[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee of Session 2017-19 on 8 October 2019 on “Follow-up on Yemen, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, HC 2682.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian territories.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this crucially important debate. As the outgoing chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, I pay particular tribute to colleagues who have been such powerful advocates for peace, justice and security in this troubled land, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who will be taking over as chair of the APPG. I wish her well.
I start by setting out three core principles, which I hope and believe are shared by all who are taking part in this debate. First, this is not about religion or ethnicity. It is not a question of Arab, Muslim or Jewish identity. It is about upholding the universal norms and values that we hold dear, and it is about working to constrain and reverse the actions of those who seek to undermine those norms and values. Nor is this about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. This is about striving for peace, justice and security for all.
Secondly, we condemn violence in all its forms, whether it is Hamas launching rockets or the Israel Defence Forces bombarding Gaza or bulldozing Bedouin villages to make way for illegal settlements. We oppose any and all actions that lead to the death and destruction that have so tragically come to define this conflict.
Thirdly, we believe passionately in the rule of law. Indeed, our point of departure is that the rule of law is not up for negotiation. It is not some bargaining chip that can be tossed on to the table in exchange for concessions or compromises; it is the very cornerstone of the rules-based order and the bedrock of the norms, rights and values that we cherish and seek to defend.
I believe that our defence of the rule of law matters more now than it has done at any time since 1945, because we stand today at a moment in history when the rule of law is under threat across the world. The Chinese Communist party has breached the Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong, the Russian Government annexed Crimea in 2014, and, deeply regrettably, even our own Government are willing to renege on their commitment to a legally binding treaty.
Israel’s consistent flouting of UN resolutions and the fourth Geneva convention has undermined the rules-based order for decades, and the international community can no longer just look the other way. Both sides in this conflict have witnessed horrific bloodshed and both sides deserve an end to the fear and suffering that they have had to experience. That is why it is so vital and urgent that the rule of law be brought to bear as the foundation upon which a viable and sustainable Palestine can be negotiated and built—a Palestine that protects the rights of its citizens and lives in peace with its neighbours.
The illegal Israeli settlements undermine all three of the principles that I have set out. They drive and amplify the vicious identity politics that poisons this conflict. They cause violence on a daily basis and they are a flagrant breach of international law, yet they continue and expand.
In 2018, we marked 25 years since the signing of the Oslo accords. That moment in 1993 was meant to herald a new and lasting era of peace and co-existence—the beginning of a genuine two-state solution—but since then, the number of illegal settlers has increased from 258,000 to more than 610,000. Fifty thousand homes and properties have been demolished, and an illegal separation barrier has been built that carves up the west bank and brutally disconnects towns, cities, families and communities from each other. What have the Israeli people experienced in that time? They have experienced insecurity, fear of attacks through suicide bombings, rockets and mortars, knife attacks and car rammings. None of this will end while there is no proper peace and no end to the occupation. It has been a disaster for all sides in this conflict.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the balanced way in which he is opening this debate. The events of the recent weeks have encouraged me and many others; I wonder whether they have encouraged him as well. They have shown that the 70-year unresolved conflict between Israel and the Arabs will no longer be allowed to define regional dynamics and relations. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this new outside-in approach to peace offers an invaluable opportunity to transform the entire region, and that there is an opportunity to move forward together, perhaps with a two-state solution?
We certainly welcome any steps towards peace and conflict resolution, but we should be realistic about what the so-called Abraham accords really signify. The reality is that the United Arab Emirates and Israel have never been at war with each other. They have pre-existing and long-standing relations. Indeed, they have co-operated on military matters, in counter-revolutions, and in coups in many of the Arab League states. We should be realistic that this is really more the formalisation of pre-existing relations, rather than something new. Nevertheless, it is to be welcomed.
