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11 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for allocating me this debate on Palestine. I asked for it because I believe that the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict is yet again at a critical stage and that decisive action is required now by the international community if disaster is to be avoided. What I am about to say has been informed by a visit that I made to the region in September. I draw the attention of hon. Members to an entry on the Register of Members' Interests. My flight to the region and stay in Israel were funded by the Anglo-Israel Association and my accommodation and travel in Palestine were funded by various local non-governmental organisations that are linked to the United Kingdom charity, Interpal.

I was extremely fortunate that my visit was timed for the few days after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, but before the rockets were fired from Gaza by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the renewed assassinations by the Israeli Defence Force and the killings of settlers by Palestinian terrorists. I was there during a week when tension was lower than it had been before or after.

The visit was my first since 2001. The situation as I saw it gave me grounds for both optimism and pessimism. I would like to be a Pollyanna and regard the Gaza disengagement as a positive step towards the implementation of the road map and a stable and equitable settlement that would be good for Israelis and Palestinians. However, I fear that it would be much more realistic to be a Cassandra and to warn instead that the Gaza withdrawal is insufficient and that the continued Israeli annexation of Palestinian land on the west bank and Jerusalem is leading to a completely different outcome. It would result in an apartheid state entirely under Israel's control, with the majority of Palestinians corralled into Bantustans in Gaza and the west bank, separated from each other and with no real sovereignty, with the Palestinian Authority reduced to policing the Palestinian areas on behalf of the Israelis.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Starkey : I shall not give way. I have little time. It is not usual in these debates to give way and I do not intend to do so.

That vision was set out clearly by the Israelis. In 1993, the then Prime Minister Rabin said:

the Israelis—

It seems that Prime Minister Sharon is carrying forward the vision that was set out originally by Prime Minister Rabin.

I am warning against the apartheid state solution because not only is it unjust for the Palestinians, but it is ultimately unsustainable and therefore not in the long-term interests of the Israelis. I wish to make it clear that
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I accept that Israel has the same right as every other state to protect the security of its citizens, even those who are illegally occupying land in the west bank. However, Israel's right, as with every other state, must be exercised within international law and not, as is too often the case, in complete disregard of the rights of others, notably the Palestinians.

During my stay in Israel, I found that many Israelis, even liberal Israelis, seemed unaware of either the reality in the occupied territories—the huge depth of poverty and the dangerous well of resentment that is building up there—or the international community's view of the situation.

In Israel, I was given the national parks authority map, which shows Israel including—without any internal borders whatsoever—all the Palestinian territory and the Golan heights, which are occupied Syrian territory. Most Israelis appear to think that those are Israel's accepted borders, but they are not accepted by anyone else. Israelis need to understand that.

I shall start by describing the situation as I saw it in Gaza. The Israeli authorities helpfully demonstrated on my arrival at the crossing point at Erez who really controls Gaza; they kept me waiting there from 8 am until past 4 pm, even though I had an invitation from President Abbas, before suddenly deciding to let me through.

When I arrived in Gaza, I found the atmosphere extremely mixed. On the one hand, there was a huge sense of elation and liberation because all the settlers and Israel Defence Force soldiers had gone. To give people here a feel for what that feels like for ordinary people there, I should say that I visited the rehabilitation hospital, which has a lovely, wheelchair-accessible garden. For the first time, patients and visitors were enjoying that garden completely free from the fear that they would be shot at by IDF snipers; on a previous occasion, two nurses at the hospital had been killed by the IDF.

There were huge rallies all over the place. As we were driving through Gaza, we happened upon an enormous rally organised by Hamas in one of the settlements. Thousands of women and children were pouring in, as tourists in their own territory, to see what the abandoned Israeli settlements were like.

A huge crowd was preparing a rally for the next day down at the Rafah border close to Egypt, in the wasteland that the Israelis, having demolished more than 2,000 homes, had created. After that, my hosts drove me back along the length of Gaza, up the Salah al-Din Road from Rafah to Erez. That was the first time in 16 years that my hosts, who were Gazans, had been able to drive up that road from one end to the other without risking being shot at by the IDF. So there was a huge feeling of liberation.

There is also an optimism in the degree of political consensus, notwithstanding the continued internal security problems and the continued conflict between the armed factions. Even Hamas is hinting that it may accept the two-state solution and recognise Israel, as did the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo agreement. There is a consensus between all factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, on how the settlement land is to be used for the benefit of the whole population to provide for homes and employment. When I met members of the
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legislative council, they were absolutely insistent that all factions must be able to participate in the elections due in January so that they can build a pluralist and civil society. However, they also stressed that a true democracy needs economic stability.

