We now post all of our articles for Palestine Briefing on our Travel2Palestine site – just easier to have everything in one place! However, this is still an interesting archive if you want to dig in.
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Briefings on Palestine
Category: Palestine briefing
We now post all of our articles for Palestine Briefing on our Travel2Palestine site – just easier to have everything in one place! However, this is still an interesting archive if you want to dig in.
Thanks for visiting!
The Government is under renewed pressure to fix a date for the the UK to recognise Palestine after a special three-hour debate in the House of Lords on Thursday June 7 called by the former Liberal leader David Steel.
Of the 29 peers who spoke, 20 called on the Government to go ahead with the long-promised recognition of the state of Palestine. Only four made any attempt to defend the Israeli government.
The heaviest criticism came from Lord Steel himself and from senior Conservative peers, including Michael Ancram, the party’s former deputy leader, and two former Conservative ministers.
Unlike the House of Commons where the Speaker tries to balance every speaker critical of Israel by calling an MP who is a Friend of Israel, the House of Lords debate was overwhelming and unrelenting in its criticism of the Israeli government.
Lord Steel said he hoped that the recent slaughter of 62 Palestinians in one day in Gaza would awaken the international conscience in the same way that the 1960 Sharpeville massacre led to the ultimately successful campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
Michael Ancram, now sitting in the Lords as the Marquess of Lothian, scorned not only Israeli actions against the Palestinians but also the UK’s failure to condemn them.
“What worries me is the West’s reaction: concern, yes, but condemnation, no. I do not believe that it does anyone any favours to stay our tongue. ”
In a long statement to the Commons about the killings in Gaza the Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, described them as “extremely concerning” but appeared to avoid using the word “condemn”.
David Steel ended his speech by calling on the Government to “recognise the state of Palestine without further delay” – a point that was taken up by most of the subsequent speakers, whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal-Democrat or crossbench.
Lord Ray Collins, the Labour speaker in the Lords debate, also backed recognition and challenged the minister: “Who do the Government not recognise Palestine now – and if not, when?”
The debate coincides with a new initiative launched by the former UK consul-general in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, now chairman of the Balfour Project Trust, with Open Bethlehem and other organisations to lobby the UK and EU governments on recognition.
In the Lords the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad, responded to the debate by saying that the position of the Government remains the same as it has been since 2011: “We will formally recognise the state of Palestine when we believe it best serves the cause of peace”.
The word ‘formally’ acknowledges the fact that the UK Government has been committed to recognition in principle since 2011 and is theoretically just waiting for a good time to announce it.
But as the UK has missed any number of opportunities to announce it – when the Kerry talks broke down in 2014, when Sweden recognised in 2014, when France said they were going to recognise in 2015, when the Security Council passed resolution 2334 in 2016 – most people have concluded that recognition is being blocked by Downing Street.
Lord Ahmad also urged Israel to stop its plans to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and its primary school following the visit to the village by the Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt last week.
The Israeli High Court gave the go-ahead for demolition from the start of June but nearly 60 UK MPs have visited the village and 67 have so far signed Early Day Motion 1167 which calls on the UK to put meaningful pressure on the Israeli government to abandon its plans.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu …. has allied himself to the most reactionary forces in the Knesset and come close to destroying any hopes of such an outcome with the growing illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, the construction of the wall, routed in places condemned even by the Israeli courts, and the encouragement of Donald Trump’s opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.
It was that last event that provoked the mass demonstration at the Gaza fence, dealt with not by water cannon but with live ammunition from the Israel Defense Forces. That resulted not only in the deaths that I mentioned but in over 3,600 people being injured. One Israeli soldier was wounded. According to the World Health Organization, 245 health personnel were injured and 40 ambulances were hit.
Last week, Razan al-Najjar, a 21 year-old female volunteer first responder, was killed while carrying out her work with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. She was clearly wearing first-responder clothing at the time. In the meantime, the Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, one of the reactionaries to whom I referred a moment ago, has declared that there are “no innocent people” in Gaza, while an UNRWA report declares that the blockade situation is so bad that Gaza is becoming unliveable in.
I do not know whether the Israeli Government know or care about how low they have sunk in world esteem.
I spent some years active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Only much later did I realise one noted fact about those who had led the white population’s opposition to apartheid—my dear friend Helen Suzman, Zach de Beer, Harry Oppenheimer, Hilda Bernstein, Ronnie Kasrils, Helen Joseph, Joe Slovo and so many others were predominantly Jewish—which was that they knew where doctrines of racial superiority ultimately and tragically led. I rather hope that the recent slaughter in Gaza will awaken the international conscience to resolute action in the same way that the Sharpeville massacre led to the ultimately successful campaign by anti-apartheid forces worldwide.
The Israeli Government hate that comparison, pointing to the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship or sit in the Knesset, but on visits to that beautiful and successful country one cannot help noticing not just the wall but the roads in the West Bank which are usable only by Israelis, just as facilities in the old South Africa were reserved for whites only.
We are entitled to ask the Minister to convey to the Prime Minister that she needs to be more forceful, honest and frank when she next meets Mr Netanyahu. Yesterday’s Downing Street briefing said she had, “been concerned about the loss of Palestinian lives”, which surely falls into the description of a continuing limp response.
We cannot allow the Israeli Government to treat Palestinian lives as inferior to their own, which is what they consistently do. That is why our Government should not only support the two-state solution, but register our determination and disapproval of their conduct by accepting the decisions of both Houses of our Parliament and indeed the European Parliament and recognise the state of Palestine without further delay.
We owe our friends our honesty. Over the years, I have often praised Israel and the Israeli people, for whom I have great admiration. But Israeli actions against the Palestinians, which are legally and morally wrong, should be condemned. It cannot be morally or legally right to lay claim to parts of someone else’s territory by building settlements on it or by building a wall across it, which effectively creates a new territorial border.
Nor is it right, with or without ill-judged United States’ support, unilaterally to proclaim the whole of Jerusalem the capital of Israel, in the process striking a vicious blow to the search for a two-state solution. Nor is it enough to pray national security requirements in aid of otherwise illegal or immoral acts. No level of threat from Palestinian protests on the border of Gaza can excuse the killing of innocent children or medical staff, as Lord Steel referred to. Nor can the disproportionate and one-sided shooting of some 70 Palestinian protesters on that same border be anything other than totally unacceptable.
What worries me is the West’s reaction: concern, yes, but condemnation, no. I do not believe that it does anyone any favours to stay our tongue. Perhaps I may say to my friend the Minister that I do not believe it is enough to call them either disappointing or disturbing. I have long been a friend of Israel and I remain a friend because I believe in it, but I have no hesitation in condemning its recent behaviour. Equally, I condemn unprovoked acts of violence by those who oppose Israel, but many of them cannot be in the same category of friendship as Israel is to us. Democratic Israel should know better than what it is doing at the moment.
