I beg to move,
That this House
reaffirms its support for the negotiation of a lasting peace between two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine, both of which must be viable and contiguous within secure and internationally recognised borders;
calls on the Government to take an active role in facilitating a resumption of international talks to achieve this;
welcomes UN Security Council Resolution 2334 adopted on
and further calls on the government of Israel immediately to halt the planning and construction of residential settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which is both contrary to international law and undermines the prospects for the contiguity and viability of the state of Palestine.
Given the investment that we have made in a two-state solution, my question to the Minister is: aside from standing on the touchlines watching the players on the field and shouting advice, what more can we do while our friend and ally pursues a policy on settlements that is bound, so proceeding, to deliver a situation in which the two-state solution becomes geographically and economically unworkable? Yesterday, my right hon. Friend Sir Eric Pickles rightly challenged the Prime Minister about the need for face-to-face negotiations. He is a champion of the case for greater investment in strategies and projects to bring about the integration of Palestinian and Israeli citizens, and he is right about that, too.
Our Department for International Development employees in Jerusalem, who travel into the city daily on a tortuous commute from the areas around Bethlehem, are young people in their mid-20s to mid-30s. The only interaction that they ever have with an Israeli subject is when, during that journey, they are challenged to show their papers under the operation of what I would call the pass laws that exist to ensure that people’s ability to live, stay and work in their own city is restricted.
I entirely understand how we got to that dreadful situation: because of the obscenity of suicide bombing. Israel—no Government—could not possibly tolerate the wholesale slaughter of its innocent citizens. The key question for us is, having got to this dreadful situation, how we get back from it. It is one thing to demand, quite properly, face-to-face negotiations, but pursuing a policy in respect of illegal settlements makes those negotiations much more difficult, particularly when that policy is driven by an increasingly strident ideology.
I will give way when I have developed my argument.
On Monday night, when a Bill was passed in the Knesset retrospectively legalising 4,000 homes in illegal settlements, the Israeli Minister of Culture welcomed the result, saying that it was
“the first step towards complete…Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.”
The words “Judea and Samaria” were chosen carefully.
“the birth pangs of the Messiah when everything has been flipped to the good of the Jewish people”.
On Monday, Mr Speaker put a rather different gloss on Mr Trump’s election but, nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that a significant proportion of the Israeli political establishment is in thrall to an increasingly strident settler movement that regards Palestine as a biblical theme park—Judea and Samaria.
The more strident and aggressive outriders of the settler movement are not people we would necessarily welcome as our neighbours. I particularly refer to what is now happening in Hebron. Setting aside some of the ruses that are used to acquire property, when the settlers move in, it is actually their Palestinian neighbours who have to erect grilles and meshes over their windows, and fences around their yards, to exclude projectiles and refuse. The reaction of the security forces to protect their newly resident citizens is to impose an exclusion zone, and to cordon off and sanitise the access and areas around those properties. So proceeding, Palestinians find that they are excluded from the heart of their city and, indeed, from the environs of their own homes. It has all the appearance of what we used to describe as petty apartheid.
Secretary Kerry explained at the turn of the year why the United States would no longer pursue its policy of exercising its veto in respect of UN Security Council resolution 2334. He said that if the two-state solution were abandoned, Israel could no longer be both a democracy and a Jewish state because, as a consequence of abandoning the policy, it would have to accommodate Palestinian citizens and all their civil and political rights within the state of Israel.
But did not John Kerry also say that
“this is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even primary cause of the conflict—of course they are not. Nor can you say that if they were removed you would have peace without a broader agreement—you would not”?
That was what he said. The right hon. Gentleman could have tabled a more balanced motion that reflects—look, he is sneering—all the barriers to a two-state solution, which is what I want to see.
I will not give way.
What we do—I have heard the Minister say this from the Dispatch Box—is we make representations at the highest level. I have also said that at the Dispatch Box, and of course we do make those representations. I am certain that the Prime Minister will have made representations to the Prime Minister of Israel on Monday. I last made representations to an Israeli politician at a meeting in the Knesset with the chief negotiator with the Palestinians and Deputy Prime Minister. Halfway through that meeting, he stormed out announcing that I had launched a brutal assault—moi! As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am a pussy in comparison with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who is a terrier. I am absolutely convinced that his representations will be much more robust than mine but, so long as they remain representations, the Government of Israel will continue to act with absolute impunity.
The question to the Minister is: what do we do beyond representations? What else exists in his armoury to escalate the situation? I accept that that is an extraordinarily difficult question because Israel is our friend and ally. It is a democracy, and a nation in which we have huge commercial interests and with which we share vital intelligence agendas.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend has missed his opportunity.
As I conclude, may I make one gentle suggestion to my hon. Friend the Minister? He might consider giving effect to this House’s instruction that we should recognise the Palestinian state. I have heard him say that we can do that only once, and that therefore we need to choose the moment at which that will have the maximum impact. I agree with him, but he needs to consider this: it would be truly absurd if we were to delay that recognition till after the point at which the reality of any such Palestinian state could actually be delivered.
Order. I suggest to Members that we will have to start with a five-minute time limit on speeches. If we can try to be tight, we will get everyone in, hopefully with the same amount of time.
Debates such as this always bring out sharply differing opinions on both sides of the Chamber—that is inevitable—but in my experience there is one thing on which there has always been consensus in the House, whatever people’s views on other issues: the best way to peace between Israel and Palestine is a two-state solution in which both peoples have equal rights to sovereignty in viable and contiguous states. Of course full and lasting peace involves more than dealing with settlements, but settlements are rightly the focus of this debate because their continued expansion, the infrastructure around them, and the demolitions that precede them, are creating, as the right hon. Gentleman said, a new physical reality in the west bank that is destroying the possibility of a viable Palestinian state ever being established. They are making physical changes to the map of the west bank, carving it up into different segments, severed from each other, so that it ends up resembling a Swiss cheese. It does not resemble anything that could, at the end of the day, be a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the policy of ongoing settlement expansion is not only an intolerable infringement on the rights of the Palestinians, but a long-term threat to the stability and security of Israel? People who care about Israel’s longer-term security, and its future as a democratic and Jewish state, ought to oppose that policy and support the progressive voices in Israel that are also opposed to settlement expansion.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am particularly pleased that he mentions the progressive voices in Israel, because they do exist. Among the most insidious things currently happening are the actions taken by some of the Israeli right, sadly supported by people in the Israeli Government, to silence the voices of organisations such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and many others that have the guts and integrity to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”
Some 6,000 new units have been announced in just the past few weeks and the settlement footprints now make up more than 42% of the west bank’s land mass. Whatever the numbers, the reality is, as William Wragg said, that every single settlement built on occupied land is unlawful under the fourth Geneva convention.
If settlement building does not stop, the destruction of the two-state solution that will inevitably follow will mean the de facto annexation of the west bank by Israel. In the past week, we have seen another move towards that, with the passing of the so-called regularisation law, which retrospectively declares legal the illegal Israel settlements on expropriated private Palestinian land. I commend Israel’s Attorney General for declaring that unconstitutional and pay tribute to the judicial independence that demonstrated, but the direction of travel is clear: both that law and the massive expansion of settlements that is taking place mean that, whatever Israel calls it in theory, annexation is happening in practice.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long record of work on this issue. In his view, are we now beyond the point at which a viable Palestinian state could be set up, were there the agreement to do that, or are there perhaps still grounds for some optimism?
It is right that the long-standing policy of this House and of Britain to support the two-state solution endures, but let us make no mistake: the chances of that solution are disappearing.
I am afraid I cannot give way any more as there is not enough time. I am sure the hon. Lady will have her chance to speak a little later.
What John Kerry was getting at was that if we end up with the de facto annexation of the west bank, that gives Israel a choice. It can say either that everybody living there should have the vote and rights equal to those of its own citizens, or that they do not. If it says that they do have those rights, the future of Israel with a Jewish majority is at an end. If it says that they do not have those rights, Israel can no longer claim to be a democracy. Not only that, but if there is de facto annexation while Israel maintains a system of laws and controls that discriminate against the majority of people who live in the west bank and denies them basic democratic rights, what term can we use to decide what we are left with but a form of apartheid?
If one goes and looks at the reality of life for Palestinians on the west bank, it is difficult not to come away with the impression that what is happening there is already a creeping culture of apartheid. Is it any wonder, then, that if one talks to Palestinians today—particularly young Palestinians who have never experienced anything other than the grinding weight of occupation—they increasingly say that they see the international community’s constant going on about a two-state solution as a cruel deception for them and their lives? They say, “Actually, we are now getting to the stage where we don’t care how many states there are. We just want it ensured that we have equal rights with everybody else.”
We are left with choices about what we do about this situation, and the right hon. Member for New Forest West was right to put this to the Minister. We can either continue with the mantra that we support a two-state solution in theory, or we can do something to save that solution. I have two questions for the Minister. First, what actions—not simply words—are the UK Government prepared to take to differentiate settlements in the occupied west bank from Israel itself? Secondly, as settlements are illegal, should not there be a clear message from the Government that any trade preferences, either before or after Brexit, do not apply to settlements, and that this will be enforced? UK businesses should not collude with illegality through any financial dealings with settlements or through the import of settlement goods to the UK.
“We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 535, c. 290.]
In October 2014, this House asked the Government to act on that, so will the Minister agree that, with the two-state solution that we all support under threat like never before, now is the time to act on that bilateral recognition? We have to ask ourselves: if not now, when; and if not now, are not those Palestinians who believe that we talk a good story but do nothing to end their misery actually right?
Secretary Kerry’s speech after the adoption of resolution 2334 was outstanding in its depth and balance. Friends of both Israel and Palestine must address his central charge that the status quo is unsustainable and is both a threat to a democratic Israel and prevents a viable Palestinian state. The argument that resolution 2334, John Kerry’s speech, the Paris conference and even this motion are hollow words and simply serve to harden intransigence is transparent, self-serving nonsense. Reiterating basic tenets of international law and ceaselessly searching for peace should not be dismissed in that way.
I share Kerry’s analysis that settlements are not the
“the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict.”
I welcome his work on securing Palestinian acknowledgement that the reference in the Arab peace initiative to the 1967 lines included the concept of land swaps, and he is right that even if the settlements were removed, we would not have peace without a broader agreement.
Since Oslo, Palestinians have been betrayed by two decades of factionalised leadership; by the international community in the disastrous consequences of the implementation of the Oslo process; historically, by their Arab neighbours in the catastrophic way that they first advanced their own interests ahead of the Palestinian cause; and, also historically, by Britain in our failure to deliver the second half of the Balfour declaration.
It is also true that, for more than 100 years, the Palestinian leadership has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Today, those encouraging violence are again betraying the opportunity to present the Palestinian cause with the legal and moral authority that it deserves. However, while admitting the enormity of these issues, one should not belittle the seriousness of the settlements issue. Settlements are illegal under international law for a reason.
I am very grateful to the distinguished Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for allowing me to intervene. Will he comment on what message it sends out to the international community when UN resolution after UN resolution on settlements is ignored and on what we can do to ensure that we action the one that has just been passed?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is such a distinguished addition to the Foreign Affairs Committee. As he knows, we have announced an inquiry into British policy towards the middle east peace process, and it is an issue with which we will engage in detail over the months ahead.
Having been in Gaza a quarter of a century ago when the Oslo process started, I have to ask whether we are not now in a situation in which, if we do not recognise and enforce international law, we send out the message to other countries in the world that if they cover something in concrete, we will let them get away with it. If that is so, we will pay the price.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The implications of these settlements are catastrophic. One should not belittle the seriousness of the issue. As I was saying, settlements are illegal under international law for a reason. One cannot conquer someone else’s territory and then colonise it. The end of that era was codified in the Geneva convention in 1949, and our experience since has been of decolonisation. That it should have happened over the past 50 years at the hands of a nation born out of the moral authority of the appalling treatment of the Jews in Europe over centuries that culminated in the holocaust is deeply troubling for the admirers of the heroic generation that founded the state of Israel.
We rightly talk about all that should be celebrated in Israel, which is often described as a beacon of our shared values in a troubled region, but the truth is that Palestinians, the Arab world and the wider international community, including our own population, increasingly see Israel through the clouded prism of the settlements.
Within Israel, there is no consensus on settlements. The recent regularisation law has raised a particularly rancorous debate. It was Benny Begin, the son of a former Prime Minister and a Likud Member of the Knesset, who dubbed the law as the “robbery law”, while the head of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, called it “a threat” to Israel. It is worth remembering that Parliaments cannot make legal what international law proscribes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the expansion of illegal settlements is to the despair of many people who wish Israel well and plays precisely into the hands of those who believe that there is a cynical intent never to pursue a two-state solution?
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend.
It distresses me that, despite the formal reiteration of the British position on settlements, the recent signals from the Government—briefing against the Kerry speech, not participating in the Paris conference and receiving an Israeli Premier who has just presided over the regularisation law and who is in deep domestic trouble— suggest that they do not fully appreciate the seriousness of this obstacle to peace and the threat to the values of a nation that our history of personal, economic and security relationships makes a firm friend and ally. Friends should not allow each other to make profound and damaging mistakes, which is why I support this motion.
Before addressing the motion, I wish to condemn the rocket attack on Israel last night when Islamic State fired four rockets from the Sinai peninsula into Eilat. I expect that the whole House wants to join me in that sentiment.
