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Palestine: Road Map to Peace

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

[Relevant documents: e-petition 585314, Introduce sanctions against Israel, e-petition 585313, UK Government to formally recognise the State of Palestine, e-petition 300450, Call for the UK Government to formally recognise the State of Palestine, and e-petition 585309, Condemn Israel for their treatment of Palestine and Palestinians.]

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming onto the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of a roadmap to peace in Palestine.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine remains one of the greatest foreign policy challenges faced by the UK and the international community. The conflict has been costly in terms of human life, as well as for the stability and security of the region. It is therefore clear that a road map for peace is desperately needed. The necessary steps have never been clearer, but there remain significant obstacles to the peace process that I will spend some time outlining.

The most recent round of violence between Israel and Palestine cost countless lives. The attack on Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli authorities sparked a wave of violence that culminated with renewed bombing in Gaza. This violence has emerged as a result of the ongoing injustices faced by Palestinian people, injustices which continue to make peace in the region impossible. For months, Palestinian families have been illegally evicted from their homes and businesses in several historically Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem. Those evictions are being driven by illegal state-backed settler organisations whose sole aim is to displace all Palestinians from their rightful home in east Jerusalem.

This process goes hand in hand with the growth and consolidation of illegal Israeli settlements on the west bank and Golan Heights and the land that was stolen from Palestinian families. If we are serious about achieving a lasting and just peace between Palestine and Israel, it is abundantly clear that the injustices, such as the evictions in east Jerusalem, must be stopped and all land stolen from the Palestinian people must be returned to them.

The UK Government can certainly play a positive and leading role in working out a road map to peace in Palestine. First, our trade relationships with Israel mean that we can make use of sanctions to exert leverage over the Israeli Government to ensure that the human and civil rights of Palestinians are respected and that all illegally seized land is returned.

It is unfortunate to have to resort to sanctions, but it is clear from the ongoing violence and evictions that imposing sanctions is the start of the process to bring about change in the region. That is why I am pleased to see the Israeli Arms Trade (Prohibition) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), which would end all arms trade between the UK and Israel until a meaningful solution to the conflict has been found.

Furthermore, I believe it is time for the UK to follow many other countries around the world in finally recognising the state of Palestine. Many like to speak about the two-state solution to the conflict, but how can we commit to that if we do not even recognise Palestine as a rightful state? Moreover, how can peace be achieved if Israel refuses to recognise the state of Palestine? It is a prerequisite to peace that the statehood of Palestine be recognised and respected. The two-state solution has never been so imperilled as it is today. Recognition of the state of Palestine is not only the right thing to do, but perhaps a means of salvaging what is left of the two-state solution.

When speaking of a road map to peace in Palestine, we must consider what we can do to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and ensure that diplomacy and dialogue can defeat the drive towards more violence. A meaningful peace process between Israel and Palestine can occur only when the two meet as equal partners, which in turn can occur only when the rights of Palestinians are upheld and respected, when illegally occupied lands are returned and when the sovereignty of Palestinian people is recognised. I believe that once these conditions are met and the rights of the Palestinian people are firmly respected, we will see strides towards peace in the region. I still believe we can see peace between Palestine and Israel within my lifetime, but in order to see this hope fulfilled we must be willing to take strong and decisive action now.

I remember that in 2003 when the first road map to peace was introduced, there were some 50,000 settlers occupying the west bank. Eighteen years on, there are now close to half a million. What was a possible route to peace seems to have been lost greatly by the vast numbers taking land in the west bank. Does my hon. Friend not feel that the situation is far worse now than it was when the road map was first talked about, and is it not the case that we have seen Israeli Prime Ministers since who are not interested in the two-state solution, but instead in a one-state solution, and that is Israel?

I agree with the comments my hon. Friend makes on the two-state solution. As I have said, it is possible that a two-state solution can be a means of progress if Palestine is recognised as a state. Without that recognition, the peace process is going nowhere.

