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Palestinian Territories (Settlements)

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008

I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The object of the debate is not to persuade the Minister that a freeze on settlement building is desirable, as I am sure that that is not necessary. He, and indeed the Foreign Secretary, have repeatedly expressed at the Dispatch Box the Government’s view that all building must cease. Indeed, the Prime Minister said this week not only that settlement building must cease but that existing settlements must be dismantled. He said:

“We have consistently called for Israel to dismantle settlements. I spoke to the Knesset only a few months ago and made it absolutely clear that Israel should freeze settlements and withdraw from settlements…We have consistently said, and I have said to successive Israeli Prime Ministers and Presidents when I have met them, that we have consistently seen them—

the settlements—

“as a barrier to reaching the agreement that everybody thinks is possible”.

When I last asked the Foreign Secretary about a freeze on settlement building, he had just returned from a visit to the west bank and could be in no doubt that settlement building was still going on. He had seen the bulldozers and cranes only a few days before, building new houses at Ma’ale Adumim, on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He mentioned that a hopeful sign had been an announcement the previous weekend by the Israeli Prime Minister that the Government would stop the expansion of settlements. On closer examination of the small print, however, it emerged that the Prime Minister was promising only to stop expanding the boundaries of settlements and that building could continue within them. Since many settlements contain large areas already set aside for further development—Ma’ale Adumim, for instance, has the E1 area, on which it is intended to build 5,000 houses—the promise was pretty empty.

Since the Annapolis agreement, in which the Government of Israel accepted an obligation to

“freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements”,

there has actually been an acceleration of house building in settlements in the west bank. Official figures released by the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing identify current construction projects in nine settlements in the west bank. They range from one of 106 dwellings in Ariel, which is a big Israeli settlement deep in the northern west bank, to one of 144 units at Alfei Menashe, which is a settlement near the Palestinian town of Qalqilya. Some 642 units are currently being constructed in two different settlements in Bethlehem, and 944 units at Ma’ale Adumim, which I have just mentioned. The Foreign Secretary saw the work going on there. Nearly 2,000 units are being built at Har Homa, a hill in Arab East Jerusalem overlooking Bethlehem. That is a total of 4,554 units.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned our former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who is the head of the Quartet. When he came before us in the Select Committee on International Development, he gave us more of a two-sided appraisal of the issue. The hon. Gentleman has been rather critical of Israel so far, and I hope that he will make a few positive statements about the progress that the Israeli Government are making on this issue.

With respect, the debate is solely about freezing building in settlements in the west bank, and I cannot stray from that subject. I am quite happy to make value judgments about it, but I have not made any yet. I merely point out that building continues apace, despite the promises in the Oslo accord and the Annapolis agreement that building would cease. Since Annapolis, far from a freeze or even a slow-down in settlement building, there has been a dramatic increase. Revealingly, that has been less in privately initiated construction projects than in Government-initiated projects, which are up 33 per cent. on the equivalent period before the conference.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on reflecting the concerns that many of us feel and that are raised by many of our constituents. Will not the continuation of the legal settlement building programme in the west bank make any just and equitable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians much less likely? In the long run, will that not be to the detriment of Israel’s interests, as well as of the Palestinians affected?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. There are many other subjects about Israel and Palestine to be discussed, including security and humanitarian questions. I am focusing on settlement building, and he is right. Continued settlement building, more than anything else, is putting an obstacle in the way of the peace process that we all want to proceed.

Building permits are up by a factor of three since Annapolis and tenders for settlement construction by a factor of 17. It is difficult to see that as anything other than a race against time to build new settlements before the international community finally wakes up and forces the settlements to stop.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that much of the problem has been the continual vetoing of United Nations resolutions by the US? Many of them have been about settlements, the building of which is, of course, illegal. Every time a UN resolution comes to the international community, we find the US vetoing it.

The hon. Gentleman thinks along the same lines as me, and I shall come to the UN resolutions when I have presented one or two more facts.

Many of the new settlements that are being built on the west bank are for evacuees from Gaza, so the notion that Israel was giving occupied land back to the Palestinians turns out to be an optical illusion. It gives back one piece of land and takes another. The removal of outposts is also something of an optical illusion. Most of them have not been touched, but the occupants of the ones that have been closed down have been moved to illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. It is just one piece of Palestinian land being swapped for another.