Three weeks ago, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in support of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the outset, I made it clear that I opposed continued settlement building in the west bank, a policy that threatens the viability of a future Palestinian state, the case for which is unarguable. It does immense damage to Israel’s standing in the world, and, over time, it will put at risk that which is most precious about Israel’s character—its Jewish and democratic character.
I also made it clear that settlements are not the only or even the principal obstacle to peace. As the former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has been much quoted today, said in his final speech on the middle east in December,
“The core issues can be resolved if there is leadership on both sides committed to finding a solution. In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low.”
Settlement building in the west bank does nothing to contribute to raising those levels of trust—in fact, it does quite the reverse—but let us be clear: trust has to be built and earned by both sides. It is unfortunate that today’s motion makes scant recognition of that fact. Therefore, let me outline some of the factors, beyond settlement building, that contribute to that lack of trust.
Last month, I had the privilege of being on a delegation to Israel and Palestine. We met a group of young Palestinians and young Israelis on the MEET project—Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow— who are working together on IT and technology. That is surely the way to build the trust that my right hon. Friend talks about.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I, too, have visited that project, and it is inspiring. Co-existence is building trust.
I do not believe that trust is built when the Palestinian Authority pumps out an unrelenting stream of anti-Semitic incitement—children’s programmes that teach their young audience to hate Jews; the naming of schools, sports tournaments and streets after so-called martyrs; and the payment of salaries to convicted terrorists—when it is suggested, as Palestinian state media regularly does, that all of Israel is occupied territory; or when the authority continues to insist on a right to return for the descendants of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israeli territory.
I will not give way just now.
I do not believe that trust has been built by the experience of Gaza—territory that Israel unilaterally withdrew from 12 years ago only to see it come under the control of Hamas, which is committed to the creation of a Palestinian Islamist state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea.
The right hon. Lady has been talking about trust, but how would she assess the fact that when some 8,000 settlers were evacuated from Gaza, they were greeted by almost 20,000 rockets?
We all know that being greeted by that number of rockets will do anything but build trust. Hamas uses Gaza as a base indiscriminately to fire rockets into Israeli villages, towns and cities, which the hon. Gentleman was referring to, and build tunnels to carry out terrorist attacks.
Not at the moment, no. Hamas’s treatment of women, its political opponents, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and journalists shows absolutely no respect for the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. Trust is not built when those international institutions, which might be expected to help foster a settlement and promote the values of peace and reconciliation, show that they cannot act as honest brokers.
The UN General Assembly ended its 2016 annual legislative session with 20 resolutions against Israel and only six on the rest of the world combined; there were three on Syria, one each on Iran, North Korea and Crimea, and 20 on Israel. There is no balance there. The UN Human Rights Council adopted 135 resolutions in its first decade of existence, 68 of which—more than half—attacked Israel. UNESCO has denied the Jewish people’s deep historical connection with Judaism’s holiest sites in Jerusalem.
As supporters of a two-state solution, we should commit to building trust with and between Israelis and Palestinians in our words and actions. In our words, we should avoid emotive language that feeds a narrative of victim and villain, recognise and encourage the need for compromise and never fail to acknowledge the complexities of a conflict that has endured for decades, the roots of which run deep. In our actions, we should steer clear of simplistic solutions such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which, by seeking to delegitimise and demonise the world’s only Jewish state, is morally wrong and does nothing to follow the cause it claims to support. We should give no encouragement to those who deny Israel’s right to exist and refuse to renounce violence. Hamas and Hezbollah are no friends to the cause of a two-state solution.
We should do all we can to assist those in Israel and Palestine who are working for peace and reconciliation. That is why the greatest contribution Britain can make towards building strong constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine is to increase our support for co-existence work—people-to-people projects that bring together Israelis and Palestinians at the grassroots level—and to back the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The absence of such constituencies is all too apparent. Although 59% of Israelis and 51% of Palestinians still support a two-state solution, those already slim majorities are fragile and threatened by fear and distrust between the two peoples. After two decades, a significant body of evidence now indicates the impact that co-existence projects can have, despite the challenging environment in which they exist. Those participating in such programmes report higher levels of trust and co-operation, more conflict resolution values and less aggression and loneliness. Those are the kinds of measures we should support. I call on the Government to support the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
I had no doubt that today would be an impassioned debate, and we have got off to a good start, hearing quite clear views from both sides of the issue.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, Israeli settlements are not the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians by a long stretch. A No. 10 spokesman said in December that settlements are
“far from the only problem in this conflict…the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long”.
The narrative seems to be that the conflict we see today started in 1967, when Israel gained control of the west bank and Gaza, but I ask hon. Members to consider why violence in the region pre-dates the existence of the settlements? It is worth recalling that the west bank and Gaza were occupied before 1967 not by Israel, but by Jordan and Egypt respectively. During those occupations, they refused to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, nor did they surrender the territory to be used for a Palestinian state. Where is the condemnation of Jordan and Egypt? The international outcry was deferred until Israel occupied the disputed lands, at which point it became unacceptable for an occupation to take place. From that point onwards, it was unacceptable; before that, no condemnation.
Legality is not subjective. It is often said that Israeli settlements are illegal, but stating that repeatedly does not make it true—[Interruption.] I would like to reply to any inflammatory comments, but I ask hon. Members to bear with me for a moment. The west bank and Gaza remain, as they have always been, disputed territories under international law. There has never been a Palestinian state, so the territory remains ownerless. That is a strong argument for some, although it is not one to which I necessary subscribe.
The whole point of the Chamber—for those chuntering from a sedentary position—is to expose and discuss those arguments, not to merely rehearse entrenched positions. What, otherwise, is the point of a debate?
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The truth is that a Palestinian state was proposed in 1947, but it was not established by other Arab countries, which chose instead to invade Israel at the moment of its establishment. A Palestinian state could have been established at any point in the following 20 years by Egypt, which controlled Gaza at the time, or by Jordan, which controlled the west bank. He is completely right to make that point.
I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, the debate is one-sided. People criticise Israel for demolishing tunnels, building walls and raising buildings, but they make no comment when Egypt does exactly the same. The international community is silent on Egypt, and only vocal on Israel. As Joan Ryan said, where is the balance? I said that some people believe that the settlements are not illegal because the land is ownerless. I do not subscribe to that view, but it is important to mention because people that view hold very firmly and the issue is divisive.
Would the hon. Gentleman gives me a moment? As the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, this is a fundamental issue of building trust. Unless trust is built and the issue of disputed lands is dealt with, the trust deficit will continue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as far as Israel was concerned, the trust was almost ended when the only result of removing all settlements from Gaza was a torrent—an avalanche—of rockets and missiles?
My hon. and long-time Friend makes a good point. Everyone talks about Israel giving up land for peace. It has given land, but it did not get the peace.
Sorry, but I have taken two interventions and time is running short.
I wholeheartedly support and hope for a two-state solution that can be established with trust on both sides, but only two parties can decide on borders and other final status issues, and those two parties are Israel and the Palestinians. Accordingly, I welcome the Prime Minister’s reiteration yesterday that direct peace talks remain the best way to secure a solution—direct talks between the two parties involved, not European conferences excluding one of the parties. As I have said before, the two-state solution we all support should be the end, not the start, of the process. I strongly believe that such debates need to focus on the whole and complex picture and should not be imbalanced by focusing on one particular aspect.
Likewise, UN Security Council resolution 2334 does not help to advance peace, as it focuses on Israeli settlements and only serves to reward Palestinian intransigence and unilateralism. Of particular concern to my constituents is that, for the first time, resolution 2334 defines East Jerusalem as
“Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967”, including the Western Wall and Temple Mount, which are Judaism’s holiest sites. The area also includes the holy sites of Christianity, where Jesus practised his ministry. The definition implies that Jews and Christians visiting their holiest sites are acting illegally, and that is an affront to Christians and Jews alike—[Interruption.] Hon. Members are chuntering from a sedentary position.
No, I will not. I have given way twice. I am trying to reflect the concerns of my constituents. Hon. Members may not like those views, but it is my job to represent my constituents in an imbalanced debate, whether other hon. Members like it or not. That is the purpose of a constituency MP, and that is what I seek to do.
No. I have already given way twice.
As I said, and as my hon. Friend Bob Blackman said, Israel has given up land for peace, but it has not had the peace, and it is important that this Government continue to support, nudge and cajole our ally to take the right course. However, a premature declaration of statehood by the Palestinians, acting unilaterally, would put back peace, not pursue it. If we support the Balfour declaration, we must stand alongside our ally, Israel, and make that declaration work.
I must say that I do believe the point that has been made: the best way to resolve this apparently intractable problem is the same way as peace processes around the world have resolved problems—through face-to-face negotiations between people on the ground, and not through grandiose schemes that play to certain galleries and certain outside influences. That is an important starting point for any peace process ultimately to work.
I will not at the moment.
Settlements are a symptom of the conflict in Israel; they are not the cause. If anyone thinks they are the cause of the conflict, they do not understand what has happened in that land. History shows that the unilateral removal and evacuation of settlements did not generate peace at all, but inspired more rocket attacks and the deaths of more innocents in other settlements—that is what it actually did. Instead of being part of a peace process, the unilateral removal of settlements would be a piece-by-piece process—a step-by-step process towards more attacks on innocent people. So let us stop the hand-wringing and the pretence that a unilateral move on settlements will make peace—it will not. For some—not in this Chamber—it is a cover for more aggression, and for most it reflects a misguided view of what is happening on the ground. You cannot negotiate away settlements in advance.
I support the point the hon. Gentleman is making. Would he like to contrast the failure of Israel’s unilateral decision to remove settlements and to withdraw from Gaza to secure peace with the agreement that was made with Egypt in 1979, when Israel withdrew and demolished its settlements as part of an agreement that has lasted until this day?
The hon. Lady, who has much experience and knowledge of the area, makes a vital point. If we look at the history of the area, we see that Israel has a very good track record of agreeing concessions on territory whenever peace is made. That was the history in 1979 between Sadat and Begin. When they made an agreement, what did Israel do? It gave up critical Sinai—91% of the territory it won in 1967—once peace was agreed. As part of that peace, Begin completely destroyed the Yamit settlement in Sinai. With Jordan, what was the attitude of the Israelis? When they got a settlement, both sides redeployed to their respective sides and agreed to the international boundaries.
The point made by the hon. Lady is supported by facts on the ground at the end of a peace process. I have been part of a peace process, and you cannot make a major concession at the beginning of a peace process and think that it starts at that point; you make the concessions at the end, on the basis of an agreement. That is what needs to take place.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he agrees that Israeli settlements are illegal? While that is not the only factor, it is critical that we address and acknowledge it. Secondly, in relation to Gaza, 800,000 children are living in what the former Prime Minister described as one of the world’s biggest open prisons. These are major humanitarian issues, which we need to confront and address.
To be absolutely clear, I am not dismissing any of the major humanitarian issues. I have absolute sympathy, concern and passion for the needs of Israeli and Palestinian children, men and women. I hope that they can live in new, harmonious, peaceful countries, but we have to get to the point of understanding how we get to that solution. The terms of reference for any negotiation should be the starting point that we want to get to a peaceful, secure Israel side by side with a sovereign Palestine. That is how we have to try to get a two-state solution, and the only way we will achieve that is through face-to-face negotiations between the practitioners on the ground.
Most Members will have had the opportunity in the last day or so to see the Women’s International Zionist Organisation project on Upper Committee corridor. Women of different races, creeds and backgrounds from across Israel and Palestine were asked to do one thing: to paint an olive tree. All those different women have given very different perspectives, but they have painted the same thing in all its glory. The important point about that experiment is that if we put people together on the ground and allow them to negotiate and do something face to face, they will ultimately get to a solution.
The message we should send out today is clear and unequivocal: only Israelis and Palestinians, sitting down together face to face, can sort this out and achieve peace in a much tortured and embattled region.
Order. I am sorry, but owing to the number of interventions we are going to have to go down to four minutes already.
I would like to give credit to everybody who has spoken—every speech has added to the debate. I am very grateful that there was cross-party support for bringing the debate forward.
So far, I do not think we have been straitjacketed by polarised views. If someone criticises Palestine, it does not mean they are an apologist for the occupation. If someone criticises Israeli policies, it does not mean they are against Israel or anti-Semitic. I deplore Hamas’s support for terrorism, and I deplore the building of settlements and outposts beyond the green line.
Our monitors say that the motion is “Occupied Palestinian Territories: Israeli Settlements”. That does not do credit to the full motion, which talks about the two-state solution and asks our Government to take a more active role. This is a very important debate, especially in this year of sad anniversaries—anniversaries of occupation, anniversaries of a blockade and, vitally for us and for our Government today, the centenary of the Balfour declaration. The declaration did commend the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, but, as my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt said, it also uses the words:
“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
That is where our role is critical.
It is correct that the settlements are illegal. I know there is some dispute in Israel about the Geneva convention, but the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Security Council claim that the settlements are illegal. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry—he said this in December—and even Ronald Reagan also claimed the settlements are illegal.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention. That is the problem with so many resolutions—2336, 242 and 181. Yes, I would look to the Minister to tell us what actions the Government are planning to take.
