Middle East Peace Process by Clare Short

Middle East Peace Process
Clare Short, Birmingham, Ladywood

26th June 2007

at Westminster Hall

I tabled this debate because I visited recently the Palestinian occupied territories with a
delegation organised by War on Want. It consisted of War on Want
staff, myself, and Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary
of Unison. I am grateful for the opportunity to report on our
findings, and I hope that the Minister will take account of them.

I have previously visited the west bank and Gaza on a number occasions
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the time of the first intifada—a
Palestinian uprising involving peaceful disobedience or, at worst,
children throwing stones at soldiers. Despite the injuries inflicted
on children by the Israeli army, the intifada was full of hope, and it
led to the negotiation of the Oslo peace accord and the return of
Yasser Arafat to Palestine. I was hopeful at that time that a
two-state peace—Israel and Palestine—was possible, that the new
Palestinian state would be based on 1967 boundaries with East
Jerusalem as its capital, and that there would be a negotiated
settlement on Palestinian right of return. Those are the three
essential components of a negotiated peace. I was hopeful; but it is
now impossible to believe that there will be such a peace. Instead, I
fear that unless we change policy, we face the prospect of years and
possibly decades of bloodshed and conflict.

I have followed developments in the middle east carefully over many
years, and I was well aware before my recent visit how bad things are
for the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, I was deeply shocked by
Israel's blatant, brutal and systematic annexation of land, demolition
of Palestinian homes, and deliberate creation of an apartheid system
by which the Palestinians are enclosed in four bantustans, surrounded
by a wall, with massive checkpoints that control all Palestinian
movements in and out of the ghettos.

The Israelis are clearly and systematically attempting to take the
maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Palestinians. As
things stand, Israel has taken 85 per cent. of historical Palestine,
leaving the remaining 15 per cent. for Palestinian ghettos. More
shocking than that is that the international community, including the
UK and the EU, does nothing to require Israel to abide by
international law, despite all the claims made about European support
for human rights and international law.

During its visit, the delegation spent a day with the UN Office for
the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is the agency
responsible for humanitarian emergencies. It briefed us on the way in
which the wall, the closures, the settlements and the separate system
of settler roads were imprisoning the Palestinians. It published a map
in the Financial Times to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation,
which is available for all to see.

The delegation spent the second day of its visit with the Israeli
Committee Against House Demolitions, an organisation that I greatly
admire. The committee took us on a tour of East Jerusalem and showed
us how the combination of formal and informal settlements, and
systematic house demolition, was encircling East Jerusalem and how
that constrained, displaced and ethnically cleansed the Palestinian
population. When we were with ICAHD, we witnessed a house demolition.
A massive machine with "Volvo" emblazoned on its side destroyed a
substantial house that was built by a Palestinian family on their own
land and in territory that belongs to the Palestinians under
international law—formally, it is occupied territory.

Women relatives of the occupants quietly wept at the side of the road.
Later, a young man was held back by his friends—he wanted to throw
himself at the soldiers who were protecting the demolition, to do
something about the destruction of his family home. The representative
of ICAHD, a young Israeli, said that the demolition was, of course, a
war crime. The point about that is that under the Geneva convention,
an occupying power is not entitled to impose new laws or to settle in
occupied territory. Houses are being demolished because Palestinians
do not have permits to build, even on their own land. However, Israel
is not entitled to introduce such a permit system. It never gives a
permit to build a house, or after a house has been built. When
Palestinian families expand, they must live somewhere, but Israel will
never issue a permit because of its determination to drive
Palestinians out of East Jerusalem.

According to ICAHD, Israel has demolished 18,000 Palestinian homes in
the way I described since 1967. Each demolition was a war crime. More
shocking than that is the fact that no action is taken to force Israel
to adhere to international law. Later, the delegation visited a family
whose house had been demolished and rebuilt by volunteers from
ICAHD—Israelis and Palestinians worked together to rebuild a home for
a Palestinian family. ICAHD is committed to acts of peaceful civil
disobedience in order that international law is upheld. The family
said how grateful they were to once again have a home. A Palestinian
who works for ICAHD said that his house had been demolished four
times. He said that most Palestinian homes in Jerusalem were subject
to demolition orders, so everyone lives with the fear and insecurity
that when they arrive home, they might find that their home has been
destroyed. He said that when the Israelis arrive to demolish a
person's house, they give them 15 minutes in which to collect their
family and belongings.

