[Relevant document: e-petition 585309, Condemn Israel for their treatment of Palestine and Palestinians]
We have 14 speakers for this debate. It is a Back-Bench debate, which is why we try to limit the Front-Bench contributions. It is normally six minutes for the SNP, eight minutes for the Opposition and eight minutes for the Minister. I believe the opening speech will last about 15 minutes, so all other contributions will have to be about seven minutes. I would prefer not to put a time limit on speeches. I think that will give everybody an equal opportunity to get in, because it is a very well subscribed debate. That is why I was hurrying things along in the previous debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of human rights protections for Palestinians.
Since the start of this year, the security situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has deteriorated rapidly. Israelis have been killed outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem. During Ramadan, Palestinians have been beaten by police while worshipping in al-Aqsa mosque. Car-ramming attacks have claimed the lives of Israeli citizens and visiting tourists. Extensive military raids have caused the deaths of numerous Palestinians and injured many more. This unnecessary loss of innocent life is of deep and grave concern, and I want to begin this debate by paying my respects to all the victims who have been killed. In particular, I am sure all of us here today will want to send our sincerest condolences to the family of British-Israeli sisters Maia and Rina Dee and their mother Lucy, who were murdered in a horrific attack in Tel Aviv earlier this month.
Extremist ideology, rhetoric and violence carried out by any party to the conflict is never acceptable and cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Silence is complicity. It is not until we visit the region, bear witness and listen to the testimonies of people on all sides that we really learn the depth and scale of the horrors of what life is like for the people who live there. Last October, I made my first visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the International Development Committee and heard at first hand stories that are the stuff of nightmares. Things that we take for granted such as freedom of speech and freedom of movement—basic human rights that we would wish for all peoples—either do not exist for many or are under constant threat.
I am a strong believer in a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. It should go without saying that the state of Israel has the right to exist and prosper and should be our friend and ally. However, for the two-state solution to be realistic, the state of Palestine must also be recognised. Similarly, the actions of the Israeli Government, which undermine the feasibility of that peace process and seek to deny the rights, identity and legitimacy of the Palestinian people, must be called out.
While the shocking images of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that we see in newspapers, on television and online often prompt statements of condemnation and renewed calls for peace, these are not isolated incidents that we can simply push aside with sympathetic platitudes and move on from. In order to achieve a sustainable peace, we cannot ignore the fact that systematic discrimination and human rights abuses are the daily reality for all Palestinians living under occupation, 365 days of the year, and the UK Government have a significant role to play in ensuring that this is brought to an end.
During Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions last month, the Foreign Secretary told the House:
“The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Israel, which allows us to raise issues where we disagree.”
He went on to say:
“We seek to protect the viability of a sustainable two-state solution. We raised with the Israeli Government our concerns about activities that might put that future at risk.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 672-673.]
In the face of ever increasing human rights violations at the hands of the Israeli authorities, when will simply “raising issues” with our Israeli counterparts no longer be enough?
I know that other Members will want to examine many of the points I am about to make in more detail in their speeches, but we must open this debate by acknowledging how the Israeli Government discriminate against and violate the human rights of Palestinians on a regular basis. As I have said, unlawful killing and the excessive use of force, illegal under international law, are commonplace within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, despite the Israeli military having an international legal obligation to protect the Palestinian population under its control.
The use of lethal force has escalated, with the UN reporting that last year was one of the deadliest years for Palestinians. At least 151 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the west bank—the highest in 18 years. Tragically, that pattern is seemingly spreading into this year as well. Already, nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed in the west bank, including, shockingly, 17 children. That is more than three times as many as in the same period last year.
In many instances, it is not only the military and police that are responsible for these fatalities but settler violence, aided and abetted by Israeli authorities. This state-sanctioned impunity has been aptly highlighted in Huwara in recent weeks, where Israeli settlers have set Palestinian property and possessions on fire with no intervention. Sakir, a 22-year-old mechanic from Huwara, said:
“We have never seen anything like this. The settlers have nothing to be afraid of anymore; they know they can do whatever they like.”
In February, a 27-year-old Palestinian was shot in the head and killed by a settler. Despite all this, Israeli human rights group Yesh Din collated data from 2005 to 2022 that demonstrates, shockingly, that 93% of all investigations into ideologically motivated crime committed by Israeli settlers in the west bank are closed without an indictment.
To go back to the role of the UK Government, the FCDO often talks of its strong relationship with its counterparts in Israel and its ability to raise human rights concerns, so my first question is this: does the Minister accept that, with ever increasing provocations and bloodshed, more needs to be done? It is a simple question. The UK Government must move beyond hollow promises to raise concerns, as the situation on the ground is too critical and serious to be cryptic and dismissive of the facts. Once again, silence is complicity.
The process of settlement expansion, forced evictions, demolitions and dispossessions is further evidence of systematic aggression designed to force Palestinians from their land and deny them their rights. Despite regularly pledging to pause settlement expansion, 7,000 settlement homes in 35 settlements are set to be approved by Israel—the largest number of settlement homes ever agreed in a single planning meeting. At the same time, in Masafer Yatta in the south Hebron hills, over 1,000 Palestinians face losing their homes—the largest eviction of Palestinians since the 1970s. What a stark and blindingly obvious contrast. Similarly, in East Jerusalem, demolition of Palestinian homes has escalated, with 30 homes being demolished since the beginning of this year.
The displacement of Palestinians and the demolition of Palestinian property is a violation of international law and can never be tolerated or ignored. The systematic forced displacement through home demolitions and building of settlements is a deliberate attempt to re-engineer the demographic make-up of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and is illegal under international law. When will the Government finally acknowledge that? What concrete steps will the UK take to hold Israel to account for its repeated and flagrant breaches of international law, including continuing settlement expansion? If illegal Israeli settlement construction does not stop, will the UK Government commit to suspending trade deal talks with Israeli counterparts until we can ensure that human rights are being safeguarded?
Many will be aware that Palestinians’ rights to freedom of movement are restricted by the Israeli authorities. In the west bank and East Jerusalem, the separation barrier, checkpoints, arbitrary closures, a complex permit system and biometric surveillance are used to control, fragment and dominate Palestinians. This June will mark the 16th year of Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza strip, which has effectively been turned into the world’s largest open air prison. The 2 million Palestinians trapped there face a permanent humanitarian crisis. It is virtually impossible for Gazans to travel to the west bank, violating their rights to work, education, family life and healthcare. For example, human rights organisation B’Tselem has uncovered that in 2022, Israeli authorities rejected more than one third of all medical exit permits requested by ill or dying Palestinians to leave the Gaza strip to seek treatment in Israel, the west bank or East Jerusalem.
The unequal and discriminatory policies pursued by the Israeli Government have led to divergent health outcomes for Israelis and Palestinians, and these are growing. The evidence is stark. For example, Israel has three times more doctors per 1,000 people than the Occupied Palestinian Territories; women are nine times more likely to die due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth in the Occupied Palestinian Territories than in Israel; and, on average, Israelis live nearly nine years longer than Palestinians, with the gap between the two increasing by almost a year in the past 20 years.
How is it for children? Four out of five Gazan children reportedly live with depression, grief and fear, and it is Palestinian children who often bear the brunt of Israeli discrimination and aggression. Even the fundamental right to education has been destroyed. Some 58 schools in the west bank, serving around 6,500 students, are currently under threat of demolition. In November, Israeli authorities carried out the demolition of a school in Masafer Yatta while children—get this, Madam Deputy Speaker—were still in the school building. Israel stands out as the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes children in military courts, with up to 700 prosecuted each year. Right now, there are 151 Palestinian children held in an Israeli prison, of whom 70% have been unlawfully transferred out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
While Israel ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991, Palestinian children living under Israeli military occupation are routinely denied their rights to life, education and adequate housing, and are denied access to healthcare, among other rights denials inherent in the decades-long Israeli military occupation, with no end in sight. Everyone in this House will agree that that is no way to treat any child, anywhere.
In all these instances, it is evident that the Israeli Government are acting with impunity and without accountability. As a result, they are emboldened and determined to continue with these policies. The nub of the issue is that this should come as no surprise to any of us, as Israeli politicians are open about their plans for the Occupied Palestinian Territories and their attitudes towards Palestinians. The evidence is staring every one of us in the face. The country now has the most far-right and extreme Government in its history. The de facto annexation of large parts of the west bank was an overarching principle in the December 2022 coalition agreements for the new Israeli Government, which stated that
“the Jewish people have an exclusive and incontestable right on the entire land of Israel. The government will advance and promote settlement in all parts of the land of Israel, in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria”.
Where are the UK Government in all of this?
Last month, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich triggered international outrage by saying that the Palestinian village of Huwara in the west bank should be “wiped out” following a rampage by Israeli settlers. He also said that the Palestinian people are “an invention” of the past century, and that there is
“no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people”.
Is this not the language of ethnic cleansing that we have heard from other states around the world? Throughout my time in this House, I have time and again called out Governments and politicians who have used this abhorrent rhetoric, whether it be Russians talking about Ukrainians, Chinese talking about Uyghurs or, indeed, Tibetans, or Azerbaijanis talking about Armenia and Armenians. Nobody can stand by and condone this disgusting, hateful language, but equally importantly, we cannot let it be put into practice. I say again: silence is complicity. Those words are reality for Palestinian people. They are entrenched in their day-to-day lives, in the policies of the Israeli Government, and in law.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have been listening to his speech with interest. Is he concerned about the human rights of Palestinians only in relation to Israel, or is he also concerned about the abuses of Palestinian human rights by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority?
That is a very valid and good question, but right now I am particularly focused on the occupied territories, which of course are under the command of Israel. That is why I am pertinently directing my points to that today.
In February 2022, Amnesty International published a report concluding for the first time that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. Under international law—just to be clear, because most of us assume apartheid was solely in South Africa—apartheid is defined as systematic discrimination and domination, and inhumane acts committed in order to maintain that system. That is set out in the international convention on the suppression and punishment of the crime of apartheid and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. This is not about politicising language: this is language that is respected in international law.
Amnesty International’s report is the result of more than four years of research and analysis, and I recommend that everyone in this room read it, as other international, Israeli and Palestinian organisations have previously drawn similar conclusions, including the respected Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Al Mezan and others. If the UK Government are serious about protecting the human rights of Palestinians, it is fundamental that the problem—the crime being committed against them—is first acknowledged, then investigated; that perpetrators are brought to justice; and that it is not allowed to continue.
I will now move to the last part of my speech, which is the most pertinent point about where the UK stands: the UK Government are actively blocking action, and that is the biggest crime at all. Why do I say this? Let us look at the UK Government’s position, which is that
“we do not recognise the terminology about apartheid. Any judgment on serious crimes under international law is a matter for judicial decision, rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 876.]
Let us follow that logic. Why is it that the UK Government have quite rightly called out war crimes being committed by Russia in Ukraine without any judicial decision, or called out in this House crimes against humanity—language that includes ethnic cleansing and, indeed, genocide—against Xinjiang by China? How can we pick and choose when we apply this logic? The UK Government must make a choice: they either unequivocally champion human rights around the world, or they turn the other way when it is not politically expedient to call out what they see.
