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Westminster Hall

Thursday 5 July 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Occupied Palestinian Territories

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 114, and the Government’s response thereto, Fifth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 430.]

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

2.51 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): It is particularly appropriate that you should be in the Chair for this important and timely debate, Mr. Bercow. I welcome the new Minister to his post and give him my good wishes. I wrote, on behalf of the International Development Committee, to the new Prime Minister before he took up office to ask him to beef up the Department for International Development and to give it an appropriate number of Ministers. I am glad that he has done so, and I expect that the Minister appreciates having three colleagues rather than only one, as would have been the case in the previous Administration. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and to the future engagements that I am sure that members of the Committee will have with him.

Obviously, events have moved on since we produced our report, and not for the better. When it was published, in January, after our November visit to Palestine and Israel, we were particularly concerned, from a development point of view, that although an increasing amount of development aid was going to the occupied territories, poverty was also increasing at a high rate. The reasons for that were not hard to find, and I shall address them, as the report has done. We said in the report that the situation was unsustainable and would deteriorate, stating:

We also pointed out that

The events of the past two or three weeks show that that was not an inappropriate analysis. Indeed, last year, Jan Egeland described Gaza as a “ticking time bomb”. Unfortunately, it has now exploded and the fallout is not yet clear. The takeover of Gaza by Hamas was brutal and unjustified, but the failure to secure recognition of its election victory may have contributed to its frustration, at least in part.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I follow the reasoning in the right hon. Gentleman’s report and in the comment that he has just made, but do not comments from Hamas about

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indicate a Government who are not prepared to accept the existence of the internationally recognised state of Israel?

Malcolm Bruce: We know that, and I might come to that point later. I could retort to the hon. Lady that Israel is illegally occupying a significant piece of territory that does not belong to the state of Israel, and yet it does not always suffer the same degree of international condemnation for so doing, but I do not want to justify one wrong against another. I shall address her point in slightly more detail later.

Like all hon. Members, I am sure, I very much welcome the release of Alan Johnston this week. His kidnapping was deeply stressful and was damaging to the Palestinian cause. Clearly, Hamas will want to take credit for the release, or at least to tell the world that it indicates that it has control of the security situation in Gaza. We were unable to visit Gaza because of the security situation. The previous Secretary of State managed to get in shortly afterwards, but others have found it difficult. It is effectively a prison, sealed off by land, air and sea, with virtually no resources and no functioning economy. The question that we have to concern ourselves with is: how is the basic essence of life to be maintained there?

Our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is to take up the role of Quartet representative. He faces an awesome challenge and a crisis of credibility with the Palestinians, given his close ties to the Bush Administration and to Israel. How can he mobilise international assistance, as he has been specifically asked to do, let alone develop the economy of Gaza in those circumstances without talking to Hamas? He will have to do so sooner or later. If he were here, I would say to him that Hamas will have to be involved in talks at some stage, as part of the wider process, just as on the path to peace in Northern Ireland he had to talk to Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Our report, and its timing, were motivated by the fact that while international aid and the UK’s contribution to the occupied territories was rising, incomes were falling and poverty was increasing, with the most vulnerable—older people, women and children—suffering the most. I shall not go into the statistics now, but they show how deeply people were affected in practical ways. As our report says, that situation was directly attributable to two facts, the first of which was the withholding of revenue from the Palestinian Authority: both the customs revenue collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and budget support from international donors. The second fact was the effective blockade of Gaza and the total disruption of access and movement around the west bank, both of which were imposed by the Israeli Government.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): Our Committee’s focus was the alleviation and tackling of poverty, but we cannot tackle poverty in the west bank and Gaza without considering the politics and economic realities. The right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that although certain groups have used blood-curdling rhetoric and carried out serious attacks of violence and terror in the past, they eventually had to be brought into talks to bring about a peace agreement. I suggest that it might not be simply his view and that of the
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Committee that in order to tackle poverty in the west bank and Gaza, there will have to be dialogue with all the parties, including Hamas. That might now be the wider view.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because that is the essence of our argument. Our report is an International Development Committee report, but I make no apology for straying into politics, because we cannot deliver development in the occupied territories without some form of political settlement. I want to know how it will be possible to deliver humanitarian assistance and support to the people of Gaza if we do not talk to the people who are in control there. I do not see how that assistance can be delivered in any other way.

