Monday 1 December 2014
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to ending the conflict in Palestine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this important debate, and I thank the many Members who have indicated that they wish to participate in it. It follows an important debate on 13 October in the main Chamber about the recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. Many Members who indicated that they wished to speak in that debate simply did not have the opportunity to do so, because of the shortage of time.
Given that the British Parliament has expressed its view on the importance of moving forward at this crucial time for both Israel and Palestine, this is an opportune moment to address the ongoing forced displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which is now home to 200,000 illegal Israeli settlers; the restrictions on access to the al-Aqsa mosque; and the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. That is the context in which the recent outbreaks of violence must be understood. Tensions are running high, and it is difficult to predict how, in the current climate, the situation in Jerusalem will unfold and what the consequences will be for Israel, Palestine and the stability of the wider region.
We cannot yet know the implications of recent events, but we know one thing: on the current trajectory, we are headed towards further violence, further oppression and further turmoil. That issue is of great concern to Members from both sides of the House who care about a just and lasting peace and about the welfare of the people of Israel and Palestine. The renewed spiral of violence is indicative of the failure of the international community to broker lasting peace in the region. There is a palpable sense of frustration from the UK public, which is reflected in the fact that more than 124,000 people signed the e-petition that brought about this debate. Many outside the House are bemused by the fact that the policies of successive Governments remain unchanged, despite their repeated failure.
Before the start of this debate, I was chatting to someone who described the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Our position on the Israel-Palestine conflict meets that definition exactly. It is now almost 20 years since the Oslo accords and the road map to peace, and we seem to be further away from peace than ever. However, the British Government stubbornly refuse to change their foreign policy.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has brought this very important debate to the Chamber. He says that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. Is he as dismayed as I am that the current and former Foreign Secretaries have consistently said that the building of illegal settlements in Palestine narrows the window of opportunity for a two-state solution, yet they have failed to do anything about it?
I respect the current Foreign Secretary and previous Foreign Secretary; I believe that they are men of good will, as is the Minister. Unfortunately, however, our rhetoric falls short of action. We need to address the situation on the ground and see how we can move things forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) has implied, we have witnessed an alarming expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. Estimates suggest that some 560,000 illegal settlers now control 40% of the land area of the west bank.
We need to think about a number of issues. The construction of an illegal de facto annexation barrier continues unabated. Restrictions on movement continue to be a daily source of outrage for ordinary Palestinians. The economic decline and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which we have debated in this Chamber on previous occasions and which has been caused by a cruel and highly illegal blockade, has left 1.8 million Palestinians without adequate shelter, sufficient food or access to safe drinking water. Not only is the status quo immoral and illegal, but it lays the foundations for the next major escalation.
It is not enough to focus exclusively on negotiations while failing to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations and its continued annexation of Palestinian land. More than half the members of Israel’s Government, whose political positions range from the right to the far right, reject the two-state solution and the international consensus out of hand. Recently, the Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said:
“I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict and maintain relations in a way that works for our interests”.
By “our interests”, he means the interests of the Israeli side. This summer, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had previously claimed to support a two-state solution, let his mask slip and revealed his true intentions:
“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
For decades, Israel has maintained the rhetoric of peace and negotiations for an international audience, while simultaneously entrenching and deepening the occupation. Now even the rhetorical fig leaf of a negotiated solution has been stripped away, leaving Israel’s expansionist aims naked and clear for all who have eyes to see.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent role he is playing in the debate. He will be aware that one of our former distinguished colleagues, Martin Linton, has prepared an excellent briefing for the debate. Among the disturbing points that he made was the fact that there were 182 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons in September 2014, and that Israel is the only country systematically to persecute children in military courts. That, and much more about the way in which children have been treated, is wholly repugnant.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, as the Minister and other Members know. Other Members have been to the occupied territories and seen how Palestinian children are treated. They are not treated as Israeli children—the children of settlers—are; Palestinian children are subjected to a different system of law, in military courts. That is one of the many issues, such as the demolition of Bedouin villages, which I have also seen, and the failure to tackle settler violence—
Does the hon. Gentleman have anything to say about the 19,000 missiles purposely fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israeli towns since Israel withdrew from Gaza? Does he have anything to say about the murders and the continued terrorism from Palestinians—particularly the recent incidents in which people were murdered while they were praying in a synagogue in Jerusalem?
I want to place on the record the fact that I condemn all violence unreservedly, irrespective of which side it comes from. I believe that all right-thinking people from both sides of the House take the same view. My contention is that we must find a way to move the process forward, and that is why I have secured the debate. I am certainly not here to condone any acts of violence, but may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that more than 500 Palestinian children and almost 2,000 civilians were killed in the brutal and vicious assault that was the disproportionate reaction of the Israelis in Gaza? We have to bring the dreadful cycle of violence to an end.
I have tried to allude to some of the root causes of the tension and frustration, such as child prisoners, the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements and the detention of political prisoners—including eminent, peace-loving individuals such as Marwan Barghouti. All that simply exacerbates the situation.
The thing that worries me and many people in this Chamber and across the country is that Israel is being allowed to achieve its goals through force, regardless of how illegal and counterproductive to peace its actions are. Israel is seemingly able to do that without any accountability. There is currently little economic pressure to prevent Israel from continuing to colonise and annex as much of the west bank and East Jerusalem as it wishes.
My hon. Friend will be aware that 274 Members voted to recognise the Palestinian state. Sweden has already recognised it, and France looks as if it will do the same. Does he agree that such recognition would put pressure on the Israelis to get back to the negotiating table? Does he agree that the UK should do that?
I agree, and I hope the vote sends out a number of messages—and not only to our own Government and the British people, whom this House reflects. Some 40 right hon. and hon. Members from the Minister’s own party supported the motion and spoke with great passion and conviction about the need to move the process forward in a fair, just and equitable manner. The views of the British Parliament are important not only here in the UK, but internationally.
Does today’s turnout, which is impressive for a debate of this type, emphasise how the Government have not responded positively to that resolution of the House of Commons? The Government’s response is totally unacceptable. It was an all-party resolution, and we expect a better, stronger response from the Government than we have seen so far.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Another purpose of this debate is to take the momentum from that previous debate and put various points to the Minister on what we can do to move things forward, level the playing field and encourage a return to negotiations. Part of that has to involve applying further pressure to the Israeli Government, perhaps through economic sanctions and by highlighting some of the iniquities of trading with illegal settlements on the west bank.
The danger of my hon. Friend’s contribution is that he is coming at the problem from only one direction. Does he not agree that the same pressure has to be applied to the Palestinians so that they come to the negotiating table? Ultimately, all their problems will be solved only if the two peoples start dancing together in a tango, rather than looking at the problems through the prism of one side.
The purpose of this debate is to identify some of the obstacles to moving forward to a just and equitable solution. It seems as if many of the obstacles that I and other Members have mentioned in relation to child prisoners, the demolition of Bedouin villages, settler violence and illegal settlements, are a consequence of the occupying power’s actions. We must address those obstacles and help to defuse the tensions and growing violence in the west bank—particularly in Jerusalem—before we can move forward. I hope to develop that argument.
In the early part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman rightly made the point that the failure is that successive Israeli Governments have always been content to manage the problem, rather than find a solution. If we are to move forward, how do we break the mindset in Israel that simply says, “Let’s manage the problem and let the west get on with it”?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, because the status quo is not acceptable to anyone other than the Israeli Government, who are able to achieve their ends, deepen their occupation and continue their annexation unhindered, largely protected by a diplomatic shield. We need to make the Israeli Government aware that that is no longer acceptable.
If the truth is stretched thin enough, people start to see through it. A consequence of the recent incursion into Gaza, where there was a dreadful loss of life and wholesale destruction of property, civilian infrastructure, hospitals, clinics and the only power station, is that people are now perhaps starting to see through the veil of propaganda that the Israelis put out about their seeking a just settlement. That certainly seems not to be the case.
Several hon. Members
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and then I will make a little progress.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful case on such an important subject, about which we all feel so passionately. Does he agree that our Government have a duty to behave responsibly on arms licences? I asked the Secretary of State for Defence about that last week and found that 68 licences were granted in the six months leading up to the summer before the crisis in Gaza. That is £7 million-worth of arms, which surely does not fit with our principle of responsible exports.
Order. I encourage Members, whether they have been in the House for four years or 40 years, to keep interventions short—more than 30 Members want to speak, and I will announce the time limit in a moment—and to ensure that all mobile phones are switched to silent.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard.
I am grateful for the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, because I was going to refer to her question. I have some suggestions for how we might move things forward. All parties in this House agree that the two-state solution is the way forward, and it has been the stated foreign policy objective of successive Governments for decades, but there has been a gap in the rhetoric of Ministers—this is not a criticism of the current incumbent, because I know he is a man of good faith who is seeking a solution.
And his predecessors.
It is also not a criticism of the Minister’s predecessors, whom I admire greatly. I know they made tremendous efforts, but there is now a growing gap in credibility between rhetoric and action, which is unacceptable. If we want to see an end to the horrifying cycle of violence and abuses of human rights, and if we wish to bring both parties to the negotiating table in good faith, we need to close that gap.
A new approach to diplomacy must be based on the protection of civilians, equal respect for human rights, equal respect for the security and sovereignty of both Israelis and Palestinians and actual respect—rather than just rhetoric—for international law. When the Israeli Government recently gave their final approval for the construction of 2,610 houses in one of the most sensitive neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, the British Foreign Secretary said that he “deplored” the decision. That is a strong word, but how many times have we heard Ministers deploring the actions of the Israeli Government without backing it up?
What should we do? Members, and hopefully the Minister, may wish to consider my proposal that we put an end to trade with and investment in illegal Israeli settlements in the west bank. Those settlements are illegal and constitute a grave breach of article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention. Our Government and EU Ministers regularly decry Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise as a great barrier to peace and say, quite rightly, that the settlements threaten the viability of the two-state solution.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I am just going to finish this point. I have been generous in giving way.
Although the EU and UK Ministers have criticised Israel, it is clear from the 2012 “Trading Away Peace” report that the EU imports 15 times more goods from illegal Israeli settlements than from Palestinian enterprises. We have reached a contradictory situation in which we economically sustain the very obstacles to peace—the illegal settlements—that we so often condemn as individuals in government.
Settlement products are the proceeds of crime. They are illicit goods, the product of a brutal occupation and the exploitation of the occupied and their resources. By trading with those who produce them, we financially encourage them. Those settlements are built on the foundations of immense suffering—that of the Palestinians who have seen their homes destroyed, have been expelled from their own land and are living under brutal oppression—yet we make the illegal settlement enterprise profitable for the occupying power. That seems to me a gross injustice. Personally, I do not think that we should have to boycott settlement goods; we should not be allowed to buy them in the first place. The UK Government should work at EU level to ensure that such products of suffering and exploitation are banned.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, there is overwhelming evidence that we should also end the arms trade with Israel, based on United Nations evidence that serious breaches of international law occurred before, during and after the most recent assault on Gaza. One need not be an expert in international law to know that shooting tank shells at children sleeping in UN shelters, launching missiles at small children playing on the beach in Gaza and bombing sick and injured patients lying in hospital beds are immoral and criminal acts. The UK should have no part in them or in supplying arms and components that allow such things to happen.
I will give way now to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who was keen to intervene.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the settlements. I want to see them dealt with, and I believe that they can be dealt with by a process of negotiation and compromise. Some 80% of the settlers are on 6% of the land. That can be dealt with through land swaps, which were the basis of talks as far back as Camp David and Annapolis. Other people can be moved, and some could stay and live under Palestinian sovereignty, just as there are and always will be Palestinians in Israel. The settlements beyond the major blocks account for 0.4% of the territory. The problem is not insurmountable, as my hon. Friend seems to suggest, but does he agree that Hamas’s terrorism and extremism are a much bigger barrier to the peace process than the settlements?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I reiterate for myself, and on behalf of all right-thinking people, that we do not seek to condone or excuse any form of violence. I wish to condemn acts of violence wherever they come from, as I am sure do all Members.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind, as I have been generous in giving way. A lot of Members have indicated that they want to speak, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have his opportunity.
To respond to the specific point about trade, I point out—[Interruption.] Well, in terms of economic pressure—[Interruption.]
Order. If there are to be interventions, they must be made in the normal way so that they can be recorded in Hansard and picked up by the media.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard. On applying pressure to move things towards a negotiated settlement, trade is rather asymmetrical and there are strong arguments to support it as a legitimate tactic for bringing about negotiations, because the obstacle seems to be that the Israelis achieve their ends through the status quo and have no interest in pursuing a peaceful solution.
There was a tremendous outpouring of emotion from the British public this summer. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest, not just in London, where there were huge demonstrations with more than 100,000 people, and where 50,000 protested outside the Israeli embassy, but all across the great cities of the north, in my region, and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in smaller towns and villages. The protests did not come from the Palestinian diaspora; they came from people with a burning sense of injustice at the completely disproportionate actions of the Israeli Government in relation to Gaza, and people who had seen some of the horrors perpetrated against Gaza. They showed the strength of feeling among the UK population. It behoves the Government to do something about the issue.
