HL Deb 28 March 1994 vol 553 cc903-17

7.24 p.m.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention; and if so, what steps the United Kingdom as a signatory of the convention is taking to remedy this breach of international law.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, subject to what my noble friend the Minister and other noble Lords have to say, there is little doubt about the answer to the first part of the Question. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention states: The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own [civilian] population into the territory it occupies". Nothing could be clearer than that. If the illegality of the settlements is flagrant both the ethics and the politics of those settlements are similarly clear and reinforce the case for the enforcement of international law.

The 1967 borders of Israel—the internationally recognised borders—give Israel 67 per cent. of the land of Palestine. It follows that the indigenous population of Palestine have just 23 per cent. of their own country. That is not, one would have thought, an excessive proportion.

Unfortunately, Israeli governments, ever greedy for more land, have pursued an illegal programme of colonisation which has gone far further than is generally realised. If Jerusalem is included, as it plainly has to be, there are no fewer than 280,000 Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories. The Gaza Strip is the most heavily populated place in the world. More than 800,000 Palestinians live there, in conditions which a leading Israeli journalist has described as living on a garbage heap.

In addition to those 800,000 Palestinians there are some 4,000 Israeli settlers and the Israeli army. I need hardly tell your Lordships that those settlers are not overcrowded. Nor is the occupying Israeli army. The reason is that those 4,000 settlers and the Israeli army occupy no less than one third of the land area. When I was in Gaza last year I was told by a reliable Palestinian source that that proportion has now risen to 43 per cent. However, as I am relying in these remarks on Israeli sources and largely on Israeli language I shall stick to the figure of 33 per cent. The 4,000 settlers and the army have at least half as much land as the 800,000 Palestinians. How anybody can have allowed that to happen, still less defend it or seek to perpetuate it, defies understanding.

As Israel's most respected military commentator, Ze-ev Schiff, wrote in Haaretz last year: We have continued to steal the Strip's water, even though its quality deteriorates from year to year. We have continued to steal the Strip's tiny land resources in order to found more and more Jewish settlements, as if we deliberately wanted to make the inhabitants despair".

So the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip are not only illegal, they are indecent in their extent and ostentation and they are a denial of rudimentary justice.

Unfortunately the situation is no better on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There, too, Israel—to use Mr. Schiff's word—has "stolen" Palestinian land and water on a massive scale. The distinguished Israeli politician, Mr. Meron Benvenisti, wrote last year: Two million Palestinians of the Territories, who amount to a little less than a third of the total population of Palestine, now control no more than 8% of the water resources and 1:3% of the land". That means that Israel has stolen some 43 per cent. of the Occupied Territories—the same figure that my Palestinian informant gave me.

Shortly after he resigned as head of the civil administration of the West: Bank, Brigadier General Ephraim Sneh observed that the amount of water pumped for an Israeli resident on the West Bank is 12 times as much as the amount pumped for a Palestinian. Palestinians have been prevented from digging any new wells since 1967 in order to give the Israelis as much water as they want. "Robbing" the Palestinians of their water is also, of course, illegal under the Geneva Convention.

There is a widespread delusion that the Rabin Government have stopped the building of settlements and have given up stealing Palestinian land. Regrettably, although the present Israeli Government, unlike their predecessors, want peace, thank heavens, of a sort, anybody who goes to the West Bank will see that that is quite untrue; and indeed the Government pinched another 9,000 acres in the Jerusalem area as recently as last December. Indeed the Rabin Government, like their predecessors, seem intent on stealing all East Jerusalem and greatly extending their boundaries. Yet no amount of propaganda about Jerusalem being Israel's "eternal capital"—which is historically complete rubbish, as noble Lords realise—can alter the fact that East Jerusalem is legally and rightfully Palestinian, as indeed incidentally was a good deal of West Jerusalem until the Israelis ethnically cleansed it in 1948.

