[John Bercow in the Chair] — Israel and Palestinian Territories

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 27th February 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Khan.]

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 9:30 am, 27th February 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and to have the opportunity to address this issue.

It is perhaps appropriate to remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, which discloses that in September last year, I was sponsored to visit the Palestinian territories in the west bank and Gaza strip by the Welfare Association UK. It was an eye-opening visit. I have taken an interest in the issue for almost all of my adult life, but I had never been to the area before and the visit made real many of the issues in which I had previously taken only a theoretical interest.

I pay tribute to a few of the people whom I encountered on my visit. I am lost in admiration for the work of Betselm, the Israeli human rights organisation; those working in the field for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The latter's work on closures in the west bank in particular is essential in providing us with an authoritative and objective analysis of the situation on the ground.

I also place on the record my appreciation of the various interest groups within the Liberal Democrats. Like all parties, we have both a friends of Palestine and a friends of Israel group. My own thinking is influenced by many such groups. I pay tribute to Councillor Monroe Palmer, the chairman of Liberal Democrat friends of Israel. His engagement with the issue and with me is an example from which many in that organisation should take a lead.

I have sought to draw the terms of the debate fairly tightly to the question of settlements within the occupied Palestinian territory and the related question of closures in the area. Obviously and inevitably, the focus of my remarks will be on the application of Israeli Government policy. That lays me open to the accusation that I am not being even-handed in my treatment of the issue, but I ask people not to read into my comments on Israeli policy in this tightly defined debate any significance beyond the generality.

The question of settlement development as an instrument of Israeli Government policy has massive and perhaps fundamental long-term implications for the two-state solution. By its nature, the permanence of the settlements creates that significance.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has said that if there could be a lasting peace, and if the road map could be achieved, the settlements that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, which are so contentious, would be withdrawn and demolished, as a number already have been in Gaza and north of Jerusalem?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Later on, I shall come to Ehud Olmert's engagement with the issue following the Annapolis conference. From what the hon. Gentleman says, I take it that he roughly shares my view—I presume that when he talks about settlements, he means both legal and illegal settlements, in Israeli terms. It is my view that those settlements will need to be removed, which will involve a massive displacement of Israelis who are currently in the occupied Palestinian territories. At present, about 450,000 Israelis live there, so what will happen to them if we return to the 1967 boundaries? About 200,000 such people live in the immediate environs of East Jerusalem. Ehud Olmert and others have made a commitment to a two-state solution, but if we judge them on their actions, we might find that that commitment is not as strong as we would wish it to be.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that Israelis left all the settlements in Gaza? Indeed, the settlements were demolished and 8,000 settlers were removed, many forcibly, by the Israeli army. However, the consequence was that last year alone 2,000 rockets were fired from Gaza deliberately on civilian targets in Negev.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I hesitate to draw an immediate comparison between the Qassam rockets, which I unreservedly condemn—I have seen the trauma they cause in communities such as Sderot—and the removal of settlers from Gaza. With respect to the hon. Lady, whom I know has long taken an interest in such matters and whose views I listen to carefully, the situation is more complex than that.

The significance of the removal of settlers from Gaza is important for two reasons. First, it has made it clear that there is a difference in the Israeli Government's attitudes to Gaza and the west bank. Secondly—the real significance—it demonstrates that when there is political will within Israel and the Israeli Government, the removal of settlements is possible. However, political will underpins everything. At present, there is an increase in the amount of settlement building in the west bank, so I see no such political will. As we know from studying conflicts in every part of the globe, without political will, there will be no solution.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is talking about good will and sending messages, but what good will and messages does he see from Hamas? One of its spokesmen said recently:

"The Hour will not take place until the Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims kill them, and the rock in the tree will say, 'Oh Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, kill him!'"

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

If the hon. Gentleman is looking for an apologist for Hamas or for that sort of statement, he should look elsewhere; he will not find one in me. As ever when dealing with this situation, to pray one extreme as a justification for another does not really advance the argument.

I have spoken for eight minutes already, and I am being tempted by the hon. Gentleman to stray rather wide of the narrow focus of the debate, although I am delighted that so many hon. Members are present. Normally, when I am in Westminster Hall it is to discuss the most recent round of fishing cuts—curiously, that never seems to attract the same sort of audience.

Entrenchment is what concerns me most about settlement, because it makes the medium to long-term solution in the Palestinian territories difficult to achieve. I hope that the Minister for the Middle East will say something about our ongoing engagement in the area, particularly in relation to settlements. I appreciate that he will speak under certain constraints, but I hope that he addresses either today or at some later date the way in which our diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv engage with the settler community. It was reported to me recently that the ambassador in Tel Aviv had hosted a dinner in the embassy specifically for representatives of settlements. If that is true—I do not know whether it is—such an approach leaves us open to criticism.

Secondly, when one considers the legality of the situation it seems that we should not permit the marketing and sale in the UK of property in the settlements in the present unregulated way.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour, Brighton, Pavilion

Constituents of mine who visited the west bank recently raised with me the role of the Jewish National Fund in acquiring and developing land in the west bank. I believe that the company is registered in the UK. Has the hon. Gentleman formed a view of its activities, and does he believe that it would be appropriate for the Government to look into them, as the company is registered in this country?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I know nothing about the company, although there may be grounds for investigation. Structures certainly exist in the UK for the propriety of incorporation to be investigated, particularly of limited companies. The company's activities will obviously be prescribed by its articles of association and memorandum of incorporation. That will clearly be the basis on which it can operate, and if it runs wide of that it will be open to criticism.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. During his visit, was he able to discuss the problem of the sale of goods from the settlements in Europe, which is obviously illegal? It follows logically that Israel has put itself in breach of the EU-Israel trade agreement by selling illegally produced goods.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Yes, that issue was discussed; indeed, it was discussed before our departure and has been again since our return. The engagement of the European Union and the way in which its agreements are enforced causes me great concern. It is something to which the EU could bring a great deal more rigour, and it concerns me greatly that that is not the case. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that continued financial support of settlements, direct or indirect, will make the situation more entrenched, and thus more difficult to resolve.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured the debate. Does he agree that the subdivision of the west bank by the settlements, the division wall, the razor-wire fences and the access roads makes a two-state solution impossible for as long as those settlements and that division exist?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is my concern. Indeed, if my hon. Friend visits the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs website, he will see its tremendous maps—I would never have believed how excited people could get about maps until I visited the UNOCHA offices in Jerusalem. When illustrated on a map, the picture is graphic. It is obvious that if the status quo is allowed to persist, there cannot be a two-state solution. We have three Palestinian islands on the west bank—one in the north, one in the centre and one in the south, perhaps linked by tunnels: who knows?—but in no way, shape or form does it appear to be a viable state. For a two-state solution, the two states must be viable within their own boundaries.

