Month: October 2013

Minister to look at Govt website ‘invest in illegal settlements’ advice

English: Ann McKechin MP
Wednesday October 30 2013


Government website ‘advertises grants to invest in Jordan Valley settlements’

Minister visits Israel next week
New Middle East Minister Hugh Robertson agreed to a request to look urgently at the Government’s UK Trade & Investment website which encourages firms to invest in illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine’s Jordan Valley.  Labour MP Ann McKechin revealed in the Commons that the government’s own website gives details of grants available for UK firms to invest in settlements which are against international law and often built on stolen Palestinian land.  

Speaking at Foreign Office questions this week (Tuesday October 29th) the minister repeated the Government’s oft-stated policy that Israeli settlements in Palestine are “illegal and an obstacle to peace” and promised to update the Foreign Office on-line guidance to business “in the coming weeks”.  

The updating of the government’s Overseas Business Risk Register was promised in August and then by the end of September but nothing had emerged when Alistair Burt was replaced as Middle East minister by Hugh Robertson in early October. Despite the constant refrain from the UK and the EU that the settlements are “illegal and an obstacle to peace”, the EU keeps them in business with trade worth nearly £200 million a year.  

The issue is urgent because the peace talks have got nowhere in three months and are due to end in May.  The only chance of success is if European countries put economic pressure on Israel – and the withdrawal of settlement trade would be the best way of doing it. 

Earlier, facing his first question as Middle East minister, Hugh Robertson was asked by Labour MP Alex Cunningham what action he had taken on the Foreign Office report which exposed how the authorities in Israel arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night, interrogate them without parents or lawyers present, bully them into signing confessions in a language they do not understand and jail children as young as 12. 

The minister revealed that within a week of his appointment he had instructed the British ambassador in Tel Aviv to write to the Israeli Justice Minister urging further action on child prisoners and he would take the issue up with ministers on his first official visit to Israel in the week started Monday November 4th. 

The minister was pressed by Labour MP Andy Slaughter to say what he would do about the fact that at least a quarter of Palestinian child prisoners are put in prisons inside Israel which is in breach of international law and may deprive them of parental visits. 

In response the Minister said of the Foreign Office report Children in Military Custody and its 40 recommendations: “I entirely support it and during my time as a minister, I will do everything I can to ensure that its recommendations are properly and correctly implemented.”


Gaza goes from bad to worse – Minister

Aid minister Alan Duncan acknowledged the deepening fuel and medicine crisis in Gaza at International Develop questions (Wednesday October 23rd) with the Gaza power plant operating at half capacity and electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours a day.

He told Labour’s Paul Blomfield that “the level of fuel and medical supplies has dropped, exacerbating an already precarious humanitarian situation and threatening the basic needs of ordinary people in Gaza.”

And he agreed with Labour’s Ann McKechin that fuel prices in Gaza have doubled as the amount of Egyptian fuel entering Gaza through the tunnels has been halved since June.

Paul Blomfield asked him to acknowledge that the blockade of Gaza was a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and constituted collective punishment.

The minister replied: “I recognise exactly what the Member says.”

Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry described the situation in Gaza and the West Bank as “a perpetual hell for thousands of people” and urged the international community to find a find a long-term solution.

The UN reported that the number of lorryloads of humanitarian goods entering the Gaza strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the first week of October (1-7) was only 1,711, more than a thousand below the weekly average before the blockade of 2,807.   

“The limited scope of tunnel activity continued to be reflected in shortages of goods, including fuel and construction materials.

“This week, between 400,000 and 500,000 litres of fuel (mostly diesel) reportedly entered Gaza via tunnels every day, including for the Gaza Power Plant (GPP) and other public facilities and services; this compares to approximately one million litres per day prior to June 2013.

“The GPP authority reported a 32 % increase in the amount of fuel received this week compared to the previous week (330,000 vs 250,000 litres per day). The GPP continued operating at half of its full capacity, triggering long electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours per day, and 16 hours per day in some areas, forcing people to relay on unsafe methods to light their houses.

“Fuel shortfalls have also continued to disrupt the provision of basic services, including water, sanitation, health and transportation. Local petrol stations sell, almost exclusively, fuel imported from Israel at double the price of the subsidized fuel purchased from Egypt and smuggled into Gaza via illegal tunnels.

“Construction materials have continued to enter via tunnels in limited amounts; the Palestinian Federation of Industries estimated that approximately150 tonnes of building materials (mainly cement) entered Gaza per day this week, compared to a daily average of more than 7,500 tonnes in June 2013.”

