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Israel and Palestine: West Bank

Volume 737: debated on Monday 21 May 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Israel following the recent order to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank to uproot their olive trees.

My Lords, the Government are aware of the recent order by Israeli authorities to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank village of Deir Istiya to uproot 1,400 newly planted olive trees. On 8 May, our embassy in Tel Aviv raised our concerns with the Israeli authorities responsible for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We encourage and expect Israel to adhere to its obligations under international law.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that the Israeli Government seem to be changing the rules about land ownership on the West Bank at whim, what further pressure can the UK Government bring to bear on the Israelis to cease this illegal activity immediately and to allow the farmers to continue the cultivation of their trees, which is also their principal economic activity?

I understand the concerns of my noble friend, who has direct personal experience of the situation in this area. There are difficulties in that there all kinds of different rules governing the ownership of land—layer after layer of them arising from the different status of this area over several decades. This causes confusion and difficulty, and my noble friend is right to identify it. These are the problems. We keep raising them with the Israeli authorities. Obviously, if the trees were mature and established, it would be even worse, as ancient olive trees are of great value, but even with these newly planted trees, there remains a constant dispute about whether the area is a nature reserve, as the authorities suggest, or an area where planting can properly take place. We shall keep monitoring the situation very closely indeed.

Is it not the case that Battir village, one of the villages in which the olive trees are slated to be removed, is the still the subject of a legal battle and no final decision has been taken on it? Is it not also the case that the economy of the West Bank is growing quite markedly—at the rate of 6% to 7% per annum—productivity is going right up, towns that used to be the centres of terrorism are now centres of economic development and large numbers of the barriers and checkpoints have been removed?

The noble Lord is quite right to bring forward the good news to balance the bad news. Unfortunately, there is a slice of both. He is right that in Ramallah and related areas industrial activity has increased and major orders are fulfilled, not least for the British market, thanks to the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Stone, and others in this House. That is a very encouraging side of the West Bank, but there is a discouraging side, of which I am afraid this constant friction about what the Palestinian farmers may do and—if I may raise an even more controversial point—what the settlers are allowed to do, is the negative aspect of an otherwise potentially good story.

My Lords, in addition to the problem of trees being uprooted, many Palestinian communities on the West Bank are finding their water sources being diverted to illegal settlements. What are the Government doing to persuade the Israeli Government to take action against illegal settlers, especially when essential resources, such as water, are being diverted?

I think my noble friend is well aware, because I have said it many times in your Lordships’ House, that the British Government regard the settlements policy and the expansion of settlements as illegal. We also deplore the recent tendency, which seems to be going against previous trends, of legalising previously illegal settlement outposts. These are again matters that we raise again and again with our opposite numbers in the Israeli Government. We believe that the policy of settlements is one of the barriers to the higher purpose we all want to achieve of reopening negotiations and getting a long and lasting settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian situation.

My Lords, I am sure that the House will fully understand and sympathise with the difficulty that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has in answering Questions of this sort. It has been the case for many Ministers from both major political parties over the years. Basically, they have to express concern about what is happening, which is the profound and fundamental illegality of one country occupying another country’s land. It seems to everyone who looks closely at these things that all we seem able to do is express our concern and raise the matters with the Israeli authorities. Surely, the question should be: at what point do the Government of Israel face any disadvantage whatever—at the moment, there seems to be none—from continuing with the illegal settlement activities?

I am grateful for the sympathy of a former Chief Whip for a Minister when there are two sides to these questions and an element of balance is essential in assessing the realities and prospects. There is more that this country can do and seeks to do, collectively with our allies such as United Nations colleagues, within the EU and bilaterally. We can press on the various points that may yield some progress towards reconciliation and settlement. Israel’s security has to be considered. The noble Lord says that there is nothing to lose but always at the back of people’s minds are questions of Israel’s security. At the same time, these are occupied territories. We want to see an end to that process and a two-state solution that is not undermined by the settlements. These are all aspirations towards which we can and do work, beyond being concerned day-to-day about specific issues such as the one we are discussing now.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a producer of olive trees. I have only 200 but I assure your Lordships that an olive tree takes a long time to grow. It has much significance, not least because of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. There is politics in this as well. Will my noble friend tell me what the economic deficit is here? What cost is being incurred by uprooting these olive trees and what is their value?

As we are dealing with newly planted trees, their value is all in the future. However, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reminder of the significance of the olive tree. I am full of admiration for his growing them because I was told that you could not grow olive trees with decent olives north of Valence in France.