Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 114-119)




  May I welcome you both. Mr Gilmour, you are the chief regional affairs and senior political adviser to the United Nations Special Co-ordinator in the Occupied Territories, Mr Larsen. Mr Keating, you are the director, aid and socio-economic affairs. I understand both of you have previously worked in Afghanistan, and I begin with Mr Maples.

Mr Maples

  114. I really wanted to ask you in the light of the continuing violence, intifada, terrorism, all of those things in the Palestine and Israel area, to what extent are the Palestinian terrorists developing links with wider Islamic revolutionary terrorism—al-Qaeda, for instance, and we have seen in the attacks on the United States and other places in the world? Is it still purely home grown or are there significant links developing?
  (Mr Keating) Our view is that the links are fairly minimal, or have been. In fact, one of the reasons that they were minimal in the past is that the Palestinians have been so preoccupied with their own problems that, by default, they did not develop links with al-Qaeda as they might have done otherwise. They have been curiously unimplicated in what has happened in Afghanistan and, of course, there are some pretty fundamental differences between terrorism in the part of the world where we are working and in Afghanistan. I do not know if it would be helpful to give you a little bit of the background that we feel is conducive to terrorism in this part of the world? Obviously what is happening in the Middle East is absolutely appalling at the moment. Over 1000 people have been killed in the last 16 months and the recent attack in Hadera at a Bat Mitzvah was absolutely outrageous, but there are some fundamental differences between the terror there and in Afghanistan. First of all, the occupation is a major difference. Afghanistan is not under occupation and was not at the time when the Taliban were in charge. Secondly, those perpetrating the terror, Palestinians undertaking terrorist attacks inside Israel, are indigenous to the area; they are not foreigners. We believe their motivation is very different, too. Not enough work has been done about this but it would seem that the motivation of Palestinian terrorists is as much personal as political. They do not necessarily all belong to Islamic fundamentalist groups: some of them belong to political parties, but from the one person we have met recently who studied the motivation of the terrorists, while admitting that the strong evidence is not there it would seem that all of them have experienced personal humiliation or the humiliation of their fathers or elders in their family. This is a very powerful motivating factor which makes them more amenable to being used by political groups, fundamentalists or not. So I think there are some pretty basic differences between the kind of terror taking place in Israel and the Occupied Territories and in Afghanistan.

  115. I understand that but you said you think the links are currently minimal. Do you think that there is a likelihood or a possibility that those links will grow, or do you think this will stay for all the reasons you have given, a home-grown, indigenous movement?
  (Mr Gilmour) As you may be aware, there is a fairly consistent attempt over the last couple of months by certain elements of the Israeli government, including the Prime Minister, to portray Arafat as an Osama Bin Ladin and the Palestinian Authority as the Taliban. This comparison, not surprisingly, is totally rejected by the Palestinians, by a very large number of Israelis, and to my knowledge the entire diplomatic community out there. Nevertheless, it continues. Again, to our knowledge, there has been no evidence whatsoever of links between the Palestinian Authority or even Palestinian fundamentalist groups and al-Qaeda. There was, however, a link discovered with the ship that was heading probably towards the Gaza Strip through the Suez Canal with Hezbollah, which until recently had been considered unlikely because the relations between Iran, which was thought to be the main backer of Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority had been extremely bad. The Iranians believe that the Palestinians have sold out their own rights by agreeing to the Oslo Accords. Therefore links between Iran and the PA have been minimal and, therefore, between Hezbollah and the PA. However, it does appear, if the evidence presented by the Israelis is correct, that there is a link with Hezbollah. In terms of your question about these links growing, we do fear that the conditions amongst the Palestinians are growing so bad and that the level of desperation, both economic but above all political, is growing at such a dangerous rate, that anything could be on the cards. I would not exclude anything in this regard. We saw a high level of desperation last week in the town of Rafah on the Egyptian border a couple of days after Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished about sixty homes. I have been travelling around there for well over a year, and I have never seen such a lack of hope on the part of the Palestinians as I saw there. We spoke to some characters from Islamic Jihad and the secular parties and the attitude there seemed to be, "We will continue the struggle; we have no hope; we have nothing more to lose", and we got the impression that that is what they genuinely feel. They live in squalor really unparalleled for that region and, at the same time, they have no political horizon and I think this is the number one problem we have now. The Palestinians feel—and this is a point of view that has total consensus amongst Palestinians I have spoken to, and I would put them in the hundreds in the last few weeks, from the most friendly human rights democracy activists to the most hardline Islamist fundamentalists to security apparatchiks—that there is no hope because the Prime Minister of Israel, in their view, will not make any forward step towards the Mitchell report and, at the same time, in their view, he will always find an excuse to avoid entering into the Mitchell recommendations. At the same time, they feel the international community has given up on the Palestinians. This is also a very wide perception and, therefore, they ask what is to be gained by doing what the international community wants them to do which is to arrest the terrorists and to incarcerate them and interrogate them? The lack of hope on their part is extremely worrying and will have, in our view, very negative effects on a great number of people.

