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Restrictions on Palestinians in Jerusalem deplored in UK parliament

Jerusalem (Humanitarian Issues)
Hansard, Parliamentary business, House of Commons
Columns 1306 -1316
10.59 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this opportunity to debate humanitarian issues in Jerusalem. The debate comes in advance of the presentation of a petition to the Prime Minister supported by a wide range of organisations, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Amos Trust, Friends of Al Aqsa, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Pax Christi, calling on the Government to take urgent steps to stop the Israeli Government’s gradual but relentless eradication of Palestinian life and culture in Jerusalem. The Minister will not need to take my word for it that Jerusalem is facing a political and humanitarian crisis as people are denied the basic rights of a civilised society. His own UK mission in East Jerusalem issued a joint report with European colleagues last year. They concluded that if current trends of settlement growth and home demolitions “are not stopped as a matter of urgency, the prospect of East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state becomes increasingly unlikely and unworkable.”

The clear and long-standing position of the European Union is that all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, that East Jerusalem is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and that the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel is illegal and not recognised by either the UK or the EU. Yet that annexation is being reinforced with the Jerusalem municipality openly stating that it does not want the Palestinian population of Jerusalem to exceed 30%. Reducing the population from 38%, where it currently stands before any natural increase, to 30% can be achieved only by resorting to ethnic engineering that would be unthinkable in a liberal democracy and would require illegal and inhumane measures. However, we all know that this mission has been under way for years.

The first of those measures being implemented is the building of the wall that allows the exclusion of tens of thousands of Palestinians born in Jerusalem from their own city. Palestinians living outside the wall but inside the city boundaries have the status of Jerusalem residents and Jerusalem taxpayers but can access the city’s services, schools, hospitals and transport system only with the greatest of difficulty, if at all. The two major checkpoints for Palestinians render movement from outside to inside the wall extremely difficult. This can mean having to wait hours to get through a checkpoint and can put hours on a person’s work or school day, reduce access to religious sites, cause severe delay for a medical appointment and cause huge disruption to economic activity.

Many Palestinian organisations and businesses have been forced to leave Jerusalem as a result, but that could probably be considered a good result by some in the Israeli authorities. The International Court of Justice has called for sections of the wall built in East Jerusalem to be dismantled, but far from dismantling the wall the Israelis are rapidly extending it. Currently, they are building a wall that will completely encircle the small community of al-Walaja on the borders of Jerusalem so that villagers will be able to get in and out of their village only through an Israeli army checkpoint. Many people have gone to al-Walaja to see the wall and speak to the villagers, but the Israeli army does its best to discourage visitors. Only this month soldiers forced 55 Harvard students back on to their bus and arrested the villager Shireen al-Araj who was showing them the wall. That was a clear attempt at intimidation.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that far from being a wall, what he is describing is a fence, a tiny proportion of which is wall? Does he recognise that the reason it was built in the first place was to prevent suicide bombers from coming into Israel on a daily basis? That is something that it fortunately has achieved.

Alex Cunningham: I do not really think it matters whether it is a wall that is 20 feet thick or a fence—it is a barrier to the Palestinian people going about their normal business and I do not think it should be there.

One of the most sinister ways of removing Palestinians from living in Jerusalem is the rule that Palestinians’ “centre of their life” must lie within the Israeli-defined municipal boundary of Jerusalem. This prevents many who study or work for extended periods of time from returning and enriching their city’s experience. The “centre of life” requirement is of course particularly Kafkaesque when Israelis are making it more and more difficult for Palestinians to live and work in Jerusalem because of the wall and checkpoints.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): All of Jerusalem has been ravaged by war and terrorism. I am aware that all sections of those living in Jerusalem—Jews, Muslims and Christians—have the right to live and the right to guidance and support. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that applies for all groups of Jews and Christians as well?

Alex Cunningham: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that everyone should be living together in peace and harmony with the right to the same human rights within the city of Jerusalem, and I hope that one day we will get there. To finish my point, the authorities make it impossible for the centre of Palestinians’ life to be Jerusalem, and then expels them because it is not.

