I beg to move,
That this House has considered Israel and Palestinian talks.
Looking around the Chamber, I am conscious that, first, a great many colleagues want to speak in the debate, and, secondly, there is a great deal of knowledge about this subject in the House. Accordingly, I do not intend to speak for long at this stage, on the basis that that will give me more time at the end of the debate in which to respond to some of the questions that are bound to be asked.
Having knocked around this issue for about 30 years—as some other Members in the Chamber have done—I know that many aspects of it are well known to us, and that restating them would probably be less effective than dealing with questions and looking at current issues, which is what I intend to do. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not cover everything in my opening speech. No offence is intended, but I shall have a little more time to deal with the major questions when I respond to the debate.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this important issue. A just and lasting settlement between Israelis and Palestinians that resolves the elements of conflict between them and delivers peace for all their peoples is long overdue and desired by friends of both all over the world. A lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will only come about through a two-state solution negotiated between the parties, and that is the United Kingdom’s position.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his rightful place on the Front Bench. Does he agree that one of the tragedies of this conflict is that for many years both sides have seemed to know what a deal looks like but, sadly, have never got there? One of the views in the middle east region is that that is in part because Hamas can never agree with Abu Mazen. Indeed, some will say that Hamas does not want a peace deal because it does not suit their interests.
There are many blockages on the way to peace, and a number of them will come up during the course of this debate. Hamas’s inability to accept the existence of the state of Israel is plainly one of them, and there are plenty more. As my hon. Friend said, it is a long-standing tragedy that the broad outlines of what many of us consider to be a deal are available and known, but the steps needed to convert that into action have not yet been taken.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench once again. What is his view of some of the peace builders, in particular the ecumenical visitors who accompany various groups between both parties and attempt to build bridges?
Again, I will come on to issues such as two-track possibilities. Many people have a contribution to make. One of the agonies of the situation is that so many people urge good will and want a resolution, yet there are blockages that prevent that from happening. However, everyone with good intent is welcome into the process.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend back—again, again—to the Front Bench. It is good to see him back at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, too.
This debate too often becomes polarised, so may we from the outset establish that in all things this debate should be reasonable? Will my right hon. Friend therefore condemn the recent march in London under the banner of Hezbollah flags and also some of the pillorying of those of us who consider ourselves to be supporters of the state of Israel, as critical friends? During the general election campaign, a supporter of the Leader of the Opposition screamed the name of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in my face, and then proceeding to describe me as “Israeli scum” and “Zionist scum” because of the simple fact that I list myself as a friend of Israel—I would say that I am also a friend of the Palestinian people. That sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Sadly, as Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, extremism of language and a deliberate design to hurt or belittle those of different views has become part of our modern political life and discourse. That sort of language has absolutely no place on an issue such as this, which is extremely sensitive and well-balanced, and on which there are strong views on both sides and deeply ingrained worries and insecurities about taking steps forward. That language will never have any place in this House, as we know, but it does not help the arguments of anyone outside, and nor does it help any of us to reach out to our friends to try and find the solution we are looking for.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his place.
Further to the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), many of my constituents were deeply upset and offended to see the flag of Hezbollah flying on the streets of London at the recent al-Quds rally. What can the Government do to stop this representation of a Jew-hating terrorist organisation? Can anything be done to ban that hateful organisation in this country altogether?
For the avoidance of doubt, and to assist colleagues speaking later, I am very pleased to be back at the Dispatch Box. I appreciate and am very grateful for so many kind comments. It is debates such as this that remind me exactly what I have got myself back into.
The military arm of Hezbollah is proscribed in the United Kingdom and we have no contact with its political wing. I saw the pictures of flags belonging to Hezbollah that portrayed arms and had a little sticker that was designed to deflect legal action. I am not acting as a lawyer here, and I do not know whether carrying those flags with that sticker is against the law—that is a matter for the courts. In the circumstances, however, I cannot see that they add anything to the debate or enable the people of the United Kingdom to take a full part in the reasoned and difficult discussions that we need to have on this issue, no matter how strongly people feel about it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.
No. The right hon. Gentleman is a great friend and colleague who knows a lot about this subject, and I hope he will get a chance to speak later.
I share the frustration of us all—in the House and beyond—at the lack of progress on a peace settlement. The present tragic situation on the ground demonstrates the urgent need to progress towards peace. We need to see revived efforts from the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, and we urge both sides to work together to meet their obligations under the Oslo accords. Israel and the Palestinian Authority should do all they can to reverse the negative trends identified in the report released by the middle east Quartet on 1 July 2016.
I want to look into some of the blockages and to give a balanced response to them. First, in relation to the Palestinian Authority, I continue to welcome President Abbas’s commitment to a two-state solution. It is important that the Palestinian leadership should engage with determination and create the conditions for success. Having known him for many years, I am sure that he is aware of the importance of the opportunity provided by President Trump’s recent engagement with the issue. It is critical, however, that the Palestinian leadership implements the recommendations of the Quartet report and continues its efforts to tackle terror and incitement, to strengthen its institutions and to develop a sustainable economy.
We in this House must also recognise the damage that the division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority does to the Palestinian body politic. Ultimately, it is the innocent people of Gaza who have suffered from a decade of Hamas administration. Hamas faces a fundamental decision about whether it is prepared to accept the Quartet principles and join efforts for peace, or if it will continue to use terror and anti-Semitic incitement, leading to terrible consequences for the people of Gaza and Israel, including the failure to close the Palestinian fissure and therefore to make progress. Gaza must remain a constituent part of a future Palestinian state with the west bank, and with East Jerusalem as the state’s capital.
A further barrier to peace with which it is sometimes difficult for the Palestinian Authority to deal is the attitude taken towards terrorists and their portrayal as martyrs. Although the track records of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have shown their genuine commitment to non-violence and a negotiated two-state solution, this remains an area of great difficulty.
On the Israeli side, it is important that the Government of Israel reaffirm their commitment to a two-state solution. Every Israeli Prime Minister since Ehud Barak in the 1990s has advocated a two-state solution as the only way to permanently end the Arab-Israeli conflict and to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity. However, there are now differences of opinion within Israeli society, which has changed a great deal over 30 years. There are concerns about security risks from other areas. Polls of Israeli public opinion show that although everyone wants peace, seeking a solution to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians is not always the first item on the political agenda. There is a real deficit of trust on both sides, and we encourage all parties to work together to find a lasting solution.
I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman wrote my speech or had early sight of it, but perhaps I could turn to the next paragraph before giving way to my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris).
Vital to getting an environment that is conducive to fresh negotiations is avoiding actions that undermine the viability of lasting peace. One such action is building settlements. The United Kingdom’s view is clear and unchanged: settlement building seriously undermines the prospects of two states for two peoples. I am extremely concerned by reports this week of plans to construct more than 1,800 new housing units in East Jerusalem. In the UK’s view, all settlements are illegal under international law. If confirmed, the plans would be the latest example of an accelerating policy of illegal settlement expansion. That would take us further away from a two-state solution and raises serious questions about the Israeli Government’s commitment to achieving the shared vision of Israel living side by side with a viable, independent and contiguous Palestinian state. We have always been clear—I certainly have—that settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict, and we have to be careful not to be sidetracked by one side or the other. It is not about one thing or the other. That is the problem: there are so many different things.
The people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism and anti-Semitic incitement, but it has long been our position that settlement activity is illegal and that it undermines the viability of two states for two peoples. We are gravely concerned that an increase in the pace of settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the west bank presents a strategic threat to a peaceful resolution of this conflict. As a strong friend of Israel, we urge the Israeli Government to show restraint on the construction of settlements, and to avoid steps that reduce the prospects for peace and security in the region and make it harder to achieve a different relationship between Israel and the Arab world.
It is worth noting that recent polling shows that a clear majority of both Israelis and Palestinians want peace, with a clear majority in favour of a two-state solution. However, it is hard to see that happening when Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas routinely and completely lets down Palestinian people in their quest for peace?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I mentioned that earlier. Peace is very much the desire of the peoples in the areas concerned, but the awkwardness is how to get there. I have said before from the Dispatch Box that there are always 100 reasons to say no, but we have to find the reasons why people should say yes.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; like everyone else, I am pleased to see him back in his rightful place. We have just been debating Northern Ireland, the history of which has taught us that courageous political leadership and a willingness to compromise are absolutely essential to progress. Does he share my view that the absence of such courageous political leadership on all sides in the current Israel-Palestine conflict is the biggest obstacle to bringing about the peace that we all wish to see?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman suggests that there is a gap into which courageous leadership should come. It is certainly true that for every courageous step taken, there are issues that pull people back, which may demonstrate that a courageous position might not be well enough rewarded. Leaving Gaza, for example, has not brought the swap of land for peace that the Israeli Government intended when they left. Courageous acts sometimes do not occur because they may make the situation worse. The outside world needs to assist in the building of trust, so that those courageous acts can be taken. There are examples from both sides of where leaders have been prepared to take courageous acts, and that is what the situation calls for.
If I may, I will make a little more progress and then look to finish, otherwise I will not be able to fulfil my commitment.
Having looked at the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, a third element is the United States. If there is one area of the world in which the recently elected President of the United States is engaged, it is clearly the middle east and Israel. We welcome his strong leadership on the issue of middle east peace, as underlined by his visit to the region. It is incumbent on all parties to seize whatever new opportunity there may be to move forward for peace, so we look forward to working with President Trump and his advisers for a peace deal that meets the requirement of both parties, reflects our long-standing support for a two-state solution and takes the chance being offered by his election to move forward.
Historically, when a two-state solution has almost been reached, it has been on the basis of negotiations where there were no preconditions between either side. That has to be a fundamental principle. The Minister says he has been looking at this issue for 30 years. Having no preconditions leads to a potential two-state solution.
I agree with my hon. Friend on that. It is not for those of us from outside to suggest or dictate terms, but it is clear that if movement is to be made in a situation where everyone is so very familiar with it, there should be as few constraints as possible. Having an absence of any condition before people talk is probably one of those things that we all know happens behind the scenes, and it is important that that is recognised.
I visited the region almost two years ago, when one of the many things that struck me was the detention of child prisoners in Palestine who are taken through the military court system. Many allegations of abuse have been made. I know that the Minister is a very decent man and I hope he will look at this issue in his role.
I thank the hon. Lady. Yes, this is an issue on which I have been long engaged, and discussions are going on with the Israeli authorities about the holding of children in military detention. The UK has already expressed its concern about that, and the hon. Lady can be assured that I will do so again.
I wish to finish by discussing two more things. First, I wish to recognise that this is the centenary of the Balfour declaration. This is a part of our history that divides opinion in this country and in the region, and we will treat it sensitively. I do not think it is incompatible to be proud of the UK’s role in the creation of the state of Israel and yet to feel sadness that the long-standing issues between the relative communities created by it have not yet been resolved. It was a historic statement and the UK is proud of its role in the creation of Israel, but it is unfinished business and, accordingly, in this centenary year we are especially focused on encouraging the Israelis and the Palestinians to take steps that will bring them closer to peace.
It is not the UK Government’s intention to recognise a Palestinian state; we believe it should come in due course, at the conclusion of the talks to settle the issue, and I do not believe that position is going to change.
I wish to conclude, as the House has been very patient. We will continue to work through multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and the European Union, to support resolutions and policies that encourage both sides to take steps that rebuild trust, while recognising that it will eventually only be for the two sides themselves to bring about success.
I thank the Lazarus of the Government Front Bench for giving way. Before he concludes, I hope he will mention and deal with the extremely unhelpful role of Iran in the affairs of Israel and of the wider middle east, not least in this context of Iran’s strong support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Apropos of that, should we not now call time on this charade of distinguishing between the military and the political wing of Hezbollah?
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will perhaps deal with that issue in my concluding remarks; otherwise, I will have been unfair to people by going on for too long.
The United Kingdom is also strongly supportive of a regional approach to peace. The relationship of Arab states with Israel over a variety of matters means that there has never been a better time to try to make sure that they are playing an active part, both in helping to resolve Palestinian issues and in understanding that their recognition of Israel and the plugging in of Israel to the economy of the middle east would have a profound impact throughout the middle east, where there is a demographic bulge and where many jobs are going to need to be created. There are so many good reasons for the situation to be resolved, and that is one of them. Arab states have a particular role to play.
In conclusion, we remain committed to encouraging both the Israelis and the Palestinians to revitalise the peace process. International action has an important role to play, but, ultimately, an agreement can be achieved only by direct negotiation between the parties. Only the Israelis and the Palestinians can bring about the lasting peace that their people seek and that is long overdue. I am absolutely certain that every single one of us in this House would want to wish them well in that and encourage such efforts.
I begin, as so many Members have, by welcoming the new Minister for the Middle East to his role. He fulfilled a similar but more junior role with great distinction for several years, and I am sure he will do so again. I am also sure that he will continue to bring the same passion for the cause of finding peace between Israel and Palestine that he always has brought to the issue, and that he always brings to issues in the House.
My pleasure at welcoming the Minister to his new role is tempered by the fact that I truly believe that if the Government call a debate on such a serious foreign policy issue as the future of talks between Israel and Palestine—this is the first time a Government have done so for 10 years, I believe—and that debate is held in Government time, it would not be unreasonable to expect the Foreign Secretary himself to make the effort to lead the discussion. I do not mean to undermine how much I welcome the Minister and what he has said but, although some Members might disagree, when 100 years ago Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, decided that the British Government should publicly declare their support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, he wrote the letter in his own name. He did not delegate the task to his junior Ministers, because he realised that not only do words matter but that who says them matters very much.
