Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian houses in the last year.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I raised the issue of demolitions in the west bank with the Israeli ambassador on 23 February, and again with Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Meridor, on 19 March.
Michael Connarty: I thank the Minister for that half an answer—it might have been useful to tell us what the Government said. There has been a 40% increase in demolitions in the last year, 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since the Oslo agreement was signed, and 14,000 people have been put out of East Jerusalem through the withdrawal of their right to live there. Is this not in fact ethnic cleansing, and are the Government of Israel not now heading for a racially based apartheid regime similar to South Africa?
Alistair Burt: I am happy to give the second part of the answer—now that that part of the question has been asked. The situation is as the hon. Gentleman indicated: the UN reported an increase in demolitions of some 40% last year. We have made representations to Israel on this issue, and we think the demolitions are very destructive of the peace process and the relationship that needs to be built. This has to be set in the overall context of the relationship between the Palestinian authorities and Israel, because settlements, demolitions and related issues must be part of an overall peace process, which is why we have pressed both parties to continue their engagement.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that over the same period last year there were 627 rocket attacks into Israel, with an upsurge of 200 in the last month? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would help the peace process, which we all want to see furthered, if those acts of unprovoked aggression were brought to an end immediately?
Alistair Burt: We have indeed condemned the rocket attacks that have emanated from Gaza, as we have expressed concern about the increased violence in the area and attacks on civilians anywhere. My hon. Friend’s question is a measure of the difficulty of dealing with this issue when both sides have issues to raise about each other. That is why our pressure and our determination to see the middle east peace process develop and continue is so important. We have not lost sight of that despite all the other things going on in the region.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The increase in demolitions of Palestinian houses is one example of the approach to the west bank situation being taken by the Israeli Government. A septuagenarian from my constituency, Anthony Radcliffe, discovered another when he was detained over this weekend by the Israeli authorities in Tel Aviv, having attempted to gain peaceful access to the occupied territories in the west bank. Does the Minister agree that is wrong that the security services of one country, Israel, can prevent a British citizen from visiting another, Palestine, and what will he do to ensure free passage for British citizens in future?
Alistair Burt: It is clear that UK citizens can visit the west bank and that they do so in ordinary circumstances, but the Israeli authorities have made it clear that they will not facilitate what they consider to be an organised protest. We have made that clear in our travel advice, and in the circumstances we have seen over the last weekend we have ensured that consular officials are available at the airport. It is within Israel’s legitimate immigration rights to do what they are doing, but clearly the situation is not comfortable. We believe that it provides further reasons why we should continue to press on both parties to engage in the talks that will resolve the situation. We cannot separate the attempt being made at the weekend to mark Palestinian land day from the overall concerns of both sides.
Mr Speaker: I would like to make some progress down the Order Paper, so we need shorter answers. The word is shorter—[Interruption.] I have explained it; shorter answers are required. The Minister must practise giving them.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Does the Minister not accept that what he is proposing does not work? Will he support me and others at peaceful demonstrations at events involving Israeli Olympians to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and to bring to public awareness the apartheid regime in Israel?
Alistair Burt: I understand any colleague’s desire to take part in free and peaceful process in this country, but the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that he knows is deeply contested by Israeli authorities as regards how they conduct their affairs. It is a further measure of why it is important to work on both sides to get an agreement to this long-standing dispute.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Following a recent visit to Gaza, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Has Her Majesty’s Government raised with Egypt the serious impact on Gaza’s economy, basic infrastructure and medical facilities and the Gaza strip’s sole power station of Egypt’s recent restrictions on fuel exports to the Gaza strip?
Alistair Burt: I have not raised that specifically with Egypt. We are aware of the concerns about power and fuel and the discussions among the relevant parties to try to resolve it. We are following those discussions closely and urge those parties to solve the issue so that some of the pain of the Gazan people can be relieved. My hon. Friend is right to raise it.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Given that today is Palestinian prisoners’ day, can the Minister say what representations he has made regarding the number of Palestinian children currently detained in Israeli prisons and what concerns he has about the treatment they are suffering?
Alistair Burt: I have raised the issue of the detention and treatment of children on a number of occasions with the Israeli authorities. We appreciated the fact that the age of majority for criminal proceedings has been raised, but I still have concerns about access to lawyers. Indeed, from this Dispatch Box I have said that the shackling of children is wrong. We can continue to raise those issues on behalf of those affected.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 9, is not the worst aspect of the demolitions the practice of punitive demolitions, which is based on the doctrine of collective punishment, and does that not directly contravene article 33 of the Geneva convention?
Alistair Burt: I reiterate again that we raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of demolitions as one of great concern. They have been on the increase, and we see them as a setback to the peace process and to the need to build a proper relationship with the Palestinian authorities in order to get an ultimate settlement resolved. It will be resolved only within that context, but we are concerned about the recent increase, and we make our representations very clear.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I have great concerns about demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the Foreign Secretary in his own words recently talked about Israeli settlements in the west bank being illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative, but other than words of criticism are there any consequences for the Israeli Government, or do they pursue those policies with impunity?
Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes very clear, by echoing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement, how seriously the United Kingdom takes those issues and how constantly we raise them, but again I have to come back to the fact that Israel sees the issue differently, and accordingly it is one of those things that ultimately will be resolved only by the settlement that every Member wishes to see between the Palestinian authorities and Israel. Differences of opinion on the matter are likely to remain, but we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them, as indeed was my right hon. Friend when he made his statement.