When we speak of a road map to peace in Palestine, we can no longer repeat the failed mantras. I believe that progress can be made, but only if the peace process is recentred around the human rights of Palestinian people rather than simply on territorial or security considerations. A human rights-based approach to brokering peace between Palestine and Israel would focus on securing civil and political rights for the Palestinian people, and would place justice at the very heart of the peace process. That, of course, would mean recognition from both sides of the conflict of the centrality of the principles enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

The peace process must centre around equality, non-discrimination, participation, and accountability and the rule of law. That would be a clear set of criteria by which the peace process could be monitored by both Israel and Palestine, and would establish a universally held basis for a solution to the crisis. Instead of focusing on security and stability, the international community should be seeking strategies that instead focus on human lives and the rights and wellbeing of individuals and families. That means drawing into the peace process groups from civil society that are often excluded from negotiations. That means including charities, non-governmental organisations, women’s organisations and other groups in the peace process, from both sides. With that approach, the traditional actors—Governments and political parties, with the hostilities between them—can be meaningfully held in check by the interests and concerns of Israeli and Palestinian civil society.

That humanitarian approach, however, is clearly not being adopted by Israel, Palestine or the international community as a whole. It is a step that needs to be taken, and it is one that the UK could be the first to take towards bringing about a peaceful resolution for Palestine and Israel. Only if Israel recognises the humanitarian injustices being committed against Palestinians can new steps be taken towards peace.

I will call the SNP spokesperson to speak at 5.08 pm, so I have to put a time limit of about two and a half minutes on those who want to speak. I call Jim Shannon.

Thank you, Ms Rees. I did not expect to be called first, but I appreciate the opportunity. Indeed, I am astounded.

This matter is close to my heart. I seek to be a tool for the building of bridges between two nations, not tearing them down. My opinions may be clearly different from those of others, but I respect everyone’s opinion and hope that they will respect mine. I will not claim any superiority of knowledge or compassion over any other Member of this House, but I represent a part of our United Kingdom that has known the harsh reality of conflict. With some experience, I can say that we cannot deliver peace or a road map to peace by ignoring the history of appeasing aggressors or by repeating meaningless phrases.

History records the facts. In May 1948, Israel was attacked by multiple Arab armies. In ’67, it was forced to defend itself when Arab armies again gathered on its borders to attack. In 1973, it was attacked on Yom Kippur. In between those events and since 1973, Israel has been at the centre of more acts of terror than any other nation in the world. As a young boy, I remember watching the news about the six-day war, wondering how that tiny nation was defending itself against all the odds. The images of women and children on the streets, defending themselves and their neighbours, is imprinted on my mind.

I do not support early-day motion 300, calling on the UK not to sell arms to the most threatened state on the planet. The incongruity of it is that Israel sells more military technology to us than we sell to them. Similarly, in America the Democratic party wants to stop military aid to Israel that funds the Iron Dome, a defence system that saves lives. Can you believe that, Ms Rees? Some of my fellow parliamentarians—in advance of what they will say, but based on what they have said in the past—want to strip the world’s only Jewish state of the means to defend itself. For the life of me, I cannot understand that.

I have always been taught to focus on the ties that bind, rather than the things that divide. I believe that everyone in the House can subscribe to these. First, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority must accept and respect Israel’s right to exist; there is no other starting point. Secondly, all armed terror groups must lay down their weapons. Thirdly, peace talks without preconditions on either side must be opened to reach a full and final peace settlement between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.

In the 25 seconds I have left, I conclude with this comment: when Israel led the vaccine roll-out, it was notable that that roll-out rightly included people from every faith and political persuasion. The greater good was put above all else. That has to be reciprocated and the greater good of peace and change must be put above personal belief and political aspiration. That is what I am calling for from Members present today—in advance of what they say. That is what I believe, and I hope that someone else who is present to speak believes the same.

In my constituency, the Palestinian flag is flown proudly by people for whom a viable internationally recognised state of Palestine is a life-long dream. I want that dream to be turned into reality, but I am under no illusion about how distant it feels and how difficult the path to achieving it is.

