Only five months after dismissing the demolition threat to an Israeli Arab village as “a planning matter”, the Foreign Office has sent out a team of officials to “deepen their understanding” of the constant risk of demolition faced by Bedouin villages in the Negev desert.
The team visited the village of Umm Al Hiran whose residents – who are all Israeli citizens – face the threat of demolition of their homes and eviction to make way for a new Jewish-only village on exactly the same site and with the same name – Hiran.
The Foreign Office team also visited other “recognised” and “unrecognised” villages in the Negev and noted the restrictions on construction in government-planned Bedouin towns and the unequal provision of services to communities of different ethnicities in the Negev.
The Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood, who had dismissed Umm al Hiran as a “planning matter” in March, acknowledged the help of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality in arranging the visit in a written answer to St Albans MP Anne Main. Haia Noach from the NCF visited London to speak to the Foreign Office last month.
The issue was raised in March by Andy Slaughter MP who told the minister: “Replacing an Arab village with a Jewish village is not a planning matter. The new village of Hiran will occupy exactly the same land as the existing village of Umm Al Hiran. There is no proposed change of use. The only difference will be that the residents are Jewish and not Arab.
“What is unusual about Umm Al Hiran is that they plan to put the Jewish settlement in exactly the same spot as an existing Arab village and they even plan to use the same name. This makes it transparent that there is no genuine planning issue. It is simply a part of the clearances of Arab villages to make way for Jewish settlements.”
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) asked the Foreign Secretary what the outcome was of his Department’s visit to Um-il-Hiran and Ateer; whether he plans to visit that region; and if he will make a statement.
Mr Tobias Ellwood: “Officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and our Embassy in Tel Aviv visited three Bedouin communities in the Negev, including Um al Hiran, on 5 August. This visit, arranged through the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), deepened our understanding of the constant risk of demolition faced by both recognised and unrecognised Bedouin villages; the restrictions on construction in even Government-planned Bedouin towns; and the unequal provision of services to communities of different ethnicities in the Negev. We remain concerned about this situation and will continue to work with partner countries, to address the inequalities.
In an apparent reversal of policy the Government has announced two steps to make it even more difficult for councils to stop trading with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
First, the Cabinet Office is issuing advice to councils that “boycotts in procurement policy are inappropriate” unless the government has itself decided to boycott trade to a country.
Secondly, the Communities Department is making it illegal for local government pension schemes to divest unless there are already Government sanctions in place.
This comes less than a year after the Foreign Office and Business Department issued advice to UK companies that “we do not encourage or offer support .. for financial transactions, investments, purchases or procurements in Israeli settlements”.
This was in line with the policy of former Foreign Secretary William Hague of creating “incentives and disincentives” on the Israeli government to stop building illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Leicester City Council passed a resolution last year to boycott any produce originating from an illegal Israeli settlement “insofar as legal considerations allow”.
In its resolution the council “recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and free from incursion but condemns the Government of Israel for its continuing illegal occupation of Palestine’s East Jerusalem and the West Bank, blockade of Gaza and appropriation of land”.
But Leicester has been hampered by legal action by opponents trying to stop them carrying out the resolution and other councils – including Nottingham – have postponed action pending legal advice.
When the new Cabinet Office procurement guidance comes in, councillors will have to “have regard” to the guidance and will need ‘reasonable’ cause to go against it. Together with EU tendering rules, that will make it much harder to exclude companies like Veolia or G4S – at least openly – because of their involvement in the West Bank.
MPs will have no opportunity to vote on the change in procurement advice. The change to pension rules is out for consultation until February 19 and will go through Parliament on a negative statutory instrument which can only be blocked if the Opposition uses its limited parliamentary time to call a debate.
The Government has protested four times in the last month to the Israeli authorities about their treatment of Palestinians, including the use of lethal force and live ammunition against demonstrators, the failure to prosecute Israeli settlers for acts of violence and the punitive demolition of Palestinian homes.
According to written answers in Parliament, Britain protested:
On October 26 to the army general in charge of the occupation of the West Bank, Yoav Mordechai
On October 28 to the Director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
On October 28 to the Mayor of Jerusalem
On November 4 to Netanyahu’s envoy on the peace process Isaac Molho
One of the points the Government stressed was the need for proper accountability for settlers guilty of acts of violence against Palestinians, including a swift resolution of the investigation into the attack at Duma where a family was burnt to death in a firebomb attack.
The Israeli minister of defence has admitted that his security services are aware of the identity of the settlers who carried out the attack, but will not prosecute because it might reveal the identity of their informants.
The Government said – in response to questions about the Israeli army’s use of live ammunition for crowd control against unarmed protesters – that it had also protested about the use of lethal force and called for proportionality and proper accountability.
The use of excessive force against unarmed civilians is one of the issues on which successive reports from the United Nations and from human rights groups have said Israeli Defence Forces could be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
Since the beginning of October the wave of violence in the West Bank has resulted in 85 Palestinian deaths and 11 Israeli, 9,171 Palestinian injuries and 133 Israeli according to the latest figures from the United Nations – a ratio of nearly 8:1 in deaths and 69:1 in injuries.
Yet the two questions put to ministers at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday mentioned only the Israeli deaths and injuries:
Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister raise in his discussions the current terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians? Some 108 Israelis have been killed or injured by shootings and stabbings on the streets in recent weeks.
Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con): There has been another weekend of deadly terror attacks on Israeli citizens, including a brutal stabbing yesterday. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn those attacks, and does he agree that sanctioned incitement to commit terror must end?
At least at the official level the Government does not seem to suffer from such myopia and the answers to written questions reveal that the Foreign Office is making representations to the Israelis not just on settler violence and the use of excessive force, but also on punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes, restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem and discrimination against Bedouins in Israel (see below).
Deaths: 85 Palestinian – 11 Israeli
Injuries: 9,171 Palestinian – 133 Israeli
What is missing is any sign of Government action. The EU has recently published its guidelines of labelling of goods from illegal Israeli settlements – effectively adopting the labelling guidelines that the last Labour government introduced in the UK in 2009 and extending them to wines and cosmetics.
While this was welcomed by Palestinians, it was regarded as an inadequate response to the critical situation that the Palestinians now face. As the former Palestinian foreign minister Dr Nabil Shaath told a UK parliamentary delegation last week:
“Labelling is feeble and incapable of putting real pressure on Israel. If it was OK to boycott the Iranians to the tune of $280 billion, why is it wrong to put any pressure on Israel?
“We are looking for measures which impose a cost on countries that have violated international law. If we are not allowed to take measures such as BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions), can they be surprised if some people ask what is left but violence? Is that what they want?”