HC Deb 13 July 2004 vol 423 cc1240-4
4. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

What recent discussions he has held with the Israeli Government about the border wall under construction in the west bank.[183357]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

My noble Friend Baroness Symons and I have discussed the issue of the barrier with Israeli Ministers on many occasions. I hope to talk to Israeli Foreign Minister Shalom later today. All of us understand Israel's need to take steps, within international law, to protect itself from terrorist attack, but together with the European Union we have consistently made it clear to the Israeli Government that the barrier built on occupied territory is illegal.

Chris Grayling

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Israeli Government's decision this week to proceed with construction of the wall represents a serious and potentially lasting threat to any prospect of middle eastern peace? Is there anything that he or other western Governments can do to persuade the Israeli Government to back away from a course that appears to be utterly disastrous?

Mr. Straw

We have to continue with the process set out in the road map and get both parties back on track to implementing it. The road map places clear obligations on the Palestinians. in respect of security and taking action against terrorists operating within the occupied territory. It also places clear obligations on the Israelis. We welcomed the initial step taken by the Sharon Cabinet to withdraw from Gaza, although that is currently stalled, but I accept the burden of what the hon. Gentleman says. Taking territory from the Palestinians—and it is their territory—may be justified in the short term on the basis that helps to maintain security within Israel. However, in the long term it is not in the interests of the Israelis, nor it the interests of the Palestinians, as well as being unlawful. The only way to secure a safe future for both sides is by the implementation of Security Council resolutions for a secure state of Israel and a viable state of Palestine.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) (Lab)

I agree with all that my right hon. Friend has said. However, the ordinary person in the middle east sees Israel flouting international law again and the most powerful nation in the world—the United States of America—saying that the International Court of Justice is not the appropriate forum in which the matter should be decided, at the same time as doing little to move tile road map forward. Can my right hon. Friend take furl her action with the American Administration to ensure that despite their internal problems, they do something to move the road map forward and—at least—send a message to the middle east that we are as concerned about Israel breaking international law as we are about anyone else doing so?

Mr. Straw

I shall be happy to pass on my hon. Friend's sentiments to the US Government and I think that they are widely shared on both sides of the House. I should say that the conclusions reached at the G8 summit in Sea Island last month were satisfactory and called on all sides to make further progress to implement the road map obligations. I understand the frustration expressed by my hon. Friend, and it is widely shared.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

When the Foreign Secretary speaks to the Israeli Foreign Minister this afternoon, will he tell him that friends of Israel on both sides of this House are increasingly exasperated by the promises and actions of the Israeli Government and that we see their actions as the biggest single obstacle to peace in the middle east?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I shall be happy to do so.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

Two weeks ago, I visited Israel and the west bank and saw the fence for myself. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that in fact the fence is a fence, not a wall, for 97 per cent. of its length? I share some of my right hon. Friend's concerns about the line that the fence follows, but there can be little doubt that it has contributed to a significant reduction in terrorism within the borders of Israel. There have been very few attacks since May this year.

Mr. Straw

On my hon. Friend's first point, it is properly described as a fence for part of its line and properly described as a wall for another part, but it serves the same function—it keeps people out, where it runs. Our difficulty with the fence is not in the areas where it runs along what we regard as the international border—the 1967 line—but where it takes territory from the Palestinians. That is the problem. I understand, as we all do, the justification for putting up the fence, but I do not believe—nor, by the way, does the Israeli High Court appear to believe—that it was necessary to put it on that line in order to ensure the security that the Israelis justifiably require for themselves. While I understand the Israelis' concerns, however, it must be put on the record that in recent weeks although two Israelis have been killed in Israel and the occupied territories, 33 Palestinians have been killed. That may include some terrorists but it also includes six children and a mentally handicapped person.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)

Can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Government appear to have shown little enthusiasm for the recent judgment of the International Court of Justice? Can he also tell us what assessment has been made by the Foreign Office of the likely consequences for UK influence and interests in the middle east as a result of the Government's lukewarm response to that judgment?