Normally, people refuse to co-operate. The ICAHD worker told me that
in such a situation, the demolition people use tear gas. He told me
that he stood there, with his wife fainting and his children crying
while their property was being thrown out of their house on to the
ground. He said that it made him feel like a useless man who could not
even protect his family in their home, and that three possible courses
of action passed through his mind. First, full of hate and anger, he
thought about obtaining a suicide vest and destroying his own life and
that of others. Secondly, he thought about whether he could get out of
Palestine and Jerusalem, being unable to bear the pressure being put
on him and his family, but that would be to co-operate in the
ethnic-cleansing that he opposed. Thirdly—he said that this kept him
sane—he said he thought about working for ICAHD to rebuild the
demolished homes in peaceful civil disobedience.

I understand that ICAHD has given a pledge to rebuild all the
demolished homes in this, the 40th year of the occupation, and
that—poignantly—an American holocaust survivor is funding the work. I
hope that all people of good will will support ICAHD financially and
politically in that endeavour. Importantly, the organisation brings
radical Israelis and Palestinians together and creates a space for
hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.

The delegation's third day was hosted by the Grassroots Palestinian
Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, which is War on Want's partner in
Palestine. We were briefed about how the closures have destroyed the
Palestinian economy—that has subsequently been underlined by a World
Bank report—and also how more and more Palestinians are forced to work
for the Israeli settlements to produce agricultural products and other
goods that are exported largely to the European market, to which trade
agreements give Israel privileged access. Illegal settlements using
Palestinians as cheap labour is another element of the new apartheid
system in which the EU and the UK fully collude.

The delegation went to visit the Jordan valley with a representative
of the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign. The
situation there is truly terrible. All fertile land near the river has
been confiscated by Israel, supposedly for security purposes under the
Oslo peace accords. In the remaining territory, there are occasionally
settlements, some of only one person, which lead to Palestinian
families being removed from their land for security reasons. There are
acres of plastic greenhouses that are organised and worked by settlers
and which are strategically located over water sources. They grow
organic herbs and other agricultural produce for the European market
and yet, when we visited a totally impoverished nearby Palestinian
village, we found that there was no school and, that day, no water—the
one tap in the village gave no water. The impoverished Palestinians
must buy water by the bucket from the settlers.

We visited farming families whose relatives had lived on the land in
the Jordan valley for generations to grow crops, herd sheep and goats,
and to make cheese. They were being threatened and moved constantly as
new settlements of only one or a few people brought in the army, which
claimed that they had to move for security reasons. We stopped to talk
to another family who had a compound at the side of the road. A house
bought for their son and his family on their own land had been
demolished, and their aubergine crop was rotting in a heap in front of
the house because they could not get it to market.

There is terrible poverty and abuse of human rights in the Jordan
valley. The people there are being grossly neglected. I appeal to the
Minister, the Department for International Development and all the
humanitarian and non-governmental organisations to do more in the
Jordan valley—it is in a terrible situation, and more could be done to
bring instant relief.

My conclusion is pessimistic, and the prospect of a two-state solution
is being destroyed. Instead, we are allowing a new, brutal apartheid
regime to be created with the Palestinians being confined to ghettoes
and used as cheap labour by the settlers. The Hamas takeover in Gaza
is not the cause of the problem, but the consequence of it. The
refusal of the UK and the EU to provide aid to the Palestinian
Authority following the Hamas election victory has helped to create
the problem. The arming of Fatah by US and Israeli forces to enable it
to fight Hamas in Gaza made the takeover inevitable. Now it seems that
efforts are to be made to offer money and inducements to President
Abbas to accept the monstrous ghettoes as the promised Palestinian
state. As Uri Avnery, the great Israeli peace campaigner, said, they
want him to act as a quisling, and that will not bring peace.

In conclusion, the situation in the Palestinian territories is deeply
distressing and depressing, and the Government and the EU are
colluding in that oppression and the building of a new apartheid
regime. In particular, Israel has privileged access to the EU market
under a trade treaty that, like all EU trade treaties, contains human
rights conditions. I hope that the Minister will explain why those
conditions are not invoked to insist on Israeli compliance with
international law. That is a big lever, and Israel would be frightened
of losing access to the EU market. I wish that we would make use of
that for everyone's benefit.

I fear continuing bloodshed and suffering, and further destabilisation
of the middle east. The situation in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian
territories is fuelling the anger of the Muslim world, which is acting
as a recruiting sergeant for the ugly ideology of Osama bin Laden and
those who advocate similar ideas.