Here is the evidence that the UK is standing in the way of courts and other bodies making such a judicial decision. First, the UK stated its strong opposition to the International Criminal Court’s Palestine investigation in 2021. How can the UK continue to oppose the investigation on the basis that it does not recognise Palestinian statehood, while at the same time allegedly respecting the independence of that court—which, incidentally, has ruled by majority that it has jurisdiction? Secondly, the UK voted against the Human Rights Council’s resolution in 2021 establishing the current independent UN commission of inquiry on the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Finally, the UK Government voted against the UN General Assembly’s resolution to request that the International Court of Justice provide an advisory opinion on the question of the legality of Israel’s occupation, and only last month, the UK and Israeli Governments signed the 2030 road map for UK-Israeli bilateral relations. The only pathetic concrete reference to Palestinian people in that document is this:
“We will cooperate in improving Palestinian livelihoods and Palestinian economic development.”
Not a mention of those suffering human rights abuses, and not a slight glimmer of hope for them.
The evidence is clear: the treatment of the Palestinian people is not primarily an economic or poverty concern, but one of systematic discrimination, erosion of human rights, and denial of identity and legitimacy. Therefore, under no circumstances can the UK Government continue to bury their head in the sand on this issue. As I have said throughout, silence is complicity.
For me—like many people in this House, I suspect—human rights are universal and indivisible. That is why I want to start by telling Members a little about the relationship of Israel and Palestine to the Council of Europe, which owns, as it were, the European Court of Human Rights.
At the institutional level, the Israeli Knesset has enjoyed observer status with the Parliamentary Assembly since 1957, and the Union of Local Authorities in Israel was granted observer status with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe in 1994. Israel has signed and ratified 11 Council of Europe conventions and signed but not ratified a further two. Israel participates in four partial agreements and 18 inter- governmental committees.
With respect to high-level meetings, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe paid a couple of official visits to Israel, and the President of the Knesset has paid similar visits to the Council of Europe. We at the Council of Europe have just completed a study on Israel and Palestine, which was led by the former Mayor of Turin, Piero Fassino, who has taken a strong stand on this issue.
The Palestinian National Council was granted partner for democracy status with the Parliamentary Assembly in October 2011. The Association of Palestinian Local Authorities was granted observer status with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in 2005. I mention those things not as an example just to show that we are linked with Palestine and Israel, but because the Council of Europe looks after the convention on human rights. Israel signed and ratified the convention in 1986. I personally put a lot of effort into using that link with Israel to establish a firm place where we can not just talk about human rights, but actually get Israel to do something about human rights, and I think that is important. It would help us enormously if the Palestinians would accept the same approach to human rights in their own territory and deal with those human rights themselves. We cannot have one side following one rule and another side following a completely different rule—they both have to fulfil the same conditions.
I want to concentrate somewhat on how Hamas and the Palestinians do not protect Palestinian rights. The first place to start with that is LGBT matters. Tel Aviv Pride, as the House will have seen, is the largest LGBT pride festival in the middle east and Asia. Israel welcomes people no matter how they choose to identify. It is not the same in Gaza, where people in LGBT communities fear for their lives, and where same-sex couples are so afraid that they will be condemned that they do not bring themselves forward. We need to protect that fundamental human right of the Palestinians, and we need to put pressure on the Palestinians to be able to do that. The more we can do that, the more it will influence our ability to put pressure on Israel in other areas.
A second issue is freedom of journalism and freedom of expression. We have some very good examples of how the Palestinians have gone out of their way to systematically torture those in detention. I am not aware of anyone in Israel systematically torturing people in detention, but if we can put pressure on the Palestinians to bring forward measures to curb the instincts to have a go at Palestinian journalists, it will help us enormously in resolving the human rights issues in the region.
The hon. Gentleman talks about torture. He may not be aware that Palestinian children are often deported into solitary confinement, where they spend hour after hour. If that is not torture, I do not know what is. They emerge from those situations with Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps he will reflect on that in his comments.
I am aware of that, but that is completely different from how Fatah security forces in Hebron dispersed a peaceful protest against the rising cost of living. That protest was not against political things, but domestic things. Those security forces detained the organisers. What the hon. Gentleman talks about is also completely different from the security forces banning the Palestinian People’s Congress, an umbrella organisation of activists and politicians calling for reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
A third area where there is great difficulty on both sides and where we need to do more to push forward human rights is freedom of women and gender differentiation. Neither side has signed the Istanbul convention, and Israel has said that it is not going to sign the Istanbul convention at the moment. I think that is such a shame, because it is a landmark piece of international treaty work that protects women from domestic violence. In the Palestinian territories, there is plenty of domestic violence against women, and women suffer severe inequality under Hamas rule and have no protection against domestic violence. If they have been raped, they are seen as tainted and can be subjected to honour killings if that is known.
The final point I will mention is the death penalty. Israel at the moment has a ban on the death penalty, in compliance with its signing and ratification of the convention on human rights. The Palestinians do not have a ban on the death penalty. I know there has been considerable talk in Israel about restoring the death penalty, and I absolutely deplore that. I have told the Israeli authorities that I deplore it and that they should not do it. We should have parity on both sides to move away from the use of the death penalty, as a fundamental part of helping to establish human rights on both sides.
When we look at the Palestinian situation, there is quite a lot to have a go at in order to protect human rights. If we can get its human rights system working properly, it will help enormously in our negotiations with the Israeli side.
Before I get into my substantive speech, I would like to put on record that my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) both wanted to be here. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn wanted to raise the issue of her constituent Mr Ismail Adam, who on 5 April witnessed his son—they are British nationals—being beaten when visiting al-Aqsa, and she would have wanted the Minister to comment on that. Both are unable to be here because of constituency engagements.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing today’s debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. The motion is simple—human rights protections for the Palestinians. Therefore, the logical and very simple question that must be addressed, and it is glaringly obvious, is: why are the Palestinians’ human rights not being protected? When it comes to protecting the human rights of the Palestinians, not only do our Government maintain a position that is morally indefensible, but they fail in their responsibility to protect the Palestinians from the most egregious violations of international law.
It is an indisputable fact for any rational person that Palestinian human rights are being violated. The massive amount of evidence that has been lodged at the International Criminal Court provides forensic detail of the thousands of criminal acts perpetrated by Israel. The evidence of Israel’s human rights violations is not in doubt. What is in doubt is the international community’s will to do something about it. To put it simply, because of the United Kingdom Government’s position, they have failed in their responsibility to uphold even the most basic international principles of human rights norms and laws.
What do I mean when I say basic human rights? I mean the right to be born free and equal in dignity and rights; the right to freedoms without any distinction of any kind; the right to life, liberty and security; the right to privacy, family and a home; the right to freedom of movement; the right to freedoms without any discrimination; the right not to be persecuted; the right to nationality; the rights to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to leave any country, including your own, and return to your home; the right to recognition; the right to protection; and the right to justice. That list is not exhaustive, but these are the international human rights that we in this country epitomise as British values.
No one in this Chamber can honestly say that any of those human rights are afforded in full to the Palestinian people, so these are questions for us all: what would we do if we were forced, for hours each day, to go through a military checkpoint because of our race, just to get to work? What would we do if we woke up one day and JCB bulldozers was demolishing our homes or our school? What would we do if we were parents whose child needed urgent cancer treatment, but we, as well as our child, were denied a permit to access the only hospital where the care we needed was available? What would we do if we were worshipping in church on Christmas Day, and we were tied up, beaten and arrested on Christmas morning? What would we do if F-16 fighter jets blew up the BBC or ITV buildings in central London? What would we do if we were forced to live in the world’s largest open-air prison?
What would we do if our home had been set alight by settlers, and our child had two options: either die of suffocation, or go outside and be pelted by rocks thrown by settlers? What would we do if NHS ambulances rushing to save lives were routinely stopped at checkpoints, or if NHS doctors rushing to care were shot at? What would we do if we were subjected to mass collective punishment? Those might be hypotheticals for us, but they are not hypotheticals for the people of Palestine living under occupation. That is their daily existence, that is their lived experience, and that is the reality they cannot escape from.
The people of Great Britain would never accept such treatment for any of us, so why do we find it acceptable when it comes to the people of Palestine? If we would not accept it, what do we do to stop this from happening to the Palestinians? It is 75 years since the Nakba, and no one is able to return home; 50 years of growing Israeli occupation, which seemingly no one can stop; 16 years of a blockade of Gaza that has not been lifted, despite the severe humanitarian crisis it has caused for 2 million people. Now it is Ramadan. After Ramadan, the storming of al-Aqsa, the third holiest site for Muslims, has become a routine practice for the Israeli military. For Palestinians, such anniversaries highlight decades of violations that have been continuing against them, unaddressed. For us, they have been a stain on our conscience, and that of the world, for more than 75 years.
Let me explain what we should be doing. We should show a real commitment to universal rights and British values. We should show leadership in demanding equality, justice and fairness, as currently we clearly do not. We should support Palestinians by holding their violators accountable for their crimes. Britain, which prides itself on the rule of law, should set the highest standard for Israel to follow, and insist on that in its dealings with us. To do otherwise means that we are continuing to fail not only the Palestinians, but the people of Israel too. In our country, we hold our politicians to account, and even when the Prime Minister broke lockdown rules or did not wear a seat belt, our laws are applied equally. We should afford Palestinians the right to self-determination, and recognise the state of Palestine. We should immediately support the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over the situation in the region, instead of maintaining the current obstruction for justice to be done.
However, I am under no illusion. I could expect justice only if I had the recognition, let alone the power to advocate for my needs. Again, returning to a point that is glaringly obvious, this is not a clash of two equals. This is not a clash of religions, and neither is it a clash of peoples. This is an illegal military occupation. This is a conflict in which a protected oppressor is persecuting the unprotected Palestinian people. This is about Israel acting with impunity. Israel has been gifted impunity, which means it has zero incentive to deal with the Palestinians fairly. Indeed, we incentivise it to continue to break international law, because the world fails to hold it to account. That makes us complicit in the persecution faced by the Palestinians.
Our Government have failed to support any mechanisms of accountability, whether by opposing an investigation by the International Criminal Court, abstaining on crucial votes, or voting against resolutions condemning illegal settlements and the right to self-determination. Instead, they continue to ignore Israel’s crimes. If we truly believe in a two-state solution, it is time to act before it is too late. Only a few weeks ago, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli Minister for responsibility for administering the occupied west bank, said that there was no Palestinian history or culture, and no such thing as the Palestinian people. That Israeli Minister also spoke at a podium covered in what appeared to be a variation of a map of Israel, which showed an Israeli state with expanded boundaries that included the west bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza and Jordan. Here we are talking about a two-state solution, the only fit and proper resolution to this crisis, yet the actions of Israel show a complete contradiction to that aim.