I see, Mr. Bercow, that I have taken almost a quarter of an hour. I was concerned that I might not have enough to say; perhaps I should throw away my notes.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rather than putting forward a counsel of despair he should give full backing to the Palestinian President in his negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister, which have the backing of the Quartet envoy, and the potential financial support for major investment in the Palestinian state being planned by our Government and other European countries?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I hope that what I have said so far is not a counsel of despair, although I accept that matters are fairly bleak. From the general situation, I take a degree of hope for this simple reason: the ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens whom I met have a will for peace and for a settlement. It comes down to the question of political will to which I referred earlier.

My frustration is that at present neither community has effective political leadership. I am quite happy to support the President of the Palestinian Authority; indeed, I am quite happy to give support to Ehud Olmert as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel, but my support does not mean an awful lot. It is necessary for both of them to engage with their own communities and give them leadership to bring about some sort of solution. Frankly, my despair is that I do not see that happening, and my support will not make a great deal of difference.

I turn to the point raised by Michael Fabricant. According to a report published last week by Peace Now, the Israeli human rights organisation, since the Annapolis conference there has been a dramatic expansion in the amount of building in the settlements on the west bank. In 2002, 315 units were built, and 728 in 2005, and there has been a significant increase since November last year.

The question that comes to mind is whether Ehud Olmert is able, with his Government, to follow through the good intentions that he expresses on the international stage. Does he have the authority to make them work? He says that there is a freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, yet it is reported in Ha'aretz that the Housing Minister says there is no freeze, which was corroborated by the mayor of Jerusalem, who said that he would not see Jerusalem turned into an illegal outpost.

The Peace Now report to which I referred earlier also deals with demolitions. Settlement construction is only half the story; settlement demolition is the other side. It is apparent from figures published by Peace Now that construction applications from Palestinians to the Israeli authorities result in a 94 per cent. refusal rate, but that 33 per cent. of all demolition orders against Palestinian structures are carried out and only 7 per cent. against Israeli settlements. According to the Israeli central bureau for statistics, only 91 construction permits were granted to Palestinians, yet in the same period 18,472 housing units were constructed in the settlements.

I commend to hon. Members the work of Peace Now and its report, which is thorough and based on the Israeli Government's own figures. I would have liked to say more about the subject, particularly about the impact of the policy on Palestinian communities, but because of the pressure of time I do not feel able to do so.

I turn—regrettably only briefly—to the issue of closures. Again, I commend to the House the work of UNOCHA in the region, and I share with Members a couple of paragraphs from the report of the special rapporteur, John Dugard, on the state of human rights in the Palestinian territories, which was published on 21 January. In paragraphs 34 and 35 of the report, Mr. Dugard says:

"Checkpoints and roadblocks seriously obstruct the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank, with disastrous consequences for both personal life and the economy. There are 561 such obstacles to freedom of movement, comprising over 80 manned checkpoints and some 476 unmanned locked gates, earth mounds, concrete blocks and ditches."

I saw such checkpoints and roadblocks for myself while I was in the west bank. The report continues:

"In addition, thousands of temporary checkpoints, known as flying checkpoints, are set up every year by Israeli army patrols on roads throughout the West Bank for limited periods, ranging from half an hour to several hours. In November 2007 there were 429 flying checkpoints. Palestinians are subjected to numerous prohibitions on travel and to requirements for permits for travel within the West Bank and to East Jerusalem. Checkpoints ensure compliance with the permit regime. These restrictions violate article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has been held to be binding on Israel in the OPT"— the occupied Palestinian territories—

"by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the construction of the wall."

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate?

I understand precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about the checkpoints, but does he not also accept that every state has a duty of care to protect its citizens? Since 2000, more than 1,000 people in the region have been killed by suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks. God forbid that a similar situation should exist in the United Kingdom, but if it did would we not have to have checkpoints, too? Would it not be our duty to protect our citizenry?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Of course Israel has a right to protect its citizens. Equally, however, Israel should not be in the west bank in the first place, because that, of course, is an illegal occupation under international law. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware—if he is not, I again commend him to the UNOCHA website and its maps—that a vast number of the checkpoints are well distant from the Israeli border.

There is a question of proportionality. I recognise that there is a threat to Israeli citizens from suicide bombers and of course Israel is entitled to enforce defence against that type of attack. However, the hon. Gentleman must not forget that it is not just Israelis who have been killed since 2000; a substantial number of Palestinians have been killed, too. I do not even know if data on the number are gathered centrally.

Furthermore, the disproportionate effect of the wall, the checkpoints and all the rest of the defences on the daily life of Palestinians living in the west bank really shows, quite graphically, that it is not an even-handed situation. If Israel is serious about achieving a long-term solution, it will have to accept that it will have to live side by side with Palestinians and that oppression of that type will never bring any such long-term solution.

There is a lack of proportionality, particularly in the way that the Israeli defence force operates, as I have seen for myself. I saw how our Palestinian driver, who was in a badged United Nations vehicle, was treated by what looked like a 19-year-old Israeli conscript from the IDF. For me, sitting there with my British passport and all the rest of my identification, it was an intensely frightening and disturbing experience. Goodness alone knows what it must be like for an ordinary Palestinian citizen with none of the protections or the UN-badged vehicles that I was privileged to enjoy.

Mr. Bercow, I have taken rather longer than I intended, but I hope that I have been able to address the issues raised by other hon. Members. There is much more that I would love to say and doubtless I will on other occasions, but in the interests of allowing a wider debate I conclude my remarks at this stage.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. No fewer than six Back-Bench Members have indicated to me that they want to speak. Colleagues should be aware that I will need to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at, or very close to, 10.30 am. Hon. Members are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves; a certain self-denying ordinance is required and I should very much appreciate it if they tailored their contributions accordingly.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 9:55 am, 27th February 2008

Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today.