It is in the interests of the people of Israel, the Palestinians and
the wider middle east that there should be a two-state solution to
bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that possibility
is being thrown away by Israel, which is determined constantly to
expand its borders in total breach of international law. The UK and
the EU are, sadly, colluding in that, and the consequences are causing
terrible suffering, and endangering the future. I truly hope that our
new Prime Minister will reconsider that policy, and that the
Opposition parties will reconsider and bring pressure to bear to bring
the situation back from the brink and to ensure that the centrepiece
of UK policy is a just peace and Israeli compliance with international

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the right
hon. Lady for initiating this debate and for her comments. I also
thank her for her eye-witness account of the illegal activities of the
Israeli defence forces and others in demolishing houses along the
route of the wall, the barrier or fence, where it incorporates
Palestinian land illegally. I agree entirely with the right hon. Lady
that that not only breaks international law but generates huge
resentment, not just in Palestine but throughout the region. We have
constantly urged the Israelis not to do that, and it is ironic that
lawyers in Israel have given Palestinians their redress only about the
route of the wall. Sometimes that route has been altered as a
consequence of legal action that Palestinians have taken, especially
in and around Jerusalem.

The right hon. Lady's point about generating sympathy for Osama bin
Laden and al-Qaeda is prescient, and we ignore such warnings at our
peril. I take her message about the Jordan valley needing the
attention of the Department for International Development. I, too, was
shocked when I saw the extent to which so much of the Palestinian
economy on the west bank has collapsed. I shall come to Gaza in a

This is one of those times in history when, from an appalling tragedy
of Palestinians killing Palestinians in Gaza, one hopes that the
Israelis and everyone else will take a real step forward, remove the
barriers on the west bank, and allow people to trade properly. The
right hon. Lady referred to a crop of aubergines that were rotting in
the field, and we have heard such stories so many times.

I understand, as I am sure can everyone, why Israel has built
barriers, and I know why it has built the wall. On my last visit but
one, I went to see some old lefties—I do not know how to describe
them—in a kibbutz up on the old Jerusalem road. Very reluctantly, they
told me that life had become easier since the barrier was built
because they were not worried about their kids going out, as suicide
bombers were finding it much harder to come in from Nablus and other
towns. I tried to argue then, and I argue now, that they will find
ways of getting in and killing innocent citizens, because resentment
will continue to build up unless the core issue is tackled.

Clare Short: I simply want to say that, ugly and regrettable as the
wall is, if it were on the 1967 boundary it would be one thing, but it
is taking great swathes of Palestinian land and dividing communities
from their land. That was found to be illegal by the International
Court of Justice, and there is no excuse for it.

Dr. Howells: The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. I was quite
shocked even to discuss with Labour Ministers in Israel some time ago
their unwillingness to build tunnels, for example, to join cantons
together. It is hard to believe that a viable state, albeit small,
could emerge from such a geographical configuration. It is difficult
to see how it could work. We must keep pressing the Israelis.

I do not agree with the right hon. Lady about sanctions—she did not
refer to sanctions, but I have heard people talk about them. She
referred to withdrawal of the preferential trade agreement with the
EU. It is a fair subject for debate, although I am sceptical about
making such moves, but that is my subjective assessment. It is a
subject that should be discussed, and it is widely discussed
throughout Europe. I tend to feel that there is already so much
tension and there are so many difficulties that I am not sure that
that would advance the cause of peace.

If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall say something about
Gaza, because we share her deep concern about what has happened there.
It is a tragedy, and it underlines the urgent need to maintain
international engagement and the current political processes.

We are also concerned, as is the right hon. Lady, about the welfare of
Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist, whose family must be going through
the most dreadful time. We condemn the release of the latest video,
which can only add further distress to his family and friends. We urge
his captors, as I know does the right hon. Lady, to release him
immediately. There should be a general release of captives on both
sides— Corporal Shalit, the soldiers who were kidnapped by Hezbollah,
the councillors and elected parliamentary representatives of the
Palestinian people. Now is the time to make such moves, and I hope
that after the disaster in Gaza there will be a sense that this
historic opportunity should not be missed, and that misery should not
be heaped on the existing misery.

I also extend our thanks to the Egyptian Government for initiating the
meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday between President Mubarak and
King Abdullah of Jordan, whom I had the privilege of speaking with
just last week. He brought to the situation a sharp series of
observations, which the right hon. Lady complemented today, and he
understands the gravity of the situation. If the west bank
statelet—that group of cantons—fails, one wonders where the conflict
will spread to next. Jordan, with its huge Palestinian population,
would be in grave danger, and King Abdullah is well aware of that. He
was at Sharm el-Sheikh, as were Prime Minister Olmert and President

We welcome Prime Minister Olmert's statement that he will work, with
President Abbas as a true partner, towards the establishment of a
two-state solution and the implementation of the road map. There are
some positive aspects, but I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is
a pretty bleak picture. It is as bleak as I can ever remember it, but
the decision by Prime Minister Olmert to transfer the withheld
revenues is probably a positive step forward, and we look forward to
the implementation of the commitments to increase freedom of movement
and expand trade connections in the west bank. Such actions are not
rocket science; they can easily be done and they could make a big
difference, if only to that family about whom the right hon. Lady
spoke, with their crop of aubergines.