The hon. Gentleman has made some important and strong points in his opening remarks. May I bring him back to the reference he made a few moments ago to the signing of the Oslo accords, and their failure to result in the era of peace that so many people had hoped for? Straight after mentioning Oslo, he talked about settlements—almost implying that it was the issue of settlements that meant that the aspirations behind Oslo were never realised. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read Bill Clinton’s account of the peace negotiations and many other accounts to see exactly why peace was not struck when there was an opportunity; it was not the Israelis who walked away from that opportunity.
I agree that opportunities have been missed on all sides—there is no doubt about that —but the reality is that the constant feature of everything that has happened since 1993 has been the expansion of the settlements, which are a flagrant breach of international law. Once we start to erode the foundations of international law on which all the negotiations are based, they are rendered effectively meaningless. We need to bear that in mind as we look back on what has happened since 1993, but it is also vital that we look to the future with hope and optimism.
It is against that backdrop that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu have come forward with their so-called deal of the century. This is not a deal. It is not a plan. It is not even a starting point for talks. It is a proposal that is fundamentally flawed because it has no basis in law. It is a land and power grab that would mean Israel seizing around 40% of the west bank, with full military and security control over the Palestinian people and their resources. Which Government, in their right mind, would ever agree to such terms? Why would the Palestinian Authority ever enter into talks on the basis of a document that effectively legitimises attempts to destroy any chance of an independent sovereign Palestine?
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the deal of the century could well have been the starting point for a conversation? Yes, there is a lot that is disagreed with on both sides, but there are also elements that could be agreed on. It is those levels where agreement could be sought that could be moved forward to deliver the two-state solution that everyone—on both sides of this House—ultimately wants.
But if one is seeking to restart negotiations, one needs to do so on the basis of a plan that has legitimacy. It is not possible to move forward if the plan is actually based on breaking the law. Countless UN resolutions have pointed out that the settlements, as they stand, are illegal, so that has to be taken off the table before there is even a basis for starting to talk. That is why it is perfectly understandable that the Palestinian Authority are refusing to engage on that basis.
The Foreign Secretary and his Ministers continue to present the Trump-Netanyahu plan as a basis for talks. They ask the Palestinians to compromise, yet the Palestinians have already ceded 78% of their land to Israel. How much more can they be asked to compromise?
Does my hon. Friend agree that given Britain’s unique history in relation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is important that our Government continue to work at being an honest broker rather than taking sides? The position the UK Government have taken actually puts at risk Britain’s being seen as that honest broker.
I agree entirely. This country has a unique place in history and a unique responsibility, particularly if we trace it back to the Balfour declaration. It is vital that everything this Government say and do honours the commitments in that declaration.
The Foreign Secretary and Ministers also say that the Palestinian side should make a counter-offer. Well, they have: a two-state solution, as already set out in countless UN resolutions and based on 1967 lines. That is the counter-offer. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition had agreed that Israel would begin de jure annexation from 1 July. Thankfully, the Israeli Government have rowed back on that for now, but what we are instead witnessing is more annexation by stealth. Netanyahu announced approval of preliminary plans for 3,500 new housing units in a new settlement in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, thus severing East Jerusalem’s contiguity with the rest of the west bank.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the developments he is now describing pose a threat to the feasibility of a two-state solution, because there will not be enough left for a viable state in Palestine to be established?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. If one looks at the map, one sees it is not really a viable geographical area any more; it is an archipelago of patches of land that are no longer connected to each other. E1 and E2 would in many ways represent the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution in my view.
Building on E1 is more of a danger to the two-state outcome than the formal annexation of parts of the west bank. It has long been seen by the UK, France and Germany as a red line. Another huge settlement plan of 7,000 units has been approved at Efrat to the south of Bethlehem, often labelled E2. In both cases, the reality is that the Israeli Government hold all the cards, while the Palestinian Authority have limited power and must rely on international solidarity.
Those who take a more sympathetic view of the actions of the Israeli Government will no doubt point to the so-called Abraham accords, which were signed by the UAE and Bahrain at the White House on 13 August, and which commit those states to the normalisation of relations with Israel. Yet the reality is that the Abraham accords are simply the formalisation of pre-existing and well-established relations between the signatories. Those states have been working together for years on joint military operations, coups and counter-revolutions. For the Palestinian people, nothing has changed. The reality is the creeping annexation of their land continuing and accelerating.