Furthermore, planning rules have been made to ensure that as little land as possible is available for Palestinians to build on. Fewer than 200 building permits are granted each year, even though the EU heads of mission in East Jerusalem assessed that 1,500 housing units are necessary to meet Palestinian housing need. A building permit is rare, mostly because the Israeli municipality has zoned most Palestinian areas to prevent building—according to the UN, that restriction applies in all but 13% of East Jerusalem—but even those who live in areas where building is permitted suffer years of delay and mounting costs in seeking permission to build.

Palestinians face an impossible dilemma as their family grows: do they live in squalid overcrowded conditions, move out of the city, or risk building illegally? Many take the chance of building without a permit, resulting in about 85,000 Palestinians being at risk of losing their homes. In addition, Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem are being demolished by the Israeli authorities: they demolished 670 homes between 2000 and 2008, and recently rubber-stamped the decision to demolish homes in Silwan to make way for a tourist park, which alone will make another 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

That comes at the same time as the building of illegal Jewish settlements continues unabated, forming an inner and outer ring around Jerusalem. The inner ring, home to around 200,000 settlers, combined with the wall cuts off Jerusalem from the west bank. The outer ring, home to another 100,000 settlers, further isolates the west bank from the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. Moreover, settlements continue to be built on land confiscated from Palestinians. On the fringes, homes are being seized by Israeli settler groups on the pretext that the land on which they are built was once in Jewish ownership, but to which those groups have no legal entitlement.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it speaks volumes about the arrogance of the occupying power that following the UN Human Rights Council’s vote last week, by 36 votes to one, to send a delegation to investigate the illegal settlements—illegal under international law—in East Jerusalem and the west bank, the Israelis have refused to co-operate with the council, refused admission to the delegation, and indeed is considering sanctions against the Palestinian Authority for even daring to raise the matter?

Alex Cunningham: It is clear that the world at large wants to do something about these issues, so why will the Israelis not let people in? What do they have to hide? I want an answer to that question, too.

The inequality of treatment of Palestinians’ claims is outrageous. They are legally barred from reclaiming property in West Jerusalem that they were forced to abandon, even if they still have the title deeds and the key to the front door. To ensure that Jerusalem can become the capital of Israel and Israel only, and to try to ensure that it never becomes the shared capital with Palestinians, Israel has used planning laws, home demolitions, settlement building, the wall and insecure residency rights, even as the international community, including the UK, the EU and America, has sat back, talked and done nothing practical to stop Israel. We all know about the influence of the US and of US and European aid to Israel. Why is no one taking action that will result in change?

Let me tell the House about Raya and Issam—two real people who best illustrate the injustices faced by the Palestinian people. Raya lives in Jerusalem. Her husband, Issam, lives 15 minutes’ drive from the centre of Jerusalem in a village just outside the city limits in the west bank, but he cannot visit his children’s school and could not be with Raya in hospital when she had their baby, because his village is outside the city boundary. He says:

“It’s easier for me to go on holiday to Germany than it is to visit my children’s school in Jerusalem.”

When they married, Issam applied for a family unification permit, so he could live with Raya in Jerusalem. The application cost him $5,000 in lawyer’s fees, but was refused on the grounds that he worked for the Palestinian Authority five years earlier. The authorities also cited the fact that he had been in jail during the first intifada 20 years ago, despite only being there for writing slogans and waving banners. Issam’s 15-minute drive has now turned into a two-hour nightmare, involving travelling by bus to Ramallah and waiting at the notorious Qalandia checkpoint twice a day to take the children to and from school, because an Israeli settlement has blocked the route from his village to Jerusalem.

As a brief aside, there are still 4,417 Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails as of January 2012, including 310 people with indefinite detention without charge or trial, 170 children, 27 elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and seven women.

It is on the record, from both Houses, that the UK has “made representations” month on month, year on year, to the Israelis objecting to increased settlements and home demolitions, making it clear that these actions are unacceptable, are illegal under international law and must stop, but what we are not told is how the Israelis reply, and we are never told of any positive outcome from these conversations.