The illegal occupation continues, and the dignity and human rights of the Palestinian people are trampled on each and every day. If we have learnt anything from the long and delicate road to peace in Northern Ireland, it is that progress is impossible without first establishing a sufficient degree of trust for genuine dialogue to take place. Long-standing and apparently irreconcilable differences can be unpicked, but only if the will to do so is there from all parties.

There are clearly people of good will and good sense in both Israel and Palestine who recognise that, and their voices must be heard as we work towards a two-state solution of an independent internationally recognised Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel. When it comes to political leadership, however, sadly that good sense does not always prevail. As long as leaders see political advantage in their own communities from exacerbating differences rather than seeking areas of agreement and common ground, the road to peace will remain blocked.

It breaks my heart that the rights of ordinary Palestinian men, women and children are being denied, and their hopes of a better future are being crushed. With no voice of their own, they rely on human rights defenders to speak up for them, which is why the Israeli Government’s attack on six leading civil society organisations must be unequivocally condemned.

Cases of covid-19 are rising in Gaza and the health system is almost broken. The people of Gaza deserve much better. Does my hon. Friend agree that Israel must stop the blockade now so that the health authorities can get in there and people can get vaccinations and proper healthcare?

I agree entirely that we have to end the blockade of Gaza. It is every individual’s right to healthcare, particularly during the pandemic.

We have a decision to make. Will we condemn another generation of Palestinians to a future full of fear, insecurity and hopelessness? Or will we stand shoulder to shoulder with those demanding the democratic space to criticise the status quo and defend the human rights of a people who deserve better than continued oppression and suffering because political leaders lack the courage to recognise that a better future is possible?

I will do my best to set out the case in two and a half minutes. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for initiating the debate.

The principal point must be that Britain should give unconditional full recognition to the state of Palestine. It was in the Labour party manifesto and it is something that I believe strongly in. Most countries around the world have no problem with that and have recognised the state of Palestine, as does the United Nations—it is generally accepted. We should do exactly the same, so that we are seen as honest brokers and proper participants in the whole process.

The occupation of the west bank by Israel has gone on since 1967. Let us try to imagine what it is like to live under occupation. Everywhere someone goes there is a checkpoint, an occupying force or a soldier who will stop them. A law that they have not voted for, and that does not have their consent, can be used against them. Many people are in prison for many years and are abominably treated there.

Similarly, the siege of Gaza goes on. I have had the good fortune to visit Israel, the west bank and Gaza on many occasions. I am always struck by the number of people in Gaza who suffer from profound mental health conditions because of the siege that they are under and the inability to travel or work. It is the most educated population in the world with the highest number of graduates of any country bar none, yet unemployment is between 60% and 70%. In fact, there is no real functioning economy in Gaza. That is another major factor, which has to end.

Some 600,000 people live in settlements. They are industrial and trading complexes and they have taken land and water away from Palestinian farmers. There are settler-only roads, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu recognised was like apartheid where people could not travel on certain roads. They are a breach of international law.

Many people in Palestine, in Israel and around the world are desperate in their search for peace. What I have noticed on the many Zoom calls I have had in the past two years is the unity of people all over the world demanding justice for the people of Palestine. That must be the basis for peace for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali)—in fact, my own MP—for bringing forward this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, the idea of a free state of Palestine—the desire of my constituents and hers, and I am sure all of ours—seems so far away, so I wanted to focus on the things that we can do and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and others have mentioned, how we in Britain should facilitate the development and support of civil society in the region.

My constituents, like many others, have been writing regarding Israel’s decision to criminalise six Palestinian human rights and civil society organisations and label them terrorists. When I was last in Palestine, I met Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch, who was constantly facing deportation, the suggestion being that he had something other than peace and the people of Palestine at his heart, which was completely unfair, as it is unfair today. The accusation is that these are terrorist organisations, despite a 74-page dossier prepared by the Israeli security services providing little concrete evidence of links between Palestinian human rights groups and designated terrorist groups. These organisations include the most well-established Palestinian human rights groups that work in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They provide healthcare to the most vulnerable communities, they organise legal support for those detained and they collect evidence of human rights violations—which I suspect is where the problem is.

