Demolition of Khan al-Ahmar

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:58 pm on 4th July 2018.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 12:58 pm, 4th July 2018

(Urgent Question): I had hoped to ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the imminent demolition of the village of Khan al-Ahmar and the threat of the forcible transfer of its residents, but in the light of developments this morning, I must instead ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the demolition that has commenced at Khan al-Ahmar and the village of Abu Nuwar and on the actual forcible transfer of the residents of those villages.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

This morning, officials from our embassy in Tel Aviv and from our consulate general in Jerusalem visited Khan al-Ahmar to express our concern and demonstrate the international community’s support for that community. Once there, they did indeed observe a bulldozer, which began levelling the ground. While we have not yet witnessed any demolition of structures, it would appear that demolition is imminent. We deeply regret this turn of events. The United Nations has said that this would not only constitute forcible transfer, but pave the way for settlement building in E1. In accordance with our long-standing policy, we therefore condemn such a move, which would strike a major blow to prospects for a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

The United Kingdom has repeatedly raised its concerns with the Israeli authorities and others, for instance during my visit to Khan al-Ahmar on 30 May. On 12 June I issued a video message emphasising the United Kingdom’s concern at the village’s imminent demolition, and I reiterated that concern to the Israeli ambassador to the UK on 20 June. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has also expressed his concern, most recently during his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London on 6 June. The Foreign Secretary’s statement on 1 June also made it clear that the UK was deeply concerned by the proposed demolition, which the UN has said could amount to “forcible transfer”, in violation of international humanitarian law. As recently as Monday, the British ambassador to Israel raised the issue with the Israeli national security adviser. Later today, the British ambassador will join a démarche alongside European partners to request as a matter of urgency that the Israeli authorities halt demolition plans.

Israel believes that, under its independent court system and rule of law, it has the right to take the action that it is beginning today, but it is not compelled to do so, and need not do so. A change of plan would be welcomed around the world, and would assist the prospects of a two-state solution and an end to this long-standing issue.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

As we speak, bulldozers are flattening the village of Khan al-Ahmar and destroying its school, which was built with international donor support, and which provides education for about 170 Bedouin children from five different communities. The village of Abu Nuwar is also being destroyed today.

People who live in these villages threaten no one. Their crime is to have homes on land that Israel wants, in order to expand the illegal settlements of Kfar Adumim and Ma’ale Adumim. To speak plainly, this is state-sponsored theft: a theft that will cut the west bank in two, making a contiguous Palestinian state near-impossible and the prospects of a two-state solution still more remote. More importantly, as the Minister said, the forcible transfer of the villagers of Khan al-Ahmar and Abu Nuwar contravenes international humanitarian law. It is a war crime.

As the Minister also said, he—along with over 100 Members of this House and peers, and about 300 international public figures—has repeatedly urged the Government of Israel not to go ahead with the demolitions. Now that they have ignored those calls, the question is whether the commission of this war crime will have any consequence. If not, why will Mr Netanyahu believe other than that war crimes can continue with impunity? What practical action do the UK Government propose to take to hold those responsible for this war crime to account, and is it not time finally to outlaw commercial dealings by UK firms with illegal settlements in the west bank?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As the hon. Gentleman set out, this is an area of land that many of us know quite well from visits made over a lengthy period. This is a community that was moved before and moved to settle where they are, unable to get planning permission under Israeli planning law and therefore they built the settlement they did. The discussion that has taken place since the formation of the settlement has been about the rights and wrongs of that building and about the difficulties of Israeli law as to what would happen next. However, I think that the overwhelming sense of many of us is that this should not be happening and need not be happening. The damage it proposes to do, at a time when many of us are looking to a move on the middle east peace process in which this piece of land might play a significant part, rather pulls the rug away from those of us who want to see a two-state solution—which, as many say, is perhaps why this has been done.