As is now notorious, the Rabin Government have been wholly negligent in controlling the settlers' violence. Long before the atrocity at Hebron last month, an Israeli journalist accused the settlers there of being "a racist conquest regime" relentlessly seeking "domination". I must admit that I gained a similar impression last year. At the same time, an Israeli paratroop unit serving in Hebron was so incensed by the settlers' treatment of the Palestinians that it sent a petition to the Defence Ministry. Also, apparently, the settlers' children are taught to call the Israeli soldiers Nazis. Even if brutal—the Israeli army has killed something like 300 Palestinian children aged 16 and under since the Intifada began—the Israeli soldiers are certainly not Nazis. If anyone is Nazi it is the extremist religious settlers. Indeed the distinguished dissident Professor Heshayahu Leibowitz has said that the mass murder in Hebron was a consequence of "Judeo-Nazism".

Before the massacre, Jewish settlers had often shot Palestinians, yet the Israeli army was forbidden to shoot back at them and the Israeli courts scarcely punished them. The extremist Rabbi Levinger, unusually, was found guilty in 1990 of murdering an Arab and then suffered the draconian penalty for the murder of 85 days in prison. The Jewish settlements have thus produced a racist apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories.

The massacre in the Hebron mosque was the direct consequence of that system and of Israel's illegal policy of colonisation and theft. I very much doubt whether Dr. Goldstein was mad. I think that he was all too representative of a familiar settler attitude, which was demonstrated again by the widespread settler support for his action. And Goldstein's grave seems now to have become something of a shrine for those of his ilk.

The settlements are not only illegal; they are moral, political, aesthetic as well as legal monstrosities. Their continuance will make peace impossible—and that, after all, is why most of them were established.

Having previously lost 75 per cent. of their land, the Palestinians cannot be expected to accept the illegal expropriation of nearly half of the small part of their country which still remains to them. Furthermore, the settlers and the settlements are an endless source of violence. International law must prevail and the settlements must go.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will now play a more active part. That is all the more necessary because of the shamelessly one-sided behaviour of the Clinton administration. A few years ago it was said that the American Senate and Congress were "Israeli-occupied territory". The sheeplike obedience to the Israeli lobby of 82 senators over the UN resolution on Hebron recently confirmed that truth. Unfortunately, under the Clinton administration, as under the Reagan one, the White House and the State Department are also Israeli occupied territory. The Clinton administration's stance is one of submission to Israel, and the current State Department negotiators are more Israeli than the Israelis and more Likud-oriented than Labour-oriented.

No contest—legal, sporting or anything else—can properly work if the supervisor, umpire or judge comes down completely on one side against the other. That is why it is imperative that Britain and Europe should now play a major role in ending the illegal settlements and standing up strongly for what is right.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, has clearly stated one interpretation of Article 49. Others take the opposite view. They say that the movement of population into the territory under control is prohibited only to the extent that it involves the displacement of the local population; and the Israeli section of the International Commission of Jurists takes the view that Article 49 has not been contravened because the establishment of the settlements has not meant that the local population has been displaced.

However, it is the question of land held by settlers which is most contentious. According to my sources, only 7 per cent. of the West Bank land is held by settlers and it was acquired legally. Prior to 1967, only about half the land had been registered and classified. So there is uncertainty over the ownership of some parcels of land. Some land in the West Bank had been acquired prior to 1948 by Jews who had registered it in their names.

Most of the land used for Jewish settlements was registered as government land belonging to the Jordanian Crown or the British High Commissioner. The Jordanian Crown and the British High Commissioner's title is still expressly recorded in the Land Registry. In the few instances where private land was involved, it was acquired in accordance with Jordanian law and full compensation was paid. Similar laws providing for the acquisition of land exist in Israel and most other countries.

