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27 Feb 2008 : Column 260WH—continued

I have visited Gaza and the west bank many times, and have visited many towns in Israel on many occasions. Is it right that those settlements, with their red roofs and red buildings, with walls around them and special settler roads that Palestinians cannot travel on, should increasingly be dotted all over the west bank? Is it right that the Jordan valley near Jericho has now been occupied and taken over by Israeli agricultural settlements? Is it right that Palestinians simply cannot travel from their homes to a place of work without being stopped? Is it right that an army should come in and stop people going about their legitimate business, and hold up farmers
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for days on end with their produce, so that it rots in the sun and is therefore of no marketable value? That is the reality of the occupation. That is what the settlement policy is about. I hope that every hon. Member of this House would begin to have some sympathy with an ordinary Palestinian who had to endure that humiliation every hour of every day.

John Barrett: Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that another key factor is the domination of the water supply in the region, because the amount of water being used as a result of the building of the new settlements is further impoverishing the Palestinian people?

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely; that is a very good point. The settlements are situated in places with water; that is why they are put there. The water supply is then taken over, preventing neighbouring Palestinian farmers from getting it. The situation in the Jordan valley is disastrous. The massive rate of abstraction of water from the River Jordan—partly by Jordan, but also in large measure by the Israeli settlements—means that the Dead sea is disappearing at the rate of 1m to 2m a year. That is the reality of the question of water in the Jordan valley. On the west bank itself, nearer to Jerusalem, the situation is the same.

I shall be brief, Mr. Bercow, as I can see you nervously looking at your watch and looking around, and I should not want you to be any more stressed than you are now. I just want to make one point to conclude.

From a point when we could have achieved a settlement on a two-state basis, the Israeli settlements in the west bank have grown apace. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, the increase in the number of settlements in the west bank is far greater than the number withdrawn from Gaza. Bit by bit, day by day, hour by hour, East Jerusalem is being annexed by Israel, so that in a very few years’ time it will no longer be recognisably part of Palestine or a Palestinian city, but an extension of Israel. It is an occupation. Surely to God, everybody can understand that an occupation is wrong and illegal. If a state wants peace, it does not occupy, encircle, impoverish and imprison its neighbours, but talks to and respects them. However, the former is exactly what is happening.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Three people are still seeking to catch my eye. If hon. Members are willing to confine themselves to three or, at most, four minutes each, all three will get in. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves.

10.21 am

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I hope that you shall indulge me a little, Mr. Bercow, but I shall try to abide by your wishes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate, which it definitely is. He made a passionate case based, in part, on his own experience of Israel and the occupied territories. I last visited Israel and the west bank in November last year—a month or so after his visit—and I hope that I, too, hold an informed view of
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the situation. Nevertheless, this debate is notorious for often generating more heat than light—to use a hackneyed phrase. It is difficult to judge the point at which passion gives way to something less edifying, but it is probably true that, in any debate involving Israel’s settlement and security policies, the more heated the argument becomes, the less enlightened its outcome is likely to be, which is why I found my most recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, organised, but not paid for—I hasten to add—by the Portland Trust, to be a valuable experience.

The Portland Trust’s remit is to promote peace and stability between Palestinians and Israelis through economic co-operation and development. That strikes me as a laudable and pragmatic aim, and one that is well equipped to avoid the worst excesses of both religious ideology and inflammatory rhetoric. The trust employs staff from both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who are able to work together to their mutual benefit, because they believe that building metaphorical bridges is a better alternative to building territorial barriers.

Israel faces a Hobson’s choice. It knows that, whatever policies it pursues in order to guarantee short-term security, the only long-term solution is a viable two-state one. There should be no mistaking that Israel is prepared to live in peace with its neighbours and to go the extra mile to achieve that peace. The Palestinian people face a similar choice, as they have all along—whatever else they do, they must first renounce terrorism in order to secure peace.

Regardless of who holds elected political office, the choices before the Palestinian people can no longer be dictated by article 13 of the Hamas charter, which states that

In the meantime, it is not helpful for hon. Members, or indeed anyone else, to huff and puff about apartheid, or to use similar analogies, which are neither accurate nor warranted, given that 20 per cent. of full Israeli citizens are Arabs and that the country has the benefit of both a free press and an independent judiciary.

Even in an age of ethical relativism, however, some moral certainties are still in play in this debate. One of them is that the state of Israel has the right to peaceful existence within secure borders. It is regrettable that Israel has needed to construct a barrier to control movement across the west bank border, but there can be little doubt that the need was real and that the policy has been a striking success in improving the immediate security situation. Israel has a proven track record in dismantling settlements in the occupied territories, but, as we heard earlier, the withdrawal from Gaza has been repaid with renewed terrorist atrocities. At the current rate of fire, by the end of 2008 4,500 rockets and mortar shells will have been fired by terrorist organisations from Gaza alone. Given those statistics, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s current guiding principle in deciding upon further withdrawals is “once bitten, twice shy”. Another certainty is that Israeli citizens have the right to live without fear of attack. Already this year, 31 Israelis have been killed or wounded and the daily strike rate reached its highest ever level in January.

