[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Before beginning the debate in earnest, I will make clear a couple of things, which I hope will ensure that this and subsequent debates can proceed in a constructive manner.
First, nothing that I or, I hope, others will say is about religion or ethnicity. This is not an issue of Arab, Muslim or Jewish people. It is about upholding our basic values of justice and human rights, and it is about holding to account those states, Governments and duty bearers that violate those principles and laws. While the debate will, of course, discuss Israeli Government policies, with regard to the demolitions, this is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; it is about being pro-justice and pro-human rights. At a time when there seems to be a growing number of countries facing conflict, upheaval and political uncertainty, it is not a question of which is more important to talk about—they are all important.
Palestine has been in a perpetual—some would say declining—state of all of the above for more than 50 years. Indeed, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most protracted in the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the issue of decline, does he agree that, in the three years since that particular aspect of the conflict ended, conditions are actually getting worse in the Gaza strip? Many constituents have contacted me about that declining humanitarian situation. We need to redouble our efforts internationally to tackle it.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. On the comments he has just made, does he accept that Hamas recently rebuilding the terrorist tunnels can regrettably only make the prospect of peace recede even more?
I agree that fault can be allocated on all sides of this conflict. The point I make—I hope to illustrate it further during my speech—is that Israel holds the whip hand in this situation; it is in its gift to make some progress and move forward. It is important to see the balance of the relationship in that context.
I personally remain absolutely committed to the two-state solution, but I recognise, as I will set out in my speech, that there has been a 600% increase in settlements in the illegally occupied territories in the west bank. It becomes increasingly difficult to see how a two-state solution could work with that level of occupation taking place.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his considered comments. Does this not underline the importance of people in positions of influence taking a measured response? The comments that the President of the United States will make later this afternoon, in which he will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, are therefore highly regrettable and highly dangerous.
The hon. Gentleman may well have seen a draft of my speech, because I was about to come on to that very point. The expected announcement later today by the President of the United States on recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sent shockwaves across the world. If that announcement happens, it may well be the death knell for any prospective peace process. However, I will talk a bit more about the changing facts on the ground, and what that means for peace, in a while.
The second point I make on the framing of the debate is that I want to be as clear as possible that I am deeply ashamed of the fact that, due to the actions, views and behaviour of a minority of persons in my party, a perception has grown that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism. I have no truck whatsoever with anyone who expresses or excuses anti-Semitic views, and any member of the Labour party—or any party, for that matter—who does should be expelled as fast as possible. That applies whoever they are, be they the former Mayor of one of the great cities of the world, someone who has just delivered some leaflets or an otherwise inactive member. If they are an anti-Semite, or a defender or excuser of anti-Semites, they are not welcome in our party. They never have been and they never will be.
On that point, it has to be recognised that the people of Israel would gain from a solution and peace and from not having to expend so much energy, and the energy of their young people, on security. They need to be able to move forward. This is not only about a solution for the people of Palestine; it is also about a solution for the people of Israel.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There can be no peace without security and there can be no security without peace. That rule applies universally. With that in mind, I hope that we can have a constructive debate, finding common ground and advancing the cause of peace, justice and security for the peoples of both Israel and Palestine.
Next year will mark 25 years since the signing of the Oslo accords. That moment was meant to represent a turning point, heralding a new and lasting era of peace and co-existence—the beginning of a genuine and complete two-state solution. However, what has a Palestinian approaching his or her 25th birthday today actually seen? An increase in the number of illegal settlers, from 258,000 to more than 600,000, despite countless international rulings that the settlements violate international law. The Oslo generation have seen nothing but the increasing fragmentation and annexation of their land.
I am struck by what my hon. Friend says about the situation of children and young people; it is something I saw for myself when I visited the west bank. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, there are 55 educational facilities in Area C of the west bank with outstanding demolition orders against them. Will he join me in sending a strong message to the Israeli Government that demolishing schools is completely unacceptable and is counter to any effort to achieve peace in the region?
I add to my hon. Friend’s point that we in the international community have for many years been telling the people of Palestine that, with politics and constructive engagement, a solution will be found. What hope do we give to those young people in those educational establishments if that seems to not be happening?
I will just make a little more progress and then I will give way.
The Oslo generation have also seen 50,000 homes and properties demolished, often resulting in the forced displacement of families and entire communities, and the construction of an illegal separation barrier, which carves up the west bank and brutally disconnects towns, cities, families and communities from each other. They have also seen, for the first time in history, the separation of the historic cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
On Jerusalem and the unfortunate and misguided announcement from the US President, will my hon. Friend comment on the restatement of British policy at Prime Minister’s Question Time today that Jerusalem should not be dealt with in the way the US President suggests?
I thank my hon Friend. I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s comments at Prime Minister’s questions. That was a very important restatement of very important principles. Let us just hope that she may be able to have some form of constructive conversation with the President of the United States about that, although having a constructive conversation with that particular gentleman seems to be a difficult thing to do.
Jerusalem, the city of three faiths, is under constant threat as a political pawn. There is the separation of the west bank and Gaza, with a 2 million population trapped in the tiny Gaza strip, in what some have called the world’s largest open-air prison, thanks to the land, sea and air blockade of Gaza. One third of the 2 million people crammed into Gaza’s 139 square miles are under 15, and almost half are under 25. A 10-year-old child will already have lived through three major wars. That is no way to grow up. In short, any young person born at the time of the Oslo accords has seen only diminishing rights and freedoms, less security and a fragmented territory that pushes the possibility of a two-state solution even further away.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited Susiya on a delegation with Caabu—the Council for Arab-British understanding—in 2015 and heard at first hand how people living there were terrified of the threat of demolition. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to redouble and intensify our efforts to stop the demolitions?
I thank my hon. Friend. I, too, have visited Susiya, and it is a moving experience, particularly when we see what needs to be done to avoid the risk of creating a construction that could be considered as a target for demolition. Buildings are built with tyres, for example, to avoid that position.
I thank my hon. Friend for the way he framed the debate. Just over three weeks ago, I was in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and took time out to see the school there. That school, built with the support of the international community and the village, faces demolition, apparently to make way for further illegal settlements, and apparently the Israelis are upping the preparations for that demolition to happen within the next few weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister, whom I understand has also visited the village, should in his response commit to redoubling the Government’s efforts to prevent that demolition from happening?
I thank my hon. Friend. In my speech, I will talk about the other communities under threat of demolition. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and hope that it will not just be rhetoric and that there will be some reality in there as well.
One of the strengths of Israel is the independence of its rule of law and the way in which the courts fearlessly impose decisions on occasions, but what is particularly tragic about the schools that are being threatened with demolition—I have seen them myself, as many other people have—is that they are in the shadow of illegal settlements. The contradiction and imbalance that exists does not help Israel and the perception of Israel in the rest of the world.
