Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I tabled this debate because I visited recently the Palestinian occupied territories with a delegation organised by War on Want. It consisted of War on Want staff, myself, and Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of Unison. I am grateful for the opportunity to report on our findings, and I hope that the Minister will take account of them.
I have previously visited the west bank and Gaza on a number occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the time of the first intifada — a Palestinian uprising involving peaceful disobedience or, at worst, children throwing stones at soldiers. Despite the injuries inflicted on children by the Israeli army, the intifada was full of hope, and it led to the negotiation of the Oslo peace accord and the return of Yasser Arafat to Palestine. I was hopeful at that time that a two-state peace—Israel and Palestine—was possible, that the new Palestinian state would be based on 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that there would be a negotiated settlement on Palestinian right of return. Those are the three essential components of a negotiated peace. I was hopeful; but it is now impossible to believe that there will be such a peace. Instead, I fear that unless we change policy, we face the prospect of years and possibly decades of bloodshed and conflict. I have followed developments in the middle east carefully over many years, and I was well aware before my recent visit how bad things are for the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, I was deeply shocked by Israel's blatant, brutal and systematic annexation of land, demolition of Palestinian homes, and deliberate creation of an apartheid system by which the Palestinians are enclosed in four bantustans, surrounded by a wall, with massive checkpoints that control all Palestinian movements in and out of the ghettos. The Israelis are clearly and systematically attempting to take the maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Palestinians. As things stand, Israel has taken 85 per cent. of historical Palestine, leaving the remaining 15 per cent. for Palestinian ghettos. More shocking than that is that the international community, including the UK and the EU, does nothing to require Israel to abide by international law, despite all the claims made about European support for human rights and international law. During its visit, the delegation spent a day with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is the agency responsible for humanitarian emergencies. It briefed us on the way in which the wall, the closures, the settlements and the separate system of settler roads were imprisoning the Palestinians. It published a map in the Financial Times to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation, which is available for all to see. The delegation spent the second day of its visit with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, an organisation that I greatly admire. The committee took us on a tour of East Jerusalem and showed us how the combination of formal and informal settlements, and systematic house demolition, was encircling East Jerusalem and how that constrained, displaced and ethnically cleansed the Palestinian population. When we were with ICAHD, we witnessed a house demolition. A massive machine with "Volvo" emblazoned on its side destroyed a substantial house that was built by a Palestinian family on their own land and in territory that belongs to the Palestinians under international law—formally, it is occupied territory. Women relatives of the occupants quietly wept at the side of the road. Later, a young man was held back by his friends—he wanted to throw himself at the soldiers who were protecting the demolition, to do something about the destruction of his family home. The representative of ICAHD, a young Israeli, said that the demolition was, of course, a war crime. The point about that is that under the Geneva convention, an occupying power is not entitled to impose new laws or to settle in occupied territory. Houses are being demolished because Palestinians do not have permits to build, even on their own land. However, Israel is not entitled to introduce such a permit system. It never gives a permit to build a house, or after a house has been built. When Palestinian families expand, they must live somewhere, but Israel will never issue a permit because of its determination to drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem. According to ICAHD, Israel has demolished 18,000 Palestinian homes in the way I described since 1967. Each demolition was a war crime. More shocking than that is the fact that no action is taken to force Israel to adhere to international law. Later, the delegation visited a family whose house had been demolished and rebuilt by volunteers from ICAHD—Israelis and Palestinians worked together to rebuild a home for a Palestinian family. ICAHD is committed to acts of peaceful civil disobedience in order that international law is upheld. The family said how grateful they were to once again have a home. A Palestinian who works for ICAHD said that his house had been demolished four times. He said that most Palestinian homes in Jerusalem were subject to demolition orders, so everyone lives with the fear and insecurity that when they arrive home, they might find that their home has been destroyed. He said that when the Israelis arrive to demolish a person's house, they give them 15 minutes in which to collect their family and belongings. Normally, people refuse to co-operate. The ICAHD worker told me that in such a situation, the demolition people use tear gas. He told me that he stood there, with his wife fainting and his children crying while their property was being thrown out of their house on to the ground. He said that it made him feel like a useless man who could not even protect his family in their home, and that three possible courses of action passed through his mind. First, full of hate and anger, he thought