That leads me to my concluding remarks, and to three clear asks of the Government. First, any relationship with Israel, or any other country for that matter, should be based on a demonstration of an acceptance of our values, which we hold dear. In the recent Netanyahu visit, did the UK ensure that our trading partner would comply with international law, or did we further signal to it that it could continue to act with impunity at our behest for our financial gain over the duty to protect human rights? Secondly, the UK should immediately enable international systems of accountability for criminal law violations in the region and must immediately support the International Criminal Court’s investigation. Thirdly, the UK must recognise the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, which means the immediate recognition of the state of Palestine.
Britain has a moral duty to act on Palestine and not just present empty words. I assure the Minister that this is an issue at the ballot box, so soon empty words will lead to empty Tory seats in elections. I urge the Government to do the moral thing and act on human rights for the Palestinians. It is the right thing to do.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate and on his eloquence in putting forward the case for human rights in Palestine, as the title of the debate suggests. He acknowledged that he only put one side of the story. I hope, in the next few minutes, to be able to put the other side of the narrative.
We are aware that incidents in Gaza and the west bank show us that human rights abuses are occurring and it is clear to see who is perpetrating them. We have reports that LGBT people, women and girls, young people, journalists and critics of the Palestinian Authority have all been abused. These are people in Gaza and the west bank, and their abuse occurs in Gaza and the west bank. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, there are no LGBT rights in Gaza. In fact, if people are identified or identify themselves as being gay, they are thrown off buildings. If they are not thrown off buildings, they are often prosecuted. They are criminalised for being gay or identifying as being gay and they are imprisoned or sometimes executed. Let us contrast that with Israel, as has been mentioned, and Tel Aviv Pride, where all people are welcome.
In the United Kingdom, as a democracy, we take for granted our basic rights of freedom of speech plus a free press. However, the same does not occur in Gaza and the Palestinian territories. There are no rights of freedom there. Indeed, journalists are often attacked just for criticising the Palestinian Authority. In 2022, Journalist Mujahed Tabjana was detained after publicly criticising the PA. After being freed, he recounted:
“I was beaten on arrival. I was hit with a hose, kicked, placed in stress positions for many hours, asked about my work, and my friends and colleagues. This went on for days and nights.”
I am sure we all agree that no journalist, or anyone critical of a Government, should be tortured in that way, so the Palestinian Authority must take steps towards a free press and against human rights abuses.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley also said, gender-based violence and honour killings are encouraged in the west bank and Gaza. Women are not treated as equals; they do not have the same rights or protections as men. Women suffer that inequality under Hamas itself. They have no protection against domestic violence. If they have been raped, as my hon. Friend said, they are seen as tainted and can be subject to honour killings. In 2022, the Gazan authorities prevented sisters Wissam and Fatimah al-Assi, aged 20 and 24, from pursuing domestic violence complaints through the courts by impeding them from accessing a prosecutor to testify on their behalf in court. I would therefore like to see the United Kingdom Government assess where we are spending aid and introduce a strategy, such as on violence against women and girls, in these areas.
In July last year, the United Nations Committee Against Torture said it was “seriously concerned” about the consistent reports of torture taking place in Palestinian detention centres and stations. Tens of millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money has been spent on training Palestinian security forces. Despite that, Palestinian security forces have a terrible record on beating and torturing detainees in interrogation centres. These are Palestinians they are torturing. I know the hon. Member for Dundee West will condemn that, as well as others, but it would be useful if other Members acknowledged the abuse that is occurring in Gaza and the west bank.
We need to ask ourselves why this is happening. In recent weeks we have seen some terrible violence. I agree with the hon. Member for Dundee West that some of the inflammatory statements made by politicians in Israel have contributed towards that—they are unacceptable and I certainly would not condone such behaviour, but it has led to incidents such as the murders of my former constituents, and it is having a great impact on many people who visit Israel. We need to ask why there has been an upsurge in violence in recent weeks.
Last Friday marked Quds day, which Iran used to stoke violence in Israel and the west bank. Iran called for resistance to protect Jerusalem, and the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Mohammad Qalibaf told demonstrators in Tehran that Israel is the root of problems in the region, and that Palestinians are actively confronting Israeli aggression from Gaza to the heart of Tel Aviv. That is a clear promotion of violence by Iran. Those words have effect, particularly among younger, more impressionable people. That is how the violence starts. It is worth repeating: I encourage the Government to proscribe the IRGC because its malign activities have an effect on the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate.
The conditions on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories are the worst they have been for nearly 20 years. That is directly related to the new far-right Government in Israel, and their willingness to terrorise or to allow the terrorising of the Palestinian civilian population and to ignore international law in the quest for the formal and actual annexation of large parts of the occupied Palestinian territory. We have heard that 98 Palestinians— 17 of them children—have been killed so far this year, and 17 Israelis. That includes a 15-year-old Palestinian boy killed by Israeli troops in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp in Jericho. As we heard earlier, it also includes the murder of three British-Israeli women. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, but they are the most serious instances of brutality, and include state-backed settler violence, as in Hawara, and the massive expansion in illegal settlement building and the violence that occurs around that. It includes the 1,000 Palestinians at imminent risk of forcible transfer from Masafer Yatta.
I am grateful to Medical Aid for Palestinians, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights and others who have briefed us for this debate. MAP says that 2,560 Palestinians have been injured so far this year, and there have been 260 settler attacks against Palestinians and their properties. It is very worrying that not only are there attacks on health workers and not only are ambulances routinely used as cover for Israeli troops engaged in military operations, but medical staff are prevented from reaching wounded people.
We have heard about the effect on children. I was briefed by Defence for Children International, which has been in the UK this week. It is one of six organisations proscribed—on no evidence—as a terrorist organisation, along with Al-Haq and other well-known Palestinian human rights organisations. It told us about the thousands of children who have been imprisoned, some in administrative detention, which is a disgrace. The majority are in Israeli prisons, which is a breach of international law. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned solitary confinement—a quarter of Palestinian children are detained in solitary confinement, for an average of 16 days but in some cases up to 40 days. That is a form of torture being practised on a widespread basis.
Let me mention Gaza briefly, as I suspect there will not be much mention of it. It is a trap that we all fall into, because Gaza is blockaded and is kept away from the rest of the world. It is under occupation, effectively, despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Some 2.2 million people are in that open prison; there is about 50% unemployment and 60% of people rely on food aid. A whole generation has grown up in those abhorrent and appalling traditions. Again, those are breaches of international law. The Government should be asking for an immediate end to the occupation and the blockade, but I fear they are stuck in time and the only moves that the current Government have made are in the wrong direction.
Let me turn briefly to the issue of international law. The whole apparatus of occupation has been in effect for 56 years, and in three weeks’ time it will be the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, when 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. That occupation, which has gone on, has an apparatus that controls every aspect of the daily lives of Palestinians, whether through home demolition, forced displacement, illegal settlement construction—there are now 750,000 illegal settlers, if east Jerusalem is included—greatly increased settler violence, movement restrictions, arbitrary detention and systematic discrimination.
What do we expect from the UK Government? I return to the point I made earlier, when I talked about annexation. The Minister, who is always very courteous and thoughtful in these matters, said that my analysis was right, so I hope that he will have got some more briefing notes from his civil servants and will be able to say a little more about that.
Two things have happened so far this year. First, there has been a clear statement, both in the coalition agreement and from Prime Minister Netanyahu, to the effect that
“the Jewish people have an exclusive and uncontestable right on the entire land of Israel. The government will advance and promote settlement in all parts of the land of Israel,”
including in Judea and Samaria, which is their description of the occupied west bank. It does not matter whether we are talking about de facto or de jure annexation—that is what is happening on the ground. When this was previously threatened, by a previous Netanyahu Government, the Government and the Opposition said that they would ban settlement goods if annexation took place. Annexation has taken place and it is now time for action, not simply for words. I am sorry that I do not have more time to expand on these thoughts.
There are very clear legal principles. The International Criminal Court investigation, which will investigate the crimes of all combatants not just Israel, and the UN investigation deserve the support of the British Government. They would have had that support in previous years, but now, consistently, this Government are voting against that and blocking independent, international investigations. That is a disgrace. The Palestinians deserve justice, peace and a country of their own. We should recognise Palestine immediately and I hope we will hear some movement from the Minister when he responds.
I thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for bringing forward this important debate. I declare an interest as I visited Israel and Palestine in 2016 with some other MPs, and that is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I want to concentrate on one aspect that is not often raised in public: the detention and imprisonment of Palestinian adults and children from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is a central part of Israel’s military occupation.
In 2016, we visited the Israeli military court at Ofer and saw how it works in person. Only Palestinians are tried in military courts. Settlers in the OPTs are tried in Israeli civil and criminal courts. As part of his report in October 2018, the UN special rapporteur wrote about how
“the extension of Israeli laws to the West Bank”
since 1967 has created “a discriminatory legal regime”.
If an Israeli settler child and a Palestinian child throw a stone in the same area, the former will almost certainly not land up in a court and will be protected by Israel’s legal system. However, the Palestinian child will face a military court. Israel’s military court at Ofer has, by its own figures, a 99.74% conviction rate. Why? Because lawyers advise Palestinians to plead guilty in order to get out earlier. I will leave it up to hon. Members to weigh whether that is justice.
International law is very clear on the legal authority to impose military law and establish military courts to try civilians. The key provisions are found in the Hague regulations and the fourth Geneva convention. Articles 64 and 66 of the fourth Geneva convention state that local laws
“may be repealed or suspended…where they constitute a threat to…security”
and replaced with military law, enforced in
“properly constituted, non-political military courts”.
That is what the Israeli military authorities use as the jurisdictional basis for establishing military courts in the west bank. However, international law also stipulates that occupation should be on a temporary basis, including the prosecution of civilians under military law. As we have heard, Israel’s military court policy has been in existence for 56 years—hardly a temporary solution.
The PLO Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs estimates that more than 850,000 Palestinians have been detained since 1967. Wide-ranging military regulations govern every aspect of Palestinian life. Military orders provide for a wide range of offences, divided into five categories—some credible, some not. Hostile terrorist activity and disturbance of public order are classified in that way, which I think is acceptable, but so are classic criminal offences, illegal presence in Israel and traffic offences committed in the OPT. Do the last three categories of offence really need to be tried in a military court? Are the sentences proportionate? Under military order No. 1651 of 2009, for example, throwing stones is considered a security offence with a punishment of up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
There is also detention without trial. Palestinians may be held without charge for up to six months under an administrative detention order issued by an Israeli military commander. Recently, with Breaking the Silence, we met a military commander who I think had made such orders when he was 21—a very young age to have such an impact on somebody. The orders can be renewed without charge or trial. As of October 2022, there were 798 Palestinian prisoners being held under an administrative detention order, including eight members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The majority of those prisoners have served more than six months behind bars.
It is important that I give the House some detail about what happens. Detainees, including children, are handcuffed and blindfolded. Some are kept in total isolation, as we have heard, and there are widespread allegations that they are threatened during interrogation. Some 70% of child detainees and 80% of adult detainees have been unlawfully transferred to prisons in Israel, in violation of the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.
I want to concentrate on what happens to children. Israel is the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes children in military courts. Some 95,000 children have been detained since 1967 in the west bank. The most common charge is stone throwing, and it is often unclear who has thrown the stones. Stone throwing is not acceptable, but no child should be arrested in the middle of the night, roughed up, taken by the army without a parent or a responsible adult and interrogated without a lawyer present.
