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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 February 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Israel and Palestinian Territories

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

9.30 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and to have the opportunity to address this issue.

It is perhaps appropriate to remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which discloses that in September last year, I was sponsored to visit the Palestinian territories in the west bank and Gaza strip by the Welfare Association UK. It was an eye-opening visit. I have taken an interest in the issue for almost all of my adult life, but I had never been to the area before and the visit made real many of the issues in which I had previously taken only a theoretical interest.

I pay tribute to a few of the people whom I encountered on my visit. I am lost in admiration for the work of Betselm, the Israeli human rights organisation; those working in the field for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The latter’s work on closures in the west bank in particular is essential in providing us with an authoritative and objective analysis of the situation on the ground.

I also place on the record my appreciation of the various interest groups within the Liberal Democrats. Like all parties, we have both a friends of Palestine and a friends of Israel group. My own thinking is influenced by many such groups. I pay tribute to Councillor Monroe Palmer, the chairman of Liberal Democrat friends of Israel. His engagement with the issue and with me is an example from which many in that organisation should take a lead.

I have sought to draw the terms of the debate fairly tightly to the question of settlements within the occupied Palestinian territory and the related question of closures in the area. Obviously and inevitably, the focus of my remarks will be on the application of Israeli Government policy. That lays me open to the accusation that I am not being even-handed in my treatment of the issue, but I ask people not to read into my comments on Israeli policy in this tightly defined debate any significance beyond the generality.

The question of settlement development as an instrument of Israeli Government policy has massive and perhaps fundamental long-term implications for the two-state solution. By its nature, the permanence of the settlements creates that significance.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has said that if there could be a lasting peace, and if the road map could be
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achieved, the settlements that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, which are so contentious, would be withdrawn and demolished, as a number already have been in Gaza and north of Jerusalem?

Mr. Carmichael: Later on, I shall come to Ehud Olmert’s engagement with the issue following the Annapolis conference. From what the hon. Gentleman says, I take it that he roughly shares my view—I presume that when he talks about settlements, he means both legal and illegal settlements, in Israeli terms. It is my view that those settlements will need to be removed, which will involve a massive displacement of Israelis who are currently in the occupied Palestinian territories. At present, about 450,000 Israelis live there, so what will happen to them if we return to the 1967 boundaries? About 200,000 such people live in the immediate environs of East Jerusalem. Ehud Olmert and others have made a commitment to a two-state solution, but if we judge them on their actions, we might find that that commitment is not as strong as we would wish it to be.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that Israelis left all the settlements in Gaza? Indeed, the settlements were demolished and 8,000 settlers were removed, many forcibly, by the Israeli army. However, the consequence was that last year alone 2,000 rockets were fired from Gaza deliberately on civilian targets in Negev.

Mr. Carmichael: I hesitate to draw an immediate comparison between the Qassam rockets, which I unreservedly condemn—I have seen the trauma they cause in communities such as Sderot—and the removal of settlers from Gaza. With respect to the hon. Lady, whom I know has long taken an interest in such matters and whose views I listen to carefully, the situation is more complex than that.

The significance of the removal of settlers from Gaza is important for two reasons. First, it has made it clear that there is a difference in the Israeli Government’s attitudes to Gaza and the west bank. Secondly—the real significance—it demonstrates that when there is political will within Israel and the Israeli Government, the removal of settlements is possible. However, political will underpins everything. At present, there is an increase in the amount of settlement building in the west bank, so I see no such political will. As we know from studying conflicts in every part of the globe, without political will, there will be no solution.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is talking about good will and sending messages, but what good will and messages does he see from Hamas? One of its spokesmen said recently:

Mr. Carmichael: If the hon. Gentleman is looking for an apologist for Hamas or for that sort of statement, he should look elsewhere; he will not find one in me. As ever when dealing with this situation, to pray one extreme as a justification for another does not really advance the argument.

