Extracts from July 2017 House of Commons debate on Israel-Palestine

Minister drops recognition pledge

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Does the Minister agree that any recognition of a Palestinian state before direct peace talks between the two states, Israel and Palestine, would not only be counterproductive but would damage a long-term two-state solution?

Alistair Burt: It is not the UK Government’s intention to recognise a Palestinian state; we believe it should come in due course, at the conclusion of the talks to settle the issue, and I do not believe that position is going to change.​

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD):  Given the Minister’s comments, it seems that that position has moved and that recognition is being ruled out until the end of talks on a peace process rather than being something that the Government would be able to do at any time?

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Six years ago, the then Foreign Secretary said: “We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state…at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]

Let me, then, urge the Minister and the Government to seize the moment we are now offered by the Balfour centenary to throw our support behind Palestinian statehood, just as we threw our support 100 years ago behind Israeli statehood.

When violence and extremism are rising on all sides, when hard-liners are assuming increasing control, when the humanitarian crisis is getting even worse, and when all eyes are on an American President whose grand plan for peace exists only in his mind, we need the ​British Government, more than ever, to show some leadership and to show the way towards peace—and recognition of Palestinian statehood would be one significant step in that direction

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): We have never said—no one has ever said—that recognition of Israel should be a matter of negotiation. Israel is recognised as a matter of right, and quite rightly so, but if we believe in even-handedness between Israel and Palestinians, that same right must apply to Palestinians. It is time, on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, to fulfil what the House voted for on 13 October 2014 and recognise the state of Palestine.

Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen) (Lab/Co-op): Recognising Palestine as a state gives moral and political support to moderate Palestinian voices pushing back against violent extremists, and I would encourage the House to decide on a timeframe for that to happen.

Balfour centenary to be marked ‘sensitively’

Middle East Minister Alistair Burt: I wish to recognise that this is the centenary of the Balfour declaration. This is a part of our history that divides opinion in this country and in the region, and we will treat it sensitively. I do not think it is incompatible to be proud of the UK’s role in the creation of the state of Israel and yet to feel sadness that the long-standing issues between the relative communities created by it have not yet been resolved. It was a historic statement and the UK is proud of its role in the creation of Israel, but it is unfinished business and, accordingly, in this centenary year we are especially focused on encouraging the Israelis and the Palestinians to take steps that will bring them closer to peace.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Last November, the then Minister for the Middle East assured the House that the British Government would neither celebrate nor apologise for the Balfour declaration. I welcomed that position for its acknowledgement that although for many the declaration was the beginning of their deliverance from centuries of persecution, for others its unfulfilled passages were the root of their communal loss. In such a context, celebration or apology betrays the legitimate historical sensitivities of either party, when we should be focused on how to move the issue forward to the benefit of both parties.

This is a touchstone issue for millions of Arabs and Muslims, and I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that their eyes will be on us. The centenary must be handled with the utmost care and consideration. In the conversations that I had with almost all Arab ambassadors in my capacity as a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it was clear that uncertainty and anxiety surround the centenary.

Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con): Regional players and previously hostile states are moving closer towards accepting an ideal of peace, and I note that at the Security Council briefing on the peace process last month, the Arab League Secretary-General reaffirmed a commitment to the 2002 Arab peace initiative. Perhaps this provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue.

As we commemorate 100 years since the Balfour declaration and our support for the region, we should revive the effort for peace through meaningful talks and truly make 2017 the anniversary of the Balfour declaration and an anniversary for peace.

Ross Thomson (Aberdeen South) (Con): The Balfour declaration of 1917 is one of the most significant and important letters in history. as we proudly mark the centenary year of the Balfour declaration, we are presented with a unique opportunity to renew the Middle East peace process.

Settlements and occupation

Minister condemns settlements (1): The United Kingdom’s view is clear and unchanged: settlement building seriously undermines the prospects of two states for two peoples. I am extremely concerned by reports this week of plans to construct more than 1,800 new housing units in East Jerusalem. In the UK’s view, all settlements are illegal under international law. If confirmed, the plans would be the latest example of an accelerating policy of illegal settlement expansion. That would take us further away from a two-state solution and raises serious questions about the Israeli Government’s commitment to achieving the shared

Minister condemns settlements (2): It has long been our position that settlement activity is ​illegal and that it undermines the viability of two states for two peoples. We are gravely concerned that an increase in the pace of settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank presents a strategic threat to a peaceful resolution of this conflict. As a strong friend of Israel, we urge the Israeli Government to show restraint on the construction of settlements

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con):  What steps are the Government taking to ensure that this country will adhere to the UN Security Council’s demand that, in international relations, states make a distinction between Israel and the occupied territories? Will the Minister guarantee that, as the UK leaves the EU, it will continue to make that kind of diplomatic differentiation? Does he agree that the UK should not be trading with illegal settlements?