Worst of all, families are not informed where their children are taken, even though military order 1676 requires that a police officer inform the parents of the child’s detention. In most cases, Palestinian children are taken to detention centres in larger Israeli settlements across the west bank, and parents take the time to find out where their child is. In 99% of cases, children are denied access to their parents or a lawyer and are unaware of their right to remain silent. During covid, families were unable to visit their children. Confessions are often signed in Hebrew, which few of the Palestinian children understand, and 90% plead guilty regardless of whether they committed the offence.
Children should be offered the same protections that would be granted in a civil court. In all of this, Israel is violating the numerous provisions of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which it ratified in 1991. The criminal age of responsibility is 12. In 2011, military orders raised the age of majority from 16 to 18. Under-18s must therefore be tried in juvenile courts, which brings Israel into line with international standards. However, that does not apply to sentencing: 16 and 17-year-olds are still sentenced as adults.
All of this is common knowledge if anyone cares to look. It was confirmed in the legal report that the Foreign Office funded in 2012, which found that Israel was in breach of eight of its international legal obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child and the fourth Geneva convention. Eleven years on, sadly little has changed. As of 31 March 2023, 151 Palestinian children are in military detention, an 11% increase on the 2022 figure. I urge the Minister to revisit that report and push for change.
Following UNICEF’s report “Children in Israeli Military Detention”, which found that there was ill treatment of children in the military detention system, Israel reduced the maximum time for which a child could be detained before appearing in front of a judge, from four days to 24 hours for children aged 12 and 13 and from four to two days for children aged 14 and 15. However, there was no change in the period for 16 to 17-year-olds, which is still 96 hours. Settlers’ children enjoy much shorter periods of detention before seeing a judge, and are allowed access to parents and lawyers.
The resentment towards the Israeli defence force that each of those 95,000 children must grow up with must be huge, and to say that it is counterproductive must be one of the biggest understatements I have made in the House. As the right hon. Sir Stephen Sedley writes in his foreword to the Save the Children report “Defenceless”,
“Whatever one’s view of the ongoing conflict and its causes, there is no excuse for the systematic infliction of psychological harm on a generation of young Palestinians.”
Sadly, most Palestinian children’s only experience of Israelis is framed by such experiences, and violence from Israeli soldiers and illegal Israeli settlers. I urge Israel to ensure that throughout the arrest, interrogation and court process, Palestinian children are given the same safeguards as Israeli children in civil courts. The UK Government and their partners have a direct responsibility to ensure that that happens, as high contracting parties to the fourth Geneva convention. I urge the FCDO to deal with this as a matter of urgency.
One thing that I share with many others taking part in the debate is a concern for the human rights of Palestinians. The failure to reach a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that the human rights of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians are frequently put at risk. As the parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I know that all too often this subject is presented as if only the Palestinians experienced threats to their human rights and only the Israelis were responsible. In response to my earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said that he was talking about the Palestinian territories, but the title of the debate is “Human rights protections for Palestinians”, which, I suggest, is wider.
The Palestinian Authority has full civil control over the vast majority of Palestinians living in the west bank, and as we all know, the Palestinian Authority is plagued by authoritarianism and corruption. In neither the west bank nor Gaza do Palestinians enjoy the right to vote. The Palestinian Authority has not held presidential elections since 2005 or legislative elections since 2006. President Abbas is now in his 18th year of a four-year term. New laws are simply introduced as presidential decrees. Meanwhile, the Gaza strip is governed by a proscribed terrorist group whose ambition is to destroy the state of Israel. No elections have been held in Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007. Freedom House, a not-for-profit democracy group, describes Gaza as a
“de facto one-party state”.
It also rates the west bank as being on a par with Rwanda and Ethiopia when it comes to human rights, civil liberties and political rights. Gaza is given a score of 11 out of 100 for its human rights record.
Freedom of speech and due process fare no better. The Palestinian Authority has a track record of arbitrary detention, with more than 200 Palestinians detained last year. In June its security forces attacked a peaceful demonstration on the cost of living, and detained the organisers. It has banned the Palestinian People’s Congress, a pro-reform group, from convening, and forcibly dispersed a press conference held by the same group in Ramallah, while threatening journalists with sticks and batons. As we have heard, torture is commonplace, with a number of reported deaths in PA custody, including that of anti-corruption activist Nizar Banat.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights received more than 130 complaints of torture by the Palestinian Authority last year. Just last month, the PA refused registration to Lawyers for Justice, an organisation that represents victims of detention and torture. In Gaza, a general climate of repression exists following a brutal crackdown on peaceful protest in 2019. In 2022, at least 105 Palestinians were arbitrarily detained by Hamas, and more than 160 reports of torture were made to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. The deputy programme director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Porteous, concluded that where the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have autonomy, they have developed parallel police states.
As we have heard, women and girls in the Palestinian Authority territories continue to face discrimination, including early enforced marriage, partner and family violence, rape, incest, psychological abuse and sexual exploitation. We would not ignore such abuses here in this country; we should not ignore them in the Palestinian territories.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We would not ignore those abuses against women and girls in the UK, and rightly so. As an advocate for women and girls, especially on the issue of honour killing, it seems to me that there is a thread running through the speeches today when we talk about the rights of women in Palestine. Does he agree that when it comes to discussing women in Palestine, all of a sudden everyone becomes a women’s advocate, because we are not talking about anything on the other side? Women are always used when it comes to Islamophobic tropes too.
I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, and what I would say to her is that I am citing something that we are all very familiar with and would raise if it was happening here. I am saying that we should not ignore it when it happens there.
As the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Hendon (Dr Offord) said, among the communities who face the most threats to their human rights are Palestinians who are gay. LGBT+ Palestinians routinely face harassment, torture and physical attacks, including directly from the Hamas Government. Although homosexuality is not illegal in the Palestinian Authority, the PA does little to defend the rights of LGBT+ Palestinians. It has restricted the activity of LGBT+ organisation Al Qaws for violating
“the ideals and values of Palestinian society”.
In December 2019, a trans woman and a gay man were beaten and robbed by a group of men in Kafr Aqab, south of Ramallah, while the PA police stood idly by. The human rights situation faced by LGBT+ Gazans is even worse. Homosexual acts are illegal in Gaza, in line with Hamas’s fundamentalist ideology, with the most serious punishment for offences being the death penalty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at least 100 Palestinians have claimed asylum in Israel on grounds of their sexual orientation.
I conclude by asking colleagues to consider this damning record when discussing the topic of Palestinian human rights. There is no doubt that the absence of a Palestinian state and Israel’s continued military presence in the west bank have a pernicious impact on the lives of many Palestinians, but human rights abuses against Palestinians take place on a daily basis by their own governing bodies.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said during the earlier statement, we need fresh and enlightened leadership on both sides. The Palestinian Authority’s failure to act as a credible partner for peace is one of the significant barriers to the negotiated two-state solution that many of us wish to see.
Human rights are virtually non-existent for the long-suffering people of Gaza under the violent and bloodthirsty rule of the Hamas terrorist group. Palestine is under occupation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) suggested—occupation by Hamas. We will not do the Palestinian people any favours by turning a blind eye to the record of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. [Interruption.] Do you want me to finish, Madam Deputy Speaker? I thought I had an extra minute because of the intervention.
I am happy and willing to criticise the excesses of Israeli politicians and Israeli forces, but we have to be honest and criticise the excesses of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, too, if we want a balanced and reasonable debate.
I commend the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this important and timely debate on human rights protections for the Palestinian people at a crucial moment in Palestinian history and, as I know from talking to my Israeli friends, at a time when many people in Israel are fearful of the dangerous political direction being taken by their own Government, who are becoming more extreme with each election. Palestinians across the occupied territories are currently subject to an explosion of violence from illegal settlers and the state-sanctioned Israeli Defence Forces alike, under what is widely seen as one of the most extreme and inflammatory Governments in Israel’s history.
I take this moment to remember the British rabbi Leo Dee, following the awful death of his wife and daughters—British nationals who lost their lives in the west bank 13 days ago. I also remember those who were injured in Tel Aviv. Every life lost in this 75-year-old conflict is to be mourned.
This year alone, 98 Palestinians, including 17 children, have been killed by Israeli forces—not by terrorists or by a semi-legitimate Government but by a Government who want to be seen to be on a par with their European, middle eastern and Mediterranean neighbours. The number is three times as many as during the same period a year ago. The UN reports that last year was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the west bank since 2005, with at least 151 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, 35 of them children. Settler violence is also rising. Since January, the UN has recorded 260 settler attacks against Palestinians and their property, including the devastating rampage through Huwara in February that left 418 Palestinians injured.
In the past few days, I have received nearly 1,000 emails and letters from local residents in Ilford South, not just from my Muslim community but from my Jewish community and local churches, expressing their sincere concern about the abuse of Palestinians’ human rights and the horrendous violence on both sides of the conflict.
When the al-Aqsa mosque was raided and Palestinians were evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah during the holy month of Ramadan in 2021, I received more than 5,000 emails from constituents expressing their concern about these illegal acts and calling for justice for the Palestinian people. Just last week, I met worshippers outside my local Islamic centre, with many telling me of their profound kinship with the Palestinian people and their deep feeling of injustice over the ongoing violence.
Churches are supporting organisations such as the Amos Trust to raise money to support people in Palestine. For people in Ilford South and in many seats like mine, this is not a remote issue on the other side of the world; it is one of the foremost issues in their minds, and it should be taken seriously and with the gravity it rightly deserves.
I first visited Palestine and Israel in 1999. I went with a group of young people from Ilford—Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. At the time, people believed that the Oslo accords might still be enacted. I have visited the Holy Land about half a dozen times over the years. I recall a time when one could sit in Ramallah, where I sat, with people from the Palestinian negotiation support unit and Israeli Knesset Members, talking about what might be enacted. I recall at that time walking through the checkpoint at Qalandia, which was just a few barbed wire stacks on the floor, and people could walk through, showing their passport. When people go through Qalandia now, all these years later, they see the size of the gun turrets, the encasement and the brutality of the occupation. It is so visceral and so wrong.
I still speak to the Israelis and Palestinians we met back in 1999, many of whom have remained friends because of that experience. I also still speak to those in my community in Ilford, and there is hope that one day this conflict could be resolved. But we need to be clear in calling out honestly what is happening in Israel and Palestine, the asymmetry of that conflict and what we can do in this country, using our foreign service and our Government, to bring real pressure for genuine change.
There are so many aspects to this, including the ever-worsening health crisis, which further compounds the situation in Palestine. According to research by Medical Aid for Palestinians, attacks and obstructions on health workers on the ground have risen exponentially, with a 290% increase in the rate of violations against Palestine Red Crescent Society medical teams. During the recent attacks on al-Aqsa, Red Crescent ambulances were fired upon by the IDF with rubber-coated steel bullets, and a paramedic was severely assaulted and injured by an Israeli soldier. In total, nine ambulances were denied access to the courtyards of al-Aqsa, preventing them from reaching the wounded inside.