As ever, there are two sides to the matter. The answer to the second part of the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, is "support the peace process" because from that will come normality. First and foremost, normality means better functioning of the rule of law. I believe that the rule of law in Israel is paramount. But I am not a lawyer so I consulted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, knowing that he had been involved recently in two Anglo-Israeli judicial exchanges. He has authorised me to quote him as follows: After the two Anglo-Israeli judicial exchanges, and in particular the British party's visit to Israel, which included myself and Lord Taylor, as well as members of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, the impression left on the British participants was that judicial standards in Israel were of a very high order indeed. There can be no doubt that they have developed judicial reviews so as to control the actions of Government further and to greater effect than we have in this country, and that they are great defenders of the Rule of Law. In relation to those in the Occupied Territories, they provide a remedy which is a valuable safeguard, but it is fair to say that the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court are not as great in the Occupied Territories as they are within Israel itself'. Normality would mean that those high judicial standards would then apply to Israelis and Arabs alike, in Israel and in the territories. Meanwhile, residents of the territories have been able to bring before Israeli courts claims against the state of Israel, the military government and all their authorities. Indeed, such a position allowing residents of administered areas access to the courts of the occupying power is unprecedented in international practice. Your Lordships may recall the episode of the gas masks during the Gulf War.

The second part of normality to be brought about by the peace process is co-existence. It is the fate of Arabs and Jews to live together in Israel and in the territories, and the question of the settlements is being discussed with the Palestinians in the negotiations on the permanent status of the West Bank and Gaza.

This agreement demonstrates Israel's resolve to seek a lasting and peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a complex problem and it is best left to the three-stage framework agreed. This agreement does not require the dismantling of the settlements but will provide a way for some settlers to leave. This is already happening without government encouragement. Settlers who find life hazardous, inconvenient or unsatisfying or who feel betrayed by the peace process are already moving back into Israel with modest help from the housing authorities.

Since the Oslo Agreement was signed, the negotiations have been carried out under a cloud of continuous terrorism. Many Israelis have been killed and so have many Arabs. In no way does this detract from my utter and complete condemnation of the Hebron massacre. The act of this depraved and fanatical Jew leaves me with mixed feelings of pain, anguish and disgrace. I too send my heartfelt condolences to the families of those who were murdered and to the injured. As a result of this terrible crime, Israel has outlawed two groups living in the territories as terrorist organisations. I am sure that the whole House would like to see the result of this terrible event to be the rapid acceleration of the implementation of the agreement with the PLO.

Tragedies often make us review our fundamental principles. But here we should be steadfast and not let that tragedy deter our fundamental support for the peace process.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, the views of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, are not widely shared; that is, the legality of the settlements or the degree of justice meted out to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Although sincerely advanced, the views are not accepted by any government in the world except the Israeli Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, has done the House a service in raising this Question today. The horror and evil of the Holocaust should not inhibit us from speaking plainly about Israel's crimes against the Palestinians. Article 49 was conceived after the war to prevent recurrence of the policy of Aryanisation during the war by which German nationals were transferred to the occupied territory in order to help lay claim to it. It is extraordinary that Article 49 should be breached by, of all people, the Israelis.

Many Israelis settled in the Occupied Territories for purely pragmatic personal reasons. Given the right incentives, they might well be persuaded to return to live in Israel. Indeed, I see no reason in principle why Jewish citizens should not live alongside Palestinians in the Palestinian state, as Palestinians live alongside Israelis in Israel.

The trouble does not arise there. The trouble comes from Israelis who have settled in the Occupied Territories for religious and ideological reasons. They claim quite unconvincingly that the land is theirs. They are armed. Not only do they refuse to move but they are dedicated to destroying the whole peace process, which they are now doing with some success.

In theory, the Israeli Government, who want the peace process to succeed, should disarm those people. They should evict them from at least two places; first, from the middle of Hebron and, secondly, from the settlement of Netzarim in the middle of Gaza. It was agreed in the latest exchanges that monitors should be sent to the area and that armed Palestinian guards should help to patrol Hebron. We hope that that will help but in my view it is not nearly enough. The Israeli Government lack the political will and the political clout to take this action. Indeed, they are unsure about whether the Israeli army will obey orders.

