Government in chaos over Alan Duncan's 'land grab' video

Foreign Office and DfID clash over aid minister's incendiary remarks.

By Martin Bright and Simon Rocker, August 25, 2011
Minister Alan Duncan in the now abandoned video, talking about Israel’s security wall and water ‘theft’

Minister Alan Duncan in the now abandoned video, talking about Israel’s security wall and water ‘theft’

The government has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown after a minister described Israel's security barrier as a "land grab" and said that Israel deliberately took water away from the Palestinians.

Last week the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) claimed the comments by Development Minister Alan Duncan reflected UK government policy.

But this week the two departments were at loggerheads after Mr Duncan's views - expressed in a video posted on the DfID website - sparked fury from community leaders and the Israeli Embassy.

The row resulted in Mr Duncan ordering the video to be removed from the website, claiming it had been "misinterpreted".

The DfID, attempting to explain the volte-face, stated: "The video was aimed at highlighting DfID's work to alleviate poverty in the OPTs [Occupied Palestinian Territories], as well as some of the key challenges facing the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, some elements were misinterpreted and Mr Duncan has asked for it to be taken down".

Asked to specify which elements had been misinterpreted, a DfID spokesman said the department would make no further comment on the matter.

The JC understands that DfID officials chose to override Foreign Office advice when they took the decision to post Mr Duncan's comments on the website. They were originally made during a trip to the West Bank earlier this year when the minister signed an agreement with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Foreign Office civil servants have made it clear that they did not believe Mr Duncan had struck the right diplomatic tone with the language he had used. However, they did not refer the matter to ministers when DfID and Mr Duncan defied the advice.

In the video Mr Duncan declared: "The wall is a land grab. It hasn't just gone along the lines of the proper Israel boundary. It's taken in open land which actually belongs to Palestine". He added: "Israeli settlers can build what they want and then immediately get the infrastructure so that takes the water deliberately away from Palestinians here."

The UK has previously told Israel that it believes the security barrier encroaches on Palestinian territory and the government has a consistent policy of opposition to settlement building.

The Board of Deputies wrote to Mr Duncan on Monday to demand the withdrawal of the video, copying in his boss, Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, and Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The video was taken down shortly afterwards. Board president Vivian Wineman commented: "Mr Duncan's apparent disregard for Israel's legitimate security concerns is of great concern."

An Israeli Embassy spokesman said: "The reality on the streets of Israel was one where Palestinian suicide attacks scattered the limbs of hundreds of innocent civilians across buses and restaurants.

"Claiming that the security barrier, which has prevented the deaths of thousands more Israelis, is not for security purposes, shows a disrespect for Israeli life, and we are therefore convinced that this could not be the official British government position."

Finchley MP Mike Freer said: "Mr Duncan clearly spoke out of line and out of his departmental brief and I welcome the fact that the FCO has reasserted its authority."

The JC was informed that the Foreign Office would clarify the UK government's position in a statement on Tuesday. However, a Foreign Office spokesman later said that the DfID statement was the government's last word.

Last updated: 9:59am, August 26 2011