Several questions on Palestine were raised by MPs to the Foreign and Commonwealth Ministers at Oral Questions today. The newly appointed Labour Shadow Middle East Minister Ian Lucas MP asked the Govt about their position on the recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN, Richard Burden MP asked Ministers to make representations over Israeli settlers uprooting olive groves supporting 100,000 Palestinian families, Ian Lavery MP called on the Govt to support the immediate release of the 164 children in the Israeli military prisons, and Clive Betts MP asked about the UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
The questions as related to Palestine together with the responses can be read below.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): What assessment he has made of the economic situation in the Palestinian territories; and if he will make a statement.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): May I first offer the apologies of the Foreign Secretary to the House? As I think the House knows, he is on his way to Australia—not, this time, to liberate it or meet a new regime but to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I am sure we all wish him well.
There has been growth in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past couple of years, variously rated at between 6% and 10%. Things are easier in the west bank than in Gaza, but the United Kingdom has been supporting economic development in both areas.
Mike Freer: Will my hon. Friend update the House on what steps have been taken, and what more can be done, to increase the flow of goods into the Palestinian territories?
Alistair Burt: Last year, following the difficulties over the flotilla, Israel moved from having a list of 120 goods that were allowed in to a less restrictive list. Efforts have been made to ease the amount going in, but more can still be done. For instance, 18 times the amount of concrete that goes into Gaza legitimately goes in through the tunnels, thus losing revenue and not providing the support that is needed for the construction of schools and so on. There is more to be done, and we press Israel to ease the restrictions still further for political and economic reasons.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As we are talking about the economy of the west bank, I point out that more than 100,000 families depend on the olive oil industry, which accounts for 40% of the west bank’s agricultural production. Some 7,500 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli settlers since January, and the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has reported 97 incidents, but none has led to any prosecutions or indictments. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable, and that the UK Government should make representations to the Israeli Government?
Alistair Burt: We continue to make representations on all examples of activities that we believe will damage the economy of the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Gentleman’s point about agricultural produce is a good one. Agricultural exports from the Palestinian territories were 10 times greater in 2010 than in 2009, but one tenth of what they were in 2006. That gives a measure of the problem. We do indeed raise the matter, and we ask both sides to continue their efforts towards negotiations on a final settlement that would, of course, ultimately be in the economic interest of both.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The prisoner exchange involving Gilad Shalit has been presented by Hamas in Gaza as a victory. Does the Minister agree that the cause of moderate Palestinian opinion, and perhaps even the Palestinian economy, could receive a boost from a successful bid for recognition of its statehood at the United Nations?
Alistair Burt: There are two issues there. First, the unconscionable detention of Gilad Shalit by Hamas was no cause for any victory celebration. We certainly welcome the fact that he has been released and hope that it indicates at least some degree of movement between the two parties. Ultimately, of course, what will benefit all is a negotiated settlement that leads to an independent Palestine side by side with a sovereign and recognised Israel. All the work that the United Kingdom does is to ensure that that is the most likely outcome of the various discussions that are taking place through the Quartet and the UN alike.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Businesses in the Palestinian territories repeatedly stress that economic progress fundamentally depends on political progress. As the position of the UK Government is to support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, will the Minister update us on their position on the recognition of such a state by the United Nations?
Alistair Burt: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. We know that he will acquit himself of his duties extremely well.
Economically, an ultimate settlement of the issue between Israel and Palestine will bring benefits to all and is essential. We play our part by supporting the economy, with some £80 million this year going to the west bank and Gaza. However, the ultimate settlement will depend not so much on any universal declaration as on the process of negotiation. At present there has been no resolution put forward for the United Kingdom to vote on, and it is still not clear whether the UN process would be through the Security Council alone or through the General Assembly. However, the UK will always use its vote in the best interests of ensuring that the likelihood of negotiations towards a final settlement is assisted rather than hindered.
Detentions (Israeli Military Prisons)
13. Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): What recent reports he has received on the continued detention of Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): We receive regular reports about the detention of Palestinian children from a non-governmental organisation, Defence for Children International. We remain concerned about the detention of children in military jails and the prosecution of children through military courts.
Ian Lavery: Will the Minister confirm the UK Government’s full support for UNICEF, which is calling for the immediate release of the 164 children in the Israeli military prisons? Will he assure the House that as the relevant Minister he will do everything in his power to get these kids reunited with their families?
Alistair Burt: When I was in Israel a few months ago, I raised this matter directly with the Minister responsible, indicating the UK’s concerns about both the detention and the treatment of children. The Israelis have recently raised the age of criminal responsibility in the territories from 16 to 18, so it is the same as for Israeli children. None the less, I know that the Israeli Government do take seriously the fact that children are detained in circumstances that cause concern to NGOs and UNICEF, and we will continue to press them on this.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy of some of these Palestinian children in Israeli prisons has arisen because some of them have been groomed as terrorists by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which goes against the Geneva convention and all kinds of international law? [Interruption] Will he take steps with the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure that children are not used in that way?
Alistair Burt: I hear comments from others, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point; the tragedy is that children have been used. There was a regrettable incident in which a Down’s syndrome youngster was a suicide bomber. It is not wrong for anyone to be alert to those risks. None the less, the majority of these children are not detained for such reasons and it is essential that Israel makes the right distinction between the two in order to retain international credibility and to ensure its own security.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Is the Minister concerned at the reputation that the UK is acquiring in Egypt and other post-revolution Arab countries as being a safe haven for criminals from the ancien regimes there? What steps is he taking at the moment to ensure that fugitives from justice in those countries and their ill-gotten gains are returned?
Alistair Burt: I do not recognise the reputation that the hon. Gentleman describes, unless they are all going to Ealing. [Interruption.] Maybe just next door; I am sorry. Where a case can be proved against those who have come to the United Kingdom, which involves either seizure of assets or criminal activity, for which it is possible to remove people from the United Kingdom, we will respond to those requests.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): With regard to the eventual vote at the United Nations on Palestinian statehood, if the Government were to adopt a position that they would vote in favour of such a motion only if a comprehensive peace agreement had first been agreed, does not that effectively give the Israeli Government a veto over Palestine ever becoming a state?
Alistair Burt: I am not sure that that does represent the United Kingdom’s position. Attempts have been made to tease it out of me and the Foreign Secretary on many occasions and we will not succumb on this one. No resolution has been put to the United Nations on which a decision needs to be taken. We have made it clear that we wish to see a negotiated settlement, which is the only way in which this will finally be settled, and any vote we use in the UN, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly, will be used to best effect to ensure that those negotiations continue and are successful rather than anything that might be a hindrance.
To read to full questions in Parliamentary Hansard please click here.