Month: April 2016

Friends of Israel chairman again attacks Palestinians for honouring ‘terrorists’

Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel Eric Pickles again raised the issue of streets – and in this case a school basketball tournament – being named after Palestinian “terrorists”, as though it were something that only Palestinians did.

The Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu made a similar claim in a letter of condolence to the family of a Palestinian boy burned alive by settlers last year: “In our society, in the society of Israel, there is no place for murderers,” he said.
“And that’s the difference between us and our neighbours. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t.”
That is not only highly inappropriate in what was supposed to be a letter of condolence to a bereaved family, but also disingenuous and dishonest.
  • Scores of streets in Israel are named after Jewish “terrorists”, including a suburb of Jerusalem where all the streets are named after members of Jewish militias who were hanged for “terrorism” by the British.
  • Indeed, every country that has fought for its independence glorifies its “soldiers” who lost their lives.
And if you read the two photo-captions below you may conclude that the Israelis are more guilty of this than the Palestinians.
Here is the exchange at Foreign Office questions:
Sir Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): There have recently been two initiatives in the region: the extension of fishing rights for Gazan fisherman with Israeli co-operation, and the naming of a basketball tournament after a terrorist who killed 36 people, including 12 children. Which of those two initiatives does the Minister think is more likely to bring about a two-state solution?

Mr Ellwood: He highlights the dilemma that we face. We need grassroots initiatives on a low level such as extension of fishing rights, for which I have pressed for some time. Oil and gas reserves can be tapped into off Gaza, which will also help the economy. At the same time, basketball courts and, indeed, schools and streets are being named after terrorists, which does not suggest that the Palestinians are as serious as they should be.

In the city of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv is a monument commemorating members of the two underground organisations Irgun and Lehi, who were tried 440px-Hagardomin British Mandate courts and sentenced to death by hanging, some for attacks on British soldiers, others for attacks on Arab civilians. They are regarded as martyrs and streets are named after them in most Israeli cities.

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On a hillside overlooking Hebron is the grave of Dr Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 people as they prayed in the Abraham Mosque. Settlers regard him as a martyr and gather on the anniversary to sing songs in praise of him. One of the songs says: “Dr. goldstein graveGoldstein, he aimed at terrorists’ heads, squeezed the trigger hard, and shot bullets, and shot, and shot.” The ceremonial plaza around the grave was dismantled by the Israeli army, but the park and walkway remain in place.

Read a fuller account

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Abbas puts Obama to the test on UN settlement motion

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas flies to New York on April 22 determined to press the UN Security Council to a vote condemning the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank as an obstacle to peace.

The last time the Security Council voted on a resolution condemning the settlements was in February 2011. At that time, the Palestinians garnered the support of 14 out of 15 Security Council members, including Britain, France and Germany.
The United States opposed the resolution and after failing to get the Palestinians to withdraw it, cast a veto. This was the only time in the past seven years that U.S. President Barack Obama used his veto.
Since then President Obama has hinted he would not automatically veto a Security Council resolution on settlements if it was in line with US policy.  The US regards the Israeli settlements as “illegitimate”.

Foreign Secretary in talks with French on new peace initiative

Former Middle East minister Ben Bradshaw among MPs urging support

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has held talks with the French to explore the idea of a peace conference in Paris this summer to start serious discussion on a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.Bradshaw

Former Middle East minister Ben Bradshaw (right) and Tom Sheppard and Paul Monaghan of the SNP are among the MPs who have pressed him to consider supporting the initiative of the French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Ben Bradshaw wrote to the Foreign Secretary and was told: “We are discussing with the French to explore their idea, which is still at an early stage…. We will continue to engage with the French as they develop their plans.”

Mr Hammond met the French special envoy for the initiative, Pierre Vimont, to discuss how the idea would work in practice.

MPs have an opportunity to urge Mr Hammond to give the UK’s full support to a Franco-British peace initiative at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday April 12th. 

The French Foreign Minister hopes to call a gathering of supportive countries in Paris to lay the groundwork for a peace conference in the summer.

This is supported by the Palestinians, by the EU foreign affairs representative Federica Mogherini and by several European countries including the Spanish and Italians, but will have a far better chance of success with UK support.

