Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Shadow Minister, International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 4:34 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, as I listened to my noble friend Lady Williams introducing the debate, tears came to my eyes and I thought, "What can I possibly add?". The case that she made for peace in the Middle East and the balance that she struck are surely unanswerable. My noble friend Lord Russell, who is not in his place at the moment, persuaded me that we all have to speak up, so I was not let off the hook.

People warned that the Middle East would become a tinder box if the US and the UK attacked Iraq. President Bush said that that would not be so, arguing that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad and that Saddam Hussein's removal was key to a settlement there. At the very least, the jury must surely be out on that. Our Prime Minister emphasised that renewed efforts would be made to try to bring peace to the Middle East. I have little doubt that he did, and does, mean that, but with all the pressures of Iraq, tuition fees and other assorted distractions, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Middle East is extremely high on the Government's agenda.

We have already seen a distraction from the Israel/Palestine and the Afghanistan situations to Iraq. Iraq has proved a much more difficult country in which to establish unity, security, order and democracy than was predicted. Has the US exercised its considerable influence in the Israel/Palestine conflict? When the Israelis assassinated Sheikh Yassin, it was the US who vetoed the UN resolution condemning it as an illegal act.

Between September 2000 and June 2003, 74 Israelis and 2,494 Palestinians have died. Israel has suffered over 100 suicide bombings and there have been attacks on settlers. Anyone with any historical knowledge can understand just how threatened Israelis feel. But is their present government right in their current strategy? The Palestinians point to their own casualties and to their imploding economy. Naive young people use what is happening as an excuse for extremism.

If we look at the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is very clear that Israel's security measures, the curfews, movement restrictions, the wall and the network of settlements are having a devastating effect. The International Development Select Committee of the House of Commons has described the impact of those as being,

"so severe as to bring about a situation which is best described as de-development".

Malnutrition is increasing rapidly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, not because of the shortage of food, but because it is difficult to obtain food. As my noble friend has said, the UN said yesterday that it will have to halve food deliveries to the Gaza Strip from tomorrow because of restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of staff and supplies. The head of the UN's aid agency for Palestinian refugees, Peter Hansen, said that it was unable to cope with the impact of increased Israeli security at crossing points. The World Food Programme estimates that 150,000 people in Gaza are dependent on that food aid. Hansen has also protested about Israeli measures that were forcing staff to cross in exposed areas, prompting his agency to prohibit some aid workers from entering the Gaza Strip because of "unacceptable risk and danger". He has said that there had been no response following repeated complaints to the Israeli authorities this month.

Closures have broken up the West Bank. Settlements and their segregated access roads also help to fragment because the Palestinians cannot use those roads. Land has been confiscated and agricultural lands are cut through. Settlement activity, with its associated road building, as the Select Committee has concluded,

"threatens . . . the viability of a future Palestinian state".

Despite agreement to freeze settlements, they continue to be established and expanded. Now we have the wall as well. It does not follow pre-1967 borders; it extends into Palestinian territories, encircles Palestinian communities and splits Palestinian areas.

It has cut people off from basic services, it has damaged infrastructure such as electricity and water supplies, land has been confiscated and crops have been destroyed or rendered inaccessible. Goods cannot be brought to market and people cannot reach the markets to buy the goods.

The wall has already enclosed entire towns and villages, directly affecting more than 200,000 people; 14,000 Palestinians living in 17 villages between the wall and the green line are now effectively trapped. A further 35,000, who live close to the wall, have been separated from their land, losing their access to a livelihood, as well as to water supplies and basic services such as health and education.

The most fertile agricultural areas in the West Bank have been confiscated and lie outside the current route of the wall, effectively denying Palestinians the potential to develop a modern agricultural economy. The building of the wall has reduced access to medical services to a critical level. Oxfam reports that village clinics have assumed the full burden of emergency and chronic cases without having either the trained staff or the equipment to cope. There have been a number of deaths, including 14 children, which have allegedly occurred as a result of delays in obtaining medical treatment due to restrictions in movement. Medicines are not readily available where and when needed.

