HC Deb 04 November 2003 vol 412 cc242-9WH 3.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Some three weeks ago I spent three days travelling around the Palestinian territories. If I had not been in United Nations vehicles or, when I was in Hebron, in a Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron vehicle, I would not have got very far. There are 482 Israeli military checkpoints in lands that are supposed to be administered by the Palestinian Authority. The land is now divided into 300 small clusters. In addition, there are "flying checkpoints", which can be set up anywhere at any time. I saw thousands of Palestinians herded at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers, waiting to get through checkpoints to go to schools, universities, their farmlands or hospitals.

The regime of military tyranny is bad enough, but worse still is the wall that the Israelis are building in large tracts of Palestinian land. The Israelis call it a fence, and claim that only a tiny percentage of its length is a wall. They could have fooled me. Parts of it are indeed a tall and ugly fence with electrified protection, scarring the landscape that the Israelis claim to love. However, large parts of it are composed of a hideous and menacing high wall in concrete sections, interspersed with concrete, fortress-like watchtowers.

The town of Qalqilya will be almost completely surrounded by such a wall. An Israeli military order of 2 October lays down conditions between the ceasefire line of 1949, which until June 1967 was Israel's international border, and the wall, 100 miles of whose 400-mile length has already been built, and which sweeps far into Palestinian territory. It is therefore an illegal structure.

I quote from a summary of the Israeli military order to which I referred: The Order states that 'No person will enter the Closed Zone'"— the space between the wall and the border— and no one will remain there. (Section 3a) Free access to the Closed Zone will only be granted to Israelis (defined as Israeli citizens, Israeli residents, and anyone who is Jewish.) The Order requires Palestinian residents of the Closed Zone to obtain permits to live in their houses, farm their land and to travel. Palestinians not residing in the Closed Zone but whose agricultural lands are within the Closed Zone will also be required to apply for a permit to farm their land. The order effectively grants any Jew in the world the right to freely travel throughout the Closed Zone, while denying the same rights to the Christians and Muslims who live on, farm and own the land. In addition, many Palestinian villages—I have seen it for myself—have had their entrance roads ploughed up, so that they are inaccessible from outside and are turned into prisons for those living in them. Sewage fills the ditches that have been dug across the roads.

The Israeli Government have now decided to build a wall that will divide the city of Bethlehem and siphon access to the city through narrow access points, totally controlled by the Israeli army. That will severely hinder access to the Church of the Nativity and to the Church of Christmas and will almost completely prevent access to all but Jewish visitors to Rachel's tomb and to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque and the adjoining Muslim cemetery.

I was in Bethlehem last month, and it was explained to me what was going to happen. I was shown a map drawn up by the Israeli army. The wall is intended to be constructed in the middle of the main road at the entrance to Bethlehem. It will isolate the whole of the northern part of Bethlehem, inhabited by 4,000 people, representing 15 per cent. of the master plan, including it within separation walls and barbed wire, tightening the ring around it and stripping it off from Bethlehem. Thousands of additional acres of Bethlehem's valuable agriculture land north of the wall will accordingly not be accessible to its owners.

The wall will close the single bottleneck entrance to Bethlehem used by visitors and pilgrims. Tourism constitutes 65 per cent. of the citizens' revenue, and the construction of the wall will choke the town. It will deprive Bethlehem of the sole remaining zone for the town's future expansion. It will close the major historical, traditional and religious entrance of Bethlehem, violating the status quo arrangements abided by for centuries, and deny freedom of movement on the main road as stated in article 7 of the Oslo accords.

The wall will eliminate citizens' movements to and from their own homes and business locations, which will be encircled by walls and barbed wire. It will cut kinship relations and commercial activities between the afflicted area and the rest of the Palestinian territories. It will uproot Roman olive trees and demolish walls. In the closed areas, the wall will prevent essential municipal services, such as electricity, sewerage, water, cleaning, garbage removal and road maintenance. All of this is happening allegedly to increase Israeli security. However, not only will holy sites be desecrated, but Bethlehem's tourist trade and its agriculture, on which the city depends almost entirely for its livelihood, will be destroyed.

