We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Gaza

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-14128, in the name of Sandra White, on as Gaza withers, its people perish. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the findings of the UN report that suggest that the Gaza strip could become uninhabitable by 2020 due to what it terms de-development, the process whereby development is not only hindered but reversed, stating that “Three Israeli military operations in the past six years, in addition to eight years of economic blockade, have ravaged the already debilitated infrastructure of Gaza, shattered its productive base, left no time for meaningful reconstruction or economic recovery and impoverished the Palestinian population in Gaza, rendering their economic wellbeing worse than the level of two decades previous”; can understand the feelings of many that the Israeli Government’s action and inaction with regards to Gaza are deliberate and leading to the genocide of those living there; supports those Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews alike from Glasgow, Scotland and around the world who believe in mutual respect and understanding as cornerstones to a just solution in Palestine and Israel while condemning violence and extremism in any form; further believes that this groundswell of support for justice will only grow should the current situation not change, and hopes that, mindful of such, wise counsel will prevail.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I am aware that previous debates that we have had on Palestine and Israel have tended to become somewhat polarised and that rather than focusing on the issue in the motion at hand, members have conflated it with wider issues. I understand that, because people are so passionate about Palestine and Israel. However, I lodged my motion for debate primarily in response to the United Nations Trade and Development Board report on developments in the economy of the occupied Palestinian territory, and although I acknowledge that since the report’s publication, other events have inflamed an already volatile situation, I ask members to remain mindful of the motion at hand, rather than to focus on some of the wider issues that we all acknowledge exist.

Let us be clear. The issue is about people: it is about a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. Regardless of where we sit on the debate on the on-going situation between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, we cannot ignore or turn a blind eye to their plight.

For the record, and for the avoidance of doubt, I say that I reference the state of Palestine in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1397, which the UN adopted in 2002 and in which it affirmed the vision of a Palestine and Israel two-state solution.

Before the publication of the UN report, in May the World Bank published its economic monitoring report into the Palestinian territories, which provided some grim and damning reading. In the section “The destruction of Gaza’s Economy, Human Consequences and the Way Forward” the World Bank states that Gaza’s economy has been

“Tremendously damaged by repeated armed conflicts, the blockade and internal divide”.

The report goes on to state:

“income is 31 percent lower in Gaza than it was 20 years ago”.

Gaza’s manufacturing sector—some may find this unusual—was once very significant but it

“has shrunk by as much as 60 percent ... Gaza’s exports virtually disappeared since the imposition of the ... blockade.”

Nothing can explain that

“other than war and the blockade.”

The report goes on:

“The human costs of Gaza’s economic malaise are enormous ... if it were compared to that of other economies, unemployment in Gaza would be the highest in the world. Poverty in Gaza is also very high ... These numbers, however, fail to portray the degree of suffering of Gaza’s citizens due to poor electricity and water/sewerage availability, war-related psychological trauma, limited movement, and other adverse effects of wars and the blockade.”

According to the World Bank, the way forward

“requires a unified Palestinian government in both West Bank and Gaza which can be a partner to multilateral and bilateral donors and substantial donor support to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure and homes, and it requires the lifting of the blockade on the movement of goods and people to allow Gaza’s tradable sectors to recover.”

It is important to note that those are not my words, but are taken directly from the World Bank report. That is what we must remember when we debate these issues—it is not simply a question of individuals stating facts; authoritative world bodies are stating those facts.

The UN report paints a similarly bleak picture, and highlights the dramatic effect of Israel’s withholding of Palestinian clearance revenues, which are VAT and import duties that are collected by the Government of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority. They are normally remitted monthly minus charges for electricity, water, sewerage and health referrals, and a 3 per cent administration fee. Those essential revenues, which represent 75 per cent of total revenue, were once again withheld for the first four months of 2015, which caused severe financial difficulties for the Palestinian National Authority and, of course, for the people of Palestine.