I regret that the Foreign Secretary has chosen not to speak today, but I am afraid it is all part of a pattern. Since the Yom Kippur war in 1973, we have fought 12 elections in this country and the Conservative party has published 12 manifestos. During that whole period, the most recent election is only the second time the Tory party has failed to mention the middle east even once in its whole manifesto. Even the 2005 manifesto—a document so parochial, insular and isolationist that it did not even mention Russia or the United States—said that a Conservative Government would
“work to achieve peace in the Middle East based on the principle of Israel secure within its borders and a viable Palestinian state.”
Ten years later, in its 2015 manifesto, the Conservative party said it would
“support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, robustly defending the right of Israel to protect its security, while continuing to condemn illegal settlement building, which undermines the prospects for peace”.
So, we have to ask ourselves what has changed. We have to ask why the Conservative party has been prepared to spell out its middle east policy in 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, and just two years ago in 2015, but its latest manifesto says absolutely nothing—or as some might say klum, or as others might say, la shayy. I do not know what the Foreign Secretary’s explanation is, and we are not going to find out today. He might blame Nick Timothy, or his good friend Sir Lynton Crosby, but I must say that I drafted my section of Labour’s manifesto; why did the Foreign Secretary trust someone else to do his?
When debating this issue, it is important to do so seriously and to raise serious matters. I am surprised at the tone that the right hon. Lady adopts. If she wants to continue to use the Lynton Crosby style of politics in this place, I have to tell her that it is discredited, outdated and does not work. Surely it is better to engage on the substance of the debate. The point that I am making today is that at the last general election, the Conservative party did not mention the middle east and it did not mention Palestine and Israel. I am coming on in my speech to wonder why that is and to put forward a few explanations.
The shadow Foreign Secretary is very dismissive of her leader’s description of Hamas and Hezbollah as friends. I have to say to her that a great many of my constituents, many of whom are Jewish, are deeply worried and troubled by the prospect of someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom describing those two Jew-hating terrorist organisations as his friends. I would welcome it if the shadow Foreign Secretary were to take the opportunity to withdraw, on behalf of the Labour party, those comments that have caused so much upset and offence in the community.
One way we can approach this is by looking at the truth of the situation, which is that, in order to engage people in peace, the leader of my party wishes to bring them together to encourage them to discuss matters. It is only through discussion and agreement that we can make progress.
Before the hon. Gentleman jumps up and down, let me just finish my point. [Interruption.] Please, I urge Members to calm down a little. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) has some good ideas about what a future peace process between Israel and Palestine might look like, he may get a letter from the Leader of the Opposition, asking him up to the second floor of Norman Shaw South to discuss it with him—he is quite happy to discuss peace and people’s ideas. However, if Government Members continue to use one of the main guns of the Lynton Crosby campaign, which is discredited and has not worked, I will not take any further interventions from them.
My right hon. Friend has rightly talked about the seriousness of the issue. Our focus must urgently be on those who are living in Israel and Palestine and those who are suffering tremendously. It is important to acknowledge the worsening of the humanitarian situation. Two million people are trapped in the Gaza strip, half of them children. In 2012, the UN said that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. Many experts say that 2020 is already here. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we focus on those real issues and that we move the debate forward in a productive way today?
My hon. Friend is quite right: when 80% of people who live in Gaza are dependent on aid to survive, it is a very important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who will be summing up the debate at the end of the day, will be dealing particularly with humanitarian issues.
I shall make a little more progress on the point I was making, while messages are perhaps sent to Lynton Crosby for a different script. I drafted my section of the Labour manifesto, so why did the Foreign Secretary trust someone else to draft his? The reason, I suggest, is this: if we have always known in this country, ever since the Balfour declaration 100 years ago, that when statesmen and stateswomen in this country are prepared to set down in black and white their policies on the middle east, those words have an impact. When they are set out by the most senior figures as official Government policy, they matter even more. I know that the Minister has said some very important things today, but the point is that if they are not put in the manifesto or not said by the Secretary of State, they do not have the same impact. That is important.
When the Conservative party fails to set out its policies in respect of the middle east in its official manifesto, people on all sides of the debate, particularly those in Palestine and Israel, are left to interpret silence in the way they wish. Many of them, sadly, will come to the conclusion that I did, which is that the Government could not repeat their 2015 language supporting a two-state solution and condemning illegal settlement building because, on both those points, they do not as yet know where Donald Trump stands. Until they do, they want nothing written in black and white, because, one day, it might put them at odds with the American President. That simply is not good enough. We cannot overturn decades of established British foreign policy, upheld by successive Governments from both parties, just because this pathetic Government are happy to play patsy to Donald Trump.
I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary for finally giving way. I can assure her that if her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has anything to say about Israel or Hamas, he can say it tomorrow when he visits my constituency, which has the second largest Jewish community in the country, and I am sure that they will have plenty of questions to ask him. What I want to know from the shadow Foreign Secretary—this has been made very clear today—is whether her party, in accordance with its manifesto, which she wrote, will immediately recognise the state of Palestine: yes or no?
Only about two or three years ago, when we had the coalition Government—this might explain the reason why it was not in the Conservative party’s manifesto—the then Foreign Secretary said that the window of opportunity for a settlement was slowly vanishing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this possibly is the reason why the Government party has possibly never really given up? When I asked the Minister concerned about discussions with the Israeli Government, sanctions and settlements, he responded in a way that did not completely answer the question. More importantly, as my right hon. Friend has said, 2 million people are suffering in Palestine, so what are the Government going to do to alleviate the suffering resulting from sanctions?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I see that the Minister is making a note of it, so hopefully he will deal with it at the end of the debate, because these questions are important.
We seek some clarity from the Minister today on where the Government stand and what they will do to promote peace in any of the specific areas that the Opposition set out in our manifesto. First, on the issue of security, it states:
“There can be no military solution to this conflict and all sides must avoid taking action that would make peace harder to achieve.”
That was what we wrote in May, and surely no party in this House would disagree. We all know that there can be no progress towards peace between Israel and Palestine unless both sides are sure of their security. Sadly, at present the opposite is true. Peace and security are becoming ever harder to achieve because of the climate of increasing aggression and extremism, which the Minister referred to.
Whether it is the horrific phenomenon of Palestinians randomly attacking Israeli civilians and security staff with knives, or ramming them with vehicles, leaving dozens dead or injured, and creating a dread that we in this country well understand, particularly after the attack on London Bridge; or whether it is the acts of indiscriminate terror, or the record number of Palestinians who last year, without process or explanation, were forcibly evicted from their homes in the occupied territories, in many cases to make way for new and illegal Israeli settlements—whatever the actions taken, no matter which is objectively worse, no matter who started it and no matter what ludicrous justifications anyone can offer—the truth is that all these actions are simply contributing to and worsening the same vicious cycle of violence and extremism, a vicious cycle that can never lead us towards peace.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that one thing that can unite us across party in this House, in addition to our opposition to terrorism, which we must always condemn, is that we must be united in our opposition to flagrant breaches of international law and flagrant human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories?
I believe that all of us have been saying for some time that we know what a peace settlement ought to look like and what elements need to be stopped. We know that we have to stop the downward spiral of illegality, violence and blame, and that the further down we go, the more difficult it is to climb out again. That is why what I want to do in my speech is to address what the British can do.
As a friend of Israel and of Palestine, I am appalled at the cycle of violence that has become so familiar that it is no longer covered by our country’s news broadcasts, let alone in some parties’ manifestos. I am equally appalled when the reaction of some, on both sides of the debate, is not to prioritise stopping the cycle of violence, but to believe that we somehow have to pick a side to support, denying the reality that in a terrible conflict such as this, no side can win, and both sides can certainly continue to lose.
What are the Government doing to bring the cycle of violence to an end? What steps is the Minister taking with Palestinian leaders with regard to: ending and condemning all the acts of terrorist violence against Israel, whether using knives, vehicles or rockets; ending and condemning all incitement to violence, including their own; and, at long last, recognising the state of Israel’s right to exist? What pressure is he also putting on the Israeli Government to end the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes, to end the building of new settlements and to commit to the dismantling of existing ones? Ultimately, what are they doing to end the blockade of the occupied territories and allow the Palestinian people to find permanent homes and proper jobs?
While we are discussing the issue of security, it would be remiss of me not to ask the Minister when we can expect the publication of the report into the foreign funding of extremist groups in the UK. We all know that this is a central issue when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The funding network is vital for Hamas and other extremist groups. We need to look into the issue and understand it. Yet, when the Foreign Secretary was asked about the report on 6 June, he said that he would
“dig it out and have a look at it if that’s what you would like me to do”.
Well, we do not want him to “dig it out”. It should never have been buried in the first place. We want the Government to publish it and act on it. We want to know—indeed, we have a right to know—how their policy towards Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries that may be funding extremism is being informed by that report. We want to know and we can see no reason why we should not be told. Will the Minister start by telling us today which countries the report implicates? Are sovereign Governments to blame, or simply wealthy private financiers? What are the Government’s ties with those Governments and individuals? Ultimately, why has that report not been published?
Let me turn to the importance of clarity and consistency, among other things, in relation to the middle east. In Labour’s manifesto, we once more called for a two-state solution, an end to illegal settlements and a return to meaningful negotiations to achieve a diplomatic resolution. None of those things should be difficult or controversial. Indeed, they have been staples of UK Government policy and successive party manifestos on both sides going back to the aftermath of the second world war. But, as I have already said, we are now at a crossroads. The Government do not know whether Britain’s long-standing policies on the middle east are still consistent with our equally strong desire to work closely with the United States to try to co-ordinate policy, because we do not know what the policy of the United States is. The Minister welcomed President Trump’s engagement on the issue, but I note that he did not give us any indication of what Donald Trump’s policy on the middle east is, and that confusion is not restricted to Britain.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli Defence Minister said that there is an agreed level of new settlement construction that the Trump Administration have said they will support. He said that
“they respect our approach and our vision regarding…settlements”,
but last week the Israeli Education Minister said the opposite, suggesting that Trump’s approach to settlement building was a disappointment and that
“he’s…going down the same unsuccessful path that his predecessors did”.
So what is the truth? The Israelis do not know. The Palestinians do not know. And I bet a fair amount that, although the Minister of State welcomes the engagement, he really does not know what Donald Trump’s policy is. Depressingly, I am pretty sure that Donald Trump does not have the foggiest idea either.
I was on a cross-party delegation to the Holy Land in January. Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of some of the Palestinians we saw—Christians as well as Muslims—at the involvement and financial interests of some of Donald Trump’s acolytes in settlement construction? In the popular imagination, settlements are maybe just a few shacks on a hill, but Ma'ale Adumim, which we saw, has 37,500 people in it—it looks like a pleasant American commuter town, with five swimming pools and all sorts of other things—and that makes the geographically viable Palestinian state that might one day come even more difficult.
The difficulty is that, certainly during the campaign, and in the early days of his—I think the word is—Administration, the statements Donald Trump has made in relation to Israel have been very alarming for those who support a two-state solution.
The point I am trying to make is that Britain has always wanted to be able to co-ordinate its foreign policy with the Americans, and this Government are so weak and wobbly that they feel they have to be in lockstep with Donald Trump. That is where we have the difficulty in relation to middle east policy, and that may be one of the reasons why the Foreign Secretary will not come to the Dispatch Box and why Israel and Palestine were not mentioned in the Tory manifesto.
Let me develop my argument further. One thing we know for sure is that waiting for Donald Trump to make up his mind is no way for the British Government to decide their foreign policy. So let me ask the Minister of State today not just to do what every Foreign Minister has done for the last seven decades and to make it clear that we want to see a peaceful process of negotiation towards a two-state solution, including an end to all acts of terrorism towards Israel and an end to all illegal settlements, but to make it clear that that will be our position regardless of what America finally decides is its policy stance. If Donald Trump departs from those long-standing policies, will the British Government condemn him? That is what they should be prepared to do.
If the Minister of State will not say those things today, we can only come to two equally unpalatable and pitiful conclusions: either the Government have abdicated Britain’s leadership role and are simply waiting to take their cues from Trump Tower, or they see no point in putting pressure on the Trump Administration, because they know they will simply be ignored—just like they were over climate change.
Let me turn to the final point on this issue. The Labour manifesto said simply and clearly:
“A Labour government will immediately recognise the state of Palestine.”
Six years ago, the then Foreign Secretary said:
“We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state...at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]
Let me, then, urge the Minister and the Government to seize the moment we are now offered by the Balfour centenary to throw our support behind Palestinian statehood, just as we threw our support 100 years ago behind Israeli statehood.
If the question is whether this is the moment when recognising statehood will help bring about peace, I would simply ask, in Primo Levi’ s words, “If not now, when?” When violence and extremism are rising on all sides, when hard-liners are assuming increasing control, when the humanitarian crisis is getting even worse, and when all eyes are on an American President whose grand plan for peace exists only in his mind, we need the British Government, more than ever, to show some leadership and to show the way towards peace—and recognition of Palestinian statehood would be one significant step in that direction. So will the Minister of State tell the House whether such a move is under consideration? If it is not, what will it take for the Government to act? The right hon. Gentleman will recall that in 2014, MPs on both sides of the House voted in favour of recognition of Palestine by a majority of 262.
I have mentioned the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration.
I am interested in and listening with great care to what the right hon. Lady is saying about recognition of Palestine, and particularly about what the Government’s position was some years ago. Does she share my concern that, given the Minister’s comments today, it seems that that position has moved and that recognition is being ruled out until the end of talks on a peace process rather than being something that the Government would be able to do at any time?
