I beg to move,
It is a real honour to speak about such a critical issue. I wish first to declare an interest as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and co-chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group. Let me also welcome the Minister to her new role.
The time for recognising the state of Palestine was many years ago. With every year that has passed, the actions of the Israeli Government in creating facts on the ground, building and expanding illegal settlements and taking land and resources from Palestinians have only made it harder to bring this about: a viable, independent, sovereign state of Palestine, based on the 1967 lines, with a capital in Jerusalem.
The UK should make it clear that any future state must include both the west bank and the Gaza Strip. We do not at this stage have to specify precise borders; there may be agreed equal land swaps. Let us remember that when Britain recognised Israel in 1950, it did so without defining borders or its capital. For too long, in fact for over 40 years, successive British Governments of all parties have claimed to support a two-state solution. This claim for Palestinians rings hollow. We recognise only one state, Israel, and refuse to recognise the other. The Government’s position remains “not now”, but I ask the Government, “If not now, when?”
Palestinian statehood is a right to be recognised, not a gift to be given. It is in the power of the UK Government to do this, and do it we should. We have acknowledged that Palestine has obtained the hallmarks of statehood. The refusal to recognise its statehood sends a dangerous message: it reinforces the view that we support and uphold rights for one people—we rightly recognise the state of Israel—but do not recognise the rights of the other, the Palestinians. It shows that we are not at all serious in our claims to back a two-state solution.
Some argue that Palestinian statehood should be the outcome of negotiations. This allows successive Israeli Governments who reject Palestinian statehood to have a permanent veto. If that is the case, why did we recognise Israel? We recognise Israeli national rights, but not Palestinian national rights. We all want a proper negotiating process to start to bring lasting peace to both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people, but it would be preferable for Palestine to enter that process as a recognised sovereign state. It is essential that Israel knows that statehood for Palestinians is not something to be bartered over, but something that has to happen. Israelis are citizens of a state They have fully fledged passports. They have a vote at the UN. Palestinians are stateless. At best, they have travel documents. They can travel only with the permission of the occupier, Israel. In fact, they can leave one Palestinian city to go to another Palestinian city only with the permission of the occupier. An Israeli soldier at a checkpoint can prevent President Mahmoud Abbas from leaving Ramallah. Palestinians have no say in the control of their land, water, maritime area or airspace, or even their population registry.
Let me address the points that anti-Palestinian groups make. Recognising a state of Palestine is not about endorsing a particular Government or authority. We recognise many states while having massive disagreements with their Governments—Iran and Syria are examples. As it is, our diplomats meet and work with the Palestinian Authority. There are those who will inevitably say, “Well, what about Hamas?” Hamas wants a one-state solution, something we all disagree with. The longer we dither about recognising Palestine, the more potent Hamas’s argument that there will be no two-state solution becomes. By failing to recognise Palestine, we undermine the Palestinian national movement that agrees to two states in favour of the likes of Hamas. We would be recognising a state under occupation, but there is a precedent for doing that. In 1939, Stalin illegally incorporated Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the USSR. In 1990, the long Soviet occupation ended and they ceased to be states under occupation.
On the ground, which I have visited, it is hard to see where this second state is going to be. The moment anyone enters occupied Palestinian territory, they are confronted with the terrifying infrastructure of military occupation, defined by walls, barriers, checkpoints, earth mounds, firing zones and military zones. These are all designed to control Palestinian civilians who live under Israeli military law, as they have done for the past 54 years. In a parallel universe, they now have over 650,000 Israeli settler neighbours living in illegal settlements. This is a violation of the fourth Geneva convention and UN Security Council resolutions. These settlers live under Israeli civilian law. Two peoples living under two different legal systems in the same territory.
Settlers have subsidised housing and fast transport access into Israel, and they do not have to go through the checkpoints and barriers that Palestinians do. The settlers, with the collaboration of the Israeli military, harass and intimidate Palestinians to push them off Palestinian land. The levels of settler violence have gone up massively in the last few years. Violence and the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes are systemic across the occupied Palestinian territory. Israeli soldiers act with impunity and settler violence worsens, particularly in the areas around Nablus and in the south Hebron hills. These are not isolated incidents but day in, day out realities for Palestinians, whose lives and livelihoods are targeted by Israeli settlers, backed up by the Israeli state. To make way for the settlements, Palestinian homes and property are liable to demolition. Whole families—men, women and children—are forced from their homes and land, even in the midst of winter storms.
In Jerusalem, the situation is extremely tense, with a repeat of last year’s conflagration all too possible. Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of occupied East Jerusalem continue to face the horrendous threat of forced dispossession and eviction from their homes. Only the other day, the Salem family in Sheikh Jarrah were given a temporary reprieve from being forcibly evicted from their home in favour of Israeli settlers backed by the Israeli state. Political pressure needs to increase, and our solidarity needs to match up with the realities faced by such Palestinian families. It is not enough for our consulate in Jerusalem simply to bear witness as its neighbours literally across the road, the Salhiya family, were forcibly evicted from their home, which was then demolished.
We have all seen the scenes of Israeli police violence towards those protesting against the forced evictions and dispossessions. We have all seen the far right sit-ins and the incitement from far right politicians in Sheikh Jarrah designed to abuse, intimidate and ultimately force Palestinians from their homes. The “death to Arabs” slogans and chants from far-right Israelis, which we heard in abundance last year, are as much part of the lived reality of Palestinians as the threat of forced dispossession. Such is the level of systematic discrimination, is it any wonder that there is mounting consensus among Palestinians and the human rights community that it amounts to the crime of apartheid? Who are we, as British politicians, to dismiss and gaslight the lived experience of Palestinians who speak of apartheid and systematic discrimination?
Why are we shocked when international human rights organisation such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch come to the same or similar conclusions as many Palestinians long before, that their situation amounts to apartheid? What are the Government doing to end such widespread and systematic discrimination and oppression? The Government may dislike the terminology, but the level of discrimination cannot and must not be ignored.
We watch today as a European country faces war and occupation, and we stand with Ukraine in opposing Russian aggression. My heart goes out to the Ukrainian people. We rightly talk about international law, and I listened to the Minister for Asia and the Middle East speak only a few minutes ago about the vital importance of the sovereignty of states, but how must Palestinians feel when they hear that? They have endured 54 years of occupation, which in itself is an aggression.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech. I respectfully say to her that conflating today’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia with the very difficult and sensitive situation we are supposed to be debating with regard to Israel and the people of Palestine is historically, factually and morally wrong. I think it does a huge disservice not just to the people of Ukraine but to the people of Palestine and the people of Israel who face a unique situation and set of challenges.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. However, I was talking about upholding international law, which the Minister for Asia and the Middle East talked about a few minutes ago, and it is as relevant to Ukraine as it is to Palestine.
The Palestinians are looking to us to speak and act in the same terms. We sanctioned Russia over Crimea, and we are now likely to impose more sanctions, with which I wholeheartedly agree, yet Palestinians ask why we do nothing to end Israel’s occupation. Recognising Palestine is now the bare minimum of what we should be doing. In the light of what is happening on the ground, I make it clear that recognising Palestine must be the first of many steps to roll back the inequalities of Israeli occupation and the systematic discrimination that oppresses Palestine. This should include a complete ban on illegal Israeli settlements.
The international community has to hold Israel accountable, as it has held Palestinian groups accountable. If the settlements are illegal and the UK Government say they are illegal, the logical consequence is that we should not be trading with, or supporting in any way, enterprises that are in clear violation of international law and that the Government say are an obstacle to peace.
For any state, the strength of its civil society is crucial. We can also support Palestine by defending its civil society and human rights groups from systematic attacks by the occupying power. It is crucial that our Government support and encourage a healthy, prosperous and uninhibited Palestinian civil society that is free from interference by the occupying power, Israel, and from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. If we are unable to fully pledge our support to Palestinian civil society, what message does this send about our attitude to human rights as a country? We rightly pledge our support for human rights defenders elsewhere, but throw those in Palestine to the wolves. As parliamentarians, many of us would have met and been briefed by organisations such as Al Haq, Defence for Children International – Palestine, and Addameer, three of the six Palestinian civil society and human rights organisations designated, without evidence, by Israel as terrorist organisations. They are one of our most valuable routes into knowing what is happening on the ground. We must support them as parliamentarians, and so must our Government, explicitly and publicly, and defend their right to do their vital work without any interference. In European capitals, we must hear from them, and we must amplify their voices and those of Palestinians living under occupation and under systematic discrimination and oppression.