Actions speak louder than words. The question we must therefore address today is how the British Government can use their position as a leading member of the international community to press the Israeli Government to pull back from creeping annexation and to re-engage in talks on the basis of a viable two-state solution. The problem we face is that the deadlock will continue as long as Israel rejects any deal that includes Jerusalem and does not mean Israel keeps the Jordan valley, rejects a sovereign viable Palestinian state, and will negotiate only on the basis of a plan that annexes occupied territory and includes total security control on any Palestinian entity, including control of all borders. Israel must drop those preconditions. There have already been some attempts by European states to assert their influence. For instance, 11 states, including the UK, Germany and France, joined in a démarche to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on 1 May opposing Netanyahu’s annexation plans. But together the international community must go further.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful, balanced and considered speech. On that point about the international response, could the accords that have been struck with the UAE and Bahrain provide an opportunity for the UK Government to work with them and with Europe to gain extra leverage to bring about some sort of change in Israeli policy?
That is absolutely a step in the right direction, although I think it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, for the reasons that I have set out. The reality is that as long as the basis for the talks is the so-called Trump-Netanyahu plan, it is a non-starter, because that plan violates international law.
We should explore the potential for the International Criminal Court to play a role. The Israeli Attorney General’s office has already warned the Israeli Prime Minister that annexation could trigger an investigation of
“senior Army officers, civil service officials and heads of regional councils of West Bank settlements”.
It is essential that the UK condemns any further creeping annexation, but condemnation alone will never be enough. To this end, the UK Government must take the following steps with urgency. First, they must immediately recognise the state of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 lines. The UK Government argue that recognition should follow successful negotiations, but the logic of this argument is deeply flawed and partisan. It suggests that we are happy to see a 53-year-old occupation persist, legitimising the illegal actions of the Israeli Government and contributing to the brutality and violence that shame us all.
Secondly, the Government must ban all products that originate from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Profiting from such products is tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime, and it must stop. When we trade with these settlements, we are essentially telling the world that international law does not matter, and such trade legitimises and facilitates the existence and expansion of the settlements. In 2014, it was right that the UK, as part of the European Union, prohibited trade with Crimea following its illegal annexation by Russia. It is crucial that we are consistent in our application of international law.
Thirdly, the Government must act to end the involvement of UK-based companies within the illegal settlements. In March, the UN published a list of companies that are involved in the settlements, which included JCB, Opodo and Greenkote PLC. Charities actively involved in illegal settlement projects should not be eligible for the privileges of charitable status, including tax exemption. What steps will our Government now take to hold these companies and charities to account?
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on these points. These measures must be put in place immediately: no more excuses, and no more obfuscation from this Government.
Standing here in the Chamber today, I feel that it is easy to forget the human cost of this conflict. Visiting the west bank and East Jerusalem with Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and the Council for Arab-British Understanding in 2014, I saw how the settlements touched the lives of those in the occupied territories. I think of the father from Gaza I met in Makassed hospital who was nursing his four-year-old double-amputee son and worrying about his wife in another hospital 20 miles away, who had also had both her legs amputated. I think of the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, whose residents live in perpetual fear of military demolitions and harassment. I think of the quarter of a million children across the Palestinian territories whom the UN identifies as in need of psychosocial support and child protection interventions. What future can these children look forward to? What hope can we offer them? A 10-year-old child in Gaza will already have witnessed three wars and nothing but the siege.
I therefore rise today to convey this simple message to the Minister: act now. Act now to show that Britain is still a country that will give voice to the voiceless and stand up for the rights of the oppressed. Act now to show that Britain is still a beacon of hope and a country that stands tall in the world and strives relentlessly for peace and justice. Act now to help us to believe that yours is a Government who still believe in the rule of law.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. Anyone who visits the west bank will soon see the extent and scale of the Israeli settlement programme. As we have heard from the hon. Gentleman, more than 500,000 Israeli settlers currently live in around 150 settlements constructed on occupied territory, and it is generally agreed by legal commentators that Israel’s actions in actively encouraging the settlement of the west bank contravene the provisions of the 1949 fourth Geneva convention.
