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Occupied Palestinian Territories

Volume 829: debated on Monday 27 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the recent transfer of governance powers in parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories from Israeli military authorities to Israeli civilian ministries, and (2) the implications of this transfer for securing a lasting peace in the region.

My Lords, as the occupying power in the West Bank, Israel’s presence is governed by the provisions of the Geneva convention, and we call on Israel to abide by its obligations under international law. We are still examining the consequences of the recent transfer of some governance powers in the Israeli Ministry of Defense related to the occupation. The UK remains of the belief that there is no better alternative than a two-state solution for peace and for realising the national aspirations of both the Palestinians and Israelis.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, in the negotiation of the recent trade deal with Israel, which, according to the Prime Minister, was based on the common values of democracy, what assurances did the UK Government seek from the Netanyahu Government over compliance with international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the avowed intent of the Netanyahu Government to remove democratic safeguards by emasculating the judiciary, in the face of massive opposition from Israeli citizens? What assurances did they receive?

As noble Lords will know, our Prime Minister spoke to Mr Netanyahu just a few days ago as part of the development of the road map. The road map does not in any way change our support for a two-state solution. Our position on the settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law, they present an obstacle to peace and they threaten the physical viability of a two-state solution. Our position is reflected in our continued support for UN Security Council Resolution 2334.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, last week, a Minister in the Netanyahu Government opined that the Palestinians are neither a people nor a nation? Is that the view of His Majesty’s Government? If not, did that view get communicated by the Prime Minister to Prime Minister Netanyahu when he saw him? Also, what line did the Prime Minister take on the intention of the present Israeli Government to expand the scale of illegal settlements?

My Lords, the remarks that the noble Lord refers to absolutely do not reflect the position of the UK Government and nor, I believe, do they reflect the view of the vast majority of people in Israel. High-level members of the current Government there have found themselves having to speak out on the same issue.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, particularly those relating to friendship with Israel. Does my noble friend agree with the sentiments of Golda Meir, who said that it is very difficult to negotiate with people who are trying to kill you? Looking for a secure and lasting peace in the region, does my noble friend think it would be sensible for the Palestinian Authority to cease the “pay to slay” policy whereby Palestinians are rewarded financially for the murder of an Israeli, whether it is an army officer or a child?

My Lords, I fully subscribe to the comments my noble friend quotes. It is very hard to negotiate if one side does not believe that you have the right to exist, and it is clear from the security situation today that things are particularly fragile. Last year, a very large number of Palestinians and Israelis were killed by acts of violence, and 2023 started the same way. We are all appalled by the recent terror attacks near Jerusalem that killed two Israelis, and the attack on Sunday 26 February, which killed two Israelis on the West Bank. We condemn these attacks, as we do all such attacks, in the strongest possible terms, and we condemn the glorification of violence that so often happens among those in Gaza.

Does the Minister acknowledge that for years, if not decades, Ministers in his position on that Front Bench have reiterated support for a two-state solution and opposition to illegal settlement by the Israelis in the Palestinian territories? Can he confirm that there has been no progress whatsoever on either of those fronts in all the time that Ministers have been expressing those wishes and desires? Does he further agree that there is a diminishing prospect of any kind of two-state solution so long as the illegal Israeli occupation of parts of Palestinian territory continues?

My Lords, the UK’s long-standing position on the Middle East peace process is clear and remains clear. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders, with equal land swaps to reflect the national security and religious interests of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. That is our position and always has been our position.

Regarding the settlements, there too our position remains unchanged. We want to see a contiguous West Bank, including east Jerusalem, as part of a viable sovereign Palestinian state, based on those same 1967 lines. We recognise that many such settlements are contrary to international law.

In his Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, the Minister said that the occupation should be governed by the Geneva convention and that the question of whether the transfer from military to civilian rule contravened or agreed with the convention was still being examined. When that examination has taken place, will the Minister kindly put the result in the Library?

My Lords, previously the Foreign Office indicated that it would not engage at ministerial or official level with Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich—the Minister referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. In a recent debate, the noble Lord the Minister said from the Dispatch Box that we would now engage with them and all Ministers in the Israeli Government, so why has there been this change of approach? Also recently, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, the Trade Minister, said that human rights will not now be part of trade agreements. So can the noble Lord answer my noble friend’s Question and confirm that British Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have stated that the long-held protection for the illegally occupied territories in trade relations with the UK will be maintained in a specific chapter in any Israel-UK FTA?

The noble Lord asked a lot of questions and I doubt whether I will be able to answer them all. In both this House and the other House, the UK has repeatedly and strongly condemned the comments of the Israeli Finance Minister, who, as the noble Lord will know, called for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be “wiped out”. We condemn his recent comments, which deny the very existence of the Palestinian people, their right to self-determination, their history and their culture. The UK has been unequivocal in its condemnation of that language.

My Lords, I was in the West Bank last week and I talked to Palestinians. They said—and this was supported by surveys—that they no longer believe in the two-state solution. They saw what happened in Gaza, they do not trust their leadership and they want the advantage that Israeli benefits in health and so on can give them. Now is perhaps the time for the FCDO to lead the way and come up with a more imaginative solution, possibly modelled on the United Kingdom, where we have separate Governments for separate countries, because the two-state solution is a very long way away.

My noble friend is vastly more knowledgeable about and qualified to speak about this issue than I am, and he makes a fascinating contribution. The reality is that, wherever things end up, a prerequisite has to be the cessation of terrorism and violence on both sides.

My Lords, in last week’s exchanges on the road map for future relationships with Israel, the Foreign Secretary also met with Eli Cohen, the Israeli Foreign Minister. The Foreign Office said that the recent spike in violence would be discussed, so can the Minister tell us what the outcome of those discussions was and whether any practical steps were agreed to support de-escalation?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give details on the nature of the exchange; I will have to get back to the noble Lord with that information. However, I do know that the concerns that both sides of this House have raised were raised in strong terms by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in their respective discussions.