Month: April 2012

Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike

More than 2,000 Palestinian prisoners are now on hunger strike in a protest against human rights abuses in Israeli jails, including the widespread use of administrative detention, solitary confinement, strip-searching, shackling and refusal of family visits.

The protest has snowballed since Khader Adnan and Hana Shelabi began their hunger strikes against being held for more than two years without charge or trial and without even being told what the evidence was against them.

Khader Adnan was released after 66 days without food and Hana Shalabi was released after 44 days to Gaza– where she sent a message from her hospital bed to thank her British supporters “for their solidarity and for standing beside Palestinian prisoners”.

More solidarity will be needed to help the 4,386 Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails for conflict-related reasons even after the release of more than a thousand in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange last year.

Currently 320 are held without charge, but the focus of the protest has spread to wider issues of injustice and ill-treatment.

The hunger strike has several key demands, including:

  •  An end to solitary confinement ;
  • An end to administrative detention;
  •  To allow the families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip to visit prisoners;
  • An improvement in the living conditions of prisoners and an end to the ban on  newspapers, learning materials and many TV channels; and
  •  An end to the policies of humiliation such as strip searches, nightly raids, and collective punishment.

The Israel Prison Service has imposed retaliatory measures on hunger strikers, including beatingstransferring from one prison to anotherconfiscation of salt (an act that could have severe health consequences for hunger strikers)denial of family and lawyers’ visits, and solitary confinement.

Nearly all the prisoners are from the West Bank or Gaza but are held in prisons in Israel, which is an offence under international law and means that their families can visit them only if they are able to get visas to enter Israel.

None of the families of the Gazan prisoners are able to visit, causing terrible grief and heartache. On a recent visit to Gaza I met the 10-year-old daughter of a Gazan prisoner who had never met her father, but every day when she came back from school she spoke to his image on a photo-album on top of the television to ‘tell’ him what she had done at school.

West Bank prisoners are more fortunate in that they are allowed two visits a month from immediate family, though their family members may be refused visas on ‘security grounds’ if they have ever been arrested or in prison themselves.

Visits can involve round trips of up to 12 hours on Red Cross buses to prisons far off in the Negev desert for a 45-minute interview with contact only through a telephone and a glass panel.

Prisoners are constantly transferred from prison to prison, with a less comfortable journey of up to 12 hours involving no food, drink or toilet sitting on the floor of a prison van.

Israel’s treatment of child prisoners has already led to questions and debates in the UK Parliament and ministers have “raised concerns” with the Israelis about the practice of bringing children to court in shackles, ‘cuffing’ them and interrogating them without lawyers or parents present.

A parliamentary motion tabled by Falkirk’s Mike Connarty was signed by 49 MPs condemning the “inhumane treatment, denial of basic healthcare and education, refusal of family visits, excessive fines, repeated night searches and long-term isolation”.

But so far the cause of adult prisoners has failed to strike the same chord with the British public, allowing the Israeli prison service a free hand to treat them in the most brutal and inhumane way.

The regime for “security prisoners” is far harsher than for normal prisoners with endless night-time cell searches, withdrawal of privileges, including family visits, strip-searches, interrogations and threatened punishments to the prisoners’ families.

Prisoners are given no remission or parole. In Britain a 25-year life sentence can mean 15 years, but for Palestinians it means 25 years to the day and for them a life sentence is 99 years.

Already about 30 prisoners have spent longer than Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in jail and about 20 of them are still in prison.  Some prisoners have been sentenced to multiple life sentences amounting to thousands of years.

Isolation cells are used both as a punishment and as a way of isolating potential prisoners’ leaders. They are put in a cell measuring two metres by two metres containing a bed, shower and toilet and can be kept there 23 hours a day for years at a time.

According to ex-prisoners Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has spent several years in this ‘hell in a cell’ while Abdullah Barghouthi has spent 10 years and Hassan Salameh 13. Solitary confinement is at the discretion of the prison governor with no judge, jury or appeal.

Long periods in solitary can break any prisoner and the lack of adequate healthcare has been high on the list of prisoners’ complaints. Hundreds of prisoners have died in prison and many of the hunger strikers are at risk.

The oldest of the recent hunger strikers is Ahmed Al-Haj, aged 71, who was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006 and is one of a group of 27 MPs held in prison, most of them in administrative detention.

He was arrested in 2008, released and then re-arrested last year on six months of administrative detention without charge and renewed in December for another six months, even though he’s suffering from a severe medical condition.