The settlement programme was given some sort of a spurious legitimacy by the US peace plan for the middle east, which potentially paved the way towards a further major violation of Palestinian territory by annexation. It was, quite properly, subject to extensive international criticism. The British Government have made clear their opposition to the Israeli annexation plans, and I commend the Minister for the stance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken. It is good news that the Israeli annexation plan has been suspended after the recent announcement of normalised relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the kingdom of Bahrain.
One interesting point that was made at the time of this significant agreement was about finding
“a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Palestinian Authority to engage with Israel and its Arab neighbours to use the impetus of this historic agreement to negotiate a two-state solution?
Yes. I am grateful for the intervention, and I will refer to that in my speech. I think that this opportunity should be seized.
As I said, this is an announcement that should be unequivocally welcomed. It represents a significant triumph of statecraft on the part of three important countries with which the UK has strong ties and the friendliest of relations. It also gives hope for further normalisation of relations between Israel and other Arab states. It holds out the prospect of peace, and it is a moment that should be seized by Israel as pointing a way forward that does not rest on a constant state of confrontation and conflict.
There will, sadly, never be peace for Israel or Palestine unless a sensible two-state solution is pursued and achieved. The US plan is not the way forward. It would amount to the shakiest possible foundation for a real and enduring peace. As for the United Kingdom, our position has always been clear: we support a negotiated settlement, providing for Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty based upon the 1967 lines, with agreed land swaps and Jerusalem as a shared capital. I believe that that provides the best prospect of peace.
There is, however, one further action that the United Kingdom can, and should, take—that is, the recognition of the state of Palestine. This House has already voted, in 2014, to recognise Palestine’s statehood, and I suggest that now is the time for the British Government to confirm that recognition. With Israel receiving its own recognition across the Arab world, the two-state talks would enjoy a fairer wind if the parties negotiating were sovereign entities recognised by leading nations, such as the United Kingdom, with global influence. The position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has consistently been that British recognition of Palestine’s statehood will come when it best serves the objective of peace. That time is now.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who is an expert in these matters, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate, which I think he first secured back in March. Time has moved on, but the issue is perhaps even more relevant now, so I thank the Backbench Business Committee for sticking with it.
This debate is about annexation and settlements, de jure and de facto theft of Palestinian land, sequestrating and simply seizing land. Neither is new. East Jerusalem was annexed in 1980, and the Golan in 1981. Settlement has continued unabated under successive Israeli Governments since 1967. It is the most obvious and effective manifestation of the occupation. However, the focus since the launch of the so-called Trump peace plan in January and Netanyahu’s call for annexation of the west bank in May has been on annexation. Trump envisages 30% to 40% of the west bank, including the Jordan valley and much of area C, being absorbed into Israel. Netanyahu would go further, although in stages. If there does remain any hope for a viable Palestinian state, and therefore for the two-state solution, either scheme would finally kill it. No doubt we will hear from the Government that the threat of annexation has gone away, but it is clear from the comments made by Netanyahu himself, by his ambassador at the UN and, indeed, by the US ambassador to Israel in the last few weeks that this is a temporary abatement and that annexation is still firmly on the table.
Let me briefly say a word about the UAE and Bahrain accords with Israel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, there has been no friction between those countries; indeed, there has been substantial military co-operation. A thousand miles separate them, and there has been no hostility between them. It is easy to see what is in the accords for Trump and Netanyahu, but it is less easy to see how they benefit the Palestinians or advance peace between Israel and Palestine. The Arab peace initiative—almost 20 years old—offered full recognition of Israel by the entire Arab world, in exchange for ending the occupation, and it is a pity that we have not gone further down that route. It does rather look as though all of this is rewarding bullying, in the sense that, by taking the threat of annexation off the table, albeit temporarily, Israel gains benefit.