Just as I am a friend of Israel, I am a friend of Palestine. Just as I believe in Israel, I believe without qualification in the statehood of Palestine. I believe in a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent Palestine. In short, I believe in the two-state solution because I can see no other lasting or fair alternative. But it must be based on fairness, and fairness to the Palestinians is today in very short supply.
If Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories cannot be stopped, we face one of two possible outcomes. The first is that all Palestinian presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem remains in a permanent and ever more formalised “Bantustan” status; islands of minimal self-governance with the continued denial of basic rights, facing perpetual insecurity and possible future physical removal, deprived of full access to water and subject to all manner of restrictions on land rights and free transport across their own territory. The second is that they are absorbed into a common Israeli-Palestinian state with the opportunity for pluralism and human rights advancement.
Tense and difficult though the current standoff may be for Israel, it is not going to be defeated and therefore holds the stronger hand. Would Palestinians, absorbed into their traditional homeland, albeit alongside Jewish citizens with a narrow majority over them, drop their historic grievance and quickly adjust to the new reality? That is optimistic to say the least. But if the window for the two-state solution has indeed closed, should the EU, the US and the UK make it plain to Israel that a one-state alternative may be the only one available to ensure its own security?
If so, what guarantees might there be for Jewish citizens both within Israel and worldwide if they agree to this merger? Could the Arab nations join those in the West like the US and the UK to provide the post-World War Two guarantee of “never again”? Could a federal or confederal state provide a way forward, with common security, a unified economy, common civil rights and guarantees of religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, but considerable political autonomy for the territories within it of “Israel” and “Palestine”?
Is it not the blunt truth that we must either undertake a massive social and geographical reverse engineering to re-enable a genuine two-state outcome, with two sovereign independent states based on 1967 lines with equal land swaps—and without all the unreasonable Israeli caveats that drain the Palestinian state of any real meaning—or recognise a common-state reality and make it truly democratic, with enfranchisement and rights for all?
I am making a plea for honesty because it seems that the international community is publicly sheltering behind the policy of a two-state solution, while privately knowing that it has become a convenient mantra rather than a deliverable policy.
Let us start with the Israeli Government. Their actions include: the demolition of homes for which planning permission was repeatedly sought but not granted by the Israeli authorities; the demolition of schools; forcible transfers; illegal settlements on occupied land; the forced evacuation of Palestinian villages such as Khan al-Ahmar, which is under daily threat; the confiscation of land in occupied territory; and collective punishment. The Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed that, “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip”, which has a population of 2 million.
I ask three things: the Government should recognise the state of Palestine, with no more prevarication; support the UNOCHA humanitarian funding appeal for Gaza and help make up UNWRA’s shortfall since the US’s shameful pulling of support; and, lastly, pursue accountability for all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as violations of the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We have a major responsibility to keep the flames of hope alive. That is our role. We helped to build and recognise Israel in 1948; we must now work vigorously to recognise a new Palestine. That is not happening at the moment. We must certainly do everything multilaterally, working with other countries such as France, Germany and elsewhere to ensure that all the Security Council resolutions are not eroded but maintained, including Resolution 242.
Lastly, we must prepare the ground for the recognition of a Palestinian state. I see no alternative to our leading the international community towards helping to create conditions among the Palestinians that mean they are more unified and we can recognise them internationally. It was a great Finnish mediator for the UN who said: “Peace is a question of will. All conflicts can be settled, and there are no excuses for allowing them to become eternal”.
It might help, however, if some leaders of the quality and vision of Mandela and de Klerk emerged to help the process forward.
It would perhaps have been best if we had been able to recognise Palestine at the time we recognised Israel. That was, after all, the start of the two-state solution, when the United Nations set it down. It had been discussed a great deal but that is when it was first laid down by the UN. The two-state solution has existed since then and it goes on from there.
However, the reasons I support recognition now are not merely historical. The two-state solution, as has been said by Lord Hain, is at risk because of the huge amount of Israeli building and development in the Occupied Territories since 1967 and because of the ruthless and brutal nature of the occupation, both generally and particularly, of course, in Gaza. The United States has long helped Israel ride roughshod over the United Nations’ authority in that part of the world, and now President Trump and his Administration have broken ranks again by moving the United States embassy. Peace can come only by wide agreement, and in my view British recognition of Palestine would help to redress the balance between the two and change the terms of the argument.
As a matter of fact, it is the symbolism of this that matters most—as it was, indeed, with the recognition of Israel all those years ago. It is the symbolism of moving the embassy that matters most. The present symbolism is of the United Kingdom refusing to recognise Palestine, which 130 out of 193 members of the United Nations have done. Palestine, after all, is a country which Britain told the Security Council in 2011 had developed the capacity to run a state; we said that that was the best way for it to live in peace with Israel. Above all, recognition would give the Palestinians hope.
So we in the United Kingdom should not simply go round and round the old arguments, deploring the killings, the fighting, the settlements and so on. We should do what we can to move it all forward. We should recognise Palestine as soon as we can.
I join other Lords who have asked Her Majesty’s Government to recognise Palestine as a state alongside the state of Israel, which was promised by the British Government 68 years ago; to call for an end to Israeli settlements and support the right of return; to stop selling arms to Israel that are then used to kill Palestinian men, women and children; to ban British citizens from serving in the Israeli Defence Force; and to stop abstaining from UN and UN Commission on Human Rights resolutions supporting values that we claim are dear to us in this country. The UK Government need to stop treating the Israeli state as if it has some unique right that means it can do what it wants when it wants, including killing and maiming innocent children and women.
Hugh Dykes, jLord Dykes (CB)
We have the two worst leading politicians in Israeli history dealing with this matter. Netanyahu is a hopeless Prime Minister, despite all the publicity that he gets and the glowing support for him from right-wing extremists in Israel. There is a growing number of the latter at the moment, which is a disturbing factor in an otherwise very tolerant and fair-minded country that I always enjoyed visiting, although I must say I do not like going there very much at the moment. Meanwhile I believe I am right that Mr Lieberman is the only Foreign Minister to live in a foreign country; he actually lives in the Palestine Occupied Territories, occupied illegally because the United States has now imposed 37 vetoes allowing Israel to ignore international law, disagree with the international community and do what it likes.
This cannot go on. It is not right for Israel to think that this is a good policy. Israel will suffer as well as this goes on and gets worse. Arab and other countries in the Middle East have different views about these matters and want some action on Israel so that there are proper negotiations. It can be done.
Where is the de Gaulle in Israel? Where is the Rabin? What a tragedy that he was murdered, as Lord Steel said. Where is the de Klerk or the Nelson Mandela? There is no leadership of that quality yet, but it will come as the Israeli public wake up and improve their electoral system, which is very flawed and seriously adds to the extremism of the present political process in Israel in a very disturbing way. It can be done: the will is there. The United Nations must be allowed to ask the international community to respond properly and faithfully in this case.