That brings me to the other, pessimistic side of Gaza. There was widespread despair at the desperate situation of most people there and the lack of solutions. Seventy per cent. of the people are under the poverty line and there is huge unemployment. Living costs are extremely high and are effectively set by Israel. For example, the gas that people use for cooking costs 10 times more than in Egypt because it has an Israeli price, yet people in Gaza are on poverty wages, if they have any at all.

There was a feeling that the settlements had been left like dead bodies, as they were described, for the Palestinians to clean up. The occupation has left an army of the handicapped and disabled; education and health services are overstretched; and schools have 60 to 70 children in a class and often run two sessions. The refugee camps are unimaginably poor and discharge raw sewage directly into the sea. I do not know how the people in the refugee camps survive, as they seem to have no income at all, but are totally dependent on charity and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The Israelis continue to control Gaza. They control the register of all births, and whom can be given Palestinian citizenship. That means that refugees who returned from Jordan after the Oslo agreement and husbands and wives applying under family reunion rules are left in limbo with no citizenship whatsoever.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Bank both agree that although the Palestinian economy is soaking up huge levels of aid from the international community, that aid is simply mitigating the effects of the Israeli blockade. Not only is the international community effectively subsidising the costs of the occupation and relieving Israel, as the occupying power, of the need to provide for the Palestinians; the Israeli economy actually benefits from those donor funds because 45 per cent. of every dollar of aid for the Palestinians is spent in Israel. From 2000 to 2004, the aid doubled to almost $1 billion a year, but because of the curfews and closures actual personal incomes in Palestine fell by 40 per cent. The economy can recover only if external borders are opened, internal borders between Gaza and the west bank are relaxed and Palestinian labour is allowed into Israel. However, Israel continues to control completely all the borders of Gaza, including that with Egypt and the sea and the air borders, which are still not open more than a month after the disengagement.

Even the Quartet's middle east envoy, James Wolfensohn, who is hardly a dangerous liberal, was particularly scathing about Israel's delaying tactics and failure even to allow free movement at Rafah between Gaza and Egypt. He said that the occupation continues, despite the disengagement, because the Israelis are still controlling all the borders.

If I found a mix of optimism and pessimism in Gaza, among Palestinians in the west bank and Jerusalem I found unremitting pessimism. The Israeli Government continue to build the so-called security wall on Palestinian territory. It is twice the length of the green line border and has appropriated an additional 10 per
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cent. of the west bank and imprisoned nearly 50,000 Palestinians between the wall and the green line. These people have to have permits from the Israelis to live in their own homes.

On 18 October, The Guardian set out the scale of the Israeli land grab: 23 square miles of land has been appropriated on the west bank since July, which more than offsets the land evacuated in Gaza, with 14,000 additional settlers in the illegal settlements on the west bank, which is 65 per cent. more than the number that left Gaza. The Israeli Government are pursuing a deliberate policy of squeezing Palestinians out of Jerusalem. The city is being encircled by expanded illegal settlements and cut off from its natural hinterland in the west bank. I was really shocked by the depth of despair of the Jerusalemites I met. They are Palestinians who in the past have been the most liberal and open to engagement with Israel. I found them more depressed than the Palestinians whom I met in Gaza. They are depressed by the expansion of the settlements, which are killing Arab east Jerusalem economically and excluding many people with Jerusalem identity cards from their own city.

The wall has arbitrarily cut through neighbourhoods, including the Ar Ram neighbourhood, and removed people from Jerusalem. Without moving, they are no longer living in Jerusalem. The UN estimates that a quarter of the 230,000 Palestinians who currently have Jerusalem ID cards have been excluded from Jerusalem by the wall and risk having their ID cards confiscated. Many people are caught in the situation where if they do not live in Jerusalem their ID card is confiscated and if they do not have a Jerusalem ID card, even the land they own in Jerusalem is confiscated.

The Israelis continue to demolish houses. One person took me to his huge family house, which he had built with all his savings and which has now been shut up by Israeli order because a demolition order is going through the courts. He and his family of seven are squashed into a two-room flat because they cannot live in their own house. Fourteen of his neighbours' houses have already been demolished and the excuse is that planning permission has been refused because the planning framework has not been finalised, but the framework process was started by the Israelis in 1992. It is clear that they have no intention of ever drawing up a planning framework so that they can always say that buildings are being built without permission.

Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem are being threatened. The al-Quds medical school has had students marooned in Gaza for the past four years with patients unable to reach clinics and medical students unable to access the other main hospitals. I was told of rumours suggesting that the Israelis will introduce a new law to outlaw Jerusalem institutions from employing people with west bank permits. If that were carried through, it would mean that the al-Makassed hospital would lose 50 per cent. of its staff and the Industrial secondary school, which I visited, would lose 41 of its 54 employees, many of whom have worked there for decades. The Israelis are currently trying to bribe that institution out of Jerusalem. They have offered to pay for its relocation to the west bank.
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There was an unmistakable feeling among all the people I met in Jerusalem that things were getting so bad—with no hope of improvement and no attention, they felt, from the international community—that violence was the only way out. That is a dangerous feeling to be growing within Jerusalem's Palestinian population.

On the west bank, the expansion of settlements and the continuation of checkpoints and road blocks are making people's lives a misery. They interfere with the free movement of Palestinians to school, university, hospitals and work. Even when the checkpoints are open, people do not feel confident that they will not be closed arbitrarily, leaving them trapped on the wrong side. People's movements are heavily controlled as a result. I could go on to describe all the other instances that I came across in the various towns of the west bank. I want to get over to people the dangerous atmosphere that is building up within the Palestinian population because they feel that there is no hope of improvement and that they are being left with only one outlet: violence.

That situation is hugely dangerous, both for the Palestinians and the Israelis. Ordinary Palestinians can see with their own eyes that the current Israeli Government are creating facts on the ground that will completely rule out a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. They can see that they are going to be offered only a series of disconnected Bantustans, totally under the control of Israel and totally dependent on it. They fear, in particular, that the whole of Jerusalem, including the al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, will be lost to them.

Even in Gaza, the Israelis are failing to offer any semblance of real autonomy or sovereignty. People can see no chance of the poverty of people in Gaza being reduced. The current Israeli strategy is leaving ordinary Palestinians with no hope for any improvement for their future and is undercutting moderates in the Palestinian community who want to find a negotiated solution. People such as President Abbas have almost nothing to show to Palestinians as an example of what has been delivered through the negotiation route. Instead, negotiation seems to have delivered a worse and worse lifestyle for Palestinians. As I say, the temptation is for more and more Palestinians to conclude that violence is the only answer.

The British Government, the European Union and the rest of the Quartet are committed to a two-state solution based on the road map and the relevant UN resolutions. The Minister has recently reiterated in a series of written parliamentary answers the UK position on the illegality of all the settlements and our opposition to any further land grab by the Israelis. The international community and significant parts of Israeli society believe that disengagement from Gaza should be the first step towards that two-state solution, but if that is to have any chance of success, the international community needs to put effective pressure on the Israeli Government now to stop them taking action that makes the two-state solution impossible. It is not credible for the international community to continue to ignore the annexation of Palestinian land, and it is even less credible to suggest that the wall and the settlements will be dismantled at some point in the future.
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Israel constantly claims to be the only democracy in the middle east, but if the current Israeli Government are permitted to continue to expropriate Palestinian land, encircle east Jerusalem and deprive Palestinians of their right to live in and have access to the holy city—which is the holy city not only of Jews, but of Muslims and Christians—they will destroy Israel's right to make that claim. An apartheid state where Palestinians are in enclaves that are nominally autonomous but actually under the control of Israel, and where Palestinians are excluded from participation in Israel's democracy, will not be a democracy in any recognisable sense. Furthermore, such a solution will not ensure Israel's security; it will be a recipe for continued violence.

For that reason, if the Government are to continue to be a friend to both Israel and Palestine, they must take action now to ensure that Israel complies with its obligations under the road map. Britain and the European Union must use every bit of leverage that they have, including financial leverage, to pressure the Israelis to stop expropriating Palestinian land; for example, they could suspend the EU-Israel trade association.

There must be a speedy agreement by the Israelis—in line with the obligations that they are asked to fulfil by Mr. Wolfensohn—to the opening of access to and from Gaza, and there must be freedom of movement across the west bank and into and out of Jerusalem. Palestinians must be readmitted to the road network in the west bank; it is currently reserved for Israel's illegal settlers. In addition, the UK and the EU need to undertake public diplomacy, and explain directly to the Israeli people the cul-de-sac down which the Israeli Government's policies are leading them.

