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Israel: Illegal Settlers

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Government of Israel’s continued refusal to remove illegal settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and what action the European Union is taking to help resolve this problem.

My Lords, all settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is illegal and represents an obstacle to peace. We have consistently pressed Israel to renew its settlement moratorium and are very disappointed that it has not yet done so. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary delivered this message to Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman on 27 September and reiterated it on 6 October. The European Council also set this out in its statement on 16 September.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that as of June this year up to 200 housing units were under construction that started construction while the so-called moratorium was in place? They add to the 2,000 building units that started before the moratorium and continued right through it to this day. Does the Minister recall that in 1982, after the Israelis invaded Lebanon, the Conservative Administration, of which he was a member, imposed a ban on all British arms to Israel until the invasion was reversed? Will he consider with our European partners a similar ban on an EU-wide basis until a genuine moratorium is put in place and the Israeli Government start to remove illegal settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

I totally share the noble Lord’s correct frustration and dismay that the building activity has gone on even during the moratorium and is probably continuing at this moment in a highly provocative way. We regard that as illegal.

As to embargoes and export restrictions, we take the view that the total isolation of Israel would be a backward, not forward, step in this painful process. We fully agree that pressure must be mobilised. As far as an arms embargo is concerned, we have very tight, rigorous and effective consolidated EU and national export licensing criteria, which we employ. These work very effectively. As the noble Lord indicated, any further ban on development would have to be not merely EU-wide but virtually worldwide. We think that the isolation route is not the right one except, of course, for the crucial issues that I mentioned that are under very tight licensing control.

Does the noble Lord accept that Israel is the only democracy in that area and, like our own, it does not always elect a Government with whom we agree? Some of us do not agree with our present Government in some matters and that is certainly the view of those on this side of the House. Does the noble Lord agree that the EU should keep working with the quartet and the US to encourage the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace through negotiations and that reprimanding either side is counterproductive to producing the result which we all would like to see?

On the general proposition, obviously, yes, we desperately want to see peace between Israel and Palestine and we want to see the negotiations resumed and continued. But where we are asked to use our good offices and where we want to bring influence to bear, it seems perfectly reasonable to point out in what the noble Lord calls a reprimand that certain actions taken by either side may be going the wrong way. One thing that is going the wrong way is provocative settlements continuing in occupied territories, which must be setting these negotiations back. That is a reasonable proposition to put forward even to those who recognise fully the needs and the right of Israel to secure its proper security.

My Lords, at what point does the extent of the settlement activity, particularly in the West Bank, render the two-state solution an impractical aim?

Behind the right reverend Prelate’s question is a fear which I and many share. There could come a point when there is so much building and intrusion that it cannot even be contemplated as part of the swap of lands or anything else in a final negotiation. This reinforces our determination to bring to bear on the Israelis the necessity of continuing the moratorium on new building and to realise that in the eventual negotiation settlement this matter has got to be reasonably settled so that there can be a viable Palestinian state.

Does any assessment made by the Government take into account the fact that these settlements provide a haven from which Hezbollah and Hamas cannot continually throw bombs and things across into Israel, as has happened since Israel gave up control in Gaza?

There are security dangers in all these developments. Obviously, attacks on Israel from Hezbollah and from rocketing from Hamas in Gaza are matters that make it more difficult for the negotiations to go ahead. These two are deplorable developments and they must cease if we are to make progress.

My Lords, if both noble Lords are quick, I am sure that my noble friend will be able to give an answer—first, the noble Lord, Lord Lea, and then the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

Does the Minister agree with the point being put to our friends in the Israeli Government that public opinion in this country and much of western Europe is influenced by the fact that there were two sides to the Balfour declaration? One is creating a homeland for the Jewish people and the other is observing the rights of the Palestinian people.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a more fundamental obstacle to a peace settlement than the settlements in the West Bank, which occupy some 5 per cent or so of that territory, is the failure of Arab states to introduce into their own countries the rule of law and the right to freedom of expression which would promote a real debate in those countries about the true interests of the unfortunate Palestinian people?

The noble Lord is of course right that the issue of settlements is difficult. It is not the only issue and there are many broader considerations on which he has quite correctly touched.