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Minister for the Middle East responds to questions on Facebook

UK Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt answered questions on current issues in the Middle East following his trip to the region .

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Responding to questions posted on the UK in Israel Facebook page, the Foreign Office Minister said:

“Thank you for all your questions following my trip to the Middle East. I have read them with interest and will try to answer a broad selection.

Probably the most important issue I discussed this week was September and what might happen. Many of you asked about it. Our policy is clear. The unprecedented changes of the Arab Spring make progress on the peace process more urgent than ever. President Obama has endorsed clear parameters for a two-state solution, which the UK has been advocating. We urge all parties to seize this moment of opportunity and return as soon as possible to direct negotiations. As I told all sides this week, we do not think spending the next few months chasing around looking for people either to sign a resolution or not sign one is a good use of time. And at the moment we don’t even know if there will be a resolution in September, or what it will look like - so, in short, we have not made any decisions. Instead we urge both sides to look towards the things that are necessary to get a negotiated settlement and to return to talks as soon as possible.

The flotilla was a key theme and several of you asked what our policy is. Well, I was very clear with Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors about this. While there is a need for ongoing humanitarian assistance in Gaza, I am not keen on the flotilla travelling. It has a clear political aim and while people are entitled to make political gestures, I don’t consider the flotilla gesture wise. It is reckless and irresponsible to try and approach Gaza by sea. We would advise medical and other essential specialist staff to co-ordinate their entry to and exit from Gaza with major international organisations already on the ground.

At the same time I have lobbied this week for Israel to fully respect international law and urged them to learn lessons from past events and ensure that they exercise appropriate restraint in any engagement with the flotilla. Finally, while we will never underestimate the security needs of Israel, the high levels of unemployment, collapse of private sector business, and traffic through the tunnels to Gaza all indicate that Israel should continue the progress from last year to encourage more legitimate traffic, construction materials to enter Gaza, and allow more exports. The combination of economic squeeze and Hamas rule has been a poor deal for Gaza. It’s another reason to seek an urgent settlement.

You also asked about the alleged de-legitimisation of Israel - as my Israeli counterparts did. The UK is resolutely opposed to any campaign of delegitimsation. We also oppose boycotts, which we think are counterproductive. But that said, we are concerned by some of Israel’s policies and actions which damage it internationally - most importantly its settlement and demolitions policy. I raised these this week alongside concerns about its treatment of child detainees in the West Bank, and widespread concerns about recent draft legislation on NGO finance.

On Gilad Shalit the UK has consistently called for his immediate release. The Foreign Secretary and I both did so last week on the fifth year of his detention. This week I met Noam Shalit at the protest tent in Jerusalem and reiterated that it is unacceptable that Gilad Shalit is being held by Hamas without any access to the Red Cross and that Hamas should release Gilad Shalit immediately and unconditionally.

With regard to the arrest of Raed Saleh I can confirm that he was excluded by the Home Secretary, but managed to enter the UK. He has therefore been detained and the UK Border Agency is now making arrangements to remove him. A full investigation is now taking place into how he was able to enter. He was excluded from the UK because he had engaged in unacceptable behaviours. The UK Government opposes extremism in all its forms and retains the right to refuse foreign nationals, access to the UK if we believe they represent a threat to security or our society.

I would add that coming to the UK is a privilege that we refuse to extend to those who seek to subvert our shared values to undermine our way of life - and exclusion powers are very serious and no decision is taken lightly or as a method of stopping open debate on issues. We apply the unacceptable behaviours policy in a consistent way regardless of faith, taking all the factors in each case into account. Our policy on unacceptable behaviours is directed at all those who advocate hatred and violence, regardless of their origins or beliefs. Further information on unacceptable behaviours is available on the UKBA website.

Some of you asked about what we are doing to help deal with the threat to terrorism in the region. We oppose terrorism in all its form. With regard to security in the OPTs the PA have made significant strides particularly in developing the Palestinian Security Forces. Attacks from the West Bank are at an all time low and cooperation with the IDF an all time high. The UK has played a role in this, by helping build the capacity of the Palestinian Security Forces for a number of years. We currently support a leadership training programme which focuses on teaching the importance of Human Rights to middle and high ranking members of the security forces. Over the past years, UK programme funds have helped provide technical advice on governance, leadership and human rights issues to the Palestinian Security Sector, including the Civil Police, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence.

This leads into the support we give to the West Bank and Gaza. DFID spent nearly £74m in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2010/11 and expect to spend up to £350m over the next four years.

Finally one of you asked about IDF tactics. This week I went to Nebi Saleh and I was shocked by footage I saw which seemed to show the IDF using heavy handed tactics to put down non violent protest including against children and striking an elderly lady. The British government supports the Palestinians legitimate right to protest non violently against the Israeli occupation - just as we support the right to peaceful protest elsewhere. While we fully understand Israel’s security concerns, we urge the Israeli Security Forces to exercise restraint when policing peaceful demonstrations to prevent against injury and loss of life.

All these difficult circumstances, presently unresolved, and hurting both Palestinian and Israeli people, emphasise why we believe it is so important to work with partners to see a negotiated, agreed answer for the future relationships of two sovereign neighbours living peacefully and securely, side by side”

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Published 6 July 2011