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Khan al Ahmar

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I would like to repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“This morning, officials from our embassy in Tel Aviv and our Consulate General in Jerusalem visited Khan al Ahmar to express our concern and demonstrate the international community’s support for the community. While they were there, they did indeed observe a bulldozer that began levelling the ground. While we have not yet witnessed any demolition of structures, it would appear that demolition is imminent.

We deeply regret this turn of events. Not only has the United Nations said that this would constitute forcible transfer, but it would pave the way for settlement building in E1. In accordance with our long-standing policy, we therefore condemn such a move, which would strike a major blow to prospects for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

The UK has repeatedly raised its concerns with the Israeli authorities and others, including during my visit to Khan al Ahmar on 30 May. On 12 June I issued a video message emphasising the UK’s concern at the village’s imminent demolition, and I reiterated these concerns to the Israeli ambassador to the UK on 20 June. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also expressed his concerns, most recently during his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London on 6 June. The Foreign Secretary’s Statement of 1 June also made it clear that the United Kingdom is deeply concerned by the proposed demolition, which the United Nations has said could amount to forcible transfer, in violation of international and humanitarian law. As recently as Monday, the British ambassador raised the issue with the Israeli national security adviser.

Later today, the British ambassador to Israel will join a démarche alongside European partners to urgently request that the Israeli authorities halt demolition plans. Under Israel’s independent courts and rule of law, it believes that it has the right to take the action that it is beginning today, but it is not compelled to do so and need not do so. A change of plan would be welcomed around the world and would assist the prospects of a two-state solution and an end to this long-standing issue”.

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question. In listening to Alistair Burt’s response to the general debate in the other place, I was absolutely behind his condemnation of the action. He said that, in terms of action, the Government would speak to their EU partners. Will the Minister say whether the Government will undertake, in talking with our EU partners, that high up on the agenda for immediate urgent action will be recognition of the state of Palestine, as this action will clearly threaten the role of the two-state solution?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that the United Kingdom Government do not hold that position. We feel that a distance has to be travelled and that there has to be much greater progress made in relation to the negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We need to see an end to provocative behaviour and violence. The United Kingdom considers that at this stage such a course of action, as requested by the noble Lord, would be premature.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is actually slightly stronger than the one we have in the Printed Paper Office. Are the Government calling in the Israeli ambassador over these actions? Does she fully recognise that these demolitions and forcible removals may spell the end of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, as the noble Lord indicated? Does she note the use of JCB bulldozers in what may count as a war crime by an occupying power? Will the UK now review the granting of relevant export licences?

As the noble Baroness is aware, there is a regular diplomatic exchange between the United Kingdom and Israel—indeed, in the repeat of the Answer that was made crystal clear. What is beyond doubt is that demolitions and evictions of Palestinians from their homes cause unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians and, frankly, call into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution. That is profoundly regrettable, because everyone desires to see progress made, but both entities have to be committed to taking forward that process.

I would also point out that these demolitions and evictions, in all but the most exceptional cases, are contrary to international humanitarian law. The United Kingdom, as I indicated, will consider these matters further with our European partners as they progress. We think that a threat of demolition is imminent but, as I speak, there is no evidence that the demolition has happened. We will respond to events as they take place, in concert with our European partners.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I applaud the Government’s stand on this and the very strong stand taken by our ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, and our consul-general to Jerusalem, Philip Hall. The people of Khan al Ahmar, where I have been, are delightful people. They have been plagued by settlers trespassing on their land, lighting fires and trying to take away the small livelihood that they eke from some rather meagre land. I very much hope that the Government will be able to stop this demolition—but, if they are not, these lovely people are going to be moved next to the municipal rubbish dump. I hope that we can do something to ensure that, if their village is demolished, they can go somewhere far better than that.

I think that there will be a lot of sympathy with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. No one can view these events with anything but a very heavy heart and profound concern about what the implications will be—as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, correctly pointed out—for the negotiation of a peace process. We expect people to be treated humanely, we expect them to be treated with compassion and, above all, we expect law to be observed and human rights to be respected.

Does the noble Baroness agree that the Khan al Ahmar school represents an amazing example of community self-help and shows how the Bedouin community values education? Will the Government consider, and act urgently towards, a supranational court to decide legal issues of this kind that occur in long-occupied territories?

The noble Lord raises an interesting suggestion. As he is aware, there is already a global framework of legal fora for determining issues where there are either transgressions of human rights or breaches of acceptable state activity. I am not aware of any recent discussions by the United Kingdom Government on the point that he raises, but I will certainly undertake to make further inquiry and, if there is information that I can share with him, I will do so.

My Lords, I welcome very much the Government’s condemnation of the actions of the Government of Israel and all the representations that they make, but, sadly, it never amounts to very much action. Can they, in this case, look at getting together with our European partners—while we still have European partners—to discuss suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement on trade until Israel complies with international law?

As I said, the United Kingdom Government are monitoring events as they unfold and, should demolition take place, we are in conversation with like-minded European partners about possible next steps.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the decision of the American Government to put their embassy in Jerusalem has encouraged the Israeli Government to conduct actions that are both illegal and profoundly unwise, and would my noble friend ask the Prime Minister to raise this subject and make that comment to President Trump when we have the pleasure of welcoming him to the United Kingdom?

I thank my noble friend for his question. It is the case that the United Kingdom did not consider the decision of the United States in relation to its embassy helpful—certainly the United Kingdom Government have no intention of moving their embassy from Tel Aviv. As to what may or may not be discussed during the forthcoming visit by President Trump to this country, between him and the Prime Minister, is for them to determine. I imagine that the Prime Minister will have a list of things that she is keen to raise.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a further 46 communities across the West Bank face the same fate of demolition and forcible transfer, according to the UN? This is far more widespread than Khan al Ahmar, amounting to a systematic policy to prevent a Palestinian state of any meaning.

As I made clear, the history of demolitions is profoundly regrettable. According to the information I have, which is provided by the United Nations, from January to May 2018 Israel has demolished 175 structures, displacing 161 people; and during 2017 Israel demolished 423 structures on the West Bank, displacing 664 people. Although we have considered at an earlier stage what this means for the peace process and the possibility of agreement ever being reached between the two entities, we must never forget that these figures depict families in distress, communities being torn apart and the complete disruption of a peaceful section of society. That is, in human terms, greatly to be regretted.

My Lords, it will be some little time before the Prime Minister meets President Trump, but could she be persuaded to speak today to Mr Netanyahu and tell him what enormous concern there is in this country among those who count themselves friends of Israel—as I do—at the actions of the Israeli Government?

I am sure that my noble friend’s comments will have been noted. As I have already indicated, this situation is being monitored and there is already extensive diplomatic exchange—but I have no doubt that my noble friend’s request will have been noted.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point in relation to the Israel-EU free trade agreement. Could I ask the Minister to discuss with the Government whether we can talk with other EU partners about the potential suspension of the agreement if Article 2, referring to human rights and the rule of law, is not upheld?

The United Kingdom Government will assess and then respond to events as they unfold. As I said earlier, we are in conversation with like-minded European partners about possible next steps. I cannot pre-empt what these will be, but there is universal concern and, if matters intensify, I have no doubt that there will be a raft of suggestions that we and our EU partners will want to consider.