We might ask ourselves—indeed, we might believe—that that revenue was withheld for good reason by the Government of Israel. However, it was withheld as a result of the Palestinian National Authority’s application for the state of Palestine’s membership of the International Criminal Court. Some may see it as a collective punishment for exercising international rights, but could it be an isolated incident? The answer is yes and no—yes, it was collective punishment and no, it was not isolated.

In 2000, clearance revenue was withheld for two years following the start of the second intifada. In 2006, it was withheld for one and a half years following Palestinian elections. In May 2011, it was withheld for one month following efforts at Palestinian national reconciliation. The list could go on.

The UN report also acknowledges that despite claims to the contrary, many of the hardships that are faced are not the results of inadequate leadership because, in fact, the economy of Palestine is that of “an occupied territory” and is therefore “undermined by occupation” rather than by policies that are pursued or by poor donor co-ordination.

As the motion states, the UN report notes:

“Three Israeli military operations in the past six years, in addition to eight years of economic blockade, have ravaged the already debilitated infrastructure of Gaza, shattered its productive base, left no time for meaningful reconstruction or economic recovery and impoverished the Palestinian population in Gaza, rendering their economic wellbeing worse than the level of two decades previous”.

In October 2014, during a visit to Gaza, the secretary general of the United Nations stated that the destruction was “beyond description”. That, for me, is the true cost of the Israeli Government’s policies towards Gaza—the cost to the people living there. It is estimated that 360,000 people are in dire need of treatment for mental health conditions. When it comes to children—Gaza’s future—400,000 of them are in need of immediate psychosocial and psychological support.

As the UN’s special co-ordinator for the middle east peace process said when visiting Gaza in April,

“No human being who visits can remain untouched by the terrible devastation that one sees here in Gaza and as shocking as the devastation of the buildings might be the devastation of peoples’ livelihoods is 10 times more shocking,”

That is why I am heartened by the number of Israelis and Palestinians—Jews and non-Jews alike—who wish to see a peaceful resolution to the situation and who, like me, condemn violence and extremism in any form. It is vital that we continue to speak out against the injustices and that we continue to strive for a real peace deal.

I know that the Scottish Government has to date been strong, and has been one of the voices speaking out on the issue, so I commend it for doing so. However, the Government could do more. Scotland is in a unique situation and could offer its services to both sides, should they wish that. There is nothing to prevent us from looking to bring together representatives to discuss in an informal or neutral setting how we can go forward to achieve a just and lasting peace. I would be happy to work with the minister and anyone else—I am sure that other members would be, too—to consider ways of bringing Scotland’s wise counsel to the table and stopping the terrible destruction in Gaza and Palestine.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We turn to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes, please.

Photo of Claudia Beamish Claudia Beamish Labour

It is essential that the Scottish Parliament play its part in keeping in the public eye the injustice of the Palestinian plight, so I thank Sandra White for bringing the wide-ranging motion to the chamber and for her comprehensive analysis. In the short time that I have, I will focus on one part of her motion, which states that Parliament

“supports those Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews alike from Glasgow, Scotland and around the world who believe in mutual respect and understanding as cornerstones to a just solution in Palestine and Israel”.

After Mr Netanyahu was re-elected in 2013, while speaking to the Israeli Parliament, he repeated a pledge to make “a historic compromise” in order to make peace with the Palestinians. He said:

“With a Palestinian partner who is willing to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be prepared for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians forever”.

The coalition in Israel includes Mr Netanyahu’s party, the centrist Yesh Atid party and the right-wing Jewish Home party. The line-up includes a strong showing of pro-settlement ministers, which shows the irresolvable tension within the Israeli Government. Mixed messages are being sent. There is an ancient Chinese expression, “Wu xin bu li”, which means, “Without trust, nothing stands.” Of course, trust must be based on truth.

I first learned of the plight of the Palestinians from my father, who was a regular soldier in the British Army and was based in Bethlehem during the mandate. Because he had witnessed the injustice of the settlement, throughout his political life as a member of Parliament, he was an advocate for a Palestinian state and for support of refugees. Sixty years later, there is collective amnesia about the historical facts among many—although, of course, not all—Israelis. That is demonstrated by the Governments that they elect. Too often, other Governments and people across the world fail to understand the truth.