However, that is something of a distraction compared with what is happening on the ground in terms of settlement expansion. Some 610,000 Israeli settlers are living in the occupied territories and, as we have heard, thousands more units are being built. Area C is being annexed de facto as we speak; indeed, just today I heard from the villages in the south Hebron hills—12 villages, with around 1,000 people, including Susya, which many Members have visited—which are being incorporated into a firing zone and threatened with being demolished, in the same way that Khan al-Ahmar was. As for Gaza, where most of the water is undrinkable and most people are reliant on international aid, as far as the international community is concerned it is still under occupation.
So what do we do in the light of this situation? I repeat what the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) said about recognition. The Government say, “When the time is right.” I wonder what would make the time right. Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Recognition would be a positive step.
We cannot continue trading with settlements that are illegal under international law or supporting companies that do that. One positive thing is that many groups, from all sides of the equation, have come together to condemn the recent threats of annexation. I hope that that is a way forward, but it comes at a bleak time. We acted within days in relation to the occupation and annexation of the Crimea. Why can we not do the same for the occupied Palestinian territories?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate, especially given the patience that he has had to show in bringing it to the Floor of the House, and I also congratulate other hon. Members.
It is often claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes from Palestinian spokespeople claiming that ongoing Palestinian terrorism is the result of Israel’s occupation of the west bank and Gaza and its settlement construction, adding that the violence will cease only when those end. While I recognise that settlements are counterproductive, I do not believe they can be regarded as a permanent obstacle, and it is misleading to argue that the settlements are the primary reason for the continuation of the conflict. Indeed, violence long predates the existence of settlements, which began construction in 1967, following Israel’s occupation of the west bank. Violence against Jews in the region had been taking place even before the state’s establishment in 1948. For millennia, Jews lived in the west bank, known as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I will get to my beliefs on that later in my speech.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan refused Jews access to territory including the old city of Jerusalem and Judaism’s holiest sites. It is also important to note that the Palestine Liberation Organisation was formed three years before the Israeli occupation began, in 1967, with the goal of liberating Palestine—meaning modern-day Israel.
What is more, Israel has a history of removing settlements in the interests of peace. Had settlements been the main cause of violence, one would have expected it to decrease following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of settlers from all settlements in Gaza in 2005. On the contrary, Palestinian violence has intensified and tens of thousands of rockets and missiles have been fired into Israeli communities in the last 15 years. Had continuing settlement construction been the main motivation behind the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to engage in direct peace talks with Israel, why did they fail to talk with Israel after Prime Minister Netanyahu unilaterally imposed a 10-month moratorium on settlement building in 2010?
It is my view that settlements are just one of several core issues that can be ultimately resolved in final status negotiations between the parties. Moreover, the blueprint for resolving the issue of settlements has been long accepted between the parties, including the Palestinians themselves. The principle of land swaps, under which Israel compensates Palestinians with territory equivalent to that of the settlements, has been agreed for decades and offered by Israel in successive peace proposals. In fact, it is the end of claims and recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that perhaps best explains their justification and refusal to accept peace. Yet in recent weeks, as has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we have seen the beginnings of significant change, and the formalisation of that is important. The trilateral Abraham accords, signed by the UAE and Bahrain, explicitly acknowledge the Jewish people and the importance of co-existence, mutual understanding and mutual respect between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the region.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s recent call on the Palestinian Authority to engage with the peace process. I hope that the Palestinians seize this moment to work with their Arab neighbours and use their new-found commonality with Israel to broker a deal and have a long-lasting two-state peaceful solution.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate and for his very kind words. I associate myself with every word that he said in his very eloquent speech.
The Trump plan to me was an annexation plan. I said that in this House in January and I believe it now. It was not a peace plan. It was not anything that negotiations or a peaceful solution could be born out of. It would not have brought peace to either Palestinian people or Israeli people, and peace is what we all want in this House. We all want to see that. We want a two-state solution, from my point of view, based on 1967 boundaries. It is the only solution that will really bring peace to the region.