Not surprisingly, the wall has caused deep concerns among Christians and Muslims. I contacted the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and received a reply on behalf of the Archbishop of Liverpool, who leads the Bishops' Conference on this issue. Father Frank Turner SJ wrote to me and said that, after discussing the matter with the Archbishop of Liverpool, he was aware of the gravity of the issues that I had raised. He said that the Bishops' Conference, and the Church in the Holy Land, fully share your profound concern about this structure and its effects. He said that the Catholic bishops of several countries will meet their brother bishops of the Holy Land in Bethlehem and Jerusalem in January 2004 when the focus of the meeting will be the social situation of the Palestinian people and the Church's humanitarian efforts to meet their needs by both advocacy and practical support. He sent me a copy of a letter from the Archbishop of Liverpool to the Israeli ambassador, which expressed the Archbishop's great concern about the government of Israel's plans for the construction of a wall separating Israel itself from the West Bank. He continued: I do not see how this construction will not have the most serious consequences for the inhabitants of Bethlehem or the Israeli side of this wall. It is not only non-Israelis who have expressed concern. Only last week, Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli chief of staff, expressed concern about the wall. He said that Israel's policies in the occupied territories were operating contrary to our strategic interests". He also said that the restrictions were increasing hatred of Israel and encouraging terrorism. He went on: There is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, nor in Bethlehem and Jericho". As for Bethlehem, the Israeli chief of staff said not that the wall should be built, but that restrictions in Bethlehem—as well as in Jericho, the economy of which is also being ruined—should be lifted. He is not the only leading Israeli who has criticised the situation. A member of the Israeli Government, Yosef Paritzky, the Infrastructure Minister, said a few days ago: The failure to differentiate between civilians and terrorists turns all the Palestinians into potential suicide bombers. What both baffles and appals me is that the history of the Jews is a history of being herded by Russians into a pale of settlement in the Russian territories. From Venice onwards, it is a history of being herded into ghettos, penned in, and treated as inferior to the rest of the citizens of the country. Yet now Israelis are creating hundreds of ghettos for the Palestinians and—as I saw when travelling around for several days—turning Israel into one large ghetto. The wall that is penning Palestinians into their towns and villages is penning Israelis into a ghetto, too.

Nor is that activity in any way increasing Israeli security. I went to Qalqilya and saw the huge wall and the vast gate that is the only way out—except that it was not manned, so that people going to the gate could not get through—and on my way back to Jerusalem I drove past the town of Tulkarem. The very next day, a suicide bomber struck at an Israeli administrative point at Tulkarem. The wall is not even achieving what Israelis claim to be its justification.

We all know that what the Israelis are doing is illegal. There is a growing resistance movement in Israel, as was shown at the wonderful rally of 100,000 people held a few days ago to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, by a fanatical Israeli Jew.

What I am looking for from the Government today is not simply condemnation of the illegal construction of an illegal wall preventing Palestinians from getting to their schools and universities. Let us be clear about this: if young people do not get to school or university, they have a day on their hands and have to find things to do, and can well be prey to people who preach that the way out for them is through terrorist activity.

I do not look to my hon. Friend the Minister simply to restate the Government's admirable position on the building of the wall; I am asking him to give us some idea of what can be done to stop the extension of this abomination—an abomination built to protect not Israelis, but the Israeli illegal settlements that are being constructed like so much jerry-built garbage on practically every hilltop that can be seen in the Palestinian territories. I ask him to say what practical measures the Government can take to stop the Israelis continuing on a path that is not only damaging for the Palestinian people, but deeply damaging for the Israeli people.

3.43 pm
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

I visited the occupied territories in July with a small delegation of Members, and what I saw appalled me. The so-called security wall was being constructed exclusively within occupied Palestinian territory, in many instances several kilometres within the 1967 border known as the green line, and in one instance entirely encircling the town of Qalqilya, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

There is reinforced concrete, cement, barbed wire and electrified fences, trenches, electronic surveillance and monitoring equipment, guard towers and security roads. That is not a security wall but an effective prison wall that is encircling Palestinian communities, who are now captives in their own towns and villages. It is also a land-grab, taking anything between 10 and 40 per cent. of Palestinian territory into Israel, and further undermines attempts to create a two-state solution to the conflict. Any attempts by Israel to impose a one-state solution against international law will lead to guaranteed future insecurity for Israel, as it will alienate both the Muslim states in the region and the wider world. The wall is a step in that direction.

I call on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make strong representations to Israel to cease the construction of the wall, and to ask the US to make similar representations.

3.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on raising what is an issue of concern throughout the House. We could have a long debate about whether we are talking about a wall or a fence, but it is clear that although it could be called a fence, a significant proportion of it is a wall, as was described. The effect of that wall or fence is an issue that we should discuss in the House.

