Action on settlement goods ‘under active consideration’

Palestine briefing                        July 2012

Action on settlement goods ‘under active consideration’

First sign of move from words to action on illegal settlements

New advice says ban would be legal

Steps to regulate the sale of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine are being considered by the Government, Middle East minister Alistair Burt confirmed during a debate in the Commons on Wednesday July 4th.

Pressed for a ban on the sale of settlement goods by a former Middle East minister, Ben Bradshaw, he said: “The issue of settlement produce and financing is under active consideration in London and in Brussels.”

Earlier Ben Bradshaw said the Foreign Office “has recently received new legal advice that it is arguable that a country that sells or receives produce from the illegal settlements is itself breaking the law”.

The advice went on to say that a total ban on produce from the illegal settlements would not be illegal, as previously argued, under the laws of the European Union or the World Trade Organisation or under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

“Condemnation and criticism is all very well, but it has achieved nothing with the Netanyahu Government. The remorseless expansion of settlements continued during the years when I was a Minister, it continued under my successors and it still continues now that he is Minister.

“I make this appeal to the Minister. Will he please look at the issue again and, with his European partners, ensure that we have a much more robust policy on importing goods from the illegal settlements?”

The point was pressed home by Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, who challenged the minister to say whether he would consider action on settlement goods:

“If the settlements are illegal — and they are — and the European Union and the UK purchase goods from them, or are involved with companies that trade with them, there is growing legal opinion that we are colluding in that illegality.”

Ben Bradshaw had earlier asked the Minister if he would consider suing the Israeli government for damages for the illegal demolition of schools and other public buildings financed with British, UK, EU or international money.

“Is it not time to move beyond the ritual criticism and condemnation that we always make of the Israeli authorities, and sue them for damages?

“They are recklessly wasting and destroying our taxpayers’ money, and our taxpayers deserve that money back from the Israeli Government.”

This demand was also made by Labour former business secretary John Denham who pointed out that “as European taxpayers, we are, to a considerable extent, paying the human and social cost of that occupation. We are paying the very substantial funding for the Palestinian Authority”.

It had been right to provide that funding as part of a genuine transition towards a two-state solution, but European taxpayers would object if it they found themselves funding a permanent Israeli occupation.

The Commons heard earlier from the sponsor of the debate, Frank Doran, Labour MP for Aberdeen North, that 60 buildings funded by the European Union had been demolished by the Israeli armed forces.

“Will the Minister tell us the total cost of those demolished EU projects, and whether he has made any representations to the Israeli Government on this matter?”

Apart from the EU-funded buildings, Israeli bulldozers had demolished 622 Palestinian-owned buildings last year, including mosques and classrooms, and so far this year, 371 Palestinian buildings had been demolished and 600 Palestinians had been evicted as a result of demolitions.

His debate focused on the plight of the Palestinians living in the so-called ‘Area C’ covering 60% of the West Bank which is still under full Israeli control and where the Israelis encourage the building of Israeli settlements while making it all but impossible for Palestinians to build any new homes.

Around 70% of Area C effectively off limits to Palestinian construction and was designated for exclusive use by Israeli settlements and military or is taken up by nature reserves or the buffer zone around the separation barrier.

In the remaining 30% of Area C, Palestinians face a barrage of restrictions making it virtually impossible to get building permits. In practice, only about 1% of Area C is available for the construction of new properties, and most of that is already built up.

The Middle East minister put the blame for the failure get peace talks restarted on the continued building of illegal settlements and urged the Israeli government to call a halt.

“We take the view, which we have repeated, and which is shared on both sides of the House, that settlement building is illegal under international law and increasingly threatens the viability of the two-state solution.

“The issue is rising up the international agenda, and I urge the Israeli authorities to listen carefully.”

Former Bosnia commander warns of ‘eruption’

Former commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia and now Conservative MP for Beckenham Bob Stewart told the Commons: “My experience as a United Nations commander informs me of one essential truth – injustice will in the end cause such resentment that it will erupt.

“That happened in Ireland and it has happened in other places where I have been. It will eventually burst.

“What is happening in Area C worries me. There is continued expansion of settler communities in the West Bank. That in a way signals to the Palestinians that there is very little intention to stop it or to come to some sort of solution.

“Unless the settlements stop, there can be no chance whatever of a two-state solution, and the only alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution—one state where Jews and Palestinians recognise one another as equals.”

Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Ian Lucas said he had written to the Israeli embassy as a result of a visit to a military prison in the West Bank where juvenile offenders were not given access to legal advice and were not allowed to have their parents present at interrogations. Israel had a proud tradition of giving individual rights to people but they were “not applying the law fairly” in these courts, he said.

 

  

As it appeared in Hansard

 

West Bank (Area C)

4 July 2012 : Column 286WH

2.30 pm

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the important issue of Area C in Palestine. Following the Oslo agreement in 1995, the occupied Palestinian territories were divided into three areas: Area A, about 18% of the West Bank, contains most of the main Palestinian settlements and is under full Palestinian civil and security control; Area B, roughly 22% of the West Bank, is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control; and Area C, on which I want to concentrate, makes up the other 60% of the West Bank and is under complete Israeli civil and security control.

The Oslo agreement as concerned with the West Bank was intended to be interim and to last for only five years. The lands should have been handed over gradually to Palestinian control, but that has never happened.

 

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole debate. Does he agree that Area C would, and does, make up the backbone of any future Palestinian state? The failure of the Oslo process to follow its proper track therefore jeopardises the whole future of the two-state solution. Will he ask for the Minister’s views on that?

 

Mr Doran: I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention—I always thank the right hon. Lady, and I always give way to her. The Minister has heard her question, and I am sure that he will respond. Of course, I agree that the solution, if there is one, to the problems of Area C is crucial to the whole settlement of a particularly difficult issue.

Israel, as an occupying state, has clear and unambiguous responsibilities to the Palestinian people in Area C, including for the safety and welfare of civilians living in the occupied territory. It has no sovereignty over Area C or any other part of the West Bank. I want to concentrate on Area C and the way in which the Israeli authorities have met their obligations under international law.

In May this year, I had the opportunity to visit Palestine for the first time, on a trip with some colleagues organised by the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group and CAABU, the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. One of the first things I noticed travelling through the West Bank, as a newcomer, is the enormous amount of new development. The hills are full of new housing complexes, but in Area C those developments do not belong to the indigenous population—they have all been developed by the occupying force, Israel, and are therefore illegal. The scale is staggering.

According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, there are 124 formally recognised settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, and about 100 informal settlements—outposts—that are illegal under Israeli law. As a result of the restricted road network—restricted for Palestinians, at least—the settlements dominate more than 40% of the West Bank. There are 310,000 settlers now living in Area C, where

the rate of population growth is much higher than in any other part of the country, with an increase of 4.75% per year.

The Israeli Government not only condone illegal development but encourage it, providing incentives, subsidies and funding for housing, education and infrastructure, including special roads and water connections. According to a Peace Now report from 2006, 40% of the land—or 3,400 buildings—on which settlements have been built in Area C is privately owned by Palestinians.