The consequence of withholding aid, which might now be restored—I want to ask the Minister a few questions on that—was that the Palestinian Authority effectively collapsed. Its employees, by which I mean not only civil servants but nurses, teachers, doctors—essential workers—went unpaid, and, as a result, many went on strike. Economic activity was paralysed by the restrictions.

The Quartet is unequivocal in its requirements of Hamas and, if I may say this to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), completely equivocal in its approach to Israel. Paragraph 60 of the report specifically states:

The imbalance causes a great deal of resentment and is a practical obstacle to progress.

Mrs. Ellman: The right hon. Gentleman talks as if Hamas is a normal political organisation. Is he aware that article 32 of its charter talks about the Jews’ plans being

Is that not just one example of plain anti-Semitism?

Malcolm Bruce: I am sure that the hon. Lady will have many more such quotes. I want to reassure her that I endorse nothing of what Hamas says, stands for or does in terms of violence. I am not here as an apologist for Hamas; I am here as a political realist, accepting the fact that, whether we like it or not, Hamas was elected by the people of Palestine. However, it has been denied the right to have any kind of engagement.

Conditions are legitimate, but we have imposed similar conditions in the past on all kinds of movements, for example the IRA, EOKA and the Mau Mau, and ultimately, we have to deal with the facts on the ground. That is the essence of my point. I am not asking anyone to like or appreciate Hamas, but at some point we will have to talk to it. It is my belief that Tony Blair, in his position, may have to talk to it sooner rather than later.

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What is the state of life in Gaza? I wonder whether the Minister can answer this direct question: is there enough food? There were indications of difficulties in that regard. Are hospitals and schools functioning? What measures are in hand to provide long-term support—access and movement? Is the temporary international mechanism—TIM—continuing or are steps in hand for salary payments to be restored directly, through the Palestinian Authority? If that happens, will they be backdated, and if so, will TIM contributions be in any way deducted from or charged to the PA? While we were there, that possibility was mooted.

On the west bank, are the number of restrictions increasing or diminishing? Is work continuing on the security fence? Is the development of E1 still on hold? Are other settlements on the west bank still expanding? Those are real questions; we need to know whether the situation has changed positively or negatively. I suspect that I know what the answers are, but if the Minister has up-to-date information, hon. Members would be happy to hear it.

I appreciate that the Department has given £1 million to the Red Cross for humanitarian relief in Gaza. Will the Minister indicate what other aid the UK is providing directly and indirectly, and whether it represents an increase compared with the previous two years?

Tony Blair faces a huge challenge if he is to move from the present crisis to establishing even the beginnings of a viable Palestinian state. I believe that Israel and the Quartet are taking a significant risk by investing their support so directly and completely in President Abbas. His Fatah party was defeated at the elections to the Palestinian Authority largely because of public disaffection with extravagance and corruption in the past.

Many Palestinians, most of whom had voted for Fatah, told the Committee that they felt they were being punished for a democratic vote. One woman told us that the UK, “Had invaded Iraq to impose democracy but refused to recognise the Palestinian democracy resulting from a free and fair election.” When I put that to Tony Blair on his appearance before the Liaison Committee, he replied:

That slightly surprised me. When I queried it, he said:

He continued:

That is a fair point: it is our money and aid money. That issue needs to be addressed, but it does not apply to the Palestinian Authority’s own money. Its money had been collected, on its behalf, on the borders by Israel and had been withheld. That was the biggest single factor in bringing about the effective collapse of the day-to-day functioning of the Palestinian Authority. The Department for International Development, among other donors, had invested so much time, effort and resources into building up that body.