The Balfour project recently held an exhibition in the Scottish Parliament and, at the end of this week, it will host a conference in Durham to promote its film “Britain in Palestine 1917 to 1948”. The aim is to continue to raise awareness of the British mandate. In the words of the project,

“a homeland for the Jewish people has been achieved but the League’s”— that is, the League of Nations

“trust to facilitate Palestinian independence is still to be fulfilled.”

Another film, “On the Side of the Road”, which was directed and written by Lia Tarachansky, focuses on the collective denial of the events of 1948. She is an Israeli who grew up in a settlement in the West Bank and who has come to understand the Israeli occupation and its implication for Palestinians. As well as telling of her awakening, the film tells the story of two war veterans, Tikva Honig-Parnass and Amnon Noiman, as they tackle their denial of their actions in the war against Palestine. Sandra White and I were interviewed by the director here in the Scottish Parliament for an introduction to the film.

As a co-convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on Palestine, along with Sandra White, Jim Hume and Jean Urquhart, I know that the CPG is determined to contribute to exposing the truth of the injustice. Initiatives to build mutual respect and understanding are essential, and there are many. One such initiative is the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which was founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. The aim of the orchestra is

“to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution”.

In those and many other ways, young people in Israel can surely start to understand the essence of the Chinese proverb that I quoted. They are the Israeli electorate of the future. Of course, that is only a small part of working towards a just solution, but it is a significant one. “Without trust, nothing stands”, but the trust must be based on truth.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Independent

I congratulate Sandra White on the motion. Here we are again discussing Gaza, but not in the positive terms that we would like.

We welcome the UN report—the UN is an authoritative world body, as Sandra White said—but the content will surprise no one. The discussion should be about people and the effect on them of the eight years of blockade, three wars in six years and the “accelerated de-development”—a strange phrase—in the Gaza strip. There are clearly human consequences to that. The blockade is often talked about in abstract terms, but it is real. There are 1.8 million Palestinians, and that number is expected to grow to 2.1 million by 2020.

The motion talks about justice, which is what I will focus on. I will talk briefly about the divestment programme but, first, I will talk about the arms trade.

The arms trade the world over has a pernicious effect on humanity. It is not an issue for others; it is an issue for Scotland and an issue for now. Sandra White asked what more we can do. We can commend the Scottish Government for the support that it has shown to Gaza but we can also legitimately criticise it because, last month, it gave £2.5 million to a military corporation that made $3.614 billion of profit. That corporation is Lockheed Martin. I looked at its website today. It says:

“Lockheed Martin is proud of the significant role it has fulfilled in the security of the State of Israel. The company is proud of the C-130 and F-16 aircraft that are faithfully serving the Israel Air Force since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Presiding Officer, £2.5 million could have done a lot of good in Gaza. One of the many aid organisations that provides assistance there says:

“Many families in Gaza are literally on the breadline unable to cover the basic cost of living. Our family sponsorship project will help 120 displaced families with rent, food and medical expenses.”

The organisation encourages us to sponsor a family for a £200 a month. The sum of £2.5 million would be nine years’ support for those families.

Lockheed Martin is not alone. We have Raytheon in Glenrothes, which is also involved in Gaza. Some of us will be uncomfortable with talk of the arms trade and the fact that the white paper on independence mentioned the growth of the arms trade in Scotland, but we must link our fine words about peaceful resolution and humanity with our deeds.

I encourage people to support Gaza effectively through boycotts, divestments and sanctions. That movement started in 2005. It was inspired by South Africa—an example in which we can see positive development. Israel’s regime is one of occupation, colonialism and apartheid. It is attacking the basics of living.

Actions speak louder than words, so let us speak by our actions. It is shameful that, in the past two years, our parliamentary pension scheme has increased its investment in arms companies by 35 per cent, to more than £500,000. We must address that.

We must continue to condemn the collective punishment of the people of Gaza. I am on the side of proper housing, proper healthcare—including mental health care—a proper water supply and a positive future for everyone. That has nothing to do with race, religion or geography. I am happy to condemn violence. Discussion, words and debates such as this will move things forward.