 

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, at most, about 5% of the West Bank consists of settlements, and most of them are in settlement blocks? Does he not accept that the vast majority of the settlements are

along the peace line and that, to get to peace, land swaps will be required? Most of those settlements are more than likely to come into Israel anyway.

 

Mr Doran: That does not alter the facts on the ground. Owing to the road networks, the various infrastructure around the settlements and the inability of Palestinians to go into that territory without a permit from the Israeli authorities, 40% of the land is effectively taken up by the settlements.

 

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I, too, have recently returned from a visit to the region. Someone remarked that because of the Israeli settlements the whole of Area C looks similar to a Swiss cheese, which is a very good description. That lack of a contiguous, sustainable two-state solution in the area is making peace very difficult to achieve.

 

Mr Doran: I agree with the hon. Lady. There are less light words than Swiss cheese for what is happening; it is very serious and damaging to any potential solution. She is absolutely right.

 

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I refer the Chamber to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I take the issue of settlements seriously, but listening closely to the hon. Gentleman, I simply cannot understand his repeated reference to settlements taking up 40% of the West Bank. I have the United Nations “Humanitarian Atlas”, and there is simply no way that the Israeli settlements amount to anywhere near 40% of the West Bank. May I ask him to ensure that he is quoting a correct figure?

 

Mr Doran: I stand by the figure. I am not suggesting that 40% is built on; that is not the issue. I am talking about the area of land that is restricted with regard to Palestinians. It includes the road network. The Swiss cheese effect was mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). There are large areas to which the Palestinian community is denied access. That calculation is made, as I said, in a 2006 report by an Israeli human rights organisation. I want to make progress now, because the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) will have his opportunity to speak later.

On my visit to the West Bank, I saw numerous examples of how the Israeli civil Administration restrict any kind of development by Palestinians. Around 70% of Area C, or 44% of the West Bank, is effectively off limits to Palestinian

construction—the hon. Member for Kettering made me nervous of getting into such statistics, but I have to stick by them—and is designated for exclusive use by Israeli settlements and the Israeli military, or is taken up by nature reserves or the barrier buffer zone. In the remaining 30% of Area C, a range of restrictions makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to be granted permission for development.

The most frequent obstacle to Palestinian development is the requirement on the applicant to prove that he or she owns or has the right to use the land, but most land in the West Bank is not registered, so the owners must go through a complex system involving tax and inheritance documents. The second ground for the rejection of most Palestinian permit applications is the requirement that the proposed building must be in conformity with an approved planning scheme that is detailed enough to enable building permits to be used. Palestinian villages, however, lack sufficiently detailed plans. The outdated plans that do exist are interpreted restrictively by the Israeli civil authority. In practice, only about 1% of Area C is available for the construction of new properties, and most of that is already built up.

 

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that among the buildings demolished are structures funded by the European Union, such as schools? I visited the occupied territories in the West Bank a year ago, as part of a delegation, and saw a school that had been built with funding from an Italian charity, but that had been subject to a demolition notice.

 

Mr Doran: We were obviously on the same visit, because I will mention that particular project later. Under the restrictive laws and regulations, many Palestinian structures, including homes, schools, water systems and farming infrastructure, are treated as illegal and are therefore subject to demolition orders.

In 2011, nearly 1,100 Palestinians, half of them children, were displaced through 222 house demolitions—an 80% increase on the number of people displaced in 2010—and 4,200 people were affected by the destruction of structures necessary to their livelihoods, such as water storage and agricultural facilities. In total, 622 Palestinian structures were destroyed, including mosques and classrooms. At the end of 2011, there were more than 3,000 outstanding demolition orders. Those figures included 18 schools.

So far this year, 371 Palestinian structures have been demolished on the West Bank, 124 of which were homes, and 600 people have been displaced so far this year. That is a significant and troubling increase in the weekly average, from 21 people a week displaced in 2011, to 24 a week this year. Of the structures demolished since the start of 2000—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris)—60 were EU-funded structures, and 110 are at risk of demolition. Will the Minister tell us the total cost of those demolished EU projects, and whether he

has made any representations to the Israeli Government on this matter? It would also be helpful if he would identify any projects funded by the Department for International Development that have suffered the same fate.

In addition to the demolition of Palestinian structures, there is the issue of the natural resources of the occupied territories, which have for decades been diverted for the use of Israel and Israeli citizens. International law, of course, requires the natural resources of the occupied territories to be used for the benefit of the local population, except when they are required for an urgent military purpose. The most crucial natural resource on the West Bank is water, and 80% of the water extracted from the West Bank mountain aquifer goes to Israel, with only 20% going to the Palestinians.

Settlers consume between six and 10 times more per head than their Palestinian counterparts. Many settlers have swimming pools and are able to irrigate their farmland. By contrast, 190,000 Palestinians live in 134 villages without running water. Palestinian consumption in the occupied territories is about 70 litres per day, well below the 100 litres recommended by the World Health Organisation. In some rural communities, people survive on 20 litres per day, and many Palestinians are forced to buy water of dubious quality from mobile water tanks at high prices. Wells and systems built without permits are frequently destroyed by the Israeli army.

Demolition orders are in place, and actual demolition has occurred, all over Area C. On a recent trip, we visited two Bedouin communities. The first was Kahn al-Ahmar. The residents are a Bedouin community who are refugees from the Negev. The area in which they live could not be described as remote. They live cheek by jowl with a main highway, and there is a substantial settlement on the other side of the road. However, the actions of the ICA have led to the community being isolated in practical terms.

The residents recognised that one of the costs of that isolation was the impact on their children’s schooling, and they decided to build a school. They obtained funding support from an Italian non-governmental organisation, and were given help with design and materials. They managed to build a school, and the main material was used tyres—it is a fascinating building—covered in mud or some form of mortar, but it is well insulated and cool, and it suits the children very well in their environment. The children are being supplied with an education in good surroundings. However, the Bedouins there did not have permission to build the school, and since its construction it has been under constant threat of demolition.

The families living there have been targeted on two fronts. First, the ICA wants to demolish the school, and there is no permit. That is the law. That will deprive the children of their education. The second threat, which has been made to all the Bedouin groups in the area, is to move them to another site. The proposed site is next to a rubbish dump that services the settlement up the hill. Everything that will involve, and the risk to health for all those who are moved to the site, is anathema to the community involved. We spoke to a community leader, Abu Khamis, who said:“They are saying they are moving us to a rubbish dump, if we move out of this community it should be to return to the home of our tribe in the Negev.” He continued: “Whether the rubbish dump or the French Riviera we don’t want to go”.

That Bedouin community lives where it does because there was a river and natural wells, but they were diverted to serve the local settlements on the other side of the road, and the land used for grazing the Bedouins’ sheep has been severely restricted. We were told about the harassment by nearby settlers. Abu Khamis told us that his wife had been beaten by settlers while on the hillside with their sheep. On the day we visited, a group of settlers had entered the community, and had taken photographs of the children and structures to intimidate the residents.

