HC Deb 29 April 1998 vol 311 cc303-10 1.30 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Next month, Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary. It is being celebrated in Israel tomorrow because of the Jewish calendar. On 15 May 1948, the last British troops left Palestine, and Israel was proclaimed an independent state. Later that night, armies from the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Libya, with a contingent from Saudi Arabia, invaded the new state. The war lasted eight months.

During that war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs left their villages in Israel, and many more were encouraged to leave or were expelled. The United Nations estimated that a total of 726,000 people sought refuge in neighbouring Arab countries. Displaced and destitute, they were sheltered in tented camps. In addition, some 585,000 Jews emigrated to Israel from Arab states between 1948 and 1972, similarly displaced and destitute. They were swiftly transferred from transit camps to absorption centres, and given fully integrated citizenship in a Jewish homeland.

The Palestinian refugees and their descendants have had no such swift return to their homeland. In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194, article 11 of which refers to a return to their homes at the earliest practical date, and compensation to be paid for the property of those who chose not to return. For them, the following year the UN General Assembly passed resolution 302 establishing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East to provide emergency assistance, a mandate that has been renewed repeatedly ever since. The 17th mandate for UNRWA runs to the end of June next year.

A total of 3.4 million displaced Palestinians are now registered with UNRWA. The majority have lived in camps, of which there are now 59. Their tents have been replaced by breeze block walls and corrugated roofs, and they have been homeless and stateless for nearly 50 years. Their existence has done more than anything else to perpetuate conflict in the region, with political and military movements for the recovery of Palestinian rights leading to the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Over the years, the refugees, in exile and in the camps, have been the prime source of terrorism against Israel and the international community, and more recently of the intafada uprising in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. It must be clear to all, including the Israeli Government, that any middle east peace settlement that is unacceptable to the great majority of the Palestinian refugees will not endure.

For the past 10 years, I have been a rapporteur on the Palestinian refugee issue for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I made fact-finding visits to the region in March 1988 and again in November 1990, which resulted in recommendations that were adopted by the Assembly and on which I reported to this House in Adjournment debates on 29 July 1988 and 28 March 1991.

As the House knows, the Oslo accords of 1993 provided for discussions between Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee issue once the interim period of Palestinian self-government in Israel had begun, with a timetable for "final status" issues to be agreed by May 1999. Those negotiations have stalled since the Israeli elections of 1996. Following the visit by the American Secretary of State to the region last September, there have been hopes that the negotiations will resume. Those hopes have been boosted by the Prime Minister's recent visit and the summit that he has arranged in London next week.

I made a third visit on behalf of the Council of Europe at the same time as that of Madeleine Albright. The principal aim of my visit to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority was to establish the view of the refugees as well as that of the host countries on how they thought their future could be resolved.

Unlike the previous occasions, UNRWA could not arrange my programme, so I wrote to the Minister two weeks before my departure to seek the help of our embassies in the countries concerned. I have since written to him to thank him for the meetings and visits that transpired despite such short notice. I hope that he has passed on my appreciation to those concerned in Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

I take this opportunity to record my personal thanks to them, because, without their assistance, the visit would not have achieved its aims, the report that transpired and its recommendations, which the Council of Europe Assembly adopted by an overwhelming majority in Strasbourg last Thursday. Our country is fortunate in being so well served by such resourceful and effective representatives.

From the large number of meetings I had with refugee leaders, camp committees, individual refugees, Ministers, UNRWA officials, members of the Knesset and of the Palestinian Council, and Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, I was able to come to some clear, although obvious, conclusions. The first was that, after nearly 50 years, it will be politically and practically difficult—many will say, impossible—to implement UN resolution 194 proposing the right of return for all 4 million refugees to their original homes in Israel. I accept that that is unquestionably what the exiled Palestinians want; I also accept that Israel is equally adamant in refusing that demand.

