Urgent question debate Friday March 22nd 2019
Middle East minister Alistair Burt came under sustained criticism in the House of Commons on Friday for the UK’s decision to abstain on a motion endorsing the report of United Nations inquiry into Israel’s use of live fire during the protests at the Gaza fence last year.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting) (Lab) told the Commons: “I am ashamed that the UK abstained today. Will the Minister tell us how the Government will protect civilians, how they will protect medics, and how they will ensure that humanitarian law is upheld?”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab) asked: “How can the Minister justify the UK Government sitting on the sidelines?”
Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) said the numbers tell their own story of gross asymmetry and imbalance between the casualties on one side and the other.
The report confirms that 23,313 Palestinians and four Israelis were injured during last year’s demonstrations in Gaza, more than in any of the Gaza “wars” in 2009, 2012 and 2014, and that 183 Palestinians were killed, of whom only 29 were known to be members of armed groups. For more on the report, read below.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab) asked: “In what other situation would the Government refuse to vote to hold accountable those who flagrantly breach international humanitarian law? Is the fact that the Government refused to do so on this occasion nothing short of disgraceful?”
The Government’s explanation for its abstention was something of a moving target.
At first Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK would vote against any motion, even if it agreed with it, because of a long-running wrangle over the practice at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva listing complaints against Israel as Item 7 on every agenda.
“Two years ago, the United Kingdom said that unless the situation changed, we would vote against all texts proposed under Item 7. Sadly, our concerns have not been heeded. So I have decided that we will do exactly what we said: Britain will now oppose every Item 7 resolution,” he said.
But then the vote came up as Item 2 on the agenda and the UK fell back on an argument that the UN commission of inquiry had not sufficiently investigated allegations of human rights abuses against Hamas.
But it was quickly pointed out that the inquiry’s report had in fact castigated Hamas police for failing to prevent demonstrators from injuring Israeli soldiers and to prevent incendiary kites and balloons from reaching Israel.
This was not very different from the criticisms that Alistair Burt had made during the debate that “Hamas played a part in pushing people towards the border”. He conceded that there were legitimate protests and that the organising committee of the protest had no connection with the violence.
But when the UK ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Julian Braithwaite, issued an explanation of the vote on Thursday, he seemed to embrace the view of the extreme right in Israel when he said: “Hamas, of course, bears principal responsibility” for the 23,000 injuries and the 187 deaths of Palestinians.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) gave the minister a chance to disown the comments during the debate, but he declined. “Of course I stand by the explanation of vote given by colleagues in Geneva.” He then read out most of the explanation to put it on the record, but omitted the section about Hamas.
The MP concluded: “It appears that the Government are looking for an excuse not to condemn the Netanyahu Government; having had one removed, they now have an even flimsier one.
“Does the Minister not realise that this gives a green light to Israel to continue murdering civilians and maiming people in this way, and that his Government will bear some responsibility for that?”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry also disagreed sharply with the minister. “The UN report into these actions may have its faults—I accept that, and I agree that it plays down the role of Hamas in orchestrating these protests – but it provides clear and compelling evidence that live ammunition was used in a way that cannot be explained or justified.
“The Government have abstained on a resolution endorsing that report, in effect telling the Israeli authorities, “We refuse to find fault with your actions.”
She also disagreed with the policy of voting against all resolutions coming under item 7 of the agenda—even if they were in line with official UK policy. “Would it have been this Government’s position to veto all Council resolutions on apartheid, which was a standing agenda item for 26 years, or all Council resolutions on Chile under Pinochet, which was a standing item for 15 years, simply on a point of principle?”