In another raid in Nablus, the IDF obstructed Red Crescent ambulance crews from accessing a two-year-old girl who had heart problems and was suffering from tear gas inhalation. The ambulance crews had to rush to the child’s home, under gunfire, to reach her. Israel is supposed to be a democratic country. Is this really what people in Israel voted for—the brutality of an occupation such as this? First responders and hospitals cannot cope with the influx of fresh casualties, and that is compounded by a severe shortage of essential medicines and basic supplies, such as syringes, bandages and painkillers. These instances, and many more, are a clear violation of international humanitarian law. As an occupying power, Israel is required under the Geneva convention to ensure the adequate functioning of health services and to allow medical personnel to carry out their duties. Article 59 obliges Israel to permit the free passage of humanitarian relief and to protect, not fire upon, any such relief.
Turning closer to home, last month the Government published their 2030 road map for UK-Israel bilateral relations. The road map has been widely condemned by a host of international organisations as poorly timed and the most egregious effort to date to try to insulate the relationship between the British and Israeli Governments from anything to do with Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians. This is clearly unacceptable. In my view, it is a breach of the approaches of Governments of many different stripes to that conflict over the decades. Perhaps most concerning is the agreement’s rejection of the latest ICJ referral, which requests that the Court render its opinion on the legal consequences arising from Israel’s ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation, on the grounds that it undermines efforts to achieve a settlement through direct negotiations between the parties.
I have a few questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when he sums up. Is it the Government’s view now that the situation in Israel/Palestine should be exempt from international scrutiny and that Israel should be held to a lower standard when it comes to human rights violations against Palestinians? Although no one would expect Israel to be held to a different or higher standard, we should certainly not be granting Israel the kind of impunity that has led to the extreme behaviour exhibited in today’s Netanyahu Government.
Will the Minister also clarify whether it is still the Government’s view that this is an occupation, that the settlements are illegal, and that bilateral co-operation should not include co-operation with Israel’s illegal settlements or allow for violations of international law and Palestinian human rights? I and my constituents believe that our Government, and all of us in this House, have an historical obligation, arguably going back to the Balfour declaration, to support the creation and recognition of an independent and viable Palestinian state and to ensure that people in the Holy Land can co-exist one day on the same land. This Government must start right now by looking again at that bilateral agreement and, in my view and the view of my constituents, by formally recognising a Palestinian state.
Let me add my thanks to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this debate, and associate myself with every word of the condolences that he offered to those who have lost loved ones.
We must send a clear message from this House this afternoon that the spiral of violence has to stop. It has to stop because the dream of Palestine, the dream of justice and the dream of dignity are disappearing before our very eyes. They are being destroyed outrage by outrage, stun grenade by stun grenade, and bullet by bullet. Palestinians today are now losing all hope that there will ever be a future where two people and two nations can co-exist side by side in peace.
I am afraid that I have to tell the Minister that there are now too many people in this House who see this Government as standing by idle, in silence, when they should be taking the initiative, when they should be acting, and when they should be determined to ensure that there is justice for Palestine.
This House today has already heard a catalogue of horror. We have heard about the 98 Palestinians who have lost their lives already this year—far more than in previous years—the Israeli citizens who have been killed, and the children who have been killed with live ammunition. We have also heard about the 1,000 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta who are at imminent risk of forced transfer, which is in complete violation of Geneva conventions. We have heard about the brutality at the al-Aqsa mosque, where even UN observers said that there was blatantly excessive and unjustified force, with stun grenades and rifle butts used in a holy place.
All of us in this House would stand four-square behind Israel’s right to self-defence. Many of us would associate ourselves with the words of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) that we should be proscribing organisations such as the IRGC and taking a tougher line on Iran. Most of us here know that the Palestinian Authority needs radical reform, and most of us would condemn the brutality of Hamas, but all of us also know that this is not a time for whataboutery. This is a time to call out the root cause of the violence today, which is the radical spread of settlers illegally through the west bank. The fact that we now have 279 settlements, almost all of them illegal and now home to 700,000 people, must surely draw our attention to the root cause of the problem, and that is the fundamental sin that the Government should be calling out.
If the Government are serious—and they might be—about their idea of a rules-based order, then we in this House must insist that those rules also apply in the west bank, in Gaza and in Jerusalem. If the Government do not insist that the rules-based order extends to the places that the Palestinians call home, how can we ever be credible in our arguments for peace and justice for Palestine? How can we avoid the charge of double standards in international affairs, and how can we contribute meaningfully to keeping the dream of a two-state solution alive? It is time for the Government to turn their rhetoric about a rules-based international order into some red lines.
We have to ask this: when are the Government going to accept that those red lines have indeed been crossed? When we have a UN rapporteur saying that what is going on is now getting close to the legal definition of apartheid, how much more evidence do the Government need to call out a violation of the red lines? When we have Israeli Cabinet Ministers appearing in Paris before a map of greater Israel that includes the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and when we have members of the Israeli Cabinet leading the protests for the expansion of settler communities, how much more evidence do we need? It is time for the UK Government to act.
My constituents are very clear about the five things this Government need to do. They need to implement a ban on settler goods. They need to ensure there are no trade deals with Israel until it demonstrates a fundamental respect for human rights. They need to ban weapons sales until it is clear that there is a strong regime for supporting human rights. They need to start using UN mechanisms for delivering accountabilities and, as many people in this House have said and have voted for, it is time for immediate recognition of the state of Palestine. Those are practical, determined steps that we can take—and take now.
I conclude by reminding the House of what was in the Balfour declaration. When this country said that it would support the establishment of a state of Israel, it came with the words,
“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
The rights of those communities are being violated every day, and it is time the Government not only called that out, but did something about it.
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this debate and on his eloquent and thoughtful speech.
Since the formation of the far-right Israeli Government at the end of last year, we have seen opposition spilling out across civil society in the region, and it has continued to escalate as Israeli Ministers pursue their very frightening agenda. Last month it came to a head and we saw tens of thousands of people protesting not only on the streets of Israel, but in Germany and the UK, as they voiced their opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to override the Israeli judiciary. Of course, that move on Netanyahu’s part is central to his attempt to avoid being put on trial for corruption. Although he has put those plans on pause for the moment, that has come at the price of concessions to his coalition partners.
First, there is National Security Minister Ben-Gvir, who just 15 years ago was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization. It appears that Netanyahu is set to hand Ben-Gvir control over his personal militia as part of a deal over putting the judicial overhauls on pause—a truly terrifying prospect that will see many Palestinian lives put in danger.
Then there is Finance Minister Smotrich, who describes himself as a “fascist homophobe” and only recently said that
“there is no such thing as the Palestinian people”.
This is the same man who called for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be wiped out, following what an IDF spokesperson called a “pogrom” at the hands of illegal settlers and some Israeli soldiers. Smotrich has been given powers over the west bank, transferring authority away from the Israeli Defence Ministry to Israeli civilian control.
Human rights groups consider that the latest example of the irreversible entrenchment of the occupation of Palestine as de facto annexation by the Israelis becoming de jure. Occupied territory is supposed to be under temporary military control, but this temporary occupation has now endured for more than half a century and is the root cause of all the violence that we witness day in, day out across the territory. Not only is it morally indefensible, but the imposition of Israeli civilian control over settlers and Palestinians in the west bank is illegal under international law. We heard the Minister say earlier that he was totally at one with the need for adherence to international law.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has concluded:
“In light of the fact that there is no intention of granting civil rights to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, the result of the agreement is a formal, full-fledged apartheid regime.”
That is the direction in which the Israeli Government are moving, and they will not stop unless they face robust consequences. Yet for all the demonstrations against Netanyahu’s Government, only certain parts of the opposition are joining the dots between the attacks on Israel’s democratic structures and the broader ideology that denies democracy to millions of Palestinians, whose lives are under the control of the occupying Israeli regime and who are being subjected to gross human rights abuses.
For Palestinians, that far-right Government are no different from the Government who came before them. In fact, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in decades: hundreds were killed at the hands of Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers in the West Bank, including dozens of children. Yesterday, I met representatives of Defence for Children International Palestine. Ayed Abu Eqtaish, the director of its accountability programme, told me that Netanyahu’s far-right Government are really nothing new for the Palestinian people who live under the brutality of Israel’s illegal occupation.
Israel automatically and systematically prosecutes children in military courts that lack fundamental fair trial rights and protections. Between 500 and 700 Palestinian children are tried in military courts each year, and around 150 children are currently in detention. Of those 150 children, 11 are being held by the Israeli military in administrative detention—a relic of the British mandate that is a form of detention without charge or trial. Children can be held indefinitely, and some have even been locked up for more than a year.
The way in which Palestinian children are detained by Israeli forces is horrific. About one in four are placed in solitary confinement for interrogation purposes. On average, a Palestinian child placed in solitary confinement will be isolated for 15 days. In at least one case, a child was isolated for around 40 days. As DCIP says, that is no way to treat a child. It is no way to treat any human being. I hope to hear from the Minister an outright condemnation of such inhumane and unjust practices. For far too long, the UK Government’s approach has failed to discourage the Israeli regime from inflicting such abuses.
First, it is high time that Ministers looked at the more impactful options available to them to bring an end to those practices. That could begin today if the Minister had the courage to do the right thing and recognise the state of Palestine with immediate effect. Secondly, he could abide by international law and impose economic sanctions to bring an end to Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied Palestine. Thirdly, he could revoke the Government’s statement on the investigation of Israeli war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Finally, he could heed the calls of the Palestinian people by pushing for an international peacekeeping mission in the region to ensure that there are human rights protections for Palestinians.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but we need more than strong words; we need actions from our Government, and we need them now.
I, too, put on record my sadness that this debate should come in the context of the awful recent violence in the region—the terrible scenes in Huwara a few weeks ago, the raid of the Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli security forces earlier this month and the awful footage of dreadful beatings, the escalation that followed, and the tragic death of British-Israeli nationals Rina and Maia Dee and their mother, Lucy. I and my party join others in paying tribute to them.
The violence over the last few weeks has been sickening to watch, and we cannot afford for it to spiral out of control any further, as we have heard many times this afternoon. The terrible violence of May 2021 also started in a similar fashion, with a raid on the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. We need to do all we can now to prevent this from deteriorating any further, which includes ensuring that the status quo arrangements at holy sites are upheld.
The reality is that this comes at a very concerning time for the peace process. The aims of the new far-right Israeli Government and the conduct of their Ministers are hugely concerning. It is not just Itamar Ben-Gvir, with whom our Government will rightly not engage. What about Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who stood up in Paris just weeks ago and said
“there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”?
Will the Government condemn these deeply racist remarks and rule out engaging with Smotrich too?
One of the new Government’s aims is promoting the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, and we have heard about the large number of them. They have continued to progress with the proposed E1 settlement in the west bank, which would involve the construction of thousands of units and create a hugely challenging physical barrier to the territorial contiguity of the west bank and, accordingly, to a Palestinian state. If we in this place care about peace, we must understand that settlements such as this make a two-state solution much harder to attain.
