[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I do not intend to read out all the instructions because there are not so many of us in the Room that we are over-spilling the horseshoe. Please clean your microphones and the area around them before and after use, and note the access and exit doors. We circulate around the Room. You can speak only from the horseshoe. I call Catherine McKinnell.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK support for an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It is an honour, Mr Efford, to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate as a recently appointed chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. During this very challenging period that we are living through, this debate today could not be more timely. The impending departure of the Trump Administration in January will provide an opportunity to reassert international consensus in favour of a two-state solution to the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Britain should seize that opportunity by supporting the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The obstacles to a two-state solution are well known: settlement building by the Israeli Government, which threatens both the viability of the Palestinian state and, over the long term, the democratic character of the state of Israel itself; the actions of the Palestinian Authority, for example through its school curriculum, which threatened to instil hatred and violence in another generation of young people; and the refusal of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah to accept Israel’s right to exist. The prospect of a two-state solution is threatened, too, by the growing belief among both the Israeli and Palestinian public that, even if desirable, it is no longer possible. Most worryingly, support for a two-state solution is weakest among Israelis and Palestinians under the age of 30.
Over the past 25 years, the high hopes of Oslo have given way to fear, mistrust and pessimism, and that pessimism is understandable. It is more than six years since the last serious and substantive effort to restart the peace process. Ultimately, the international community can facilitate a two-state solution, but it cannot impose it. Only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which will inevitably involve painful compromises on both sides, can bring it about. We should not, however, see the current hiatus and barriers to a two-state solution as a cause for inactivity and passivity. Instead, we should think creatively and boldly about how we can best foster an environment in which peace negotiations and a two-state solution might resume and succeed. We should consider how any future settlement can best be sustained. Although the two conflicts are very different in both their causes and their character, the example of Northern Ireland provides important lessons.
In the mid-1980s, during the darkest days of the troubles, when the prospects for peace and an end to violence seemed so distant, the International Fund for Ireland was established. Over the past three decades it has invested more than £700 million in peace-building work, bringing together nationalist and Unionist communities in more than 5,800 co-existence projects. That investment provided the vital civic society foundations that underpinned the drive towards peace in the 1990s. It provided widespread popular support for the Good Friday agreement, and then helped to sustain it through the many challenges that it has faced in the subsequent years. Northern Ireland’s example teaches us that it is never too early to begin investing in and building constituencies for peace. In short, peace building is a vital prerequisite to peace making.
Since the advent of Oslo, a plethora of grassroots groups that bring Israelis and Palestinians together have sprung up in a wide variety of fields—sports clubs for children and young people, as well as cultural interface and tech and environmental projects. There is now a strong evidence base from both academic research and government evaluations to suggest that such projects work. A 2019 academic study carried out for USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—which evaluated four programmes in which the US had invested found that, three to five years after their involvement, the project participants continued to hold positive feelings about those from the “other” side of the divide, had an increased belief that peace was possible and reported that their perceptions had been altered by the programme. That study reinforced an earlier USAID evaluation that suggested that those participating in people-to-people work had higher levels of trust and co-operation, more conflict resolution values and fewer feelings of aggression and loneliness.
USAID studies are supported by the findings of a 2017 report by Ned Lazarus, a professor at George Washington university whose work drew on 20 years of evaluation data and extensive field work. It found that peacebuilding projects create peacebuilders and constituencies for peace, change attitudes and create empathy and trust between the two peoples. For example, nearly one fifth of participants in a programme by the NGO Seeds of Peace went on to dedicate their careers to peace-building work, and 90% of participants in a Near East Foundation project said that they trusted the other community more after being on the programme. A programme led by Parents Circle-Families Forum found that 80% of participants were more willing to work for peace and 71% felt more trust and empathy towards the other community.
Despite widespread and correct recognition, and the importance of laying the economic foundations for peace, such civic society work has too often gone unacknowledged by the international community and it has suffered from huge under-investment. Indeed, thanks in part to cuts by the Trump Administration, international investment in people-to-people work has fallen since 2017 from an already pitiful £37 million a year to £26 million a year now.
An international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace would provide that much-needed focus and investment to enable co-existence projects to operate at scale and to amplify their impact. Designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of more than 90 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots organisations, the fund would seek to leverage and increase public and private contributions funding joint economic development and civic society projects that promote peace, co-existence and reconciliation between the two peoples. It would be an independent organisation, supported by public and private donors, and it explicitly does not seek to replace any support that would otherwise be provided either directly to the Palestinian Authority or to Israel. Its goal is ambitious—to raise levels of investment nearly tenfold to $200 million a year. Those contributions would come from the US, Europe and the rest of the international community, including the Arab world, and the private sector.
I commend Labour Friends of Israel for their tireless campaigning, which stretches back nearly a decade, to increase UK funding on co-existence and their work over the past five years in support of an international fund. Indeed, nearly four years ago I was delighted to join a cross-party group of sponsors who backed a Bill presented by the former Member for Enfield North, Joan Ryan, which called on the Government to promote the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Televised campaigning persuaded the Government in 2017 to establish a new three-year programme—People for Peaceful Change—which invested £3 million in co-existence work. It also succeeded in securing a commitment from the Government in 2018 to support the international fund, making the UK the first country to endorse this concept.
Sadly, however, the Government have allowed the People for Peaceful Change programme to lapse and with it the UK’s investment in peacebuilding work in Israel and Palestine. The Government have also failed to follow up on their commitment to support an international fund, despite positive developments in the US, where the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act is expected to become law at the end of this year. This legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in July and is now progressing through the Senate, has strong bipartisan support and will establish a middle east partnership for peace fund. The fund will provide $110 million over the next five years for peacebuilding projects, with a new joint investment for peace initiative providing an additional $140 million in support to Palestinian-owned small and medium enterprises. The legislation not only provides two seats for international partners on the middle east partnership for peace fund advisory board but includes provisions that allow it to evolve into a new, truly multilateral institution. The arrival of the Biden Administration, together with the recent exciting moves we have witnessed in the middle east towards normalising relations with Israel, provides a huge opportunity which, if the UK is to live up to the Government’s global Britain ambitions, we should surely seize.
