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Israel-Palestine Conflict

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the importance of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

My Lords, as part of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there needs to be a just, fair, agreed and realistic solution to the question of Palestinian refugees in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1515. Any such agreement must be demographically compatible with two states for two peoples. The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Palestinian refugees, including through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, to which we have so far provided over £50 million in 2017-18.

I thank the Minister for that response, but is the Minister aware of families like that of Haj Abdullah Shahata from Kuwaykat in Palestine who were driven from their homes and prosperous farms 70 years ago, and have been living in camps and temporary accommodation in Lebanon since then? Is he aware that the Lebanese Government continue to restrict Palestinians’ right to work, prohibit them from owning property and refuse them access to healthcare and education, leaving them dependent on UNRWA, which has diminishing funds? Can he really be content to let this continue for another 70 years, or will the Palestinians be allowed the right of return to their homeland as prescribed in international law?

As I have already said in my original Answer, of course the importance of refugees returning to the Holy Land, to the Palestinian territories, is an important part of the peace resolution. Let me reassure the noble Baroness that, in terms of money and financing, as I have already said we remain committed to UNRWA and continue to provide support. We also continue to provide financial support to the Palestinian Authority. This financial support allows for the education for the next generation, which I know is a priority for the noble Baroness. While I fully acknowledge the challenge of the Palestinian refugees, particularly those living in camps, from a UK perspective we remain committed to the two-state solution and also committed to supporting UNRWA in its efforts.

My Lords, the Minister keeps mentioning UNRWA, but the President of the United States has decided that the Palestinians’ position needs to be punished and that there needs to be some form of retribution because of their decision over Jerusalem. What are the Government doing to persuade the US that punishing the Palestinians is not the right way forward, and that we should be working together as allies to support UNRWA? Have the Government had any discussions at Foreign Office level with the new national security adviser and the new Secretary of State, both of whom have taken positions that could make life very difficult for the Palestinians?

I reassure the noble Lord that I speak for Her Majesty’s Government, and the Government remain committed to a two-state solution and to UNRWA. Regarding the relationship with the United States, we continue to implore the United States, which is a key player in finding a lasting Middle East settlement, to engage fully with all parties and to continue engagement with both the Palestinians and the Israelis in finding a resolution to this crisis, which, as the noble Baroness has said, has gone on for far too long. In response to the question about specific meetings, most recently my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has had discussions on a range of issues relating to foreign policy with American counterparts, and we continue to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that this is a problem that need not exist? Of the 60 million refugees in the world, only the Palestinians are treated as refugees for generation after generation, when they should have been resettled in the lands where they are living now, as were the same number of Jews who were expelled from the Middle East in the late 1940s. It is time to call a halt to this artificial definition, which is destined to use people as bargaining chips.

The one point on which I will agree with the noble Baroness is that it is important to find a resolution to this long-standing issue. The Palestinians, as the Jewish communities of Israel before them, have suffered for too long from being disassociated and removed from the holy lands. We need to find a lasting solution that is fair for both the Palestinian people and of course Israel.

My Lords, I say to my noble friend that achieving the right of return is going to be extraordinarily difficult and probably impractical. What we can do is to urge upon the Government of Israel the importance of desisting from building settlements around Jerusalem. That could make a substantial contribution to a resolution of the conflict in the Middle East.

I agree with my noble friend. The issue of return in any refugee crisis that we have seen since time immemorial has always been challenging. I agree with him totally on the issue of settlements. Our position is clear: any settlement that is built in the Occupied Territories is illegal and against UN resolutions.

My Lords, I declare an interest in this regard: I am a Zionist. Many of my family have been living in Israel since the 15th century after the persecution in Spain. Is it not fair to point out that one of the problems about the repatriation or readmittance of Palestinians is the firm resolve by so many of them to try to destroy the state of Israel? As long as that happens—the openly avowed intention is to ensure that Israel does not exist—that remains a very big problem in these negotiations.

Any party that believes in the destruction of Israel of course cannot be party to a peace process. The UK Government have made it clear that, before taking part in any peaceful negotiations on the two-state solution, any party at the negotiating table needs to agree the right of Israel to exist, so I agree with the noble Lord. Equally, I am sure he would agree with me that there are many on the Palestinian side who not only recognise Israel’s right to exist but believe most passionately in the coexistence of Arabs, Jews, Christians and indeed all faiths and communities living peacefully side by side. That is what we believe the two-state solution provides.

My Lords, on the question of taking forward a two-state solution, does the Minister not feel that the UK should recognise Palestine, as most other countries in the world do?

It has been the position of Her Majesty’s Government that we will recognise officially the state of Palestine when we feel that would be most constructive and progressive to ensuring a peaceful resolution to the conflict, which has gone on for too long. At the same time, we also recognise the right of Palestinian children and Palestinian people to get support in terms of health and education, and we continue to support them and the Palestinian Authority in that regard.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Palestinian refugee population—particularly in the neighbouring countries, as mentioned by the noble Baroness—has been consistently excluded from all political negotiation? Therefore, would Her Majesty’s Government favour consultation with those people to discover what are their own wishes? Could UNRWA, as their friend, advocate and protector, be allowed at least observer status?

We continue to abide by the agreement reached at the UN for a two-state solution. The Palestinian people, including the Palestinian refugees, are represented and their views are known by the Palestinian representatives in the peace negotiations.