[Mr. David Amess in the Chair] — Israeli Settlements

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 21st July 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-[Mr. Watts.]

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 9:30 am, 21st July 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for its briefing, to the Library for its excellent debate pack, to Oxfam, with which I had a brief telephone conversation, and to the excellent Chris Doyle from the Council for Arab-British Understanding. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Martin Linton who had the previous Westminster Hall debate on this subject on 17 December last year, and has been a tireless advocate for the rights of Palestinians in the middle east.

When the United Kingdom was an imperial power, we went to places such as Canada, Australia and Rhodesia, and occupied them militarily. We stole the land, and people went to live there. Those countries, under UK control, were called colonies. "Settlement" is a cosy word, and I will use it because it is the common word, but the west bank, the Golan heights, Gaza and East Jerusalem are colonies, and we should not lose sight of that.

I have no quarrel with the people of Israel, but I do have a quarrel with the successive Israeli Governments whom some Israeli people chose to elect, and it is sad that the bright ambition for a better future of many Jews who move to Palestine has been tarnished by a state that is, although in many ways successful, in some ways a failed state. It has fallen out with most of its neighbours, so it cannot guarantee the security of its citizens, which is sad. I emphasise that I support the right of Israel to exist, and I also support a two-state solution, but how is that to be achieved, given the fragmentation of land, particularly in the west bank?

What would be the size and shape of a Palestinian state? Gaza, East Jerusalem and the west bank extend to about 5,600 sq km, which is much smaller than historically was the case. When the mandate expired in 1948, 54 per cent. of historic Palestine was ceded to the Israelis and 48 per cent. to the Palestinians. After the six-day war in 1967, which I am old enough to remember vividly, the figures were 78 per cent. for the Israelis and 22 per cent. for the Palestinians. Let us consider what that 22 per cent. constitutes. It includes 48 closed military areas in the west bank. It includes nature reserves, which too often become settlements years later. It includes roads for the use only of settlers, and they are not just little roads, but are 125 m wide. There are many of them, and they take up a lot of land. There are innumerable closures in the west bank-my latest count is 614, including checkpoints, partial checkpoints, road gates, roadblocks, earth mounds, trenches, road barriers and earth walls.

The Israeli wall, which is illegal according to the International Court of Justice, will extend to 725 km. About 60 per cent. of it has been built and-surprise, surprise- parts of it are not along historic boundaries, but nick more Palestinian land. The west bank has about 121 settlements and dozens of outposts, which could be described as nascent settlements. The World Bank estimates that about one third of settlement land is on private Palestinian land, the remainder being on communal land under Ottoman law. It is agreed by the Palestinians that built-up settlements constitute 1.7 per cent. of the west bank, but the municipal boundaries into which those settlements have expanded historically constitute 9 per cent. of the west bank. As we all know, we have ended up with fragmentation of Palestinian towns and villages in the west bank with around 227 separate Palestinian areas, which the Israeli Government are connecting with tunnels, which-surprise, surprise-are also subject to closures and checkpoints.

All those factors-the military areas, the nature reserves and so on-have resulted in about 12 per cent. of historic Palestine being left with the Palestinians and 88 per cent., one way or another, with the Israelis. That is down from 1948 when the Israelis had 54 per cent. and the Palestinians had 48 per cent., and that makes it extremely difficult to have peace in the middle east. Successive Israeli Governments promised seriatim to free settlements and to remove outposts, including, in March 2001, in phase 1 of the road map, in April 2001 following the Mitchell report, in November 2007 following the Annapolis conference, and recently in discussions between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Barack Obama of the USA.

We must examine the situation on the ground. In 1972, there were about 10,500 settlers in the west bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan heights. The latest figures that I have, for 2007, show that there are about 474,000 settlers in the west bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan heights. They are no longer in Gaza because in 2005 the settlements there were evacuated. The Golan heights are often overlooked, but in 1972 there were 77 settlers, and in 2006 there were more than 18,000 in 32 settlements, so in the west bank and the Golan heights in the past six years the number of settlers has risen from 211,500 to 289,500-a 37 per cent. increase in six years. That trend is deeply disturbing and continues apace.

In 2008, the population of the state of Israel increased by 1.8 per cent., but the population of the settlements increased by 5.6 per cent., a threefold greater increase in the settler population than in the overall population of the state of Israel. Successive Israeli Governments have been totally complicit in encouraging settlements. Pinchas Wallerstein, Director-General of the Yesha Council of Settlements, a leading figure in the settlement movement, said:

"I'm not familiar with any" building

"plans that were not the initiative of the Israeli government."

Successive Israeli Governments have provided settlers with grants and tax breaks, although they have now been stopped, but preferential loan arrangements are still available.

It is clear that settlements are not simply about population or military security. Uzi Arad, national security adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, was reported in the Financial Times on 11 July to have said:

"Damacus should know that neither this government nor the majority of Israelis would agree a complete withdrawal" from the Golan heights

"since that would compromise national security, water and settlement needs."

Part of the problem concerns water.

I will discuss the legal position, but I will not discuss the many attacks by settlers on Palestinians, most of which, as far as one can tell, are not punished. I will not talk about the intricacies of labelling goods and products from the settlements, but I will talk about the legality of some of those issues. I will not talk about the labour standards suffered by the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians who work on settlement land now controlled by Israelis, and who do not often get minimum labour standards such as the minimum wage.

The legal position is clear. There have been successive UN Security Council resolutions-for example, resolution 465 from 1980, which stated that

"all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof have no legal validity and...Israel's policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East".

That is one of several Security Council resolutions on the issue.

In the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in 2004 on the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in the occupied Palestinian territory, it unanimously ruled that settlements were illegal. It stated that

"since 1977, Israel has conducted a policy and developed practices involving the establishment of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, contrary to the terms of article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention which provides: 'The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.'"

The opinion continued:

"The Court concludes that the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law."

There are important legal issues for our Governments. There is a strong argument that Israeli settlements are explicitly a war crime, because when one occupies territory, there is, under international law, a limit to what one can do there. The allegation that the settlements are a war crime was re-emphasised in the Rome statute, and it was incorporated in English law in the International Criminal Court Act 2001-section 55 in particular. The UK's Geneva Conventions Act 1957 criminalises those who aid and abet violations.