I refer the House to my non-financial interest as president of Conservative Friends of Israel.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Ali Jafar from al-Sawahera, near Ramallah. He had just completed his shift as a senior manager at SodaStream at Idan Hanegev industrial park close to Rahat in southern Israel. The factory was moved due to the pressure of the need to expand coupled with the pressure mounted by the BDS campaign, because Mishor Adumin is in the disputed territories.
Peace between Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states could be had on the basis of the formation of a Palestinian state with expanded access to the Temple Mount. Most experts agree that no true peace can be achieved without a long-term agreement for the Temple Mount. The goal would be that Israel would grant Muslims permanent access to and building rights on most of the Temple Mount, and the Jews be granted permanent access to and building rights on a much smaller portion of the Temple Mount itself.
Israel’s wisest Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, used often to say that the Palestinians, “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, in the search for peace. For a long time, he was quite right but, now, that affliction has fallen on the Israelis themselves. As, by a long way, the most powerful state in the region, with improving relations with important Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Israelis could now move towards a two-state solution from a position of strength.
What can be done? I make no apology for revisiting the recommendation of your Lordships’ International Relations Committee that the UK should recognise the state of Palestine. In that way at least we could demonstrate that we would not accept anything that fell short of a two-state solution. I know the Government’s response by heart, that this will only occur as part of a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israel dispute. Indeed, I know it so well by heart that I used to use it when I was a working diplomat, and that was 23 years ago. That position had some credibility when there was an active peace process in being; today it has zero credibility and it is a shame that we are still deploying it.
The Palestinians in Gaza have every right to protest against the circumstances in which they live. With over half the population living in poverty and with chronic unemployment, they suffer food and water shortages, only four hours of electricity a day, shortage of medicines and, too many times, denial to leave Gaza for cancer treatment or to accompany their children to hospitals elsewhere. Despite being well educated, entrepreneurial, resourceful, resilient and just decent, good people, they are powerless to change these circumstances, because they are not in control of their own destiny.
Palestinians in Gaza and throughout the Occupied Territories simply long to enjoy the civil rights which we all take for granted and the freedom to live ordinary lives. Recognition of the state of Palestine would be the first step in that long journey.
As a staunch friend of Israel, and vice president of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, I am adamant that Israel’s long-term security depends on achieving a just settlement with the Palestinians. Israel cannot be a healthy democracy when it lives alongside poverty, misery and despair and occupies the territory of a resentful people. A colonial occupation morally demeans Israel as well as harming Palestinians, so Israel needs a Palestinian state—but preferably as a result of a political negotiation.
While I have no problem in principle with unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, I never get an answer when I ask how that helps to catalyse the final-status talks.
After a decade of blockade, Gaza remains an open-air prison—David Cameron’s description, I think—that was described by the UN as unliveable in. Half this prison population are children, who live without hope, and unemployment is at about 45%. Water is undrinkable and raw sewage pours into the sea. The great majority of people live on humanitarian aid. If they are lucky, they have four hours or so of electricity a day. The head of Israeli military intelligence, Herzl Halevi, has warned his Government that Gaza will “blow up” eventually.
Despite Gaza’s grim situation, the protests around Nakba Day on 15 May were relatively moderate. In so far as any protesters were armed, it was with catapults and stones, some Molotov cocktails, admittedly, and a few flaming kites. At a press conference on 10 May, the Hamas leadership congratulated its personnel on abstaining from gunfire—a rare event. It seems that only one Israeli soldier was injured. On the evidence available, little attempt was made to disperse protesters by non-lethal means such as tear gas or water cannon. In that situation, the Israeli military behaved like people auditioning for a Sam Peckinpah film, killing at least 50 Palestinians and probably more. Estimates vary upwards from 60 to 100 and include about 10 children. Many of those killed were shot in the back while running away or had their hands up. On Israeli intelligence’s own assessment, fewer than half of those killed were said to be, to use its own term, “Hamas militants”—whatever that means.
In addition, it was claimed by Time magazine in its edition of 28 May that “Israeli soldiers methodically cut down some 2,700 Palestinians”.
Palestinian lives now have a very low value for many Israelis. To many outsiders, Israeli soldiers look a bit like James Bond and seem to be licensed to kill by their political and military command structures. Those in authority politically know only too well that they face no effective deterrent response from the Governments of the US, the UK, Europe or other Arab countries. As Lord Steel said, the UK Government should now follow Parliament’s lead and recognise a Palestinian state as a response to this latest Israeli outrage.
Although I welcome yesterday’s report that our Prime Minister has raised concerns with the Israeli Prime Minister about the state-perpetrated and indiscriminate violence by Israeli forces against unarmed women and child protesters, I cannot fathom why the UK Government abstained last month in a crucial vote on the UN Human Rights Council resolution seeking an independent investigation following the killing of an estimated 110 unarmed Palestinian protesters and the injuring of more than 12,000.
The abstention by our Government was utterly unjustified. It was said to be on the basis that the investigation would not include an investigation into the actions of what they referred to as “non-state actors”—Hamas. Our Government must surely be aware that such a request for an extension to the terms of the investigation to include Hamas will be seen simply as an irrelevant, politically driven diversion to avoid accountability, and that Britain will be seen only as safeguarding Israel and being devoid of any care for the plight of Palestinian people.
Given that Israel appears on our list of countries with a human rights record “of significant concern”, is it not time for Britain to review its position on selling arms to Israel, which is at odds with our laws and our fundamental British value of protecting innocent citizens globally?
Will the Government condemn outright Israel’s announcement this week that it intends to build 3,900 new illegal-settlement homes on the West Bank? It is worth noting that one of our own Ministers, Sir Alan Duncan, last year claimed that the West Bank settlements were a “wicked cocktail” of illegality and occupation, and that those who supported them should be barred from public office?
We cannot expect the people of Gaza to tolerate, as they have, such disproportionate and destructive action for much longer. Many people in Israel too are demanding a rethink of policy, whether it is a two-state or a single-state solution, and I hope that our Government are rethinking their own interpretation of Balfour and what that might mean for a new state of Palestine.
We cannot escape the issue of Jerusalem and the provocative action by the President of the United States which was designed to destabilise the region. I am convinced that we have to stay with the two-state approach, but if we are to do that, the recognition of Palestine cannot be delayed. It is absolutely imperative that if we mean what we say about a two-state solution, and if we really respect the Palestinian people, we have to give them equal status with the people of Israel, and that involves recognition.
It is some 50 years since the Six Day War, when the intentions of the Zionist movement became clear: to carry on expelling and killing Palestinians, and grabbing their land and their homes until the ambition of a greater Israel is achieved from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. It is not fooling us any longer.