Although I welcome the treaties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, announced with great fanfare in the gardens of the White House, this does nothing to help peace on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine. It is a formalisation, as has already been said by a number of colleagues, of a relationship that already existed.
The suspension of the annexation plan does not mean that annexation is not happening by the back door. The status quo means that de facto annexation continues—the process of taking land and resources in occupied territories for settlements. Today, around 600,000 people are settlers living in settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories. They are living in about 150 settlements and more than 100 outposts.
Since the Trump plan was released, Netanyahu has announced approval of preliminary plans for some 3,500 new housing units in the E1 area. Israel has also announced another 1,000-plus housing units in Givat Hamatos and advanced plans for more than 2,000 units in the existing settlement at Har Homa, to mention just a few, and that is just a few. The list goes on and on. Today, I learned of the developments in firing zone 918 in the south Hebron hills, which, again, has already been mentioned. This will mean displacing around 700 villages, where up to 1,000 people live. As of April 2020, there are 455 demolition orders in place—they cover the vast majority of structures in that area, including schools and clinics funded by European countries, and toilets and water cisterns funded by our own now defunct Department for International Development.
As we see, the creep of land being taken by Israel is ongoing. It continues every single day. This makes nonsense of the statement about the “suspension” of annexation. What can the British Government do? Many times I have heard the Government say in this House that they will recognise Palestine when the time is right. We are in a unique position because of our history and our strong record in this area. Now is the time to recognise Palestine. It is time that the British Government recognised the state of Palestine. I firmly believe that the British Government should also bring in a ban on products from the illegally occupied territories. It is not acceptable that we can bring in bans in respect of Crimea in a matter of days, as we heard, and not do so for the occupied territories.
On the point the hon. Lady just made about her eagerness to recognise the state of Palestine now, may I ask which Government—which state of Palestine—she would recognise? Would it be the Palestinian Authority, who spend 40% of their foreign aid on salaries to terrorists and their families, or perhaps Hamas, who are openly committed to the genocide of Jewish people?
That intervention was not helpful to the tone of the debate, but I accept it. The recognition of the state of Palestine is well outlined on the 1967 borders. The hon. Gentleman’s own Government have talked about it numerous times; they have said it in the House numerous times. We all deplore violence and we all deplore people breaking the law, but it would give people an equalisation as we move forward, hopefully, to a negotiated settlement providing a two-state solution that would enhance the lives of both Israeli citizens and Palestinians—a peaceful way forward. I think that is what the vast majority in this House want to see.
Returning to what I was saying, the two things that the British Government can do are to recognise the state of Palestine and to put a ban on products from the illegal settlements—occupied settlements. Those two actions would be welcomed by the Palestinian people, and in my view they are the right thing to do.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing time for this discussion. As other Members have pointed out, events have moved on considerably since the application for this debate was initially submitted. We stand here this afternoon still taking stock of and reflecting on some enormous changes that have happened in recent weeks.
Even though some Members have sought to downplay it, make no mistake that the signing of peace agreements between the Governments of Bahrain and the UAE and Israel is an enormous step forward towards peace for the whole region—Gulf Arab states taking steps to recognise that what is good for their own peace, security and prosperity aligns pretty closely with what is good for the peace, prosperity and security of Israel; Gulf states recognising that, because of geography and history, and because in the 21st century the world is so much smaller than ever before, their future is more entwined than ever before with that of Israel.
The point that I would like to make this afternoon is that what is good for peace, prosperity and security for the UAE, Bahrain and Israel is exactly the same thing that holds out the promise of a better future—a peaceful future, a just future—for the people of Palestine. I do not believe that there is a single person in the Chamber who genuinely does not want to see peace, prosperity and security for Israel and Palestine alike.
Anybody who has visited that part of the world, as I have on many occasions in my role as parliamentary chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, will have seen the enormous potential and opportunity there. They will also have seen the scars and shadows of warfare and conflict, and felt the threat of violence and conflict that still hangs heavy across the region.