I start by congratulating Mr. Carmichael on securing this debate. I, too, was on the visit of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine last September, and I would like to thank Welfare Association UK, which enabled that visit to happen. I would also like to commend the United Nations agencies in the region, particularly UNOCHA— the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, especially John Ging from UNRWA, who briefed us while we were there and looked after us. I would also like to thank Julia Wickham and Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International, who accompanied us on the visit.

I should also say that, although we were a group of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, that was not intentional. There was a Conservative group of MPs that visited the same places the following week, staying in rather better hotels, I think, but they were briefed by exactly the same people. I hope that we will hear from Conservative MPs about their experience during the debate. Of course, the week after their visit there was also a visit by Tony Blair, on behalf of the Quartet, and he was briefed by the same people.

I should say at the outset that I deplore the habit that people have got into of calling other people either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, as though the two were mutually exclusive. I regard myself as a friend of Israel every bit as much as my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman does, and I also regard myself as a friend of Palestine. It is really as a friend of Israel that I think that we should be urging the Israeli Government, in their own interests as much as in the interests of justice, to stop expanding the settlements, because they cannot expect the Palestinians to engage in meaningful negotiations at the same time as they are encroaching every day on yet more Palestinian land. It is like asking people to play football while moving the goalposts.

It is the continuing expansion of settlements that cuts the ground from under the feet of moderate Palestinian politicians, metaphorically as well as literally, and strengthens the extremists. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend David Miliband, saw the bulldozers and cranes still at work building new settlement houses when he travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho last year, through the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which is now a town of some 30,000 inhabitants about six miles to the east of Jerusalem. When I asked him about his trip in the Commons, he said that he took comfort from a speech made by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the preceding week, in which Mr. Olmert promised, as a confidence-building measure, to fulfil his responsibilities under the first phase of the road map, which my right hon. Friend understood to mean that he would stop building in the settlements.

However, when one looks more closely at what the Israeli Prime Minister said, one finds that he did not actually promise to stop building; what he promised to do was to stop expanding the outer boundaries of settlements, but to continue building within them. Therefore, I fear that that is an empty promise, since all the Israeli settlements have large areas set aside for future building. Next to Ma'ale Adumim, there is an area known on the maps only as E1, which is a military area closed to Palestinians but is also, in fact, reserved for future expansion of Ma'ale Adumim, and it could take more than another 30,000 settlement houses.

All the other settlements also have areas reserved for future expansion. In fact, a study by the World Bank found that, although the built-up areas of settlements cover only 3 per cent. of west bank territory, the municipal areas around them cover 9 per cent., and then there are areas called reserved settlement jurisdiction, which cover a further 9 per cent. When we add the closed military areas and the various other categories, we find that nearly 50 per cent. of the west bank is closed to nearly all Palestinians. The state of Israel already occupies 77 per cent. of the land of the Palestine mandate, so if and when the Palestinians get their own state with the 1967 boundaries, they will be renouncing their claim to 77 per cent. of the mandate area and agreeing to occupy and live in only 23 per cent. of it.

I sometimes wonder how the English would react if we were confined to 23 per cent. of our original country. Let us imagine that the original inhabitants of England were cooped up in an area the size of Wales, which is proportionately the same size as the area that we are talking about.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Mr. Bercow, you are a student of history, so you will know that that is exactly what happened to the Welsh people.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

That is the very point that I was about to make. Over the past 2,000 years, that is what has happened to the Welsh, and I look to them to understand how the Palestinians must feel about what has happened in the Palestinian territories.

As well as imagining that the Welsh were confined to Wales, we would have to imagine a wall that sometimes strayed far west of Offa's dyke, in addition to English-only roads leading to English-only settlements deep inside Wales. We would have to imagine pass laws that prevented Welsh people from visiting their relatives in England, as well as an English Cardiff from which the Welsh people were banned. The Palestinian people see such things every day, but it is difficult to explain that to people in this country without drawing such an analogy.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting analogy, with which I identify very much as someone who is half-Welsh. However, he is not making a direct comparison, because his analogy does not suggest that Welsh people would be coming over to England to blow themselves up. That, however, is the reality on the ground in Israel, and it is very different from his analogy.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

If the Welsh people were treated in the way that I described, they might do that—I do not know. The only incorrect thing about my analogy is the size, because England is much larger than Israel. Wales is, in fact, exactly the same size as Israel, so if we wanted an analogy that was to scale, we would have imagine that most of the original population of Wales had been squashed into an area the size of the west bank and Gaza.

It so happens that there is a county in Wales that is the same size as the west bank, Powys, and a city the same size as Gaza—Swansea. We could easily imagine all the original inhabitants of Wales being pushed into Powys and Swansea or crammed on to the Gower peninsula and into the mountains of Powys. We would then have to imagine the dominant power—let us leave aside who that might be—building 133 settlements in Powys, with another 100 unofficial outposts and a row of houses on the top of every hill or mountain in the Brecon Beacons. We would have to imagine that most of the roads had been taken over for the exclusive use of settler communities, with the Welsh confined to the mountain roads and the dirt tracks. We would have to imagine the settlements cutting so far into the Usk and Wye valleys that it would be impossible for Welsh people even to get from Brecon into Radnor or from Radnor into Montgomeryshire.

What started as a single country would therefore end up divided into three almost completely separate blocks, and that is exactly what has happened in the west bank. It is almost impossible for Palestinians to travel between the separate parts of the west bank.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Does my hon. Friend not think that he is doing the people of Wales a great disservice? Is not the nub of the Israeli-Palestinian problem that peace has been thwarted by Palestinian terrorists determined to kill as many Israelis as they can, with the deliberate objective of ruining peace initiatives?

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

We do not have to know much about Welsh history to know that the Welsh would fight tooth and nail to protect the remaining 23 per cent. of their territory if they were put in the position that I described. They would fight even more bitterly if the settlements gradually expanded until they were left with only half their original land. That is what is happening in the west bank, and the Palestinian west bank state as it now exists is only 12 per cent. of the original area of the Palestine mandate.

We must face the fact and make people in this country understand that all settlements in the west bank are illegal under the fourth Geneva convention. On top of that, the Israeli Government have accepted the road map, under which they should—this is a quote from the road map—

"freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."

What has actually happened is that the number of settlers in the west bank has doubled since the Oslo agreement from 125,000 to 250,000.