about obtaining a suicide vest and destroying his own life and that of others. Secondly, he thought about whether he could get out of Palestine and Jerusalem, being unable to bear the pressure being put on him and his family, but that would be to co-operate in the ethnic-cleansing that he opposed. Thirdly—he said that this kept him sane—he said he thought about working for ICAHD to rebuild the demolished homes in peaceful civil disobedience. I understand that ICAHD has given a pledge to rebuild all the demolished homes in this, the 40th year of the occupation, and that—poignantly—an American holocaust survivor is funding the work. I hope that all people of good will will support ICAHD financially and politically in that endeavour. Importantly, the organisation brings radical Israelis and Palestinians together and creates a space for hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. The delegation's third day was hosted by the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, which is War on Want's partner in Palestine. We were briefed about how the closures have destroyed the Palestinian economy—that has subsequently been underlined by a WorldBank report—and also how more and more Palestinians are forced to work for the Israeli settlements to produce agricultural products and other goods that are exported largely to the European market, to which trade agreements give Israel privileged access. Illegal settlements using Palestinians as cheap labour is another element of the new apartheid system in which the EU and the UK fully collude. The delegation went to visit the Jordan valley with a representative of the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. The situation there is truly terrible. All fertile land near the river has been confiscated by Israel, supposedly for security purposes under the Oslo peace accords. In the remaining territory, there are occasionally settlements, some of only one person, which lead to Palestinian families being removed from their land for security reasons. There are acres of plastic greenhouses that are organised and worked by settlers and which are strategically located over water sources. They grow organic herbs and other agricultural produce for the European market and yet, when we visited a totally impoverished nearby Palestinian village, we found that there was no school and, that day, no water—the one tap in the village gave no water. The impoverished Palestinians must buy water by the bucket from the settlers. We visited farming families whose relatives had lived on the land in the Jordan valley for generations to grow crops, herd sheep and goats, and to make cheese. They were being threatened and moved constantly as new settlements of only one or a few people brought in the army, which claimed that they had to move for security reasons. We stopped to talk to another family who had a compound at the side of the road. A house bought for their son and his family on their own land had been demolished, and their aubergine crop was rotting in a heap in front of the house because they could not get it to market. There is terrible poverty and abuse of human rights in the Jordan valley. The people there are being grossly neglected. I appeal to the Minister, the Department for International Development and all the humanitarian and non-governmental organisations to do more in the Jordan valley—it is in a terrible situation, and more could be done to bring instant relief. My conclusion is pessimistic, and the prospect of a two-state solution is being destroyed. Instead, we are allowing a new, brutal apartheid regime to be created with the Palestinians being confined to ghettoes and used as cheap labour by the settlers. The Hamas takeover in Gaza is not the cause of the problem, but the consequence of it. The refusal of the UK and the EU to provide aid to the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas election victory has helped to create the problem. The arming of Fatah by US and Israeli forces to enable it to fight Hamas in Gaza made the take over inevitable. Now it seems that efforts are to be made to offer money and inducements to President Abbas to accept the monstrous ghettoes as the promised Palestinian state. As Uri Avnery, the great Israeli peace campaigner, said, they want him to act as a quisling, and that will not bring peace. In conclusion, the situation in the Palestinian territories is deeply distressing and depressing, and the Government and the EU are colluding in that oppression and the building of a new apartheid regime. In particular, Israel has privileged access to the EU market under a trade treaty that, like all EU trade treaties, contains human rights conditions. I hope that the Minister will explain why those conditions are not invoked to insist on Israeli compliance with international law. That is a big lever, and Israel would be frightened of losing access to the EU market. I wish that we would make use of that for everyone's benefit. I fear continuing bloodshed and suffering, and further destabilisation of the middle east. The situation in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories is fuelling the anger of the Muslim world, which is acting as a recruiting sergeant for the ugly ideology of Osama bin Laden and those who advocate similar ideas. It is in the interests of the people of Israel, the Palestinians and the wider middle east that there should be a two-state solution to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that possibility is being thrown away by Israel, which is determined constantly to expand its borders in total breach of international law. The UK and the EU are, sadly, colluding in that, and the consequences are causing terrible suffering, and endangering the future. I truly hope that our new Prime Minister will reconsider that policy, and that the Opposition parties will reconsider and bring pressure to bear to bring the situation back from the brink and to ensure that the centrepiece of UK policy is a just peace and Israeli compliance with internationallaw.