HL Deb 28 October 2003 vol 654 cc132-5

2.53 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the Israeli policy of building a wall against the Palestinians is lawful and what discussions they have had with the Israeli Government on this policy.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government believe that Israel's building of a fence on occupied land is unlawful, but we recognise Israel's legitimate security concerns and deplore the terrorist suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. We have urged the Palestinian Authority to exert greater efforts to stop such bombings. At the same time, we have repeatedly urged the Government of Israel to reconsider the route of the fence. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have raised this issue on a number of occasions with the Israeli Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and ambassador.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am grateful for that response. Is not the road map a route to nowhere if Israel continues to provoke the very kind of Palestinian extremism that the wall is designed to prevent? Is not the 397-mile wall, as it will be, particularly provocative and self-defeating, expropriating, as it does, large tracts of Palestinian land and thus tens of thousands of Palestinians? Given the indivisibility of Middle East peace—we had only yesterday a reminder of that—will Her Majesty's Government urge the United States, which is the only real influence on Israel, to show some really tough love to stop the continuation of the building of the wall?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that the road map is a route to nowhere, although the noble Lord qualified what he said by adding that it would become one if Israel went on in this provocative manner. One of the major problems of dealing with this seemingly intractable problem in the Middle East is the apportioning of blame—the desire at every turn to say who began the latest spiral of violence. We believe that the fence is unlawful but we would not so believe if it had been built on the green line. It is the route that the fence has taken that is provocative. It divides Palestinian land and causes real hardship in the everyday life of many Palestinians. The noble Lord should not run away with the idea that the United States has not made many of these points very clear to the Government of Israel, in the same way as we have done.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the majority of my family and friends who live in Israel, together with most other Israelis, deeply dislike the security fence? But most of them believe that, sadly, it is absolutely necessary if they are to protect their children and their families and those of other people from being murdered by suicide bombers and other infiltrating assassins.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that many of your Lordships will understand that. It was brought home to me very forcefully when I was in Tel Aviv the other day that the fence itself enjoys widespread support in the Israeli community on both left and right of the spectrum—apart from those on the extreme right who are unhappy about the number of settlements left on what they would deem the other side of the fence. It is not the existence of the fence but its routing that is causing so much trouble. If that were to be dealt with in a more sensitive way by the Israeli Government, they would win many friends.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar

My Lords, we all know why the American Government vetoed the resolution on the security fence. As the pro-Israeli American columnist, Thomas Friedman, said, President Bush is so far in Sharon's pocket that you cannot even see him now. As we hope the same is not true of our Prime Minister, why did not the Government take into account the sensible remarks that the Minister has made about the wall and, instead of following obediently behind President Bush, vote for the resolution?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we took a very sensible view. On 14th October the Security Council voted on a text that demanded Israel should cease the construction of the fence. We considered that that draft had insufficient references to terrorism and, therefore, that it was unbalanced and unhelpful to the implementation of the road map. We abstained in that vote, along with Germany, Bulgaria and Cameroon, and the United States used its veto. A resolution on the fence was subsequently put to an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly where the European Union proposals, which we had been pivotal in negotiating, were brought forward. We believed at that point that we had a more balanced text and voted in favour of the resolution. I hope that, on reflection, the noble Lord will recognise that the United Kingdom Government have played a constructive role in seeking a balanced way forward.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the Minister has referred several times to the road map in the present and future tense. I had believed that the road map was now referred to in the past tense. I have read a number of articles in the Washington press and references from the Israeli press which, in effect, assume that the road map is now dead. If that is the case, what are the British Government, with our partners in the EU—which, after all, is one of the four members of the quartet—doing to make sure that the attempt to revive the peace process has not entirely died with the apparent collapse of the road map?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, no matter how gloomy the prospects, I do not accept that the road map has collapsed. I do not accept what has been written in the press in Washington and Israel or in the press in Arab countries. We remain committed to the road map and we support the Palestinian efforts to form a government who can be a genuine partner for peace. The Abu Allah Government are still struggling to survive. I agree that the augurs do not look good, but I would not wish to bury the prospects of that Government succeeding quite so soon. It is important that every possible encouragement is given both to the Palestinian Authority to form a successful government and to the Government of Israel to deal fairly with that government.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the fence built around the Gaza Strip in 1994 has been effective in keeping out terrorists and Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel? Does she agree with me that of the 170 suicide bombings that have taken place in Israel, most of those people have come across from the West Bank? Does she further agree that while there might be a debate about the route of a fence, there can be no debate about the right of Israel to build such a fence?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope I have made it clear that it is not the existence of the fence that we believe to be unlawful but the route that is taken. The noble Lord is quite right to remind us that since the fence built around the Gaza Strip has been in place, almost all the suicide bombings have come from the West Bank—indeed, I believe that only one has come from the Gaza Strip. I am sure that that unites Israeli public opinion around the feeling that there is a real necessity for the fence, for the sake of their own security. We wish to urge upon the Israelis that while we acknowledge that and see the difficulties they are facing, we hope that they will be a good deal more sensitive than they being are at present about the routing, which is causing a real problem and real hardship.