As I have said, both the timing and the action itself are deeply concerning, but nothing is irrevocable yet. In terms of what we are doing, we are already in conversation with like-minded European partners about what should be done next.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

I believe in a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent Palestine. However, it is beyond comprehension that a remarkable country like Israel, cultured, sophisticated and democratic—whose people down the centuries have themselves known such terrible suffering—can countenance such wicked behaviour, which is contrary to all international laws and humanitarian conventions, as she continues to bulldoze Palestinian villages like Khan al-Ahmar, whose residents’ houses are, I understand, at this moment being flattened. What other country would dare to behave in this barbaric way? Will the Government condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The short answer to the last part of my right hon. Friend’s question is yes. The wider issue that he raised—and he put this extremely well in the Westminster Hall debate last week—was the contrast between an Israel for which many of us feel very deeply, and which we believe has many admirable qualities, and some of its actions which seem to go against that history and culture, and about which we have a sense of deep concern and sometimes bemusement. I know that it will have its reasons to defend its actions, and it is for the Israeli Government to do that, but the rest of us are disappointed and very perplexed today.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Burden, who chairs the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, on securing it.

Just a week ago, when the Minister spoke about Khan al-Ahmar—it is a village that both of us have visited, and I know that he has worked on this issue assiduously—he agreed that, if the village were demolished, if its 181 residents were forcibly removed, and if their homes and their school were razed to the ground to make way for new illegal Israeli settlements, that action would

“call into question the viability of a two-state solution. ”

It could, he said, be construed as

“a breach of international humanitarian law”.

However, he also said:

“It is still possible for any demolition not to go ahead. ”—[Official Report, 26 June 2018;
Vol. 643, c. 744.]

A week on, I am afraid that—as we all know—we are no longer dealing in woulds, coulds and possibilities. We are dealing with the reality: the reality that this forcible eviction and demolition, this breach of international law, this hammer blow to the two-state solution, is taking place as we sit here today.

We are all tired of asking what can be done to cajole or compel the Netanyahu Government to start listening to their international allies, to start complying with UN resolutions on settlements, or to start acting with some basic fairness and justice on the issue of building permits. That is all increasingly just a waste of breath. I therefore wish to ask the Minister two different questions today, which I believe are more worth while.

Does the Minister share my concerns that we are fast approaching a dangerous place where even some respected Palestinian figures are moving away from the idea of a two-state solution towards seeking democratic control over a single state, with all the implications that that would have for the potential Israeli minority? If he does share those concerns, will he also agree with me that before that shift in opinion can take hold, and before the actions of the Netanyahu Government render a two-state solution a geographical impossibility, this is the time for the United Kingdom to lead the major nations of the world in recognising the Palestinian state, and to do so immediately, while there is still a state left to recognise?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank the right hon. Lady for what she has said. I agree with many of her remarks. The danger that she identifies of a two-state solution slipping away has, of course, been potentially real for some time. Individual actions such as this are doubly difficult to understand and accept at a time when we have all been anticipating a development that would be workable and allow us to move forward.

No one quite knows what the boundaries of a future state might be, but we all have a sense of what the parameters would be. That is why the concerns about the E1 area outside Jerusalem have been so important and have perhaps led to some restraint over the years. But if that is to go, what is left and what is next? So that is what we need to do. As I said a moment ago, we are currently in conversation with like-minded European partners about what the response should be and there are a number of options, but the best thing we should be thinking through is what option preserves the important chances there still are for a two-state solution, which has been so long sought for and is still in the mind of the UK the only viable possibility of providing both justice for the Palestinians in some measure and security for the state of Israel. If there is a different answer, I, in 30 years, have not heard it.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

Many of us on both sides of this House who call ourselves friends of Israel rightly hail that nation as a bastion of liberal values in a troubled region, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that we ask the Israeli Government to abide by the very highest standards that they set for themselves, and will he underline again the point he has just made: the real solution to all of this, yet again, is to keep pushing for the peace process to be resurrected and following that path forward?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My right hon. Friend has been, and is, a good friend of the state of Israel, as many of us have been over many years, and I can sense the pain behind his question. We do indeed rightly hold a democracy to high standards and will continue to do so.