Worryingly, the number of settlements has increased to over 100, as has the number of outposts, to over 100. They are increasing in number, in population, and in geographical area. A matter of concern for anybody who has seen images of them are the settlements in the area just by Jerusalem, the so-called E1 area, which may split the Palestinian west bank north and south. Gaza and the west bank have been separate since 1947, yet this year there is the danger of even more fragmentation.
I absolutely agree. That is why this debate is crucial.
I completely agree with other Members who have talked about trust and communities coming together. Many Israelis and many Palestinians have wonderful projects, and I have witnessed many of them.
There is a problem where settlements and outposts are on private Palestinian land. I have been in the region during a period of conflict and witnessed many events, but the only time I saw an Uzi being fired at a school was by a settler, not by any person in military uniform.
This year is critical. Our Government have failed on part on the Balfour declaration. I am keen to hear what the Minister says in reply to hon. Members who have said, yes, now is the time to recognise a Palestinian state, but also, even if all the settlements and outposts were dismantled today, there would not be peace, because the negotiations have to proceed about matters such as borders, Jerusalem, the refugees’ right to return, and Israeli bases.
I oppose anything that stands in the way of the creation of the two-state solution that I have believed in and campaigned for all my life. It is wrong, however, to suggest, as I believe this motion does, that the settlements are the only barrier, or even the biggest barrier, to the peace process. We have to look at the actions of the Palestinian Authority, too: the denial of Israel’s right to exist; the depiction of all of modern Israel as part of Palestine; the incitement to, and glorification of, violence by its media, senior officials and Ministry of Education.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is really important that we distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and de-legitimisation of Israel that questions its very right to exist?
That is completely right. That is why the Palestinian Authority’s denial of Israel’s right to exist will not build the trust that we have discussed here this afternoon. Nor will the incentivising of terrorism through the payment of salaries to convicted terrorists.
Not at the moment.
Does anyone seriously believe that the settlements are a bigger barrier to the peace process than Hamas’s terrorism and extremism? Its charter sets out its goals with an explicit rejection of not just Israel’s right to exist, but the very idea of a peace process, which it says would involve the surrender of “Islamic land”. This is an organisation that spends millions, and uses building materials, which could build hospitals, schools and homes, for tunnels and terror. It pioneered suicide bombing in the middle east, and then celebrated the murder of Israelis in bars and restaurants.
Not at the moment.
Settlements do not, as has been suggested in the debate, make the prospect of a two-state solution impossible. I do not defend settlement-building, but the House should recognise that Israel has shown its willingness to evacuate settlements before—from Sinai in 1982, as part of the Camp David accords, and when it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The hon. Gentleman is completely right to raise that important point. I am pleased that it has been raised because it has not been discussed or mentioned by anyone who has spoken so far.
It is important for the House to recognise that 75% of the settlers are on 6.3% of the land, so when people talk about the west bank being concreted over, they are factually wrong—it is not true.
I will not give way any more—I have given way twice.
This issue can be dealt with through land swaps. That was accepted as a principle for building a peace process in all recent negotiations. In 2008, Ehud Olmert outlined a plan under which this could have been achieved.
I say all this because I want to argue that with compromise, creativity and concessions on both sides, the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to self- determination and to peace can be secured. There are considerable further challenges facing a two-state solution, such as the status of Jerusalem, security, and refugees. However, it is also important to recognise, as has not been sufficiently recognised in this debate so far, that majorities on both sides still favour a two-state solution. None of these issues is insurmountable if there is a willingness on both sides to negotiate, to compromise, and to make concessions.
The solution is not one-sided, simplistic motions and calls for grand international gestures unilaterally imposed on the peoples of Israel and Palestine. In fact, grand gestures are counter-productive to the cause of peace because they suggest to the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority that there is a route to a Palestinian state that can be imposed from outside that does not involve face-to-face direct talks and negotiations, which is the only way this issue is going to be solved. The truth is that there is no alternative that will end the bloodshed.
I have given way twice.
We should be doing everything we can to develop dialogue, to promote direct negotiations between the two sides, and to build trust instead of boycotts, sanctions and other measures that just drive people further and further apart. I want Britain to support organisations like the one we heard about earlier, which my hon. Friend Mike Gapes and I visited recently in Jerusalem, that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to work to build the foundations for two viable states living peacefully alongside each other. It would have been really good if more Members had been in the Strangers Dining Room yesterday to hear about the WIZO project and what women—Jewish, Muslim and Christian women—in Israel and in Palestine are doing to work together to create the building blocks for peace. I want Britain to be doing more to promote economic development, trade and investment on the west bank, encouraging brilliant projects like one that I have been to see—the new Palestinian city of Rawabi on the west bank. I want to see Britain pushing internationally for the demilitarisation and reconstruction of Gaza.
Peace talks have produced results in the past, they have come close to a breakthrough on several occasions since, and they will have to do so again, because the only way this conflict will be resolved is by people on both sides negotiating, compromising, and working together towards the two-state solution.
It is a great pleasure to follow Ian Austin because, like him and Mike Gapes, I have been fully involved in visits to Israel and the west bank—six over the past three years—with organisations that encourage co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians. I also chair events here where those organisations come forward and describe what they are doing. I have on several occasions been to Tel Aviv to see Save a Child’s Heart, a brilliant organisation that goes out of its way to treat Palestinian children who have heart problems. That involves fine surgery that requires a great deal of skill.
My hon. Friend mentioned Save a Child’s Heart. Will he confirm that children from other Arab countries and beyond receive life-saving treatment at the hospital in which it operates?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The number of Arab children treated by the Israeli doctors at the hospital is phenomenal, and it sets a brilliant example for the whole region.
I want to emphasise this point—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter is laughing and sneering in his usual way, but he ought to listen to this point, because it is really important. The truth is that we come into debates such as this one and hear a binary—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, hon. Members can shout as much as they like, but I am going to speak.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We hear a binary, simplistic, polarised debate, when the truth about Israel and Palestine is that people on the ground are working together, co-operating, talking and building the peace process that we all want to see. It is about time people listened to that argument instead of laughing at it.
Order. We are having very short speeches, and the interventions have been longer than the speeches. Let us allow Mr Howell to make his speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point I was about to make was that here we have a wonderful example of co-operation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and yet we are focusing on one issue—settlements. I would be the first to admit that settlement expansion is counterproductive, but we have heard from speaker after speaker that settlements are not the cause of conflict. They are not the cause of the violence, which long predates the existence of settlements, in this part of the world.
If that is the case, why are we picking settlements out for discussion? Settlements are one of the five final status issues, which also include borders, the status of Jerusalem, security and Palestinian sovereignty. A whole range of issues need to be addressed if the situation is to be moved forward. I was able in a recent meeting of the Council of Europe to expand on the matter for a little longer than I have now, particularly in relation to the activities of Hamas in Gaza. As I have already mentioned in an intervention, the Israelis pulled out 8,000 Israeli settlers, including their dead, from Gaza and they have been greeted by the almost 20,000 rockets that have been launched at them.
The interesting thing about Gaza, as my hon. Friend Mike Freer has mentioned, is that the restrictions on it are being implemented by Egypt as well as by Israel. I spoke to Anwar Sadat, the leader of the Reform and Development party in Egypt, and he said, “We are not going to sort out the problems of Gaza until terrorism in Egypt stops.” That was his message for the area. Settlements in East Jerusalem, for example, account for 1% of the territory.
The motion calls for the internationalisation of the peace process, and I do not think that that is very productive. The question that has been asked on a number of occasions is: what is required? What should we do? Direct peace talks are required between Israel and the Palestinians, without preconditions. Unfortunately, the Palestinian side comes up with preconditions every time, and those preconditions usually involve the release of yet more terrorists. If we look at Israel’s record over settlements, we see that in 2010 there was a 10-month moratorium, but the Palestinians allowed nine months to slip by before they resumed peace talks; they did not take it seriously. A month ago, as I have mentioned, Israel evicted 50 families from homes in Amona. In 2005, we saw the situation in Gaza, and in 2008 Israel made a fantastic offer to withdraw from 94% of the west bank.
The issue that needs to be discussed is how that fits in with land swaps. That needs to be dealt with face to face in negotiations between the two parties. At the moment, all that Israel has got out of the process is a denial of its right to exist, an intensification of violence and demands for the release of yet more terrorists. I do not think anyone should ignore the fact that that is happening because the Palestinians are scared of their own elections. Polling suggests that they are going to lose, whether we are talking about the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, and, sadly, they are going to be succeeded by organisations that are in favour of ISIS.
I thank Sir Desmond Swayne for securing this important debate. This is not the first time I have raised the issue of Palestinian rights in Parliament; sadly, I am sure it will not be the last.
In 2012, when I was chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, I had the privilege of visiting the west bank for the second time. I saw at first hand the degrading and inhuman way in which Palestinians were treated by the Israelis, who had demolished or stolen their homes. I also saw the effect that that had on Palestinian businesses and farmers. The suffering and the sense of loss experienced by the Palestinian people are indescribable. The loss that they have suffered is illegal under international law—a theft of land that continues to be denounced by world leaders across the globe and condemned, quite rightly, by the United Nations. Above all else, the perpetual land grabs are not only immoral and illegal, but a barrier to peace.
Although the Palestinians must provide assurances that Israel will be able to live in peace beside a Palestinian state, the Israelis, too, must come to peace talks in good faith. How can Palestinians take a peace offer seriously when settlements continue to be built? How can Palestinians trust Israel to recognise a Palestinian state when their homes are being demolished? How can Palestinians believe in a genuine two-state solution based on the 1967 borders when Israel continues its encirclement of East Jerusalem? The settlements must stop in order to give any framework for peace a chance, and Britain must be at the forefront of that effort. Britain has a moral responsibility to the Palestinian people, given our role in the region and our betrayal of the people who lived under our mandate after the first world war.
Given the new President in the White House, our country has to play a more important leadership role. Many in this House may be sceptical about the idea that the US has ever been an honest broker in this conflict. However, despite its strong ties with Israel, the US has condemned settlements and aggression. Trump’s view of the conflict appears to be a world apart from that of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry. Trump has made potentially inflammatory remarks about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and he has selected a pro-settlement real estate lawyer to be the US ambassador to Israel. That has so emboldened the Israeli right that within days of the Trump inauguration, the Israeli Government announced their plans to build a further 2,500 housing units in the west bank.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to make it clear to the Israelis how unsatisfactory the situation is, we should adopt the same policy as we have adopted towards the Russians over their invasion of Crimea and introduce personal sanctions on those who promote and benefit from the settlements?
I appreciate the intervention, and I have to agree that there needs to be some consistency in British foreign relations regarding our attitude towards different countries.
Let me start to conclude. I am glad that Britain, alongside the EU, denounced the awful regulation law allowing further housing units to be built. That allays some of the fears I have that Britain is turning its back on the safeguarding of human rights and the promotion of democracy. However, I worry that in this post-Brexit world, such values will be sidelined as the Government seek to secure trade deals. I know that trade was on the agenda at the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister and I am sure many benefits can be gained from the new UK-Israel trade working group, but will the Minister assure me and my colleagues that the UK’s opposition to the new settlements in the west bank will be made forcefully? What is more, will he assure us that increased trade with Israel will not benefit those making a living out of the illegal occupation? Such small steps could make a difference.
In conclusion, Britain must live up to its responsibilities to the Palestinians. The aid we give makes a difference and it must continue, as must our criticism of illegal settlements, and our vocal condemnation must get louder if the US Administration choose to turn their back completely on the Palestinian people.
It is a pleasure to follow Simon Danczuk, who made an eloquent speech.
The motion before us is a curate’s egg—good in parts. At its heart, there is a false assertion. As hon. Members have said, the only way in which this crisis in the middle east will ever be solved is by face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinian leaders and the state of Israel. As we all know, this area of the world has had a long history of being occupied by empires down through the ages. The Ottoman empire ruled the area until the time of the first world war, when the British mandate came in, and the reality is that the west bank was annexed by Jordan in 1950. To call it occupied territory is of course to suggest that a country once existed, but it has never existed. That is the real dilemma in this whole problem.
I absolutely think that United Nations Security Council resolution 2334 should not have been supported by the United Kingdom Government; it was wrong for them to do so. It was passed in the dying days of President Obama’s presidency, and his refusal to support Israel in its hour of need was a deliberate swipe at that country, as history will show. However, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on distancing herself from John Kerry’s one-sided speech. That was a unique point in history, because it was the first time that a British Government had distanced themselves from the serving Secretary of State of our greatest ally in the world. I congratulate the Government on not sending individuals to the Paris conference, which attempted to internationalise the solution to the problem.
I want to ask the Minister about one particular issue. What is his view of the Oslo accords and the agreements that the Palestinians made with the Israeli Government? Under those agreements, it was quite clear that developments could take place in area C of the west bank—that was permitted and agreed to by the Palestinians—so to call this illegal is incorrect.
Equally, we have heard that United Nations resolution 2334 would prevent Jews and Christians from celebrating at the western wall and at the greatest Christian sites. Before 1967, the western wall was out of bounds to Jews, and the same thing would happen again were this implemented. The green line was never, ever an international line, and there has never, ever been an international agreement on the exact borders of any potential state of Palestine.
I want to talk about something that has not been mentioned thus far: the plight of the 2.3 million Jewish refugees who were forced out of Arab countries and had to flee for their lives. Some of them went to Israel, some to the United States and others to parts of Europe. They are never mentioned, but there clearly has to be a home for them. When the Israeli Government put up housing developments for Jewish people who are refugees from Arab states, we should not condemn them but congratulate them on providing those facilities.