In closing, will the Minister provide three undertakings today? First, will he meet me and other colleagues to discuss reinstating the UK’s financial support for peace-building work and reinvigorating support for the international fund? Secondly, will he ask his officials to explore the possibility of the UK requesting one of two international partner seats in the new middle east partnership for peace advisory board? Thirdly, at the earliest opportunity after 20 January, will he discuss with the Biden Administration how the middle east partnership fund for peace might evolve into a truly international institution?
This week marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement which set in motion the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland and set us on the path to the Good Friday agreement. We know the transformative impact of peace-building work and we know we have seen it in Ireland. I urge the Government to draw on this experience and commit to establishing this international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to be back in Westminster Hall after it was closed for so long. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing a debate on this important issue.
Like the hon. Member, I welcome progress in the US Congress towards establishing a new international fund for projects to promote peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. It makes sense in this context to reflect on some of the experiences in Northern Ireland, albeit that is a very different situation to the one that prevails in the middle east.
As Northern Ireland Secretary, I saw for myself the incredibly important role played by grassroots community projects aimed at bringing people together across historic and long-lasting divides. I saw how they helped to embed the peace settlement resulting from the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Looking back in history, it is clear that they played a role in securing that agreement.
Over the years, we have seen groups such as the WAVE Trauma Centre, Healing Through Remembering, the Corrymeela Community and the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship. Such organisations cannot on their own resolve deep-seated conflicts—that requires political leadership from all sides. We have seen that from Israel, but sadly lacking from the Palestinian side. Grassroots groups of this nature, promoting peaceful co-existence, can be part of the momentum for peace and help to create the conditions in which political leaders feel confident to come together and find common ground and compromise.
Those Northern Ireland projects received support from many sources, including successive UK Governments, but also from the International Fund for Ireland, which has clearly provided inspiration for the ideas we are considering today. I certainly encourage the Foreign Office to deploy part of its aid budget to this new US-inspired international initiative on promoting projects aimed at securing peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is crucial that all funding, whether for this programme or others operating in the middle east, goes to worthwhile projects that are genuinely trying to bring people together. It is a concern for me and a number of my constituents that some UK charities and NGOs take a highly politicised and partisan approach to the middle east. For example, I have raised concerns about some of the activities in the past of War On Want with the Charities Commission. I hope those running any new fund will learn lessons from the problems that have beset existing aid programmes operating in the West Bank.
Just over 16 years ago, in my former role as an MEP, I first raised concerns about the abuse of aid money given to the Palestinian Authority. Those were the days of the flagrant misappropriation of cash by Yasser Arafat and his cronies—problems that, I am afraid, continue to some degree to this day.
I appreciate that successive Conservative Secretaries of State have tried to clean up the system. Those efforts were well intentioned and made a real difference. There are now far more effective controls to save taxpayers’ money than there were in the past. The issue remains, however, that the UK makes substantial contributions to UNRWA, which distributes aid on the basis of perceived entitlement rather than humanitarian need and whose definition of “refugee” as passing down generations perpetuates division rather than bringing people together.
I accept that UK aid money, thankfully, does not fund extremist or antisemitic curriculum content, but it does pay the salaries of teachers who use such materials. Thankfully, UK aid does not fund the appalling salaries paid to terrorists, but salaries were increased dependent on the number of Israelis killed. I am worried that while, thankfully, our taxpayers’ money does not go directly to fund these salaries, it indirectly enables such payments by the PLO by releasing money that otherwise would have to be deployed to cover the costs of the salaries of public sector workers that are currently met by the United Kingdom taxpayer.
Whether it is a new international fund for peace between Israel and the Palestinians or the UK’s existing programmes to support the Palestinian Authority, I urge the Minister to ensure that taxpayers’ money is always rigorously scrutinised and spent only on projects to bring people together rather than push them apart and on projects working for peace and not perpetuating conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). I knew her before coming to the House and I have worked closely with her on Northern Ireland matters since being in the House.
It is poignant that the debate is taking place so soon after the death of Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He was firmly committed to his people’s rights, unwavering in his pursuit of a just peace, and committed to a two-state solution.
It is cause for optimism that the debate is taking place in the shadow of the election across the Atlantic. We cannot underestimate the significance of that, and if, like me, you believe in the ability of the United States to lead and be a force for progress in the world, you will share the hope that this will mark a new approach to its role in the middle east, particularly in using its influence to re-establish the basis for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
If the last four years show anything, it is that you can be a friend to a country and its people without supporting its Government. I have felt like that about the United States and Israel. In fact, I have felt that, to be a good friend, you have had to oppose their respective Administrations, while continuing to advocate the development of strong links and co-operation between our countries and peoples.
The dire state of political relations and the breakdown of relations—the unilateralism and illegality of occupation, settlements and annexation and its effect on the Palestinian people, and the continued terror, threats and denial of Israel’s very right to exist—should not mean that we allow inertia, let the UK’s response and involvement be set by the recalcitrant, or abandon our role in the historic mission to find a just and lasting two-state solution.
A fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace is one such way in which the world can provide tangible support for advancing the cause of peace and improving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. As the Alliance for Middle East Peace says,
“With the suspension of coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, civil society is one of the only remaining channels for cross-border contact between Israelis and Palestinians. This places an undue burden on peacebuilding organisations”.
This work is vital and dangerous. Earlier this year Hamas arrested Rami Aman, a peace activist in Gaza, and seven other Palestinians for taking part in a Zoom call with Israelis. Hamas said that it amounted to a
“betrayal of our people and their sacrifices”,
and that any joint activities, co-operation or dialogue with Israelis is unacceptable—just because ordinary people wanted to talk to each other about their lives. I am pleased that Rami Aman was released from prison a few weeks ago, after spending six months there awaiting trial. It is another example of how Hamas, far from advancing the cause of Palestine, is through its violence and intransigence, hindering it.
The peace fund proposal is to increase public and private contributions worldwide, funding joint economic initiatives and civil society projects that improve social and economic conditions in Israel and Palestine. Following a successful campaign spearheaded by Labour Friends of Israel—I pay tribute to them for the work they do alongside colleagues in Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East—the UK Government provided £3 million of funding for a project that ran from May 2017 to March 2020, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North. It is a shame that the funding has ceased and that the Government have stopped that support for people-to-people work.
I hope the Minister will recognise that consistent investment to enable programmes to achieve long-term results is vital to the success of coexistence work. It cannot be a tap that is turned on and off; it must be sustainable, because without sufficient funding, from either Governments or private philanthropy, coexistence projects can currently have only a limited impact. Operating at scale and properly funded, however, they could help to build powerful constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine, forcing leaders in both countries to return to meaningful negotiations and provide the vital civic society underpinnings for any future agreement.