Our Government have stood by feebly, often abstaining on UN resolutions while slaughter and dispossession continue, bleating about a two-state solution and refusing to recognise the state of Palestine. We recognise Israel, of course we do, but which Israel is that? Where are its borders? What are we recognising? If that is the excuse for not recognising the state of Palestine, it applies to both states, and both states should be recognised as soon as possible, as many Lords have said.
The most recent excuse given by the Government for abstaining from UN resolutions and taking no action against the Israeli Government is, of course, the activities of Hamas. Most recently, our Government would not condemn Israel for the killings during the “Great March of Return” in Gaza because Hamas might have had a hand in it. Slings and stones were used against one of the strongest armies in the world with a nuclear arsenal. The Israel Defense Forces were shooting indiscriminately at children and medical personnel, as well as other Gazan people. Shame on them and shame on us for not reacting.
My memory in Parliament does not go back as far as David Steel’s —although I speak from 40 years of experience. Overwhelmingly, debates 40 years ago did not recognise the rights of the Palestinian people. Most of them were described as terrorists for wanting a Palestinian state. This time, the position has been dramatically reversed.
I have noted that as the speeches have gone along. By my reckoning, 17 of the 25 speeches so far have been massively understanding of the unremitting plight of the Palestinians. In the four minutes I have, my message is this: something has to change.
With great respect, I am afraid that I know what the Minister will say: that he supports the two-state solution, condemns violence on both sides and wants to support the Middle East peace process. I have read those words from where he is sitting from time to time over the years, but something must change.
What can the British Government do? Things are not static; they are getting inexorably worse. Israelis ask why the world picks on them, but when states occupy neighbouring states, the international community takes action, by and large—it certainly did when Russia was occupying neighbouring states—but 50 years down the track I can see no such action here, other than people saying, “Please don’t build these settlements”. Well, the Israelis have long since not bothered to take much notice of that.
We can do one thing, which the International Relations Committee recommended. We could be just one country, among the 136 states of the United Nations, or 70% of its membership—although we not among them at the moment—that recognise a state of Palestine. We will take as read the Minister’s commitment to the two-state solution and the condemnation of the settlements, but I ask him—I know that he cannot do this on his own authority, but perhaps he can with the rest of the Front Bench—to listen to the many voices in this House asking him to give the Palestinians, amidst all the suffering and bloodshed, the dignity of hearing that we recognise their right to a state and will join forces with the vast majority, and increasing number, of UN states that know that this is the right and proper thing to do.
I assert that concern for the people of Palestine is entirely legitimate. It is quite strange that one feels a sense that one needs to say that. It is shocking that anyone who expresses such concerns is dismissed by some as anti-Semitic. Some of the people I most admire in this House and in the wider world are Jewish. I am no anti-Semite. However, as a supporter of human rights and fair treatment of all people, I strongly support the substantial minority of Israeli citizens who are profoundly embarrassed and, indeed, profoundly angered year on year by the unlawful and cruel behaviour of their Government.
The UK, of course, has a huge responsibility for the unfolding disaster in the Palestinian lands. We need to remind ourselves, as others have done, of the British commitment to the Palestinian people at the time of the Balfour Declaration. We know that Commander Hogarth was sent to Jordan to provide assurances to King Hussein. Commander Hogarth’s assurances will have been quoted in this House many times over the years, but I will quote them again. The UK said at the time that, “we are determined that no people shall be subject to another”.
Britain supported the right of the Jews to go to Palestine, but only in so far as this was compatible with the freedom of the existing population, both economic and political.
As a British person, if I am honest, I feel ashamed of my country for our treatment of the Palestinian people at the outset of this saga. One entirely cost-free action, as others have said, would be the recognition of Palestine as an independent state.
There are overwhelming reasons for us to take that action. Parliament voted in favour of recognition of Palestine by 274 votes to 14 in October 2014. Why did we not honour that commitment by our Parliament at that time? More than 136 of the 193 UN member states already recognise Palestine. When we recognise Palestine, the remaining European laggard countries may well join us.
The recognition of Palestine has become urgent to sustain the two-state solution, which, as many Lords have said, is being eroded before our eyes by illegal settlement expansion on an unprecedented scale. The US is no longer a reputable international player while the current President remains in office. The role of Europe has become far more important than ever before.
Our Government consistently condemn the settlements but up to now have taken no meaningful action. Again, recognition of Palestine would send a very strong signal to Israel’s Government: get on and sort out the two-state solution. I urge the Minister to support the call of Lord Steel of Aikwood, for UK recognition of Palestine without further delay.
One strong recommendation has emerged in this debate: that one step towards establishing that two-state solution must be to recognise Palestine. I urge the Minister to get the UK Government to do what 130 other Governments around the world have done; that is, to recognise the state of Palestine, This is my party’s position after much fiercely argued debate. I know the government formulation, as I used it in the coalition: “when the time is right”.
When my friend Lord Steel describes the language as weak, the Minister will understand; I have seen his wry smile and that of his officials, to whom I know I should not refer. Sir Vincent Fean, Britain’s official representative to the Palestinian Authority until he retired in 2014, has said that, “the time is right for the United Kingdom to recognise the state of Palestine … If we choose to act decisively, we change the dynamic in the EU and at the UN … a further abstention is abdicating responsibility”.
The region is a tinderbox—we have often said that. Syria, the outflow of refugees into neighbouring states which have supported Palestinian refugees for decades, the instability across the MENA region, the pulling of the rug from the Iran nuclear deal, unpredictability in Saudi Arabia, the blockade of Qatar: all should concern us.
As Lord Luce, pointed out, the US has abdicated its position as a mediator. President Trump cannot act as an honest broker in this situation, capable of delivering a two-state solution. Indeed, the Vice-President, Mike Pence, has said publicly that, “we don’t want to be a broker. A broker doesn’t take sides … America’s on the side of Israel”.
Surely Lord Luce, is right when he argues that it is in everyone’s interest that European countries take the lead. Lord Hannay made the point that Europe has the most to lose and the most to gain from such engagement. There is often in these debates an element of whataboutery. It is because of that that we need international engagement that is not partisan, as the US has now declared itself to be.
The UK Government have said that they fully support the need for an independent investigation into the Gaza protests and the response to them. Yet during the United Nations Human Rights Council session last month, the UK abstained from calls for a commission of inquiry, arguing that the substance of the resolution was not impartial and balanced.
The UK’s response now is to call directly on Israel to carry out a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence, to ensure its independence, to make its findings public and, if wrongdoing is found, to hold those responsible to account. I ask the Minister: did the Prime Minister raise this call with Mr Netanyahu this week and what was his response?
