Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:15 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee 3:15 pm, 29th April 2004

Before the Divisions, I was explaining that Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza have no rights or remedies, as the Select Committee report sets out at conclusion 41. It recommended in conclusion 43:

"In addition to strengthening the role of UNSCO and the Special Co-ordinator, it is time for the Secretary-General of the United Nations—with the authority of the Security Council—to appoint a further Humanitarian Envoy or Special Representative to undertake the specific task of ensuring that the occupation is as humane as possible and that there is a coherent and co-ordinated international scrutiny of what is taking place in the OPT. Such an appointment will need to be accompanied by provision of the necessary money, materials and resources."

In his statement to the House on 19 April, the Prime Minister said that we should acknowledge what he described as the "realities on the ground". The reality on the ground is that, as the Government acknowledge in response to our conclusion 22:

"The Government of Israel could do a great deal more to ease the humanitarian and economic situation of the Palestinian people without threatening Israeli security. Improvements in the freedom of movement of people and goods would be the most significant step towards the recovery of the Palestinian economy. We have urged the Israeli government to take these steps."

There needs to be someone of sufficient international authority to see that all that can be done is done by Israel to

"ease the humanitarian and economic situation of the Palestinian people without threatening Israeli security."

It may be that the Government have made such a suggestion to Israel and the United States and have simply been rebuffed. On Saturday 27 March, The Times observed:

"President Bush has rejected Downing Street pleas for an American-led 'monitoring force' . . . to act as a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian Authority . . . the decision is understood to have dismayed Tony Blair who has gambled huge quantities of political diplomatic capital on his relationship with the President, not least in securing American backing to the Middle East Peace process."

The other area of disagreement between the Select Committee and the Government is over the EU trade agreement. Conclusion 23 states:

"Movement restrictions have caused an unacceptable situation whereby EU trade agreement is obstructed by a party (Israel) which itself benefits from preferential EU trade terms."

Conclusion 24 states:

"Trade agreements are usually based on the principle of reciprocity; market access, freedom of movement and tariff and duty regimes applied by one state or authority normally has to be applied even-handedly and in the same way by all participants in a regional trade agreement. Unfortunately Israel's restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods, its destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, and its total control of the OPT's borders, are denying Palestinian exporters access to EU markets. We therefore urge the UK Government to propose to the EU Council of Trade Ministers that Israel's preferential terms of trade with the EU be suspended until it lifts the movement restrictions which it has placed on Palestinian trade."

The fact is that, because of the closures, the Palestinian economy has collapsed. It is not possible for Palestinians to export strawberries from Gaza, or simple bars of olive oil soap from the west bank. The Government's response to these recommendations by the Select Committee is

"constructive engagement with Israel is the best approach to exert influence."

What evidence is there that such constructive engagement by the UK Government is exerting influence? Our report and the Government's response were of course published before the recent meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon. Obviously, as a consequence, the Select Committee has not had the opportunity collectively to consider the effects of what I think is now known as the Washington accord, so for the moment I speak for myself and not for the Committee.

I entirely agree with the Prime Minister that the road map remains the best way to peace, and that the UK Government and the international community should, as he said in the House,

"help the Palestinian Authority take the necessary economic, political and security measures so that a viable Palestinian state becomes not just a concept but a real possibility."—[Hansard, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 22.]

But I do not see how Israel disengaging from Gaza while continuing to occupy large parts of the west bank conceivably offers an opportunity to return to the road map.

Hon. Members will have seen the letter to the Prime Minister from 52 former ambassadors and heads of missions who held senior postings in the Foreign Office. It said:

"The decision by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN to launch a 'road map for the settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict' raised hopes that the major powers would at last make a determined and collective effort to resolve a problem which, more than any other, has for decades poisoned relations between the west and the Islamic and Arab worlds. The legal and political principles on which such a settlement would be based were well established: President Clinton had grappled with the problem during his presidency; the ingredients needed for a settlement were well understood and informal agreements on several of them had already been achieved. But the hopes were ill-founded. Nothing effective has been done either to move the negotiations forward or to curb the violence. Britain and the other sponsors of the road map merely waited on American leadership, but waited in vain.

Worse was to come. After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced."

Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the contributors to that letter, who has been an adviser to several Prime Ministers and is now Chancellor of Kent university, said that he

"has never seen such a level of . . . despair amongst those who have been involved in the Diplomatic field".

He observed that

"we have seen the road map for Palestine being torn up. Mr Bush appears to have given Ariel Sharon permission to do whatever he likes. If this continues, all we can look forward to is war."

Hon. Members will have to judge whether engaging with Israel has resulted in the UK Government having any leverage.

The Select Committee is primarily concerned with development, getting people out of poverty and meeting the millennium development goals. It is used to poverty—individually and together, we visit some of the most desperate and dispiriting places in the world—but as we collectively concluded:

"What . . . makes the poverty in Palestine so unpalatable is the level of deprivation vis a vis Israel, and the awareness that it is not the result of a natural calamity but of deliberate actions on the part of the Government of Israel."

We are conscious that the UK and the European Union contribute significant amounts of financial assistance to the occupied territories in a number of different ways. Indeed, by my calculations, taking into account the money that DFID has given bilaterally, donated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and support given through the European Community, during 2003, total assistance from the UK to the Palestinians amounted to some £73 million. To put that into context, DFID's programme in the occupied territories is our 15th fifteenth largest bilateral aid programme, but as we also observed in our report

"there has to be a sense of realism about what development assistance can achieve. The World Bank told us that removing the 'access control' imposed by the Israelis would have increased real GDP by 21 per cent., whereas even the doubling of developed assistance—without easing closure—would only reduce the number of people living in poverty by 7 per cent. by 2004. The situation in the OPT in other words is not one which donor assistance can resolve".