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the righthon. Lady for initiating this debate and for her comments. I also thank her for her eye-witness account of the illegal activities of the Israeli defence forces and others in demolishing houses along the route of the wall, the barrier or fence, where it incorporates Palestinian land illegally. I agree entirely with the right hon. Lady that that not only breaks international law but generates huge resentment, not just in Palestine but throughout the region. We have constantly urged the Israelis not to do that, and it is ironic that lawyers in Israel have given Palestinians their redress only about the route of the wall. Sometimes that route has been altered as a consequence of legal action that Palestinians have taken, especially in and around Jerusalem. The right hon. Lady's point about generating sympathy for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda is prescient, and we ignore such warnings at our peril. I take her message about the Jordan valley needing the attention of the Department for International Development. I, too, was shocked when I saw the extent to which so much of the Palestinian economy on the west bank has collapsed. I shall come to Gaza in a moment.This is one of those times in history when, from an appalling tragedy of Palestinians killing Palestinians in Gaza, one hopes that the Israelis and everyone else will take a real step forward, remove the barriers on the west bank, and allow people to trade properly. The right hon. Lady referred to a crop of aubergines that were rotting in the field, and we have heard such stories so many times. I understand, as I am sure can everyone, why Israel has built barriers, and I know why it has built the wall. On my last visit but one, I went to see some old lefties—I do not know how to describe them—in a kibbutz up on the old Jerusalem road. Very reluctantly, they told me that life had become easier since the barrier was built because they were not worried about their kids going out, as suicide bombers were finding it much harder to come in from Nablus and other towns. I tried to argue then, and I argue now, that they will find ways of getting in and killing innocent citizens, because resentment will continue to build up unless the core issue is tackled.
Clare Short: I simply want to say that, ugly and regrettable as the wall is, if it were on the 1967 boundary it would be one thing, but it is taking great swathes of Palestinian land and dividing communities from their land. That was found to be illegal by the International Court of Justice, and there is no excuse for it.
Dr. Howells: The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. I was quite shocked even to discuss with Labour Ministers in Israel some time ago their unwillingness to build tunnels, for example, to join cantons together. It is hard to believe that a viable state, albeit small, could emerge from such a geographical configuration. It is difficultto see how it could work. We must keep pressing the Israelis. I do not agree with the right hon. Lady about sanctions— she did not refer to sanctions, but I have heard people talk about them. She referred to withdrawal of the preferential trade agreement with the EU. It is a fair subject for debate, although I am sceptical about making such moves, but that is my subjective assessment. It is a subject that should be discussed, and it is widely discussed throughout Europe. I tend to feel that there is already so much tension and there are so many difficulties that I am not sure that that would advance the cause of peace. If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall say something about Gaza, because we share her deep concern about what has happened there. It is a tragedy, and it underlines the urgent need to maintain international engagement and the current political processes. We are also concerned, as is the right hon. Lady, about the welfare of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist, whose family must be going through the most dreadful time. We condemn the release of the latest video, which can only add further distress to his family and friends. We urge his captors, as I know does the right hon. Lady, to release him immediately. There should be a general release of captives on bothsides— Corporal Shalit, the soldiers who were kidnapped by Hezbollah, the councillors and elected parliamentary representatives of the Palestinian people. Now is the time to make such moves, and I hope that after the disaster in Gaza there will be a sense that this historic opportunity should not be missed, and that misery should not be heaped on the existing misery. I also extend our thanks to the Egyptian Government for initiating the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday between President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, whom I had the privilege of speaking with just last week. He brought to the situation a sharp series of observations, which the right hon. Lady complemented today, and he understands the gravity of the situation. If the west bank statelet—that group of cantons—fails, one wonders where the conflict will spread to next. Jordan, with its huge Palestinian population, would be in grave danger, and King Abdullah is well aware of that. He was at Sharm el-Sheikh, as were Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas. We welcome Prime Minister Olmert's statement that he will work, with President Abbas as a true partner, towards the establishment of a two-state solution and the implementation of the road map. There are some positive aspects, but I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is a pretty bleak picture. It is as bleak as I can ever remember it, but the decision by Prime Minister Olmert to transfer the withheld revenues is probably a positive step forward, and we look forward to the implementation of the commitments to increase freedom of movement and expand trade connections in the west bank. Such actions are not rocket science; they can easily be done and they could make a big difference, if only to that family about whom the right hon. Lady spoke, with their crop of aubergines. Such actions are vital to the Palestinian people, and they have helped to improve the humanitarian and economic situation, which is critical. We welcome Prime Minister Olmert's pledge to ensure the continued supply of humanitarian aid to Gaza. As the right hon. Lady knows, we have earmarked funding for that project. It does not address the central issue that she has raised today, but there is an immediate humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which the international community must address. It is important that the international community works together to help all Palestinian people. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad's Government have our full support, and we share their aim of restoring security and improving the economic and humanitarian situation. We continue to work with all people, including President Abbas, who are dedicated to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The right hon. Lady did not mention this point, because time is always limited in such debates, but President Abbas, among others, has said that there ought to be an international peacekeeping force in Gaza certainly, if not on the west bank. I can see the right hon. Lady shaking her head, and one cannot imagine who would donate the troops to such a force. They would have to fight their way in, there would be bloodshed and mayhem on a huge scale, and quite frankly, I cannot see the idea coming off. To reinforce what the right hon. Lady said, we must understand the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, address it and at the sametime, urge Israel as hard as we possibly can to think again about its policy of incorporating Palestinian villages and land within the confines of that wall. As she said, the Israelis have a perfect right to defend themselves, and if they want to build a wall, it is up to them, but it ought to be along the agreed frontier—such as it is—that was defined in 1967. It ought not to encroach on Palestinian territory. It is important that we receive such reports in the House. In so many ways, that is what such debates are for—so that we are reminded constantly of the reality of what can sometimes look like great, strategic trends and events on the world stage. However, for the family whom the right hon. Lady described so vividly, the reality is that their lives have been shattered. Many other families' lives have been, too. I have always considered myself to be a friend of the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. I was brought up in a home in which the dreams of everybody who was interested in the subject were about people living alongside each other peacefully, not even in separate states.I shall not apportion blame; I have been around too long for that. I have seen the successive invasions of Israel, and what the Israelis have done in an attempt to head off what they perceive as threats to the Israeli heartland, which has usually meant extending territory. My message to the Israelis is simple; if they are to live in peace side by side with their neighbours, the Israelis must help them become viable states with economies that can live in a competitive world. They need the education, skills, infrastructure and wherewithal to do all that, but most important, they need the self-respect and dignity that we enjoy as members of sovereign states.
Clare Short: May I press the Minister to reconsider his view on Israeli access to the EU market? If we invoked the human rights conditionality in that treaty, we would have a lever with which to press Israel to do what he calls for. Does not our failure to use that leverage mean that we are colluding in the breach of international law? Will he reconsider his position on that point?
Dr. Howells: I certainly do not believe that we are colluding in any shape or form. I was going to come to that point, but with respect to the right hon. Lady, "colluding" is certainly the wrong word to use. I know that she chose that word very carefully, but I do not think that it is the right one. I can speak only subjectively from my meeting with other European Ministers. She, too, met her counterparts from the EU and other nations many times. There is at one extreme a sense of hopelessness, which she also described today in a very grim analysis of the situation. I am at the other extreme. I keep telling myself that we have material to work with, and that it is a very small partof the world. What is Gaza? Ten miles wide, and at the most, 35 to 40 miles long. It has a wonderful beach on the Mediterranean, and I remember vividly the first time I ever walked on it, thinking, "Why is this a poor part of the world? Why haven't people here got any jobs?" It seemed mad to me. The right hon. Lady expressed the hope that my right hon. Friend the new Prime Minister would take the issue by the scruff of the neck and try to do something with it. She knows that he has been very interested for a very long time in trying to work with the Israelis and the Arab countries in the area to do something about that economy and that infrastructure. I disagree with her about the effect of that general sense of good will towards Israel and Palestine—the desire throughout Europe that there should be a good outcome, and peace and prosperity in the future. In the end, we disagree about whether applying a screw to the Israelis on the question of human rights compliance would achieve a great deal. We should at every possible opportunity engage the Israelis on human rights and on compliance with their undertakings, which, as a consequence, enable them to enjoy access to the European market. We should talk to them about that, but I have a feeling that there are already far too many strictures on all sides to add another one. It would just create more tension, and we should try to build on what we have, aim for the high ground and figure out how we can get there by engaging with both sides.