Logic, the rule of law, fairness and history all tell us that Britain should have recognised a Palestinian state long ago. It is time to correct this and we can do that now. The alternative to a two-state solution is clear, and I shall cite none other than the Prime Minister on this. Five years ago, he said that
“you have to have a two-state solution or else you have a kind of apartheid system.”
Sadly, five years on, we are far closer to the latter than the former. I ask the Government to recognise the state of Palestine now.
As the House can see, a great many people wish to speak this afternoon, so we will have to start with a time limit of five minutes. That will probably reduce later, but, with five minutes, I call Matthew Offord.
I had wanted to intervene on Julie Elliott to congratulate her on obtaining this debate. I was listening to what she had to say and I wanted to ask her a question, but unfortunately, as time ran out, I was unable to do that. However, I congratulate her on her words this afternoon. Although I may not agree with a lot of what she says, I am very pleased that she has secured this debate.
It is unfortunate that instead of promoting the resumption of direct peace talks without preconditions, the motion we are debating seeks to undermine the agreed framework for talks by premeditating the outcome of negotiations. The only route to a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is through such talks, and I share the UK Government’s stated view that recognition of a Palestinian state should only come about at a time that best serves the objective of peace. Today’s motion neglects the reality that a two-state solution will be achieved only when both sides make the difficult compromises necessary to achieve it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that such negotiations have a greater chance of success if both of those communities enter as equals, with a common aim for peace, rather than entering when one can outshine and outvote the other?
I absolutely do, and the hon. Lady is correct. The problem is that it is impossible to bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. They refuse to negotiate without any preconditions. Until they do so, we will not have any peace in the state of Israel.
Some hon. Members have in these debates evoked the apartheid in South Africa, which is a distortion that we must call out and condemn. Senior Israeli Arabs themselves have rejected the apartheid smear, with the leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, stating that he
“would not call it apartheid” and pointing out that he leads an Israeli-Arab party that is a member of the Israeli coalition Government. Another Israeli Government official, Esawi Frej, responded to the Amnesty report by stating:
It should go without saying that Israel is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy, where Arab, Druze and other minorities are guaranteed equal rights. The Israeli occupation of the west bank has continued for more than 50 years, not because Israel wants to rule over the territory but because peace talks have thus far failed, despite countless efforts by Israelis and others to achieve peace by negotiations.
Instead of demonising Israel and downplaying the history of terrorism and extreme violence that Israel has faced and continues to face, let us not forget that the Palestinian leadership has rejected all peace proposals and failed to fulfil its commitments of promoting peace and renouncing violent incitement. The cycle of violence will be broken only when peace is built between Israelis and the Palestinians. I do not believe it would be constructive or beneficial to prematurely recognise a Palestinian state before the successful conclusion of peace talks.
Greater investment in peaceful co-existence projects is desperately needed. Peace between leaders will last only if the Israeli and Palestinian peoples trust and empathise with each other. As the US increases its support for peacebuilding, so too should the UK. We should join the US in the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, to invest in shared-society projects. That would demonstrate our commitment to peace. Will the Minister commit to that?
It is crucial to ensure that our aid promotes peace, so I urge the Minister to reconsider our strategy on aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which continues to use the official Palestinian Authority curriculum in its schools despite clear evidence of incitement and antisemitism.
I continue to hope that the Israeli coalition Government’s founding principles of compromise and reconciliation will be reflected in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate after the superb opening speech from my hon. Friend Julie Elliott. None the less, it is a great shame that we are here, once again, holding another debate on the UK’s recognition of Palestinian statehood, almost eight years after this House voted formally to adopt that position, because the British Government are yet to do the right thing and abide by that historic decision.
What is more dispiriting is the way in which the situation on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has further deteriorated over the past eight years, meaning that the prospect of peace in the region looks more distant than ever. In May 2021 alone, during the violence sparked by the racist eviction of Palestinian families from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the UN reported that 256 Palestinians were killed, of whom at least 129 were civilians, including 66 children, as were 10 Israelis, plus three foreign nationals, including two children.
The killing has not let up. Just this week, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Shehadeh, was killed by Israeli forces gunfire at al-Khader, near Bethlehem. This followed the killing of 19-year-old Nehad Amin Barghouti, who was shot in the abdomen last week by Israeli troops in a village near Ramallah. Over the past year, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem recorded 77 Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli forces in the west bank, with half those killed not being implicated in any attacks.
The killings have come after the Israeli Government advanced their plans in recent months to build more than 3,000 new homes in illegal settlements across the occupied west bank. With each illegal home the Israelis construct, the dream of a viable Palestinian state is dealt another blow, as settlements are established intentionally to stop contiguous geographical connection between Palestinian communities living in the west bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinian people are subjected to yet more intolerable brutality and oppression, with Israeli forces standing idly by or even protecting settlers while they attack Palestinian civilians. B’Tselem has documented that there have been more than 450 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians over the past two years, with Israeli forces failing to intervene to stop the attacks in two thirds of cases.
The organisation has also recorded how settlers have been used as a tool of the state to expropriate 11 square miles of Palestinian farm and pasture land in the west bank over the past five years alone. Palestinian rural communities in the South Hebron hills are under sustained attack from settlers in illegal outposts such as Havat Ma’on and Avigayil, with the sole intent of pushing them off their land to make way for further Israeli domination and control.
Another Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, summarising 15 years of monitoring investigations into settler violence, found that, of more than 1,200 investigation files, indictments were served in only 100 of those cases. There is no other way to look at this than as a state-sanctioned project of colonisation and ethnic cleansing.
As the Human Rights Watch report, published in April last year, concluded:
“the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of…Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the OPT. In the OPT, including East Jerusalem, that intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”
It is as simple as that. We must see a change. We must see the oppression of the Palestinian people met with material consequences and meaningful accountability. If this Government will not act, it is perfectly proper for civil society in this country to take the action that they determine. Like those who supported apartheid in South Africa, the malign voices who oppose this will come to learn that they are on the wrong side of history. As well as the recognition of the Palestinian state alongside Israel, we need actions and sanctions, and we need them now.
After the next speaker, the time limit will go down to four minutes.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate Julie Elliott on securing this debate. She spoke very powerfully. There was a lot with which I did not agree. I fundamentally disagreed with the occupation narrative that she sought to outline, but there were parts of her speech that I did agree with, including when she talked about the challenges and poverty that Palestinians live with and the imposition created by the security measures. I can recognise that.
I chair the Conservative Friends of Israel here in the House of Commons. I have been to Israel numerous times and most of those times I have taken the opportunity to spend time on the west bank. I have met many Palestinians over the years, most regularly with the late Dr Saeb Erekat, who, until his death in November 2020, still held the position of chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. On each of those visits to the west bank, I came away having learnt and understood more about the Palestinian perspective and the situation that they face.
There is a real challenge there. I hope there is a cross-party desire in this House—I hope there is unity—on the aspiration of seeing a Palestinian state. That two-state solution is the official UK Government policy and the official policy of the Opposition. It is the mainstream peace agenda that the international community wants to support. But it is 22 years now since Bill Clinton tried to bring the different parties together at Camp David and it is almost 30 years since the Oslo accords were outlined that set the framework for peace.
The hon. Member for Sunderland Central framed her argument around the question of, “If not now, when?” She was speaking to that long-term yearning and the length of time that it is taking to see a Palestinian state. I recognise that, but I believe that it is premature to put recognition of statehood ahead of a peace process. There is still a peace process that the parties have to sit down and grind their way through. We know what the issues are. In fact, we have a very good idea of what the final outcome will look like. It has been known for decades now. It may involve some land swaps. It involves some compromises on some difficult issues. All that is contained in the Oslo accords, but it requires a commitment from both parties to sit down and work it out.