The plan was first put forward by the outgoing French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, who also warned that – if this initiative fails – France will recognise Palestine.

His successor Jean-Marc Ayrault has said recognition will not follow “automatically” if Israel refuses to participate – in order to give the conference a better chance of success.

But if talks don’t take place, or break up, it is difficult to see what logical step remains other than a co-ordinated recognition of Palestine by the UK, France and other European countries such as Italy, Spain, Ireland and Belgium.

The state of Palestine is already recognised by 136 countries (out of 193), inclding ten in the EU, and a joint move by the UK, France and others would send a clear message without in any way changing the UK’s formal relationship with Israel, which it has recognised since 1950.  It would also impose responsibilities on the Palestinians. 

This is the time for British MPs of all parties to make the case to the Foreign Secretary. 

President Obama has made it clear he will make no further moves on the Israel-Palestine in the remainder of his term – though he has hinted he might lift his veto on a Security Council resolution.

The EU Council of Ministers is unlikely to be able to agree an initiative between all 28 countries – there will always be an East European country voting against – so the responsibility falls to the major West European powers. 

We all know why Germany will not take the lead, and France has already put forward an initiative, so it is now up to the UK to say whether it will join with the French.  There is no longer any excuse for sitting on the fence. 

It is important for the UK not only to back the conference this summer but also to support the French position that – if Israel does not engage realistically in the talks – there will be a concerted move to recognise Palestine before the end of the year.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Questions Tuesday April 12th 11.30 am

  • Question 7 David Mowat (Warrington South): What recent assessment he has made of the likelihood of a two-state solution in the Middle East.
  • Question  9 Chris Philp (Croydon South): What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in the EU, Africa and the Middle East on steps to tackle the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
  • Question 15 Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East): What representations he has made to his Israeli counterpart on the use of administrative detention in that country.

 

It’s the absence of a solution that causes the violence

MPs who have visited Jerusalem and the West Bank in the last few months will know how dire the situation is and how desperate the Palestinians feel.

It is now six months since the latest wave of violence started. Since October 1st lakerryst year 15,097 Palestinians and 215 Israelis have been injured (a ratio of 70:1) and 202 Palestiniansand 24 Israelis have been killed (a ratio of 8:1). Source: UN protection of civilians database

It’s nearly two years since the last round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians brokered by the US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) collapsed in April 2014 after Israel cancelled a promised release of prisoners and announced new settlement building.

The two facts are related. It is precisely because the West has hung the Palestinians out to dry by failing to follow up the collapse of the talks with any effective pressure on the Israeli government that some Palestinians have turned to violence.

It’s worth remembering that it’s only a tiny minority of young Palestinians who have attempted to kill or injure Israelis – and they have usually been executed on the spot without any serious attempt to arrest them.

The latest video of a young Palestinian being executed by an Israeli soldier as he lay apparently unconscious on the ground tells you a lot about the casual indifference of Israelis – even Israeli ambulance workers – to the lives of Palestinians. See injured Palestinian ignored by ambulance, shot in cold blood

But instead of focusing on the 202 who have been killed, it’s worth thinking about the 15,097 who have been injured.  That’s a huge number of (mainly) young people, the great majority of whom have committed no crime but have been treated in hospital for injuries sustained in protests and demonstrations.

They are victims of the Israeli army’s increasing use of excessive force against unarmed and peaceful demonstrations, including live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets.  The equivalent in Britain would be for 350,000 young people to have been treated in hospital for injuries sustained in demonstrations in the last six months, 63,000 hit by rubber-coated bullets, 50,000 hit by live ammunition and 15,000 suffering from physical assaults by soldiers or vigilantes (settlers).

The Israelis call it the ‘intifada of individuals’ –  an acknowledgment that it is not organised or even incited by outsiders, but the spontaneous and desperate retaliation of a generation of young Palestinians against the everyday hardships and indignities of a brutal occupation now nearly 50 years old.

The absence of any attempt by the Western powers to broker a solution means that moderate politicians are discredited and more people turn to violence.  A French or a Franco-British initiative would be an important step in the right direction.  But talks alone are not enough. They must be talks with a reasonable chance of success.  It’s the absence of a solution that causes the violence.