I congratulate Sandra White on bringing the debate to the Parliament.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on bringing the debate to the Parliament and thank her for doing so. She has been a relentless campaigner for the cause of the Palestinian people, both here in Scotland and when visiting Palestine.

It is important that she mentions the report, which is not from people who could be accused of being standard bearers for the Palestinian cause. It is by not simply any United Nations organisation, but the Trade and Development Board, which considers the matter not necessarily from the point of view of the rights and wrongs that go back over generations in the middle east, but from the point of view of economic involvement and the practical impact that the situation has on the civic structure, civic society and the humanity that lives in Gaza. Therefore, we must take cognizance of it. The report deserves far more attention than it has received to date, and Sandra White performs a great service by raising it in this Parliament.

I will concentrate on two issues. First, the nature of the conflict in Gaza: what we have is a low-intensity war in an area of high-density population. The nature of the conflict has ebbed and flowed as intifadas have come and gone and rockets have rained down. Sometimes it has been a low-intensity conflict and sometimes it has been very high intensity. It has been waged on people not only by land, but by sea and air, because Gaza is surrounded on all sides and is dealt with quite harshly by Israeli defence forces. We must also remember that it is a very small area. As John Finnie mentioned, in Gaza, 1.8 million people live in 360 km2. The area is 65 miles long at its longest and between 3.7 and 7.5 miles wide. Those people are suffering as war is pursued at whatever level. The war varies in intensity but it has been on-going and the deaths and injuries are significant.

Of course, Israel says that it is attacked, and that rockets come out of Gaza. I put on record my condemnation of the rockets that are fired into Israeli civilian areas, but two things must be said. First, the response of Israel is entirely disproportionate and goes way beyond what could ever be countenanced. Secondly, as everyone knows, a cat that is put in a corner will scratch and, if the people in Gaza are treated like that, nothing else can be expected.

However, damage and loss of life are not the only issues. The report that Sandra White has drawn attention to states that, in 2014, the operation in Gaza resulted in 18,000 housing units being destroyed or severely damaged; 26 schools being destroyed and 122 being damaged; and 15 hospitals and 45 primary health centres being damaged. Israel is wiping out the infrastructure that civic society in Gaza requires if it is to be able to survive.

That takes me to my second point. Israel has created something that is to all intents and purposes a Bantustan. It is a society that cannot be expected to live as it is, because it requires access to areas beyond its borders, which have been encroached on by Israel. The issue concerns not only access to employment—unemployment is massive there; the rates are 80 per cent for young women and 44 per cent for the whole society—but matters such as access to water, because Gaza’s water comes from outwith the area.

I am conscious of time, so I will just say that, in the limited space that Israel has allowed the Palestinian people in Gaza, civic society cannot be sustained. The final warning from the UN report is that, if trends continue and the Palestinian population rises to 2.1 million by 2020—only five years away—life will not be tolerable in Gaza. Things have to change. Israel has to allow Gaza to live, develop and breathe and to have a civic society that can be maintained.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on securing today’s debate.

Like the United Kingdom Government, I readily recognise the severe suffering of the inhabitants of Gaza and want urgent action to be taken to alleviate the impact of occupation and improve the humanitarian situation. All of us will feel real sympathy for their plight. The UK is one of the leading international donors in terms of supporting the much-needed reconstruction efforts in Gaza and providing significant amounts of emergency assistance. The UK has provided £350 million to build Palestinian institutions, deliver essential services and relieve the humanitarian situation. I am not saying that that is enough. We believe that other international donors should fulfil in full the financial pledges that they have made to provide support to Gaza, as the UK is doing. It is hugely disappointing that only around a third of the international aid that was promised at the 2014 Cairo conference on Palestine, which was called “reconstructing Gaza”, has so far been delivered.

