FCO, DfID Questions and Water Debate

As it appeared in Hansard

Foreign Office questions 3 Dec 2013

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effect of recent announcements of settlement building on the Middle East peace negotiations.

Hugh Robertson: Recent settlement announcements have had a detrimental impact on trust between the two parties. During my recent visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I made clear our serious concerns about the announcements and our strong opposition to settlements.

Duncan Hames: Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General described Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a cause of great concern, saying that it risked the continuation of negotiations and must cease. I am glad that our Minister shares those concerns. Will he use his influence to shape European trade policies in a manner that is consistent with our Government’s view on the illegal settlements?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, we will. As I suspect the Member knows, we welcome the EU guidelines on the eligibility of Israel entities for EU funding and the agreement reached last week that, on the other side, allows Israel to participate in Horizon 2020. We will absolutely make those representations.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Announcements of new settlement building must be unhelpful, but does the Minister recognise Israel’s good will in continuing its programme of releasing more than 100 convicted prisoners, many of them terrorists who carried out horrendous crimes, at the same time as the Palestinian national broadcasting authority perpetuates calls for violence against Israelis and Jews?

Hugh Robertson: Yes. If the Palestinian broadcasting authority is perpetuating calls for violence, that is totally unacceptable, and I would have no hesitation in condemning it. It is fair to say that it was made clear to me a couple of weeks ago that the Palestinians believe that the original agreement was that there would be no push towards representation in international bodies in exchange for prisoner release and that the settlements issue should be renegotiated at a later stage.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): As the Middle East peace negotiations continue, are the Palestinians speaking with one voice? What is my Friend’s assessment of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas?

Hugh Robertson: It is absolutely clear that those Palestinian entities involved in the peace process are indeed speaking with one voice. It is clear, however—I suspect that this is what lies behind my Friend’s question—that there is a very considerable difference between the Palestinian authorities engaged in those processes and the authorities in Gaza. I would call on those authorities in Gaza to make it clear that they deplore terrorist activities of all sorts.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): When Members raise the issue of, say, trade with illegal settlements, the Government say that they do not want to upset the peace talks, but 4,000 settlements have been announced—800 last week—and those are destabilising the peace talks. What are the Government going to do about that in order to support the peace talks?

Hugh Robertson: I am not sure that I understand the distinction that the Member makes, because the Government have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements about expanded settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are illegal under international law and, as I have said, they undermine the possibility of a two-state solution. We are quite clear about that.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): A year ago, 13-year old Mahmoud Khousa was targeted and killed by a drone-fired missile in the streets of Gaza as he walked to the shops to buy a pencil for his sister. According to Amnesty International, it would have been clear to the Israeli military that Mahmoud was a child. Does the Minister agree that it is a travesty that, 12 months later, nobody has been held to account for Mahmoud’s death? Will the Minister use his influence to achieve justice for Mahmoud and his family and to send a strong message that nobody should be allowed to target innocent 13-year-old children?

Hugh Robertson: I am sure there is total agreement right across the House that there is absolutely no excuse for the targeting of children in any form of military strike. I am not entirely sure how a drone could be that precisely targeted, but the Lady absolutely has my undertaking that we regard this as a matter of the utmost seriousness, and we will take it up in no uncertain terms with the Israeli authorities.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Amnesty International is warning that Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are facing a public health catastrophe, with chronic fuel and power shortages. The Foreign Secretary often says that he is repeatedly urging the Israeli authorities to ease their restrictions on Gaza, but nothing ever happens on the ground. Will he now at least call for a formal assessment of whether the human rights conditions in article 2 of the EU-Israel association agreement are being met?

Hugh Robertson: The British Government have made their views on this matter abundantly clear; I draw the Lady’s attention to the statement that we released recently on the situation in Gaza. She has suggested that the situation is dire, but she will also be aware that part of the problem was the creation of the tunnels, which have now been blocked up. We are urging the Israeli authorities to facilitate free trade and to alleviate the appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): May I take the Foreign Secretary back to his favourite subject, a nuclear weapons-free Middle East? That has now become a greater possibility with an interim agreement with Iran. Will he update us on progress on a conference that would include Israel, which of course is the only country in the region that has declared nuclear weapons?