The UK Government position has been very clear. For example, the then Foreign Office Minister, who is now the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend Bill Rammell, wrote to me on 12 March 2009, saying:

"We have made very clear that we oppose the expansion of settlements. Settlements are illegal and their expansion is an obstacle to the peace process."

I wrote back about the E1 area, which is a large area just east of East Jerusalem, which is where, arguably, the Government of Israel are trying to create what they are pleased to call "facts on the ground". The same Minister wrote to me on 20 May, saying:

"We agree that activity in the E1 area is of great concern...Continued settlement activity is contrary to Israel's commitments under the Road Map...We, and our EU partners, continue to condemn illegal Israeli settlements...On 20 February the EU issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity".

That condemnation is fine. It should be there. Let us consider what the Harvard programme on humanitarian policy and conflict research said in January 2004 about the status of occupied land and what an occupying power could use it for:

"The Hague regulations...require that the Occupying Power administer public lands, but only under the rules of usufruct, i.e. title to the public land is not transferred to the Occupying Power. The Occupying Power only acquires control over the 'fruits' of the land, and may engage in profitable use of public lands only for the benefit of the local population, as well as to cover the cost of the occupation itself...Further, an Occupying Power cannot requisition or seize private property on grounds other than security, unless such action is undertaken in accordance with local legislation in the occupied territory".

There have been clear cases of seizures of private property in the occupied territories leading to settlements on that seized land. As I said, the World Bank estimates that one third of settlement land is on private land.

We therefore have the background legal position. For those who are not lawyers-I am fortunate enough to be a lawyer by training, although I do not moonlight, so I have not practised in the eight years for which I have been a Member of Parliament-let me say that under that legal doctrine, public authorities are under an obligation not to take any action that would imply recognition for the consequences of an internationally criminal act. For example, collecting customs duties for goods from settlements could imply recognition. There is a strong argument that the United Kingdom Government are in breach of that and have, de facto, recognised those settlements and the produce that comes from them.

On 22 July 2008, my hon. Friend Tom Levitt asked the Government about customs duties. He asked,

"how much in duties has been collected from companies importing produce into the UK from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory".

The then Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend Jane Kennedy, replied:

"Between 1 February 2005 and 31 January 2008, HM Revenue and Customs have issued demands for approximately £338,000 customs duty on products imported into the UK from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory under the provisions of the EC-Israel Association agreement."-[Hansard, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 1393W.]

When my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey asked a similar question less than a week ago, on 16 July 2009, the successor Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, replied:

"In the 12 months ending 31 March 2009, HM Revenue and Customs have issued demands for £21,494 customs duty on products imported into the UK from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory under the provisions of the EC-Israel Association Agreement."-[Hansard, 16 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 689W.]

Products are coming into the United Kingdom from what many of us believe to be illegal settlements-there are strong legal arguments at international level that they are illegal settlements-yet we are accepting them into our country quite openly, to the point at which we are collecting customs duties on them. There may be other products being sneaked in, but we are collecting customs duties on them.

Understandably, therefore, my hon. Friend Lynne Jones asked:

"for what reasons the Government is not seeking a prohibition on the importation of goods from illegal Israeli settlements other than under the Preferential Trade Agreement."

The Minister who is with us today replied:

"The Government believe that the best way forward is to seek ways to offer consumers better advice on whether goods have been produced in illegal Israeli settlements."-[Hansard, 8 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 856W.]

We certainly need much more consumer information. There will be several hon. Members present who, like me, search on supermarket shelves to try to find the origin of this stuff, to ensure that we are not buying stuff that would make us complicit in what is going on in the occupied territories in terms of production and export from settlements.

The then Foreign Office Minister, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, wrote to me on 12 March, saying:

"We are...looking at what practical steps we can take to discourage settlement expansion, such as ensuring that goods produced in illegal settlements do not benefit from EU trading agreements with Israel."

I have to say, however, that I am deeply disturbed about the position on such products.

Commendably, the Government agree that there should be a freeze on settlements, and that is to be encouraged, but I would like it to go further. I therefore have some questions for the Minister. First, do the Government agree that there should not only be a freeze, but that all existing settlements should be evacuated? If not, why not? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that UK-based charities should not donate money to settlements? That is certainly the pattern in the USA, and I would appreciate some clarity about the legal position of charities in the UK.

Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that the EU-Israel association agreement, which gives tariff breaks, does not apply to goods exported from settlements to the EU, including the UK? Fourthly, why do the Government allow any products from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to be imported into the UK? Fifthly, why do they condone such imports by allowing them in and then levying customs duties on them? Have they obtained a legal opinion on the legality or otherwise of such imports? If not, why not? If they have, when did they obtain it? Will the Minister or one of his ministerial colleagues release the conclusions-not the entirety-of that legal advice?

The position in international law is clear: the settlements and the wall are illegal, but the settlements continue to expand. Every now and then, there is the fig leaf of a freeze on settlement building, but the freeze is lifted when nobody is looking, and the settlements continue to expand, even though they breach several UN Security Council resolutions and international conventions.

The Government have raised the issue of settlements with successive Israeli Governments, but to no avail, and the settlements continue to expand. Having repeatedly tried diplomatic pressure on successive Israeli Governments, they should now ban not only imports from settlements, but all imports from Israel, as well as introducing a defence embargo, until Israel abides by its international legal obligations. If, surprisingly, the Minister does not agree with a total ban on imports, I would be grateful if he could explain why.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 10.30 am, and eight hon. Members wish to speak. I certainly want to call everyone, but that means, mathematically, that hon. Members should take no more than five minutes.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 9:53 am, 21st July 2009

I will certainly keep within that time limit, Mr. Amess. I apologise in advance for the fact that I must shortly attend a Select Committee that the House eventually set up last night, so I will not be able to stay for some of the winding-up speeches.

I want to make two brief observations as someone who recognises Israel's security needs. One, which Rob Marris clearly and expertly made early on, is that although Israel has security issues, the settlements make them worse. Not only are the settlements unlawful by any judgment of international law, and not only are they unacceptable, a provocation and a barrier to the peace process, but they make the task of providing security for Israel-I recognise the need to do that-more difficult. Not only can the settlements not be justified, therefore, but they are totally counter-productive in terms of Israeli security. That leads many of those, such as myself, who are more receptive to Israel's security needs to question whether Israel's settlements policy is an adequate motive for many of the other things that Israel does.

