Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:03 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee 4:03 pm, 29th April 2004

No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He had his turn.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its report, which is absolutely first rate, and the hon. Member for Banbury on the way he presented it. I was interested in the notion that it is the duty of the Chairman of a Select Committee to be impartial. I shall have to think about that concept in my own role.

It so happened that I was in the Palestinian territories at roughly the same time as the Select Committee—either the Committee followed my path or I followed its path, but our visits coincided. I was there as an individual on a visit that was arranged—but not, I must make clear, financed—through the Foreign Office. My visit was greatly facilitated by our marvellous consul general in Jerusalem. I went around the occupied territories.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford talks about the right to defend the settlements, but every settlement is illegal. They are against international law. All those settlements should not be there. They are not simply illegal; they are aggressive. I was in Hebron with the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. I could not have travelled as I did in the Palestinian territories unless I was driven by the consul general, the United Nations or TIPH. I would have been held like all the Palestinians for hours at the checkpoints described in the Select Committee report.

It is not simply that the whole regime of the Israeli army is to protect the settlers in Hebron. Those settlers have completely destroyed the ancient souk in Hebron. It no longer exists. I always went there on my visits. I had food there. I used to shop there. I used to buy the wonderful Hebron glass there. Now it is dead—gone. The settlers rampaged through Hebron. They deliberately attack Palestinians. There is a road on the perimeter of the new city of Hebron, which Palestinians are forbidden to use, but settlers who travel on that road go to the Palestinians for their car repairs. The sheer irony, the through-the-looking-glass situation that we witness there, is one of my most appalling experiences.

I am attacked on this the whole time, so I might as well get attacked on it again. As a Jew, it disgusts me that a Government of a country that was established as a Jewish state should be managing the most oppressive regime in the entire developed world. When I say the developed world, I find it particularly repulsive that, when one is in Israel or in an illegal Jewish settlement on the west bank, one need travel only a matter of minutes to go from the first world to the third world. One travels from a country that, even with the terrible depredations of the incompetent economic policy of Netanyahu and Sharon, is still rich in terms of the world as a whole, into areas where people are living in abject poverty.

The most appalling part of that poverty, as is demonstrated in the Select Committee report, is that it is man made. I do not say human made, because it is not women who have done it—it is the Israeli Government and Israeli soldiers. They have created a situation in which huge numbers of human beings are living in misery, in what even President Bush when he spoke at Banqueting house, called "daily humiliation." That is done deliberately. The poverty is created. Palestine is an affluent place. It is a fruitful place. The horticulture and agriculture should be prosperous.

I went to Jericho with the consul general. Jericho is rich, fruitful and has several crops a year of fruit and food that it could export, yet there is misery and poverty there because restrictions on movement prevent the farmers and horticulturalists from selling their produce. The appalling thing about what is going on in the occupied territories is that none of it needs to be happening.

Of course, there are two sides to any negotiations, the Israelis have the right to defend themselves and the families of people who have been killed and maimed are understandably vengeful—although not all of them by any means. However, it is for us to try to assist in the reaching of a settlement. To do that, we must first understand the situation as described so vividly and factually by the Select Committee. We must also understand who is responsible, and let us be clear that the worst development in Palestine is not the election of Sharon, appalling though he is, but the endorsement of whatever Sharon does by Bush.

The only way to achieve a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians is with the impetus of the United States Administration. Jimmy Carter made great efforts and had considerable success. Bill Clinton also made great efforts and could have had greater success if he had had the co-operation from both sides that he deserved. I pay tribute to Ehud Barak and say that, in my view, Arafat made serious errors in how he reacted to what happened at Camp David.

We now have a President of the United States who not only does not understand the situation—one would think that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was one of his advisers—but has a time scale of only seven months, until election day on 2 November. As Jews are located in strategic states with big electoral college votes, he is grubbing for their votes. I have greater respect for the Jewish community in the United States than George W. Bush has, because there is no doubt that, if their votes had been counted in Florida, he would not be President today. Al Gore would be President, and we would not be in this situation.

We need negotiation and an alleviation of the deliberate man-made poverty, the terrible humiliation of human beings and the degradation in which people live. The Select Committee report included a map that showed the noose around Qalqilya. I visited Qalqilya with United Nations representatives. As the report points out, there is only one exit from it—a gate that is open only if Israeli troops are there to open it. On my visit, they were not there, so the gate was not open. I saw people going to the gate in the hope that it would be open, but it was not. People are prisoners in their own town.

The Select Committee report accurately describes the situation. Let us be clear that we are watching a deliberate exercise in ethnic cleansing. The Israelis are making life impossible for the Palestinians, building a wall that encloses large numbers of them, separating the farmers from their land, the workers from their jobs, the sick from the hospitals and the students and pupils from their place of education. Like the Select Committee, I have seen that. What is being said is: "Do what was done to the souk in Hebron and get out." Eventually, if the Israelis were to spread, the Palestinians would have to get out beyond the other side of the Jordan.

We are talking about a Jewish state. I was brought up as a child with a yearning for a Jewish state. We had a collection box on our mantelpiece, and whenever my father had any spare money, in the coins would go. The day the Jewish state was founded was a great day for Jews all over the world, including my family in Leeds, but if they go on as they are, there will not be a Jewish state any more. If they go on as they are, there will be a state in which, because of the fact that there are not two states beside each other, the Arabs will eventually become a majority. The Israelis are taking part in what Meron Benvenisti, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, referred to a few days ago in an article in The Guardian as the creation of Bantustans.