Mr. Straw

The position we adopted in respect of the ICJ application by the Palestinians was common to all European Union countries; our submission was that although we regarded the wall as unlawful and illegal we did not think it appropriate for the court itself to make judgments, given that there was not consent from each party, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know is a major part of the process if the ICJ is to have any function other than simply declaring what all of us accepted. However, on 30 October 2003 the UK voted in the General Assembly of the United Nations for a resolution declaring the barrier—the wall—outside the 1967 line illegal. That remains our position and I am certain that that will continue to be the position of the EU as a whole.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab)

Ariel Sharon's response to the ruling of the international court was both predictable and disturbing when he called for building work to be stepped up. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the barrier is not a security wall and that it does not separate Israelis from Palestinians but separates Palestinians from Palestinians? Will he call for the UN Security Council and General Assembly to discuss the matter so that a ruling can be made?

Mr. Straw

We have to understand why the Israelis put up the barrier. They did so to protect themselves from the effects of terrorism; there is no question about that. It is a security barrier. We all understand Israel's concern about security and we are all aware of the figures, which are clear, on the reduction in terrorist attacks since the wall went up. We do not argue with Israel's need to protect its security, although that must be within international law; what we argue about is the route of the barrier where it diverges from the line established in the 1967 resolutions.

On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I have no doubt at all that the barrier will indeed be discussed at the General Assembly, and possibly in the Security Council as well.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)

In the same vein, when the Foreign Secretary meets the Israeli Government, will he communicate to them the anguish felt on both sides of the House at the suffering of people in Israel in the past as a result of the unremitting stream of suicide bombs directed at civilian targets in Israel? Will he reassure the Israeli Government that our Government and the EU will do all they possibly can to bring pressure to bear on the Palestinian Authority to bring to an end that stream of suicide bombers, without the need for a fence?

Mr. Straw

Yes, of course I will do that. We are doing a great deal to give support and encouragement to the Palestinian Authority in terms of advice and assistance in respect of their improvements to internal security so that they can better interdict the terrorists who are operating in the occupied territories.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Although I deplore all forms of suicide bombings—I hope that that is the view of all of us—would it not be useful if the Israeli Government were told that what happened over the barrier is totally unacceptable to the international community and, moreover, can only increase the anger and resentment of Palestinians who, seeing the absence of any political progress, only come to the conclusion, understandably but unfortunately, that they should give more support to terrorism? Sharon has brought misfortune on Israel and, undoubtedly, even more so on the Palestinian people.

Mr. Straw

There is no excuse at any time for terrorism, which always ensures that its victims are random and almost always innocent. That must be a rule that we apply without fear or favour, but I understand what my hon. Friend is saying when he suggests that there is very little political hope in the occupied territories, and the erection of the wall in plain contravention of international law obviously does not help those in the Palestinian Authority and the occupied territories who are seeking a political solution to those long-standing problems.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con)

Given that a likely condition of Shimon Peres re-entering the Israeli Government—we welcome that—is that negotiations with the Palestinians in one way or another are likely to be restarted, is it not now time for the security wall itself to be expressly included as part of the road map? Would that not recognise both the Israeli need for security and legitimate Palestinian concerns about the wall's route and impact, enabling a step-by-step approach to be taken so that, as suicide bombing and terror diminish, parts of the wall could be rerouted or dismantled? Is that not something that the Quartet might take forward?

Mr. Straw

That is an interesting suggestion, which we will certainly consider. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the road map is an agreed document, so for that suggestion to be included in the road map would require the agreement of the Israeli Government as well as the Palestinian Authority and the other key members of the Quartet, but it certainly ought to be considered. Since Prime Minister Sharon himself has said that, when and if there is a political solution, the wall will have to come down—we welcome that—it is very clear that, even in his mind, an end to this line of the wall will have to form part of a final settlement.

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