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21 July 2009 : Column 198WH—continued

The same goes for the west bank, where the civilian occupation of another people's land makes peace more difficult to obtain in the long run. It also engenders extremism among the Israeli population, because settlers are likely to be extremely defensive and perhaps more zealous in their opinions about the historical boundaries of the biblical country, which is not a good basis on which to move forward to peace. The occupation also
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places extra burdens on the security services and raises the security stakes. Whatever one believes, therefore, about Israel's right to exist, which I support, and however sympathetic one is, as I am, to some of the measures that it takes to protect itself, one simply cannot defend the settlement policy, which, in terms of Israel, is the single biggest barrier to progress in the middle east.

The other point that I want to make is that it is unacceptable for British consumers not to know which products come from illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. We have all sorts of labelling requirements that are not justified scientifically-on genetic modification, for example-but there is no provision to introduce labelling on a human rights issue that it is critical for people to understand if they are to make an informed choice and show where their support lies. I therefore urge the Minister rapidly to give further thought to how labelling can be introduced.

From a human rights, an international law and a security point of view, the settlements are unacceptable, and I strongly support the approach taken by the hon. Gentleman, who has done us the favour of bringing this issue before us.

9.58 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I, too, will try to keep within my time, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer his many pertinent questions.

There can be no doubt that settlements are the test issue in the middle east peace process, and the new US Administration have rightly made them so. President Obama famously said:

More recently, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said of President Obama:

It is obvious why settlements are the issue. My hon. Friend mentioned international law, and settlements are clear breaches of it. They are also an easy issue for the general public to understand. They are, quite literally, concrete proposals and they are an act of occupation. For most people who look at the issue in a fair and objective manner, that is clearly an injustice that cries out to be corrected.

There is inequity in a situation in which the demolition of Palestinian homes goes side by side with massive settlement-building. I was on the west bank in 2007 and I spent a harrowing morning with parliamentary colleagues watching the Israeli security services knocking down the upper floor of a Palestinian home, with bulldozers and cranes that had been brought to the village. Less than a kilometre away, across the valley, construction could be seen going on apace on a large Israeli settlement. If that seemed to us, as parliamentarians, an injustice crying out for vengeance, how did it seem to the Palestinian
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citizens of that village? The home in question was owned by a black family-I think the only black family in the village-who had left their original home and fled from Israeli violence in 1948, and had built the home that was now being destroyed by an occupying power.

Many other consequences flow from the settlements, such as the settler roads, checkpoints and other security measures, and the barrier that has been extensively documented by B'Tselem and other organisations. That is primarily there to protect settlements, and not to protect Israel's security; it can, clearly, be accessed, but it is built into Palestinian territory to achieve that aim. As I think has been established, the consequence and the actuality is that 227 separate Palestinian enclaves-one cannot call them more than that-now make up the west bank. They make up no more than 12 per cent. of the territory of historic Palestine. That "Bantustanisation" is increasingly making a two-state solution impossible.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the access roads issue is a concern not just because of the impact on Palestinian lives, and the day-to-day humiliations that so many people must undergo, but because the economic recovery of the west bank is made almost impossible by the way Palestinian land is subdivided and people are prevented from going about their business?

Mr. Slaughter: Yes, that is true. Reports to this House have shown that, and if I had more time I would go into more detail about the overall crippling effects on Palestinian civil society and life that arise from the settlements, which go way beyond that.

We can see the intention that was set out by the Israeli Government. There are famous quotations, mainly from Ariel Sharon, because he had perhaps a nicer turn of phrase. Back in 1973 he said:

A prescient comment perhaps, but of course he was the architect of much of that carving up. In 1998 he went on to say, addressing a meeting of right-wing militants:

I am afraid that that is not history or extremism: it is what we now see with the current extremist Israeli Government.

At the beginning of this month the Housing Minister Ariel Atias, according to Haaretz,

To the credit of the Israeli population-and I am a supporter of the state of Israel-most of the 150 comments on the article described that as exactly what it was: apartheid and racism, which should have no place in the state of Israel. However, that is what is seen as possible in the west bank.