The work that these organisations undertake is integral to supporting the most vulnerable and to understanding the reality on the ground for Palestinian people. As others have mentioned, what we have seen in other conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland, is that without strong, stable, supported civil society, a pathway and a plan to peace can never be realised on the ground, let alone around the world in fancy buildings such as this one. I ask the Government to seek to support capacity building of Palestinian civil society.

These debates on the middle east peace process used to be rather groundhog day-like events, where we recorded no progress or the Government having done nothing but repeat the same phrases over and over again. I look back on those times with nostalgia, because now we simply seem to be going backwards. After the appalling chaos of the Trump Administration, we should be getting back on track and supporting a two-state solution, the rule of law and human rights in the Palestinian territories. In the very short time I have, I want to ask the Minister to respond on the subject of the most egregious barriers to the peace process.

The first is recognition, which this House overwhelmingly voted for seven years ago. That should be a precondition —an attempt to negotiate on equal terms. The second is the establishment of new settlements. There are 13,000 about to be approved, and it is not just what is being approved; it is where. These are strategically placed to cut off East Jerusalem from Ramallah, or they are being built 20 km inside the west bank to ensure that a two-state solution becomes impossible.

What are the Government saying on settler violence, which is now endemic? There were 450 recorded attacks since early 2020—that is from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation. Those attacks are specifically designed to terrorise Palestinian farmers or force them off their land. Why are we trading with illegal settlements? We are not talking about boycotts here; we are talking about settlements that are illegal under international law, but which the Government will do nothing to prevent British companies profiting from.

What has the Government’s response been to the six non-governmental organisations—respected civil rights and human rights organisations—being banned by the Israeli Government? What are they doing about the all-time highs in evictions and demolitions? They could start with the finding last week against JCB, in which it was found that that major British company had not shown human rights due diligence in ensuring that its equipment was not being used to demolish Palestinian homes.

These are the questions that the Government have to answer, and not just as a precursor to re-establishing a peace process; if they do not, they are abdicating responsibility, there is no hope for peace going forward, and they are effectively colluding with what the Israeli Government are doing.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for calling this really important debate.

Next month will mark two years since I was elected to this place. In those two short years, I have been contacted by so many Vauxhall constituents who are concerned about the reality that many Israelis and Palestinians face. The fact is that none of us can fail to be appalled by the situation in Palestine: the continued blockade in Gaza, the deconstruction of homes, the eviction of Palestinian families, the construction of illegal settlements and the cruel treatment of children in detention. That should shame us. Those incidents are not just inhumane, but huge barriers to peace.

Peace in Palestine will never be found with the discrimination against and suppression of many people in the area. The actions will simply lead to resentment and the continuation of the toxic atmosphere that has allowed the current situation to exist for far too long. We all want to see peace in Palestine.

I appreciate that we are very short of time, so I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that unless we recognise Palestine as a state, we cannot make that route map towards peace?

I thank my colleague for that really important point. Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to exist, and they can do so in a safe space. However, to do that, our Government and Governments across the world need to work tirelessly to facilitate the de-escalation of the conflict.

I have one simple question for the Minister. Will the Government commit to working with both Israeli and Palestinian groups to amplify the voice of the good faith actors who are working so hard on the ground to bring about this peace? We need to advance the two-state solution and bring peace for everyone in the region, not continue having debates in this Chamber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali)—my neighbour—on securing the debate. I am the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, so I will be a lone voice here. Let me be straightforward. The debate sounds less like seeking conditions that might help create peace, and more like setting conditions as a prerequisite for peace. That is what is wrong with it.

We are told we must recognise Palestine, but what Palestine? Is it the bit controlled by the Palestinian Authority, or the bit under military occupation by Hamas? What kind of state would we be recognising, given its current condition? Why is it impossible, in a debate like this, to recognise that there is a new coalition Government in Israel? Why is it impossible to look at the arguments about the “economy for security” plan that was announced recently? Why are the Abraham accords automatically dismissed?

I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and others said about co-existence, and I agree. I hope that means that they are also supporting the Alliance for Middle East Peace plan for an international peace fund to bring those opposing people together, as we did successfully in Northern Ireland. I hope we will be united in saying to the Government that Britain should seek to take up one of the places on the international body supervising that fund.