Roadblocks on Palestinian roads are up by 12 per cent. since Annapolis, demolitions by 21 per cent., injuries to Palestinians in clashes with the Israeli army by some 26 per cent. and deaths by some 51 per cent. It is no surprise to me that the Palestinians feel angry, frustrated and above all cynical about peace initiatives, which should be the one beacon of hope to them. The United Nations human rights rapporteur said that the Palestinian population was

“being collectively punished by policies that amount to a crime against humanity.”

To prove that they were not engaged in collective punishment, the Israeli authorities then devised an individual punishment for the rapporteur last week by locking him up at Ben-Gurion airport and refusing him a visa.

As I said, I do not need to convince the Minister that settlement building should be stopped. It is what he regularly says to the Israeli ambassador, and what he or his colleagues said to the Israeli Prime Minister last week and the Israeli President, who visited last month. It is what they have been saying to every representative of the Israeli Government for many years, and it is what people in this country say to me whenever I discuss the issue with them.

I have been collecting signatures in Battersea, Balham and Wandsworth in my constituency—a one-constituency petition—solely calling for an end to settlement building in the west bank. Hundreds of people have already signed it, and I hope that the same thing will be done in other constituencies. This issue strikes the great majority of people in this country as unjust. I am also in the process of helping to launch a new organisation next month called Labour Friends of Palestine, the main campaign of which will be to call for a halt to the expansion of settlements.

The trouble is that the issue is hardly ever discussed in the Israeli press. We huff and we puff, but the Israelis just keep on building. That brings me to the point raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). If we want the Israelis to stop, we will have to find more effective methods of persuasion. The United Nations has passed 429 resolutions against Israel, and the Security Council has passed 88 resolutions condemning, censuring or deploring Israel’s actions. Another 42 Security Council resolutions have been stopped only by the veto of the United States. We must remember that nearly every one of those resolutions was passed under chapter VI of the UN charter that deals with the pacific settlement of disputes, which places duties on both sides in a dispute but has no enforcement mechanism. Many international lawyers regard chapter VI resolutions as outside the scope of international law. They are, in effect, voluntary resolutions.

The only UN resolutions that unequivocally have the force of international law and can be enforced by sanctions or military action are chapter VII resolutions. It was under chapter VII that Iraq was required to disarm after the Gulf war, and it was under chapter VII that the US invoked war against Iraq. Small wonder that Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said:

“For its entire diplomatic history, Israel has sought to avoid a Chapter 7 resolution dealing with Arab-Israeli disputes.”

There is one exception: resolution 338, which was passed at the end of the Lebanese civil war under chapter VII, and which in turn binds the parties to implement resolution 242, which was passed under chapter VI but is now enforced under chapter VII. One of its provisions is for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict, and, as it was passed in 1967, it clearly refers to the west bank and East Jerusalem.

Now that the Palestinian Authority recognizes the territorial integrity of Israel, which is the most important development in recent years and one that I fully support, there is clearly a legal obligation on the Israeli Government to withdraw forces from the west bank and East Jerusalem. I would love to live in a fantasy world where we would just politely ask the Israelis to hand the west bank back to the Palestinians in accordance with the UN resolution, but we have been doing that for years and nothing has happened—actually, something has happened: things have got worse, and because the evacuation of Gaza did not lead to an immediate outbreak of peace, some Israelis have persuaded themselves that giving up the west bank would lead to more violence, not less. I quote Dore Gold again:

“Prevailing wisdom says if Israel gives land back the terrorists will stop. But just the opposite is the case…Terrorism is not based on political grievance. Jihadi terrorism comes from a sense of victory. A withdrawal from Jerusalem would empower radical Islam.”

Such tortured logic would suggest that the solution to the Palestinians’ grievances is to take more land from them, but that is precisely the attitude that plays into the hands of the terrorists, and precisely the attitude that helped to create the jihadis in the first place. Dore Gold was the political adviser to Binyamin Netanyahu and later to Ariel Sharon, and he may be at the heart of Israeli policy making in two months’ time, after elections in Israel.

The sad truth that I come to is that the Israelis show no signs of actually wanting negotiations to succeed. One Israeli official quoted in The Guardian this morning said:

“Negotiations are good, results are bad.”

It is impossible to conduct negotiations with a party that does not have an interest in their success. All Israeli politicians pay lip service to the peace process, but the fact that Israel continues to expand the settlements makes it difficult to believe that they are entirely sincere. How can they expect Palestinians to negotiate when they are taking over more Palestinian land every day? It is not within human nature to enter into negotiations in such circumstances.

