HC Deb 30 November 1999 vol 340 cc1-23WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10 am

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As there has been some uncertainty, can you confirm that contributions to the debate should be made from a standing position and that the switches on the microphones are inoperative because the microphones are operated automatically, so we do not need to touch them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can confirm that and I hope that everything will work smoothly. Hon. Members should rise in their place, as usual, and they will be heard by all who need to hear them.

10.1 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

It is a privilege to be making history by introducing the first debate in this new parallel Chamber. It is a pleasure to see that we have already established a new tradition of hon. Members sitting where they please and not in accordance with their political party.

It is a particular pleasure to me, as a former member of the Modernisation Committee and a signatory to the report that recommended the parallel Chamber, to have been chosen to speak in the first debate. It is fitting that my constituency of Milton Keynes is to be associated for ever with innovation and modernisation.

The subject of our debate is Palestinian refugees. The debate is timely because the issue is one of the most difficult to be resolved during the current final status negotiations in the middle east peace process. Both sides to the negotiations started from heavily entrenched positions. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has said that there can be no return of the refugees, but neither President Arafat nor any other Palestinian leader would be allowed to sign away the Palestinian right to return, given that 70 per cent. of Palestinians are refugees.

The refugee problem is not minor. Palestinians comprise the largest single group of refugees in the world, and one of the oldest. There are 3.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations, a figure that has grown from 914,000 in 1950 when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was established. That population is growing by 3 per cent. a year. Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestinian refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, and who took refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Jordanian-ruled West Bank or the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip. Contrary to the Israeli position, UNRWA also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.

In addition to registered refugees, an estimated 1 million other Palestinians are unregistered refugees. That includes the 850,000 who represent those displaced in 1967 and their descendants. The number has been augmented by the actions of the Israeli Government in confiscating the identity cards of Palestinian Jerusalemites, effectively deporting them. More than 2,000 Palestinians were deported in that way between 1996 and 1998 alone. In all, 70 per cent. of Palestinians remain in exile against their will.

Most of the refugees are in the immediate area of Palestine. According to UNRWA, one third of registered Palestinian refugees—around 1.1 million—live in 59 recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the west bank and Gaza. The majority of the remainder live in and around the cities of the area. For example, the majority of Palestinian refugees from west Jerusalem still live within 20 miles of their stolen property. That demonstrates the way in which the refugee problem is tied up with the question of Jerusalem and its borders.

There are even refugees living inside Israel. They are internal refugees who fled from their villages and found themselves still within the boundaries of the Jewish state after the cessation of hostilities. Today, they make up a large proportion of the 120,000-strong population of the so-called unrecognised villages—unrecognised in that, although the villages are within Israel, most of them are denied access to municipal services, including running water, electricity, education and health services. It is important that the fate of the internal refugees is not ignored, and that their rights are recognised.

What are the rights of the refugees? International law is clear. The refugees are entitled to return to their homes and entitled to compensation. UN resolution 194, which has been reaffirmed 110 times since 1948, and which even the United States supported in 1993, states clearly in relation to the Palestinians: the General Assembly resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of, or damage to, property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.

Further legal support is given through article XIII of the universal declaration of human rights, through the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, in which articles 2 and 5d guarantee the right of refugees to return, and through the international covenant on civil and political rights. The right of private ownership—most of the refugees owned land or other property—applies regardless of changes in sovereignty or nationality, and cannot be negotiated away by any government.

Some have sought to suggest that the refugees have forgone their rights, alleging that they left voluntarily in 1948 at the behest of surrounding Arab countries. However, there is a considerable body of evidence, now backed up by Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, Illan Pappé and others, that shows that there was a concerted and deliberate effort to expel Palestinians. Massacres such as that at Deir Yassin are well documented. Of the 726,000 refugees in 1948, 52 per cent. had been expelled or fled before the Arab forces entered Palestine in May 1948, and 213 villages and towns including Jaffa, Tiberias, Safad, Beisan and Acre had been forcibly depopulated.

Many of the areas attacked by Jewish forces before May 1948 were outside the area proposed under partition for the Jewish state. Why people fled is, in any case, irrelevant. As in Kosovo and Chechnya today, people flee any theatre of war. As far as international law is concerned, it matters not why a person has left. That person cannot be denied the right to return to his or her home. Legally, the Palestinians have a right of return that cannot be denied.

However, anyone who has visited Palestinian refugee camps and spoken to refugees cannot be in any doubt about their strong and abiding desire to return. A couple of years ago, in a refugee camp in Gaza, I spoke to a woman who lived with her family of four other adults and six grandchildren in five rooms. She had come from Hebron in 1948, still regarded Hebron as her home and longed to return. In the camps, people retain their community links with refugees from the same village or town. Marriages are arranged within those extended village communities, re-creating within the camps a network of virtual Palestinian villages. Over and over again, people show the key to their house, or the title deeds to their property in Palestine. The children, although born in Syria or Jordan, describe in loving detail the topography of family homes that they have never seen—family homes now expropriated and lived in by others.

The sense of injustice among refugees is fuelled by the appalling conditions in which many live. Most camps are desperately overcrowded, with extended families living in breeze-block dwellings that are far too small and often do not have proper sewerage or clean water. In Beach camp in the Gaza strip, more than 71,000 Palestinian refugees live in three quarters of a square kilometre. Children in the camps have nowhere to play but in the sand; by the age of four, 85 per cent. are infected with roundworm. In schools, double—or even treble—shifts for teachers and pupils are the norm. Unemployment is rife, and the refugees, unlike Gazan residents with Palestinian citizenship, cannot legally travel into Israel to seek employment.

The refugees in Lebanon have suffered especially badly. Many were killed during the civil war in Lebanon, and others continue to live there under frequent Israeli bombardment. The refugees' presence in Lebanon is unwelcome to the Lebanese, who are concerned about the destabilising effect that they have had, and may continue to have, on the complex communal politics of Lebanon. In Syria, and especially in Jordan, the refugees' situation is better, but their desire to return home is still strong.