In such circumstances, I believe that all arms export licences should be suspended. Moreover, given Israel’s record of violating international law, the arms trade with Israel should be completely banned in both directions. The UK and the European Union have some of the world’s strictest rules in place for controlling the export of arms and components. Considering that Israel already has a history of using UK-supplied arms in the occupied territories, including Gaza, in breach of those rules, there is no excuse for the rules not being enforced. The UK’s relationship with Israel may have been profitable for arms companies, but it has had a devastating impact on the people of Gaza, which at the current rate of progress will not be rebuilt for many decades.
I apologise for the fact that I will be intervening and then leaving; ironically, I am going to a sitting of the Select Committee on Justice. Is it not true that any country currently allowing the arms trade with Israel is complicit in the crimes that Israel is committing against the people of Palestine?
We need to search our conscience and consider how those arms and components have been put to use, and ask ourselves whether that complies with British policies and our sense of decency, if we are to be consistent in how we approach our dealings with Israel and other countries. In my view, if we fail to set clear parameters, targets and consequences, including economic sanctions, for failures to end violations and make progress on the peace process, we are perpetuating the conflict.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech and being generous in giving way. Does he agree that it is crucial as part of that international pressure to get the stranglehold on Gaza lifted so that the people there can properly develop their economy and society? That in itself would contribute to a two-state solution by turning off the tap that feeds extremism.
Absolutely. That is an excellent point. I hope that we will play our part through diplomatic pressure, through our influence with the EU and directly with the Israeli Government to lift the blockade and siege of Gaza on humanitarian grounds. I firmly believe that Israel’s security considerations could be addressed; there are means to do so with an international monitoring force.
Britain bears a tremendous deal of historical responsibility for the conflict, going back to the Balfour declaration when Britain held the mandate for Palestine, but our efforts to resolve the conflict have been demonstrably inadequate. We are at a tipping point for the middle east, so it is critical that the UK and the wider international community are honest brokers for peace and take practical action to tackle the root causes of the conflict. Only when Israel ends its policy of occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands will a genuine peace between Israel and Palestine be possible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone that he has set in this debate. Does he agree that the UK should focus its diplomatic efforts on strengthening the authority of men and women of peace in the region, given the serious concessions into which they would have to lead their people in order to achieve a negotiated two-state solution?
That is part of the purpose of this debate, and of the historic vote that took place two weeks ago. We need to send out a number of messages to our Government and the Israeli Government, and a message of encouragement to the Palestinians engaging in an honest endeavour to find a peaceful solution. Yes, I agree.
I will conclude my remarks now, because I know a lot of Members are keen to participate. We have had decades of talk about peace, but to no avail. Now it is time for action, and I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the points that I and other Members put to him in this debate.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We have 30 Members who wish to speak. The time limit I am setting for each speech is four minutes. Members will be aware that if they take an intervention, that adds another minute; they can take up to two interventions, giving them six minutes. Members can do what they want—as always, we have a vibrant debate in this place—but they might want to consider taking a maximum of one intervention. Let the debate flow. I call Robert Halfon.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
Following the kidnappings and the continued missile attacks from Hamas on Israeli towns, this summer saw a terrible war unfurl between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. The ramifications of the conflict go way beyond issues of who is right and who is wrong. We are now at a standstill in talks between Israel and Palestine. The different parts of Palestine are ruled by entirely different entities, which, despite an agreement to band together, constantly oppose one another. When we talk about a Palestinian state, we need to decide which Palestinian state we are talking about: the one run by the Palestinian authorities in the west bank, or the one run by Hamas in Gaza. The recent terror attacks in Jerusalem point towards a general escalation of violence, which could lead to a third intifada.
Of course, our country, as promoter of human rights and democracy, has to be an active contributor to the peace process. However, the text of the petition that we are considering does not make it clear how we should achieve such an end, and that is where the main point of contention lies.
As a reminder, let me say that talks broke down in 2013 after the announcement of a deal between Fatah and Hamas to create a new provisional Government, incorporating the oppressors of the Gaza strip—Hamas—in talks with the Israeli Government, which the terrorist group refuses to recognize.
I ask this question as somebody who earlier today learned that his daughter had had a baby son in Israel this morning. Does my hon. Friend agree with me when I say that I do not want to see my grandson have to fight in conflict; that the value of life, whether it be Jewish or Palestinian, is equal; that we must strive, however difficult it might be, to find a peaceful way forward; and that the only way that can be achieved is by talking rather than fighting?
Of course, my hon. Friend is exactly right, and I wish him every congratulation on the birth of his grandson.
Would it not be the highest irony for two entities to enter into dialogue about the recognition of one entity when that entity itself refuses to acknowledge the other? As the promoters of democracy and freedom in the world, can we in good conscience endorse an organisation that holds as a principle the destruction of the Jewish state, that fires rockets at civilians from civilian areas and that glorifies the massacre of four praying men in a non-hostile area?
Our Government refuse, as they should, to recognise a Palestinian state before a final settlement has been agreed in direct peace talks addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns, and I firmly believe that that should be the case. Over the years, the Palestinian Authority has attempted several unilateral actions to achieve state recognition, routinely threatening to ask to join some of the biggest international organisations. Until now, these attempts have failed, because the UN, among others, has recognised the obstacle that that would create for direct peace talks and the creation of a long-term two-state solution. Attempts at unilateral action are not only a sign that the Palestinian Authority is not ready to negotiate with Israel, but an attempt to predetermine the answer to an issue that is absolutely crucial to the peace process: borders. Because it directly involves both countries, it is probably the one issue that should be settled directly between them, and to endorse unilateral Palestinian actions is to refuse the two countries the opportunity to discuss it.
It is ironic that the Palestinian Authority would go to such great lengths to avoid negotiating a deal with Israel, when the two successive negotiations that took place between the countries saw Israel agreeing at Camp David in 2000 to relinquish 97% of the disputed territories, and in 2008 to relinquish 93% of them, with land swaps as compensation for the territories that would stay under Israeli rule. In terms of compromises, a peace deal between Israel and Palestine would have to address not only Palestinian concerns but Israeli security fears: more than 19,000 rockets have been fired at Israel since 2001—an average of four per day—and dozens of terror tunnels linking Gaza to Israel have been discovered.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a unified and prosperous Palestine, living in harmony next to Israel, is unrealistic so long as Hamas maintains its violent, rejectionist agenda?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The problem is that the increasingly frequent terror attacks are constantly glorified by Hamas. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) talked about being disproportionate, but if Israel did not have the iron dome system, thousands of Israelis would have been killed by the missiles fired by Hamas. If that had happened, would it have been seen as a proportionate response?
There is a lot of hard evidence showing that genuine humanitarian aid was misappropriated by Hamas diverting the resources from their original goal of saving the population and using them for the construction of the tunnels and the acquisition of arms. That cannot remain a peripheral concern to those who push for a peace treaty between the two countries. The problem of Israeli security is one that permeates every aspect of civilian life in Israel, so it remains necessarily omnipresent in any discussions between Israel and Palestine. That affects the problem of the reconstruction of Gaza, where the Israeli Government proved their good will by striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority in September, agreeing to a bigger influx of resources to Gaza under the supervision of UN officials. By contrast, Hamas has just glorified every single terrorist attack that hit Israel, including the death of a three-month-old baby girl—
There were not thousands of Israelis killed over the summer, but there were thousands of Palestinians killed over the summer, and 500 of them were small children, I dare say a little older than the grandson of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott)—I congratulate him on his grandson’s birth—but in many cases not much older. There has been an air of unreality about this debate so far. I had thought that Parliament, in this regard, was catching up with public opinion, but the speech that we have just heard and previous interventions seem to indicate otherwise.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is here in Westminster Hall today, is on record as saying that
“Israel lives in a tough neighbourhood”.—[Official Report, 13 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 92.]
The problem is that Israel is living on top of somebody else’s neighbourhood, and the attempt to equate violence from the illegally occupied with violence from the illegal occupier is preposterous, and yet it has been repeated over and over again already in the short time that this debate has been going. It is a legal and moral right of an occupied people to rise up against their illegal occupier. And after all, it is not as if the occupation has just started: the west bank and Jerusalem have been illegally occupied for 47 years. How much longer do we expect the occupied people to wait for their rights?
All this poppycock about peace talks and the rest—there are no peace talks and there is no peace process. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) just said, there are not “two countries” involved in this. There is only one country, which is occupying the land of another. You would think, and perhaps it is the case, that Members in here have no idea how all this started in this very building, almost 100 years ago, when Mr Balfour, on behalf of one people, offered to a second people the land that belonged to a third people, without consulting any of the three peoples involved. We have a historic obligation greater than any other country’s to side with the victims of Mr Balfour’s act, yet there is no sign of it here.
Parliament recently took a decisive and important decision, but the Government have not caught up with it. They continue to support Israel and to license the export of arms to Israel. Israel is the criminal in this picture: in 1967, it was ordered by the United Nations to withdraw from the land it had illegally occupied, yet it continues to refuse to do so. We should not be trading with it, exporting anything to it or allowing the importation of anything from it. After all, that is what we do with other international law breaker.
I have very few seconds left—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] They don’t like it up ‘em, Mr Pritchard. Well, some of them do. In the 15 seconds I have left, I can say only this—
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Balfour declaration, short though it was, insisted on protection for non-Jews, Palestinians and Christians in that territory?
It did so insist, but it was apparently written in invisible ink, for it has been forgotten by successive British Administrations and certainly ignored entirely by the state that came into being, decades later, as a result of the Balfour declaration.
In my remaining 45 seconds, let me say this. If hon. Members think that Gaza has been an erupting sore of enormous international strategic importance—and indeed it has been—they better start thinking about Jerusalem. The ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, the driving out of Christians and Muslims from Jerusalem, the closure of the al-Aqsa mosque for the very first time since Israel illegally got its hands on it in 1967 and the fighting that has been alluded to all add up to a crisis about to erupt.
On the fundamental principle of whose land it is, the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is right. What is more, the world more widely is beginning to take that view, and opinion across the world is changing fast. Those who think that Palestine belongs to Israel or that it should not be a state must realise quickly and deeply that they are on the wrong side of the argument.
Look back 30 years and think about where those of the right were in looking at the fate of Nelson Mandela. Look at world opinion now, when no decent person thinks he should have remained in prison. However, there are some even in this House who think that Palestine belongs to Israel and that greater Israel is what it should be. They need to realise that opinion is changing.
I have never heard Israel declare what its final frontiers ought to be. In every negotiation, it refuses to say what its borders ought to be.
We are all prepared to ask for and await that detail.
To return to the few points I wished to make, opinion is changing, and it should change. We have had our vote, our decision and our debate—the first such debate in this House—on the recognition of Palestine. The day after that, I made what I intended to be a balanced and principled speech at the Royal United Services Institute about settlements and their illegality. I have a wodge—a folder—of hundreds of responses, the vast majority of which were supportive. Those that were not were invariably very rude—they seem to think that I am enjoying sexual relations with camels—but most of the Jewish opinion, from both Israel and the United Kingdom, was supportive. The Jewish voice in Israel and the United Kingdom, as elsewhere, is changing significantly in favour of a Palestinian state.
The litmus test of value and principle and of the rights and wrongs of this situation is whether someone thinks that settlements are illegal or not. They are. That land does not belong to Israel, and anybody who thinks it does is in the wrong. Furthermore, those who regularly and unquestioningly support the unreasonable conduct of the Israeli state are not doing Israel any favours. The sort of expatriate, extreme, let us call it right-wing, opinion that says that everything Israel does is right and justified because of violent attacks is condemning the Israelis’ children and their children’s children to a worse and less safe Israeli state. Those who really support the interests of Israel, as I do—I believe I do—should realise that it is acceptable to criticise the unacceptable conduct of the Israeli state, which I fear will condemn that country to permanent conflict.
The world has a chance to put pressure on Israel, which at this very moment is contemplating legislation that will remove the rights of Palestinians living in that country. Every single claim of moral authority and decency will be eliminated for Israel in perpetuity if that law is passed. I want to see an Israel with the true democratic values it espouses.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about the proposed legislation on a Jewish state, but the truth is that the Israeli Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, said his party would vote against it; Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that under no circumstances would she or her party support it; and the Leader of Israel’s Opposition—our sister party, the Israeli Labour party—said that the proposals are irresponsible and unnecessary. Even Israel’s President opposes them. The right hon. Gentleman ought to recognise the wide diversity of opinion in Israel and even in the Israeli Cabinet. Cabinet members have threatened to collapse the coalition if those proposals are brought forward.
I recognise the diversity, but that does not mean that all those diverse opinions are acceptable within democratic principles. Indeed, the President of Israel himself believes in a greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. That, in my view, is not in the interests of Israel. I hope that the very same voices who oppose the law will now oppose settlements, demolitions, the destruction of olive groves and the disproportionate reactions. Why cannot a democracy such as Israel learn to underdo its reactions from time to time, rather than overdo them?
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern and the concern of many others that, despite what happened in the summer, the blockade of Gaza has made it incredibly challenging for people to rebuild their lives. Time and again, we see a cycle of violence devastating people’s lives. The European Union, including the UK, continues to give aid to restore people’s lives, but without a solution to the conflict, the cycle will continue and prevent humanitarian assistance.
