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Palestinian Territories

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

1. What assessment he has made of the economic situation in the Palestinian territories; and if he will make a statement. (76293)

May I first offer the apologies of the Foreign Secretary to the House? As I think the House knows, he is on his way to Australia—not, this time, to liberate it or meet a new regime but to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I am sure we all wish him well.

There has been growth in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past couple of years, variously rated at between 6% and 10%. Things are easier in the west bank than in Gaza, but the United Kingdom has been supporting economic development in both areas.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on what steps have been taken, and what more can be done, to increase the flow of goods into the Palestinian territories?

Last year, following the difficulties over the flotilla, Israel moved from having a list of 120 goods that were allowed in to a less restrictive list. Efforts have been made to ease the amount going in, but more can still be done. For instance, 18 times the amount of concrete that goes into Gaza legitimately goes in through the tunnels, thus losing revenue and not providing the support that is needed for the construction of schools and so on. There is more to be done, and we press Israel to ease the restrictions still further for political and economic reasons.

As we are talking about the economy of the west bank, I point out that more than 100,000 families depend on the olive oil industry, which accounts for 40% of the west bank’s agricultural production. Some 7,500 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli settlers since January, and the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has reported 97 incidents, but none has led to any prosecutions or indictments. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable, and that the UK Government should make representations to the Israeli Government?

We continue to make representations on all examples of activities that we believe will damage the economy of the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Gentleman’s point about agricultural produce is a good one. Agricultural exports from the Palestinian territories were 10 times greater in 2010 than in 2009, but one tenth of what they were in 2006. That gives a measure of the problem. We do indeed raise the matter, and we ask both sides to continue their efforts towards negotiations on a final settlement that would, of course, ultimately be in the economic interest of both.

The prisoner exchange involving Gilad Shalit has been presented by Hamas in Gaza as a victory. Does the Minister agree that the cause of moderate Palestinian opinion, and perhaps even the Palestinian economy, could receive a boost from a successful bid for recognition of its statehood at the United Nations?

There are two issues there. First, the unconscionable detention of Gilad Shalit by Hamas was no cause for any victory celebration. We certainly welcome the fact that he has been released and hope that it indicates at least some degree of movement between the two parties. Ultimately, of course, what will benefit all is a negotiated settlement that leads to an independent Palestine side by side with a sovereign and recognised Israel. All the work that the United Kingdom does is to ensure that that is the most likely outcome of the various discussions that are taking place through the Quartet and the UN alike.

Businesses in the Palestinian territories repeatedly stress that economic progress fundamentally depends on political progress. As the position of the UK Government is to support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, will the Minister update us on their position on the recognition of such a state by the United Nations?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. We know that he will acquit himself of his duties extremely well.

Economically, an ultimate settlement of the issue between Israel and Palestine will bring benefits to all and is essential. We play our part by supporting the economy, with some £80 million this year going to the west bank and Gaza. However, the ultimate settlement will depend not so much on any universal declaration as on the process of negotiation. At present there has been no resolution put forward for the United Kingdom to vote on, and it is still not clear whether the UN process would be through the Security Council alone or through the General Assembly. However, the UK will always use its vote in the best interests of ensuring that the likelihood of negotiations towards a final settlement is assisted rather than hindered.