Most of his colleagues are Hamas MPs who were imprisoned in retaliation for Gilad Shalit’s capture in 2006 and have since been released and rearrested, but were not included in the 1,027 released in exchange for Gilad Shalit last year.

Others are Fatah MPs who are serving long sentences on charges of taking part in the second intifada, the best-known of whom is Marwan Barghouthi, head of Fatah’s military wing, who just marked his 10th anniversary in jail on April 15th.

Even many Israeli politicians have said he should be released on the grounds that he is the Palestinian leader best able to unite the country and would probably be elected president if able to stand.  He could then take his place alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela as politicians who have make the journey from prison cell to prime minister’s or president’s residence within four years.

For up-to-date information look on the following websites:  http://www.ufree-p.net/  http://samidoun.ca/

How Murdoch plays politicians

The longer version of a letter that appeared in Evening Standard (Saturday 28th April 2012)

When I was writing a book on the influence of the Sun on the 1992 election (‘Was it the Sun Wot Won It?’ Nuffield College), I came to the conclusion that Rupert Murdoch’s decisions about which party to support in an election were little influenced by his own political views and “99% influenced by his commercial interests”.  I ran a draft past an editor who had worked for Murdoch and he said I was quite wrong on the 99%:  “It’s absolutely 100%.”

So I listened open-mouthed to the Murdochs’ serial denials of this very evident truth in the witness box at the Leveson inquiry: James said: “The question of support for politicians is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction”. And his father said: “My commercial interests never came in to where we stood on our attitude to any political party”. What kind of fools do they take us for? Hasn’t there been a “big deal” between Murdoch and every government in the last 30 years? Thatcher did a couple of big favours for Murdoch – letting the Times/Sunday Times merger through without a reference to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission and exempting Sky from media ownership limits by defining it as a ‘European’ channel. Blair kept his party’s proposed stricter media ownership limits out of his manifesto and slipped a last-minute clause into the Communications Act 2002 which loosened them still further. Cameron would have given Murdoch control of BSkyB had not the Millie Dowler affair intervened. These deals may not have been written down, may not even have been explicitly stated, even in private. All that was needed for the deal to work was for the prime minister to know in what circumstances Murdoch would or would not let his hounds off the leash.

The fear that prime minister have of the Sun is not irrational. It’s not just that the Sun has a lot of readers, but its readers have very little interest in politics and very little commitment to any party, with the highest proportion of don’t knows before every election. Sun journalists are the best, if that is the right word, at ruthless character assassination. This combination puts the Sun in a pivotal position to influence the outcome of elections. Kinnock, Major and Brown can all testify to that.

Jeremy Hunt will not last long, but his future is not the central issue here. It’s the future of the Sun to exert such a powerful leverage over British politics.  This power has corrupted the relationship between newspapers and politics, leading to arrogance among News International journalists and executives, culminating in the phone-tapping scandal, and to a Dutch auction of moral turpitude by our political leaders who stop at almost nothing to win the support of the Sun. According to the paper’s former editor Kelvin McKenzie, while Blair and Brown went to humiliating lengths to keep Murdoch sweet, Cameron’s “obsessive arse-kissing of Rupert Murdoch” now makes him the daddy of them all.  Lord Leveson has the chance to expose this corruption at the heart of British politics. He may not find a smoking gun, but he can spell it out in his report. If Cameron doesn’t take the action that is needed, I’m sure Ed Miliband will.

Foreign Office Questions April 2012

Palestine briefing April 2012
Foreign Office questions on Palestine
Report-back on Foreign & Commonwealth Office questions on Palestine on Tuesday 17th April 2012

Record seven questions on Palestine
Seven MPs raised the issue of Palestine in FCO questions on Tuesday (April 17th). Thanks to those seven (and to others who tried to raise the issue but were not called) there will be stronger pressure on the Israeli government and in some cases a stronger public position the British government on Palestinian issues.

House demolitions
Michael Connarty raised the issue of demolitions of Palestinian homes. The Minister (Alistair Burt) confirmed that he had made representations to the Israelis on this subject (as he said when he answered a similar question from Linda Riordan in January) and quoted the UN figure of a 40% rise in demolitions since last year. He added that demolitions “are very destructive of the peace process” – a more robust statement than he made in January. For UN figures>>

No entry for visitors
Toby Perkins raised the issue of a 75-year-old constituent detained in Israel during the recent ‘flytilla’ and asked if it was right for Israel to refuse a British citizen the right to visit Palestine. Last month the Minister told Rushanara Ali that Israelis “have the right to refuse entry to anyone they wish” and Israeli immigration officials “are under no obligation to explain their decisions to us”. This month there was a slight shift in his stance. He said: “It is within Israel’s legitimate immigration rights to do what they are doing, but clearly the situation is not comfortable.” Let’s hope he will find some more robust words when he sees the “Obligation Form” that some tourists have been forced to sign when coming into Israel saying “I undertake that…. I will not participate in pro-Palestinian activities”.