Israel is accelerating the pace of settlement expansion, demolitions, expulsions and arrests in a way that makes the two-state solution increasingly unviable. Words are not enough; actions are clearly needed, and it is vital to demonstrate that breaches of international law have consequences, not only in diplomacy, but in the wider area of political and economic agreements.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the two-state solution, but does he agree that until the Hamas element of the Palestinian Authority accepts the Quartet principles, there can be no negotiated peace process?

Alex Cunningham: There will always be issues associated with Hamas and various other groups, but tonight we are talking about basic human rights within the city of Jerusalem and it is time that some of them were restored.

There are three sensible measures that I am calling on the Government to consider. They should insist on guarantees that products manufactured in Israeli settlements reaching the UK do not benefit from preferential treatment under the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Where there is any doubt that the goods originate from Israel’s side of the green line, they should not benefit. It is astonishing to me that not only do we not financially penalise these settlements of which we disapprove so vehemently, but as taxpayers we subsidise their activities.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham: I think I have given way enough.

According to research compiled by the Norwegian Government, Elbit Systems “supplies an electronic surveillance system called Torch for the separation barrier”, yet Elbit Systems benefits from an EU research programme, FP7, which is the EU’s main research funding project. Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories is partially owned by two illegal settlements and exploits resources from occupied territories. Ahava benefits from three FP7 European projects.

Is the Minister therefore prepared to call publicly on the European Commission to ensure that companies that aid and abet the occupation of East Jerusalem and other occupied territories are barred from benefiting from EU projects? Will the Government work to ensure that they are also barred from public contract tendering processes? These measures would go a good deal further to end Israel’s intransigence in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

Last summer I took my place with countless Palestinians and others and waited for hours to get through the Rafah crossing to enter Gaza. I saw the indignity that those people suffered waiting to get into their homeland, and once in Gaza learned of the very real challenges for everything from education to the supply of goods being faced by the Palestinian people. I toured the refugee camps and spent time with families and children living needlessly in poverty. I saw the beautiful beaches crying out for a tourist industry, and a people eager to pay their way in the world. But just like their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, their lives are controlled by the restrictions placed on them by the Israeli nation.

I look forward to the day when I can visit Jerusalem, to make my own pilgrimage to the sites associated with my Christian faith. But the Jerusalem I want to visit is the international city that it should be, free and fair for all residents regardless of their religion or nationhood, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested. It is time to demonstrate that we are not prepared to support or even tolerate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, and that as a nation we in Britain will work to do something about it.

11.13 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to respond to this short but important debate. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate and on the measured but impassioned way in which he approached the topic.

The humanitarian situation in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories is an issue that remains a high priority for both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. This evening, in response to the many points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, I hope to set out the actions that the Government are taking. The Government’s position on the status of Jerusalem is clear. East Jerusalem is an occupied territory. The solution to Jerusalem must be sought as part of a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any solution should enable Jerusalem to be a shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states. Moreover, that solution must allow access for all those for whom Jerusalem means so much, whether they be Jews, Muslims or Christians.

The Government share many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. Those concerns relate to demolitions and evictions; the construction of illegal Israeli settlements; severe difficulties of access to Jerusalem for Palestinians from the west bank, or for those residents of Jerusalem who live beyond the separation barrier; the removal of residency rights from Palestinians; and detentions. I shall address each of those matters in turn.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Does the Minister not agree that Israel is doing everything it can to prevent the Palestinian people from developing economically?

Mr Browne: I will come to that point. This is quite a narrowly prescribed debate, but I note that there will be an opportunity in Westminster Hall at 2.30 tomorrow afternoon to debate Israel and the peace process, so anyone who does not have an opportunity to speak tonight on this rather more narrowly prescribed topic will be able to join me in a few hours’ time to discuss the subject tomorrow when the net will be cast more widely.

Robert Halfon rose—

Ian Paisley rose—

Mr Browne: I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and then to my newly acquired Friend, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who is normally on the Benches opposite.