The main inspiration for that is, of course, the International Fund for Ireland, which was put in place by the Irish and British Governments after the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which, as has been said, celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. The objective of the IFI is to promote economic and social advance in Northern Ireland and the border counties and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists throughout the island. The fund has done enormous work across Northern Ireland and in border areas for over 40 years, evolving its activities over time, but always focused on cross-community reconciliation, with over £750 million in funding being generated over the last 44 years.
The fund effectively resides with the Irish and British Governments, but crucially it has an independent board. People on all sides trust it. It has no political agenda; its only agenda is peace and reconciliation. It was originally funded by the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That international support gave it further credibility, and all those countries still have observer positions on the fund’s board. The Irish and British Governments have also re-dedicated themselves to continuing the funding through the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. Importantly, the board of the fund is scrupulously objective in how it decides which project to support. Its composition is evenly divided between the nationalist and Unionist communities and includes members from border counties in the south. These symbols of balance and even-handedness matter.
The lessons to be learned for any Israel-Palestine fund are almost all good; the even-handedness dimension is the most important. In that spirit, the International Fund for Ireland has for some years now made itself available to share experience and knowledge with organisations promoting reconciliation in other locations, including in Israel and Palestine. I know that Paddy Harte, the new IFI chair, is committed to this work, and I urge the Government to use his expertise and that of the board.
For me, peace must fundamentally be built on equality, opportunity and partnership. The international community cannot do all of those things, but it can help to create the conditions for them. I hope that we will be able to play our part.
It is good to see you in the Chair once more, Mr Efford.
I thank my hon. Friend for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate and for an excellent speech. Like others, I believe that an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace would aim to help any future peace process by promoting co-operation, dialogue, joint economic development and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. As the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am delighted that we are able to have this debate today; this is something we have argued for for some time.
It is important that the concept of an international fund, as we have heard, has been designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, because it is an independent organisation with extensive experience in this area. Therefore, I think some of the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) about other group initiatives would not apply here, because ALLMEP has an almost impeccable record in this field.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), I am pleased that the UK became the first country to endorse the concept of an international fund when, in 2017, it introduced the People for Peaceful Change project after lobbying from LFI and others.
There have been several mentions of LFI, and I welcome the work that has been done on promoting the idea of funding peaceful co-existence projects. However, does the hon. Gentleman not find it sad that the leading MP who championed this idea, Joan Ryan, then MP for Enfield North, felt so intimidated and bullied by people in the Labour party, especially on the antisemitism issue, that she actually had to leave the party? We cannot ignore that significant problem within the hon. Gentleman’s party when referring to the LFI.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that, because it is probably as well to clear this issue up once and for all. LFI battled through the whole of the crisis of antisemitism in the Labour party, and I certainly do not want to in any sense pretend that it did not happen or that it was not a dark stain on our history. What I would say about my former colleague Joan Ryan is that I am immensely grateful to her for the work she did during that period. I hope that the changes that Labour is experiencing under a new leadership will herald the day when someone like Joan will feel perfectly comfortable sitting alongside me once more.
While I welcome that UK Government programme, it is important to acknowledge that, astonishingly enough, the UK Government had spent nothing on supporting co-existence projects prior to that programme. The US bipartisan and bicameral proposals, the middle east partnership for peace, is now making real progress. It aims not just to grow economic development, but to tackle the incitement and dehumanisation that has plagued both sides of this conflict. The legislation establishes a fund to improve economic co-operation and people-to-people exchanges. I think that is how we breathe life into the two-state solution. ALLMEP should be congratulated on its success in building an enormous, unprecedented coalition of support, making the fund one of the only bipartisan Israel-Palestine priorities in Congress.
In February 2018, the then Middle East Minister Alistair Burt announced the UK’s support for the concept of an international fund. However, since then the Government have failed to follow up on their warm words. The Biden Administration now present a huge opportunity for the UK to seize this moment and play a crucial part in this multilateral initiative. Our experience in development finance and in Northern Ireland means that we are ideally placed. We have heard about how we could claim one of the two international seats and use our experience to good effect.
This September, in response to a parliamentary question about plans to allocate funding to support the US fund, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa said:
“We welcome efforts towards peace…We will continue to monitor the People-to-People Partnership for Peace Fund”—
as it was then known—
“as it progresses through the US legislative system.”
It is making great progress. Let us act now, to show that we are determined to get involved. Without funding from Governments and private philanthropy, co-existence projects can have only a limited impact but, operating at scale and properly funded, they can build powerful constituencies for peace, forcing politicians to return to meaningful negotiations.
As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North and for St Helens North, Northern Ireland has shown that this work can provide vital underpinnings for any future agreement. That civil society dimension of peacebuilding is about practical politics, building and embedding public support for any future agreement and ensuring that it can weather the challenges ahead. Just as we found in Northern Ireland, broad-based popular support is a prerequisite for any successful peace process.
The International Fund for Ireland spent about 8% more per head daily than is currently available for grassroots co-existence work in Israel and Palestine. Over the two decades since the signing of the Oslo accords, a growing network of NGOs has worked at grassroots level to foster values of co-existence, peace and reconciliation. The international fund would bring together public and private donors, nations, corporations and private foundations and individuals. It would focus work on supporting joint initiatives and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians and between Arabs and Jews. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said, it would lead to empowerment, civic activism and a host of other activities. It is envisaged that that $200 million per year fund would receive contributions from the international community, including the Arab world, but importantly it would be independently managed and additional to any existing support already provided directly to either the Palestinian Authority or Israel.
This work is more critical than ever because, as elsewhere in the world, Israel is suffering the economic as well as health consequences of the pandemic. It is about to enter its first recession in more than two decades. The economic crisis in the west bank is even deeper, as it was already in recession. The Palestinian economy has shrunk by an estimated 7.6% during the pandemic, pushing an existing recession into a deep depression. This raises the prospect of increased tensions, which suits those who have no investment in building for peace.
The peacebuilding sector provides essential services to many communities, but it is dependent on global donors and support from foreign Governments. We must develop greater co-ordination among major funders so that donor states improve their efforts with regard to civil society. Increased co-ordination will lead to a more efficient and effective use of resources, as well as opportunities for cross-pollination and deeper partnerships. That is why this international fund is so important and why this country must play a leading role.