Such actions are vital to the Palestinian people, and they have helped
to improve the humanitarian and economic situation, which is critical.
We welcome Prime Minister Olmert's pledge to ensure the continued
supply of humanitarian aid to Gaza. As the right hon. Lady knows, we
have earmarked funding for that project. It does not address the
central issue that she has raised today, but there is an immediate
humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which the international community must
address. It is important that the international community works
together to help all Palestinian people.

President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad's Government have our full
support, and we share their aim of restoring security and improving
the economic and humanitarian situation. We continue to work with all
people, including President Abbas, who are dedicated to a peaceful
resolution of the conflict.

The right hon. Lady did not mention this point, because time is always
limited in such debates, but President Abbas, among others, has said
that there ought to be an international peacekeeping force in Gaza
certainly, if not on the west bank. I can see the right hon. Lady
shaking her head, and one cannot imagine who would donate the troops
to such a force. They would have to fight their way in, there would be
bloodshed and mayhem on a huge scale, and quite frankly, I cannot see
the idea coming off.

To reinforce what the right hon. Lady said, we must understand the
gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, address it and at the same
time, urge Israel as
hard as we possibly can to think again about its policy of
incorporating Palestinian villages and land within the confines of
that wall. As she said, the Israelis have a perfect right to defend
themselves, and if they want to build a wall, it is up to them, but it
ought to be along the agreed frontier—such as it is—that was defined
in 1967. It ought not to encroach on Palestinian territory.

It is important that we receive such reports in the House. In so many
ways, that is what such debates are for—so that we are reminded
constantly of the reality of what can sometimes look like great,
strategic trends and events on the world stage. However, for the
family whom the right hon. Lady described so vividly, the reality is
that their lives have been shattered. Many other families' lives have
been, too. I have always considered myself to be a friend of the
Palestinian people and the Israeli people. I was brought up in a home
in which the dreams of everybody who was interested in the subject
were about people living alongside each other peacefully, not even in
separate states.

I shall not apportion blame; I have been around too long for that. I
have seen the successive invasions of Israel, and what the Israelis
have done in an attempt to head off what they perceive as threats to
the Israeli heartland, which has usually meant extending territory. My
message to the Israelis is simple; if they are to live in peace side
by side with their neighbours, the Israelis must help them become
viable states with economies that can live in a competitive world.
They need the education, skills, infrastructure and wherewithal to do
all that, but most important, they need the self-respect and dignity
that we enjoy as members of sovereign states.

Clare Short: May I press the Minister to reconsider his view on
Israeli access to the EU market? If we invoked the human rights
conditionality in that treaty, we would have a lever with which to
press Israel to do what he calls for. Does not our failure to use that
leverage mean that we are colluding in the breach of international
law? Will he reconsider his position on that point?

Dr. Howells: I certainly do not believe that we are colluding in any
shape or form. I was going to come to that point, but with respect to
the right hon. Lady, "colluding" is certainly the wrong word to use. I
know that she chose that word very carefully, but I do not think that
it is the right one. I can speak only subjectively from my meeting
with other European Ministers. She, too, met her counterparts from the
EU and other nations many times. There is at one extreme a sense of
hopelessness, which she also described today in a very grim analysis
of the situation. I am at the other extreme. I keep telling myself
that we have material to work with, and that it is a very small part
of the world. What is Gaza? Ten miles wide, and at the most, 35 to 40
miles long. It has a wonderful beach on the Mediterranean, and I
remember vividly the first time I ever walked on it, thinking, "Why is
this a poor part of the world? Why haven't people here got any jobs?"
It seemed mad to me.

The right hon. Lady expressed the hope that my right hon. Friend the
new Prime Minister would take the issue by the scruff of the neck and
try to do something with it. She knows that he has been very
interested for a very long time in trying to work with the Israelis
and the Arab countries in the area to do something about that economy
and that infrastructure. I disagree with her about the effect of that
general sense of good will towards Israel and Palestine—the desire
throughout Europe that there should be a good outcome, and peace and
prosperity in the future. In the end, we disagree about whether
applying a screw to the Israelis on the question of human rights
compliance would achieve a great deal.

We should at every possible opportunity engage the Israelis on human
rights and on compliance with their undertakings, which, as a
consequence, enable them to enjoy access to the European market. We
should talk to them about that, but I have a feeling that there are
already far too many strictures on all sides to add another one. It
would just create more tension, and we should try to build on what we
have, aim for the high ground and figure out how we can get there by
engaging with both sides.