If the British army is probably the best peace-keeping force in the world, the Israeli army is unquestionably the worst. We know that until recently it was authorised in emergencies to shoot Arabs but forbidden in emergencies to shoot Jews. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, spoke about regretting the massacre of the 30 Palestinians in Hebron. He did not say that he also regretted the shooting of the 36 Palestinians by the Israeli army since Hebron. Since then it has, of course, shot no Jews. The Israeli army has no idea of even-handedness or restraint. It is a complete failure as a peace-keeping force.

The right thing to do is to have United Nations intervention. The United Nations has every right: to intervene. The situation in the West Bank is a plain threat to peace. In addition, the destruction of the human rights of the Palestinians has gone way beyond any tolerable limit. Therefore, a United Nations peacekeeping force should be sent to protect both the Arab and Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories. Compared with the Serbs, the Moslems and the Croats, the Arab and Jewish terrorists are few in number and poorly armed. Let General Rose be sent to Jericho, Gaza and Hebron to sort out the terrorists and to enable the peace process to proceed. I believe that to be the best way forward in this critical time.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gwydir

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, says that the views of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, are not widely shared. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, it is clear that his views are widely shared by those who have an aversion to the state of Israel. For many years he has demonstrated his views on that matter. I applaud what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. I thought his contribution important.

However, I am somewhat anxious about the way in which the debate is going. I understand that the Question before the House is: whether the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention". In anticipation of my noble friend Lord Gilmour giving the reasons why he was asking the Question, I obtained a copy of the Convention for the Protection of War Victims. I assume that my noble friend is referring to the last paragraph of Article 49. It states: The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies". That is the end of the article. It begins by dealing with individual or mass forcible transfers as well as the deportation of protected persons from occupied territories. It was put into the convention at the end of the war as a result of the dreadful activities of the Nazi administration, in particular the mass transfer of population in order to get rid of people regarded as being unacceptable; in name, the Jews. They were taken to be liquidated from one country to another and were moved from one place to another. That is why we have Article 49 in the convention.

I remind the House of Article 2. It states that, the present convention shall apply to … armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties". The convention applies, to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party". I therefore ask the House to consider this question: which is the high contracting party whose territory is occupied? In other words, which state has sovereign title to the West Bank?

In 1967 Jordan was in occupation. It is generally accepted that after its annexation of the territories, Jordan had no sovereignty in international law. Its presence in Judaea and Samaria was only given de jure recognition by two countries out of the whole international community. Therefore, if one is dealing with points of law, as my noble friend's Question seeks, it seems clear that the West Bank, at present occupied by Israel, does not belong to any other state, and the convention therefore does not apply. The answer to the first and dominant part of my noble friend's Question is therefore no.

I shall raise another matter if I have time. The last legal sovereignty over the territories was that of the League of Nations mandate of 1922. It can be argued that its provisions still hold legal weight. The mandate stipulated that the area was to be part of the Jewish homeland, and that Jewish settlement there was to be encouraged.

I have referred the House to those two matters, namely, the effect of Article 2 and the mandate, to indicate how ridiculous it is even to contemplate that major national and ethnic issues can ever be solved by raising legal points.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, what I have to say very much follows on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir. In order to understand the present position—which all of us agree is tragic—it is necessary to look at the course of events. The West Bank territory was occupied as a result of the assault on the new state of Israel by its neighbours; it was occupied by Jordan. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, it was formally declared to be part of the kingdom of Jordan in 1950 and was recognised as such by the United Kingdom Government and by Pakistan. But the assumption at the time of King Abdullah, and the assumption of the Israeli Government with which he was negotiating, was that that was a prelude to a peace agreement between those two countries in which settlements and other issues would have been dealt with.

The assassination of King Abdullah put an end to those prospects, and we then went on to the period of Jordanian occupation during which there was ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population of the West Bank. That population was small but it did exist in a number of centres and it was removed. There was the occupation of the ancient city of Jerusalem, when the Jewish quarter was destroyed and Jews were not allowed to fulfil their religious obligations there.