The same applies to the Golan heights. The military occupation, which is argued for on the basis of security needs in the absence of a long-term peace with Syria, is something we can debate-whether or not we agree with it or understand it, we can at least see the basis on which Israel takes its view. However, placing civilians somewhere where they are essentially in harm's way and putting extra burdens on the Israeli security services that must protect those civilians is entirely unfathomable from a logical or rational point of view, and it cannot be defended.

The same goes for the west bank, where the civilian occupation of another people's land makes peace more difficult to obtain in the long run. It also engenders extremism among the Israeli population, because settlers are likely to be extremely defensive and perhaps more zealous in their opinions about the historical boundaries of the biblical country, which is not a good basis on which to move forward to peace. The occupation also places extra burdens on the security services and raises the security stakes. Whatever one believes, therefore, about Israel's right to exist, which I support, and however sympathetic one is, as I am, to some of the measures that it takes to protect itself, one simply cannot defend the settlement policy, which, in terms of Israel, is the single biggest barrier to progress in the middle east.

The other point that I want to make is that it is unacceptable for British consumers not to know which products come from illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. We have all sorts of labelling requirements that are not justified scientifically-on genetic modification, for example-but there is no provision to introduce labelling on a human rights issue that it is critical for people to understand if they are to make an informed choice and show where their support lies. I therefore urge the Minister rapidly to give further thought to how labelling can be introduced.

From a human rights, an international law and a security point of view, the settlements are unacceptable, and I strongly support the approach taken by the hon. Gentleman, who has done us the favour of bringing this issue before us.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush 9:58 am, 21st July 2009

I, too, will try to keep within my time, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Marris on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer his many pertinent questions.

There can be no doubt that settlements are the test issue in the middle east peace process, and the new US Administration have rightly made them so. President Obama famously said:

"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

More recently, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said of President Obama:

"He wants to see a stop to settlements-not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions."

It is obvious why settlements are the issue. My hon. Friend mentioned international law, and settlements are clear breaches of it. They are also an easy issue for the general public to understand. They are, quite literally, concrete proposals and they are an act of occupation. For most people who look at the issue in a fair and objective manner, that is clearly an injustice that cries out to be corrected.

There is inequity in a situation in which the demolition of Palestinian homes goes side by side with massive settlement-building. I was on the west bank in 2007 and I spent a harrowing morning with parliamentary colleagues watching the Israeli security services knocking down the upper floor of a Palestinian home, with bulldozers and cranes that had been brought to the village. Less than a kilometre away, across the valley, construction could be seen going on apace on a large Israeli settlement. If that seemed to us, as parliamentarians, an injustice crying out for vengeance, how did it seem to the Palestinian citizens of that village? The home in question was owned by a black family-I think the only black family in the village-who had left their original home and fled from Israeli violence in 1948, and had built the home that was now being destroyed by an occupying power.

Many other consequences flow from the settlements, such as the settler roads, checkpoints and other security measures, and the barrier that has been extensively documented by B'Tselem and other organisations. That is primarily there to protect settlements, and not to protect Israel's security; it can, clearly, be accessed, but it is built into Palestinian territory to achieve that aim. As I think has been established, the consequence and the actuality is that 227 separate Palestinian enclaves-one cannot call them more than that-now make up the west bank. They make up no more than 12 per cent. of the territory of historic Palestine. That "Bantustanisation" is increasingly making a two-state solution impossible.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the access roads issue is a concern not just because of the impact on Palestinian lives, and the day-to-day humiliations that so many people must undergo, but because the economic recovery of the west bank is made almost impossible by the way Palestinian land is subdivided and people are prevented from going about their business?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

Yes, that is true. Reports to this House have shown that, and if I had more time I would go into more detail about the overall crippling effects on Palestinian civil society and life that arise from the settlements, which go way beyond that.

We can see the intention that was set out by the Israeli Government. There are famous quotations, mainly from Ariel Sharon, because he had perhaps a nicer turn of phrase. Back in 1973 he said:

"We'll make a pastrami sandwich of them, we'll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the west Bank, so that in 25 years, neither the United Nations, nor the USA, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."

A prescient comment perhaps, but of course he was the architect of much of that carving up. In 1998 he went on to say, addressing a meeting of right-wing militants:

"Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours...Everything we don't grab will go to them."

I am afraid that that is not history or extremism: it is what we now see with the current extremist Israeli Government.

At the beginning of this month the Housing Minister Ariel Atias, according to Haaretz,

"warned against the spread of Arab population into various parts of Israel, saying that preventing this phenomenon was no less than a national responsibility."

To the credit of the Israeli population-and I am a supporter of the state of Israel-most of the 150 comments on the article described that as exactly what it was: apartheid and racism, which should have no place in the state of Israel. However, that is what is seen as possible in the west bank.

The sad thing, on which I shall end, is the fact that at present the response of the Israelis is not to engage with the Obama Administration, but to throw into action the formidable propaganda machine that we last saw during the invasion of Gaza, with reports in the past few days to show that the US condones the continued development of settlements and that private US money is going into settlements. That, and Olmert writing in the Washington Post last Friday that settlements were not the issue-which is, ironically, exactly what he told the Prime Minister a year ago today when he visited Israel-are attempts to deflect the issue and make it go away. Often, the Israeli response is, as now, to continue and accelerate building, and accelerate the recognition of settlements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has raised some very pertinent points and questions. The central question for the Minister is this: yes, we would like a reaffirmation of the promise of a total freeze on settlement development, but despite strong statements from the Government in the past, that has not worked; so what steps-I do not ask for a specific step-will be taken now to ensure that, in relation to trade, construction and dismantling, the British Government, through the EU or other partners, or directly, can deal with the issue of settlements, without which there will be no peace in the middle east?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Treasury Minister 10:06 am, 21st July 2009

I, too, will observe the time. I am grateful to Rob Marris for securing the debate.