This month's report from the Israeli organisation Peace Now, which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland quoted, shows that settlement activity has intensified around East Jerusalem even since the Annapolis conference in November, when the Israeli Prime Minister promised to stop expansion; indeed, activity has increased exponentially, compared with the previous five years. A ring of new Israeli settlements is planned in East Jerusalem, in another clear attempt to change the geographical facts on the ground.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is right that 8,000 settlers were withdrawn from Gaza, but that number pales into insignificance compared with the 30,000 settlers who have been put into the single settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim in the west bank, and there is room for as many again. That is the litmus test for the Israeli Government. They can defend themselves against most of the accusations thrown at them by talking about security: they need a wall for security, they need checkpoints for security, they need to prevent Palestinians from coming into Israel for security and they need to keep Palestinian cars off the settlers' roads for security. We may not always accept the argument, but I agree with Michael Fabricant that no one can deny the Israeli Government's right to put Israeli citizens' security first, at least in their own country, and we would do exactly the same. However, the expansion of settlements has nothing do with the issue of security: building more houses in the west bank does not make Israel more secure and nor does putting Israeli settlers in the centre of a Palestinian city such as Hebron.

So why do the Israelis do it? The BBC "Today" programme asked that very question of the Israeli ambassador last month, and I have a transcript of the conversation. It is an absolute master-class—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. I am listening with great interest and respect to the hon. Gentleman, but may I just point out that he has been speaking for 12 minutes? If he were able to finish very quickly, and if everybody else who wanted to speak were able to confine themselves to five minutes each, everyone would be able to speak.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I will do my best to draw my remarks to a close.

The transcript of the BBC interview is an absolute master-class in avoiding questions and it should be used as training material for Cabinet Ministers. The point is that there is no answer to the question why the Israelis continue to expand the settlements, and although they remain committed to the road map on paper, it is difficult to believe, looking at the size and number of the settlements and the infrastructure that has been put in place, that they will ever give them all up in practice.

The best thing that I can do in drawing my remarks to a close is to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about terrorism. Terrorism is a very real threat. We visited Sderot, which is the one town within striking distance of Gaza and which has been suffering a rain of rockets ever since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Israelis have a perfectly legitimate point when they say that their fear, if they pulled out of the west bank, would be that they would get even more rockets from even closer to main population settlements such as Tel Aviv. I can understand that logic, but I would put another logic against it. They have allowed Gaza to become impoverished, with 80 per cent. unemployment and 80 per cent. reliance on United Nations food rations. That is why the rockets have kept coming. It is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

If the same policy of impoverishment is followed, by the strangling of the economy of the west bank through the closures, which is what is happening at the moment, the same thing will happen in Gaza and Hamas will be elected there, as well. There are already terrible levels of unemployment among Palestinians in the west bank, and the same process is going on. It is vital that people in this country should understand, and that our Government should make it clear to the Israeli Government, how important it is—I look forward to the Minister's response on this—that they should stop expanding the settlements, in their and everyone's interests, as the first step toward removing them.

Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich 10:11 am, 27th February 2008

I shall take three minutes, if I may.

Israel is often criticised for its policy on settlements and the closure of territories. It is easy to make those criticisms, but I believe that they are unfair and that the UK Government must not join in with them. What else is Israel supposed to do? Her actions are essentially defensive, not aggressive. Israel has dismantled settlements in trying to seek a two-state solution, limited the growth of settlements and removed illegal posts. In Gaza Israel went so far as to remove posts, despite considerable criticism within Israel for doing so, and has been paid for that with numerous rocket attacks.

As for the closure of territories, it is easy to portray the erection of the security barrier as a hostile act. We have all seen the photographs of the 5 per cent. of the wall that happens to be made of concrete, but again I believe that Israel's actions are essentially those of a defensive liberal democracy. It built the security barrier to prevent suicide bombings and sniper attacks. What would the Government of any western democracy do? I believe that, if the United Kingdom bordered not the North sea, St. George's channel or the Irish sea, but territories that Israel borders, and if there were numerous suicide attacks from within those territories, we would similarly want to put up a security barrier.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the natural place to build the security barrier would be on the borders of the neighbouring country, and not within its territories?

Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich

That is an easy point to make, but I have visited Israel and the west bank and I found it interesting that, although it is easy to talk about where the barrier should be, and about the 1967 barrier, one is quite often talking about someone's back garden, where a family happen to spend their afternoon. I simply do not agree about the issue. The barrier needs to be built where it will provide security, not where we, using very outdated maps that take no account of an expansion, think it should go. Having said that, where there are disputes in Israel and Palestinians have objected to the siting of the barrier, there is judicial scrutiny. The process is not arbitrary. There is a mechanism that allows people who are concerned about where the barrier is being built to challenge the decision through the courts.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On judicial scrutiny, the hon. Gentleman will be aware—indeed, I have made reference to it in my speech—of the view of the International Court of Justice about the wall. Is that not judicial scrutiny that should be observed by Israel?

Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich

I am not a great fan of that institution. As for the idea that remote international judges should make the decisions for a democracy, Democratic Governments and national judiciaries should make decisions, and should be accountable to the people. When Hamas abides by all the decisions of international bodies I shall be happy to put pressure on democratic Governments to abide by them, but it is slightly unfair to expect one side to conform to international law when another so clearly violates its principles.

When I hear people posturing against Israel, I sometimes wonder if it tells us more about the person doing the posturing than about the reality in the middle east. It is nice, particularly for politicians, to find a righteous cause or a bee in their bonnet to go on about, but Israeli-bashing is no righteous cause. Israel is a liberal democracy. The UK Government's policy should be to support it against those who want to destroy it. We should stop believing the fallacy that a small country the size of Wales is somehow responsible, and is somehow the big obstacle to peace in the middle east. We should seek peace and should note that Israel has made peace with every neighbour—Egypt and Jordan—that has been willing to do so. Where there are stable and responsible Governments, Israel has made peace. Israel is unable yet to find a lasting peace in the west bank, or with Gaza or south Lebanon. That tells us more about the tyrants who run those territories.

J

This is the kind of sloppy thinking we are not used to from Douglas Carswell. Perhaps he is allowing his prejudices to over-ride his normal analytical capabilities.
The International Court of Justice was looking at the building of a wall by the Israelis in land to which they have no title other than by conquest. One does not have to be a fan of the institution to accept that it has a role to play in this matter.
If Douglas Carswell is so much in favour of democratically elected governments, then will he support Hamas within Gaza where it was given a mandate by the electorate?

