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7.47 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): Bournemouth is twinned with that very similar coastal resort in Israel, Netanya. The hon. Members for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) and for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) have reminded us that last month a suicide bomber destroyed 27 lives and injured more than 100 of Netanya's citizens, most of them elderly, as they sat down for a Passover supper. The mayor of Bournemouth sent his counterpart in Netanya a message of condolence on behalf of us all. It has been his fourth such message during his year in office. Israel has used that atrocity to justify its current offensive in the occupied territories.

There is, of course, no justification for such acts of terrorism. In the total absence of any curtailing influence over those who perpetrate them, we should have sympathy with Israel in seeking to defend itself from them. However, as many hon. Members have said in this debate, until Israel offers the Palestinians a credible prospect of a homeland of their own, such atrocities will continue. Only the people of Israel, as citizens of the only responsible civilised democracy in the region, can insist on their political leaders seeking a settlement by negotiation which will enable them to live in peace and security for the first time in their history.

Of course we should support initiatives such as the one undertaken by Colin Powell. The role of the international community is to encourage a climate in which negotiations can recommence and succeed. Thus we should welcome Crown Prince Abdullah's plan, which, although neither new nor his, calls in the clearest terms yet for the universal Arab recognition of Israel. We should consider Mr. Sharon's plan for a regional conference, as well as the concept of an organisation for security and co-operation in the middle east—an OSCME—to emulate the success of the Helsinki process in consolidating peace in Europe, as proposed by the Council of Europe.

The devastation of the Palestine refugee camp in Jenin, graphically described by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), should concentrate our minds on how to resolve the greatest humanitarian challenge in the middle east: the existence of densely populated refugee

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camps. There are 59 refugee camps in four host countries and the occupied territories, housing 1.5 million refugees. A further 2 million refugees are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides them with support and services, as it has done for more than 50 years with the continuing generous financial support of the international community.

As the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) rightly says, most of those refugees are effectively homeless and stateless. They are the prime sources of terrorism against Israel and the international community and of support for the current intifada, but as long as their situation remains hopeless, there will be no settlement in the middle east. We all have an interest in resolving their position.

In 1998, in its resolution 1156, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe endorsed proposals that would provide a permanent settlement and a secure future for all those refugees, and enable those camps to be closed. The proposals accept the reality—as do a growing number of Palestinians and Arab states today—that there can be no right of return to Israel, although Israel has agreed to accept some of the refugees to reunify families. I believe that the rest would accept one of the current options: citizenship in their host country; acceptance of offers of resettlement to other countries; or real citizenship in a viable state of Palestine.

The message I want to convey in today's debate is that the international community, especially the European Union, should give clear and firm support to those proposals and consider how they might be funded. A new United Nations "Palestine refugee and displaced persons final status" fund has been proposed. We should wait no longer for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to resume on that and all the other final status issues. We should have an international plan ready for all to see as soon as possible.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will find details of the proposals in his Department. They were the subject both of a conference at Warwick university in March 1998 that was addressed by his predecessor, the late Derek Fatchett, and of my Adjournment debate on 28 April 1998. It is relevant to recall them now as a way to resolve one of the obstacles standing in the way of peace in the middle east.

7.53 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I hope that the House will not mind if I do not follow the path laid down by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). I had the misfortune to follow in one of his paths during an investigation into the future of Palestinian refugees undertaken in September 2000 by the Joint Parliamentary Middle East Councils. One of my abiding memories is of sitting in a refugee camp listening to refugees tell us that they were—I shall not use their language; hon. Members can read the report for themselves—fed up to the teeth of people from various organisations coming to the middle east, asking them how they felt about their situation, getting the information, then returning home and producing their version of what they had been told. We had to spend a lot of time assuring people who had been refugees since 1948 that we did not intend to do what the hon. Gentleman had done when he visited the area in another capacity.

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While listening to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I recalled that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) and I have spent most of our adult lives working on these issues. Had we been asked back in the 1970s what we most wanted for the Palestinians, we would have said that we wanted them to have a home and to be able to sit down at a table with the Israelis and talk about how they could live together. However, we recognised that support from the Americans would be required to make that happen.