I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the position today, and that is why I am asking these questions. If Britain were to recognise the Palestinian state, it would be an opportunity for us to play honest broker and to challenge the Palestinians to ensure that their leaders behave in a statespersonlike way, as their people need them to behave if they are to be a state and in order to look to the future. If we were to recognise that, we could make a positive contribution.
I mentioned the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but this is also the year when we mark the 50th anniversaries of two equally significant moments in middle east history: the six-day war, and the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the west bank. Just as the consequences of Balfour’s letter are still with us 100 years on, the consequences of events in 1967 are equally alive today. They are alive in the justifiable fears that every Israeli citizen shares whenever they hear denials of Israel’s right to exist, whenever they hear air-raid sirens warning of rocket attacks, and whenever they hear the latest reports of cowardly terror attacks on ordinary Israeli citizens. The consequences are also with us in the anger and unfairness that has been felt by many Palestinian people since 1967, with their children growing up in poverty and deprivation, their homes bulldozed to make way for ever more illegal settlements, and their futures offering just more of the same. It is a vicious cycle of fear and despair—as I said earlier, a downward spiral from which it becomes ever harder to climb back.
But it does not have to be this way. We will hear in today’s debate—indeed, we have all heard in our discussions with Israelis and Palestinians in recent years—that there are on all sides people of good will with moderate views, mutual understanding, and shared hope for progress, who can together take us down the long and difficult but necessary path towards brokering a lasting peace. I hope that this debate will set the right tone in that regard, and that it will be constructive and forward-looking. Most of all, as I said at the outset, I hope that we all remember that our words on this issue are listened to—they matter and they make a difference—and that neither silence nor choosing sides is acceptable if what we ultimately want is peace.
In that spirit, I ask the Minister to address all the questions I have raised, but, most importantly, to tell us very simply what the Government will actively be doing, on their own terms, in the coming months to make their contribution towards that peace.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many colleagues wish to speak in this debate. The opening speeches have been very long. I appreciate that that is because the opening speakers have taken a great many interventions. I trust that people who have intervened on the opening speeches will remain here and take part in the rest of the debate, because otherwise it is not fair on those who are waiting to speak and will have only a very short time to do so at the end. There will have to be a time limit, after the SNP spokesman, of six minutes initially, but I am afraid that that will come down to a smaller amount later because of the number of people who wish to participate in this very important debate.
2017 is a year of many historic anniversaries for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I welcome this chance for Members across the House to reflect on Britain’s past, present, and future role in the conflict. The events we mark are not relics of the past holding kernels of wisdom for the astute historian; they have directly structured the ongoing daily reality for the lives of millions of people.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the six-day war and the Israeli occupation of the west bank that continues to this day. The occupation, and the settler movement that formed under its shadow, has created an unsustainable status quo that poses a fundamental threat to our shared ideals of a democratic and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.
I remember taking part in a cricket tour of Israel five years ago, as part of the Lords and Commons cricket team, with my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). One of the highlights was him hitting a ball into the middle of the Olympic stadium stand, in a piece of cricket playing that was otherwise largely unsuccessful on our part. On that tour, we witnessed some really interesting attempts to build peace from the bottom up. Under the auspices of the Peres Centre for Peace, we saw children from the occupied territories playing cricket together with Israeli Jewish children and Israeli Arab children. That was one of myriad projects designed to try to do something, in different walks of life, to bring peace.
Two other things really struck me on that tour. The first was that an Israeli general election campaign was in progress, and the conflict was barely an issue among the Israeli parties. It was simply behind the wire or the wall, both politically and in reality. The other was a comment made by the chair of the Israel Cricket Association, a South African Zionist who had been there since 1947, who said that 1967 was the time when Israel began to lose its moral authority.
There is something special about the Israeli story. Like many in my generation, I grew up learning about the horror of the holocaust and the building of a brave democratic state in Israel, which was assailed on all sides by its Arab neighbours. There was a sense of moral authority about the setting up of this state, following the appalling events in Jewish history in Europe over the previous 1,000 years or so. I hope that out of the talks that need to happen now, we can find a way to restore the specialness of the Israeli story and the moral purpose of the state of Israel. I think we all have expectations of the state of Israel—that she will aspire to the highest possible standards—but the way in which the conflict and policy have developed makes it very difficult for her to achieve them. I will return to that point.
Particularly significant for us this year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration on 2 November. I hope that this debate will not preclude further parliamentary consideration of that anniversary at the time. This is a touchstone issue for millions of Arabs and Muslims, and I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that their eyes will be on us. The centenary must be handled with the utmost care and consideration. In the conversations that I had with almost all Arab ambassadors in my former capacity as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it was clear that uncertainty and anxiety surround the centenary.
Last November, the then Minister for the Middle East assured the House that the British Government would neither celebrate nor apologise for the Balfour declaration. I welcomed that position for its acknowledgement that although for many the declaration was the beginning of their deliverance from centuries of persecution, for others its unfulfilled passages were the root of their communal loss. In such a context, celebration or apology betrays the legitimate historical sensitivities of either party, when we should be focused on how to move the issue forward to the benefit of both parties.
I would welcome from the new Minister—the most admirable piece of recycling that it has been my pleasure to see; in his position as a Privy Counsellor and a Minister of State he has the authority of all the experience he gained when he previously held the role, for which he was widely held in high regard—a clarification of the Government’s position on the centenary and an assurance that Ministers will endeavour to ensure that their messages are properly synchronised, and that they open a particular dialogue with the Arab embassies and states about the Government’s position on the anniversary.
Talking of anniversaries, I am in my 21st year as a Member of the House; that is an anniversary that we share, Madam Deputy Speaker. It has been an honour to sit on these Benches, but it has been profoundly sad to witness these recurring debates on a frozen conflict, the position of which has got worse over the last 20 years. Amid the minefield of competing claims, we get bogged down in an epistemological challenge about how we balance so many unbalanced forces, how we treat fairly so many conflicting injustices and how we stand up to the wrongs of one without establishing the equivalence with those of the other, all supposedly in pursuit of effecting meaningful change to bring about a resolution and to put an end to the conflict.
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s tone. I am a supporter of the state of Israel, and I am also desperate for some real progress to be made towards a Palestinian state and towards showing dignity and respect for the Palestinian people. I agree with earlier comments that debates such as this can get quite polarised and binary in the House of Commons. I believe we all wish to see progress, and we should look to the tone adopted by the hon. Gentleman.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am trying to make precisely the point that we all too often indulge in reinforcing our own respective positions.
No single problem is causing the stalemate, and there is therefore no single solution. Neither party holds a monopoly of power to make peace, and all sides have the capability to spoil it. Palestinians have been betrayed by years of factionalised leaderships that have failed to meet their people’s needs—from the basic governance necessary to live in dignity to the realisation of their legitimate political ambitions for self-determination. Now, possibly more than at any time in their history, the Palestinian people are trapped deep within a structural crisis of leadership, with almost all levels of democratic activity and elections suspended. This augurs badly for any efforts to address issues such as the incitement or commission of violence, and it denies Palestinians the opportunity to present their cause with the legal and moral authority that it deserves.
On the other hand, the continuation of the settlement programme, in contravention of international law—I welcome the Minister’s restatement of the British position—undermines the prospects for a viable Palestinian state in the future. Settlements are the physical embodiment of conflict between competing narratives of nationalism, in the context of a historic tragedy that has pitted entire peoples against each other in their respective searches for nationhood. Across the canvas of a biblical landscape, settlements paint a picture of a zero-sum paradigm from which no party has found the political will to escape. Aside from the practical impact that settlements have on the viability of a future Palestinian state, settlements and the multifaceted injustices that they represent are salt in the open wound of their collective dispossession.
Both sides complain that they lack partners for peace on the opposite side of the negotiating table. However, they all too often fail to think about what they themselves could do to nurture such partners. Any colleagues who have been able to spend time engaging with broader Israeli and Palestinian society will know that there are such partners, and they share many of the frustrations at their mutual predicament. These people need to be empowered to win their respective arguments in their societies. The Minister will recall that we both met Gideon Sa’ar during the election campaign. He took time out from frontline Israeli politics—he is a potential successor to Benjamin Netanyahu as the leader of Likud—to go to Northern Ireland with an organisation called Forward Thinking to see the peace and the resolution that we have made, and are trying to make, to the conflict there. He was prepared to learn lessons, and it is a sign of hope when Israeli leaders are taking time out to go and see routes to conflict resolution. We need to be able to do that with political leaders on both sides.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not give way because I am concluding and I know that other Members wish to speak.
It was with some disappointment that the general election broke off the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Britain’s role in the middle east peace process, after we had received 70 submissions totalling over 400 pages of evidence. I hope to be able to carry on this work if I am re-elected as Chair of the Committee, because there is a clear need for scrutiny and debate on all the policy questions raised by this tragically frozen conflict. If we do not get to grips with this conflict, it will continue to get worse and more desperate. Britain, with its historical legacy, has a very particular role to play, which is why we cannot escape our involvement in this tragedy, but it will require our full attention if we are to get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back on a path to peace.
I welcome you back to your role, Mr Deputy Speaker, and both your deputies to theirs. I also welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. I note that he is a joint Minister of the Department for International Development and of the Foreign Office. It will be interesting to see how such an innovation pans out, but I hope it enhances rather than diminishes the role of DFID within the Government.
The last time I spoke in such a debate in the Chamber before the general election was during the Backbench Business Committee debate on the question of illegal settlements in the occupied territories on 9 February. It was an historic debate, after which the House resolved, without a Division, to recognise that the settlements are “contrary to international law” and to call on the Government of Israel “immediately to halt” the planning and construction of such settlements.
This is a welcome, if somewhat unexpected, opportunity to revisit in Government time the wider question of the peace process and relations between Israel and Palestine. The Government are to be congratulated on making this time available. I hope they will listen carefully to the points being made by Members across the House and, in particular, consider how they can best support multilateral efforts to bring about a lasting settlement.
As others have noted, 2017 marks a number of important anniversaries and milestones in the region. We should use that opportunity to comprehensively review efforts for peace in the region and ensure that the appropriate diplomatic channels and support are in place.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the SNP manifesto committed us to continuing
“to work with international partners to progress a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East, pursuing a two state solution for Israel and Palestine.”
When the vote was taken some years ago on recognising the state of Palestine, SNP Members voted in favour of that resolution of the House.
It is the long-standing position of most international actors, starting with the United Nations and including the SNP in our manifesto, that a two-state solution with secure, stable and prosperous states of Israel and Palestine living side by side should be the basis of a just and sustainable peace in the region. That position was reaffirmed in December last year by the Security Council in resolution 2334, which stresses the need for respect of the 1967 borders and calls on both sides to refrain from activities that prevent progress towards peace.
No. The resolution calls for
“immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction”.
That clearly applies to indiscriminate rocket attacks against targets in Israel. However, the resolution also makes clear the responsibility of Israel, as the occupying power, to respect international law and the protection of civilians, and it condemns
“the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians”.
There is a responsibility on UN members, particularly UN Security Council members, to take the calls for action in the resolution seriously and redouble efforts to make progress.
We have heard in this debate that far from reducing settlement construction, the scale of building by the Government of Israel has increased. They have attempted to justify that with new legislation in the Knesset. The popularity and legitimacy of that has been questioned within Israel itself. We have heard in speeches and interventions about the worsening humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories and the need for a response to that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point in respect of human rights abuses, but one thing that has not been spoken about today as much as it should be is the infringement of the human rights of children through the use of military courts. Will he join me in saying that their use is not only inhumane but unlawful?
All the conventions on human rights, particularly the convention on the rights of the child, should be respected in this situation and in situations around the world. Children should not be used as pawns in a conflict.
Historically, the United States and its Presidents have played a key role in the negotiations. I remember studying the Oslo accords at school. In the summer of 2000, I was in America while the last Camp David summit took place. Watching that unfold brought home to me both how close and how far away peace and a genuine negotiated settlement can be at the same time. One could almost say that it is like two sides of a wall, although it is very difficult to build bridges when there is a wall in the way.
It was heartening that one of the last acts of the Obama Administration was not to stand in the way of the resolution at the Security Council. As we have heard, the new Administration have been less than consistent on that point. At times, they have even appeared to question the consensus around a two-state solution. The first question to the UK Government, therefore, has to be how they are making the most of their special relationship with the US Administration. What steps are they taking to support a two-state solution and to encourage the US President and his team in that direction?
I want to ask the Minister more generally about the UK’s exercise of its soft power and diplomacy. A specific case has been brought to my attention by an academic at the University of Glasgow in my constituency. The Home Office recently denied a UK entry visa to Dr Nazmi al-Masri, the vice-president for external relations at the Islamic University of Gaza. I understand that Dr al-Masri has a 30-year history of entering and returning from the United Kingdom, and that he was due to travel to support research at the University of Glasgow as a co-investigator on Research Councils UK-funded grants in a £2 million project on translating cultures, other projects on global mental health and the Erasmus programme. His collaborator at Glasgow University has told me that his visa refusal seriously curtails the ability of the programme and the institution to fulfil the aims of projects that have already been funded by the UK Government’s research councils. How can that kind of Home Office intransigence possibly help to promote good will and understanding? Where is the UK’s soft power and diplomatic influence if it will not allow academics in good standing entry into the UK to promote the peaceful study of understanding between cultures and global mental health? I hope the Minister raises that with his colleagues.