As well as settler intimidation, and the constant threats to demolish the school and of possible removal to the rubbish dump site, there is further institutional harassment. For example, the access route to the village from the main road that the villagers used to use was sealed off by the authorities, and the only access to the village by vehicle now is along an extremely rough river bed track. The authorities have built a sewage air vent 5 metres from the classroom, and that obviously affects the air that the children breathe in the school. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington visited the same site and he will recall how difficult the drive to the village was, but those people have to put up with that every day, and it is much

worse for them because they are cheek by jowl with a major road.

Despite all that, Abu Khamis and his community are adamant that they will not be intimidated or moved from their home. Their most earnest wish is to return to their tribal home in the Negev, but that is not possible now. It is difficult to interpret the behaviour and actions of the Israeli authorities as anything other than intimidation of the worst kind. They hope that the constant threat from the authorities, and their mean and insidious actions, such as cutting off access, will grind the community down.

The community at Kahn al-Ahmar has in some respects become a symbol of the way in which the Israeli authority treats the Palestinian communities. There has been considerable media interest in the school project, and it is a tribute to Abu Khamis and his community that they have continued to resist all efforts to intimidate them from their home, but how long can that go on?

On the same day, we visited the Kurshan community, who also live nearby in the Khan al-Ahmar area. An international non-governmental organisation has funded a new home for each of the eight families in the community, but within a week of completion 24-hour eviction notices were served. On the day we visited, the community had been told that an appeal against the orders had been refused, and that their homes would be demolished the next afternoon. We were told that just an hour before came an ICA representative had visited and told the families that they would be relocated to the rubbish dump area—presumably the same rubbish dump area where the other sect of the tribe was to be moved to.

A member of the community, Abu Faris, said that he had told the ICA representative“that’s a rubbish dump and I am a human being. In any country a human being should not live near a rubbish dump and I have a right to be a human being just like you have”. He told us that they intended to carry on finishing the inside of the new building. I understand that the following day an injunction was obtained for the Kurshan community, and the court asked the ICA not to carry out the demolition. The case is winding its way through the court processes, but in the meantime the Kurshan Bedouin community remains in its new homes, but under constant threat of displacement.

 

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): On the illegal demolition of infrastructure that has been built with British, UK, EU or international money, is it not time to move beyond the ritual criticism and condemnation that we always make of the Israeli authorities, and sue them for damages? They are recklessly wasting and destroying our taxpayers’ money, and our taxpayers deserve that money back from the Israeli Government.

 

Mr Doran: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I hope that the Minister has taken note of it. It raises another issue, because my understanding of how international law operates is that the Israeli authorities have responsibilities to the Palestinian communities that are being met by our country, the EU, and non-governmental organisations around the world, saving Israel that expense. There is a serious issue that needs to be considered.

 

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way again. He makes the point that the Israeli authorities have responsibilities; does he also agree that it is in their interest to have a better-educated and better-off Palestinian population that is able to feed itself? That is in the interests of a two-state solution and long-term peace.

 

Mr Doran: This is the politics of the mad house. We have a very suppressed Palestinian population, and one day the kettle will explode. There is no question about that; it is just a question of when.

I started by mentioning the responsibilities of the Israeli authorities as the occupying force in Area C. It is clear that the Israeli Government are ignoring their responsibilities under international law, and I have raised a few points about that in this short debate. There is a virtual free-for-all, with new housing developments for settlers actively encouraged and supported financially by the Israeli Government. That development has taken place regardless of the rights of the true owners of the land. Resources, particularly water, have been channelled to the illegal settlers, but restricted or denied to the Palestinians, who have been denied all the rights given to illegal settlers.

As the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, we have a Swiss cheese approach. It is almost like the creation of bantustans; the communities will be separated out and surrounded by Israeli settlements, or roads that Palestinians cannot access. That appears to be a deliberate strategy by Israeli authorities to isolate Palestinian communities in Area C.

We in this Chamber are all politicians, and we know that the only solution to this problem is political. On where the two sides stand—I was aware of this in this country, but it was underlined for me in my short time in Palestine—the Palestinian Authority are frustrated and feel that they cannot go any further. They have done an excellent job in managing, looking after and ensuring security in the areas that they control, but they are frustrated that they cannot make any progress during talks. Whatever plans the Israeli authorities have in mind for the long term, settlement of this problem does not seem to be one of them.

When we met the Israeli authorities, it was clear that a number of things were on their mind. Iran was top of the list, and next was the Arab spring and the impact that that will have on their plans. There were also concerns about what a second Obama presidency might mean to the state of Israel.

We will reach a resolution only if we find a political solution, and it does not seem to me that either side is capable of working towards that. It is, therefore, a question for us. I know the excellent work that the Minister has done in this area, and his praises were sung virtually everywhere we went. I say that to him as an old football colleague; I know him and his integrity on these issues well. A simple fact, however, is that the people whom we and others in the debate met in Palestine, including those who live in Khan al-Ahmar, deserve a better life. It is our job to help them find it.

 

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran). I am speaking loudly because I understand that the sound system is not very good and people cannot hear. I apologise if I am shouting like a sergeant-major, but I hope people can hear me.

I spent my boyhood in Amman; my father was an officer with Glubb Pasha. I loved Amman and I remember visiting Jerusalem. I even spoke a bit of Arabic. In 1967, when I was doing my A-levels, I watched the war in June with horror. My dad despaired. He just put his head in his hands and said, “What will happen now?”

I remember Security Council resolution 242 being passed. It said that Israel should go back to the pre-1967 boundaries, and that the security of Israel should be guaranteed internationally. In 45 years, that has not been achieved—[ Interruption. ] Oh—the sound is back on; I shall calm down.

Israel has only to lose a war once, so I understand why it is dominated by thoughts of its own security. It is surrounded by people and some states that wish nothing more than its demise. Iran has declared that it wants to see Israel eliminated, and rockets are fired into Israel by Hamas and associated terrorist groups that also carry out suicide bombings against innocent people.

Jerusalem is a holy city for the world’s three great Aramaic religions. Jews, Arabs and other peoples have always lived in Jerusalem together, almost since history began, and in a way it is the world’s first international city. However, I want to talk specifically about the West Bank, particularly Area C.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North has already explained the meaning of the three areas, A, B and C, but if I may, I will amplify his comments to stress that Area A is the population centre for the Palestinians and contains mainly towns; Area B is controlled administratively by the Palestinians—although not for security which lies with the Israelis—and has more villages; Area C, as the hon. Gentleman said, occupies about 60% of the West Bank and includes about 310,000 settlers, not

including the 200,000 who live in East Jerusalem, which is separate. That area is under full Israeli security and civil control. It also has Israeli-controlled water, planning and administration.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Oslo agreement was meant to be an interim measure, although it seems to be becoming the status quo. Internationally, Israel does not have sovereignty in Area C, or indeed the West Bank—it does not. Therefore, under international law, Israel is the occupying power in that land, and it most definitely has responsibility for the people who live there.Grahame M. Morris: The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Does he agree that although under the terms of the Oslo agreement the Israeli authorities have responsibility for planning, water and security measures in Area C, that was an interim measure? The plan was for responsibility to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority over time, but that does not seem to be happening.