Mr Hague: I do not have an update beyond the one I gave a couple of weeks ago, but I will keep in touch with him as he is extremely assiduous on this matter. I agree with his assessment that the interim deal achieved with Iran on the nuclear issue reinforces the case for, and brings closer, a conference for which he has long campaigned and which the United Kingdom would like to see.

DfID questions 04-12 2013

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is very difficult to have economic development if it is not possible to import and to export? In Gaza, that has left more than 1 million people on food aid, while fuel shortages mean that 3,000 people are affected by raw sewage running into the streets. What is Britain going to do in practice to end the blockade of Gaza?

Justine Greening: We are deeply concerned about the constraints that have been placed on the Gazan economy that prevent it from creating the wealth and prosperity that would put it in a position to support public services without foreign assistance. The Gentleman will be aware that there will be a debate on this matter tomorrow evening. I am sure that he will want to debate it more fully with the Minister of State.

Written questions

Grahame M. Morris: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what steps her Department is taking to meet the humanitarian needs of Bedouin who are forcibly removed from their traditional lands. [901432]

Mr Duncan: The UK Government has raised concerns about forced relocation of Bedouin with the Israeli authorities, with a view to agreeing a satisfactory solution to this complex issue. DFID supports vulnerable communities including the Bedouin in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to reduce their risk of displacement.

Occupied Palestinian Territories (Water Shortages) 5 Dec 2013

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the acute water shortages in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The average Palestinian uses some 50 litres of water daily, which is just half the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation. The average Israeli uses at least four times that amount and sometimes uses more. Nearly 10% of Palestinian communities in the West Bank—about 200,000 people—have no connection to any drinking water system at all.

Because of restrictions on movement, travelling to buy water is far from easy. Indeed in some circumstances, Palestinians pay up to 40% of their total income on water alone.

The Joint Water Committee was established to administer the water arrangements under the Oslo accords. It is true that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have representation on that committee, but there is one snag: Israel has a veto. That veto has been used on new water drilling for Palestinians.

That veto is frequently used when it comes to Palestinian water development, but it does not apply to the settlers or to those who are given every encouragement to live on land occupied by Israel, which is illegal under international law. Again, that is a matter that should concern us.

Palestinians are frequently prevented from developing water infrastructure, particularly in Area C in the Occupied Territories and that is where Israel maintains exclusive control. The Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group—EWASH—is made up of some 30 humanitarian agencies and it has involved itself in every possible way in trying to assist Palestinians over the water situation. It does a first-class job and should be supported in every way.

In its report, EWASH stated that between 1995 and 2011, Palestinians submitted 30 waste water treatment plant projects to the Joint Water Committee. How many were accepted? Was it 20, 15 or 10? No, it was four. In 2011, the Palestinian Water Authority submitted 38 projects to the Joint Water Committee, and out of that 38, how many were approved? Was it 30, 15, or 10? No, it was just three. As EWASH said, that is an approval rate of under 8%. Something is wrong and unacceptable. Pressure should be put on the Israelis over that situation.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Member is making a powerful case. Does he agree that there is a legal and moral responsibility on every Government, particularly when they claim to be civilised and democratic, to treat all their citizens equally and fairly and, under international law, that also applies to civilians whose country has been occupied in defiance of the Geneva convention and UN resolutions. Even in apartheid South Africa, I do not recall the Government depriving anyone of water in the way that the Government of Israel have done against the Palestinians.

Mr Winnick: An Amnesty report said that Israeli settlers in the occupied areas use up to 20 times more water than Palestinian villages. What of the Gaza strip where Israel gave up control and prided itself that it no longer controlled the area? It says that things were now up to the people of Gaza. Now – this is a terrible statistic and it should shame us that we allow it to occur without constant pressure – some 90% of the water in Gaza is unfit for consumption. That figure comes from an Amnesty report. The continued Israeli military action prevents much of the equipment needed to maintain water treatment facilities from being imported.

During the operation in which Israel was involved, which is well known, water pipes were destroyed as a result of military action. In a debate in the Lords on 3 July last year, much concern was expressed over the situation in Gaza and rightly so. Lord Warner had been twice to Gaza and confirmed that 90% of Gaza’s water is not drinkable. What about the population of that area? Half of the population are under 18.