As my hon. Friend Dr Offord outlined, it is complicated on the Palestinian side because who would the Israeli Government be talking to? Is it the Palestinian Authority, the old men in Ramallah, or is it the young extremists of Hamas in Gaza, who will claim to be the legitimate voice of the Palestinians? We are not talking about a simple situation.
That sums up the crux of the problem. I pay tribute to those Opposition Members who are seeking a solution to the problem, but the big issue is the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, who do not agree with Israel’s right to exist. Until we can get past that and until they stop inciting hatred and violence, we cannot get to the peace table.
My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. I will be very brief and wrap up my comments in a few moments, but I want to focus on what the nature of peace is. Peace is not just the absence of violence and hostility; it implies engagement, warmth and co-operation.
I believe I have had a glimpse of the future. One Opposition Member said earlier that peace in the region seems a long way off, but peace is happening in the region. I recently visited the United Arab Emirates with the cross-party UK Abraham Accords Group—I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There I met Arabs who spoke about the need for peace: not only a high-level agreement between Government leaders, but the peace that comes through people-to-people contact, the peace and prosperity that come through trading together and building those close links.
If the United Arab Emirates can do it, if Bahrain can do it and if Morocco and other nations in the region are on a journey, surely that is the future. As one Arab leader said to me recently, “We have spent 40 years saying exactly the same things about the region, repeating the same things over and over and doing the same things over and over, and it achieved nothing—nothing for our own peoples, nothing for the Palestinians and nothing for the people of Israel.”
There has to be a different approach, and I believe the Abraham accords set out that different approach. My appeal to the Palestinians would be to look at the opportunities for their own people that would come about through peace, co-operation, trade and people-to-people contact, and to pursue those. That surely has to be the future. To my colleagues on the Front Bench, I say there is a role for the UK Government in supporting that, and I hope they will lend every effort to peace in the wider region and to seeing how in the Israel-Palestine context we can learn the lessons of the Abraham accords.
I start by declaring an interest, in that I was a volunteer with Medical Aid for Palestinians in Gaza in 1991 and 1992, and after visiting in 2016 I helped them to set up a breast cancer project between Scottish specialists and local teams in Gaza and the west bank. I thank all the clinicians who take part in that on a regular basis.
In addition to almost 55 years of occupation, the people of Gaza have suffered from 15 years of intense blockade and repeated military attacks every few years, which have degraded their civil infrastructure. Unlike in my town, the tap water there is now undrinkable, raw sewage pollutes coastal fishing waters and, due to the destruction of the power plant in 2014, there is only intermittent electricity—including to hospitals. Not only the public health of Palestinians but the provision of healthcare is being undermined, with the destruction of clinics and hospitals through military attacks and demolitions and difficulty in obtaining medical supplies. Approximately one third of vital drugs constantly run close to zero stock.
Many modern therapies are simply not available in Gaza, yet it is difficult for patients to get permission to travel to east Jerusalem to access treatment. Gaza has no radiotherapy provision, which is important for preserving the breast in breast cancer patients; when I visited in 2016, all the women I met had undergone radical mastectomy because they could not access that treatment. However, it is even more vital in other cancers, such as lung cancer, where it is the main treatment. Overall, the World Health Organisation reports that 35% to 40% of patients who apply for permission to travel to Jerusalem are refused, delayed or get no response. All that contributes to the poor survival of Palestinian cancer patients.
On annual training visits prior to the pandemic, I have seen the impact of the occupation and fragmentation in the west bank, with communities separated from each other, their farmland and particularly their water sources. Palestinians face constant harassment and obstruction. Their homes are demolished while settlements are relentlessly expanded in what is de facto annexation and conquest by concrete.
The UK has a particular responsibility, as the 1917 Balfour declaration promised
“a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, but that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.
For over 70 years, the UK has recognised the state of Israel and honoured that promise to the Jewish people but broken it to the Palestinians.
After 55 years of occupation and 15 years of the Gaza blockade, and the ongoing annexation of the west bank, the two-state solution is simply becoming unviable unless there is a reversal of current Israeli policy, and there is no chance of that without external pressure. Government Ministers repeatedly stand in this Chamber and claim that the UK supports a two-state solution, but that is hollow if there is not recognition of both those states. That is a minimum. It must be combined with real action to ensure that no UK banks or companies profit from the occupation or illegal settlements.
I was working in Gaza at the start of the Madrid peace process. By late afternoon, I saw young Palestinian men giving olive branches to Israeli soldiers. That image of hope has crumbled to dust 30 years on. Immediate recognition is the minimum, and it is vital.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am afraid I do not share the view of Dr Whitford that the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state would advance the cause of peace. The Palestinian Authority’s unilateral efforts to achieve statehood outside the agreed framework of negotiations directly contravenes the 1993 Oslo accords and undermines the peace process. Those who support such attempts are regrettably sending the Palestinian leadership the message that it does not need to make the necessary compromises for a lasting peace or to establish stability.
Promoting peaceful coexistence in the region should not be looked at as a one-sided effort. In the Palestinian Authority, removing hate-filled material inciting violence against Israel and Jews in official PA school textbooks would be a welcome start. Young, impressionable Palestinian children are being indoctrinated to hate their neighbours and told that killing Israelis is an honourable act. And that is only the hatred espoused by the Palestinian Authority. In Gaza, the Hamas terror group recruits child soldiers who are taught to practice sniper shooting and how to launch anti-tank missiles. Video footage of children expressing their hope to die as martyrs, marching with weapons and burning Israeli flags, has been widely published online. Both sides will need to make the necessary compromises, but let us not forget that Israel has a track record of removing settlements and making land swaps in the interests of peace. Land borders can be negotiated, but hatred cannot be unlearned. Until the Palestinian leadership shares a message of peace and reconciliation, including acknowledging the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, peace remains unlikely.
Mahmoud Abbas is now in the 18th year of a four-year term as Palestinian Authority president, so I ask the Minister what more can be done to encourage the Palestinian Authority to reschedule last year’s postponed election. Just as our friends in the UAE, Bahrain and elsewhere have understood that peace with Israel will lead to shared prosperity and security, so too should we help the Palestinian leadership to boldly follow suit. It is deeply regrettable that the Palestinian Authority has opposed these landmark peace agreements, and I hope the opportunity presented by these accords will be seized to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Instead of supporting efforts to bypass direct peace talks, I urge the Government to work with international partners to address the issues that I have raised and support the Palestinian Authority to take a more constructive and a more democratic approach to the region and to these issues.
I am pleased we are having this debate today, and I congratulate Julie Elliott on securing it, because it is well past time that we had it. I agree with one part of what Stephen Crabb said in his contribution, when he said that peace is not just the absence of violence. That is absolutely the case; there has to be a peace process that is respectful and recognition of the traditions and histories of all sides. Surely we learned that in Northern Ireland, and we have learned that in other places.
It is simply not tenable to continue with the narrative that somehow or other we can continue not recognising Palestine because the Palestinian leadership has not passed threshold X, Y or Z or jumped over this fence, that fence, that hurdle or the other, while all the time accepting the recognition of Israel. It gives a message to the Palestinian people that we do not care, that we are not very interested and that they will continue suffering under the occupation they are under.
We need to have a sense of reality about what an occupation means. It means soldiers driving past your house every day. It means checkpoints. It means a young person on a demonstration being taken into military custody. It means being in a prison in Israel. It means an inability to get the medical treatment that people need, because there is a checkpoint that will stop them going anywhere. Many Members in the House today have visited Israel and Palestine. I have visited many times, and I have watched the behaviour of soldiers at checkpoints and the humiliation of building workers waiting to go through a checkpoint to work, being told to wait for hours and being abused. They get that on their way to work and they get that on their way home. I can understand it when we are visitors—we can put up with it, because it is an hour or two’s delay—but when it is all someone’s life that they are being humiliated by occupying soldiers, people get angry as a result. We should just think about the reality of what occupation means.
Then there is the continuation not just of settlements, but of house demolitions, where Palestinian homes are demolished by the Israeli occupying forces to make way for some alleged security need. I remember very well how the late, wonderful Tom Hurndall was shot dead in Rafah when he was trying to save children’s lives as a house demolition went on. Those in Sheikh Jarrah, who have lived in those houses for 70 or 80 years, are now being removed by force. That is what the occupation actually means.
If we go up on to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and look out on what should be pristine beauty all the way down to the Dead sea, what do we see but settlement after settlement after settlement? Roads are constructed between the settlements that Palestinians cannot go on, which is why the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described it as an apartheid state, where people cannot travel freely and easily on the same roads as Israeli settlers. Those settlers take the land, the water and the very lifeblood out of people’s lives. That is something we have to understand.
I have had the good fortune to meet human rights activists in Israel and Palestine, and I have spoken to many people in Gaza during some visits I have made there, and I have good friends in the mental health service and campaigns in Gaza. As Dr Whitford would attest, the number of people in Gaza who are suffering from functional mental health conditions and stress, because of the continuation of the occupation, means that we should understand their lives and those of the refugees and, I believe, support the immediate and unconditional recognition of the state of Palestine.
Today’s motion asks the UK Government to undermine their commitment to the peace process by predetermining the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Some may think that recognition is merely an empty gesture and that there is no harm in it whatever, but I believe that supporting this motion would give the green light to the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority and the terrorism of Hamas in Gaza by suggesting that the current policies of the Palestinian leadership befit a sovereign state, which they clearly do not.
A peaceful Palestinian state is in Israel’s best interests and is important for its long-term security, but we must be clear that the biggest obstacle to peace is Hamas, the stated aim of which is to wipe Israel and the Jewish people off the face of the earth. The UK Government have been clear that they will recognise a Palestinian state
“when it best serves the objective of peace”, but that must not happen while Palestinian territories are controlled by terrorists and the Israeli people suffer appalling rocket attacks and suicide bombings.
We are all aware that Israel has offered, on multiple occasions, to withdraw from almost all the west bank, reaching a negotiated land swap deal with the Palestinians to cover the land along the green line that Israel would retain. No matter the offer on the table, however, the Palestinian leadership continues to reject all possible outcomes. Hon. Members will know that the green line is the 1949 armistice line and has never been internationally recognised as a border. Negotiations are required to agree the final borders for the two-state solution that we all hope to see.
Israel has shown that it is driven by the policy of land for peace. In 1979 with Egypt, and in 1994 with Jordan, it made land swaps and compromises in the interests of peace and its good-will gestures were reciprocated. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, including uprooting settlements. I hope that all Members of the House share my view that the rise of the formidable Iran-backed Hamas terror group was one of the greatest setbacks to peace in the history of the middle east peace process.
When Israel withdrew from Palestinian territories in an effort to jump start the peace process, it was met with tens of thousands of rocket attacks, as well as suicide terror attacks and violent border incursions emanating from the Gaza strip. The only way to negotiate a lasting two-state solution is for the Israelis and Palestinians to return to direct peace talks. That is what we should be calling for. I urge the Minister to prioritise that and to leave the final status issues for the parties to determine themselves.
The principle of land swaps is well established in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—even Yasser Arafat agreed to it—and the shape of a future and viable Palestinian state is largely understood by the parties. However, premature recognition of a Palestinian state before the conclusion of direct peace talks will not help the Palestinian people. It is only by making difficult compromises and resolving final status issues that peace can be achieved and a lasting two-state solution can finally be agreed.
Order. We have to reduce the time limit to three minutes.
I thank my hon. Friend Julie Elliott for securing this important debate. To have a two-state solution, we need two states. That is exactly the point of this debate. It is not a prerequisite for negotiation but a duty on the United Nations, which has ensured by a huge amount of votes that Palestine has been recognised as an observer member in its proceedings. Yet we are unable to follow the vote that was taken here in 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine, where we voted 274 to 12—a majority of 262—in favour of recognition.
“The UK Government position is clear: the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the object of peace.”—[Official Report,
Peace is always there for us to recognise, but we can only do that when we are able to sit down together at the same table with the same status as each other. That is what is important, and that is what we are talking about here.
It is the duty of the United Nations to look at this issue. Conservative Members have talked about the issue of elections for the Palestinian Authority and what is going on in relation to how we expedite them, and that is also an obligation on the United Nations. Until we have stability in a place, we cannot have such elections taking place, and the United Nations needs to fulfil its peacekeeping role to provide the stability for that to happen.
Finally, I will make a point about the Abraham accords, which Stephen Crabb mentioned. There is no threat from any Muslim country to Israel. Therefore, it is time now for us to recognise Palestine, to recognise our responsibility and to recognise what is important, and the most important thing we have to do today is to recognise that peace can be made only when we have two people of equal status sitting at the same table.
In 2014, I voted to recognise the state of Palestine, and I would do so again today. However, let nobody be under any illusion: I certainly support the state of Israel and its right to exist. Every one of us in this House needs to remember that there are those who say, even in the United Kingdom, that they would wish to eliminate that state, which cannot ever be allowed to happen. We must remember that Jewish people in the UK, as one said to me recently, remember the holocaust every day, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, and they fear a holocaust in the future. We must understand that the existence of Israel is absolutely to be insisted upon, but I would vote again today to recognise Palestine.
The issue of Israel and Palestine matters most profoundly in my constituency of Wycombe. On the last set of census data, about one in six of my voters are British Muslims. It says “Asians”, but I know that that means overwhelmingly Kashmiris and British Muslims. My electors feel very acutely the suffering of the Palestinian people, which has been set out in the House. I am afraid that on both sides there has been terrible suffering, hatred and violence, and we need somehow to move beyond and above it.
If I may say so, I know that some of my colleagues do not represent very diverse constituencies, so let me dispel an illusion about who cares about this issue. We are not talking about radical youths here, although they may well be included; we are talking about professional middle-aged people—indeed, people of all ages—who are thoughtful and well educated, and we are talking about Conservative councillors, who feel most acutely this issue of the suffering of the Palestinian people. So let us be under no illusions about who we are talking about who want the British Government to recognise Palestine.
It is a grave mistake, and one I have confessed to from this position before, to neglect this issue between periods of violence. When we do so, we send the message that we do not care about the issue or we have forgotten about it, which in some cases people have, and that of course only encourages violence. We must stay on top of this issue and the British Government must stay on top of this issue continually.
My final point is that, when we say we want a two-state solution, we must really mean it—we must mean it with all our hearts and we must get behind it—and that implies that we must recognise the state of Palestine. On behalf of the electors of Wycombe, who feel this issue most powerfully, I implore my right hon. Friend the Minister to recognise the state of Palestine, and to do it very soon and preferably at the moment that she can collectively agree it with her colleagues.
The vote in the House in October 2014, which Members have referred to, was important, but as we know, it was not binding on the Government. The Government have consistently said that the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at the time of their own choosing, and the judgment will be on when it is best to further the objective of peace. The difficulty we find ourselves in is that, since 2014, the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians has in effect been moribund. Clearly, if a negotiated two-state solution is to happen—and I believe firmly that it must—a meaningful initiative will be needed to break the logjam. One such initiative is recognition of the state of Palestine. From time to time, the idea of the formal recognition of a Palestinian state has been raised by, and through, a number of international bodies. Indeed, some states have formally recognised Palestine. I now believe it is essential that the UK Government take the lead on this issue. If they genuinely believe that the only way forward is a two-state solution, and I believe they do, they must take the international lead in immediately recognising a Palestinian state.
Some people say it is a mere gesture to recognise a Palestinian state, but the importance of symbolism should never be underestimated. However, recognition must be much more than that. As Professor Yossi Mekelberg of the middle east and north Africa programme at Chatham House has argued, it is surely inappropriate for recognition to be seen as a prize waiting for the Palestinians at the end of negotiations. If that were allowed to happen, negotiators from Palestine would be in an inferior position, with one hand tied behind their back when the negotiations take place with the Israelis. If our aim is genuinely to see a two-state solution agreement that is acceptable to both sides, there must be a high degree of parity between the two negotiating parties. That is why I believe that the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state would give those peace negotiations the best chance of success.
At a time when international law is being so blatantly transgressed, recognising the state of Palestine would be an important signal to the international community. I believe that if this country had the vision and determination to recognise Palestine, the UK would not only enhance its reputation among the world’s democratic community, but it would give a huge boost to the possibility of meaningful negotiations, leading to a two-state solution.
