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Israel and Palestine: Detained Parliamentarians

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will renew their request to the Government of Israel to release all detained Palestinian parliamentarians, with a view to establishing a permanent ceasefire and a single Palestinian negotiating platform.

My Lords, we welcomed Israel's release of two Palestinian Legislative Council Members in June. We continue to call for all elected PLC members detained by Israel to be either released or subject to due legal process. We support current efforts led by Egypt aimed at establishing a permanent ceasefire and encouraging Palestinian national dialogue.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that current and former detainees can often be more realistic than some of those presently at liberty? Does he recall that the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland went to the prisons to talk to convicted offenders around the time of the Belfast agreement? Will Her Majesty's Government recommend to the Government of Israel a similar approach to people who have not even been charged?

My Lords, the parallel between Palestine and Northern Ireland is often drawn; I am not sure that it has total validity. The noble Lord will recognise one crucial difference: the British Government had established a position for the resolution of the Northern Ireland situation before dealing with those in prison, but we cannot see that Israel has established that framework yet. However, the noble Lord is right that those whom states imprison are often the leaders with whom they subsequently negotiate.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the current Egyptian-brokered ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas should be used to resolve all outstanding issues? Surely that must include the immediate release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in June 2006, before any Hamas parliamentarians were detained? Are Her Majesty's Government pressing for the release of Corporal Shalit?

My Lords, my noble friend, with his knowledge of the Middle East, will know just how significant is the Egyptian role in the ceasefire, which remains fragile and must be the Egyptian Government’s priority at present. It would be looked on as a little odd if Britain identified as a major issue the question of the release of the individual whom my noble friend identified. It is not that the matter should not be addressed, but that it is a little premature when there are so many substantial issues that need to be resolved in the present crisis between Israel and Palestine.

My Lords, thank you. Does the noble Lord agree that the quartet was warned, not least by distinguished Members of your Lordships’ House, about the dangers of dividing the Palestinians one from another? Does he also agree that the time has come to set aside inappropriate preconditions put on Hamas and bring them properly into the peace process?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that as a result of the developments of the last few weeks, it is quite a considerable challenge that she identifies. I am not sure that she is right to suggest that the quartet was following a mistaken strategy in these terms, but it is certainly the case that the international objectives of a two-state solution of Israel and Palestine can only be achieved when effective negotiations take place, and of course at present, Hamas is the elected authority of the Palestinian people.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of prisoners of war ever having been used as hostages? It is not really in the interests of them and their possible release to discuss openly what any Government should do; it should be left to diplomacy.

My Lords, I think the whole House will appreciate that testimony, coming from where it does, and I am grateful for the point the noble Lord makes.

My Lords, will the Minister also look into the question of all the Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons—some of them without due process—which amounts to around 9,000 people, some of them being held for many years? That is equivalent, pro rata, almost to double the entire prison population of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I think the whole House appreciates the range of injustices that revolve around the Israel and Palestinian problem. It is easy to identify the injustice perpetrated by one side and then for some other source to identify a counterposition. At this stage, it is inevitable that the authorities concentrate on the serious issues that need to be resolved. That is why we should give all the support we can to Egypt, not only in having effected the ceasefire and, we hope, having created circumstances in which it can be sustained, but then in beginning to identify the agenda which produces the steps towards peace.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, may I ask my noble friend if he will reflect on the point he made a moment ago, that Hamas is actually the authority in Gaza and not of the Palestinian people? I do beg the House’s pardon.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I was struggling for an opportunity, but unfortunately neither of the two questions which were subsequent to my mistake quite gave it to me. I apologise to the House for that slip.