Barcelona Process and Assistance to Palestinian Society

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Richard Burden: I compliment, and agree with, those who spoke from both Front Benches; they talked about our outrage at the violence of the past 24 hours, which comes on top of the violence of the past few months. We must be careful to condemn all the violence that has taken place over the past few days, including the appalling attack in Jerusalem yesterday. Like everyone else, I experience a chill at the thought that Israeli friends of mine who live in west Jerusalem could have been part of that bus queue. Fortunately they were not, but the thought sends a chill through me none the less.

Equally, a chill goes through me when I think of what might happen to friends in Nablus when Israeli tanks roll on to their streets. Just before yesterday's attack, four people were killed in a house in Nablus. We are told by Israel that they were Hamas activists and terrorists—I have no idea about that. Apparently the incident was part of a fire-fight and that one man was shot in the shower, which seems an odd place from which to defend a house.

All the violence in recent months has been appalling. We should also record another act of violence, in which a Palestinian was shot by Palestinian Authority personnel. After the news of the killings in Nablus by Israeli forces, a major demonstration occurred outside the Nablus prison, which is run by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians, outraged by what had happened, demanded the release of

    ''25 Hamas members interned as part of Mr. Arafat's efforts to maintain a ceasefire. Police dispersed the protesters with teargas, stun grenades and live ammunition. A Palestinian man, Abdel Nasser Swaftah, 37, later died from head injuries.''

That is appalling for the man who died, and for the Palestinians in general.

Let us remember that Israel's justification for its incursions into Palestinian territories is that, allegedly, neither the Palestinian Authority collectively nor Yasser Arafat in particular has taken any action against Hamas or other terrorists. In that case, why are Palestinians demonstrating against the Palestinian Authority in Nablus, demanding the release of people who, according to the Israelis, are not in jail? That demonstration ended with one person dying at the hands, not of the Israelis, but of Palestinian forces. It is important to set that in the context of Israel's claims about the so-called justification for its actions.

The report from the Court of Auditors is hard-hitting and critical about the management of projects—rightly so in many ways, as both my hon. Friends who have spoken on the subject have said. The responsibility for that is divided several ways. It is partly due to the administrative capabilities—or lack of them—of the Palestinian Authority. It is also party due to procedures in the European Commission and the European Union, and the monitoring undertaken by those bodies. Partly, however, as my hon. Friends have acknowledged, it also the result of Israel's response to the programmes.

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The report rightly emphasises the effect of the closures that have blocked the transfer of money and tax revenues that are vital to the Palestinian economy. The report comments critically on other aspects, too.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) raised the issue of Palestinian text books, which is a subject worth addressing. A lot of things have been said about racism in the Palestinian curriculum. The issue of aid for education is an important part of the European Union's programme. A recent study of the Palestinian curriculum was made by Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington university. I shall briefly refer to that study, as it is important to know what is used in Palestinian schools and what is not—and why it is not.

Professor Brown said that his research focused

    ''primarily on the role of democracy in the new curriculum. Nevertheless, I could not ignore the international controversy surrounding Palestinian textbooks and the many claims that they incite violence and racial hatred. I was therefore surprised to find books that were far less incendiary than portrayed; most were perfectly innocuous.''

He continued by describing the background, in these terms:

    ''Upon assuming responsibility over Palestinian education in 1994, the Palestinian Authority (PA) restored the Jordanian and Egyptian curriculum in their entirety as an interim measure. This included the use of books that contained sharply anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic material. It is based on these books that the strongest charges have been levied. Criticisms of that decision are fair, but must be viewed in conjunction with the following facts:

    The PA determined from the beginning to replace these books and formed a curriculum development center to draft a new set of books. This decision came not as a response to international pressure but instead was a Palestinian initiative (though some international funding was available).''—

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is aware of that funding. The research document continues:

    ''The plan developed by that center has proceeded according to schedule.

    The PA issued a series of National Education books for grades 1-6 to supplement the Egyptian and Jordanian books while the new books were being written. Those books were devoid of any anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli material.

    Oddly, Israel allowed the offensive Jordanian books to be used in the East Jerusalem schools but barred the innocuous PA-authored books, probably fearful that use of the PA books would be an implicit recognition of sovereignty.''

