What do you do when someone says the right thing, but doesn’t do it?

Foreign Office Questions
Questions Tuesday February 26th 11.30 am

This is the problem that faces MPs when they ask questions about Palestine.  The Minister for the Middle East says ‘yes, we will make representations to the Israeli government’.  But nothing ever happens. Or ‘yes, we will do that when the time is right’.  But the time is never right.

Sometimes MPs must wonder whether it is still worth asking the questions. But it is. For two reasons.

First, the pressure exerted by MPs does sometimes have an effect. International pressure is a major reason why the demolition of Khan al Ahmar – expected in August last year – has been postponed until now.

Second, the pressure for stronger action must be maintained to stop the situation getting worse. For the Palestinians it’s not true that things can’t get worse.  They have got worse under Trump because Israel is under less pressure from the US.

The UK has led on the treatment of Palestinian children in military custody. Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP raised the issue again, citing new cases, and the Minister was forced to repeat his mantra that “we regularly express concerns”. He could do far more. Pressure will help to persuade him.

Karen Lee MP raised the fear that the next Israeli government elected on April 9th will contain MPs from the extremist Jewish Power party who were supporters of Rabbi Meir Kahane jailed for his violent racist views.

The Minister replied that the composition of Israeli coalitions is “not a matter for the UK Government”, but in his very next sentence he was reiterating UK policy on Hamas, the Palestinian party the UK refuses to speak to, even when it is in a coalition government.

Stewart McDonald MP also forced the minister to repeat his mantra on the recognition of Palestine – “we are pledged to do that when it is in the best interests of peace” – as though it isn’t always in the best interests of peace. How can you believe in a two-state solution, yet recognise only one of the two states?

As  it appeared in Hansard

Question 6. Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown): What recent diplomatic steps he has taken towards helping to secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

Question 11. Karen Lee (Lincoln): What recent diplomatic steps he has taken towards helping to secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op) I have here the names of four young Palestinians, all under the age of 18, who are currently in prison: Yaccob Qawasmeh, Akram Mustafa and Ahmad Silwadi, and one who is 15 years old, Akram Daa’dou. In the early hours of this morning, in the presence of his family, Akram Daa’dou was dragged from his home by Israeli occupation forces. His family have no idea where he is. Will the Minister raise with his Israeli counterpart questions about where this gentleman and the other young people are, and ensure that their rights under the fourth Geneva convention are upheld, as they should be, in the Palestinian occupied territories?

Minister for the Middle East (Alistair Burt) Through the Consulate-General in Jerusalem we regularly express concerns to Israel about activity relating to minors on the West Bank. We have offered help and support for dealing with children who may have been detained and we are constantly in contact about any risk of incursion there and the effect on civil rights.

Karen Lee (Lincoln) (Lab) Labour is committed to a peaceful two-state solution that guarantees a secure Israel alongside a viable state of Palestine. For anyone working towards that goal it is worrying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck an election deal with two extreme nationalist parties whose leading members have advocated the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians. Will the Minister commit to using all available diplomatic measures to ensure that that coalition does not threaten a peaceful two-state settlement?

Alistair Burt Coalitions in Israel and matters affecting the Israeli elections are not a matter for the UK Government. Our position on a two-state solution and a comprehensive solution to the Middle East peace process is exactly the same as that of colleagues on the other side of the House and, as I said earlier, it is a fundamental part of UK foreign policy that we will continue to press for that.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) One of the big problems the Palestinians have is that they do not speak with one voice. Is there any sign of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas?

Alistair Burt He is correct: the issues between those in authority on the West Bank and those in Gaza—between Fatah and Hamas—have long been a difficulty in getting a consistent Palestinian voice. My understanding is that conversations about reconciliation are continuing, and they are being handled very much by the Government of Egypt. If there is to be the peaceful settlement of issues in the Middle East peace process that we want, it is essential that there is a consistent voice from Palestinians based around the Quartet principles and that the efforts made towards security and peace by the Palestinian Authority over a lengthy period are followed by others.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP) Too often, resolution of this conflict feels like a lost cause, but the British Government could prevent that from being the case by recognising the state of Palestine formally. Why will they not do that?

Alistair Burt I have been anxious for many years to ensure that this is not a lost cause and that we have to keep at it. It remains fundamental in the region, and we will keep at it. The recognition of a state of Palestine would not, per se, end the issue, but we are pledged to do that when it is in the best interests of peace and of the peace process in the region.