Did the Minister say ‘yes’ or ‘no’? It wasn’t clear from his answer.

Even after an hour and a half of parliamentary debate about whether it was legal fpenroseor councils to ban trade with illegal Israeli settlements, MPs were still scratching heads and asking what exactly the Cabinet Office minister had meant.

“The answer is that it depends. There are situations where councils will be able to and situations where they will not,” was the nearest that John Penrose (right) came to a clear answer.

“We are clear that settlements themselves are illegal, but a firm based in those settlements may be operating in an entirely whiter-than-white, above-board fashion.”

He cited various laws that allow councils to exclude suppliers that have breached international social, environmental or labour laws, but he said councils could not assume that everything done in an illegal settlement was implicitly wrong.

“A separate case-by-case decision must be made about whether each potential supplier satisfies the rules.”

A geographical ban on suppliers from Israel would be against World Trade Organisation rules, he said, but this would not apply to a ban on settlement goods, he conceded, as “the Government do not recognise the illegal settlements as part of Israel”.

The debate was called by Richard Burden MP, chair of All-Party Britain-Palestine Group, so the Cabinet Office could clarify whether their new Public Procurement Notice issued in February would make it illegal for councils to ban trade with companies based in illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine, as a press release from the Conservative Party had clearly implied.  He put six questions to the minister:

  1. Were civil servants consulted before the announcement of the proposed notice in a press release issued at the Conservative party conference?
  2. Is there anything in this notice or that is intended by the Government that in any way changes the law?
  3. Public bodies may already exclude tenderers from bidding for a contract where there is information showing grave misconduct by a company [or] where there are breaches of human rights. Does last month’s public procurement note in any way change or add to that advice?
  4. Does the Minister consider that a breach of the fourth Geneva convention is a breach of human rights. If so, would the note stop a public institution resolving not to deal with a company that was involved in aiding and abetting breaches of that convention?
  5. Pension fund trustees are already covered by a fiduciary duty, but will the changes being introduced in any way fetter the judgments that they make in line with that fiduciary duty in relation to not investing in fossil fuels, tobacco or the arms trade?
  6. Will the Minister outline what plans he has for parliamentary scrutiny of these changes to pension fund guidance?

At the end of the debate he said: “My six questions have not been answered to my satisfaction, nor have the questions asked by other Members. I ask the Minister to answer in writing.”

Read extracts from the debate

Read the whole debate here..

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): For where this all starts, we need to go back to the Conservative party conference last October. A presRichard Burden MPs release was issued headlined “Government to stop ‘divisive’ town hall boycotts and sanctions” and “growing spread of militant divestment campaigns against .. Israeli firms.” [But] the behaviour most frequently mentioned in the press release was financial involvement with illegal settlements in the West Bank.

It is rather surprising that the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Matthew Hancock) took such exception to public institutions seeking to avoid dealings with co
mpanies involved with illegal settlements, given that the Foreign Office’s own website says there are “clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity”.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I believe that it is wrong for councils to attempt to use local government pension funds and procurement practices to make their own foreign policy, first, because foreign policy is reserved to Westminster, second because local boycotts can damage community cohesion, third because breaches of procurement legislation can result in severe penalties against the contracting authority and, finally, because it does not provide taxpayers with value for money.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): During the 1980s, some local authorities sought to sever links with firms that traded with South Africa. I think local authorities were right then and I think there is a lot of shame on the Conservative benches about the action that the then Conservative Government took in defence of the apartheid regime.

Can the Minister explain what he thinks the effect will be on race relations in my constituency, which has a large number of people of Muslim faith, if they saw their council tax being used to buy goods from the illegal Israeli settlements? How could that possibly be good for community relations?

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Supporters of the BDS movement claim to embrace the boycott tactic as a non-violent way to pressure Israel into negotiations. But the Palestinian Authority themselves do not support a boycott. In December 2013 Mahmoud Abbas stated that, with the exception of settlement goods, the Palestinian Authority do not support a boycott on Israel. He said that “we do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

John McNally (Falkirk) (SNP): I would like the Minister to explain to me the reasons for interference with the decisions made by trustees on behalf of local communities, who appoint fund managers to look after the pension funds for them. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has stated that he wants to start Northern powerhouses; he wants to give local people more say in what is happening in their local communities. Yet he is telling them, “Sorry, you’re not going to get a say in what your pension funds do.”