Photo of Stephen Gethins Stephen Gethins Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

This is devastating news today at a human level for those who have been impacted, but also for the peace process. Does the Minister agree that sustainable and lasting peace is built on respect for one another and respect for the rule of law? Does he agree with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the demolition violates international law? If so, will he set out what kind of action he is thinking about taking, rather than merely expressions of regret? Is it time for a global response? Finally, may I join others in this House, the Scottish Government and other states in calling on this Government to recognise Palestine as an independent state?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and the way in which he put them. At such a fragile time, it is difficult to see what steps can be taken next, after what will be seen as a provocative gesture, that would make it still viable to keep working on the solution we want to see, but that still remains a possibility. There was much talk when Jerusalem was recognised by the United States as the capital of Israel that that was the end of everything. It was not and it remains entirely possible to proceed. Jerusalem should be a shared capital—that is what the United Kingdom believes—and despite the Americans’ position we do not believe that has been taken off the table. But every time there is a move that makes that solution less likely, it becomes more difficult to see what the alternative is. As I have said, there will be a range of options and we are considering with friends and others what might be done.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon

My right hon. Friend is precisely that: he is an honourable man and a reasonable man, and I have some sympathy for him that each and every time he comes to the Dispatch Box to talk about this issue he provides that reasonableness, but he does provide a commentary at a time when we are looking for more leadership and I would just ask him this. At the moment the latest news is that the Americans are discussing the Kushner peace process with the Russians. Has my right hon. Friend or any of his officials or fellow Ministers in the FCO had any input or sight of the Kushner peace plan, or are the British not playing any part in this whatsoever?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The American envoys have been in regular contact both with officials and the Foreign Secretary and on occasions with myself. They have kept many of the proposals very close to their chest. We have said that it is very important that they should continue to engage with the Palestinian Authority and we would again seek that, although everyone can understand why those circumstances are difficult. We have urged that the US envoys might certainly talk more widely to partners when they get close to producing their response to this. I am sure, as I have said before, that the US being the only broker in this is unlikely to be accepted now. We are very keen to work with others when these proposals come forward to find an answer.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

It is, sadly, all too clear that, as well as destroying people’s homes, as we have heard today, the Government of Israel are in the process of severely damaging their international reputation when it comes to respect for the rule of law. Given all the criticism that the right hon. Gentleman has made from the Dispatch Box and other countries have echoed, why does he think the Government of Israel feel they can get away with doing what they want?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I do not know whether it is appropriate to answer in the terms that the right hon. Gentleman has offered. He poses his own question, which I think will be out there for many others to consider. We remain clearly very attached to Israel as an ally in many respects in terms of defence and security particularly in what is a difficult region, but, as is sometimes the case even with the closest friends, there are areas where we are not only not certain of their course of action but believe it to be fundamentally wrong, and this is one of those. So we must manage that relationship. This provides another opportunity for us to talk further about what will happen in the future but, every time there is something like this, it makes it that bit more difficult to see that something we have all been working on for so long is going to result in the solution we are all seeking. But we will continue to press for that.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Are we mad in continuing to express concern or even condemn and yet expect a different outcome? No, we are not mad because actually we do not expect a different outcome and, by our refusal to act, we make ourselves complicit, don’t we?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My right hon. Friend has experience of government and of relationships with those in the region and understands the background of which he speaks. It does make it all difficult, but I say to him that we have not all given up on the prospects of a two-state solution, which, as I have said, I do not see an alternative to, and the UK’s determination to keep in contact with all sides in relation to this and press that case is perhaps even more imperative now than it was this morning.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