We are pleased that Israel has taken some steps to ease the restrictions in Gaza but want more to be done to allow an increase in exports from Gaza, to expand water supplies—which Kenny MacAskill mentioned—and to ease further the restrictions on the movement of people, fishing, electricity and waste water treatment. It cannot be acceptable to anyone that power outages in Gaza last for up to 12 hours per day and that 120,000 are still without a water supply.

However, we believe, too, that some action is needed from both sides, which is why we continue to call on the Palestinian Authority, led by President Abbas, to take steps to return to Gaza and advance reconciliation. The Palestinians must also take steps to address Israel’s significant and legitimate security concerns. We should all recognise that Israel has faced an unacceptable barrage of rockets from Hamas and other militant groups. That is unsustainable. Israeli people cannot be expected to do nothing in the face of aggressive missiles.

At the end of the day, the aspirations of the Palestinian people cannot be fully realised until there is an end to the occupation. That will come only through negotiations, however hard that might be and however far away from a negotiated settlement we might be. I acknowledge recent events. Suffering and violence on both sides make it seem an even harder task. A negotiated two-state solution and a resolution through peaceful means is the only way of achieving any sustainable, long-term outcome for the region.

Making progress towards the two-state solution remains a foreign policy priority for the UK. The international community must strive harder than ever to work with both sides to find a comprehensive peace agreement that delivers an independent Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel. We must not lose sight of that aim. All of us, including members of this Parliament, should support it and urge both sides to commit to meaningful talks. There is no alternative. Like Sandra White, I pray that wise counsel of Solomonic proportions will prevail and that the mutual respect and understanding that she mentions in the motion lay the cornerstones for a happier future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Due to the number of members who still wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept from Sandra White a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Sandra White.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I apologise for having to leave soon to chair a meeting of the cross-party group on rare diseases that was due to start at 5.30 but cannot start until I am there.

I congratulate Sandra White on securing the debate and reminding us again of the desperate situation in Gaza, which is graphically described in the report from the United Nations Trade and Development Board. Although members have already described many of the facts, it is important to keep stating those facts and to remind people of them, because many people perhaps wish to put them from their minds.

Gaza is home to 1.8 million Palestinians. More than 80 per cent of them live in poverty and are aid dependent, and 61 per cent are food insecure. There is no chance to grow a viable economy because the vital materials that are needed to plant crops and rebuild infrastructure are stopped at the checkpoints. The global shelter cluster, which works with bodies such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to house displaced people, estimates that less than 1 per cent of the construction materials required to rebuild houses destroyed and damaged during hostilities have so far entered Gaza. There is no growth, no renewal and no jobs.

In 2014, the unemployment rate was 43 per cent—the highest in the world—and the youth unemployment rate exceeded 60 per cent. That should not have been allowed to continue for so long. It is a crime against multiple articles of the Geneva convention that Israel has perpetuated those conditions. As an occupying force, Israel has used the policy of separation and the illegal blockade to rip apart the economy, severing the links between Gaza and the West Bank and blocking off the important economic and cultural ties that once defined a vibrant people.

Article 33 of the fourth Geneva convention states that the collective punishment of a civilian population is a war crime. What we are seeing now, with the population on the brink of starvation, has been described as such an act by the European Union and the UN. It contravenes Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law and it is a mark of shame on the international community that many do not turn their heads to it until the next rocket is fired or the next aerial assault is launched.

The crisis in Gaza is a slow daily march towards utter devastation, with each war bringing an unliveable reality closer. Those bright and hopeful children deserve better and their voices must be heard in making the case for change.

There is a different story to be told of Gaza and her people—one of potential, resilience and a tenacity to grasp hope in the ruins of despair. Gaza’s children are among the most literate in the Arab world and they are imbued with a passion for learning. The culture and tradition of their land and their close connection to the sea and to the tending of their crops survive in the pages of their books. The height of their ambition is matched only by the height of the walls that lock them in—such is the nature of this conflict.

Natural gas is just one area that could help to rebuild Gaza’s economic structure. There are many other examples in the agricultural sector, house building, teaching, medicine and fishing. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing the old men at the waterfront of Gaza city looking out to the sea where they have fished for generations. They stare out to sea knowing that the maritime blockade at 3 nautical miles is marked with Israeli military vessels that have been known to shoot at boats and destroy nets. The fear and sadness are worn into their faces. They are losing hope for themselves and for future generations.