A moment ago, my hon. Friend was talking about Gaza. Is it not the case that Israel signed an agreement on movement and access in relation to Gaza with the Palestinian Authority; gave the Palestinians control over the borders for the first time in history; allowed imports and exports; planned for the construction of a sea port and an airport; and pulled out of Gaza and removed the settlers? But Hamas took over; expelled Fatah; murdered rival Palestinians; armed itself with hundreds of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, which were provided by Iran; and dug tunnels to attack civilians on kibbutzes? That is what happened in Gaza. What responsibility does my hon. Friend ascribe to Hamas for the situation in Gaza, and how does he think it is possible to resolve it?
I agree that many of the things that my hon. Friend listed have taken place, but the fact remains that there has been a land, sea and air-based blockade of the Gaza strip throughout that entire period. Gaza is now described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the UN has declared that it will be unliveable by 2020, so there is a humanitarian crisis that has to be resolved, and it is in the gift of the Israeli Government to take that forward.
I have described the harsh reality of the facts on the ground. I met the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency yesterday, and his message to the international community was clear: conflict management is not enough, and we must do more to support an actual resolution to the conflict. I agree that we cannot continue with a wait-and-see approach. Where has that got us over the last 50 years, 25 years or the 10 years of the Gaza blockade? We are where we are because of choices that have been made—choices on both sides of the conflict. Foremost among them has been the active choice to continue the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory and the forcible transfer of Palestinian families and communities from their homes. Both those policies have created a coercive environment that seeks to undermine the ability of Palestinians to continue living where they are. They are at great risk of forcible transfer, which is a clear violation of the fourth Geneva convention.
Just over a month ago, a UN report found that Israel’s role as an occupying power in the Palestinian Territories has
“crossed a red line into illegality”.
International law is clear. An occupying power cannot treat occupied territory as its own or make claims of sovereignty. Occupation must be temporary, and the power must act in good faith and in the best interests of the protected or occupied population. However—these are the findings of the UN and its special rapporteur—that has been the repeated pattern of behaviour of successive Israeli Governments over the 50 years of the occupation.
A central plank of the occupation and spread of settlements has been the demolitions. It is estimated that almost 50,000 Palestinian structures have been demolished since 1967, with 1,500 homes demolished in Rafah alone between 2000 and 2004. That is despite warnings in 1968 from Theodor Meron, later the president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, that the demolitions, even on security grounds, broke international law and the fourth Geneva convention. Article 53 of that convention prohibits the destruction of private property by an occupying power, and it is unequivocal, so how do the Israeli Government respond? They respond not by denying the substance of the claims of demolition, but by claiming that Palestine is not a party to the Geneva convention because it is not a state. Astonishing! Stepping beyond the fact that the policies of the Israeli Government are the main obstacle to Palestinian statehood, that is an utterly specious argument, because a basic and fundamental principle of human rights law is that international human rights treaties apply in all areas in which a state exercises “effective control”, and the occupation clearly constitutes such control.
My hon. Friend mentioned the UN report and international structures. Is he aware of the EU report from March of this year that condemns the fact that, over six months, €311,692-worth of EU aid structures have also been demolished? I think that last year it was 182 structures. These are meant to be for humanitarian projects. The EU has condemned the destruction of its structures, and eight countries are putting together an approach to recover the moneys. That is seen as a very blunt diplomatic move, but desperate times possibly call for desperate measures.
I thank my hon. Friend. We have talked about all sides losing out from what is happening on the ground, and clearly Israel is not doing itself any favours with the international community when it is destroying structures that have been built with European Union aid money.
Clearly, Palestine is treated as an exception to the laws to which I was referring. Currently, 46 Bedouin communities are at risk of forcible transfer in Area C of the west bank. Why? For the implementation of Israel’s controversial and outright illegal E1 plan, which would allow Israel to connect its mega-settlements from north to south, in effect splitting the west bank in two and cutting off Jerusalem from any further Palestinian state.
I visited one of the communities during my last visit to the region with Caabu. The residents of Khan al-Ahmar told us how they lived under constant fear and threat of forcible transfer, not knowing when the bulldozers might arrive and raze their homes and school to the ground. A huge campaign is under way in the occupied territories right now to protect the school—the only one for miles—from demolition. While we were there, we were told how the children’s swings in the playground were uprooted because they violated Israeli planning laws. According to reports, there are at present more than 50 schools in the west bank with demolition or stop-work orders.
In August, on the eve of the new school year, the Israeli authorities requisitioned nine education-related structures in Area C and demolished a newly established kindergarten in the Bedouin community of Jabal al-Baba.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the importance of maintaining international humanitarian law. Does he share my concern that if these demolitions go ahead in the coming weeks, as we fear, it will be the middle of winter, potentially putting families and young children at great risk, as they could be without not just their schools and playgrounds but their homes, at a time when they will face incredible hardship and real destitution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are clearly in the midst of a potential humanitarian crisis, which may seem small-scale purely in terms of the number of children who use that school, but is potentially catastrophic for the lives of those children. We should appeal to the humanitarian instincts of all hon. Members today.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the day-to-day disruption of the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Does he agree with this central point—that none of this can be justified by reference to Hamas or general references to the security situation? Everybody present for this debate must agree that security is fundamental for Israel, but it should not erode the day-to-day rights of Palestinian men, women and children.
I thank my hon. Friend. We know that there can be no peace without security and there can be no security without peace, and we have to find a way out of this vicious circle. I believe that it is in the gift of the Israeli Government to make the progress that is so desperately required.
It seems that nothing is off limits. During August and September 2017, the Israeli authorities demolished or seized a total of 63 Palestinian-owned structures, affecting over 1,200 people, all on the grounds of lack of Israeli-issued permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain. The Supreme Court of Israel, the role of which is to protect the rule of law, has, in a peak of irony, ruled that demolitions can be carried out without any right to appeal if the Israel defence forces judge that advance warning would hinder demolition action. Accordingly, the Israeli non-governmental organisation B’Tselem has said:
“It seems that Israel is so confident in its ability to expel entire villages without incurring judicial or international criticism that it is no longer bothering to create even the illusion of legal proceedings.”
Israel is often portrayed as a lonely beacon of democracy and pluralism in the middle east. Well, it is time the Israeli Government began to live up to that, because there is nothing democratic or pluralistic about demolishing homes, community infrastructure, schools and kinder- gartens, and there is certainly nothing democratic or pluralistic about denying due process and undermining the rule of law.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for being late; I had a meeting with the Bahraini ambassador.
I was rather bemused by this debate, because although I know that the hon. Gentleman regularly speaks at the Centre for Turkey Studies, I have never heard him speak about Turkish settlers from the mainland in north Cyprus—200,000 people who invaded north Cyprus—yet he wants to talk about Israel. Should not he, and indeed some of his friends at the Centre for Turkey Studies, actually consider that?
