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27 Feb 2008 : Column 254WH—continued

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. I, too, was on the visit of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine last September, and I would like to thank Welfare Association UK, which enabled that visit to happen. I would also like to commend the United Nations agencies in the region, particularly UNOCHA— the United Nations Office for the Coordination of
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Humanitarian Affairs—and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, especially John Ging from UNRWA, who briefed us while we were there and looked after us. I would also like to thank Julia Wickham and Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International, who accompanied us on the visit.

I should also say that, although we were a group of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, that was not intentional. There was a Conservative group of MPs that visited the same places the following week, staying in rather better hotels, I think, but they were briefed by exactly the same people. I hope that we will hear from Conservative MPs about their experience during the debate. Of course, the week after their visit there was also a visit by Tony Blair, on behalf of the Quartet, and he was briefed by the same people.

I should say at the outset that I deplore the habit that people have got into of calling other people either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, as though the two were mutually exclusive. I regard myself as a friend of Israel every bit as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) does, and I also regard myself as a friend of Palestine. It is really as a friend of Israel that I think that we should be urging the Israeli Government, in their own interests as much as in the interests of justice, to stop expanding the settlements, because they cannot expect the Palestinians to engage in meaningful negotiations at the same time as they are encroaching every day on yet more Palestinian land. It is like asking people to play football while moving the goalposts.

It is the continuing expansion of settlements that cuts the ground from under the feet of moderate Palestinian politicians, metaphorically as well as literally, and strengthens the extremists. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), saw the bulldozers and cranes still at work building new settlement houses when he travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho last year, through the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which is now a town of some 30,000 inhabitants about six miles to the east of Jerusalem. When I asked him about his trip in the Commons, he said that he took comfort from a speech made by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the preceding week, in which Mr. Olmert promised, as a confidence-building measure, to fulfil his responsibilities under the first phase of the road map, which my right hon. Friend understood to mean that he would stop building in the settlements.

However, when one looks more closely at what the Israeli Prime Minister said, one finds that he did not actually promise to stop building; what he promised to do was to stop expanding the outer boundaries of settlements, but to continue building within them. Therefore, I fear that that is an empty promise, since all the Israeli settlements have large areas set aside for future building. Next to Ma’ale Adumim, there is an area known on the maps only as E1, which is a military area closed to Palestinians but is also, in fact, reserved for future expansion of Ma’ale Adumim, and it could take more than another 30,000 settlement houses.

All the other settlements also have areas reserved for future expansion. In fact, a study by the World Bank found that, although the built-up areas of settlements
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cover only 3 per cent. of west bank territory, the municipal areas around them cover 9 per cent., and then there are areas called reserved settlement jurisdiction, which cover a further 9 per cent. When we add the closed military areas and the various other categories, we find that nearly 50 per cent. of the west bank is closed to nearly all Palestinians. The state of Israel already occupies 77 per cent. of the land of the Palestine mandate, so if and when the Palestinians get their own state with the 1967 boundaries, they will be renouncing their claim to 77 per cent. of the mandate area and agreeing to occupy and live in only 23 per cent. of it.

I sometimes wonder how the English would react if we were confined to 23 per cent. of our original country. Let us imagine that the original inhabitants of England were cooped up in an area the size of Wales, which is proportionately the same size as the area that we are talking about.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): Mr. Bercow, you are a student of history, so you will know that that is exactly what happened to the Welsh people.

Martin Linton: That is the very point that I was about to make. Over the past 2,000 years, that is what has happened to the Welsh, and I look to them to understand how the Palestinians must feel about what has happened in the Palestinian territories.

As well as imagining that the Welsh were confined to Wales, we would have to imagine a wall that sometimes strayed far west of Offa’s dyke, in addition to English-only roads leading to English-only settlements deep inside Wales. We would have to imagine pass laws that prevented Welsh people from visiting their relatives in England, as well as an English Cardiff from which the Welsh people were banned. The Palestinian people see such things every day, but it is difficult to explain that to people in this country without drawing such an analogy.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting analogy, with which I identify very much as someone who is half-Welsh. However, he is not making a direct comparison, because his analogy does not suggest that Welsh people would be coming over to England to blow themselves up. That, however, is the reality on the ground in Israel, and it is very different from his analogy.

Martin Linton: If the Welsh people were treated in the way that I described, they might do that—I do not know. The only incorrect thing about my analogy is the size, because England is much larger than Israel. Wales is, in fact, exactly the same size as Israel, so if we wanted an analogy that was to scale, we would have imagine that most of the original population of Wales had been squashed into an area the size of the west bank and Gaza.