I hear people talk about recognition and sanctions; what I want to know is, when people are chanting, “From the river to the sea”, what do they think that actually means? We all know that it actually means the dismemberment of Israel—Israel not having a right to exist. No one can back that and a two-state solution simultaneously.

I genuinely want a two-state solution. I genuinely want peace. However, I also want recognition that the state of play is that Hamas is supported and financed by the Iranian revolutionary guard, and that its objective is the destruction of the state of Israel. We have to bear that in mind.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) on securing the debate, but I must say, very sadly, that the prospect of peace in Palestine looks more distant than ever. With each illegal home the Israelis construct, the dream of a viable Palestinian state is dealt another blow. The Palestinian people are subjected to yet more intolerable brutality and oppression, with Israeli forces giving settlers licence to attack Palestinian civilians.

The human rights group B’Tselem has documented a staggering 451 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians since early 2020, and Israeli forces failed to intervene to stop the attacks in two thirds of cases. The organisation has also recorded how settlers have been used as a tool of the state to expropriate 11 square miles of Palestinian farm and pasture land in the west bank over the past five years alone.

There is no other way to look at this than as a state-sanctioned project of colonisation and ethnic cleansing. A Human Rights Watch report published in April this year concluded that

“the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the OPT”—

that is, the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The report goes on:

“In the OPT, including East Jerusalem, that intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”

The crime of apartheid cannot be allowed to stand, but thanks to the international community offering little more than hollow words of condemnation, the Israeli authorities wilfully continue to break the law, safe in the knowledge that they will not face the repercussion of proper sanctions.

If the Government will not provide moral and substantial leadership on this issue, it will be up to civil society to do so, through the boycott of, and divestment from, companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights. The Government need to lead the international community in providing more than mere denunciations. We need actions and sanctions, and we need them now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), on bringing forward the debate. For almost 30 years, we have been discussing, and there has been international consensus on, the prospect of a two-state solution. Most people in this Parliament, and most nations across the world, would endorse that approach. It is the approach that my party fully supports. However, we recognise that we have to consider that policy objective against the reality of what is happening on the ground. We cannot turn our eyes away and pretend that one of those states has not been engaged, ever since the Oslo accords, in systematically destroying the building blocks on which the other state will emerge and develop.

First, and most obviously, the Israeli state is occupying the lands designated to become the Palestinian state. Not only is it militarily occupying them, but it has no policy objective to ever end that occupation. Secondly, as has been referred to, the programme of settler colonisation has seen more than 600,000 people move into the militarily occupied areas, which has led to the displacement of the Palestinian populations that were there. The infrastructure that comes with that results in the de facto annexation of the territory, even if it is not legally claimed. Thirdly, there is the question of Jerusalem, as has been indicated. There is what can only be called the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities to remove them from the east of In East Jerusalem. That has been given a veneer of legitimacy and respectability by Israel’s law, although that law would not pass any international test of fairness.

Finally, the Israeli Government are, as a matter of policy, systematically trying to reduce and deny the capacity of Palestinian society to represent itself politically. That is why the recent criminalisation of six non-violent civil organisations is of so much concern. The extension of that criminalisation, by military law, to the occupied territories may well result in arrests and offices closing. All of that denies Palestinian people the ability to organise and be represented. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), that all of that creates conditions in which young Palestinians have so much despair and so little hope that they are attracted to the ideas put forward by Hamas and others.

We need to try to do something about this. I expect that the Minister will say that the Government also believe in the two-state solution. If somebody says that they believe in a two-state solution in the middle east, and yet they do nothing—make no comment, take no action—about the things that are happening to actively undermine that objective, they are being insincere and not serious.

Our Government have to be seen to be taking action to make sure that the conditions are brought about in which a two-state solution could become a reality once again. First, they need to fully implement UN resolution 2334, and make a distinction between Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, given the settlement economy that is going on there. The Government should take serious economic action to end economic trade with settlements in the occupied areas that sustain the occupation.