That raises further questions about the UK Government’s efforts, particularly in the light of Brexit and the UK’s changing role on the world stage. Are Ministers satisfied that the discussions our Prime Minister has had with Prime Minister Netanyahu are sufficient, or is there a need to go further? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that this country will adhere to the UN Security Council’s demand that, in international relations, states make a distinction between Israel and the occupied territories? Will the Minister guarantee that, as the UK leaves the EU, it will continue to make that kind of diplomatic differentiation? Does he agree that the UK should not be trading with illegal settlements? Those are important questions, especially if the UK Government continue to interpret their so-called special relationship with the United States as essentially agreeing to whatever the incumbent US Administration asks of them.
As has been repeatedly said, a peaceful solution must be based on mutual respect and recognition on both sides. That applies not only to the people of the states of Israel and Palestine, but to their supporters and allies in the international community. Under no circumstances are attacks on or abuse of the Jewish people, or any kind of manifestation of anti-Semitism, acceptable. Anti-Semitism should be named as such and condemned. That applies to violence and extremism in any form, whether directed at Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish or Muslim communities.
In February, I finished my speech by quoting the Catholic translation of psalm 122:
“For the peace of Jerusalem pray: Peace be to your homes!”
Other translations put it slightly differently. The King James version is:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”
Other translations have a similar emphasis: a personal and collective injunction that we will all individually and collectively prosper if peace is achieved. Peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land will benefit not just those who live there, but all of us around the world. That is the challenge and the opportunity to which we must rise, and to which I am sure the House will return on many future occasions.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding a fascinating visit to Israel and the west bank that I had the privilege of making in February.
We should acknowledge that despite the existential threats that Israel has so often faced, it is a liberal, pluralist democracy committed to working for a peaceful settlement with its neighbours. It is also a multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy. Unlike many other countries in the middle east, Israel fully protects the rights of women, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, which we should celebrate. Trade between our two countries is at a record high, and I urge the Government to oppose the campaign for boycotts and divestment, which too often is used try to delegitimise the state of Israel.
In recent months, people in this city and this country have tragically suffered directly at the hands of terrorists. Sadly, in the past few years, there have been many similar attacks in Israel. Palestinian terrorists have deployed techniques used in recent atrocities here and in other European countries. Since September 2015, there have been more than 389 stabbings, shootings and car ramming incidents against Israeli citizens. The North London Friends of Israel, which has members in my Chipping Barnet constituency, has expressed its serious concern to me that the UK media tend to report attacks in Israel in a completely different way from how they cover similar attacks in the UK. The group points out that the word “terrorism” is sometimes completely absent and that reports can even lead with the killing of the terrorist, not the attack itself.
More importantly, the prospects for a peace settlement are harmed by those who persist in praising terrorists. The UK ambassador to the United Nations recently stated that at the “root” of recent violence
“lies a seemingly unending cycle of poisonous rhetoric and incitement”,
including the use of
“racist, anti-Semitic and hateful language”.
It is shocking that as many as 25 Palestinian schools are named after terrorists. An estimated £84 million is paid annually to convicted terrorists, with higher salaries given to those who have killed more people. One can only imagine the hurt and outcry that would occur if that happened in relation to someone responsible for a terrorist attack in the UK. It emerged yesterday that President Abbas has vowed never to stop these hateful payments, which is something that I strongly condemn. I hope that other Members on both sides of the House will condemn that, too.
My right hon. Friend is making some incredibly powerful points. Does she agree that there will be no peace deal while children are being indoctrinated to “hate the Jews” and the destruction of the state of Israel is encouraged? She rightly points out that schools—and sports competitions—have been named after terrorists, which is completely wrong.
My hon. Friend makes an entirely valid point. In June 2016, a 13-year-old Israeli, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, was murdered as she slept. The 17-year-old terrorist who killed her was subsequently praised on Fatah’s official Facebook page. In a TV interview in September 2015, President Abbas declared:
“We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem”.
His Fatah party have praised Dalal Mughrabi as a “bride of Palestine”. She was responsible for killing 37 Israelis, including 12 children, in one of the most despicable attacks in Israel’s history. It is also very worrying, as Members have pointed out, that the recent al-Quds day march in London saw Hezbollah flags flown in full view of the police. One of my constituents described it as “grotesque and unacceptable” that a pro-terrorist demonstration went ahead in London just a short time after we had suffered at the hands of terrorists. Like others, I urge the Government to do away with the artificial distinction between the political and paramilitary parts of Hezbollah and proscribe the whole organisation. The flags carried at the march might have had a small disclaimer on them, but I gather that many included large pictures of Kalashnikovs.
A Palestinian state cannot be achieved through unilateral measures, only through face-to-face negotiations. I therefore welcome the Government’s refusal to sign the one-sided communique in Paris in February. Every Government in Israel’s history have expressed a wish to live in peace with their neighbours. Successive Israeli Governments have declared their support for establishing a Palestinian state through direct negotiations and agreement on mutual recognition, borders and security. Israel’s Prime Minister has repeatedly offered to restart negotiations.
There have been no official peace talks since 2014, but I believe there are grounds for hope. Israel’s relationship with a number of other countries has improved somewhat in the face of shared concern over matters such as the rise of Daesh and the hegemonic ambitions of Iran, which is now involved so heavily in many conflicts in the middle east. That shared concern appears to have opened up new channels of communication and co-operation, and led to a concerted regional push to revive the peace process. This issue divides the House, but I hope we can all agree on the importance of bringing the two sides together so that they can restart negotiations and work together to secure a brighter, better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.
I add my welcome to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on his return to the Front Bench. He has previously served with distinction as a middle east Minister, and he speaks on this issue with great authority. He definitely has a passion for peace, and I commend him for it.
When I saw the title that the Government had chosen for today’s debate, I was put in mind of something the former Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Afif Safieh, once said. He said that when he heard Governments—our own or others in the international community—talking about the middle east process, he felt the objective was a never-ending peace process rather than an enduring peace. Everyone recognises that peace will come only when Israelis and Palestinians are committed to, and deliver, agreements that they can both sign up to. What Ambassador Safieh was getting at, however, was that when the call for talks becomes a substitute for either facing up to the reality on the ground or for using what leverage we have to change the reality, the danger is that we end up colluding with the status quo, and the status quo in that part of the world is very clear indeed.
The website of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs summarises life in the west bank thus:
“Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to a complex system of control, including physical (the Barrier, checkpoints, roadblocks) and bureaucratic barriers (permits, closure of areas) which restrict their right to freedom of movement. The expansion of Settlements, restrictions on access to land and natural resources and ongoing displacement due to demolitions in particular, are ongoing. Israeli policies curtail the ability of Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem to plan their communities and build homes and infrastructure. The result is further fragmentation of the West Bank. Ongoing violent incidents throughout the West Bank pose risks to life, liberty and security, and—security considerations notwithstanding—concerns exist over reports of excessive use of force by Israeli forces.”
Those are not my words, but those of the United Nations.
As for Gaza, it is something else again. Ten years of blockade by Israel has left Gaza without a functioning economy. At 43%, its unemployment rate is among the highest in the world. Some 95% of its water is not safe to drink, and food insecurity affects 72% of households. Gaza is a tiny strip of land whose population will have grown to 2.1 million by 2020, and the United Nations estimates that by about the same time it will be uninhabitable for human beings.
In the face of all that, the key issue is not whether we are doing all that we can to encourage talks, but what we are doing to help to achieve change in practice. A joint statement issued on 12 May by the UN’s humanitarian agencies operating in the west bank and Gaza was clear on that point, saying:
“Ending the occupation is the single most important priority to enable Palestinians to advance development goals, reduce humanitarian needs and ensure respect for Human Rights.”
We need to think about where we have leverage to enable us to do that, and one of the areas in which we have leverage is the issue of settlements. Of course we all disapprove of settlements—no announcement of a new settlement goes by without an expression of disapproval from our Government, and I welcome that—but is it not time that we started using the leverage that we have and that we use in other parts of the world? Settlements are illegal. When Crimea was annexed by Russia, we applied a series of disincentives to companies that colluded with that illegality. Why is it so difficult for us to do the same in relation to settlements in the occupied territories?
In respect of Gaza, let me ask the Minister this. Does he believe that Israel is fulfilling its responsibilities as an occupying power? If it is not fulfilling those responsibilities, what actions can we take, as a high contracting party to the fourth Geneva convention, to ensure that it does so?
Finally, let me say something about the recognition of Palestine. We have never said—no one has ever said—that recognition of Israel should be a matter of negotiation. Israel is recognised as a matter of right, and quite rightly so, but if we believe in even-handedness between Israel and Palestinians, that same right must apply to Palestinians. It is time, on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, to fulfil what the House voted for on 13 October 2014 and recognise the state of Palestine.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).
As has been mentioned, the centenary of the Balfour declaration falls this November, marking 100 years since the British Government confirmed the UK’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. In making that commitment, we recognised that the UK not only has an interest in Israel as a nation, ally, regional partner and friend, but specifically laid out the need to protect the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, thus creating the foundation on which the state of Israel was built. The British Government have since committed to a long-standing position of supporting a two-state solution.
The centenary of the Balfour declaration presents a unique opportunity to revive the middle east peace process, and it is important that we play our part in this. As we re-evaluate the role that the UK can play in brokering peace, I am pleased that the Gracious Speech includes the commitment to find sustainable political solutions to conflicts across the middle east.
As this year also marks the anniversary of the 1967 war, we reflect that the halfway point since Balfour was marked by six days of regional conflict that pitted Israel against its neighbours, one against the other, leaving a legacy of distrust, violence and resentment against ensuing settlements. And yet today, Jordan and Israel are beacons of much-needed stability in a region still riven by war, conflict and the mass displacement of populations.
I have visited both countries and seen not only the huge challenges that they face, but their inspiring work and determination to succeed. I refer Members to my entries in the register of interests regarding my visits to Jordan and Israel. In Jordan, I saw the wonderful work being undertaken by UNICEF in the Za’atari camp and in the host communities, educating thousands of refugee children and helping to support many of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian people who have been given refuge by the Jordanian Government. The Jordanian commitment to stability in the region makes the country potentially a strong partner in the push for peace.
In Israel, I visited Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, which is expected to provide homes for over 35,000 Palestinians, and is aiming to create more than 50,000 jobs, focusing on the high-tech, healthcare and the renewable energy sectors. It was awe-inspiring to see a city built from scratch.
We should not underestimate the prospect that a desire for economic progress could also fuel a drive for peace. With sectors such as technology booming in Israel, with 300,000 high-tech workers being employed, a solution with two states at peace offers a future of prosperity for both.
Over recent months, we have seen terrorism and violent attacks in Israel and the west bank, as well as closer to home in the UK. It is always the innocent who suffer. However, whenever terrorism, terrorist extremism and intolerance take place, that must never be allowed to deter us from a desire for peace and democracy. To achieve the goal of a peaceful, stable region, we must support authorities on both sides to come to the table without prescriptive preconditions and in a spirit of understanding.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for peace in the middle east. In the light of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel and the fact that India has suffered terrorism as well, does she agree that those two great countries can come together and form an excellent security relationship?
I agree. It is interesting that we are looking to see which other countries can help, even though we acknowledge that peace itself will come only from the two sides involved.
Regional players and previously hostile states are moving closer towards accepting an ideal of peace, and I note that at the Security Council briefing on the peace process last month, the Arab League Secretary-General reaffirmed a commitment to the 2002 Arab peace initiative. Perhaps this provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue.
For our part, as the dust settles from the general election and we rightly focus on what our future relationship with Europe looks like, we must continue to act in the best interests of peace across the world. We should not lose sight of the historical bond between the UK and the region, and with our strong historical trade ties, and in this special year, the UK has the opportunity to reaffirm and actively pursue peace through our long-standing positions supporting a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, agreement on the status of Jerusalem for both states, and the resettlement of refugees. This has been the UK’s commitment to the peace process, based on a two-state solution. As we commemorate 100 years since the Balfour declaration and our support for the region, we should revive the effort for peace through meaningful talks and truly make 2017 the anniversary of the Balfour declaration and an anniversary for peace.
It is with both a humble heart and abiding pride that I stand to make my first speech in the House of Commons. As is customary, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor. There is nothing that highlights a person’s character more than when they are faced with adversity, and I will never forget the grace, kindness and authentic good wishes that Mr Jackson expressed to me on the night of the election. I hope that his life beyond Parliament is as fulfilling as he intends.
Also, I would like to speak briefly about my home constituency of Peterborough. It is rich in history. Its cathedral is a true gem: it was a temporary resting place for Mary Queen of Scots, and it is also where Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, is buried. One could say that Peterborough attracts its share of powerful women!
But when I look at Peterborough, my home, I see so much more than the legacies and treasures of its past; I see a city that cherishes its diversity. People have come to Peterborough from every corner of the globe, and many nations are represented. My presence here may be a symbol of this increasing diversity: I am the first black female MP ever elected by my constituency. In Peterborough, I see a place that has much to be proud of. Our major employers, like Perkins Engines and Peter Brotherhood, are world class. We also have entrepreneurs that are cutting edge, and our local newspaper, the Peterborough Telegraph, is dynamic and well read. Peterborough is also notable for its beauty, and there are rural parts of the constituency that serve as our own Gardens of Eden.
Peterborough has a bright future and so much going for it, but my constituency and our country also have their share of challenges, which I intend to address as a Member of Parliament. When I began my campaign, one of the very first issues I said I wanted to tackle was housing. We all need a decent place to live. Never in my darkest nightmares did I expect to see this proposition so starkly illustrated as it was by the Grenfell Tower fire. It still seems incredible that such a disaster could happen in one of the richest parts of one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. It is incumbent upon the Government and Members of this House to do their utmost to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. With this in mind, the Government must ensure that adequate funding is provided to those councils that require it. Fine words and opaque promises of support are insufficient.
