Pressure builds for a total stop on settlement trade
Will the Government put any economic pressure on the Israelis to stop expanding their illegal settlements in the West Bank so that negotiations on a settlement with the Palestinians can resume?
In Tuesday’s Foreign Office questions there were a record number of questions – 7 out of 15 – focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict and all but one of them critical of the Israeli government – a sign of how opinion is shifting within the House of Commons.
But the answers brought no more clarity about the Government’s intentions. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, placed all his hopes on an American effort to revive the peace process when President Obama visits Israel and Palestine later this month.
He also repeated his promise to “incentivise” and if need be “disincentivise” either side from actions, such as building illegal settlements, which were an obstacle to the resumption of negotiations.
Middle East minister Alistair Burt repeated his mantra that “we do not believe in a boycott”, but MPs were left guessing what the difference might be between a boycott or sanctions and “disincentivisation”.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) urged the minister to focus on areas where he could do something that would make a difference:
“What he can do something about is the import of illegal goods from settlements, which are running at eight times the level of imports from all Palestinians. Will he now take steps to prevent the import of goods from illegal settlements to the UK?”
But the minister would only say that he would work with European partners on the possibility of extending voluntary labelling of Israeli settlement goods brought in by the last government.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) asked the Foreign Secretary to agree that the starting point for negotiations should be the legal status quo—that the whole of the West Bank and east Jerusalem is Palestinian land, as agreed unanimously by the UN Security Council – and not “facts on the ground” created by illegal settlement building.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab) said he seemed to expect Palestinians to have the patience of Job as they were facing “the single largest proposed demolition of Palestinian homes since 1967” in the Silwan areas close to the old city of Jerusalem.
“What will he do to try to instil a sense of reality among the Israeli authorities to stop this unlawful theft of Palestinian land, which can only hinder the search for a two-state solution?”
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab) asked the Foreign Secretary to accept that a freeze on settlement building is a requirement imposed by international law, not a precondition imposed by the Palestinians.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD) raised the segregation of public transport in Israel with “settler-only” buses and “Palestinian” buses, introduced this week with echoes of apartheid South Africa 25 years ago and of the southern states of the USA 50 years ago.
“Appeasing the racist regime in Israel must stop. Will the Minister, with his European Union colleagues, end our cosy relationship in view of such behaviour?”
David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab) said that the crux of the matter was that Israeli governments did not believe there would be any serious consequences as a result of what they did.
“Can one understand the sheer anger, resentment and frustration of the Palestinians who see no political progress at all? What would we do if we were in the same position as the Palestinians in the occupied territories?”
Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con) said no other country would allow large numbers of migrants to occupy its land, denying the land to local people?
“Why is so much energy put into the likes of Syria after two years, when nothing appears to be done about Palestine’s West Bank, and in particular East Jerusalem, after 40 years?”
Middle East minister Alistair Burt agreed that the barrier between Israelis and Palestinians was getting more and more severe and the opportunities for people to live together in the future were getting more and more remote.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD) said many well-informed commentators and analysts believe that that time for a two-state solution “has now gone”.
The Foreign Secretary said that while he thought that the time for it was “slipping away” and that 2013 might be the last chance, he did not think that the time had yet gone.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con) asked the Foreign Secretary what he would do if the American peace effort failed “as all the others have”? Was it not time to make it clear to the Israeli authorities that their flagrant breach of international law would finally have to be met by some serious consequences?
The Foreign Secretary argued that “we need to allow time and space for this American effort to develop as President Obama visits the region later in the month.
“But I believe that it will important for us to be able to say … what we will do to support the process and to incentivise the parties involved. Of course, it may also be open to us to disincentivise—if I may use that word—those parties at crucial moments.”
Mr Hague first used these words in December when he told the Commons that he had been talking to the French and German Foreign Ministers “about how we can more actively support a US initiative .. with European states contributing to incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations”.
He repeated the same formula in January when Labour front bencher Ian Lucas asked if he would “use the wish for Israeli to develop stronger trading relations with the European Union as a means of achieving progress in the Middle East”.
MPs returning from visits to Palestine
Pleas for hunger-strikers and Gaza fishermen
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary may not be aware that last Saturday, in Palestine, I visited the mothers and surviving family members—of Ayman Ismail, who is being held in administrative detention and has been on hunger strike for 246 days, and of Samer Issawi, who is being held on trumped-up charges after being tried twice, once by a civil court which said that he should be released tomorrow and once by a military court which is holding him for 20 years, He has been on hunger strike for 223 days, and is in a critical condition. Will the Foreign Secretary make clear to Netanyahu that if these men die, their blood will be on his hands?
Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): I recently visited Gaza as part of a cross-party delegation with Interpal. While there I was alarmed to witness, on three different occasions, the shooting at and intimidation of Palestinian fishing boats that appeared to be clearly inside the six-mile limit agreed by the ceasefire. Earlier, the Foreign Secretary roundly condemned, as is right and proper, the firing of rockets into Israel, but does he agree that peace depends on both sides sticking to the terms of the ceasefire, including Israeli naval ships?
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Like the hon. Members for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I was on an Interpal delegation to Gaza last week. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is being done to lift the blockade on Gaza so that the terrible water situation can be addressed. Sewage cannot be processed, fresh water is unobtainable because of the pollution of the aquifer, and the material to set up a desalination plant or something like it cannot be brought in to provide a decent standard of living for the people of Gaza.