As we have heard, there is a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of co-existence projects, even though most of this work has been achieved in the face of considerable challenges, most notably the collapse of the peace process and the second intifada.
Four years ago, Labour Friends of Israel was proud to launch its campaign “For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace” in pursuit of the very international fund that is now within our grasp. I acknowledge the important intervention of the British Government with the people for peaceful change fund, but I urge the Minister to build on that today by confirming that we will play a leading role in supporting this international fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this important and timely debate.
As the late, great former President of Israel and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres said,
“we should use our imagination more than our memory”.
His words ring truer today than ever before, as progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has stalled, despite genuine efforts over the years to secure a two-state solution.
It was revealed last week that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales placed a private donation to the Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation, an organisation founded by President Peres. This is excellent news, and it is not difficult to see why His Royal Highness was so impressed by the organisation’s indispensable work, including programmes that pave the way for mutual understanding between all of Israel’s citizens and for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours.
I join others today in calling on the UK Government to support the new people-to-people partnership for peace fund. I recall that the former Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, endorsed the initiative a few years ago, and I sincerely hope that the Minister today will take this opportunity to reiterate the UK’s support.
The UK is rightly regarded as a world leader in the field of international development, and British taxpayers would, I am sure, take great pride in knowing that our aid is going directly to those on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories who are working every day towards establishing stronger inter-community relations. Following the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I can think of no better way to display the UK’s newly stated commitment to use our international aid to advance our foreign policy goals. An outward-looking global Britain should be at the forefront of multilateral efforts to promote peace and co-existence, which lay the groundwork for a much sought after peace deal.
Beyond the region, our investment in the US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which is working its way through Congress with widespread bipartisan support, would send a clear signal to the incoming Biden Administration that the UK believes in its multilateral approaches to making the world a better place. It offers a welcome new channel for co-operation with our closest ally. This new vehicle for delivering aid directly to peaceful co-existence programmes, as well as supporting investments to small and medium-sized Palestinian-owned enterprises, promises to transform the region.
In recent years, the UK Government have begun to realign their aid to the Palestinian Authority away from donations to its general budget—which led to widespread misuse of aid, including the reprehensible payment of salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists—and instead towards paying the salaries of specifically vetted healthcare and education civil servants. DFID’s announcement a few years ago of a further £3 million fund for co-existence projects marked a further step in the right direction, following growing concerns over aid abuses by the Palestinian Authority.
Constructive dialogue is possible. At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, we saw extensive co-operation and co-ordination between the Israelis and Palestinians, developing shared solutions to the problems jointly faced. I myself have visited the region and have seen the positive work in bringing both sides together. This international fund offers a viable pathway forward to ensure that aid goes directly to projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, all of which is overseen by a transparent system of scrutiny and review. It is a path that we must seize and support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for—I just need to find it—Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). Sorry for not knowing her constituency; I should know it very well, so apologies for that hesitancy. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) and to hear all the other contributions.
In her former role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we had occasion to invite the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) down to my constituency, and we can all marvel at how Northern Ireland has changed. I am a recipient of that, because my attitude has changed as well. I now look back on all those years. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)—he is my hon. Friend—comes from a different part of the country and probably from a different tradition as well. None the less, we can both see how Northern Ireland has changed. And that happens only if people make the effort—only if people decide in their own mind that they want to change.
I was just sitting here when the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North referred to the Anglo-Irish agreement; the Belfast agreement has also been mentioned. I can remember exactly where I was in 1985. I was out on the streets—fact of life—protesting against an agreement that sold us short; I was making my point. Along with thousands of other people, I felt quite agitated—I am trying to pick my words very carefully—about the whole thing. There was a pathway of change that came to us.
I got married and had my children, and I can remember the first Orange parade that was stopped in Drumcree in Portadown. I remember very well what I said to my wife, Sandra, as I left that morning. I genuinely felt that I was on a train that had left the station and I could not get off it. That was how I explained it to my wife; I am not sure whether she really understood what I was trying to tell her. I was trying to tell her that we were on a road going in a certain direction and I did not think we could stop it. That was where we were at that time; it was a very difficult time.
As it turned out, Chief Constable Flanagan let the people walk down to Drumcree. I think that defused the situation and was for the best, because I genuinely did not think that we were ever going to come home from Drumcree—or we might come home in a very different position from the one we were in when we first left. As I said, that defused the situation.
I just want to say that I can really see the benefits of understanding. I supported Dr Paisley. Not all my party did, but I did, because of what I realised at that stage. When I came home from Drumcree, I said to my wife, “Sandra, you know something? I think we’ve got to look at things slightly differently. I think we’ve got to find another way. I understand that the nationalists have a very distinct constitutional position. I have a very different position as a Unionist, but we’ve got to find a way forward. We’ve got to find a way forward for my boys and for all the other wee boys and girls across the whole of Northern Ireland.” And I think we found that way to take things forward.
When Dr Paisley and Martin McGuinness got the Assembly up and running, I supported them wholeheartedly, and the rest of my colleagues then came round and started to see the benefits of what we were doing. That happened only because, ever mindful that constitutionally we were so far apart, we were prepared at least to enter into some discussions together.
I am going down through the years here, Mr Efford, and my apologies for doing that, but I remember I was on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure—this is a true story—and the chair of that committee was of a different persuasion from me. When it was over, I went up to him, shook his hand, told him who I was and said to him, “You know something? Constitutionally, you will always want a united Ireland, but as a Unionist I will do my darnedest to make sure you don’t get it.” Barry McElduff was the chair of the committee, by the way. And I said to him, “But when we are here, your people and my people will want the same things, so how do we make that happen?” I said, “I’m going to recognise your position as chair and I hope you give me a chance to participate in the debates”—as if he could stop me, by the way. But he was very kind and we got on well, although we were from two totally different traditions. I am waffling a wee bit, so I apologise for that.
The process in Northern Ireland was supported financially and physically by the EU, the USA and across the world. By the way, I met Michel Barnier in Brussels—I think it was last year—and at that time he was able to tell me all the places in Northern Ireland where EU funding had got to. I had had a different opinion of Michel Barnier—I am speaking as a Brexiteer now—and I remember that when I came home and told my colleagues about meeting him, I said, “Guys, I don’t know how to put this to you, but he’s quite knowledgeable and he’s not a bad man, you know.” I think I could almost see the daggers coming from all my colleagues at that time, but I said, “I’m just telling you, observationally.” He made things happen.