I have come back to this point time and again in this brief speech: there must be the utmost pressure on Israel. It is simply not good enough for western Governments to refuse to raise the issue at every opportunity. I hope that will change and that western Governments—certainly ours—will raise the issue at the United Nations and do everything possible to bring a change.

Let me conclude by quoting a Palestinian whose words are in the Amnesty report, “Thirsting for Justice.” These are his words. He is an ordinary Palestinian, not someone in politics or in national life in any way. He said: “Water is life. Without water we cannot live…it’s very difficult and expensive” to “bring water from far away…They make our life very difficult, to make us leave.”

Minister of State Alan Duncan:  I thank the Member for Walsall North for calling this debate and want to say at the outset that I agree with pretty much every word he said.

We take access to clean water for granted in the UK. We rarely question where the water in our taps and sanitation systems comes from and we assume it will be there again the next day. We take it for granted that it has been treated effectively to make it safe for us to use. The same cannot be said of those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories today. Water resources there are limited. A lack of rainfall in recent years, inadequate infrastructure and the inequitable distribution of water resources with Israel combine to make life very difficult.

We cannot do anything about the naturally arid environment, but we can address the binding human and political constraints that perpetuate this problem. It is an injustice that in the 21st century Palestinians should still lack for something as basic as clean water and sanitation. Let me reassure the House that the UK and others are working to right this wrong.

In the West Bank, the story begins with the unfair and unequal allocation of resources. Palestinians, as the Member said, are limited to withdrawing 20% of the water from the aquifers underneath the West Bank. Domestic usage, understandably, is prioritised, leaving little left over for the vital irrigation of agricultural land. Palestinians have to buy water from the Israeli national water company to make up any shortfall. In 2012, this cost about $37million. Illegal Israeli settlers, on the other hand, do not have to worry—they are free to consume, on average, four times as much water per capita as Palestinians in the West Bank.

Around 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have no access to piped water at all. Half of Palestinian wells have dried up over the past 20 years. The only option, as the Member said, is to travel to buy tankered water—an option made all the more difficult by Israeli movement and access restrictions in place across much of the West Bank. As a result, communities depending on tankered water pay up to 400% more for every single litre than those connected to the water network; and, of course, there is no guarantee of its quality.

That is no minor inconvenience. The Member mentioned the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group, which co-ordinates efforts by around 30 donors and agencies to improve water and sanitation in the West Bank and Gaza. It estimates that in isolated communities in the West Bank, water consumption can be as low as 20 litres per person per day. Even worse than the Member’s description of that is the fact that that is the minimum amount recommended by the World Health Organisation in emergencies to sustain life.

We are perhaps more accustomed to hearing about such precarious situations in Gaza. While the situation there has indeed been precarious for a long time, in recent months things have only got worse. Today, only 15% of Gaza’s population receive clean running water daily. The Gaza aquifer is set to become too polluted for use by 2016, and will be irreversibly damaged by 2020. Just two weeks ago, the failure of the main sewage pumping station in Gaza City led to 35,000 cubic metres of raw sewage flooding into the streets.

There the problem is not so much access to water, but the ability to treat and distribute it effectively. Why? In part, it is because Israel continues to limit the import of construction and dual-use materials into Gaza that are necessary for building pipelines and pumping stations. The Gazan economy remains stifled, so there is no way in which it could pay for the infrastructure anyway. Recent actions by Egypt to close the smuggling tunnels have cut off a lifeline and served to make the situation even more difficult.

In fact, water shortages in the West Bank and Gaza are part of a much bigger problem. Even while the US-led Middle East peace talks continue, life for ordinary Palestinians is getting worse. We have seen a spike in settlement announcements and demolition orders. Violence has erupted in east Jerusalem and the West Bank and unemployment is on the rise.