It so happens that there is a county in Wales that is the same size as the west bank, Powys, and a city the same size as Gaza—Swansea. We could easily imagine all the original inhabitants of Wales being pushed into Powys and Swansea or crammed on to the Gower peninsula and into the mountains of Powys. We would then have to imagine the dominant power—let us leave aside who that might be—building 133 settlements in
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Powys, with another 100 unofficial outposts and a row of houses on the top of every hill or mountain in the Brecon Beacons. We would have to imagine that most of the roads had been taken over for the exclusive use of settler communities, with the Welsh confined to the mountain roads and the dirt tracks. We would have to imagine the settlements cutting so far into the Usk and Wye valleys that it would be impossible for Welsh people even to get from Brecon into Radnor or from Radnor into Montgomeryshire.

What started as a single country would therefore end up divided into three almost completely separate blocks, and that is exactly what has happened in the west bank. It is almost impossible for Palestinians to travel between the separate parts of the west bank.

Mrs. Ellman: Does my hon. Friend not think that he is doing the people of Wales a great disservice? Is not the nub of the Israeli-Palestinian problem that peace has been thwarted by Palestinian terrorists determined to kill as many Israelis as they can, with the deliberate objective of ruining peace initiatives?

Martin Linton: We do not have to know much about Welsh history to know that the Welsh would fight tooth and nail to protect the remaining 23 per cent. of their territory if they were put in the position that I described. They would fight even more bitterly if the settlements gradually expanded until they were left with only half their original land. That is what is happening in the west bank, and the Palestinian west bank state as it now exists is only 12 per cent. of the original area of the Palestine mandate.

We must face the fact and make people in this country understand that all settlements in the west bank are illegal under the fourth Geneva convention. On top of that, the Israeli Government have accepted the road map, under which they should—this is a quote from the road map—

What has actually happened is that the number of settlers in the west bank has doubled since the Oslo agreement from 125,000 to 250,000.

This month’s report from the Israeli organisation Peace Now, which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland quoted, shows that settlement activity has intensified around East Jerusalem even since the Annapolis conference in November, when the Israeli Prime Minister promised to stop expansion; indeed, activity has increased exponentially, compared with the previous five years. A ring of new Israeli settlements is planned in East Jerusalem, in another clear attempt to change the geographical facts on the ground.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside is right that 8,000 settlers were withdrawn from Gaza, but that number pales into insignificance compared with the 30,000 settlers who have been put into the single settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim in the west bank, and there is room for as many again. That is the litmus test for the Israeli Government. They can defend themselves against most of the accusations thrown at them by talking about security: they need a wall for security, they need checkpoints for security, they need to prevent Palestinians from coming into Israel for security and they need to keep Palestinian cars off the settlers’ roads
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for security. We may not always accept the argument, but I agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that no one can deny the Israeli Government’s right to put Israeli citizens’ security first, at least in their own country, and we would do exactly the same. However, the expansion of settlements has nothing do with the issue of security: building more houses in the west bank does not make Israel more secure and nor does putting Israeli settlers in the centre of a Palestinian city such as Hebron.

So why do the Israelis do it? The BBC “Today” programme asked that very question of the Israeli ambassador last month, and I have a transcript of the conversation. It is an absolute master-class—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I am listening with great interest and respect to the hon. Gentleman, but may I just point out that he has been speaking for 12 minutes? If he were able to finish very quickly, and if everybody else who wanted to speak were able to confine themselves to five minutes each, everyone would be able to speak.

Martin Linton: Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I will do my best to draw my remarks to a close.

The transcript of the BBC interview is an absolute master-class in avoiding questions and it should be used as training material for Cabinet Ministers. The point is that there is no answer to the question why the Israelis continue to expand the settlements, and although they remain committed to the road map on paper, it is difficult to believe, looking at the size and number of the settlements and the infrastructure that has been put in place, that they will ever give them all up in practice.

The best thing that I can do in drawing my remarks to a close is to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about terrorism. Terrorism is a very real threat. We visited Sderot, which is the one town within striking distance of Gaza and which has been suffering a rain of rockets ever since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Israelis have a perfectly legitimate point when they say that their fear, if they pulled out of the west bank, would be that they would get even more rockets from even closer to main population settlements such as Tel Aviv. I can understand that logic, but I would put another logic against it. They have allowed Gaza to become impoverished, with 80 per cent. unemployment and 80 per cent. reliance on United Nations food rations. That is why the rockets have kept coming. It is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

If the same policy of impoverishment is followed, by the strangling of the economy of the west bank through the closures, which is what is happening at the moment, the same thing will happen in Gaza and Hamas will be elected there, as well. There are already terrible levels of unemployment among Palestinians in the west bank, and the same process is going on. It is vital that people in this country should understand, and that our Government should make it clear to the Israeli Government, how important it is—I look forward to the Minister’s response on this—that they should stop expanding the settlements, in their and everyone’s interests, as the first step toward removing them.