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Netanyahu, facing corruption charges, takes $138 million from Palestinians

The Israeli election is now in full swing and it has become a battle between the extreme-right coalition led by Benyamin Netanyahu that has been in power for the past ten years and a centre-right coalition led by Benny Gantz who was the Israeli Defence Forces Chief of General Staff during the 2014 assault on Gaza.

Benny Gantz launched his campaign with a video boasting that during the assault that he led “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” and 1,364 Hamas militants were killed.

The UN disputes this figure. Not all the 1,364 were Hamas militants and another 1,462 who were killed were definitely civilians, killed as “collateral damage”. 504 children died, 503 Palestinian and one Israeli. Despite all this, Gantz is considered the “peace” candidate.

The mainly Palestinian Joint List has split in two with one part led by Ayman Odeh of Hadash heading for 8-9 seats and another led by Ahmed Tibi of Ra’am-Balad expected to scrape in with 4 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

The left-wing Meretz is hovering just above the 3.25% threshold which they have to reach to win any seats at all and the Israeli Labour Party is doing little better with a forecast 6-9 seats, down from 18 at the last election.

Last week Netanyahu was indicted on three corruption charges and may have to appear in court during the campaign to defend himself, but this has hardly dented support for his Likud party.

In any case his alleged corruption is small fry compared with what he has in store for the Palestinians. Two weeks ago he announced that he is going to withhold $138 million of tax revenues – which illegal belong to the Palestinians – unless they agree to block welfare payments to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails.

On previous occasions when Israel has refused to hand over tax revenues as a way of twisting the arm of the Palestinian government, UK ministers have condemned the practice and urged them to release withheld funds.

This happened when the Palestinians won recognition at the United Nations, when they became signatories to the International Criminal Court, when they became members of UNESCO and when they elected a Hamas government in 2006, but in the end international pressure always forced him to hand the money back.

This time the condition Netanyahu has set for the release of funds is impossible for the Palestinians to meet.  Over a quarter of the adult male population have been in an Israel jail at some point in their lives, the great majority for acts that would not even be an offence in other countries, such as organising or taking part in a demonstration.

He also announced that he will push ahead with the demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar before the election.

“I hope the eviction will take place before the elections, it will surely help”, he told journalists and according to an anonymous statement from two ministers demolition is “scheduled” to take place before the poll “in order to garner political capital on the right.”

Over 60 British MPs have visited the village in the Judean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho and 109 MPs have signed Lisa Nandy’s motion to stop the demolition, but stronger action will now be needed to yield a change of course.

Israeli army JCB bulldozers appeared at the site in July and demolition appeared imminent, but In October, Netanyahu’s office announced that the planned evacuation would be delayed indefinitely amid new talks between the government and village residents.

The decision to delay came after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned ministers that a forced evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar could compromise the Israeli position vis-à-vis Palestinian claims against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

The delay drew angry responses from MPs from the governning parties, who have demanded the clearing of the village, which would make way for the expansion of the neighbouring Kfar Adumim settlement.

Why Trump’s Middle East peace plan is just a sideshow

Read The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent Oliver Holmes

After two years of drum-rolling, Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” for Israelis and Palestinians is about to enter what its architects claim is the pre-launch phase.

The US president has said the peace plan drawn up by his team – two former personal lawyers and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – will be ready to unveil by the end of January.

Yet despite the anticipation surrounding Trump’s proposals for resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, a more crucial plan for the region is already being implemented on the ground: an attempt to strengthen Israel’s hand while weakening that of the Palestinians.

One by one, the US has implemented the key demands of Israel’s hardline rightwing lobby, drastically slashing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, declaring the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, shuttering Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington, and closing its own consulate that serves the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

For Palestinians – and many Israelis – a peace deal is a sideshow. The bigger issue, which does not depend on peace, is the implementation of Israel’s wishes by the most accommodating US administration in its history.

Trump has repeatedly said the measures are intended to force Palestinian leaders – who reject him outright as a biased mediator – into a peace effort. Trump has also said Israel will have to “pay a price” for peace, although has not specified what that would be.

Palestinian leaders have responded by saying there is no genuine plan for a just solution. “It’s really a lie,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian politician.

“Everybody is working on this fictitious concept. [The US] became partners with Israel and they are implementing Israeli policies. All we see are unilateral measures by the US and by Israel … The reality on the ground is now being engineered.”

A state department official said a “high priority” has been placed on achieving a comprehensive deal, but it would be “difficult”. While they would not comment on details of the plan, which is still being drafted, a few aspects are becoming clearer.