My hon. Friend is making very pertinent points. Does he agree that the whole point of this debate is that concessions need to be made on both sides? It would be unfortunate if people interpreted it as meaning that everything would be solved if only Israel did this or that. Substantial concessions are needed from both sides.
My concern, and that of many hon. Members, is that the Palestinians are trying to internationalise the issue—taking their case to the United Nations, and seeking help and assistance from outside—but are not getting the real issue, which is the need for face-to-face talks with the state of Israel to resolve the existing problems so that we can reach a conclusion with a secure state of Israel and a secure state of Palestine. We should always remember that the green line represents an area that would be indefensible for the state of Israel in the event of another war.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and giving a historical analysis that has been somewhat lacking. Does he agree that in the process of trying to internationalise the process, rather than accepting that there have to be direct, face-to-face talks, the Palestinians are being misled into believing that peace can be found for them without their having to make any compromise? As Nigel Huddleston said—many hon. Members agree—compromise and trust building on both sides is required.
We clearly have to build trust and experience on all sides. I have had the experience of going to Israel on six occasions, and I have also had the opportunity to visit the west bank and Jordan with the Palestinian Return Centre. The reality is that the Jordanians did not build trust among the Palestinians at that time; they refused to give them status or title to their land. The problem that still remains is the difficulty of resolving those particular land issues. As the right hon. Lady has outlined, we must build trust through joint projects and by bringing people together so that there can be negotiation, with trust being built between the peoples, rather than their being separated.
It is quite clear that everyone would like the security barrier around Jerusalem to be removed, but it can be removed only when there is trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Once that is in place, we can achieve the dream of a two-state solution, with proper viable borders and proper security for both states.
It is extremely important that we recognise and reaffirm the importance of two states—Israel and Palestine—in resolving this tragic conflict between two peoples who are both legitimately seeking self-determination. Together with that, there must be a very clear understanding from the Palestinians that Israel, as a majority Jewish state, is there to stay as part of the middle east, and is not, as they too often suggest, an imposition from outside the area.
The origins of the settler movement, which I do not support, are not often known or understood. In 1967, Israel survived a defensive war, and then found that it was ruling Gaza, which had previously been under the control of Egypt, and the west bank, which had previously been under the control of Jordan. There were strong movements in Israel at the time to trade that land for peace—to trade it for recognition, which is the most basic part of peace. It is tragic that the Arab League Khartoum conference held in 1967 stridently declared to Israel: no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. That gave the green light to the settler movement that followed.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. She is also showing why comparisons between Israel and Russia are utterly fatuous. In 1967, Israel was invaded, but it managed to deal with the invasion. That was when the west bank and Gaza came under Israel’s control. That is the issue that both sides ought to be sitting down to try to resolve at the moment.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
Settlements are a problem, but they are not the only problem, and they are certainly not the only barrier to peace. In Sinai in 1979, in an agreement with Egypt that survives to this day, Israel withdrew not just from Sinai but from its settlements there. Israel unilaterally withdrew 8,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. It demolished its settlements and, tragically, that has not led to peace. In every attempt to make peace—there have been a number in recent years—with Palestinians and others, a solution has been found to settlements, whether that means land swaps or settlements becoming part of a Palestinian state.
The hon. Lady’s version of history and what happened in 1967—she agreed with Ian Austin—is somewhat disputed. The key issue is that the settlements on the west bank are changing the physical geography. They are a physical barrier to change, rather than simply a policy barrier to change for both parties. The scale of the challenge on the west bank is that there are 400,000 rather than just 8,000 settlements. Therefore, vast political investment is needed, and it becomes more difficult every day for Israel to deliver an agreement as the settler interest becomes greater.
I agree that the settlement policy is certainly not helpful, but it has developed because of the intransigence of the Palestinians and a failure to reach agreement.
I accept that settlements are a problem, but they are not an unsolvable one and they are certainly not the only one. One critical problem and barrier to resolving the situation is the deliberate incitement by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Hamas is explicitly anti-Semitic—it has talked about Jews ruling the world and made a statement about killing every Jew behind a rock—but the Palestinian Authority is not totally innocent either.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Palestinian campaign of incitement to violence and individual terrorism. In the 12 months after October 2015—it is not finished yet—there were 169 stabbings, 128 shootings and 54 car rammings. Forty-six Israeli civilians were killed and more than 650 were injured on the streets of Israel. Individual terrorists—they are sometimes as young as 12 and 13—are fired up with hatred to go out on those streets and kill Israelis. That includes a teenage boy pulling a 13-year-old boy off his bike and stabbing him. That is because of incitement and the creation of hatred.
Not just now.
The Palestinian Authority has taken actions such as naming schools after terrorists. One is named after Dalal Mughrabi, who organised the 1978 coastal road massacre, when a school bus was attacked and 37 people were killed, including 12 children. That is just one example of the Palestinian Authority—not Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority—honouring terrorists, calling them martyrs and encouraging others to do the same.
I could mention the case of Dafna Meir, a nurse and mother to six children who was murdered in her home. Thirteen-year-old Noah was stabbed and critically injured while he rode his bike on the streets of Pisgat Ze’ev in northern Jerusalem. Alon Govberg, Chaim Haviv and Richard Laken were killed as they rode on a bus in Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem. They were victims of what President Abbas himself called a “peaceful uprising”.
If that does not make the point enough, I remind hon. Members that, just last month, President Abbas’s party honoured the martyrdom of Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian female suicide bomber, who in 2002 used her cover as a volunteer for the Palestinian Red Crescent to enter Jerusalem in an ambulance. There, in the words of Fatah’s official Facebook page, she used
“an explosive belt…so that her pure body would explode into pieces in the Zionists’ faces”.
She did indeed kill an Israeli and injured more than 100 other people.
I am sorry but time is running out.
Those acts are horrendous. I ask all hon. Members to consider the role of incitement and the stirring up of hatred in creating a massive barrier to peace. The solution is for both peoples—Israelis and Palestinians—to sit together in direct talks and agree a compromise and a negotiated agreement, so that there is a secure Israel and a secure Palestine, and a homeland for Israelis, Jews and Palestinians.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mrs Ellman, whose views on this issue I greatly respect. She clearly knows a huge amount about the subject. She is right about the disgusting incitement from the Palestinian side. On the other side, however, some of the language and behaviour of extremist Jewish settlers, particularly in places such as Hebron, is equally vile. We will never find a resolution to the conflict unless we deal with both sides of the argument.
I have been to Israel, the west bank and Gaza seven times. I have had the peculiar privilege of standing in Gaza looking out over to Israel, and of standing in Israel looking out over to Gaza. My late uncle served with British forces in Mandate Palestine after the end of the second world war. The Northamptonshire Regiment was instrumental in liberating Palestine, which is now Israel, from the Ottoman empire in the first world war. There were three huge battles in Gaza. Six men from the town of Desborough in my constituency were killed on the same day in the first world war in the third battle of Gaza. I had the privilege of laying a wreath on their behalf at the Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the middle of Gaza City on one of my visits.
Yes, and the elderly gentleman who maintains the Commonwealth war graves in Gaza City was awarded the MBE, of which he was extraordinarily proud. I believe he has been looking after the graves for something like 60 years.
My point was that Britain’s connection with the region goes back an awfully long way. For the best part of 30 years after the first world war, we did our best to try to come to a reconciled solution between Arabs and Jews. As a nation we failed, which was why we pulled out in 1948.
We will not solve the problem of Israel and the Palestinians this afternoon. We are being asked to agree to or oppose a motion on Israeli settlements. Yes, they are not the only issue, but that issue is the only one on the Order Paper. I support Her Majesty’s Government’s opposition to Israeli settlements.
I agree with the position the hon. Gentleman sets out. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the British Government made it clearer that British firms should not be trading with those illegal settlements?
I hope that the Minister will address that in his response to the pertinent question asked by my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne. What more are Her Majesty’s Government going to do to let the Israeli Government know that we are opposed to settlements—and that we mean it? What more will we do apart from just shouting from the touchline?
What evidence is there that sanctions and boycotts, which drive people further apart, will achieve anything? Surely we should be arguing for trade and investment with the west bank—
I am not in favour of boycotts or divestment, whatever the issue. I am in favour of Her Majesty’s Government having a robust method of action against the Israeli Government to ensure that they are clear about our policy. I voted for the recognition of Palestine and would do the same every day of the week. I am also a friend of Israel, which is a fantastic country that has brought many benefits to the world. We have heard about Save a Child’s Heart and the work that Israeli surgeons are doing to help vulnerable children from all nations around the world, including Muslim nations. Israel is a leader in the hi-tech industry and in medicine—many NHS medicines come from Israel—and a key ally in very rough and dangerous part of the world. But our friend and ally Israel now finds itself in the 50th year of a military occupation of 2.5 million people. Speaking as a candid friend, surely it is our duty to say to Israel, “You cannot go on like this.”
Hon. Members have spoken in favour of international and bilateral talks. I do not mind particularly what the talks are, so long as people start talking to each other. Clearly, we will ultimately have to end up with bilateral talks, but it is wrong to say that international talks are a diversion. The state of Israel was established as a result of international action through the United Nations. We have to be realistic. As friends of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, we have to say, “For goodness sake, how long does this have to go on?” Nowhere in the history of the world has there been 50 years of military occupation.
Both Israel and Palestine could have a fantastic future. Both are very entrepreneurial countries. Both have a lot of get up and go. Both have very civilised and educated peoples. They could be leaders to the world in how two conflicting peoples can come together in reconciliation and develop a wonderful future for themselves. Her Majesty’s Government, in the 100th year of the Balfour declaration, have a bigger role to play than they might realise. They should seize this opportunity to knock heads together and say, “How can Britain help you two, our friends, to come together?”
Order. It will be obvious to the House that so far, because of lots of interventions, every speech has been well in excess of four minutes. We now have to reduce the time limit to three minutes.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last year, I went to the West Bank. My visit was paid for by Fatah UK and organised by Travel2Palestine.
It is clear that the settlements are in breach of international law. The International Court of Justice and the UN resolution in December last year found that to be the case. There should not be any argument about that; we should just accept that the settlements are illegal and work from there. Mr Hollobone is absolutely right. The motion before us is about the settlements and we should concentrate on that. That is what we are discussing today. No one is saying that they are the only barrier to peace, but they are a barrier. Removing the settlements would not create a peaceful agreement. Nevertheless, while the settlements are there—certainly while they continue to be built—we are not going to get a peace agreement. That is the reality.
The Israelis say they want talks to begin without preconditions, but they do not. They want the precondition that they can carry on building settlements while negotiations take place. That is absolutely fundamental. For the Israelis to say that they will stop building the settlements and negotiate while no settlements are being built would be an important step forward.
The problem with the settlements being a barrier—this point has just been made—is that they fragment the land that Palestine will form as a state. It is impossible to form a geographical entity of the state while there are settlements dotted around it. That is the problem. We could partly deal with it by swaps and land swaps. The Palestinian Authority does not rule out land swaps as part of eventual settlement, but the more settlements that are built, the harder an eventual peace agreement will be to formulate. That is the reality.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given that the settlements in the west bank are illegal, there will be no peace unless Israel starts to recognise and adhere to international law?
Absolutely. There cannot be a peace agreement when one side does not recognise international law. That goes without saying.
The impact of the settlements on the economy of Palestine has to be understood. Palestinian people describe their journeys to work, a distance of six or seven miles, as taking two or three hours because of the checkpoints that exist by and large to protect the settlements and Israeli interests. That is the reality of everyday life for Palestinian citizens and it damages to the economy. The mayor of Hebron explains that the city wants and needs to expand. It cannot expand because the area outside Hebron is in area C, which is controlled by the Israelis, who do not allow the Palestinians to build there. Hebron is constrained. It cannot expand and that destroys its economic base.
There is hate and division. Go to the checkpoints and see the hatred that is formed between young Palestinians held up at gunpoint and strip-searched in the street, and the young Israeli soldiers who are the same age. The whole process brutalises both sides and sows the seeds of hatred for years to come.
Look at the racism. I am sorry, but it is racism when, because of their race, people are treated differently on whether they can build on a piece of land, get through a checkpoint easily or have to go to a different checkpoint, or, most fundamentally, have access to water. Israeli settlements have access to water seven days a week in the summer. Palestinians have to put water tanks on their roof, because they do not have the same access. What could be more discriminatory than that?
The Government supported the UN resolution in December. What will they now do to implement it?
This is the longest-running conflict in the modern era and its solution seems further away than ever, but its very intractability is a reason why we should rededicate ourselves to trying to move the process forward. Every time the international community has considered the competing claims in the region, they have arrived at the same conclusion: that two states living side by side, one Jewish in character and one Arab in character, in peaceful coexistence is the solution to aim for. That was true when Balfour and Sykes looked at it 100 years ago; it was true when the fledgling UN considered what to do after the mandate in the late 1940s; and it was true when the Palestinians and the Israelis met in Oslo, under international support, in the last round of peace talks.
There are two fundamental truths for people who believe in the two-state solution. First, one state exists and one state does not. Trying to create and bring into existence the state of Palestine is therefore the world’s unfinished business, and we should support that. Secondly, there cannot be a two-state solution while one state is in military occupation of the lands designated for the other. At some stage, the occupation will have to end if there is to be a two-state solution.