Israel must lift the blockade immediately. It must honour its obligations as an occupying force in the occupied Palestinian territories. It must then allow a sustainable economy to grow and lift the land out of its current crisis. If it does not, further political deterioration and conflict will be inevitable.

The enormity of the crisis cannot be overestimated. I join others in the chamber today in calling for the international community to put pressure on Israel as an immediate priority.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I thank Sandra White for bringing the debate to the chamber. I have to say that I detected a slightly more conciliatory tone in her speech than I had detected in the motion.

I did not particularly want to speak in the debate, because I have spoken before on Israel and Palestine and I think that I have made my position fairly clear. That position is that I believe that we should be doing all that we can—whether as Scotland, the UK or the EU—to bring about peace in the middle east.

I do not believe that peace will be brought about by giving either side unqualified support. I also do not think that we can achieve peace in the region without involving other players, such as Iran and Egypt. The problems in Gaza are not linked solely to Israel and Palestine.

However, on reading the motion, I felt that I should speak in the hope of giving a slightly different angle from the back benches. This subject stirs a lot of emotion on both sides, but I hope that we are mature enough as a Parliament to accept that there are two sides to the argument and that both sides have a degree of validity in their cause.

I will focus on a few words that appear in the motion. The motion refers to “justice” and a “just solution”. I certainly hope that we all support justice, but justice on its own can be quite a harsh concept. It is one of the words on our mace in the Parliament, but it is not the only word; “compassion” is another word that appears there. We need both those qualities when we talk about Israel and Gaza. We should look at the situation by seeking justice with compassion and we should encourage both sides to seek justice along with compassion for the other side.

The key word in the motion that made me feel that I had to speak today was “genocide.” It is a strong word that we should not use lightly. We are all prepared to use it in relation to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other groups in the Holocaust.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I will read out the dictionary definition of genocide, which is the deliberate killing or elimination of all or part of a racial, ethnic, religious, cultural or national group. I think that that is what has been happening in Gaza. I make no excuse or apology for using the word “genocide” in the manner that I did.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I will continue with what I was going to say, which will answer or at least respond to Sandra White’s point.

I used the word “genocide” in a motion that I lodged about the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, which provoked a strong response from the Turkish consulate in Scotland. We can and should use the word when it is appropriate, but we need to be careful not to use it too loosely.

“Genocide” is defined in article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which refers to

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

It goes on to give examples. The Nazis intended to destroy the Jews, but I do not think that there is any evidence or serious suggestion that Israel intends to destroy the Palestinians.

This is not just an academic debate that we are engaged in. Criticism of Israel might not be intended to be an attack on the Jews but, in practice, it can be perceived in that way. The Jews in Glasgow and the west of Scotland tell us that they feel more threatened at present than they have done in living memory.

I am not here to defend the Israeli Government and its actions—it is well able to do that itself—but we need to decide what our aim is when we have such debates and more generally when we consider the middle east situation. I hope that we want to do all that we can to bring peace to that region and that we want to be as supportive as we can be to Jews who live in Scotland.

I very much agree with the final phrase in the motion, which is that “wise counsel will prevail.” “Wisdom” is also a word that is on our mace. I very much hope that we can see more wisdom in relation to Israel and Gaza.

Photo of Cara Hilton Cara Hilton Labour

I congratulate Sandra White on securing the debate and declare an interest as a member of the Scottish Palestine solidarity campaign.

Last week, Sandra White and I met Jim Malone and representatives of the Fire Brigades Union to discuss the situation in Gaza and across Palestine. I wish him and his colleagues well on their trip to Palestine later this week to support Palestinian firefighters in Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron and Israeli firefighters in west Jerusalem and to complete their documentary on firefighters under occupation. I know that the minister and the Scottish Government support their visit, and I hope that everyone across the chamber will wish them well.