If we are to make progress in ending the camps and offering the refugees permanent accommodation for the first time, not only for humanitarian reasons but as an essential step towards reducing a major source of tension in the middle east, a Palestinian state must be established.

Our Israeli observer colleagues in the Council of Europe have urged me to use the word "entity" in place of th word, "state". I have explained to them that an entity will not be sufficient to encourage the refugees to end their refugee status. Only a viable self-governing or sovereign state will establish their country—their "homeland"—and encourage them to give up their right to return to Israel. Only Israel can allow that. If it really wants a secure future in co-operation with its neighbours, there is no alternative but for it to assist in the establishment of a Palestinian state.

I worked on a kibbutz in northern Galilee within the range of Syrian guns on the Golan, and as a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I am fully committed to a Jewish homeland within secure borders. In February, Israel's last Prime Minister, joint Nobel peace prize winner Shimon Peres, told a Euro-Mediterranean round table in Strasbourg:

I support the creation of a Palestinian state. In order for Israel to remain Jewish, we do need a Palestinian state, and it is in our interest to help them to achieve it. It will not be possible for such a Palestinian state, composed of much of the West Bank and Gaza, to absorb all 4 million refugees. During the course of our meetings, a number of other options became apparent, and realistic to propose to the refugees.

In addition to resettlement in a new Palestinian state, those options are: to remain in the host country where many have made lives for themselves and will be ready to accept compensation for not returning; to resettle in other countries both within and outside the region, in response to their offers of quotas; and to return to the Gulf states where applicable. There is a fifth option: for some to return to Israel. Hon. Members will recall that Israel has in the past agreed to the return of 100,000 refugees, and today accepts a quota and provides for the reunification of families.

In the debate in Strasbourg last week, I did not speak of the possible numbers that those options would involve. That is to be determined in the negotiations in which UNRWA and other agencies will have an important role to play. But I urged the funding, at a cost of $7 million, of a computerised database of all refugees registered with UNRWA following the successful completion of a pilot study for UNRWA and the Palestinian authority. Such a database would undoubtedly facilitate their resettlement and claim for compensation.

Until the issue of settlement has been resolved, it is essential that the services of UNRWA be fully maintained and funded, up to and including the period of resettlement to ensure their seamless transfer to the Governments concerned.

I have urged the Council of Europe to accept that the undoubtedly massive cost of resettlement, including compensation, promised under UN resolution 194, should be anticipated and budgeted for by the international community as soon as possible.

I have proposed the establishment by the United Nations of a new fund—the Palestine refugee and displaced persons final status fund. I proposed that it urges member states to prepare their budgets to donate to the fund, and that it approaches in particular those countries that are not already generously donating to UNRWA and the Palestinian authority, as this country and many Council of Europe member states willingly do.

From the experience of my visit, I have urged Israel to allow the completion of the Canada Camp-Talal Sultan relocation project, to which it agreed, with Egypt, nine years ago. I have urged those involved in the new Gaza hospital, which is now ready, to agree on its future financing to allow it to open its doors to patients, which it cannot do at present. I have urged Lebanon, now that it is returning to stability, to emulate other host countries in providing basic services to its Palestinian refugees, whose situation is the most deprived.

It must be clear to all that my report, albeit my third on the issue, is merely the work of a layman based on observations and conclusions from a nine-day visit. More political and academic studies should be commissioned into a just resolution of the Palestine refugee problem.

I congratulate the Minister on the Warwick university conference on this issue. That was organised under the UK presidency of the European Union, which he and I attended last month.

Let us not underestimate the undoubted progress that has been achieved since that historic handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. Who then would have predicted the establishment of a Palestinian authority, and the return of Arafat to Gaza? However, it must be clear to the whole world, including Israel, that, after half a century, only the most sadistic want the Palestine refugee issue to remain unresolved.

In debating my report last week, the Council of Europe became the first international organisation to discuss how the issue should be resolved, and I hope that, by approving my proposals, it will contribute to an end to the stalemate, and the beginning of the end of the longest and largest refugee problem to have scarred the 20th century.