The refugees' right to return is incontrovertible, and the rights of the 1967 refugees, at least, were recognised by Israel in the Oslo agreement. However, that raises the question whether it is feasible for them to return. Is there sufficient land? Currently, more than 80 per cent. of the Jewish population live in 15 per cent. of Israel. The remainder, including most of the extreme religious settler groups, live on relatively large areas of rural land and the population density is very low. Whereas Palestinian refugees in the Gaza strip live on land with a population of 4,000 people per square kilometre, their kibbutz neighbours across the fence enjoy density levels of three people per square kilometre—that is, more than 1,000 times fewer people per square kilometre.

Israel is used to accommodating large numbers of immigrants. During the 1990s, the number of Jewish immigrants from Russia alone roughly equalled the total number of refugees in the Gaza strip and Lebanon. Since the beginning of the waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union in 1989, more than 770,000 immigrants have emigrated from there to Israel out of a total of more than 900,000 during that period. That process of immigration to Israel is continuing. Furthermore, the Israeli law of return allows for the immigration of non-Jews related by marriage or birth, including grandchildren. No one in Israel has suggested that there was not enough room to accommodate those people, yet it is now suggested that the land cannot accommodate returning Palestinians.

If Israel attempts to deny the right of return of refugees from Jaffa, Nazareth or Galilee to their homes in Israel, it presumably expects them to go to the future Palestinian state. However, the current Palestinian-controlled areas are already densely populated. If a future Palestinian state is to become the home of the refugees, it should include at least the entire west bank and Gaza strip—that is, 23 per cent. of what was formerly mandate Palestine. The best offer so far, which came from the left of the governing Israeli Labour party, would mean that only 70 per cent. of the west bank was in Palestinian hands—that is, 16 per cent. of what was formerly Palestine.

The issues of land, refugees, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem are being negotiated bilaterally between Israel and the Palestine National Authority. However, those negotiating partners are very unequal in terms of power, and the details of the final agreement should also concern us in the United Kingdom. Apart from the fact that we have historic links with Israel and Palestine, we will, as members of the European Union, be expected— with the United States of America—to fund whatever agreement is made. The EU is already the largest donor of development aid to the Palestinian authority. We have an interest in ensuring that any agreement is sustainable.

If the refugee issue remains unresolved, it will become a time bomb. Millions of people, over 50 per cent. of whom are children, will lose all hope of ever being able to escape from the appalling conditions of the camps. That will surely be a fertile breeding ground for extremism, spawning even greater problems in the years to come. That cannot be in our interest, or in Israel's interest.

The threat to Israel does not lie in a Palestinian right of return. The far greater threat lies in not allowing a right of return, and not acknowledging the injustice that befell the refugees. President Clinton said in July: I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were more free to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live. Without a right of return, that will not be realised.

I hope that the Minister will today reconfirm the British Government's view on the right of return and compensation of Palestinian refugees under international law, including UN General Assembly resolution 194. Compensation for damage or loss of property and for the anguish of the past 51 years must, in justice, be provided. If a refugee chooses not to return, compensation for land must also be included. Recognition of the refugees' rights must not be made contingent on the recognition of the rights of others. Just as the payment of compensation by Germany for the property of Jewish victims of the Nazis cannot and should not be made contingent on Israel's paying compensation to the Palestinians, the Palestinians' right to compensation cannot be made contingent on payments to Jews who fled from other Arab countries.

Who should fund the compensation, and the resettlement costs of those refugees who choose to return? Clearly, Israel should contribute, as it has benefited, over the years, from the confiscated property and land. For example, the land that Israel confiscated and leased to kibbutzim—a quarter of the state of Israel, on which fewer than 3 per cent. of Israelis live—is about to be privatised. Its value is estimated at between $50 billion and $60 billion, which could fund some of the compensation.

The international community also has a responsibility, and I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government are pressing that point in the European Union and with the United States of America. There is a real window of opportunity for peace in the middle east. People of good faith in the Israeli Government and the Palestine National Authority genuinely want a solution that recognises the rights of both peoples to security and prosperity.

The refugees cannot be excluded or bought off by a lump sum of compensation to a Government. We have just fought a war to ensure that the Kosovan refugees could return to their homes, and the Palestinian refugees could reasonably ask why their right to return home appears to be less important. A cynic would say that the lack of mass television coverage of the Palestinian exodus in 1948 is the reason.

I hope that the British Government will ensure that the injustice done to the Palestinians 51 years ago is finally recognised and made good, so that we can start the next millennium with a real and sustainable peace for Israelis and Palestinians. The land that they share is, after all, where the event that marked the start of the first millennium took place.

10.18 am
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) not only on securing the first debate in this welcome modernisation initiative but on her ingenuity in linking her constituency with such innovation, which I am sure that her constituents will appreciate.

The change of Government in Israel has been welcome. The peace process, which was stalled for so long under the previous Government of Israel, is on track once again. It has been relaunched on the principle that always underlay it—land for peace. Inevitably, when international attention is focused on that process, the most commonly discussed issues are the withdrawal from occupied land, security for Israel and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in their own land. All those factors are important; indeed, they are vital to the success of any peace process.

However, the Oslo process and countless United Nations resolutions on events in the middle east focus on other issues that must also be addressed if we are to see lasting peace there. That is why I particularly welcome this debate. At the centre of those issues is the question of Palestinian refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West has already talked about United Nations resolution 194, the right of Palestinians to return and their right to compensation. Since that resolution was made, a number of others have raised similar points.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the scale of the problem, which exists to this day. More than 1 million people still live in 59 camps scattered throughout the west bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They are overcrowded, neglected and marginalised, and half the refugees are children, who are growing up with an uncertain future. Education and health services in the camps are poor. There is insufficient space for children to play, and many leave school early to find work to help support their families. In the Nahr E1 Bared camp, in Lebanon, more than 26,000 refugees live within 1.9 square kilometres. In the Balata refugee camp, on the west bank, there are just four UNRWA schools for 3,431 schoolchildren.