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10.11 am

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I shall take three minutes, if I may.

Israel is often criticised for its policy on settlements and the closure of territories. It is easy to make those criticisms, but I believe that they are unfair and that the UK Government must not join in with them. What else is Israel supposed to do? Her actions are essentially defensive, not aggressive. Israel has dismantled settlements in trying to seek a two-state solution, limited the growth of settlements and removed illegal posts. In Gaza Israel went so far as to remove posts, despite considerable criticism within Israel for doing so, and has been paid for that with numerous rocket attacks.

As for the closure of territories, it is easy to portray the erection of the security barrier as a hostile act. We have all seen the photographs of the 5 per cent. of the wall that happens to be made of concrete, but again I believe that Israel’s actions are essentially those of a defensive liberal democracy. It built the security barrier to prevent suicide bombings and sniper attacks. What would the Government of any western democracy do? I believe that, if the United Kingdom bordered not the North sea, St. George’s channel or the Irish sea, but territories that Israel borders, and if there were numerous suicide attacks from within those territories, we would similarly want to put up a security barrier.

John Barrett: Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the natural place to build the security barrier would be on the borders of the neighbouring country, and not within its territories?

Mr. Carswell: That is an easy point to make, but I have visited Israel and the west bank and I found it interesting that, although it is easy to talk about where the barrier should be, and about the 1967 barrier, one is quite often talking about someone’s back garden, where a family happen to spend their afternoon. I simply do not agree about the issue. The barrier needs to be built where it will provide security, not where we, using very outdated maps that take no account of an expansion, think it should go. Having said that, where there are disputes in Israel and Palestinians have objected to the siting of the barrier, there is judicial scrutiny. The process is not arbitrary. There is a mechanism that allows people who are concerned about where the barrier is being built to challenge the decision through the courts.

Mr. Carmichael: On judicial scrutiny, the hon. Gentleman will be aware—indeed, I have made reference to it in my speech—of the view of the International Court of Justice about the wall. Is that not judicial scrutiny that should be observed by Israel?

Mr. Carswell: I am not a great fan of that institution. As for the idea that remote international judges should make the decisions for a democracy, Democratic Governments and national judiciaries should make decisions, and should be accountable to the people. When Hamas abides by all the decisions of international bodies I shall be happy to put pressure on democratic Governments to abide by them, but it is
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slightly unfair to expect one side to conform to international law when another so clearly violates its principles.

When I hear people posturing against Israel, I sometimes wonder if it tells us more about the person doing the posturing than about the reality in the middle east. It is nice, particularly for politicians, to find a righteous cause or a bee in their bonnet to go on about, but Israeli-bashing is no righteous cause. Israel is a liberal democracy. The UK Government’s policy should be to support it against those who want to destroy it. We should stop believing the fallacy that a small country the size of Wales is somehow responsible, and is somehow the big obstacle to peace in the middle east. We should seek peace and should note that Israel has made peace with every neighbour—Egypt and Jordan—that has been willing to do so. Where there are stable and responsible Governments, Israel has made peace. Israel is unable yet to find a lasting peace in the west bank, or with Gaza or south Lebanon. That tells us more about the tyrants who run those territories.

10.15 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am utterly astonished by the contribution that we have just heard: it seems that if we are not fans of international institutions and treaties we are free to break those treaties. The reality is that Israel is in breach of international law by the construction of the wall. As for the idea that it is a poor benighted country, I remind the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) that it is the world’s fourth largest arms exporter; it is in possession of 200 nuclear warheads; it is quite capable of taking part in—and frequently does take part in—military attacks on Palestinian places; and, tragic as every death is, including those of Israelis who die in rocket attacks, the death rate is far higher for Palestinians than for Israelis. This is not a struggle of equals, but a war of occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for securing the debate, for going on the visit last year, and for choosing the subject of settlements. Those settlements are not an aberration by a few people in Israel who have chosen to live in the west bank or, in the past, in Gaza. They are part of a long-term strategy. Ariel Sharon, who has been around for a very long time, said this in a letter written in 1973:

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