Submitted by J H Hall

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 10:15 am, 27th February 2008

I am utterly astonished by the contribution that we have just heard: it seems that if we are not fans of international institutions and treaties we are free to break those treaties. The reality is that Israel is in breach of international law by the construction of the wall. As for the idea that it is a poor benighted country, I remind Mr. Carswell that it is the world's fourth largest arms exporter; it is in possession of 200 nuclear warheads; it is quite capable of taking part in—and frequently does take part in—military attacks on Palestinian places; and, tragic as every death is, including those of Israelis who die in rocket attacks, the death rate is far higher for Palestinians than for Israelis. This is not a struggle of equals, but a war of occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories.

I pay tribute to Mr. Carmichael for securing the debate, for going on the visit last year, and for choosing the subject of settlements. Those settlements are not an aberration by a few people in Israel who have chosen to live in the west bank or, in the past, in Gaza. They are part of a long-term strategy. Ariel Sharon, who has been around for a very long time, said this in a letter written in 1973:

"We'll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We'll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years, neither the United Nations, nor the USA, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."

I have visited Gaza and the west bank many times, and have visited many towns in Israel on many occasions. Is it right that those settlements, with their red roofs and red buildings, with walls around them and special settler roads that Palestinians cannot travel on, should increasingly be dotted all over the west bank? Is it right that the Jordan valley near Jericho has now been occupied and taken over by Israeli agricultural settlements? Is it right that Palestinians simply cannot travel from their homes to a place of work without being stopped? Is it right that an army should come in and stop people going about their legitimate business, and hold up farmers for days on end with their produce, so that it rots in the sun and is therefore of no marketable value? That is the reality of the occupation. That is what the settlement policy is about. I hope that every hon. Member of this House would begin to have some sympathy with an ordinary Palestinian who had to endure that humiliation every hour of every day.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that another key factor is the domination of the water supply in the region, because the amount of water being used as a result of the building of the new settlements is further impoverishing the Palestinian people?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Absolutely; that is a very good point. The settlements are situated in places with water; that is why they are put there. The water supply is then taken over, preventing neighbouring Palestinian farmers from getting it. The situation in the Jordan valley is disastrous. The massive rate of abstraction of water from the River Jordan—partly by Jordan, but also in large measure by the Israeli settlements—means that the Dead sea is disappearing at the rate of 1m to 2m a year. That is the reality of the question of water in the Jordan valley. On the west bank itself, nearer to Jerusalem, the situation is the same.

I shall be brief, Mr. Bercow, as I can see you nervously looking at your watch and looking around, and I should not want you to be any more stressed than you are now. I just want to make one point to conclude.

From a point when we could have achieved a settlement on a two-state basis, the Israeli settlements in the west bank have grown apace. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, the increase in the number of settlements in the west bank is far greater than the number withdrawn from Gaza. Bit by bit, day by day, hour by hour, East Jerusalem is being annexed by Israel, so that in a very few years' time it will no longer be recognisably part of Palestine or a Palestinian city, but an extension of Israel. It is an occupation. Surely to God, everybody can understand that an occupation is wrong and illegal. If a state wants peace, it does not occupy, encircle, impoverish and imprison its neighbours, but talks to and respects them. However, the former is exactly what is happening.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Three people are still seeking to catch my eye. If hon. Members are willing to confine themselves to three or, at most, four minutes each, all three will get in. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:21 am, 27th February 2008

I hope that you shall indulge me a little, Mr. Bercow, but I shall try to abide by your wishes.

I congratulate Mr. Carmichael on securing this important debate, which it definitely is. He made a passionate case based, in part, on his own experience of Israel and the occupied territories. I last visited Israel and the west bank in November last year—a month or so after his visit—and I hope that I, too, hold an informed view of the situation. Nevertheless, this debate is notorious for often generating more heat than light—to use a hackneyed phrase. It is difficult to judge the point at which passion gives way to something less edifying, but it is probably true that, in any debate involving Israel's settlement and security policies, the more heated the argument becomes, the less enlightened its outcome is likely to be, which is why I found my most recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, organised, but not paid for—I hasten to add—by the Portland Trust, to be a valuable experience.

The Portland Trust's remit is to promote peace and stability between Palestinians and Israelis through economic co-operation and development. That strikes me as a laudable and pragmatic aim, and one that is well equipped to avoid the worst excesses of both religious ideology and inflammatory rhetoric. The trust employs staff from both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who are able to work together to their mutual benefit, because they believe that building metaphorical bridges is a better alternative to building territorial barriers.

Israel faces a Hobson's choice. It knows that, whatever policies it pursues in order to guarantee short-term security, the only long-term solution is a viable two-state one. There should be no mistaking that Israel is prepared to live in peace with its neighbours and to go the extra mile to achieve that peace. The Palestinian people face a similar choice, as they have all along—whatever else they do, they must first renounce terrorism in order to secure peace.

Regardless of who holds elected political office, the choices before the Palestinian people can no longer be dictated by article 13 of the Hamas charter, which states that

"there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad."

In the meantime, it is not helpful for hon. Members, or indeed anyone else, to huff and puff about apartheid, or to use similar analogies, which are neither accurate nor warranted, given that 20 per cent. of full Israeli citizens are Arabs and that the country has the benefit of both a free press and an independent judiciary.

Even in an age of ethical relativism, however, some moral certainties are still in play in this debate. One of them is that the state of Israel has the right to peaceful existence within secure borders. It is regrettable that Israel has needed to construct a barrier to control movement across the west bank border, but there can be little doubt that the need was real and that the policy has been a striking success in improving the immediate security situation. Israel has a proven track record in dismantling settlements in the occupied territories, but, as we heard earlier, the withdrawal from Gaza has been repaid with renewed terrorist atrocities. At the current rate of fire, by the end of 2008 4,500 rockets and mortar shells will have been fired by terrorist organisations from Gaza alone. Given those statistics, it is hardly surprising that Israel's current guiding principle in deciding upon further withdrawals is "once bitten, twice shy". Another certainty is that Israeli citizens have the right to live without fear of attack. Already this year, 31 Israelis have been killed or wounded and the daily strike rate reached its highest ever level in January.

