Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:36 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 5:36 pm, 29th April 2004

I congratulate the Select Committee on International Development on its report and my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on his admirable presentation of it.

At the outset, I want to make three statements as the background to my contribution. First, I support Israel, but that in no way reduces or removes my responsibility to observe the facts as I see them. Secondly, I rather agree with those who say that Yasser Arafat made a grave error, as far as the Palestinian cause was concerned, in so abruptly rejecting the Barak offer. However, we have to deal with the present and the future and not dwell on or inhabit the past.

Thirdly, I mentioned observing the facts, and I recently had the opportunity to do so. I went to the west bank and Gaza courtesy of Christian Aid, and the visit has been duly registered. I was accompanied by Joan Ruddock and Baroness Williams of Crosby. It was an extremely valuable visit. I learned something from it and the focus of my thinking on the subject has moved on as a consequence.

The Palestinian economy has been all but destroyed. Unemployment rates have been highlighted, and they are acute. Huge numbers of people in the territories are now dependent on NGOs and international relief organisations for employment. As the Select Committee observed, farmers in the territories—my colleagues and I met many of them and took their testimonies—cannot readily fill the gaps in food production, because of the dislocation brought about by closure and, in particular, the impact that movement restrictions and land confiscations have had on agriculture.

Dr. Tonge worthily and justifiably referred to water. Israeli control over water and restrictions on the development of Palestinian infrastructure manifestly affect the development of the west bank and Gaza. That observation is not evidence of bias but simply a demonstration of the fact that one noticed that was before one's eyes.

The psychological impact on children of school closures and exposure to violence is manifestly damaging. It will hinder future generations of Palestinians and likely serve only to perpetuate the cycle of violence and hatred.

Reference has been made to the wall. My personal view is that a nation state has the right to defend itself and to erect a wall if it judges it necessary so to do, although whether that actually advances the cause of peace is another matter. However, doing so outwith one's own territory is obviously provocative. In this case, it is calculated, it has had a damaging effect and it is something that I greatly regret.

The report refers to the important issue of removing the access controls imposed by the Israelis. Doing so would increase the size of the Palestinian economy by more than a fifth and reduce poverty by approximately 15 per cent., whereas doubling development assistance would bring a reduction in the rate of poverty of only about 7 per cent. It logically follows, therefore, that the situation that we are obliged to address—that of humanitarian aid and the provision of development assistance—cannot be tackled adequately only by donor assistance. There is more to it than that. Restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods, Israel's destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and its effective control of the occupied Palestinian territories' borders are denying Palestinian exporters access to EU markets. In practice, that means that the trade agreement does not work as its signatories intended it to. To state that is not to be guilty of bias, but to draw the logical conclusions from the facts as one observes them.

Reference was made in the report to a sense on the part of some representatives of the Israeli defence force that there should be a misery index whereby the morale of the Palestinian people would be diminished or destroyed. I very much hope that that is not an objective, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it forms at least part of the thinking. Baroness Williams of Crosby, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford and I were all rather shocked at the entry point to Gaza by the inordinate and inexplicable delay that we and others experienced going into the territory, and the comparable delay that was experienced by those seeking to come out of it. Those delays appeared to be driven not by considerations of security, which are legitimate considerations in determining operational practice, but by a desire to obstruct, cause irritation and sap morale. Such arbitrary and capricious use of state power is a sad and unacceptable state of affairs.

Notwithstanding the important trade issues involved, DFID could provide greater technical assistance and could conceivably support the Palestinian Authority in developing poverty alleviation policies. If it is to move towards budget support, it should investigate the possibility of a unified monitoring system with other donors, as the Select Committee recommends. Failure to do that would almost certainly result in the Palestinian Authority being faced with managing a range of different, and often incompatible, donor conditions and monitoring requirements. If development assistance is to be maximally efficient and effective, aid should surely be delivered without putting an unnecessary strain on an institution that, as it stands, has relatively weak capacity.

I think that it will be evident from the Minister's reply that DFID can have an influential role in increasing donor harmonisation through its support for Palestinian-led development. DFID's work in building the Palestinian Authority's capacity has had some effect and met some of its objectives of supporting the process of developing the potential for a viable Palestinian state. DFID should also be considering its involvement with advocacy as part of long-term poverty reduction.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park made an interesting point about Israeli pollution of the water system. I have not heard that point before, and I do not sniff at it but respect it. I am prepared to look into it. However, I would like to put the counter-point, which we ourselves observed, and which I know she would not want to dismiss without consideration. The Palestinian Authority themselves are often guilty of poor management of the sewerage system. We cannot blame everything on the historical injustice. The Palestinian Authority have made worthwhile reform. I greatly admire the Minister of Finance, whom I met—he is either a Friedmanite or a Hayekian, although I do not want to make too partisan an observation. He is a first-class person working under difficult conditions and trying to achieve progress. However, a great deal more needs to be done.

In a debate that is principally about the humanitarian issues and the provision of development assistance, what should unite people of good will is a recognition that, from whichever side of this argument we come, historically or ideologically, we will not achieve a military solution. There will be peace in the middle east—peace for Israel and for the Palestinian people—only if both peoples have the right to their own independent, autonomous and secure states. Such recognition is a crucial prerequisite of achieving the peace that I believe everyone in the Chamber wishes to see.