It is just over a year since the Israeli Government’s operation protective edge destroyed the lives, homes, schools, hospitals and livelihoods of thousands of men, women and children in Gaza. After eight years of Israeli blockades, a United Nations development agency report says that almost all the population of Gaza have been left destitute and warns that Gaza could be uninhabitable within just five years.

Last year’s war not only killed 2,200 Palestinians, including 556 children; it displaced half a million people and left much of Gaza in ruins. According to the report, 20,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed or damaged, and 148 schools, 15 hospitals, 48 healthcare centres, 247 factories and 300 commercial centres were fully or partially destroyed. Gaza’s only power station sustained severe damage. Israel’s three military operations over just six years, together with the economic blockade of Gaza, mean that economic recovery is simply impossible.

It is therefore no surprise to learn that Gaza now has the highest unemployment rate in the world—it stands at 43 per cent. Kenny MacAskill highlighted that eight out of 10 women are out of work as a result of that. A staggering 95 per cent of the population in Gaza do not have access to clean, safe drinking water, and 72 per cent of households are affected by food insecurity. More than half receive food aid.

The economic blockade that Israel has imposed has devastated Gaza, isolated its people from the outside world and forced its population to rely on international aid. More than half the population of Gaza are under 18. Thanks to the blockade, those children, who should have everything to look forward to, are being denied the very basic essentials of life, collectively punished for being Palestinian and denied the basic human rights that every child has and should have under international law.

The time has come for Governments to take effective economic and political action to ensure compliance with international law; to force the Israeli Government to lift the blockade on Gaza; to halt the illegal settlements and the bulldozing of Palestinian homes; to end the apartheid policies that are destroying people’s lives; to start to respect the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people; and to take action to ensure a two-state solution that respects the security, peace and freedom of both the Palestinian and Israeli populations. Sadly, the comments that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made in recent days and weeks do not inspire much hope of progress.

One of my constituents, Mia Oudeh, has hit the headlines in The Herald and The National today with a powerful letter to J K Rowling that highlights why a campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions is essential if we are to peacefully encourage Israel to comply with international law. I urge any members who have not done so to read her letter.

I hope that the Scottish Government will look at using the powers of procurement and divestment to support the Palestinian people and to address the issues that John Finnie raised about pension funds being linked to companies that are in the arms trade, such as Raytheon UK in Fife. I encourage consumers to use their purchasing power to boycott Israeli goods and send a message to Israel—just as we did to South Africa—that enough is enough. This is not about taking sides; it is about human rights, justice and peace. Every day that we do not act, Palestinians and Israelis are paying the price of that failure to act.

We must use all our influence to make it clear to Israel that the blockades, the illegal settlements, the collective punishment and the breaches of international law must stop. My time in the debate is running out, just as time is running out for the people of Gaza unless we act. I thank Sandra White again for securing tonight’s important debate.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Sandra White for lodging the motion. I also congratulate her on her speech: she stuck to the important issue of the UN report, and I thought that her tone was measured. I congratulate members across the chamber, who also took a very measured tone on what can often be—quite rightly and understandably—an emotive issue.

Attempts to resolve the situation in Israel and Palestine have been under way for 60 years—more than twice the time that I have been alive. The argument could be made, unfortunately, that we are as far away and as distant as ever from a peaceful resolution. That is a damning indictment of the international community and of us all.

The deadlock brings devastating human consequences, as many members have highlighted. We have seen incitement of, and an upsurge in, that violence in the past few weeks. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded in the latest wave of hostilities alone. The Scottish Government unreservedly condemns all acts of violence, whichever party perpetrates them. It does not matter whether they be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, Palestinian or Israeli, because the deaths of all innocent persons are to be condemned and mourned equally.

The Palestinians and Israelis deserve peace and stability. As Sandra White’s motion highlights, even during periods of relative calm, that is not the reality for hundreds of thousands of people in the region. The UN report on which the motion focuses makes for troubling reading. Gaza’s economy has been battered by years of blockade and successive military offences. Socioeconomic conditions are at their lowest point since 1967 and unemployment in Gaza is at its highest recorded level.