There is real anger and frustration among ordinary Palestinians. I am not necessarily talking about those
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who support what Hamas stands for, although some might have voted for it. The Palestinians have made many mistakes for which they are paying, and Israel has legitimate security concerns, which they are addressing robustly. Nevertheless, we face a long haul, in which the ordinary, beleaguered Palestinians face unreasonable hardship, are prevented from developing their own economic salvation from what should be a productive economy, and find that Israel is free to impose disproportionate reprisals, seal off activity and continue an illegal occupation without let or hindrance. The essence of our report, and, indeed, the up-to-date comment to add to that report, is simply: how long can this go on?

3.6 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Minister to his new position, and to this debate in particular. This is an area of the world in which I know he has a genuine personal interest. Both he and I were observers to the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. All the international observers agreed that those elections were fair and democratic. That is remarkable, given that they were taking place under conditions of occupation.

I want to endorse everything said by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, in introducing our report. The elections to which I just referred have, in many ways, formed the backdrop to its contents and to the Government’s response.

I found the Government’s response to our report most disappointing. It seemed to come from a script that was written before anyone had read our report and that representatives of the Departments concerned rehearsed before us during evidence sessions. As a result of those evidence sessions, we produced a report that challenged some fundamental inconsistencies in the approach hitherto adopted by not only the UK, but the EU and the Quartet. The inconsistencies and challenges that we outlined were based not on prejudice or conjecture but on the evidence that we had received in our evidence sessions and what we saw with our own eyes when we went to the area. When we produced those challenges, we got back a response that simply repeated that script complete with the same inconsistencies.

Since our report was published, significant developments have taken place, particularly arising from the Hamas takeover in Gaza two or three weeks ago. The right hon. Gentleman made the point well that, if anything, such developments make our report even stronger.

I hope that the Minister will not take this personally, but I must warn him that some of what I say will be critical. I say that not because I want to have a go, but because I want change. Yesterday’s release of Alan Johnston opens up a window of opportunity for change, if only we are prepared to grasp it. With willingness to change being a watchword of our new Government in the UK, I hope that we will grasp it.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, at the centre of our comments was the contention that the boycott has been counter-productive. We do not say that it has caused the suffering of the Palestinian people, because it has not. The cause of that suffering is occupation;
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movement restrictions; closures; Israel’s construction of a wall and of settlements on land that does not belong to it; the economic and military blockade of Gaza by Israel; and the withholding of millions of dollars of tax revenues. Our report makes it clear that, although those are the causes of the suffering, the imposition of a boycott policy on Hamas and then on the national unity Government by the Quartet has made that bad situation even worse and even more dangerous.

Malcolm Bruce: On the Government of national unity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the impression that we got from the British authorities that we spoke to, both here and in Palestine, was that if there were a Government of national unity, they would be minded to release funds? In reality, when that Government of national unity were created, no progress was made until they fell apart.

Richard Burden: That is a very fair point. The British Government started saying that we would talk to those members of the national unity Government who accepted the conditions, but not to others. That is madness; we say we want to move forward and engage in dialogue, but we once again put barriers in the way of our ability to allow dialogue to take place.

Mrs. Ellman: Was it not the case that moneys were not released to the national unity Government because no commitment was given that those funds would not go to finance terrorism? Is it not a fact, now that the Palestinian President is acting in his own right, that the Israelis have agreed to release at least £300 million of Palestinian funding? Is that not a good start and an indication of good will?

Richard Burden: On the second point, we will wait and see. I welcome any release of money, but I am not sure that the money that my hon. Friend mentions has actually been released yet. Similarly, the Israelis gave a commitment to release 250 prisoners, but I am not sure that that has happened yet either, although I am aware that more arrests have been made. On the question of why no money was released, let us be clear that the boycott was put in place and maintained during a Hamas ceasefire; it was introduced not in response to terrorism, but in the context of a ceasefire. So what my hon. Friend says is simply factually incorrect.

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