No one can go to the occupied territories for long without history rearing its head in some way. Of course, we get different versions and views of history. A quotation in a letter of February 1914, from Israel's first Foreign Minister-and its second Prime Minister-is instructive:

"We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue of its language and savage culture...If we cease to look upon our land, the Land of Israel, as ours alone and we allow a partner into our estate-all content and meaning will be lost to our enterprise."

Those are words to cause a shudder, when we think where we are nearly 100 years later. The gradual erosion of Palestinian residence rights was designed to pass by stealth, unnoticed by the international community.

In the early days of occupation the civil Administration could simply have taken possession by force of the land in the west bank and Gaza that it wanted for colonisation, but it preferred to devise "legal" manoeuvres to justify its actions and avoid the obvious bad publicity. It is worth examining-we could if we had time-the careful manipulation of the legal framework relating to land ownership in the west bank, to understand how that large-scale theft of Palestinian land was hidden behind a façade of legality. We all encounter that in our own way when we visit.

In 2004 Israel tried to resurrect the 1950 law on absentees' property for use against west bank Palestinians who owned land in East Jerusalem. Even today we see the attempt to continue that process by taking advantage of the building of the 800 km separation wall, which is justified on the ground that it will prevent suicide attacks. The steel and concrete wall dividing the sections of East Jerusalem has sealed a large area of the city off from the west bank. Landowners in the west bank, cut off from their lands by the wall, were informed that they had now been classed as absentees, and their land was being confiscated. That is just one example of the way in which the legal framework can be manipulated to achieve certain ends.

More successful have been the confiscations on so-called administrative grounds. As we have heard, under the fourth Geneva convention an occupying power is entitled to make changes only if those are necessary for its security, or if they benefit the local occupied population. That provision should have forestalled any plans on Israel's part to confiscate land for settlement. Shortly after the 1967 war, however, Israel's chief adviser on international law advised that confiscations could occur on one condition, saying:

"it is vital that it"- that is, the expropriation of land-

"be done by military bodies and not civilian ones...in the framework of bases"- that is, in the framework of establishing bases. The chief adviser went on to warn that those bases should be temporary in nature. In the first years of the occupation, therefore, Israel was careful to cite security as the reason for taking Palestinian land, to establish what it claimed were military camps or outposts. Those people who have visited the occupied territories have seen those outposts, which were ostensibly set up for security purposes.

We know that in the early 1970s the number of those bases grew dramatically, with additional land confiscated to provide them with the services they required, such as roads, electricity and water. Other land was requisitioned for firing ranges and training grounds, as the occupation was entrenched in that land.

We have seen a complete misuse of legal frameworks to justify the actions by the Israeli Administrations. The Likud Government who promised they would no longer colonise Palestinian private land faced the ruin of a greater Israel project, unless new grounds for confiscating Palestinian land could be found. Up popped a senior legal official in the Justice Ministry to come to the rescue. That official was entrusted with surveying the west bank to find out how much of it could be classified as "state land", so that it could be claimed as Israeli territory that was ripe for settlement.

According to international law, Israel had to abide by the laws that were already in force when the territories were occupied. In the case of the west bank, that meant Ottoman laws, along with the minor modifications made by the British and Jordanians to those laws. However, Israel hijacked those existing laws, mischievously reinterpreting them so as to define much of the occupied territories as so-called "state land", a category all but unheard of in Palestine.

In a way, in the last few decades we have seen a gradual confiscation, theft and misuse of legal framework to carry out those original objectives outlined in the letter from nearly 100 years ago that I quoted from at the start of my contribution to this debate. The international community has, in many respects, stood by and allowed that to happen. There is an opportunity now in this moment of time-I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate presents-for the international community to put something of that right, after all these years.

Anyone going to the occupied territories or to Israel cannot fail to identify what would be seen as injustice in the way that people have lost their homes, their livelihoods and indeed almost any hope. And yet, we stand by and we almost allow that process to continue. As we have heard, the Israelis continue to exploit that opportunity and that space, to continue the building of settlements.

I want to finish with another quote, this time from a Palestinian lawyer in Ramallah, and I hope that it will run counter to the first quote that I read out at the start of my contribution to this debate:

"We now moved in our own country surreptitiously, like unwanted strangers, constantly harassed, never feeling safe. We had become temporary residents of Greater Israel, living on Israel's sufferance, subject to the most abusive treatment at the hands of young male and female soldiers controlling the checkpoints, deciding on a whim whether to keep us waiting for hours or allowing us passage. But worse than that was the nagging feeling that our days in Palestine were numbered and one day we were going to be victims of another mass expulsion."

That mass expulsion must never be allowed to happen and it is up to us and the rest of the western world, who have stood by for far too long, to ensure that it does not happen.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 10:13 am, 21st July 2009

Like my hon. Friend Rob Marris, I respect the desire of Israelis and Palestinians to have a state of their own and I support the two-state solution. However, let us dispose of illusions from the start. The Israelis took 78 per cent. of historic Palestine by military force, leaving the Palestinians with 22 per cent. After the 1967 war, some Israeli politicians adopted a strategy aimed at taking as much of the remaining 22 per cent. of historic Palestine as they could. They did not admit so publicly and, fortunately for them, many western politicians were either complicit or were hoodwinked by their denials. However, they did admit privately that they were doing it. My hon. Friend Mr. Slaughter has already quoted the letter written by Ariel Sharon in 1973-the "pastrami sandwich" letter-in which Sharon described precisely what had happened in the previous 25 years. Then, 25 years later in 1998, there was another quote from Ariel Sharon, after all the settlement had happened, when he encouraged militants in an extreme right-wing party, by saying:

"Everybody has to grab as many hilltops as they can".

In those intervening 25 years-between 1973 and 1998-growth of the settlements was continuous and relentless, despite Oslo, the road map and Annapolis. The settler population has doubled since Oslo. Some settlements have quintupled in size. For example, the population of Betar Illit rose from 5,000 in 1994 to 25,000 in 2004. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said, population growth in the settlements has been three times as fast as population growth in Israel. Two thirds of that growth in the settlements has been the result of "natural growth", which of course is very high among settlers, and the other third has been the result of Israelis and people from outside Israel moving in.

The settler population has grown every year. Even in the year that the Gaza settlements were given up, growth in the west bank settlements more than made up for it. Indeed, that is what Sharon told his friends-that he was giving up Gaza so that he could get a better grip on the west bank. Now we have nearly 500,000-my figure is 482,000-settlers in the west bank.

