HL Deb 17 April 1991 vol 527 cc1482-511

3.7 p.m.

Lord Hylton rose to call attention to the conditions, including curfews, under which the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza have to live; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think that I should ask for a small entry in the Guinness Book of Records after being lucky enough to win your Lordships' Ballot twice running. I should also perhaps apologise for having been absent in Northern Ireland for the March short debates.

Some may think that we should today be discussing the tragedy of the Kurds, another cast: of a stateless people. However, it is my task to examine the present conditions of the Palestinians and to ask whether they do not deserve at least a zone of protection wherein to live free from domination by historic enemies. I shall try to describe their general conditions and hope that other speakers may map out the way forward in more detail. I shall confine myself to the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, leaving aside those living in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and other places.

We are talking about 1 million people on the West Bank of the Jordan and the Dead Sea and a further 700,000 or so in the Gaza Strip, sited some 60 miles or so westwards on the Mediterranean. Those territories, under illegal Israeli military occupation since 1967, are subject to some 1,500 Israeli military orders. It is difficult for us in England to imagine the consequences for ordinary daily life.

For example, water is completely controlled by the military. Israel proper derives 30 per cent. of its supplies from the West Bank, taking in the process some 80 per cent. of the West Bank water flow. The 1 million Palestinians use one-eighth of the water consumed by the 100,000 or so Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The Palestinians manage to irrigate 7 per cent. of their land compared with 69 per cent. irrigation by the Israelis. Deep Israeli boreholes rob supplies from shallower Palestinian wells and springs. Is it surprising that such injustice generates fierce resentment?

Economically, the Palestinians have suffered a double squeeze, from the Gulf war and from direct Israeli actions. The war has cut remittances from expatriate workers to a trickle. Some of those workers have returned destitute. Tourism has almost disappeared. The curfews imposed by the Israelis are thought to have cost the Palestinian economy about US$120 million per month. Farming and market gardening became almost impossible. Manufacturing was severely affected. Many Palestinians from the Occupied Territories were prevented from going to work in Israel proper, causing a further loss of some $50 million per month. Now many of those Palestinian workers fear that they will be replaced by new immigrants from the USSR.

The land provides another striking example of injustice. On the West Bank, 100,000 Israeli settlers occupy 54 per cent. of the land, leaving 46 per cent. for the 1 million Palestinians. In Gaza, 10,000 Israeli settlers occupy 40 per cent. of the land, leaving the balance for the 700,000 local inhabitants. Some 2,500 Soviet Jews are thought to live in the territories already and official plans that were leaked made provision for 88,000 new Israeli settlers, thus almost doubling the present Israeli population in the territories. The existing and planned settlements directly breach the 4th Geneva Convention which forbids changes to the demographic balance of areas under military occupation.

Injustice and breaches of international law naturally provoke resentment, stimulating demonstrations and Palestinian demands for national self-determination. Those in turn are met with individual and collective punishments. Children and adults have been repeatedly beaten by the Israeli army. A military colonel, Colonel Yehuda Meir, admitted in court to drafting an order that the army should break the bones of demonstrators on the direct instructions of the minister of defence. Other collective punishments include blocking up and demolition of houses, confiscation of land, uprooting of trees, restrictions on Palestinian exports and heavy taxation without any accountability.

Curfews have now been lifted but, in addition to the economic effect already mentioned, they disrupted public health and welfare. In February the Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem was providing only a 50 per cent. service. Pregnant women could not get to hospital and children developed behaviour problems because of long confinement to their houses, while refuse, street and sewer cleaning could not be carried out. Incidentally, many of the refugee camps in Gaza still rely on open sewers after 23 years of Israeli occupation.

Curfews have given way to a system of passlaws. Identity cards must be carried at all times and are liable to be confiscated at checkpoints if they are creased or worn. To cross into Israel or into the illegally annexed East Jerusalem, Palestinians must have magnetic cards proving security clearance and a clean tax record. The latest regulations mean that Palestinians do not have freedom of movement between the north and south of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The intention appears to be to fragment the occupied territories, which is illegal in the view of the International Commission of Jurists. It has been criticised by the International Committee of Non-Governmental Organisations and contravenes UN Resolutions 253 and 267.

School and university closures have already been mentioned in your Lordships' House. Courses and examinations have been disrupted for a number of years, again in breach of the Geneva Convention signed by Israel. There will be a parliamentary lobby on the subject on 14th May and I hope it will be widely supported. I regret to say that the well-known Friends School at Ramallah may have to close after 103 years of service because parents can no longer afford the necessary fees.

Deportation from Israel and the occupied territories is another punishment that breaches numerous UN Resolutions. There have been well over 1,200 cases since 1967. Four orders are currently pending. Administrative detention has been used in over 10,000 cases in the past 3? years. The imprisoning of residents of the territories of Israel proper is yet another breach of the Geneva Convention. The weapon of detention for six months or a year has been widely used against doctors, journalists and other educated and professional Palestinians. Out of so many cases, I should just like to mention Mr. Abdal-Rauf Gabin and Mr. Taher Shriteh, both journalists from Gaza. They are alleged to have been tortured and detained in recent months.

I have tried to give some details of the injustice, oppression and disruption of normal life, especially family life, that are consequences of Israeli military occupation. There are many who think that the combination of Israeli measures is calculated to drive out the remaining Palestinian population. However, this is not a situation or policy approved of by all Israelis. Many in the labour movement think otherwise. Numerous Israeli peace groups (some known to me) demand negotiations and the giving up of territory in return for the recognition of Israel within secure and guaranteed borders. Here, I should like to pay a well-deserved tribute to the many Israeli advocates who have defended Palestinians over the years, often abandoning more lucrative legal work in order to do so. I mention particularly Linda Brayer and Felicia Langer. In the same breath, I wish to name the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. That body has provided invaluable free medical services not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in Lebanon and Kuwait. It has always helped all in need, even treating Israeli and Syrian soldiers when asked to do so. British medical people have played a part in its work, as have Medical Aid for Palestine and Action around Bethlehem for Children with Disabilities.

I now ask Her Majesty's Government to draw attention by every means at their disposal to the injustice and illegalities suffered so long by the Palestinians and to do all in their power to prevent collective punishments and stop further Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. I hope they raised those matters while the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Shamir, has been in London, because such improvements are not only necessary in themselves but would be worthwhile as steps in confidence building.

I said at the start that the Palestinians are a people without a state. We should therefore work to provide them with the protection that they have lacked since the expulsion of the Jordanians in 1967. Can there not be a secure zone of protection which includes the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Lebanon, and possibly parts of Jordan? Within that zone the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other UN specialised bodies should collaborate with direct aid from Arab countries, the EC and the USA to provide an environment in which Palestinians can live securely and become fully self-sustaining. I note the precedent of the UN Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme for Iraq and Kuwait. A contented and prospering Palestinian people is the surest safeguard, security and shield that Israel can ever have. Let us establish the needed protection, including security arrangements, as a preliminary to a political and constitutional settlement. It could be a model for the Middle East and other areas of conflict. The Palestinians use the watch-word "Subud" which means endurance and steadfastness. In view of their great sufferings, it is a privilege to put forward these proposals. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Lord Reay

My Lords., with the leave of the House, perhaps I may take this opportunity to confirm that the time limit in this debate is 12 minutes as stated on the speakers' list, not nine minutes as announced earlier by my noble friend.

3.17 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, the issue before us is so complicated that many people may find even 12 minutes too short a time. I do not find it too short a time because I have no quarrel with much of the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. These deplorable facts exist and we would like to see them put to an end. However, I think it desirable to remember in calculating what the Government of Israel is likely to do, or what a future government is prepared to do, that the territories of the West Bank, which were occupied by Jordan after Israel's war of independence, were taken from Jordan as a result of a totally unprovoked act of aggression by Jordan on Israel in 1967. The King of Jordan was warned that such an act would be damaging to him, but he went ahead with it—not the only time in his long career that the King of Jordan has made a grievous error at the expense of his people. So there is an occupying army and one for which the basic rationale must be security.

