Previous SectionIndexHome Page


3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent developments in Israel and the occupied territories, specifically in relation to Hebron, Bethlehem and Jenin, and to the better news involving a UK contribution to ending the siege of President Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

Since the House last debated this subject on 16 April, the situation in Israel and the occupied territories has remained very tense. On Saturday, after four Israelis, including a five-year-old child, were killed in the west bank settlement of Adora, the Israeli defence forces moved into the nearby town of Hebron. There have been reports that at least seven Palestinians have been killed there and 20 injured in the fighting that followed.

At the same time, the stand-off continues at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where 200 Palestinians, some of them armed, have taken refuge from the Israeli forces for the last three weeks. Three of the Palestinians inside the church compound have been shot dead by Israeli forces, including one last night.

The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury has raised his concerns at the situation with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself, as have leaders of many other denominations and faiths. However, talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are under way in an attempt to resolve the situation. Nine Palestinians have already left the church compound. I understand that several dozen more Palestinian civilians may shortly leave, and that there will be deliveries of food to those who remain inside.

During the debate on 16 April, many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House expressed their concerns at reports alleging that the Israeli military had used disproportionate force during its action in the refugee camp at Jenin, which began on 3 April. At our instigation, the United Nations Security Council on 19 April agreed resolution 1405, which welcomed the initiative of the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to send a fact-finding team to Jenin to establish what had happened.

Following that resolution, the Secretary-General appointed a team led by Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, and including Sadako Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Cornelio Sommaruga, the former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Bill Nash, a retired American major-general; and Peter Fitzgerald, a senior Irish police officer. At General Nash's request, Lieutenant-Colonel Miles Wade, a serving officer in the British Army, has been added to the team.

However, I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing my serious concern that, 10 days after Israel first agreed to that fact-finding mission, it has yet to be admitted to Jenin. During the meeting of the Israeli Cabinet yesterday, further objections were raised to the arrangements for the team's visit. Let me repeat what I said last night to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres: Israel must co-operate without delay with the UN team in order to establish the facts. The Israeli Government have claimed that their action in Jenin was necessary and

29 Apr 2002 : Column 668

proportionate. If that is so, they have nothing to fear and much to gain from such a fact-finding mission composed of such distinguished and internationally respected individuals.

Potentially the most positive development over the weekend was the acceptance in principle by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of a US-UK initiative to allow the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to leave his compound in Ramallah, which has been under siege continuously since 29 March. Under the terms of that initiative, Israeli forces would pull back from President Arafat's compound, and from Ramallah itself, and leave him free to travel both within the occupied territories and elsewhere, and free to return.

At the same time, six Palestinian men would be removed from the compound to a Palestinian facility in a secluded location in the occupied territories. Of these six, four have been convicted by the Palestinian Authority for involvement in the murder last October of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi. One is secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group that claimed responsibility for Minister Zeevi's killing, and one is being detained because of alleged involvement in the Karine A arms shipment in January.

Under this initiative, Britain and the United States have agreed to provide a small number of supervisory wardens to oversee the men's detention. The wardens will be unarmed. Let me make this clear: it is the prime responsibility on the Palestinian Authority to ensure the physical security of the facility and the personal security of the United States and United Kingdom wardens.

A British scoping mission visited the region last month. An advance party of experts from the United Kingdom is due to arrive in the region this afternoon to begin to set the detailed arrangements in place and to satisfy themselves as to the personal safety of the wardens. The United Kingdom wardens all have experience of working in similar capacities with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The proposal was first put to the Israeli Prime Minister by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in early October last year. I drew it to the attention of the House again in our last debate 13 days ago.

I would like to place on record my appreciation of the work of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, of others in the Bush Administration and of American and British diplomats in Israel and the occupied territories who have helped to achieve the progress that we have made. However, there is still much work to be done to bring this initiative into effect. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing the hope that no last-minute hitches occur and that these arrangements can be put in place with all dispatch.

This is a significant step forward, but on its own it is not enough. It is now imperative that the two sides build on this modest measure of agreement, stop the violence and start talking to one another. In a series of resolutions in recent months, the Security Council has laid down clear imperatives on both parties. Both are obliged to move to a meaningful ceasefire and to resume security co-operation. Israel should withdraw from Palestinian-controlled areas and must heed Security Council demands. Once he has been released from the siege, President Arafat will plainly be able to exercise a much enhanced political leadership of the Palestinian Authority. He must take that

29 Apr 2002 : Column 669

opportunity and do all in his power to stop the violence and work for peace. Ministers and officials have been in constant touch with both sides to the conflict to stress the need for a constructive approach.