The sad thing, on which I shall end, is the fact that at present the response of the Israelis is not to engage with the Obama Administration, but to throw into action
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the formidable propaganda machine that we last saw during the invasion of Gaza, with reports in the past few days to show that the US condones the continued development of settlements and that private US money is going into settlements. That, and Olmert writing in the Washington Post last Friday that settlements were not the issue-which is, ironically, exactly what he told the Prime Minister a year ago today when he visited Israel-are attempts to deflect the issue and make it go away. Often, the Israeli response is, as now, to continue and accelerate building, and accelerate the recognition of settlements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has raised some very pertinent points and questions. The central question for the Minister is this: yes, we would like a reaffirmation of the promise of a total freeze on settlement development, but despite strong statements from the Government in the past, that has not worked; so what steps-I do not ask for a specific step-will be taken now to ensure that, in relation to trade, construction and dismantling, the British Government, through the EU or other partners, or directly, can deal with the issue of settlements, without which there will be no peace in the middle east?

10.6 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I, too, will observe the time. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) for securing the debate.

No one can go to the occupied territories for long without history rearing its head in some way. Of course, we get different versions and views of history. A quotation in a letter of February 1914, from Israel's first Foreign Minister-and its second Prime Minister-is instructive:

Those are words to cause a shudder, when we think where we are nearly 100 years later. The gradual erosion of Palestinian residence rights was designed to pass by stealth, unnoticed by the international community.

In the early days of occupation the civil Administration could simply have taken possession by force of the land in the west bank and Gaza that it wanted for colonisation, but it preferred to devise "legal" manoeuvres to justify its actions and avoid the obvious bad publicity. It is worth examining-we could if we had time-the careful manipulation of the legal framework relating to land ownership in the west bank, to understand how that large-scale theft of Palestinian land was hidden behind a fa├žade of legality. We all encounter that in our own way when we visit.

In 2004 Israel tried to resurrect the 1950 law on absentees' property for use against west bank Palestinians who owned land in East Jerusalem. Even today we see the attempt to continue that process by taking advantage of the building of the 800 km separation wall, which is justified on the ground that it will prevent suicide attacks. The steel and concrete wall dividing the sections of East Jerusalem has sealed a large area of the city off from the west bank. Landowners in the west bank, cut off from their lands by the wall, were informed that they had
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now been classed as absentees, and their land was being confiscated. That is just one example of the way in which the legal framework can be manipulated to achieve certain ends.

More successful have been the confiscations on so-called administrative grounds. As we have heard, under the fourth Geneva convention an occupying power is entitled to make changes only if those are necessary for its security, or if they benefit the local occupied population. That provision should have forestalled any plans on Israel's part to confiscate land for settlement. Shortly after the 1967 war, however, Israel's chief adviser on international law advised that confiscations could occur on one condition, saying:

that is, the expropriation of land-

that is, in the framework of establishing bases. The chief adviser went on to warn that those bases should be temporary in nature. In the first years of the occupation, therefore, Israel was careful to cite security as the reason for taking Palestinian land, to establish what it claimed were military camps or outposts. Those people who have visited the occupied territories have seen those outposts, which were ostensibly set up for security purposes.

We know that in the early 1970s the number of those bases grew dramatically, with additional land confiscated to provide them with the services they required, such as roads, electricity and water. Other land was requisitioned for firing ranges and training grounds, as the occupation was entrenched in that land.

We have seen a complete misuse of legal frameworks to justify the actions by the Israeli Administrations. The Likud Government who promised they would no longer colonise Palestinian private land faced the ruin of a greater Israel project, unless new grounds for confiscating Palestinian land could be found. Up popped a senior legal official in the Justice Ministry to come to the rescue. That official was entrusted with surveying the west bank to find out how much of it could be classified as "state land", so that it could be claimed as Israeli territory that was ripe for settlement.

