately, going back to the Mitchell process is the only way to make progress? Does he agree that it is essential that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian authorities ensure not only that those who are responsible for the terrorist outrages are swiftly detained and securely imprisoned, but that they are not quickly released, as has happened all too often in the past?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the terrible impact of these events is to undermine economic structures in Israel, the west bank and Gaza, creating a vicious cycle of unemployment and deprivation that simply exacerbates the problems? Does he share our view that the continuing crisis might undermine not only the coalition partnership in Israel and the stability of the Israeli Government, but the personal position of Chairman Arafat, and that that is yet another reason why the violence and bloodshed must end? If the right hon. Gentleman, working through international organisations and other bodies and through the offices of our Government, can bring any influence to bear on that tragic situation, he will have our fullest support.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on behalf of his party. I think that I covered most of his points in my previous answer. The Tenet and Mitchell reports set out a clear framework, agreed by both sides, for progressing from the current position to one of relative peace, and thence to longer-term negotiations.

One of the many individual tragedies in the continuing tragedy that has befallen the region is that there was yet another window of hope following Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech on 19 November and his appointment of General Zinni and Ambassador Burns to take a hands-on approach to carrying forward the process. Yet again, extremists—in this case, on the Palestinian side—have exercised what in practice amounts to a veto on the process, blocking it for the time being. That makes it all the more important that such people, who kill innocent people and are negligent of people on their own side being killed, are locked up and detained for as long as is necessary, not released quickly.

On the issue of political instability, we have seen time and again that the cycle of violence produces great instability and makes it all the harder for those who recognise that the long-term future of their region lies in peace to be heard.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Does my right hon. Friend understand that most of the young people who decide to give up their lives in such a way are born into occupation, live all their lives under occupation, and, with their families, suffer the daily humiliation of the extremes of occupation? At some stage, the Israelis have to get back to the negotiating table, but they will not do so as long as they are using their military might—Israel is the fourth or fifth ranked military power in the world—against a mainly unarmed civilian population. At some stage, the Israelis have to be told to restrain their military forces; otherwise, there can be no peace.

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