In Oslo, it was agreed that the occupied territories would be divided into zones, with the new Palestinian Authority taking responsibility for the urban areas and the Israeli occupying force responsible for 62% of the land in area C. That, however, was envisaged as a transitional arrangement. People thought that by the end of the century that land and that responsibility would transfer to the Palestinian Authority as it emerged and became a fully-fledged Palestinian state. Not only has that not happened, but the actions of the Israeli Government since have made it even further away than it was then 25 years ago.
Does my hon. Friend agree there is an enormous power imbalance between Israel, a state with the fourth-largest and strongest army in the world, and Palestine, which is not a state and does not have an army? Palestinians have already conceded 78% of their land. International pressure is needed now. Ignoring UN resolution 2334 is not the way forward.
I agree, which is why the people who talk about face-to-face talks really ought to consider that this is a David and Goliath situation. In any conflict where that situation has existed and peace has been achieved, it has been with international support and an international framework. It was true with the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, too. We need to listen to the Palestinians when they appeal for our help and support to try to achieve a resolution.
Over the past 25 years, the Israeli Government have, in contravention of the fourth Geneva convention, moved half a million of their own civilian population into an area in which they are in military occupation. That is why people call the settlements illegal. At some stage, they will have to be dealt with. There will need to be land swaps. Some settlers may wish to be Palestinian citizens and some may wish to take advantage of relocation schemes to go into Israel proper, but the issue will have to be dealt with. Every brick that is laid and every new apartment that is built in the settlement complex puts a solution further away. When in a hole, stop digging; that is why the resolution calls on the Israeli Government to review their policy and to put a cessation on settlement building so that peace talks can begin. To have peace talks, there has to be a ceasefire; stopping building settlements would be the equivalent.
I will finish with four asks to the Minister and the Government. The first is that we implement UN resolution 2334, particularly with regard to differentiation of the occupied territories in Israel proper. The second is—I am out of time.
I put on record my support for UN resolution 2334, which calls for peace, denounces violence in all its forms and crucially, condemns the building of illegal settlements by the Israeli Government. Time is pressing, Madam Deputy Speaker, so although I recognise that there are many issues to discuss, I will concentrate my remarks on the illegal settlements that the Israeli Government are constructing. Those are clearly obstructing the peace process, which I am sure all Members agree needs to resume urgently.
Surprisingly, one or two Members have cast doubt on whether the settlements are illegal. The position is very clear. For the sake of clarity, let me cite the view of some authorities. The settlements have been declared illegal under international law by numerous UN resolutions, the Geneva convention, the International Court of Justice, the US State Department, the Rome statute, article 2 of the UN charter, the Hague regulations and, most importantly, by this House and Ministers of all parties. The illegality of the settlements was also reaffirmed by UN resolution 2334, which faced no opposition when it was voted on. I could cite other examples, but however we look at the situation, what cannot be contested is that the settlements are illegal.
I turn to the way in which the ongoing construction of illegal settlements obstructs the peace process. A two-state solution is the only viable option for peace in the region, but if we continue to see Palestinian land disappear under illegal settlements, the two-state solution will be dead and with it the hopes of peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike. The answer is a two-state solution—not a one-and-a-bit-state solution. Palestinians will not negotiate for that lesser deal, because it is not the one that they were promised under UN agreements, nor will they negotiate a deal on who gets what land at a time when the Government of Israel is taking chunk after chunk of the very same land away.
Time does not permit me to speak for much longer. What is paramount for peace in the region is peace between Israel and Palestine. That is what I want to see, as I hope we all do, but illegal settlements have to stop before we can reach that point or even get back on the path to it. I ask the Minister to condemn the further illegal settlements announced since resolution 2334, and will he tell me what concrete steps the Government are taking to move forward?
Like many in this House who are determined to see a peaceful solution in the middle east, I welcome this timely debate, which allows us to reaffirm our support for lasting peace and to commend the Government on signing UN resolution 2334 last December. As the Palestinians have done since 1993, I recognise and accept a two-state solution and Israel’s existence. However, the last two weeks has seen that vision placed at greater risk by the acts of the Israeli Government—a democracy that does not live up to the values that it espouses. The passing of the regulation law, which even the hard-right MP, Benny Begin, described as the “robbery law” flies in the face of the resolution and international efforts for peace.
The UN resolution could not set out more clearly the international law on settlements and settlement expansion in occupied Palestine. We as a country have been very clear that settlements are an obstacle to peace, have no legality and are against international law. We have tolerated Israel changing the physical reality on the ground. We must never tolerate any attempt to change the legal position.
In drafting and signing the UN resolution, we have committed ourselves to a number of essential positions: we call on both sides to act on the basis of international law; we reiterate that settlements and further expansion are a flagrant violation of international law and an obstacle to peace; we accept no change to the 1967 border that is not agreed by both sides; and we will do everything to encourage peace.
Passing the regulation law flies in the face of everything that we declared at the UN. It is a travesty for a Government to legislate in a land that is not under the rule of their Parliament, where the people of that land have no representation. It is a signal that the UN, the ICC and global diplomatic efforts have no impact on the actions of the current Government.
Many have spoken out in condemnation of the law, which the UN special enjoy to the middle east described as crossing “a thick red line” and by a former Israeli Minister as “evil and dangerous”. It is against the principles of democracy and Israeli law and even the Israeli Attorney General is likely to argue against it in court.
I congratulate Sir Desmond Swayne on securing the debate, and I support the motion. It is high time that we moved beyond condemnations and hollow words of support. We must support moves towards accountability and demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law. Only then can we shape a different future for these children and generations to come. Celebrating Amona is disheartening. Israel was just abiding by the law—it was asked to remove occupants from Amona, and that was not to be celebrated.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I visited the west bank last year as a guest of Medical Aid for Palestinians. I disagree with Members who have criticised the motion because it does not deal with issues other than settlements. A motion on settlements is perfectly appropriate. I believe that they are not the only issue, but they are the most important one.
As the mover of the motion, Sir Desmond Swayne, said, it is a relatively anodyne motion in that sense, so I hope everyone can support it. I say that for two reasons. First, the tragedy of Palestine is the occupation. The length of the occupation and the fact that it has happened are what distinguishes this from many other conflicts around the world. The settlements are the embodiment of occupation. Everything else that is wrong in the occupied territories flows from those settlements; 85% of the barrier, which is there to protect the settlements, is in occupied territory. It has been said that settlements occupy only 1.5% of the land, but they control 42.7% of the land. Palestinians in the west bank are not allowed to build on 60% of the land. There are checkpoints, detention without trial and appalling settler violence, with more attacks by settlers on Palestinians than there are attacks by Palestinian settlers in the west bank. We have heard about all the types of petty apartheid, separate legal systems and a military law for Palestinians controlled by the Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is on record as having said that Palestinian citizens of Israel who are disloyal to Israel should have their heads chopped off. He is in charge of the west bank.
Secondly, we are at a crucial point, with 6,000 new settler units having been declared since Donald Trump went into the White House. As we have heard, there is the burglary law, as it has been described by a member of Likud, with 4,000 illegal outposts now legitimised.
In the short time I have left, let me make one point to the Minister. Despite the alternative facts we have heard this afternoon, we know that settlements are illegal. What are the Government going to do about them? Why can we not stop trading with illegal settlements? It would not be a boycott—let us not confuse one for the other. Why can we not ensure clearer guidelines for businesses to stop them doing that? Why can we not prevent financial transactions, as was done with Crimea, and why can we not have a database, as the UN asked for, in respect to all those issues? I would be grateful for specific answers from the Minister. Of course we are looking for a condemnation, but we are also looking for action from the British Government.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise. When I spoke, I omitted to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests concerning my recent visit to Israel as part of a Labour Friends of Israel delegation. I would like to correct the record.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, omitted to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I, too, visited Israel and Palestine with a delegation last year.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also wish to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I went on a trip to Israel and the west bank last year with the UK branch of the Fateh Movement.
It is for individual Members to decide how, and in what manner, they declare where they might have benefited, financially or otherwise, from an outside organisation with an interest in the current debate. Of course the rules are very strict about what is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as the right hon. Lady has just said.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having heard your guidance, I declare that I have made several visits to Israel and Palestine over the last year, all of which were supported and financed by Labour Friends of Israel, but from which I have made no personal gain.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Not wishing to be left out, I wish to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding a visit to the west bank last year, co-organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians and paid for by the Sir Joseph Hotung Charitable Settlement.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not realise we were required to do this. I said in my speech that I had been to Israel recently. Given that everyone else has done so, I feel that I ought to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited Israel recently. I met politicians in Israel and Palestine. The trip was funded by Labour Friends of Israel.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that. I recall him saying it. We have now taken up the time allowed for an entire speech, but it is right that hon. Members behave honourably in these matters.
As has become the fashion, I declare my visits to Palestine and Israel over the past 15 years financed by various organisations.
The focus of this debate—settlements—is narrow but nevertheless very important. Some hon. Members have sought to trivialise the issue of settlements, but while they might not be the most important issue, they are nevertheless very important. We need only look at UN resolutions 242 and 338, dated 1967 and 1973, in which the key phrase refers to the:
“Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”.
It is clear that the Israeli armed forces will not be withdrawn as long as settlements exist in the west bank, so it goes without saying that settlements embody a crucial part of the problem. When I first visited Palestine, 14 or 15 years ago, there were about 50,000 settlers in the west bank. When I last visited, that number had increased to about 500,000, and I understand that the latest figure is about 600,000. The situation on the ground is changing extremely quickly, and the longer the conflict goes on, the further out of reach a two-state solution will drift. So much land will have been taken that there will be very little left for a contiguous state, as I hope the Government will recognise.
As we know, settlements were the main focus of resolution 2334 passed on
As others have reflected, settlements are illegal under international law and a physical barrier to the peace process, as well as a metaphorical barrier. Through the settlement and outpost system, Palestinians are being denied access to 50% of the land, which is clearly a huge issue for those who live there.
Like many others, I have visited Palestine—I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and seen the systemic development of outposts and settlements, which, at best, are intended to control the Palestinians and, at worst, are part of the complete annexation of the west bank. The network of settlements, outposts, checkpoints and associated security buffer zones, patrolled by the Israel Defence Force, means that Israel controls access to natural resources, including grazing grounds, olive groves, water supplies and the movement of animals.
On one trip, I saw a settlement positioned, nice and bright, on the top of a hill, with plenty of green shrubbery made possible by the piped water supply. Meanwhile, the closest Bedouin village, despite having electricity pylons running past it, is not allowed to connect to the electricity. The water supply for the settlement runs through the Bedouin village, but the villagers are not allowed access to it. The school in the village is part funded by the EU but has a demolition order hanging over it. That is state intimidation by Israel.
Forced movement of people is illegal. It is sometimes dressed up as moving people on so that they might enjoy a better lifestyle, but we have seen examples of that in history and it is a false premise. We saw it with the native Americans and Scottish highlanders. They are moves done to, not for, people.
I also visited the Bedouin village of Susiya. It has been subject to demolitions for no other reason than it is deemed to be too close to an adjacent settlement. I saw its water cistern ruined by debris, including a car door forced into it, I saw the caves they used to inhabit completely destroyed, and I saw the rocky land in which they are forced to grow subsistence crops. I heard how they could no longer access their cisterns in the fields for drinking water and their animals and were forced to spend 30% of their income on water that they used to access for free.
I mentioned a school with a demolition order hanging over it. Israel has acted with impunity over demolitions because the international community has not acted. The UK and the EU have never asked for redress for demolitions, and it is time that that changed, given that 180 structures, parted funded by the EU, and therefore the UK, have been demolished, but there has been no redress. As part of a ministerial correction yesterday, I received a letter referring to a £5 million project in Hebron that had suffered demolition. When will the Minister ask for that £5 million back, and when will we take action against Israel over demolitions?
I, too, congratulate the Members who have brought this motion to the House, given how important the issue is.
These are fitful times. As we move into the centenary year of the Balfour declaration, it is chilling to see the President of the United States openly promote those with hideous anti-Semitic views or in France to watch the rise of a presidential candidate whose party has for decades traded in the despicable sewers of anti-Jewish sentiment. That makes it all the more important for us in Britain to uphold our principles, and to speak out in a clear voice when our allies threaten them.
The departure from our steadfast commitment to a peaceful two-state solution in recent months has sent dangerous signals to the rest of the world. As the United Nations Human Rights Council found, while fenced areas of settlements cover only 3% of the west bank, in reality 43% of the territory is allocated to local and regional settlement councils. If that control is legalised, legitimised and expanded, it represents one of the most grievous blows to the prospects for peace for decades. It was therefore astonishing when our Prime Minister chose to use a balanced speech by the outgoing United States Secretary of State to signal a divergence from the position of our closest ally.
Senator Kerry spoke of a Government “more committed to settlements” than any previous Government, and of the systematic consolidation of control over the west bank that is leading towards the inevitability of one state and the near extinction of the prospects for peace. The outgoing Obama Administration reacted with understandable shock to the criticism, which stemmed not from the Foreign Office but from the Prime Minister herself. They said:
I have no doubt that that criticism, and the warm embrace of a new President in the United States who is determined to support existing settlements, emboldened the Israeli Government, who have announced, for the first time in decades, thousands of new buildings in the occupied territories. Our absence from the European Council in Malta, when the decision was taken to postpone a scheduled summit in late February with the Prime Minister of Israel, underscored our diminishing influence.
