HL Deb 25 June 1998 vol 591 cc348-50

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the Government of Israel with regard to plans for further expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law. They are also an obstacle to peace, pre-empting final status talks and destroying hard won trust between Israelis and Palestinians. EU missions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem carefully monitor the situation on the ground and produce quarterly reports summarising settlement activity. Those reports are then put to the Israeli Government.

As EU presidency, we issued a statement on 21st June expressing concern at the Israeli Government's endorsement of plans to expand the boundaries of the Jerusalem area. We also issued a statement on 12th June urging the government to take urgent measures to prevent provocative settlement activity in East Jerusalem.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and for the steps already taken by the UK presidency within the European Union. Does she agree that the state of Israel is a key factor in the economic and political development of the Middle East? In those circumstances, does she agree that abiding by the Oslo accords is crucial to making that contribution? Will she assure the House that in addition to the representations that she has described on settlements, the Government are making representations, together with the United States, on the issue of the bulldozing of Arab housing and the unilateral extension of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes, I can agree with what the noble Baroness said. The United States has indeed been a prime mover in working to get the Oslo accords implemented. In recent months it has worked hard to get the parties to agree to a package of ideas designed to restore confidence in the negotiating process and to break the current deadlock. That is based on the Oslo process and backed by key players in the region and by the international community. We continue to urge the United States to come forward with its proposals to which the Palestinians have agreed in principle. We urge it also to stand by that package despite domestic pressures in the United States. While the Americans feel that they are still in with a chance, we all agree that our role should be to back them up. We want to keep international activity focused on the need for Mr. Netanyahu to sign up to the American package. That is a view shared by the regional leaders.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I welcome very much what the Minister said about the boundaries of the city of Jerusalem. However, will the Government ask the European Union to remove Israel's trade privileges for as long as the illegal settlements continue to be built, contravening the Geneva Convention and the Oslo agreements?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we agree that the status of Jerusalem must be determined in the final status talks. We believe that neither side should pre-empt that and we have condemned Israeli policies which are aimed at altering the demographic balance in East Jerusalem, including the settlement building, confiscation of Palestinian identity cards and house demolition. But we do not believe that a confrontational approach would help the peace process. A comprehensive settlement needs to be based on trust and co-operation and in that context the measures which the noble Lord describes would be counter-productive.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's strong and wise words. Does she not believe that it is time for Europe to take some action in view of the fact that, as I recently saw for myself, illegal settlements and robbery of Palestinian land are continuing every day. Surely, it is high time that there was a confrontational approach because clearly the United States Government are in thrall to the current Israeli Government because of the strength of the Israeli lobby. Therefore, some additional action is now needed.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe I have made the position clear as regards the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. There was full discussion of the Middle East peace process at the EU summit at Cardiff. EU partners shared Her Majesty's Government's grave concern at the continuing deadlock and the threat that that poses to the stability of the region. We reiterated our strong support for the efforts of the United States to gain the agreement of the parties to the packages of proposals. We welcomed Palestinian acceptance of the proposals. We must continue to call upon the Government of Israel to give a clear and positive response.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, what project work is going on in this difficult area? I am sure the Minister will know that people on the West Bank are extremely deprived as a result of actions taken by the Government of Israel. Some two years ago there was a great deal of planning for project work, backed by the European Union, to try to make the lives of those poor people on the West Bank a little more bearable. What has happened?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Ministers agreed at the 23rd February General Affairs Council to renew the EU aid package to the Palestinians and discussed proposals for improving the efficiency of our assistance. The EU remains the largest aid donor to the Palestinians—£1.68 billion in grants and loans committed for 1993–98—plus, of course, bilateral contributions from member states. The UK contributes 16 per cent. of the EC aid budget. Our bilateral programme provides £10 million a year towards the elimination of poverty on the West Bank and Gaza to help underpin the peace process. The priority sectors include technical assistance to improve basic services such as health, education, good government, water and micro-finance.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many like myself, who are both Jewish and loyal friends of Israel, completely support the policy of the British Government in resisting any further expansion of settlements in the West Bank? We support withdrawal from the West Bank and the giving of full rights to Palestinians in that area as being in the best interests of Israel and its future.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I know that that is the case. Recent opinion polls have shown that 70 per cent. of Israelis back the peace process. The actions of the Israeli Government last weekend have been criticised by many people within Israel, including President Weizmann.

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