Order. This debate has been clearly advertised and it is about a particular subject, which the hon. Member has chosen to submit to Mr Speaker; Mr Speaker has seen fit that it should be selected for debate, and we will have a debate on this subject and this subject alone.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and would be delighted to discuss that at another time, following the ruling of our Chairman.
It is impossible to separate the demolitions from the illegal policy of annexation and settlements, because for settlements to be constructed, existing property or land has to be cleared. Because of these two interconnected policies, Israel is in violation of 40 UN Security Council resolutions and over 100 General Assembly resolutions. These violations harm not only the Palestinian people and the standing of Israel but all of us, by serving to undermine international law and prospects for peace. They are a scar on the conscience of the international community. The latest US move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel supports this undermining of international law and validating of the illegal policies and practices of the Government of Israel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is making a very informed case. He is absolutely right that the illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian property are a major roadblock to peace in that region. As we have heard from hon. Members, the announcement by President Trump will have a devastating impact on the region and the process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a united response from the international community to condemn this move?
I certainly welcome the Prime Minister’s comments earlier today. I hope there can be cross-party support for restating the clear and long-held position of the British Government on this matter.
As we speak, a swathe of communities remain at risk of forcible transfer. Susiya, Khan al-Ahmar, Ain al-Hilweh, Um al-Jamal and Jabal al-Baba are under imminent threat—824 people, 464 under the age of 18, reside in these communities. Just a few days ago, 35 UK rabbis wrote to the Israeli ambassador regarding the impending demolitions in Susiya, to urge the Israeli Government to stop and think. Demolition, displacement and forced transfer in Susiya and other Palestinian communities in Area C would constitute a war crime under international law.
I am sure that all hon. Members here will wish to join me in urging the Israeli Government to think again and withdraw its threat to demolish and displace these communities; these are violations of international law that set back the cause of peace and security. I believe we must respond to these illegal acts of occupation, as we would have done to other such acts around the world. The UK and the European Council prohibited the trade import of all goods from Crimea after the Russian illegal occupation and annexation in 2014. We should follow that precedent when it comes to the illegal settlements. This is land that has been illegally seized and annexed. Palestinian property and homes have been destroyed and seized. Communities have been uprooted, displaced and destroyed. Therefore I see no way in which we cannot cease to trade with the illegal settlements. I categorically do not propose an end to trade with the state of Israel, of course, but let us be clear: the illegal settlements are not part of Israel proper; they are part of occupied Palestinian territory. How can we continue to support this illegal settlement enterprise? Surely that makes us complicit in illegal activities. Continued trade with illegal settlements creates an economic incentive for more illegal acts. It encourages the demolition of homes and communities to make way for settlements, simultaneously denying Palestinians access to economic opportunities.
Tamir Pardo, the former head of Mossad, has said that in that coercive environment, which is so insidious and dangerous,
“Israel faces one existential threat,”
and it is not external—Iran or Hezbollah—but rather “internal.” It is the result of a divisiveness in Israel, resulting from a Government that has decided to bury its head
“deep in the sand, to preoccupy ourselves with alternative facts and flee from reality”.
Those are the words of a former head of Mossad, who makes clear that the existential threat facing Israel is one of its own making, namely the occupation. As Pardo has gone on to argue, the blockade, the occupation, the demolitions and the aggressive annexation of Palestinian land are matters that we should all be concerned about, not because it is a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian position, but because they undermine peace, as well as the moral, political and legal fabric of Israel.
How can my hon. Friend argue that the existential threat that Israel faces is one of its own making, when on day one, the day of Israel’s establishment in 1948, the country was invaded by five Arab armies, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas have been dedicated to Israel’s destruction for the past 70 years, when Iran is committed to wiping Israel off the map of the earth and is arming Hezbollah and Hamas with rockets to do that?
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and thank him for making such powerful points? In December 2017, a Palestinian reflecting on the 100 years since the Balfour declaration will find that only half the deal has been done and that the Palestinians have got nothing. There have been millions of refugees over a period longer than any other relating to refugees all over the world. Palestinians cannot access their land because it has been taken systematically and there have been demolitions and planning restrictions. On top of that, Donald Trump has declared, illegally, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The situation for Palestinians must be awful and dark. What hope do they really have?
I agree that the situation looks bleak. The question is: how can we ensure that the next generations of young Israelis and Palestinians see any merit in supporting the rule of law and democracy and believe in peace with the other side? With the wall, the demolitions, the continuing land grab, the forced displacement and the isolation of Gaza, both sides seem to be further away from peace and security than ever before.
In my opening remarks I mentioned that this year is the 25th anniversary of Oslo, but there is another anniversary that we must recall, which is that 2017 marks the centenary of the Balfour declaration. One hundred years on from Balfour, I urge every hon. Member of this House to recall the particular responsibility that our country bears for what has come to pass. With that in mind, I would implore us all to revisit the historic significance of the declaration’s words, which acclaimed that
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the comments of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett a few months ago that they “returned” to the west bank
“in order to stay forever, without conceding land and without foreign sovereignty”
are at variance with the Balfour declaration?
I think that a number of statements from senior Israeli Government officials are not helping and are not making a constructive contribution to the peace and security that we want to see for both Israel and Palestine.
My contention is twofold. First, not only are the Israeli Government failing to uphold the principles and stated aims of the Balfour declaration; they are actively undermining them on an almost daily basis. Secondly, our Government are utterly failing to live up to the responsibilities bequeathed on them by Balfour. Therefore we must, working in partnership with our international allies, deploy every diplomatic and commercial tool at our disposal to put pressure on the Israeli Government.
It is 100 years since Balfour, 50 years since the beginning of the illegal occupation and 25 years since Oslo. There have been moments along the way when it looked like things might change and that negotiations might forge a path to peace. Tragically, those moments proved to be false dawns. Rather than be disheartened, we should learn from those experiences and mistakes, rather than continue to do the same thing expecting different results. Just recently, Tony Blair admitted that our policy of isolation and disengagement with Hamas in Gaza was wrong. We should embrace that view and actively look for ways to support the present reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas.
Another lesson to learn is that condemnation alone is not enough. What has decades of condemning illegal settlement expansion led to? A mushrooming of settlements across the Palestinian territory and 600,000 illegal settlers. We have to disincentivise the settlement enterprise and put a cost on the violation of international law. We in this House can no longer stand by and do nothing. We, as international actors, have a duty to act, and part of that is holding duty bearers to account, whether it is the PA, Hamas or Israel as the occupying power.