That quote may cast a slightly different angle on the debate over Palestinian textbooks.

I visited the occupied territories at the end of October, as part of the Barcelona process, for a seminar organised by the Palestinian Legislative Council—the PLC—in conjunction with the European Commission. That visit made clear to me how many good projects funded by the EC are being interrupted. I saw schools that were on a shift system, because there was not enough money to allow children to go to school all day every day. More than 50 per cent. of Palestinians living in Gaza do so on less than $2 a day, which is the official poverty threshold. The report in the Financial Times to which I referred during the question session mentioned the damage that is being done to projects by military action.

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We should be aware of those matters and, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, of the need to improve the effectiveness of EU aid and how it is managed—but I caution against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I worry about the parts of the documents that say that we should reduce involvement to more manageable proportions. That may be right, but the EC presence and the aid that is given is in itself an important statement. It was so important to people in Gaza that politicians such as myself, and those from other European countries, were there, because our being there was a way of saying, ''We know you're here and that you're trying to establish institutions, and we are with you''—I do not mean ''with you'' in a political sense, but being there to bear witness.

The European Commission's presence is valued, which is why the issue of international monitors is so important. Some European politicians are already involved in such activities; in the past few weeks, Luisa Morgantini and Ulla Sandbaek, who are Italian and Danish MEPs, have both been in the country to monitor. In fact, Luisa Morgantini was thrown to the ground when Dr. Barghouthi, a Palestinian human rights activist, was arrested by Israeli forces a few weeks ago. We must retain a presence and value the good work that the European Commission does.

During my visit, I thought that it was ironic that I, as a British politician, could travel to a seminar sponsored by the European Commission in Gaza city and meet Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, but those same Legislative Council members were not allowed to travel from Gaza to their offices in Ramallah, in another part of the Palestinian territory. I met the Palestinian Minister for the Environment, who is a great environmentalist, and is concerned about the degradation of the environment in Gaza, and Israel's dumping of toxic waste in that area. Yet ironically, although I can travel half way round the world to talk to him, he cannot travel a few miles up the road to do his job. That is the effect of closure.

All those factors are important in the context of the EU-Israel association agreement. Indeed, the agreement seeks respect for human rights and for the rule of law at a time when we see less and less of that. For instance, we know that damage is being done to projects and that extra-judicial killings are going on. I am pleased to hear that Britain favours the use of international observers, but eyes are now turning to the European Union. If those words about respect for human rights are to mean anything, they must be backed by action. Instruments are available for taking action under the association agreements. There is a debate taking place on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall today, and we know that the EU will discuss Zimbabwe on 28 January, both with the emphasis not on what we say about it, but on what we will do. I hope that at the next EU-Israel association council, the focus will also shift to what we are to do about the situation in Israel.

One part of the association agreement is particularly important, and that is the fact that it includes trade provisions that allow Israel preferential terms for imports of Israeli goods into the EU. However, it does

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not allow preferential terms for goods to come in to the EU that are not Israeli but, according to international law, are made illegally on settlements in the West Bank in Gaza and imported into the EU under preference with the label ''Made in Israel''. Yet that is known to happen, and in answer to questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, it has been acknowledged that the British Government and the EU have grave suspicions that it is going on.

Israel was questioned about the matter, but it did not give satisfactory answers, and the position will be reviewed at the next association council meeting. Reviewing things is all well and good, but I must ask my right hon. Friend what will happen as a result. If we continue to allow the association agreement to be abused and its provisions to be broken, and if the EU agrees to ignore it—other than issuing a few words of warning—we shall have undermined the agreement and other future agreements.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North that if we do that, we will be doing nothing to further real peace in the middle east. We will appear to be fudging it. We will seem to be saying that there is one law for Israel and another for Palestinians, and I cannot imagine anything more likely to increase the frustration and sense of despair among Palestinians. Moreover, although Israel has every right unconditionally to demand recognition, and security and peace for its people, we are not saying, as we should, that Israel does not have the right to put conditions on everybody else's rights and make those rights dependent upon Israel's discretion and say-so. That is what the Sharon Government are doing, and it is wrong. It is time for the European Union to be more assertive, and for us to say so.

11.33 am

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