Two years ago, Ehud Olmert promised that he would not expand the settlement boundaries. I was taken in; I thought that sounded good. However, I was hoodwinked. That is because for every acre of built-up land in a settlement, that settlement has four acres earmarked for expansion within its municipal boundaries. A promise not to expand the boundaries was totally meaningless.

The Israelis do not seem to care that it is illegal, under the fourth Geneva convention, to transfer a civilian population to an occupied territory; that it is illegal to expropriate land from the occupied population; that it is illegal to destroy their property; that it is illegal to discriminate against them by building settler-only roads; that it is illegal to fail to ensure public order-

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Would my hon. Friend like to pay due regard to those people, many of whom are from this country, who go on behalf of the Quaker peace and justice movement to report on the issues that he has referred to, before coming back to this country and other countries to tell us what is really happening? Those are very brave people, are they not?

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Indeed. I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the many people who take great risks to bring to the world's attention what is going on in Israel and the occupied territories.

As I was saying, it is illegal to fail to ensure public order, for instance by allowing settler violence. However, even the author of the official report of the Israeli Government on settlement outposts said:

"The attitude towards law breaking settlers is mostly forgiving. The result is a large increase in law violations."

It is also illegal to build the wall inside the west bank. It is okay to do so on the green line, but 87 per cent. of the wall will be in the west bank and it will not be there to enhance Israel's security but to enhance the security of the settlements themselves.

If it is legal for the Israeli courts to transfer ownership of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah to Israelis who owned them in the 1920s or 1930s, as the Israeli courts did yesterday, most of the Israelis in Israel should be forced to hand their homes back to the original Palestinian owners.

The wall is strangling the Palestinian economy and imprisoning many Palestinians in their own villages. Already, 10,000 people live in areas enclosed by walls on all sides; 125,000 people will be surrounded by walls on three sides. In total, 70 gates, 43 tunnels and underpasses, and 614 checkpoints have been constructed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West pointed out.

Our Government's response has been to protest to the Israeli ambassador, but protesting to the Israeli ambassador is a pointless exercise; it is like shouting at a fish. All the evidence is that, when we protest, the Israelis build the settlements even faster. Even since Obama's speech, they have approved 300 new homes north of Ramallah and a new settlement in the Jordan valley. The only thing that will have any effect is international action to impose an economic penalty on Israel.

I thank the Minister for rejecting the upgrade of the EU-Israel trade agreement, but I ask him to go further and suspend it, because the Israelis are in breach of its human rights clauses. I am glad that he has taken a firm line on settlements and encouraged President Obama to do the same, but what action will be taken against Israel if it refuses to stop building illegal settlements? Given that it is illegal under the Geneva convention to build settlements on occupied land, what action will be taken against the Israeli Government?

I have many other questions, but my time is up.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 10:20 am, 21st July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Marris on securing this debate.

I shall be brief. Like many in the Chamber, I have had the good fortune to visit Israel, the west bank and Gaza and see for myself the effects of the settlements. It is humbling to stand on the Mount of Olives and look down at what ought to be the famous, historic road to Jericho, with the hills and the descending road all the way to the Dead sea. Now all that can be seen are settlements-massive settlements with all the arrogance of an occupying power-of huge, red-roofed, red buildings and special settler roads leading from one to the other. As my hon. Friend Martin Linton pointed out, around each settlement are preserved areas of land for them to expand further.

Then one looks across to the Palestinian towns and villages. Many of the buildings have been destroyed by Israeli military action or physically depopulated, the people having been moved away. Unemployment and poverty are rife-and anger very rife-in those remaining Palestinian villages. An apartheid state is developing on the west bank with the settlements, specialist roads between them and checkpoints for Palestinians travelling around-to the extent that a journey that I made from Jericho to Jerusalem took six hours, by a series of buses and taxis, because of the number of roadblocks, closed crossings and all the rest of it. And I am relatively well treated, because I am not a Palestinian. Then one observes the daily abuse and humiliation of ordinary Palestinian people-workers tired after a whole day's work in the field or somewhere else being made to wait for hours at checkpoints, because a settlement has been built alongside and Israel claims that its "security" is at risk without this process.

The world cannot stand by and treat Israel as a normal state and say that it is a normal participant in international affairs. It is not! It illegally occupies a large amount of Palestinian land, holds nuclear weapons but has not signed up to any relevant convention, and is flouting the 2004 International Court of Justice judgment concerning the legality of those settlements. Goods are produced on those settlements that masquerade as Israeli goods and are sold on the international market. Water is taken from Palestinian farmers by the presence of those Israeli settlements, which obviously creates poverty and problems for Palestinian farmers and causes massive ecological damage. The beautiful plain area outside Jericho, just north of the Dead sea, is now covered in glasshouses built by Israeli settlers to produce goods, such as tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, which are then sold on the international market. The water abstraction from the River Jordan, mostly by Israel-and to some extent by Jordan-means that the Dead sea is disappearing at a rate of between 1 m and 3 m every year. In our lifetime, the Dead sea will be gone-it will be finished.

What do we do about this? Do we stand back and treat Israel as a normal country, or do we take sanctions against it? If any other country in the world behaved like Israel-in a wholly illegal and abusive manner towards the people whom it occupies-it would face international sanction. I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, therefore, that we should not be buying goods produced in the settlements. We should be imposing economic and military sanctions against Israel. I am not arguing for military action, but for military sanctions, such as the non-supply of weapons and parts for those weapons, a boycott of Israeli trade and, in the European setting, a suspension of the EU-Israel trade agreement-not just the non-extension to elevated status, but suspension of the existing agreement, because Israel is clearly in breach of the human rights clauses in that agreement.

It is up to us, as a Security Council member, a very important member of the United Nations and a very significant past trading partner of Israel, to say, "Enough is enough. We are not prepared to tolerate this. You behave illegally. You illegally occupy land and flout international law-consequences follow!" I would love to hear a British Minister send the message, once and for all and loud and clear, that that is this country's position on this illegal activity.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk 10:25 am, 21st July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Marris on securing this debate. The debate is timely in the light of President Obama's intention to achieve a freeze on settlement development, which has been referred to already, and Netanyahu's recent comments, which have been heavily caveated, but which are a general step in the right direction.