Generations of Palestinians have grown up with diminishing rights and freedoms, so how can we expect them to have faith in conventional politics, believe in the rule of law and continue to hope for peace? Let us not forget that beyond the statistics and legal arguments, these are ordinary communities and families who have the same basic aspirations that we do: to live in safety and security, to protect their families and loved ones and to enjoy their basic rights, whether in education or economic opportunity. But we will also see the continued pollution of the Israeli body politic by divisive figures and ideas with no interest in peace, unless we speak up for, and assert, norms of internal and international decency and justice. Otherwise, injustice, on both sides of this conflict, will escalate and spiral out of control. So let us stand and speak up today, and let us make our voice heard.
Order. Given the interest in this debate and the number of Members who want to speak, I was originally going to restrict speeches to three minutes, but restricting them to two minutes will get everybody in. At three minutes, not everybody will get in, so I am making the judgment that it will be two minutes, because I think it is important that all Members have an opportunity to say at least something on the record, even if they do not have much to say. I am sure it will be pregnant with meaning from both sides of the House. I call John Howell.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who opened this debate, for his clear statement that the Labour party is not anti-Semitic. That is a very useful thing to have put on the record.
This region is one of the most contested in the world, with extremely complex land ownership issues. It is important to contextualise those before discussing the issue, rather than simply inferring from the debate’s title that all Israel wishes to do is to destroy Palestinian homes. We need to go back to the Oslo accords of 1993 and how they split Areas A, B and C. I have seen in press reports from the Palestinian side that the Palestinians have admitted that the structures they have put out in Area C are in fact illegal. There is no getting away from that—that is exactly what they have admitted. I have spent years trying to reform the planning system in the UK; I am not going to try to reform the planning system in Israel.
The Oslo generation needs to move away from what we have seen so far. It is that generation that has participated in the stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks during the recent waves of terrorism. The institutionalised radicalisation behind those attacks is perhaps the most significant obstacle to a lasting peace in the generations to come.
It is time that we put more effort into a reconciliation deal, but that deal must include the demilitarisation of the Hamas terror group, and the Palestinian Authority must deliver on their commitment to end incitement and hate education, as they agreed to in the Oslo accords. If those obstacles can be overcome, the issues of borders, settlements—which have been discussed today —and security can finally be negotiated in direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
I was going to make a number of points, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who opened the debate, focused on settlements, so that is what I will address in the time available.
Settlements are obviously not making things easier, but the truth is that they can be dealt with. Some 85% of the settlers live on the Israeli side of the security barrier, on 8% of the west bank, in areas largely adjacent to Israeli urban areas. That can be dealt with by land swaps, which were the basis of the talks as far back as Camp David and Annapolis and which have been supported by the US, the EU and the Arab League; by moving settlers, as happened in Gaza; or by allowing others to stay under Palestinian sovereignty, just as there are, always have been and always will be Arabs living in Israel too.
Far from concreting over the whole of the west bank, as has been suggested, the settlements beyond the major blocks account for just 0.4% of the territory of the west bank. They are not mushrooming and do not represent a permanent physical barrier to a viable Palestinian state. Of course I am worried about settlements, but to say that they are the only or biggest issue is clearly absolute nonsense.
The truth is that, over many years and many negotiations, the issue of the settlements and land has the broadest agreement on how to solve it. Instead of demonising one side in what is a complex conflict, we should promote dialogue, because the alternative to negotiation and compromise is more conflict and more violence. Instead of pretending, as my hon. Friend’s speech does, that all the fault lies with one side or the other, Britain must play a role in working towards peace, promoting co-existence and doing what we can here in the UK to develop a lasting solution. We should support co-existence projects, increased economic ties between the Israelis and Palestinians, and measures to bring people together, like the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which I hope the Minister will tell us today he will do more to support.
It is 50 years since Security Council resolution 242, which was based on two principles. The first was the withdrawal of Israel’s armed forces from territories occupied in the six-day war—the Gaza strip, the west bank and east Jerusalem, and parts of Syrian Golan heights. That has largely happened. The second principle was the confirmation of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all states in the region. That has not happened, and 50 years later the failure to implement resolution 242 has resulted in some of the things on the ground we are describing today.
My position is that I fully support Israel’s right to exist. It is a thriving democracy and I want it to continue, but I also support the right of Palestinians to have their own state. I am very surprised at the way in which Israel sometimes deals with Palestinians, particularly in the west bank. Removing people from their homes in the middle of the night—often, and by force—is utterly unacceptable, and so is the immediate bulldozing of their homes and giving them no place to live. I very much support Israel as a sovereign, independent and democratic state, but its actions in demolishing Palestinian and Bedouin communities, particularly in Area C, comes perilously close to some of the stuff I witnessed in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Israel must stop those actions, because I want fully to support Israel. Please, Israel, consider what you are doing and stop the process happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate.
Given the time restrictions, I will not go through what I had written, but I will echo what my hon. Friend has said. This debate is not about Palestine and Israel and the religious side of things. It is really about the children of Palestine enjoying the same rights as the children across the wall. It is about the Oslo accords and the agreements that were supposed to be a tool to liberate the Palestinians and give them rights, but have been used as a method to strangulate the Palestinians. That method has been used through jurisdiction, through the changes of law and through the application of planning processes, whereby less than 2% of planning applications have been granted in that area.
This is not the first time Israel has done this: the House needs to realise that Israel—this so-called thriving democracy—is the only country that continues to commit acts of war. That is what the demolition of settlements is. It breaches international law; it is a war crime. That is what people call it—that is what Amnesty International is calling it—and that is what we need to recognise. What Israel is committing is a war crime. These are children who will be displaced from their families in the middle of winter with nowhere to go. It is an illegal act.
How much longer can we carry on just having these debates, trying to talk about it, but nothing is done? What is the Minister going to do when he leaves this debate? Will he put pressure on Israel to stop the demolition of Susiya? Will he give hope to those children who will not have a roof over their heads, despite the fact that these are their homes, not Israel’s?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I had an opportunity to visit Israel and the west bank last year; I believe it is only possible to properly understand the challenges of the conflict by visiting there oneself. There is still support for a two-state solution on both sides of the conflict, but it seems difficult to see how that can be realised in the current climate.
There remains a great gulf between Gaza and the west bank, not only geographically but ideologically. Hamas continues to publicly condemn dialogue with Israel and remains committed to its destruction. Hamas and Fatah still cannot agree on the final terms of an Egypt-brokered reconciliation deal, and until Hamas renounces violence and disarms, it can be no partner for peace with Israel.
We have a duty not to exacerbate tensions between both sides by failing to comprehend vital aspects of the conflict, which other Members have articulated. Just as Israel enforces planning laws against Palestinian residents, so too does it remove Israeli homes built on private Palestinian land in the west bank. It is true that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority can do more to help facilitate the building of infrastructure crucial for a future Palestinian state. Like other Members, I welcome the recent fall in the number of house demolitions by the Israeli authorities. That makes everyone more amenable to a peaceful outcome.