We must also help those who do not have a home. According to Shelter, in December 2016 some 600 people in Peterborough were without a place to live. Homelessness is an increasing problem for the country as a whole. Shelter estimates that 150 British families become homeless every day. Far from any stereotype, these are often people who work or are willing to work. Some are veterans who have served our country with distinction. Some have physical and mental health problems. All deserve decent treatment.
I am also very concerned about education. Peterborough had amongst the lowest SATs results in the country. Our schools are trying very hard to make do with ever-shrinking resources that have been tied up in experiments such as free schools. Beyond improvements in primary and secondary education, Peterborough needs a university. So many bright and talented young people in my city feel they have to leave home to achieve their dreams, which is why I am pleased to note that some progress has been made in that area.
The NHS is also one of my key concerns. Cuts to the health service have left my constituents facing long waiting times for appointments. The healthcare “reforms” as implemented by this Government led to the fiasco of the UnitingCare Partnership, which collapsed in 2015 after only eight months. Attempts to marry up public service and private profit have tended to favour the latter over the former, which leads me to a final observation: we need balance in our policies, placing people at the centre. We need to acknowledge that there is a role for Government and regulation, as the markets we create are not necessarily compassionate, understanding or even humane.
We need not only to hear but to listen to the voices of those we were elected to serve and we need to look around us. Those at the top continue to get wealthier, while those at the bottom are seeing their living standards eroded. Contrary to what some may think, austerity is expensive. Cutting budgets does not always save money, let alone lives. We cannot make a rich country out of one that makes the majority of its people poorer.
I am motivated in all that I do by my abiding faith in God. As we look at the issues facing Palestine and Israel, there is the temptation to see religion as something that divides rather than unites people, but I believe that it is mankind’s frailties that cause conflict and strife, not one’s faith. I sincerely hope for a future in which the peoples of the middle east live in the harmony that God intends for them.
It is on this note of faith that I would like to conclude my speech. Hon. Members who have encountered my acronyms will know that I refer to myself as MP FI because I endeavour to “Make People Feel Inspired” and my acronym for faith is “For All In This House”. As stated on the floor in Central Lobby:
“Except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it”.
With His help, Mr Deputy Speaker, I intend to do right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) on an excellent maiden speech. It is always a pleasure to follow a maiden speech and the hon. Lady delivered hers particularly well. I did not agree with every point in it, but it was delivered well and I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will join that distinguished group of Peterborough’s alpha women.
Hon. and right hon. Members have drawn attention to the key obstacles to peace and to the final status issues for the negotiations between Israel and Palestine. The starting point of all negotiations must surely be to determine who will be at the negotiating table itself. On the Israeli side, there is a turbulent but moveable coalition, which is typical of Israel’s lively democracy. On the Palestinian side, again, there are a number of parties, but they are deeply divided both geographically and ideologically. Let us not forget that the Gaza strip has been controlled for over a decade by the Hamas terror group, which is committed to the destruction of Israel.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and agree with every point he made. I am sure we will hear more from the Minister on that in his summing up.
Israel has released Palestinian prisoners who are guilty of committing deadly terror attacks as part of the Palestinian demands for the resumption of peace talks, but I join Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the international community in calling for a return to negotiations without preconditions. It is difficult to see who will be sitting around the negotiating table when the leadership of Gaza and the west bank is so bitterly divided. Geographical separation is something for the negotiating table. Indeed, it is almost a decade since a former Israeli Prime Minister proposed a peace offer involving a route of safe passage between the west bank and Gaza. Palestinian President Abbas only recently admitted that he turned down the 2008 offer, which would have provided for an independent Palestinian state containing all of the Gaza strip and 94% of the west bank, with the final 6% provided through the long-agreed principle of land swaps.
However, the ideological division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority concerns me more than the issue of land. Any peace agreement at this time would only be formed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the west bank, leaving Gaza isolated from a Palestinian state. Yet Israel stands in the middle of the two parties, in more ways than one. Recently, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would no longer pay the full electricity bill for Gaza, where electricity is provided by Israel. The reasoning behind the decision is widely seen as a means of exerting pressure on Hamas to relinquish its hold on Gaza. Accordingly, Israel has begun reducing electricity and is now vilified by the international community—this is illustrative of the entire Gaza crisis.
I strongly believe it is in the interests of all parties involved that international actions prioritise the union of a moderate Palestinian leadership that seeks peace in order to solve the conflict and bring much needed relief to the people of Gaza, as well as, of course, to Israel and the west bank. We must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinians that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) stated, naming schools and squares after terrorists does not show that they are committed to peace.
I hope that hon. and right hon. Members who choose to dwell on different obstacles to the peace process make it clear that although Israel is able to defend itself, we must not underestimate the impact of the divided Palestinian leadership and the repeated mantra that Israel is a temporary entity. I wish the Minister a great deal of much needed luck in his efforts to encourage Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to finally sit down together and make the difficult compromises needed to come to this lasting agreement.
I want to focus my comments today on Gaza, which is the world’s largest open-air prison. Of the 2 million people crammed into the 139 square miles of Gaza, more than a third are under 15 and almost half are under 25. In their short lives, they have seen a lot—a child born 10 years ago in Gaza has already lived through three wars, in which one in five of those who died were children—and their future looks bleak. According to the UN, we are seeing a process of “de-development” in Gaza, so that by 2020 the strip may well be technically uninhabitable. Some 96% of groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption and the sea is polluted with sewage. Power shortages mean that were it not for the increasingly hard-to-obtain fuel that runs emergency generators, hospitals would go dark. That would mean up to 40 surgical operation theatres, 11 obstetric theatres, five haemodialysis centres and hospital emergency rooms serving almost 4,000 patients a day being forced to halt critical services. As always, it is the children who are hit hardest. In April, a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy died while waiting for a permit to travel to a hospital in East Jerusalem—she had already been waiting for two months. It seems that the bureaucracy of the blockade held out for longer than that little girl’s health could.
Meanwhile, in Israel we see a Prime Minister who is driven not by concern for his nation, but by concern for the retention of his office. As yesterday’s approval of more than 1,000 illegal settlement units in East Jerusalem shows, we see an Israeli Government who are undermining the integrity of a future Palestinian state and, in doing so, are undermining themselves and their own security.
My hon. Friend draws out clearly the human tragedy of what is happening today in Gaza, but is he concerned that Hamas has recently rebuilt 15 of its terrorist tunnels, which are being prepared for Hamas to launch attacks on the civilians of Israel?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I accept that there is an unacceptable cycle of violence, and clearly all parties in this conflict need to find a solution, but I also feel that in the current circumstances Israel holds the whip hand and it is up to Israel to make that first move.
The fact is that there can be no security without peace and no peace without security. A two-state solution is essential to peace. I do not make that point from a partisan perspective; rather, I echo the sentiments of the former head of Mossad, Mr Tamir Pardo. Just two months ago, lamenting Netanyahu’s apparent rejection of a two-state solution, he said:
“Israel faces one existential threat”,
and it is not external—Iran or Hezbollah—but “internal”, the result of a divisiveness in Israel resulting from a Government who have
“decided to bury our heads deep in the sand, to preoccupy ourselves with alternative facts and flee from reality”.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that Israel’s founding principles—namely democracy, respect for the rule of law, and social justice—which have made it in many respects a great country over the past 50 years, are being eroded by the Israeli Government when they seek to silence legitimate human rights organisations, whether that be B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence, in their own country? That strikes at the heart of Israel’s fundamental and very welcome democratic character.
Order. Just to help everybody, because I am concerned: if Members are going to intervene, they have to keep it very short. I am going to have to cut the time limit, and the people who are intervening are going to suffer from these interventions. I want to try to give everybody an equal chance. This is a very important debate, and I want to make sure it is fair and open.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and absolutely agree with the sentiments he expresses. There are particular concerns about the entry Bill, which would potentially prevent Members of this House who have expressed concerns about trade with illegal settlements from entering Israel. This is undermining Israel’s national interest.
Mr Pardo is right: the blockade and effective occupation of Gaza, and the illegal settlements, imperil not only the children of Palestine, subjecting them to a form of collective punishment for acts that they played no part in committing, but the future of Israel itself. They create a deep divide in Israeli society that Pardo sees as potentially the beginning of a path to civil war.
This year, 2017, marks the 50-year anniversary of the occupation. We must ask ourselves what a further 50 years of the politics of oppression, aggression and division will mean. Those policies have polluted the Israeli body politic, just as they have the Palestinian. In 2012, the Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for Gaza to be sent
“back to the middle ages”—
well, he is just two hours of electricity a day short of achieving that objective. If the middle ages is what we want, it may well be what we get: a life that is nasty, brutish and short.
Currently, we see an Israel in clinical denial, sipping cappuccino on the lip of the volcano, and a Palestine in clinical despair, with an acute sense that politics is incapable of delivering a solution. As the former Mossad chief has made clear, the root cause of both is the blockade and the occupation. I hope that today the House will speak with one voice, for the sake of both the Palestinian and Israeli people, in calling for an end to the blockade, for immediate humanitarian assistance in Gaza, and for an end to the illegal settlements.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Yesterday, there was a debate on the middle east in the other place. My noble Friend Lord Polak made a typically interesting contribution. He pointed out that in 1948 there were 726,000 Palestinians refugees, and 856,000 Jewish refugees living in Arab lands, yet since then the UN’s focus has been solely on the Palestinians. He pointed to the more than 170 resolutions, the 13 UN agencies created or mandated to look after the Palestinian issue and the billions of dollars that have been provided to the Palestinians. Nevertheless, he still hoped that the UK would do all it could to bring Israelis and Palestinians around the table to hammer out a solution. I agree with him.
Israel remains committed to an independent Palestinian state through, among other things, direct negotiation to end the conflict. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly underlined his commitment to restarting peace negotiations without pre-conditions. Israel has accepted the principle of a future Palestinian state based along 1967 lines and for land swaps to take place.
Polling in 2016 has shown that there is still an appetite for a two-state solution among both Palestinians and Israelis. The figures were almost 60% for Israelis and just over 50% for Palestinians. The biggest obstacle to peace involved the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian approach unilaterally to wanting statehood, and the rearmament in Gaza by Hamas. Personally, I would add to that the seemingly blinkered approach of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. When I was last in Ramallah, I visited the PLO and had talks with its members. I found that there was little basis on which to have those talks. There was an attempt to blame us for all the ills of the region and a dislike for the involvement of anything that smacked of the private sector. I also wish to stress the levels of co-operation that already exist between the Israelis and the Palestinians and to point to one organisation in particular, Save a Child’s Heart, which I have visited on a number of occasions and does fantastic work.
I would be the first to admit that settlement expansion is counterproductive, and I have made that point to the Israeli Government, but the settlement issue is not a permanent obstacle to peace, and it is one of the five final status issues. It is not the reason for the continuation of the conflict, as violence predates the settlements, and the majority of settlers live within established settlement blocks along the green line, which are widely anticipated to become part of Israel in the peace settlement.
The past two years have shown a rising level of terror and Palestinian incitement in Israel. Since 2015 alone, there have been around 180 stabbings, 150 shootings, 58 car ramming attacks and one bus bombing. The result has been more than 389 terror attacks and over 759 injuries and some 50 Israeli or foreign deaths. The violence escalated to the point that, in October 2015, an Israeli mother and father were gunned down in front of their four young children. The sort of attitude that we have seen from President Abbas is not very helpful. He vowed to Palestinians that he would not stop prisoner salaries even if he had to resign, despite telling the US that he would do so.
I will not give way, as I am fairly close to the end.
No peace agreement will be able to guarantee peace in the medium to long term if a generation of Palestinians are growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel and the Jews. The Palestinian Authority’s failure to deliver on its commitment to end incitement and hate education explicitly undermines the principles and conditions on which the peace process is built. Although I welcome France’s recent efforts to promote peace, I do not think that the best way to make progress is to hold an international conference without the attendance of the two main parties. We must get the two main parties around the table at the same time.
New American leadership in the region is important, but pursuing the “ultimate deal” is about much more than carving up some troublesome real estate. The culture, history, hopes and fears of both Israelis and Palestinians must be respected, cherished and, where necessary, assuaged. It is also crucial that any US initiative supports the valuable work that Israel, Egypt and Jordan have undertaken over the past year to explore a renewed Arab peace initiative. With its close ties to both Israel and many Arab states, Britain is uniquely positioned to play a positive role in fostering an environment conducive to those efforts.
We have heard much today about the obstacle to peace presented by settlement building. I agree that it is wrong for Israel, the Palestinians and the prospects of peace, but, as the former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, suggested last December, the settlements are not
“the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict.”
As the Clinton parameters and the Geneva initiative have demonstrated, with compensating land swaps, the problem of settlements is not an insurmountable barrier to a two-state solution.
Although settlements may not be an obstacle, they are certainly a problem, especially at a time, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, when Israel’s relations with the surrounding Arab states are at a better pitch than many of us can ever remember. Is it not, therefore, regrettable that the Netanyahu Government are proceeding with settlements when this could be a unique opportunity?
I never made any secret of my opposition to settlement building. It is regrettable. A better move towards peace would be if Mr Netanyahu did what I suggested when I stood on a platform with him, and he froze all settlement building.