11.21 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on bringing this important subject to this Chamber. The situation in Israel and the occupied territories—Gaza and the west bank—is of deep concern to Members of all parties, and not least to my hon. Friend, whose long-standing and energetic engagement on this issue I salute. She has given us a comprehensive report of her recent visit to the area. I have also been there. In fact, I was there until 11.30 last night, when I got on a plane in Cairo.

In the few minutes available to me, let me make it clear that the middle east peace process will remain a priority for the Government. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the conflict is now at a critical stage. A just and lasting solution is crucial for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people, as my hon. Friend has made clear, as well as for broader prospects of long-term peace for the whole middle east.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important issues. Because of the shortage of time, let me say to her and others in this Chamber that she is right to emphasise the need for urgent action to begin rebuilding the economy of Gaza. It distressed many of us to see how the greenhouses were looted at disengagement, although perhaps we can understand it. That was an act of incredible stupidity, because perhaps as many as 10,000 people were employed in those greenhouses. I was glad to hear over the past couple of weeks that the Saudis and
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Israelis, among others, have put money into replacing the components of the greenhouses that were looted and sold off, presumably on the streets of Gaza. That employment will start up again in time for the planting season, which is very important as we need all the jobs we can get.

As my hon. Friend will know, Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority have stated that they want to create 30,000 jobs in Gaza by Christmas. Some of that is wishful thinking—there is no question about that—but on where the finance for that scheme will come from, let me say this: I know one oil-producing Arab country that will have a budget surplus this year of no less than $140 billion. One per cent. of that would go an awfully long way to helping the Palestinian Authority and Jim Wolfensohn's team do what is necessary in Gaza and the west bank to start reviving that economy. And it can be revived; there is no question about that.

I was in Ramallah three weeks ago. I had not been there for 13 years, and I did not recognise it. It was full of flashy apartments. Where did the money come from? A prominent Palestinian told me, "Well, we've had a decade and a half of chronic, corrosive corruption." That is where the money has come from. Year after year, the donor countries gave money to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and what happened to it? It was used to pay off Arafat's cronies, and a lot of it ended up in bank accounts in Zurich and in property. It is a disgrace.

One of the most heartening things I discovered as I travelled around the area recently is that there is no more talk of Arafat as some kind of unblemished hero. There is a recognition that that corruption and the form of government that was in place did no good for those Palestinians who want to create a viable future. I agree with my hon. Friend: we are at what the Americans call a tipping point, and a new and important consciousness is abroad in the west bank and Gaza.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently of the need for dialogue to include the Israelis in a real way. When I visited the area a few weeks ago, I did not want to talk only to the Israeli Government and their advisers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I also went to a kibbutz, because I wanted to talk to the old lefties—for want of a better term—who had started that movement. It is important to remember that the movement was created because it was seen as a way of enabling Israelis and Palestinians to live and work together. The kibbutz I visited was on the old Jerusalem road, and during a meal I had with some of the remarkable people there, they reluctantly but clearly stated, "Yes, we are terribly sorry in some ways that we have the barrier." It is a wall in some places and a fence in others, but it is very effective and has cut to a remarkable extent the number of suicide bombs going off, and it has improved the ability of the Israeli people to defend themselves to the west of the wall.

However, my hon. Friend is right to emphasise the effect of the building of that barrier in and around Jerusalem and in other areas. It is ironic that it is the Israeli High Court that has upheld the objections of some of the Palestinians who have had the courage to question and challenge the route of the barrier. They are brave people, and they have shown the way forward.

Something else is interesting. When I visited the area, I looked at that barrier for some time. It is an awesome thing. It lacks the architectural advantages of the
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Great Wall of China, but it is about as difficult to cross. I realised that it not only makes life difficult for Palestinians, who are the ones who suffer most from it, but divides a city in a way that inconveniences a lot of Israelis very considerably. It is changing the quality of life in that city. There are parts of Jerusalem where Palestinians and Israelis have clearly got along very well, and it grieves me that there will now be such a great division between those communities.

Even at this late stage, I hope that the Israelis will understand that we are serious when we say to them, "This is an illegal activity." They should not be cutting off parts of Palestine so that people cannot visit their relatives, travel easily between work and home or travel from the southern part of the occupied territories in the west bank to the northern.

We want Israel to have the right to exist and to defend its citizens; we do not want them to walk in fear of terrorists. I believe Abu Mazen wants that as well. He is the only show in town. That is the truth of the situation, and we must all realise that, whether we are Arab donor countries, western donor countries or anyone else who is involved in this process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this matter to our attention, and I hope we all benefit from the debate.

11.30 am
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.
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