It is true that occupying armies will behave with different degrees of severity. However, I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, may have slightly misled any noble Lords who are not fully aware of the situation. He used the rather neutral word "demonstrations" as though we were talking about the kind of thing that the NUS from time to time stages on Westminster Bridge. But the demonstrations in question include the stoning of soldiers and other people. A young conscript soldier being stoned may well feel that it is a little more than a demonstration and may exceed his authority in the severity which he uses to put it down.

However, we must agree that, although the conditions are deplorable, particularly in the Gaza strip and the refugee camps, the responsibility for that to some extent is shared by the United Nations and its relief agencies, which have not shown a considerable or continuous determination to put right the matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred; namely, housing, sanitation and so forth. Although it is true that individual remittances from Palestinians in other countries have helped the economy, it is also true that there has been no massive help from any of the Arab governments. Not even the most wealthy ones have come to the aid of their fellow Arabs in these territories.

But those are merely rectifications. The picture is as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, painted it. There is a population subject to the rule of an occupying army with all the consequences that follow. I believe therefore that all the energies of Her Majesty's Government, like those of other Western countries, should now be directed towards bringing about a peace settlement which would involve the evacuation of at least a great part of those territories.

What have been the limitations of negotiations hitherto? Before the Gulf war the principal limitation was the inability to find interlocutors among the Palestinians who would be prepared to consider the proposals put forward at Camp David or other ways along the road to full autonomy and possibly in the end self-government and independence. It is not that such interlocutors do not exist. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the Israeli peace movement and its contacts. I am aware of things of that nature. But the fact is that anyone who has publicly associated himself with the idea of negotiation has been murdered. One must remember that murders of Palestinians by other Palestinians have been more prominent on the West Bank than the death scores in the demonstrations and riots and their suppression.

There is a powerful group which has assassinated not merely potential leaders there but, as noble Lords know, members of the PLO leading council itself who have shown some disposition to negotiate. Although I believe that the latest proposals put forward by Mr. Shamir for Arab ministries to deal with some important matters of internal concern mark an advance, the same problem arises of the inability to discuss them. Unless they are discussed it is hard to imagine how they can be put into operation.

I believe that a great disservice has been done to the Palestinians from two quarters. In the first place, as is obvious, it comes from the association of the PLO with Saddam Hussein. That is having very unfortunate repercussions in Kuwait, which is being very much harsher to Palestinians than Israel has ever been, and throughout the Arab world has made the cause of the Palestinians less appealing, at any rate for the time being. As has been admitted by many friends of the Palestinians in this country, that was a major error. They have also had some disservice from their supporters in this country (notably perhaps certain speakers in another place) who constantly reiterate their most extreme demands—namely, everything at once and a Palestinian state tomorrow—at the price of making it more difficult to reach any agreement upon an interim stage. It is possible to be too friendly to one's friends.

The Gulf War has thrown new light on the situation in the Middle East. At one moment people were talking as though the result was likely to be a good one and that this was, in the current phrase, a window of opportunity. It now looks as though it is rather less good than appeared at the time. First, because the enthusiasm demonstrated by the Palestinians for the Iraqis and the Scud missile attacks on Israel was not likely to give much comfort to Israeli doves. They more or less had to go into retreat for a period. I believe that that will be overcome.

Much more serious and something which we cannot forecast at the moment because the position is so fluid is the question of the ultimate position of the United States in the Middle East. How far will its credibility have been restored by President Bush's announcement last night that after all the United States was prepared to help those whom it had encouraged to rise against the common enemy? We have to assume that an Israeli government's calculation will and indeed ought to be based on the security of their people. That is their first responsibility. It may well be that the demonstration of the power of long-range weapons will make it less obvious than it was a quarter of a century ago that the thickening of the territorial belt between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is essential for security purposes. It may be that some rethinking will be done in the Israeli armed forces.

But, however that may turn out, the fact of the matter is that the only thing that can be offered to Israel in return for the withdrawal from the territories which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and I would like to see is first of all—here I believe that Secretary of State Baker's two-track policy was right—peace with the neighbours at least on paper. Therefore perhaps the hinge of a possible settlement is now to be found in Damascus. Secondly, other than military security brought about by its armed forces the only security which can be offered to Israel must be that offered by the promise and presence of the United States. If the United States were ready permanently to make itself felt as a factor for peace in that part of the world, if it were in a position to tell the Israelis, "You need not worry about your neighbours; you do not need buffer zones for military protection because you are part of the United States perimeter of defence", then the argument in Jerusalem would be much more powerful than it now is. However, if 24 hours ago the Israelis had consulted the Kurds about the validity of American assurances they might have had a rather dusty answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, cannot and should not be blamed for calling our attention to violations of human and individual rights that have gone on for too long. However, it would be wrong if it were assumed that anything short of a political settlement in which the Arabs of those areas would largely be responsible for their own affairs must be regarded as temporary. As the noble Lord suggests, it is difficult in the light of the grievous problems that we have been witnessing in the Middle East in the past few weeks and months to take altogether seriously a guarantee by the United Nations.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, by putting down the Motion, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has provided an opportunity to discuss events on the West Bank and in Gaza. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I agree with much of what he said. I share his view about the way in which Israel in particular has suffered over the years and will continue to do so without assurances of no further attacks by Arab countries.

It was while I was a member of the United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations Assembly that Israel was admitted to membership of the United Nations. I recall a Soviet leader supporting Israel's application and referring to the terrible sufferings of the Jews under the Nazis. There is no doubt that he had in mind too the brutal treatment of Jews by tsarist governments which caused many to flee to America, some to this country, and a substantial number to Israel. That must always touch the imagination: the story of men and women who throughout their lives have looked to Palestine as their home and who were prepared to make sacrifices in order to get there. Those in tsarist Russia were driven out of their country by persecution. However, for many, it was a religious pilgrimage and the fulfilment of a desire that had long been in their hearts.

Young people going to Israel were mostly from the cities of Europe: in Palestine, they had to become tillers of the soil. Most had no previous experience of agriculture and no background of country life. But they had three priceless qualities—enthusiasm, intelligence and youth. Barren sand dunes, bare hills and pestilential swamps were converted into fertile agricultural land dotted with pleasant villages where people were able to live in the faith of their fathers and where children could grow up happily. The labour was arduous, but it was cheerfully, even joyfully, undertaken. It was lightened by the generous help of Jews all over the world. This enabled the Israelis to overcome appalling conditions. Entire settlements were built to a coherent plan with permanent, comfortable homes for the people. Those remarkable developments benefited the whole country and improved the standard of living for both Jews and Arabs.

The Israelis were criticised some time ago for taking action to destroy the nuclear armament of Iraq. In retrospect it is very fortunate that they did so. If Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons during the course of the Gulf War, the war would not have ended so soon and so successfully.

With the ceasefire in the Gulf today there is no blanket curfew in force in Israel. Indeed, only specific population centres where there has often been unrest are subjected to curfews, usually at night. Since the end of the Gulf war the Israeli Government have embarked on a deliberate policy of improving conditions for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. The past few weeks have seen the Government order the release of 1,200 administrative detainees and reduce the level of taxation paid by the inhabitants of the territories to the military administration. Bethlehem University has been opened. All kindergartens, schools and colleges and three other universities are open. Social and welfare services are working without restriction.

The Israeli Government proposals for a regional peace conference involving parallel negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbours and Israel arid Palestinian leaders reflect the Government's desire to promote the peace process in accordance with the directives of the 1979 Camp David accord.