The United Kingdom must be absolutely clear that we stand on the side of international law. It is therefore hugely disheartening that the Government are opposed to the International Criminal Court’s investigation into international crimes in the west bank. It damages our credibility in the region, and it undermines our efforts to speak out when international law is violated in other parts of the world, including on our own continent. We cannot pick and choose. We must acknowledge the UK’s historic obligations to the region, and we have heard this afternoon the powerful words of the Balfour declaration. It is vital that we do what we can.
The reality of the situation right now is that hope is evaporating. I have already touched on the far-right Israeli Government and the expansion of settlements, but we can add to this the increasing violence and deaths in the last two years. Last year was the deadliest in the west bank since 2005. Meanwhile in the west bank, the Palestinian Authority are devoid of any credibility and have refused to call elections. Where hope is extinguished, radicalisation sadly thrives exponentially.
The UK has an important card that it can play now: recognition of the state of Palestine. In the context of this deteriorating situation, what a powerful sign that would be, not only to demonstrate a tangible commitment to a two-state solution but to provide real hope to Palestinians—hope that peace is possible. Parliament has already called on the Government to recognise Palestine as a state. I join many colleagues in the Chamber in saying that now is the moment to do so. I hope the Minister will realise that at moments such as this, the UK cannot simply sit and watch in silence.
As we have heard today, Israel has elected the most extreme Government in its history. There has recently, rightly, been a huge focus on the threat that this new Government pose to judicial independence in Israel, which has prompted the largest protests in Israeli history. This new Israeli Government have also sparked widespread fears that they will deepen and entrench the illegal military occupation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, not least because the Government include extreme right-wing figures such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organisation and who campaigned in the election on aggressively extending military control over Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Government’s new Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, recently said:
“There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.”
That is truly chilling.
This is all deeply alarming for those of us who wish to see an end to all violence, and a future based on peace and justice. Already, 2023 is set to be even more deadly than 2022—itself one of the deadliest of recent years—with around 150 Palestinians killed in the west bank and East Jerusalem, and 30 Israelis killed. The United Nations has reported that already this year, by the end of March, 16 Palestinian children have been killed in the west bank, compared with two in the same period in 2022.
Today, I want to make a few remarks about the human suffering that I witnessed when, as a new MP in 2016, I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jerusalem. I met Palestinian families struggling against Israeli state-sanctioned human rights abuses, and I met Israeli human rights groups. In those few days, I got a glimpse of the daily suffering that the Palestinian people have endured for over 50 years under the Israeli state’s illegal occupation of the west bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. I saw Israeli settlements that were illegally seizing land, and which do more than anything else to prevent a two-state solution. I visited a Palestinian village that had been repeatedly demolished. I spoke with Palestinians cut off from family and friends as a result of Israel’s illegal separation wall that divided Palestinian communities and annexed more land.
I attended military courts where Palestinian children are tried in a language they cannot read or speak, and in the old city of Jerusalem I visited the home of a Palestinian family who had lived there since 1953, who Israeli settlers were trying to force out of their home. Sadly, in recent weeks, that elderly couple whom I and other Members met—Nora Ghaith-Sub Laban, who is 67 years old, and her husband Mustafa, who is 72—faced imminent eviction. I have written to the Foreign Secretary about this. The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Israel to halt any such actions that lead to a risk of forcible transfer, which he said
“may amount to war crimes”.
On my visit, I did not have the opportunity to visit Gaza. It is almost impossible to imagine what it must be like to live on that tiny strip of land, smaller than the Isle of Wight, where 2 million inhabitants are unable to move freely, and whose access to clean water, electricity and healthcare is restricted by Israeli state actions.
A long-lasting peace for both Palestinians and Israelis can only be secured through a solution that tackles the underlying injustices faced by the Palestinian people. A two-state solution means that Palestine must have the right to exist, but Israeli state actions make that ever less likely. As the former colonial power in Palestine, Britain has a special responsibility to do all it can to end Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, its colonial settlements, its denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the siege of Gaza, and Israel’s violations of human rights and international law.
But words alone are not enough. We need action too. That means—it has to mean—that the British Government should recognise the state of Palestine, as this Parliament voted to do back in 2014. It means that we should end all trade with illegal Israeli settlements, and that we should impose an embargo on arms sales to Israel. The Government cannot pose as an honest broker when Britain has licensed around half a billion pounds-worth of arms exports to Israel since 2015. Without such actions, the Israeli state is effectively given the green light to continue its illegal actions, which are likely to kill all hope of a Palestinian state.
What we saw at al-Aqsa in Jerusalem this month, with Israeli security forces storming the mosque, firing stun and smoke grenades within its grounds and brutally beating worshippers, was one of the most concerning incidents, because it marks a worrying escalation in the abuses being perpetrated by the Israeli security forces. While the desecration of a holy site is wrong at any time, to march heavily armed soldiers into al-Aqsa to use weapons on the site of one of the most revered places of worship during the holy month of Ramadan, at the start of Passover and just before Easter, and in one of the holiest cities in the world, is frankly outrageous. Let us be clear in this House that what we saw was not a policing operation, but a clear and deliberate provocation by the Israeli security forces.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, the sanctity of places of worship and the convention that they should as far as possible remain untouched during conflict has been respected, whether in law or in unspoken practice. It is clear, however, that this reverence, this convention and this respect for one of the most fundamental human rights—for people to worship and practise their religion—is being rapidly eroded, because that was not the first raid on al-Aqsa; nor was it even the first raid during Ramadan. It is now becoming an all-too-common occurrence, with the international community failing to take a stand to end this abuse. It leaves us with this question: how much blood must be spilled on consecrated ground, how many bullets must be fired in hallowed halls and how many holy sites must be trampled upon before the UK Government live up to their historical, moral and global responsibilities towards the region?
We must also remember that the raid on al-Aqsa came just weeks after the riot of settlers through Palestinian villages. This violence by settlers towards Palestinians should not be surprising, because rather than being deterred by action from the international community, the Israeli Government, security forces and settlers have instead been emboldened by their silence. The UK Government and the rest of the world have a lot to answer for in failing to present a united front against these illegal settlement plans that are in deliberate violation of international law under the fourth Geneva convention. By de facto annexing Palestinian land, these illegal settlements, approved by the Israeli Government, are undermining the future viability of Palestine as part of a two-state solution. We have to ask: just how much more land do the Palestinians have to lose? How many more Palestinian homes have to be razed to the ground by army bulldozers? How much more does the future state of Palestine have to shrink before the UK Government will consider recognising a viable and independent state of Palestine?
The raid on al-Aqsa, the settler violence and the expansion of illegal settlements is just the tip of the iceberg, because there is a long and exhaustive catalogue of human rights abuses still being committed by the Israeli Government against the Palestinians. Living under occupation, Palestinians have their freedom of expression and assembly heavily restricted. They are subject to arbitrary detention, and they are beaten and tortured. Palestinians face the prospect of enforced disappearances, they see children subjected to military detention and, in a worrying number of cases, they face what is best described as summary execution by the Israel Defence Forces.
However, we know that the human rights abuses faced by Palestinians will not end there, and nor will they lessen in intensity, because in office right now is the most worryingly right-wing Government under Benjamin Netanyahu. That Government are composed of some of the most racist, anti-Palestinian Ministers, including those who have called for the Palestinian town of Huwara in the west bank to be erased. It is therefore clear to everyone that more innocent blood will continue to be spilled on all sides if the international community does not set clear red lines and if it does not do more to end the violence.
We are not even halfway through what is already one of the deadliest years since 2005, and we therefore cannot escape the urgency of reaching a lasting solution to the conflict. That solution lies in a real two-state solution, and the need for the UK Government and others to immediately recognise a full and independent state of Palestine to give effect to this two-state solution. From what we have seen with the escalating violence towards civilians and the increasing persecution that Palestinians face, the region simply cannot wait any longer. If the UK does not act now, when the UK Government finally recognise the state of Palestine, all this future Palestinian state will control will be nothing more than a thin strip of land, and the Palestinians will be denied forever the state they were promised more than 75 years ago.
I associate myself in particular with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain).
I have simply one issue to raise and one question. I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, which is a cross-party group. We have campaigned for the freedom of journalists to undertake their profession free from censorship, intimidation and, indeed, risk to their lives. We link with the International Federation of Journalists. We have raised issues of journalistic freedom across the globe, to be frank, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iraqi Kurdistan, China and Colombia—you name it, we have raised it—but we have consistently expressed the NUJ’s and the IFJ’s concerns about the harassment, intimidation, physical abuse and, unfortunately, murder of Palestinian journalists by Israeli state forces.
Last year, on behalf of the NUJ, I attended the commemoration of the life of Shireen Abu Akleh. People may remember that Shireen, who was an al-Jazeera correspondent, was shot dead by the Israeli armed forces on 11 May 2022, while she was reporting in Jenin. Shireen fulfilled her duty as a journalist until her last moment. She was wearing her blue protective vest and helmet, and she was preparing to report on the Israeli raid on the west bank city of Jenin when an Israeli sniper fired a bullet into her face and killed her instantly.
Since then, Reporters Without Borders has compiled video and audio evidence about at least 11 other journalists who have been targeted or aggressed by Israeli security forces in the west bank. In fact, we now know that at least 30 journalists have been killed by Israeli security personnel over the last few decades. What has also been occurring—this has been reported time and again, and we have raised it in this House before—is that, as the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms has reported, the number of infractions of Palestinian journalists has increased over the last decade. Some 368 Israeli offences against Palestinian journalists have been recorded.
It has also been reported that Palestinian journalistic organisations have been subject to closure or complete destruction by Israel, resulting not just in the loss of jobs, but in some instances in the loss of life. Some 31 news organisations were either closed or destroyed by Israel in 2021 alone, 30 of them during the attack on Gaza in May 2021. A report from the International Federation of Journalists, which has world standing and respect, has referred to the violations as
“a clear attempt by Israel to silence media reporting on the ground”,
and has said that
“no one has been held to account.”
In 2018, two deaths of journalists along with many injuries were reported by Reporters Without Borders to the International Criminal Court, and these were reported as what were regarded as war crimes. In 2022, a group of organisations came together and submitted further reports to the International Criminal Court. Those organisations were the International Federation of Journalists, the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. They were working with human rights lawyers—Bindmans, Doughty Street Chambers—all of which have a reputation for upholding human rights, and they put a formal complaint into the ICC. That complaint detailed the systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists. It was on behalf of four named victims in particular—Ahmed Abu Hussein, Yaser Murtaja, Muath Amarneh and Nedel Eshtayeh—who were killed or maimed by Israeli snipers while fulfilling their duties as journalists covering the demonstrations in Gaza. We have now also submitted the name of Shireen, so her case will be investigated as well. At the moment, the ICC’s Prosecutor’s Office has formally acknowledged receipt of the complaint, and that complaint alleging war crimes will have to be investigated.