In the event of an agreement, settlements will, of course, be the cause of anger and conflict in Israel, as they were in 1981 and 2005—so, understandably, will be the release of terrorist prisoners and resolving the status of Jerusalem, especially when some deny the Jewish people’s historic connections to that holy city. Some will say that the price is too high. However, I believe that the Israeli people will pay that price if it offers the genuine prospect of a lasting peace. But will they be convinced that the prospect of peace is genuine when Hezbollah and Hamas, backed up by Iran, stand on the border and threaten to wipe Israel from the map? Will they be convinced that the prospect of peace is genuine when the Palestinian Authority incentivises terrorism by paying salaries to those convicted of heinous crimes and, as we have heard, names schools, sports tournaments and town squares after so-called martyrs? President Abbas claimed, barely a month ago:
“we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace”.
Some in the international community, such as Denmark and Norway, are showing the willingness to hold him to his words.
I support Department for International Development aid for health and education projects in Palestine, and the crucial investment being made to help to train the PA’s security forces, but it is now high time for Britain to do likewise. Perhaps DFID could begin by finding out whether any of the several thousand teachers and other essential education public servants whose salaries it helps to pay actually work in the two dozen or so schools named after terrorists. I sought that assurance unsuccessfully from Ministers in March.
I again ask Ministers to establish an independent inquiry into how our aid money can best support a two-state solution. There are a great many Palestinians and Israelis who genuinely wish to foster a culture of peace. I have met many of them, especially in the inspiring co-existence projects such as Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, OneVoice and the Parents Circle Families Forum. Those organisations bring together Israelis and Palestinians in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. That is why I urge the Government to reverse their elimination of UK support for co-existence projects and back the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace to give this vital work the investment it needs today.
In only the past couple of days, the co-existence fund has received the support of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council. It would be a very positive move. By supporting civil society projects that establish strong constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine, we have a chance to help to build the foundations of trust, co-operation and co-existence on which any lasting settlement must be constructed.
I welcome the Minister back to the Front Bench. I have confidence that he can help to guide his Government to find a better way forward for our position on this matter.
Several hon. Members rose—
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan).
On the centenary of the Balfour declaration—the work, of course, of a Scottish Conservative—we must recognise not only the past, of the founding of the state of Israel, but the present and the hope of the future. Israel has been a success story, and it is a beacon of hope in an often troubled middle east. As the region’s only functioning democracy, it shares many of our values.
Sadly, for all Israel’s successes, peace has eluded the region. As it stands, Israel does not live in peace and security; there is the threat of rockets from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, endangering 70% of the Israeli population, and a spate of deadly car-ramming, stabbing and shooting attacks in Israel and the west bank have killed more than 50 people since October 2015.
This terror is of real concern to many of my constituents. As I mentioned in my maiden speech on Monday evening, East Renfrewshire has the highest Jewish population in Scotland. Over 50% of the Scottish Jewish community choose to make it their home, and many will have relatives serving in the Israel defence forces. Some have, sadly, even been touched by the barbarity of terrorism. Yoni Jesner, a young man about to undertake a medical degree, who studied at Belmont House School in Newton Mearns, had his life taken from him in a Tel Aviv bus bombing—he was 19. We remember him and pay tribute to his mother, Marsha Gladstone, and others who are carrying on his memory with the Yoni Jesner Foundation.
These crimes, of course, are committed not only against Israelis. The Palestinians have still not achieved a sovereign state, and Hamas continues to betray ordinary Palestinians and to condemn them to endless rounds of suffering and exploitation. The ongoing Hamas-Fatah feud recently led to the deaths of three children, for whom hospital care was not expedited in Israel.
Despite this violence, it is vital that the UK continues to take an active role in encouraging both sides to come together for direct talks to achieve the peace we all want to see, but this must be done in an even-handed way. What we need are politicians who are committed, yes, to the creation of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, but who are equally clear that this must be achieved alongside a safe and secure Israel.
As other Members have mentioned, the appetite for peace and the two-state solution is still alive among the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. Despite terror attacks, incitement and widespread disillusion, there remains significant support for the two-state solution among both populations, and that should strengthen our resolve and fill us with hope. The Government must take the opportunity not only to solidify but to build on that support, by providing further funding to peaceful co-existence projects in Israel and the west bank which do such important work in supporting peace and bringing communities together. That work lays the ground for the day after a peace deal is reached.
The two-state solution is the only path to a prosperous Israel within a peaceful middle east, safeguarding the Jewish, democratic nature of Israel, while securing a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, talk of the possibility of a one-state solution serves only to embolden hard-liners on both sides of the conflict.
Peace will also not be achieved by international support for boycotts and counterproductive unilateral measures against Israel. In fact, every such measure pushes peace further away, often undermining and prohibiting participation in vital cross-community initiatives, particularly cultural ones, which do so much to promote and foster understanding and cohesion.
Ultimately, it is, of course, down to the two parties to agree a way forward, but we should do all in our power to encourage both sides to resume this process and finally bring about an end to the conflict.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is an ongoing tragedy. The Jewish and Palestinian people are entitled to self-determination. Zionism is the movement for Jewish self-determination in the state of Israel, and it derives from a centuries-old Jewish attachment to, and living in, the middle east, in what is now the state of Israel. I abhor the use in certain quarters of the term “Zionism” as a term of abuse; that must be stopped, and it must be stopped wherever it comes from.
The only way this tragic situation can be resolved is through direct negotiations between the two parties to form two states—Israel and Palestinian—that are mutually recognised, with major international economic support for the new Palestinian state. Issues such as permanent borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of an end-of-conflict deal reached through that direct negotiation. A stable agreement would be much more likely if it was part of the renewed Arab peace initiative. There has been a great deal of movement and change recently across the middle east, and the renewed Arab peace initiative is extremely important and must be taken up.
The barriers to securing that peace between Israelis and Palestinians are significant on both sides. They include the question of settlements; I agree that settlements are a barrier, but they are not the only barrier, and they are barrier that can be resolved. It must be remembered that Israel withdrew from its settlements in Sinai in 1978 as part of the peace agreement that exists to this day, and it withdrew from its 21 settlements in Gaza in 2005, when the settlers were forced to withdraw. It was anticipated at that stage that that would be followed by peace in Gaza and peaceful relations with Israel. Instead, the terrorist organisation Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority and has since been running Gaza, much to the detriment of its people.
The Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a majority Jewish state, firmly part of the middle east, is also a barrier to peace, and it is high time that the Palestinians changed that position.
Incitement and terrorism are also barriers. Since 2015, as hon. Members have already mentioned, Palestinian terrorism has resulted in 180 stabbings, 150 shootings, and 58 ramming attacks with vehicles, causing 50 civilian deaths and the wounding of more than 759 Israelis. That is not the way to secure peace, and this incitement must stop. Naming Palestinian Authority schools after terrorists also undermines Israeli confidence.
I must also refer to Iran’s activities in the region, particularly in supporting Hezbollah, urging and encouraging it to set up new bases in Lebanon ready to attack Israel. Again, I deplore the humanitarian situation in Gaza, but Hamas’s rebuilding of 15 terrorist tunnels to launch an attack on Israel does not bode well for peace.
However, these barriers to peace can be overcome. There is a vision to be had—the vision put forward by the late President of Israel, Shimon Peres, who spoke about the future of the middle east, with two nations, Israel and Palestine, working together as part of a new middle east. Let us hope that this debate contributes to securing that end.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the register regarding a trip to Israel and the west bank last year.
The Balfour declaration of 1917 is one of the most significant and important letters in history. When incorporated into the Mandate of Palestine in 1922, the historical connection between the Jewish people and Palestine was recognised, and it has demonstrated the UK’s crucial and integral role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. The UK has held an unwavering commitment to a two-state solution, and as we proudly mark the centenary year of the Balfour declaration, we are presented with a unique opportunity to renew the middle east peace process. We know that the way to achieve a genuine peace is for the two sides in this conflict to sit down together in direct peace talks and work towards a resolution and a lasting peace.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, and there is only so much you can learn from textbooks and the media. Visiting the region last year and being able to speak to people on the ground, on both sides of the conflict, provided me with the greatest insight possible into the issues. Israel is an open and liberally democratic country that values freedom of speech, allowing people from all backgrounds and beliefs to express themselves. It is a country that celebrates diversity. Churches, mosques and synagogues stand almost side by side, and Jews, Muslims and Christians alongside each other in peaceful coexistence. Surrounding Israel, the rest of the region includes dictatorship and the oppression of women and minorities, and in some failed states we have all too regularly seen images of young gay people being thrown off the top of buildings and women stoned on the streets. This stands in stark contrast to Israel’s diversity and freedom. It truly is a beacon of democracy and hope in a troubled region.
I further discovered that there are tremendous synergies between my own area, Aberdeen, and Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has a buzzing entrepreneurial culture, and its creative energy and early-age innovation are simply unparalleled. Similarly, in Aberdeen we have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and there is huge potential for greater partnership working between these two cities.
I am deeply concerned by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions protests in my constituency. The group has been actively trying to drive an Israeli cosmetics counter out of business, holding it unfairly accountable for Government policy by assuming that the Israeli Government represent the views of every Israeli citizen. In Aberdeen, poisonous and divisive banners stating, “Anti-Semitism is a crime, Anti-Zionism is a duty”, have been displayed while handing out unfounded propaganda. This is wholly unacceptable, and it serves to polarise the debate, undermine community relations, undermine peace efforts and increase tensions.
Today, I join colleagues who have called for the Home Secretary to consider urgently a full ban on Hezbollah, an organisation that believes not in peace, but only in the extermination of Israel. We need to look at the actions of Hezbollah, and the Government should judge it on those actions. Hezbollah cannot be forgiven for its criminal, terrorist, or militant pursuits simply because it engages in political or humanitarian ones. I urge the Government to join our closest allies in the US, Canada and the Netherlands in proscribing Hezbollah.
The biggest obstacles to the advancement of peace include Hamas’s rearmament drive in Gaza and internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah, as well as growing support for a one-state solution in Palestine that could effectively remove the existence of Israel. Neither is the advancement of peace supported by the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral actions to try to gain statehood recognition at the UN before any peace process has been agreed.
With all the instability across the region and the continuing distrust between the two sides, a two-state solution still seems too far off. However, in this centenary year, let us seize the opportunity to bring about a lasting peace for both sides.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which relates to my visit to the west bank last October on a cross-party parliamentary delegation sponsored by the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Muslim charity Human Appeal.
As a lawyer, I wish to address the Israeli Government’s flouting of international law and their failure to observe the rule of law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Many constituents write to me and come to speak to me about these issues. Israel is in breach of international law in both the fact and the manner of its continued occupation of the west bank. Two parallel systems of law operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, depending on whether someone is an Israeli or a Palestinian, and that is not right. These issues must be addressed if any talks are to be meaningful.
Others have spoken eloquently about settlements, and it is clear that they contravene the fourth Geneva convention. But I want to speak about military courts, which I observed in operation last year. One law covers Israeli civilians who have been transplanted into the occupied territories, but Palestinians are subject to military law. Israel is the only country in the world that automatically prosecutes children in military courts.
Many lawyers more distinguished than myself have expressed concern about the way in which these courts conduct their operations, and I saw with my own eyes the basis for those concerns when I visited with Military Court Watch and saw that there was scant regard for justice or the rule of law in those courtrooms. Many Palestinians see a lawyer very shortly before their first appearance in what can only be described as a farcical process. We saw one young Palestinian man on trial for allegedly throwing stones at a settler car. It was said by his interrogator that he had been interrogated in Arabic, but that the audio recording had been lost. The young man was insistent that he had been interrogated in Hebrew, a language that he did not understand. In any court I have ever been in, if there had been such a dispute and the audio recording had been lost, the trial would not have proceeded, but in this case it did.
I also want to say something about the son of friends of my constituent Carol Morton, who is the director of development at Palcrafts and Hadeel Palestinian fair trade shop in Edinburgh, a Church of Scotland-run organisation that supports Palestinian fair trade. This young man was lifted several months ago for allegedly throwing two stones. He has been in custody since then, and his parents have got visits only as a result of Red Cross intervention. His name is Wadea Badawi, and his parents are Lousi and Mohammed. On one occasion when they visited him, his legs were tied, his head was shaved and he had been beaten. This young man has not been found guilty of anything, and that is how he is being treated. Even if his case comes to a resolution at its much-delayed next trial date on 16 July, he will not be released until the autumn.
Does the Minister really believe that an Israeli military court that behaves in such a fashion, and that has a conviction rate of just short of 100%, is one that can command the confidence of the international community? I do not, and I think it is important that Members from all parties speak out against Israel’s violation of international law and of the rule of law. There should be no pussyfooting around these issues. Just as we must condemn terrorism, we must condemn so-called democratic states that violate international law and do not observe the principles of the rule of law.
The urgency with which this Parliament must help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was shown by the five debates held and 19 written statements made during the last Parliament. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that there is no longer any real urgency being shown by either side of the debate about progressing towards a two-state solution. While the Israelis have become used to a status quo that delivers security for them, Palestinians have become ever more divided, as Hamas continues to clash with more moderate Palestinian factions. Alongside the ever present and ever increasing issue of illegal settlements, a two-state solution is therefore sliding further out of view.
The current governing coalition in Israel is the most right-wing in the country’s history. Since the start of the year, the Israeli Government, emboldened by the new Trump Administration, have announced the creation of more than 6,000 new buildings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and have attempted to legitimise them through the Land Regularisation Bill. The UN middle east envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, has condemned the Land Regularisation Bill, fearing that it may
“greatly diminish the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace”.
The retroactive legalisation of 55 settlements and roughly 4,000 housing units is a significant step away from a peaceful solution.
Let us take the case of Bethlehem, which has a population of 220,000. Surrounding the town are 100,000 illegal Israeli settlers, complete with vast security zones to protect them. These security zones have cut off Bethlehem from its historical connection with its twin city, Jerusalem. While these settlements are in place, it is impossible to imagine a situation in which a peaceful solution between Palestine and Israel can be found.