There can rarely have been a time in the post-war world when our moral voice has been quite so weak. I urge the Government not to jettison our historic role and credibility as a partner of peace for the sake of a quick trade deal. I urge the Minister to do what the Prime Minister could not, and condemn the land regularisation legislation that seeks to legitimise the illegitimate and will do untold damage in the long search for peace.
I am grateful for being called to speak briefly, and I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Louise Haigh.
In opening the debate, Sir Desmond Swayne made most of the points that needed to be made about the settlements, and those who spoke after him added significantly to what he had said, from both perspectives of the conflict. I have received nearly 100 emails from constituents asking me to support the debate. On their behalf, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to do so, and also thank the sponsors for securing the debate.
Like other Members who have spoken, I want to see a two-state solution, but that seems more remote than ever. I look forward to hearing the Minister not only outline—or rather repeat—the UK Government’s support for peace, but, more importantly, to explain how the Government intend to contribute to the task of helping to bring the two sides together. As has been said by Ian Paisley and others, face-to-face talks are the only way forward.
Settlement building by the Israeli Government seems totally contrary to any peace process. Briefing circulated by the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, chaired by my hon. Friend Richard Burden, states:
“The influx of settlers into the West Bank and East Jerusalem significantly increases tension in the region”.
“Violence perpetrated by and against settlers. Freedom of movement restrictions on the Palestinian population. Detention and prosecution of Palestinian adults and children in military courts. House demolitions. Land expropriation. Restrictions on agricultural and other economic activity.”
All those matters have been referred to during today’s debate.
These decisions by the Israeli Government not only do not help the desperate situation in the area, but, in my opinion, make it worse. However, I recognise the provocation, and it is important to emphasise that that provocation is not one-sided.
As has been said, 2017 is a very significant year historically. It is the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, the UN partition and the 1967 war, among other events. Is it too much to hope that history will bear down on those involved to restart talks? I do not overestimate our role, but the UK is a significant player, both historically and diplomatically, as was eloquently articulated by Mr Hollobone. I look forward to hearing both the Minister and my hon. Friend Emily Thornberry outline how it can best play its part.
As we have heard from every Member who has spoken so far, we all want peace, but, as many have observed, it seems very far away, and, in my view, the settlement building is not helping.
At a time when we are seeing rising anti-Semitism in Europe and rising hate crime, even in this country, post-Brexit, this debate should not be an excuse for Israel-bashing—or, indeed, the demonising of all Palestinians as terrorists. Israel is arguably a small country surrounded by inhospitable neighbours and some of the most lethal terrorist groups on earth. Its people should obviously live in peace and security, free from the fear of rocket attacks, and, crucially—as was restated during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—as part of a two-state solution, alongside a viable Palestinian state.
Today, however, we are talking specifically about settlements. Since I spotted the title of the debate, the issue of settlements seems to have been popping up everywhere. At the time of the recognition debate in 2014, we heard about 400,000 dwellers; the figure is now 600,000. On Sunday, in the American thriller “Homeland”, the character Saul went to visit the sister with whom he had grown up in America, and who was now living in a west bank settlement. He asked her, “How can you live, knowing that your very presence here makes peace less possible?”
My interest in speaking in the debate—I am making my declaration on the spot!—was spurred on by the fact that last month I had been part of a cross-party delegation to the Holy Land, which included Members who are present today, to see for myself what was going on. While we were there, we went to the Knesset. We met representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—a UN human rights agency—and of the British consulate. We met Israeli members of think-tanks, and Israeli journalists. We met Palestinians, including Christians: this is not just a Muslim-Jewish issue. Some of them had lived elsewhere; one, Javier, had come back from Argentina. Some had lived in Salford, and one had lived in America. They had all come back in the late 1990s thinking that peace was around the corner, but it seemed to them now that there had been a stalemate since the Oslo accords.
We went to Nablus and Hebron, and other places that I had known about for as long as I could remember. From now on, whenever I hear “O little town of Bethlehem”, I shall not be able to get out of my mind the separation barrier with the Banksy graffiti on it; the same goes for William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. We saw armed guards, because it is a very securitised, militarised place. I shall never be able to un-see those images.
The beauty of having iPads was that we were never out of the office. I was receiving emails from constituents worried about UN Resolution 2334, which they felt was de-legitimising Israel, but also from constituents angry about the destruction of two Bedouin villages. We spoke to the governor of Nablus, who said, “Yes, this is happening—just down the road.” It was an eye-opening experience: I had seen nothing like this before.
While we were there, there were calls for the pardoning of an Israeli soldier who had shot an injured Palestinian teenager in the head. When we got back, we saw on the news—
Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Lady has now reached her finishing time.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, but I will stand.
According to the United Nations, a quarter of households in the occupied territories have insecure access to food, and an estimated 1 million are in need of health and nutrition assistance. The UN estimates that, overall, 2 million people in the occupied territories will need some form of humanitarian help in 2017. It summarises the situation as
“a systematic denial of Palestinian rights”, and
“a man-made humanitarian crisis that has gone on for far too long”.
The Government have confirmed that in the past year, 1,010 Palestinian homes and other buildings have been destroyed, dismantled or confiscated in area C and east Jerusalem—the highest figure in east Jerusalem since 2000—leaving 1,476 people, including 696 children, displaced and vulnerable. I am sure we all agree that those figures are very disturbing, and speak to the pain and trauma of many families. As well as dismantling Palestinian homes, the Israeli authorities demolished 274 “humanitarian structures”: tents, shelters, and buildings housing the homeless. The UN said that that situation was unprecedented; it is unprecedented, but it is also intolerable and inhumane.
This disregard for human rights does not just apply in Gaza and the west bank. Recently, I asked a series of parliamentary questions about the Bedouin communities in Israel, and in particular the village of Umm al-Hiran near Hura. It appears that a forced demolition is taking place at this village—something condemned as
“a blatant and ugly episode of discrimination mirroring Israel’s unlawful settlements.”
As we have heard, the Israeli Parliament passed a law that legalised 4,000 Israeli settlement buildings, in direct contravention both of international law and previous decisions of the Israeli courts. The Minister knows that the new US President has expressed strong support for Israel, even going so far as to suggest that UN resolution 2334—a clear and straightforward reaffirmation of international principles—would not have been passed if it had been put forward after his inauguration.
Does the Minister think that Israel’s recent acceleration of its illegal settlement policies is in any way linked to the change of US President? Is there now geopolitical cover for settlement expansion, provided by the US? If so, what can the Minister do about it?
To date, the Government’s response has been to express concern. They have “expressed concern” for a long time about the continuing settlement policy. In answer to my questions about the forced demolition of Bedouin homes, they were
“concerned by recent reports of violence”, and just this week they expressed their official “concern” about the land regularisation Bill that passed through the Israeli Parliament.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Members who secured today’s debate.
Little did we know when this debate was granted last week quite how prescient it would be. Just as the Israeli Prime Minister was flying back after his visit here, the Knesset was passing the so-called regularisation Bill. This Bill retroactively legalises over 50 illegal settlement outposts, 3,850 housing units and the expropriation of almost 2,000 acres of private Palestinian lands. In short, it legalises the illegal. I guess that, after alternative facts in Washington, we now have alternative facts on the ground, as defined by the Government of Israel.
This debate is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; it is about standing up for the values and norms that we hold dear. It is about upholding the rule of law and not shirking our responsibilities. Settlements fan the flames of discontent and grievance, driving us further from peace. They undermine the legal and moral authority of Israel, destroying the trust that will be required to reach any meaningful peace agreement. And they undermine the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state, and the prospects of a viable two-state solution.
The continued expansion of illegal settlements does not just hurt the Palestinian people; it hurts Israel as well, because there can be no security for Israel without peace, and there can be no peace as long as there are illegal settlements. Anyone who doubts this just needs to see the situation on the ground.
I think of the father I met in Makassad hospital in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, nursing his four-year-old son who had just lost both his legs in a rocket attack. I think of the Bedouin community of Khan Al-Ahmar, the residents living in perpetual fear of military demolitions and harassment from nearby settlers. I think of the 13,000 children from the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, crossing multiple checkpoints, passing the wall and fearing harassment, just to get to school each day. I think of the 250,000 children across the Palestinian territories whom the UN identifies as in need of psychosocial support and child protection interventions. I think of the 10-year-old Gazan child who will already have witnessed three wars and nothing but the siege. What does the future hold for these children? What hope can we offer them?
When we boil all the issues down to their essence, the fact is that the presence of almost 600,000 Israeli settlers on land internationally recognised as occupied is what drives this conflict. Britain, as a key strategic ally, partner and friend of Israel, should be stepping up as a critical friend. That means ending direct support for settlements.
We should, in line with the UK guidelines, prohibit trade with companies and financial institutions complicit in the settlements and prohibit dealings with charities involved in illegal settlement projects. We must be consistent in our alignment with the universal principle of prohibiting trade with illegally annexed territories, as the European Union has done in the case of Crimea. That is why we must do all in our power to halt and reverse the settlements, and that is why we must support the motion.
Order. The winding-up speeches need to begin no later than 3.15 pm and eight Members still wish to contribute. Colleagues can do the arithmetic for themselves.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate today. I visited Israel and Palestine with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding three years ago and saw the construction of settlements first-hand. I also thank my constituents who wrote to me on this issue and supported this debate.
I believe fundamentally in the two-state solution and also that we as an international community must support progressives in Israel as well as Palestine in efforts to secure long-term peace. However, we know that Israeli settlements are illegal and contrary to international law—and, indeed, that they undermine prospects for the viability of the state of Palestine. Settlements are a barrier to trust, and they are a barrier to peace.
I want to make two brief points today: first, the need for renewed international talks and the need to focus on the issue of children and education in Palestine; and, secondly, to recognise the contribution of associations such as the Britain-Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network here, and also those in the middle east, that do vital work.
Palestinians and Israel must know that, with so many other security issues in the world, they are not forgotten. As political solutions remain a distant hope, the prospects and welfare of children are a matter of great concern. In Gaza, there is an alarming rise in malnutrition among children, because they cannot get the food they need, and a rise in kidney disease among children, because the water is not drinkable. Because there are not enough schools for children, many of the schools are operating double or triple shifts, starting at 6 am and finishing at 6 pm. Parents worried about their children going to school in the dark are making them stay at home, which is having an impact especially on the education of girls.
In the west bank, I have heard from Save the Children that children cannot get to school safely. About 13,000 children in Jerusalem have to cross a checkpoint every day just to get to school. The increase in demolitions affects entire communities, of course, but is particularly traumatic for children who see homes and also schools destroyed. The children of Palestine and Israel today will be the leaders of tomorrow who will need to work on the solution for how they live side by side.
The Britain-Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network recently held its annual meeting in Hounslow. Its work builds an important connection between young people here and in Palestine. Building such cultural and educational links keeps a positive contact with the outside world.
I want to close my remarks with some questions to the Minister. On the basis that the UK Government’s condemnation of illegal Israeli settlement building is unchanged, what steps will they take to ensure that action is taken to stop settlements, given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s stated determination to expand them? What will the Government do to strengthen their advice to British businesses about avoiding engaging with other businesses that support settlements, so we do everything we can to stop settlements and the illegal enterprise that comes from them?
I have absolutely nothing to declare, except my recent Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding trip to Israel and the Palestine territories. I have been visiting those countries since the first Gulf war. Back then, Palestinian democrats warned of the rise of the fundamentalist Hamas. They argued that if Israel failed to support an independent Palestinian state, extremism would rise, the centre ground would be lost, and peace would be harder to attain.
In my previous role as a journalist, I interviewed Hanan Ashrawi and the late, great Edward Said. They had a series of reasonable demands. Said spoke of reconciliation and denounced the use of violent rhetoric. Both wanted to see a homeland for the Palestinian people, an acknowledgement of the grave injustices committed towards them—as we know, many of them were driven from their homes and into refugee camps when Israel was created—and, crucially, an assurance that Israeli territorial expansion would end. When I first visited Israel and Palestine, the settler population in the west bank and East Jerusalem was around 200,000. Today, 20 years later, there are more than 600,000 settlers.
People come from across the world to live in Israel, and for lots of reasons, but those seeking a better life in the illegal settlements gain it, alas, by the appropriation of Palestinian land and homes. Palestinian farmland is barren and dry, yet many settlements have swimming pools with illegally funnelled water. Illegal settlers consume six to 10 times more water per head than the Palestinians. Israel’s policy of creating “facts on the ground” is brutal and determined to establish so many settlements on the west bank that a contiguous Palestinian state becomes impossible. We must consider the consequences of this for Israel itself. If a viable two-state solution dies and Palestine is subsumed into a greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Dead sea, what will happen to the 5 million to 6 million Palestinians in the Jewish state with no government of their own?