Bob Stewart: Yes, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about that.

Area C is, of course, the key to sorting out the problem because it makes up the majority of the West Bank. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), who is no longer in the Chamber, has already made that point.

 

Mr Hollobone: Can we please get the facts right? According to the United Nations, Area C is 39% of the West Bank. That is not the same as the area covered by settlements. I am afraid that my hon. Friend is not correct to say that Area C makes up the majority of the West Bank. According to the UN, it is 39%. I recognise that it is a big area, but let us get our facts and figures correct to better inform the debate.

 

Bob Stewart: I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me, but when I look at the map he is holding up, it looks to me more like 60% blue. But let us not get into an argument; whether the area is 40% or 60%, something is wrong.

There are, as we have mentioned in the debate, about 310,000 Israeli settlers in Area C. There are 149 settlements—okay, people might dispute that, but it is more than 100—and there are about 100 outposts, which are illegal under both international law and Israeli civil law. Already, it is said, about four of the settlements could rightly be called cities. That is quite big. Under international law, all settlements are illegal and outposts are most definitely illegal.

Two kinds of people live in Area C. There are Israelis, who are subject to Israeli civil law, loosely—as I understand it—because they sometimes do not pay much attention to the Israeli police. In fairness, they are sometimes, apparently, in defiance of what Israeli police are trying to do. The other kind of people living there are Palestinians. They are subject to military law. That is wrong. When I visited Area C, the difference was quite clear. Palestinians cannot build where they live, except in a small percentage—1%, 2% or 3%—of the country; nor do they have freedom of movement. They have to stay in their home area. For example, a Palestinian living in Area C with relatives in East Jerusalem cannot easily go to visit them. That is wrong.

Andrew Percy: Does my hon. Friend accept, on the movement issue, that 100 roadblocks have been removed and movements between Israel and the West Bank and within the West Bank have increased significantly? Who does he blame for the lack of progress on a negotiated peace settlement? Everyone knows that the 1967 line will not be the final settlement, so who does my hon. Friend blame? Does he blame the Israelis or does he blame the Palestinian side?

Bob Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The answer to his question is that I do not blame either side. I have been involved in too many negotiations for the UN to start from a position of saying “You’re wrong” to one side or the other. The answer is: negotiate. There is wrong on both sides in this matter.

 

Andrew Percy rose 

 

Bob Stewart: I have given way once. You can keep quiet for the moment.

 

Mr Robin Walker: I neglected earlier to refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of organisations such as Breaking the Silence, which tries to show in Israel the damage that the occupation is doing to Israelis?

 

Bob Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and I apologise if I seemed rude to my very good hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I do not mean to be rude.

I am aware of the organisation Breaking the Silence. Perhaps someone else will bring it up.

 

Mr Bradshaw rose 

 

Bob Stewart: Perhaps it will be my right hon. Friend, although he is not meant to be.

 

Mr Bradshaw: On this issue, I think I probably am. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a better description than settlement, which is a fairly neutral, anodyne word, would be colony? These are illegal colonies. Does he agree that the description that he has just given of Area C, although it is not a complete parallel, is moving towards a situation that is comparable with apartheid South Africa?

 

Bob Stewart: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. I am trying to avoid using words such as “apartheid” and “ghetto”. They are emotive terms. “Colony” is just acceptable, but I am trying to avoid using those terms, because, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, I am trying to avoid putting blame on anyone. I am just trying to explain the situation.

 

Mrs Grant: I understand why my hon. Friend resists labelling, but does he accept that the terrible lack of freedom of movement is having a devastating effect on jobs, investment and economic growth for the entire region?

Bob Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend, who is most definitely a very good friend. I agree. It is quite clear that that is one of the problems.

 

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) I recognise and accept that apportioning blame in this situation is not the right thing to do. We should be aiming to get people round the negotiating table, but does my hon. Friend not agree that during the 10-month period when the Israeli Government froze all settlement activity, there was a failure by the Palestinians to get round the negotiating table and make progress?

 

Bob Stewart: Yes, but there are circumstances as to why that was the case.

 

Andrew Percy rose 

 

Bob Stewart: I give way to my hon. Friend, otherwise he will give me hell later.

 

Andrew Percy: Not at all, but I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Like other hon. Members in their contributions, he has hit on the nub of the situation, which is that we want to encourage economic development. That is probably the best way of going towards peace, but it is not the fact that continued Israeli frustration is harming the economy. The economy in the West Bank is growing significantly. The number of work permits issued to citizens in the West Bank to work in Israel has increased, and the number of work permits issued to West Bank residents to work in the settlements has also increased. Trade between the West Bank and Israel has increased substantially year on year in the last few years.

 

Bob Stewart:  I will speed up and allow fewer interventions. I am going to speed up and cut down, because I think that is fair.

My experience as a United Nations commander informs me of one essential truth, which everyone in this room will fully understand without having been in my circumstances. Injustice will in the end cause such resentment that it will erupt. That happened in Ireland and it has happened in other places where I have been—it will eventually burst.

I know that Israel has often been provoked mightily, but what is happening in Area C worries me. There is continued expansion of settler communities in the West Bank. That in a way signals to the Palestinians that there is very little intention to stop it or to come to some sort of solution. Unless the settlements stop, there can be no chance whatever of a two-state solution, and the only alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution—one state where Jews and Palestinians recognise one another as equals. Surely that is not totally utopian. Acceptance of human beings’ human rights is what the United Nations is all about and what everyone in this room feels strongly about, too. For its part, Hamas, in Gaza, must somehow recognise the right of the state of Israel to exist. After all, Israel did withdraw from Gaza in 2005.

 

Bob Blackman: What happened?

 

Bob Stewart: For doing so, its reward was often a rain of rockets. The whole situation seems somewhat intractable. In my experience, it is always the little people, the ordinary people, who suffer in conflict situations. They simply want to live their lives as best they can. Whether they are Israeli or Palestinian, they are human beings. Remedial action must come from leaders on all sides. They must convince their people that it is necessary.

I end by asking God to bring back King Solomon. He was respected by Jews and Muslims equally, and my God, we need his wisdom now.

 

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): In deference not only to that, but to the two fine speeches we heard setting out the core of the issue with Area C, I will keep my comments short and limit them principally to one case, which is the village of Susiya.

When debating Palestine, we sometimes lose a little context when we talk about Israel’s problems in its governance of the West Bank. Israel is an occupying power of the West Bank and has been since 1967. Over that time, it has engaged in an aggressive policy of colonisation, which has also involved the active displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population, whether they be settled or Bedouin communities. That is the context.

