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West Bank and East Jerusalem

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 4 February 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action the European Union is taking to support President Obama’s call for a freeze on all future Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

My Lords, the European Union has consistently urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We supported the European Union’s statement of 29 December, which made it clear that settlement activity prevented the creation of an atmosphere conducive to resuming negotiations on a two-state solution. We shall continue to make that clear.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that at least 1,200 illegal settlement units in the West Bank have been approved since President Obama’s speech five months ago, and that not only settlement expansion but also the appalling eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem continue, both of them with devastating effects on Palestinian human rights?

I had intended to quote from a speech by Mr Netanyahu a week ago but, in view of the guidance given by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I shall not do so. I therefore come to my question, which is to ask the Minister what action, not statements, we are considering with our European colleagues to support Senator Mitchell and President Obama in their, as I understand it, continuing aim to stop all illegal settlement activity in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

My Lords, the United Kingdom’s message on settlements has been both robust and consistent. Israeli settlements are illegal; they violate international law and prevent the creation of an atmosphere conducive to resuming negotiations on the two-state solution. The Prime Minister made that clear in his letter to the Israeli Prime Minister on 5 January. There are frequent ministerial meetings between representatives of our two countries, and the United Kingdom, both individually and as part of the European Union, continues to press on these matters.

Can the Minister confirm that our policy has been to support the United States in its negotiations on the Arab-Israeli peace process? Now that it is clear that the United States is blocked in its position, should we not be working much more actively with our European Union partners to support a European initiative for the Middle East peace process instead of waiting for the Americans to lead?

My Lords, it is not a question of waiting for the Americans. Strenuous efforts continue to be made by the United States authorities, certainly through Senator Mitchell. I commend to the House the statement of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Union in December, which was comprehensive and strong, setting out the European position of which we can all be proud. I would be happy to provide a copy of that statement to the Library. It is wrong to think of an either/or position; it is a question of continuing the pressure. Regrettably, progress remains slower than we would all wish.

Since President Obama called for a halt to existing settlements, has not George Mitchell, the United States envoy to the Middle East, indicated on the President’s behalf a softening of the American stance and the resumption of peace talks free of incendiary rhetoric?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. We have to seek stepping stones that take us not to a settlement at this stage but to the negotiating table. Some of the statements made are not helpful in that regard, but my experience of the United Nations is that what is said before negotiations start is not as important as what is said within them. That endeavour continues and our Government are as active as they can be in seeking to persuade all the parties that until those talks start there can be no prospect of a two-state solution.

Does the Minister recollect that the Balfour Declaration made nearly 100 years ago by Her Majesty’s Government expressly provides that it is,

“clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil … rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”?

Granted that those are the words of Her Majesty’s Government, should we not be even more enthusiastic than the President of the United States in pressing that case with all vigour?

My Lords, I confess that my study of the Balfour Declaration was not concurrent with it being debated in your Lordships’ House, although there may be noble Lords who were there. To some degree, it has been overtaken by the legislation of the United Nations in creating Israel as a state. The points made by the noble and learned Lord are well taken and in that sense they remain as valid as they were at the time of the Balfour Declaration.

My Lords, I recently visited Gaza as a member of a 60-strong European parliamentary delegation and guest of the Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza. The inhabitants of Gaza are living in conditions of great deprivation as a result of the effective blockade of Gaza, which means that only the bare minimum of supplies of food and medicines, and barely any of the materials that are so badly needed to rebuild the broken infrastructure, can get in. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing with their European partners to bring to an end this intolerable situation?

Again, I commend the statement of the European Foreign Affairs Committee in December. It is also true to say that while there was only a trickle of commodities and lorries getting into Gaza, that is improving. However, it has not improved far enough or fast enough. The United Nations is clear that there is not sufficient ability to reconstruct and take away some of the misery from the lives of Palestinians. We continue to press the Government of Israel. We welcome the improved access and the taking away of blockades on the roads, but we ask for full removal so that we can provide assistance through DfID and others to help to bring the Palestinian people back from the misery in which they are currently living.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are looking at the steady establishment by the Government of Israel of what are called “facts on the ground”, and that we are already at the point at which a viable Palestinian state is virtually impossible because of the spread of settlements and the control of aquifers? Will he and Her Majesty’s Government consider seriously how they can make a reality of what they constantly repeat, which becomes more and more vanishing in fact?

My Lords, I cannot share the noble Baroness’s pessimism that a viable Palestinian state is not possible. A great deal more good will on the ground, and a great more give and take, are required. The noble Baroness can rest assured that the United Kingdom Government do not stop simply at making or supporting statements in Europe. We are very active at ministerial level—with Ministers in Israel and in our talks with the Palestinian Authority—in seeking both to assist and encourage. Frankly, it is not helpful to say that we have an impossible task, because the only certainty is that those who do not want us to succeed will agree with that.