Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 May.
“The recent escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is deeply concerning. It is the worst violence seen there for several years. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made clear, this cycle of violence must stop and every effort must be made to avoid the loss of life, especially that of children. The UK offers our deepest condolences to the families of those civilians killed. Civilian deaths, both in Israel and Gaza, are a tragedy.
We urge all sides to refrain from any kind of provocation so that calm is restored as quickly as possible. As we enter the final days of the holy month of Ramadan, restoration of peace and security is in everyone’s interest. The UK will continue to support that goal. The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations in Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism from Hamas and other terrorist groups, who must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for any targeting of civilians. Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, are in line with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable. The UK has been clear that the attacks on worshippers must stop. The status quo in Jerusalem is important at all times, but especially so during religious festivals such as Ramadan. Our priority now must be an immediate de-escalation on all sides and an end to civilian deaths.
As I made clear over the weekend, we are concerned about tensions in Jerusalem linked to threatened evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. That threat is allayed for now, but we urge Israel to cease such actions, which in most cases are contrary to international humanitarian law. The UK continues to support international efforts to reduce the tension. The Foreign Secretary delivered a message of de-escalation in a call to the Israeli Foreign Minister yesterday and will speak to the Palestinian Prime Minister shortly. I have spoken to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in the UK to urge them to de-escalate and to restore calm. The UK has also engaged at the UN Security Council, calling for all sides to take measures to reduce further violence and making clear our deep concern at the violence at the holy sites in Jerusalem. I am sure that the Security Council will continue to monitor the situation closely, and it is due to reconvene. UK embassies throughout the middle east are engaging with regional partners, and we remain in close contact with the US Administration and our European allies.
The situation on the ground over the last few days demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards peace. The UK remains committed to a two-state solution as the best way to bring peace and stability to the region. I repeat: we urge all sides to show maximum restraint and refrain from taking actions that endanger civilians and make a sustainable peace more difficult.”
My Lords, I note what James Cleverly, the Minister, said yesterday. I heard him on the “Today” programme this morning, and I totally share his sentiments on the violence. We need to know that this Government, at the highest level, are working with all our allies to get all sides around the table to talk, with the Palestinian people recognised as equal partners in that conversation. I ask the noble Lord the Minister: has the Prime Minister spoken to President Biden? Following yesterday’s closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, can the Minister update the House on whether the council will take any concerted action to protect civilians?
I thank the noble Lord for his welcome for what my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East said in the other place and in his broadcast this morning. The ongoing violence across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is deeply concerning and must stop. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said, we want to see both sides stepping back from this. The Foreign Secretary delivered a message of de-escalation in his call to Israeli Foreign Minister Ashkenazi on Tuesday and to Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh yesterday. We are working with our partners, including those in the region, and remain in close contact with the US Administration and European allies.
My Lords, this is an extremely dangerous situation, and we condemn violence on all sides, particularly today, as many—including, no doubt, the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad—are celebrating Eid. But rocket boosters must now be put under a peace and justice process, not violent attacks. Will the Government condemn the forced evictions from east Jerusalem, Israeli actions in the al-Aqsa mosque and the bombing and possible ground war in Gaza as clearly as they have rightly condemned rocket attacks from Gaza? It is in no one’s interest to escalate conflict here, and all must be held properly to account for any human rights abuses and breaking of international law.
The noble Baroness is right; de-escalation is important, and that is a point we are making to all parties. Clearly, violence against peaceful worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque was unacceptable. The UK is committed to preserving the religious status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan and today as, as she says, Eid al-Fitr begins. We wish all those celebrating Eid Mubarak. We urge all parties to respect this and to refrain from provocation.
My Lords, it is too simplistic, and morally inept, to start apportioning blame, counting lives lost on either side and comparing damage. Funds poured into Gaza have been used to build rockets, not alleviate poverty. This confrontation is the work of Iran, which: funds Hamas; is calling for the use of missiles; wants to disrupt the Abraham Accords; and is behind the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the area. The escalation of tension was long-planned and fuelled by Abbas fearing that Hamas would win an election. Will the Minister use the forthcoming G7 gathering to point out the dangers of appeasing Iran by returning to the ineffective Iran nuclear deal? And will he position the UK to fill the power vacuum left by President Biden’s inaction?