Many within the Israeli community used to argue that settlements provided an extra level of security for the Israeli state. Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, has called this into question. The volatility and mistrust created by illegal settlement activity is increasingly putting Israeli people and soldiers at risk. Furthermore, even the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has emphasised that, in continuing with this policy, Israel is creating an apartheid reality.
On the gap between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, does my hon. Friend share my concern about the reality of the communities simply not meeting because of how the checkpoints are run? The opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to get to know and understand each other have been continually reduced by the way in which the situation has to be policed.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it just creates further friction when people do not know each other and fear each other.
While the US Administration under Obama abstained on UN resolution 2334, the newly elected Trump Administration risk creating a vacuum on the world stage. President Trump’s threat to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has further fuelled fears that his Administration will not push for a two-state solution. I am pleased that the United Kingdom voted for resolution 2334 and condemned the passage of the Land Regularisation Bill, but the Government must now step forward and fill that vacuum.
There are three areas in which the Government can exert pressure. First, the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip is neither productive nor appropriate, and the Minister must call for its further relaxation. Relaxing the blockade would weaken Hamas’s hand in the region, and allow for further reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. Secondly, to that end, we must encourage Israel to allow more reconstruction aid to enter Gaza. Tension in the Gulf states has meant that Qatari attempts to get aid in have proved fruitless, and Israel is well positioned to help to rebuild a war-torn society. Thirdly, the draconian restrictions in place on Palestinians wanting to move across the west bank continue to stoke further tensions, and by easing some of this control Israel could firmly send a message that it wants a peaceful solution and is willing to work towards it.
Although we are right to support Israel both locally and internationally in relation to the very difficult security situation in the middle east, it is precisely because we are its friends that it is our duty to stand up on the international stage and make it clear that we fully support a two-state solution and will not advocate or endorse any Israeli action that makes such a prospect less likely.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), which I am sure was heard by the Minister. We are all happy to see the Minister back, although I agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that it is a shame the Foreign Secretary could not turn up to a debate in Government time on this important issue. However, we are all very grateful to have listened to the Minister’s views on this subject, rather than the Foreign Secretary’s, as I suspect the Minister is rather better informed.
This is a year of anniversaries, as we have heard from many hon. Members. It is 10 years since the beginning of the blockade of Gaza, 100 years since the Balfour declaration and 50 years since the occupation. One anniversary would be significant; I hope that three are concentrating our minds. The key is occupation. If we truly want to fulfil the unfulfilled part of Balfour,
“that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”—
and those rights certainly have been prejudiced in the west bank and Gaza over the past 50 years—we need to end the occupation.
We have heard the humanitarian situation in Gaza described graphically. As was said, there have been three attacks by the IDF, one of the most powerful armies in the world, on the civilian population of Gaza, with thousands of people killed. I condemn all atrocities on either side—deaths and injuries on either side are appalling—but I wish we could have some recognition from the Members who have spoken in graphic terms about individual acts of terrorism of the thousands of people who have been killed in Gaza over the past 10 years, many of them children.
In discussing the need to end the occupation, let me contrast two things. The first is the abject failure of talks over the past 25 years since Oslo. It is not a coincidence that the talks have failed in that way. Many realistic proposals were made by Rabin before his unfortunate murder. The Arab peace initiative, which has been mentioned, is 15 years old and presents an easy and straightforward blueprint for peace: recognition by the states of the Arab League of Israel on pre-1967 borders and east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. That is a real basis for peace that the Israelis have never been able to approach thus far, or have never been persuaded by the international community to approach.
On the other hand, there is the remorseless growth of settlements. In the last year or so, we have seen a change in the type and intensity of settlement growth. The 1,800 units in east Jerusalem, including around Sheikh Jarrah in the heart of east Jerusalem, that have been announced in the last couple of days are a fundamental game-changer, as are E1 and the new settlements between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem. All of those will make a viable Palestinian state impossible. There has been a 70% increase in settlement building on the west bank in the last year. These are continuing breaches of international humanitarian law and the fourth Geneva convention.
John Kerry has said that
“the status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation”.
Just last week, the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, said that
“the only way to achieve the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people”
is by ending the occupation. That is the issue at the heart of this and unless it is addressed, we will get nowhere. That is what I look to the Minister to address in his concluding comments.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as an officer of the Conservative Friends of Israel.
I welcome the debate because the issue of Israel and Palestinian talks is very important. Israel supports the establishment of a Palestinian state through the process of direct peace talks without preconditions. We can see that through the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the release of 104 Palestinian terrorists in 2013. At the same time, all I see from the Palestinian Authority is its continued counterproductive unilateral steps to gain recognition of statehood at the United Nations. What it could not achieve through war, terrorism and violence, it seeks to achieve through international opinion.
As has been mentioned, the House debated this matter on 13 October 2014. I recall the words of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who was on the Opposition Front Bench:
“That is why—the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) should heed this—since 2011, when the Leader of the Opposition made Labour policy clear, Labour has supported Palestinian”
“at the United Nations.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 96.]
That is pretty clear.
During the general election, the Labour candidate in Hendon, who was a member of the Jewish Labour movement, said it was inevitable that Palestinian recognition would occur. As I said to him in many hustings and online, no it is not. I say it again to Labour Front Benchers: no it is not. I had hoped earlier today to receive a confirmation from the shadow Foreign Secretary, but no answer came from her about the Opposition’s position. I asked her a yes or no question; she failed to answer. Unilateral actions to recognise the state of Palestine before an agreement has been reached in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority directly harm the peace process and the possibility of a lasting two-state solution.
I will extend the same courtesy to the right hon. Lady that she gave to me and say no, thank you.
Unilateralism is a rejection of the peace process, not a means to revive it. I am therefore grateful that the Minister has made very clear today the commitment from the Government and the Conservative party—our actions speak louder than words—to reject Palestinian recognition before the peace talks. We have confirmed that we will continue to support the Oslo agreement; any other action would reject it. The Government and the Conservative party will continue our endeavours to assist in the creation of a two-state solution so that both countries—Palestine and Israel—can live in peace side by side.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I made Labour’s position perfectly clear—it is in the manifesto. We think that the state of Palestine should be recognised. I answered that in my speech. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s problem, and it is such a shame he did not take my intervention.
Yes, well I think that might be called a point of frustration, or alternatively a point of explanation, but I am afraid that we will have to leave it there. No further chuntering from a sedentary position from either side of the Chamber is required, or indeed beneficial.
I welcome the Minister back to his place. I wish him the best happiness in his new position for the years ahead.
As a well-known friend of Israel, and as someone who is passionate about freedom and democracy, it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. In the centenary year of the Balfour declaration, it is timely that we discuss the resumption of peace talks. It is also important that we remember the support that Britain gave for a Jewish democratic state, and the incredible achievement that the state of Israel has been. My belief in the rightness of that state and the support that we should have for our allies remains strong.
Israel celebrates democracy, has a liberal and open society, and protects the rights of all its minorities. It is a goal of mine to see other countries throughout the world reach the level of protection afforded to all who live in Israel. It is telling that up to 200,000 Arabs who did not flee during the war of independence in 1948 were absorbed into Israeli society as equal citizens. Their descendants make up Israel’s 1.7 million-strong Arab minority today. Israel is the only country in the region with an increasing Christian population. It stands as an oasis of religious freedom in the middle east.
In the west bank, 15% of the population were Christian in 1950. Christians make up only 2% of the population today. Under Hamas in Gaza, Christians face hostile treatment and the population is in steady decline. I do not wish to vilify Palestine—that is not my role or desire—but wrong has been done by many individuals of many creeds and races. It is unfair to attribute one act to a nation or people, but at this stage I should point to the words of our ambassador to the UN, who earlier this year said that
“as long as terrorists are treated as martyrs, peace will be distant. The scourge of anti-Semitic, racist and hateful language must be excised from the region.”
I agree with that wholeheartedly.
The Oslo accords legally bind Israel and Palestine to abstain from incitement and hostile propaganda. It is clear to me that the Palestinian leadership has not taken all the appropriate steps that are needed to deliver on that commitment, which has definitely played a role in the latest wave of violence by youths, who have killed 50 Israelis and foreign nationals in stabbings, shootings and car rammings.
The Minister will know that UK taxpayers’ aid has freed up funds for the Palestinian Authority to reward terrorists with a monthly salary. Some £254 million has been used for that practice, which is 7% of the authority’s budget and 20% of its foreign aid receipts.
I ask the Minister, in his dual role at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, to ensure greater scrutiny of the Palestinian Authority’s budget. Simply stating that our aid does not go to terrorists is not enough. Our constituents do not want their hard-earned money to benefit those who promote terrorism.
On the northern border, Israel continues to face the threat of Hezbollah. The terror group has amassed some 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets capable of striking all of Israel. We must stand with Israel against those who seek to destroy its, and our, way of life.
I ask the Minister urgently to consider calls for the immediate proscription of Hezbollah in its entirety—its political and militant sides. We need to hold Iran accountable for its actions. The country provides weapons, training and funding to both terror groups, and it remains the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.
While both sides must come together to restart negotiations, we must make it clear that the onus is on the Palestinians to demonstrate their commitment to peace. Let us grasp the opportunity that the centenary of the Balfour declaration brings and make it clear to the Palestinians that they must truly renounce violence and finally recognise Israel as a Jewish state, the only state of the Jewish people, for it is only when both sides respect each other’s right to self-determination alongside one another that a lasting peace will finally prevail.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Forgive me, but due to the time restraint, I forgot in my rush to mention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited the Knesset, at the invitation of the Speaker of the Knesset, to give evidence on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
This is the first speech I have made in a debate since the general election, so I would like to place on record my heartfelt thanks to my constituents for giving me the opportunity, and their trust, to serve the people of Ilford North for a second time. I should also thank the Prime Minister for her contribution to my election.
I rise this afternoon in exasperation. Despite having been a Member for only two years, I have, for all of the excellent speeches, a sense of déjà vu and repetition. Goodness knows what it is like for those who have been listening to and taking part in these debates for the last 50 years.
I first visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories 10 years ago with the Union of Jewish Students on a Young Political Leaders trip. Most recently, I visited with Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. I spoke to a wide range of people on both sides of the conflict—political leaders, civil society and trade union leaders, and people who have lost family to this bloody conflict—who have been affected in different ways. At every point, I try to put myself in the shoes of the people affected. The exasperation arises because the road map should be clear: a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps and a shared capital in Jerusalem. All these things are the only viable solution for the long-term security and interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The obstacles are also well known. They include but are not limited to poor political leadership and missed opportunities; a cycle of violence claiming the lives of innocent Palestinians and Israelis; the ongoing military occupation of the west bank; the blockage of Gaza by Israel and Egypt; and the refusal of people in the region to accept Israel’s right to exist and the right of Palestinians to a state of their own. So much of this has been obvious for so long, yet the prospect of a two-state solution looks worryingly distant.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of the Israelis. This country knows what it is like to experience the threat of terrorism and political violence. Israel has a right to defend itself and its citizens, whether from rocket attacks, incitement to deadly violence and suicide bombings against Israelis, or from those who would gladly see the world’s only Jewish state wiped from the map. I have never supported those who wish to delegitimise the state of Israel. I have always believed that peace will ultimately come about through face-to-face negotiations facilitated by honest brokers, including this country. It will be made possible, ultimately, by instilling a culture of trust and a desire for peaceful co-existence on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Israelis and Palestinians have something in common: terrible political leadership. That brings me to the policies of this particular Israeli Government. I have seen at first hand the impact of Israeli Government policy towards Palestinians living in the west bank. The ongoing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements cannot be justified, nor can the demolition of Palestinian homes, nor can the use of byzantine laws to seize land from its rightful owners, nor can the military court system, which violates the very principles of natural justice, and nor can the regular intimidation of Palestinian civilians and international aid workers, who too often are victims of settler violence. As many Members have said, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is simply intolerable and more must be done to bring an end to that terrible travesty.
This, however, is the question that I ask in response to comments that have been made today. If I were a young Palestinian growing up on the west bank or in Gaza, what hope would I have? Where would I look to, with any sense of optimism that one day I could live freely in a state of my own, able to exercise democratic rights or travel the world as any young person in this country could?
This is the greatest tragedy of all. As I said earlier, Israel has a proud history as a democratic state, but the policies of its Government are the greatest weapon—the greatest tool—that its opponents could have, striking as they do at the heart of Israel’s proud tradition as an independent democratic state.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for inviting me to speak in this important debate.
Since the Trump Administration came to power, on the surface they have projected an image of trying to bring Israel and Palestine back into talks. However, the language of Trump has been meek, especially in condemnation of settlement building. Emboldened, the Knesset has reacted by passing more extreme legislation, and only last month ground was broken with a new “legal” settlement in the west bank, for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The truth is that we now feel, in many ways, further from peace than ever: further than ever from a lasting and sustainable peace that would allow Israel to exist in safety and security, bring prosperity, security and self-determination, and give life to the people of Palestine—a fair and peaceful settlement.
Only days ago, I met leading expert Professor Paul Rogers, of the world-renowned peace studies department at Bradford university. We discussed this issue, and what stood out was that although, in the current context, some would argue that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is small by comparison with that in, say, Syria, in reality it is massive in terms of its symbolism and the way it is used. It has a significant impact on how terrorism operates in the region and beyond. It is used to recruit and encourage extremists across the world. We must understand that peace would be more than a stabilising factor within the region; it would go beyond that. In the battle against vicious ideologies like that of Daesh, we cannot and must not underestimate the importance of the Israel-Palestine debate in the wider context of its influence on terror. There are groups that seek to exploit it for their own gain, and not for the prosperity of the people who are trapped in never-ending conflict.