An abiding memory of my first trip to Israel and Palestine is of taking tea in a refugee camp. Some of the elders got out their British Mandate of Palestine house deeds and, poignantly, the keys to their long-appropriated houses. They told me that they trusted British honour and British law, and asked why we remained so silent in the face of injustice. It was Edward Said who put it best for me. “Can you explain to me,” he asked, “why because of the evil committed against innocents in Europe 60 years ago, you in the west salve your consciences by turning a blind eye to the injustice of my family’s expulsion from our home to provide compensation for people in whose oppression we played no part?” This goes to heart of the issue. We cannot turn a blind eye to this theft any longer. We cannot allow the bitterness to pass to another generation.
I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this debate. I visited the west bank and Jerusalem in January, and I should like to draw the House’s attention to what will soon appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: the support of the Britain Palestine Communication Centre, the President’s office and the Palestinian Mission. Every Palestinian we met—Palestinian Authority members, elected city leaders, political activists and young people—subscribed to the two-state solution and wanted help in ensuring that it is achieved. I saw, as did other colleagues, the settlements marching across the hills over expropriated land, usually illegally. I saw the diverted roads, which Palestinians are not allowed to use, and I saw the march of the fence and the wall through old fields. I saw the occupation and destruction of the old city of Hebron, and the closed businesses there. Yes, the settlements are the issue of today, but if we want to address stone throwing and other violence by Palestinian children, we need only to look at the daily incidents of brutalisation to which they and their families have been subjected for decades.
We visited the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which provided us with accurate, factual information showing that 43% of the west bank is out of bounds to Palestinians. Its maps show a Swiss cheese of disjointed areas of Palestinian land, with the Palestinians effectively excluded from the rest, even if they have historical ownership over it. Hours after meeting our Prime Minister recently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu returned to Israel to vote on a law that allows the Israeli state to seize land privately owned by Palestinians on the west bank and to grant Jewish settlements exclusive use of the properties there. The decision on
The recent legislation imposed Israeli law on Palestinian inhabitants of the west bank, which is not sovereign Israeli territory. The Palestinians living there are not citizens of Israel and do not have the right to vote, but the Israelis living there do. Israeli civil law applies to settlers, affording them all sorts of legal protections, rights and benefits not enjoyed by their Palestinian neighbours, who are subject to Israeli military law. Palestinians should not be made to go through the indignity of negotiating over territory that should be theirs in a future state. This should be an international negotiation in which our Government should play a major part.
I was privileged to visit the west bank last year for the first and only time with the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Human Appeal, an award-winning charity. As Dr Huq said earlier, it was a real eye-opener. I had no idea of the size and scale of the settlements, and seeing how big, well-serviced and well-entrenched they are makes plain the reality of how difficult it will be to move them.
As a lawyer, I was particularly struck by the human rights abuses in the west bank and the absence of the proper rule of law. Other speakers have talked about parallel legal systems, and I want to use the little time I have to make it clear that the settlements are illegal under international law. The international community considers the establishment of settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories illegal under international law because the fourth Geneva convention prohibits countries from moving people into territories occupied in a war. That is a legal fact. I am aware that the state of Israel maintains that the settlements are consistent with international law because it does not agree that the fourth Geneva convention applies. However, the weight of international opinion is against it. All the following organisations have affirmed that the convention does apply and that the settlements are therefore illegal: the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and the high contracting parties. This is a matter of the rule of law.
I have been to the Israeli embassy and, as a lesbian women, I was told how fantastic Israel is on gay rights. Israel is good on LGBT rights, but the point of human rights is that they are universal. Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis under international law—or at least they should have, but they do not at present. No matter how important it is to have a state of Israel—it is important—and no matter how much of a good friend Israel might be to the United Kingdom, it is imperative that we, as democrats and people who believe in the rule of law, speak the truth and do not let the Israeli Government get away with distortion and alternative facts when it comes to the rule of law.
I have very little time left, but I want to ask two questions that my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard, who done so much work in this area, did not get to mention. First, will the Minister give us a timetable for the United Kingdom’s recognition of the state of Palestine? Secondly, what will the British Government do to support the groups within the state of Israel that are striving to achieve peace?
The settlements are illegal—that must be central to any talks. Several Members have suggested that direct negotiations should take place, but I question whether that is feasible. There is no trust whatsoever between the two parties, and the talks would be unequal, which is something that the Israelis acknowledge as they hold many of the trump cards.
What has been the UK’s contribution to the peace process? I am disappointed by the Prime Minister’s position on John Kerry’s speech—it was a depressing volte-face. It was particularly confusing given that the Foreign Secretary had said about the Paris conference that his intention was to be “reinforcing our message”. Of course, the Government attended that conference as an observer, so unless our message is that we have nothing to say, it is hard to see how the Government were in a position to reinforce their message. The Liberal Democrats, of course, support a two-state solution, and we believe that part of the way in which it will be achieved is through international co-operation such as the Paris conference. As John Kerry underlined, some unilateral actions also need to be taken. We want the Palestinians to clamp down on violence and its glorification, but the Israelis must also act unilaterally. Unfortunately, we have seen only negative action from the Israelis so far.
We can perhaps understand the issue of unilateral action and the significance of settlements best if we ask ourselves a simple question. Can my right hon. Friend imagine any sustainable solution as long as the settlements exist?
Indeed. I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I am sorry that he will not have an opportunity to make a longer contribution.
The land regularisation Bill is a good example of a counter-productive initiative, as is the expansion in area C. I hope that we will hear from the Minister not the carefully scripted speech that has been written for him, but what concrete actions he will take, because the Government’s toned-down press releases have made no difference whatsoever. Umm al-Hiran has been demolished, notwithstanding any contributions the UK Government might have made.
It is clear that while the illegal settlements and their expansion are not the only obstacle to the peace process, every expansion and every attempt to legitimise their illegality is rightly seen as a slap in the face for the Palestinians and a demonstration of bad faith by the Israeli Government. Of course, any instance of Palestinian-initiated violence against Israel is clearly also seen as a demonstration of bad faith. The fact is that each illegal settlement expansion strengthens Israel’s hand and makes a two-state solution, which many senior Israeli politicians clearly dismiss, increasingly impossible.
Ministers say that Palestinian recognition will be appropriate at a time when it will have most impact. That time is now. If Ministers wait any longer, Palestinian recognition will be pointless, as a one-state solution will have been imposed.
As other Members have been declaring interests, may I say that I spent two weeks last Easter with Medical Aid for Palestinians as a breast surgeon working in East Jerusalem, as well as working and teaching in Gaza? As many hon. Members know, in 1981 and 1982, I worked for 18 months as a surgeon in Gaza, so I still know the place quite well. I echo the comment by John Howell about Israeli doctors treating people from all communities. That is true, but often we could not get patients to Israeli doctors in Hadassah hospital because of curfews. I had patients who died in ambulances because of curfews. I had a 10-year-old boy turned back at Erez for us to try to work out how to get him through the night, even though we did not have the equipment.
Having worked there at the start of the Oslo accord, I was really depressed when I was there last Easter to see that, a quarter of a century on, we are further from peace than we were that morning. By the end of the day of the Madrid peace conference, despite the violence that had happened on the day, I saw young men with olive branches on armoured cars. They believed that their lives were going to change. A quarter of a century later, the international community has let them down.
Some 1.8 million people live in the tiny strip of Gaza. It is becoming unviable. It is pouring sewage into the sea and the water is undrinkable. It will be unviable by the mid-2020s. The west bank is being put in the same situation by the expansion of settlements. It is not just the settlements, but the walls that separate people from their farmland or sources of water. It is settler roads that people are not allowed to cross even to get to their olive groves or water sources.
What is the vision for the west bank? Is it that Palestinians will simply live on reservations, as happened to native Americans centuries ago? What is the vision for the outcome that even the Israeli Government want? The only thing we have is international law, and if we do not stick to that, we will have no position of right for other people who do the wrong thing. It has been said that international players should not be involved—that it should just be the Palestinians and Israelis—but that is a totally unbalanced conversation. Northern Ireland had the UK Government, the Irish Government and the American Government to bring the peace process to success, and we need to be involved.
Everyone has said that they believe in a two-state solution, so how bizarre is it that we recognise only one of those states? If we do not take action to avoid profit from settlements and annexation by concrete, we will be answerable.
As joint vice chair of the all-party group on human rights, I approach today’s debates with human rights at the forefront of my mind. My party supports the EU position of a two-state solution and encourages Israel and Palestine to reach a sustainable negotiated settlement under international law. There can be no justification for any impediment to progress in a peace process, such as indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel or the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Israel’s settlements in the territories have been established in clear violation of law.
“the impact of settlements on the human rights of the Palestinians is manifested in various forms and ways.”
The illegal settlements critically interfere with the ability of the Palestinian people to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination, and it is not just the settlements. The associated infrastructure built on expropriated Palestinian land also has a substantial impact.
Time and again, the SNP has called on the UK Government to use their influence to help to revitalise the peace process and to find a way to break through the political deadlock. The Minister has a keen personal interest in the area. Will the UK Government recognise the state of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, affirming the equal rights of both peoples to live in sovereign, independent and secure states? The situation worsens in the territory and, as it does, the likelihood of a peaceful resolution fades. The time is right for the UK to recognise Palestine and its right to self-determination. The UK has not only a moral duty but a legal duty not to recognise, aid or assist Israel’s illegal settlements and associated infrastructure because they impede Palestinians in exercising their fundamental right to self-determination. Please, such action has to be taken. A tougher stance needs to be taken today. I hope that the Minister will take on board all the views that have been expressed.
I am well known as a friend of Israel, and the premise of a friend is that they are honest, open and truthful. With that in mind, there must be fairness for all, and I fear that UNSCR 2334 adversely affects the Jewish right to fairness.
I believe in democracy and the democratic right of those who are voted into power by a majority. We all know that the settlements and, indeed, peace in the middle east are complex issues. As someone who hails from Northern Ireland and has been involved in the peace process, I have lived through my own share of complex issues. Appeasement cannot be the answer for Israel and Palestine; working together is the only answer, and that is hard to do in the current situation. Trust me, I speak from experience.
It is clear that Jewish leaders have negotiated on this land as a way of trying to bring about some semblance of peace for Palestinians and Jews alike. Much like the situation in Northern Ireland, some people see negotiation as demanding things their way or no way, and that if their demands are not granted, they will go back to violence.
I have a very real fear that we are pushing Israel into a place where it does not want to be and where we do not want it to be. I can well remember the six-day war. As a child, I remember seeing Israeli women and children on the streets defending their historical homeland. That resonated with me over the years as I watched the strife in Northern Ireland. I do not wish to see Israel again pushed into a place where its options are restricted. The heart of the Israeli people is simple. They wish to be allowed to return home in peace. There is no doubt in my mind that the Jews have a historical right, and we should play a role that helps the process, saves lives and that perhaps allows children to grow up without distrusting other people.
I fully understand the concern that the UNESCO vote seems to disregard Jewish heritage in Jerusalem, and we seem to be going through a similar issue in relation to Northern Ireland’s history. We want peace in the middle east, but it must be fair. There can never be peace without recognising that the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount are Jewish holy sites that predate other sites. The Israelis have a right to access those places, and access must underpin the negotiations, not the presumption that the Jews are the ones to blame. The Jews want to live in peace on their own historical land. The motion in no way recognises that, which is why I cannot support it.
There can be peace in the middle east, but only through encouragement, not division. Let us start by sending the right message: Israel is a friend of this nation and we will do the right thing by it.
We will now have three Front-Bench winding-up speeches of no more than eight minutes each, followed by a brief conclusion from Sir Desmond Swayne.
I congratulate all the hon. Members who worked to secure this debate and the many hon. Members who have spoken. I recognise the passion on display throughout the debate on this complex and sensitive issue, on which we all agree that nobody has a monopoly of wisdom. We heard “Ode to Joy” both last night and at business questions, and it includes the line, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. All people will become brethren only if we allow joy and freedom to reign, which is an important consideration.
The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party position has firmly and consistently been that peace in the region depends on there being two secure, stable and prosperous states of Israel and Palestine, living side by side. Israel and Palestine should be encouraged to reach a sustainable negotiated settlement, under international law, that has as its foundation mutual recognition and a determination to co-exist peacefully. We have consistently condemned obstacles to progress in the peace process, whether they are indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel or the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
Many Members have spoken of their personal experiences. In October, I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land in a personal capacity, as part of the archdiocese of Glasgow’s annual pilgrimage. Although focus was on visits to sites associated with the Christian gospel and scripture, it was impossible not to be aware of the tensions and the legacy and impact of the ongoing conflict. It is worth stressing, however, that the journey itself was safe and secure. If anything, it brought home to me the massive potential for the economies of both Israel and Palestine if a peaceful settlement can be reached. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, steeped in history, and the climate ought to make the region a holidaymaker’s dream.
Nevertheless, we did pass through the border wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem several times—as Dr Huq said, Christmas carols are never quite the same again after one has done that—and I saw young Palestinians stopped and subjected to lengthy security searches. I pay tribute to the ongoing ecumenical accompaniment programme of the World Council of Churches—co-ordinated in the UK by the Quakers—which witnesses and monitors incidents at the checkpoints. We could see settlements under construction, alongside approach roads and land connections with Palestinian towns and villages, and it is not hard to see how they threaten the contiguity of the Palestinian state. We saw parched lands and dusty streets on one side of the wall and manicured lawns and fountains on the other side. That is unjust from any perspective: in a land of such plenty, nobody should need to go hungry or thirsty. We have heard powerful testimony today about the impact of the conflict across the communities in both Israel and Palestine.