Like the Minister, I visited the village a few weeks ago and saw for myself the school that the community had built there, which is currently, as we speak, being destroyed along with the community’s homes. Today, I am also, like the Minister, perplexed and dismayed that Israel appears not to comprehend or to be prepared to take note of the outrage and the damage done to its reputation by this forcible transfer of communities, which is regarded as a breach of international law. Can he assure us that, as well as the talks he mentioned with like-minded European partners, he will ensure that the Government make the case to the President of the United States when he is here this month that this cannot be allowed to continue and make clear the damage it is doing, because he does appear to have some influence?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The short answer to that must be yes, I cannot imagine a conversation between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States that would not cover such a significant world issue, in which of course the United States does indeed have an important part to play.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Article 53 of the Geneva convention expressly prohibits the destruction of property in occupied territory other than for military purposes. Given that there can be no possible military purpose in destroying the residential community of Khan al-Ahmar, does my right hon. Friend agree with my assessment that, even as we speak, the state of Israel is committing a war crime?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am not sure if the UK is in a position to make that judgment, but certainly, as has been made clear, the United Nations has already said that it could constitute forcible transfer and clearly now that things have actually begun that matter becomes a much sharper one for consideration.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I have visited Khan al-Ahmar twice and have met many of the families there. This is a personal violation for them, as well as a war crime, but it is also a strategic step. There are 46 Bedouin villages and their future may well hang on whether the Israeli authorities get away with the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. This allows for the splitting of the west bank and for the annexation, which is now openly talked about, of the west bank by Israel to take place. If not now, when are the Government going to act? When are they going to act against illegal settlements and end trade? When are they going to recognise Palestine and when are they are going to recognise their historical obligations and take a lead internationally, rather than wringing their hands?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I say again that it is my view—and, I think, the view of the Government—that we want to keep the opportunity of the two-state solution open and viable. That requires remaining in contact with the Government of the state of Israel. All these issues—the concerns about the building of settlements and their strategic position—are a vital part of the land jigsaw that the envoys are presumably working through and they must come forward as the basis for negotiations between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. It should be the United Kingdom’s job to do everything it can to keep those channels and opportunities open, and the actions that we will take in response to this will be in accordance with those principles.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the village of Khan al-Ahmar is in area C of the west bank, that under the Oslo accords it is under the direct control of Israel and that the Israeli courts have ruled it to be an illegal settlement? Will he also confirm that the Government of Israel have offered alternative accommodation with running water and proper civilisation? [Interruption.]

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

It is just a question of what the background and context might be. The settlements in the area are deemed illegal, but between 2014 and the summer of 2016 just 1.3% of building permits requested by Palestinians in area C were granted, and between 2010 and 2015 only 8% of all building permits in Jerusalem were given in Palestinian neighbourhoods. Practically, this leaves Palestinians with little option but to build without permission, placing their homes at risk of demolition on the grounds that they do not have a permit. While recognising Israel’s judicial system and recognising the rights that it believes it has in relation to this, other circumstances have to come into consideration, which is why the United Kingdom takes the view that it does about this demolition.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

For the two Bushes, Clinton and Obama, building on area E1, where Bedouins have grazed sheep and goats for years, was a red line, but now, under Trump, there are no red lines. Does the Minister not appreciate that his concern, disappointment and bemusement—as I think he even said—do not seem enough when bulldozers will literally be concreting over all hopes for a two-state solution by constructing a continuous west bank settlement?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The hon. Lady makes her own points very strongly. It is right that this has been considered a red line, for the reasons that she has set out. It is yet to be seen what the international reaction to this will be.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Does my right hon. Friend see the link between this urgent question and the debate later today in Westminster Hall in the name of Joan Ryan, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, about incitement in the Palestinian education system? These cruel and illegal actions form part of an unshakeable Palestinian perception of Israeli policy over five decades in the occupied territories that breeds the anger and despair that contribute to an environment of historic hatred that is going to become almost impossible to reverse.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My own observation, from my recent visit, is that the separation is growing, particularly between young people. Whereas there are older people in Palestinian areas and in Israel who can talk about living in each other’s villages and about times past, that now seems impossible for some younger people. This is built on the failure over many decades to reach a solution that would allow that sort of life to continue. I do not think there is any future unless the people of Israel and the Palestinian people find a way back—with all the security guarantees that need to be given—to the sort of life where their security is built on their neighbours and not on walls and division.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Labour, Aberavon