A couple of weeks ago, I tabled a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on water resources in the west bank and Gaza. Her answer was most revealing. She said: Most water is used for irrigation in that area. However, A United Nations report from 1990 indicated that the total annual capita consumption for Palestinians in the West Bank was 139 cubic metres, compared to that for settlers of 1,143 cubic metres. Figures for Gaza were 172 cubic metres for Palestinians and 2,326 cubic metres for settlers. Annual per capita consumption in Israel was 411 cubic metres."—[Official Report, 10 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 554.] That graphically illustrates what life is like for all Palestinians on the west bank and Gaza, not just refugees, but it is clear that life is worse for those who live in the camps.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to host an exhibition, called Eye to Eye, which was sponsored by the Save the Children Fund, and which took place in the Upper Waiting Hall in this place. That exhibition enables Palestinian children to tell their own story by capturing on film everyday life in the camps. An interactive web site based on their images and stories provides a channel of communication between young Palestinians and children in other countries. During the coming months, the exhibition will tour the middle east and this country; I believe that it will visit Cairo next month, followed by various cities in the UK. I shall place on record the web site address, which is www.savethechildren.org.uk/eyetoeye/.

Let us hope that the exhibition will allow more people to see the circumstances in which Palestinian refugees live, and thereby bring a sense of perspective. It is perhaps all too easy to see the middle east solely in geopolitical terms—as a region dominated by the question of what negotiations are under way and what agreements have been reached or are under discussion. In terms of finding a solution to the problem, that is right and understandable. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that the heart of the problem affects real people with real lives here and now.

I first became interested in the situation of the Palestinians in the 1970s. I was then at university and I used to talk to Palestinian students, many of whom came from refugee families. They would talk about what happened to their parents; the older ones would speak about what they could remember of Palestine before 1948. Palestinian students talk now not only of what happened to their parents, but of what happened to their grandparents—the situation has continued for that long. The same families have experienced displacement not just once, but several times.

The principle of the right to return, which my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West mentioned, and the issue of compensation are important. It is also important that not only the international community but Israel comes to terms with what happened in 1948 and with the question of the Palestinian refugees. For Israel to do so would not be to deny the fact that many Israelis have suffered over the past 51 years or that Israeli families have lost loved ones. However, if Israel is to have a secure future, it must come to terms with its past—the bad bits as well as the good. Finding a solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees is an essential part of that process. The existence of Palestinian refugees, and the continuing denial of their rights, is an enduring embodiment of what has gone wrong. It behoves everyone in the international community to do what we can to put that situation right.

Last week, there was a lobby of this place about the Palestinian refugees. I chaired one of the meetings connected with that lobby, at which there was much discussion about initiatives that could be taken. A woman stood up and said that talk was all very well—that there was much talk in the international community and in the House—but that she came from a refugee Palestinian family and that she wanted to know what was going to be done. No easy solution can be magicked out of the air or implemented tomorrow, but after 51 years of the problem we must take on board the fact that we are being asked bluntly what we will do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West made a valid point that, when looking at the rights of refugees and at respect for international law and for United Nations resolutions, the rights of Palestinian refugees should be no less precious to us than the rights of the East Timorese or of those from Kosovo. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us that the Government stand by what has been stated before about the rights of Palestinian refugees to return and to receive compensation, and that Britain will play an active role in trying to achieve that.

We can contribute to that process on our different levels. I hope that we are doing so by holding this debate and that the Eye to Eye exhibition, which was launched in this place last week and which will tour, will also contribute.

I shall conclude with a quotation from Nadir, from the Nahr El Bared refugee camp in Lebanon, whose words should be heard by us all—they sum up the problem and explain why we must listen. She said: No one sees like our children's eyes can see—the life, school, streets—all of this our children show us through their photographs. Is there anyone in the world who understands what our children want to say? It is time for the world to understand what the Palestinian children are saying, to respond and to ensure that Palestinians have a right to return to their homelands.

10.28 am
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I, too, welcome the new Chamber. It is a grown-up place as, so far, the boys have demonstrated. I hope that it will continue to be so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing the debate. It coincides with the start of a momentous year for the middle east peace process, which, in the past 50 years, has raised hopes over and over again, only for those hopes to be dashed. It was estimated at the beginning of the process that there were 700,000 Palestinian refugees; the registered number now exceeds 3.6 million and there is a diaspora of 5 million Palestinians around the world. A huge number of people want a homeland in the same way as the Jews wanted, and were granted, a homeland in 1948. The creation of the state of Israel left a running sore of suffering and deprivation in the middle east which, of all people in the world, the Jews and the state of Israel must recognise.

Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homeland. As early as 1917, the Balfour declaration stated: it being understood that nothing be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". Since then, countless resolutions and declarations from the League of Nations, the British Government and the United Nations have upheld the human right declared in 1949 that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own and to return to his country"— everyone, it seems, except the Palestinians, who are denied that right. Israel must be reminded of its legal and unfulfilled obligations. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) rightly pointed out, it is in Israel's interests to do so.

Many of us were lobbied last week by supporters of Palestine who were anxious to remind us of the conditions that have been endured by Palestinians for 30 years since the six-day war. They suffer socially and economically, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West explained. Draconian Israeli security checks and the requirement for travel permits deny them access to employment, education and health care. We have heard about the terrible living conditions in which a quarter to a third of Palestinians receive no running water. It is interesting to note that 3 million people in Palestine consume a sixth of the total amount of water that is used by 6 million Israelis. That does not add up. The infrastructure has been sadly neglected by Israel.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency tries to provide basic health, education and social services to Palestinian refugees. The Department for International Development has just produced a pamphlet on the workings of UNRWA, which I have before me, and has pledged to improve the delivery and the amount of relief. However, despite the United Kingdom's £7 million pledge to UNRWA in 1998, the agency remains severely underfunded. What plans do the Government have to improve matters? The international community must increase its contributions and UNRWA must be made more efficient.

Economically, the dice is loaded against the Palestinians. For example, orange juice that is produced in the illegal settlements of Palestine is exported and labelled "Product of Israel", in violation of international agreements that aim to build up the Palestinian economy and encourage stability. Will the Minister ensure that that matter is raised at the World Trade Organisation negotiations in Seattle? In the eyes of the European Union, Israeli settlements in Palestine are illegal. Therefore, are not their products also illegal? Will the Minister remind Israel of the conditions that relate to the rules of origin for exports?