Power cuts in Gaza
Philip Hollobone, who recently visited Gaza, asked the Minister to raise with Egypt with recent restrictions on fuel exports to Gaza causing 18-hour power blackouts every day. The Minister admitted he had not raised the issue yet but was “following the discussions among the relevant parties”.

Palestinian Prisoners’ Day
Cathy Jamieson raised the treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli prisons – April 17th was Palestine Prisoners’ Day – and the Minister repeated the concerns he has raised with the Israelis about the detention and treatment of children and about the shackling of children. He added for the first time a concern about access to lawyers. (Palestinian children can be denied access to lawyers for 90 days, Israeli children for only 48 hours – from “Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted” by Defence of Children International, March 2012).

Need for action, not words
John Cryer raised the issue of the demolition of Palestinian houses as a punishment (often against the families of prisoners) and the Minister repeated that he saw demolitions as an area “of great concern”.

Duncan Hames raised the issue of “illegal, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative” demolitions in East Jerusalem and asked the Minister whether there would be any “consequences” for the Israelis “or do they pursue those policies with impunity?” The Minister would only say “we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem”.

David Ward asked if he would support peaceful demonstrations against Israel at the Olympics. The Minister said he understood his desire to take part in free and peaceful protests in the UK.

As it appeared in Hansard

17 Apr 2012 : Column 163

Question 9. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian houses in the last year.

Alistair Burt: I raised the issue of demolitions in the west bank with the Israeli ambassador on 23 February, and again with Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Meridor, on 19 March.

Michael Connarty: I thank the Minister for that half an answer—it might have been useful to tell us what the Government said. There has been a 40% increase in demolitions in the last year, 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since the Oslo agreement was signed, and 14,000 people have been put out of East Jerusalem through the withdrawal of their right to live there. Is this not in fact ethnic cleansing, and are the Government of Israel not now heading for a racially based apartheid regime similar to South Africa?

Alistair Burt: I am happy to give the second part of the answer—now that that part of the question has been asked. The situation is as the hon. Gentleman indicated: the UN reported an increase in demolitions of some 40% last year. We have made representations to Israel on this issue, and we think the demolitions are very destructive of the peace process and the relationship that needs to be built. This has to be set in the overall context of the relationship between the Palestinian authorities and Israel, because settlements, demolitions and related issues must be part of an overall peace process, which is why we have pressed both parties to continue their engagement.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The increase in demolitions of Palestinian houses is one example of the approach to the west bank situation being taken by the Israeli Government. A septuagenarian from my constituency, Anthony Radcliffe, discovered another when he was detained over this weekend by the Israeli authorities in Tel Aviv, having attempted to gain peaceful access to the occupied territories in the west bank. Does the Minister agree that is wrong that the security services of one country, Israel, can prevent a British citizen from visiting another, Palestine, and what will he do to ensure free passage for British citizens in future?

Alistair Burt: It is clear that UK citizens can visit the west bank and that they do so in ordinary circumstances, but the Israeli authorities have made it clear that they will not facilitate what they consider to be an organised protest. We have made that clear in our travel advice, and in the circumstances we have seen over the last weekend we have ensured that consular officials are available at the airport. It is within Israel’s legitimate immigration rights to do what they are doing, but clearly the situation is not comfortable. We believe that it provides further reasons why we should continue to press on both parties to engage in the talks that will resolve the situation. We cannot separate the attempt being made at the weekend to mark Palestinian land day from the overall concerns of both sides.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Does the Minister not accept that what he is proposing does not work? Will he support me and others at peaceful demonstrations at events involving Israeli Olympians to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and to bring to public awareness the apartheid regime in Israel?

Alistair Burt: I understand any colleague’s desire to take part in free and peaceful process in this country, but the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that he knows is deeply contested by Israeli authorities as regards how they conduct their affairs. It is a further measure of why it is important to work on both sides to get an agreement to this long-standing dispute.