It is appalling that the Trump Administration have chosen this critical moment to halve their funding of UNRWA. Its budget last year was $760 million and, as a direct result of its work, tens of thousands of children in Gaza received schooling and tens of thousands of their parents received healthcare that would not otherwise have been available to them. Others have tried to plug the gap, including the Saudis, but when all they can offer are one-off contributions the funding crisis is only delayed rather than stopped.
That is why Labour calls on the Government to take the lead in a longer-term solution by initiating a special global funding conference such as those held in response to humanitarian emergencies—the difference in this case being that we must not wait for the emergency to strike before acting.
I am a patron of Labour Friends of Israel; there is no doubt that Israel has a right to defend itself. The role of Hamas has certainly not helped that situation but a two-state solution is the only way forward, which is why the Labour Party completely supports it. I totally accept the need for action more than simply words.
It is the Labour Party’s policy, if elected, to recognise the state of Palestine immediately. I wish the Israeli Government would do the same. It would go a long way towards building a two-state solution in the region. My question to the Minister is: why do the Government not recognise Palestine now—and if not, when?
The UK and the Government remain committed to supporting a negotiated peace settlement that leads to that viable, sovereign and stable Palestinian state, living alongside a safe, secure, prosperous and progressive Israel. Indeed, those adjectives we use for either side apply to both. The Government remain committed to the two-state solution as the best way to bring about stability and peace in the region and to realise the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
We believe that the occupation in the Palestinian Territories is unacceptable and unsustainable. Anyone who has visited Israel and Palestine would make that assessment. A just and lasting resolution that ends occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians is long overdue.
The recognition of the Palestinian state was raised by many Lords. It is important that we see the creation of a sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state. Our commitment to that vision is why the UK has been a leading donor, as many Lords have acknowledged, to the Palestinian Authority and such a strong supporter of the state-building efforts.
I listened carefully to the contribution of Lord Grocott, who said he had had sight of my notes in the response I would give on recognition. The position of the Government, of course, remains the same at this time: we will formally recognise the state of Palestine when we believe it best serves the cause of peace.
I am the Minister for Human Rights, among my other responsibilities at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I have listened very attentively to the expressions and sentiments of your Lordships’ House in what I believe has been a very meaningful and constructive debate: those sentiments have registered quite significantly. Recent events have prompted the tabling of this debate, and the events in Gaza are a case in point—the shocking violence at the border in mid-May, which tragically resulted in many Palestinian deaths and injuries, and the barrage of rocket attacks last week from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which indiscriminately targeted Israeli civilians.
On our arms policy, we always ensure that the most rigid processes are applied in terms of arms sales, not just to Israel but to other countries. We also seek those assurances when we are negotiating any deals we have with international partners.
We listened very carefully to the debate which ensued and the reason we took the decision to abstain was that we did not feel that the resolution was balanced. It did not call for an investigation into the action of non-state actors. We are supporters of the Human Rights Council and continue to support the inquiry in this respect. The detail is still being worked through by the Human Rights Council.
On the specific case of Razan Al-Najjar, the medic who was serving in the Territories, in Gaza, raised by Baroness Sheehan, Lord Ahmed and the Earl, Lord Sandwich, among others, I stand with all Lords in decrying any loss of innocent life anywhere in the world—Gaza is no exception—particularly those medics who put themselves in the line of fire. We stand together in solidarity in recognising their service and, in the case of Razan, her ultimate sacrifice. I assure Lords that in the meeting between Prime Ministers May and Netanyahu issues around Gaza were specifically raised.
We understand there was a preliminary Israeli military investigation into this, but yesterday the Prime Minister reiterated the UK’s support for an independent, transparent investigation into events in Gaza during her meeting. The Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Warner, and Baroness Northover, all spoke of its importance. The Human Rights Council has made this resolution, as I said earlier, about a commission. While the UK is not required formally to take any further action, as a supporter of the commission’s inquiry in general we will encourage parties to engage constructively with the Human Rights Council and all its mechanisms and processes.
We respect the independence of the prosecutor and her role in undertaking a preliminary examination into the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. On 8 April, the prosecutor made a statement explaining that recent events and any future incidents may fall within the scope of this preliminary examination. In any event the UK fully supports and recognises the need for an independent and transparent investigation into the events that have taken place in recent weeks, including the extent to which Israeli security forces’ rules of engagement are in line with international law, and the role that Hamas played in the events.
The UK Government consider Israeli settlement activity illegal under international law. Just last month the Israeli Government announced they are advancing plans to construct over 3,100 new settlement units, many deep within the West Bank. These include 120 housing units in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, and over 90 units in the settlement of Kfar Adumim next door to Khan Al-Ahmar. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in his Statement, the UK is gravely concerned about further settlement in the West Bank. We urge the Israeli authorities to reconsider plans that undermine prospects for a two-state solution. Indeed, I made a point, when I visited Israel and Palestine, to visit one of these Bedouin camps.
I raised our concerns about the occupation when I met the Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi, in April. The Minister for the Middle East raised his concerns with his Israeli counterparts during his visit last week, and the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister have also made clear the UK’s opposition to the policy of settlement expansion to Prime Minister Netanyahu during meetings this week.
We have also repeatedly made it clear that we consider the demolition of Palestinian structures in the West Bank to be entirely unacceptable. In all but the most exceptional cases, demolitions are totally contrary to international humanitarian law. Every single demolition, or eviction of a Palestinian family from their home causes unnecessary suffering and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution.
The Government are particularly concerned by the imminent threat of demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan Al-Ahmar. This would pave the way for future settlement expansion in E1, directly threatening a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital. This community has lived there peacefully for many decades. We believe that demolishing the village is unnecessary and not the way to treat people with whom you want to live in peace.
The UK has repeatedly called on the Israeli authorities not to go ahead with these plans. The Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, visited Khan Al-Ahmar just last week, spoke about his concerns publicly in media engagements and raised them with Deputy Foreign Minister Hotovely.
The Foreign Secretary released a strong statement setting out the UK’s position. Once again, we urge Israel to abide by international humanitarian law and stop its plans to demolish the community of Khan al-Ahmar.
Israel’s brutal treatment of its 6,000 Palestinian conflict prisoners – largely ignored by the media – will be forced into the headlines by Marwan Barghouthi’s threat to go on hunger strike on Easter Monday if the prisoners’ demands are not met.
Marwan Barghouthi (right) was the general secretary of Fatah during the second intifada when he was abducted from the streets of Ramallah on April 15 2002 by Israeli secret servicemen and sentenced to life imprisonment by an Israeli court.
He remains the most popular politician in Palestine according to the opinion polls despite spending the last 15 years in jail.
He has been wary of using the weapon of hunger strikes in the past, but now feels the deterioration in the way Palestinian prisoners are treated leaves no option.
The prisoners’ first demand is the reinstatement of fortnightly visits from their families after they were reduced to just once a month.
