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House of Commons debate on Israeli settlements, settlement goods and sanctions

hansardRob Marris initiated a very interesting debate in the House of Commons on 21 July 2009. It can be found in Hansard. Below are some brief extracts from a few of the contributors. The response by The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis) is reproduced in full.

Rob Marris MP introduced the debate and  posed the following questions:

Commendably, the Government agree that there should be a freeze on settlements, and that is to be encouraged, but I would like it to go further. I therefore have some questions for the Minister. First, do the Government agree that there should not only be a freeze, but that all existing settlements should be evacuated? If not, why not? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that UK-based charities should not donate money to settlements? That is certainly the pattern in the USA, and I would appreciate some clarity about the legal position of charities in the UK.

Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that the EU-Israel association agreement, which gives tariff breaks, does not apply to goods exported from settlements to the EU, including the UK? Fourthly, why do the Government allow any products from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to be imported into the UK? Fifthly, why do they condone such imports by allowing them in and then levying customs duties on them? Have they obtained a legal opinion on the legality or otherwise of such imports? If not, why not? If they have, when did they obtain it? Will the Minister or one of his ministerial colleagues release the conclusions—not the entirety—of that legal advice?

Evan Harris MP made two major points:

I want to make two brief observations as someone who recognises Israel’s security needs. One, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) clearly and expertly made early on, is that although Israel has security issues, the settlements make them worse. Not only are the settlements unlawful by any judgment of international law, and not only are they unacceptable, a provocation and a barrier to the peace process, but they make the task of providing security for Israel—I recognise the need to do that—more difficult. … The same applies to the Golan heights… The same goes for the west bank, where the civilian occupation of another people’s land makes peace more difficult to obtain in the long run. It also engenders extremism among the Israeli population, because settlers are likely to be extremely defensive and perhaps more zealous in their opinions about the historical boundaries of the biblical country, which is not a good basis on which to move forward to peace…

The other point that I want to make is that it is unacceptable for British consumers not to know which products come from illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. We have all sorts of labelling requirements that are not justified scientifically—on genetic modification, for example—but there is no provision to introduce labelling on a human rights issue that it is critical for people to understand if they are to make an informed choice and show where their support lies. I therefore urge the Minister rapidly to give further thought to how labelling can be introduced.

Andy Slaughter MP

The central question for the Minister is this: yes, we would like a reaffirmation of the promise of a total freeze on settlement development, but despite strong statements from the Government in the past, that has not worked; so what steps—I do not ask for a specific step—will be taken now to ensure that, in relation to trade, construction and dismantling, the British Government, through the EU or other partners, or directly, can deal with the issue of settlements, without which there will be no peace in the middle east?

Martin Linton MP:

The Israelis do not seem to care that it is illegal, under the fourth Geneva convention, to transfer a civilian population to an occupied territory; that it is illegal to expropriate land from the occupied population; that it is illegal to destroy their property; that it is illegal to discriminate against them by building settler-only roads; that it is illegal to fail to ensure public order… It is also illegal to build the wall inside the west bank. It is okay to do so on the green line, but 87 per cent. of the wall will be in the west bank and it will not be there to enhance Israel’s security but to enhance the security of the settlements themselves.

If it is legal for the Israeli courts to transfer ownership of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah to Israelis who owned them in the 1920s or 1930s, as the Israeli courts did yesterday, most of the Israelis in Israel should be forced to hand their homes back to the original Palestinian owners.

Our Government’s response has been to protest to the Israeli ambassador, but protesting to the Israeli ambassador is a pointless exercise; it is like shouting at a fish. All the evidence is that, when we protest, the Israelis build the settlements even faster. Even since Obama’s speech, they have approved 300 new homes north of Ramallah and a new settlement in the Jordan valley. The only thing that will have any effect is international action to impose an economic penalty on Israel.

I thank the Minister for rejecting the upgrade of the EU-Israel trade agreement, but I ask him to go further and suspend it, because the Israelis are in breach of its human rights clauses. I am glad that he has taken a firm line on settlements and encouraged President Obama to do the same, but what action will be taken against Israel if it refuses to stop building illegal settlements? Given that it is illegal under the Geneva convention to build settlements on occupied land, what action will be taken against the Israeli Government?

Jeremy Corbyn MP:

What do we do about this? Do we stand back and treat Israel as a normal country, or do we take sanctions against it? If any other country in the world behaved like Israel—in a wholly illegal and abusive manner towards the people whom it occupies—it would face international sanction. I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, therefore, that we should not be buying goods produced in the settlements. We should be imposing economic and military sanctions against Israel. I am not arguing for military action, but for military sanctions, such as the non-supply of weapons and parts for those weapons, a boycott of Israeli trade and, in the European setting, a suspension of the EU-Israel trade agreement—not just the non-extension to elevated status, but suspension of the existing agreement, because Israeli is clearly in breach of the human rights clauses in that agreement.

It is up to us, as a Security Council member, a very important member of the United Nations and a very significant past trading partner of Israel, to say, “Enough is enough. We are not prepared to tolerate this. You behave illegally. You illegally occupy land and flout international law—consequences follow!” I would love to hear a British Minister send the message, once and for all and loud and clear, that that is this country’s position on this illegal activity.