To make the case for peace, which this Government firmly believe in, we need to bring about real and tangible change on the ground, and to do so before it is too late. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has made clear, there is no more urgent global priority in 2013 than the search for Middle East peace. We see a two-state solution as the best way to meet the national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

So, first, we will continue to support efforts to achieve a negotiated peace. Working with our EU partners and with the US, we will encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to take the bold steps needed to reach an agreement. Hard work and difficult choices lie ahead, but we are ready to provide support in any way we can. In part, that will include support to the Kerry-led economic package to foster private sector led, sustainable economic growth in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Mr Winnick: We all want to see a satisfactory settlement to the negotiations—but a settlement that would mean a sovereign Palestine, no less sovereign than Israel, and not some kind of statelet. But how can it be said that the Israelis are really genuinely committed when they are continuing to build settlements on land where, as we know, it is illegal under international law?

Mr Duncan: It is very clear in the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that we totally condemn the illegal construction of settlements. They are an impediment to peace, and of course are an essential component of the discussions which we hope will lead to a successful conclusion next year. In the meantime, to assist those discussions, we in the Department for International Development and the Government, working with the EU, are doing our best to underpin some economic progress. For instance, our plan aims to generate investment of $4 billion, increase Palestinian gross domestic product over the next three years, and reduce unemployment to single digits. Water is one of the sectors set to receive private and public sector support in this plan, and we will get behind that.

We will continue to lobby Israel to make good on its promises made in September to improve access to water for Palestinians. This includes doubling the amount of water sold to the Gaza strip, and reviving the Joint Water Committee to adopt a truly co-operative approach to shared water resources. We know that Israel has made excellent progress in water technology in recent years. From drip-irrigation to desalination, perhaps no other country has contributed more breakthroughs in the area of water and food security than Israel. What an opportunity there is now to share this advance with its neighbours.

Finally, we will do what DFID does best, which is to provide practical support for those most in need. We recently agreed to provide a further £10 million of support to the International Committee of the Red Cross to further its important work on human rights and humanitarian assistance. As part of this support, over 60,000 people in Gaza and the West Bank will have improved access to clean water in 2013 alone.

Mr Winnick: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene a second time. Ambassadors are sometimes called in when we feel that some injustice is taking place and it would be appropriate for the Minister or the Foreign Secretary to speak to the ambassador as a result. Could not the Israeli ambassador be called in to discuss some of what the Minister has said or what I have said? The Minister said that he agreed with every word I said. He is not likely to repeat that on any future parliamentary occasion, I imagine, but could not the ambassador be brought in and told of the concern felt by so many Members of Parliament on both sides of the House?

Mr Duncan: I and the House, I sense, share the Member’s sense of injustice, but I hope he will allow me to stay within the remit of DFID and not stray into the areas of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by making a judgment on the call that he has just made.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House this evening that the UK is also embarking on a new programme of support to help provide water to irrigate agricultural land in Area C of the West Bank—a critical area to which the Member referred. The World Bank recently estimated that better irrigation in Area C could boost the Palestinian economy by more than $700 million. To that end, as the DFID Minister, I have just agreed £1.8 million to restore agricultural wells serving nearly 1,000 farming families. We will be helping farmers to work more productively. For each £1 invested in rehabilitating groundwater wells, we can expect an additional 16 kg or 17 kg of vegetables to be produced annually.

Sir Bob Russell: Does the Minister think it right that British taxpayers’ money should be used to do work made necessary by the behaviour of the Israeli Government?

Mr Duncan: I detect in the Member’s question the suggestion, which I think is slightly warped logic, that somehow our support for the Palestinian Authority subsidises the occupation. That is not the logic that we adopt. We believe that our support for the Palestinian Authority is underpinning an organisation that is a putative Government for a Palestinian state that we hope will be the result of the negotiations that are under way.

It is our wish to build a viable Palestinian state and to protect those who are most vulnerable. On the specific topic of this debate, water shortages are a stark reminder of the harshness of Palestinian daily life. From the farmer in the West Bank who cannot grow the same produce as his settler neighbour, to the family in Gaza having to wade through sewage to get home, the situation is unfair and untenable. Indeed, it is unjust. It is essential that peace negotiations on a two-state solution include discussions on shared water resources as part of a final status agreement, and it is essential that Israel makes good on its promises to improve access to water. In the meantime, Her Majesty’s Government and DFID will continue to support those who most need our help in any way we can.


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