First, unlike previous US-led efforts in which it was up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to decide the details, the Trump version will likely be much more specific and prescriptive. In essence, it will be a series of suggestions that detractors say will be heavily focused on Israeli demands based on the political views of its authors.

For example, Jason Greenblatt, who is leading Trump’s team after his promotion to government from chief legal officer at the Trump Organization, has broken US precedent to say Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank – illegal under international law – is not an obstacle to peace.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who also worked for Trump’s company, has been even more vocal in his support of Israeli settlement construction, and even the annexation of Palestinian territory.

Second, the US will only go so far in pushing the two sides to accept the deal, meaning the plan is liable to collapse. “The parties will need to decide if they think the plan works for them and will make their lives better,” Greenblatt has said. “The parties are the only ones who can make these compromises.”

Critics say it is increasingly apparent that those drafting the plan might not even be betting on its success to achieve their goals, which are already being enforced on the ground.

Trump’s team will know that from Israel’s perspective there is very little appetite for peace compared with the past. An August poll found only 9% of Israelis wanted their government to prioritise reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is acutely aware of public sentiment as an election approaches, has said he does not see “any urgency” on Trump revealing his peace plan. His former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman was even clearer when asked about a peace deal that could result in Palestinian self-rule: “I don’t care about a Palestinian state,” he said. The justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, said she would tell Trump the plan was “a waste of time”.

Read the rest of the article in The Guardian

UN appeals for $350 million to plug gap left by Trump aid cut

DfID boosts UK aid to £65.5 million

Last month the UN and the Palestine Authority issued an appeal for $350 million to plug the gap left by the withdrawal of the United States’ $365 million contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees.

A new assessment of humanitarian needs by the UN found that:

  • 10,000 Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank are at risk of forcible transfer
  • 13,000 homes in Area C have demolition orders not yet carried out
  • 25,000 Palestinians (including 6,250 children) have been injured by Israeli forces or settlers in 2018
  • 26,000 children in Gaza are in need of mental and psychosocial health support
  • 70% of UN schools in Gaza operate two or three shifts a day
  • 96% of water extracted from the Gaza aquifer is unfit for human consumption

According to the UN: “Following a deterioration of the humanitarian situation during 2018, some 2.5 million people have been identified as in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2019.

“The long-standing Israeli blockade and the internal Palestinian political divide are expected to continue, alongside demonstrations, clashes and casualties.

“As a result, the health system in Gaza is likely to remain overstretched, clean water and sewage treatment will be insufficient, and unemployment will remain severe.

“In the West Bank a coercive environment, including discriminatory planning policies, access restrictions, settlement expansion and settler violence, will continue, placing Palestinians in vulnerable communities in Area C, East Jerusalem and the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron city at risk of forcible transfer.”

The UN’s Relief & Works Agency UNRWA provides assistance for 5.15 million refugees, education for 526,000 children, health centres for 3.1 million patients and basic food rations for 255,000 refugees living in extreme poverty.

UNRWA is funded by a voluntary levy of UN members. The agency runs 59 refugees camps, 143 health centres and over 700 schools for 4.3 million refugees in five countries. It provides emergency rations for 400,000 refugees in Syria and nearly a million in Gaza.

After President Trump’s withdrawal of funds, Alistair Burt announced that the UK was increasing its contribution by £7 million to £60.5 million and added a further £5 million on December 17th to provide emergency food including rice, sugar and chickpeas to 62,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza who are at risk of going hungry. (See link to DfID press release below.)

The minister has however resisted calls from Labour shadow minister Fabian Hamilton and LibDem MP Layla Moran for an emergency conference of donor nations to discuss strategies for dealing with the shortfall caused by President Trump’s announcement.

Pressure has been growing on the minister to take an initiative – in the absence of the Americans – to ensure that the world does not allow another humanitarian disaster to follow on from the starvation in Yemen.

World Bank studies have shown that Palestinian refugees would soon outgrow the need for aid if the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank were lifted. What they need is not aid but action.  However in the absence of action, the danger of large-scale starvation is growing.

Palestinians fear a Trump-led conspiracy to phase out UN refugee camps

A leading resident of a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus put it very succinctly.  There was a conspiracy, he said, to run down the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.

President Trump has already announced he is ending the $365 million US contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency and USAID budget of $200 million for Palestine.

Middle East minister Alistair Burt responded with a £7 million increase in the UK contribution, but, as Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Fabian Hamilton pointed out, that would still leave UNRWA with a shortfall of $380 million this year. It was “a drop in the ocean”.