In 2010, three years after the start of the blockade in Gaza, David Cameron said:
“Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
However, nearly a decade since the start of that blockade, the situation is deteriorating rather than improving. It is certainly nowhere near the vision of our Government in 2010. The infrastructure has been decimated. Bombardment and power shortages are having devastating consequences in hospitals, and a particularly devastating effect on water treatment. It has been estimated that there are more than 51,000 displaced people in Gaza. We must recognise the conditions of life there: they are not conditions that anyone should live in, let alone have enforced upon them.
Internationally, there should be no perpetual state of war and no perpetual state of occupation. This is occupied territory, and the occupying force has a duty to protect these people. Three generations of Palestinians will have grown up knowing nothing but occupation and fear.
We have been debating the two-state solution and the political parameters of this situation for decades, in the Chamber and elsewhere, with no peace or negotiations in sight. We have to find a way to move through this moment into something better. No doubt there are moderates on both sides, but concessions are almost impossible. Israel is impregnable in its insecurities, and that does not bring long-term security. I call on the Government to tell us not what they think but what they intend to do. How are we going to move this process forward? As I said the last time I spoke, it is time to move beyond condemnation to accountability.
The fact remains that we have seen 50 years of occupation and 10 years of blockade, and engagement in every peace process that has taken place since 1967 is not unilateral. What has the Oslo agreement brought Palestinians? There has been a 600% increase in the number of illegal settlements. It is time to move beyond condemnation.
I too refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Since time is so short, I will concentrate on an aspect that I do not think has been properly discussed this afternoon: what is happening to democratic debate and expression inside the state of Israel. There are developments there that gravely concern me and should concern the rest of the House.
There has been broad consensus in this Chamber when we have discussed this issue today and on other occasions: most people would favour a two-state solution—two democratic secular states, each reflecting the different traditions of that region, but each living in peace and harmony with one another—and in order to get that, a phased end to the occupation, peace talks and so forth. That was a mainstream—although perhaps not a majority—political position inside the state of Israel until quite recently, and it is probably the majority position of the Jewish diaspora throughout the world. Yet today inside Israel it is seen as an extremist position, and people who advocate it are denigrated and denounced for doing so.
Hagai El-Ad is the director of an organisation called B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation based in Jerusalem. Earlier this year he addressed the United Nations in terms not dissimilar to many who have contributed today. The response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally to launch a Facebook tirade against him and to threaten to change the law to prevent people doing national service from working for that organisation. As a consequence, others joined in and that organisation and its officials received thousands of threats, including death threats. That is what they got for daring to criticise the Israeli Government. It would be a little like the Prime Minister of this country doing the same thing against the director of Liberty for publishing a report criticising British Government policy in, say, Northern Ireland.
Breaking the Silence is an organisation that is composed of veterans of the Israeli army; only those who have served in the IDF can be members of Breaking the Silence. It is fair to say that it does not take a mainstream position; it is critical of the occupation. It is led by a formidable man called Yehuda Shaul who told me to my face that he was a proud Zionist but his main concern is that Israel’s biggest threat was the occupation of Palestine itself, and that is why he wanted it to end.
That organisation has campaigned long and hard within Israel to try to put an alternative point of view. What is the response of Israeli politicians? Some in the Knesset have tabled motions calling for the organisation to be outlawed as a terrorist organisation. That did not get very far, but a law has been passed in the Knesset to make it illegal for Breaking the Silence to go into schools and colleges and speak to young people about the choices facing them. That is hardly a liberal position.
There are many other similar examples, including the no contact policy of Mr Netanyahu. He has said that any international Government or organisation that makes contact with organisations that are critical of the Israeli Government will not speak to the Israeli Government. He said that to the German Foreign Minister earlier this year; the German Foreign Minister had the decency to say that the German Government will not be told by anyone who they will and will not speak to, and he went ahead and met Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. The response of Mr Netanyahu was to cancel his meeting with the German Foreign Minister—the Foreign Minister of one of Israel’s biggest supporters in the international community. That is the degree of illiberalism and intolerance, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that this Government will not bend in their dedication to consult other opinions within Israel because of threats by the Israeli Government and will not be cowed into refusing to recognise the plurality of discussion that is needed.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and of the Minister, who said at the beginning of the debate that this House has knocked around these issues for over 30 years. Today’s debate is welcome but, sadly, feels slightly like the film “Groundhog Day”. We debate and discuss, emotions and injustices are raised, we demand peace for the region, yet nothing changes and we do it all again six months later: a carousel of misery, false hope and inaction.
Israeli people continue to live in fear of violence, bombs fall on Gaza—as they did again this week—Palestinians are still living in fear of their homes and communities being occupied with no notice, and thousands of Palestinians are still being held in Israeli prisons, many without charge. We can only thank those people on the ground working day and night to maintain peace that we are not in the middle of a similar increase in violence to that we witnessed in recent years. But it is not all negative. There have been numerous times when it feels as though progress has been made. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, in October 2014 this House voted by 274 votes to 12 in favour of a motion to recognise Palestine as a state alongside Israel. That was a brave and welcome decision. As the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) said at the time:
“Recognition of statehood is not a reward for anything; it is a right.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 72.]
Recognising Palestine as a state gives moral and political support to moderate Palestinian voices pushing back against violent extremists, and I would encourage the House to decide on a timeframe for that to happen.
Only last year, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the occupations. Settlements are illegal under international law. They breach the fourth Geneva convention, which prohibits the transfer of the occupier’s
“own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
But the UN resolution was passed only because of President Obama’s support, and now, with a new and very different President in place, we need clarification on what conversations the Government have had with him. Will they clarify whether he is of the same opinion as the rest of the international community?
Generations on both sides simply cannot continue to be brought up witnessing the brutality of war, fearing for their lives, and stressed and anxious about the future. The middle east and the entire international community need peace. More than anything, children should have the right to a childhood, to be a child, to play, to learn and to be happy. I would like to draw the House’s attention to the serious and ongoing situation of Palestinian child detainees. At the moment, 182 children are being held in Israeli military detention, most on stone-throwing charges, and 46% of them are being held in violation of the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute. The inquiry of 2012 chaired by the former Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, stated:
“Military law and public administration should deal with Palestinian children on an equal footing with Israeli children.”
That is clearly not happening.
It is now 50 years since the occupations began, and that is 50 years too long. Today, just about every respectable non-governmental organisation, Government and international community member stands against the occupations. How much longer can this go on? Let us ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to bring peace to this volatile but beautiful and potentially prosperous region. We need vision, courage and leadership. Will this Government pledge to take up the baton and change the narrative by pushing even harder for peace?
It has been a pleasure to be here for this excellent debate, and to welcome the Minister for the Middle East to his position. This is also a significant debate for me personally, because when I came here as a newly elected MP, my very first vote in the House was to recognise the state of Palestine. As the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said earlier, the vote was won by a majority of 262. I thank all those speakers on both sides of the House who have made such passionate and erudite contributions throughout the course of this debate. I particularly want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), who made her maiden speech today. She set a shining example as one of Peterborough’s powerful women, and I look forward to her future contributions in the House.
One common thread has run through all the speeches today: the urgent need for peace. We are now 100 years on from the Balfour declaration, and we cannot tolerate a situation in which yet another generation of Israeli and Palestinian children grow up understanding violence, division and extremism as part of their normal lives. We owe it to all those children to see this conflict from their perspective and to resolve to end it on their behalf, whether they are young Israeli children living in fear of the air raid sirens in Tel Aviv or young Palestinian children living in grinding poverty in refugee camps behind the Israeli blockade. Will the Minister tell us what specific steps the Government are taking to secure humanitarian relief and a long-term improvement in conditions for all those young Palestinian children condemned to a life of poverty and violence simply as a result of where they were born?
On the issue of humanitarian relief, let me ask the Minister another question. The Foreign Office stated in December last year, after the Brexit outcome was known, that the UK’s financial aid to the Palestinian Authority was best channelled directly through EU funding programmes. The Foreign Office said that the mechanism
“offers the best value for money and the most effective way of directly providing support.”
Do the Government intend to continue their participation in that funding programme even after Brexit? If not, what alternatives are they putting in place to ensure that they achieve the same value for money and the same effectiveness of outcomes?
In conclusion, we have made it clear today that an end to conflict between Israel and Palestine can be achieved only when all sides stop taking actions that perpetuate the conflict and start taking actions that will nurture peace. That means not only a total end to attacks on the Israeli people and state and a clear recognition of Israel’s right to exist, but stepping up efforts to tackle the grinding poverty, the lack of opportunities and the cycle of violence in which so many Palestinian children are trapped. It means having an honest conversation with our Israeli friends about the actions they can take to ease the humanitarian crisis, particularly through the lifting of the blockade. Since 1917, Britain has stood by the two key elements of the Balfour declaration: working to establish and protect the national homeland of Israel while ensuring that nothing is done to prejudice the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Those remain the key tenets of Labour’s policy on the middle east, and they are the key tests that we will apply when judging the policy statements of this Government. With that in mind, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank the Opposition Front-Bench team for both their contributions, in particular the short and thoughtful summing up from the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). I echo her remark that this has been an excellent debate: more than 20 colleagues speaking with great force in a short period of time about things that they know a lot about.
Like the hon. Lady, I will start by referring to the new hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya). She says that she is a symbol of diversity in her city. That is true, but she is also a symbol of strength, dignity and clarity, and she has a passion for the important causes she mentioned. I know that we will hear more of her. I particularly liked her concerns about the mental health of army veterans. She will find out that looking after mental health was another of the jobs I used to have. She also spoke about achieving her dreams, and I am quite sure that in doing so she is helping other girls in her city to do exactly the same. Her forthright defence of faith, saying that it is mankind’s frailties, not God’s love, that causes the problem, was heard and welcomed by many of us.
There was a range of other speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made a thoughtful contribution, as befits the most recent Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) spoke with extensive experience in this area. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) drew her speech to a thoughtful conclusion with a remark from Shimon Peres. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) both made thoughtful speeches. We heard optimistic speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Henley (John Howell), for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), picking out a bit of the relationship with Israel which makes a difference and suggests that there is a future, and referring to neighbours such as Jordan that have made a contribution to peace in the area.
There were tough words for the state of Israel from the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). All of them referred to difficult things for the state of Israel to deal with. I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I have walked the streets with B’Tselem and Peace Now and value the contribution that they have made. I certainly will not be told to whom I should speak when it comes to those who represent valued, trusted and moderate opinion in other states. There were harsh words for the Palestinian side from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) and for Hendon (Dr Offord). My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made remarks about Hamas in Gaza, about which I will say a little more, but we need to be clear about what is happening in Gaza under the rule of Hamas. We continue to have concerns about the abuses of human rights and Hamas de facto authorities in Gaza; 17 death sentences were issued and three were carried out without the ratification of the Palestinian President. We continue to have concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and of assembly, and on respect for LGBT rights. We remain deeply concerned that Hamas and other militants are rearming, rebuilding tunnels and holding military training camps.
Overall, although the sympathies of colleagues for one side or another were occasionally clear, it was rare that those sympathies were not expressed without a recognition that there were issues on both sides. Although we have spoken about this a great deal, the recognition that the pain is serious and that we want to do something about it was clear for all. I am sorry not to have time to deal with all the questions raised, but I just want to pick out a little about the DFID side of this and the support being offered to the Palestinian people, who are under pressure.
In relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the UK has provided £349 million of support for Palestinian development from 2011 to 2015, and a further £72 million in 2015-16. I do not see any suggestion that that is going to change or falter. The UK pledged £20 million extra for reconstruction and development in Gaza following the Gaza reconstruction conference in 2014. We are one of the largest donors to UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—providing basic services to approximately 5 million Palestinians, including 70% of the population of Gaza.
Those of us who have visited Gaza know how miserable it is. If there is one place that we could say stands for the very reason this conflict must come to an end, it would be Gaza. The hon. Member for Ilford North asked what a young Palestinian thinks about their future, but what does the young Israeli soldier think when they are standing on the border of Lebanon and being involved in the west bank? What do they think of their chances of ensuring that their children no longer have to defend the state of Israel in the way they feel committed to do. That is the measure of the task.
If Members want a clear commitment from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself, they can have it. We do not know exactly where the United States is on this issue, but we do know there is a real interest there and a determination to go to see people and talk to them. The deal is not a simple one, as we all know, but it is not often that an American President takes an interest at the start of a first term, and this provides another opportunity. Most of us in this House have seen those opportunities come and go over the years, so this is a chance now that we should all take. We have all seen enough of this.
To answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), there is no change in our policy. The United Kingdom’s long-standing position on the map is clear: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and with a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees. I do not think any other state is going to tell me that that is not going to be our continuing policy; I assure her of that.
What are we going to do? We are going to redouble our efforts. We have to work with international partners and will continue to engage with those in Israel who are seeking such a solution. We recognise the concerns of those in Israel who fear for their security, and they are right to do so, as we have heard. We know well about the random attacks and the fears that have affected the people of Israel. Equally, there will be no ultimate lasting peace unless the hand is reached out and this time grasped by those on the other side, both in Gaza and on the west bank, to make something of this. The United Kingdom will be determined to do everything it can, and those of us who have a second chance at something that means a lot will have a really good go at this. I do not promise an answer, but I do promise an effort.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Israel and Palestinian talks.