Foreign Office advises Britons not to buy Israeli settlement properties
Middle East editor The Guardian, Friday 19 December 2008
British citizens are to be formally advised by the government not to buy property in settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, a move that marks a proactive shift of its position on a core issue of the Middle East conflict.
The advice, to be posted on the Foreign Office (FCO) website in the next 48 hours, will warn explicitly that potential purchasers of property in a settlement should consider that a future peace agreement "could have consequences for that property", FCO officials confirmed last night.
The government has long insisted that settlements beyond the pre-1967 war "green line" border, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — both of which have been annexed by Israel — are illegal.
But it has never before linked this to purchase of property. Officials insist there is no change of policy but say that by spelling out the advice they are underlining the urgency and sensitivity of the issue.
The move follows a meeting on Monday between Gordon Brown and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. On Tuesday Brown also met Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister.
The Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, said: "This is a dramatic change of policy by Great Britain. They have gone a long way in being critical of Israel's policies. In the past they have talked about settlement being an obstacle to peace and so on. But this is a milestone. They are now being proactive and very serious."
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London said: "If this is true it is highly disappointing in the light of the successful visit paid by Prime Minister Olmert to the UK during which he held frank and detailed discussion of the measures Israel is willing to take to advance the peace process with the Palestinians."
Brown told Fayyad in a letter dated 9 December and seen by the Guardian: "We have long expressed our opposition to settlement activity. But that activity has continued and has accelerated since the Annapolis process was launched. I share your frustration at this. The UK is now looking at what effective action we can take to discourage settlement expansion.
"Given our clear position on settlements it follows that we would not want any British national to purchase property inside an illegal settlement."
Settler violence is also causing concern. The Israeli government depicts violent settlers as aberrant citizens engaged in rogue behaviour. But a report released yesterday by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says these ultranationalists have been encouraged by the state to take over Palestinian land and natural resources.
"Settler violence is not random criminal activity; in most cases it is ideology-driven, organised violence, the goal of which is to assert settler dominance in the area," the report on settler violence says.
Settlers have increasingly been mobilising in groups, sometimes of up to 100 people, and targeting Palestinians as young as eight and as elderly as 95, the report continues. OCHA's tally of settler violence is not comprehensive but it shows that in 2006 there were 182 attacks, with 243 in 2007 and 290 in the first 10 months of 2008.
While the number of attacks against settlers is much lower, OCHA says that in 2006 Palestinians killed 10 settlers while settlers killed four Palestinians.
In a draft warning to Britons about buying settlement properties, the FCO states: "Potential purchasers should be aware that a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and Syria could have consequences for the property they purchased." The nearest precedent is a warning to UK citizens about the risks of buying property in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.
For the last few years real estate fairs in London and Manchester have advertised properties for sale in Israeli settlements such as Maale Adumim and Har Homa, both in the West Bank.
"The risks to someone purchasing property in a settlement could go as far as aiding and abetting a grave breach of the Geneva convention – outlawing extensive appropriation of property not justified by military necessity," said Daniel Machover, a lawyer and expert on the issue.
Britain is seeking ways to keep alive hopes of a two-state solution to the conflict despite uncertainty over the outcome of the Israel elections, the split between the Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the interregnum between US administrations.
On another front, Britain has been taking a leading role in persuading the EU to label products made in settlements in the West Bank, some of which have been using false addresses within Israel proper.