MPs and candidates: How to ask/answer questions on Palestine

Palestine will be a bigger issue in this election than ever before.  In the week preceding the October 13 House of Commons vote on the recognition of Palestine, 57,808 emails were sent to MPs from the PSC website alone. In some constituencies MPs received over 1,500 emails from their constituents.

For more and more voters it is essential to know candidates’ views on Palestine before deciding whether to vote for them.  For all candidates and MPs it is essential to know how to answer questions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Here we list the seven questions sent to every candidate by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and our suggested answers, but there are many more questions being and individuals asking questions of candidates at hustings and candidates’ round-tables up and down the country.

The Israel advocacy organisation ‘We Believe in Israel’ has also circulated suggested answers. We include a response to their argumentation. 

Long answers are not required to an emailed questionnaire. One word will do if it’s the right one! But longer answers may be necessary at hustings. 

It’s very helpful if you cc info@palestinebriefing.org in emails to or from MPs.  

Question 1: I urge the UK Government to uphold the principles of equality, human rights and international law in all its relations and dealings with Israel.

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make: Every day Israel is in breach of international law in at least five ways:

  1. Building settlements in occupied territory (illegal under the Geneva Convention (see below),
  2. Building the wall on occupied land (85% of the route of the separation barrier is inside Palestine which the International Court of Justice ruled illegal in 2004),
  3. Blockading Gaza (illegal because it is a collective punishment),
  4. Annexing East Jerusalem (part of the West Bank illegally annexed to Israel in 1967 and not recognised by UN, US or UK),
  5. Denying human rights to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (at least 50 Israeli laws discriminate against Israel’s Arab minority according to the civil rights organisation Adalah).

Far from being a model democracy, Israeli comes 44th in the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom behind Macedonia, Latvia, Armenia and Jordan, 96th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index below Kuwait, Liberia, Mongolia and Panama and bottom in an international Freedom of Religion Index scoring zero along with  Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Afghanistan.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: “I am deeply concerned at violations of these principles by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas…”

What we say: Their only answer on this question is to point to human rights violations by Hamas and by the Palestine Authority. No one would deny that there have been human rights violations under Hamas in Gaza and to a lesser extent under the PA in the West Bank. We condemn all violations. But it is significant that ‘We Believe in Israel’ tries to shift the focus rather than trying to deny it is guilty of human rights abuses and breaches of international law.

Question 2: I consider the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal and unjustifiable.

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make:  International law on military occupation is contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention (which Israel has signed). It says an occupier “may not .. transfer parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory”. There is no room for doubt. The UK government repeatedly points out to Israel that settlements are illegal. Every country other than Israel says considers them illegal (although the US prefers the word “illegitimate”). On top of that at least a third of settlements are built on privately-owned Palestinian land which has been expropriated. The Fourth Geneva Convention allows the requisitioning of private land only for military purposes and it must be returned to its owners once it is no longer needed for military purposes.  Handing over requisitioned land to Jewish-only settlements is both illegal and discriminatory.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: “The settlements issue is far more complex than this question suggests. All relevant UN resolutions prescribe that the final border should be settled by negotiations between the parties, hence the land in question is disputed until such an agreement is reached… Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza (including the destruction of all of its settlements) in 2005 indicate that Israel will be prepared to make such concessions again”

What we say: International law is not complex. It is clear. Israel refers to them as “disputed” territories, but they are disputed only by Israel. Everyone else calls them “occupied”. The PLO has always accepted there will need to be negotiations before a settlement, but what is already laid down in international law cannot be “negotiated”. It’s true that Israel withdrew from their settlements in Gaza in 2005 (destroying them as they went) but only 1-2% of Israel’s settlements were in Gaza. 98% were in the West Bank. Many of the settlers transferred straight from Gaza into West Bank settlements. In the year of their withdrawal from Gaza the number of settlements went up not down, and it has gone up every year since. It is now 650,000.

Question 3: Do you agree that one of the first acts of the next UK Government should be the recognition of Palestine?

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make:  Palestinians were promised statehood in 1949 and the promise has been repeated many times in the last 60 years.  William Hague said Palestine was ready for statehood in 2011 and the World Bank, the IMF and the EU all agreed that its institutions were ready for statehood.  But Hague told the Commons he would only recognise Palestinian “at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”. Most people thought that moment arrived when the Kerry talks collapsed in April 2014, but the UK dithered. Parliament voted 274-12 in favour of recognition and there have been similar votes in the Irish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and European parliaments. 135 countries have now recognised Palestine. Ed Miliband has said a Labour government will recognise Palestine.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: I believe that a Palestinian state … should come about as an outcome of a peace settlement.

What we say: Saying recognition must wait until a peace settlement is signed is handing the Israelis a veto. Many believe the undeclared Israeli aim is to spin peace talks out indefinitely so they never need to recognise a Palestinian state and so they can gradually absorb the West Bank into Israel.  While there must be negotiations over the details of a peace settlement, the question of whether the UK government should confer diplomatic recognition on Palestine is a decision for the UK alone and should not be subject to an Israeli veto.  Similarly the question of whether Palestine should be recognised as a state is an issue for the UN and the whole world and not for Israel.