In the 1967 war, those territories then fell under Israel. The problem that we now face is that of the peace process. And a part of the peace process must be to disentangle what has happened.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, is to some extent correct in assigning some of the problem to recently arrived fanatical religious elements on the Jewish side. But numerically and physically they are perhaps not the most difficult part of the problem. The major number of settlers, if we exclude the arguments over East Jerusalem, are in what are called the security settlements along the highlands west of the Jordan river, which have been thought to be necessary as part of the protection of Israel. The importance of that security being guaranteed was emphasised by the attack on Israel by Iraq during the Gulf War.

We come back to whether we believe in the peace process. If the peace process is successful, the security settlements will cease to have a raison d'être. They have very little economic value. They are, as it were, military outposts. The religious settlers are very likely, in view of the rejection of the settlement, to be constrained to move. The Israeli Government will at some point feel that it must exert pressure upon them. Then one can hope for the coexistence which—as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, reminded us—is the purpose of the peace process itself.

That process is bound to take a long time. We have already seen the obstacles that have arisen despite the activities of the Norwegian and other governments in bringing the two sides together. I would have thought that the last thing that we want to do now is to go into an examination of fallacious (if I may say so) and at any rate obsolete arguments about circumstances on the legal side many years ago, and ask Her Majesty's Government, in so far as they have influence, to help in the peace process—that is to say, to look to the present and the future. That is the only excuse that this House has for debating anything at all.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, has raised a timely Question. He may have raised it—as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, implied—in too legalistic a form. It is nevertheless an urgent practical question, whatever the position is under the Geneva Convention. The recent mass murder in the mosque shows that the presence of fanatical settlers in Hebron and elsewhere is a present and obvious danger to the local population. It is one that must cause very considerable resentment. After all, the Palestinians there are in danger of death. A man went into the mosque and massacred them. Then his fellow settlers told the press that they wished that more people had been killed. That is the mentality of those settlers. Their presence is not only illegal; it is a clear danger. That is the mentality of Auschwitz. It is genocide, and it has to be called by that name.

The regret expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, to the families of the victims took me down memory lane. It high-lighted to me the fact that the state of Israel has always been Jekyll and Hyde. We have to urge the state of Israel to see that its long-run survival depends upon Jekyll winning against Hyde.

In 1944 my grandfather, the first Lord Moyne, was murdered by terrorists of a group led by Yitzhak Shamir. The reaction of the Zionist movement was one of horror. Weizmann himself sent letters of condolence. There was general revulsion. Every year my father used to get a postcard from the Israeli embassy. There is no question that the general view of that murder was that it was an atrocity. That was Jekyll. Then, after Camp David, Hyde took over. When Menachem Begin received back from Egypt the corpses of the murderers, he re-buried them with military honours and issued stamps in their honour. That is not particularly relevant. It is history and we have to think of the future.

But the future of Israel itself depends on that spirit being disciplined and, in the end, destroyed. It depends on the respectable Israelis coming out on top. It depends on the removal of the murderous settlers. If that does not happen, Israel may well win military victory after victory, but in the end it is no more likely to survive than the Christian state during the crusades survived in Palestine. That is the historical precedent that must be considered. For Israel's own sake let the settlers be removed.

8 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, it is difficult to come to the winding-up of the debate on this short Unstarred Question without wanting another 20 minutes to develop the subject. After the moving intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, and the passionate words of other noble Lords, perhaps I may try to calm things clown a little, if I possibly can.

It seems to me that what the Government are being asked is quite simple. Do Her Majesty's Government still maintain the position that they have always maintained in relation to the settlements in the Occupied Territories? Indeed, do the Government still accept that they are occupied territories? Tonight we have heard speeches which suggest that that is a wrong description. It is quite clear to me that they are occupied territories and that the people living in them should be treated within the terms of the Geneva Convention. If the question has to be asked, it is because both the British and American Governments seem to have been pussyfooting—I cannot put it more clearly than that—in the past months because of the peace process.