Bethlehem has a unique and historical status, and it stands as an example of how Palestinian towns in the west bank will be affected by the building of the structure. Although my right hon. Friend referred to the Government's position, it is worth restating it. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons as recently as 14 October that we consider the building of the wall on Palestinian land to be illegal, and we need to underline that point.

We are not alone in holding that view. The United Nations General Assembly and leaders of all the European Union member states at the European Council clarified their opposition to the route of the fence. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell also consider the route of the fence to be a problem and have urged the Israeli Government not to build it on Palestinian land, but along the green line between Israel and the Palestinian territories. There is significant international consensus, and cross-party consensus in the House, on the issue.

I want to make it clear that the Government understand that the Israel Government must take precautionary measures within international law to protect their citizens. That is undoubtedly the duty of all Governments. However, although the wall may give some immediate relief from the relentless series of terrorist attacks inflicted on the state and people of Israel, building the fence on Palestinian territory will inflame tensions in the region and do nothing to solve the crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) said, in common with many other Members, it will give only an illusion of security to the people of Israel in the longer term.

The proponents of the wall claim that it will separate the Israeli people from the Palestinians, and my hon. and right hon. Friends attested to that from their direct experience of the situation. However, on completion of the next section, agreed by the Israeli Cabinet on 1 October, an estimated 79,000 Palestinians will be left to the west of the wall—in other words, on the Israeli side of the barrier. Those people will not be able to enter Israel freely and will have severely limited access to essential services, such as schools and hospitals, in the west bank. A powerful point was made about the situation that will arise if young people cannot go to school and are left to their own devices and the temptations that exist.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I have also been to Qalqilya and seen the wall. I am concerned about the second wall that is being built around Jerusalem, which, according to estimates, will leave 100,000 Palestinians outside but without giving them the same rights as Israelis or other residents of Jerusalem. How long does my hon. Friend think that the right-wing Israeli Government can persist with a policy that makes a mockery of the concept of universal human rights?

Mr. Rammell

I understand the argument, and we have to restate that the wall built on the occupied territories is illegal under international law. We must make that point forcefully to the Israeli Government, and we are taking every opportunity to do so.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Rammell

I will briefly give way; then I want to make some progress.

Mr. Sarwar

I am sure that we all agree that building an apartheid wall will cause misery and economic ruin for thousands of Palestinians. I am pleased that the Government position is very clear: we are opposed to the wall. However, why are the Israeli Government treating the international community with contempt? Rather than stopping Israel building the wall, the United States of America—the only superpower—is giving billions of dollars in grants.

Mr. Rammell

As I said earlier, the United States shares our concern on the issue. It is critical that we keep it engaged on the issue, because only with active US participation can we get the movement necessary to resolve the matter.

To continue, I think that the fence will further damage the already desperate humanitarian and economic situation of the Palestinian people. Already, closures, curfews and demolitions have led to the virtual collapse of the Palestinian economy—60 per cent. of Palestinians now live on less than $2.10 a day. To put it bluntly, the fence is making that situation worse.

It is estimated that more than 100,000 olive and citrus trees have already been destroyed along the route of the wall; that damages a major part of the Palestinian agricultural economy and makes the situation worse. The regulations imposed by the Israeli Government prevent farmers from getting labourers and machinery to their fields. There are also too few access gates in some areas. Where they do exist, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton said, they are often not open at the right time of day. On some occasions, they may be shut for days on end.

In addition to limiting the Palestinian people's access to their land, the fence also restricts some Palestinian access to the west bank's water resources. Without ready access to that water, it will become more and more difficult for the Palestinian people to live independently. From a political perspective, the wall also threatens to establish new facts on the ground that will make it ever more difficult to achieve the two-state solution set out in the road map, to which the Israeli Government are committed and which the international community is pushing as strongly as it can.

It is claimed that the wall could be removed when there is a political solution and that the route has no long-term political significance. Yet the estimated $1 billion cost of the wall will be a powerful disincentive to removing it once it is built—that is a strong argument. It will become more and more difficult to remove the settlements that will continue to grow on Palestinian occupied territory behind the wall unless and until the Israeli Government put a freeze on their development—something that we have been calling for strongly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said, the fence being built around east Jerusalem will cause particular problems for the residents there and for those of the surrounding towns, including Bethlehem. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton said in opening the debate, the wall around east Jerusalem may separate it from some of the holiest places in the Christian faith.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Will the Minister give an assessment of claims purportedly made by the Israelis that they are only leasing the land and that they are giving adequate compensation for its temporary use?