I have also had the honour and privilege of visiting Khan al-Ahmar, where I met many wonderful people who were just trying to live in peace and do the best for their families and their community. Surely the time has now come for the British Government formally to recognise the state of Palestine. Surely the time has also come for us to impose sanctions and cease all trade with the illegally occupied territories.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. That is not the policy of the United Kingdom, for reasons that we have given before, but I have indicated that we are in consultation with European colleagues and considering what response there might be to these circumstances.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South

Like my right hon. Friend, I consider myself a friend of Israel and a strong supporter of a two-state solution, but is it not the case that these demolitions cast serious doubt on Israel’s own commitment to those objectives?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

Again, the short answer is a worrying yes. Israel has many friends around the world. I count myself as a friend of the middle east as well as a friend of individual separate states. In my experience, the determination to reach a just solution had slipped down the agenda of the world in recent years, but it has now gone back up the agenda, partly as a result of President Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and partly as a result of the feeling that, although we have said it many times before, maybe there is just one last chance before we get into a situation that none of us wishes to see. It is possible that the events of today, a little like the catalyst of Gaza recently, might be a further reminder that that chance is slipping away and that the door might be closing all too quickly.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

The Minister, for whom I have enormous regard, has described how British officials were taken by surprise this morning when they went to visit the villages and found bulldozers on site—

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I thank the Minister for that clarification. They were not taken by surprise, but they went there because they feared that demolitions were going to take place. I would like to be reassured that, when the reports came back that the bulldozers were indeed on site, the Foreign Office immediately contacted the White House and asked the Americans to use the influence that they seem to have in Israel to save those villages from demolition. Did that happen? Have we contacted the White House? Did the Foreign Secretary make that call? Did the Prime Minister make that call? Did anyone in the British Government make that call to the White House?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

Forgive me—I do not know the answer to that question. I have been dealing with DFID questions in the House this morning and then I moved on to this. I do not know what official contact there has been between us and the United States, but the hon. Lady asks an extremely good question. I cannot imagine that in dealing with this issue we are not in direct contact with our friends in the United States, and I will certainly make sure that we are.