Topical questions

Topical question 7. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Following a recent visit to Gaza, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Has Her Majesty’s Government raised with Egypt the serious impact on Gaza’s economy, basic infrastructure and medical facilities and the Gaza strip’s sole power station of Egypt’s recent restrictions on fuel exports to the Gaza strip?

Alistair Burt: I have not raised that specifically with Egypt. We are aware of the concerns about power and fuel and the discussions among the relevant parties to try to resolve it. We are following those discussions closely and urge those parties to solve the issue so that some of the pain of the Gazan people can be relieved. My hon. Friend is right to raise it.

Topical question 10. Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Given that today is Palestinian prisoners’ day, can the Minister say what representations he has made regarding the number of Palestinian children currently detained in Israeli prisons and what concerns he has about the treatment they are suffering?

Alistair Burt: I have raised the issue of the detention and treatment of children on a number of occasions with the Israeli authorities. We appreciated the fact that the age of majority for criminal proceedings has been raised, but I still have concerns about access to lawyers. Indeed, from this Dispatch Box I have said that the shackling of children is wrong. We can continue to raise those issues on behalf of those affected.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 9, is not the worst aspect of the demolitions the practice of punitive demolitions, which is based on the doctrine of collective punishment, and does that not directly contravene article 33 of the Geneva convention?

Alistair Burt: I reiterate again that we raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of demolitions as one of great concern. They have been on the increase, and we see them as a setback to the peace process and to the need to build a proper relationship with the Palestinian authorities in order to get an ultimate settlement resolved. It will be resolved only within that context, but we are concerned about the recent increase, and we make our representations very clear.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I have great concerns about demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the Foreign Secretary in his own words recently talked about Israeli settlements in the west bank being illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative, but other than words of criticism are there any consequences for the Israeli Government, or do they pursue those policies with impunity?

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes very clear, by echoing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement, how seriously the United Kingdom takes those issues and how constantly we raise them, but again I have to come back to the fact that Israel sees the issue differently, and accordingly it is one of those things that ultimately will be resolved only by the settlement that every Member wishes to see between the Palestinian authorities and Israel. Differences of opinion on the matter are likely to remain, but we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them, as indeed was my right hon. Friend when he made his statement.


Settlements are ‘the biggest mistake in our history’, says Israeli diplomat

What is the biggest single mistake in the history of the State of Israel?  Well, in a moment of totally unexpected candour Mr Ran Gidor, the Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs at the Israeli embassy in London, volunteered to a meeting at the House of Commons, and I quote, “that the vast majority of Israelis now recognise that the single biggest mistake in our history was the settlements”.  Don’t rinse out your ears.  You heard him right.  He’s not only admitting that Israel has made a mistake, which is rare for a diplomat, but he’s admitting that the entire settlement-building project, officially backed and encouraged by every Israeli government over the last 30 years, has been a mistake.  That is SOME mistake.  The building of 150 settlements, with all the roads and the necessary services and the houses that accommodate 300,000 people (he’s excluding East Jerusalem from his calculation) were ALL a mistake.   So why doesn’t the Israeli government at least stop building any more settlements or stop expanding the existing settlements, I asked at a seminar on “Ways to Reinvigorate the Middle East Peace Process” attended by some 200 people in the  Commons today.  More totally unexpected candour from Mr Gidor.  It was because “it’s no secret that many of these settlers are armed to the teeth and taking on 300,000 settlers and removing them forcibly would result in a small-scale civil war”.  The removal of just 24 small settlements in Gaza had “very nearly led to a civil war”, he said, and trying to remove over 100 settlements from the West Bank would be far worse. Even trying to stop the expansion of existing settlements – the key point over which the peace talks collapsed  – was asking too much.  A government would require overwhelming public support to take on the settlers and “no Israeli government feels it has the political clout” to stand up to them.

So are we to believe that the government of Israel, the fourth strongest military power in the world, does not have the arms to stand up to the settlers?  Or is it courage that fails them?  They apparently have the courage to flout the law (it is illegal under international law for an occupying power to settle its own population on occupied land) and to steal the land (most settlements are built on land expropriated from Palestinian owners using highly discriminatory laws).  But they don’t have the courage to enforce the law against their own settlers. Appropriately for a country that boasts the lowest point on earth, Israel now occupies the earth’s moral low ground.  We know it’s wrong, we know it’s illegal, but we can’t do anything about it.  It is a pathetic excuse.  When will the international community wake up to the fact that they cannot transplant a moral scruple or a backbone into the Israeli body politic?  They will have to threaten Israel where it hurts – in the pocket.