We are all anxious to see the peace process succeed. Let there be no mistake about that. We are all anxious to do everything in our power to ensure that the peace process succeeds. I do not believe that it will help that process to forget the situation in the settlements. But after the massacre at Hebron, who can forget the situation in the settlements?

There is a total imbalance in the situation. There are Palestinians who are shot because they are terrorists. Some of them are terrorists and people in the settlements deserve to be defended from them. The Israeli army is right to defend them. But the truth is that Palestinians also deserve to be defended by the Israeli army as the occupying power from terrorists on the other side. Clearly, that has not happened. Not only did that person get into the mosque and shoot people at prayer; after that, Palestinians were shot by the Israeli army because they were demonstrating. To me that shows the total imbalance in the situation.

It is quite a simple question that the noble Baroness has to answer tonight. Do the Government stick by their avowed policy of past years and are they prepared to come up front and say, "We believe that these are occupied territories, that the settlements infringe the Geneva Convention and international law and we are prepared to stand up and say so"?

I do not accept by any means the view that all the settlers are terrorists. After the massacre I heard settlers speaking on the radio in terms that were extremely pacific, expressing their horror and shock at what had happened. Obviously, they were as shocked as many of us outside the country. But the truth is that the settlements are a provocation. They are still extending. They are not static. They are being extended as we speak. While that is going on, Palestinians understandably feel affronted, frightened and threatened. I hope that the Minister, when she replies, cart give some reassurance that at least this Government—and it AS to. be hoped that the American Government will do the same—are prepared to stand up and speak for them. Ii is their duty to do so as one of the powers which is responsible for the situation.

8.5 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, for introducing this debate on a most important subject. I am only sorry that we have so little time in which to debate it.

It is a tragedy that the progress which had been made toward a settlement between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel is now being jeopardised by Jewish extremists in the settler population on the West Bank in particular. It seems to me that the Israeli Government must now take urgent action to deal with those settlers, so that progress towards peace can continue. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. That such settlements were ever allowed in the first place is a blot on the record of successive Israeli Governments. The price now being paid is indeed a heavy one.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir, and my noble friend Lord Haskel, questioned what the Fourth Geneva Convention states on this matter. I am not a lawyer and cannot answer the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour. However, it seems to me fairly clear that no occupying power—Israel is an occupying power so far as concerns those territories—should allow the transfer into such territories of parts of its own civilian population. Since the 1967 war there has been a very substantial increase in the numbers of settlers both on the West Bank and in Gaza. Indeed, in 1972 there were only 1,200 settlers on the West Bank. There are now 120,000, which is a tenfold increase. I can only express surprise that Israeli leaders in the past did not recognise the problem that that would pose in any future peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever might be the legal position.

There is not and never has been consensus in Israel about the settlements policy. Many thoughtful and well informed Israelis have been critical, recognising the strategic threat that is posed—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, used the word "provocation", which seems to me to be a very appropriate term—and questioning the morality of that policy. Again, it is absolutely right, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, that the world community, including the United States Government, have condemned the settlements. The events of the past few weeks have confirmed the worst fears of those liberal Israelis who have criticised the policy. It struck terror into their hearts to hear some extremist settlers praising Dr. Goldstein's cold-blooded gunning down of Arabs at prayer in the Hebron mosque. It also demonstrates, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, said, that the man was not just a madman on the rampage with a gun but a creature of the despicable ideology of the community of which he was a part. Those noble Lords who perhaps saw the television programme last week featuring young boys in that community being imbued with the most appalling racial hatred will have shared my sense of shock.

Can the Minister tell us what pressure the Government are now putting on the Israeli Government to take more robust action? So far the measures announced, such as the banning of Kach and Kahane Hai, although welcome, do not go nearly far enough. The carrying of lethal weapons continues. There are still armed settlers on the streets in the Occupied Territories, some of whom are reservists in the Israeli army. Less than 100 of those people have been banned from carrying weapons under new government restrictions. No settler should be allowed to carry weapons outside his home. All the Palestinians in those areas are subject to strictly enforced gun controls; the same should apply to the settlers.