The chairman of the residents’ committee of the Al Askar camp, Husni Odeh, told a group from Sheffield last week that the UN agency was already being forced to run down vital services for the most marginalised refugees suffering from high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Class sizes in United Nations schools have been increased to 50 or even 55. UN health centres often have just one doctor to see 50-60 patients – and they have no medicines to give them.

When inevitably some refugees see no point in going to a doctor that has no medicine, or move their children out of overcrowded UN schools, they claim the Palestinians “don’t want our services” in order to justify still further cuts in UNRWA’s budget.

“The UN are closing health centres and they are shrinking their services gradually so that people don’t stop them,” he said.

President Trump has also floated the idea of downgrading Palestinian refugees so that the next generation will no longer have refugee status.  But there is an essential difference between Palestinian refugees and refuges from natural disasters or wars.

The latter will eventually return to an empty home or at least a plot of land where they can rebuild their lives.  But Palestinian refugees have no home to go to.  Even in their own country they are refugees.  Their villages have been demolished. Their homes are occupied by strangers.

The aid that western countries provide for Palestinian refugees is essentially conscience money to atone for the fact that they are not prepared to pressure the Israeli government into the action they know is needed.

UNRWA provides assistance for 5.15 million refugees, education for 515,000 children, health centres for 3.1 million patients and basic food rations for 255,000 refugees living in extreme poverty.

President Trump is openly trying to starve Palestinians to the negotiating table to accept a deal has not yet been published, but which will undoubtedly involve a complete humiliation and the loss of yet more land in addition to the 78% of historic Palestine they have already given up their claim to.

Trump boasted that: “I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians. I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.”

Labour has called for an international emergency conference so that other countries can pledge support to close the funding gap caused by the withdrawal of the US contribution.  They will have a choice between increased aid to avert a humanitarian crisis – or action to put effective international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and the occupation.

New critique of IHRA code

A new critique of the IHRA code of conduct, now incorporated into the Labour Party’s disciplinary code, has been published by European Jews for a Just Peace, a federation of 11 European Jewish peace including the UK’s Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

It argues that the assurance in the introduction to the code that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” is impossibly ambiguous.

“Does it mean that anyone criticising Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she has also criticized other countries in the same way? Even worse, does it mean that the person can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she criticises other countries in the same way at the same time? Either way, it would discourage people from exercising their right to criticise Israel.

“What does ‘similar’ mean in this context? What other countries have been belligerently occupying another people’s land, illegally settling it and taking its natural resources, creating an apartheid-like system of unequal rights, and using violent and sometimes lethal means to repress resistance, for 50+ years?

“The sentence also creates an internal contradiction in the document. It contradicts the immediately preceding sentence in the preamble and the last bullet point in “contemporary examples of antisemitism”. If Jews are not collectively responsible for the actions of Israel (as surely they are not), then how can it be antisemitic to single out Israel, whether the criticism is well or ill founded ?

“There are of course many other countries that abuse the human rights of their own citizens, and they are regularly criticised. However, no one is required to choose between concerning himself with all cases of abuse or none. That would be a limitation on freedom of speech.

“We believe adoption would also have severe consequences for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more widely it is adopted, the greater will be its effect in repressing criticism of Israel, and the more will right-wing Israeli governments be emboldened to continue acting as if they are above the law.”

Board of Deputies launched censure motion over ‘spectacular own goal’

The two members of the British Board of Deputies who accused their vice-chair of anti-semitism were themselves the target of a censure motion from the Board’s leadership for what was called a “spectacular own goal”.
Jacob Lyons and Martin Rankoff collected signatures for a motion of no confidence in Dr Sheila Gewolb after she issued a press release criticising Israel’s Nation State Law.

The press release was issued by Dr Gewolb in July in the name of the Board and it criticised the new law – which says that only Jewish Israelis have a right to self-determination and downgrades the status of the Arabic language – as “regressive”.

The two members accused her of “applying double standards to Israel” – one of the examples of antisemitism given in the IHRA code that the Board of Deputies persuaded the Labour Party to adopt in its disciplinary code.

This was the example – “applying double standards – that the Board itself used to accuse the National Union of Students of antisemitism for voting to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

The Board used the same example to accuse academics of antisemitism when they wrote to the Guardian to support an academic boycott in 2015.

The potential for embarrassment was recognised by the Board when they issued a vote of censure against the two members for “bringing the Board into disrepute” at the same time as urging their members not to sign their vote of censure against Dr Gewolb.

At a meeting of the Board in October President of the Board Marie van der Zyl issued an edict to members that they had to “welcome a huge diversity of opinion” and “learn to disagree with tolerance and respect”.