It is clear that settlement construction is not supported by anyone here, but I want to make a few remarks about some details that perhaps we have not heard about today. More often than not, we talk about settlements and settlement growth in terms of the number of people living in them. For instance, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories points to the fact that 2008 saw the settler population, excluding East Jerusalem, grow by 4.7 per cent. We all hope to see the west bank form the basis of a Palestinian state, and we all accept that many of Israel's settlements sit on land that will be within that Palestinian state, but it is also important to discuss the location and geographical size of settlements.

In an interview with the Jordanian newspaper Al-Dustour on 25 June, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat discussed the two-state deal that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last September. Their lengthy discussions focused unsurprisingly on the issue of land and the proportion of the west bank taken up by Israel's settlements. According to Erekat, Abbas calculated this to be 1.2 per cent. Others put the figure, when one includes empty land around the settlements where Palestinian construction is restricted, at about 3 per cent. Either way, although we all accept that the current system of settler-only roads that surround the settlements unjustly restricts the movement of Palestinians, and so increases the effective size of the settlements, if we are talking about drawing the borders of a two-state solution, 3 per cent. is a relatively small number that can be compensated for in land-swap deals.

It has been widely accepted, since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, that some settlements will remain in Israel in exchange for ceding Israeli land to the Palestinians. Although we know that Olmert and Abbas failed to come to a final agreement over a two-state solution, it is useful to see how the issue of land swaps was dealt with. Olmert reportedly offered Abbas territory equal in size to 100 per cent. of the land occupied in 1967 by means of a land swap. Olmert proposed that the Palestinians establish their state on 93.5 per cent. of the west bank, receiving another 5.8 per cent. through a land-exchange deal with Israel. The rest was offered in the form of a safe-passage corridor from the west bank to the Gaza strip. Olmert's plan left the major settlement blocs of Ma'ale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion in Israel's control, in exchange for the southern Hebron hills-colleagues will be aware of this-the Judean hills and the Beit She'an valley. I understand that that was turned down-Saeb Erekat appears to confirm this-on the basis that previous offers, made at Camp David for example, had been much better. They thought, "Why take this deal now?" I am not here to pass judgment on what is essentially history, but I think that that is significant.

The Annapolis process was certainly not perfect, but through it, as it turns out, Olmert and Abbas made a lot of progress, although they did, of course, fail to sign a deal. Israel and the Palestinians cannot be allowed to come this close and fail again. The international community therefore needs to be much clearer about what it expects to see from negotiations. In my view, a deal that allows Israel to keep major settlement blocs, situated just beyond the 1967 green line and that compensates the Palestinians with land swaps is a good deal. It would reduce the disruption to normal life that any major settlement evacuation would cause and give the Palestinians the quantity of land that they deserve.

Accepting that position, however, calls into question some of the more rigid approaches to Israeli settlements. A freeze in settlement construction, which we and the US Government want, is a good way of engendering trust. At the moment, Netanyahu is offering a freeze on all settlement activity, bar that in Jerusalem and that which is based on natural growth-by that I mean activity which occurs within the natural parameters of existing settlements. No one here doubts that Netanyahu has to go a great deal further. If he does not, the international community will continue to believe that the expansion of Jewish communities in East Jerusalem counts as settlement construction. This is an issue on which we must continue to press him.

In conclusion, I agree with the Government's position on pushing for a freeze on settlement activity. However, we should also call for a temporary freeze on natural growth, because that would go some way towards enabling the peace talks to restart.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 10:30 am, 21st July 2009

I congratulate Rob Marris on securing this interesting debate. It is always pleasing when there is a good turnout of hon. Members because we get a wide range of contributions, even if that means that those contributions are fairly brief. No doubt we could have debated this issue for many hours and still found interesting points of discussion.

I should like to preface my remarks by putting it on the record that I support the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. I should also like to remind hon. Members that over the many years of this conflict there have been crimes, abuses and breaches of trust on both sides. There are other debates, motions and opportunities in this House for us to discuss the rocket attacks and the suicide bombings against Israel or the continuing detention of the hostage Gilad Shalit. Today, however, we are debating settlements, which is a central aspect of the conflict and could be the key to unlocking a peace deal.

We have heard about the massive growth in the numbers of settlers. In 1972 there were 10,500 settlers and now there are some 480,000. Martin Linton said that since the Oslo accords in 1993, the number has more than doubled. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West interestingly pointed out that we use the pleasant and homely word "settlements", but that the word "colonies" is perhaps a more accurate description of the dwellings and towns.

The whole House will have welcomed the movement in the US position towards engaging with the middle east and putting the region at the heart of its foreign policy. I welcome the robust line on the settlement freeze that we have been hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton. However, a freeze on settlements has to be the absolute minimum for starting the negotiations. Let us be clear: the settlements are illegal, and if we are to have any prospect of peace in the middle east, they have to go. A freeze is just the starting point; ultimately, the settlements will have to be dismantled.

My hon. Friend Dr. Harris was very prescient when he said that the settlements are not in Israel's interests. He said that they were counter-productive and made security more difficult, which is an important point for us to remember in this debate.

Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speech was disappointing. Although he spoke through gritted teeth about the need for a two-state solution, he also talked about the natural growth in settlements. Last month, we heard that Israel plans to build dozens of new homes in Adam, which is deeply worrying. In recognising the importance of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, security and, in his words, prosperity, Netanyahu totally fails to see the huge negative impact on economic development and prosperity that such settlements have on the west bank. In fact, they threaten the very viability of a Palestinian state.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Does the hon. Lady not think that the Prime Minister of Israel is in a very difficult position when his own Foreign Minister is an illegal settler on the west bank?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, he is in a difficult position because there are many differing views and constituencies of opinion that he has to balance. However, dealing with the settlements has to be in Israel's self-interest, and that political reality cannot be lost on the Prime Minister.

The west bank has been sliced, diced and carved up as part of a deliberate strategy, and the settlements have been part of the tactic. We have heard about the numbers of settlements, the roads, the checkpoints, the roadblocks and the security wall. When they are overlaid on the land, we can see how impossible it is for ordinary Palestinians to go about their everyday lives in this Swiss-cheese patchwork. Settlements impact on the fabric of civil society, making trade, education and visiting family and friends incredibly difficult, and that is why they are so damaging to future peace in the region.