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The key issue is not whether we are doing all that we can to encourage talks, but what we are doing to help to achieve change in practice. We need to think about where we have leverage to enable us to do that, and one of the areas in which we have leverage is the issue of settlements. Of course we all disapprove of settlements—no announcement of a new settlement goes by without an expression of disapproval from our Government, and I welcome that—but is it not time that we started using the leverage that we have and that we use in other parts of the world? Settlements are illegal. When Crimea was annexed by Russia, we applied a series of disincentives to companies that colluded with that illegality. Why is it so difficult for us to do the same in relation to settlements in the occupied territories?

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): The blockade and effective occupation of Gaza, and the illegal settlements, imperil not only the children of Palestine, subjecting them to a form of collective punishment for acts that they played no part in committing, but the future of Israel itself. They create a deep divide in Israeli society that Pardo sees as potentially the beginning of a path to civil war.

This year, 2017, marks the 50-year anniversary of the occupation. We must ask ourselves what a further 50 years of the politics of oppression, aggression and division will mean. Currently, we see an Israel in clinical denial, sipping cappuccino on the lip of the volcano, and a Palestine in clinical despair, with an acute sense that politics is incapable of delivering a solution. As the former Mossad chief has made clear, the root cause of both is the blockade and the occupation. I hope that today the House will speak with one voice, for the sake of both the Palestinian and Israeli people, in calling for an end to the blockade, for immediate humanitarian assistance in Gaza, and for an end to the illegal settlements.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I would be the first to admit that settlement expansion is counterproductive, and I have made that point to the Israeli Government.

John Spellar: Although settlements may not be an obstacle, they are certainly a problem, especially at a time, as My friend mentioned, when Israel’s relations with the surrounding Arab states are at a better pitch than many of us can ever remember. Is it not, therefore, regrettable that the Netanyahu Government are proceeding with settlements when this could be a unique opportunity?

Joan Ryan: I never made any secret of my opposition to settlement building. It is regrettable. A better move towards peace would be if Mr Netanyahu did what I suggested when I stood on a platform with him, and he froze all settlement building.

Ms Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): The current governing coalition in Israel is the most right-wing in the country’s history. Since the start of the year, the Israeli Government, emboldened by the new Trump Administration, have announced the creation of more than 6,000 new buildings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and have attempted to legitimise them through the Land Regularisation Bill. The retroactive legalisation of 55 settlements and roughly 4,000 housing units is a significant step away from a peaceful solution.

I am pleased that the United Kingdom voted for resolution 2334 and condemned the passage of the Land Regularisation Bill, but the Government must now step forward and fill that vacuum.

There are three areas in which the Government can exert pressure. First, the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip is neither productive nor appropriate, and the Minister must call for its further relaxation. Relaxing the blockade would weaken Hamas’s hand in the region, and allow for further reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. Secondly, to that end, we must encourage ​Israel to allow more reconstruction aid to enter Gaza. Tension in the Gulf states has meant that Qatari attempts to get aid in have proved fruitless, and Israel is well positioned to help to rebuild a war-torn society. Thirdly, the draconian restrictions in place on Palestinians wanting to move across the West Bank continue to stoke further tensions, and by easing some of this control Israel could firmly send a message that it wants a peaceful solution and is willing to work towards it.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): There is the remorseless growth of settlements. In the last year or so, we have seen a change in the type and intensity of settlement growth. The 1,800 units in east Jerusalem, including around Sheikh Jarrah in the heart of east Jerusalem, that have been announced in the last couple of days are a fundamental game-changer, as are E1 and the new settlements between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem. All of those will make a viable Palestinian state impossible. There has been a 70% increase in settlement building on the West Bank in the last year. These are continuing breaches of international humanitarian law and the fourth Geneva convention. Just last week, the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, said that “the only way to achieve the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people” is by ending the occupation. That is the issue at the heart of this and unless it is addressed, we will get nowhere.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): I have seen at first hand the impact of Israeli Government policy towards Palestinians living in the West Bank. The ongoing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements cannot be justified, nor can the demolition of Palestinian homes, nor can the use of byzantine laws to seize land from its rightful owners, nor can the military court system, which violates the very principles of natural justice, and nor can the regular intimidation of Palestinian civilians and international aid workers, who too often are victims of settler violence.

Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen) (Lab/Co-op): Only last year, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the occupation. Settlements are illegal under international law. They breach the fourth Geneva convention, which prohibits the transfer of the occupier’s “own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

But the UN resolution was passed only because of President Obama’s support, and now, with a new and very different President in place, we need clarification on what conversations the Government have had with him.

Other issues

Shadow Foreign Secretary:  If the Government call a debate on such a serious foreign policy issue as the future of talks between Israel and Palestine—this is the first time a Government have done so for 10 years, I believe—and that debate is held in Government time, it would not be unreasonable to expect the Foreign Secretary himself to make the effort to lead the discussion.