If we are to achieve peace, we must do it through building economic bridges. The Palestinian reform and development plan was presented to the international community in December last year and will offer both institutional reform and economic and social development, with the support of the World Bank and thanks, in part, to a pledge of $500 million from the British Government. There is an acute lack of affordable housing for Palestinians in the west bank, exacerbated by high levels of unemployment and high construction costs. Some 200,000 housing units are needed in total, with 25,000 needed in the Ramallah region this year alone.

Another significant challenge is the prohibition of new Palestinian building on land designated as area C under the Oslo agreement because such land remains under full Israeli civil and military control. One consequence of that restriction is that in the third quarter of 2007 licences for just 2,109 new dwellings were granted, which is itself a 31 per cent. decrease on the third quarter of 2005.

I appreciate the reasons why the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland called for this debate, but it would be progress indeed if settlements on the west bank included the need for further affordable homes for Palestinian families. I hope that the Minister will join me in recognising that the Palestinian people need more than just the removal of Israeli settlements from the west bank and an easing of travel restrictions. They also need more fresh investment in their own communities, and they deserve the support of the British Government in securing it.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. Front-Bench spokesmen have been extremely co-operative, and I am grateful to them. The result is that I need to start the Front-Bench winding-up speeches no later than 10.34 am. I would like two speeches in that time, but I am in the hands of hon. Members, in particular those of Mrs. Ellman.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside 10:27 am, 27th February 2008

It is certainly the case that this debate is on a very unpalatable and unpleasant situation. However, it is very important to understand the context, which is the outcome of the defensive war that Israel fought in 1967 when the Arabs threatened to throw the Jews into the sea. At the end of that war, the Khartoum conference was held by the Arab states at which the three "nos"—no recognition, no negotiation and no peace—led to the beginning of the settler movement, which I have always opposed and which has had negative consequences. It is important to accept, however, that since then Palestinians and other Arab states have mainly been unwilling to accept Israel's existence. Terrorism has deliberately set out to ruin the various attempts to reach a negotiated peace.

Israel has shown itself willing to withdraw from occupied territories: it withdrew from Egypt in 1979 when it dismantled its settlements in Sinai; from west bank towns, such as Jenin, Nablus and Jericho, before the Oslo peace accords were ruined by terrorist attacks; and from Gaza. It is important to recognise that the former representative of Yasser Arafat in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, stated in his recently published book that the former "blew it" at Taba when the 2000 peace negotiations failed.

It is also important to recognise that there are genuine security concerns. More than 1,100 Israelis have been killed since 2000, many of them through deliberately targeted suicide attacks. The much maligned security barrier—a regrettable necessity—has resulted in a 90 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed by suicide attacks. Incidents such as that at Soroka must be remembered. I refer to a Palestinian woman and her children who were treated for weeks on end at the Soroka hospital in Beersheba. She was stopped at a checkpoint and found to have explosives attached to her. She was on her way to the hospital to blow up the very people who saved her life and those of her children.

We know of many instances in which explosives have been smuggled into the occupied territories. There is the recent example of 6.5 tonnes of potassium nitrate being stopped, disguised as European aid in sugar bags. All those things show that there are genuine security concerns about people who still do not accept the existence of Israel and want simply to kill Israelis. I was pleased that as a good-will gesture, the Israeli Government dismantled a number of checkpoints and barriers prior to the Annapolis negotiations, and I hope that more can be done.

What should happen now? Both sides should honour their commitments. The Palestinians should honour their commitments to cease violence and the Israelis should stop the expansion of settlements and pull down the illegal outposts. The checks required at checkpoints should be commensurate with security and no more should be put in place.

The teaching of hatred by Palestinians towards Jews should end. Particularly disgraceful is the current teaching of hatred to children on Palestinian television stations, where Farfour, the Mickey Mouse figure, advocates martyrdom. Recently, on a young children's programme, Assud the Bunny stated:

"We are all martyrs. We will get rid of the Jews. I will eat them up."

A child presenter on the Palestinian TV station al-Aqsa stated that they will liberate the viewers from the "filth of those Zionists". As long as the Palestinians teach young children such hatred, there cannot be a great deal of hope for the future.

It is essential that the Annapolis negotiations continue and that two states live side by side in peace and security. There must be a political settlement that involves the withdrawal from territories in exchange for peace, a sharing of Jerusalem and the resolution of the refugee issue. It must involve massive economic investment, as Mr. Newmark stated. I agree with all that he said. To save people's lives, it is essential that everybody recognises that the only valid way forward is a negotiated peace on the basis of two states. I am sorry that it has been so long in coming, but I sincerely hope that the Annapolis negotiations lead to an end that should have been achieved long ago.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

For just under two minutes, I call Mr. Michael Fabricant.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:32 am, 27th February 2008

This has been an enlightening but often very polarised debate, as these sorts of debates often are. It has been nice to hear Mrs. Ellman and my hon. Friend Mr. Newmark talk about a balanced approach.

I have been somewhat appalled by some things that have been said. The hon. Gentleman over there quoted Ariel Sharon. [Interruption.] What is the constituency?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

Jeremy Corbyn quoted Ariel Sharon from 1973. At that time Ariel Sharon was a general, and it was immediately after a successful invasion by Egypt of the Sinai. At one point, it was thought that the Israeli army would collapse. Yes, what he said was wrong. Yes, it was extreme. However, to apply the comments of Ariel Sharon in the context of the events of 1973 to the present day is ridiculous, extraordinary and completely irrelevant. The point is that the Palestinians need justice. They need to be assured that they will live in peace and security. However, the point that many hon. Members have made today is that Israel equally deserves that assurance.

Mr. Carmichael, who initiated the debate, called in aid a quotation from the newspaper Ha'aretz. He is able to quote from that newspaper because Israel is a free, liberal democracy that has a free press. It is interesting that different things are said by different Ministers, but we see that in this country. Is that not a good thing? Perhaps not for the Government, but it is a good thing, because this country, too, enjoys a liberal press.