Natural resources are also key. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West was right to talk about the issue of water in relation to the Golan heights. When I visited Israel, I thought that the problem was all about land and ideology, but practicalities are also key. I come from the west of Scotland where access to water is not quite the same issue. However, in an arid climate such as that in the middle east, water is a key issue, and with rapidly increasing climate change, the problem will only become worse. Water is also a problem on the west bank. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, most of the water is going to the Israeli settlers' farms, which makes that land very fertile but causes havoc elsewhere in the region.

Let me turn to the products that come from the settlements. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised an interesting issue about the legality of collecting customs duties on the products from the illegal settlements. Unlike him, I am not a lawyer, so I await the Minister's reply to those remarks. Before the election, I was a marketing manager, so perhaps I am better placed to comment on the marketing of such products. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that we should have consumer information clearly marked on the products so that people know what they are buying. I know that the Government, through the EU, have made some efforts on that issue, which I support. It is very important that consumers know what they are buying and whether it has been produced by the Palestinians or produced illegally on the settlements.

We have debated whether there should be preferential trade tariffs for such products. The settlements are illegal so there should not be any preferential trade agreements. The debate must now move on to considering whether we should allow the sale of any products from the illegal settlements. There is a case for looking at whether a ban on those particular products might be considered. I am interested to hear whether the Minister has considered such a ban. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that we should boycott all Israeli goods. To say the least, that would be an overreaction at this point.

In conclusion, we have debated settlements many times in the House. It is right that we should do so, but it is very sad that we have to continue to do so. I hope that the new US President's push for peace will persuade Israel to freeze and then dismantle the settlements, so that we can move towards a viable two-state solution. I urge the Minister and the Government to use all the tools at their disposal-not just words with the ambassador-to help Israel recognise that removing the settlements is in its own self-interest.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:39 am, 21st July 2009

Let me congratulate Rob Marris on securing this debate; it is one of those topics on which there will be a large degree of bipartisan agreement between members of different political parties. The Opposition support the Government's approach, and endorse the view of successive British Governments that the Israeli settlements are illegal. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West reminded us, that verdict applies whether we are talking about settlements in what is commonly referred to as the west bank, or those on the Golan heights or in those areas of East Jerusalem that have been annexed by Israel, which the Israeli Government regard as part of the Israeli state.

Let us look at the history. The settlements have been declared illegal by successive resolutions of the UN Security Council, by the International Court of Justice and by contracting states to the Geneva convention. It is worth noting that when one gets into a debate with Israeli officials about the legal position, they assert that the settlements are not illegal in the absence of a treaty to govern arrangements for the administration of those territories, following the end of the British mandate. The Israelis with whom I have discussed the matter would argue that there was no definitive peace treaty in 1948, and that therefore they are not acting illegally. Against that, as long ago as 1967, the legal counsel to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised that civilian settlements in the administered territories contravened the explicit provisions of the fourth Geneva convention.

When one looks at how Israeli Governments have operated in practice, one can see that they have regarded the settlements as a political, rather than a legal, issue at root. After Oslo, the then Israeli Government agreed to a United States request to limit expansion to the so-called natural growth of existing settlements. In April 2003, they agreed to freeze settlements, including natural growth, as part of the road map. In recent months, the current Israeli Foreign Minister-who, as Dr. Iddon reminded us, is a settler-has talked about the political conditions under which he would be willing to give up his home and recommend to his neighbours that they do the same.

The argument that we have heard recently from some Israeli spokesmen, which is that the settlements are needed to cope with population expansion, simply does not wash if one looks at the demographic reality. Israel's central bureau of statistics states that the population of settlements grew by 4.7 per cent. in 2008, compared with 1.6 per cent. in Israel. Forty per cent. of settlement growth was from new immigration-certainly assisted by the sort of incentives described by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West-rather than through the birth of children to families already living there.

The key to this lies in the politics rather than the law. I think everyone has recognised that no peace agreement will work if it fails to include Israeli withdrawal from the settlements. In my view, it is almost certain that if an agreement can be reached, it will allow some settlements to remain under Israeli sovereignty as part of an overall package that also involves land swaps. That was an element of the draft agreement being negotiated between the Olmert Government and the Palestinian Authority.

In debates such as this, we must recognise that there are genuine political problems for any Israeli Government handling this issue. First, there is the sheer number of people that we are talking about, and if we recall how traumatic and demanding of the Israel Defence Forces it was to insist on the removal of settlements from Gaza, that should remind us of the scale of the challenge involved in requiring the evacuation of many thousands of people from settlements in the west bank.

Secondly, there is the Israeli experience of Gaza. The fact that withdrawal from the settlements led not to an enduring peace in the south but to rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, has led not only traditional hawks, but many people in the Knesset and among the Israeli electorate who still think of themselves as advocates for peace, to be sceptical about the value of early withdrawal from existing Israeli settlements. United Nations resolutions and the various peace agreements that have been reached in the past, insist on Israeli withdrawal from settlements. However, that is seen as one element in a broader package including, most obviously, the cessation of all violent attacks on Israel, and the recognition of Israel by its neighbours.

The key message from any British Government to Israeli leaders should be that they should not underestimate the damage-the severe damage-that their settlement policy is doing to the standing of those Palestinian leaders who genuinely want a negotiated peace. I was struck by one passage in President Obama's Cairo speech, where he drew an analogy between the Palestinian experience and that of African Americans during the era of segregation. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the experience not only of settlements, but of the expropriation of property, segregated roadways, checkpoints and security arrangements that are in place to protect Israeli settlements, can only add to a sense of grievance and alienation among ordinary Palestinians and, above all, among young Palestinians who make up 60 per cent. or more of the population of the occupied territories.