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I have spoken for eight minutes already, and I am being tempted by the hon. Gentleman to stray rather wide of the narrow focus of the debate, although I am delighted that so many hon. Members are present. Normally, when I am in Westminster Hall it is to discuss the most recent round of fishing cuts—curiously, that never seems to attract the same sort of audience.

Entrenchment is what concerns me most about settlement, because it makes the medium to long-term solution in the Palestinian territories difficult to achieve. I hope that the Minister for the Middle East will say something about our ongoing engagement in the area, particularly in relation to settlements. I appreciate that he will speak under certain constraints, but I hope that he addresses either today or at some later date the way in which our diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv engage with the settler community. It was reported to me recently that the ambassador in Tel Aviv had hosted a dinner in the embassy specifically for representatives of settlements. If that is true—I do not know whether it is—such an approach leaves us open to criticism.

Secondly, when one considers the legality of the situation it seems that we should not permit the marketing and sale in the UK of property in the settlements in the present unregulated way.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Constituents of mine who visited the west bank recently raised with me the role of the Jewish National Fund in acquiring and developing land in the west bank. I believe that the company is registered in the UK. Has the hon. Gentleman formed a view of its activities, and does he believe that it would be appropriate for the Government to look into them, as the company is registered in this country?

Mr. Carmichael: I know nothing about the company, although there may be grounds for investigation. Structures certainly exist in the UK for the propriety of incorporation to be investigated, particularly of limited companies. The company’s activities will obviously be prescribed by its articles of association and memorandum of incorporation. That will clearly be the basis on which it can operate, and if it runs wide of that it will be open to criticism.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. During his visit, was he able to discuss the problem of the sale of goods from the settlements in Europe, which is obviously illegal? It follows logically that Israel has put itself in breach of the EU-Israel trade agreement by selling illegally produced goods.

Mr. Carmichael: Yes, that issue was discussed; indeed, it was discussed before our departure and has been again since our return. The engagement of the European Union and the way in which its agreements are enforced causes me great concern. It is something to which the EU could bring a great deal more rigour, and it concerns me greatly that that is not the case. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that continued financial support of settlements, direct or indirect, will make the situation more entrenched, and thus more difficult to resolve.

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John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured the debate. Does he agree that the subdivision of the west bank by the settlements, the division wall, the razor-wire fences and the access roads makes a two-state solution impossible for as long as those settlements and that division exist?

Mr. Carmichael: That is my concern. Indeed, if my hon. Friend visits the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs website, he will see its tremendous maps—I would never have believed how excited people could get about maps until I visited the UNOCHA offices in Jerusalem. When illustrated on a map, the picture is graphic. It is obvious that if the status quo is allowed to persist, there cannot be a two-state solution. We have three Palestinian islands on the west bank—one in the north, one in the centre and one in the south, perhaps linked by tunnels: who knows?—but in no way, shape or form does it appear to be a viable state. For a two-state solution, the two states must be viable within their own boundaries.

I see, Mr. Bercow, that I have taken almost a quarter of an hour. I was concerned that I might not have enough to say; perhaps I should throw away my notes.

Mrs. Ellman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Carmichael: Yes, but for the last time.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rather than putting forward a counsel of despair he should give full backing to the Palestinian President in his negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister, which have the backing of the Quartet envoy, and the potential financial support for major investment in the Palestinian state being planned by our Government and other European countries?

Mr. Carmichael: I hope that what I have said so far is not a counsel of despair, although I accept that matters are fairly bleak. From the general situation, I take a degree of hope for this simple reason: the ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens whom I met have a will for peace and for a settlement. It comes down to the question of political will to which I referred earlier.

My frustration is that at present neither community has effective political leadership. I am quite happy to support the President of the Palestinian Authority; indeed, I am quite happy to give support to Ehud Olmert as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel, but my support does not mean an awful lot. It is necessary for both of them to engage with their own communities and give them leadership to bring about some sort of solution. Frankly, my despair is that I do not see that happening, and my support will not make a great deal of difference.

I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). According to a report published last week by Peace Now, the Israeli human rights organisation, since the Annapolis conference there has been a dramatic expansion in the amount of building in the settlements on the west bank. In 2002, 315 units were built, and 728 in 2005, and there has been a significant increase since November last year.