Secondly, as has been said, we should recognise the state of Palestine. Why not? If we believe that it should exist, we should recognise it, and try to help it and develop it, so that it becomes a proper state. Our not doing that puts the Palestinians always at a disadvantage.

Finally, it is time to understand that Israel, as a matter of Government policy, has been conducting its activities with impunity for many years in breach of international law. Its military action is in breach of the Geneva convention, and it has been undertaken with no sanction and no impediment. That must stop. We might wish to be good friends with the state of Israel, but we need to say to its Government, “You cannot continue with these policies. If you do, there will be consequences. This country will not stand by and idly watch this happen.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), on securing this important debate.

I begin by reminding people that this debate has been about a road map to peace in Palestine. Over the past two decades, there have been a number of attempted road maps to peace between Palestine and Israel, but sadly, as we know only too well, none of them has brought about peace. We have in recent years seen initiatives by President Obama, supported by President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan; by President Abbas of Palestine; and by John Kerry. We even saw an initiative by President Trump, though it hardly merits that description, because it was rightly thrown in the dustbin by most responsible parties. I mention those points because they serve to underline that peace between Israel and Palestine cannot be a quick fix. It has to be thought out, well planned and based on certain principles, and the agreement must be acceptable to all parties concerned. That is the essence of achieving a peace settlement.

I am absolutely clear that there must be a negotiated peace. There are some who seek to destroy the state of Israel, and some who wish to deny any kind of statehood to the Palestinian people. Those who hold such views are profoundly wrong. Our aim should be the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel that can live in peace. I very much agree that there must be an emphasis on human rights. Now, in future negotiations and when the two-state solution becomes a reality, human rights should be at the top of the agenda.

I condemn the labelling of the six non-governmental organisations in Palestine as terrorist organisations by the Defence Minister of Israel, and I ask the Government to respond to that point, rather than take the holding position of, “We’ll see what the evidence is.” Others who have been told by the Israeli Government that there is evidence are yet to see it, and there is no evidence at all, I suspect, to justify that designation, so I ask for a firm Government response on that. It has been a number of weeks since the designation was made.

A two-state solution must therefore be the goal on which we continuously focus.

My hon. Friend says that our goal must be a two-state solution, and he mentioned the contributions of previous US Presidents in trying to broker a solution. He will be aware that the Biden Administration have voiced opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion plans, saying that they will damage the prospects for a two-state solution. Our Government can play a role. However, does he not think that the Biden Administration—the US Administration is the Government to which the Israelis probably listen the most—should play a major role in pursuing that and putting pressure on the Israelis to make it impossible for them to rule out the two-state solution through de facto developments on the ground?

I very much agree with all the points that my hon. Friend made, and I will touch upon each one in just a few moments.

Britain and the international community have to focus on a number of principles and key positions, so that we lay the groundwork for an eventual peace. Those must include, first, an adherence to the rule of international law—not ifs, no buts. There must be an adherence to international law by all parties, including the Palestinians, and including the state of Israel. Moreover, the forced evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and other communities in east Jerusalem and the west bank must stop. The ever-growing number of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are clearly illegal under international law, and the displacement of Palestinians from land that they have held for generations is clearly wrong. That is one principle—what follows from international law.

The second principle is that the city of Jerusalem must be shared by Israelis and Palestinians. The annexation of east Jerusalem by Israel cannot be accepted. Those two principles are the cornerstones on which any future negotiation has to be based. However, before we get to any meaningful negotiations, we have to press for a number of things.

That is a fairly balanced point of view. However, Israel is surrounded by enemies; there are rocket attacks and terrorist attacks on a regular basis. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the protection of Israel’s own people needs to be ensured before anything can happen?

Absolutely. I am a strong supporter of the state of Israel, as I am of a future state of Palestine. The state of Israel has a right to protect itself against Hamas, or anybody else for that matter, as any other state has according to international law. That is why international law is so important; it must apply to everyone in all circumstances.