I have been a friend of Israel for many years, in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster. My leader here, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been chosen to be a speaker in many places. He has spoken in Palestine and Lebanon, in South Africa when the process was taking place there, and in Colombia and South America.
Peaceful co-existence projects between Israelis and Palestinians lay the foundations for a lasting two-state solution, which I fully support. Such projects include Save a Child’s Heart, which provides life-saving heart surgery for children from the developing world and the Palestinian territories. It recently conducted its 5,555th surgery—wow, isn’t that fantastic? It is incredible that that can happen.
Whether we like him or not, we cannot ignore the fact that President Trump was the instrument of the Abraham accords and he did move things on. We also have to recognise that Joe Biden has won the election and perhaps US influence will, hopefully, change as well.
Regrettably, some Palestine participants have been criticised—including when Prince Charles gave a private donation, as the hon. Member for West Bromwich East mentioned—for taking part in activities that normalise relations with Israel. If we do not normalise relations, we do not move forward. We have to do that.
In 2017, the Department for International Development announced unprecedented funding of £3 million towards peaceful co-existence. Again, I ask the Minister: is there any chance that money could be added again? A statement published by the Department said—I am coming to a conclusion, Mr Efford, and am conscious that two other Members want to speak—that the partnerships
“will bring together Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate on issues which can have a positive impact on social, political and economic life”.
That project ended in June 2020. It had a health pillar, a religious pillar and a youth pillar, which involved Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian health officials doing an exercise simulating a collaborative response to a potential cross-border infectious disease outbreak. How good it was to have that.
The religious pillar brought together some 1,219 young Israelis and Palestinians who took part in holy site tours aimed at increasing understanding of religious tolerance. It did not make any person less a Jew or less a Palestinian. It did not change their religious opinions, but it brought them together to understand that people of a different religion can have that religion. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I say that every day—Members here will know that, and it is where we should be coming from.
The youth leaders’ groups, women and political, business and community leaders participated in workshops and built the capacities—it is really important to have the capacity built in these communities—to identify opportunities to improve peace in local communities.
We all say we want peace in the middle east, but we need to put money into the right projects to achieve it. I look forward to hearing how we can move things forward in this House to bring real reconciliation, as I believe there can be, in Israel and Palestine.
I apologise for being late to this debate; unfortunately, I was serving on a Delegated Legislation Committee at the same time. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for bringing forward this incredibly important debate. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because earlier this year I went to Israel and the west bank on a fact-finding mission through Conservative Friends of Israel. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for the first time. He made some very poignant points. I think he must have read my speech, because I will echo some of therm.
I join colleagues from both sides of this Chamber in supporting the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and I echo calls for the Government to take up one of the available seats on the board. For many years, we have heard concerns raised by UK taxpayers that their aid is perpetuating the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. This year we have given £51 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which delivers aid to recipients who meet problematic criteria based on entitlement rather than humanitarian need. UNRWA uniquely extends refugee status beyond the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, to all descendants of Palestinian refugee males.
Although UNRWA carries out important work, including the provision of healthcare and education, defining its recipients as refugees sends a troubling message to Palestinians living in the west bank and Gaza that they have a right to relocate to Israel. This undermines the viability of a two-state solution and runs counter to our policy on the middle east peace process.
We fund the salaries of teachers who use the official Palestinian Authority curriculum, which teaches Palestinian children that Israel’s existence is merely temporary, and which promotes violence against Israelis and Jews. Our aid frees up funds for the Palestinian Authority to pay salaries to convicted terrorists, with higher salaries paid to those who have killed more Israelis. I could go on, but the points have been made time and again, and have been made already in the debate. The PA has not made the changes we have called for, and that leaves the international community with no choice but to rethink its strategy. Peace is essential to prosperity for both Israel and Palestine.
The international fund that is being discussed today would be a step in the right direction. Peaceful co-existence projects lay the foundations for a lasting two-state solution, making peace more likely. Yet in the past some Palestinian participants have been criticised, even by leaders in the Palestinian Authority, for taking part in activities that normalise relations with Israel. Does the Minister agree that that is counterproductive, and that we must urge the PA to facilitate such projects, not oppose them?
I visited Israel and the west bank in February, as I said earlier, and was stunned by the incredible entrepreneurship and ambition in the region, despite the challenges of the conflict. Meeting young Palestinian businesspeople at an intelligence start-up in Ramallah was an eye-opening experience. It was clear that, like many young people, they have ambition and strive for success and growth. They seek peace, recognising that conflict restrains expansion, but they have achieved what they have in spite of the political leadership, not because of it. We also made an inspiring visit to MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Centre, in East Jerusalem. The centre helps Arab women to set up and expand their businesses, as well as providing mentoring and training for job interviews. The deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, is doing phenomenal work supporting job creation and organisation through the work of MATI.
We visited the Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart, as the hon. Member for Strangford highlighted, and met many children from the west bank and Gaza, and the developing world, who have received life-saving heart surgery free of charge. Palestinian surgeons are trained to carry out life-saving heart surgery by Israeli doctors, so that they can save countless lives back home. Every Tuesday, Palestinian children from the west bank and Gaza travel to Israel for the weekly cardiology clinic with their parents. It is the first time that many of them have met an Israeli in a positive setting.
Not only is that experience of having surgery life-saving; it creates a bond between people that cannot be broken. “They fought for my son’s life. They gave us everything we needed. They are like family to me”. Those are the words of the mother of Mahmad, a two-year-old Palestinian boy from Gaza whose life was saved by the charity earlier this month in its 5,555th procedure. Does the Minister share my view that the UK should be supporting that incredible work? Will he join me in congratulating Save a Child’s Heart on reaching that epic milestone? Does he agree that such interactions truly lay the groundwork for future peace? Joining the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace as a board member will massively increase our capacity to support peacebuilding efforts such as Save a Child’s Heart, and I urge the Minister to consider doing so.
I conclude by pointing out that there have been many positives but also many negatives in relation to UNRWA, which have been discussed many times in this Chamber, including in today’s debate. We as a nation cannot fund antisemitism in a foreign nation while we try to stamp it out in our own society, so while we continue to fund UNRWA we need to make sure that it is reformed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I echo the congratulations that have been given to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate.