Since the Yom Kippur war in 1973 the Conservative party has published 12 manifestos. The most recent election is only the second time it has failed to mention the Middle East even once in its whole manifesto.

Britain has always wanted to be able to co-ordinate its foreign policy with the Americans, and this Government are so weak and wobbly that they feel they have to be in lockstep with Donald Trump. That is where we have the difficulty in relation to Middle East policy, and that may be one of the reasons why the Foreign Secretary will not come to the Dispatch Box and why Israel and Palestine were not mentioned in the Tory manifesto.

If the Minister of State will not say those things today, we can only come to two equally unpalatable and pitiful conclusions: either the Government have abdicated Britain’s leadership role and are simply waiting to take their cues from Trump Tower, or they see no point in putting pressure on the Trump Administration, because they know they will simply be ignored—just like they were over climate change.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): There have been no official peace talks since 2014, but I believe there are grounds for hope. Israel’s relationship with a number of other countries has improved somewhat in the face of shared concern over matters such as the rise of Daesh and the hegemonic ambitions of Iran, which is now involved so heavily in many conflicts in the Middle East. collective dispossession. That shared concern appears to have opened up new channels of communication and co-operation, and led to a concerted regional push to revive the peace process.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): As a lawyer, I wish to address the Israeli Government’s flouting of international law and their failure to observe the rule of law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Two parallel systems of ​law operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, depending on whether someone is an Israeli or a Palestinian, and that is not right. One law covers Israeli civilians who have been transplanted into the occupied territories, but Palestinians are subject to military law. Israel is the only country in the world that automatically prosecutes children in military courts.

Does the Minister really believe that an Israeli military court that behaves in such a fashion, and that has a conviction rate of just short of 100%, is one that can command the confidence of the international community? I do not, and I think it is important that Members from all parties speak out against Israel’s violation of international law and of the rule of law. There should be no pussyfooting around these issues. Just as we must condemn terrorism, we must condemn so-called democratic states that violate international law and do not observe the principles of the rule of law.

Israel has a proud history as a democratic state, but the policies of its Government are the greatest weapon—the greatest tool—that its opponents could have, striking as they do at the heart of Israel’s proud tradition as an independent democratic state.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab) on Gaza: According to the UN, we are seeing a process of “de-development” in Gaza, so that by 2020 the strip may well be technically uninhabitable. Some 96% of groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption and the sea is polluted with sewage. Power shortages mean that were it not for the increasingly ​hard-to-obtain fuel that runs emergency generators, hospitals would go dark. That would mean up to 40 surgical operation theatres, 11 obstetric theatres, five haemodialysis centres and hospital emergency rooms serving almost 4,000 patients a day being forced to halt critical services.

Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab): Some would argue that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is small by comparison with that in, say, Syria. In reality it is massive in terms of its symbolism and the way it is used. It has a significant impact on how terrorism operates in the region and beyond. It is used to recruit and encourage extremists across the world. We must understand that peace would be more than a stabilising factor within the region; it would go beyond that. In the battle against vicious ideologies like that of Daesh, we cannot and must not underestimate the importance of the Israel-Palestine debate in the wider context of its influence on terror.

I call on the Government to tell us not what they think but what they intend to do. How are we going to move this process forward? As I said the last time I spoke, it is time to move beyond condemnation to accountability.

The fact remains that we have seen 50 years of occupation and 10 years of blockade, and engagement in every peace process that has taken place since 1967 is not unilateral. What has the Oslo agreement brought Palestinians? There has been a 600% increase in the number of illegal settlements. It is time to move beyond condemnation.

Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): What is happening to democratic debate and expression inside the state of Israel. Hagai El-Ad is the director of an organisation called B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation based in Jerusalem. Earlier this year he addressed the United Nations.

The response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally to launch a Facebook tirade against him and to threaten to change the law to prevent people doing national service from working for that organisation. As a consequence, others joined in and that organisation and its officials received thousands of threats, including death threats.

Breaking the Silence is an organisation that is composed of veterans of the Israeli army; only those who have served in the IDF can be members of Breaking the Silence. It is fair to say that it does not take a mainstream position; it is critical of the occupation. What is the response of Israeli politicians? Some in the Knesset have tabled motions calling for the organisation to be outlawed as a terrorist organisation. That did not get very far, but a law has been passed in the Knesset to make it illegal for Breaking the Silence to go into schools and colleges and speak to young people about the choices facing them.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): The Foreign Office stated in December last year, after the Brexit outcome was known, that the UK’s financial aid to the Palestinian Authority was best channelled directly through EU funding programmes. The Foreign Office said that the mechanism “offers the best value for money and the most effective way of directly providing support.”

Do the Government intend to continue their participation in that funding programme even after Brexit? If not, what alternatives are they putting in place to ensure that they achieve the same value for money and the same effectiveness of outcomes?

 

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