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Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:37 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 4:37 pm, 29th April 2004

I am not a practising Jew. I am about as secular as they come but I say to Mr. Davies that I know only too clearly from my family history why Jews around the world would no longer entrust their human rights and security to other states after the holocaust, and wanted to create their own state. Nevertheless, I support the report's recommendations in their entirety, because I believe that the injustice done to Palestinian people by the occupation of their territories undermines the security of Israelis. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman said so eloquently, Jewish people around the world should be deeply concerned about that.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people talk about the political process and foreign affairs when we debate the middle east, but it is worth making the point—particularly as the report has been criticised for being too pro-Palestinian and one-sided—that the report was prepared by the Select Committee on International Development, not the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. As the Department for International Development has a programme of development assistance in the Palestinian territories, not in the state of Israel, we necessarily focused on the economy and development possibilities in those territories and the needs of the Palestinian people.

However, I will say a few words about the political context. Tony Baldry made an important intervention on the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford in which he asked about British policy in Northern Ireland. If, during the troubles, we had decided to build a barrier between Northern Ireland and the Republic to stop the import into Northern Ireland of materials used by terrorists to make bombs and to pursue their campaign of terror, we certainly would not have built that fence on the territory of the Republic of Ireland.

I can understand why the Israeli Government wished to build a barrier to try to protect their people, but to build a barrier on other people's land makes the problem worse and puts the security of Israelis in the state of Israel at risk. When we were engaged in the troubles, we identified leaders of the IRA, but we did not set out to assassinate them. Heaven forbid that we should have tried, but had we done so, we would not have dropped 1 tonne bombs from the sky to kill them, with the collateral damage that other people round about would be killed.

I have been to the occupied Palestinian territories only twice: once 18 months ago, which was paid for by the United Nations Association International Service, a non-governmental organisation based in my constituency; and, six months ago with the Select Committee. On my visit 18 months ago, I was taken to a site in Gaza city where a bomb was dropped by aeroplane and killed a Hamas leader, a terrorist, but with the collateral damage of killing 12 people in neighbouring homes, injuring 42 people and destroying the property of many more. That cannot be a way to work towards a peace process that will guarantee the security of the Israeli people.

Israel exists. It is recognised by the United Nations. We, as decent people and democrats should defend its right to exist and recognise that it has a right to defend itself and its people against terrorism, but the Palestinian people have the right to a state too, which must imply a two-state solution, which so nearly came about under the Barak plan. It was rejected by Arafat, but it was also rejected by the Israeli people in a general election when they voted Barak's Labour Government out of office.

Since the failure of the Barak plan, there are people on both sides of the argument who no longer talk about a two-state solution; they talk about a one-state solution. That simply cannot be an answer, because it means either the destruction of the state of Israel, or the ethnic cleansing by the state of Israel of all the Palestinians from the occupied territories, neither of which can possibly bring peace to the region.

A two-state solution must be the answer. To achieve that, there must be clear political leadership and unequivocal policy shifts by political leaders on both sides. There cannot possibly be a two-state solution if the Palestinians insist on the right to return to the state of Israel, because if that right of return were taken up, the demographics of the state of Israel would make it no longer a Jewish state and the Israeli Government would not accept that ever, under any circumstances. Similarly, there cannot be a two-state solution as long as there are Israeli settlements, roads and a military presence in the occupied territories.

My depressing conclusion from my two visits was that there is an absence of leadership on both sides, and a minority on both sides who use violence to drive people away from the negotiating table and the peace process. However, most depressing of all was a remarkable change in the mood in the 12 months between my two visits. Eighteen months ago, I felt that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people rejected the men of violence and saw that it was necessary to compromise, because it was the only way in which they could gain security in a Palestine state. The mood 12 months later was very different.

When we talked to people who lived in communities near the fence or the barrier and who were directly affected by it, we found that there was anger. Intellectually, they understood that terrorism could never achieve their aims; no amount of suicide bombing, however horrific, will defeat a military as powerful as the Israeli defence force. We put it to people at a community meeting that such a strategy was doomed to fail, but we were shouted down by the vast majority of people in the room, albeit in the politest possible way. They said, "We don't care whether it works. What else we can do?" Well, there are other things that they can do. Indeed, other things must be done, otherwise there cannot be a political solution. Both sides need to do things, and one of the things that the Israeli side needs to do is to remove the fence from Palestinian territory. I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford: let the Israelis build a fence by all means—it is part of their protection against the extremists and terrorists who go to Israel to kill and maim. However, they should build it on Israeli territory.

The report is primarily about the UK's development assistance programme to the Palestinian Authority and, through NGOs and others, to the Palestinian people. One conclusion that I drew from the Committee's visit is that development policy planners need to address the assumption, which has been made for the past 50 or 60 years, that the Palestinians' need for development assistance is a temporary phenomenon, that the peace process is ongoing and that a solution will shortly be reached. I hope that life will be breathed back into the peace process and that agreement on a two-state solution will be reached sooner rather than later, but, to be pragmatic, I do not see that happening in the short term. Those who provide development assistance therefore need to be cognisant of the fact that they are providing support for the Palestinian people not just for a few months, as a temporary stop-gap, but, quite possibly, for years to come.

The various UN agencies need to co-ordinate what they do. In Jenin, we saw the nonsense of the UN Relief and Works Agency delivering food aid to Palestinian refugees—people who were driven out of their homes in 1948, as well as children and grandchildren—while, on the other side of the road, an entirely separate World Food Programme operation was delivering food aid to Palestinians who had always lived in Jenin and who were not refugees. There were two sets of trucks, two sets of delivery rotas, two sets of warehouses and two sets of buying agents—it was nonsense. The Palestinian people need food aid because the occupation has destroyed the Palestinian economy, but the UN agencies could save money by running a single relief operation. Perhaps UNRWA could distribute food aid in Gaza, while the World Food Programme did so in Jenin.

I am not saying that the separate identities of the two organisations need to be destroyed. Indeed, the Palestinians feel strongly that the refugees' separate identity needs to be maintained until there is a final solution. Administratively, however, more aid could be provided if what the UN agencies did were rationalised.

We saw the same with the schools. UNRWA provided a school to which only refugee children were admitted, while, 200 or 300 yards away, the Palestinian Authority had provided a school for children who were not from refugee families, which was funded by other donors. Apart from anything else, that divides the community. It is not right and should change.

There is also a need for more policy coherence from the relief agencies. UNRWA does an essential job in distributing food aid. Its spending is probably the biggest slab of public expenditure in the Palestinian territories—it is a huge part of the gross national income of those territories. One of the rations that it distributes is cooking oil, yet virtually none of that is bought from Palestinians; it is bought from outside Palestine because it is cheaper to buy from other sources. We were told by the World Food Programme that this year it has introduced a new scheme and bought 272 metric tonnes of olive oil from Palestinian farmers. That is 272 tonnes out of 25,000 tonnes which were unsold.