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Local government procures around £12 billion a year of goods and services. Ethical procurement can produce tangible benefits. For example, in my local Labour council, the new adult social care contracts adhere to Unison’s ethical care charter, which stipulates that 80% of the workforce must be on contracted hours, not zero-hours contracts.

Our local authority had all-out elections last May. Ethical procurement was one of the key parts of the manifesto commitment, and it has been delivered. So I say to Ministers: resist the temptation to micromanage local government. Show us that the Government are genuine about devolution and withdraw the regulations.

Tristram Hunt: The point about local government is that democracy is not all focused in this place. Decisions about spending, representation and taxation can also be made at a local level. If we strip that out, it undermines the pluralism and democracy of this country.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The specific issue being dealt with in this debate relates to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This issue should not be conflated with BDS. The fact that we have labelling guidance, which the Government have maintained, allows people to make individual choices.

Let us remember what we are talking about here: theft of land, occupation, colonisation, and the arbitrary detention of many thousands of Palestinians. Those are crimes in international law as great as anything that happened in South Africa.

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): BDS is unlikely to further the peace process. I personally believe that settlements are extremely unhelpful. I support the British Government’s policy in objecting to them and trying to use any opportunity, to try to change minds and to further that argument, but I do not think the BDS movement is at all likely to further that argument. In fact, it is likely to be totally counterproductive.

Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab): BDS is about upholding international law. Nobody in the House is saying we should boycott Israel; what we are saying is that councils and people should have a legitimate right to make decisions on procurement. It was shameful when this House voted against sanctions on South Africa. That is not how I want to go down in history.

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP): The Scottish Government strongly discourages trade and investment with illegal settlements. For a company to be excluded from competition, it has to have been convicted of a specific offence or committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of its business. One view, supported by the Scottish Government, is that where a company exploits assets in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, it may be guilty of grave professional misconduct, and it may therefore be permissible to exclude it from a procurement process.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab): I visited Jerusalem and the West Bank recently and I was concerned that the Cabinet Office Minister announced the proposals not in the Commons—which was in recess—but at a press conference in Israel, with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. The experience that we had in the West Bank clarified why some councils might want to take action on illegal settlements. The policies pursued by the Government of Israel in allowing illegal settlements to flourish are a physical and political barrier to peace and a two-state solution.

Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): It is interesting that, rather than choosing an English town hall in which to make a pronouncement about the affairs of local authorities, the Minister for the Cabinet Office travelled to Tel Aviv to make an announcement alongside the Prime Minister of Israel and chose to illustrate his announcement by referring to the impact of local authorities’ actions on the settlements in the occupied territories.

Now, if we are to say that local councillors should not be having a foreign policy and should concern themselves with local matters, we might rightly ask ourselves, “What are the Ministers responsible for the UK civil service and English local authorities doing travelling to foreign countries to make pronouncements on foreign policy?” We need to understand whether this is actually a dispute among colleagues in the Cabinet and an attempt by some who disagree with the established position of the Foreign Office to undermine it.

I have visited the area recently and spoken to many Palestinians who are involved. They are absolutely of one mind in telling us that they want us to call for disinvestment in the illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Councils such as Leicester and Tower Hamlets were not making decisions about Israel as a nation; it was about illegal settlements, which the Government recognises and accepts are illegal.

Is it not right that local councils should make such decisions and be accountable to the people who elect them? Leicester City Council, the area I represent, made its decisions in 2014 and the councillors who put those decisions to the council chamber stood for election in 2015. They were re-elected with people knowing about those decisions on trade with illegal settlements in the West Bank, not trade with Israel.

Sir Alan Duncan: At the beginning of his comments, will the Minister clarify an important point of fact, which is the kernel of this issue? Will the Government’s proposed procurement rules permit a local authority to adopt a policy against investment in, or purchase from, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank?

Cabinet Office minister John Penrose: The answer is that it depends; I am sorry to be a little indistinct. I hope to give him a proper answer, rather than just a straightforward yes or no, because there are situations where councils will be able to and situations where they will not.