1.43 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)

I am delighted to reply to the speech by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). This is the third Adjournment debate to which I have replied today, and in some respects the sweetest, because it will be the last. Perhaps I have achieved a ministerial first by replying to three debates in one day. I shall look that up in the appropriate journal of record.

I thank the hon. Member for his remarks, including those about my involvement in the Warwick seminar, and his visit to the region. I thank him also on behalf of the staff of the embassies, to whom I have conveyed his good wishes and thanks, which they appreciate. I have no doubt that they will read his words in Hansard, which will be a source of satisfaction to them. They will be grateful that he has taken this opportunity to thank them for their work.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work as the rapporteur on this subject for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He showed in his speech the extent to which he takes those responsibilities seriously, and discharges them assiduously and effectively. His contribution was serious, and he is clearly not seeking cheap solutions or using cheap slogans; he is seeking methods of helping people in difficult circumstances. I congratulate him on all the work that he has done in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman's words had even greater weight when he talked about his membership of the Conservative Friends of Israel. The great difficulty in many debates on the middle east is polarisation: someone who is a friend of the Palestinians becomes, by definition, an enemy of the Israelis, and vice versa.

I share with the hon. Gentleman profound personal friendships with Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than a world in which those people, to whom I can relate in friendship, could relate to each other in long-standing friendship. If such friendship were achieved, Israelis and Palestinians, working together, would make an effective contribution to their region, and could change for the better the shape of its politics and economy. The force of the hon. Gentleman's comments was very strong, and the intention and sympathies behind them were made even stronger by his support for the security and existence of the state of Israel. The hon. Gentleman referred to the 3.4 million refugees. For those who go to the region for the first time, one of the most meaningful visits is to one of the refugee camps in south Lebanon, Gaza or the west bank, where one sees the conditions in which people there have to try to survive. That is a moving experience.

I was in south Lebanon in April 1996 with my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Gunnell). We saw tens—perhaps hundreds—of thousands of people living in abject poverty, with no hope, no expectations and nothing to live for except a daily survival that offers so very little. The experience was even more moving in the context of the war being fought alongside the refugee camps in which a further layer of suffering was added to the people's already miserable lives without their having any control over it.

Those refugees remind us all that we have a substantial obligation to look for ways in which we can assist the process and the prospects of peace. I thought of that when I visited the largest refugee camp in Gaza two or three years ago. I have not had the opportunity to visit any of the camps since I became a Minister. I considered the number of young children whose lives will be no different from those of their parents. Two or three generations will have lived in refugee camps unless we take the opportunities provided in the political process.

I feel that, whatever side we are meeting—Israelis, Palestinians or those from other Arab countries—when we get down to the detail of who said or did what, we always avoid the responsibility of reaching the big statesmanlike decisions, which say that peace is the primary objective. Above all else, the middle east needs active diplomacy and statesmanship that look not to today or, even worse, to yesterday, but to tomorrow's prospects for the region and the people.

Real political leadership is not about trying to score points in immediate political debates, however tempting that is from time to time, and however much hon. Members succumb to that temptation. Real political leadership lies in recognising the long-term future of those whom one is in politics to represent. Those in the middle east have a responsibility to take such a longer-term perspective, and above all to recognise that those who are disfranchised and whose voice is not heard at the negotiating table are probably making the most powerful cry for help. The refugees to whom the hon. Member referred are their highest responsibility.

During our presidency of the European Union, we have said several times that we wish to give a push to the middle east peace process. We need to get progress back into the process.

I vividly remember the meeting of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with Arab ambassadors immediately after the Iraqi crisis in early February. They talked almost exclusively about the middle east peace process. My right hon. Friend said that the situation in Northern Ireland always offered, logically, three possible options: to stand still, to go back or to go forward. He made the point that, in Northern Ireland, to stand still is to go back. If that is true of Northern Ireland, it is perhaps even more true of the middle east. To take a picture of where we are today and to try to freeze the status quo, or to set it in concrete, is an approach that is simply not going to work.

