Palestine: Occupied Territories

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:14 pm on 11th January 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 5:14 pm, 11th January 2007

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for securing this debate and for opening it so effectively. As he made clear, addressing the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians without addressing the political situation makes little sense: both have to be tackled. As David Shearer, head of UNOCHA put it:

"Humanitarian assistance can cushion a deteriorating situation, but it ultimately cannot stop the decline. Ultimately only a political settlement can generate a significant improvement".

We are witnessing the creation of a failed state on Israel's borders, which is in no one's interest. At the least, we have to ensure that the day-to-day suffering of Palestinians does not drain support from the wider peace process. The noble Lord, Lord Wright, is surely right that this lies at the heart of the problems in the region. We know that public opinion in both Israel and Palestine is supportive of peace. Saudi Arabia seems to be leading a group to revive the peace process. The Iraq Study Group saw peace in this area as a key to a wider settlement. Everyone agrees that there are few more pressing problems if Israel is to be secure and if the Palestinians are to establish a viable state.

It is now being suggested—and I would like the Minister's comments on this—that the road map has had its day. Everyone knows the issues—the border, what happens to Jerusalem, the recognition and security of two states, the right of return of the refugees and so on. There seems to be a growing feeling that the step-by-step approach, which has got almost nowhere, may need to be replaced by going straight to resolving the key areas of dispute. I would like the Minister's comments on that. Could she also say, as requested by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, when the quartet, to which the Minister referred yesterday, will next meet, what will be on its agenda and what is being said about continued settlement expansion?

Unilateral action by Israel cannot be the answer; dialogue is required. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, argued, surely it is inappropriate for the West to refuse to talk to Hamas. No doubt it was brought to power partly because there was no progress on peace, as we saw in the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland. Surely the worst thing we could have done was to ostracise Hamas, as opposed to dealing with it. As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said in the debate on the Queen's Speech, it is not talking to your friends that brings progress, it is talking to your enemies, if necessary through intermediaries.

Instead of asking for new elections—a red rag to a bull—we should be talking to Hamas, paying the salaries of those in Palestinian society—the teachers, the doctors and the lawyers—who helped to make it stable, and not starving them. I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about the damage our one-sidedness has created. For reasons we all know, we are no longer seen as honest brokers in the region. Our best strategy now must be to work through the EU, or does the Minister have any hope that we could influence the US at all on this matter? It is worth bearing in mind that the American position as a superpower is itself time-limited. We have a small window of opportunity to try to resolve this problem.

I agree with every word the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about our position in relation to the politics of Palestine and how that is perceived across the Middle East. I share the hope of the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that we will have contact with Hamas.

The humanitarian crisis has reached unprecedented depths. Overall poverty has increased by 67 per cent in the past 12 months; and 76 per cent of Gazans are now without an income. Does the Minister agree that some of the following actions need to be taken urgently: access through Karni with international monitors; the improvement of food security; international support for the treatment of emergency patients and those needing advanced medical care so that they move speedily through checkpoints; and support for the particular children who are suffering, as we have heard?

The financial flows to essential services and humanitarian need must be improved, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, spelt out, the World Bank emergency funding mechanism is clearly inadequate and funding to the Palestinian health and education ministries should simply be re-established. I share the concern about the extraordinary device of creating parallel funding structures and institutions, which UNOCHA, the World Bank and others fear will undermine existing ministries. Surely we should resume payments to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel must also release tax revenues. It is withholding Palestinian customs revenues that would make up half of the PA budget. How can that be justified? We know that that has been a huge impediment to economic growth and humanitarian access to the West Bank. According to UNOCHA, the number of West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks was increased by 40 per cent during 2006 and we now hear that foreigners may have to get permission to get into the West Bank. What implications does that have for the staff of humanitarian organisations? I remember, when trying to get into Gaza with a parliamentary group, meeting people from Christian Aid who, like us, waited hours and hours even though permission had been given for us to go in.

We therefore see a dramatic increase in poverty, the crumbling of public services, violence between Palestinian factions—which seems to be encouraged by the policy that we have adopted. That violence has increased 800 per cent since 2005, according to UNOCHA. The Israeli, US and UK tactics of openly favouring Fatah with support and money seemed designed to provoke the implosion of the occupied territories, especially Gaza.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis will benefit from the implosion of Palestine. There seems to be a very narrow window of opportunity for both Israel and Palestine. Their futures are surely intertwined. Disproportionate actions on either side will promote and have promoted instability. Economic recovery must be promoted and blocks to it removed if the running sore of the Middle East is not to prove fatal—as sometimes I fear it may.

In this House, as was shown only the other day, we still hear how unacceptable each side is in Northern Ireland, but we have seen a ceasefire, economic progress and the possibility of power-sharing. That kind of division has been echoed in our debate today. Let us do what we can to bring all sides together in Israel/Palestine without preconditions always scuppering things. Not to do so is surely the road to despair, which takes neither side anywhere.