Ultimately, we all want to see a two-state solution giving sovereignty to the Palestinians and safety and security to Israel. Let us use this debate as an opportunity to encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table, where the issue of land borders can finally be resolved and demolitions are a thing of the past.
I am opposed to any action by any side that makes the achievement of a two-state solution more difficult to achieve, so I welcome the fact that the demolition of most encampments at both Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya has been halted while matters are considered by Israel’s High Court, and that, uniquely in the middle east, Israel’s independent judiciary can scrutinise, challenge and, where appropriate, overturn the decisions of the Executive branch. I note that illegal Israeli structures and settlements have been demolished this year at Amona, Ofra and Netiv Ha’avot. I have repeatedly made clear my opposition to increased settlement building in the west bank, and my desire, which I have expressed directly to Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel should freeze settlement building.
Listening to today’s debate, I am deeply concerned that the intention of some might be to bring more heat than light to the search for peace. Surely Britain’s role is to support those on both sides who support peace and co-existence—people who will inevitably have to make difficult decisions and brave compromises. The vital support that we can provide requires balance, empathy and moderation in the language that we deploy. We do not advance the cause of peace with a narrative that pours blame on to one side and absolves the others of responsibility or any sense of agency.
We fool ourselves if we believe that settlement building is the sole obstacle to peace. As the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, suggested last December,
“settlements are not the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict”.
We have seen in the Clinton parameters and the Geneva initiative that the problem is overcomable. Peace is not just about land borders, but anyone listening to today’s debate would not think that to be the case. Alongside the condemnations of Israel’s settlement building, I want some of the other problems to be addressed, such as incitement, payment of salaries to prisoners, and naming schools after terrorists.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this very important debate. I accept many of his arguments and respect the tone in which he put them, although I take issue with one point. This matter has been an issue for successive Governments and it is important that we work across parties to try to resolve the problems.
The issue was brought to my attention by one of my constituents, a chap called Anthony Glaister, who visits the region regularly to work with charities for the disabled. One particular story that he told me sticks in my mind. It was about Nuha, a Gazan mother of 10 who was nine months pregnant when she was killed after the house next to hers was destroyed by Israeli troops. It was reported that in the explosion the walls collapsed; the husband managed to find most of his children, but sadly his wife remained trapped when the wall collapsed on her.
House demolitions have stood at the centre of Israel’s approach to the “Arab problem” since the state’s conception. The policy goes far beyond mere administrative and military means to contain or force out an entire population. From 1948 to the present, it represents a policy of displacement, with one people dispossessing another, taking both their land and their right to self-determination. Many justifications are given. The Israeli authorities claim that the demolitions are intended not as punishment, but to deter Palestinians from future aggression and getting involved in attacks. It seems to be an ill-conceived concept to think that they could possibly be a deterrent to aggression. Clearly, it is an issue, and Netanyahu recently said so on “The Andrew Marr Show”. It is time to try to resolve it, to remove one more block to peace. I have no doubt that there are faults on both sides of the conflict, and that leads to justifications being given; but to my mind it is time to get around the table with the moderates, ideally with the support of an independent moderator, to try to resolve the issue.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate. It is a debate that is close to my heart as the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. I want to concentrate on one issue: the importance of upholding international law.
We have covered many of the statistics, but I will remind right hon. and hon. Members that between 2006 and 2007 Israel demolished at least 1,299 Palestinian residential units, and almost 3,000 children lost their homes as a result of the demolitions. In the same period the Israeli civil administration demolished 462 non-residential structures, including schools, denying many Palestinians access to basic utilities and any viable hope for their local economies. The important point is whether that action helps or hinders the movement towards peace. Clearly, proceeding with the demolitions is nothing close to a blueprint for peace.
Residents of Susiya are begging the international community to highlight their case. Some 20 buildings are expected to be demolished, leaving entire families exposed to winds and freezing rain. The Israeli administration has argued that the villagers of Susiya did not have permission to build their homes—an argument that other hon. Members have repeated; but the Israeli authorities rarely give such permissions, so that is a completely false argument. Forcible transfer of protected persons is illegal; it is a war crime under both the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. The confiscation of land to build or expand settlements in an occupied territory is a violation of international law; and we must support international law.
As a Member hailing from Northern Ireland I have a real understanding of complex cases as we have moved forward to try and find a solution there. I was a proud celebrant of the anniversary of the Balfour declaration and I am proud of the role that our predecessor MPs in these hallowed halls took in bringing the state of Israel back home.
In more recent history, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed in 1995 to divide the west bank into Areas A, B, and C. It was agreed that Area C would be under full Israeli control. In reality the only way to resolve the issue of land borders is to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, which will come about through the resumption of direct negotiations. The Israeli people must be brought into peace negotiations, and that is hard to do when they are constantly being vilified and criminalised in the media and through propaganda. This is not the way to pave the way to peace; this is a path that is strewn with bitter resentment and choking thorns.
In accordance with Oslo II, the Palestinian Authority dictates the planning laws in Areas A and B of the west bank, just as Israel enforces the planning and zoning laws in Area C. The fact of the matter is that the EU has built more than 1,000 homes in Area C of the west bank without planning permission, flying EU flags above those structures in what is surely a defiance of Israeli jurisdiction. The flagrant disregard of zoning laws would not be tolerated in any one of our constituencies; not one MP here would take it. I can somewhat understand why tension has been heightened. However, I can never condone or offer excuses for the actions that happen when tensions are heightened on either side.
It is our job to approach the matter in a reasoned and reasonable way, and that approach appears to be sadly lacking. I will speak out for a long-term solution that does not include heavy-handed attitudes, but includes working closely with all the parties involved, to attempt to find a way to peace and hope for the people of every community in the west bank. That is the only way to move things forward.
To get peace, so that we do not have another generation of Israelis hating Palestinians and Palestinians hating Israelis, let us get the two sides to a negotiation table and bring about a peaceful solution. I think that is the thrust of all the speeches today, and we should try to move towards that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) has drawn attention to a disturbing situation. At its base is the failure to resolve the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of setting up two states. It is worth remembering that the reason Israel is in the west bank, and used to be in Gaza before its unilateral withdrawal, is that it survived the aggressive 1967 war when the Arab states invaded Israel and threatened to throw the Jews into the sea, before there was a single settlement in that area. Following Oslo it was the Palestinians who rejected negotiated offers of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Former President Bill Clinton was absolutely clear that it was the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat in particular, who were at fault.