Let me make it clear that Gaza is not the Palestinian Authority, and nor is Hamas. I have known Mahmoud Abbas for more than 20 years. He essentially recognises the state of Israel. He wants peace. I have seen the maps, the proposals and the details that have consistently been rejected by the Israeli Government. If only the Israeli Government could step forward and say yes, we would have a two-state solution with two countries living side-by-side in peace. Mahmoud Abbas has even offered a demilitarised Palestine with some other kind of security guarantee, so there would never need to be a single Palestinian soldier posing a risk—
We debate in cosy Westminster, with tea and muffins down the stairs and the Christmas lights coming on, so let us hear from a Palestinian friend of mine, who e-mailed me a few days ago. He said:
“Clashes are daily occurrences now in Jerusalem. A week ago, things were about to calm down when a Palestinian bus driver was tortured and hanged in his bus. It instigated a lot of anger which mounted after the Israelis suggested that the man committed suicide, although Palestinian doctors who examined him produced evidence of torture on his body. As you may guess, the doctor who produced these evidence is summoned to questioning by the Shabak now.
A day after the incident, two men have committed a terrible act of killing four Jews in a synagogue near where the incident took place. Unfortunately, many Palestinians do not see a difference between civilians and militants in Jerusalem. They have started to consider even those who incite…the killings as fair targets even if they were civilians. And now on daily basis you hear about incidents of stabbings and lynchings all over the city. The Palestinians in Jerusalem are feeling hopeless, and since the torture and murder of the young boy Abu Khdeir in summer, clashes did not stop. More than 1,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem have been arrested in the past 4 months. Houses, especially in Silwan, are being captured by settler groups. Family houses of Palestinians taking part in any of the stabbing or killing incidents are being demolished, or will be demolished. Israeli officials and Israel police officials have given public orders to their men to execute any Palestinian who is involved in any incident on the spot.
This situation will only escalate. I’ve never seen that amount of fear and despair among Palestinians in Jerusalem before. Economic situation is on the low, settlement movement escalating, attacks on Al-Aqsa mosque is on the rise, and no one sees any hope. So I’m afraid that this will lead to the escalation of desperate acts. And more citizens will be seeking vengeance on their own and as they see fit.”
This is a man who is living it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a living hell. We rightly talk about the horror of Gaza, on which the Israelis have imposed a total blockade. After killing 2,000 people and demolishing huge amounts, they are not permitting any real rebuilding. We pay too little attention to what is going on in the west bank and East Jerusalem. It is a living hell for the people who dwell there and want to live peaceful, decent lives. We are doing nothing about it. We get clichés from the Government. We get minor condemnations, but nothing is being done. Barack Obama could have backed up John Kerry when he made a proper effort to bring peace about, but he sat in the background.
My right hon. Friend is, as always, making an excellent contribution, but does the lesson of history tell us anything? When George Bush senior applied economic sanctions in 1990, that led to some progress at Madrid and at Oslo.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. You cannot appeal to the Israelis’ better nature, because they do not have one. You can, however, threaten them financially. When £10 billion of loan guarantees were withheld by George Bush senior, the Israelis scuttled off to Madrid. It is only sanctions and an arms embargo that work. The anticipation of a two-state solution, which we all support as a cliché, is bogus, because there will not be a two-state solution. The Israelis have the fourth largest military force in the world and nuclear weapons. They believe that they can get away with anything, but they had better take a look at how the Berlin wall fell. They had better take a look at how apartheid in South Africa crumbled overnight. They had better take a look at how peace was brought about in Ireland. They do not have time on their side. There are now more Palestinians than Israeli Jews—
I thank you, Mr Pritchard, for your chairmanship, and I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for bringing forward the motion. He already made a significant contribution to the issue with the motion he proposed a couple of weeks ago.
An insightful article in Prospect magazine recently concluded:
“As one senior British official put it: ‘This is barely anymore about who is more right or who is more to blame. The question is where this is going for Israel, as well as the Palestinians, if the years continue to pass and there simply is no deal.’”
For more than 30 years, I have been a friend of Israel; I will not stop now. Israel needs its friends today as much as ever. I have perhaps not been a friend of Palestine in quite the same way. The last four years have enabled me to address that without, I hope, losing other friends.
I open my few remarks with a plea that it is time for us to search harder for an end to the polarisation that means we are either on one side or the other. We should widen that sense of friendship and support those seriously searching for a peaceful end to this long-running tragedy, whoever’s side they are on. We need to speak out continually for all those disadvantaged every day by the fact that there is no end to the dispute. They are on all sides—they are the victims of violence from a missile or from a bloody and wicked murder; the families who grieve; and those who despair of their children and grandchildren facing the same fate, of a conflict-riddled land, seemingly for ever.
Does the right hon. Gentleman despair, as I do, that although even today we all say that we want to go in the same direction of a two-state solution, the inevitable undercurrent of different views in this place and in the middle east prevents us from getting to that destination of peace?
It is hard to get away from the history. We need to know the history, but it is a burden as well as an intelligence. If this matter is to be settled, some people have to rise above the history to get through the despair. It is an appropriate time—the events of the summer have given rise to yet another spike in extremist action on either side of the divide. Those actions threaten to make life yet worse and more ominous for all, as if it could be.
What could help the process? First, we need unequivocal condemnation of violence and murder from both sides—from the President of the Palestinian Authority and from the Prime Minister of Israel. In light of the fear that the increasing numbers of sectarian murders will add yet another element to the tragedy, which culminated, for now, in the abhorrent synagogue attack, it would be a good time for them to meet. They should physically stand together and say, “No more.”
Secondly, while there can be neither equivocation on nor justification of such murders, it would be a good time for each side to examine what can be done in their name to scale back all the elements that have contributed to a rise in tension and assisted in the failure of the Kerry talks. Those elements include the Palestinian Authority taking seriously the incitement against Israelis and stopping it; unequivocal condemnation of the reaction of Hamas and others to the synagogue and other Jerusalem killings; and no new actions on international recognition and activity, to which Israeli and US reaction would be obvious and unproductive. On the Israeli side, there needs to be a swift end to the threats on the Temple Mount and the holy mosque and a restoration of the status quo there. There needs to be an end to new settlement announcements and to the thoughts of new legislation on comparative rights for Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel, which was condemned here and by many voices in Israel.
With his customary skill, balance and principles, my right hon. Friend is developing his speech well. Is there a place for the unilateralism we have seen displayed—not least in the vote a little while ago—which goes in contravention of the Oslo peace accords and the PA’s own declaration of principles?
There is a need for bravery at some stage and courage among the leaders to do things and face off their own people. Sooner or later they have to do that. Who knows whether unilateral action taken in concert with each other might be part of that. I do not know. Until the leaders are prepared to break the deadlock, we will get nowhere.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, I will not, because I have had two interventions and I want to conclude. The debate is about what the UK should do, which all colleagues have addressed. The first thing is to never give up. A former Israeli Prime Minister told me a couple of weeks ago that a two-state solution is not a gift from Israel to the Palestinians; it is Israel’s security. The UK should therefore remain solidly behind efforts to restart direct talks and pull no punches with either state about the need for urgency. It should remain unequivocally for a two-state solution and be increasingly sharp with those whose actions and words tend against it. The status quo will not hold. It is not a problem to be managed; it must be concluded.
Secondly, the UK should urge Arab states, which currently need a revival of this issue as an acute item on their agenda like a hole in the head and which fear the possibility of its being used as a recruiter for jihad, to press heavily on the Palestinians. Although there has been some criticism of Israel for the failure of this year’s talks, President Abbas played his part, too. Hamas must end the war, and it must find no justification or support for its current position, but Israel should recognise the reality of the impact of this summer’s attacks on Gaza, whatever the justification, and ensure that there is no repeat.
Finally, despite provocation and despite the UK being urged to do even more, we should recognise the reality of our position. We are a supporter, including financially, of the development of a Palestinian state and friend of the security of the state of Israel. We must constantly encourage both and avoid making things worse by precipitate action or extreme statements.
However, the UK Parliament is entitled to take positions that it believes protect the two-state solution or signal its belief in doing so. I did not support the recent motion, as I still believe in and support the UK Government’s position that recognition should come at the end of negotiations, but the vote deserved to be taken seriously. Reactions in Israel were instructive, with the Government of the state of Israel mostly reflective, but with one or two Ministers lurching in the wrong direction and suggesting that vote supported terrorism. It did not. As David Aaronovitch recently said in The Jewish Chronicle, he might have voted for the motion himself, because it at least keeps the two-state solution alive—wise words.
It is important to consider the context in which this debate is being held. This summer, Operation Protective Edge saw more than 2,000 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis lose their lives, the continued building of illegal settlements and the expansion of illegal occupation. The ongoing siege is preventing the most basic of supplies, whether construction materials, food or medicine, from getting in or out of the Gaza strip. There are restrictions on holy sites, with all under-50s being banned from visiting the al-Aqsa mosque at times. A 14-year-old American Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces; four people were sadly killed in a synagogue attack; and just today a mosque was burnt down in the west bank. There is unacceptable violence on all sides, and it is a shame both on the international community and on this country given our historical relationship.
My proudest moment in this Parliament was when people from all parts of the political spectrum came together to vote for the recognition of Palestine. We should make it absolutely clear that the vote was to recognise the peace and justice that the Palestinian people need and did not condone the actions of Hamas or any other violent group. For anyone to suggest otherwise undermines this whole debate. It is also important that the Government take action following that vote to ensure that they recognise Palestine and press other countries across the European Union to do the same. I genuinely believe that international opinion and public opinion in this country are changing. Now more than ever, in the age of social media and 24-hour news, we can see what happens on the other side of the world and feel the pain and suffering of others. In that context, we must act.
Following up on what the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, the situation requires bravery and courage from political leadership here and around the world, but the big thing that is lacking is political will. There is not the political will in this country, or indeed globally, to do something about the situation. The lack of political will diminishes hope every single day for a generation of Palestinians and Israelis. Anyone who claims to be a friend of either Palestine or Israel must recognise that this is the last chance. We have heard that over and over again, but it is real this time. People are losing hope in the prospect of peace. If young people, both Israeli and Palestinian, lose all hope of peace, we cannot control the violence and destruction that will follow, which will for ever scar the international community and this generation of politicians.
Let us move forward with bravery and courage. Let us find the political will. Let us make it clear to the Israeli Government that it is no longer acceptable that they ignore the wishes of the international community and the demands of the United Nations, the UN Secretary-General and even the US Secretary of State and the US President. At some point, all of us must ensure that we are acting in the interests of international law and of peace and humanity. It is now that time. Unnecessary death and destruction are happening every day, and I do not think that anyone can stand by and watch it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). Everyone who has spoken today has expressed a real concern that we must start to find a mechanism to move the situation forward. The petition simply asks us to do just that; it asks us to take some action, recognising the issues before us.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway), who spoke with such eloquence about the situation in Gaza, used words that even the deafest of Israeli politicians could not fail to have heard. He spoke not only for himself and for the many of us who share his views, but for the vast majority of people who believe that it is unreasonable to continue with the current process. It is unacceptable for our Government and others across the world not to make every possible effort to put pressure on Israel to change its mind.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) introduced the debate, and I congratulate him on his speech. As he said early in his remarks, successive Israeli Governments have simply decided that it is better to manage the issue, but managing the issue only makes it worse for Israel in the long term. How on earth can the Israeli people ever believe that there will be a settlement giving them the peace that they crave when their Government humiliate the Palestinian people day after day? They are taking the lives of innocent children, and putting children on trial and imprisoning them for sometimes minor crimes. They do things that most of us would think not only unreasonable, but completely repugnant.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that international humanitarian law and its enforcement would be a good step forward?
If only somebody would enforce international humanitarian law! I agree entirely. The failure is that no one is prepared to take the next step. It is no good saying that there is a great resolution from the UN; I was at the UN last week and listened carefully to the words of the Secretary-General about the situation. Unfortunately, he knows that he is a political eunuch when it comes to providing anything that will really lead to Israel responding positively, creatively and helpfully.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinian people want peace. They were told that they would get justice on several occasions throughout several different presidential Administrations in the United States, but the United States, which still has the most clout, has failed to deliver the powerful pressure on Israel that would force it to look again. It is manifestly unfair for our Government to continue not to apply as much pressure as possible. If that means preventing our industry from selling weapons and other goods to Israel, so be it. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, the one thing that wakes up the Israeli public and Israeli politicians is when they are hit with financial implications, which is something that we must explore.
If anything is to be learned from today’s debate, let the real expression of concern in this House be included in Hansard so that others can read it. All of us have concerns about rockets being fired and about people being killed by tanks mowing them down on the streets where they live. The situation is horrific and everyone condemns it, but that is not good enough, is it? Condemning something does not change anything.
What we need is a positive, hard punch that says that Israel needs to change. If not, it will become a pariah, similar to South Africa during the days of apartheid. Only when there was concerted effort against South Africa did it know that its time had run out. The Israelis have to be careful that they do not run out of time, because sooner or later the Palestinians will say, “There is no future for us here. We have no alternative but to continue what we have been doing.” That cannot be right, and it is not the solution that we want.
What we need is pressure from all the Governments who say that they want to support a two-state solution. Some 128 of them have now signed up, but what have they done since then to say that they would recognise a two-state solution? Very little—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate.
My hon. Friend called for an end to trade and investment with the illegal settlements in the west bank. I agree, of course, and everyone else who looks at the situation would agree. Some have called for a complete ban on arms sales to Israel and others have called for a complete embargo on trade. I have no problem with those ideas. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said, quite rightly, that the tourniquet around Gaza should be removed. I entirely agree.