My Lords, the UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets into Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism from Hamas and other terrorist groups, which must permanently end their incitement of and rocket fire against Israel. We are working, as I say, with our partners in the region. We have engaged Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations to support their efforts to mediate and are stressing that we want to see both sides step back from this and the situation de-escalated.
My Lords, as the Minister says, the first objective must be to de-escalate and stop the terrible violence on both sides. But in working to achieve this, no one should lose sight of the underlying problems that have led to it. Will the Government reconsider their position on a referral to the International Criminal Court? What discussions are the Government having with the US about putting concerted pressure on the Israeli Government to: stop ethnic cleansing in east Jerusalem, in which Palestinians are being forced out of the houses they own; stop the creeping, de facto annexation of the West Bank via further illegal settlements; and, more generally, respect the human rights of Palestinians, both within Israel and the Occupied Territories? These include their right to worship in the al-Aqsa mosque without it being stormed by right-wing thugs and the Israeli police.
My Lords, the UK is a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court. We are committed to strengthening the court so it can best serve international justice. We oppose the investigation related to the Occupied Palestinian Territories on the grounds that the court does not have jurisdiction in the OPTs. The UK is a friend of Israel, but our concerns about evictions of Palestinians from their homes are long-standing and well known. They are unacceptable and contrary to the cause of peace.
My Lords, the alarming conflict that Israel and the people in Gaza are now enduring was instigated by an unprovoked attack on Israel on Monday night by terrorists in Gaza. In its military action since then, Israel has made every effort to minimise civilian casualties, including warning of a planned strike on a building complex so that occupants could safely leave. The terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have no respect for life and have fired over 1,500 rockets indiscriminately into Israel, killing Israelis and Arabs alike. What steps are the Government taking to ensure an end to weapon smuggling into Gaza, particularly by states such as Iran?
My Lords, the UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and any locations within Israel. As I say, there is no justification for the targeting of civilians. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism from Hamas and other terrorist groups and want them permanently to end their incitement and rocket fire. Our priority now must be an immediate de-escalation on all sides and an end to the killing of civilians.
My Lords, everybody should condemn these rocket attacks, but do the Government agree that Israel’s absolute right to exist cannot justify evicting its own Arab citizens from their homes in Jerusalem? As the respected Human Rights Watch reported, the State of Israel is perpetrating international crimes against the Palestinian people, and these practices are at the root of the current tit-for-tat civil war, tragically endangering its own, Jewish citizens as well.
My Lords, we are aware of the Human Rights Watch report, which the noble Lord mentions, and we will review the findings. The UK continues to engage with the Israeli Government on human rights issues in the context that the report raises. The situation on the ground demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards peace and, of course, the immediate situation is best helped by de-escalation on both sides.
I refer the House to my interests as set out in the register. Leaders make choices for their people. Some will choose to save lives by purchasing vaccines or investing in Iron Dome technology to defend their people; others may prefer to buy deadly rockets and complain, to those who shamefully listen, that they have no vaccines. Our integrated review said:
“we will increase our efforts to protect open societies and democratic values where they are being undermined.”
In that spirit, can my noble friend name one country on earth that would be expected to tolerate the incessant attacks on innocent civilians by Hamas, the Iran-backed terror organisation committed to its annihilation?
The UK remains resolute in its commitment to Israel’s security. We utterly condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate and abhorrent rocket attacks, as I say. Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence. In using it, it is vital that all actions it takes are proportionate, are in line with international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties.
My Lords, how can terrorists import thousands of Iranian rockets but Israel be blamed for a lack of food or medicine? How can anyone believe that Hamas wants peace when it is committed to Israel’s destruction, with no regard whatever for innocent life? Hamas is exploiting the PA’s weakness after it cancelled elections, a century-old legal dispute about four houses, and violence in Jerusalem to provoke this crisis. Does the Minister agree that there is no equivalence between terrorists raining down rockets on civilians and a legitimate, democratic Government defending itself?
Hamas’s military wing, as the noble Lord will know, has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK since 2001. The UK retains a policy of no contact with Hamas in its entirety. The UK unequivocally and strongly condemns the firing of rockets into Israel. We want them to stop, and we want a permanent end to this incitement and rocket fire, and a de-escalation of the situation today.