Mr Olner

  116. Following on from that, I do not demur from the picture you have painted but how much authority now in respect does Yasser Arafat command amongst his own population on the West Bank and Gaza and, more importantly, amongst Arab leaders in the region?
  (Mr Gilmour) As you are aware, Israeli troops entirely re-occupied a Palestinian city in the West Bank yesterday which we feel is very worrying. In fact, the man for whom we work, Mr Larsen, yesterday described this as a dangerous escalation leading to more loss of life on both sides, and it is certainly what we feel too.

  117. Do you think the Israelis are deliberately making Arafat feel small? Belittling him? It is important to see whether there is a linkage.
  (Mr Gilmour) Deliberately I cannot judge. Certainly reading the Israeli press, it seems a large number of Israelis believe it is, indeed, a deliberate attempt—and I can cite you a lot, but I will not—but certainly many Israelis believe their government is engaged in a deliberate attempt to humiliate and, finally, crush the Palestinian Authority, in particular Arafat. How much control has he? Well, you may also be aware there are Israeli tanks within 50 yards of his compound now in Ramallah. It is not exactly easy for him to control the areas—even those not under occupation. Clearly, though, he did after December 16. The Palestinians made an enormous effort to convince their people to stop doing any more terrible acts, and for three weeks there was not a single Israeli casualty, although, on the other side, there were 14 Palestinians killed by the Israelis. Again, to quote Mr Larsen, we feel "this period of calm by the Palestinians was squandered and it squandered an opportunity during almost one month of calm to move into the Mitchell recommendations'. So this is, again, another serious problem. There was a period of calm, during which Arafat did manage to persuade his people, and I think most of his power to keep the lid on things is through persuasion rather than coercion because he does not control. He cannot even move his police from one town to another; the police stations have been demolished in extraordinarily large quantities; the capacity of the Palestinian security services has been massively weakened over the last few months, with the Israeli attacks on their installations, so I do not think he can "control' things. But he is Mr Palestine; he represents their cause more than anything else; and, if he can persuade them that it is in their interests, as he did in the middle of December, to hold off, then he can be successful; but if he gets nothing in return—which is what the Palestinians feel—then he cannot convince his people to hold off. This is what has happened. When, last week, the Israelis renewed their policy of targeted killings, this broke the truce and the Palestinians responded, and, coming from Israel, which we did two days ago, one can see in the Israeli press and in society strong anger towards the government for what they believe was deliberately breaking the truce and leading to the renewal of Palestinian violence.

  118. Do you see a successor to Arafat?
  (Mr Gilmour) No, not at the moment, certainly none that could possibly have such a standing within his people, who could make the concessions, if it comes to that. No other Palestinian has anything like, even a fraction of, the standing Chairman Arafat has to make historic concessions.


  119. Historic concessions were made by Prime Minister Barak. Was it possible for President Arafat to accept those? Was it a failure of leadership on his part to reject what were the most generous concessions made by any Israeli government?
  (Mr Gilmour) There are two schools of thought as to how generous the concessions were by Mr Barak. Certainly a large number of Israelis believe they were unprecedented—and, indeed, they were. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a Palestinian who could have accepted what was offered at Camp David. What looked as if it might have been offered six months later in the Clinton proposals last December 2000, and then Taba last January, was significant; however, time ran out and Prime Minister Sharon was elected. But at Camp David—as I said, I have never encountered a Palestinian who believes that what was offered was acceptable.

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