It can hardly have helped the peace process to have restricted the Palestinians to their homes after the mosque massacre while settlers are subject to no such restrictions. Settlements in the most sensitive areas where there are large Palestinian populations should be closed, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, suggested. Some Israeli settlers in the new territories want to leave. I understand that they have asked for government compensation and support to help them resettle in Israel. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether or not that has been refused. My noble friend Lord Haskel implied that it had not but I have read reports that indicate otherwise.

Perhaps I can end by asking the Government what action is now being taken to promote an international presence in Gaza and Jericho, which I believe was accepted by the Israeli Government and is in accord with the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles. Will the Government accept that such a presence would be of great value not just in Gaza and Jericho, but also in the other sensitive areas of the Occupied Territories? It is difficult for the Palestinians to have confidence in the Israeli Army after what happened in Hebron. Moreover, the attitude of the Israeli soldiers towards the extremist settlers has been both equivocal and ambivalent, even when those people were behaving in a way which clearly jeopardises the peace.

It is in the interests of peace, desperately wanted by hundreds of thousands of moderate Israelis and Palestinians, that urgent action must be taken to deal with the settler problem. I hope that the Government will press for that with the Israeli Government and in the wider international fora in which we participate.

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar for asking his Question and all noble Lords who have spoken in our short debate. It is a welcome chance to discuss such an important and topical subject. I shall seek to respond to the questions raised by attempting to put them in the context of the Middle East peace process more generally. After all, that is what every speaker, though from different viewpoints, has been asking for in our debate.

Nothing will ever diminish the horror of the massacre of innocent Palestinians in Hebron on 25th February. That appalling tragedy underlined the importance of pressing ahead with negotiations to secure a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region. The European Union Foreign Ministers issued a declaration on 7th March which called on all parties to resume negotiations and discuss the question of security of the Palestinians. European Union Ministers reiterated that Israel is responsible for the security of the inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, and that means all the inhabitants.

The declaration also supported the establishment of an international presence in the Occupied Territories in which the European Union is willing to participate. On 18th March, with our co-sponsorship, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 904 condemning the massacre and calling for an international presence in the Occupied Territories. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said that if the parties agree on a civilian international presence in the West Bank, Britain will play its part.

In our debate my noble friends Lord Beloff and Lord Moyne underlined the huge dangers of fanatical settlers leading to even worse disasters than we perhaps have already seen. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, made it clear in his remarks that law-abiding citizens deserve to be defended. We do not disagree with any of those comments. My noble friend Lord Gilmour and other noble Lords asked whether the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. The British Government have stated on many occasions since 1967 the view that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the territories occupied by Israel in that year, 1967, and that the Jewish settlements are illegal and contravene that convention. My noble friend will recall a Statement he made in another place in May 1979 when he underlined, the Government's firm opposition to Israel's policy of settlement in the Occupied Territories. These settlements are not only contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, they are a truly major obstacle to the building of trust in the area, and, therefore an obstacle to peace". No one could have put it better.

I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and to some extent with my noble friend Lord Thomas. There is absolutely no doubt that our position, which I have just repeated, is clearly shared by our European partners as declared at the Lisbon Council in June 1992. Over a period of many years the United Kingdom has repeatedly sought to try to ensure respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention. We have frequently supported condemnations of violations at the UN and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked, in other international fora. We have made representations both bilaterally and in conjunction with others. We continue to urge the Israelis to administer the Occupied Territories in accordance with international law and accepted standards of human rights, as I referred to some moments ago.