The refugees are the main subject of our debate, but we must remember the outstanding problems that face Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat in the coming months. The problem of the settlements has been discussed many times in the House. After the six-day war, UN Security Council resolution 242 called for the exchange of land for peace, and the Oslo accord is based on that concept. Of the 144 illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, 42 are to be dismantled, which is good news. All the time, however, more tenders are being approved by the Israeli Government within the existing settlements—more under Mr. Barak than even Mr. Netanyahu approved. If Palestine is to be granted secure territory, are our Government content to see it dotted all over the Israeli-held settlements?

What is the Minister's view on Jerusalem? Some 200,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem; how can they accept that Israel should have sovereignty over the city? Does he accept that a Palestine mini-state, if created, will never be able to accommodate the number of refugees who are likely to want to return? Will he support the 1967 borders for Palestine? If not, will he tell us how the Government and the EU propose to help the refugees remaining outside Palestine, generations of whom have been born and brought up in the camps? Are they condemned for ever to live in a world of poverty and deprivation, surrounded by the ever-increasing affluence of the Israelis? Their rights must not be ignored.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I think you still are—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)


Dr. Tonge

You have suddenly transmogrified Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Palestine was put under our protection after the first world war. After the second world war and the holocaust, the Jews were given their homeland. That was a just, brave and noble act by the international community, of which we all approved. However, the United Kingdom has a duty to give the Palestinians their human rights, too. We must welcome the momentum given to the middle east peace process by President Clinton and Messrs Barak and Arafat—and, indeed, the recent meeting between my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and Mr. Arafat—but I urge the Government to play a more prominent role in the resolution of the refugee problem and not always to let the USA take the lead. I urge the Government, as the former mandatory power in Palestine, to put as much effort into this problem as they have put into the Northern Ireland peace process, and to give the Palestinian refugees their homeland.

10.37 am
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

Before I commence, I draw attention to an entry in the Register of Members' Interests relating to a visit to Jordan earlier this year.

I first visited Palestine before the Oslo accord in 1993, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). I found there a general despair that there could ever be peace, an acceptable solution for the refugees, or any agreement on Jerusalem. We visited the refugee camps in Gaza and the west bank.

Before I went, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) said that nothing could prepare me for that visit. He was absolutely right. I have seen refugee camps elsewhere in the world, but bad as they were, they always conveyed a sense of being temporary. Other refugee camps were poor and unhealthy; conditions were often squalid and there was malnutrition, suffering and misery, but they were essentially temporary. In Gaza, I was confronted with the fact that the camps had existed there for more than 40 years, as other hon. Members have said. They had an air of permanence, which led to the sense of despair and hopelessness.

Suddenly, after we returned, there was Oslo—a ray of light. Arafat shook hands with Rabin, prisoners were to be released, there would be safe passage between the west bank and Gaza, and land for peace as outlined in the UN resolution was to become a reality. Of course, the return of refugees and the issue of Jerusalem were put on the back burner for the final status negotiations, but they were there. What was not accounted for was the election of Netanyahu, who began to renegotiate Oslo, reneging on what had been agreed by continuing the illegal settlement programme, ethnically cleansing Jerusalem and creating new facts on the ground. The final status talks, which should have commenced in April 1996 and conclude in April 1999, have only just begun. Three and a half years' delay—three and a half years of more settlements and new facts on the ground— have made any solution that is satisfactory to the Palestinians more difficult to achieve.

The Palestinians' demands about refugees are simple and straightforward and are in accord with UN resolution 194, which involves the right either to return to the homes that they have lost or to receive compensation for that loss. The Israelis either regard refugees who are permanently settled outside Palestine as citizens where they are now refugees or hope that those refugees will be shipped out to countries that require an expanding labour force and encourage immigration. Even Iraq featured in speculation about a possible deal to bring Baghdad back into the international community. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will reassert the British Government's view of the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland.

Perhaps the Israelis hope that, if they drag out the final status talks, there will be fewer refugees alive who remember 1948 and that the refugees' children will not have the same emotional ties to Palestine. If so, as other hon. Members said, the Israelis are sadly mistaken. They fail to understand the basic nature of Palestinian society and of Palestinian communities, which was eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

It is not only the refugees and their children who must keep alive the memory of what happened 50 years ago. We must never forget. In the final years of this millennium, the Palestinians constitute the largest refugee population in the world. The Zionist plan Daled, which was the master plan for the conquest of Palestine, began the expulsion of the population from Palestine before the creation of the Israeli state, when the territory was still under the British mandate. In the massacres that followed, of which Deir Yassin is the most famous, thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were murdered, mosques were destroyed, homes and villages were burned, property was looted and women were raped. Those were war crimes. We should never forget that waging a war on a civilian population, expelling the inhabitants and looting and destroying property are all war crimes. There may be doubts about whether it is now possible to pursue those war criminals, but there should be no doubt about the right of those who were driven from their homes to return or to receive compensation. It may be relatively easy to calculate the material losses, but how does one put a cost on the loss of a homeland and 50 years of suffering and subjugation?

The Palestinian sense of family, community and village is enormously strong, and has continued throughout 50 years of exile. The grandchild of a 1948 refugee will still identify with his or her grandparents' village and be a part of that village's family and community. It is the Palestinian's moral right to return and, as other hon. Members said, they also have a legal right to do so. UN resolution 194 recognises the fact that none of the agreements that dispossessed them involved their participation or consent. That resolution has been reaffirmed by the UN practically every year since it was passed.

We must not let the Israelis convince us that return is not feasible. The Israelis refer to abandoned villages, but those villages were not abandoned—their inhabitants were forced out. The villages remain in the memory of the refugees and are mentioned in thousands of well-documented title deeds, records and maps. Land that is now barren was once cultivated and could blossom again. Much of the Palestinian land remains empty and return would not result in the mass dislocation of Jewish immigrants, although some have alleged that it would. If, for example, the refugees in Lebanon were to return to their former home in Galilee, it would hardly affect the present Israelis—either Jews or Palestinians. The Palestinian refugees could return to their villages and fields, and peace would be restored to southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

I first visited Gaza in 1993, and I visited it again in 1996 with my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). At that time, we saw some benefits from Oslo. There was still no free movement of people or goods, and the Israelis controlled checkpoints and borders in the occupied territories and externally, but there were signs of regeneration, including the beginning of building. My hon. Friend will remember that the hotel in which we stayed was half built, and many of the storeys above our rooms were unfinished.