Israeli prisons fail to provide adequate food and shelter for Palestinian prisoners forcing them to rely on food and clothing brought by relatives. As the Jerusalem-based civil rights organisation Addameer says: “The military prison authority provides detainees with basic food rations. The provided rations do not meet necessary daily requirements, both in terms of quality and nutritional value.”
Prisoners also want an end to solitary confinement and ‘administrative detention’ – effectively internment without charge or trial, plus a resumption of the Hebrew Open University program allowing Palestinian prisoners to access education and to take school exams while in prison.
Medical issues are also central to their demands. They call for the closure of Israel’s Ramla prison hospital where many Palestinians are treated, due to its “inadequacy in providing medical care,” and quick and urgent surgery when needed.
Barghouthi believes the Israeli government is using the distractions of Trump, Syria and the Fatah-Hamas conflict to engage in a one-sided war against Palestinian prisoners. Despite attempts to dissuade him, Barghouthi, who is 57, believes he has a responsibility to resist repressive measures against those who have no protection. Hundreds of prisoners will join the hunger strike alongside him.
According to the latest figures from the Israeli Prison Service, there were 5,988 Palestinian conflict prisoners in Israeli jails in August 2016, including 644 jailed without charge, 335 under 18, 57 women and two under the age of 14. Some have been in prison more than 30 years.
Foreign Office questions, House of Commons, March 28 2017
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) What representations he has made to the Israeli Government on that country’s ban on visitors who have advocated boycotts of Israeli settlement goods.
Secretary of State Boris Johnson: The British deputy ambassador met Israel’s Europe director on 13 March to discuss the new immigration rules, and we continue to push for clarification from Israel on the impact on UK nationals. We have updated our travel advice for Israel.
Andy Slaughter: UK citizens such as Hugh Lanning, the chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have already been refused entry because of this ban, which has been widely condemned, including within Israel itself. The advice on the Foreign Office’s website says that people should contact the Israeli embassy. Should not the Foreign Secretary be contacting the Israeli embassy to say that people should not be restricted from travel to Israel and Palestine simply because they wish to enforce international law due to the ban on goods from settlements?
Boris Johnson: We have of course offered to provide consular assistance to Mr Lanning. He did not in fact request our support, nor did he seem to need it. Israel’s immigration policy is a matter for Israel. We firmly oppose boycotts—the boycott, divestment and sanctions approach—against Israel, as I am sure that he does too, although clearly it is a two-way street.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary says that he is seeking clarification from the Government of Israel. What questions is he actually asking them? In particular, has he asked what kind of activity would lead to someone being denied entry, particularly given that the Foreign Office’s own website discourages financial and commercial dealings with settlements? Is he saying that someone who advocates that is likely to be denied entry to Israel? Has he asked that question?
Boris Johnson: We are of course seeking clarity about exactly how the law would be applied in practice, although, as he will appreciate, the Israeli Government, like our Government, already have very wide discretion about how to apply their immigration laws.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): What is our policy on goods and services produced in the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?
Boris Johnson: Our policy is that consumers should have the right to judge for themselves whether they wish to purchase them. That is a policy that this Government have pursued for many years.
Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): A Foreign Office Minister has previously described the situation in Hebron as apartheid and settlement endorsement as a form of extremism. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Deputy Foreign Secretary Sir Alan Duncan would fall foul of the new law if he attempted to travel there?
Boris Johnson: I do not believe he has said anything of the kind or called for any such boycott, and nor do I believe for a second that he would be interrupted if he chose to go to Israel. I must stress that the policy of the Government is unchanged. We remain opposed to illegal settlements and we believe that they are an obstacle to peace. I have said that many times already in this House, but I am happy to repeat it to her.
Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The main aim of the boycott movement is to delegitimise the state of Israel, so will the Government continue to strongly oppose it?
Boris Johnson: We certainly shall.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Has the Foreign Secretary had any indication that such a ban might be extended to those who advocate a ban on goods from the occupied Golan Heights? Does he agree that the UK Government’s refusal to support a resolution at the UNHRC condemning the occupation of the Golan Heights increases that likelihood?
Boris Johnson: With great respect to him, I have made very clear what I thought was the profound absurdity of denouncing Israeli conduct in that region at a time when we are seeing absolute barbarism conducted by the Assad regime against the people of Syria.
Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): Many Members on both sides of the House have called for a ban on goods produced in the illegal settlements on the West Bank. Does the Foreign Secretary think that those Members should be banned from travelling to Israel?
Boris Johnson: I am sure that Members who wish to travel to Israel will have absolutely no difficulties, but it remains up to the Israeli immigration authorities to decide whom they choose to admit.
Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): I want to go back to that meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last Friday and the rather petulant tirade by the British mission, which ended with the threat to “adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied…Palestinian Territories.” Will the Secretary of State make it clear that it continues to be Her Majesty’s Government’s policy to oppose illegal settlements in the West Bank?
Boris Johnson: Yes.
Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): Will the UK Government make representations to the Israeli Government, as we have seen an increase in demolitions, including of donor-funded structures; the land regularisation Bill; the possibility of construction in [planning] area E1 [in the West Bank east of Jerusalem]; and the travel bans imposed by the Israeli Government. If the UK is really committed to doing all it can to achieve a two-state solution, is it not time to recognise Palestine, before it is too late?
Boris Johnson: Both the Prime Minister and I have raised this issue specifically with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we will continue to do so. We are opposed to such demolitions and we continue to believe that continued illegal settlements are an obstruction to peace.
The Foreign Office has issued a threat to vote against its own policies on Israel’s occupation of Palestine if the United Nations Human Rights Council does not end its “disproportionate focus on Israel”.
It fired the first warning shot last week when the Council voted on a motion calling on Israel to freeze construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and on UN members to advise businesses of the legal and reputational risks of trading with illegal settlements.
Although both these points are already UK policy, and although all the other West European countries – Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland – voted in favour of the motion, the UK chose to abstain.
After the vote the UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Julian Braithwaite, issued an unusually strongly-worded attack on the UN’s “bias against Israel” ending with the threat that: “If there is no change, in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Palestinian and Syrian Territories”.
This was raised at Foreign Office questions by Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake and SNP MP Tommy Sheppard (right), who asked for a reassurance – after the “petulant tirade” from the UK Mission – that the UK was still opposed to illegal settlements.
Although the threat appeared In the official “Explanation of Voting” issued at the end of the debate by the UK Mission, some find it difficult to believe the Foreign Office would have allowed this threat to be made if it had not come from the Foreign Secretary himself.