We need new direct negotiations. That is the only way to resolve this tragic conflict. A new initiative is possible, given recent developments in the middle east, and we should grasp those opportunities very strongly indeed. There are concerns, however. There is concern about the influence of Iran, through its activities in Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah. Iran seems determined to prevent peace in the region. There is also ongoing concern about incitement from the Palestinian Authority, who should be partners for peace. As recently as 10 November, Palestinian Authority TV broadcast a music video entitled “Break the Jews”, which featured the terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, who murdered 37 Israelis including 12 children.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps next time we debate Israel-Palestine we might hear some words of concern about the manner in which the PA is poisoning the minds of another generation of Palestinian children? I have concern for those children because of such activity, as much as any other.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If the PA is a real partner for peace it should be promoting co-operation and co-existence, not engendering hate. However, whatever our views on that, and on relative culpability for the situation that we are in, there is no doubt that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace. The only way to bring that about is through direct negotiations to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
Let us be clear: what we are discussing is the forcible transfer of a civilian population protected under the fourth Geneva convention; and under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court that is a war crime. The issue for us today is what we are going to do about it. The first thing to say is that international pressure has an impact. It is no accident that the postponement that the state of Israel requested for the demolition and evacuation of Susiya came after a joint EU demarche, to which I am pleased to say the UK was a party, on that issue. The Obama Administration’s opposition to the El plan and, in particular, to the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar school, is one of the reasons it is still standing today, despite continued threats. However, if we had any doubts about the current US Administration stepping in to warn Israel off egregious breaches of international law, the announcement by Donald Trump today will dispel them. That means that we have an even greater responsibility ourselves.
I want, if I have time, to put four suggestions to the Minister. The first is to use precise terminology referring to forcible transfer in public statements about demolitions, and to state the UK Government’s expectation that any individual responsible for the commission of that war crime will be held legally accountable under the Geneva conventions. The second is to instigate and support the establishment of an expert observation and investigation team to document apparent criminal offences linked to demolitions. The third is to seek compensation for the destruction or damage of any structure, whether funded in whole or in part, and whether directly or indirectly, by the UK Government, including through the EU. The fourth is to call for Israel to end its discriminatory and unlawful planning policies and laws by amending its planning legislation and processes clearly to ensure planning and construction rights for Palestinian residents in Area C of the occupied west bank.
I join colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this timely debate, and for his powerful opening remarks.
I have been on delegations to the developing world and seen real poverty, but there is nothing harder to witness than people being deliberately denied access to the very basic freedoms, opportunities and human rights that are so abundant to others who live within just a stone’s throw of that poverty. That is what I saw in the Occupied Palestinian Territories when I visited Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar earlier this year, and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding that visit.
The community at Khan al-Ahmar belongs to a Bedouin tribe, originally from Tel Arad, who were expelled by the Israeli military in the 1950s. They have been moved on several times since then, relocating again to where they are now, and living with no running water, sanitation or electricity. There are such communities all over Area C who are being perpetually moved on from their homelands.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs cites forced displacement as one of the key humanitarian concerns in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It states that the justification for the demolitions is that those buildings and structures were erected without building permits—I use the term “buildings” loosely because no serious construction is involved at all. In its Global Humanitarian Overview 2016, published this year, the UN states that a restrictive and discriminatory planning regime makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain the requisite Israeli building permits. To contrast that against the backdrop of the expansion of Israeli settlements and outposts across the west bank is an outrageous demonstration of the double standards that characterised what I saw during my time in the region. I urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that planning and building programmes in Palestine are undertaken on the basis of fairness, basic human rights and the urgent requirement on the ground.
As many people know, I spent almost a year and a half as a volunteer in Gaza in 1991 and 1992, and I declare an interest in that I was back there last Easter, and indeed in September, operating as a breast surgeon, teaching, and running clinics. I can therefore vouch that conditions in Gaza are absolutely appalling. The first thing that hits someone when they get through Erez is the stench of sewage. Hospitals and people have four hours of electricity a day; 100,000 people were made homeless during the attacks of 2014; and 30,000 of those are still homeless.
We are predominantly talking about punishment demolitions, and those are focused around the west bank and east Jerusalem. To create the two-state solution that this country always says is our aim, the west bank has to function. Sixty per cent. of the west bank is in Area C, and less than 2% of permits will ever be granted for building there. It is therefore inevitable that most structures are illegal. Eighty per cent. of all Bedouins live in the Jordan valley, and the threat of demolition hangs over them at all times. Of the more than 350 Palestinian communities in the Jordan valley and Area C, a quarter have no access to health facilities, and half have to travel more than 30 kilometres. There is not one single permanent health facility in that area.
Money is going from the EU or the UK to build schools and clinics that are often destroyed in an act of de-development. At the same time, settlements are being built with all amenities. The IDF produced a report in 2005 to suggest that demolitions do not work and just generate hatred. It was right. We need to turn this around. It is more than a quarter of a century since the peace process, and we must be part of bringing both sides together.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. The timing has proven rather apposite given the announcement that we know to expect at 6 pm this evening from the American President —I will say a little more about that in a moment.
I will start by focusing on the humanitarian aspect of what we mean when we talk about demolitions, and I will read from a letter from Nasser Nawajaa, who is leader of the village council of Susiya—a village east of Jerusalem in the South Hebron hills. He writes:
“On 22 November 2017 the Israeli State Attorney’s Office announced that within 15 days they plan to demolish 20 buildings, which represent one-fifth of our village. This will violate the fundamental human rights of around 100 villagers, half of them children. The 20 buildings are our homes and also provide shelter for our animals. The timing of the demolition—in the middle of winter—could not be more devastating.”
That is one of many villages now under threat from a demolition order. As hon. Members have said, there is nothing new about structures being demolished by the authorities. That has been going on for many years and, in a legal sense, because Israel has administrative authority over Area C, it is true that those structures have been built without permission. However, that authority seems to be somewhat undermined by the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, only 2% of applications by Palestinians for building permits have been approved in the past six years—only 2%! People who are living in desperation with their farms and houses collapsing, and who have a desperate need to build new structures, have little opportunity but to try to build them unlawfully and without permission.
That is the situation we are facing, and it does not happen on the other side of the equation. If a settler living in one of the settlements wants to put an extension on their house or build a swimming pool, they have to apply for permission in the same way, but those permissions are granted. That is a gross unfairness. After the Oslo accords the creation of zones A, B and C was meant to be a transitional phase before a final settlement and a two-state solution. However, it has now become an impediment to that two-state solution, and a means of seemingly keeping it more and more distant.
Was the hon. Gentleman surprised, as I was, to hear hon. Members comparing planning in this country with planning in what is an occupied country? The settler enterprise takes up 40% of the entire west bank, not the 2% or 3% that is often alleged.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
We are discussing these demolitions now because there is a new dimension to it—this is not the same thing that has been happening over many years. Consider the situation to the east of Jerusalem in the segment of the central west bank. The demolition orders now in place on those villages are part of a strategic plan in that area to depopulate it of Palestinian villages so that Israeli settlements can be created. There is the distinct purpose of extending Jerusalem to the east and the Ma’ale Adumim area, and creating a residential corridor that will effectively bisect the west bank as it is today. That that is part of a strategic plan and involves the forcible displacement and relocation of people who are living under occupation is, according to many legal authorities, a violation of international law and, as colleagues have described, a war crime. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he say whether that is also his assessment? Does he believe that what is happening with the forcible displacement of civilians within a militarily occupied area constitutes a war crime? If that is not his view, why not? If it is his view, what on earth will we do about it?