Martin Linton drew a strange analogy with the English and the Welsh, but that is not the same situation. There has been talk of a Palestinian mandate. That mandate was created in 1948. It was a very difficult situation then and it has become even worse. There will be peace only when both sides recognise the right to live. That means the prevention and cessation of the Qassam rocket firing and the suicide bombings.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I call Willie Rennie.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence 10:34 am, 27th February 2008

I see that you are getting more agitated as the debate progresses, Mr. Bercow. You have had to bring your calculator into the debate so that hon. Members know what time limits are required. Leaving them to make their own calculations in the first place was the initial mistake, but I am sure that you will not make it again.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Carmichael on the way that he introduced the debate. Despite the taunting on numerous occasions, he has managed to de-escalate the debate. As we have seen this morning, passions are very strong on both sides of the argument. Martin Linton said that it is not mutually exclusive to be a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine. That is important for us all to remember, because if we are to seek a solution to this problem, which has been protracted over many decades, we will have to be the friend of both.

Mr. Newmark said that the more heated the debate becomes, the less enlightened it becomes. That, too, is true. We need to de-escalate, as my hon. Friend did on numerous occasions when introducing the debate. He told us about his first visit to Palestine, which was only last September, despite a lifelong commitment to the cause. He set out his case extremely well and said that the visit was not a counsel of despair: it was bleak, but there was a degree of hope.

There have been excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). The contributions shortened as time went on. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland alluded to the Palestinians' difficulties with the 563 physical obstacles that are in place, which include checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds, trenches, fences and gates on the roads in the west bank. There are also external closures with 13 designated barrier crossing points, 11 of which are for people.

I found the permits system extremely bizarre. Under it, permits are allowed only for over-35s who are married with at least one child. They must have no security record and they must have an employer within Israel. Each permit lasts for only three months. When people with permits do try to cross the external closure, they have to wait for a very long time. There is also the back-to-back system of passing goods from one side to the other. All those things make it difficult for business and the economy to thrive. In 2006, the crossing points were closed for 91 days, and many are not operational for long periods. That has had a dramatic effect on the number of Palestinians who are able to work in Israel. It has dropped from 140,000 in 1999 to 64,000 in 2006.

We need to ensure that this is a balanced argument and that we also understand the difficulties that people in Israel face. There have been in Israel many rocket attacks and deaths, particularly of children, over a protracted period. Israeli politics is fluid. One coalition partner recently left the coalition, making the whole situation extremely fragile. The Government now have only 67 of 127 seats in the Knesset, so they always have to watch their backs in the politics of their own country. We must be cognisant of both sides' difficulties in this affair and of the insecurity and fear within the populations on both sides.

We have missed numerous opportunities with the various ceasefires and treaties that have been in place. The fact that there is now a unity Government between Hamas and Fatah does not seem to have delivered any results in terms of a return to peace. The road map was allowed to slip in a hopeless way, and the fact that it took President Bush seven years to consider this issue a priority for his term in office was a disgrace. There has also been a host of initiatives over the years: the Annapolis conference, the Oslo accords, the road map, various UN resolutions, the Quartet and the involvement of our former Prime Minister. However, that never seems to result in much progress, or it is a case of one step forward, two steps back. The Palestinian-Israeli issue is a festering sore in the whole middle east, and we need to prioritise it to ensure that all sides give it the weight that it deserves.

The rhetoric is easy, and we all know the elements that need to be in place: the two-state solution, the ceasefire on both sides, the building up of security and a growing economy and the public sector. Those things are easy to say, and there is no point in trading the number of casualties on either side, which does not get us much further toward finding a solution. We need the Arab League to be more involved, and we need to ensure that the security barrier is not constructed any further and that the number of Israeli settlements is reduced.

In what order those things should happen is a matter for debate—the question is how we implement the policy proposals that the rhetoric is about. No matter in what order we put them, somebody will always say, "They have to do this first before we do this." There must be common agreement about how to proceed. It is easy to say those things from this Chamber, but much more difficult to implement them in practice.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:41 am, 27th February 2008

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, and I congratulate Mr. Carmichael on securing the debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests regarding my visit to Israel and the west bank last December.

The House has been divided on many issues today, but underlying the speeches made has been agreement from practically everybody that as part of an overall peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements, roadblocks and road closures need to go. I agree with that for three reasons. First, as a matter of principle, the settlements are unlawful under international law. The relevant United Nations resolutions and the various attempted peace agreements, most notably the road map, have always envisaged that, subject to any agreement between the two parties to vary the complete dismantling of settlements, they should be removed as part of an overall peace agreement.

Secondly, there is a running political sore. Martin Linton was slightly unfair and underplayed the genuine fears in Israel about security and continuing terrorism. However, he was accurate in his description of how ordinary Palestinians experience roadblocks, the barrier, settlements, closed roads and so on. When I have been to the west bank, I have talked to people whom we would regard as respectable, educated, professional Palestinians, who have described their resentment and humiliation at being bossed around by some 19-year-old conscript who does not want to be on duty at a roadblock, but who makes his or her day a little less tedious by making life miserable for the people coming through it. If that is the reaction of educated professional Palestinians, it must be far worse among resentful, unemployed young men, of whom there are a great many in the occupied territories. Even moderate Palestinians see the expansion of some settlements since Annapolis as evidence of bad faith on Israel's part.

Thirdly, the existence of the settlements, barriers, roadblocks and so on constricts hopes of economic development. People cannot move goods freely if, every time a lorry gets to a roadblock, it has to be unloaded and its cargo put on to pallets and checked carefully. If people are prevented from travelling and commuting to work, as they are by the barrier and roadblocks, hopes of economic growth in the Palestinian territories are hindered. All the hopes of Tony Blair and those who came from the donors' conference in Paris will be set at nought if we cannot find a way urgently to tackle the problem.

At the same time, we must address the reality of Israeli fears about security. It is not just a bunch of political leaders who are resisting the dismantling of settlements and roadblocks for their own reasons. Israel's electorate yearn for peace—every test of opinion shows that—but still have real fears. They observe that although Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled settlements there, it was rewarded, in their eyes, with Qassam rockets on Sderot and further attempts at suicide bombing. As my hon. Friend Mr. Carswell and Mrs. Ellman said, the ending of the settlement has always been seen as part of the final peace agreement, rather than as something to be offered up in advance.

I would challenge the Government of Israel on this point: in every conversation that I have had with officials and politicians, they have been sincere in saying that they want to work with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to bring about a move towards a comprehensive peace agreement following the Annapolis conference. The trouble is that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad need to be able to demonstrate quickly to their population that there will be real material and political gains for the Palestinian people as a consequence of engagement and negotiation with Israel. I fear that some of what has happened since Annapolis, particularly the announcements on Har Homa, is sending a different message to the Palestinians and undermining those whom Israelis rightly want to be their partners in the search for a lasting and just peace.