According to the Declaration of Principles signed in a fanfare of hope last September by both Israel and the PLO, the general question of settlements will be covered in the permanent status negotiations which will commence, as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period". That will begin upon Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Jeri& o area. We warmly welcomed the signature of the Declaration of Principles. We hope that it will be implemented as soon as possible. That is why the resumption of talks between the Israelis and the PLO following the Hebron massacre was so important. We believe that direct negotiations in the framework set out in the Declaration of Principles offer the best hope of producing a just and lasting settlement of all aspects of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, including the question of settlements. I am glad that the high level talks will resume tomorrow after the break for Passover. I sincerely hope that sufficient progress will be made so that the formal talks can begin very soon thereafter.

Let me say something in regard to settlement building. The Israeli Government have curbed settlement activity in the West Bank, on the Gaza Strip and on the Golan Heights. While that is welcome, it falls far short of the total ban on settlements in the Occupied Territories which we among many in the international community have called for. We are particularly concerned about the continuing settlement activity in the so-called "greater Jerusalem area"—an area of some 100 square miles. The British Government and our European Union partners have made repeated &marches to the Israeli Government expressing our view that all settlements in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

My noble friend Lord Gilmour asks me about land confiscations and I have to say that I share his concern at the reports both about land being confiscated and the cutting off or diverting of water. Those issues must be addressed in the peace process negotiations. It is obviously urgent that they should be so addressed and makes the peace process negotiations all the more urgent. We have taken as many steps as we can. My noble friend Lord Gilmour asked Her Majesty's Government to be more active. It has not simply been a question of making démarches or persuading others to support the action which will helpfully get the peace talks back on the road. We have given emergency aid to the Hebron victims. We have certainly been involved in seeking to create some stability in the area, although stability will come only when settlement ceases and indeed persons withdraw.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and my noble friend Lord Moyne both spoke about disarming the settlers. That is one of the most important steps that has to be taken—to disarm all settlers, particularly the extremist settlers. But there are grave difficulties in all of this because we know that some of the settlers who did not agree with the Hebron massacre and who are ashamed of what has happened feel their own lives to be at risk. In that I can have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and my noble friend Lord. Thomas of Gwydir said. We welcome the actions that have been taken by Prime Minister Rabin to disarm and detain the extremist settlers, to outlaw two extremist settler organisations, to set up the commission of inquiry headed by the President of the Supreme Court, to release some Palestinian prisoners and to offer to compensate the families of the victims of the massacre. But all these measures must be carried through, and until the settlements are removed they will continue to be an obstacle to peace.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked me about the resettlement of settlers. I cannot give her an exact answer at this moment but I shall look into the detail, write to her and copy my letter to all other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. It is an important point and it is one with which I am sure the international community should be helping in order to get stability across the whole of the area.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 904 called for measures to protect Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, including a temporary international or foreign presence. With our European Union partners we have supported that idea and, as I mentioned earlier, have announced our readiness to contribute to such an international presence once agreement is reached between the parties on its features. The presence should consist of unarmed civilians whose main tasks would be to observe, liaise and mediate in all the sensitive areas. As we said in the UN Security Council, it is important not to promise more than we can deliver, but it is the responsibility of the Israeli authorities to provide protection for all those inhabitants in the occupied territories. Their action is urgently needed to bring an end to all acts of violence in line with their obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, as my noble friend Lord Gilmour said. An international presence could certainly help to defuse the tension but it cannot detract from Israel's obligations, which she must fulfil.

My noble friend Lord Thomas asked about sovereign titles. The final status of these territories has to be addressed in the final stage of the peace process negotiations. As my noble friend Lord Beloff so rightly said, we must look to the future. It is the peace process that can do that and try to resolve the long-running disputes rather than dwelling on the past.

This has been an excellent debate. Neither Barukh Goldstein, nor those who share his views, must be allowed to succeed in their object of wrecking the peace process. The resumption of contacts between Israelis and Palestinians is urgent and greatly needed. We hope and believe that these may soon lead to formal negotiations. We welcome the announcement that Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are ready to resume their negotiations with Israel in Washington next month. I have no doubt that the renewed efforts by the parties to negotiate a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement is the best way to respond to the Hebron tragedy and to bring to an end the problems and suffering which we have discussed so well today.