The motion and the debate have focused on UN Security Council resolution 2334, which is something of a milestone and should be welcomed as a demonstration of the potential role to be played by the United Nations. For more than 70 years, the UN has brought countries together to work for peace and security, development and human rights, and it must be supported to continue and step up its mission. The resolution makes clear that the settlements have no legal validity and, indeed, constitute a flagrant violation under international law. That surely remains the case, even in the light of the legislation passed by the Knesset to give retrospective legitimacy to the settlements. As Crispin Blunt said, there is no political consensus in Israel on that law.
The new law is a provocative and disappointing gesture, but the response must be a redoubling of diplomatic efforts. The UN Security Council resolution does not compel Israel to concede any of its own sovereign territory, nor does it preclude any future territorial modifications with the Palestinians. What it did was to reconfirm the long-established and consistent point of international law that settlements are illegal and should stop. The destruction of Palestinian villages, about which my hon. Friend Alan Brown spoke powerfully, must also stop. I have heard from my constituents, powerfully and loudly, about their concern about that practice and its effect on communities.
The debate has raised several questions for the Minister. To his credit, he is one of the Ministers who does a good job of responding to the points Members make, even if we do not always agree with his responses. It would be helpful to hear from him what representations have been made to the Government of Israel about the recent legislation. Are they satisfied that the discussions our Prime Minister had with Prime Minister Netanyahu were sufficient, or is there an opportunity to go further? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the UK adheres to the UN Security Council’s demand that, in their international relations, states distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories? Will the Minister guarantee that, after it leaves the EU, the UK will continue to make that kind of diplomatic differentiation? Does he agree that the UK should not be trading with illegal settlements?
As has been said repeatedly, a peaceful solution must be based on mutual respect and recognition on both sides. That applies not only to the people of the states of Israel and Palestine, but to their supporters and allies in the international community. Under no circumstances are attacks or abuse on the Jewish people, or any kind of manifestation of anti-Semitism, acceptable; anti-Semitism should be named as such and condemned. That also applies to violence and extremism in any form, whether directed at Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish or Muslim communities.
The Scottish Government, in line with other Governments in Europe and the EU itself, does not advocate a policy of boycotting Israel. Nevertheless, we in the SNP are clear that trade and investment in illegal settlements should be discouraged, and the Scottish Government have published procurement guidance to reflect that position.
I mentioned my visit to the Holy Land, which gave me a new appreciation for the deep history and spirituality of the people and places there. Never have I felt more keenly or more urgently the words of the psalm:
“For the peace of Jerusalem pray:
‘Peace be to your homes!
May peace reign in your walls,
And in your palaces, peace!’”
May I thank Members on both sides of the House for securing this debate? People watching us from the Public Gallery will see the House at its best when it comes to such debates. Many Members were very well informed indeed. I was expecting excellent speeches from my hon. Friend Richard Burden and from Crispin Blunt, but if I could pick one favourite speech it would be that of Dr Mathias who spoke passionately, articulately and without notes, and I commend her for that. It may be that other people watching the debate will have other favourites, but her speech was excellent. In the time that I have available, I will not try to summarise all the contributions.
The carefully drafted motion represents a consensus shared across the House. I know that there are many differences, and we have heard them today, but, actually, what unites us is so much more than that which divides us on this. It is important that we speak clearly and loudly about settlements.
Clearly, this is an important anniversary year, and the debate is very timely. When we look at the great sweep of history, from the six-day war and its aftermath to the UN partition plan and all the way back to Balfour, it is quite clear that, in many ways and in context, we seem to have come to a halt. The past few years have been very dark and very depressing with very little movement. I fear that we have been slipping backwards, and that a two-state solution is moving further and further away from us.
Clearly, settlements are a major part of the problem, but we must recognise them for what they are: they are a roadblock to peace and a violation of international law. At the same time, we cannot pretend that this conflict can be reduced to that one issue alone, as that is simply not the case. As Mrs Ellman put it so well, there must be an unequivocal end to violence and incitement on both sides. In these dark and difficult times, the question is what do we do? Do we give up hope? Do we walk away?
We must be honest that the road ahead is very hard. My question is this: have the Government decided that, what with Brexit, the crisis in the NHS, the collapse in social care, the challenge of the Trump presidency and wars over the middle east, continuing to be involved in such a bitter and long-standing dispute is just one challenge too many? In many ways, that was the message that Ministers sent to the Paris conference last month when 36 countries sent a Foreign Minister, but not the United Kingdom. Our presence there was downgraded to observer status and we declined to join the communiqué, which really did not make any sense, because the objectives of the conference and the content of the communiqué were so closely aligned to the sentiments expressed in UN Security Council resolution 2334, which, I am told, the UK had a key role in drafting last December. It is as if we have been blowing hot and cold. What is going on? Are the Government losing their nerve?
The Government’s official explanation was that they chose not to attend because no Israeli or Palestinian representatives were present, but that does not make sense, because the Paris conference was not some kind of quixotic attempt to bypass the need for bilateral negotiations, but an attempt to affirm support for them. As the lengthy list of multilateral initiatives in UN Security Council resolution 2334 showed, the international community has always had a role to play in helping to facilitate bilateral talks.
For Labour, as internationalists, friends of Israel and friends of the Palestinians, that understanding is crucial. My hon. Friend Ian C. Lucas, who was shadow Minister for the middle east, said a few years ago:
“We have made it very clear that we will always work with partners multilaterally to advance the two-state solution agenda.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 586, c. 95.]
I hope that the Minister will explain why this Government appear to lack the same co-operative spirit—or at least they lack it sometimes.
Whatever the official reason, I am afraid that the clear subtext to the decision on Paris was the election of President Trump in the United States. Many have suggested that his election was bad news for the peace process and that we should give up hope. I can understand why. We just need to consider the words of Naftali Bennett, one of the most influential Members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Following the election of Donald Trump, he said:
“The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Mr Bennett’s regulation Bill seeks to legalise the construction of settlements on privately owned land retrospectively and it should be condemned.
The fact is that a one-state solution would not enjoy the support of the people of Israel or the majority of the people of Palestine. By following the settler agenda, the Israeli Government are not acting in the interests of the people of the region, and certainly not in the interests of the people of Israel. A single state, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river can be one of two things: it can either be Jewish, or it can be democratic. As Joan Ryan so rightly said, it cannot be both.
As friends of Israel and friends of Palestine, there is no time for the UK to sit on the side lines. Of course I understand why the regulation Bill was pushed forward at this particular time. After all, the man who has just taken office as the President of the United States has expressed some unorthodox views, to put it mildly. He has made statements in favour of more settlements, and he is in favour of moving his embassy to Jerusalem and opposed to multilateral talks. The man he has appointed as America’s ambassador to Israel has said that
“a two-state solution is not a priority”.
Many of us worry that this rhetoric is divisive, but we have heard positive words from Mr Trump at times. He said, for example, that he
“would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians”, and that he has “reason to believe” that he can do that. I think we should choose to take him at his word. The difficulty is that I am far from convinced that he knows exactly how to do that. That is where we come in.
The expertise of the Foreign Office and the advice we can give the Americans in these circumstances are important. It is incumbent on us, as we wish for a two-state solution, to do everything we can to push for a path to peace. For the Government, that means making the case to Washington and Tel Aviv, and convincing them that a two-state solution is still both achievable and necessary. I hope that the Minister can assure us that his Government remain committed to a two-state solution, and opposed to anything that stands in the way of that.
I am deeply disappointed that the Government continue to fail to recognise the Palestinian state. Now is the time. I ask the Minister to comment on that. What thought have the Government put into how settlement goods could be separated from other Israeli goods, as many people do not wish to buy settlement goods? Are the Government doing any further work on that? How can we persuade British companies not to invest in settlement areas? Most importantly, I hope that when President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu visit London later this year, our Prime Minister will have the courage to set out those views in no uncertain terms. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
This important debate has been constructive, informative and, at times, passionate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne and others who have brought it to the House. Following your guidance, Mr Speaker, I have just eight minutes to respond. I hope the Backbench Business Committee recognises how many people wanted to speak in this debate and I hope that we have a further opportunity for debate in which I have more time to respond. I will do my best, as I always do, to write to hon. Members if I do not cover their points today.
The focus of today’s debate is Israeli settlements, but may I begin, as others have, by firmly underlining our deep friendship with Israel, its people and its absolute right to exist and defend itself? Israel is a democratic state in a difficult neighbourhood. In the year in which we mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, which underlines our shared history, we continue to have an interest—as a nation, an ally, a regional partner and a permanent member of the UN Security Council—in understanding the challenges faced by the region, including securing a two-state solution, which we continue to support, and the issue of illegal settlements, which we are discussing today.
I will not because I have only a short amount of time.
The debate has focused on a number of themes, which I will try to cover to my best ability. The first was the importance of a two-state solution, which, as others have said, is the only way to secure a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We must all continue to work for that, no matter how big the challenges. The objective has been repeated not only by us and American Presidents, but by successive Israeli Prime Ministers and the international community. The objective has also been confirmed through a series of UN Security Council resolutions and other agreements through the Oslo accords, the Madrid discussions and the Camp David talks. To be clear: the solution cannot be imposed on the Israelis or the Palestinians, but the international community has an important role to play.
Although important, the matter of settlements is not the only issue but one of a number. The immediate removal of settlements would not immediately lead to peace. Trends on the ground, including violence, terrorism and incitement, as well as settlement expansion, are seemingly leading to a steady drift from peace and making the prospect of a two-state solution look very much impossible. It is in no one’s interests to see that drift towards a one-state solution. It is not in Israel’s long-term interests; it is not in the Palestinians’ interests; and it is not in the region’s interests.
Specifically on settlements, if we look at the map, we can see that there are now around 600,000 people living in about 140 settlements built since 1967. We can see that the west bank is being divided into three, with Jenin and Nablus in the north; Ramallah in the middle, broken by the Ariel finger; and area E1 separating Ramallah and Bethlehem from the Hebron conurbations. So the concept of a contiguous Palestinian state is being eroded, and that is a huge concern. The west bank is now a complex network of checkpoints, which is broken up, as has been said, and that makes it difficult for people to move and to enjoy a normal life.
Since 2011, Israel has approved only three urban development plans in area C. We want this to change, and we encourage Israel, as per the Oslo accords, to transfer land from area C to area B, and from area B to area A—area A, of course, is where the Palestinians have control and authority over their own security arrangements and economic prospects.
UN Security Council resolution 2334 was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. It should come as no surprise that we voted in favour of it in December, because we have long supported the two-state solution and the notion of Israel as the Jewish homeland. We should recognise what the resolution actually said. It proposed three important and balanced steps to support peace in the region, including calls for both parties to prevent the incitement of acts of violence, to build and create conditions for peace and to work together to allow credible negotiations to start. Of course, it is based on historical resolutions 272, from November 1967, and 181, which goes back to 1947.
The regularisation Bill has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. A new and dangerous threshold was crossed with that Bill. I am pleased to see that the vote on it was very close—it was 60 to 52—and the Israeli Attorney General has made it clear that he will not support it if it goes to appeal, which I think it will. That is good, because he sees it as constitutionally unviable, and I hope that that message is heard loud and clear.
I am running out of time, but I will do my best to cover the remaining points. On the recognition of Palestine, we need the Palestinians to do more to prevent the incitement of violence. President Abbas condemns certain aspects of it, but we are still seeing schools and squares being named after terrorists. These are not the confidence-building measures we need see. There is no relationship with Hamas at all. Those confidence-building measures are the steps that will allow us to move forward, so that there can be a recognition in the long term of the state of Palestine, but they are not there yet. The younger generation has given up on its own leadership, choosing instead to try to take a fast track to paradise by grabbing a knife and killing an Israeli soldier, and that is a terrible state of affairs to be in.
The British Government continue to believe that the only way to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians is the two-state solution, but there are a number of obstacles to peace, including settlements and continued violence and incitement. We remain committed to working closely with our international partners, including the new US Administration, to promote an environment conducive to peace. We continue to support both parties to take steps towards a negotiated settlement that brings peace, security and prosperity to Israelis and Palestinians.
Everyone has the right to call somewhere their home. Everyone has the right to be safe in that home. And no one should live in fear of their neighbours. We strongly believe that the middle east peace process is the best way forward to deliver these hopes. The question is whether we want a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians nurturing the seeds of hate or moving to a place of lasting friendship.
My fear is that a sufficient number of Israeli politicians have drawn precisely the opposite conclusion to John Kerry and believe that they can indeed build towards the exclusion of a Palestinian state and yet withhold civil rights within Israel on the grounds that the Palestinians must seek those civil rights in Jordan or in sub-state Bantustans. This is the 50th year of the occupation, so I am grateful to the bishops, fresh from their visit to the region, who, in their communiqué, quote Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 10: “You will declare this fiftieth year to be sacred and you will proclaim the liberation of the all the country’s inhabitants.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
reaffirms its support for the negotiation of a lasting peace between two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine, both of which must be viable and contiguous within secure and internationally recognised borders;
calls on the Government to take an active role in facilitating a resumption of international talks to achieve this;
welcomes UN Security Council Resolution 2334 adopted on
and further calls on the government of Israel immediately to halt the planning and construction of residential settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which is both contrary to international law and undermines the prospects for the contiguity and viability of the state of Palestine.