I welcome efforts to establish the multilateral international fund to help build a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Anything that helps to bring countries together and focuses hearts and minds is a positive step, although we have to recognise that there are clearly other issues that need to be addressed on the ground to get things moving in that direction. I would certainly welcome diplomatic support from the FCDO to help establish the fund and ensure buy-in from the other nations, too. As we have heard from other Members, a very similar fund was established to help bring peace in Northern Ireland, but according to the Alliance for Middle East Peace, £1 billion was spent on those efforts over two decades. That is almost 10 times the amount that has been spent on similar efforts between Israelis and Palestinians to date.
Of course, the concerted efforts that brought results in Northern Ireland remain a beacon of hope for all of us. For those who grew up in that time, nobody could have imagined they would ever see Ian Paisley senior and Martin McGuinness not only sharing power, but being friendly and having a rapport together, earning themselves the nickname of the “chuckle brothers”. I sincerely hope that hard-won peace is not undermined by the reckless Brexit actions that the Government are currently undertaking, and that the UK belatedly recognises the importance of sticking to international law, for chaos falls when Governments unilaterally decide which international laws to follow and which to simply ignore, as we have seen in the middle east.
Like my Scottish National party colleagues, I speak as a friend of Israel, but a critical one. I absolutely understand and support Israel’s right to defend its territory against aggressors where there are undoubtedly threats from militant factions in Palestine, but I cannot support actions that undermine international laws by extending territories beyond internationally agreed boundaries, such as the 53-year-old Israeli occupation of the west bank. I cannot support actions that impose such brutal living conditions on a civilian population in Palestinian territories and cut off access to vital healthcare, albeit I am very impressed by the programme outlined by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), which sounds like a step in the right direction.
I hope that now that a new President is on the way in the United States, there may be a chance for some reflection, and for the de-escalation of tensions that could permanently threaten the viability of a two-state solution by continuing to erode Palestinian rights. I welcome the fact that the Israeli annexations of the west bank have been put on hold through the signing of the Abraham accords. It is also positive to see some progress in normalising the diplomatic relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab states of Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, but at what cost? As with everything in the region, there is a more nuanced and complex story behind the smiles and warm words of these agreements, and much more to be concerned about than the top line of a story might suggest.
Although these accords were, in principle, supposed to halt further occupation and annexation of occupied territories, they contravene the terms of the 2002 Arab peace initiative, in which the establishment of an independent Palestinian state was given as a precondition for full, normal relations with Israel. This deal may have put further annexation on the back burner for now, but it has not removed the threat. It also disregards existing breaches of international law in occupied territories and Palestinian sovereignty rights, which could have major implications for reaching any lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine. Khaled Elgindy, a political analyst and author on the conflict, wrote,
“As many of us have argued from the start, Arab Gulf states’ normalization with Israel is not about normalizing bilateral ties as much as they’re about normalizing Israeli occupation & the settlements.”
That cannot be allowed.
We also know that settler violence and the forced displacement of Palestinian people in the occupied west bank has continued. On the night of 4 November, as the eyes of the world focused on the US election, 70 more Palestinian structures were demolished by Israeli forces in the Bedouin hamlet of Khirbet Humsah, making 74 Palestinians, including 41 children, homeless. Forcibly confiscating land and demolishing homes is not the way to make peace a realistic option. This has to be stopped.
The diplomatic role the UK has played in harbouring peace should not be undermined by continuing to sell arms that may be used in unlawful killings by any regime, whether friend or foe. The UK has massively increased the sale of arms to the Israel Defence Forces at a time when there has been rightful international condemnation of indiscriminate airstrikes and credible reports of unlawful killings, including of children and medics. The human rights record of Israel against Palestinians is woeful, and the UK should not turn a blind eye to its potential role in supplying these weapons. Arms sales should be suspended until all such reports of human rights violations are independently investigated.
I know that the term “ethical foreign policy” went out of fashion with the late Robin Cook, but it is certainly time that we brought it back, for without that, what do we stand for? I want Scotland and the UK to be a force for good in the world, not an enabler of human rights abuses. I am sure everyone in this House is united in wanting to see progress towards sustainable peace and stability for both the people of Israel and the people of Palestine, based on mutual recognition and the rule of law. I hope the proposed fund will help those efforts, but it is not in itself enough to move things beyond warm words.
The UK has an important diplomatic role and responsibility in the region, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister about any measures being brought forward. Recognising the issues on the ground for the people of Palestine and speaking out against human rights abuses, without fear or favour, is central to helping progress to a meaningful, sustainable peace that can meet the aspirations of all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate and on giving such a clear exposition of her case.
We have had a very good debate this afternoon. It is also important to stress that the debate has not only been good but it has been conducted in the right kind of spirit. That is so important when we talk about the emotive issue of Israel and Palestine. We need to have mutual respect among ourselves and understand that it is a complex issue that requires sensitivity and understanding.
One thing that unites most people in this House—certainly in this Chamber—is that we believe in the two-state solution. That is the only way to bring real peace to Israel and Palestine. We need to recognise that a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state can be achieved only through negotiation, and for that negotiation to be successful, there inevitably has to be give and take. It also has to be recognised that it is important to pay attention to the climate in which those negotiations can take place and their overall context.
That is why this debate is so important. It is vital to have co-operation between the Israelis and Palestinians in a daily, practical sense. It is important that they understand where each other is coming from. It is important that they respect each other and that there is reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is important to recognise, as a number of Members have said this afternoon, that we have a great deal to learn from the experience of Northern Ireland. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). The contribution this afternoon from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was particularly moving, because he accurately talked about two traditions in Northern Ireland: the nationalist tradition and the Unionist tradition, historically a long way apart from each other with different histories. What is significant about the 1980s and 1990s is that people began to talk and to understand where each was coming from. Eventually common ground was found, and, hopefully, a secure way has been mapped out to have lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
I remember well the mid-1980s and the 1990s and the troubles. I was a Member of the European Parliament at the time and I remember talking to my good friend John Hume. John passionately believed in the need for a well funded international fund for Ireland. Through negotiation with others, he was able to establish that fund, which made a huge contribution towards bringing people together and establishing through civic society the very firm foundations for a Good Friday agreement. That fund in Northern Ireland—the international fund for Ireland, as it was called—brought many people together, not just in Northern Ireland but from the southern part, too. It was the great unsung hero of the peace process.