The PLO has never publicly dissociated itself from terrorism and has never denounced violence. Yasser Arafat, by associating himself with Saddam Hussein and promoting extremist positions, shows no sign of recognising the state of Israel. There have been six wars since the state of Israel came into being, none of which was started by the state of Israel. As a result of one of those wars the Israelis occupy the West Bank and Gaza. Their continued occupation is a safeguard against Israel being pushed into the sea which is the desire of some Arab countries.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I wish to ask a single, brief question of the Minister of which I have given him notice.

Why should the Government not propose a powerful United Nations peacekeeping force in the occupied territories, thus making it a safe haven for the Palestinian people while at the same time increasing the security of Israel?

The sufferings of the Palestinians, serious as they are, are not to be compared with the appalling fate of the Kurdish refugees. Nevertheless, as was shown by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and acknowledged in the thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, their sufferings are bad enough. Like the Kurds, they urgently need a zone of security: a safe haven.

In a number of ways the establishment of such a safe haven in the occupied territories would raise fewer problems than the establishment of a haven in Northern Iraq. First, it would not raise the difficult questions of interventions in the internal affairs of member countries of the United Nations. Israel's security and sovereignty would not be challenged nor compromised in any way. The charter of the United Nations would not be strained by such an action.

The presence of a powerful United Nations force would be of the greatest benefit to both sides. The peace force should include, as it would, armed contingents from the Western European countries—in the past they have agreed to that in principle—and also a United States contingent. That leads on to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. That would decisively lessen both the incentive and the ability of Israel's enemies to attack her. Equally, it would frustrate the Arab extremists, who would like to see the whole of Palestine in Arab hands; and the Israeli extremists, who would like to keep the whole of Palestine in Israeli hands. The action would be welcomed by at least nine-tenths of the moslem world and would credit greatly the British Government with such an initiative.

The idea is fully in line with existing United Nations resolutions. It would end the occupation which we all agree is illegal and objectionable in many ways. It would open the way to free elections in the West Bank, bringing a new representative leadership of the Palestinian people and the restoration of civil rights leading eventually to self-determination. If the idea found favour in the United States it could be implemented without much delay or difficulty. The idea might be objected to; it is true that the Israeli Government and the Washington lobby might oppose it and defeat it. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, pointed out, many Israelis are strongly in favour of exchanging land for peace. The same is true of a proportion of the Israeli lobby in. Washington. According to their public statements, Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker also support the principle of exchanging land for peace.

I urge the Government to follow up their initiative over the Kurdish safe haven with a similar initiative on behalf of the Palestinian people. Let them persuade first the European Community and then the Americans that the occupied territories should become a UN safe haven for the Palestinian people. That would serve the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people and could be a major contribution to world peace.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, during the Gulf war people rejoiced that at last the United Nations was enabled to do something positive in the world. With great efforts the Americans, we in this country and members of the coalition tried to act under the umbrella of the United Nations. Therefore, I find attractive the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, that having once galvanised the United Nations into action, we might continue to give it our support. We should give the idea of a United Nations presence in Palestine every possible commendation that we can muster.

Perhaps I may attend to the terms of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Only three weeks ago Constantine Dabbagh of the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work said: Palestinians in Gaza feel like chickens in a cage because of the curfew. Many people have been unable to leave their homes even to work. So now they have no money to buy food for their families… We pay taxes to support our occupiers and get little for them. We have no social security". The noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, may be right in saying that the situation has changed and has been set right; but three weeks ago Constantine Dabbagh said: Most schools are still closed, living conditions are bad and health facilities are poor if not non-existent". He works on the spot and made those comments only three weeks ago.

At the request of the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York a Church of England delegation led by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry visited Israel and the occupied territories a day after the cease-fire ended the Gulf war. That delegation saw the privations and harassment of the Palestinians. It met families whose children had been killed, sons detained and homes demolished. The containment of 1.5 million people who lack freedom of movement, freedom of speech and a national home and who lack representation in national government requires a ruthless military regime. I am afraid that the delegation saw evidence which proved that as being so.

No examination of this issue would be fair without recalling Israel's dilemma. In 1917 the Balfour declaration encouraged them to pursue the idea of a national home. That was supported by a great deal of fundamental Christian theology which wanted to see Israel back in its national home after which the end of the world would come. That was a strong lobby. There was the awesome, searing experience of anti-Semitism during the 1920s and 1930s and then the holocaust.

There was then the setting up of an Israeli state in 1948 and the discovery that the Israelis were immediately at war with the whole of the Arab world surrounding them. To say the very least, that has put Israel permanently on the defensive. As your Lordships know, many Israeli people feel that they have never experienced a day of security since 1948. They feel that they have a right to establish their place in the Promised Land. What is more, in the days of missiles they know the need for safe borders—hence the expansionist greater Israel policy.

Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that the delegation of which I spoke was greeted with a great deal of criticism of the West and of Christendom by the Palestinians. That goes back to the days of the Crusades. Pain is still felt over the carve up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Then, the West, guilty after the holocaust, was anxious to give away to the Israelis land in Palestine which was not theirs to bequeath.

I read recently a touching story of a village called Ain Anoub where Arab Christians had lived for centuries. They belonged to one of the ancient indigenous churches. Suddenly in the 1950s and early 1960s they found themselves to be second class citizens in their homeland and the Moslem Arabs were third class citizens.

It may be that the sharp and painful experience of a Gulf war will have taught the lesson that a Middle East peace conference, local yet of international significance, can come about. One change for the better is that America has accepted that and America will have the task of persuading its powerful Jewish element that that is a necessity for peace.

I want to say that there are moderates on both sides. If we do not allow them and encourage them to talk to each other then we immediately and inevitably encourage extremists and polarisation. Men like Faisal Husseini and Amos Oz are prepared to consider —no, to promote—the principle of land for peace. Ghassan Rubeiz has pointed out that 700,000 Israeli citizens within the borders of Israel are Palestinian already. Equally Israelis who have taken up residence in the West Bank could surely accept a two-state plan.

Moderates like Dr. Mamdouh Aker and Dr. Sari Nusseibeh are prepared to consider a regionalised West Bank based on the principle of an economic, unarmed, demilitarised confederation of states. That would mean security based on the policy of making neighbours. Sadly Israeli military successes—and it is true that none of the six wars were started by the Israelis—have tended to make them all too ready to rely not on neighbour-making but on military might.

Yet, those who are Israel's friends—and perhaps I may say in passing that I have spent a lot of time in my ministry working with, for example, the Campaign for Soviet Jewry—would want to say that there can be no true peace and security for Israel so long as Israel's foreign policy is based on the oppression of her near neighbours. That may attract the very aggression which Israel is keen to avoid.

In a remarkable address to the Church Missionary Society, Canon Naim Ateck, himself a Palestinian, suggests that although we all owe, and we know we owe, the Jews an immense unpayable moral debt as a result of the holocaust, nevertheless it is wrong falsely to place Israel as a nation on a pedestal. It is a state like any other state and no higher morality should be expected of it and nor should any lower morality be tolerated from it. There must be consistency in the implementation of United Nations resolutions. The United Nations should be brought in to act with speed and strength when violations of human rights take place.

It is necessary also to de-stereotype the Palestinians and to remove the image of Palestinians as being always terrorists. I am reliably informed that the PLO is prepared to allow moderates, whom I have mentioned, and others, whom I have not, to represent it. My friends with the recent delegation were surprised to find that Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, a lecturer in philosophy, had been imprisoned on what his friends regarded as a preposterous charge of spying. It is almost as though such moderates are being imprisoned by the Israeli Government in order to avoid holding talks with them.

It is the hope of many that sharp and even painful lessons have been learnt. If we do not encourage people who are moderates to talk, we play straight into the hands of extremists. I believe that the Palestinians are prepared to accept the Israelis' right to exist—and that is new. How much we rejoice to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, speaking of the Israelis' achievements! They have been remarkable. However, Israel cannot be a light to the nations if the shadow of a repressive greater Israel foreign policy remains.

3.57 p.m.