If we are to achieve peace, we must do it through building economic bridges. The Palestinian reform and development plan was presented to the international
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community in December last year and will offer both institutional reform and economic and social development, with the support of the World Bank and thanks, in part, to a pledge of $500 million from the British Government. There is an acute lack of affordable housing for Palestinians in the west bank, exacerbated by high levels of unemployment and high construction costs. Some 200,000 housing units are needed in total, with 25,000 needed in the Ramallah region this year alone.

Another significant challenge is the prohibition of new Palestinian building on land designated as area C under the Oslo agreement because such land remains under full Israeli civil and military control. One consequence of that restriction is that in the third quarter of 2007 licences for just 2,109 new dwellings were granted, which is itself a 31 per cent. decrease on the third quarter of 2005.

I appreciate the reasons why the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland called for this debate, but it would be progress indeed if settlements on the west bank included the need for further affordable homes for Palestinian families. I hope that the Minister will join me in recognising that the Palestinian people need more than just the removal of Israeli settlements from the west bank and an easing of travel restrictions. They also need more fresh investment in their own communities, and they deserve the support of the British Government in securing it.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. Front-Bench spokesmen have been extremely co-operative, and I am grateful to them. The result is that I need to start the Front-Bench winding-up speeches no later than 10.34 am. I would like two speeches in that time, but I am in the hands of hon. Members, in particular those of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman).

10.27 am

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): It is certainly the case that this debate is on a very unpalatable and unpleasant situation. However, it is very important to understand the context, which is the outcome of the defensive war that Israel fought in 1967 when the Arabs threatened to throw the Jews into the sea. At the end of that war, the Khartoum conference was held by the Arab states at which the three “nos”—no recognition, no negotiation and no peace—led to the beginning of the settler movement, which I have always opposed and which has had negative consequences. It is important to accept, however, that since then Palestinians and other Arab states have mainly been unwilling to accept Israel’s existence. Terrorism has deliberately set out to ruin the various attempts to reach a negotiated peace.

Israel has shown itself willing to withdraw from occupied territories: it withdrew from Egypt in 1979 when it dismantled its settlements in Sinai; from west bank towns, such as Jenin, Nablus and Jericho, before the Oslo peace accords were ruined by terrorist attacks; and from Gaza. It is important to recognise that the former representative of Yasser Arafat in Jerusalem,
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Sari Nusseibeh, stated in his recently published book that the former “blew it” at Taba when the 2000 peace negotiations failed.

It is also important to recognise that there are genuine security concerns. More than 1,100 Israelis have been killed since 2000, many of them through deliberately targeted suicide attacks. The much maligned security barrier—a regrettable necessity—has resulted in a 90 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed by suicide attacks. Incidents such as that at Soroka must be remembered. I refer to a Palestinian woman and her children who were treated for weeks on end at the Soroka hospital in Beersheba. She was stopped at a checkpoint and found to have explosives attached to her. She was on her way to the hospital to blow up the very people who saved her life and those of her children.

We know of many instances in which explosives have been smuggled into the occupied territories. There is the recent example of 6.5 tonnes of potassium nitrate being stopped, disguised as European aid in sugar bags. All those things show that there are genuine security concerns about people who still do not accept the existence of Israel and want simply to kill Israelis. I was pleased that as a good-will gesture, the Israeli Government dismantled a number of checkpoints and barriers prior to the Annapolis negotiations, and I hope that more can be done.

What should happen now? Both sides should honour their commitments. The Palestinians should honour their commitments to cease violence and the Israelis should stop the expansion of settlements and pull down the illegal outposts. The checks required at checkpoints should be commensurate with security and no more should be put in place.

The teaching of hatred by Palestinians towards Jews should end. Particularly disgraceful is the current teaching of hatred to children on Palestinian television stations, where Farfour, the Mickey Mouse figure, advocates martyrdom. Recently, on a young children’s programme, Assud the Bunny stated:

A child presenter on the Palestinian TV station al-Aqsa stated that they will liberate the viewers from the “filth of those Zionists”. As long as the Palestinians teach young children such hatred, there cannot be a great deal of hope for the future.

It is essential that the Annapolis negotiations continue and that two states live side by side in peace and security. There must be a political settlement that involves the withdrawal from territories in exchange for peace, a sharing of Jerusalem and the resolution of the refugee issue. It must involve massive economic investment, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) stated. I agree with all that he said. To save people’s lives, it is essential that everybody recognises that the only valid way forward is a negotiated peace on the basis of two states. I am sorry that it has been so long in coming, but I sincerely hope that the Annapolis negotiations lead to an end that should have been achieved long ago.

