UK minister: Keep settlers out of official events

Vows settlement leaders won't be invited to embassy functions after pro-Arab MP complains.

Howells 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Howells 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has vowed to ensure that settlers will not be invited to future events hosted by the British embassy in Israel following a complaint by a Member of Parliament that Israeli settlers took part in a party to celebrate the Queen's birthday at the residence of the British ambassador to Israel in June. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt wrote to Howells on July 25, after raising the issue in Parliament the previous day, stating that the invitation to "settler leaders" gave the impression of a "weakening in the government's long-held position that settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace." "Entertaining the pioneers of this colonization movement has certain given the strong impression that Britain tacitly endorses it or no longer objects to it," Blunt said. Three representatives of the Yesha Council - chairman Dani Dayan, Shaul Goldstein and Yisrael Medad - attended the celebration at the residence of British Ambassador Tom Phillips in Ramat Gan in June. Singling out Dayan in his letter - who he said is "strongly in favor of expanding these settlements and even return settlements dismantled in the 2005 disengagement plan" - he asked the minister to ensure that British tax payers' money is not used on those who "violate the Geneva Convention." He said: "We would like to know what steps are being taken to ensure that this never happens again and that British tax payers' money is spent entertaining those who violate the Fourth Geneva Conventions and whose very presence has been an obstacle to a vital and much needed peace deal in the Middle East." In response, Howells has said that the presence of the settlers at the celebration "was not helpful" and that the British Embassy will ensure it does not happen in the future. In a letter sent to Blunt on July 31, Howells said: "I should like first of all to reiterate our firm position that all Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law. You will indeed have seen that the Prime Minister spelled this out very clearly during his recent visit to the region and made clear including in a speech to the Knesset on 21 July that we want to see an immediate freeze of settlement activity and indeed withdrawal from them." Howells added that the British Embassy in Israel has cultivated links with the settler community to make clear the government's view on the issue and convince them that settlements are "a significant obstacle to peace." "Our Embassy in Tel Aviv's contacts with the settler community have been with the goal of setting out the British Government's view on this issue, and to seek to convince them that settlements are a significant obstacle to peace. But you are right that their presence at this event was not helpful and the Embassy is reviewing its procedures to ensure that it does not happen in the future." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Karen Kaufman, Press and Public Affairs Officer at the British Embassy reiterated that they are reviewing procedures. She said: "As the minister states, the Embassy is reviewing its procedures to ensure that it does not happen in the future." Asked about embassy contacts with the settler community, mentioned by Howells, she said: "Embassy officials periodically hold meetings with representatives of the settler community and we take every opportunity to make our position on settlements clear to these contacts, as well as to the Israeli government." Blunt is joint chairman of Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), a London-based lobby group, and chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, a group set up to raise awareness and understanding of the Middle East in the Conservative Party. In a recent letter in The Jewish Chronicle, responding to an article, CAABU director Chris Doyle, said that "Israel is built on huge swathes of lands whose rightful owners are Palestinian refugees. Israel's gain was undeniably at their expense." In May, Blunt signed a motion in the House of Commons to debate the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian 'Nakba'. The text of the motion read: "There are over 250,000 internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel who have also not been allowed to return to their homes; over 530 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed ... and Palestinian refugees have not been compensated for the loss of their property; ... achieving a just solution for Palestinian refugees is as essential a requirement for a comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East as is full recognition and security for the State of Israel." In September 2006 Blunt led a delegation of MPs to Lebanon after the war. In the last two years, he has visited Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Syria as chairman of the CMEC. Last year he attended the National Democratic Party congress in Egypt as co-chairman of CAABU.