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Occupied Palestinian Territories

Volume 796: debated on Monday 11 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Government of Israel about the increase in settlement building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

My Lords, we regularly raise concerns with the Israeli authorities, urging them to reverse their settlement expansion policy. Our ambassador to Israel raised concerns with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 29 January. The Minister for the Middle East issued a statement on 27 December 2018, expressing disappointment at plans to advance over 2,800 new settlement units in the West Bank.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but she knows that there are now nearly 800,000 settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and they are there illegally under international law. Why do we allow trade with the settlements in that case? Surely it is illegal to trade with them, too. Given the scale of the occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, when will the Government put pressure on Israel—wait for it—to consider one truly democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens and the right of return for refugees?

My Lords, in response to the latter part of her question, the noble Baroness will be aware of the United Kingdom’s long-standing position, which is that we support a two-state settlement and we want to see that happen. We believe that a political settlement is the only way to bring progress for the two communities. On the issue of trade, she raises an important point. Trade is important, not just for the United Kingdom and Israel, but also for the United Kingdom and the Palestinian Authority. She is aware that our total trade in goods and services with the PA, for 2017, was £17 million. We entered into a new trade agreement with Israel just last month, and a separate one with the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli trade agreement excludes goods created in Israeli settlements in the OPTs.

My Lords, given the poor state of relations between the independent Palestinian territories and the State of Israel, what, if anything, are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help promote better relations between those two parties and thus advance the prospect of a two-state solution?

The United Kingdom endeavours to support the Middle East peace plan and we do that with funding through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. For 2019-20, that programme will be worth £10 million. We also offer help through DfID to the Occupied Palestinian Territories under three main headings: supporting Palestinian refugees across the Middle East; supporting the Palestinian Authority to deliver basic services, build stability and promote reform; and giving help to the Palestinian market development programme to strengthen the private sector in the OPTs.

My Lords, given the unremitting expansion of settlement activity despite international opposition, for how much longer do the Government consider that a two-state solution will remain a viable option?

We continue to believe that it is a viable option and, as I indicated to my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones, the Government support that assessment with active financial help. That is a very important contribution to the Middle East peace process. Of course, our position on the settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law, they present an obstacle to peace and threaten the physical viability of a two-state solution. The noble Lord is quite correct to raise that concern. The United Kingdom believes that both communities will benefit from peace and we hope that the prospect of peace will facilitate a change in approach to a more optimistic outcome.

My Lords, I attend annually the Vatican-mandated Holy Land Coordination, as well as attending other things in the Holy Land. I shall be there in a week’s time with my curates. In the visit of the co-ordination group in 2017, we noted the injustice of the separation barrier built across Palestinian land in the Cremisan Valley and the creeping annexation of territory through settlement building. Will the Minister accept the denial of hope to the young people of Palestine that this taking of their land represents and reconsider the Government’s stand on delaying recognition of the state of Palestine in support of the two-state solution?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for making a very important point. The situation he outlines is profoundly undesirable. That is why, as I have indicated, the United Kingdom is doing what it can to support both communities—the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel—in trying to take forward a solution to what has been a challenging and anxious problem. On the question of recognition, we will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objectives of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot, sadly, either end the occupation or achieve peace, but we believe that the work we are carrying out at the moment is an important contributor to helping both entities look to a future where peace might just be possible.

My Lords, accountability and hope are clearly vital, as the right reverend Prelate has pointed out. The UN commission of inquiry into the deaths of 189 Palestinians in Gaza last year has just concluded that it has,

“reasonable grounds to believe that … Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity”.

What is the Government’s response to those conclusions?

These are very grave conclusions and the United Kingdom will be determining its response to the report in conjunction with our global partners, not least in the UN.

My Lords, was this issue of trade emanating from the settlements—the illegal settlements—raised in the negotiations undertaken to roll over the EU-Israel agreement to include the UK in the circumstances of Brexit? If the subject was not raised and if it was not made clear that we should not give preferential treatment to these, why not?

I can tell the noble Lord that the agreements to which I referred are intended to take effect when EU trade agreements no longer apply to the UK. That will of course be on implementation of Brexit, either at the end of the implementation period or if the UK leaves without a deal. On the further matters he raised, I have made it clear that the trade agreement with Israel does not include products from the settlement areas of the OPTs: those products are excluded. The agreement was laid before Parliament on 26 February, and there will be an opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise it.