The lives of the Palestinians are compromised and disrupted daily, whether physically, by the settlements, barriers and checkpoints, or organisationally, through pass laws and restrictions on movement, trade and so on, which, sadly, bear a resemblance to some activities of the apartheid regime in South Africa—pass laws and such matters. The fact is that Israel has no business under international law being in the West Bank. That is why, although I agree with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) that we must try to bring people together, blame must be attached where blame falls. It principally lies with the occupying power.

To assist the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I can tell him the figures that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency gave recently when it came to Parliament to brief Members on the situation in Area C: Area A, which is under full Palestinian control, is about 17% of the West Bank; Area B is about 21%; and Area C, where there is full Israeli control, is about 61%. Those figures were given to us within the past two weeks.

Equally important when considering Area C is the fact that 70% of that 60% is off limits to Palestinians. It is either settlements, land controlled by settlements or other areas—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) mentioned nature reserves and other “scams”, for want of a better word—that restrict Palestinian access. Given that 29% is already built-up land, only 1% of Area C is actually potentially available for development by Palestinians—the people whose land it is. We will get nowhere until that situation is resolved.

I will briefly use the example of the village of Susiya to show exactly what the Palestinians are up against. It is a Bedouin village on an escarpment in the south Hebron hills, and is the agricultural centre of the region. It has been settled by the same families since the 19th century. In that respect, it is similar to other villages around Jerusalem or in the Negev. I visited one of the villages and have seen villages in the Negev that have been demolished five times by Israeli forces and then rebuilt. Just this week, B’Tselem, a well respected human rights organisation, said about Susiya:“On Tuesday, 12 June 2012, Israel’s Civil Administration distributed demolition orders to…50—

that is essentially all— “structures in the Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills. The orders stated that they were renewals of demolition orders originally issued in the 1990s. Residents were given three days, until 15 June 2012, to appeal the orders…Residents are planning to submit their opposition”.

With the intervention of human rights groups, the demolition orders were extended to last Sunday, but they have now expired again. We are talking about residential tents, which house over 100 people; kitchens; shops; a clinic; a community centre; museums; the solar panels that provide electricity; and shelters for animals. The entire village—everything—will be demolished. The villagers are on watch every day waiting for the bulldozers to arrive under the protection of the army. That is life for many Palestinians. Will the Minister take up that case, not only because it is important in itself, but because it is the tip of the iceberg of what is happening to villages in that area? If he has not done so already, I ask him to make particular mention of the case to the Government of Israel.

I was alerted to that case by an organisation called the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which is a very good Christian organisation through which people live peacefully with Palestinian villagers for months. Its members brought in videos that showed me not only threats from the military, but from another village called Susiya, which is a nearby, well developed Israeli settler village with every modern convenience. Under the protection of the military, the settlers come down to the Palestinian village armed with guns; they throw stones and attack Palestinian villagers. That is something that I have seen myself on video and film.

 

Mrs Grant: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the activities of the Israeli defence and security forces in a number of situations have a real effect on normal people—the little people whom my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) referred to—and engender an atmosphere of worrying hate and distrust?

 

Mr Slaughter: Absolutely. Occupation does that in its own right, but this is not a benign occupation. This is violence. It has accelerated with an increase in settler violence of 144% in the past two years. It is an organised campaign to disrupt the lives of Palestinians and to extend the occupation, which continues year-on-year and which, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said, increasingly makes a two-state solution difficult, if not impossible. That is why we need more from the Government—not only words, but action.

 

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most cynical aspects is the Kafkaesque way in which the illegal

occupiers use international law to say, “Ah, we should rely on the established law—Ottoman law and mandate law—for the legal framework for house demolitions”? Those laws are used in a perverted way to disadvantage the Palestinian residents who should have rights in that illegally occupied land, while a completely different set of legal rights are applied to the illegal occupations. Is it not that twisted way of interpreting the law that adds offence to the physical destruction of homes, schools and other properties?

Mr Slaughter: My right hon. Friend is right. Rules and regulations are manipulated in an absolutely cynical way to wear down and break the spirit of Palestinians living in the West Bank. I think that it has been proved that that does not work. The resilience of the Palestinian people there is extraordinary, which is why there is also violence. Arrests, detention—including of children—and administrative detention, which happens on a continual basis, are all designed to break the will of the Palestinian people and favour the occupier and settlers over the indigenous population. I know that the Minister knows those matters well, but I hope that he will redouble his efforts. I will end on that point.

I know that it is a little cheeky, but in the interests of trying to be conciliatory on these matters, can I get a response from the Minister fairly soon on Mohammed Abu Mueleq? He is a former Hamas fighter and activist who is now reformed and wishes to come to the UK to talk to us about the ways of peace.

 

Mr Doran: On a point of order, Mrs Brooke, in my previous contribution I mentioned trips that had been organised by the all-party group, but I forgot to draw attention to my entry, which I would like to be noted, in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

 

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I think I understand the timings, Mrs Brooke, and will try to stick to them. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate, and on his point of order, which reminds me that I should also draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I feel that some rebalancing is needed in some of our discussions in the House on this subject. I make no apology for my position of support for Israel as a state, and its right to exist. Accepting it as the only legitimate democracy in its part of the world, we rightly attach to Israel a higher standard than we do to others. That is entirely correct. However, the Middle East process is fraught with difficulty and nuances, and it is important to give a fair hearing to both sides.

The use of language is important, and I bristle somewhat at the use of the word “apartheid”, just as I do not approve of those who accuse people of being anti-Semitic if they criticise Israel. Some of the issues raised today,

such as settlement, are important factors, which deserve debate and must be dealt with. However, they do not necessarily lie at the core of the conflict. Making them, as has happened increasingly in recent years, the sole reason for the lack of peace, while blaming Israeli intransigence, is not helpful. It is important to look at the history of peace negotiations and offers.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Percy: I will give way quickly, because I get my extra minute, and I want to hear the hon. Lady.

Cathy Jamieson: Before the hon. Gentleman goes on to talk about the history, will he accept that, notwithstanding all he has outlined, and all the nuances, we should be concerned when we hear of the basic humanitarian issue of people not getting enough water to live on?

Andrew Percy: Absolutely, and projects have just been approved, I think, by the United States Agency for International Development that we hope will resolve that. The issue of water needs to be resolved quickly. My support, if one calls it that, for the state of Israel does not mean that I am an unconditional friend. There are things that the Israeli Government do that I—and a large number of Israeli citizens—do not approve of. It is important to remember that some of the biggest criticisms of the Israeli Government come from within Israel.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): On the humanitarian issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people often describe the security barrier as an apartheid tool. Has not the number of people killed in suicide attacks and similar occurrences fallen dramatically as a result of the building of the wall? Does not every state have a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence?

Andrew Percy: That is true. It is important to remember that the barrier—the figures speak for themselves, but I do not have time to quote them—protects Israeli citizens, including Arab and Christian Israelis, as well as Jewish Israelis. We should never forget that. We should also not forget that the Israeli Government have been taken to court and have lost in the courts on the issue, because Israel is a democracy.