We should be under no illusion, however. The Israeli Government are not in the slightest bit interested in what the British Government or the European Union say; their only interest is in not the words but the actions of the American Government, who will not allow Israel to go under.
The American Government provide more than $2.5 billion-worth of arms to Israel every year. They will never allow Israel to be wiped out. The people running Israel, such as Netanyahu, Bennett and Lieberman, are all “greater Israel” and settler people—Bennett is the leader of the settler movement and its spokesperson in Parliament—and they are out to colonise the west bank. Of course the Americans say again and again, “You’re wrong—you shouldn’t do it”, but in the Security Council they will always veto any proposals that could put Israel under threat in their eyes.
I used to believe in the two-state solution, but it is no longer viable. We have only to look at the geography on the ground: Gaza is totally populated by Palestinians; Israel is overwhelmingly Jewish; 40% of the west bank has been colonised by Israel; and there is a large Palestinian population in Jordan.
My hon. Friend talks about the demographics of Israel and Palestine. May I please implore him not to forget the existing Christian communities there, such as the Armenian Orthodox and various other communities? The problem is not one of only two sides, but of many sides.
I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says; of course there are many other religious groups. That is why Jerusalem is so vital: it is the main place of worship for a whole variety of religions.
Anyone looking in would say, “Well, Jerusalem ought to be like Rome.” It ought to be a holy city administered by all the religions, but the Israeli Government say that it is the capital of the state of Israel. We are dealing with people who, I regret to say, are not the same as previous leaders of Israel, most of whom were members of the Labour party and whom I had the opportunity to meet. The leaders of Israel now are not the same as Peres, Rabin or even Golda Meir. They are very different.
The hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is completely wrong on religious freedom. I spoke to persecuted Christians in Jerusalem on a recent visit, which is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. They said that the only safe place for them in the middle east is Israel and Jerusalem.
I hear what my colleague says and he is perfectly entitled to his opinion, but I repeat that the Israeli Government have no interest whatever in negotiating with the Palestinians or in trying to reach a settlement. I wish I could have better hope for the future of the middle east, but I despair—day by day, more and more—of whether there will be a solution. I fear that the only resolution will be through conflict. That is not what I want, and it is not what the people of the middle east want, but that is what is going to happen. I can see no desire on the part of the Israeli Government to negotiate and I cannot see the American Government doing anything to undermine the position of Israel.
I say again, therefore, that I view the situation in the middle east with despair. I hope that I am totally wrong, and that at the end of the day there will be negotiations—including with Hamas, which has to be involved—but I simply cannot see any of that happening. We may wring our hands in this Chamber, saying that we should do this or that, but I am afraid that people in Tel Aviv are not listening.
Several hon. Members
Order. Unfortunately, we will now have to limit speeches to three minutes. I again encourage Members to consider the number of interventions that they take.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), a friend, on securing the debate.
At this troubled time in the region, what is needed above all is a de-escalation of tensions and the renewal of direct peace talks—the only way to achieve a lasting peace agreement. We should do all we can to make that possible, but isolating Israel through unilateral measures, threats and boycotts will certainly not contribute to reaching the peace that all of us in this place so strongly want to see.
Unilateral measures by the Palestinian Authority to seek early recognition of a Palestinian state are both premature and counter-productive. To endorse such actions is to reject the peace process entirely, and it certainly does nothing to ensure stability or to revive it. The Palestinian Authority and President Abbas have repeatedly threatened to apply to UN bodies for sanction as the state of Palestine, and PLO officials have stated their intention to resume accession to more than 500 international conventions and treaties as the Palestinian state. I can understand their keenness for such recognition, but in the absence of a willingness fully to recognise the state of Israel, those involved in the Palestinian authorities and organisations perhaps need to be a little more realistic.
Additionally, in October this year, in defiance of calls to return to direct talks, the Palestinian Authority issued a draft text of a resolution for the UN Security Council to pass; they reportedly intend to submit it formally in the near future. Worryingly, the draft resolution makes no reference to any of Israel’s legitimate security concerns and completely fails to address the recognition of two states for two peoples. Whatever side of that particular fence we sit on, surely that is a worrying standpoint for them to have. In neglecting to mention both those vital issues, the Palestinian Authority have further demonstrated attempts to bypass and undermine direct negotiations. That is more than unhelpful; it is the most obstructive and destructive course of action.
The hon. Gentleman called at the outset for a de-escalation of tensions in the region. Does he agree that the announcement of the intention for a new settlement has precisely the opposite effect and that if new settlements were to proceed, that would make the two-state solution totally unviable?
There are many ways in which we can say that neither side is blameless. The right hon. Gentleman has his point of view, and I am sure I have mine.
In pushing for the premature recognition of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority are refusing to face up to the difficult compromises necessary for a lasting agreement to end the conflict and are undermining the accepted framework of direct negotiations, in direct contravention of the Oslo peace accord. I am sure that the hon. Member for Easington is aware—I also presume that the Minister is—that the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas are still yet to respond to the United States framework document for peace, which Israel accepted, presented by Secretary of State Kerry in March this year. Israel’s historic peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 were a product of direct negotiations. A final agreement with the Palestinian Authority must be agreed through the same means, for the sake of all sides—and especially for the sake of innocent families and children.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral actions also predetermine the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state. That is simply a non-starter for Israel, as I learned when I visited Israel and Jerusalem recently with hon. Members from both sides of the House.
The Prime Minister recently stated that
“I look forward to the day when Britain will recognise the state of Palestine, but it should be part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 295.]
That is a very sensible position. It is one that I fully endorse, and I am sure many other hon. Members do.
The sudden announcement of the Hamas-Fatah unity Government was a further set back to the peace process and played an important role in the collapse of talks with Israel. I hope the hon. Member for Easington—and the Minister, when he replies—recognises that it is unfeasible for Israel to accept a Government who contain an organisation committed to its destruction.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent and thoughtful speech. Is he aware that the leader of the Palestinian Authority threatened to disband the Palestinian unity Government in September—just a few months ago—because he said that Hamas was operating a shadow Government? There is clearly no unity, so it is harder to negotiate.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I am aware of that situation, but thank him for raising the issue.
Israel has shown that it is willing to make tough decisions for the sake of peace. The concessions it has made to date should not be taken lightly. One need only recall the dramatic consequences of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005: Hamas’s brutal takeover of the Gaza strip was a far-reaching setback to the peace process. We are still seeing the consequences, with Hamas preferring to fire thousands of rockets into Israel at the expense of developing the blueprint for a functioning Palestinian state for its own people.
Last year, Israel made the painful commitment to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of terror offences, in a concerted effort to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Several of those individuals have since resumed planning and executing terror attacks against Israel and Israeli civilians. Let us not, therefore, isolate Israel. To do so would endanger any prospect of peace.
Above all, we must strive to create the environment needed for peace negotiations. That requires a redoubling of efforts to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their divisive policy of unilateral declarations, so that the peace process can get back on track and an acceptable, forward-looking and forward-thinking agreement can be reached, for the sake of all sides.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
There are people in this Chamber who know far more than I do about the history of the part of the world we are debating, but I have read a few books and listened carefully to what everyone says, and I can guarantee one thing: the history of that conflicted part of the world does not mean that we can blame one side for all the ills that have taken place there over the years. There will be a lot of pain for both sides in moving towards a two-state solution, but almost everyone who has contributed to today’s debate recognises that that is what is required.
There are those who argue for a one-state solution. Let us be honest: there are those who argue for a greater Israel, but there are also those who argue for a greater Palestine. I have heard people who are in the Chamber today say, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” We know what that means, as well. A single state cannot bring peace, as it would ultimately undermine the national goals of one of the two competing national movements. Two states for two peoples is the only realistic hope.
The deadlock and the conditions that have existed for years are not the only obstacles to peace, but they guarantee that with each passing year the problem becomes more difficult to resolve, with more settlements, more refugees, more people drawn to terror, more victims, more resentment and more hate. Hon. Members should be assured that I condemn Israeli settlements in the west bank and the blockade of Gaza, and I believe the Israelis should end the occupation. The lurch to the right in Israeli politics makes that aim more difficult to achieve, but does not make it impossible.
I do not need to be prompted to say that, with the same vigour, passion and determination, I condemn Hamas, whose unrevoked 1988 charter rejects peace and promotes the killing of Jews. I condemn the use of Palestinians as cannon fodder every time Hamas decides to use innocent people as a means of achieving its political ends. I condemn the politicians who condemn terrorism publicly but then send letters of praise to the families of those who have died in the pursuit of terrorism, and I despair about the lack of political courage on the Palestinian side that prevents the final mile to peace being walked.
Will the hon. Gentleman also condemn the accusations that the Palestinian Authority is paying salaries to convicted terrorists? [Interruption.]
Somebody said from a sedentary position, “No, it’s not,” but actually, it is. I am a member of the International Development Committee, and the Palestinian Authority Finance Minister confirmed that to us at a meeting, at which other Members were present. He wants to stop it because he cannot afford it and wants to spend the money on doing things that are constructive, rather than on paying high-scale salaries to those who have committed the most heinous of crimes and are in prison. I condemn all those actions.
My next point is the crucial one for those who would take umbrage at me for questioning the courage of the Palestinian leadership in moving forward. Arguably, the closest we have got to peace was the 2000 Camp David summit. Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak brokered a deal that covered all of the problems: security, borders, refugees, the right of return and, most crucially, Jerusalem. Once again, it was an Israeli Labour politician, Ehud Barak, who put his head above the parapet for peace. The deal was rejected—this is widely accepted—by Yasser Arafat, and that was the precursor to the second intifada. In March this year, when I was visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the IDC, we met the PLO negotiation team. After talking about the desire for peace, which I accept was absolutely sincere, I said to the PLO negotiator in private, “If the Clinton deal was put back on the table with 2014 prices, would you accept it?” Answer came there none. That is a very interesting position for someone who is supposed to desire peace.
Since 1987, there have been 410 early-day motions, 157 debates and 13,348 contributions by Members.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any breakdown of the statistics on whether those early-day motions were from Labour or Conservative Members?
I am afraid that my fascination with statistics did not take me quite that far, but I am grateful for the injury time as it allows me to finish the point, which I hope is one that everyone can rally round. Since 1987, as I say, there have been 410 early-day motions, 157 debates, 13,348 contributions from Members, 63 business questions and 2,539 oral questions. If we all back a two-state solution, as we say we do, and are not speaking with forked tongue, why do we not all get together after this debate—whether the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign or Labour Friends of Israel—and truly pursue peace together? If we are united and can show that we can unify around that point, perhaps those in Israel and Palestine who want a two-state solution can unite around it as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for securing this important debate on ending what has been a long and vicious conflict. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann); I do not say that only because I can actually pronounce the name of his constituency.
Although it is important to discuss peace talks and support for a two-state solution, I want to speak more about the effects that the hostilities are having on those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I start by putting on the record that I condemn Hamas and its violent actions. I believe that Israel has the right to a safe and secure environment.
[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
Last year, along with the hon. Gentleman, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the middle east with the International Development Committee and spend some time in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. What struck me when I was out there was the comparative poverty and lack of infrastructure in the Palestinian communities, a large part of which is due to Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and their ability to trade. It is estimated that those limitations cost the Palestinian economy 85% of its GDP. Area C, which makes up the largest proportion of the west bank, is widely considered to be the wealthiest area in the region in terms of natural resources. Output from that area would be of huge benefit to the Palestinian economy and could increase its GDP by a quarter, but that is impossible due to Israeli access restrictions on the land.
Having seen the response of the Department for International Development to the recent report by the IDC on this subject, I hope that the pressure that the Government have brought to bear on the Israeli authorities will assist in alleviating the difficulties that Palestinians face daily due to the inhibitions on movement. It is not only restrictions on movement and trade that impoverish Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; building restrictions on Palestinians in Israeli-controlled areas are crippling private sector investment. Meanwhile, Israelis continue to build their illegal settlements, gobbling up acres of valuable land.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the point she is making. I should declare an interest, having visited the Palestinian Territories with CMEC—the Conservative Middle East Council —some years ago. Does it not strike her as extraordinary that there should be such strong opposition in Israeli circles to peaceful development in the Palestinian territories and that it is in the long-term interest of peace and security for Israel to see a prosperous and secure Palestine?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his valid point. If the Palestinian territories could trade freely and could become more prosperous, they would have fewer problems and there might be an opportunity for the two peoples to live side by side.
What shocked me more than anything else when I was there was going to Hebron to see where Palestinians are living. Illegal settlements are built on top of them and the Israelis are throwing their rubbish down on to the Palestinians, who are not allowed to trade properly. They have to up a barrier to ensure that rubbish does not hit them. Palestinian children going to school in Hebron have been stoned by Israelis. That does not strike me as the actions of an educated nation. I was shocked by the way the Israelis were behaving. The whole process of denying Palestinians the right to a proper life changed my mind about how I saw the Israelis.
Will my hon. Friend confirm from what she saw on her visit that she was reassured by the work of the Department for International Development with the Palestinian Authority?
I certainly was, and I feel that DFID could do more work over there. It could help more with planning permissions, and ensure that there are proper planning permissions instead of the Israelis coming in and tearing down buildings because they apparently do not have the right planning permission. Ending the gratuitous demolition of Palestinian buildings would create a much safer place for everyone to live in.