According to international law, Israel had to abide by the laws that were already in force when the territories were occupied. In the case of the west bank, that meant Ottoman laws, along with the minor modifications made by the British and Jordanians to those laws. However, Israel hijacked those existing laws, mischievously reinterpreting them so as to define much of the occupied territories as so-called "state land", a category all but unheard of in Palestine.

In a way, in the last few decades we have seen a gradual confiscation, theft and misuse of legal framework to carry out those original objectives outlined in the letter from nearly 100 years ago that I quoted from at the start of my contribution to this debate. The international community has, in many respects, stood by and allowed that to happen. There is an opportunity now in this moment of time-I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate presents-for the international community to put something of that right, after all these years.

Anyone going to the occupied territories or to Israel cannot fail to identify what would be seen as injustice in the way that people have lost their homes, their livelihoods
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and indeed almost any hope. And yet, we stand by and we almost allow that process to continue. As we have heard, the Israelis continue to exploit that opportunity and that space, to continue the building of settlements.

I want to finish with another quote, this time from a Palestinian lawyer in Ramallah, and I hope that it will run counter to the first quote that I read out at the start of my contribution to this debate:

That mass expulsion must never be allowed to happen and it is up to us and the rest of the western world, who have stood by for far too long, to ensure that it does not happen.

10.13 am

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I respect the desire of Israelis and Palestinians to have a state of their own and I support the two-state solution. However, let us dispose of illusions from the start. The Israelis took 78 per cent. of historic Palestine by military force, leaving the Palestinians with 22 per cent. After the 1967 war, some Israeli politicians adopted a strategy aimed at taking as much of the remaining 22 per cent. of historic Palestine as they could. They did not admit so publicly and, fortunately for them, many western politicians were either complicit or were hoodwinked by their denials. However, they did admit privately that they were doing it. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) has already quoted the letter written by Ariel Sharon in 1973-the "pastrami sandwich" letter-in which Sharon described precisely what had happened in the previous 25 years. Then, 25 years later in 1998, there was another quote from Ariel Sharon, after all the settlement had happened, when he encouraged militants in an extreme right-wing party, by saying:

In those intervening 25 years-between 1973 and 1998-growth of the settlements was continuous and relentless, despite Oslo, the road map and Annapolis. The settler population has doubled since Oslo. Some settlements have quintupled in size. For example, the population of Betar Illit rose from 5,000 in 1994 to 25,000 in 2004. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said, population growth in the settlements has been three times as fast as population growth in Israel. Two thirds of that growth in the settlements has been the result of "natural growth", which of course is very high among settlers, and the other third has been the result of Israelis and people from outside Israel moving in.

The settler population has grown every year. Even in the year that the Gaza settlements were given up, growth in the west bank settlements more than made up for it. Indeed, that is what Sharon told his friends-that he
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was giving up Gaza so that he could get a better grip on the west bank. Now we have nearly 500,000-my figure is 482,000-settlers in the west bank.

Two years ago, Ehud Olmert promised that he would not expand the settlement boundaries. I was taken in; I thought that sounded good. However, I was hoodwinked. That is because for every acre of built-up land in a settlement, that settlement has four acres earmarked for expansion within its municipal boundaries. A promise not to expand the boundaries was totally meaningless.

The Israelis do not seem to care that it is illegal, under the fourth Geneva convention, to transfer a civilian population to an occupied territory; that it is illegal to expropriate land from the occupied population; that it is illegal to destroy their property; that it is illegal to discriminate against them by building settler-only roads; that it is illegal to fail to ensure public order-

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Would my hon. Friend like to pay due regard to those people, many of whom are from this country, who go on behalf of the Quaker peace and justice movement to report on the issues that he has referred to, before coming back to this country and other countries to tell us what is really happening? Those are very brave people, are they not?

Martin Linton: Indeed. I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the many people who take great risks to bring to the world's attention what is going on in Israel and the occupied territories.

As I was saying, it is illegal to fail to ensure public order, for instance by allowing settler violence. However, even the author of the official report of the Israeli Government on settlement outposts said:

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