Let us look at some of the offers that have been made. There were peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. Both of those are clear examples of land being relinquished in return for a peaceful settlement. It is not true that Israel is not prepared to cede land for peace. In 2000, at Camp David, a major peace offer was made by Israel. Had that been accepted, 97% of the land in the West Bank and Gaza would have been available to create a Palestinian state. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned the settlement freeze. That was rejected and ignored, and then, all of a sudden, at the end of it, with about a month to go, settlements were an issue that was key to bringing the Palestinians around the table.

On a recent visit to Israel, hon. Members heard from Ehud Olmert that the offer made in 2008 would have meant withdrawal from 93% of the West Bank. As I said in some of my interventions, we need to understand that there have not been any new settlements since 1993.

I personally do not agree with the expansion of settlements, but we must understand that the vast majority of those settlements are along the 1967 green line, and most of them will come into Israel. Israel has not been frightened in the past of removing illegal settlements, as it is doing with outposts at the moment.I am a bit confused as to how long I have left for my speech. [ Interruption. ] I think that is a minute—excellent. My goose is cooked in a minute. I wanted to talk about incitement. It is a matter of concern that documents from junior Foreign Office officials say that incitement is being used as an excuse in Israel. That is not the case. Some of the examples of how Israel, Jewish people and, indeed, Christians are described on Palestinian television are unacceptable. There is incitement in the Palestinian Authority, which has a serious impact. It is an abuse of the population there, and it has an impact on bringing the two sides together. That needs to be addressed more rigorously. In particular, there is the issue of school text books, on which we have not received a satisfactory response from the Department for International Development. At the end of the day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, the issue is education and increasing trade. Those things are more likely to bring both sides together—

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): We have talked about the context, and I want to go back to that. When the state of Israel was created, the Jewish population was given 55% of the land, even though three quarters of the population of the then state of Palestine was Palestinian. In 1948, after the war of independence, Israel managed to obtain 78% of the land, and the Palestinians were given 22%, which is what we call Gaza and the West Bank. More than 3 million Palestinians were expelled by the Israelis during those times.

One part of the Oslo agreement related to the West Bank, and it was divided into three sectors. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) has talked about that, and I want to talk about Area C, which is now controlled by the Israelis. As a result of various actions in the past few years, it appears that a further percentage will be absorbed, and that Area C will probably end up as part of Israel, leaving Palestine with only 12% of the land.

I am not overly fond of statistics, but they show the stark contrast in the picture. In 1972 the number of Israeli settlers in Area C was 1,200; in 1993 it was 110,000; and in 2010 it was 310,000. That does not include the 200,000 living in East Jerusalem. The number of Palestinians, as of now, is only 150,000. The illegal settlers often live in the 124 formal and about 100 informal settlements, both of which have been declared illegal under international law and, as been mentioned, under Israeli law as well.

If people doubt the sources of my information, what I am referring to comes from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A fact-file from January states: “The forced displacement of Palestinian families and the destruction of civilian homes and other property by Israeli forces in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have a serious humanitarian impact. Demolitions deprive people of their homes, often their main source of physical and economic security. They also disrupt their livelihoods”.

The psychological effects on families are distressing. The fact file adds that the Israeli authorities say that often

“demolitions are carried out because structures lack the required building permits. In reality, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits. The zoning and planning regime”—

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I have listened with interest to the debate. One of the problems is that we get hung up on the issue of settlements. We must consider Israel’s history of dealing with settlements in relation to peace. In 2005, Israel destroyed the Jewish settlements in Gaza and withdrew from them. In 1982, in return for peace with Egypt, it withdrew from Sinai, destroying the settlements as part of the peace agreement. In fact, only last month, the outpost of Ulpana was ruled illegal by the Israeli courts. Israel has withdrawn from that and will demolish it.

The key point is that the Israeli Government will remove settlements once peace has been agreed. I have been to Israel and the West Bank with the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I have also been to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel with the Council for European Palestinian Relations, and I have seen that the situation on the ground is dire. It is important that negotiations take place without preconditions.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the settlement of Ulpana, which is being demolished. Will he confirm that the deal that demolishes that illegal settlement includes the construction of 851 other units somewhere else? When he refers to settlements, does he include East Jerusalem, which Israel does not regard as settlement building?

Bob Blackman: East Jerusalem must be part of the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government. The reality is that there are now more Arabs living in Jerusalem than ever before. I agree that the negotiations are paramount and must take place forthwith. The problem is that while the Palestinians fail to get round the negotiating table, and continue to set preconditions that will not be acceptable to the Israeli Government, settlement activity will continue apace. We have heard lots of statistics today. The reality is that just 5% of Area C is occupied by settlements. There will be a negotiation at some future time over whether that land is to be part of Palestine and the West Bank, or part of Israel, as a result of land swaps.

The key issue before us today is the need to encourage the Government of Israel and the Palestinian authorities to get round the table. I urge my hon. Friend the

Minister to do all that he can to persuade both parties to do so immediately. The position now is that Netanyahu is heading a coalition Government, which gives Israel certainty for the indefinite future. Under freedom of information requests, we have discovered that Foreign Office officials seem to have written off Netanyahu. That is wrong, and what we should be doing is encouraging him and his whole Government to get round the table with the Palestinians.

Guto Bebb: On the issue of the Netanyahu, does my hon. Friend share my aspirations to see the Kadima and Likud Government move forward to constructive dialogue? Such a dialogue might have been difficult in the past because of the dependence of the previous coalition on some of the extremist parties in Israeli politics.

Bob Blackman: Indeed. The one thing that I would not wish on anyone is Israel’s system of elections. However, the coalition Government give us the potential for a lasting and just settlement, and the opportunity for stability and peace. It is for the Palestinians to grasp this opportunity. It is right that they get round the table now, without preconditions, to ensure that they achieve that peace.

Finally, there is one significant gap in the Queen’s long reign: she has never paid a proper state visit to Israel or any part of Palestine. I ask the Foreign Office—I have written to the Foreign Secretary about this—to prevail upon the Queen to make such a visit. After all, if she can go to Northern Ireland and shake hands with the Deputy First Minister, why not go and seek peace in that great part of the holy lands of this world?

 

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I draw the Chamber’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to the fact that I accompanied my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on his recent visit to the region.

What the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) described as preconditions were, until recently, regarded as the mutually agreed starting point for the way to achieve a two-state solution. Those have now been withdrawn from negotiations, which makes things more difficult. I wanted to highlight the way that Area C, which was originally conceived of as a transitional measure—part of the process of going to a two-state solution—is slowly but surely being taken by the Israelis as an area of Israeli authority, in which they are able to impose their will, often with a fiction of law, as I said in an intervention, to the disadvantage of the Palestinian people. That is a very different concept of Area C. It raises a number of important questions.

As European taxpayers, we are, to a considerable extent, paying the human and social cost of that occupation. We are paying the very substantial funding for the Palestinian Authority, and for pretty much all of what is described as economic growth within the occupied territories. It has been wholly right to provide funding in that way, as part of a genuine transition towards a two-state solution. It is not at all obvious to me how we will continue to make the case for European taxpayers finding that money when we are funding not a transition to a peaceful solution, but the status quo.