Ensuring that businesses can operate in the region would secure investment. The UK Government should be encouraging investment and entrepreneurship through their aid programmes, even more than at the moment. The Government have established the Palestinian market development programme, which is expected to support 480 companies in the region and should have a positive effect on local economies and Palestinian communities, but I wish that DFID would reconsider its position on the establishment of the private sector grant facility, which will provide finance up to 15% of private sector investment in projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. That would not only create jobs locally, but establish infrastructure, thus improving the lives of those living in the west bank. There is a lot more to do and the Government can do a lot more to help.
I was appalled by what happened this summer, but despite all the difficulties, a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state is the only option that reconciles the interests of Israelis and Palestinians. There is no alternative that will end the bloodshed and provide justice, dignity and self-determination for both peoples with universal human and political rights, a free press and economic opportunities for all. Despite all the difficulties, this is not the time for people who believe in peace to give up hope. Peace talks have produced results in the past and have come close to a breakthrough on several occasions, and they can do so again.
Of course, a two-state solution faces considerable challenges—the status of Jerusalem, security, refugees, and the growth of settlements—but they are not insurmountable, given a willingness on both sides to negotiate, compromise and make concessions. The failure of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to persuade their people to work together, to negotiate, to compromise and to eliminate the barriers to peace is a tragedy.
The biggest barrier to peace is Hamas. Its charter sets out its goals with an explicit rejection of Israel’s right to exist. It is an organisation that encouraged young people to strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves and civilians to bits in Israel’s buses, bars and restaurants. It is an organisation that the UN says stored its rockets in schools hosting displaced people, that uses hospitals as command centres, that threatens the media, denies equal rights to its citizens, summarily executed 22 people outside mosques after Friday prayers, and that Mahmoud Abbas accuses of plotting to kill him. Whatever people think are the rights and wrongs on either side, we all have to concede that it is difficult to see how Israel can deal with that.
There are two points. First, Israel fails to say what its final borders are. Secondly, Israel did deal with Hamas in the ceasefire negotiations in Egypt. There is a basis on which talks can take place. It has already happened.
I want to see Hamas commit to peace, I want to see the demilitarisation of Gaza. I want to see everyone in the region committed to peace and coming together to negotiate compromise, so that we can have a two-state solution: a safe and secure Israel with a viable Palestinian state, living in peace side by side. That is the only way—whether it takes a year, 10 years or 100 years, in the end that is the only way the situation will be resolved.
There is an idea that the peace process can be advanced by boycotts, disinvestment, sanctions and other attempts to delegitimise Israel. I think that would hinder the development of dialogue on which prospects for future peace and security rely. Britain’s role is to do everything we can to bring people together, develop dialogue, promote negotiations and build trust. Boycotts would just drive people further apart. Britain’s role must be to develop closer links with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, promote economic development, trade and investment in the west bank, reconstruction and demilitarisation in Gaza.
I would like to hear from the Minister what more the UK can do to get DFID, the British Council, the Foreign Office and NGOs supporting projects such as Cherish, One Voice and the middle east education through technology project. The goal of peace depends on two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, working together with international support to develop a viable Palestinian state—the viable Palestinian state I have believed in all my life and for which I have campaigned, alongside a secure Israel with peace and justice for both peoples. Is it possible? It has to be. Is it easy? No, of course it is not. It is difficult, but it is possible. Israel and the Palestinians need brave leadership and renewed efforts to achieve it and Britain must do all it can to support that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and, indeed, the 124,000 petitioners on securing this debate. If they had any fears that interest was subsiding after the October vote in the House of Commons, today’s attendance here will reassure them.
The Israel-Palestine situation is obviously grim and we are right to keep on condemning each new low in the cycle of violence, whether it is the deliberate murder of civilians, even rabbis at prayer, or the disproportionate response by Governments to the murder of civilians, as we saw in the summer in Gaza, with 500 children among 1,500 Palestinian civilians killed.
There is a some sense of movement. There is certainly a sense of political movement outside Israel and that has been reflected in all our political parties, including the Liberal Democrat conference this year voting for recognition of Palestinian statehood, followed by the historic House of Commons vote. The French Assemblée Nationale will probably do exactly the same thing tomorrow. We have votes coming forward in the Australian Parliament and, at some stage, in the European Parliament.
There is a sense that people in the west have realised that we need some kind of direction to the Netanyahu Government. A corner was turned when President Obama told the Iraqi Government of Nouri al-Maliki that it was not enough to be elected: even in a tough neighbourhood and even when their country faces an existential threat, people also have to work for an inclusive, peaceful solution. I am afraid that the Netanyahu Government are not demonstrating that. We have to pursue a consistent path in the region.
I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that we should still work towards the two-state solution. The only alternative is perpetual conflict. I disagree with the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) that the peace process is poppycock. It certainly needs kick-starting—frankly, it needs bringing back from the dead—but that does have to be done, and the pressure needs to be exerted on the more powerful party, which in this case is the Government of Israel. The Palestinian Authority may have committed diplomatic, political and negotiating mistakes, and I am sure it would be the first to admit that.
On the point about Netanyahu’s Government, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is rather ironic that Bibi Netanyahu is not actually as far to the right as some of his colleagues in the Government? The problem he has to face up to, just as the Palestinians do, is that he has to have the courage of his convictions to take his country forward to a peaceful solution. He must face down those on the right of him in his Government and tell them that that is the way forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I will come back to the dynamics of the coalition. Some of us in the Chamber are becoming increasingly expert as regards the dynamics of coalitions.
The contrast I was drawing was between the negotiating mistakes the Palestinians may have made over time and the Israeli Government’s unfortunate practice of physically undermining the peace process, particularly through the settlement programme, which is a much more serious step. What do we do in response? First, the Government must recognise Palestinian statehood. The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for that. Secondly, the European Union must look at the Israel association agreement, article 1 of which commits the parties to
“the consolidation of peaceful coexistence”.
Neither the settlement programme nor the new nationality Bill in the Knesset seems to reinforce the consolidation of peaceful co-existence. Article 2 of the agreement commits Israel to “respect for human rights”, and there are also questions in that respect. A formal review of the association agreement, with all the possible economic implications for Israel, must therefore be looked at. Thirdly, arms sales: Israel is a country of concern on the Foreign Office’s human rights list, and the Liberal Democrat party’s policy is that that should earn it the presumption of denial of arms sales.
The right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is right that we must not fall into the trap of polarisation. It is right to highlight and celebrate the opinions of Jewish and Israeli moderates who are challenging the Netanyahu Government. It is right to highlight the range of opinion in Israel itself. That now includes Ministers such as Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who just this year talked about the settlement enterprise as
“a security, economic and moral burden”.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is movement in Israeli public opinion, particularly on the settler issue, but underpinning that there must be reassurance about Israel’s security and existence. That is also important, and it needs to be stressed if public opinion is to put pressure on Governments in Israel.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would also say that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have accepted the Arab peace initiative—Hamas even briefly accepted it—which implies recognition of the state of Israel. There has been movement on the other side, so the pressure really is on the Netanyahu Government to demonstrate an equal degree of movement. Perhaps we will see movement if there is a general election in Israel—there is now talk of one being imminent if the rebellious statements from coalition Ministers continue.
We do need to see movement. We used to think that the worst possible option was perpetual conflict, but if we look at the middle east now, we see that that is not the case and that there are worse options even than an Iranian-backed Hamas. There are forces in the middle east even darker and more extreme backed by Sunni extremists. We really do not want the middle east to descend into the kind of conflict we have seen and for that to extend to Palestine. For that reason, we must support moderate Arab opinion in Palestine as well.
Many countries have already recognised Palestine, and their numbers are growing. Last Friday, French politicians debated a motion inviting the French Government
“to use the recognition of the state of Palestine as an instrument to gain a definitive resolution of the conflict”.
That goes to the heart of the matter. France is the latest European country expected to vote in favour of recognising Palestine, following this House’s groundbreaking, if non-binding, vote in October, official recognition by Sweden on 30 October and the symbolic vote by the Spanish Parliament on 18 November.
In response, Benjamin Netanyahu said that France’s vote would be tantamount to showing solidarity with Islamic State. He is quoted as saying:
“Do they have nothing better to do at a time of beheadings across the Middle East, including that of a French citizen?”
That was a reference to Monsieur Hervé Gourdel, a hiker from the Marseilles area who was murdered by his captors in Algeria in September—many Members will remember that tragic event. Monsieur Gourdel was deeply mourned by people in his locality, but Mr Netanyahu seems to recommend a limit to compassion—a view I do not share.
Given such comments, we see why the world needs to stand in favour of recognition—a stance that would bolster democracy in the middle east, rather than undermine it.
Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that Mr Netanyahu is quite wrong to say that recognising a Palestinian state would support extremism? It would do exactly the opposite: it would bolster the moderate position in the Palestinian cause and make the two-state solution and peace all the more likely.
I entirely agree. We need to promote discussion, and that is one way of taking it forward. We need to give international legitimacy to the Palestinian people and reaffirm their right to land.
The UK Government and Governments throughout Europe and the world should recognise Palestine; otherwise, there will be no end to the blockade or the conflict, last summer’s war will be reignited and the tragic process will repeat itself on both sides. That is why I voted in favour of the motion in October calling for recognition. I said that the UK had a special responsibility as the immediate former imperial power, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as a guarantor of the Geneva convention and given our recent disastrous interventions in middle east affairs.
Hon. Members will recall that the vote in favour of the motion was 274 to 12. I was glad of the opportunity to restate Plaid Cymru’s position on the matter. I have also welcomed the decision by my local authority, Gwynedd county council, not to invest in or trade with Israel.
I actually live in the Gwynedd county council area, and I am fascinated by the fact that a majority of Plaid Cymru members voted to boycott Israel. However, the last time I contacted the local authority, it was still using IT systems using Israeli technology.
I am glad to hear from my constituent. That was the stance taken by Gwynedd county council, and that is the stance it will implement. It is clearly right to stop trade with illegal settlements, rather than just condemning their establishment. I hope the leadership shown by Gwynedd county council will encourage other councils in Wales and across the UK to do the same. I ask the Minister to back moves to stop trade with settlements and to follow the example of the Spanish Government by stopping the arms trade with Israel.
Unless something changes, things stay the same. In an attempt to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, two routes have been tried—one is violence, the other is negotiations. The violent route will not work. Israel has tried that route and the route of suppression, with attempts at ethnic cleansing, for nigh on 70 years, and that has not worked. That has been matched by violence by the Palestinians on the other side, which has usually resulted in their suffering even more. That has not worked for them, but it has not broken their will. Violence will not work.
The negotiations have proved unsuccessful: why? Negotiations usually require both sides in a dispute to concede something. What more, really, could the Palestinians concede? In Gaza they have given up the air, the sea, the land and indeed the water, as they have done in many other places. There is not much more they can give. Agreement can only really be arrived at when both sides in the dispute believe that the cost of not reaching an agreement is higher than the cost of continuing the dispute.
The Israeli Government have certainly suffered from the insecurity that they have brought on their citizens through the continuing dispute, but the cost of that insecurity has been overwhelmingly outweighed by the territorial gains that they have made and continue to make daily. Why should they engage in meaningful negotiations when they gain so much from the conflict?
Does the hon. Gentleman genuinely believe that they think that is a price worth paying?
I believe that they do. I believe that the gains they have made as part of the grand design have proved successful for them, and they have considered the price worth paying. That could not of course have continued without the support of many countries, including our own, but most of all the United States. Our Prime Minister recently confirmed his deep commitment to Israel and said:
“When we look across the region and at the indexes of freedom, we see that Israel is one of the few countries that tick the boxes for freedom”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2014; Vol. 588, c. 915.]
However, Martin Linton has supplied the information that in the 2014 index of economic freedom, Israel is placed 44th, behind Macedonia, Latvia, Armenia and Jordan. Are those really the countries with which we should be comparing Israel, rather than France, Sweden or Italy? Is it possible to think of another democracy that flouts UN resolutions on a daily basis and remains a fully fledged member of the international community?
What can change? I was privileged to listen to Rebecca Vilkomerson two weeks ago when she spoke to a small group here in Westminster. Rebecca is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, the fastest-growing Jewish organisation in the United States. It grew rapidly during the attack on Gaza. She suggested some changes as ways to bring about something different. The first was using boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The cost to Israel of not negotiating seriously must be greater. I have an online petition with 80,000 names on it calling for the use of BDS as a peaceful means of applying economic pressure. At the very least that should apply to settlement goods, but I argue that it should go beyond that.
Rebecca also mentioned the increasing change among the Jewish diaspora around the world. Many members of the Jewish community are growing tired of Israel and are embarrassed by it and somewhat ashamed of it. The JVP is growing rapidly and adds a powerful voice.
The final area to be mentioned is public opinion, which has been referred to before. I am accused of pandering to Muslims. That is an insult to me—but I can take that. However, it is also an insult to Muslims and to the many non-Muslims who are sick and tired of Israel’s behaviour.