From all of that, we have so much to learn. I believe that the fund we have been talking about this afternoon, in the context of Israel and Palestine, offers the way to take forward many of the principles underpinning that fund in Northern Ireland. We have heard about the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and hon. Members have accurately described the process in America, whereby the House of Representatives has approved legislation that is now progressing through the Senate. Significantly, the legislation has bipartisan support. It is not just Republicans or Democrats; people drawn from both parties in the United States are supporting the initiative. I, like other hon. Members, am hopeful that when the new Biden-Harris Administration takes office in January, it will take up the idea and make it a reality.
The fund is important because eventually it will become an institution—one that will have helped lay the bedrock for the peace process. However, it will not simply be an abstract institution. It will also be a fund that will encourage practical initiatives that bring people together. It will encourage entrepreneurship and—who knows?—it might even help the establishment of joint schools for the children of Israelis and Palestinians. It will provide spaces for people to talk about their common problems.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way. There is much that I agree with in his speech, but there is—sorry to use a cliché—an elephant in the room. He is a member of a party from which advocates for Israel such as Ian Austin and Ivan Lewis resigned their membership because saying anything in defence of Israel within the Labour party—a political party that they had supported for their entire adult life—was howled down and met with intimidation and antisemitism.
With all due respect, we are not talking about the internal politics of the Labour party here today. Frankly, we are talking about something far more important than that: we are talking about peace being established between the people of Israel and Palestinians. That is the important thing. That is not to underestimate what has been said about antisemitism inside the Labour party, but there is a time and place for everything. Today, we are talking about peace in the middle east and peace between the people of Israel and Palestine.
I believe that the fund, if it is established by the United States of America and others rally behind and support it, will be a huge step forward. However, I must say too that it is not an alternative to UNRWA funding but is something that must be introduced as well as that. It is not an excuse, as some people have suggested, for supporting settlements on the west bank. It is important to recognise that the fund is something quite different and it requires cross-party support from all good people who support peace in the middle east, coming together to find common ground.
I pay tribute, as a number of hon. Members have already done, to the Alliance for Middle East Peace. ALLMEP has being plugging away for a long time on this. At last, we are seeing real fruition coming about today and there is tremendous optimism. I must say that a lot of optimism is required from time to time in the middle east, but I believe the fund really offers that. All tribute to the alliance for championing that so consistently.
We are talking about the United States, but I emphasise that the fund must not be for the United States alone; we require multilateral international support. The Europeans have given support and the British can give support as well. It is vital that we do. There is a huge opportunity for the Prime Minister, when he talks about global Britain, to be proactive and to give the lead even to the Americans to encourage them to move forward quickly. I hope the British Government will be unambiguous and emphatic in supporting the fund as quickly as possible, but I want them to go further. I do not want only rhetoric from the Government; we are used to plenty of that. I want them to come forward and say that they want one of the two seats that will govern the fund when it is established. I also want them not only to say that will they support the Abraham accords that have been established between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but to go further and say that the fund must be used for Arab support for such an initiative. That would be a huge step forward.
Finally, we all need to recognise that the fund will potentially make a huge contribution to peace. A lasting peace has to be seen as a process and not a single event.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and a pleasure to be back here in Westminster Hall. Life can be a bit soulless when sitting in an office or a back bedroom making Zoom calls and so forth. This debate has demonstrated the value of physically being in the House. Perhaps you will thank the Speaker for facilitating that. I think all hon. Members would approve of extending that.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate and to everyone who has participated, including the groups. I particularly welcome her as chair of Labour Friends of Israel and as a member of other organisations. I apologise; I am promoting her because of her talent, which is an easy mistake to make. I also apologise on behalf of the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, who is not here today. He had a long-standing commitment to appear before a Select Committee, but it is a pleasure for me to represent Her Majesty’s Government here today.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about how respectful the debate has been, and I would like to carry on in that vein, but it would not be out of place for me to follow on from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and draw attention to the excellent work that Joan Ryan, Ivan Lewis and Ian Austin did in this Chamber. They were all friends across party lines, although I campaigned in Ian Austin’s constituency to get him out of Parliament. I am happy with the robust nature of politics, but I know that really was not what happened. I know that there is a meeting going on as we speak to move things on slightly, but there clearly is a process for this type of debate, and engagement is a part of that process.
I echo the condolences expressed by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) on the tragic passing of Saeb Erekat last week. He was a true champion of dialogue and of Palestinian rights, and his passing is a great loss to us all. Through you, Mr Efford, we pass on our thoughts and sympathies to his family and the people of Palestine.
The middle east peace process continues to be complex, as was demonstrated during this debate. There are sensitive issues that divide the House, although I am minded to report back to the Minister of the Middle East the similarities in the contributions. They were not identical, but there were things that we agree on, as well as things that might divide us. The Government will remain active in looking for progress on peace in the region. We welcome, as others have done, the normalisation of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The agreements represent a profound shift within the region, but we must now proceed in parallel with steps to resolve the underlying conflict.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) demonstrated that there is an opportunity for the FCDO to work together. I know there is some concern about the merger, but this situation is perhaps typical of where the FCDO can add more value as one rather than as two, because development and politics are so tightly fused as to be almost indistinguishable. If the matter is not moving forward, it is not because of political or development reasons.
There is much to be done to rebuild trust. The suspension of the threat of annexation was a welcome first step, mentioned by a number of Members, but it must be made permanent. It is vital that the Palestinian Authority resume co-operation with Israel and that the Israeli-Palestinian leaderships come together to pursue the pathway to peace. Her Majesty’s Government believe that the two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution and the only way permanently to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity and to realise Palestinian national aspirations.
The Government are aware of ongoing discussions, specifically around the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which I understand, despite the slight contradictions of other hon. Members, the US Senate will consider in 2021. We know that there is considerable flux in the US system, and as parliamentarians we know of the complexities of other systems, so it might be slightly further away than was thought before the debate. The Government support the objectives of the international fund, but Members will understand that Ministers tend not to make announcements about future funding from the Dispatch Box or in Westminster Hall. I can confirm that we have no plans to commit financial support at this stage, but we will continue to engage with the Alliance for Middle East Peace. It and its 100-members have a strong relationship with the FCDO and officials.