What, then, can a British Government do? I have two suggestions for the Minister. I shall not pretend that he, or whichever Minister or Foreign Secretary is in office, will be able to wave a magic wand and sort out the problem quickly, but our influence could be exercised in a couple of ways. First, one of the keys to progress is sorting out security along with economic development. Can the United Kingdom, together with its Quartet and EU partners, work on a plan to open up particular highways and help train Palestinian police officers and security officials, so that checks can be provided to a standard that will satisfy the Israelis and persuade them to relax the controls, without feeling that it will endanger their own population, thereby allowing economic development? Helping to build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority in that way is something positive that we could do.

Secondly, one of Israel's great fears is that the Arab world in general is not committed to peace. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the Khartoum conference, held many years ago, but since then we have had the Arab peace plan and the attendance of virtually every significant Arab country at Annapolis. Just the other day, a speech by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia held out a vision of a middle east region co-operating harmoniously and building mutual prosperity—Arab and Israeli together—if a settlement on Palestine can be attained. Anything that the British Government can do to encourage our traditional friends in the Arab world to speak out more, along lines similar to Prince Turki's, would help to provide the reassurance that the Israelis need, so that we can start to take forward the hopes that were built at Annapolis and not let them crumble to dust, as has happened too often in the past.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 10:49 am, 27th February 2008

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. You are one of the most learned and erudite voices in Parliament, and I know that you will have listened to the debate with great pleasure.

I congratulate Mr. Carmichael on securing this important debate. We had a debate on the middle east peace process in this very Chamber just yesterday, in which many of these issues were discussed; many of the Members present have debated them many times. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, one could describe the contributions that we have heard today as testimonies to the past and continuing tragedies that the conflict has generated. He also said that the point is to find a solution.

There has been heat and passion in the Chamber this morning. I always appreciate the insight and experience of my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who has visited the area many times and who feels passionately about the issue. I know, too, that some Members sense that progress toward a solution is held up by those who under no circumstances want to see the existence of Israel. They want it wiped off the face of the map, as President Ahmadinejad put it. The apparently irreconcilable positions have been described this morning. I was particularly taken by what Mr. Newmark said about article 13 of the Hamas charter, which, in a sense, defines the rejectionist view. That is one end of the spectrum—one extreme of the conflict.

The other extreme is what I have seen with my own eyes and what we have heard described this morning: metal containers with gun portals cut into them being taken off the back of trucks, plonked down on a piece of Palestinian land and surrounded with bits of barbed wire. Some Uzi-carrying extremist then says, "This is now Israeli territory." That is an occupation by any definition, and is illegal. The Government believe that it is illegal and so do the voices we have heard this morning. We cannot state that enough. Those two extremes are what we have to work with. That is the reality of the situation.

There have been other, similar conflicts—some people call them frozen conflicts—in which solutions have been found. We were involved in a conflict in this country for 30 years that often seemed to me to be completely without solution. There seemed to be irreconcilable differences, but we solved it through continuous, professional negotiation and by using our experiences from the Malaya campaign and others. I am absolutely convinced that the situation we are debating is not without solution. I said at the outset that we have to find a way through it, and I think we can do that.

The Government consider Israeli settlement-building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories to be illegal under international law. That includes settlements in both East Jerusalem and the west bank. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. That view has been expressed many times both inside and outside the House. I have said it many times, and so have my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We must make the position very clear.

I turn to the arguments that we have heard this morning, which I totally understand, about Israel having to defend itself against the horror of suicide bombings. There is no way of rationalising that: it is the most foolish thing that any defender of the Palestinian cause can do. A few years ago, I heard an hon. Member say, "If I were Palestinian, I'd be a suicide bomber." That is not what a responsible representative in a democracy should say; such a statement contains elements of the insanity that drives people to do that.

Yes, Israel must defend itself, and if it wants to build a barrier, let it build a barrier, but it must be along the route of the 1967 ceasefire line. It must not arbitrarily incorporate tracts of Palestinian land. It might be that when the final negotiations are conducted, there will be land for peace trading. That was the fundamental theme of discussions, and there is no reason why it should not happen. Perhaps there will be agreement with the representatives of the Palestinian people along the lines of, "That can stay there, but we'll need a little bit of this." Similar arguments continue on many borders across the world. When I was in Ottawa recently, I heard that parts of the border between the United States and Canada are still disputed. Those arguments can continue; the issue is finding a way to avoid violence.

We have not had much opportunity today to talk about Gaza. We have heard about the rockets being fired mainly, but not exclusively, from Gaza. As we heard in a recent debate, rockets have also been coming in from south Lebanon, which is very worrying. I was there recently and saw that the situation is fragile. I raise that issue because we have not mentioned today the outside powers that are meddling in the situation, fighting wars of their own by proxy. The influence of Damascus and Tehran is not positive. Nor is the way in which money is given to terrorist organisations when it is known that they will use it to kill innocent Israeli civilians. That cannot help the situation.

Members have expressed their thoughts vividly and in their own ways. They have tried to paint a picture of what life in the area is like and what might happen if a solution can be reached. We must remind Israel of its responsibilities and that it must fulfil criteria under its road map obligations. The Israelis must dismantle their outposts—I will come to the built settlements in a moment. I believe absolutely that if they started to take down those symbols of occupation and oppression—those appalling containers with gun portals and barbed wire—as my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman told us they did in Gaza, that gesture would provide a chance for the Palestinian people to see that the peace process can bring real benefits. I know, from having spoken to President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and others that they are looking for that kind of gesture.

The only way in which the Annapolis process will move forward is if it is seen to bring benefits to ordinary people on the ground. That, in turn, will influence opinion inside Israel. I do not believe that the Israeli people want to live in constant conflict and in fear of suicide bombings and rocket attacks for the rest of that nation's history. There must be sovereign states living alongside each other. It can be done, and we know that there is a way forward: it is called the road map. There must be concessions on both sides, particularly on the issue of settlement, which must be taken seriously.

R

"some Uzi-carrying extremist"? Sounds like the Hon gent is expressing a bit of "heat and passion" of his own. I take it he is describing a member of the IDF, the legal army of the democratic country in question that is having rockets rained upon it by terrorists operating from within it's own borders.

Submitted by Roger Taylor

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I warmly thank colleagues for their co-operation in that debate.