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29 April 2004

Palestine

This Select Committee report is different from the other reports on the subject that have been produced in my time. Unlike most of them, this report makes it clear that the problems addressed are obviously man-made. Unfortunately, I was unable to join the Committee on its recent visit. However, many right hon. and hon. Members have visited the middle east with all-party groups or other organisations; indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) have just returned. A significant number of Members have first-hand experience of the region-experience that brings real expertise and wisdom to our debates. We heard a good example of that earlier this afternoon.
One of the best aspects of being a member of the Select Committee is being able to meet different people, see different parts of the world and, sometimes, listen to quite moving evidence. For instance, the Committee heard evidence about the demolition of houses, but I shall not go into detail about it.

One of the disadvantages of membership of the Committee is that its inquiries can sometimes be overtaken by events, and in ways that some other Select Committees' cannot. However, despite all that has happened since its publication at the beginning of the year, this report remains as valid as when it was published, although the scale of the problem has increased because of the recent actions of the Israeli Government.

Those members of the Committee who have spoken to me since their visit to the occupied territories told me of the shock of the humanitarian situation there. What makes a bad situation worse is the fact that, as I said, those humanitarian needs are virtually all man-made. That makes the situation all the more frustrating. We have enough trouble helping those countries ravaged by natural disasters or events that are outwith our control without adding to them. Of course, I understand the need for Israel to protect its people and to minimise the potential for horrific suicide bombings like those that we have seen. However, the Israeli Government fail to realise that their actions serve only to give greater cause to organisations such as Hamas, which seek to recruit Palestinians in their campaign of terror. Rather than preventing suicide bombings, the Government of Israel are fuelling the fire that leads to such acts of terrorism.
 
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)
: Does my hon. Friend agree that there cannot be peace unless there is justice? I have just received a report from the village of Jayyous, which has been cut in two by the barrier. It has 15,000 olive trees, 120 greenhouses, 50,000 citrus trees and six out of seven of its groundwater wells on the wrong side of the fence. There is a gate, but it is never open when it should be, so the people are denied access to tend their crops. Can there be justice in that sort of situation?
 
John Barrett : I take my hon. Friend's point. There can be no excuse for the wall or fence-however people refer to it-having been built where it has been built, separating pupils from schools, farmers from fields, and villagers from their hospitals. It is an outrage. As long as that barrier exists, it adds to the problem; it does not take away from it.

There is no excuse for suicide bombings, and at the same time there is no excuse for targeted assassinations. Both are illegal under international law and the Palestinian Authority have to take a greater hand in trying to prevent the suicide bombings. As the Committee found, the authority should, as a first step, condemn the bombings much more strongly. At the same time, investment in and development of the Palestinian Authority security forces needs to be made a priority. Israel has to recognise that that will serve its interests, while donors such as the UK should see it as a key part of technical assistance. Israel has no excuse for building the wall on Palestinian land, breaking up and closing in Palestinian communities, and there is no excuse for the US Administration to be anything other than critical of that move.

It is important that the Department for International Development should not just respond to short-term humanitarian needs, but help countries to develop in the long term by solving their long-term problems-that normally means helping countries to help themselves. In places such as Ethiopia, aid is about the provision of food in the short term, while making the country less vulnerable to freak climates in the long term. In Malawi, it is about treating those suffering from HIV in the short term while preventing the spread of disease in the long term. In Palestine, we need to avert the humanitarian disaster that threatens while pursuing as a long-term solution an end to the violence that has plagued the region for so long.

As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, for Palestine it is not, as in some other countries, just about aid. The Committee found that merely increasing aid spending would decrease poverty by about 7 per cent., but tackling the cause of poverty-ending movement restrictions-would result in a reduction of 15 per cent. This is not a problem that needs to have money thrown at it. Although there is, of course, a need for continued spending, it needs much more. As others have said, the wall and the movement restrictions are causing immense problems. Palestine is not a country with food shortages, yet the Committee found rates of malnutrition as bad as those in sub-Saharan Africa. Between the movement restrictions and the confiscation of land, farmers are unable to provide the food that their people need. Surely the movement of food cannot be described as a security threat. The Committee found that, provided no weapons are being transported, there is no need for the additional restrictions on the movement of food.

There are still water access requirements and, if my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she will go into the detail of that. The Committee found that DFID and non-governmental organisations were undertaking excellent work in helping to improve water access. However, the violence in the region often results in the demolition of infrastructure. One example cited in the report was the destruction by the Israeli army of US-built wells. There is no point in the UK, the EU and other donors investing in infrastructure improvements if they are to be undermined by authorised acts of violence.

The other issue that struck me during the inquiry was the importance of education. As has been said, half the population of the occupied Palestinian territories are under 18. That makes it even more important to provide good educational facilities, but in this case too the restrictions imposed by the Israelis are causing considerable, potentially permanent damage. The Palestinian Ministry of Education reports that almost 1,300 schools have been closed because of curfews, seizures and the fact that some of them have been converted into detention centres. A further 280 schools have been damaged by military action. Of those that remain, restrictions on movement and fear of retribution mean that teachers are unable to teach and that they and pupils are unable to reach their classrooms. Charities such as Save the Children report an increased use of violence in the playground as a means of settling disputes. If we are ever to find a long-term solution to the mistrust between the two sides, we must ensure that the next generation of leaders are not burdened by ignorance. Allowing children in Palestine to go through their entire childhood without proper education is contrary to that.

The only long-term solution to Palestine's development needs is peace. It is safe to say that despite the result of the Commons vote on 18 March 2003, the majority of Members were sceptical about military action in Iraq. One reason that some went through the Aye Lobby was the commitment that the Israel/Palestine conflict would be given priority and that the road map would be implemented. President Bush's endorsement of Sharon's disengagement plan and his partisan comments since run contrary not only to that commitment, but to international law and UN resolutions.
The interjection of 52 former British diplomats on Monday was a timely reminder of the work that still has to be done. Even those who disagree with the content of the letter must accept that those who signed it were some of the most expert people in Britain on the middle east. Their comments should not be dismissed out of hand but should be considered carefully and thoughtfully, just like the Committee's report.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.