Mr. Rammell

I simply restate the view that I have already expressed. The building of the wall or the fence on the occupied territories is illegal. That issue needs to be addressed if we are to make progress and get the peaceful solution that we are all calling for.

I have already mentioned the serious negative effect that the fence will have on the Palestinian economy throughout the west bank, but I particularly recognise the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton about the effect on the residents of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is likely to encounter greater difficulties in getting its agricultural produce to large markets in Jerusalem. Certainly those residents of Bethlehem employed in Jerusalem will find it more difficult to get to work. That will have an impact on tourism and pilgrimages.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Rammell

Very briefly.

Dr. Tonge

The Minister is generous in giving way, and has been good at giving a detailed account of the effects of the security wall. However, what will the Government do practically to put the right amount of pressure on Israel to stop this atrocity?

Mr. Rammell

I could stand here giving hon. Members chapter and verse and all the fine words in the world. However, we need movement from the parties in the dispute. Yes, we are using the diplomatic mechanisms available to us, to the European Union, and to the American Administration on a regular basis, but to resolve the problem, movement is needed from the Israeli Government on building the wall and on settlement. Similarly, the Palestinian authorities need to take significant action to tackle terrorism. Both sides need to act if the issue is to be resolved, as I shall discuss.

The fence is not being built in a vacuum. As I said earlier, the Government understand the Israeli Government's need to seek security for their citizens. Right-thinking people on both sides of the argument condemn the regular and devastating suicide attacks to which the Israeli people have been subjected. The Government's goal in working with the rest of the international community is a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the middle east, once and for all, which delivers a secure Israel within internationally recognised borders, and a viable Palestinian state.

The achievement of that goal, far more than a wall, fence or barrier, will provide real and long-term security to people in the region. People across the divide seek that objective, and an end to the violence. With commitment and courage, the parties can overcome the difficulties together and realise that vision.

The only long-term, credible way to achieve the objective remains the Quartet's road map. If such a process did not exist, we would have to establish a similar process. It is the only mechanism available, and I urge every Member connected with the debate to put the force of their argument behind it.

The Government's commitment to the road map is on the record and unparalleled; we want the process to be published, and up and running, and we are pressing for it to be implemented.

Dr. Tonge

I fail to understand how the Minister can promote the road map when Israel is clearly flouting it every day and not obeying its conditions. Perhaps the Palestinians are not doing so, but is not the road map being discredited all the time? The Minister has not mentioned the Geneva accord, to which even Yasser Arafat subscribed. Could we not have a fresh look at the issue and start again?

Mr. Rammell

I think that to have a fresh look at the issue and start again would set the peace process back significantly. It is all well and good to stand up and make such a statement in this Chamber, but it does not serve the cause that the hon. Lady rightly advances. If she is asking me whether I have significant anxieties about how the road map is being progressed at the moment. the answer is yes, I acknowledge that that is the case. These are grave times and we need to impress on both sides the need to respect the road map. They have signed up to the process; they must recognise that it is the only way forward and carry out the commitments to which they have already committed themselves. That means significant action by the Palestinian authorities to carry through their commitments to tackle terrorism and security issues within the occupied territories. Similarly, the Israeli Government should recognise that what they are doing in terms of building the fence or the wall in the occupied territories is contrary to international law. That issue needs to be revisited and reconsidered.

I simply do not see another mechanism for making progress apart from the road map. As I said, if such a mechanism did not exist, we would have to invent it. I take the point that since the publication of the road map, the Israeli Government have issued tenders for more than 1,500 housing units, 900 in the past month alone. Israeli action to remove settlement outposts has ground to a halt. There needs to be further action by the Palestinian authorities to further the process to which they have committed themselves.

It was extraordinarily helpful for my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton to raise the issue and allow it to be aired. Hon. Members who have observed the situation on the ground and described in detail some of the problems created by the fence and the wall have made an important contribution to the process. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for publicising the issue; I recall the television programme that he undertook last year, which brought some information and clarity to these issues.

It is important that we urge it on both sides that we face a very grave situation. We need to see movement by the Palestinian Authority on security, but at the same time we need the Israeli Government to tackle the issue of the settlements, the wall and the fence. At one level, one might be able to understand where the Israeli Government are coming from, but with regard to the long-term security of the Israeli people, I do not think—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up.

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