It is entirely up to Israelis, of course, to pick their own Government—I would not dream of interfering—but if we believe that the continued expansion of settlements undermines the chances of peace in Israel, in the middle east and in the wider world, we have a responsibility to take action through the international community.

Such action could be through the 23-state solution that the Foreign Secretary spoke about recently—it is important to involve as many countries as possible—or through a chapter VII resolution in the Security Council. But the fact is that the Israelis show no signs of wanting to do it if left to themselves, and the Palestinians cannot do it by themselves. If the rest of the world wants peace, we will have to go out there and get it. First, we will have to persuade the Americans, but with President Obama there may be a chance that the international community will finally show leadership in bringing about a settlement between Israel and Palestine.

It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing it, and I welcome him to the role that he has taken on as chairman of Labour Friends of Palestine.

The middle east peace process continues to be one of the highest priorities for this Government, and I know that that priority is shared widely across the House of Commons. We are committed to a comprehensive peace in the middle east and are working constructively with all the parties to offer all possible support to the Annapolis process. Over the past year, the UK has been encouraged by the renewed dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, by indirect talks between Israel and Syria and by the plans for mutual diplomatic recognition between Syria and Lebanon.

We also very much welcomed the renewed focus on the Arab peace initiative, which offers Israel full normalisation of relations with its Arab neighbours in exchange for withdrawal from occupied land. We are determined to do everything that we possibly can to support the peace process. I say that because we were at the forefront of those arguing last week that the European Council should throw its weight behind the Arab League letter to President-elect Obama. We will continue to encourage the Arab League to demonstrate its willingness to engage with Israel. Indeed, we encouraged members of the Arab League to recommit themselves widely and publicly to the Arab peace initiative, which gives us a real opportunity to move forward.

However, we are also clear that Israel, too, must show its commitment to a two-state solution. The energy that it has devoted to Annapolis is a powerful signal, but, unfortunately, the signal that is seen more clearly around the world is, as my hon. Friend said, increased settlement construction, which undermines the viability of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders and leads Palestinians and the Arab world to doubt Israel’s real intentions.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, our message has been consistent and robust: Israeli settlement activity anywhere in East Jerusalem and on the west bank is illegal under international law. The road map is clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reiterated the UK’s position to Israeli Ministers during his visit to the region in November, and I have acted similarly. We certainly welcome recent attempts by the Israeli security forces to dismantle outposts in parts of Hebron and the west bank, including the successful evacuation of the disputed house in Hebron on 4 December, which, as we should acknowledge, is a step in the right direction. But we should also acknowledge that there is much more to do.

I want the House to be clear that we are not bashing Israel to play to the crowd. We are seeking, rather, to advance the peace process and we genuinely see settlement expansion as a critical factor holding that progress back. Unlike other obstacles in the way of peace, settlement expansion is not a grey area: its continuation is in direct contravention of the spirit and the letter of the road map and the Annapolis commitments.

I am proud of the efforts that we have made, as a Government, to make it clear that we need to work with all sides. I made that clear, previously, when I was at the Department for Education and Skills, in opposing an academic boycott of Israel.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is possible to support Israel where its security is threatened and admire its policies over a wide field, yet disagree profoundly with it on this specific issue of settlement building?

I share that feeling. Genuine friends of Israel ought to have the ability and the space to make that argument clearly.

I was mentioning the stance that I took as Minister of State with responsibility for higher education—and the stance that we took as a Government—in opposing academic boycotts of Israel. I have always taken the view that in both Israel and the occupied territories there are both progressives and reactionaries. The problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives more difficult and they reinforce the position of the reactionaries. That is one reason why they are fundamentally wrong.

I thank the Minister for those robust, clear statements, but does he not agree that the supreme irony is that, when we had the opportunity of Palestinians working in a Government of some unity, that was undermined by the international community through its rather heavy criticism and demonising of Hamas and over-crediting Fatah, and now, when Israel wants some genuine opportunities, we have a fractured Palestinian state?

The path and the way forward for Hamas is clear: it needs to commit to non-violence, to a recognition of the right of the state of Israel to exist and to uptake on previous commitments. If it does that, we are willing to engage with it, but until it does that there is a fundamental stumbling block.

The recent visit of President Peres has showcased our strong bilateral relationship with Israel in its historic 60th year. But settlements are not Israel. So we are working on what effective action we can take actively to discourage settlement expansion, part of which is making sure that the mechanisms we already have in place work. One such mechanism is the EU-Israel association agreement, which does not entitle settlements to the preferential tariffs that we give to Israeli goods. We have heard worrying reports that settlement goods are benefiting, so we are investigating. Some British consumers have told us that they want to know whether they are buying goods from settlements and I believe that we have an obligation to ensure clear labelling.