As on 13 October, there have been many powerful speeches today. I cannot hope to bring to mine some of the experience that other right hon. and hon. Members have shared with us, but I bring to it the concerns raised by hundreds of my constituents who signed the petition and contacted me because of their concern for progress towards a lasting peace. We must accept that such progress has time and again been frustrated by the Israeli Government, particularly through their continued policy on illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
After the world’s reaction to events in Gaza over the summer there was an opportunity for Israel to reflect and reach out, and to take steps to reopen the peace process. Instead, it marked the end of the conflict with the biggest ever land grab, appropriating 990 acres of Palestinian territory near Bethlehem. It was something that the Prime Minister was quick to condemn, rightly, and the world condemned it. Israel’s response was to give planning approval to 2,600 new housing units in a settlement across the green line. Words, clearly, are not enough. The international community needs to demonstrate that we are committed to moving forward.
The House’s decision on Palestinian statehood was an important step, but my constituents find it difficult to understand why there is not tougher action in some further areas. After the summer in Gaza, why is there not a comprehensive ban on arms exports to Israel? Given that something like 40% of the west bank is now under the control of illegal settlers—our Government condemn them as illegal—why do we not show our condemnation by taking measures to stop the trade on which those settlements depend, or by wider sanctions conditional on an end to illegal settlements?
I am proud that the university of Sheffield has made a practical contribution by offering a scholarship to a student from Gaza. Our first scholar, Malaka Mohammed Shwaikh, joined the university last year, and after completing her master’s degree, was elected by all the students of the university to be their education officer for this academic year. She is a deeply impressive young woman. I spoke to her earlier this afternoon and asked what concerns she would like raised. She asked for us to think about child prisoners, and drew my attention to the report that a week ago the Israeli authorities detained a 10-year-old child in the Silwan neighbourhood of Jerusalem. That is not exceptional; it is reported that since last June 600 Palestinian children have been arrested in East Jerusalem alone.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. Like him, I have been contacted by many constituents. Does he agree that one thing we must address strongly is our constituents’ concerns about human rights in the Palestinian territories?
I do; I am grateful for the intervention and was going to make that point. Children are not only detained, they are tried in military courts. Many right hon. and hon. Members have seen that at first hand, although I have not. UNICEF makes the point that Israel is the only country in the world where children are systematically tried in military courts and subjected to
“cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
We are all appalled by that, but Malaka asked me to convey to the House that being appalled is not enough. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) talked about the many words spoken in the House on the issue, but Malaka wants those words to be matched with action. We want the Government to respond more positively to the House’s resolution on Palestinian statehood, and to work with partners throughout the world on taking firmer action to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. First, I want to associate myself with the speech of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann). We have three minutes for our speeches, and he said most of what I want to say, but I will highlight a few issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) chuntered from his place when comments were made about the Palestinian Authority paying prisoners. I thought that odd, because when he was in the Ministry I had meetings with him time and again at which it was confirmed that British taxpayers’ money was not being used for that, but also that money was being made available by the Palestinian Authority to pay prisoners who had committed atrocities. It is important that the record is clear on that issue.
There is a need for honesty with ourselves when arguing for disinvestment from Israel. The point that I made about Gwynedd council in north Wales is not a silly one. It is all very well to posture and argue in favour of voting for something to make a difference, but ultimately, unless the Gwynedd council computer systems are to be switched off, the council is not being true to the demands being made. Similarly, when people call for disinvestment from Israel and take selfies with their iPhones of themselves protesting, they are being hypocritical because their iPhones would not work without Israeli technology. When people make those demands, they should think of the national health service and the contributions made to it by development in Israel. That context is important.
In talking about the need for a response to the sickening events of the summer, it is important to highlight the fact that the Iron Dome barrages in Israel intercepted 700 missiles. I suspect that if some of them had hit Israeli cities we would not be talking about a disproportionate situation, but about massacres on both sides—completely unacceptable to all hon. Members. Are we honestly to say that the debate should proceed on the basis of condemning Israeli success in protecting its citizens or of condemning Israel for that success? That, too, needs to be put into context.
I have visited Israel and the Palestinian territories many times, and both sides need to feel that they have a partner for peace. I remember meeting Prime Minister Fayyad, when he was in position. He said that he felt very strongly that Netanyahu was willing to talk about peace, but that the people behind him were not supportive. Within four hours, we were in Jerusalem, meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said, “Prime Minister Fayyad is genuine about peace but the people behind him are not.” As the British Parliament, we need to try to encourage that ability to talk to each other, and we will do that by giving the parties encouragement, not condemnation.
My constituents have been very animated about the prospect of this debate. They know about conflict and peace processes and they know all about excusery, whataboutery and blame games when peace processes stall and initiatives fail. They even know about when institutions fall.
My constituents also know outrage when they see it—as there was this summer, with the scale of the violence visited on the people of Gaza by Operation Protective Edge. They know that violence makes no contribution to upholding anyone’s rights, and violence on the part of any armed group in the name of any Palestinian interest will not advance the cause of Palestinian rights or a Palestinian state. Indeed, much of that violence is aimed against the very process that would lead to a two-state solution. Let us remember that the people carrying out the violence—with whom, according to Netanyahu, those of us who support Palestinian statehood are aligning ourselves—are doing it to undermine the two-state solution. They are totally opposed to that concept, just as some people in Israel are.
I have said before that if we are serious about a two-state solution, we need to create more of a semblance around a two-state process. That is why moving towards recognising Palestinian statehood is so important; it is the single biggest thing that those of us outside, representing the international democratic interest, can do. Doing that is not about a little token PR win for Palestine or about one in the eye for Israel; it is about trying to create a more equal process and trying to say that international standards will and do apply—not just to Israel, but to Palestine. Any Palestinian state that is created or recognised will have to adhere to all the legal instruments to which they wish to bring Israel.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful contribution. Does he not recognise from his own experience over recent decades that the heart of any successful negotiation is recognition of the legitimacy of the partner that someone is seeking to work with and legitimacy in the eyes of the international bodies? For that reason, we were right to back the vote on Palestinian recognition in October.
Absolutely, and our process shows that is true. It shows that if people are serious about negotiating a process, they have to recognise that it is not going to be a matter of them all converting others to their views. It will be a matter of convergence, so people, based on the integrity of their own position and knowing that their own interests and identity are going to be secured in the arrangements, can move forward to respect and accommodate each other.
In any situation of historic conflict, people need to recognise that they cannot be secure against each other; they can be truly secure only with each other. They cannot prosper against each other; they can truly prosper only with each other. That is why we need a two-state solution and why that needs strong international support. The issue is not about simply leaving things to the parties themselves and saying, “It is up to them to find enough will.” We cannot leave it to the parties themselves, any more than it was just left to the parties themselves in our process. International good will and interest has to find its standard. People also have to know that, whatever the outcome, the states created will fully adhere to human rights and conform to international law. They can hold each other to that and affirm those guarantees for all their citizens, whatever identities those citizens have.
Let us be very clear: Israel cannot go on believing that it can ignore all the world all the time and still buy arms and sell all the illegal settlement goods that it wants to sell. The public have got fed up; the international public are indignant at the failure of the diplomatic musings and all the excusery and ruses used to exercise a veto at the UN. That is why we have this petition and why people want to see us move forward on the basis of the vote that has already been held.
I am sure that everyone in the Chamber today wants to see a prosperous Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel. I am certainly a supporter of the two-state solution and I voted for the recognition of Palestine in the recent parliamentary debate. I hope it worries all of us greatly that the situation in the region is once again at risk of spiralling out of control. Renewed efforts must be made to coax both Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table to secure the two-state solution, which I hope we all want.
We have heard much today about Israel’s actions and responsibilities. I am sure that all of us, whatever side of the argument we might be on, would agree that Israel is far from perfect. Some of its actions are undoubtedly counter-productive, especially and most visibly in its settlements policy, but in securing a final peace agreement the onus cannot simply be on Israel. Negotiations, as has been said, are a two-way process. It requires strong leadership from both sides and give and take, and the Palestinians have obligations to meet and fulfil as well. I suggest that what the Palestinians need and have never had is a Nelson Mandela-type figure who can unify the Palestinian cause behind a non-violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The recent violence in Jerusalem cannot be seen in a vacuum. It has been fomented, I am afraid to say, by repeated, inflammatory and false allegations from the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas, accusing Israel of planning to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and other Muslim holy sites. There has been no word at all about the fact that Jews were completely forbidden to worship at the western wall between 1948 and 1967, and a slight restriction on access to Haram al-Sharif has been inflamed out of all proportion.
President Abbas fanned those flames when he wrote a condolence letter to the family of a Palestinian terrorist, saluting him as a martyr. Palestinian Authority television opened a recent news broadcast by saying: “Good morning to you, good morning…to your hands preparing to throw stones and ignite the gasoline in the Molotov cocktails.” No peace can hope to be achieved with inflammatory statements such as that, from what is effectively a state broadcaster.
I also want to place a point about Judaism on the record. Jewish people are particularly prohibited from taking their holy books to the original site of the holy temple for the Jews, where Jesus overturned the tables and the Prophet Mohammed rose up to heaven. The state of Israel is allowing people to go into that site and praise whatever religion they follow, but it prohibits its own people from taking their holy books there.
That is in complete contrast to the Jordanian rulers between 1948 and 1967. The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. How can it help the peace process when President Abbas says that Israeli Jews should be barred from the Temple Mount complex “using any means”? How can it help the peace process when President Abbas says that the Israeli moves on the Haram al-Sharif compound amount to a “declaration of war”, and when he calls for a “day of rage”? What is required in these circumstances is leadership and moderation.
In his fluent address opening the debate, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) said that the purpose of the debate is to identify some of the obstacles to moving the peace process forward. I would contend that that incitement from the Palestinian Authority at the very highest level is not helping the peace process. Her Majesty’s Government need to tackle the Palestinian Authority so that these words of incitement and inflammation are stopped.
I start my contribution by thanking all the people who signed this e-petition and other petitions to ensure that the debate would take place, and all the people who have campaigned not just for months but for years for the recognition of a Palestinian state and justice for the Palestinian people. Those who have stood on wet and windy high streets on a Saturday morning collecting signatures do matter in a democracy, and this debate is, in a sense, the product of that.
In the short time available to me, I want to draw attention to a few points. First, I was asked to give a talk last week to a group of students at City and Islington college about the history of the whole conflict in the middle east. It was a fascinating discussion, which ranged from the first world war right up to the current situation. The students had an incredible sense of the historical importance of the vote that took place in Parliament recently, when we voted finally for the recognition of Palestine, but I argue very strongly that that is only one very small step that we need to take. A settlement has to involve an awful lot more than just the recognition of the state of Palestine. People should cast their minds back to Sabra and Shatila in 1982 and to the Nakba in 1948. The victims of those processes are still living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria; the Palestinian diaspora across the world is huge. They also have rights—they also have the right to return home and a right to recognition. That is extremely important. They should never be forgotten.
Secondly, any peace process requires Israel to say what it wishes its final borders to be. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) made many points, as did others, about the Hamas charter and what it is supposed to say. The reality is that Hamas is involved in a unity Government, and that is what provoked Operation Protective Edge this summer.
My hon. Friend talks about Hamas’s charter, which refuses to recognise Israel, but the charter of Likud, the ruling party in the coalition, states:
“The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”
Is that not a fetter to progress on this issue?
Absolutely. The Likud charter, which is not talked about too much by those who support the Government of Israel, says that in those very specific terms, and there has to be some recognition that the Prime Minister of Israel is a member of Likud and is in power because of Likud support.
Another point—there are many—is that half a million people are now settlers all across the west bank. Travelling around the west bank is travelling through an occupied land where the best land and the best water are taken by the settlers, the red-roofed buildings are built increasingly over Palestinian land and the massive concrete wall snakes around the place. If it was unwrapped, so to speak, it would stretch all across Europe. That wall divides farmers from their land, divides people from their water, divides children from their schools and makes travelling impossible. There has to be not just an end to the settlement policy but an end to the settlements. They have to go; they have to be withdrawn if there is to be any peace settlement.
Another issue is, of course, trade. Britain is a trading partner of Israel. We sell arms to Israel; we buy arms from Israel. Although some licences have been suspended or withdrawn, the arms trade goes on. If we are making engines for drone aircraft in this country and those drones are used for surveillance over Gaza and used to bomb the people of Gaza, as they were during Operation Protective Edge, we are complicit in what goes on there. That is what provoked an awful lot of people to sign the petition and make their views heard recently.
Gaza is under siege and has been under siege for a very long time. It has been my pleasure to visit Gaza on nine separate occasions during the past 15 years or so, and there is a feeling of depression and anger there at the way in which the people of Gaza are denied the right to work, the right to travel, the right to trade and the right to develop. Now, Egypt is joining in with that by developing a cordon sanitaire along the border between Egypt and Gaza, so I hope that when the Minister replies, we will hear some fairly robust remarks about the policies being followed by Egypt at present, which are compounding the siege of Gaza already being undertaken by Israel. A powder keg is developing because of the lack of freedom to travel, the lack of supplies, the lack of water and the lack of food. The people are crying out for recognition, help and support.
Several hon. Members
Order. I intend the winding-up speeches to start at 7 o’clock, or when half an hour of the debate remains if there have been Divisions in the House. Obviously, the more Members intervene, the fewer speeches we will get in. I call Richard Graham.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall today. Our debate clearly will not solve the long-standing problems and end the violence in Israel and Palestine, but it gives voice to the many feelings and frustrations of our constituents, 150,000 of whom signed the petition. In having this debate, we place uncomfortable truths on the record; we contribute to the changing winds of international feeling towards what is happening in Israel and Palestine today; we influence our own Government; and we ask awkward questions of all sides. That in itself justifies today’s debate.
