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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Victims of the failure of politics

Victims of the failure of politics
By Hilary Benn

Two conversations will remain with me as a result of my visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One was with the mayor of Sderot, who told me how his town had seen 3,500 rocket attacks and 16 deaths in the last six years. The other, after a short journey to Gaza, was in Beit Hanun, where I met the family that tragically lost 19 members when a shell came through the roof of their home. A mother showed me where her 8-year-old son died as he slept. A father showed me photographs of his two daughters who also had been killed.
Sderot and Beit Hanun are terrible examples of the grim front line of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Two communities, both of which have suffered terribly, have been deeply affected, and are yearning for an end to the cycle of hopelessness.
They are the victims of the failure of politics. And it is very clear to me that ordinary people want their leaders to show them a way out of this terrible conflict.

For the people of Israel, the failure of politics means continued fear and uncertainty that no wall, checkpoint or road closure can prevent. For Palestinians, the failure of politics has crippled the economy and caused untold hardship. Agricultural exports cannot leave Gaza; revenues for public services have not been transferred. And the ongoing military activity causes grief and pain.
Furthermore, the failure of politics means that unless this terrible conflict is solved, it will continue to be a beacon and excuse for extremism and terrorism across the globe.
Peace is the only solution: a two-state solution that provides for a safe and secure Israel, recognized across the world, and a democratic and viable Palestinian state living in peace and prosperity with its neighbor.
This week, many people on both sides pleaded with me to have the international community broker this solution. We will do everything we can, but a solution cannot be imposed externally. Peace must come from within, with courage, vision and leadership on both sides. The international community will then do everything it can to support the process.
But such a peace is not possible while the elected leadership of the Palestinian Authority - Hamas - does not agree to renounce violence or to recognize Israel and prior agreements, including the road map. These Quartet principles are essential first steps.
At the same time, Israeli actions that fuel Palestinian resentment, such as settling on Palestinian land, withholding revenues and tightening restrictions on movement and access, must be addressed, too.
The UK remains committed to supporting all efforts toward peace. We welcome Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech on November 27, and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' attempts to to form a national unity government. Both leaders are trying to move in the right direction, and the UK stands ready to support them.
Prime Minister Tony Blair made it clear during his last visit here, and on many other occasions, that this remains a top UK priority. And while the UK and other donors cannot provide aid to the Palestinian Authority until it supports the Quartet principles, we will not abandon the ordinary Palestinians. The UK is one of the largest European Union donors, and provided a total of more than $120 million this year.
Some say that since Hamas came into power, the international community has cut its aid. This is not true. EU aid has actually increased this year by 27 percent, to $865 million. The UK helped design the Temporary International Mechanism, which channels money directly to the Palestinian people, and is backing it with $24 million plus what we provide via the European Community. This helps support the costs of health, education and social services, as well as electricity, water, fuel for generators and allowances for some 12,000 poorer Palestinian workers.
I also committed yesterday to more than $150 million to help support Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the next four years. That's enough money to run clinics serving 4 million people or schools for 70,000 students. The point is that whatever happens politically, we will not walk away from the Palestinian people.
But aid alone is not the solution. The Palestinians are the most heavily-aided nation per capita in the world, yet their suffering continues. The solution is a lasting peace, so Palestinians can move freely, get their goods to market and enjoy the prosperity they are capable of achieving.
My discussions in Sderot and Beit Hanun proved to me that Israelis and Palestinians are no different. The doctors, nurses and patients at Shifa hospital in Gaza were the same; so were teachers and pupils at the school at the Qalandiyah refugee camp in the West Bank. The message from all of them is clear: They want what we all want - a decent job, the opportunity to raise a family, to lead a fulfilled life, to contribute to their community and to society.
Politics must help them achieve these ambitions, and it is the job of leaders to make politics work. I know this is not easy. But I also know that history has shown that violence cannot solve conflicts. Only negotiation, compromise - and above all - political leadership can end the pain and suffering experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis.
The writer is British secretary of state for international development.

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