The Earl of Oxford and Asquith

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for giving us the opportunity of this debate. Of the many good causes which he has espoused, of the many instances of human suffering and injustice he has sought to alleviate, the case of the Palestinians is one of the most worthy of our attention.

Many of those disabilities and injustices have been so eloquently described by him that there is no need to spend much time in recalling deportations, collective punishments, the annexation of East Jerusalem, confiscation of ancestral Arab land to make way for over 100,000 new Jewish settlers, disruption to the Palestinian economy in various ways and repeated closures of schools and universities, so that since 1987 few, if any, Palestinians have been able to complete an uninterrupted year of education.

As has been said, many of those actions were in clear breach of the 4th Geneva Convention, to which both our Government and Israel subscribed but which in the past Israel has claimed does not apply to the occupied territories. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm in his reply that our Government consider that it does apply and that the Israeli Government should be in no doubt that that is our view.

As regards education, my memory turns back some 45 years to a time when Palestinian education was an example and, indeed, a source of envy to the Arab world. The director of education in those days was a great man and a great educator. His name was Jerome Farrell. He was told one day that students of the Government Arab College in Jerusalem had chalked up on their blackboards, "We want freedom or death". His robust comment, as he told me at the time, was, "1 shall see to it that they get neither". Whatever we may now think of his views on freedom he at least saw that they got education. Since then times have changed and the Palestinians have got neither freedom nor education, whereas death or disablement is all too common a risk when the stone throwing of schoolboys is answered, as it often is, with bullets.

Let us now turn our attention from the past and present and concentrate instead on the kind of future in which the injustices we are debating are most likely to be relieved. Since the end of the Gulf war, across the Atlantic have come well-meaning if somewhat grandiose phrases such as "a new world order" and "a window of opportunity". We may hope that that is a sign that Americans, despite their disappointing record in the past, mean seriously to try again.

I have long advocated a higher profile in these matters both for the United Nations, whose resolutions have been ignored, and for the countries of Western Europe. However, I can understand that having taken so notable an initiative in the Gulf war the Americans may now wish to play a leading role in the regional peace. Indeed, a start has been made by Mr. Baker's recent tours. Whether it is too optimistic to call it a promising start time will tell. Let us always remember that time is short and that the momentum of change must be kept up. If it is not kept up the resulting disillusionment will make it all the more difficult to achieve a solution.

If the Americans are to be given a free hand without European assistance they need to show within the next two months that they can make sufficient progress within the diplomatic field to ensure that the momentum is kept alive. Whether progress can be made by the method now proposed by America—the regional conference—remains to be seen. The outcome must at best be uncertain. It may well fall short of Palestinian demands for self-determination, and the selection of Palestinian representatives at such a conference is bound in any case to be a bone of contention.

With the PLO for the time being in disarray there seems to be all the more need to press urgently for a properly elected Palestinian body whose representatives—whether or not they may be members or supporters of the PLO—can sit at the negotiating table provided (and this is an important proviso) they declare themselves willing to accept a non-violent solution. The elections must be independently monitored and the criteria for voting must not be dictated by Mr. Shamir. Without prejudice to the eventual future of Jerusalem, those criteria must include residents of East Jerusalem since its annexation is not permitted under the Geneva Conventions.

Should America fail to make progress along those lines within the proposed timescale, we and our European allies, in concert with the United Nations, must be ready to step in with confidence-building measures so that present opportunities may not be lost. Our own high profile in the Gulf war has given us fresh opportunities of contributing to the final outcome. At the same time it has raised fresh expectations from us in the Arab world which, if they are disappointed, will add all the more to its disillusionment.

What might these confidence-building measures be? In the short time available to me I can allude only briefly to a few which have been suggested. I stress that they are peripheral to the main issue and their value is partly psychological in contributing to the atmosphere in which the main issue can be fruitfully addressed.

The first and most important measure is in the economic field. Since 1987 the Palestinian economy has been so hampered by Israeli restrictions that Palestinians have been obliged to work for Israeli employers instead of directing their energies into their own indigenous concerns. To remedy that, and to help make their economy self-sufficient, foreign capital, together with technical assistance, will have to be injected in ways which will be proof against Israeli interference. I suggest that the Government should seek ways of promoting that by encouraging British companies to set up joint ventures with Palestinians.

Secondly, pressures could be put on the Israeli Government to allow Palestinians now suffering notorious hardships and dangers in Kuwait to return to the West Bank and Gaza if they have relatives there who can look after them. There could be pressures also to allow some outside monitoring of the conditions in the territories, whether by the United Nations or some EC body or EC missions already there.

In the education field there is a crying need to do whatever can be done to remedy the effects of repeated closures of schools and universities since the beginning of the intifada. Scholarships could be provided to complete the education of the Palestinians who will be needed to teach the next generation. Existing graduates in the West Bank and Gaza, where there is no work for them, could be helped to find teaching jobs or other work abroad. For example, exchanges could be arranged between British and Palestinian teachers which could do much to break down the barriers of misunderstanding between our peoples. In these matters the British Council, British universities, other bodies such as the Palestine Studies Trust based at Exeter University and Voluntary Services Overseas could be encouraged to play an important role. Lastly, financial help could be provided for that admirable charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians, to extend the valuable help it is already providing in that field.

I commend those suggestions to your Lordships' sympathetic attention and that of the Government.

4.7 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, as one grows old one becomes aware of the benefits of modern technology. When I was first elected to the other place if one needed to obtain information regarding what had happened previously one had to spend hours poring over Hansard indexes and making copious notes. I am glad to say that one is now able to go to the Library and ask for a print-out of a particular subject.

If one goes to the Library and asks for a print-out of the subject we are debating today one finds the names of the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Mayhew, and my noble friend Lord Molloy, frequently occurring. My noble friend Lord Molloy is otherwise engaged this afternoon; I understand that he is inaugurating the following debate regarding the role of NATO. However, the overwhelming concentration of some Members of both Houses on a very small area of the Middle East—an area only the size of Wales and with a population of a few million—to the exclusion of massive world problems has never ceased to amaze me.

Since I came to your Lordships' House I have taken the opportunity to draw attention to some of those problems. In particular, on 13th November last year I mentioned the problem of the Kurds. I know that a number of other noble Lords have tried to draw attention to the desperate problems of the Kurds and > what has been happening to them. By and large our words fell on stony ground. Now, largely through the accident of Iraq being sufficiently injudicious to invade Kuwait, one cannot open a serious newspaper without seeing pages of newsprint devoted to the problems of the Kurds. I am extremely pleased about that; it is something that some of us have been attempting to achieve for a long time.

I, together with other noble Lords in your Lordships' House, tried also to draw attention to the problem of the Christians in the Sudan. I have had to raise with the Bishops' Bench the fact that for some years there has been no mention from that quarter of the problems of their fellow Christians in Africa. We are all aware of the pressures of lobbying by various interests on this House. What outside interest would not give its eye teeth to have an entire Bench devoted to its interests? Unfortunately, however, problems such as those which face the Christians in the Sudan have gone virtually unmentioned. I hope that the inauguration of Archbishop Carey will usher in a new interest and concern not only for the social and moral welfare of the people of this country but also for our Christian brothers and sisters abroad in many lands who need our continuing support.

I shall not detain your Lordships for long except to say that a number of matters are not mentioned in the context of the Palestinian issue. I shall not go into detail. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, dealt with a number of the points far more ably than I can hope to do. I took the precaution of obtaining figures for the deaths of Palestinians in the area we are talking about. Since the beginning of the intifada on 9th December 1987 until 7th March of this year, 408 Palestinians were murdered by other Palestinians. Some of the murders were committed for various reasons associated with alleged criminal acts, but the bulk of them concerned people who were showing signs of wanting or actually trying to co-operate with the Israeli authorities and work towards the building up of some kind of control and government within the area.

