Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:24 pm, 31st March 2004

rose to call attention to recent developments in the Middle East; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, in introducing this very important debate I point out that at the other end of these great Houses of Parliament there is extreme interest, concern, public and media involvement in the subject of higher education fees. I suggest that the debate that we are having at this end of these great Houses of Parliament is of least of an equal degree of importance concerning as it does one of the most difficult international problems that exists, one that increasingly threatens the peace of the whole region and one in which the United Kingdom and her allies are so intimately involved.

I begin this debate with a very brief quotation from what I believe was an inspiring and very moving article by the former Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, Mr Avraham Burg. I beg Members of this House to read the article because I believe that it goes to the heart of the tragedy of the Middle East. He said,

"The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations".

Israel has an astonishing record of achievement. Its citizens are among the most innovative and well educated of any country in the world. I do not often make personal remarks. I am absolutely certain of one thing. As someone married to a leading Jewish American who died recently, both of whose parents were on the Gestapo black list, which had on it only a few hundred names in the United Kingdom, nothing on Earth would persuade me to be anti-Semitic or to be other than a strong champion of the survival and the safety of the state of Israel.

Like many other Members of this House, I have the right to be critical of the leadership of the present government of Israel. It is not because I wish to damage the state of Israel, but because I believe that the leadership is profoundly ill advised in the way it is trying to go about creating peace and security for that country.

I would not for one moment treat it lightly. Israel has suffered outrageous atrocities. I saw a picture in Haaretz a few days ago when I was in Israel which moved me very deeply. It was of a father and a brother, their heads turned away from the funeral corpse of their son and brother who had been killed by mindless and uncaring suicide bombers. It was a picture that one could not see without feeling one's own heart moved. So I do not make any excuse for the outrageous behaviour of some of the Palestinian extremists.

I also cannot make an excuse for what I have seen of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by the state of Israel. We spent some eight days there in an all-party group, which was led by Christian Aid and a non-governmental organisation, which consistently works in the field of humanitarian relief in the West Bank and Gaza. We went out of our way to speak to Israelis, Palestinians and members of the Israeli Government as well as to members of the Israeli opposition. I did not know until I went there that, for example, the West Bank is honeycombed by marvellous roads with highways paid for in part at least by outside donors, which link one settlement with another, but which are not available for use by Palestinians at all.

I did not know that the settlements, which now contain some 198,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza, and another 170,000 in east Jerusalem, now cover one hill after the other with their handsome, regimented, white-painted houses. I did not know that Palestinian villages are blocked off from access to the major roads by a series of heavy boulders rolled into place so that one village after another cannot even use a truck to gets its produce out.

I did not know that in many areas on the grounds of security—I understand those grounds—citrus groves and orchards had been grubbed up and then bulldozed, leaving the hapless folks who are the victims of collective punishment with no legitimate means of survival. I did not know that many of the villages close to the border between the West Bank and Israel have been made virtually unliveable in because of sniping on both sides. I met a lady in Beit Hanoun, which is close to the border, with nine children in her care, not all her own—some of them were her sister's and her brother's children. All were under the age of 11—the Palestinians have large families—and were so terrified at meeting strangers that they all fled behind their mothers' skirts when we arrived. That woman was somehow trying to keep that family alive but all her citrus groves had been destroyed.

I did not know that in place after place medical centres, education centres, schools and even churches are divorced by the wall from the people they are meant to serve. I have seen the wall, as have other noble Lords. In many places it is three metres high and has very few gateways punctuating its grim perception.

All of this continually adds to the bitterness on both sides. What we are looking at right now is a vicious spiral of retaliation and revenge from which absolutely no one gains. I have to add to that one other thing which I find profoundly saddening. So far, at least, the Arab states that should be profoundly concerned in solving this problem find themselves so divided that they seem unable to be effective. The collapse of the Tunis summit is a tragedy for all of us because many supposed that at that summit the attempt to try to launch a new peace process would be initiated.

This very day the situation has taken yet another turn for the worse, not just due to the argument over the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, but perhaps equally disturbing the cutting off, just today, of all United Nations aid to Gaza because the United Nations has said that it is no longer able to get food into that place through the many checkpoints on the way. Seventy per cent of the people of Gaza depend today on the World Food Programme and on humanitarian aid, but that programme has, as of today, had to stop altogether. God knows what they will live on.

But this, bad as it is, could be an opportunity and not just a tragedy. Perhaps out of all this horror, the proposal that Mr Sharon has made for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza could be turned into the first stage of the long walk back to peace. It is just possible that if it could be brought within the structure of the road map and of multinational commitment, instead of being the end of a road to disaster, it might be the first step back. Why do I say that? I say that because on both sides of the border in the past few days there has been a courageous declaration in favour of peace from both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

On the Palestinian side, the declaration—published in both Palestinian and Israeli papers—of 17 outstanding Palestinian leaders and intellectuals led by Hannah Asrawi, calls on their side to show restraint and not to go back to the cycle of violence. On the Israeli side, as many of your Lordships will know, there is an astonishingly courageous opposition to Mr Sharon's policies. Five conscientious objectors are serving time in prison—most of them have not yet even reached the legal age of adulthood. Many, many Israelis have courageously committed themselves to trying to help Palestinians as doctors, human rights workers and so on.

All this gives us some slight hope. I come now to the last part of what I want to say, which concerns what we can do about the situation. I pay tribute to the Minister and, indeed, to the Government for their very hard work to try to draw the world's attention to the need to get back to a peace programme in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I pay tribute to the help they have given in supporting the restoration of security by the Palestinian Authority so that when it is called upon to deal with terrorists it at least has some means to do so. Many of your Lordships will know that it has not had those facilities recently because many have been destroyed.

There is one more step that Her Majesty's Government ought to take. When I was in Gaza one of the most outstanding human rights lawyers of that area, Dr Raji Gourani, told me that one of the deep tragedies for moderates in Palestine who call upon their fellows not to revert to violence and who condemn suicide bombing was the failure of the West to support the referral of the wall, which is built almost entirely within West Bank territory, to the United Nations. Your Lordships will know that the General Assembly passed by a very clear majority a decision to refer the line of the wall to the High Court at the Hague. Your Lordships will also know that the United States voted against that. We, along with our EU partners, abstained. When we call upon both sides to recognise the rule of law, we must not apply double standards.

All is not lost. There is some chance to build upon the passionate desire of both sides to create a peace. There is some chance to build on the good will and decent commitment of ordinary men and women, both Israeli and Palestinian. I conclude by asking your Lordships to consider how best we might help in any way we can to bring the peace process back to the start, for if we go the other way, there is no hope for us. I beg to move for Papers.