The Government's commitment to helping restart a peace process is absolute. The same unity of purpose exists throughout the international community, but the hopes and expectations of a generation of Israelis and of Palestinians rest, above all, on the shoulders of two men—Prime Minister Sharon and President Arafat. Now is the time for them to grasp the opportunity that international efforts have created and to demonstrate that they are truly committed to peace.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): I welcome today's announcement of the decision to send British and United States monitors to Ramallah to guard the six Palestinian detainees and thus to enable the Israeli siege of Chairman Arafat's headquarters to be lifted. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House so promptly with details of what is involved. It is, as he says, a small but significant step in the essential process of restoring dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and moving gradually back towards acceptance of the Tenet ceasefire plan and the Mitchell proposals for resuming the peace process. I congratulate President Bush and the British Government on their part in building this small but important bridge.

There will be concerns, however, that our involvement should be carefully planned and suitably restrained. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that this small deployment is not the forerunner of any larger peacekeeping or nation-building deployment being planned for the future?

We must all be aware of the importance of today's announcement. It is in the building of such small bridges, rather than in grand gestures, grandstanding conferences or veiled threats, that progress can be made to turn back from the staircase of violence on which the middle east has recently been embarked and, in doing this, to set out once more on the route that can lead to agreement on the establishment of two states west of the Jordan: the state of Israel, secure within acceptable boundaries, and a viable, economically sustainable and independent Palestinian state. This bridge is important. I hope that it will be followed by other steps, not least in Bethlehem.

Today's development in Ramallah must go hand in hand with the continuing and urgent need for Israel to cease the military incursions into the territories. If, however, Israel is to withdraw with confidence that her security from vicious acts of terrorism will not once again be compromised, there must be clear indications that the use of the territories as a base for the preparation, equipping and delivery of terrorist acts will be ended. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that is primarily a challenge for Chairman Arafat and that, as President Bush has stated, his newly regained freedom of movement must be accompanied by the delivery of a genuine cessation of violence on the Palestinian side? This must now be a test of his leadership.

Many, while doubting Chairman Arafat's desire to deliver a lasting peace and settlement, still see him as I do: as the only effective Palestinian leader with whom real negotiations can be held. He must respond to today's settlement by both condemning and actively thwarting terrorist activities and by showing a real willingness to

29 Apr 2002 : Column 670

re-engage on all the elements that were on the table at both Camp David and Taba. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me, however, that if Mr. Arafat is genuinely to deliver leadership in that regard, he will require assistance in rebuilding the civic structures through which he can operate in terms of law and order? Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what help is likely to be forthcoming to enable him to do so and, at the same time, what precautions will be taken to ensure that any financial aid given is not siphoned off into support for terrorist organisations and plans? In the same context, what conversations has he had with the Israeli Government about the retained Palestinian revenues?

These are delicate but vital matters on which both sides need clear assurances if the confidence to move back towards the talks table is to be established. In that context, can the Foreign Secretary report on what steps he is taking to persuade other Arab states to support today's initiative? If Mr. Arafat either cannot or will not deliver the cessation of violence and terrorist activity within the territories, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to support other initiatives that can produce the same required levels of security?

The positive step forward today in Ramallah is a small ray of light in an otherwise dark and frightening scene. It is only a first step, but it is a well-grounded one. As we know, every journey begins with the first step. This journey is about confidence on both sides, which is hard to build when the truth on which it must rely is too often distorted on all sides. It is therefore vital for both the Palestinians and Israel that truth is established openly and fairly, not least in relation to what happened in Jenin and the reasons for it. I join the Foreign Secretary in urging that the truth be established swiftly through the United Nations, on a fair and acceptable basis.

May I finally and seriously ask the Foreign Secretary to reflect that, on the same day on which the President of the European Commission is in Oxford disparaging the usefulness of Anglo-American relations, the joint efforts of the United Kingdom and the USA have begun to deliver, as they so often have in the past, showing once again the value of that unique relationship?

Today is a better day. It carries a positive step towards peace. We must all wish it well.

Next Section

IndexHome Page