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John Denham | The Guardian | 1 October 2004
Trade pressure on Israel would help Blair deliver his Middle East pledge
My colleague Ian Gibson MP rang me at 6.30am from his hotel in Ramallah on the West Bank. Our visit to study healthcare in occupied Palestine was about to take a personal and frightening turn. Ian had been taken ill with a suspected minor stroke. The specialist came quickly and Ian was dispatched to hospital in Jerusalem in a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance.
But at the al-Ram checkpoint, Ian's ambulance was stopped by Israeli border police. Despite his obvious ill-health - he was dry wretching - and representations from the British consulate, the ambulance was refused permission to go any further. For 70 minutes Ian was left in the ambulance before he was allowed to proceed in a different ambulance, needlessly called.
The callousness of his treatment was a clear breach of Israel's promise to the UN that ambulances should never be held up for more than 30 minutes. A Palestinian voluntary organisation, HDIP, has logged 83 deaths when access to emergency carehas been denied; 52 women have given birth at checkpoints after being refused access to hospital.
Road closures and checkpoints are a part of the systematic occupation of Palestine that goes well beyond the securing of borders. According to the UN , there are more than 700 checkpoints, blockages and closures throughout the West Bank, controlling the movement of every Palestinian inside their own country. While we were there, most Palestinians were forbidden to move outside the major towns. Palestine is increasingly de facto divided into a series of isolated communities under military control.
Meanwhile, the West Bank security wall goes up apace, as does the encroachment of settlements. It was extraordinary to stand in the village of Saffa, on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border, and see the new towns spreading like Spanish timeshare developments. The new townships will be ringed by the new wall, while Saffa will be on the "wrong" side. Its residents will have no clear right to leave their village, and will be subject to arbitrary removal of their residence permits. Israelis will have every opportunity to settle the same land.
Whatever security function the wall may have, its real effect, snaking deep into Palestine, is clear. Before long, too little Palestinian land and freedom will remain to make an independent state a viable proposition.
What happens if the two-state solution founders in a failed Palestinian state or the simpler brutality of continued Israeli occupation? We and other EU taxpayers will carry on picking up the aid bill - already higher per head than any other country in the world - for mitigating the worst consequences of Israel's illegal occupation. Meanwhile our own security, and the credibility of British foreign policy, will suffer.
The hope of a two-state solution has united those whose sympathies have been with either side, and those who take no side but simply recognise that our own security depends on a just solution in the Middle East. Supporters and opponents of the Iraq war agreed that peace in the Middle East was essential to undercut the emotive appeal of al-Qaida to alienated Muslims. Speaking in March 2003, Tony Blair said: "All of us are now signed up to ... a state of Israel, recognised and accepted by all the world, and a viable Palestinian state. That is what this country should strive for, and we will."
Again this week, Tony Blair said: "Two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, would do more to defeat terrorism than bullets can ever do." He promised he would make it a personal priority after the US presidential election. So how should that priority be demonstrated?
Now is the time to be braver and bolder about the pressure we can apply. Our government did not want the case against the wall to be heard in the international court of justice, arguing that it would not help the peace process. But external pressure does work. The clear condemnation by the court has shocked Israelis and their government and forced some rethink on the line of the wall.
Israeli policy can be influenced by a clear external challenge. Many people are already questioning whether Israel's preferential trade agreement with the EU, which depends on that country's human rights record, can still be justified. Such options should not be lightly dismissed.
Of course, every obscene suicide bomb obliterates the wider picture; ordinary Israelis have a right to security too. But current Israeli policy won't bring long-term security for them and it casually threatens our own. If it takes external pressure to bring that message home, we should be prepared to use it.
As the situation in Iraq deteriorates, the moment for Tony Blair to give real force to his promises has come.
John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen; he was a Home Office minister until he resigned in March 2003 over the Iraq war.