The time is right for the state of Palestine to be recognised. Parliament itself has voted in principle in favour of recognising the state of Palestine, but it has not indicated a timescale, and the Government have paid, dare I say it, lip service to this principle. We now need to firm things up, and ensure that there is a recognition of the state of Palestine, which will give an impetus to the move towards meaningful negotiations.

We also need to press firmly for elections to be held in Palestine, so that those who are elected have a clear mandate to negotiate on behalf of their people. There is nothing like democracy, and nothing gives a mandate for negotiation as effectively as democracy. That is why the Palestinians need to have elections. The broadly based Israeli Government should do everything that they can to de-escalate tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the new Government must place an embargo on all future settlements on the west bank.

It has to be said that the United States needs to be encouraged to be more proactive in the region, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick). The United States needs to work with allies in the region and build on the new relationships that are being established through the Abraham accords. I know that some Members have reservations about the Abraham accords, but they nevertheless exist, and we must use them as an opportunity to encourage the United Arab Emirates and others to raise the issue of Palestine directly with the Israelis. This is a new opportunity, and we must take every advantage of it. It might be an important avenue to explore with the UAE, because the country will be on the United Nations Security Council for two years, starting from this January.

Of course, our Government can do a heck of a lot more than they are currently doing. I was interested to read that the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa spoke at a conference this morning and issued a tweet in which he said it is important that we support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He said:

“Important we support UNRWA to deliver on its mandate until there is an agreed solution.”

That is all well and good, but I respectfully remind the Government that they have, quite disgracefully, just reduced their funding to UNRWA. I have the figures to prove it. The British Government gave $64.1 million to UNRWA in 2020—a reduction from $76.2 million in 2019—and the projection for 2021 is $39.1 million. The Government can say what they like about supporting UNRWA and the peace process, and about ensuring that the infrastructure is in place and that the groundwork is done for successful negotiations, but they are actually undermining it through their ham-fisted policies. I respectfully ask the Government to reconsider whether those cuts are morally justified and make any kind of sense whatsoever.

It is important for our Government to recognise that the peace process is a process. It will not happen overnight, and nor will it happen over weeks or months. It will happen over years, and it is absolutely essential that the groundwork is done to ensure that there is rapprochement between people on the ground. We have to learn lessons from the situation in Northern Ireland. Great progress was made in Northern Ireland, and not just because politicians came together, talked to one another and made compromises, which are essential in any negotiations. There was also investment in the means to bring people together, so that the old enmities of the past were put to one side, or at least minimised.

We have to do a something similar with regards to Israel and Palestine. That is why I think it is extremely important that the Government give their full-hearted support to the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I know the Government say they support it, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green said, the Government have the opportunity to give their full-hearted support and to take up one of the seats on the board. They can support the initiative that has come from America to ensure that the essential groundwork is done, so that the Israeli people and the Palestinian people learn to come closer together. It is only when that happens that we can have a basis for a genuinely sustainable and fair peace, which is what we all want.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for securing this important debate. This is an issue of great interest to the House, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lay out more comprehensively the UK’s current approach.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa would have liked to take part in this debate, but he is currently—right now—representing the UK at the ad hoc liaison committee in Oslo, where he is meeting the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation, as well the Egyptian and Jordanian Foreign Ministers. It is good that dialogue is taking place. My right hon. Friend’s meetings will focus on tangible ways to develop the Palestinian economy, improving prospects for Palestinians and stability in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

The UK’s position on the middle east peace process is long standing and well known. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. We firmly believe that a just and lasting resolution that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians is long overdue. We also believe that the best way to make progress towards such a resolution is through bilateral negotiations that take account of the legitimate concerns of both sides.

We remain in close consultation with international partners to encourage a regional approach to peace. We are working through multilateral institutions, including the UN, to support resolutions and policies that encourage both sides to take steps that rebuild trust, which will be crucial if dialogue is to succeed. To that end, we welcome recent engagements between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership. We urge further direct engagement and call on both parties to work together to tackle immediate and long-term threats to peace and stability. We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions that undermine the viability of a two-state solution, including acts of terrorism, antisemitic incitement, settlement expansion, and the demolition of Palestinian property on the west bank, including East Jerusalem.