Jo Swinson MP:

We have debated whether there should be preferential trade tariffs for such products. The settlements are illegal so there should not be any preferential trade agreements. The debate must now move on to considering whether we should allow the sale of any products from the illegal settlements. There is a case for looking at whether a ban on those particular products might be considered. I am interested to hear whether the Minister has considered such a ban.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis):

… the middle east peace process remains a top priority for this Government. We remain committed to a comprehensive peace in the middle east, based on a two-state solution and a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state.

Hon. Members will also be aware that the central tenet of the UK Government’s policy towards settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories has long been clear. Settlements are illegal and construction should be frozen as a matter of urgency, in line with Israel’s commitments to do so in the 2003 road map. That is why we strongly welcomed President Obama’s Cairo speech and strongly support the new, clear US policy on freezing all settlement activity.

>I welcome this opportunity to expand on the Government’s policy. It is important to set out why I believe that continued settlement construction remains an impediment to peace. By changing the physical facts on the ground, Israeli settlement construction unilaterally prejudices the outcome of any final peace solution. Moreover, continued construction threatens the geographic possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. The UK Government remain firmly of the view that a two-state solution provides the greatest prospect of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, so the damage done to that prospect by settlements causes us grave concern.

As hon. Members have said, the day-to-day physical impact of settlement building has a heavy cost on the Palestinian people. Elements of the Israeli settler movement exacerbate tension. Road and security infrastructure to protect settlements carves through the west bank and severely restricts Palestinians’ movement and access. Although we welcome recent positive Israeli steps to alleviate some of the restrictions, much further progress is required. The symbolic impact of settlements is arguably as damaging as the physical impact. Continued settlement expansion sends an extremely negative message to the Palestinians that resonates around the wider Arab world. It continues to raise question marks about the feasibility of a successful and lasting peace.

The UK has long made our opposition to settlements clear. We have pressed the Israeli Government continually at the highest level on the importance of fulfilling road map commitments: Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. Our Prime Minister made the UK policy on settlement activity clear in his historic speech to the Knesset in July 2008, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has reiterated that position frequently.

A number of questions have been asked during this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised the question of the barrier. The first point to make about the barrier is that we recognise Israel’s right to self-defence and to protect its citizens by constructing the barrier. However, the barrier must be built exclusively on Israeli territory. As Israeli courts have ruled frequently, any part of the barrier that is not on Israeli territory is simply illegal.

My hon. Friend not only discussed advocating a freeze on settlements but believes that our policy should be to evacuate all settlements. We feel that that pre-judges what we believe will be at the heart of final status negotiations: an agreement on the respective borders of both states. That is why we confine our policy at the moment to the freezing of all settlement activities. He also asked about the lower tariffs under the EU-Israel Association agreement and wants to ensure that they do not apply to goods exported from the settlements. I assure him that they most definitely do not. Moreover, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is proactive in ensuring that tariffs are applied correctly in accordance with the agreement.

My hon. Friend asked why this country does not ban all goods from the settlements. We believe that that would raise a number of significant legal issues in relation to our European Community and international law obligations. Therefore, we do not believe that that is viable at the present time.

… My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West also asked whether the UK has obtained a legal position on the legality or otherwise of such imports. Although we cannot disclose legal advice, Her Majesty’s Government believe, based on the legal assessment, that such imports are not actually prohibited in UK law. He and other hon. Members suggested that there should be a ban on all Israeli imports, and he suggested in addition that this country should embark on an arms embargo. We disagree strongly with those two positions. The Government’s position is to oppose a trade boycott or any other form of boycott against the state of Israel, and we are opposed to an arms embargo. We do not believe that either of those measures would progress the course of peace in any way at this stage.

I believe that I have dealt comprehensively with the crucial questions raised during this debate, but it is only right that we place this debate about settlements in the context of the overall situation. Other issues must be dealt with. It is essential that the Palestinian Authority develop their capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of their people. Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements and recognise Israel. Its behaviour—firing rockets at Israel, attacking rival political parties, smuggling arms, holding Gilad Shalit in captivity—demonstrates, sadly, that it is neither a partner in peace nor a constructive force in building a Palestinian state. At the same time, we make it clear that the Israeli Government must ease restrictions on the Gaza border and allow an immediate increase in the flow of essential aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, as well as the legitimate flow of trade, goods and people.

We encourage partners from the Arab world to demonstrate readiness to increase recognition of Israel and move towards a normalisation of relations as envisaged in the very welcome Arab peace initiative. On that basis, I welcome the views of His Highness the Crown Prince of Bahrain on taking the Arab peace initiative forward, which he articulated in the Washington Post on 16 July. That is exactly the sort of positive engagement that we believe will help lead to peace in the middle east. It is vital that all Arab states demonstrate both their commitment to dialogue and peaceful relations and their willingness to respond positively to significant Israeli action to freeze settlement activity.

As His Highness noted, now is the time to take “simultaneous, good-faith action”. The point will come when the Israeli Government respond positively to the clear statement of policy articulated by this Government and, for the first time, by the US in President Obama’s speech in Cairo. It is our intention to continue to work with regional partners and with the US and EU to make progress and move from rhetoric to reality.

I will be visiting the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel during the parliamentary recess. I want to learn at first hand about the realities facing the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli and Palestinian people, and I want to ensure that the United Kingdom plays a crucial role in pushing forward the peace process that is so crucial to peace and stability throughout the world.

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