I regret that we were unable to visit the camps during that visit because of the security situation following the Israeli assassination of Ayash, who was known as "The Engineer". I returned in 1998 and visited the camps to which hon. Members referred. The hotel in which the Minister and I had stayed had been finished, there were new homes and offices, and the airport had been built, but was not operating. When I visited the camps, nothing had changed since 1993. There was still degradation, water supplies were still toxic and children were still playing by open sewers. Refugees were packed in like sardines, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, at 4,000 per square kilometre. They peered over the barbed wire to see their land to the east empty with between three and six people per square kilometre. Let no one say that there is no room for the Palestinian refugees to return.

During the Minister's visit in 1996, the Palestinians outside the refugee camps were starved of water by the Israelis, denied access to markets, faced with prohibitive taxes and licence fees to move their goods, and prevented from moving them so that fruit and vegetables rotted on vehicles. He could see that, despite those adversities, the Palestinians of Gaza outside the refugee camps continued to produce high-quality agricultural products. If only they had equal access to water and freedom to transport their goods, the returning refugees could make the desert bloom again.

Four generations of Palestinian refugees have been looked after by UNRWA. Its job has become increasingly difficult because of donor fatigue and its 59 refugee camps are still marked by overcrowded, squalid conditions that can only breed anger and resentment.

In Gaza, life in the refugee camps has hardly improved since the Minister's visit in 1996. The deterioration in the Palestinian economy has struck particularly at refugees. The closures, which remain a massive burden on the Palestinian economy, are a major factor. Refugees were disproportionately dependent on work inside Israel, and unemployment has soared.

In June this year, I visited the Beka'a camp in Jordan. The conditions there are relatively better for its 75,000 refugees than in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Gaza, but they are still pitiful. The conditions clearly moved the Prime Minister when he visited the camp. Unemployment was high and UNRWA officials were concerned about future funding levels because key services have been cut. Many Palestinians believe that UNRWA is being phased out as a prelude to ending the refugee issue while the refugees remain in exile.

The Israeli position remains inflexible—no to return, no to Israel paying compensation, no to an historic apology. Israel expects the international community to pay for the settlement of refugees in Arab countries and that compensation should be dealt with as a lump sum to Governments, not to individual refugees to compensate them for their suffering and losses. It is vital that, in the months and years ahead, we ensure that UNRWA is fully maintained until a final solution of resettlement is achieved and a fund for compensation established.

Israelis can never live in security and at peace with their neighbours or themselves while the dispossessed sit at their borders. A free and independent Palestine would be the best neighbour Israel could ever wish for. If real and lasting peace is to prevail in the middle east, the right of return must be guaranteed by the international community and must be implemented.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Berfore I call the next speaker, may I assist hon. Members who are present for this first sitting in Westminster Hall? The occupant of the Chair is to be addressed as Mr. or Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that is clear and that it will become the custom.

10.48 am
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

The United Nations recommended partition of Palestine on 29 November 1947 and the state of Israel was declared on 14 May 1948 on 11 per cent. of occupied Palestine land. However before signing the armistice agreement in 1949, 78 per cent, of Palestine had been occupied by the Israelis. During 1948, almost 1 million Palestinians were forced to flee from 531 well-documented localities in what the Palestinians now described as their Al Nakba. That large exodus of Palestinians can be associated with various Israeli military occupations. The words "cleansing" and "broom" were used in at least four reports by Israeli officials about those operations at that time. Some nasty things happened to the Palestinians, and they have been covered by other speakers.

The estimated value of mobile and immobile property confiscated by the Israelis from the Palestinians at that time is £743 million at 1948 prices. The Palestinians claim that the Israeli seizure of their land and property is probably the biggest planned and organised plunder in history, and it resulted in United Nations resolution 194 of 11 December 1948, which has been referred to often during the debate. Ironically, 50 years later, when Jews have received compensation from their German oppressors and are about to have some of their stolen wealth returned from Swiss banks, successive Israeli Prime Ministers have failed to accept this resolution. That was made obvious again last weekend, during an interview with Mr. Barak by Sir David Frost on "Breakfast with Frost".

The Israel Land Administration, among other organisations, has kept careful records of what was hitherto Palestinian land. Moreover, pre-1948 aerial maps exist that compare well with today's satellite mapping techniques. Not only are there questions of compensation, but, if the land-for-peace deal is to be meaningful, the Palestinians who previously lived on that land should be allowed to return. Mr. Barak ruled that out again on "Breakfast with Frost" last weekend. Even a phased partial return of refugees seems out of the question at the moment.

While that view persists, can there ever be a lasting peace in the middle east? Let us hope that these are negotiating postures, rather than hard and fast views. It would be a nice gesture if the Israelis gave up one or more of their settlements on Palestinian land to allow at least some Palestinians to return to what was previously their land, perhaps in one of the less sensitive areas for Israeli security.

More than 50 years after the Palestinian exodus, their numbers in exile have grown to more than 4 million. The figures vary according to which source one takes them from—those are Palestinian figures. The refugees are, as has been pointed out, scattered round the Arab world, but they are principally located in the Gaza strip, the west bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

There are 59 official camps administered by UNRWA around the Arab world, but two thirds of Palestinian refugees live outside them. Many refugees living in the camps, especially children, suffer from illnesses related to poor and damp accommodation, and from problems associated with their environment generally. Conditions in the camps on the west bank, the Gaza strip and Lebanon are among the worst, with open drainage channels for waste water, open sewage outlets and garbage dumps putting everyone's health at serious risk. I have seen the conditions at Jabalia camp on the Gaza strip. Its population density is among the highest in the world. Houses are primitive and overcrowded, separated by alleyways so narrow that it is impossible to transport large goods, including coffins, which have to be carried over the fragile corrugated roofs of people's homes.