Since I last joined a debate on this unhappy part of the world, on 17 July in this Chamber, much has happened, and it is worth recapping. The war that took place was the worst of the three in the past seven years, with 2,100 casualties on the Palestinian side, some 500 of whom were children. There are investigations of some 99 potential war crimes, but no report has been issued yet. Demolitions of homes in East Jerusalem have resumed and increased, and the settlements, which now encompass 341,000 illegal settlers, have substantially expanded. Some 160,000 of the Bedouins have been pressured to move from their traditional homes, and the al-Aqsa mosque was stormed at the beginning of November. Last but by no means least, and perhaps most dangerous of all, an Israeli nationality law was proposed very recently that would legally define Israel as a nation state of the Jews and strip Arab citizens of their basic rights.
It is important to know that that Government apartheid Bill is going to the Knesset on Wednesday of this week to start its passage to becoming law.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention on the timing of the debate in Israel on the proposed nationality law. He is right. As our own Prime Minister said, if that proposed nationality law became law, that would turn Israel into an apartheid state.
I have been careful about not intervening because so many other hon. Members want to speak, but this point is very important. As has already been said on both sides of the House, the Bill is not being proposed by the Government of the state of Israel. It is clear that the proposal has split opinion both in Israel and in the Government, but it is not being proposed by the Israeli Government. I think, bearing in mind the content of my hon. Friend’s speech, he should be very clear on that.
I am very happy to be clear on that. I do not think I said anything that contradicted it. I was going to quote the President of Israel, who said very clearly that other groups
“should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile”,
signalling his own strong disapproval of it. But the very fact that the nationality law has been proposed—we will see how much support it has in the Knesset—indicates a significant change in events since the July debate that is well worth highlighting.
Other winds of change are blowing outside Israel, in the response of the world to some of those events. It is worth noting that eight EU member states now recognise Palestine officially; Sweden is the most recent. There have been non-binding resolutions not only in this country but in Ireland and Spain, and tomorrow the French Parliament will vote on a non-binding motion. That indicates that world views are changing.
In previous debates, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, has talked about the UK tiring of picking up the pieces from countless incidents of violence in Israel and Palestine and has called for “meaningful political change”. Today, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the middle east whether he shares the concern of the author of the EU document circulated to all 28 countries that we are moving to a situation where a two-state solution may no longer be possible. Does he share the author’s belief that if that were the case, action on illegal settlements would be necessary? Does he share my belief that the tragedy of what is happening in Israel is that its actions—settlements, the demolition of homes, a hardening of attitudes and even the consideration of a nationality law—are seriously against its long-term interests and may do long-term damage to that nation state, which our country did so much to bring into being?
Like many others, I have visited Gaza. When I saw the refugee camps, I witnessed the exceptional adversity, prolonged suffering, misery and anguish that are being experienced in the region. That journey opened my eyes and confirmed what I already believed. As I stand here, I know that the situation in Gaza is far worse than when I visited three years ago. Everything has been affected, from supplies of food and energy to infrastructure and schools, and of course lives have been ruined.
Alongside the suffering in Gaza, one thing that stuck out for me was a briefing from the United Nations that showed the extent of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In my naiveté, I had never realised that the settlements were so extensive or so spread out across Palestine. Had any other country been guilty of such activity, which is illegal under international law, countries would have been queuing up to demand an end to it. Yes, the world speaks out, but sadly I see what is being said as empty words. There has been no end to the practice, but rather a considerable expansion of it. The practice must be stopped and reversed.
We all rightly condemn violence on all sides and loss of life as a tragedy. The Israelis have the right to defend their people, but they go too far with what amounts to disproportionate collective punishment against civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories. Those measures include arbitrary searches, detentions, increased checkpoint closures and tough restrictions on free movement, as well as the extensive settlement building.
Then, of course, there is the wall, which prevents people from going about their daily business, frustrates them at every turn and even separates members of the same family. Last month, we marked 25 years since the other wall—the one that split Berlin in two—started to come down, when families and two parts of a city were reunited. It is tragic that a new wall has been created, which splits the holy city of Jerusalem and deprives innocent people of so much. One day, I pray, it, too, will be shattered.
Having seen what I have seen, and having learned more as I have gone along, I still believe that a major contributory factor to peace could be the recognition of the state of Palestine through official channels. Adding the UK’s voice to the 135 states that already recognise the state of Palestine would not only validate the continued viability of the two-state solution but confirm our commitment to advancing peace in the region and send a strong message about the illegitimacy of the ongoing occupation. I am sure that the British Government have taken note of what our Parliament had to say on the question of recognition for the state of Palestine, and I hope that that historic step will be taken before too long.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for securing the debate, and I add my thanks to all those who signed the petition to enable us to have this debate.
We are all aware of the action in Gaza during the summer months, its effects on the people of Gaza and all the buildings that were destroyed. Before I go any further, to pre-empt any interventions, I condemn the actions of Hamas. However, I also have to condemn the disproportionate action of the Israel defence forces. When we consider the number of people—young children and civilians—who were killed during that action, we must all recognise that such disproportionate action does not allow any sort of peace process to take place. There are key issues following that action, such as the implementation of and support for the UN mechanism to facilitate the importing and use of construction materials in Gaza. There are problems surrounding agreement from Israel to allow unimpeded entry into Gaza for humanitarian goods and personnel. Urgent progress must be made on providing the people of Gaza with access to electricity and water, which are still not in place following the conflict.
The vote that was taken in this place on the recognition of Palestine has been mentioned, and the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan)—I was going to call him my right hon. Friend—
That will do.
It is close enough. He talked about the issues surrounding that vote. I think that the people in Israel who are hellbent on taking such action need to recognise the strength of that vote. The old dynamics are changing significantly, because the former controls on news and media have changed significantly. People have much more control of the media and the reports that they receive, and they are much better able to decide for themselves what they believe is right and what they believe is wrong. If Israel is genuine about its position, it needs to pay heed to that. Other countries, such as France, are looking to take votes similar to the one that we have taken. It does not help anybody’s cause for the current position to continue. Unless Israel is prepared to move forward and deal with the problems, we will not get to where we want to be. As my—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate and giving voice to tens of thousands of petitioners. It has been more than 20 years since the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, but the remarkable longevity of the Oslo dynamic stands as a testament not to Oslo’s utility but to its failure. The logic of Oslo and the many successive initiatives derived from it have rested on the belief that incremental progress on smaller-scale issues would build mutual trust and confidence between the parties and enable them to tackle tougher issues further down the road.
In practice, however, the opposite has been the case. A generation of Palestinians have grown up to witness a worsening situation on the ground, which stokes the fires of injustice that are escalating the conflict and endangering the entire region. The stipulation that Israel and the Palestinians would not be held accountable for violations was originally intended as a trust-building exercise for a future settlement, but it has, in subsequent decades, afforded Israel complete impunity for its actions. That has led to horrendous human rights violations and is extinguishing hope for a just political settlement.
A lot has been said about leadership today. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a tragedy for both peoples, because Rabin was an Israeli leader prepared to make the tough compromises necessary to achieve a just peace. Without an Israeli Government who are prepared to compromise and negotiate in good faith, a refusal to hold Israel to account does not encourage negotiations; it leads to a culture of impunity that is seized on by those on both sides who reject any type of political settlement. Israel is the dominant party in the conflict, and it is afforded an unparalleled diplomatic shield by western nations. In the current dynamic, there is nothing to prevent Israel from doing whatever it wants and taking whatever it wants, to the detriment of both peoples.
The two-state solution receives the near-unanimous support of hon. Members—myself included—the British public, the international community and, most importantly, a large majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. A negotiated two-state solution will be achieved only if there are partners for peace on both sides. Sadly, the current Israeli leadership shows little appetite for political settlement, and the direction in which it is headed is destructive for Israel and devastating for the Palestinians.
Israel is a close ally of ours, and it has good friends here who can be instrumental in encouraging it to reach a political settlement in its own self-interest. For that to happen, our Government must apply pressure, both diplomatic and economic, to create the leverage to make possible the conditions that are necessary for a negotiated two-state solution.
I have two brief points to add to the excellent points that have already been made. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) asked a question about Israel at Prime Minister’s questions last week, and the Prime Minister held up Israel as an example of human rights and civic responsibilities in the region. I hope that he and others recognise that the enshrined racism that I saw in Palestine, which continues to be enshrined increasingly deeply in Israeli law, makes such a eulogy offensive.
From my talks with members of the French Parliament, it is clear that our vote on 13 October has been taken as an encouragement for the French Parliament to hold similar votes. That is a mark of the good work of this House, and particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), in raising the issue of the recognition of Palestine.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). He is a skilful and persistent campaigner, as his success in securing the debate and the way he made his contribution demonstrate.
The continuing trauma, insecurity and devastation caused by the lack of a negotiated solution to the middle east crisis continues to be obvious and to provoke considerable concern in all our communities. More than 2,000 people were killed in the conflict in Gaza this summer, many of them civilians, including almost 500 children. The terrible loss of life has been followed by recent acts of terror in Jerusalem, including the horrendous attack on a synagogue during which one of our own citizens was killed. Whether one is a Palestinian living in Gaza made homeless by the recent conflict, or an Israeli citizen fearful of yet more rocket attacks, the absence of a sustained and indeed successful middle east peace process continues to benefit only those who are opposed to peace.
If we are to see an end to the bloodshed, to increase the economic and social opportunities for the people of both Palestine and Israel, and to ensure that the human and political rights of Israelis and Palestinians are respected, a two-state solution, still strongly supported by a majority of both peoples, remains the only result that can reconcile the interests of both. Many think that talks will never produce such a result, but I do not share that view. We have come close before to a comprehensive political solution, and other negotiations have produced progress. Without doubt, there are huge obstacles to navigate around and difficult issues to resolve, but we must remain determined to continue to work for a return to the negotiating table.
One thing that will be fundamental and that will seem to some a distant hope at the moment is the need to build relationships across the divide, and in so doing to build a little more of the trust—or, if not trust, the good will and tolerance—necessary to create the political space for negotiators to address the most difficult questions. In that regard, I commend the mutual support that the Israeli trade unions, Histadrut, and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions offer each other, as well as the strong support given by British trade unions to that dialogue.
As we have seen, the political vacuum created since the breakdown of peace talks in April has been filled by escalating tension and violence, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander),the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned at the time it would. The shocking murder of three young Israelis by Hamas and an equally outrageous subsequent killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem in June were the triggers for the violence and appalling loss of life in Gaza this summer.
Since the end of the conflict, tensions have been slowly rising again, with the expansion of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem in particular—I will return to that question—recent attacks on Israeli citizens and concerns about access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In the light of the history of that site and its significance, it is important for access arrangements to be maintained as they have been since 1967. I welcome pronouncements by Israeli leaders that there is no plan to change restrictions on Jewish prayer at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but it is important that the Israeli authorities ensure that such assertions are matched by the reality on the ground. Leaders need to be clear that attempts by some to create further tensions on this issue will not be successful.
We all must also be clear in our condemnation of the recent violence in Jerusalem, including the particularly shocking attack on worshippers in a synagogue two weeks ago. Claims that the attacks can be justified are simply wrong. All those concerned have a responsibility to seek to reduce the tensions in Jerusalem and the west bank, not to inflame them. This country is both a long-term ally and friend of Israel and a long-term friend and supporter of the Palestinians, so it is vital for both sides that we encourage the reopening of negotiations to end the cycle of violence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) in particular said—my hon. Friend the Member for Easington also alluded to it—there is now an urgent need to accelerate the reconstruction effort in Gaza. With the region’s weather beginning to turn, there is considerable concern that the humanitarian plight of those in Gaza might be about to take an even worse turn. There is not enough cement or other building materials to allow the reconstruction of the estimated 100,000 homes that were destroyed in the conflict, never mind the other major pieces of infrastructure that have to be rebuilt, such as roads and sewage treatment works. Israel is concerned that without sufficient oversight of goods moving into Gaza, building materials could be used to rebuild tunnels into Israel or in other ways by Hamas.
I understand that the UN special co-ordinator for the middle east process, Robert Serry, has confirmed a further understanding of the trilateral agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN permitting some 25,000 owners in Gaza to access building materials for the repair or rebuilding of their homes, albeit with, for example, UN-organised spot checks to monitor how the materials are being used. The news is welcome, but in the context of more than 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed during the summer’s conflict and more than 600,000 people affected, there are a number of obvious questions about whether the reconstruction effort is likely to meet the scale of the challenge faced by ordinary people in Gaza. Many still lack access to a consistent water supply, and blackouts are common for up to 18 hours a day.
It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s response to the following questions. How confident is he that the agreement for 25,000 home owners to have access to building materials for home repairs will hold? Given the huge number of other homes that fall outside the scope of the agreement, what progress does he expect on agreement of a timetable for the many other homes that will need rebuilding or repair? Will he outline progress on removing unexploded ordnance in Gaza? How confident is he that access to basic services such as water, electricity, sewerage, schools and health care will be restored soon? Crucially, given the approach of winter, how confident is he that shelter will be made available for all those made homeless?