Why we need to stop trade with settlements

  • The whole settlement project is sustained by EU imports worth €225 million a year while EU trade with Palestinians is only €15 million a year.
  • Diplomatic pressure has no effect on Israel.  To quote Likud minister Danny Danon: “The international community can say whatever they want and we can do whatever we want.”
  • Stopping trade with illegal settlements is the only policy that is consistent with the UK’s declared policy of support for the state of Israel, but opposition to settlements.  
  • Stopping trade with illegal settlements will not affect the economy of Israel itself, only that of settlements that are not part of Israel.
  • We are not asking for a boycott or a sanction to be imposed until certain conditions are met, but for a declaration that is wrong to trade with illegal settlements in all circumstances.
  • Some international lawyers say we have an obligation to stop trading with illegal settlements. Other say we have the power (without breaking EU or GATT rules) rather than an obligation to do so. But all agree that settlements profit from the expropriation of Palestinian resources.  By trading with settlements, we profit from Palestinian poverty.
  • Many Israelis agree with Ran Gidor, former political counsellor at the Israeli Embassy in London, who said in the Commons that settlements are “the single biggest mistake in Israel’s history” – a disaster for Palestinians but a disaster also for Israel.

For fuller briefing on settlement trade, email or read these reports


As it appeared in Hansard


Palestinian Child Detainees

1. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the treatment of Palestinian child detainees in Israel.

Middle East Minister, Hugh Robertson:  Despite some progress, we retain serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child detainees. The British ambassador in Tel Aviv wrote again to the Israeli Justice Minister on 14 October to urge further action.

Alex Cunningham: May I commend the Foreign Office report “Children in Military Custody” for exposing how the authorities in Israel arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night, interrogate them without parents or lawyers present, bully them into signing confessions in a language they do not understand, and jail children as young as 12 years old? Will the Minister outline what action he is taking and tell the House how many of the 40 recommendations in the report have been carried out?

Hugh Robertson: I am due to make my first visit to the region next week, so will be addressing many of the concerns outlined in the hon. Gentleman’s question. As he knows, the Foreign Office funded the report carried out by Baroness Scotland. We continue to urge the Government of Israel to implement it in full. As I have said, I will be taking that up next week.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): When the Minister visits the region, will he raise with his Israeli counterparts why Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children in military courts, and why about a quarter of the children currently in custody are held in Israel, which is also contrary to international law?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, I will do so. As I have said, the Foreign Office helped to fund Baroness Scotland’s excellent report into many of the issues surrounding child detainees. We not only funded that report, but entirely support it. During my time as a Minister, I will do everything I can to ensure that its recommendations are properly and correctly implemented.

Overseas British Risk Register

14. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): When he plans to issue guidance to UK businesses through the overseas business risk register on trade with illegal settlements.

Hugh Robertson: We will update our online guidance for citizens and businesses on overseas markets, including Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in the coming weeks, in line with the UK action plan on business and human rights.

Ann McKechin: I thank the Minister for his reply, but may I ask him urgently to review the documentation on the UK Trade & Investment website’s “Doing Business in Israel” section, which, according to Oxfam, encourages British businesses to invest in settlements in the Jordan valley by giving details of Israeli grants available for settlements business?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, I will certainly look at the guidance the Member mentions. The UK Government’s policy on this is very clear: settlements are illegal and they are an obstacle to peace, but we work in concert with our EU partners in producing guidelines that affect this issue.



Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the levels of food, fuel and medical supplies entering Gaza each day. 

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): Although the supply of food in Gaza is adequate, prices are rising fast. The level of fuel and medical supplies has dropped, exacerbating an already precarious humanitarian situation and threatening the basic needs of ordinary people in Gaza.

Paul Blomfield: The Minister has recognised in his reply that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly fragile. The impoverished Palestinian population is reliant on the tunnels for affordable goods. The tightening of restrictions by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities is resulting in shockingly high prices for fuel and basic commodities. With access to, and the affordability of, food becoming a huge problem, will the Government acknowledge that the blockade of Gaza is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and constitutes collective punishment?

Mr Speaker: There are extremely serious matters of life and death in Gaza. Let us hear the questions and the Minister’s answers.

Mr Duncan: I recognise exactly what the Member says. We would far rather see free movement and access for trade and economic activity in Gaza than an economy that is channelled through tunnels in a way that benefits Hamas. Israel’s plan to expand the capacity of the Allenby crossing between the west bank and Jordan is a welcome example of the sort of steps that can be taken to improve trade.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The truth is that the international community and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will have to continue supporting thousands of people in Gaza and the west bank until a two-state solution is found or until Gaza and the west bank are incorporated into de jure Israel. Permanent occupation is a perpetual hell for thousands of people. When will the international community find a long-term solution for Gaza and the West Bank?