One paragraph in particular departs sharply from the usual studiously even-handed approach of the Foreign Office: “We must recognise the continuing terrorism, incitement and violence that Israel faces. According to the Quartet’s report last year, there were 250 terrorist attacks, leading to the deaths of at least 30 Israelis. Renewed Hamas efforts to rebuild their tunnels are a grave concern. The scourge of anti-Semitic incitement and glorification of terrorism continue. And for as long as terrorists are treated as martyrs, peace will prove distant.”
In this one paragraph five one-sided accusations are made:
This is bound to feed the suspicion that we are seeing a gradual unannounced reversal of the UK’s position, starting with the Prime Minister’s criticism of John Kerry’s speech in December, continuing with the boycott of the Paris peace conference – a calculated snub to the French government – and now a public disagreement with the German, Dutch, Belgians and even the Swiss, countries that have traditionally been far more reluctant to criticise Israel than the British.
This disagreement has not come over a matter of policy. The ‘Explanation of Voting’ is full of reassurances that the UK’s policy has not changed: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the international community in the conviction that a two-state solution is the only sustainable path for delivering justice and human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“The abstention should not be misconstrued. The trend of Israeli conduct in the Occupied Palestinian territories over the past year has been negative,” it says.
The issue is the Human Rights Council’s “disproportionate focus on Israel”. It points out that human rights in Israel have been the subject of 68 of the 135 country-specific resolutions passed by Council since its inception.
The Council has spent so much time discussing human rights in Israel that they have given Israel a permanent slot on the agenda. Whatever else is happening in the world, Israel is always Agenda Item 7.
This is a reasonable complaint, but not a new one. The Council voted to make Israel agenda Item 7 in 2007 and it has been a contentious topic for the last ten years. It is not something new that is causing the UK to reconsider its view about Israeli settlements.
Nor does the ‘Explanation of Voting’ say how it can be rational to vote against one’s own policy. It will not bring any desirable goals closer. But it will push a number of desirable goals further away.
It will be seen as chasing a better trade deal with the Americans at the expense of the Palestinians. It reduces trust. It increases the frustration and anger in the Middle East.
The motion on which the UK abstained was passed by 36 votes to two. Abstaining undermines our attempts to form a common position with other leading West European nations, especially France and Germany, which is essential if we are to help resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It leaves us in a very isolated position. It is not clear how that will benefit the UK.
RESULT OF MOTION ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS
YES (36) Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, UAE, Venezuela
ABSTAIN (9) Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Panama, Paraguay, Rwanda, UK
NO (2) Togo, USA
Consumers have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to boycott Israeli goods. That may sound like a statement of the obvious, but after the Israeli Knesset passed another anti-boycott law in March, it was reassuring to hear this from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Answering a question from Crispin Blunt (right), the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, about UK policy on buying goods from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he said “consumers should have the right to judge for themselves whether they wish to purchase them”.
That needed saying after all the attempts to make it illegal to boycott settlement goods, not only in Israel, but even in the UK. Last year the Communities Department and the Cabinet Office tried to make it illegal for local authorities and public sector pension funds to adopt a policy of not buying from, or investing in illegal settlements.
On March 6 the Israeli Parliament has passed a law allowing the Border Police at Tel Aviv airport to refuse entry to foreign nationals if they – or an organisation they belong to – has publicly called for an end to trade with illegal settlements.
Since the Trade Union Congress has been calling for a ban on settlement goods since 2009, and the Co-op has banned settlement goods since 2013, and hundreds of other organisations have supported the ban, the new law puts millions of UK nationals at theoretical risk of being locked up and deported if they come to Tel Aviv airport.
Israeli border police already have the power to refuse entry without giving a reason and last year the Foreign Office was aware of 115 British nationals who were refused, 50 at Tel Aviv airport and 65 at the Jordanian border. There may have been many more.
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock pointed out that MPs from all parties had called for a ban on goods produced in the illegal settlements on the West Bank and could be banned from travelling to Israel.
Labour MP Andy Slaughter (left) raised the case of Hugh Lanning, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who was detained when he arrived at the airport in March at the head of a trade union delegation to Palestine.
SNP MP Margaret Ferrier asked whether the Deputy Foreign Secretary, Sir Alan Duncan, could fall foul of the new law because he once described people who support the illegal settlements as “extremists”.
Labour MP Richard Burden asked whether Foreign Office ministers could be questioned because their website discourages financial and commercial dealings with settlements.
Boris Johnson said he has been pushing for clarification on the impact of the new law on UK nationals, but added: “I am sure that Members [of Parliament] who wish to travel to Israel will have absolutely no difficulties.”
In relation to his deputy, Alan Duncan, he said: “I do not believe he has said anything of the kind or called for any such boycott, and nor do I believe for a second that he would be interrupted if he chose to go to Israel.”
He is right in that Sir Alan did not specifically refer to boycotts in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute in 2011. What he said was: “Anyone who supports illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is an extremist who puts themself outside the boundaries of democratic standards.
“They are not fit to stand for election or sit in a democratic parliament, and they should be condemned outright by the international community and treated accordingly.
“For too long we have been too submissive on the principle of illegal settlements, and it is high time we stopped being so, and reasserted clearly and without fear, exactly what is legally and morally right and what is legally and morally wrong.”
The truth is only now finally coming out about the Israeli Army’s dawn raid on a Bedouin village in the Negev desert earlier this month that resulted in the death of two people – one Arab and one Israeli – and the demolition of six houses.
The first reports from the Israeli police said an Arab man, Yakub Al-Kian, had deliberately rammed his pick-up truck into a group of policeman, killing the Israeli victim Erez Levy. They also said he was a “terrorist” linked to the Islamic State and had four wives.
A different story came from the villagers. Al-Kian, they said, was in his pick-up truck at 5 am when he saw bulldozers approaching. He started driving towards his house to rescue his possessions, but the police opened fire without warning, spraying bullets at his moving vehicle.
The autopsy has largely confirmed the villagers’ story. Al-Kian received one bullet in the chest and another in the knee, causing him to lose control of the truck which then veered off the road and hit a group of policemen. He was left to bleed to death in his truck.
According to reports on Israeli television, an inquiry by the Israeli Ministry of Justice will soon confirm that everything else that was said about him was also untrue. He was not a terrorist. He had no links to Islamic State. He was a local teacher. He had one wife, who is a Ph.D., and a brother who is an inspector with the Israeli Ministry of Education.
This level of disinformation is all too typical of incidents involving the Israeli police and the army, who put out their own ‘facts’ which are widely reported in the international media who – by the time the full facts are known – have usually lost interest in the story.
In this case the information was given out by the Israeli public security minister, Gilad Erdan, who is now saying he got the information from the police and was acting “to back up his troops”. He says an apology will be issued to the family.
But the incident does shine a light on the largely unreported campaign of ethnic cleansing that the Israeli government is conducting against Bedouin villages in the Negev. Their target on the morning of January 18 was the village of Umm Al Hiran which they plan to demolish in its entirety by February 28 in order to build, on its ruins, a village for Jewish Israelis only.