Robert Halfon: I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has joined us on these Benches tonight.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, before 1967, the Jews in East Jerusalem had no rights at all, and were not allowed to visit the holy sites? Does he also agree that Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem have far more rights than many Arabs in Arab countries, in that they elect MPs and live in a democracy?

Mr Browne: We want people of all faiths to have the right to practise their faith, but we also want a political arrangement in Jerusalem that will enable a two-state solution to become a reality.

Ian Paisley: I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. For the avoidance of doubt, will he make it clear that he will not succumb to or support calls for sanctions against Israel and the 6 million people who need to live and work in that country?

Mr Browne: Let me come to the subject in hand, and the hon. Gentleman can draw his conclusions. We are not talking about those measures this evening, but I would like to address the points made by the hon. Member for Stockton North.

First, like hon. Members, the Government are concerned about the threatened and actual demolition of Palestinian homes, particularly in the Silwan district of East Jerusalem. According to the United Nations, 515 structures were demolished in East Jerusalem and the west bank in 2011—a 40 % increase compared with 2010. Such demolitions and evictions are causing unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians. They are harmful to the peace process and they are contrary to international humanitarian law in all but the most limited circumstances.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), raised the issue of demolitions with the Israeli ambassador on 23 February, and again with the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, on 19 March. Her Majesty’s ambassador in Tel Aviv and embassy officials have also lobbied the Israelis, at ministerial and municipal level, on this issue. We have received a welcome assurance from the Jerusalem municipality that it has no plans to conduct wide-scale demolitions in Silwan in the immediate future. As hon. Members are aware, evictions and demolitions are also a pressing issue in Area C of the west bank. The United Nations estimated that by the end of 2011 there were more than 3,000 demolition orders outstanding in Area C, including 18 issued to schools. There is also an increasing number of demolition orders against infrastructure projects that have been funded by international co-operation programmes, including those of the European Union.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians, and indeed international organisations, face severe difficulties in obtaining building permits. On average, only 4% of building permits requested by Palestinians for Area C were approved last year. Together with our European Union partners, we continue to press Israel to address these serious concerns about the planning regime in Area C. More fundamentally, we urge Israel greatly to accelerate the process for transferring authority over Area C to the Palestinian Authority.

Secondly, another significant concern for the British Government, this House and the international community is the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem. The combination of the growing settlements and the separation barrier erected by Israel is increasingly separating East Jerusalem from the west bank, making it increasingly difficult for East Jerusalem to function as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Settlements, including in East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. They make negotiations more difficult and constitute a growing threat to the feasibility of a two-state solution, a solution supported by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the international community and a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. Settlement activity has no justification and should cease immediately. We have repeatedly given that message to Israel, including at the most senior levels.

Along with EU colleagues, we are deeply concerned at the agreement recently reached between the Israeli Government to move settlers from the illegal west bank outpost of Migron to a new settlement in the west bank. We note that Israel’s Supreme Court has rejected the Government’s petition to allow settlers to stay until 2015. Had the deal been ratified, it would have set a dangerous precedent, entirely contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Quartet roadmap. Hon. Members will be aware of the statement issued by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, on 16 March calling on the Israeli Government to rescind their decision. We will continue to urge the Israeli Government not to pursue their current approach of legalising such illegal outposts.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Does the Minister accept that Israel has demonstrated its ability and determination to remove illegal settlements, for example in Gaza, in exchange for a peaceful resolution and that, therefore, so-called—in some cases—illegal settlements can of course be negotiated away in land in order to have peace with the Palestinians, but what is required is for both sides to sit around the table to determine a peace treaty so that everyone can live in peace and harmony?

Mr Jeremy Browne: We of course wish both sides—if I can put it in those terms—to live in peace in harmony. That is very much the Government’s ambition. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that the Government do not support sanctions on Israel or any attempts to delegitimize Israel, but we do want Israel to honour the undertakings that I think people across the world expect it to honour with regard to settlements.

Alex Cunningham: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Browne: I will give way, because it is the hon. Gentleman, but after that I wish to address more of the points he made in his speech.