The UN is committed to assisting the Palestinians in their reconstruction efforts, and I welcome the UK’s contribution of £20 million, pledged at the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo in October, but the UN’s existing resources for the effort are woefully short, so perhaps the Minister will update the House on the level of money committed in Cairo and the extent to which the money pledged has actually arrived in the UN’s coffers. The concern clearly exists that it could take years to rebuild Gaza if the agreement on house repairs does not hold, is not accelerated, or is not delivered also for the other houses that need repair. If we are to avoid Gaza becoming what the Minister himself recently described as an “incubator for extremism”, it is in everyone’s interests, including Israel’s, to accelerate the reconstruction effort, and in so doing to create jobs, employment and, above all else, a little hope.
Returning briefly to the immediate prospects for peace talks, in the light of reports today of possible early elections in Israel, I recognise that an immediate resumption of talks is unlikely. Does either the Minister or the Foreign Secretary believe that the Kerry process made progress? What prospect does he see of further progress in the short to medium term?
If we are to move forward on this issue, the role of Arab nations, and especially Egypt, will be key. Among other questions, the recent Egypt-mediated talks were due to cover the possibility of construction of an airport in Gaza, after the closure in 2000, and the opening of a seaport.
There was in fact an airport in Gaza—Yasser Arafat invited me to see it when it was opened—but tragically, for reasons my hon. Friend is describing so eloquently, it was never used.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. What prospects does the Minister see for construction of an airport taking place? The Cairo conference also saw the EU agree to analyse the feasibility of a maritime link between Gaza and Europe; it would be useful to hear what progress has been made on that. Has either the Minister or the Foreign Secretary had discussions with the EU High Representative on this issue since she took office one month ago? Will he explain a little further the role he sees the EU playing in facilitating any dialogue that could lead to further peace talks?
As there is little sign of talks restarting, we need to look at other ways in which the international community can help to strengthen the moderate voices in both Israel and Palestine, alongside efforts to resume negotiations. The recent announcements of the annexation of yet more land and of further settlement building in the west bank harm the prospects for peace. We are clear that the settlements are illegal and will make it more difficult to achieve progress in negotiations.
In October, Labour supported the motion to recognise Palestinian statehood as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution. The motion reflected our long-standing support for the principle of Palestinian statehood. As the previous Foreign Secretary said, it is a matter for any Government to recognise another state at a point of their choosing. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary made it clear that Labour supported recognition of Palestine at the UN back in 2011.
If we are to see a two-state solution, an early return to serious and substantial negotiations is essential. We have been close to that scenario before, and we need to encourage afresh the dialogue that builds trust, creates the conditions for talks and ultimately gives leaders the political space to take the brave steps necessary for the lasting peace we all want to see. The fact that we seem a long way from that possibility at the moment does not mean that we should give up—only those committed to violence would benefit from that. There are simply too many who have died—Palestinians and Israelis—and too many who have lost loved ones to give up on the possibility of peace.
This has been a fascinating and important debate. I am sorry that it did not take place in the main Chamber and that there has not been more time to debate the issues. I will not be able to cover all the points that have been raised.
I join the shadow spokesman in offering my condolences to the family of Rabbi Goldberg, who was sadly killed in the terrorist attack in the synagogue on 18 November.
I begin, as others have, by congratulating the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the 100,000-plus of our constituents who have called for the House to debate this issue. As expected, the debate has been vibrant and intelligent—I hope that the next debate we have on this issue takes place in the main Chamber.
The weekend just gone marked 67 years since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which recommended the creation of two separate states of Israel and Palestine, with a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem. As hon. Members have mentioned, it is also 21 years since the Oslo accords. No wonder that Parliaments and citizens around the world are calling for debates, for leadership and for the implementation of the plans devised and agreed decades ago. Recognising Palestine is something that this Government—indeed all Governments—want to do. The key question, strategically rather than symbolically, is when we will be best placed to do so in order to help to secure a lasting solution.
I am going to try something I have not tried before as a Minister: I am going to answer the questions first, and if I run out of time, so be it; my speech will then have to wait, or else I will write to the hon. Member for Easington—although he would probably have said that he had heard my speech before, as it would not have differed from a previous one I have given. I will begin with the key points he mentioned. First, he talked about child detainees. Britain is very concerned about that issue. We have raised the matter with the Israelis and are asking them to continue a pilot scheme allowing individuals to be summoned rather than arrests being made at night. We are also lobbying for an end to solitary confinement. We are very much concerned about the issue.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned trading with illegal settlements. He will be aware of voluntary guidelines—it was his Government who introduced them—to enable customers to identify whether goods come from the occupied territories, so that they themselves can make a decision.
I recently met a group of Quakers from my constituency who have been working in the occupied territories. They specifically asked about the Government’s stance towards trading with illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Will the Minister give as much detail as he can as to the Government’s view on that issue?
Given that I now have only 13 minutes left, I will write to my hon. Friend with more detail. However, I will say that the scheme I mentioned is working well and that supermarkets and others have adopted it so that customers themselves can have a better understanding of where produce comes from. I am pleased that has happened. The Government do not believe that boycotts would be helpful.
The hon. Member for Easington also mentioned export licences. He is aware that a judicial review is being undertaken on them, so I am afraid that I can say little more at this time.
My hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) spoke about the role of Hamas and its using its people as cover when firing missiles. At the peak of that firing, some 140 missiles were fired from Gaza into Israel. They were prevented from striking and causing deaths only because of the Iron Dome system, which I had the opportunity to visit when I was in the country two months ago.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) stated that Gaza is occupied. It is not occupied in the sense that the west bank is. Gaza has its own pressures because of the restrictions placed on it, but we want to see the Palestinian Authority move into that space of governance, so it can push out the legitimacy and the authority that Hamas claims to have.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) spoke passionately about these issues. He gave an interesting speech at the Royal United Services Institute on this matter and has talked about being able to be a friend of Israel while also being able to be critical. He said that criticising Israel for its conduct neither questioned its right to exist nor was anti-Semitic and that, similarly, standing up for justice for Palestinians is not in any way anti-Semitic. I make it very clear that we need to be able to have frank discussions and debates with our friends without being seen to be polarised, and I am pleased to say that we have done that today.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) spoke about conditions in Gaza, as did the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas). I saw them for myself when I visited Shejaiya, where the situation is now compounded by the flooding that has taken place. I absolutely agree with the shadow Minister that more trade is required. Let us not just have the Erez crossing open; let us have Kerem Shalom and the Rafah crossings opened up. Indeed, on the maritime issue, I told Baroness Ashton and her successor, Federica Mogherini, what the EU could do—it could create a trade corridor from the maritime port to Cyprus where things could be checked to make sure they would not be used for tunnel systems and so on. That would allow trade to develop and goods to come out of Gaza, and it would allow the reconstruction requirements, which are absolutely necessary to support the 1.6 million people there, to come into the country.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. Will he undertake to contact the Egyptian Government and to raise seriously the question of the Rafah crossing and the clearing of all populations along the border between Egypt and Gaza so that we can reopen that whole area?
That is something I discussed with Foreign Minister Shukri very recently. Egypt is concerned about the black market that was used in the tunnel systems, which was why it created the buffer zone. The Rafah crossing is a pedestrian crossing and is not designed for vehicles. The key for me is to be able to get Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials to the talks that are taking place in Cairo. That is critical, and that is why the crossing needs to be open. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
The shadow Minister also talked about electricity and water, which are vital. I go on record as saying that this very densely populated space will become unliveable, and when it does it will increase the problems, and extremism could start to incubate there. A simple solution, which has been done before, would be to splice into the Israeli electricity systems and waterworks to alleviate the pressures on infrastructure that we are seeing at the moment.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) spoke about managing the issue rather than solving it. I agree with that. It is not right simply to say a ceasefire is enough. We should do more. We should press for a long-term solution.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) spoke about the domestic challenges in Israeli politics. We talk about some of the stresses and strains in the coalition Government here, but those who have visited Israel will be aware that it has a vibrant coalition, and a Government and Opposition structure.
During the Prime Minister’s visit in March, a lot was going on in Parliament, which was very noisy and rowdy. He said that he had learned the word “balagan”, which means chaos in Hebrew, because of what was happening there. That reflects the domestic dynamics that are part of the challenges facing us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) spoke of Hamas’s role and its relationship to the Palestinian Authority. We must support the Palestinian Authority in taking full responsibility for Gaza. During my visit to Gaza a couple of months ago, its first Cabinet meeting was about to take place. That needs to continue, but unfortunately there are restrictions on movements, and I urge Israel to ensure that the goodness and influence that the Palestinian Authority can have in taking over responsibility from Hamas is allowed to happen. For that, it needs to get itself physically into the Gaza space.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) talked about previous initiatives such as the Camp David summit. Let us have some now. It is for the current generation and today’s leaders to find long-term solutions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) spoke about the importance of trade, and again I agree. The Oslo accords referred to a trade corridor between Gaza and the west bank. There is a train line there that could easily be expanded—I brought that point up with the Israelis when I was there—and indeed a road corridor. That would allow trade, which is what the people want. It would allow the economy to start to flourish and provide a vision of prosperity that people could buy into. I pose the hypothetical situation of what happens if we do not allow the economy to thrive and do not sort out the infrastructure. Hamas could easily be replaced by something worse, such as ISIL. Where would that leave the landscape in the area? Those are the challenges that we need to be aware of.
The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke about Hamas’s tactics and what happened during the conflict. It was using hospitals and UN buildings to fire from, and using its own people as cannon fodder to stand in front of fire. That is simply unacceptable. We must support the Palestinian Authority to become the legitimate authority in Gaza. The hon. Gentleman also asked some questions about Department for International Development projects. That is obviously another Department, but I will write to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) spoke about debates in other Parliaments. I understand that one is taking place in France tomorrow, and there have been debates in Australia and other places.
The world is watching. It is deeply concerned about what is happening and worried that the opportunity for peace, which has been diminishing over the years, may be missed yet again as John Kerry starts the process of getting people back to the table. We should not forget how close we came last April due to his work and that of the others involved—I made that point in our last debate. We must pick up that process as soon as possible.
President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to say that they are committed to a two-state solution, but they must both show bold and decisive leadership and avoid steps that make peace more difficult. That includes in the occupied territories. I visited E1 and saw how it would divide up the north of Jerusalem and the Bethlehem conurbation. It would cause massive problems in governance once a two-state solution was agreed.
The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) spoke about introducing sanctions. I do not believe that should be done when we are trying to get people back to the table. It would be a retrograde step bearing in mind where we are right now.
The hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about the illegal settlements. I was saddened to go to a Bedouin camp where people have been told to move from one occupied area to another. They are goat herders, and they need space. They are being moved to a location that is clearly unacceptable for the lifestyle they lead. We ask Israel to recognise that that is unhelpful. When such decisions are made, it makes it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend it against accusations that it is not serious about peace.
The hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) talked about the overall issue of recognising Palestine. Is it a tactical decision, a symbolic decision or a strategic decision? How does it fit into the plans that we are working on with the EU, the United States and the UN, and the resolutions that exist? We want to use recognition to assist the strategic process. As parties return to the table, now is not the right time to make that decision, because it would have consequences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) spoke about the tensions surrounding Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif. It is vital that the long-standing status quo is observed and that we value Jordan’s role as the custodian of those holy sites in Jerusalem.
I think I have managed to cover everyone’s points, but perhaps they will forgive me if I have not. I would be delighted to speak or write to Members afterwards if I have missed anything out.
To conclude, we certainly recognise the strong statement made by the vote in the House last month and by today’s debate. We agree that Palestinian people deserve a sovereign, independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living in peace and security side by side with Israel. However, I am afraid we continue to reserve the right to recognise Palestine when that is most likely to lead to a two-state solution, delivering peace for Israelis and Palestine.
Britain is committed to seeing an end to the occupation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. However, urgent progress is needed—that has been reflected in this important debate—towards a two-state solution that delivers an end to the occupation. We will continue to engage with key partners to consider how best to support the parties in resuming serious dialogue.
I fully recognise the strength of feeling about the dispute among many people in Britain, and I am glad this debate has given me the opportunity not only to set out the Government’s position, but to listen to the concerns of constituents and hon. Members. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Easington for raising the issue, and I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.
I thank you, Mrs Brooke, for chairing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for it. I also thank the Minister and the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), for responding to the various points that hon. Members have made. The fact that more than 40 hon. Members have made a speech or intervened indicates the strength of feeling on this issue.
Many issues have been raised, including economic sanctions, the expansion of illegal settlements, and arms embargos and restrictions. The key point was about respect for international law. We also heard about the Jewish state Bill, and Members’ concerns about a drift towards apartheid and the similarities with South Africa.
Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?
I am afraid I really cannot.
We also heard about the restrictions at the al-Aqsa mosque. Those are all important points, and I am grateful that the Minister has responded today or will respond in correspondence.
On the significance of the date, the Minister mentioned what happened 67 years ago. Because of that, 29 November is the UN international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people. It is quite instructive that Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said this year:
“On this…Day of Solidarity, I call on the parties to step back from the brink.”
He also said:
“Long-term stability depends on addressing the underlying causes of the conflict. That means lifting the closure on Gaza, ending the half century occupation of Palestinian land and addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”
To conclude, I must say that Israel has obligations as the occupying power. I appeal to the British Government and the international community to provide a counsel of hope, not of despair. As the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, if we are to take this issue forward, we need courage and generosity of spirit, and those were typified in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman),by the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and, very powerfully, by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who made an excellent contribution about the benefits of outside help in resolving conflicts.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to ending the conflict in Palestine.