I am raising the issue of the protection of journalists, and the harassment and murder that has taken place. The specific request I have of the Government is for them to assist in putting pressure on the ICC’s Prosecutor’s Office to bring these investigations to an early conclusion, so that we can have some justice in relation to what many of us believe to have been murders committed by the Israeli defence forces. We must also send a message to the Israeli state that it can no longer act with impunity when it harasses, intimidates, and indeed murders journalists who are trying to fulfil their profession of reporting freely and willingly on the circumstances for the Palestinian people.
I completely agree with the remarks made by my Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). The loss of Shireen Abu Akleh is deeply felt by Palestinians all over the world. She was the iconic voice of reporting on behalf of al-Jazeera from Palestine, and she was the trusted voice that many Palestinians woke up to every day, to find out what was happening in their land. The case was exposed by some other journalists at the time, and we should also pay tribute to the school of forensic architecture at Goldsmiths University, which managed to reconstruct her death scene. That will no doubt help the prosecution, and although that will never bring justice for her because she has been killed, it will at least bring some comfort to her family and to all those who miss her so much.
This debate is about human rights for Palestinians, and fundamentally the whole overarching issue is that of the occupation. Everything we say should be measured against the situation facing Palestinians. The Nakba of 1948 occurred on 15 May, which has now been declared Nakba Day around the world. It saw 750,000 people expelled, and 500 towns and villages destroyed as a result of that, with people for ever living in exile. I have never forgotten on the first visit I made to Gaza in the 1990s, meeting an elderly woman and I asked her about her life. She described the way she lived until 1948, and then she described her life since 1948. She said, “Thanks to UNWRA I’ve had food and water, but that’s all.” She had her whole life under occupation, and she brought up her family under occupation.
It is hard for anyone outside to understand what it is to live under occupation, where a simple journey down the road requires going through several checkpoints, and the humiliation that goes with that. Many of us in the House have visited the west bank and Gaza on various occasions, and found the checkpoints irksome, annoying, irritating, they wind us up and so on, but we are there for only a few days or a week or two. For others it is every single day, and I wonder what goes through the mind of a Palestinian building worker who has to go into Israel to work during the day, and go through the humiliation of dozens of checkpoints. Then, when he is on his way home, he gets delayed for no reason whatsoever, often for hours and hours, while exhausted from a day’s work, and he has to do it all again the next day. That plays on people’s minds. Then, when an ambulance cannot get through and medical aid cannot be delivered because of it, that is where the anger gets worse and worse.
As others have pointed out, the settlements now contain over 700,000 people. There is an interesting synergy on the numbers. Some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1948 and now 750,000 settlers have chosen to live on the west bank. There, they are given protected status, access to water and access to roads. The wall that has been constructed goes through much Palestinian land, and destroys and divides farmland. The occupation is utterly brutal and the UN is not wrong when it describes the situation on the west bank as an apartheid state, where some people are allowed to use some roads and some are not, some are allowed to travel and some are not, and some are allowed to get through borders and some are not. That is the brutality of the situation facing them.
When the settlements are built, house demolitions take place to get ready for them. I have in mind the memory of the late, great Tom Hurndall, whose mother I know very well, because I supported the campaign to try to get justice for Tom. Tom was in Rafah. He was carrying a child across the road. He was helping to save children, because the Israeli defence force was demolishing their homes. He was shot dead on the street. Eventually—eventually—somebody was prosecuted for it. The memory of Tom, Rachel Corrie and so many other internationals who went there to try to help and bring about justice will never go away. This year alone, 98 Palestinians have been killed, including 17 children, and over 2,500 have been seriously injured. The settler violence towards local Palestinian communities largely goes unpunished and the brutality gets worse and worse.
There is an issue about access to healthcare. Even within the terms of the fourth Geneva convention, the occupying power, Israel, is required to do two things. One is not to make any long-term decisions on the future of the people’s existence. That is one of the conditions. The other is to ensure that necessary medical services and aid are provided. It is failing on both counts, never mind on many other counts as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) spoke very well about human rights abuses. He was also quite right about the anger in Israel about the new laws Netanyahu is introducing. What I find mind-blowing is that there are so many on those demonstrations in Israel—I support them if they want to defend their independent judiciary; I absolutely agree with them that that is a fundamental in any democracy—but join up the dots. If you are defending democracy in your own society, why are you denying democracy and denying human rights in the occupied territories such a very short distance away? That is not to say there are not many very brave people in Israel. B’Tselem and other groups have done a great deal to speak up for the human rights of Palestinians, and recognise that the brutality of the occupation inflicts a brutality on the occupier as well. The brutality with which they have dealt with the protests in Israel is an indication of the desperation of Netanyahu and his ilk.
Surely to goodness, the Palestinian people have suffered enough. The least we can do as a country is recognise the state of Palestine—no qualifications—to show that we are serious in speaking up against the abuse of human rights and for an end to the siege of Gaza. Sieges and occupation bring about horrors. They affect people’s minds. They affect the way people behave and they affect the country that is doing the occupying. In this debate today, let us just make the call. We are there supporting the human rights of everybody in the region; we are there calling for an end to the occupation and the settlements, and for the recognition of Palestine.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Since we are having this debate at a time of escalating tension and violence in the middle east, I want to start by putting on record what I did not have time to do in the statement, which is to add my condemnation to any assault on, or murder of, civilians, no matter from what quarter. My sympathy is with the families of those who have lost loved ones in recent weeks and months.
However, as violence increases, I caution against slipping into what we used to call the politics of the last atrocity, whereby we try to understand and explain an event by seeing it as a reaction to the event that happened before. We need a wider, longer-term view that looks at the context and the factors behind what is happening in Israel-Palestine, if we are to have any prospect of beginning to rejuvenate moves towards peace. When we do that, the obvious and glaring thing in front of us is that within 20 years of the state of Israel coming into existence, it began a military occupation of territories outwith its borders that belong to other countries or that were designated by the United Nations as a future homeland of Palestine.
Fifty-six years later, that military occupation continues. That has the biggest bearing on human rights for the people who live in the occupied area, not just because—obviously—by occupying it militarily, basic human rights such as the right to exist and to be, the right to self-determination and the right to for someone to come back to the land from which they were displaced cannot happen, but because it is in the essence of occupation that the population in the occupied area has to be controlled, constrained and subjugated. That is what an occupation has to do to work. Therefore, across every aspect—education, health, travel and everywhere—the human rights of Palestinians have to be suppressed. Until we commit to ending that military occupation, it will be impossible to properly establish human rights for Palestinians.
I am unashamedly an advocate for the human rights of Palestinians, but I also want to see a future where Israel exists in harmony with its neighbours and at peace with itself, as a partner for progress in humanity. That can properly happen only once the occupation ends. It is distressing that we never hear talk of ending the occupation or even pathways towards it—certainly not from the Israeli Government and, most importantly, not from the UK Government. I ask the Minister to comment on how the UK, as a matter of policy, will work towards ending the military occupation.
My hon. Friend speaks with passion and knowledge on this issue. I hear regularly from constituents in Glasgow North who express solidarity with Palestinians and want to ensure that their human rights are fully recognised. He is right about how the UK Government respond to all that. One of the ways to get us on the road to an end to the occupation and the achievement of a two-state solution—still the global consensus of the best way to achieve a long-lasting peace—would be to recognise the state of Palestine, as many Members have said in the debate. Should the Government not follow this Parliament’s lead by making that recognition?
They should, and I will come to that in a moment. I want to say first that there are two major factors in the recent past that ought to dictate a change and a review of UK Government policy. The first is the stated policy of the Israeli Government. People have commented throughout the debate that they are the most extreme right-wing Government in the history of the state of Israel, and that is true. People have commented on Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and some of the vile statements they have made, but it is not just them. As was quoted by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made clear in the mission statement of the new coalition Government that the Jewish people have the right to claim all of Israel. By all of Israel, he means all the land that Israel occupies, from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. There is no room in that perspective for a two-state solution and an independent state of Palestine.
Why do we not stop pretending that the current Israeli Government are a good actor and believe in a long-term two-state solution, when they have clearly stated that they do not? Everything they are doing on the ground is designed to remove the building blocks that would be needed to ever move talk forwards to a two-state solution.
The other factor that needs to be addressed is the escalating and widespread problem of settler violence. Among the settler communities that have been established in the occupied areas, there are now effectively armed militias operating a campaign of violence and intimidation against the local Palestinian population, often with the connivance of, or certainly with the turning of a blind eye by, the official Israeli authorities.
We saw that in Huwara, in what people described as a pogrom, with settlers on the rampage, attacking any Palestinian they could come across in that village. The IDF went in, and as a result of the IDF action, more than 400 Palestinians needed treatment because of tear gas and other injuries. That is an unprecedented situation that ought to require the British Government to change their mind.
I also want to mention the word apartheid. I expect in his notes the Minister has something that says that the British Government do not consider that to be a relevant word in the context of Israel and Palestine, because it is about South Africa, and that they do not agree with the description. Let us be clear: the word apartheid is not an adjective, but a noun. It has a precise legal definition. Respected international and Israeli organisations have spent a lot of time considering the matter and have come to the conclusion that the legal test for the crime of apartheid has been met in the occupied territories and that it is being practised by the Israeli authorities.
We cannot just ignore that. The British Government may wish to come to a different view, but they should do so not by pretending that this is about some sort of linguistic choice about what words people use, but by looking at the coherent and compelling evidence that has been provided and saying whether or not they want to refute that evidence and come to a different conclusion. To simply make no comment on it seems to me to be a gross dereliction of duty.
I finish by putting forward a couple of asks to the Minister. The first is about recognition. This has been said many times, so let me rephrase it: can the Minister explain how British policy in the region would be undermined or compromised in any way by deciding to recognise the state of Palestine now? If that is not to be undermined, then what is the reason for delay? The more delay happens, the more it looks as if this country is not really serious about a two-state solution, when it is prepared to recognise only one of the states in question.
Finally, I come back the road map. Can we have a commitment, as we would with other countries, to make sure that our trading relationships with Israel are centred on the protection of human rights and the rule of international law, and that we are prepared to use the development of those trading relationships to that end?
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this timely and important debate. We have had an excellent debate and covered a wide range of issues concerning human rights violations against Palestinians, ranging from the targeting of journalists, which was raised by my right hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to checkpoints and permits.
This has been one of the deadliest years for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with 98 Palestinians having been killed by Israeli forces, including 17 children, and 17 Israeli civilians having been killed so far, including three British-Israelis. That point has been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and many other hon. Members. Each life lost is a tragedy, and every Palestinian and Israeli deserves a just solution to this conflict, but we cannot deny that the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories has led to significant human rights violations against the Palestinian people. It is in that context that we consider the human rights protections for Palestinians.
I will focus on only three areas, because many points that I wished to raise have been covered by other hon. Members. The first area is the treatment of children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Under the UN convention on the rights of the child, children have special protection and must be protected from violence at all times. Every action necessary must be taken to keep children safe. According to Save the Children, last year alone 34 children were killed by Israeli security forces and settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The use of violence against children can never be justified. I ask the Minister to condemn its use and to tell the House whether he supports the calls from the British consulate general in Jerusalem for thorough and transparent investigations of the deaths of children killed by the Israeli security forces.