Photo of Ross Thomson Ross Thomson Conservative, Aberdeen South

Strong concerns have been expressed this afternoon, and I join those calls for the demolitions to be halted. Israel has provided welfare for the rapidly growing Bedouin communities and proposed solutions to improve their quality of life. Does the Minister recognise that Israel is trying to work with those communities to resolve this undeniably sensitive situation?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I know from my previous experience that, again, the short answer is yes. Proposals have been put forward, including by Benny Begin some years ago, and a lot of work has been done with the Bedouin community from the Negev and in the area. However, there is a fundamental point at which people’s rights, feelings and desires have to be taken into account. In this particular instance, it is not deniable that Israel has indeed come forward with alternative accommodation, but the question is, as it would be for any of us: if someone offers you something, you have a choice as to whether to accept it, but if that choice is taken away, the circumstances are rather different. What we have sought to stress to Israel is that, although this particular case has been through its legal system and alternatives have been provided, this is not what that community, which has already been moved, wanted. Accordingly, many people believe that those rights and wishes should be somehow taken into account, in a state that values and prizes the need for rights and laws to protect the most vulnerable, as my right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames said. He is surprised that that has not been the case.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the demolition of structures in the Khan al-Ahmar encampment would be a violation of international law and has called on the Israeli authorities to stop it. If the demolition goes ahead, which is likely given the previous record of the Israeli authorities, do the Government intend to take steps to hold the authorities to account for their actions?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I can only repeat what I said earlier, which is that we are in discussion with other partners about what the response might be, but I hope that I made clear the UK’s deep concern and our condemnation of an action that threatens the two-state solution.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There is clearly a strong feeling today that we need more than just condemnation. Given that Israel’s settlements, the demolitions and the forcible transfer of people are illegal under international law, the British Government could tell UK businesses that they should not collude with illegality in their commercial dealings with the settlements any more than they should collude with illegality in the UK.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I hear the hon. and learned Lady’s views and understand where they come from, but that has not been our policy in the past. We have left the choice to people who know the background and the circumstances that relate to settlements and their produce. However, as I said earlier, the UK reserves all its actions while it considers what it might do.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I too am a friend of Israel, which is why I will not pretend that what is taking place today is happening out of some concern for the welfare of the Bedouin community in Khan al-Ahmar or is the result of some planning dispute. What is happening is a deliberate policy intention of the present Israeli Government, who have no regard or concern for a two-state solution and simply want to expand illegal settlements, which will ultimately undermine the security and legitimacy of the Israelis and grossly infringe the human rights of Palestinians. Having been to Khan al-Ahmar and knowing what lies ahead if the demolition happens without a serious international response, I have to say that if Israel is going to demolish Palestinian villages on the grounds that they are illegal settlements, is it not time for this country and our European partners to take targeted economic sanctions against illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said previously about potential action. Like one or two other Members, he speaks from a background of support and understanding for the state of Israel and therefore with even greater concern and upset at what is happening and the reasons behind it. He will have spoken for many both inside and outside, just as others have done.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

We are now hearing of dozens of Palestinians being hospitalised as a result of the tragedy of the start of the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar this morning. That demolition is a war crime, so how will the British Government ensure that Israeli decision makers are held to account for what has happened today?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

May I start by thanking the hon. Lady for trying to get hold of me today? I got the telephone message a little too late to respond, but I appreciate that she attempted to get in touch.

I said earlier that the British ambassador would be joining a démarche of Israel this afternoon in response to the actions that have been taken. I assure the hon. Lady, as I assured the House, that there is no shortage of opportunity for either Ministers or our ambassador or consul general to make a case. It is not the lack of making a case that is the concern; it is the lack of listening to the case. Accordingly, we need to see, in consultation with others, what we can do. We have different views about the future security of the state of Israel, but I wish that we were all coming from the same place. We will continue to make our case as strongly as we can.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Like so many Members, I was inspired by the community of Khan al-Ahmar when I visited last November, and I know that the Minister was, too. B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights, has said that the demolition is a war crime, but it also highlights our potential influence in stopping such crimes as a member of the UN Security Council with deep cultural, diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel worth more than £7 billion in annual bilateral trade. I know that the Minister cares about this issue and that the Government have issued strong words, but is it not time to go beyond words and to start using all possible leverage to stop illegal demolitions?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said. Of course, if there was an agreement, the land rights would be sorted out as part of it, so we would not have such issues. The imperative remains to seek and reach an agreement between the Palestinians and the state of Israel that ends such risks. Today’s actions make it even more imperative that that happens even more urgently in order to protect the rights of Palestinians and, indeed, to see Israel granted the security it needs in an ultimate agreement relating to the conflict.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health)

I have just heard that 35 people have been injured so far today as a direct result of the demolition. I know the Minister to be a very decent man, so will he pledge specifically to investigate why JCB bulldozers were used in the demolition of homes, given that it is certainly a serious breach of international law, if not a war crime?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Without wanting to impugn the Minister’s personal integrity—I hold him in the highest regard, although we do not agree on this—regret and condemnation are not enough. We have international obligations, not least those specified in the last line of the Balfour declaration, which states that