John Bercow (in the Chair): For just under two minutes, I call Mr. Michael Fabricant.

10.32 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): This has been an enlightening but often very polarised debate, as these sorts of debates often are. It has been nice to hear
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the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) talk about a balanced approach.

I have been somewhat appalled by some things that have been said. The hon. Gentleman over there quoted Ariel Sharon. [Interruption.] What is the constituency?

Jeremy Corbyn: Islington, North.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) quoted Ariel Sharon from 1973. At that time Ariel Sharon was a general, and it was immediately after a successful invasion by Egypt of the Sinai. At one point, it was thought that the Israeli army would collapse. Yes, what he said was wrong. Yes, it was extreme. However, to apply the comments of Ariel Sharon in the context of the events of 1973 to the present day is ridiculous, extraordinary and completely irrelevant. The point is that the Palestinians need justice. They need to be assured that they will live in peace and security. However, the point that many hon. Members have made today is that Israel equally deserves that assurance.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who initiated the debate, called in aid a quotation from the newspaper Ha’aretz. He is able to quote from that newspaper because Israel is a free, liberal democracy that has a free press. It is interesting that different things are said by different Ministers, but we see that in this country. Is that not a good thing? Perhaps not for the Government, but it is a good thing, because this country, too, enjoys a liberal press.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) drew a strange analogy with the English and the Welsh, but that is not the same situation. There has been talk of a Palestinian mandate. That mandate was created in 1948. It was a very difficult situation then and it has become even worse. There will be peace only when both sides recognise the right to live. That means the prevention and cessation of the Qassam rocket firing and the suicide bombings.

John Bercow (in the Chair): I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I call Willie Rennie.

10.34 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I see that you are getting more agitated as the debate progresses, Mr. Bercow. You have had to bring your calculator into the debate so that hon. Members know what time limits are required. Leaving them to make their own calculations in the first place was the initial mistake, but I am sure that you will not make it again.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on the way that he introduced the debate. Despite the taunting on numerous occasions, he has managed to de-escalate the debate. As we have seen this morning, passions are very strong on both sides of the argument. The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said that it is not mutually exclusive to be a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine. That is important for us all to remember, because if we are to seek a solution to this problem, which has been protracted over many decades, we will have to be the friend of both.

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The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said that the more heated the debate becomes, the less enlightened it becomes. That, too, is true. We need to de-escalate, as my hon. Friend did on numerous occasions when introducing the debate. He told us about his first visit to Palestine, which was only last September, despite a lifelong commitment to the cause. He set out his case extremely well and said that the visit was not a counsel of despair: it was bleak, but there was a degree of hope.

There have been excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). The contributions shortened as time went on. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland alluded to the Palestinians’ difficulties with the 563 physical obstacles that are in place, which include checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds, trenches, fences and gates on the roads in the west bank. There are also external closures with 13 designated barrier crossing points, 11 of which are for people.

I found the permits system extremely bizarre. Under it, permits are allowed only for over-35s who are married with at least one child. They must have no security record and they must have an employer within Israel. Each permit lasts for only three months. When people with permits do try to cross the external closure, they have to wait for a very long time. There is also the back-to-back system of passing goods from one side to the other. All those things make it difficult for business and the economy to thrive. In 2006, the crossing points were closed for 91 days, and many are not operational for long periods. That has had a dramatic effect on the number of Palestinians who are able to work in Israel. It has dropped from 140,000 in 1999 to 64,000 in 2006.

We need to ensure that this is a balanced argument and that we also understand the difficulties that people in Israel face. There have been in Israel many rocket attacks and deaths, particularly of children, over a protracted period. Israeli politics is fluid. One coalition partner recently left the coalition, making the whole situation extremely fragile. The Government now have only 67 of 127 seats in the Knesset, so they always have to watch their backs in the politics of their own country. We must be cognisant of both sides’ difficulties in this affair and of the insecurity and fear within the populations on both sides.

We have missed numerous opportunities with the various ceasefires and treaties that have been in place. The fact that there is now a unity Government between Hamas and Fatah does not seem to have delivered any results in terms of a return to peace. The road map was allowed to slip in a hopeless way, and the fact that it took President Bush seven years to consider this issue a priority for his term in office was a disgrace. There has also been a host of initiatives over the years: the Annapolis conference, the Oslo accords, the road map, various UN resolutions, the Quartet and the involvement of our former Prime Minister. However, that never seems to result in much progress, or it is a case of one step forward, two steps back. The Palestinian-Israeli issue is a festering sore in the whole middle east, and we need to prioritise it to ensure that all sides give it the weight that it deserves.

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