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Selective Schools (Transitional Arrangements)

Mr. David Chaytor accordingly presented a Bill to establish that a maximum of five per cent of pupils can be selected, by aptitude or ability, for admission to any state secondary school; to specify the period of time in which, and the means by which, those schools currently exceeding this percentage will be required to reduce their selective intake to five per cent.; to specify the criteria for such selection and the means by which schools should conduct assessments; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 121].

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The Middle East

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stringer.]

Mr. Speaker: Before we begin the main business, to the many hon. Members who have approached the Chair to ask whether they will be called to speak in the debate I can say only that this is one of those days on which they will just have to wait and see.

4.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): This is the first full-day debate on the middle east in Government time for some years, and it comes not a moment too soon. The conflict there is now more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for decades. Understandably, that conflict provokes great passion and partisanship, but through you, Mr. Speaker, I make one plea: that whatever our different perspectives, we use this occasion for a sober and serious examination of the issues, and above all apply ourselves to assisting both sides to move towards a peaceful solution.

The prospect of peace in the middle east hangs by a thread. There are three fundamental truths about the situation. First, neither side has a monopoly of right or of wrong. Secondly, the peoples of the area have to live together. Thirdly, neither side can achieve lasting security through force, but can do so only by having the courage to compromise.

Since the intifada began, at least 1,300 Palestinians and more than 450 Israelis have been killed; thousands more on both sides have been injured. In recent weeks, we have seen a spiral of violence following a spate of suicide bombings and the Israeli incursions into the west bank, in which many more have lost their lives and many, many more have been injured. The situation on the ground is fluid and critical. The Israeli defence force, I understand, has withdrawn today from Qalqilya, but they remain in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and a number of other towns. On the diplomatic front, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is currently meeting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon. The House will also wish to know that the military attaché of Her Majesty's Government is now in Jenin making his own assessment; if I have a report before the winding-up speeches, I will ensure that it is drawn to the attention of the House.

Like everyone in the House, I have found the continuing reports of deaths and damage, caused in Israel by suicide bombings and other terrorism and in the occupied territories by Israeli military action, deeply disturbing. I am profoundly concerned about the scenes of widespread destruction of densely populated refugee camps. We are doing all that we can to obtain an authoritative account of the conduct of the Israeli operation—that is why the military attaché is there at the moment—and its consequences. As a long-standing friend of Israel, I have to say that such scenes can only be harmful to Israel's reputation abroad.

There have been allegations of misconduct by the Israeli forces during the operation. Last week, on my instructions, our ambassador in Tel Aviv raised our concern with Prime Minister Sharon's office. I have twice spoken in the past few days to Israeli Foreign Minister

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Shimon Peres about that and demanded that Israel allow the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies immediate access to the affected areas, including Jenin. I take this opportunity to express my appreciation of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who was in Jenin last week with the United Nations. Many in the House will have heard her vivid account of the situation with great alarm.

We are in constant contact with our ambassador in Tel Aviv and the consul-general in Jerusalem. I want to pay tribute to their efforts. Our staff, often at considerable personal risk, have worked tirelessly to discharge their consular responsibilities to the British nationals living and working in the west bank in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and have helped to ensure that we can fulfil our general humanitarian obligations to relieve the suffering there.

As some hon. Members will know, many of the locally engaged staff working for the British consul-general in Jerusalem are Palestinian. I have met and talked to those Palestinian staff, and have great admiration for them. In normal times, they suffer extraordinary inconvenience to get to and from work; each journey often takes them two or three hours, as they have to go through five or six different checkpoints, taking separate taxis between them. During the current Israeli defence force operations, many of our staff have been trapped in their own homes for weeks, while some have relations who have been killed or injured in the violence.

Throughout this period, Her Majesty's Government have called on the Israelis to pull their forces back, and to act in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions and the requirements of international humanitarian law. We have consistently called on the Palestinians to do everything in their power to halt the terrorist attacks. Both sides must now step back and start talking.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Will the Foreign Secretary explain why the Government did not support the resolution tabled yesterday in Geneva, in which the United Nations Commission on Human Rights called for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the west bank?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to do so, and shall place the text of the resolution in the Library. The simple fact of the matter is that the resolution was completely unbalanced, which is why Germany and the United Kingdom decided to oppose it. Many European countries that voted for the resolution made oral statements of objection to part of its content. I happen to think that it was a cleaner approach simply to vote against it.