One of the things that struck me on my most recent visit was how small the place is and how critical the issues are. We went to the Ma’ale Adumim area, where the Bedouin whom we talked about earlier were. The area between that settlement and Jericho is the same as the area between my constituency in Southampton and Winchester. On a train, that is about enough time get a cup of coffee and get out a laptop. Yet if that settlement continues, the West Bank is effectively wholly divided. There is no possibility of a Palestinian state with physical integrity. That is why the settlement must stop now; otherwise, it will be almost impossible for the negotiations to reach a resolution.

 

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham). I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this debate. This is a hugely complex issue. All of us who have visited Israel or the Palestinian Authority will know what a small geographical area of land we are talking about. It is important to get these complex issues into some sense of proportion. We are talking about Area C, in which 150,000 Palestinians live. There are 1.4 million Palestinians living in Israel and 2.5 million Palestinians living in Areas A and B. It would be wrong if this Chamber today gave the world the impression that we are talking about most of the Palestinian population, because we are not.

The West Bank has always been under occupation. In 1948, it was annexed by Jordan, which, as far as I can tell, did not do much with it. The Gaza strip was annexed by Egypt, and then the situation was even worse. To imply that it is just Israel that has occupied this benighted land would be quite inaccurate.

Mr Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman is showing uncharacteristic false logic. The reason for designating Area A is because it contains the main Palestinian towns. It would be a bit like saying that as long as we excluded London, Manchester and Birmingham, we could allow someone else to occupy all the rural areas of England. This is the Palestinians’ land, and they are entitled to all of it.

Mr Hollobone: One of the big tragedies of the Palestinian nation was that it did not accept the United Nations partition plan in 1948. A whole series of wrong decisions have been made by the Arab people since that time. The Israelis are not going to go away. After the holocaust in Europe, they deserve a homeland. As David Ben-Gurion said, we will have to arrive at a peaceful settlement with the Arab people who live in the Holy Land. We are all still in pursuit of that peace. Some of the Palestinians live in terrible situations. I visited them myself in the Gaza strip, and on the West Bank. That is all the more reason to arrive at a peace settlement with Israel, so that both peoples can live in harmony with each other. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I am not in the blame game. I recognise that this is a hugely complicated situation, but we must get a sense of proportion if we are to arrive at sensible and lasting peace for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.

 

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for giving me—a former Middle East Minister —a minute to speak.

I want to ask the Minister specifically about the Government’s policy on produce from the illegal settlements. As he will be aware, the Foreign Office has consistently said that it cannot move the British Government’s policy forward on this issue, because it would be illegal to do so. However, he may be aware that the Foreign Office has recently received new legal advice—if he is not aware of it, I hope that he will make himself aware of it—that points to the opposite being the case. It is actually arguable that a country that sells or receives produce from the illegal settlements is itself breaking the law—in other words, we may be breaking the law—and that a ban on produce from the illegal settlements would not be illegal under EU law, under World Trade Organisation law or under the general agreement on tariffs and trade obligations.

I make this appeal to the Minister if he is interested in doing something that I think most people here would like him to do. Condemnation and criticism is all very well but it has achieved nothing with the Netanyahu Government. The remorseless expansion of settlements continued during the years when I was a Minister, it continued under my successors and it still continues now that he is Minister. Will he please look at the issue again and, with his European partners, ensure that we have a much more robust policy on importing goods from the illegal settlements?

 

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a privilege to be here in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and to have listened to the contributions to the debate. As always seems to be the case when we have debates on the Middle East, we have not had enough time for people to expand their arguments. It would be very welcome indeed if we could have a longer debate. Perhaps we could consider approaching the Backbench Business Committee to ask for an opportunity to discuss matters at greater length. That would be very helpful.

I also want to draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I was privileged to go to the Middle East—to Israel and Palestine—recently, in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). As a member of Labour Friends of Israel, I visited Israel last November, in the company of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander).

On my most recent visit, which was about two months ago, I was struck by the urgency of the issues relating to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and by the profound frustration that I found on the West Bank in Ramallah when I spoke to representatives of the Palestinian Authority about the pace of progress in the discussions that were taking place. Like most people, before I went out there I was aware that people were perhaps looking to a second term for President Obama as a time when there might be some progress. However, the message I received from the Palestinian Authority was that the situation on the ground was very pressing indeed and much more urgent than I had appreciated. There is a real sense of frustration, and I feared what the consequences of that frustration might be when I visited communities in the West Bank.

Let us be clear. If we are to build a two-state solution, which I think everyone in the Chamber wants, there must be two viable states, which are secure in their borders. It is, of course, accepted that the precise nature of the two states—their geographical outline—will be a matter of negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but the continued expansion of the settlements poses an urgent threat to the future for a two-state solution.

I was very struck when I was in Israel by a discussion that I had—other Members in the Chamber were present—with an official from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. First, he said that, in his words, “A one-state solution would be a disaster for the state of Israel.” Secondly, he said that he wanted to see a two-state solution but time was running out for the creation of two viable states in Israel and Palestine. The reason why time is running out is the expansion of the settlements, which is happening each day, each week and each month that goes by. The Palestinian Authority has done a very good job in improving security, which is a profound and legitimate concern for Israel, but it feels that it is not making progress with Israel in the way that it wishes to.

Many of us are very frustrated by the present approach of the Israeli Government. I am a very strong supporter of an Israeli state; for so long, although thankfully no longer, it was the only democracy in the Middle East. However, it is imperative that we continue to engage with Israel, and I deplore those who suppress discussion and debate with legitimate organisations that support Israel, because none of us will get anywhere by cutting off discussion and debate; it is very important indeed that they continue.

When I meet friends from the Israeli embassy, I always make clear my frustration about the expansion of settlements. It is a key issue and it must be resolved. One or two comments in the debate have rather diminished it, but it is central and it must be resolved if we are to make real progress.

I am afraid that when I visited the West Bank I was depressed by what I saw. I will talk about one particular visit, which was to Hebron, a beautiful city.

Alistair Burt: Very sad.

Ian Lucas: It is profoundly sad, because Hebron is a place that I would love to see in better times. In the centre, a horrible concrete wall runs down the middle of the main shopping street, which separates Palestinians from Israelis. It is profoundly sad to see, and the situation is clearly untenable in the longer term.

Sometimes I think that we have too many maps of Israel and Palestine, and not enough good sense, because this is about attitude, state of mind and trust between communities. Of course people have lived together in communities for a long time in the region, but it is imperative that some element of trust is built up. In the Palestinian Authority, it is very clear that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is highly thought of by the Israelis, and the security situation has improved enormously, but the authority feels that the progress that has been made, including some economic progress, is not being rewarded by progress in the creation of an atmosphere of trust that will lead to proper negotiations that will bring resolution to the dispute.