If these demolitions go ahead, and if those within the Israeli Cabinet get their way and bisect the west bank, that puts even further into the distance any prospect of a two-state solution. It puts a sustainable, peaceful, long-term agreement far beyond the horizon, and that is bad not just for the human rights of Palestinians, but for the long-term security of Israel. There is every reason why we should be concerned and see this as a different phenomenon to what has happened in the past.
Let me turn to the announcement that we are expecting at 6 o’clock from the leader of the free world. It was trailed yesterday that the American Government intend to state their policy of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In my view, that is a horrendous mistake. Everyone knows that Jerusalem is a city of great significance for the three major Abrahamic religions —Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Everyone knows that it is disputed, and everyone has a claim. If the President goes forward with this policy, he will be seen to be taking sides in that debate, and there is a great possibility that this conflict will escalate to become more of a religious conflict than it has managed to become so far. I fear for the region and I fear for the world if that is allowed to happen.
Another aspect is that if the President makes this statement and is seen to be so partisan in his dealings with the area, he will pull the rug from underneath the feet of many people on both sides who are desperately trying to find a solution, to compromise and to accommodate one another. It will create a further problem for our Foreign and Commonwealth Office because, until now, we have looked to America to be a broker in this situation—to sponsor peace talks and to try to move things forward. If the President takes this action, he will effectively be absenting America from that process and leaving an international vacuum. That means that this country needs to step up and recognise its historic responsibilities. We need to talk with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and try to get a fresh initiative before it is too late, because this 6 o’clock statement will take us immeasurably backwards and make this world a much more dangerous place. That is the context in which we should consider this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. We have had a number of debates on the middle east in recent months; the most recent was around the centenary of the Balfour declaration. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to focus on the specific issue of demolitions, especially following a recent trip to the area in which I visited two villages that had been served with demolition orders.
I could not start my summing up today, however, without reflecting my sheer disbelief at the White House’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, as other hon. Members have mentioned. That reckless and provocative act not only sets back the road to a political settlement for the Israel-Palestine conflict by a generation, but threatens to escalate tensions at a time when international efforts should be focused on reducing tension, upholding the rule of law and promoting peace.
We heard some remarkable contributions from 13 different hon. Members in the two minutes that each was allowed, due to the popularity of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, who introduced the debate, told us about the difficulties of a two-state solution, given the current level of settlements and occupations. He also told us about the increase in illegal settlements over 25 years and urged the Israeli Government to think again. He mentioned that, in his view, the Israeli Government were undermining the Balfour declaration. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) talked in his contribution about the fact that demolitions are indeed a war crime, as many other hon. Members mentioned too.
Although I welcome the fact that the number of demolitions this year has fallen from record highs in 2016, that number is still unacceptable.
Sorry, I will not, because I have very little time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Figures from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs show that from January to early October 2017, 349 structures were demolished in the west bank, leaving 542 people displaced. It is not just homes that are being demolished; the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education has stated that there are at least 50 Palestinian schools in Area C with a demolition or stop-work order pending.
We on this side of the House are very concerned that Donald Trump’s lack of interest in this issue has been taken as a green light by some in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Administration to behave as they please. An article written last summer by the Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made it clear that he does not see the current White House as a barrier to their demolitions policy. In the absence of any leadership from the USA, the UK must play an active role and continue to work with our EU partners to place pressure on the Israeli Government. EU figures show that from January to October 2017, 72 EU or EU member state-funded structures were targeted for demolition. What assessment have the FCO and the Department for International Development made of the cost of those recent demolitions and property seizures to UK taxpayers? Can the Minister tell us what representations have been made to the Israeli authorities to recover any costs?
The issue of demolitions is inextricably linked to the heavy restrictions on building permits for Palestinians, which make it virtually impossible to build legally within Area C, which makes up 60% of the west bank. An EU report published earlier this year stated that approximately 1% of building permit applications by Palestinians have been granted in recent years. Does the Minister agree that the current building permit system is unsustainable and incongruous with the idea of a viable Palestinian state? How can Palestinians living in those restricted areas picture the future of their communities, when any attempts at development carry the risk of being destroyed?
Four weeks ago, I travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). We also visited Israel. In the occupied territories, we saw some shocking examples of demolitions in the village of Susiya in the Hebron hills, where even the dwelling caves had been destroyed by the Israeli authorities for no obvious reason.
I am sorry; I cannot. I have very little time left.
We visited the Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar, where we met residents and one of the Bedouin campaigners, Abu Khamis, who leads the resistance to his village being forcibly relocated to another part of the west bank with which villagers have no connection.
The World Bank’s figures show that if the Palestinians were given permission to develop, the west bank has the potential to grow into a successful economy. Ultimately, the Palestinian people do not want to be reliant on international aid. They must be given the chance to stand on their own feet. The inconsistency in the Israeli Government’s policies towards Israeli settlements and Palestinian development is staggering. The Israeli Government are now in a position where they feel that they can be seen to boast about the development of settlement homes. The Prime Minister’s office recently claimed that,
“12,000 settlement homes…were advanced through various planning stages in 2017”.
On my recent trip to Israel, I looked at maps of settlement activity and was deeply concerned by the pace of development. UN Security Council resolution 2334, which was passed last December, reaffirmed that the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has no legal validity and is a violation of international law.
The settlements and demolitions are not the only barriers to peace in the region, so let us be clear that rocket and terror attacks are completely unacceptable and must be condemned by everybody. On this side of the House, we cautiously welcome the recent talks between Fatah and Hamas, and we hope that they will help to ease some of the security challenges posed by Hamas’ control of Gaza.
I welcome the British Government’s interventions about the impending demolition of the village of Susiya. Reports by the Israeli press suggest that British representations on that matter prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the UK helped to postpone the demolition of Susiya. That shows that when we speak out about such issues, we can have a positive effect. I thank the Minister for the excellent work that he has done. However, I remain concerned about the Israeli authorities’ announcement on 22 November that one fifth of Susiya will be demolished within 15 days. Can the Minister reassure us that the UK Government continue to raise objections to the demolition of Susiya? More broadly, can he outline his Government’s overall strategy for opposing demolitions and settlements?