Eighty per cent. of the children have dental caries caused by poor diets, and the people of Jabalia have access to only one half of one hospital bed per thousand people. The World Health Organisation minimum requirement is two hospital beds per thousand people. The quality of life is also reflected in poor educational standards. Few classes contain fewer than 48 children, and schools regularly run a daily double shift system. UNRWA does its best in extremely difficult conditions. It receives its money from many nations, but is underfunded by an estimated £20 million and has recently had to shed many staff.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

It is nice to be the first person to intervene on this special day. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of about 4 million refugees, yet he is talking about a limited return to the lands that were occupied. How is that practical? Is it possible for 4 million people to return? Is that an estimate of the number of people who would want to do so? Four million sounds like a large number in relation to that area of land.

Dr. Iddon

I shall answer that question during the remainder of my speech.

In mid-1996, so as to focus its efforts, UNRWA moved its headquarters from Vienna to the Gaza strip. The United States of America and, I am pleased to say, the European Union, are two of its largest funding bodies. Only 150,000 rural Jews live on the land of the expelled Palestinians. Indeed, 78 per cent. of Jews live in 15 per cent. of Israel, mainly in urban environments. Ironically, as has already been pointed out, the Gaza refugees are fewer in number than Russian immigrants to Israel. Indeed, a quarter of Jewish Israelis have chosen voluntarily to live in Israel.

The Palestinians claim that the Gaza refugees—1 million people crammed on to just 360 sq km of land—could return to almost unoccupied land, while most of the refugees in Lebanon could return to Arab territory in Galilee. It is obvious to any observer of the middle east peace process that there cannot be a permanent and stable peace until the question of the refugees has been resolved. They cannot be allowed for much longer to live in the conditions that currently prevail in the camps. The peace process appears to be making progress. Let us hope that that progress can be maintained until all the issues, including that of the Palestinian refugees, have been dealt with.

10.56 am
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I congratulate you, Mr.Winterton, on your promotion to Deputy Speaker. At least someone has gained something from this Milton Keynes of debating chambers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing the first debate in this Room, but I regret that a subject of such enormous importance has been thus relegated. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) described the proceedings so far as "grown up". They are so grown up that the atmosphere is already dead.

I agree with the arguments that hon. Members have presented, although I regret that they tended to read them into the record. This subject should be debated in the main Chamber with a real sense of outrage about the scale of injustice that has been suffered by Palestinian refugees over the past 50 years. I shall not add to the cases that hon. Members brought up to demonstrate the scale of the continuing injustice of what is happening to Palestinian refugees because the record will show that they made their cases thoroughly.

Her Majesty's Government look ridiculous when they wrap their foreign policy in a so-called ethical dimension—such as their use of an ethical justification to go to war over Kosovo—given the scale of the injustice to 4 million refugees that has gone on for more than 50 years. Where, we are entitled to ask, is the ethical consistency in that policy? I hope that the Minister will say that the Government intend to continue to put increasing pressure on the Government of Israel to start to deal with the people of Palestine with the same sense of justice that they demanded for themselves in the wake of the appalling atrocity that happened to the people of the Jewish nation during the second world war. A holocaust of equal proportions has happened to the people of Palestine, who have been evicted from their homes and suffered disruption to their lives, and it has gone on for far too long.

Dr. Tonge

Were the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks intended to suggest that this country should go to war with Israel?

Mr. Blunt

I was not suggesting that, but the hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the fact that the Government's policy is inconsistent. When we went to war over Kosovo, the reasons for doing so were dressed up in the supposedly ethical dimension of being the right and proper thing to do. I do not think that war was the right course of action for us to take over Kosovo. If the Government choose to present their foreign policy in terms of ethics and morality, they will rightly be asked why they have taken one course of action over one set of injustices, while failing to act over another.

I hope that the Government will stop trying to con us, in a sense, that we can deal in an ethically consistent way with an issue as difficult as this. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) rightly referred to the unequal negotiations that the Palestinian people face. I hope that the Government will use their influence to ensure that the negotiations are a little more equable by supporting the interests of Palestinian refugees.

11 am

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing this debate. The middle east peace process will shortly enter the crucial final status negotiations stage, in which the Palestinian refugee issue will be discussed for the first time. It is vital that that and the status of Jerusalem are addressed head on, rather than marginalised. Although it was not discussed during the interim stage of the process, it is essential to understand that the refugee issue is not insignificant but central to the middle east peace process.

The Palestinians are the largest single group of refugees in the world. More than 3.5 million are registered with UNRWA, the agency that is charged with their welfare. In most cases, two or three generations of Palestinians have been forced to live in the squalor and grinding poverty of refugee camps. That must not be allowed to continue. Displacement from their original homes and the abject poverty of those camps has done more to fuel the Palestinians' struggle against Israel than anything else. Unless the Palestinian refugees who are exiled in camps in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are allowed to return, we will not have a viable, final peace settlement. Any middle east peace process that does not take into consideration the interests of the vast majority of those refugees will not work.

Denial of the right of return is a continuing breach of articles 2 and 5 of the European convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. The right of return for an estimated 3.5 million refugees is expressed in terms of their moral claim to return to homes from whch they have been displaced, and by reference to a number of United Nations resolutions. My hon. Friends have mentioned General Assembly resolution 194, which was passed in 1948 and states: refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. I accept that it will be neither politically nor practically possible to return all refugees to their original homes. There is general recognition among Palestinians that a right of return will mean a right to return to Palestinian national soil, rather than to their 1948 homes. It is necessary to distinguish between the principle of the right of return to Palestine as the national homeland, and exercising that right by returning to the same home or piece of land that refugees owned before 1948. The impossibility of implementing any right of return to the refugees' original homes within Israel proper must not preclude the return of Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state in the west bank and Gaza. It must not be used to deflect political attention away from the future of Palestinian refugees. The right of return must be vigorously pursued in the final status talks, and supported by the British Government and the international community. That will need to be backed up by compensation to the Palestinian refugees under General Assembly resolution 194 for lost property. Reparations should be given, especially to those who will not be able to return, in recognition of the historical injustice that created the refugee problem in the first place.

The Palestine National Authority and the Israeli Government will draw up a declaration of principle for the final status talks. It is essential that the declaration should make a specific commitment to the resolution of the refugees issue, as the original declaration of principle to the Oslo accord did. After the delays and stalemate of the Netanyahu Administration, the final status talks will provide an opportunity for resolution. However, the Israelis must not be allowed to disregard or overlook issues that they do not want to address, such as the Palestinian refugees. If the Israelis want a permanent peace, they must implement the United Nations resolution on the return of the Palestinian refugees. If the status of Jerusalem and the issue of the refugees are not decided, resentment and suspicion will build up among Palestinians, providing ammunition for those on both sides who want to wreck the agreement.