Standing still means going backward, because it does not meet the requirements of the refugees to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. It does not meet the requirements of the people of Israel for security, and a long-standing faith that their state will survive with enough security for them to bring up their families and enjoy a life that all hon. Members would consider to be normal. The pressure on us to make progress is acute and desperate, and we should all recognise it.

We have tried to take our responsibility seriously, and to move the process forward. The House will know of the position that we have taken during our presidency, and the emphasis that we have placed on further redeployments. Land for peace is still a crucial principle of the Oslo accords, and the crucial means through which we shall secure lasting peace in the middle east.

As well as addressing those issues, we have addressed others that are crucial to restoring confidence, such as ensuring that neither party pre-empts the final status negotiations by taking decisions that will favour any one party. That is why we, on behalf of the European Union, have condemned the development of settlements on the west bank. We shall continue to take such positions.

We shall continue to wish to return hope to the Palestinians by recognising that economic measures are important to restoring and developing prosperity. There will be little dividend from a peace process that has so far seen the average living standard of the ordinary Palestinian decline by perhaps 40 or even 50 per cent. Peace and economic prosperity do not inevitably come together, but we all know that, without economic prosperity, the chances of peace are much more remote. The Prime Minister has rightly emphasised the need to develop economic interim measures to ensure that we make progress on the Gaza airport, the industrial estate, safe passage and the Gaza port, all of which would help to improve the living standards of Palestinians.

Next week, the Palestinian leader and the Israeli Prime Minister will come to London with the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Their talks will be crucial to the peace process: they offer an opportunity to make progress. I desperately hope that all parties to those talks will take that opportunity.

Let me return to my earlier comments. I hope that those approaching the talks will do so with a vision of the future that puts the region and their own people above immediate political considerations. If we can create that atmosphere and achieve some progress in the London talks, that in itself will create new hope and expectation in the middle east. We cannot simply allow the region to continue in frustration and without hope. That has been our approach, and I am delighted that it has been supported by all parties in the House. Everyone realises the need to make progress in the middle east peace process.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East rightly saw that that process, if it is successful, will provide us with the final status negotiations and, we hope, a final resolution to deep-seated problems. That depends on political will and political judgment, but the hon. Gentleman was right to say that the status and condition of the Palestinian refugees must be an important issue. He correctly set out the parameters—the difficulties and the hopes—within which that discussion will take place. We must be frank about both, and I praise the hon. Gentleman's frankness in raising the difficulties and constraints that exist.

If the political will is there, we can start to address those problems. If the political will is there, we all know that the Palestinian refugee issue is one of the final-status issues that, although it will be difficult to resolve, must be resolved. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman said, as part of our EU presidency, we organised a seminar at Warwick university. I think that it was successful, not because it sloganised or because people wished to score points off each other, but because it brought together people with different perspectives and experiences who wanted to make practical progress, while still recognising the hurdles and constraints.

We shall continue to support such initiatives, and to do all we can to move the peace process forward, so that we have an opportunity to put into practice some of the excellent ideas and practical proposals that the hon. Gentleman outlined.

When one sees the refugee camps in the middle east, one recognises the extent of the political problems, and the extent to which people have suffered for those problems. There is one other sad, but obvious, fact. There can be no political resolution that provides security, peace and justice without taking account of the needs of the Palestinian refugees. Nor can there be lasting peace and security in a region that has the potential for riches and the potential to grow and make a significant contribution to the world while that region still has some of the world's most underprivileged people living alongside some of the world's most affluent people. We must tackle this issue with a sense of social and political justice, which would lead to progress in the peace process and security for everyone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East on raising the issue, and look forward to working with him further. I hope that we may some day find a resolution to a difficult and intractable problem.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.