I hear a very clear message that one of the rationales for involvement is to secure a seat. I think that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pressed me to commit officials specifically to providing advice, and when the decision point comes I shall be happy to do that. She also pressed me to promise the time of the Minister for Middle East and North Africa. As she knows, even in covid times he is omnipresent here and on Twitter. I do not agree, having made a contribution and agreed to have a conversation with him, to commit his time at this stage, but I am sure he will make himself open to discussion at the right juncture.
Members spoke of the importance of projects that seek to promote peace. The UK remains committed to the middle east and to the occupied Palestinian territories, providing a vital role in helping to improve the lives of Palestinians and supporting the commitment to maintain the viability of the two-state solution. Our ongoing work includes humanitarian support to meet immediate needs in Gaza, support to key services such as health and education in the west bank, promoting economic development across the occupied Palestinian territories, and helping to meet the needs of Palestinian refugees across the wider region. To give a concrete example, the UK Government are providing £20 million this year to support the salaries of teachers, nurses and doctors. That will help the Palestinian Authority to support their health workers, especially in their frontline battle against covid and in delivering life-saving medical services. I am conscious of the celebration of 5,555 operations. It sounds like excellent work is being done. I am not sighted of the programme, but I am happy to receive more information.
The Minister mentions £20 million being set aside to fund the salaries of teachers and doctors. Would it be possible to encourage those teachers and doctors to perform some cross-community work? It might be a small method of bringing people together. It is just a thought.
I fully appreciate that £20 million is going to fund teachers and healthcare workers, but part of the problem is the curriculum that is being taught. If we are funding teachers to teach that curriculum, we perpetuate the problem. If we are funding it, can we do some meaningful work in reforming the curriculum so that we can truly bring about peace?
I am conscious that this has been the subject of a number of debates. There is no funding of textbooks and there is careful selection of teachers. There is also a review, through our European partners, of some of these issues. I am happy to engage with the hon. Member in more detail outside this debate.
The UK is also a key supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in providing aid and development assistance to the Palestinian refugees.
It is very good to hear about the UK Government’s financial commitment to this work. Given that the role of global Britain is enhanced not just by the strength of its arguments and values but by the fact that it puts its money where its mouth is, does the Minister worry that continuing speculation about draconian cuts to the aid budget undermines the good work that is being done and gives rise to concerns about the sustainability of that work in the future?
The UK is committed to spending its money on global Britain force for good development work across the board. I will not be led into a debate just before a fiscal event. We maintain a commitment and we want to be known as a force for good in the world. We want to punch great weight as global Britain, and the cash in the development budget is important to that.
Talking of cash, the £51 million provided through UNRWA has helped to educate about 500,000 girls and boys so far. It will pay to access healthcare for 3.5 million Palestinian refugees and create a social security net for more than 250,000 of the most vulnerable people across the region. In 2019, we also provided more than £16 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza, supporting the health system, trauma care and emergency food supplies to more than 1.2 million people.
On the people-to-people programmes, hon. Members will intuitively know how civic activism and connections work. With other Members, I compliment the hon. Member for Strangford—you were very liberal with him, Mr Efford, for which we were all grateful—on the strong personal stories that he told about how one goes through pathways over time. I was amused to think that while the hon. Gentleman was on the streets, I was sitting my O-levels. It is good that he is passing on the baton of experience.
The people-to-people programme ended recently. It was a £3 million programme that brought together Israelis and Palestinians to co-operate to have a positive impact on communities and improve understanding between people on both sides of the conflict, and so build a basis for peaceful negotiation and resolution. The programme was also planned to have a research component that would inform any future work in the area. I will certainly speak to the Minister for Middle East and North Africa about contextualising that review with the requests from this debate and the opportunities through UNRWA.
We shall remain in close consultation with the United States and our international partners to encourage all parties to reverse negative developments on the ground, including by working regionally for peace and encouraging meaningful bilateral relationships. Ultimately, we shall succeed only when these are conducted by Israelis and Palestinians and supported by the international community.
I thought I had done that, but obviously not clearly enough. I will ask officials to look specifically at whether we should take one of those seats and at the timing of commitments. There is no point deciding late in the day that we do want to commit and that we would have liked a seat. There is a certain amount of timeliness. I sense that certain hon. Members are moving at the pace of the US, which I think will be slightly slower. However, I am more than happy to receive submissions on that and to pass them on to the Minister for the Middle East. I am happy to make that commitment, and I apologise that I was not clearer in terms of a commitment to see whether that would be advantageous and to do that at the right time.
To rebuild trust, we must see an end to detrimental actions on the ground. We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions that are likely to undermine the viability of a two-state solution. That includes terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion, the demolition of Palestinian property in the occupied Palestinian territories, including in East Jerusalem. The eviction of Palestinians from their homes causes unnecessary suffering and in all but the most exceptional cases is wholly contrary to international humanitarian law.
We are also concerned about further settlement advancements. Settlements are illegal under international law and damaging to peace efforts. The UK regularly urges the Government of Israel to end this counterproductive policy, most recently in an international statement alongside other international partners on 13 October.
However, we are also clear that Israel is a close friend, and it has many close friends in this Chamber, who reach out as part of friendship groups. The people of Israel deserve to live free from the scourge of terrorism and free from antisemitic incitement, all of which gravely undermines the prospects of a two-state solution, which is in everyone’s interest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet talked about prisoner payments, and we have raised that at the highest levels with the Palestinian Authority. With that, I will resume my seat.
I thank the Minister for that response. This debate is incredibly important and gives me great hope. The power of the possibility that this international fund holds is in the fact that it is not a party political issue. All parties have spoken in favour of working together for our shared ambition to build peace where currently that is a big challenge.
People-to-people work is not a fluffy afterthought. The civil society dimension of peacebuilding is about very practical politics. It is about how to garner public support for any future agreement and ensure that that agreement—the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was very powerful in this respect—can weather the challenges that it will inevitably face in the medium to long term.. Peacebuilding is essential for peacemaking. Nobody believes that co-existence by itself is going to create that lasting peace settlement, but it is absolutely necessary to ensure that it will last. It is up to politicians and Governments to have the will to make difficult compromises and reach an agreement. Ultimately, it is the people who will sustain that peace, who will benefit and who will reap the rewards of peace, security and co-existence.
I look forward to the Minister conveying the specific asks that have been made: that we put ourselves forward for a seat on the international fund that the US is leading, that we look at how we can contribute to it and be pioneers in leading this effort, and that we do so without delay.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK support for an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.