Hamas is, of course, not a blameless party. A recent UN report accused it of war crimes for which it must answer. The bleakness of the situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the enormous damage that last summer’s military assault did to Gaza’s infrastructure and to the very assets that could otherwise help the local people to rebuild their economy and move towards self-sufficiency. Hospitals, health centres, schools, sewerage infrastructure and homes have been destroyed or damaged in significant number, which has caused living conditions to deteriorate further. As Cara Hilton and others said, that has made Gaza almost uninhabitable.

I agree with Sandra White that the situation in Gaza is unsustainable. I would go as far as to say that the Government believes that Gaza has been turned into the largest open-air prison in the world. The Scottish Government unequivocally condemns, in the strongest possible manner, the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

The UN report underlines the urgent need for political progress. There has been some high-level progress since the report was published in July. Last month, for example, St Lucia became the latest country to recognise Palestine as a state. That means that 136 of the 193 UN members—two thirds of the world’s countries—recognise the state of Palestine. It is no secret that the Scottish Government thinks that the UK should join that number. It is a fallacy and logical inconsistency of the highest order to say that we believe in a two-state solution while refusing to recognise one of the states involved. The UK Government should change its stance immediately.

Such a step might be viewed as being of symbolic importance, but it will not of itself improve the situation on the ground for people in Gaza. To secure a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine and stability and prosperity for the people who live there, a sustainable negotiated settlement is needed.

However, meaningful peace talks have stalled and local people’s faith in the ability of talks to deliver is faltering. I read with interest that a survey last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that fewer than half the people in Gaza support the peace process and that fewer than 27 per cent believe that negotiations are the most effective way to secure a Palestinian state.

The international community must do its utmost to reverse such developments and to help to convince people in Palestine and in Israel that their interests are far better served by negotiation than by violence. I therefore welcomed last week’s intervention by the UN’s secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who acknowledged the real anger and fear on both sides but emphasised that only a return to the peace process can prevent the current crisis from worsening.

Members asked about the Scottish Government’s actions. We have consistently condemned obstacles to progressing the peace process, such as the continued expansion of illegal settlements—I use the term deliberately; we view the settlements as illegal. We have strongly discouraged trade and investment from illegal settlements, and last year we published guidance for public purchasers on dealing with companies that might be involved with illegal settlements. Cara Hilton asked about that. Our procurement guidelines are a step in the right direction.

We have also directly supported the people of Gaza. Last year we gave £0.5 million to the UN Gaza flash appeal, to help to provide water, food, shelter and medical assistance. We also stood ready to provide medical assistance through plans for casualties of violence in Gaza to receive specialist care in Scottish hospitals.

While doing what we can within the limitations of our devolved competence, we have repeatedly called on the UK Government to use its influence to help to relieve suffering in Palestine, whether by taking in refugees or by calling for a ban on exports of arms to Israel—let me say to John Finnie and Cara Hilton that that includes exports from companies that are based in Scotland.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I am about to respond to the member’s point about Lockheed Martin, which I thought was well made. I do not know 100 per cent about the issue, but I think that criticism might well be fair enough. As a Government, we strive to do our utmost to meet the highest standards of ethical business, and if there is still work for us to do in that regard I am more than happy to discuss the matter with John Finnie.

The Scottish Government does not tolerate violence or extremism in any form in Scotland. Just as we condemn violence and extremism in Israel and Palestine, we condemn violence and extremism here when they are directed at our Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish or Muslim communities.

We all hope for peace in Israel and Palestine, but the anger and frustration that fuel much of the current violence will not subside unless there is hope for a better future. It is hard to see how such hope can exist when the conditions in Gaza, which are described in the UN report, make the prospects so bleak for the people of Palestine.

We urge all sides to work together to bring an end to the violence, to allow the people of Gaza and wider Palestine to build the prosperous future that is so vital to a long-term sustainable peace. Cara Hilton made the point well when she said that this is not about being pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, but is about being pro-human rights and pro-international law. That is where the Scottish Government’s position lies.

Meeting closed at 18:03.