Eight years ago, this House voted to recognise the state of Palestine. Tragically, in those eight years, we have seen more war, more conflict and more violence, taking us further away from peace in the region, and closer to the collapse of any chance of a two-state solution. In reality, eight years later, rather than marking the recognition of an independent state of Palestine, we are reading yet more reports about the persecution, oppression and injustice that Palestinians face at the hands of the Israeli Government, the latest of which comes from Amnesty International.
We have more reports that prove that Palestinian children are still being put in military detention as their parents are put on trial in unfair military courts; more reports of indiscriminate attacks, leaving Palestinians in constant fear of military raids on their home in the dead of night, or of airstrikes that demolish their homes, schools, and hospitals; more reports of villages bulldozed to make way for illegal settlements; and more reports that a continued siege has left Gaza in a state of abject poverty, as the largest open-air prison in the world. Let us be clear: these acts are grave injustices against humanity, they are in direct contravention of international law, and they are a clear threat to the lives and livelihoods of the Palestinians. They must be condemned in the strongest possible terms as incompatible with peace in the region.
The violence that took place last summer was shocking for the silence and lack of action that it elicited from the international community. Instead of demanding sanctions for violations of international law, an immediate overhaul of all arms used indiscriminately to kill civilians and commit war crimes, and the immediate recognition of the state of Palestine, the international community stood by and did nothing. The silence of the international community was deafening then and it is deafening now. They should hang their heads in shame.
There needs to be immediate recognition of the state of Palestine. That is not even a radical notion, because 138 countries across the globe have already done so. Let there also be no doubt that time is of the essence. If we do not recognise the state of Palestine now, soon there will be no Palestine left to recognise as illegal settlements reduce the two-state solution to a one-and-a-bit-state solution and undermine the viability of an independent state. I urge the Minister to recognise an independent state of Palestine immediately.
This is indeed a timely debate. While our attention is rightly focused on the devastating events in Ukraine, an immediate crisis in one part of the world should not prevent us from addressing a long-running injustice elsewhere. As we wrestle with what we can do to defend the people of Ukraine, it would be a dereliction of duty to consign the people of Palestine to the “too difficult” pile.
As we speak about the need to uphold international law, respect legally recognised frontiers and protect territorial integrity, we should remember that those principles are universal—we cannot pick and choose where to apply them. Therefore, while we demand that our adversaries adhere to them, we should be ready to remind our friends that they should do so, too. I see no contradiction in being a friend to Israel and a friend of Palestine; that is to be a friend of humanity and a friend of peace.
The treatment of the Palestinians is a stain on the conscience of the world. They have every right to conclude that, for decades, they have been subjected to a relentless campaign of oppression, subjugation of their human rights and illegal occupation of their lands. The consequences of that history of injustice are felt day in, day out as the people of Palestine go about their lives. To take just one example—there are many—how can it be right that, in such a small geographic area, a woman giving birth in the occupied territories is nine times more likely to die than a woman in Israel?
For me, the suffering of human beings—families, young children, the old and the sick—should always be at the forefront of our minds. For many of those people, abstract principles like sovereignty and self-determination probably do not mean much, but that does not mean that they are not important. Do I believe that recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel would end their suffering overnight? No, of course not, but is it an essential and overdue step on the road to a peaceful settlement that would start to put these historic injustices right? Yes, it is.
By recognising the state of Palestine, we would be offering its people the hope of a better future; one in which they are entitled to the same rights and respect as their neighbours. It may be a symbolic act but, as my hon. Friend Wayne David said, and as Professor Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House stated:
“The power of symbolism cannot…be underestimated…there is also overwhelming evidence that international recognition of Palestine would serve the causes of peace, justice and international law.”
If we believe, as we do, that there must be a negotiated, diplomatic settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, we should take whatever steps we can to advance that process. Recognition of the state of Palestine would be a powerful demonstration of the right of both Palestinians and Israelis to enjoy security, dignity and human rights.
My congratulations to my hon. Friend Julie Elliott on securing the debate, because on trial today is the complete incoherence in the Government’s approach to Palestine. Let me go through the three basic logical points in the argument.
First, do we believe that we have a moral responsibility to recognise the state of Palestine? Yes, we do. When we held the mandate between 1923 and 1948, we acknowledged a sacred trust of civilisation to prepare Palestinians for an independent country, thereby recognising the right to self-determination.
Secondly, is there now a legal responsibility and imperative to crack on with recognition? Yes, there is. In November 2011, Lord Hague said that Palestine met the criteria for statehood. In 2014, the House voted for recognition by 274 votes to 12. In October 2014, the Foreign Office said again that there should be a two-state solution on 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as a shared capital.
Thirdly, we recognise the moral responsibility and we recognise the legal responsibility to crack on. Do we now think that peace and a two-state solution is in jeopardy? Yes, we do. There are now 650,000 settlers breaking up the occupied territories. The threat is explicitly recognised by the UN Security Council in resolution 2334, which states that the cost of settlements is now
“a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle” to peace.
Despite that moral responsibility, despite the legal urgency and despite the threat to peace, what are the Government doing? They are refusing to recognise the state of Palestine. They are pursuing a free trade agreement with Israel. They are standing by while products such as those made by JCB are destroying homes in the occupied territories. Frankly, they are not investigating the whys and wherefores of some of our arms exports.
Like many here, I have stood in Palestine and seen how the route taken by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is now impossible to take, because it is broken up by walls. I have heard children talk about the post-traumatic stress disorder they now suffer. I have listened to shepherds whose lives have been destroyed because they have no legal right to build a home of their own. I have listened to farmers whose water has been stolen.
Like everybody here, I deplore the attacks on Israel. I deplore the viciousness and madness of the madmen of Hamas, but I have to say to the Minister that the two-state solution is now becoming a mirage and we have to intervene now in order to act. We have to act for peace and that is why we should recognise the state of Palestine today.
Like many others, I firmly believe in a lasting and just two-state solution to the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I maintain that the two-state solution is the best means of ensuring the sovereignty and security of the Palestinian and Israeli people. However, the two-state solution is currently more imperilled than it has been for decades. The ongoing illegal annexation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers, along with the evictions of Palestinians from east Jerusalem, is eroding the territorial integrity of the Palestinian state. This, I believe, is a deliberate attempt by the Israeli Government to diminish the possibility of a viable state of Palestine, rendering the two-state solution impossible. That is why it is imperative that the UK Government recognise the state of Palestine.
Some 138 of the 193 member states of the United Nations now recognise the state of Palestine, yet here in the UK, where the Government profess a commitment to a just and viable two-state solution, no such recognition is forthcoming. How can we be serious about a two-state solution if we will not even recognise the state of Palestine? Without such a commitment from our Government, any talk of a commitment to peace in the region is, to put it bluntly, a load of hot air.
The necessary first step in a two-state solution is a secure, legitimate and viable state of Palestine with unanimous global recognition. So long as countries such as the UK refuse that recognition, a two-state solution to the conflict is simply not possible. It really is that straightforward. I hope that we can hear a commitment from the Government today that recognition of the state of Palestine will be granted as soon as possible.
To that end, I call on the UK Government to use all their diplomatic, economic and other ties with the Israeli Government to press for the immediate halt to all illegal settlement and Palestinian land, to return all stolen land to the Palestinians, and to recognise the state of Palestine fully without further delay or hindrance. This is a question not just of sovereignty, but of justice and humanity. The human and civil rights of the Palestinian people, and their right to self-determination, must be recognised and respected by all parties if there is to be any hope of a two-state solution in our lifetime.
I congratulate the hon. Members who secured this debate—the hon. Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), and my hon. Friend Dr Whitford. It is particularly significant on a day when the post-war rules-based international order comes under strain as never before. All our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine as they face an unjustified war of aggression.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine remains a weeping sore on the face of the world. I repeatedly hear from constituents who want to see a just and lasting peace. Several have shared with me their first-hand experiences as medical practitioners, humanitarian responders, academics or as participants in the ecumenical accompaniment programme, and I regularly meet the local Amnesty International group. I also hear from other constituents who have friends, family and colleagues in Israel and who are rightly concerned that the state must be able to exercise its right to defend itself against aggression and terror, and that its citizens should be able to go about their daily lives without fear for their personal wellbeing and security. That is why a negotiated, peaceful solution is so important.
The global consensus remains the
“vision of two states, Israel and a sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”, as stated in the 2003 UN road map. We must and can be clear that just as condemnation of certain actions by the Israeli Government is in no way questioning the right of the state of Israel to exist and defend itself, so too acceptance and recognition of the state of Palestine is in no way an endorsement of violence or terrorism perpetrated by certain Palestinian factions or militias.
Last month, I took part in a briefing organised by Yachad, a British Jewish movement that advocates for a political resolution to the conflict. We heard from Esawi Frej, the Israeli Minister of regional co-operation, who is only the second Arab Muslim Minister in the history of Israel. He recently suffered a stroke and I am sure that we all want to wish him a speedy recovery. When he spoke, he could not have been clearer that a two-state solution is his preference. That is not necessarily the language that we hear from some of his Government or ministerial colleagues at present, but that demonstrates the desire for peace and negotiation among many communities in Israel and Palestine. The belligerence and rhetoric of leaders on both sides are not necessarily as representative as they claim.
That is why the UK Government have to take their opportunity. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Israel last year that makes no mention of a two-state solution or even a road to peace, so will the road map that is to come out of that do so? Will the territorial application of a free trade agreement specifically exclude illegal settlements? How will the cut to the aid budget improve the UK Government’s ability to provide humanitarian support to Palestinians or peacebuilding and civil society? What criteria will the Government use to determine when the time is right to join the 139 member states of the United Nations, and, indeed, Scotland’s Government and Scotland’s Parliament, in recognising the state of Palestine?
Today’s debate on the UK Government’s recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel is long overdue. I find it heartbreaking that after decades of violence, illegal occupation, the demolition of Palestinian homes and complete disregard for human rights, we are still debating the basics.
In October 2014, the House of Commons voted in favour of recognising the state of Palestine, to secure a two-state solution. The UK Government have since not recognised that statehood and even abstained in the UN General Assembly vote that granted Palestine non-member observer status. That woeful decision also undermines the sovereignty of Parliament.
The inaction has cost lives and entrenched the de facto annexation of Palestinian land, and it sends a loud and clear message that Palestine is not equal. Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 138 have recognised the state of Palestine. The UK is not one of them. In response to a written question that I tabled, the Government stated that
“the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace”.
The verdict given by the international community and multiple human rights organisations clearly dictates that that time is now.
A two-state solution and equality cannot be discussed without talking about occupation, which is the root cause of so many of the issues. The settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law, and such actions entrench divisions and make peace harder to achieve. The shocking scenes at the holy al-Aqsa mosque last year resulted in the spill-over of violent conflict within Israel’s recognised international borders, while the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land risks making the occupation irreversible.
UK recognition would be more than symbolic. It would be the first step to signifying the UK’s parity of esteem for two peoples: Israelis and Palestinians. If the UK Government continue this trajectory of inaction, there will not be a Palestine to recognise. The only way to achieve a new momentum is to put both nations on an equal footing, so that negotiations between occupier and occupied can turn into talks between two neighbouring sovereign nations. If the Minister is serious about a genuine two-state solution, will she wish now to recognise the state of Palestine?
Let us try to agree on some themes. Have illegal settlements been built on Palestinian land, evicting Palestinians in the process? Yes. Are the people of Gaza penned in by Israeli occupation? Yes. Have unarmed Palestinian civilians been killed by Israeli forces? Yes. Have unarmed Israeli civilians been killed by Hamas rockets? Yes. Are all those things and many others wrong? Yes, they are, but they are the consequence of a failure to resolve the basic question: how can a safe and secure Israel live alongside an independent Palestinian state?
The painful truth is that there is no peace process to speak of. Those who yearn for Palestinian statehood are increasingly in despair, as we have heard in the debate. The prospect of the two-state solution for which many of us have campaigned for so long is receding into the distance. The truth is that despair breeds hopelessness. There will be no progress until the violence ends and Israelis and all the Palestinians sit down together to negotiate. Plenty of people will say, “It won’t happen.” I would just observe that that is what we used to say about a solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. We learned that that which today seems impossible can become possible tomorrow, but for it to take place we need new political leadership on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Why do I say that? I do so because nobody can want peace more than the parties to the conflict themselves. Without that, it will not happen.
Finally, I think recognition of a Palestinian state, given the justified desperation of the Palestinian people, is the very least we can do. The more I have heard the arguments over the years as to why it should not happen, the less convincing they seem. To say that Palestinians should be granted their statehood only as a kind of favour at the end of the negotiations is the least convincing argument of all.
There is so little time.
It is the least convincing argument because it holds that Palestinians somehow do not have the right to statehood. That is wrong; they do.
Recognising a Palestinian state will not, on its own, solve the problem. It will not end the stalemate, which requires courageous political leadership, but it would offer a glimmer of hope and respect. That is why I voted eight years ago in this House in favour of the recognition of a Palestinian state, and why I shall do so again tonight.
When Mr Jones—who I know wanted to be here today—and I went before the Backbench Business Committee about six months ago to bid for this debate, we had in mind its taking place on the anniversary of the vote in October. An advantage of its being a little overdue is that I am no longer a Back Bencher, so I have been able to hand it over to my hon. Friend Julie Elliott. She made a superb speech, a much more compelling and persuasive one than I could possibly have made, and has done real service to Palestine in the process.
Back in 2014, there was more hope. President Obama said in 2010 that he hoped to see the recognition of a Palestinian state within a year. Although William Hague coined the phrase “moment of our choosing”, or “when the time is right”, I think that he meant it as a statement of intent, but it has become a filibuster that is endlessly repeated by Ministers to enable them in fact to do nothing. We in the UK who have a responsibility, through the mandate and the Balfour declaration, have not recognised Palestine although 138 other countries have.
We have heard that this is a precondition and not a matter for negotiation. Of course Israel and Palestine will not sit down as equals, because one is a regional superpower while the other has been impoverished by occupation, but they should at least be given the status of states so that they can do that. But this is also tied heavily to the idea of occupation, and a recognition exposing what occupation is about. It is about displacement of a population, and it is about settlement and occupied land. Both those are war crimes. This is relatively rare, thank goodness. It happens in Crimea, it is happening in Ukraine and it happens in Western Sahara, but in Palestine it has continued since 1967 and we have done precious little about it.
The Government’s own “Human rights priority countries” report on Israel and the Occupied Palestine Territories, published three months ago, refers to settler violence, settlement growth, evictions and demolitions, child detention, an “apartheid” regime, a Gaza blockade and terrible incursions into Gaza and the massacre of civilians there, and the classing of respectable non-governmental organisations as terrorist organisations. The list goes on and on.
Statehood would benefit Palestine, but it would also benefit Israel to have a secure state alongside it, with the responsibilities of a state. When I spoke in the last debate on this subject, I quoted Naftali Bennett, who was then the Minister with responsibility for the economy, as saying that he never wanted to see a Palestinian state. Now he is the Prime Minister of Israel. We must do something to resolve this issue, because the situation is becoming steadily worse.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given, but a right to be acknowledged”.—[Official Report,
I first heard those words in 2012, at the time of the historic United Nations vote, and I heard them again today from my hon. Friend Julie Elliott, whom I thank for securing the debate. We are a decade on from that vote, and there is still no visible light at the end of the tunnel for the Palestinians; if anything, the tunnel is becoming bleaker and darker. We know that for nearly seven years there have been no peace talks; we also know that since Senator Kerry’s initiative, there has been no serious attempt at negotiations.
The Conservative party’s stated claim is that it wants a negotiated solution through peace talks before it recognises Palestine. Let us call a spade a spade, and be honest with ourselves and the House: any recognition of Palestine would not cut across any peace negotiations because the fact remains that none exist, and there is no realistic prospect of any existing because successive Israeli Administrations lurch further to the right and continue to build illegal settlements at a rapid pace, thus changing the geographical reality on the ground and making the possibility of a viable Palestinian state increasingly unlikely.
I do not have an issue with a party that has a different view on foreign policy. What I do have an issue with is the party’s hypocrisy. It cannot say that it wants a two-state solution while recognising only one state. We often talk about the right of Israel to exist, but Palestine also has a right to exist. Not recognising the state of Palestine is denying Palestine’s right to exist. We cannot repeatedly reaffirm our commitment to Palestinian self-determination through United Nations resolutions and leave it unfulfilled.
Let me put this in simple terms. Indians come from India, Americans from America, the English from England, the Scottish from Scotland, the Welsh from Wales and the Irish from Ireland, so it is surely not a leap of faith to understand that Palestinians come from Palestine—a country, a state. In the light of that fact, I urge the Minister to stop using the phrase “occupied territories” and start using the phrase “Palestine”. These are not territories; they are a country, a state.
I began my speech by referring to the United Nations recognition of Palestine a decade ago. The then Foreign Secretary, William Hague—now Lord Hague—said then, “There will be a time when we will have to recognise the state of Palestine.” That time has come. The world is watching, and I promise the House that history will not judge us kindly for continuing to abdicate our responsibilities again and again, as we did, shamefully, at the United Nations, because if we do not do this now, there will be no Palestine left to recognise.
I am really trying to get everyone in, so I have to reduce the time limit to two minutes.
It is important to start by congratulating my hon. Friend Julie Elliott, and by recognising that as the only Jewish nation, the state of Israel is of great significance to many Jewish people across the globe and we of course support its right to exist. However, I do not believe that the existence of any state should be predicated on denying another group of people their right to self-determination. All people have the right to live free from oppression and occupation. The recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel is a vital part of the policy that we need, and it should be driven by human rights, equality and international law.
We must recognise that since the vote in 2014, which many Members have referenced, the situation has become worse for the Palestinian people when it comes to their human rights. In the context of widespread human rights abuses, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has raised particular concern about the recurring incidents of excessive use of force leading to the death and injury of Palestinian children. The International Criminal Court is holding an inquiry into abuses committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2014, and the blockade of Gaza continues.
The UK really needs to be part of international pressure and we should immediately ensure that no UK funds are supplied and that no arms are bought or sold that can be used to violate the human rights of Palestinians. To that end, the recognition of the Palestinian state should not be seen as a prize at the end of peace negotiations. It should be regarded as a prerequisite for peace. Only when the two states have equal status and recognition can we have genuine hopes for peace. The Government cannot continue to claim that they are committed to a two-state solution while only recognising one state. I welcome today’s debate and this chance for Members to show our commitment to the immediate recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. This has to be part of securing a just peace and an end to the ongoing blockade, the occupation and the settlements, which are all illegal under international law.
The question before us today is not whether we support a Palestinian state within the framework of a two-state solution—Governments of both parties have rightly long backed that goal—but how we can achieve it. I want to begin by sounding a note of caution about unilateral actions. The history of this tragic conflict teaches us very clearly that the best route to sustainable progress lies through direct negotiation between the two sides. Compare, for instance, the results of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 with the 1978 Camp David accords or the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. While the peace treaty with Egypt that came about via the Camp David accords still stands, it has largely led to that border being quiet and free from hostilities. However, following the unilateral withdrawal in 2005, Israel got an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation on its border. We can therefore understand why Israel would be wary about future land concessions.
I want to talk today about the concrete steps that can be taken to advance the prospect of a lasting solution between Israel and the Palestinians. For us to recognise Palestinian statehood outside a wider peace process would make little or no impact in the real world. We need to take concrete steps that will advance and recognise both peoples’ right to self-determination, peace and security, and steps that will make a real difference to the lives of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, rather than the kind of gestures that seek to demonise one side or the other. The territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state must be preserved. Continued Israeli settlement building, especially that which occurs beyond the security barrier, represents an obstacle to a two-state solution, but we should acknowledge that while such settlement building is an obstacle to a viable Palestinian state, it is hardly an insurmountable one. Nine out of 10 Palestinians live outside the security barrier, while some 85% of Israelis who have settled beyond the 1967 lines live within that security barrier, including Israeli Jews residing in East Jerusalem. I am aware that I have run out of time.
I stand alongside many other Members of the House in calling for a two-state solution. This is not about supporting one group of people to the detriment of another; it is about achieving equal standing and parity for the benefit of both. I was privileged a few years ago to join the Council for Arab-British Understanding on one of its visits to Israel and Palestine. It is one thing to read the many briefings that Members receive on these issues, or to watch things play out in the news, but it is quite another to see it for yourself in person and come to terms with how these people are being forced to live. In Hebron I saw Palestinian workers making their way home, walking along a convoluted route. When we asked why they were taking that route, we were told that Palestinians were only allowed to travel down certain roads. Tired and hungry, having just put in a hard day’s work, they were not even allowed to take the short route home for arbitrary reasons.
I then visited Ramallah, a fascinating and bustling city where I was able to get a taste of what normality might look like if peace were made. I came home from the trip with two lasting thoughts that resonate with me years later. First, how terrible the conditions are in which Palestinians are forced to live under Israeli occupation. Even having seen it for myself, I cannot imagine having to live every day like that. Secondly, how the average Palestinian just wants to live a simple life free of persecution and harassment.
The Government have said that they will recognise a Palestinian state at the time of their choosing that is most conducive to the objective of peace. As the saying goes, it feels like tomorrow never comes. When will that time be? Will the Minister elaborate on what criteria must be met? Is there even a fully defined policy on how the decision will be made? The recognition of Palestine would be the beginning of a peace process. The longer the current status quo is maintained, the more unobtainable a two-state solution becomes. It is increasingly urgent and it cannot be put off for another day longer. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to wind up this debate. There have been a number of positive, constructive and thoughtful comments.
This is a bleak day for human rights and international law. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield—[Hon. Members: “Sunderland!”] Forgive me. It is Scotland’s near abroad, but I am not that precise in my geography. No disrespect intended. I congratulate Julie Elliott on securing this debate.
On a note of consensus, let us all agree that human rights are universal and that international law applies everywhere. On a day when we rightly condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine, it is worth remembering that the rights and dignity of the Palestinians have been grievously infringed for decades.
The SNP supports a just peace in the middle east. Israel has a right to exist and a right to security within its borders, and it is an important partner of the UK and Scotland in many significant ways. Equally, the Palestinian people have a right to statehood, dignity and security, and they have been let down by the international community for decades. That failure is continued in UK Government policy today.
The SNP supports the recognition of Palestine as a state, for the simple reason: how can we have a two-state solution without two states? Statehood is not a bauble or a prize to be given to the Palestinian people at the end of the process; statehood is the entry ticket to the talks. There must be parity of esteem between the two parties, albeit there is not much parity of anything else between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is open to the UK Government to give parity of esteem and dignity to the Palestinians in these talks.
But what talks? There is no peace process for precisely that reason. As Hilary Benn said, despair will be bred of violence, and that frustration can only build at the lack of progress because the rights of the Palestinian people and the prospect of a durable, viable Palestinian state are being infringed and undermined on a daily basis.
We believe that recognising Palestine as a state would be a symbolic move—of course it would—that gives impetus to talks that badly need impetus. I was struck by the comments of Stephen Crabb on the weaknesses and failures of the Palestinian leadership. We are very cognisant of that, but we do not think it is a reason to delay; we think it is a reason to accelerate to give a symbolic boost to these talks.
We also recognise the reality on the ground. A two- state solution is possible only if both states are viable. Like many colleagues on both sides of the House, I have visited the region and have seen that, in many significant ways—be it watercourses, access to farmland, security barriers, security walls, checkpoints, settlements, archaeological sites and many other ways—the viability and contiguity of Palestinian territory is being undermined on a daily basis. We support the two-state solution, but the reality on the ground is that it is becoming a less and less realistic prospect.
Let me add a note of caution for those who are opposing Palestinian statehood or, even worse, are opposing it while pretending to just delay the process. The alternative is a one-state solution—one that I fear will never ever be able to be at peace with itself. Those of us who, however forlornly, support a two-state solution believe that recognition of the state of Palestine would give a badly needed impetus to that process. So I hope that the UK Government will change their course and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Julie Elliott on securing this important debate; we have had an excellent debate.
I begin by stating unambiguously that I am a friend and supporter of the state of Israel and also a friend and supporter of Palestinians. As such, I strongly wish to see progress towards the establishment of a viable, sovereign and flourishing Palestinian state. I strongly wish to see a safe, secure and thriving Israeli state alongside it. The Labour party and I firmly believe in a two-state solution as the best answer for an enduring peace. There is no inherent contradiction in that position. Underlying the Labour party’s commitment to a two-state solution is our unshakeable commitment to human rights and the rule of international law. We want a United Kingdom that puts human rights, social justice and ending global inequality at the heart of its work. Recognising the state of Palestine is a commitment that goes to the very heart of these matters and of Labour party values.
This House has already voted, in 2014, to recognise Palestine's statehood and now is the time for the British Government to confirm that recognition. There are several reasons why I believe that to be the case. First, the Palestinian people, along with all populations, deserve dignity and the right to self-determination, which is defined as a cardinal principle in modern international law. It is therefore legally and morally incumbent upon the UK Government to take the step of giving recognition, along with the 71.5% of UN member states that have already done so.
The second reason that the Government should enact the recognition relates to the issue of ensuring Israel’s long-term security. Speaking as a supporter of Israel who wishes it to be a safe and thriving country, I am deeply worried by the continued political stalemate. I believe that Israel’s long-term peace and security depend on the existence of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. A recognition of Palestine is an inherent recognition of Israel too, within its sovereign borders. The UK Government’s endorsement of Palestinians’ aspirations would contribute to a peace process that is vital to safeguarding Israel and her citizens.
That brings me to the third reason the UK Government should recognise Palestine: it would be a pragmatic step towards helping to broker wider peace talks. The last time there were meaningful peace talks directly relating to Israel and Palestine was eight years ago. As a country with some global influence, the UK’s recognition of Palestine could help to restart the peace process. At the moment, that peace process is moribund, notwithstanding the welcome advent of the Abraham accords, which I will return to later.
The fourth reason that the UK Government should recognise Palestinian statehood is because of the way in which it could help to shape political realities on the ground. To be recognised as a state would require the Palestinian leadership to take on the obligations of behaving like a state. That is also clearly in Israel’s immediate and long-term interests.
We know that many Palestinians and Israelis want peace more than anything else, and we know that extremists on both sides do not speak for them. International recognition of a Palestinian state, including recognition by the UK, would be a step towards undermining the stranglehold of extremists. For all those reasons, the UK Government should see the immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood as both morally and practically important. The position of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has consistently been that British recognition of Palestine’s statehood will come when it best serves the objective of peace. For all the reasons I have stated, I would argue that that time is now.
On the wider political context, it is true, of course, that some progress has been made towards peace in the region with the Abraham accords. But we have to be realistic: this progress on its own is not enough to help the current political stalemate between Israel and Palestine. It is very welcome that Israel has been receiving its own greater recognition across the Arab world, but that positive step surely strengthens the argument that the same international recognition of Palestine is also important to establishing peace.
If the UK Government do not take active steps to encourage peace, the two-state solution will remain as elusive as ever. If we as a nation are serious about upholding the international rules-based order, we must be proactive about it. To remain silent on these issues is not an option. It is time for the Government to demonstrate that they are committed to active peacemaking rather than merely to conflict management—for example, by demonstrating support for the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The UK has historical and moral obligations to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. We have a duty to do all we can to unlock the stalemate. We have a duty to do all we can to foster peace, the rule of international law and the sanctity of human rights. Recognising Palestinian statehood would be a step towards achieving all those objectives.
May I say how grateful I am to Julie Elliott for securing this debate? I thank Members from all parties for their contributions.
The UK’s position on the middle east peace process is clear and well known: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. We firmly believe that a just and lasting solution that delivers peace for both the Israelis and the Palestinians is long overdue—[Interruption.]
Order. It is most discourteous to the Minister, who is responding to a very serious debate, for Members to come in at the end of the debate and talk among themselves. Please, stop it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We also believe the best way to make progress towards such a solution is through negotiations between both sides that take account of their legitimate concerns. To that end, a two-state solution is the only way to protect Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and realise Palestinian national aspirations. The resumption of two-way negotiations, with international support, is the best way to get to an agreement.
The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot deliver peace or end the occupation. Without a negotiated settlement, the conflict and the problems that come with it will continue.
The UK works closely with international partners to strongly advocate for a two-state solution and encourage a return to meaningful negotiation between both parties. We welcome recent engagement between the Government in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That engagement includes discussions between the Ministries of Finance aimed at improving the economic conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Such direct engagement is vital, given the scale of the challenges. We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions that undermine the viability of the two-state solution.
The UK remains resolute in its commitment to Israel’s security. We have been clear that Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence in responding to attacks—
I will not, because I do not have enough time. I would love to otherwise.
In exercising that right, it is vital that all Israel’s actions are in line with international humanitarian law and every effort is made to avoid civilian casualties. The UK unequivocally condemns Hamas’s inflammatory action and indiscriminate attacks against Israel. We continue to call on Hamas and other terrorist groups to end their abhorrent rocket attacks, such as those seen in May 2021. The Government assess Hamas in its entirety to be concerned with terrorism. As of November, we have proscribed the organisation in full.
We remain committed to the objective of a sovereign, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side with a safe and secure Israel. That is why we are supporting vulnerable people through our development programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and why we work to strengthen Palestinian institutions and to promote sustainable economic growth in the west bank. The UK has strong relations with the Palestinian Authority, who have made important progress on state building. That progress is why it is so important that the Palestinian Authority return to Gaza to ensure that improved governance is extended throughout the territory that will become a Palestinian state.
Economic progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital that, in the interim, Palestinians see tangible improvements in their daily lives. Economic growth in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains vital in order to give hope to Palestinian people. We call on the Palestinian Authority and Israel to resume dialogue on economic issues, to reconvene the Joint Economic Committee and to address the financial crisis together.
Our development programmes work to preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution and to improve the lives of Palestinians throughout Gaza and the west bank, including east Jerusalem. The UK is providing life-saving aid to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and across the region. In 2021, the UK provided more than £27 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN agency working with Palestinian refugees, including £4.9 million to its flash appeal after the Gaza conflict in May. UK aid to UNRWA is already helping the agency to provide education to more than 533,000 children a year and access to health services for 3.5 million Palestinian refugees.
I am aware that I have to give a couple of minutes to the hon. Member for Sunderland Central to conclude the debate. To conclude. we have urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work together to meet their obligations under the Oslo accords.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am incredibly conscious of time because I do have to give the hon. Member for Sunderland Central a couple of minutes. As I have said, our position is clear. We have urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work together to meet their obligations under the Oslo accords. We also call on all parties to abide by international humanitarian law to promote peace, stability and security. Peace will not be achieved by symbolic measures. It will be achieved only by real movement towards renewed dialogue between parties that leads to a viable Palestinian state, living in peace and security side by side with Israel. The UK stands ready to support this in every way we can.
I thank all colleagues, on all sides of the House, who have taken part in this very important debate. I accept that, today, there have been pressing issues elsewhere; that is why the Minister left the debate and has only been present for part of it. But I urge her to read the debate in Hansard and perhaps address in writing some of the issues that were raised. I do accept that it has been a difficult day.
I also would like to hear what the Government are saying about respecting international law. We have heard much today on the issue of international law and respecting it. Unfortunately, the Minister did not address that in her response. The issue remains that the Palestinian people have fulfilled what is needed to fulfil statehood to get recognition. The Government are saying, “At some point, when the time is right.” The time is right now. There has been broad consensus in this House for many years and the Government are simply not acting on it. We all want to see a movement to meaningful negotiations, leading to a settlement on a two-state solution, but the Government’s prevaricating on not recognising the state of Palestine is hindering that process, in my opinion. We need no more warm words; we need action. We have the ability as a country and the Government have the ability as our Government to recognise Palestine today. We do not have to wait—let us just act and not wait.
Question put and agreed to.