Israel has a very strong record, with an independent judiciary and judges who stand up to the Government, much as our judges do—sometimes—in this country. However, I am afraid that Israel is not applying the law fairly in areas of the West Bank, as we have heard. I visited a military prison where juvenile offenders were being tried. They had not had access to legal advice; indeed, they were not allowed to have their parents present at interrogations. Israel could do something about that. Israel has a proud tradition of giving individual rights to people, and that tradition should be extended to those courts. I have written to the Israeli embassy expressing that view in forthright terms, because this is about building up trust.

At the moment, there is an increasing sense of resentment in the West Bank among Palestinian communities who are seeing the expansion of settlements. “Settlements” is a very misleading word, because they are huge estates and developments; they do not appear temporary at all. We need a different attitude from the parties to the dispute, to begin to take matters forward. I hope that comes from the creation of a new Government in Israel—set up in the week I was there—but as yet, I am afraid that no progress has been made.

I urge the Minister to convey the strong views that have been expressed today to the Israeli authorities and to Palestine, and to ensure that the Palestinian Authority sees that engagement with Israel and discussion about the pressing issues is vital—I am sure he will. There needs to be active discussion, certainly before the presidential elections in the United States. The current situation cannot continue. The two-state solution is under threat.

 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) for securing the debate, and for the thoughtful and measured, but passionate, set of remarks with which he opened it, in typical fashion. That was followed by a number of high-quality contributions from Members on both sides—so many, in fact, that I hope colleagues will appreciate that I am not able to refer to each and every one. They were followed in turn, and in no small measure, by the equally thoughtful remarks of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).

In a sense, we have two issues: the placing of the discussion of Area C in the context of the overall settlement, to which a number of colleagues referred, and the matters that relate specifically to Area C. I will concentrate on the latter but, as all colleagues know, and as many have mentioned, it is impossible to separate the ultimate future of Area C and the issues that we have discussed from the overall context of the need for a conclusion to the long-standing dispute between Israel and Palestine.

I want to pick up, and endorse entirely, the sense of urgency with which the hon. Member for Wrexham spoke. In the past 18 months, when the world’s attention has been directed to many things in the region, not least the Arab spring, the Government have sought continually to raise with those most closely involved the importance of not losing sight of making progress in the Middle East peace process, efforts of which I hope colleagues are proud. I recognise the sense of urgency. I recognise the sense of frustration when visiting areas where people are wondering what happens next. We convey that to both sides, and it is why we have engagement.

In the past few days, I have spoken to the negotiators on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Despite the fact that talks in Oman earlier this year were not conclusive, there is still contact on both sides. I think there is recognition that something has to happen, but it is tentative stuff, as we all know. We encourage both sides to be as flexible as possible, and not to talk about preconditions but to ensure that those who need to talk together are able to do so. Ultimately, this is all about Israel’s future security, about ensuring that it is a viable, secure and universally recognised state, and that there is an independent and viable state of Palestine that has the opportunity to develop.

Richard Burden: I certainly know the sincerity with which the Minister is talking. He has been clear—both Front-Bench speakers have—about the illegality of settlements, and about the fact that the window for a two-state solution is closing rapidly. Will he, though, address the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) asked? If the settlements are illegal—they are—and the European Union and the UK purchase goods from them, or are involved with companies that trade with them, there is growing legal opinion that we are colluding in that illegality. Is the Minister prepared to look into that? There might need to be some pressure, if we are going to move this along in the way that we need to.

Alistair Burt: I will come to settlements in a moment. On settlement produce, we value the fact that people have choice about their purchase of goods, but the issue of settlement produce and financing is under active consideration in London and in Brussels.

I shall say a little bit about settlements. The fact that we have such a good relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians is important. It enables us to discuss issues directly. Israel is a valued friend to the United Kingdom, and we are working together to deepen that relationship in a number of important areas, but not at the expense of other relationships. Just as we are building a strong partnership with Israel, so too we are continuing to enhance our relationship with the Palestinians. We do not always agree with each other, and one of our primary concerns, which a number of Members have addressed, is in relation to settlements. We take the view, which we have repeated, and which is shared on both sides of the House, that settlement building is illegal under international law and increasingly threatens the viability of the two-state solution. The issue is rising up the international agenda, and I urge the Israeli authorities to listen carefully. They do not take the same view of its importance as those outside Israel do.

The issue of settlements is increasingly important, and we will repeat our concerns when we hear about new ones, but it cannot be denied that the issue will not be concluded unless the overall settlement is agreed. That is why we encourage both sides to get to work on it. Merely complaining about settlements will not be enough. I assure the House that we take the matter seriously, and continually urge the Israeli authorities to try to understand why we are so concerned. If the viability of the two-state solution is threatened, I do not think that the ultimate prospects will be as good for Israel as they should be.

The international community considers the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territory, and recognises the applicability of the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilians. In relation to Area C, certain things could be addressed now, regardless of the overall context, one of which is building. Figures from the Israeli civil administration show that between 2007 and 2010, 1,426 building permit applications were submitted by Palestinians in Area C, of which only 64 led to permits being issued. That is in contrast to Israeli settlement and development, and it affects the economic viability of Area C and the West Bank. That viability is to the mutual benefit of Israel and the Palestinians, and we hope to see the issue settled. Equally, until Area C comes more under Palestinian control, it will not be possible for the Palestinian Authority to build up its revenues and deliver to the rest of the Palestinian people, which would save the rest of us money because we support that economic development and the Palestinian Authority.

A particular concern, which a number of Members have highlighted, is the situation of the Bedouin in Area C. We have objected strongly to Israel’s plans for the forced transfer of Bedouin communities, in particular from the area east of Jerusalem. A number of Members mentioned Khan al-Ahmar, and colleagues probably know that I, too, have been there, and have seen the school that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. I saw the construction of the road barriers, because we dropped in unannounced on the day they were being put in, so we saw that the access to the village had been changed.

We have discussed the Bedouin settlement itself; the question is what to do in the future. The chances of the settlement being moved to a rubbish dump are now lower than they were, but that is not conclusive. Of importance is that I also spent time with Israeli Minister Benny Begin. He is Minister without portfolio, who is responsible for the difficult job of talking to the Bedouin community about their ultimate future. I formed the view that he is sincere in his efforts to consult with the many different Bedouin groups, to try to find an answer that is not forced, but colleagues will have the chance to judge for themselves because he is due to be in the UK next week. His programme is not fully settled, but I am hopeful that there will be an opportunity for Members to have a conversation with him about the matter. I recommend that they take the opportunity, should it arise, as I think they would find it helpful.

A point was raised about EU projects being demolished. That issue has been taken up with the Foreign Affairs Council. We need to work hard to ensure that the EU builds things that are not prone to demolition, but we have expressed our concerns.

Finally, Members raised the different treatment under the law of Palestinians, particularly children, in the West Bank and Area C. The matter was recently taken up by an independent report, which speaks for itself. We will be looking closely to see how the Israeli authorities, who have said many good things about wanting to change the law, deliver.

It is 4 o’clock, so I conclude by saying that I appreciate colleagues’ engagement with such an important topic.

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