This is the fate that awaits all of the so-called “unrecognised” Bedouin villages of the Negev, but the Umm Al Hiran case is perhaps the most shocking because it will be replaced by a village in the same place with the same name “Hiran”, but with Jewish instead of Arab inhabitants.
This is not because of land ownership issues. The land was given to the Bedouin by the state in 1956 in compensation for their ancestral lands which were taken off them and given to an Israeli kibbutz after the Israeli war of independence.
Nor is it because there is a shortage of land – there are 3¼ million acres in the Negev and the built-up area of Umm al Hiran covers hardly more than an acre.
It is part of a deliberate plan – the Prawer plan that is officially “frozen” but is still being implemented – to evict the inhabitants of the 35 so-called “un-recognised” Bedouin villages and to move them into townships – with echoes of both apartheid-era South Africa and the 18th-century clearances in the Scottish Highlands.
The current Israeli strategy is to persuade villagers to demolish their homes themselves by threatening them with heavy fines or to send in the bulldozers when it is dark to pull down a few houses at a time in the hope that the world will not notice.
This strategy failed on the morning of January 18 when trigger-happy police opened fire on a moving car, causing the death not only of a Bedouin but of one of their own colleagues and bringing unwelcome publicity in the international media.
Their strategy of trying to portray the Bedouin villagers as “terrorists” has also failed because the villagers are so reasonable, telling the world that they would be perfectly happy for a Jewish village to be built next to them and live as neighbours.
Members of a delegation of Labour Party members who visited the village just ten days before the latest demolitions were told by Riad Al-Kian, a cousin of the villager who died: “We were never against building a Jewish village here. We only requested that we would be included as part of this village and we can live together as neighbours and also receive some of the development that the Jewish village is going to get.
“I don’t understand why the Prime Minister is giving orders to demolish houses in the Negev, because we are Israeli citizens and we pay taxes and we want to be part of society and all we get in return is violence and hatred.”
Ironically, on the very morning that the bulldozers moved into Umm al Hiran, MPs from Labour Friends of Israel were presenting a Bill in the House of Commons supporting co-existence between Jews and Arabs, but embarrassingly in this case it was the Israeli government that turned down a proposal for the two villages to co-exist.
Riad and his wife Maryam also fail to conform to the Israeli caricature of Bedouin as nomadic herders with little or no education. Maryam is a teacher at a local school and is studying for master’s degree and Riad runs a transport business.
The 500 villagers include a good many doctors, engineers or teachers, but they prefer to live in their village where, they say, the crime rate and the unemployment rate are zero rather than move into flats in new townships where both crime and unemployment are high.
They have little reason to be grateful to the Israeli government as the “unrecognised” villages receive no electricity, no water, no telephone lines, no metalled roads, no services of any kind. This is not because it is remote. On the contrary, the Jewish owner of a dog-kennel only 800 metres away is provided with all mod cons.
This is also a contrast with the new village that will be built on the ruins of their houses. This new Hiran will be built with all infrastructure in place and even with a cemetery already provided even before anyone has moved in.
“Unrecognised” villages are not shown on any official map and their residents are not allowed to build permanent structures or make any attempt to surface the roads or link up to water supplies. Often if the villagers try to pave the roads, army bulldozers break them up; if they install water pipes, they are disconnected; if they build stone houses, they are demolished. The Israeli government wants the buildings to look temporary, ramshackle, worthless.
This makes it easier for them to sustain the myth that the villagers are nomads who originate from other countries. In fact it is historically verifiable that their families have lived in the Negev for hundreds of years.
In the winter their solar panels don’t provide enough electricity even for lighting and Maryam has to heat water on a gas stove when she gets back from school to keep her baby warm. On top of that she is always listening out for bulldozers and wondering when they will come for her house.
“I don’t understand whether Netanyahu expects us to vaporise or what, because he doesn’t give us any sustainable solution to our situation,” she says.
Traditionally, the Bedouin have been less militant than the Arabs in other parts of Israel, with a number of them serving in the army, but the evictions and demolitions have started to change that. “We feel that this policy causes Arabs to have nothing but hatred in their heart towards the Jewish community. This is the real tragedy. We want our children to grow up knowing that it is possible to live together and work and study together and to lead a shared life, Jewish and Arab both.
“I would like you to tell me if you know of any state – other than apartheid states – that would treat their citizens like that because they are Bedouins and still present themselves as a Western progressive country.
“The international community is in many ways like the mother and father of the state of Israel and we think it is time that you should say to the Israeli government: ‘Stop for a second! Open your mind!
“We as a community are trying so hard to be peaceful and observe the law and are being treated like felons. Not only us but all of the Arab community are all suffering from the same form of racism and we think it is time that somebody would intervene and stop that.”
It is not too late. The 500 villagers are still there. Two families have agreed to demolish their own houses and another six were demolished in the raid on January 18. But 22 houses remain. The Israeli army hopes to clear the whole village by February 28.
The villagers know that the only thing that will stop the Israeli government is an outcry from the international community. So write to your MP now.
Villagers say only international protests can stop the Israelis from demolishing the village.
This village is in Israel, not the Palestinian Territories. Its residents are full citizens of Israel. Yet they are treated as though they had no rights, no importance.
At the time of Israel’s war of independence in 1948 the villagers were thrown out of their ancestral village in a more fertile area in the Western Negev to make way for a Jewish kibbutz as part of the drive to “make the desert bloom”.
Eight years later they were forcibly moved again to their present location in the Atir valley in the less fertile northern Negev where they rebuilt their village and called it Um Al Hiran.
“It was a desert with no roads, water, houses or services. We built the village. We invested in the houses, the roads and the water pipes. Life has been tough, but we worked hard to develop this place into a beautiful and wonderful village,” said the village sheikh.
And it is not a question of money. Often if the villagers try to pave the roads, army bulldozers break them up; if they install water pipes, they are disconnected; if they build stone houses, they are demolished. The Israelis want the buildings to look temporary, ramshackle, worthless.
And while a few of the villagers are still engaged in the traditional Bedouin occupation of sheep-farming, Umm Al Hiran also has lawyers, teachers and doctors among its 500 residents.
A few weeks ago the leader of the Jewish settlers came and drank coffee with the villagers to ask them, disingenously, why they were trying to block plans for the new Jewish village in the courts.
Israelis can be excused for not knowing about the village, as it does not appear on Israeli maps. Even when the National Council for Planning and Building approved plans for a new Jewish town on the site in 2010, they submitted a map to the planning committee that made no reference to the fact that there was already an Arab village on the land.
When they applied for eviction orders, they described the villagers as “trespassers” squatting illegally on state land and the magistrate had to point out that they had lived on the land for years with the state’s knowledge and consent.