In November, I visited the occupied west bank with the Council for Arab-British Understanding and with Medical Aid for Palestinians; I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We heard eyewitness accounts in the south Hebron hills of the demolition of a school in Masafer Yatta. Israeli forces threw in stun grenades while children were inside. We saw videos of children and teachers trying to get out. The school was rebuilt as a temporary school; a few weeks later it was demolished again. The Israeli Government are currently threatening to demolish 58 Palestinian schools in occupied territory. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning the proposed demolitions, and I hope the Minister will comment that it is not right even to threaten to demolish schools.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I condemn any demolitions of schools, an issue that I will come to later in my speech. It is harrowing to hear her testimony and her account.
The treatment of children who are detained and held in the Israeli military detention system, often in solitary confinement and with limited access, if any, to lawyers when interrogated, is also deeply concerning. That point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). In its 2019 report, Save the Children found that child detainees
“face inhumane treatment such as beatings, strip searches, psychological abuse”.
Last year, three parliamentary colleagues and I visited the military courts at Ofer in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) spoke today of her experiences visiting those courts and gave a vivid description of what she saw. We attended a bail hearing of a teenage boy who had been shot and had been questioned without a parent or guardian present. Several colleagues have made the point that Israel is the only country in the world that routinely tries children in military courts, a clear breach of international law.
The next area on which I wish to focus is forcible evictions and demolitions. Paragraph 2 of article 17 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights states:
“No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”
Despite that, Israel seems to be pursuing a policy of forced evictions and demolitions. More than 1,000 Palestinians face eviction in Masafer Yatta in the south Hebron hills. Palestinians in the Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah districts of East Jerusalem and Khan al-Ahmar—which the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), visited last year—face a similar fate. So far this year, there have been 63 demolitions in East Jerusalem alone. In area C, 58 schools are under threat of demolition because it is claimed that they do not have building permits, which I understand are almost impossible to obtain for Palestinians.
After demolition, land is often used to expand or develop settlements, which is illegal because international law requires occupying powers not to move their civilian populations into occupied areas, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) mentioned. He also pointed out that settlements are a risk to a two-state solution. They make it much harder.
In 2019, the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), described Israel’s settlement expansion as an “effective annexation”. It would be a very serious development in international law if it were found to be so. The Minister for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad, visited Masafer Yatta in January and tweeted:
“The UK continues to urge Israel to desist demolitions and evictions that cause unnecessary suffering and are illegal under IHL”—
international humanitarian law—
“in all but most exceptional circumstances.”
However, it seems to have had little effect on the Israeli Government’s actions, so what steps do the Government intend to take to ensure that demolitions and evictions do not carry on at pace, as they have since the start of this year?
The final area on which I wish to focus is the imposition of restrictions preventing Palestinians from moving freely in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The permit system operated by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories limits the ability of Palestinians to travel freely and creates uncertainty and additional layers of bureaucracy and delays, whether people are trying to access medical care in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or to work, study or travel abroad. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who made a very passionate speech.
Similarly, there are visa restrictions on those coming from abroad to work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, such as academics. Israel will argue that a permit system is necessary for security purposes, but the way in which the system is applied can be seen as punitive and unjust. A report published last year by Breaking the Silence, an organisation established by former soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces, described Israel’s military permit system as “bureaucratic violence” used on occasion as “collective punishment”, when an entire family’s travel permits can be revoked, which denies them access to work and to medical care in an instant.
All those human rights violations are a result of the occupation. The solution to these problems must be a two-state solution, with a thriving, prosperous Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel, but sadly we have seen little progress towards that for the past eight years. The onus should be on both sides to get around the table and start talking, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) at the start of his speech. I fear that if this does not happen there will be an escalation in the violence, given the steps already being taken by the Israeli Government, such as giving Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich control over much of the Israeli civil administration, the military body that administers the occupied west bank. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who also referred to last month’s raid on the al-Aqsa mosque.
However, the UK is resisting efforts to hold Israel to account within international institutions. The 2030 road map makes no reference to a two-state solution, and contains commitments that raise concerns about the Government’s willingness to apply diplomatic scrutiny to breaches of international law and their support for the role and independence of international legal institutions such as the ICJ and the ICC. The UK’s capacity to be an honest and consistent diplomatic interlocutor with credibility on all sides relies on a consistent approach to the application of international law. There needs to be more accountability, and the UK Government should be challenging human rights abuses wherever they occur. I therefore ask the Minister these questions. What steps are the Government taking to bring about a two-state solution? Does he support the call for thorough and transparent investigations of the deaths of children killed by Israeli security forces? What further steps will the Government take to put pressure on Israel to stop the evictions and the demolitions?
I began my speech by saying that this had been one of the deadliest years so far in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Let me end by saying that unless urgent action is taken, there is a real risk that the situation will become much worse over the months ahead. The time for action to de-escalate the violence and protect human rights is now.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing the debate, and l am also grateful for the contributions made by all Members this afternoon. I will try to respond to the points that they have raised. It has been a passionate debate, featuring many eloquent, informed and heartfelt speeches from senior and distinguished parliamentarians.
As I said in my statement earlier today, the Government condemn the horrific murder of Lucy, Maia, and Rina Dee by a terrorist—this was also mentioned at the outset of this debate—and we offer our deepest condolences to Rabbi Leo Dee. The decision of the family to donate Lucy’s organs is an act of compassion that stands in extraordinary and vivid contrast to the senseless violence that robbed a family of its mother and two sisters. The United Kingdom unequivocally condemns this and all other acts of terrorism perpetrated against Israel and her citizens.
This is, sadly, a timely debate. Last year, as has been pointed out throughout the debate, was the deadliest in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the second intifada, according to UN records. So far in 2023, 89 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and 19 Israelis killed in acts of terrorism. The UK is actively encouraging de-escalation. We welcome the leadership shown by the Israelis and the Palestinians when they attended the meetings in Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh to discuss ways to de-escalate the rising tensions. We are grateful to the Governments of Jordan, Egypt, and the United States for instigating those discussions. The UK is now working with both sides and international partners to support the process, and calls on both Israel and the Palestinians to honour the commitments made in those meetings. We call on the Palestinian Authority to denounce incitement to violence and to resume its security co-operation with the Israeli authorities, and we say to the Israeli Government that Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence, but its security forces must keep their obligations under international humanitarian law.
On al-Aqsa, also referred to in the debate, both Palestinians and Israelis must avoid actions that risk escalating tensions, including around the holy sites of Jerusalem. The UK calls for all parties to respect the historic status quo arrangements at Jerusalem’s holy sites, and we welcome Israel’s decision to prevent non-Muslims from visiting the al-Aqsa compound for the final days of Ramadan—an important step in support of de-escalation.
I want to address directly the four points that have been made in the debate and that were emphasised by the Opposition spokesman and the hon. Member for Dundee West. First, on demolitions and evictions, the UK is clear that the demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions cause unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians and call into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution. In all but the most exceptional of cases, demolitions by an occupying power are contrary to international humanitarian law. Officials from the British embassy in Tel Aviv have repeatedly raised our concerns about demolitions with Israeli Ministers and senior officials, and urged them to cease the policy of demolitions and to provide a clear, transparent route to construction for Palestinians in area C. The UK Government are also focused on preventing demolitions from happening in the first place, and support Bedouin communities and Palestinians facing demolition or eviction in area C of the west bank through our legal aid programme. The programme helps residents challenge decisions inside the Israeli legal system.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) asked me about child detention in Israel and Save the Children’s 2020 report. We remain committed to working with Israel to secure improvements to the practices surrounding children in administrative detention in Israel. We have made clear our concern about the continued reports of ill treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli administrative detention. Reports of the heavy use of painful restraints and the high number of Palestinian children who are not informed of their legal rights, in contravention of Israel’s own regulations, are particularly troubling, as is the continued transfer of Palestinian child and adult detainees to prisons inside Israel in violation of the fourth Geneva convention. We continue to make representations to the Israeli authorities on this issue and urge them to comply with their obligations under international law and either charge or release those detainees.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman raised access and movement. We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities the damage that their restrictions on movement, access and trade are doing to the living standards of ordinary Palestinians, especially in Gaza. While we welcome the steps that Israel has taken to ease some restrictions, we want to see Israel go much further. We 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 are in close contact with UN agencies and key partners on the ground to assess the situation, and we will monitor that closely.
Fourthly, on construction permits, we have repeatedly made clear to the Israeli authorities our opposition to the demolition of Palestinian properties in area C of the west bank and in East Jerusalem, and we call on them to cease the policy of demolition and to provide a clear, transparent route to construction for Palestinians.
Will the Minister go a step further and condemn the permit system, which is separating Gazan families? On my recent visit to the neonatal unit at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, I saw prematurely born babies who had been separated from their mother and their family for weeks. One baby had been waiting two weeks to be discharged because neither her mother nor another family member in Gaza could get a permit. Will he condemn that? Frankly, Gaza is an open-air prison at the moment.
The Minister has just set out four sets of sins that the UK Government have protested about to the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu. He must therefore accept that our words are failing to deter egregious behaviour. When will he shift from words to deeds, to deter things from getting any worse?
The right hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, underestimates the effect of today’s debate. What is said in the House of Commons will be read. He and I have focused on four particular areas, and what I am saying, and what has been said by Members on both sides of the House, speaks for itself.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) asked me to elaborate on what I said earlier, and he raised important points similar to those raised by the right hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Of course, some years ago and over a prolonged period, all four of us campaigned for the human rights of Shaker Aamer.
The Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority reaffirmed their joint readiness and commitment to work immediately to end unilateral measures for a period of three to six months. That includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months, and to stop the authorisation of any outposts for six months. I hope that is a proper answer to the question.
The UK will always seek to advance the cause of Palestinian human rights in a manner that is fair and balanced, and that supports proportionate and fair international scrutiny of Israel.
I am conscious of the time, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I reiterate that the UK Government want to see the human rights of all Palestinians protected, as this is a vital step towards the creation of a sovereign, independent and viable Palestinian state, living in peace, security and side by side with a safe and secure Israel.
I was asked to give, without equivocation, our position on settlements. The UK’s position on settlements is absolutely clear: settlements are illegal. I was asked about recognition of the Palestinian state, and the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when the Government believe this will best serve the objective of peace.
I thank my constituents, the people of Scotland, the people of the UK and the people across the world who have written to me about this very important debate, to inform and educate me.
I thank everyone in the Chamber, as they have been not only passionate but deeply evidenced and very clear about what needs to change. We have had so many debates on Palestine over the years, and things are getting increasingly worse. Words, in themselves, are not enough, although what the Minister says about the discussions is welcome.
Members on both sides of the House have spoken about values and human rights, as enshrined in international law. This means the UK Government cannot take two sides. They have to take a clear position. If they believe in human rights and international law, they should do something about it by not repeatedly blocking proposals at the UN and the International Criminal Court to judge serious crimes. That would take it out of the UK Government’s hands by allowing the courts to decide the very things for which the UK Government are calling. I did not hear the Minister say that.
Silence is complicity. By doing nothing, we are complicit in not allowing judgment to be taken on these serious crimes.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of human rights protections for Palestinians.