A number of Members asked about civil society organisations. We are in contact with the Government of Israel to understand the basis of the designations of six civil society organisations. We have made it clear that human rights and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in the development of thriving and open societies.

We have only a short time, and this is the first time that the UK Government have been able to lay out our position on this specific issue in detail since the last change in Government in Israel. I believe there have been debates on specific issues, but this is the first more general debate, and I would like to put on the record the UK Government position.

The UK remains resolute in its commitment to Israel’s security. We condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks, and Israel does have a legitimate right to self-defence, but in exercising that right, it is vital that all actions are proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is due to visit Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the coming months and is eager to discuss these important issues with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) asked about the UK’s views on trading with the settlements. The UK does not recognise the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including Israeli settlements, as part of Israel, so, for example, goods imported from the settlements are not permitted to benefit from trade preferences under the UK-Israel trade and partnership agreement.

A number of Members mentioned the humanitarian situation. The underlying causes of humanitarian crisis and economic decline in the Occupied Palestinian Territories must be addressed to improve the lives of Palestinians throughout the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution.

The UK remains a key development actor in the region. Our economic development programme aims to lift the overall standard of living for Palestinians, to increase trade and job creation, to enable greater movement and access for people and goods, and to enhance the supply of electricity and clean water. However, we remain concerned about the ongoing humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which was further exacerbated by the recent conflict and damage to civilian infrastructure. The UK will continue to work to address immediate humanitarian needs in Gaza, and to work towards a longer-term solution for recovery and reconstruction.

The Opposition spokesman asked about our commitment to UNRWA. Our contribution to UNRWA is helping to provide basic education, access to health services for Palestinian refugees and social safety net assistance—

I also point out to the Opposition spokesman that the UK contributed £3.5 million to the emergency appeal in May to meet the immediate needs of Palestinians in Gaza who were affected by the conflict at that time. And I also want to point out to him that, as the Chancellor set out in the Budget just last month, we are committed to returning to spending 0.7% on overseas aid as soon as the fiscal situation allows.

The Chancellor set that out, in detail, in the Budget last month, and took everyone through the protections. [Interruption.] It is on the record from the Chancellor in his Budget speech.

We also urge access into and out of Gaza, in accordance with international humanitarian law, for humanitarian actors, reconstruction materials and those, including Palestinians, travelling for medical purposes. We remain in close contact with UN agencies and key partners on the ground in order to assess the situation, and we will monitor that situation closely.

The Minister is so generous. Can I return her to the point that she originally made about the designation by the Israelis of six non-governmental organisations? It has to be said that they are highly respected organisations. She said that she was waiting for more information. How long will she wait before she makes a decision about whether or not the designation is correct?

With due respect, I think that really the most important thing is that right now—today—Israel and Palestine are talking, and talking about their future and moving towards peace. We believe, and we make it very clear to Israel, that human rights and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in developing thriving and open societies, and we support them. However, it is important that we continue to make it clear that a strong and vibrant civil society is in Israel’s own interest. We are concerned, and we have made that concern clear, about any developments that would undermine that commitment to being an open society. Israel is a fellow democracy, it has had a long-standing commitment to democracy and we make it clear that civil society has a vital role to play in open democracy.

To conclude, this occupation will not end and peace will not be achieved by symbolic measures. Peace will only be achieved by real movement towards renewed dialogue between the parties that leads to a viable Palestinian state living in peace and security, side by side with Israel—

On a point of order, Ms Rees. I find it quite remarkable that, given how much time was left, the Minister was first reluctant to give way to our Front-Bench spokesman, which is very discourteous, and in fact wanted to talk the debate out before I could make an intervention. She had already finished her speech earlier.

With respect, I had not finished my speech, and it is important that the Government make their point. I have accepted interventions and I would have liked to give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, who secured this debate, a minute in which to respond.

The most important message that I want to give is that we urge all parties to continue this dialogue, because that is the pathway to peace and the two countries—the two parties—being able to live side by side.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of a roadmap to peace in Palestine.

Sitting adjourned.