Alex Cunningham: If nobody is going to place any sanctions on Israel for what it is doing, what can be done to bring a solution? Talk is getting us nowhere.

Mr Browne: I want to address some of the hon. Gentleman’s other points and will then get to that point.

The Government will continue to argue for a just outcome for all the people affected by illegal settlement construction and the confiscation of land due to the separation barrier. That includes funding from the Department for International Development to the Norwegian Refugee Council to provide legal support to communities affected by the occupation.

I want to address a couple more issues, because time is short, and then see what more time I have to accommodate the wider points that have subsequently been made. The Government remain deeply concerned about restrictions on freedom of movement between the west bank and East Jerusalem. The permit system for Palestinians to enter East Jerusalem, whether for work, education, medical treatment or religious worship, is lengthy and complicated. There are heartbreaking stories of sons and daughters unable to obtain permits in time to visit parents dying in hospital or to attend funerals of relatives. Those Palestinians who have regular permits can spend hours queuing every morning at the checkpoints. We have lobbied the Israelis hard on the issue of movement and access, and there have been some improvements on the west bank, but there is still a long way to go.

A related concern is how many Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face the threat of losing their residency rights in a way that does not apply to Israeli residents. There are families who are forced to live apart, or forced to move to the west bank, because they cannot obtain permits to stay together. There are also concerns about reported moves by the Jerusalem municipality to change unilaterally the boundaries of the city in a way that might deprive thousands of Palestinians of their right to residency of Jerusalem.

The restrictions on movement and access, as well as on building, not only affect individual Palestinian lives but have a very harmful effect on the Palestinian economy. It is estimated that the movement and access restrictions cost the Palestinian economy as much as 85% of its GDP every year.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Browne: Let me come to a key point that I want to make, and then I shall give way if I have time.

Israel needs to show a greater flexibility on the movement of people and exports in order to increase employment and to reduce aid dependency. We did see some welcome flexibility earlier this month when we saw the first exports from Gaza to the west bank since 2007. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, welcomed that in a statement on 9 March, and it is an important step by Israel towards fulfilling its commitment to allow economic development for the 1.6 million people in Gaza. We hope that further transfers of goods to the west bank, including fruit and vegetables, textiles and furniture, will now also be permitted.

But—and this might reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow—I want to add that, on top of everything I have said, having I think made the Government’s position very clear, it would be wrong to give the impression that the Government are concerned only about Israeli action, although Israel has particular obligations under international law as the occupying force.

As the annual Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights and democracy report, to be published next month, will highlight, we also have serious concerns about reports of abuses carried out under Hamas rule in Gaza. Those include arbitrary detention, the mistreatment of detainees and the use of the death penalty. We are also seriously concerned about rocket attacks fired by militant groups in Gaza.

We continue to believe that the way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including in relation to Jerusalem, is through negotiations. Negotiations remain the best way of giving the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people long-term security and peace. If the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) wishes to intervene, I just about have time to accommodate him.

Mr Slaughter: I thank the Minister for pointing out some truths—I think to Government Members as well. He is going slightly off the subject by talking about the death penalty in Gaza, and perhaps he will also reflect on the 20 Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli air force recently, as they too suffered the death penalty. His Government are not so good, however, on action. They did not support and, therefore, effectively sabotaged in the United Nations Security Council the Palestinian bid for statehood. If the bid goes back to the UN General Assembly in April, will the Government support non-member status?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. It was meant to be a very short intervention, but that was almost a speech. If you need to, you will have to put in for your own Adjournment debate.

Mr Browne: As I said, there will be an opportunity in Westminster Hall tomorrow afternoon for a debate three times the length of this one about such matters, but the Government’s position is very clear: we wish to see the two-state solution, which I have just described, and we make our judgments based on what we think is most likely to achieve that outcome.

We continue to urge both sides to demonstrate the political will and leadership necessary to break the current dangerous impasse and to achieve a sustainable solution to the problems highlighted in this evening’s debate.

Column 1315

I am grateful to Members on both sides for fitting so many informed and passionate contributions into the short period that was allotted for our deliberations on the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

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