I visited Israel fairly recently. I was specifically asked, if I had the opportunity, to point out that a great deal of interest in a curfew during the period of the Gulf war arose because Palestinians were going on to the roofs of their houses and relaying back over the border what was happening during the Scud attacks, where they were landing, and what sort of impact they were having. While I was out there I also saw in the newspapers a report concerning a leaflet issued by the PLO asking its people to stop murdering those who showed any signs of collaborating with the Israeli authorities. So it is not entirely a one-sided affair.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, has spoken and I have already mentioned his interest in this matter. In the past he has upbraided the UN for double standards particularly during the development of the Gulf crisis. He is not entirely faultless in this respect. I have heard him in this Chamber refer to Prime Minister Shamir as a terrorist because of his previous record during the foundation of the state of Israel. Yet, as your Lordships will know, the noble Lord was one of the chief architects of the destruction of the Government's War Crimes Bill during our previous Session. I think the charge of double standards can also be turned the other way.

I know that the noble Lord is extremely concerned about these matters. He was present at Belsen at the end of the war. Tonight, at the Imperial War Museum, there will be the unveiling of a permanent memorial to Belsen which, as your Lordships will know, has become synonymous with some of the worst infamies committed by the Nazi regime against the Jewish people during the last war. So let us try to clear our minds of many of the stereotypes which have existed over the years and get the matter into perspective.

I was fortunate enough to address your Lordships on 15th January of this year. We should try to put into perspective what we are talking about. I mentioned the problems of the Kurds and, apart from their problems, I tried to draw attention to the Sudanese Christians and what is happening in that country. I hope that within a short period of time there will be as much concern among your Lordships and others about their plight as there is about the Kurds. There has been a complete exaggeration of one particular place in the Middle East as opposed to all the other world problems.

I referred to United Nations' resolutions about these matters. Perhaps I may be forgiven for repeating that over the past 10 years there has not been one resolution in the United Nations apropos the problems of the Kurds. Their situation is not new. We have known for some time about the atrocities perpetrated against them through chemical warfare. There have been no resolutions on Eritrea; only three on the problems of Somalia and two on the Sudan. Yet over the same period of 10 years there have been 19 resolutions concerning Israel and the Palestinian problem. We have to ask ourselves whether our genuine concerns about human problems are not being exacerbated and manipulated by other interests.

I ask noble Lords to keep the matter in perspective and to realise that there are many equally pressing problems in other parts of the world which for some reason or another do not receive the same attention.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I did not quite follow the noble Lord in speaking about my noble friend Lord Mayhew and his known support of the Arabs. I differ from him but entirely respect his views. The noble Lord seemed to say that my noble friend's view was inconsistent with the attitude which most of us in this House took (I certainly did) against the War Crimes Bill. I can see no connection whatever. Am I being very thick headed or is it obscure?

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord if I was not entirely clear. The point that I was trying to make in my limping way was that in the past few months I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, refer to the Prime Minister of Israel as a terrorist because of his immediate post-war record. While, after a period of about 45 years, he was still prepared to put that label on the Prime Minister of Israel, he was among the most assiduous in persuading your Lordships to reject the War Crimes Bill at Second Reading.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I do now see a certain connection.

4.18 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for raising this very important but nevertheless difficult and delicate subject. I have spoken on the same subject in five debates over the past eight years and on each occasion—and on this occasion too—I am speaking as one of the joint chairman of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. I am fully aware that since the outbreak of the Gulf war public opinion in this country has hardened even further against the Arabs and in favour of Israel. Having served for the greater part of my adult life in the Arab world, I have formed numerous friendships over many years and that situation has distressed me very greatly.

Perhaps it may be appropriate to examine some of the commonest misconceptions that one hears. First, there is the often accepted view that the Israelis are only returning to lands which their forebears occupied in Biblical times some 2,000 years ago. This may be true of the Israeli heartlands "from Beersheba to Dan", as is described in the Bible, but it is certainly not true of such occupied zones as the Gaza. Strip and the Golan Heights. Secondly, people will say that in their actions against the Arabs, the Israelis are merely upholding the principle of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye. In reality the opposition to the intifada (many aspects of which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, described) which has manifested itself very largely in the throwing of stones at Israeli soldiers, can be likened to a whole faceful of eyes for one eye and a whole mouthful of teeth for one tooth.

The imposition of the curfew on Palestinians—which has now been eased, and about which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke at some length—has been, I suppose, the most unkindest cut of all. To the objective observer it seems to have been yet another form of collective punishment for the Palestinians and an instrument that the Israeli authori ties hope will bring about the destruction of all the achievements of the intifada over the past three and a half years in health, education and the economy. Th;, latter aspect is particularly important. Perhaps I may enlarge a little on what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. In the industrial and agricultural sectors. most of the 30,000 Palestinian industrial workers and 42,000 agricultural workers in the West Bank and Gaza were unable to reach their work places, with colossal losses resulting in both spheres.

There have been over the years many examples of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, such as the closure of schools, which have now re-opened, and universities; and shootings—mainly of students—and even in some cases attacks on patients in hospitals. As an example of such attacks, I quote the killing on 28th March of a 12 year-old boy and the injuring of 59 Palestinians in Rafah. This is an important point: wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health is, according to Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, a grave breach.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has spoken at some length about water restrictions. Perhaps I may remind him in this connection that the Palestinians have to obtain licences for drilling wells. In most cases their wells are limited to 200 feet, although the Israelis are permitted to sink their wells to 1,000 feet or so. The annual water consumption per capita has been only 140 cubic metres for Palestinians, but 537 for the Israelis and no less than 965 cubic metres for the West Bank settlers. Furthermore, Palestinians have to pay twice as much for their water, and farmers receive none of the subsidies that their Israeli counterparts enjoy.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and other noble Lords referred to deportation. On 23rd March the Israeli Government issued deportation orders against four Palestinian civilians from the occupied Gaza Strip, bringing the total number of deportation orders within the past four months to eight. Israel's deportation of Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian territories constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and is therefore a war crime as defined by that convention. Expulsion orders also contravene numerous United Nations security resolutions which specifically address the deportation of Palestinians from the occupied territories.

Perhaps I may take up one point mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley. He spoke, as has been mentioned in many previous debates, about the PLO. He regards the PLO as a terrorist organisation. Many of your Lordships who have studied this problem in detail will be aware that the PLO consists of seven or eight different groups of which only one, or perhaps two, are terrorist.

Surely the most important matter we have to address at this stage is to urge the United Nations to reinforce its Resolutions 242 and 338. Until that is done, until the Israelis agree to withdraw from the occupied territories, there seems to me to be little chance of any lasting peace in this very disturbed part of the world.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, noble Lords on all sides of the House, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, to whom I shall refer in a moment, will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing this debate today.

I have been greatly encouraged by the constructive tone of the debate. We have been dealing with matters that are very disturbing and with situations which need to be improved, but I thought that the tone of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was extremely helpful to this debate and provoked a response from my noble friend Lord Mayhew which I also thought was extremely helpful and contained ideas that might well be useful for the future. I suspect that the Minister will be anxious to know where all these peace-keeping forces are coming from. I should have thought that it is an investment that the world order might well make, because in the end it will be cheaper to provide United Nations forces even on that magnitude rather than risk the consequences of not taking steps at this time.

Like the delegation referred to by the right reverend Prelate, I had the privilege of being in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Israel proper just before the war broke out —in fact we left on 13th January. Like that delegation, we met some of these moderate Palestinians, Faisal Husseini and Sari Nusseibeh among them. I too was deeply shocked to find that Nusseibeh had been locked up in the early stages of the war. It was a grave mistake because here is a man who is undoubtedly a moderate. He was locked up apparently because he was alleged to be giving information to the Iraqis as to where Scud missiles were landing. That would have been difficult since he was in East Jerusalem under curfew and the missiles, as I understand it, were landing in Tel Aviv. Perhaps the Israeli authorities had some other means of discerning such matters. However, it was a mistake because these are the sort of people with whom discussions have to take place at some stage.