Building effective Palestinian institutions is fundamentally critical. Although settlements are important, they are not the only issue. We also have to tackle the other impediments to peace. Building effective Palestinian institutions and a vibrant Palestinian economy is critical, both to deliver for Palestinians and to reassure Israel that a Palestinian state would be a stable and peaceful neighbour.

When I met Prime Minister Fayyad earlier this week, I congratulated him on his achievements in reforming the Palestinian Authority, enhancing the effectiveness of its security forces and developing its economy. We are, rightly, providing him with strong support. The United Kingdom Government have committed £243 million in support over three years, linked to political progress—a substantial increase in the Government’s assistance that is absolutely justified. In December last year, the international community pledged a total of $7.7 billion at the Paris donor conference in support of the Palestinians. That was a move in the right direction. The conference that we have hosted here in London this week with the business community, to support economic development in the Palestinian territories, is another step in the right direction.

Of course, Israel’s security measures make the process of economic development more difficult, but that only makes these efforts more necessary. In some areas, notably around Jenin, there are real signs that a positive dynamic can be created where more effective Palestinian security combines with economic investment to give the Israeli security forces some confidence to step back a little, which in turn reinforces political and economic progress. These are the sorts of virtuous circles that we are seeking to create and support. We will certainly continue to do that.

We are painfully aware that the dynamic in Gaza is very different. Israel sees an increasing threat, with rockets fired at its civilians. It sees no partner with which to deal and so no alternative to increasing restrictions. These restrictions and Hamas control mean that the benefits of economic growth and reforming institutions are denied to the population of Gaza. More than that, ordinary Gazans are suffering serious hardship as even relief supplies are restricted because of Israel’s disproportionate and inappropriate response to that security threat. Today, more than 80 per cent. of Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on humanitarian assistance, compared with 63 per cent. in 2006. In less than 10 years, the number of families depending on United Nations food aid has increased tenfold. All of us should be concerned about that.

In exerting continued control over Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters, Israel retains the obligation to co-operate in the passage and distribution of relief supplies. We are pressing Israel to allow more supplies in and support the UN in purchasing supplies. Over the last six months, the ceasefire has brought relative calm for the people of Gaza and southern Israel. I believe strongly that it is in both sides’ interests to recommit to that ceasefire as it comes to its conclusion. But if we are to go beyond alleviating the immediate situation to make Gaza an integral part of peacemaking efforts, Hamas has to engage with President Abbas in the national dialogue negotiations and it must move towards non-violence and the Quartet principles, as I argued earlier. Through its behaviour—firing rockets at Israel, replacing teachers who do not kowtow, attacking rival political parties, smuggling arms, holding Gilad Shalit in captivity, and more—Hamas shows it is not a partner in peace or a constructive force in building a Palestinian state.

Let me deal directly with the comments that my hon. Friend has made about the claimed need for a chapter VII resolution at the UN Security Council. The problem with that—my hon. Friend and I discussed this in the main Chamber a few weeks ago during Foreign Office questions—is that a resolution under chapter VII of the UN charter implies that all movement is necessary on one side: in this case, from Israel. However, I believe strongly that we need to see co-operation from all parties, including Israel freezing all settlement activity and easing restrictions on life in Gaza and Hamas engaging with President Abbas in the national dialogue negotiations and moving towards non-violence and the Quartet principles. There will not be progress without movement and compromise on both sides. I do not think that a chapter VII resolution recognises that. There are chapter VI resolutions calling for actions from and responsibilities on both parties and that is the way forward.

I will be visiting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories next week and I will seek to develop my first-hand experience of the challenges faced by Israelis and by the Palestinians. The message I will take with me is that we are determined to redouble our efforts to drive the peace process forward in 2009 and to look to all those, in the region and beyond, to join us. I genuinely believe that this is a crucially important issue to people in Israel and the occupied territories and, frankly, it is crucial to people across the world.

We have an opportunity, with the election of Barack Obama in the United States; he comes in with greater expectations placed on him than any democratically elected politician that I can recall in recent decades. We have to ensure that he has an opportunity to use the power and influence of the United States. We will be working alongside him, as an individual nation and through the European Union, to put pressure on all sides to make the necessary compromises to achieve that lasting peace in the middle east, which is long overdue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on securing this debate. Let us hope that, as we move into 2009, we can begin genuinely to take the peace process forward.

Sitting suspended.