Unless the Israeli Government face up to that reality, they will find that more and more young Palestinians give up on the idea of a two-state solution. I speak from anecdotal evidence, but I have been alarmed by the number of Palestinians who say openly that they will give up on a two-state solution and wait, as they believe, for demographic trends to do the work until the day when there is an Arab majority in the territories now occupied by Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

The subject of the debate is Government policy. No doubt the hon. Gentleman aspires to be in the Government. Given the failure of Government policy, and that of previous Governments, which has seen an almost 40 per cent. expansion in the number of settlers in the west bank over the last six years, what would he like to see the Government do in order to address the problem?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was coming on to. The policy of the British Government has to be set in the context of overall international efforts to bring about an enduring peace in the middle east. We must start by asking ourselves what is going to work. For example, I do not believe that a general boycott of Israeli goods and services will somehow lead to an Israeli Government who are more amenable to peace initiatives, and I ask the Minister to state clearly the Government's position on the question of food labelling, and whether that needs to be addressed at EU or national level. Will further development of the EU-Israel association agreement, and trade agreements between the EU and Israel, be related to progress on the issue of self-government for the Palestinians, in particular progress on the issue of settlements?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I want to give the Minister time to respond to the debate.

The key starting point now would be to persuade the Israeli Government to initiate another freeze on further expansion of existing settlements. That would give the Palestinians a reason to return to serious talks, no matter how difficult it might be given the state of play among the Israeli and Palestinian authorities at the moment. It is very much in our national interest for those talks to resume.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:50 am, 21st July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Marris on securing this important debate. As he and other hon. Members are perfectly well aware, the middle east peace process remains a top priority for this Government. We remain committed to a comprehensive peace in the middle east, based on a two-state solution and a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state.

Hon. Members will also be aware that the central tenet of the UK Government's policy towards settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories has long been clear. Settlements are illegal and construction should be frozen as a matter of urgency, in line with Israel's commitments to do so in the 2003 road map. That is why we strongly welcomed President Obama's Cairo speech and strongly support the new, clear US policy on freezing all settlement activity.

I welcome this opportunity to expand on the Government's policy. It is important to set out why I believe that continued settlement construction remains an impediment to peace. By changing the physical facts on the ground, Israeli settlement construction unilaterally prejudices the outcome of any final peace solution. Moreover, continued construction threatens the geographic possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. The UK Government remain firmly of the view that a two-state solution provides the greatest prospect of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, so the damage done to that prospect by settlements causes us grave concern.

As hon. Members have said, the day-to-day physical impact of settlement building has a heavy cost on the Palestinian people. Elements of the Israeli settler movement exacerbate tension. Road and security infrastructure to protect settlements carves through the west bank and severely restricts Palestinians' movement and access. Although we welcome recent positive Israeli steps to alleviate some of the restrictions, much further progress is required. The symbolic impact of settlements is arguably as damaging as the physical impact. Continued settlement expansion sends an extremely negative message to the Palestinians that resonates around the wider Arab world. It continues to raise questions about the feasibility of a successful and lasting peace.

The UK has long made our opposition to settlements clear. We have pressed the Israeli Government continually at the highest level on the importance of fulfilling road map commitments: Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. Our Prime Minister made the UK policy on settlement activity clear in his historic speech to the Knesset in July 2008, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has reiterated that position frequently.

A number of questions have been asked during this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised the question of the barrier. The first point to make about the barrier is that we recognise Israel's right to self-defence and to protect its citizens by constructing the barrier. However, the barrier must be built exclusively on Israeli territory. As Israeli courts have ruled frequently, any part of the barrier that is not on Israeli territory is simply illegal.

My hon. Friend not only discussed advocating a freeze on settlements but believes that our policy should be to evacuate all settlements. We feel that that pre-judges what we believe will be at the heart of final status negotiations: an agreement on the respective borders of both states. That is why we confine our policy at the moment to the freezing of all settlement activities. He also asked about the lower tariffs under the EU-Israel Association agreement and wants to ensure that they do not apply to goods exported from the settlements. I assure him that they most definitely do not. Moreover, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is proactive in ensuring that tariffs are applied correctly in accordance with the agreement.

My hon. Friend asked why this country does not ban all goods from the settlements. We believe that that would raise a number of significant legal issues in relation to our European Community and international law obligations. Therefore, we do not believe that that is viable at the present time.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

No, I do not have enough time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West also asked whether the UK has obtained a legal position on the legality or otherwise of such imports. Although we cannot disclose legal advice, Her Majesty's Government believe, based on the legal assessment, that such imports are not actually prohibited in UK law. He and other hon. Members suggested that there should be a ban on all Israeli imports, and he suggested in addition that this country should embark on an arms embargo. We disagree strongly with those two positions. The Government's position is to oppose a trade boycott or any other form of boycott against the state of Israel, and we are opposed to an arms embargo. We do not believe that either of those measures would progress the course of peace in any way at this stage.

I believe that I have dealt comprehensively with the crucial questions raised during this debate, but it is only right that we place this debate about settlements in the context of the overall situation. Other issues must be dealt with. It is essential that the Palestinian Authority develop their capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of their people. Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements and recognise Israel. Its behaviour-firing rockets at Israel, attacking rival political parties, smuggling arms, holding Gilad Shalit in captivity-demonstrates, sadly, that it is neither a partner in peace nor a constructive force in building a Palestinian state. At the same time, we make it clear that the Israeli Government must ease restrictions on the Gaza border and allow an immediate increase in the flow of essential aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, as well as the legitimate flow of trade, goods and people.

We encourage partners from the Arab world to demonstrate readiness to increase recognition of Israel and move towards a normalisation of relations as envisaged in the very welcome Arab peace initiative. On that basis, I welcome the views of His Highness the Crown Prince of Bahrain on taking the Arab peace initiative forward, which he articulated in the Washington Post on 16 July. That is exactly the sort of positive engagement that we believe will help lead to peace in the middle east. It is vital that all Arab states demonstrate both their commitment to dialogue and peaceful relations and their willingness to respond positively to significant Israeli action to freeze settlement activity.

As His Highness noted, now is the time to take "simultaneous, good-faith action". The point will come when the Israeli Government respond positively to the clear statement of policy articulated by this Government and, for the first time, by the US in President Obama's speech in Cairo. It is our intention to continue to work with regional partners and with the US and EU to make progress and move from rhetoric to reality.

I will be visiting the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel during the parliamentary recess. I want to learn at first hand about the realities facing the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli and Palestinian people, and I want to ensure that the United Kingdom plays a crucial role in pushing forward the peace process that is so crucial to peace and stability throughout the world.