The question that comes to mind is whether Ehud Olmert is able, with his Government, to follow through the good intentions that he expresses on the international
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stage. Does he have the authority to make them work? He says that there is a freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, yet it is reported in Ha’aretz that the Housing Minister says there is no freeze, which was corroborated by the mayor of Jerusalem, who said that he would not see Jerusalem turned into an illegal outpost.

The Peace Now report to which I referred earlier also deals with demolitions. Settlement construction is only half the story; settlement demolition is the other side. It is apparent from figures published by Peace Now that construction applications from Palestinians to the Israeli authorities result in a 94 per cent. refusal rate, but that 33 per cent. of all demolition orders against Palestinian structures are carried out and only 7 per cent. against Israeli settlements. According to the Israeli central bureau for statistics, only 91 construction permits were granted to Palestinians, yet in the same period 18,472 housing units were constructed in the settlements.

I commend to hon. Members the work of Peace Now and its report, which is thorough and based on the Israeli Government’s own figures. I would have liked to say more about the subject, particularly about the impact of the policy on Palestinian communities, but because of the pressure of time I do not feel able to do so.

I turn—regrettably only briefly—to the issue of closures. Again, I commend to the House the work of UNOCHA in the region, and I share with Members a couple of paragraphs from the report of the special rapporteur, John Dugard, on the state of human rights in the Palestinian territories, which was published on 21 January. In paragraphs 34 and 35 of the report, Mr. Dugard says:

I saw such checkpoints and roadblocks for myself while I was in the west bank. The report continues:

the occupied Palestinian territories—

Michael Fabricant: May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate?

I understand precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about the checkpoints, but does he not also accept that every state has a duty of care to protect its citizens? Since 2000, more than 1,000 people in the region have been killed by suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks. God forbid that a similar situation should exist in the United Kingdom, but if it did would we not have to have checkpoints, too? Would it not be our duty to protect our citizenry?

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Mr. Carmichael: Of course Israel has a right to protect its citizens. Equally, however, Israel should not be in the west bank in the first place, because that, of course, is an illegal occupation under international law. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware—if he is not, I again commend him to the UNOCHA website and its maps—that a vast number of the checkpoints are well distant from the Israeli border.

There is a question of proportionality. I recognise that there is a threat to Israeli citizens from suicide bombers and of course Israel is entitled to enforce defence against that type of attack. However, the hon. Gentleman must not forget that it is not just Israelis who have been killed since 2000; a substantial number of Palestinians have been killed, too. I do not even know if data on the number are gathered centrally.

Furthermore, the disproportionate effect of the wall, the checkpoints and all the rest of the defences on the daily life of Palestinians living in the west bank really shows, quite graphically, that it is not an even-handed situation. If Israel is serious about achieving a long-term solution, it will have to accept that it will have to live side by side with Palestinians and that oppression of that type will never bring any such long-term solution.

There is a lack of proportionality, particularly in the way that the Israeli defence force operates, as I have seen for myself. I saw how our Palestinian driver, who was in a badged United Nations vehicle, was treated by what looked like a 19-year-old Israeli conscript from the IDF. For me, sitting there with my British passport and all the rest of my identification, it was an intensely frightening and disturbing experience. Goodness alone knows what it must be like for an ordinary Palestinian citizen with none of the protections or the UN-badged vehicles that I was privileged to enjoy.

Mr. Bercow, I have taken rather longer than I intended, but I hope that I have been able to address the issues raised by other hon. Members. There is much more that I would love to say and doubtless I will on other occasions, but in the interests of allowing a wider debate I conclude my remarks at this stage.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. No fewer than six Back-Bench Members have indicated to me that they want to speak. Colleagues should be aware that I will need to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at, or very close to, 10.30 am. Hon. Members are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves; a certain self-denying ordinance is required and I should very much appreciate it if they tailored their contributions accordingly.

9.55 am

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today.

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