Question 4: Do you agree that the blockade on Gaza should be lifted immediately?

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make:  The economic blockade of Gaza is a collective punishment. It is punishing 1.8 million people for the actions of Hamas and other militant groups.  In international law a collective punishment is a war crime, in moral terms it is a form of hostage-taking and in political terms it is counter-productive. It is more likely to strengthen resistance than to weaken it. Although the ban on importing goods that have a possible military use is justified as a security measure, the ban on exports has no plausible security justification.  It leaves factories idle and most Gazans dependent on food aid. The ban on import of construction materials causes huge hardship (the 100,000 made homeless by the war are still homeless). And the restrictions on humanitarian aid (running at half the pre-blockade levels) are part of a deliberate policy of ‘semi-starvation’ as comments from senior Israeli sources have confirmed.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: An immediate lifting of the blockade would have the effect of giving Hamas carte blanche to rearm and renew the conflict.

What we say: It is inhumane to continue to support an economic blockade which is causing poverty, hardship, hunger and suffering to 1.8 million people. It’s true that some building materials can be used for military purposes, but this is a vicious circle. Of course the Gazans will want to build up their defences if they are constantly attacked by the Israelis.  Isn’t this exactly what Israel does?  On the other hand the West Bank is demilitarised. The Palestine Liberation Organisation renounced violence in 1988 and adopted a policy of non-violent resistance backed by international pressure on Israel and the Palestine Authority enforces a strict ban on arms in the areas in controls. What has been their reward? The Israelis have stolen their land to build settlements, ransacked and demolished their homes, turned a blind eye to settler violence and killed hundreds of Palestinians. If Israel wants Gaza to become demilitarised, the first step must be to show that an unarmed Palestinian state can live safely and securely next to Israel.

Question 5: Do you agree that we should stop trade with Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land, and stop settlement goods being sold in Britain?

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make: The EU is the biggest donor to the Palestine Authority, funding projects to protect Palestinians from Israeli settlements. Yet the EU helps to keep those settlements in business by importing goods from settlements worth £198 million a year.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: Palestinian workers in Israeli enterprises [in the settlements] enjoy terms and conditions far better than most other Palestinians.

What we say: This is the classic argument used during South African apartheid to justify the exploitation of black workers. The World Bank estimates that the Israeli occupation costs the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year. If Palestinian businesses were allowed to develop, Palestinians would be 35% richer. Furthermore the Israeli settlements take 80% of the water and 100% of mineral deposits in the West Bank and the Dead Sea which belong to Palestine. This is worth far more than a few jobs in Israeli-owned factories in illegal settlements.

Question 6: Do you agree that the EU Israel Association Agreement (giving tariff reductions to Israeli goods) should be suspended until Israel meets its human rights obligations? 

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make: Under Article 1 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement Israel enjoys privileged duty-free access to the EU market, worth an estimated £750 million a year, while third world countries have to pay tariffs ranging up to 85% before they can sell goods in Europe. The agreements Israel enjoys with Europe outstrip those offered to any other non-European state, even Turkey.  But under Article 2 of the agreement these tariff reductions are dependent on “respect for human rights and democratic principles” which are, it says, “an essential element” of the agreement.

The EU condemns Israel’s breaches of international law (such as settlements, the wall, the Gaza blockade, the annexation of Jerusalem) which undermine democratic principles and the human rights of Palestinians, yet it fails to enforce Article 2 of the EU-Israeli Association Agreement to suspend the agreement until Israel is in compliance. Under a similar association agreement with Ukraine, it took only a few weeks for the EU to impose a total ban on imports from Crimea.

The European Union is Israel’s biggest trading partner accounting for 34% of Israel’s imports and 32% of its exports in 2013 but the EU depends on Israel for only 0.7% of its trade.  The EU is therefore in a stronger position of influence over Israel than any other country, including the US.  By suspending the agreement, it could put effective economic pressure on Israel.

Question 7: Do you agree that the government should stop supplying arms and security equipment to Israel until it complies with international law?

Quick answer: Yes

Points to make:  UK policy is not to issue arms export licences for arms that “might be used for internal repression”. After the 2008-9 Gaza war David Miliband withdrew five licences. After the 2014 war more licences were reviewed. But the UK still has 131 arms export licences to Israel including components for drones and laser guidance systems for bombs. Past experience shows that undertakings not to use arms for internal repression are ignored.

What ‘We Believe in Israel’ says: Israel is a democracy facing serious threats from heavily-armed terror groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The idea that we would refuse to provide it with the arms it needs to defend itself is repugnant.

What we say: Israel has the fourth strongest armed forces in the world, thanks partly to US support but Israel also has a massive arms industry of its own. The idea that Israel would be in danger if the UK stopped selling them arms because they are “facing serious threats from heavily-armed terror groups like Hamas” is laughable. Israel has the most sophisticated missiles and anti-missile systems in the world, while Hamas rockets are rudimentary home-made and lack any effective guidance systems. Israel uses the fact that its arms are “field-tested” (ie tested in live warfare) to market its arms exports; the UK should guard against complicity with Israel’s arms-export industry.

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