It is in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis not to waste the opportunity for lasting peace provided by the final status talks. The British Government and European Community have an important role to play—that of the honest broker. They must bring their influence to bear on the Israeli Government to ensure a just resolution of the refugees issue in the final status talks.

11.7 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

It is such a pleasure to refer to you as Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Winterton. This is a historic debate, and I want to observe the usual courtesy of the House by congratulating the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing a debate on a subject in which she has shown consistent interest since she was elected to Parliament. I must strike a note of dissent, however, as, like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), I would like to commiserate with her. The future of the Palestinian refugees warranted a debate in the main Chamber of the House. I am still not sure why I am sitting in an annexe, albeit one that is 900 years old, while visitors are being shown around the Floor of the main Chamber. It feels like not the modernisation but the Disneyfication of Parliament, while the serious business of the House becomes a sideshow. I stress that that is a personal view, and I hope that my worst fears are not realised.

The issue that has been so admirably covered this morning is far from being a sideshow—

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

The hon. Lady is a Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson. Is she suggesting that modernisation should consist of Tuesday and Wednesday morning debates being taken on the Floor of the House, so that no one could visit—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must point out that we are debating Palestinian refugees and that we have not re-opened the debate about whether or not there should be a parallel Chamber.

Mrs. Gillan

I must stress, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), that I was expressing a personal view. I hope that my worst fears will not be realised.

While I was preparing during the weekend for this debate, I decided to look at the photographs that I took when I visited the occupied territories and the Gaza strip in 1989. The delegation included Members of Parliament and members of the Bow group, who had been invited by the Palestinians so that the problems of the region could be explained to them. We toured the west bank and Gaza under United Nations protection, and we met families, teachers, doctors, local politicians, political activists and the then leading Palestinian advisers to Yasser Arafat. It was obvious that emotions ran exceedingly high. The language used often expressed profound hatred and bitterness, and at that time it was hard to envisage how a solution could ever be reached.

However, a member of the Palestinian host team—a woman—made a profound impression on the delegation. Hanan Ashwari painted a picture of hope and reason that transmitted to me an optimism that I still feel today. I hope that all Members who participate in this debate share that optimism about the Palestinians' future. Hanan Ashwari is a university professor, a Christian Arab and a friend to both Palestinians and Israelis. She has walked a difficult road. When we met her, she focused less on the political and more on the human element in the peace process. Although that dimension is all too easily obscured by hatred and conflict, it is necessary if the Israelis and the Palestinians are to find a solution. Such considerations have brought us to the brink of a solution in Northern Ireland.

I was reminded of the humanitarian element when I looked at my photographs of Hanan Ashwari detailing the problems of the Palestinians, of children chasing our bus and pretending to shoot guns at us and of a woman sitting in the ruins of her house, which had been bulldozed simply because her son was suspected of taking part in the intifada. I also remember the look of fear in an Israeli soldier's eye when he searched the belongings of Palestinian workers on a bus that was crossing into Israel. One of my most poignant memories from that visit was of a girls' school in the Gaza strip, where a notice on the wall exhorted the dispossessed pupils, who had little hope, to be a lamp in a chamber if they could not be a star in the sky. Other hon. Members have already discussed the children. It is the children with whom we should be most concerned—future generations of Palestinians must not be blighted by their history.

In the decade or so since my visit in 1989, the peace process has moved forward. With a new Prime Minister in Israel, there is new urgency to that country's endeavours, but there are still many unresolved matters, primarily the refugees and their uncertain future. As other hon. Members have already said, the exact numbers of refugees and their location continue to be pressing issues. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimated that there are slightly more than 3.5 million refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the west bank. The Israeli Government claim that those figures were exaggerated. However, on closer examination, it becomes clear that they do not include countries where UNRWA does not operate, such as Egypt and Iraq. Moreover, they do not refer to Palestinians who were outside Palestine in 1947–48, or people who were expelled by Israel after 1967 or displaced by the June 1967 war. Although the numbers matter, they matter less than the principles of settlement which form a major plank of the permanent status negotiations.

The Palestinians have a justifiable desire to allow all refugees to return to their homes, but Israel rejects that principle on the ground that such a return would ensure conflict between Israel and the Palestinians for centuries to come. Although those positions appear irreconcilable, it is imperative that both sides continue to pursue a solution. After all, when the war ended, there was no mechanism for discussion, but some refugees were returned under the family reunification scheme. How much more could be achieved now that there are negotiations and a political will to find a lasting settlement. Peace in the middle east will not endure without resolving the problem of the Palestinian refugees.

The Conservative party will support the Government whenever they use their influence to urge everyone in the region to participate in negotiations and abide by international agreements. We are prepared to back them while they follow the aim, as set out by their predecessor, of achieving a lasting peace that is accepted by all and founded on the principle of respect for international law. Peace should mean security for Israel and prosperity, justice and self-determination for the Palestinians.

Britain's historic links give us a special interest in the peace process, and successive Governments have provided aid and support. Other hon. Members mentioned UNRWA. I hope that the Minister will reassure me on the continuation of aid and suport for the work of UNRWA. Although there is justifiable optimism that the refugee issue is now closer to resolution, the work of UNRWA needs to continue. It has successfully provided its services directly to refugees, including help with education, health care and social services. Indeed, it has supported Palestinian refugee families that are unable to meet their own basic needs and promoted self-reliance through community programmes. It is essential to the welfare of many.

Recent financial difficulties have resulted in austerity measures and a reduction in the support that is provided to refugees. What assessment has the Minister made of those difficulties and what actions can the Government take to alleviate the problems? Although there is international agreement that the work of UNRWA must continue until the Palestinian entity can take over its role, recent developments have caused uncertainty. The Minister should explain what has happened and shed some light on what actions are open to the Government.