We came away from that visit feeling that there was a terrible air of frustration among the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. We noted many of the conditions referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He certainly did not exaggerate. In the period immediately leading up to the war there seemed to be some hope of improvement. Some things had changed in that part of the world. The end of the Cold War is a not insignificant fact. There seemed to be some hope that the Americans would begin to use their undoubted influence to try to move the peace process forward. The fact that the European Community was beginning to get its political act together and to act as another weighty group in the world of politics was again a hopeful sign.

Unfortunately, however, with the outbreak of the war we saw the foolishness of some of the Palestinians. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was absolutely right to point the finger of scorn at Yassir Arafat because he has undoubtedly done terrible damage not only to his own people but to the hope of peace in the near future in the Middle East. The pictures of him embracing Saddam Hussein for whatever reason —there are reasons—undoubtedly did tremendous damage which will be apparent for a long time to come.

At that time it is true that the Israeli Government were a Right-wing Likud government, ruling or having a tendency to rule, as was said at a meeting I attended this morning, by divine intervention, which I thought was an interesting phrase. There was at that time a peace movement, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, which commanded respect. It was to be supposed at that time that around 30 per cent. of the Israeli people had considerable sympathy with their point of view. After the beginning of the war and the landing of the Scud missiles, and after the shouting from the rooftops—a point referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Beloff and Lord Cocks—that mood evaporated and the people who were involved in the peace movement melted away like snow in the sunshine.

The Israeli Labour Party was also at that stage beginning to talk about the possibility of what it described as a Benelux type of solution to the problem. Precisely what that meant one need not explore, but at least there was beginning to be a feeling that land for peace was a subject worth exploring. I fear that that has been put right back by the consequences of the war. The Right wing in the Israeli Government has been strengthened. Some quite fanatical people have been introduced into the Government in recent weeks. That is extremely depressing. The settlements in the occupied territories are being pressed ahead with. Indeed I am told that a new one is being set up today. This is in total defiance of world opinion. We know that Her Majesty's Government are opposed to it and have expressed their view very strongly. I hope that they will do so again. The Israeli Government seem to be able to defy world opinion with absolute impunity.

Where do we go from here? In my view we have to try to return to the position that existed before the war. The British Government, through the European Community, have an important role to play. Mr. Baker is doing the rounds of the Middle East at the moment. At the present time he unfortunately appears to have swallowed the Israeli view hook, line and sinker. The regional solution may be a starting point but to many Palestinians it looks like another source of delay, more delay and still more delay. Camp David was successful in relation to the Israeli relationship with Egypt but it did nothing for the Palestinians. The individual picking off of Arab nations through bilateral deals with the Israeli Government may give the Israelis an increased sense of security—that cannot be bad—but it does not immediately reduce the level of frustration for the people living in the camps.

I have received today a copy of a report of someone who came back from the occupied territories recently. The person says that among the heaviest losers in the Gulf war have been the Palestinians. Not only have they lost significantly in the international political field but in the occupied territories the Israeli authorities have exploited the loss of world sympathy for the Palestinians and the diversion of attention away from their situation by putting in place measures which are more repressive than any others in the history of the occupation. During the war itself these measures included continuous curfews—rather more than was suggested by one or two noble Lords—and the stopping of all Palestinian labour in Israel. Now that the war is over the blanket curfews have been lifted but are still applied selectively.

Workers are being allowed back into Israel at less than half the pre-war rate. Formerly some 120,000 to 150,000 workers crossed the green line daily. Seventy thousand of them worked legally and the rest worked illegally but with the connivance of Israeli employers and hence, by implication, also the state. Now the figure is down to 40,000. They must get official passes involving at least six stamps, each valid for only one week. The pass becomes invalid as soon as the first stamp is out of date. The green line had been dramatically and severely reimposed as a fact on the ground.

Of even greater importance is the separation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. No West Bank cars are allowed into Jerusalem and only Palestinians with passes can cross the line. As Jerusalem is a bottleneck through which all north-south traffic must pass, the West Bank has been effectively cut in two. This has major implications for all activities, whether economic, cultural, social or humanitarian. It means, for example, that schools, hospitals and other public institutions in Jerusalem relying on a workforce which is largely from the West Bank cannot function properly. Organisations with their offices in Jerusalem are gravely hindered in their work.

The report also says that there are signs that the separation of Jerusalem and the pass system for entering Israel are now designed as permanent measures. I very much hope that that is not the case. David Steel commented as we came away from the camp in Gaza: I have never seen or felt anything like this since I was in Soweto". That was the kind of impression one got.

The economic pressures on the Palestinians have been greatly exacerbated by the war. We have heard reference to the lack of money coming from Kuwait and the oilfields. I was talking this morning to someone who returned from Kuwait only two days ago. I digress slightly from the West Bank and Gaza because this matter impinges on it because of the remittances. At the beginning of the war around 20 per cent. of the population of Kuwait were Palestinians. They numbered some 420,000. At the end of March that figure had come down to 120,000. Government offices in Kuwait have been told not to employ Palestinians. One bank which employs 100 Palestinians now employs 12. The Kuwaiti Government will not deal with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

All Palestinians have to re-register by 16th May or leave the country, even though many of them have lived in that country for three generations now. They have not yet been told where they should register. They suspect that there is a steady move to try to remove them from the country and replace them as workers with people from Eastern Europe. There is an article in the Independent this morning to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, drew my attention earlier today. Noble Lords who are interested in the subject may well wish to cast their eyes over it. It gives a vivid impression of what is happening there. This pressure goes back to the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, has left the Chamber. Therefore I shall not refer to what he said. I do not believe that this is the only problem in the world, nor is it the only problem in the Middle East, but it is essential to the problems of the Middle East. Unless we can begin to get it right, many of the difficulties in that sad area will never be sorted out.

We in this country have a particular responsibility and the British Government have a responsibility. I do not believe that they can discharge it alone. It can only be discharged through the United Nations, particularly through the European Community. There is a special role for the European Community to play today.

I wish to make one final comment which has nothing to do with the West Bank and Gaza. I would not wish the debate on this important part of the Middle East to pass without somebody mentioning that today is the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of John McCarthy. I hope that in their minds noble Lords will dwell on him and on the other hostages not just from this country but from other countries who are held in the Middle East. The results of the disturbance in the Middle East are the sad symptoms of all the problems in the Middle East which stem from many sources. One is the current situation in Israel, exacerbated by what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if we are conscious of anything these days, it is that the problems of the Middle East are numerous, grave and complex. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has drawn our attention to one of these problems and we are grateful to him for his opening speech and to other noble Lords who have made interesting and constructive contributions.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester described the historical background. I do not propose to follow him save to say that when Israel and Palestine are debated in this Parliament, most of us react with a mixed feeling of involvement, guilt and responsibility. There is on the one hand Britain's historic link with the Arab world, and on the other hand our strong commitment to the preservation of the state of Israel, the only democracy in the region. We also know and deeply regret that the relations between large elements in the two races are, in the main, bitter and unforgiving. However, a settlement between the two is essential if a permanent peace is to be achieved. Egypt and Israel have shown that this is possible.

Saddam Hussein tried his best to drag Israel into the Gulf war, but he failed, thanks to Israel's wise refusal to retaliate. Many of us felt that at the end of the war there could and should be a new opportunity to seek a solution to the continuing problem. Our attention has rightly been concentrated on the appalling suffering of the Kurdish people over the past few weeks. We cannot be diverted from that. It was encouraging to hear of the visit of Mr. James Baker, the US Secretary of State, to the Middle East. I shall return to that in a moment.