Mr Duncan:  I hope that the efforts that are under way will lead to exactly the kind of agreement that my Friend is seeking. The efforts of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, in particular in working with the US Administration, will hopefully lead to a two-state solution and a long-lasting agreement that lead to peace and security between the two countries.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the price of fuel in Gaza has almost doubled in recent weeks. What steps is his Department taking to assist small businesses in Gaza, particularly fishermen, who have been hit hard by that increase?

Mr Duncan: The Member makes a very fair point. The amount of fuel that enters Gaza via the tunnels has halved from about 1 million litres a day in June to about 500,000 litres this month. The Gaza power plant is operating at half its capacity, triggering electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours a day, exacerbating the already difficult economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza.


New minister needs to act to revitalise peace talks

Ideal opportunity to warn UK business

not to trade with illegal settlements

New Minister’s Middle East interest
Eight of the last ten Middle East Ministers have been former chairmen of Conservative Friends of Israel or Labour Friends of Israel, so the appointment of Hugh Robertson as the successor to Alistair Burt in the most sensitive post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office breaks new ground.He is knowledgeable about the whole Middle East and has visited Syrian, Lebanon and Jordan in 2009, Israel and the West Bank in 2008, Israel, Jordan and Syria in 2007, Oman in 2006 – but always as a guest of the Conservative Middle East Council, not the CFI.

CMEC is not a campaigning organisation, but when it does express a view it is significantly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than CFI or the Conservative Party – as in November 2012 when it issued a statement urging the UK to vote in favour of Palestinian statehood and not to “stand on the sidelines as a passive spectator”.

Membership of CFI or CMEC does not predetermine how a Middle East minister will act in office, as Alistair Burt demonstrated by showing personal sympathy for Palestinian protestors against the wall in Nabi Saleh and against the demolition of Bedouin villages in Khan Al Akhmar.

By the same token the appointment of Hugh Robertson does not necessarily prefigure a more robust UK policy towards the present Israeli government – which is badly needed – but it does mean that we have a Middle East minister who understands both sides of the conflict equally well and – we hope – will not be held prisoner by a reluctance to offend.

His first job should be to issue country-specific guidance to UK business not to trade with or invest in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Guidance has long been promised by Alistair Burt and, if it is deals specifically with the dangers of doing business with Israel’s illegal settlements it could help revitalise the Israel-Palestinian peace talks at the very moment when they look doomed to failure.

In a little-reported speech to Bar-Ilan University the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu played his old trick of placing an impossible new condition in front of the Palestinian negotiators which will inevitably lead to the collapse of the talks.

In this speech he said: “Unless the Palestinians recognise the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace.”

It’s not enough that the Palestinians have recognised Israel, which is an 80% Jewish state, since 1992. Now Netanyahu’s new threat is that there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel “as a Jewish state”.

To understand why this is impossible it is important to remember that there are three types of Palestinians, those who live in Palestine (4 million), those who live in Israel (1 million) and those who live as refugees in neighbouring countries (6 million).

Palestinians who live in Israel already suffer legal discrimination from a secular Israel and fear that recognising Israel “as a Jewish state” would lead to their expulsion or forced transfer.

Palestinians who live in refugee camps hold on to the hope of realising their individual right to return to their property in Israel (or receive compensation) as guaranteed in several United Nations resolutions.

The PLO negotiators, representing all Palestinians, not just those in Palestine, are neither willing nor able to negotiate away these rights.  They are not theirs to negotiate.

Netanyahu knows this and has put forward this impossible demand so that he can blame the Palestinians when the talks end without agreement in May.

In the same speech Netanyahu argued that the occupation of the West Bank and the growth of settlements could not be the cause of the conflict, as the conflict started before the settlements.

This is disingenuous. The Palestinians’ have stated that their only aims in the peace talks are an end to the Israeli military occupation and the establishment of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The occupation and the settlements are the main obstacle.  President Abbas has made it clear that once there is an agreement, there will be no further claims on Israel.  “Signing the agreement will signal the end of the conflict.”

Clearly the main threat to the peace talks are the 410-horse-power Caterpillar D9R bulldozers, specially designed for the Israeli army, that are demolishing Palestinian villages and building new Israeli settlements while the talks are under way.

The Israeli strategy is to talk slow and bulldoze fast. Then there will be too little Palestinian land left for an independent Palestinian state to be viable.

The US will never stop the Israelis.  The EU will never agree.  It’s up to countries like Britain and France to put pressure on Israel to reach a settlement.

The first step has to be focused on the root cause of the trouble – the settlements – and Hugh Robertson has a golden opportunity in the planned rewriting of the Overseas Business Risk Register to write in guidance that explicitly advises UK business not to trade with or invest in settlements.