A disturbing report in The Times today claims: At least eight leading figures, among them academics and heroes of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation, were being held in detention and under house arrest". Although that is a recent development, I hope that the Minister, who no doubt has his finger on the pulse of the middle east peace process, is able to enlighten us on the reasons for those arrests.

This is a short debate on an important international problem which both Opposition and Government Members want to see successfully resolved. Peace will bring humanitarian and financial dividends, and the peaceful option can provide greater prosperity and security for everyone in the region. We all share the sentiments that were expressed by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West. While I was researching this issue, I came across the Arabic proverb, One's parents cannot be replaced; so, too, is it impossible to replace one's homeland. We will support the Government if they use our membership of all international institutions to encourage progress towards a lasting solution. If they work to that end, they will have the support of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition.

11.19 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) expressed delight that hon. Members were sitting where they pleased, but I hope that no one will read too much into the fact that Liberal Democrat Members are cosying up to the Government on the Front Bench. I noted that the hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) displayed some signs of rigor mortis at the modernisation process on which Parliament has decided, but I am sure that they will soon come back to life.

I am advised that its semi-circular lay-out makes this the first non-confrontational Chamber that Westminster has experienced in 800 years of political sparring. I know that everyone will expect straight answers to questions, even if they are posed from a semicircular position.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West for the opportunity to debate the issue of the Palestinian refugees. She, along with many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, spoke in moving detail about the refugees' plight, and her speech was based on and shaped by personal knowledge, as were the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin), for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar).

My hon. Friends have rightly reminded us that the refugee issue is one of the most important and difficult obstacles in the permanent status negotiations that are now under way between the Israelis and Palestinians to secure a lasting settlement in the middle east peace process. I am grateful for the fact that hon. Members displayed a unanimity rarely seen in the House. There was a consensus between the Opposition and Government Front-Bench spokesmen—as shown by the speeches of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge)—that the issue of the Palestinians must be addressed as part of the peace process.

As we have heard, the problem is enormous. There are 3.5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the west bank and Gaza strip. Others are dispersed throughout the world. Some lost their homes in 1948 and have been in refugee camps ever since, some lost their homes in 1967 and others were born in the refugee camps. They are victims of an appalling historic injustice. No lasting peace settlement is possible without addressing their plight, however difficult that will be politically, logistically and financially.

As we have been told, the condition of the refugees has been a matter of international concern for more than 50 years, during which Britain and the United Nations have provided practical support. Most of our support is channelled through UNWRA, which provides accommodation for more than 1 million refugees and practical support for many others. It provides education, health care and relief aid that is a lifeline for many in the camps.

In addition to accommodation, UNWRA provides education to 460,000 schoolchildren, primary health care to more than 1 million refugees and emergency relief for 200,000 of the poorest refugees. The member states of the European Union together form the largest donor to UNWRA, Britain being one of the largest individual donors. The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked us to do more, and we are. In 1997, our bilateral contribution, excluding contributions through the European Union, was £6 million. This year we are contributing £9 million in bilateral aid, which is £3 million more than the previous Government's total.

In his visit to the region at the end of October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave expression to our support and concern for the Palestinian refugees when he visited Deir al-Balah refugee camp. I know that he was shocked at the conditions there, which hon. Members described. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield gave a graphic account of the conditions that he had seen, and I acknowledge his long involvement in and commitment to the issue, which dates back to the 1970s.

It is intolerable that no end is in sight to the refugees' plight. We must all contribute to such a resolution as part of the middle east peace process. We are committed to doing all that we can to achieve a successful outcome to that process. We are in regular touch with all the parties, providing support for them in their efforts to find a just, lasting and comprehensive peace. President Arafat was in London for meetings on 9 November; I was present at some of those meetings. Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa were here last week. We are also in regular contact with the Syrians and the Lebanese. Negotiations between the parties occur against a background of international standards. The international standard for refugees is United Nations General Assembly resolution 194, which dates from 1948, and for which Britain voted. That resolution states that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so…and compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return". Resolution 194 has been the basis of the United Kingdom's position since 1948. We have repeatedly made that clear, and I am happy to do so again, especially in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, whose personal commitment, as I saw at first hand when, as he described, I visited the middle east in January 1996, is widely recognised and admired.

A peace deal, including agreements on how to implement resolution 194, would give Palestinian refugees a real opportunity for a stable and prosperous future. Today, partly because of the visionary leadership shown by Prime Minister Barak and the Israeli Government, the prospects for such a deal look better than they have for a long time—perhaps better than ever. There is an historic window that all the parties at the negotiations must keep open, through which they must all climb together.

The interests of the refugees and their right to live with justice and in freedom must not be forgotten. It is for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a way forward—nobody outside that process should pre-empt their decisions. However, the immediate parties to the peace process negotiations cannot alone find the huge resources needed for them to begin to solve the refugee problem.

Mr. Blunt

Does the Minister think that Mr. Barak has shown visionary leadership on the issue of settlements?

Mr. Hain

We do not agree with the settlement process long adopted by Israel. Although Prime Minister Barak has taken important steps forward on the settlement issue, he has a long way to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West asked a specific question. Those involved should know that Britain acknowledges that the European Union and the United States especially have a responsibility to contribute to a solution of the refugee issue, as does Israel. Indeed, it is more than a responsiblity—a moral and political duty is on us all. Countries elsewhere in the middle east, including the Gulf states, can also play an important role. The Palestinian refugees are some of the most serious casualties of a post-second world war history largely shaped by—and, in many respects, won by—the west. It is time for the world to redeem the debt owed to the Palestinians and, by so doing, to create a lasting peace by which the security of all in the middle east, especially Israel's, is guaranteed.

I shall respond to the final point made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham about reports this morning that Palestinians are being placed under house arrest, and to the dinosaur-like point of the hon. Member for Reigate. Human rights are indivisible across the globe. The Palestinians must respect the human rights of those living within Palestine, just as the Israelis should recognise the human rights of refugees and others living within Israel and the territories that it currently controls. The matter of refugees is ultimately one of human rights. The Government are determined to help to address that matter, however difficult—in terms of logistics, finance, resources and, of course politics—that task will be.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The first debate is now at an end. Although there may be slight difficulties because of changes of Ministers and of civil servants, we move to the second debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), on the subject of road access to RAF Fairford.

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