Demands of civil society for peace may start with mutual suspicion, but it often moves to mutual interest—economic; intellectual; sporting; and anti-discriminatory. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, put it, it is a journey of incremental peace.

5.05 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, this has been a very encouraging debate and it is good to hear how many of the Members of this House are themselves engaged in working with enlightened civil society across the divide in the Middle East conflict; I am gratified to hear that. I knew, of course, quite a lot about it before and I hope that everyone will be talking about it as widely as possible and encouraging others to come in.

I am a disillusioned liberal. Not all civil society organisations promote peaceful harmony, just as not every charity is charitable to everyone in the society in which they operate. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to those who fuel the flames. There are civil organisations that fuel the flames on both sides, as we are aware—the extremist settler organisations and some of the more extreme organisations, particularly in Gaza. Therefore, we are talking about enlightened

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civil society, which we all wish to support and wish our Government to support in beginning to heal this embittered conflict.

Since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, dozens of Israeli, Palestinian and international non-governmental organisations have been, and continue to be, active in the field of promoting peace between the two peoples. Camp David and Annapolis were also usefully supported by civil society think tanks and experts. We need their help.

Of course, this cannot be separated from the wider issue of the Middle East peace process. I hope that all noble Lords are aware that the UK Government consider this a very urgent issue over the next year and a half, and give it one of their highest priorities in foreign policy, as my honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has said on a number of occasions.

We fear that the time left to preserve and reinstate a two-state solution is now limited. If we fail to make progress in the next 18 months to two years, it may possibly be too late. We welcome the announcement that President Obama will be going to Israel; indeed, the new US Secretary of State will be going to Israel and to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We want to see intergovernmental negotiation back on track. However, fostering peace is impossible without a society that is willing to embrace it. Our fear is that with each passing day, month and year without progress, the prospect of peace becomes less likely and both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples lose hope that it is possible.

During these times, when formal negotiations remain stalled, it is very important to ensure that both societies continue to foster an environment for peace. Civil society organisations play a vital role in fostering that environment. Through our embassy in Tel Aviv and consulate-general in Jerusalem, we engage with two main groups of civil society organisations: first, those that are actively involved in promoting peace and coexistence as well as promoting a final settlement of the conflict; and, secondly, those focused on managing the conflict with a focus on monitoring, legal work or advocacy against certain practices that increase tension on the ground.

In the past year the Conflict Pool, the joint fund of the FCO, DfID and the MoD, has contracted just over £1 million to Palestinian and Israeli civil society organisations. This is in addition to wider FCO bilateral funding.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, also asked about the EU. Its Partnership for Peace programmes disburse between €5 million and €10 million to 15 or 25 projects each year. Other Governments are of course involved. A recent joint study of textbooks in Palestinian and Israeli schools by scholars from Yale, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem Universities was funded partly by the US State Department.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked about moves to limit funds from the outside. I am well aware that this has been mooted within Israeli political circles. To follow the example of Russia, which has done so, would be regarded by all as deeply damaging to Israel’s reputation around the world. I sincerely hope that the new Government will not give in to their own right wing on that.

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I hope that noble Lords will understand if I cannot mention in this short speech all of the organisations with which we engage. I hope to give noble Lords a sense of the breadth of British engagement with civil society, both in the region and in the UK. Our embassy in Tel Aviv is close contact with many of the organisations mentioned, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, OneVoice and the Peres Centre for Peace. I had not heard about Hand in Hand; it sounds fascinating and I look forward to hearing more about its work in future. The British Government have taken important steps to support such organisations, including contracting funds to various organisations that monitor settlement expansion and continue to work with the Israeli legal system and law enforcement authorities to reduce illegal settlement activity and violence against Palestinian civilians. As we have seen, one of the barriers to finding a way through the conflict is the increasing lack of belief among both Israelis and Palestinians that a solution is possible.

On the ground in Palestine, the situation continues to work against the achievement of a final status deal. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the Geneva Initiative and Addameer all do important work to increase the prospect of reaching a two-state solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security. Work also continues to be done to address the immediate issue of Palestinian rights under international law. Palestinian civil society plays a vital role in highlighting and helping to address some of the most negative aspects of the Israeli occupation, including human rights violations.

The UK firmly believes that the focus between the Israelis and the Palestinians should be on steps to rebuild trust, with the aim of giving momentum to restart negotiations. House demolitions and the evictions of Palestinians from their homes cause real suffering to ordinary Palestinians. We have made our position on this issue clear to the Israeli authorities. Our consulate-general in Jerusalem has supported the International Peace and Cooperation Centre, implementing urban plans and community surveys that help prevent house demolition and land confiscation. In December, for the first time, five IPCC master plans for Palestinian communities in Area C were approved. This is a major milestone for Palestinian planning efforts and the development rights of Palestinian communities.

I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said about UNWRA. I do not entirely accept what she said, either on that or on the position of Palestinian refugees. The FCO funded an independent report on Palestinian children in Israeli detention, which was released in June 2012. It was written by a team of respected British lawyers led by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. The FCO funded and provided diplomatic support throughout the visit, on the shared understanding that the delegation was to be entirely independent. The content, conclusions and recommendations of the report are the delegation’s own.

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The report’s conclusions focused on the legal disparity between how the Israeli justice system treats Israeli children on the one hand and Palestinian children on the other. It concludes that Israel is in contravention of various aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it asserts applies to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It also notes that the transportation of child prisoners into Israel and the failure to translate military orders from Hebrew are violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, as a fellow lawyer, will particularly wish to discuss that with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland.

We continue to promote respect for human rights in the OPTs through work with local Israeli and Palestinian implementing partners. This year the Conflict Pool has contributed to the dismantlement of illegal outposts on Palestinian land, along with the return of hundreds of acres of Palestinian agricultural land in Areas B and C of the West Bank. It has funded groups that monitor and provide access to justice for victims of settler violence and lobby for more robust law enforcement. It has supported work to challenge Israel’s West Bank-Gaza separation policy and litigation on the right to education, livelihood and the freedom of movement on behalf of Gazans who wish to seek educational and economic opportunities or family reunification outside the Gaza Strip. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned the extremely important area of water; as he well knows, a great deal of work is going on regarding that but there are severe obstacles.

There are also a number of civil society organisations within the UK that do important work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The FCO has a regular dialogue with a wide range of UK-based civil society organisations at both official and ministerial level. The British Government consistently raise our concerns with the Israeli authorities regarding human rights abuses under the occupation. We value enormously the role that civil society can and does play in monitoring such issues. The UK will continue to work with civil society organisations and research groups to advance the powerful case for peace on both sides of the Green Line.

The role of British civil society, including our Jewish and Arab diasporas, is clearly an important contribution in getting away from this frozen conflict. We cannot leave the resolution of this embittered conflict to government alone. I pay tribute to all those, including many here, who do so much work on this issue. I am particularly glad to hear mention of my very old friend Ronnie Cohen—I think by the noble Lord, Lord Stone—who continues to do really superb work in this area.

Yes, of course, this is only palliative. Civil society can do only so much. Resolution of the conflict requires direct negotiation. That is urgent and, I repeat, Her Majesty’s Government consider this to be an urgent priority for the next year.

House adjourned at 5.17 pm.