In the midst of the events taking place in the middle east, it is difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently returned from his talks with George Bush, and it is important to remember that those of us who have been involved in these issues have striven for many years to make the Americans understand their responsibility. Only with the active engagement of an American Administration will we achieve an end to the problem.

I shall not spend time going over the comments already made by speakers in the debate. Everyone has their own opinion. Instead, I shall speak specifically about the issue that I believe will derail our efforts again and cause us even more heartache in future: the notion that we can resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict without recognising that the refugees are at its core. Unless we deal with that problem, as set out in resolution 194 passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1949, there is little or no chance of ever achieving peace in the region.

Like many other middle eastern peoples, the Palestinians have a direct and profound attachment to their land that is apparent as soon as one talks with them. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) is no longer present. Under the 1947 UN resolution 181, British mandate Palestine was partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states. Under that plan, 86 per cent. of the land owned or inhabited by Palestinians was taken away from them and given to someone else.

I do not excuse what happened afterwards, but most of those who have been involved in these matters would agree that the people who have most let down the Palestinian Arabs are the Arabs themselves. The 1948 war that followed the end of the British mandate led to the flight or expulsion of two thirds of the Palestinian Arab population, and to the Israeli conquest of 25 per cent. of the territory that had been allotted to the proposed Arab state, in addition to the land set aside for the Jewish state—of which, as I said, 86 per cent. had been Palestinian owned or occupied.

In 1967, Israel occupied the remainder of Palestine—the west bank, the Gaza strip and the rest of Jerusalem. That caused a second exodus of about 500,000 Palestinians. The refugees from 1948 and 1967 now live in the west bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the Gulf, Europe and the Americas.

Of the 3.8 million refugees registered with UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, which was set up specifically to provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees, 33 per cent. live inside one of UNRWA's 59 refugee camps. That is the background against which it is said that the Arab states must decide what will happen to the refugees. It is not up to those states. If anyone believes that it is, a major mistake is being made, and one that will come back to haunt us. The outcome will be catastrophic.

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If I were living in Israel, I would not want to talk about the refugees. We cannot get Israelis to talk about them. If there are refugees, we must ask from where they came. Who made them refugees? To where do they return? All refugees have that right. Of course, if they all returned, Israelis would say that that would be suicide. That word is used again. Yet again the Palestinians are referred to in the context of suicide for someone else. When they exercise their rights, somehow that becomes a threat to someone else.

No one has asked them what they feel, what they believe and what they understand. Not even the Palestinians have done that. We did. The JPMEC went to the area in September 2000, and we took 40 hours of evidence from Palestinian refugees. That has been reported, and a document has been sent to every Member of this place. The report is entitled "Right of Return". It is not a frightening document. Evidence was given for 40 hours and tapes are available for anyone to hear. Tomorrow, the Arabic version of the report will be published. There will be a verbatim account of what the Palestinian refugees are saying.

Not one Palestinian wants to kick Israel into the sea. The Palestinians accept the reality that there is a state of Israel. They accept that if they accept the right to return, they will have to live in Israel. They want that right so that they can decide for themselves. Yasser Arafat cannot negotiate that right away on their behalf. One of the reasons why the Oslo process failed is that the multi-track approach did not include the views of the Palestinians. The refugees were not spoken to. That is not possible.

I ask right hon. and hon. Members to take some time to read the report. The Palestinians recognise that they do not want to visit on others what has happened to them. They know that times have moved on. They know that they cannot return exactly to what the situation was. They understand that there will have to be accommodations. However, they have rights. If we do not recognise those rights, we will lose, and quite heavily. There will be more problems. The issue will not be resolved unless that is recognised.

We need to consult the Palestinian refugees, but there is no mechanism whereby those who are not within the Palestinian Authority in the west bank of Gaza can even communicate with the Palestinian leadership. It is significant that all the Palestinians accepted that the PLO was their representative body. That still did not give the PLO the right to negotiate away on their behalf their right of return.

We could use—

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