Is this destruction of the Palestinian economy deliberate and, if so, why? Whatever Israel's obviously genuine and well founded fears, do the Israeli Government really think that their strategy will lead to peace?

Oxfam notes that during the past three years, there has been,

"a dramatic deterioration in the humanitarian situation".

For example, Israeli policies of closure have prevented Palestinian communities, particularly those in remote rural areas, from accessing clean water. There has been a predictable increase in the prevalence of water-borne diseases.

Water has been a problem, and it is a symbol. Agreements under the Oslo peace process that Palestinians and Israelis should take joint responsibility for water resources through the Joint Water Committee have never worked, according to Oxfam. For any activity such as digging wells and repairing systems, the JWC needs to give permission. It rarely does so. The result is that the Palestinian communities are not permitted to build new water infrastructure. Yet the Israeli water company immediately connects new Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the mains water supply network.

On average, settlers in the West Bank consume up to five times more water than their Palestinian neighbours; 40 per cent of Israeli water comes from aquifers beneath the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip; and 80 per cent of water in the West Bank goes to Israel, leaving about 20 per cent for Palestinians.

The effect of the conflict on upcoming generations cannot be underestimated. Save the Children has reported more than once on the effect on children in the region. In the past three years, 465 Palestinian and 104 Israeli children have lost their lives. Currently, there are 350 Palestinian children detained by Israel, often in conditions that Save the Children describes as "cruel, inhumane and degrading".

Children see the wall as being like a prison that separates them from friends and family. It makes it harder or impossible for them to lead a "normal" life—to reach their schools, to play and to mix normally. The culture of violence, in which children grow up, pervades schools. Children and teachers report increasing levels of violence. In the Save the Children's latest report there are many comments from children. A typical comment came from a Palestinian child, who said:

"One day when we were in school taking exams, there was a curfew and when the (Israeli) army went into the school our hearts beat fast and we were scared. They threw tear gas but thank God we survived".

Another child described the wall as,

"a snake that spreads its poison".

Another child made a request to Prime Minister Blair and Britain—to us—by saying:

"I request to move this wall far from our school because it causes danger and fear. I really hope this comes true and thank you".

I am sure too that Israeli children echo the call for peace, security and normality.

Oxfam has argued:

"The humanitarian situation [in the region] is already bad and will not improve without a political solution that guarantees protection and justice for all the citizens of the region".

In its view the British Government should play an important part as they are,

"an important donor in the region, an influential member of the EU, and a key partner of the US in the Middle East. It is therefore well placed to use its influence in order to bring about such a solution".

Will the noble Baroness tell me what hopes they have that Israel could, for example, be persuaded to change the route of the wall? Are they encouraged by any reasonable voices coming from Palestine? And, what discussions are the UK having with the US over Sharon's visit to the United States?

The Israeli Government reject the notion that as an occupying power they have responsibilities under the Geneva Convention. Our Government have urged them to change that view. Is there any possibility that they might? Should we not do what we can to ensure that international human rights monitors, including child protection monitors, are deployed in the occupied Palestinian territories?

It has been said that the US will take no action against Israel prior to the presidential elections. Whatever the results of that election, neither Mr Bush nor Mr Kerry seem to have a commitment for taking any action thereafter. It is most depressing to read that. Surely, therefore, the EU has a role to play.

Ariel Sharon negotiated trade agreements with the EU earlier this year. Surely, they should be suspended pending action on Israel's part to try to implement the road map for peace, to which the EU is a signatory? The EU has, after all, tried to put pressure on the Palestinians to abandon terrorism. Will the noble Baroness tell me whether there are discussions with our EU partners to suspend these upcoming trade agreements?

We agree with the Government that a two-state solution is the only route to peace. There are those in Israel who think likewise. The Peace Now group in Israel has done brave work in trying to bring peace to the region. It is encouraging to see that there is a newly established Peace Now group in the UK, which is also arguing for such a two-state solution. It has sister branches in France and Italy and has plans to establish such an organisation in the United States. We wish it well.

Surely, it is in the interests of all in the Middle East to advance solutions that seek justice for both sides in this long and intractable conflict before it is too late.