Both sides must now step back and start talking. The conflict can no longer be managed; it must be resolved. So today I want to tell the House what we and the international community are doing and should do to help reduce the dreadful violence, and to bring both sides back to the negotiating table and towards a settlement. I want to use this opportunity to set out some of the elements that will have to form part of any framework for a peaceful future in the middle east.

The immediate causes of the present conflict go back to the collapse of the Camp David and Taba talks, and to the eruption of the intifada in September 2000, but of course the underlying causes of the conflict go very much

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deeper. We in the United Kingdom bear some more contemporary responsibility for the current situation. It was a predecessor of mine as Foreign Secretary, A. J. Balfour, who in 1917 promised a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.

The holocaust, which was commemorated in Israel last week, and which we commemorated in this country in January, acted to reinforce the determination of Jewish leaders to create their own state of Israel. Fifty-four years ago tomorrow that state was formally declared.

For most of the five and a half decades since, Israel's very existence went unrecognised by all Arab states. Only in 1979, after three wars, did Egypt sign a peace treaty with Israel, recovering its territory occupied in 1967. In 1991, the Madrid conference launched an international effort to conclude a comprehensive settlement.

Parallel diplomacy by Norway and the United States gave birth in 1993 to the Oslo process—an imaginative effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace through a phased approach. The Palestinian Authority was established and helped to develop into an embryonic state administration, with substantial European Union and bilateral United Kingdom financial support. But crucial issues were left unresolved or ambiguous by the Oslo process, including the future of the settlements, borders, Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem and refugees. The murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was a grievous blow to the peace process. Accelerated settlement building and extremist violence thereafter undermined confidence on both sides.

In 2000 there was a further moment of hope when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met at Camp David, and later when negotiators met at Taba in the new year 2001. By then, however, the intifada had broken out. Since then, the region has been gripped in a spiral of violence, not least through the terrifying horror of the suicide bomb. We all need to understand that it is almost impossible to imagine the agony of ordinary Israeli citizens as they sift through the wreckage of yet another supermarket, nightclub or bus, looking for the remains of their loved ones.

No less hard for us to imagine is the fear of ordinary Palestinians as they cower in the ruins of their homes, not knowing the fate of their friends and family in the next village, and not knowing where the next shell may land. Victims of terror on one side; victims of occupation on the other.

There are 3.5 million Palestinians, many of them living in desperate circumstances in east Jerusalem, the west bank and the Gaza strip. There are 6.5 million Israelis, including 1 million Israeli Arabs. Their only future in the west bank, in Gaza and in Israel is living together.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelled out in his statement six days ago, there can be no military victory for either side in this conflict. The international community cannot stand by and watch as the parties fight each other to a standstill. The world has to act before irreparable damage is done to the cause of peace and the hopes of future generations.

The first priority must be to stop the spiral of violence and reprisal, and to persuade both sides to accept a ceasefire. That is the focus of the current mission to the middle east by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. The UN Secretary-General, the EU presidency and the Russian Federation gave Secretary Powell their full backing when

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they met him in Madrid last week, as did all EU Foreign Ministers at our meeting in Luxembourg yesterday. Of course, Secretary Powell has our full backing and support. As a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations and a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom has been actively involved. As the House knows, the middle east dominated my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's discussions with President Bush at Crawford just over a week ago.

Secretary of State Powell's task is an incredibly delicate one. It is vital that it should not be disrupted or undermined. However, our role is not only diplomatic. We are already major providers of aid to the Palestinian Authority and to those in the occupied territories. The amount of aid will double during this financial year compared with the amount provided two years ago. We have also made it clear that we stand ready to take part in monitoring the parties' compliance with their obligations, starting with the ceasefire and continuing as the process develops.

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