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Israel and Palestine: United States’ Proposals for Peace - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 27th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 27th February 2020

My Lords, I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to air our views on this matter. I am sorry that it is in what I call the graveyard slot of the week but there it is. That is not my fault; I suspect it is down to the Government Whips but, anyway, I am very grateful that we are having this debate.

Many have dismissed the proposals as yet another plan in the decades-old series of talks which have never produced any benefit for the indigenous people of Palestine but have served as a smokescreen for the relentless expansion of Israel into Palestinian lands, against international law and against United Nations Security Council resolutions. But we have to take the plan seriously so let us look at it, while remembering that years ago, the PLO had already accepted a state on only 22% of the land designated by the original United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.

This plan consolidates a string of land islands, with more to come—many call them Bantustans—which have been created by the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian communities from each other. As compensation for the land taken, Israel proposes that the Palestinians should have a patch of desert land near the Egyptian border—a hugely generous gesture. They are promised that roads and bridges, underground and overground, will link these Bantustans and make sure that Israelis do not ever have to come into contact with Palestinians. Many people have described that as apartheid.

I do not apologise for mentioning the two words Bantustans and apartheid because today, as anyone who is a Guardian reader may have seen, there is a letter in it from 50 ex-Ministers and leaders in Europe and across the world, describing the plan as similar to South African apartheid. It is not just me but those people, who include Douglas Alexander, who used to be the Secretary of State for International Development, Ben Bradshaw and Alan Duncan, who are both still in Parliament, the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Patten, who are in this House. I recommend that your Lordships all look at this letter because they have more authority than I will ever have. Who else? There is Jack Straw, our former Foreign Secretary, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, another Member of this House. They are all past Ministers; looking now at the Minister sitting in his place, I hope that he will have similar sentiments when he is a past Minister, even if he cannot have them now. I am only teasing.

East Jerusalem will stay in the hands of Israel, and the Palestinians are told to make their capital in Abu Dis. That is a village just outside the barrier wall, of course, with no access whatever to East Jerusalem or the mosque. Nothing really has changed from the present situation and in case some of your Lordships are happy for the Palestinians to have their own defined borders at last—never mind it looking like a Swiss cheese, as someone once described it—we must add that the most important part of this derogatory offer is that Israel will control all security, all Palestinian territorial waters, all airspace and all the crossings between Palestine and Israel. Palestinians will have no sovereignty.

Hamas, of course, is blamed for almost everything. Last night it was pointed out to me by a colleague that in the 181 pages of the so-called plan for peace and prosperity, Hamas is mentioned 181 times. There is an obsession with Hamas. Nothing is suggested to stop the suffering of the people of Gaza—the slow starvation, deaths, mutilations and misery of the people there, who are mostly refugees themselves—until Gaza is, in the plan’s words, “demilitarised” of the few weapons it manages to smuggle in or make. We know that cannot happen until the blockade is lifted, and the Israeli Government know that.

There is no return for refugees—ever—and no compensation. Many of them have been living in camps on the West Bank, in Gaza and all over the Middle East, including in Syria, where I visited them on one occasion, and Lebanon. All over the Middle East, there are millions of people who have been living in camps for decades, waiting to go home. The plan, in effect, dissolves refugees as a problem; they are not to be considered. UNRWA is to be abolished—it is already starved of funds by the USA—and the Palestinian state, such as it is, and surrounding Arab states will have to find a solution for refugees and their camps. Over 7 million people are, in effect, being ignored; they do not exist, they do not matter. If this plan were ever implemented, there would still be—and the Israeli people need to realise this—a majority of Palestinian people living between the River Jordan and the sea. I shudder to think what will follow. I wonder what other plans Netanyahu has for the future.

The heralded economic plan, which is given much space in the document—I think more than half the document is devoted to it—and its assumed investment from other countries cannot work while Palestine is under occupation. This plan is for continuing occupation; whatever else can be said about it, the people will not have any freedom of movement or freedom for goods. However its promoters try to dress it up, an economic plan cannot work in this situation.

Is it yet another plan that will gather dust, with its failure no doubt blamed on the Palestinians? I am sure that someone in this Chamber—I am not looking at anyone in particular—is planning to say that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity but neither does Israel miss an opportunity to betray an agreement. It has done it many times. It simply cannot be trusted. The Palestinian leaders were not consulted about this before its publication, and neither was anyone else for that matter—we were not consulted in this country. It is just like the Balfour Declaration, in fact: we did that 100 years ago without consulting anybody. No doubt the Palestinians were rather put off by the eviction of the Palestinian delegation from Washington a couple of years ago and the relocation of the US embassy to East Jerusalem. It is not a very encouraging start to a peace and prosperity plan for the country.

There is still no recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state, and yet we are all expected to recognise Israel as a state even though we do not know what that country’s borders are. Let me be clear: I recognise the statehood and the right to exist of Israel and Palestine within agreed borders for both countries—as I have always hoped, on the 1967 peace line. When will our Government recognise the state of Palestine? It is such an important thing for them to do. What is their reaction to the publicised letter from some noble Lords that Palestine cannot refer Israel to the International Criminal Court because it is not a state? Where are the noble Lords, Lord Pickles and Lord Polak, by the way? They are not present, which is a bit disappointing because I was hoping to hear from them. Are they not interested? Do the Government subscribe to this view? Is the Minister acquainted with the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which has long been accepted in international law and under which Palestine certainly qualifies as a state?

Whenever I am asked to talk about Palestine—it happens an awful lot—the word “humiliation” always comes to mind. For decades, the Palestinian people have been humiliated by the actions of Israel and its forces occupying their land. They have been humiliated by the inaction of the international community and the total disregard of UN resolutions. The Balfour Declaration, which was our country’s responsibility, said that

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

This whole terrible injustice is the responsibility of this country. We started it; we are responsible; they are our people and we should be looking after them. We have denied them any protection and we have also humiliated them by our neglect.

I am told every week by Ministers in answer to my Questions that the Government do not approve of this or that atrocity, they have made representations and had discussions with representatives of the Israeli Government and they thoroughly decry what is going on, et cetera. So why can we not set right a wrong that has caused such misery for over 100 years? The people of Palestine are not going to surrender. They are still there, waiting for justice, and there are very many of them.

On a brighter note, does the Minister agree that now we have our freedom, our country can resume its historic place in the world? We have heard it often enough in the last few weeks: we are free; we can implement our history again; Great Britain can be great again. We hear so much about it from the Prime Minister. If we are set free, we can now have our very own foreign policy, independent of anyone else, and with that we can bring justice to Palestine. Can the Minister assure us that we will do just that and not allow our country to fall under the shadow of the United States of America and its puppet master, Israel?