The curfews imposed by the Israeli Government and described in some detail by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and others are just one facet of the unhappy relationship to which I have referred. The Palestinians call it persecution. They were confined to their homes, and other restrictions described by the noble Lord were imposed upon them. The reason for it was the PLO support for Iraq in the war when Israel was attacked by Scud missiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, said, the PLO leadership showed a monumental lack of judgment before and during the war. However, the unfortunate Palestinians should not be made to suffer indefinitely for this.

We further noted a few days ago that Mr. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli minister of housing, announced that settlement on the West Bank is to be substantially increased and that his ministry is to build 13,000 new houses on the Golan Heights over the next two years, thus doubling the Jewish population there.

The US State Department has calculated that about 200,000 Jews now live on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. It is significant that opposition MPs in Israel say that this Jewish housing boom is intended to make an Israeli pull-out impossible. That is something we should ponder. President Bush has said that his government are pursuing a Middle East settlement based on "trading land for peace". We do not underestimate America's influence in Israel, or Israel's indebtedness to the United States; but some current policies in Israel do not appear to reflect this. It is a disquieting state of affairs. The responsibility and influence of the United States, however, is still considerable in Israel.

When President Bush talks of trading land for peace, he is talking about land which Israel acquired in the Six Day War, which included the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The occupation of Sinai ended after the Camp David agreement. However, let us be clear about this, for it lies at the root of the problem: Israel has for over 20 years held and occupied territories in which 1,300,000 Arabs have lived without a vote, without representative government and without any of the democratic rights which Israel itself quite properly respects and prizes. That is the paradox in Israel and the occupied territories.

It is interesting after all to note that the Arabs have been in the area far longer than the Northern Irish have been in Ulster. In recent years, the policies of the present Israeli Government—which are not supported by Mr. Peres and his opposition Labour Party—appeared to make a long term settlement a doubtful possibility at present. However, we must try not to be too pessimistic.

There is now a new factor. The Gulf war has changed attitudes. Mr. Yitzak Shamir has said that he is ready to discuss peace with President Assad of Syria who, in turn, has responded favourably. This is encouraging but we must recognise that formidable obstacles lie in the way of success; for example, the return of the Golan Heights which Israel has occupied for over 20 years. Mr. Shamir has said that this is not on the agenda, but perhaps after consultation over a period he will modify his view. The Gulf war is over, but there are at least two further gulfs to be traversed. The first is to find agreement on the kind of conference in which all the parties are prepared to participate. The second is the central problem which such a meeting would seek to resolve.

On the first point, Mr. James Baker's visit to Israel has shown how difficult it will be to secure a consensus. It seems that Israel will consider a regional conference—and this has been referred to by noble Lords—but not one convened by the United Nations.

Furthermore, it is far from clear which Palestinians the Israelis are ready to talk to. The PLO support for Saddam Hussein throughout the Gulf conflict has made matters much more difficult. Whom will Israel meet if it rejects the PLO? If it persists in that, will Syria and Jordan confer with them? That is doubtful. It will require statesmanship of the highest order to unravel this tangled web.

On the second point; namely, the basis of discussions, we are driven to conclude that Israel must be prepared to make real concessions. That means the release of territories as envisaged in Security Council Resolution 242. This is what happened between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. With the best will in the world, and with all my respect and affection for Israel, I see no alternative if we are to have peace in the Middle East. That is the view of the Israeli Labour Party and it is the view of Egypt as well as the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This brings us back to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and what the future holds for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. After all, it is their future that we are discussing.

In 40 years of independence Israel has won the respect and admiration of the world. There is no doubt that the international community strongly supports the preservation of the state of Israel and that any settlement must ensure and enshrine that principle. UN Resolutions 242 and 338 state that clearly. Mr. Shamir and the Likud Party are, unhappily, unwilling to consider a meeting convened by or under the auspices of the United Nations. Let us hope that bilateral meetings lead to a wider conference and this in turn results in a multilateral settlement. There are solutions provided there exists the will to work them out. The right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Cocks and others have made some interesting suggestions in this regard.

I mentioned Mr. James Baker's current efforts to bring the parties together. The results reveal the difficulties of that process. For example, Saudi Arabia appears to support a regional meeting while Syria is adamant that it wants an international peace conference and a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands. The Israeli Government wish to exclude the United Nations and those countries, including our own, which they believe are biased. I should be grateful if the noble Earl can tell me whether he concurs with that scenario. I think Mr. Shamir and his colleagues in Likud have a huge responsibility at the present time. They must make a substantial move and be ready to make real concessions. Clinging to the status quo will not save the situation. If they fail, then the future of the Middle East is bleak indeed. However, if they do make concessions, as I hope and believe they will in due course, it is also essential to ensure that the existence of Israel as a state and its territorial integrity after the settlement are assured beyond all doubt.

The rights of Israel are no less important than the rights of the Palestinians. No Saddam Hussein, now or in the future, must be given the opportunity to flout those rights and to harass or attack Israel. The United Nations and world leaders must help to get the balance right. That is the huge challenge facing the UN and the world at the present time.

4.53 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising this most important issue. His commitments to human rights not only in the occupied territories but also in Israel are well known. We share many of his preoccupations as well as those of your Lordships who have spoken and to whom I am grateful for making this such a relevant and constructive debate.

There are nearly 2 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Of those, over half a million are refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. Many of the refugees live in camps.

We have long been working for a Just and lasting settlement of the Arab/Israel dispute, based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied during the 1967 war, and recognition of the right of all states in the region, including Israel, to a secure existence. That latter point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester summarised the situation when he referred to land for peace.

Until a settlement is reached, Israel should administer the territories in accordance with international law and human rights obligations. Civilians in occupied territory are protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits forcible deportation, detention without trial, destruction of property and denial of access to food, health and education. I am happy to confirm to the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, that we have made that clear to the Israeli Government. We have also made clear that we are concerned by the failure of the Israelis to live up to their obligations under the convention. We regularly raise human rights issues both with the Israeli Government and with the Israeli ambassador in London.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has drawn particular attention to Israeli settlement policy. I take this opportunity to reiterate our firm conviction that the settlement by the occupying power of its own civilians in occupied territory is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It creates further obstacles to peace. We estimate that over 200,000 settlers are now living in approximately 200 settlements in the occupied territories. Jewish settlers now make up about 13 per cent. of the total population of the occupied territories. About one-half of the West Bank and one-third of the Gaza Strip have been allocated to Israeli use. Most of the settlers live in the West Bank but 3,000 live in Gaza and 120,000 in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. A further 12,000 live in settlements on the Golan. The continuing expansion of these settlements is a cause of deep and continuing concern to us, as it is to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn.

We have regularly stated our opposition to the Israeli settlement policy. While we welcome the liberalisation of Soviet emigration controls and the new freedom of Soviet Jews to go to Israel, all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal. We therefore agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that to allow Soviet Jews to settle there will further set back the search for peace.

The economic and social situation in the occupied territories is also a source of grave concern to us. Since the start of the intifada, the regular all-out strikes, combined with the uprising have brought the economy almost to a standstill. But the loss of remittances from Kuwait, unemployment and the tightening of restrictions on movement both within the occupied territories and between the territories and Israel have caused great hardship. Conditions are particularly severe in Gaza, which is much more densely populated than the West Bank and has a higher proportion of refugees.

We have worked for many years to tackle the immediate problems confronting the Palestinian population, both through our actions with the Israelis and through our valuable aid programmes. I can assure the House that these efforts will continue. But we must be realistic. We cannot expect sustained improvement in the situation in the occupied territories without progress towards a comprehensive settlement of the Arab/Israel dispute. As my noble friend Lord Beloff reminded us, the human rights problems and material deprivation in the occupied territories which are of concern to so many of us are symptoms of this deeper problem.

Throughout the recent Gulf crisis we made it clear that as soon as Kuwait had been liberated we would turn our attention back to the Arab/Israel dispute and the Palestinian problem. The swift success of our forces in the Gulf has enabled us to do this more quickly than we could have hoped. The first step towards the reviving of the peace process must be to forge some kind of consensus among the parties to the dispute on the way ahead. We have been playing a full part in this. We have been in regular contact with the other permanent members of the Security Council and with the key players in the region. We have put our full weight behind American efforts to put a new momentum behind the search for peace.

We welcome President Bush's reaffirmation to Congress last month of the United States' commitment to a settlement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. That commitment has been demonstrated by the two visits which the US Secretary of State, James Baker, has paid to the Middle East during the last month. We all have our roles to play in the search for peace, but we believe that the Americans are best placed to take the lead in bringing together the parties to the dispute. While their efforts to do that continue we shall support them to the best of our ability. We therefore welcome their latest initiative and the regional conference proposal at the centre of it. With the other Foreign Ministers of the Twelve my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be meeting Mr. Baker in Luxembourg this evening to discuss in detail what the Americans have in mind and the European role in it.

It is for that reason that I cannot fully answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, rightly reminded the House, the Twelve have a responsibility, which I am confident we shall fulfil. We can play a part in furthering the peace process and we are active in our attempts to improve human rights and living standards in the occupied territories. I should like to make it clear to your Lordships that our overriding concern is to see progress. We are ready to be flexible about the mechanisms used to achieve this.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, we would not want to underestimate the difficulties ahead. We are only at the beginning of a long and complicated process, but Mr. Baker's discussions revealed considerable areas of agreement between the parties. Like the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, we were encouraged in particular by the apparent acceptance by all in the region of the twin-track approach originally proposed by the Israeli Government. We support the idea that progress on the Palestinian problem should go hand-in-hand with an improvement in the relations between Israel and her Arab neighbours. The key to the success of such an approach must be simultaneous progress on both sides of the equation. Attempts to relegate either problem to second place will lead to failure but with goodwill such difficulties can be overcome.

In the meantime, there is an urgent need for improvements in human rights standards and living conditions in the occupied territories. We are working for both. On the first, we were active in securing the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of three successive resolutions in the final quarter of last year. The last of these, UNSCR 681, invites the Secretary-General to come up with proposals on ways and means to enhance the protection of Palestinians in the occupied territories. These would provide the basis for further international action to ensure respect for Palestinian human rights. The Secretary-General has begun to make suggestions, and we are playing a positive part in discussion of the alternatives.

As I have said, the Israelis are obliged to administer the occupied territories in accordance with provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. We deplore their continuing failure to do so. We are particularly concerned by their continuing use of deportations and collective punishments, such as the sealing and demolition of Palestinian homes. We deplore the continuing closure of four of the six Palestinian universities in the occupied territories.

The Israelis are in no doubt about our views on these matters and we shall keep up our efforts to persuade them to improve their record. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised continuing Israeli interference with education when he met the Israeli Foreign Minister in London last month. We make regular démarches to the Israeli authorities both bilaterally and with our European Community partners on particularly worrying aspects of their administration.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, we welcome the recent Israeli announcement of the release of over 1,000 Palestinian detainees. At a time when there is talk throughout the Middle East of confidence-building measures, that is precisely the kind of step which we should like to see the Israelis taking more frequently. However, more than 10,000 more detainees are still being held. We urge the Israelis to follow up this welcome initial gesture with further releases.

A number of prominent moderate Palestinian leaders have also been held in administrative detention. The cases of Sari Nusseibeh, Radwan Abu Ayyash and others are known to many members of the House. We welcome Abu Ayyash's recent release and look forward to the release of Sari Nusseibeh whose case the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, brought to the attention of your Lordships earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned the curfew problem in the occupied territories. The 24-hour curfews throughout the occupied territories during hostilities in the Gulf exacerbated an already difficult economic situation. The combined impact of their rigorous enforcement throughout the Gulf conflict and the decline in remittances and return of remittance earners from the Gulf have hit the Palestinian economy, and in particular agriculture, hard.

Like all your Lordships, we welcome the relaxation of the curfews since the end of hostilities in the Gulf, but their effects will not disappear so easily. With our European Community partners, we have responded decisively to this problem. The Foreign Affairs Council agreed on 4th March to make 60 mecu—about £40 million—of emergency aid available to the occupied territories. This came on top of the existing European commitment, made at the end of 1989, to double aid to the occupied territories by the end of 1992 to 12 mecu or about £8.5 million. We contribute about a fifth of that. The Community is on course to achieve that target. So the resources have been made available.

However, there remains the problem of spending the funds agreed. In order to tackle this problem, the Community has decided to put a representative into the occupied territories to make aid disbursement more effective. We attach great importance to that initiative. We hope that the Israelis will agree to his being posted in the occupied territories on terms acceptable to the Community very soon.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, reminded the House, the UN has an important role to play. We welcomed the UN Secretary-General's appointment of the distinguished Swiss diplomat Eduard Brunner to be his special representative in the Middle East. We were delighted to welcome him to London for talks with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my honourable friend the Minister of State earlier today. We believe that Mr. Brunner can play a valuable role in bringing the parties to the dispute together and establishing areas of common ground. We wish him luck in his endeavour.

Britain has long been one of the principal supporters of UNRWA, the United Nations agency charged with the care of Palestinian refugees. Through UNRWA, the European Community and our own bilateral programme in the occupied territories we are giving about £22 million worth of assistance to the Palestinians this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has proposed that zones of protection, monitored by the UN, be established for the Palestinians, along the lines of those being introduced for the Kurds. I understand his concern to do more to protect the Palestinians. Indeed we share it. But the plights of the two peoples are very different. The rights of the Palestinians of the occupied territories are protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. The wellbeing of Palestinian refugees, their education and their health, wherever they are in the Near East, are already the responsibility of a UN agency—UNRWA. In Jordan and Syria their condition is similar to that of many inhabitants of the host country. In Lebanon they suffer from many of the problems facing ordinary Lebanese.

Although I am grateful for the compliment that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, paid to the Foreign Office and its persuasive negotiating ability, we do not, we believe, need new arrangements to protect the Palestinians. However, I must put it to your lordships that we need to make the existing arrangements work more effectively.

We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that there is a case for safe havens in certain circumstances but we do not believe that the promotion of the idea that the whole of the occupied territories be made a safe haven, policed by a large UN force, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, would serve either the Palestinians there or the cause of peace. The Israeli Government have made plain their rejection of that proposal, which is entirely inconsistent with their policy. If we are to achieve a lasting improvement in conditions and a lasting political settlement, we must, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester reminded us, engage Palestinians and Israelis in negotiation, not alienate them.

Finally, I turn briefly to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe. He took the debate wider to include other unfortunate people in the world who are suffering. He mentioned in particular the Kurds. If he can bear with the House a little longer, I shall be making a Statement on that subject which may be of interest to him.

There is much to be done to improve the unsatisfactory conditions in the occupied territories to which the noble Lord referred, but I can assure the House that Britain is playing a full part in tackling the problem.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to all the speakers in the debate. It has been timely and I am delighted that it seems to have drawn out a number of constructive ideas. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for his proposal and, in that context, to say that there are around the world still some very large military forces which could perhaps be employed to better effect in putting into practice those peacekeeping and problem-resolving proposals that have been agreed by the United Nations.

I am grateful to my noble kinsman, Lord Oxford and Asquith, for his confidence-building measures which I am sure are important. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, asked who are the valid Palestinian interlocutors. Perhaps part of the answer is that Mr. Baker, the American Secretary of State, sat down in Jerusalem with at least half a dozen of them and, if they are not the right people, a number of others were named in today's debate.

The Government's reply was very nearly all that I could have hoped. There is perhaps one small exception about the Fourth Geneva Convention which, alas, does not seem to be observed and applied within the occupied territories. I am sure that we all join in wishing well the meeting taking place today between Mr. Baker and the European Community Ministers. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.