In conclusion, I am pleased that the contributions from hon. Members across different parties have made it clear that British parliamentarians are strongly interested in this issue. It is important to convey the message that we are following this matter closely, especially at a time when the US seems to be retreating from its leadership role. I hope that the Minister will take note of the opinions voiced in the debate and ensure that they are raised in any future representations to the Israeli Government on this issue.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate. Although I do not agree with everything he said, I appreciate the measured and thoughtful way, which is familiar to all of us, in which he addressed the topic. The interventions and contributions by other hon. Members have been ably summed up by the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), so I will not go into detail about them, but the speech of the hon. Member for Aberavon reminded us once again of the difficulties in dealing with this issue. Each side has real challenges for the other based on physical clashes, conflict and loss of life, sometimes in unclear circumstances.
I doubt whether I can move any particular set of entrenched views, but I try to represent fairly the UK Government, who have long experience—as I do—of having friends across the divide. We understand both sides of this difficult issue, offer criticism and support for actions in considered response to them and, above all, seek with increased urgency to press the case for a negotiated peace as the only way to resolve many of the matters that hon. Members have raised today before it is too late.
Concern about the general should not obscure specifics. Glorification of and incitement to terror is wrong, despite the background of occupation. Illegal settlements are wrong, notwithstanding the origins of the war of ’67 and its consequences. The general can be dealt with only by the overall settlement, but specifics can be addressed now; I shall address the specifics, because there are many general matters and I shall not be able to cover everything. In the time available, let me deal with one or two particular issues that have been raised that relate to demolitions and settlements.
According to the UN, Israel has demolished more than 390 buildings in the west bank since the start of this year, displacing more than 600 people. Furthermore, the Israeli military has issued demarcation orders that signal the intention to evacuate a number of communities, both in the Jordan valley and in E1. The Israeli Government have made it clear that those include the Bedouin villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar, which are familiar to many hon. Members present. On 22 November, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East said, they notified the courts of their intention to demolish buildings in Susiya within 15 days. That deadline expires tomorrow. While the community’s lawyer is challenging that ruling, we are further concerned by reports that on Monday the Israeli Government announced an additional 13 demolition orders for the village. All told, that leaves about 40% of the village’s structures, including its only school, at risk of immediate demolition.
The UK position on demolitions, and what we do about them, is clear: we consider them entirely unacceptable. In all but the most exceptional cases, they are contrary to international humanitarian law. Every single demolition or eviction of a Palestinian family from their home causes unnecessary suffering and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution. I am particularly concerned by the proposals to demolish Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar. When I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories in August, I met members of the Susiya Bedouin community and we discussed the grave threat of forcible transfer and the understandable stress and anxiety that it was causing them. Some years ago, I also visited the Khan al-Ahmar community. Demolitions in Khan al-Ahmar are a particular concern because they appear to pave the way for a future settlement expansion in E1. Many hon. Members present know the geography pretty well, so they understand what that would mean: it would directly threaten a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital for both states.
The UK has repeatedly called on the Israeli authorities not to go ahead with these plans. I urge them again to abide by international humanitarian law and reconsider the remaining demolitions planned for Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar.
The British Government support Bedouin communities and Palestinians whose homes face demolition or who face eviction in Area C of the west bank. To answer a question asked by the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), we do so principally through the funding of £3 million over three years that we provide to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s legal aid programme. This practical support helps residents to challenge decisions in the Israeli legal system; as the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) mentioned, there is a legal system, which on occasions has stood for the rights of those whom it feels have been unfairly and illegally treated. Some 79% of cases provided with legal representation through the Norwegian Refugee Council have resulted in the suspension of demolitions and evictions, allowing Palestinians to remain in their homes. I hope that that serves as a demonstration of our practical measures of support, beyond the representations we make to the Israeli Government and authorities, to help the rule of law in the area.
We are gravely concerned that Palestinians continue to face severe difficulty in securing building permissions— a matter that has also been raised by hon. Members. Between 2014 and summer 2016, just 1.3% of building permits requested by Palestinians in Area C were granted. Between 2010 and 2015, only 8% of all building permits given in Jerusalem were given in Palestinian neighbourhoods. Practically, that leaves Palestinians with little option but to build without permission, placing their homes at risk of demolition on the grounds that they do not have a permit. In answer to the hon. Member for Leeds North East, we continue to urge the Israeli Government to develop improved mechanisms for zoning, planning and granting permits in Area C for the benefit of the Palestinian population, including by facilitating local Palestinian participation in such mechanisms. We have allocated £900,000 to support essential infrastructure for vulnerable Palestinians in Area C.
The grave situation that Palestinian communities face, particularly in Area C, demonstrates the urgent need to make real and tangible progress towards peace. We are in close consultation with international partners, including the United States, about how to encourage the parties to reverse negative trends and engage in meaningful dialogue. The British Government are committed to making progress towards a two-state solution. We are clear that that can be achieved only through a negotiated agreement that leads to a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. It must be based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.
Our policy on settlement remains the same: the viability of the principle of two states for two peoples is being undermined by the increased pace of settlement. The challenge was raised that we talk a lot and do not do enough, but UN resolution 2334, which the United Kingdom supported last December, was pretty clear in its degree of condemnation, saying:
“Condemning all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including…the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions”.
That resolution was criticised in some quarters, but it is clear evidence of the United Kingdom’s determination on that side.
On the other side, as hon. Members have said, we have been very clear that settlements and demolitions are far from being the only problem in the conflict. As the Quartet set out in its July 2016 report, terrorism and incitement undermine the prospects of a two-state solution. That point cannot be passed by in any debate we have on the subject. We deplore all forms of incitement, including comments that stir up hatred and prejudice. We therefore encourage both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to reject any hate speech or incitement and to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, including by promoting a more positive portrayal of each other. As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) and other hon. Members said, promoting peaceful co-existence projects really matters now, at a time when we need to make progress.
Before I conclude, it would be wrong not to mention the events of today. As the Foreign Secretary said in Brussels this morning, we are concerned by reports that the US is considering recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. Like our international partners, we believe such a move could inflame tension in the region. Our position is clear and long-standing: the status of Jerusalem should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately form a shared capital between the Israeli and Palestinian states. I hesitate to say more until we hear what the President actually says and listen to the context in which he sets it. Tomorrow we will have a better opportunity to set out where his statements and commitment stand in relation to other aspects. The United Kingdom has no intention of moving its embassy from Tel Aviv.
If the hon. Member for Aberavon would like the last minute of the debate to wind up, I am pleased to offer it to him.
I thank the Minister. I certainly welcome his comments on a range of issues. He gave a very balanced, reasonable and pragmatic overview of what has been said today and where we need to go from here. He rightly recognised that nobody is perfect in this situation and everybody needs to get to the table. What I really hope is that the Government will close the gap between rhetoric and reality and follow up on the Minister’s statements. I am sure we can rely on the Minister’s belief in them, but we now need to turn that belief into concrete action and finally start to make progress on the desperate and challenging situation in the illegally occupied territories of the west bank.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities.