Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 29th April 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee 2:30 pm, 29th April 2004

The Select Committee on International Development report entitled "Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories" was published in January, and the Government's response to that report was published on 11 March. Shortly afterwards, the Government published for consultation their draft "Country Assistance Plan for Palestinians: 2004–2006". There are effectively three relevant documents for this debate.

The International Development Committee report and our conclusions were unanimous. I know that several Select Committee members would have liked to be here but they are otherwise engaged on parliamentary business. Mr. Battle is in Afghanistan, while the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Putney (Mr. Colman) are on an overseas visit organised by the Quadripartite Committee.

I do not believe that any hon. Member does not fully support Israel's right to exist within secure and settled boundaries and the right of every citizen of Israel to the quiet enjoyment of their country. There is not a scintilla of a suggestion in our report, nor would I expect any hon. Member to utter any word, that impugns the integrity of the state of Israel.

I do not believe that any hon. Member would do anything other than unconditionally and unreservedly condemn suicide bombings as a crime under domestic and international law and an unforgivable crime against the law of God, whom we worship whether we are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. There is not a word in the Select Committee's report that could give an iota of succour to suicide bombers.

During our visit to the occupied territories, we took every opportunity to point out to Palestinians that such killings are not only morally abhorrent but, as our report states at paragraph 73,

"a catastrophic tactic that has done great harm to the Palestinian cause".

As our report says at paragraph 7 on page 10, the result has been that the Government of Israel

"and many Israelis, now see every Palestinian as a potential 'suicide bomber'."

Not many Palestinians have access to television and are able to watch CNN, but understandably and rightly, whenever there is a suicide bombing, it is a significant item on American and international television. Also understandably and rightly, those watching the breaking news items that are the consequence of suicide bombings are filled with overwhelming revulsion that anyone could perpetrate such acts of wickedness. That revulsion reflects itself on the whole Palestinian community and drowns out human concern for and media attention on the daily grind of life for Palestinians who have to subsist day by day. As our report notes in paragraph 6, page 10:

"Rates of malnutrition in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are as bad as anywhere one would find in sub-Saharan Africa. The Palestinian economy has all but collapsed. Unemployment rates are in the region of 60–70 per cent. and many of those who are employed are dependent upon NGOs or international relief organisations for employment."

I suspect that it is difficult for television or the media adequately to portray the everyday desperateness of Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank. It is also difficult for us to understand the continuing loss and statelessness felt by Palestinians both within and outside the occupied territories. Such loss is well summarised by Marwan Barghouti in his book, "I saw Ramallah". In it, he says that

"occupation prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way. It interferes in every aspect of life and of death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the bedroom or a distant capital".

He also observes:

"The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colour, smells and sounds they can remember; a first place that belongs to them that they return to in their memories in their cobbled together exiles . . . the occupation has created generations . . . that have to adore an unknown beloved; distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror. The long occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine."

I turn to the Committee's conclusions and recommendations. For there to be a peace process, there must be some Palestinian body with legitimacy with which Israel and the international community can negotiate. Moreover, if there is ever to be a viable Palestinian state, there must be an embryonic Administration capable, in due course, of properly administering that state.

The Palestinian Authority arose from the Oslo agreements. Paragraph 58 on page 30 of the report states that

"the PA is in itself a strange institution, created through negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as part of an interim arrangement until the creation of proper national institutions in a Palestinian state. The PA's creation under the Oslo Accords never envisioned it as a sovereign state, but rather a restricted institution with a very short lifespan. It has always had limited capacity as a service provider and has been plagued by corruption and allegations of corruption, credibility problems, and great difficulties in providing the Palestinian people with sufficient representation."

I did not meet Yasser Arafat when the Select Committee visited the occupied territories, but I met him more than a year ago on a previous visit to the occupied territories with Christian Aid—it was entered in the Register of Members' Interests. I found it instructive that, although he talked at me for nearly an hour, at no time did he mention the future. The whole of his discussion was about the past and, to a lesser extent, the present, and how the Palestinians had been made, and continued to be, victims—victims of history, of circumstance and of Israel.

When someone considers themselves to be simply a victim, they tend to seek to absolve themselves from any responsibility for present circumstances or future well-being. I certainly do not see Yasser Arafat as part of the solution. Ironically, however, the harder the Israeli defence forces bear down on the Palestinian community, the more Arafat seeks to, and seems to, become a figurehead as the father of the nation.

Disregarding Arafat, it is fair to observe that in June 2002 the Palestinian Authority launched a reform programme to improve its accountability and efficiency. The Department for International Development's consultation paper observes, on page 14:

"Significant achievements have been made by the PA in the fields of administrative, financial, and economic reform. The most important reform measure of 2003 was the decision to establish a post of Prime Minister, who is responsible for selecting ministers and directing the PA's overall work programme. This is now being complemented by steps to develop a system of Cabinet government and a longer-term programme to improve the performance and accountability of the civil service. Financial management and transparency have been much improved under Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. Reforms include: consolidation of all PA revenues in a Single Treasury Account under the Ministry of Finance; publication of the Palestinian Authority's budget on the internet, including monthly spending reports; steps towards the unification of the payroll and payment of salaries through the banking system; consolidation of all PA commercial activities into a properly audited Palestinian Investment Fund."

That all seems to be intended, quite rightly, to marginalise Arafat and to try to provide some sensible, rational organisation with which Israel and the rest of the world can negotiate. The Economist recently observed that, if Prime Minister Sharon were unilaterally to withdraw from the settlements in Gaza, Israel would need someone on the Palestinian side with whom it could negotiate.

The Select Committee met Salam Fayyad, the Minister of Finance. We were generally impressed by him. He struck us as someone who was determined to ensure the transparency and accountability of the Palestinian budget, and particularly accountability of funds received from international donors. Conclusion 16 on page 73 of the Committee report states:

"It is in everyone's interest that every penny of international development aid to the PA, whether from DFID or charities, is fully and transparently accounted for. Some of the PA's critics would prefer to see donor funding stopped. But we believe this would do more harm than good. It would push more Palestinians below the poverty line and lead to total collapse of the PA. A collapse which would have a detrimental effect on the peace process. In the absence of the PA, people would be more likely to turn to extreme positions and measures and support terrorism."

Of course, much more needs to be done. Conclusion 16 also says that

"there is still need for further reform in the Palestinian Authority, particularly in relation to the accountability of the presidential accounts and in terms of the legal, executive and judicial reforms outlined in the 100 day reform plan. Continuing to drive through planned reforms is the best way for the PA to deal with its critics."

As the DFID consultation paper makes clear:

"Serious challenges remain . . . particularly in addressing internal resistance within the PA to reform. This is especially evident with regard to the security services".

The paper says that a number of

"Key reform benchmarks . . . remain outstanding".

In our collective judgment, nothing will be achieved by undermining the PA. Rather, we should simultaneously seek to build responsible capacity in the PA and to ensure that it delivers on further agreed reforms.

If there is to be a Palestinian state, it will work only if it is a viable state. I shall comment briefly on settlements and the barrier. We saw it with our own eyes. We comment at paragraph 23 on page 16 of the report:

"The network of settlements and their segregated access roads also contribute to the fragmentation of the OPT . . . Settlements and their associated infrastructure have a major impact on Palestinians. A network of 'by-pass' roads is arranged to provide access between settlements and links to Israel. Palestinians cannot use them. The by-pass roads add to the sense among Palestinian communities of being penned into enclaves, movement between which is at the discretion of the IDF. Land is confiscated without compensation on which to build settlements, their access roads and infrastructure. Palestinian infrastructure is often destroyed in the process and Palestinian agricultural lands are cut through. The settlements also enjoy privileged access to natural resources. Water consumption by settlers in . . . Gaza and the West Bank is four to five times that of Palestinian villagers."

We received countless written submissions. We heard farmers whom we met in the occupied territories give their own testimonies of their difficulties. It is sometimes argued that Palestinian farmers do not have title deeds to their land, so it is not theirs. In fairness, I think that that is a somewhat disingenuous argument. As we all know, all this territory was, before the first world war, in the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans levied a land tax, but obviously the further away from Constantinople, or Istanbul, the land was, the more difficult it was for them to extract the tax. As a consequence of the tax, farmers in the Ottoman empire were, understandably, not desperately keen to demonstrate how much land they owned. However, much of the land that has been confiscated in the west bank has clearly been in and worked by Palestinian families for generations.

There is a broader point. If Israel continues to allow consolidation and expansion of existing settlements and the setting up of new settlements, just what does it see as the borders of a viable Palestinian state? Does Israel actually want there to be such a state? If all that Israel wants to offer is a number of Palestinian enclaves under some semi-autonomous Palestinian local government control, it is very difficult to see how everyone living in the west bank will not sooner or later, de facto and de jure, become citizens of Israel. It simply is not possible to have a large number of people who are in effect without statehood, citizenship rights or remedies indefinitely.

When the Select Committee was driving to Tel Aviv to meet Israeli Ministers, senior members of the Israeli defence forces and others, we had as our guide a young, very bright official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. One member of the Committee asked why there were so few settlements between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I suspect that the official's response was somewhat tongue in cheek, but it still makes the point. He said, "This land is indisputably Israeli, so we don't have to make a point here." If the point of building the settlements in the west bank is to make the land Israeli, there comes a point when a two-state solution is no longer possible. The logical consequence of that must be the creation of a single state. Paragraph C5 on page 18 of the Government's consultation paper, "Country Assistance Plan for Palestinians: 2004–2006" points out:

"There is a second threat to a two-state solution: a majority of Palestinians may stop wanting it, preferring a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Palestinians would outnumber Jewish Israelis in such a state within 10–15 years. Such a state could thus not be democratic and preserve the Jewish character of Israel."

That is, the paper observes,

"a reminder of the logical consequences of indefinite occupation."

No one challenges Israel's right to build a barrier if it so wishes. We stated in the report, in conclusion 5 on page 71:

"We can understand why Israel, fearful of its security, wants to build a barrier."

However, we go on to observe that

"any such security fence should be constructed on Israeli, not Palestinian, land. The construction process and path which the barrier takes support Palestinian fears about the motivation which lies behind it. The barrier destroys the viability of a future Palestinian state."

According to the latest projections of the Israeli Government, approximately 210,000 acres—just under 15 per cent. of west bank land, excluding east Jerusalem—will lie between the separation barrier and the internationally recognised green line separating Israel from the Palestinian territory. That land is some of the most fertile on the west bank and is home to 274,000 people, many of whom do not have Israeli residency permits. More than 400,000 other Palestinians living to the east of the barrier will need to cross it to get to their farms, jobs and services. In total, approximately one third of Palestinians in the west bank will be directly affected by the barrier. Little of the barrier follows the green line; some 90 per cent. of it has been built on Palestinian land. Those statistics are from paragraph 8 of the Department for International Development consultation paper.

The Select Committee and the Government are as one on the concerns about the barrier. The Government's response to our conclusion on the barrier states that they

"support the Israeli government's right to take legitimate measures to protect its citizens. But unilateral measures, such as the barrier, will not provide lasting security. This can only be delivered by a negotiated settlement. Construction of the barrier on occupied territory is unlawful, inflames Palestinian public opinion and harms the prospects for peace. The confiscation of Palestinian land associated with the construction of the barrier is also unlawful and creates a physical obstacle to the two-state solution."