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the…rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Palestinian settlements are being demolished in order to make way for illegal Israeli settlements, which is a breach of international law, so are we going to call the Israeli ambassador in? Are we going to tell him that we will no longer trade with those illegal settlements? I suggest that that is what we need to do.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The hon. Gentleman has a long held a passionate commitment to this cause and has a fair way of expressing it, and it is true that we do not always agree. We will of course be in contact with the Israeli ambassador, but I cannot anticipate the actions of the British Government at this stage.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

Like the Minister, I had the privilege of vesting Khan al-Ahmar just last September. Part of the site includes a school with 170 children that was part-funded by the EU, so will the Minister set out what representations he has made to the Israeli Government for reparations if the school is to be demolished? The EU and the British Government must be far stricter, because this situation involves children, and Israel is in breach of article 50 of the Geneva convention.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The UK has not directly funded any structures in recent years that have been demolished by the Israeli Government. We have consulted EU partners on the demolitions, and we are keeping the case for compensation under review. No decision has been made about whether we will claim compensation in future. We are focused on preventing demolitions from happening through our funding to a legal aid programme that helps residents to challenge decisions in the Israeli legal system. Our work with the Norwegian Refugee Council has been extremely effective over the years in providing a counter to some of the demolition applications.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy)

I too have visited the village of Khan al-Ahmar, and I am one of the 25 MPs who signed a letter saying that this forcible transfer is a war crime. Rather than condemning the action and reserving our options, we need to hear more from the Minister about what will be done to hold those responsible to account. Does he accept that the longer he ducks the issue of allowing trade with illegal settlements and not recognising the state of Palestine, the vicious circle will just continue until it is too late?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I understand, particularly the hon. Gentleman’s last point. I have indicated that the British ambassador is taking part in a démarche this afternoon in relation to the Israeli Government. We are in consultation with European partners and colleagues on what actions might be taken. I cannot say anything further than that.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Transport Committee

Some 181 people live in Khan al-Ahmar, and more than half of them are children. The Minister has acknowledged that the actions of the Israeli Government are contrary to international law, but those actions are also simply cruel. As we have heard, people are being injured by this demolition process. It is a grievous situation. What plans do the Government have to contribute towards humanitarian assistance efforts for the people who are being forcibly displaced?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

We are very active in all areas of the west bank in supporting humanitarian needs through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the like. Plainly, we did not wish to see this demolition and, in company with others, we must now consider what we can do to support those who have been displaced. This is obviously very immediate, and I will report back to the House as soon as we have a clear answer to the hon. Lady’s concerns.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

We are kidding ourselves if we think we can stop this illegal work with diplomacy. Diplomacy has always failed in the past, so something else needs to be done. The Minister has responded four times on the issue of banning the import of Israeli goods produced in illegal settlements, but he says such a ban has not been British policy in the past. Does that mean he is considering a change? If not, why not?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

There are circumstances in which a Minister cannot win, no matter what he says. I am accurate in saying that that is the current policy, but I also indicated, without any suggestion of a change in policy, that the United Kingdom’s response to today’s activities has not yet been fully considered. We are talking through with other partners what that response might be. I do not want to set any hares running by saying any more in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

The demolition of Khan al-Ahmar and the forcible transfer of its population represents a step change in the nature of the occupation. The Minister has recognised that it could well deal a fatal blow to a two-state solution. As he has said, representations making the case to his Israeli counterparts clearly have not worked. Does he accept that this is the moment for a fundamental reappraisal of the Government’s approach?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The short answer is probably no, because the fundamental determination of the Government’s approach is to do everything we can to keep the option of a two-state solution alive and to work with all parties, including the state of Israel, towards that end. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that, because of the long-standing international concern about this community and because of the recognition of the significance of where the community is, the actions taken today constitute, in his words, a “step change” in what is happening. I do not think it undermines our determination that that ultimate settlement is the only thing that will deal with all these matters. So long as a two-state solution remains a viable possibility, it should still form the United Kingdom’s policy. Of course, in relation to this particular action, as I indicated earlier, we have to consider what response there might sensibly be.

Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Shadow Minister (International Development)

I visited the community of Khan al-Ahmar in February 2018 and met the schoolchildren and the families there. What is happening today is truly heartbreaking. I believe the Minister, and I believe that he thinks his actions are the right way forward, but how far away must the peace process be from realisation and how bad does the atrocity have to be before he is genuinely willing to come to the Dispatch Box to tell us what actions and what sanctions his Department and this Government are at least debating?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

That is a good question. At what stage do I—that is less relevant—and the British Government give up on the two-state solution? There are plenty of voices out there telling us to do so: “It is just not going to happen. It is fantasy. It has all gone.” I do not believe that, and I do not want it to be the case, for the reason I gave earlier—I do not see a viable alternative.

The hon. Gentleman poses a very real question: at what stage do we give up on a two-state solution? I do not want to give up on all those friends over the years, on those behind the Oslo accords and on those who worked so determinedly for a two-state solution. I do not want the United Kingdom to be in a position of saying, “We are washing our hands of this,” but there comes a point when it is completely impossible. Until the envoys have reported and until the work has been done, I do not think that stage has yet been reached. Each issue that makes it more difficult, as we have seen today, runs the risk of that day coming closer.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Israel will rightly face international condemnation and obloquy for these actions, but the demolitions will go ahead anyway. Aside from the Trump regime in America, which is part of the problem, is there anybody out there to whom Israel might listen? The impression it gives at the moment is of a state going rogue that does not actually want to be part of the international community.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The hon. Gentleman puts it very forcefully. Israel co-operates in a variety of international organisations, and all the states that work with Israel must and should have some influence with it. He is right to talk about the United States, which is plainly its major relationship, but Israel has a strong relationship with the EU and it has a growing relationship with a number of other Arab states in the region.

This has to be a relationship built not only on what Israel is but on what Israel is to become. Accordingly, such actions raise question marks that friends do not wish to see. Let us see where the influence can be, and let us try to work together so that the Israel we see today, and the Israel we want to see, is the Israel that will be staunch in defence of rights, secure in its own existence and supported by its neighbours, but that works for a just settlement with those who live in the Palestinian areas and in Gaza.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society)

Following this shameful demolition, what must the state of Israel do for this Government to act? That has to be the question. The Minister has said many times this afternoon that it is not UK Government policy, but does he agree that the time has come for the UK at least to examine genuinely hard-hitting, far-reaching economic sanctions, because negotiation, pleading and appeals to international law have demonstrably failed?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I can only repeat what I said earlier. Our policy remains a determination to do everything we can to see that the two-state solution remains viable, to do nothing that will make it less likely and to work with others who are determined to see it become a possibility. All our actions and responses should still be guided by those principles.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

We have now been discussing this for 50 minutes, and I have yet to hear the Minister state a single practical action that the Government propose in response to this atrocity. Like others in this House, I do not doubt his sincerity, but I am alarmed by his reticence to do something about it.

The Minister has hinted that the Government are considering further measures, and he has alluded to discussions with international partners. If the Government themselves are not prepared to take action in the field of economic sanctions to try to put pressure on Israel, will he give a commitment that this Government will not oppose such measures if they are proposed by other Governments in international forums?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s admonitions, but I will not make policy standing here at the Dispatch Box. I indicated that this needs a considered response, which we are undertaking in company with others. I am sorry that is not as neat as a swift, immediate response, but I think it is the right response. We will consider with others what to do.

I have listened very carefully to the House, and I hope others have listened to the feeling the House has expressed and take due note of the deep concerns that Members have rightly expressed, whatever position they have taken in the past, about the actions that have taken place today. I hope those concerns will go loudly around the world.