During our trip in February, we went to Ramallah and saw high-tech companies thriving, in spite of the political leadership in Palestine. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the leadership of Palestine that is not only holding its people back but holding the region back?
My hon. Friend is exactly right: it is about leadership. If the history of this region teaches us anything, it is that peace comes about not through fine words alone, but through courageous action. That has been underlined again in the last few weeks by those decisions by Bahrain and the UAE.
I referred to our trip to Israel and the west bank in February, just before lockdown. We sat with Dr Saeb Erekat, who still holds the title of official chief negotiator on the part of the PLO, and discussed prospects for peace with him. When the hon. Member for Aberavon talked about the Trump deal being no basis for negotiation and not a starting point for any kind of discussion, I closed my eyes and heard the words of Dr Saeb Erekat, because that is exactly what he said to us then. The point we made to him was that it requires the Palestinian leadership not to continue missing opportunities, as they have done in the past, but to seize an opportunity for a basis of discussion and step out of old ways of thinking and old paths that lead time and again to a block.
There is a lot in the Trump plan that I am sceptical about, and the viability of a future Palestinian state is important for me as I reflect on these issues, but I believe first and foremost in the power of sitting down and talking. The intransigence and refusal to engage on the part of the Palestinian leadership is a huge roadblock to progress in the region. That is why I reiterate my point about the need for leaders to show leadership. It is not just about the job title. It is about taking brave decisions to sit down and talk and break out of old modes of thinking and old patterns of behaviour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) referred to a tech start-up company that we visited in Ramallah a number of months ago. The young people we met in that company look at what has happened in the tech sector in Israel, which has seen enormous growth and been a source of prosperity for Israel, and they want that too—they aspire to be a start-up nation too. They have every right to aspire to that, but they are also aware that their leadership has let them down on so many occasions. When we debate these issues in the Chamber, it is important that we think about not only the words of the Palestinian leaders, but the Palestinian people themselves and what they aspire to.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the major obstacles to young Palestinians being able to do what he describes is their lack of freedom of movement and their inability to access education, skills and opportunities? In order to present a balanced argument, I appeal to him to recognise that freedom of movement is a major obstacle to opportunity for the very people he is talking about.
I have seen all the roadblocks and the impediment that they create to economic opportunity. It is bad in the west bank, and it is even worse in Gaza, but there is a reason why those roadblocks are there: they minimise the threat of violence and death for Jewish Israeli citizens. That is exactly the point I am trying to make—we need to move beyond that. It requires our Government to put more pressure on the Palestinian leadership to root out the school textbooks that glorify violence and incite hatred, to abandon the language of conflict and confrontation, and to seize opportunities for peace.
I welcome this debate, and I endorse the principles outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) in his excellent introductory speech. Like him, I consider myself a friend of Israel and a supporter of the Palestinian cause and Palestinian statehood, and I think a two-state solution is the only way to get a lasting peaceful outcome.
I visited the west bank in February—I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—for the first time in many years. Until that visit, I had not appreciated just how seriously these settlements threaten that two-state solution, how complex the situation is on the ground in terms of the settlements’ locations—they are increasingly further east of the green line into the west bank, including parts of the Jordan valley—or how the nature of the settlements complicates the situation. These are permanently established towns and villages with strong and complex infrastructure. We heard reference earlier to land swaps as a potential solution, but the nature of the settlements would make that much more difficult and complicated than I had appreciated. I do not think anybody is arguing that settlements are the only obstacle to a peaceful solution, but they are a very significant one, and increasingly so, as encouraged by the Netanyahu Government and now, unfortunately, by the Trump plan for annexation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) pointed out, it is a plan for annexation: it will not lead to a lasting peace.
Like others, I welcome the accords with the UAE and Bahrain. There has to be a pragmatic approach to relations in the region, but let us not forget—to issue another reminder—that that has led only to a suspension of the plans. Netanyahu has said that the plans for annexation remain on the table, and many of us fear that his Government could still bring those plans into practice.
The single message that I took away from a visit to the west bank—the one thing that came from many human rights groups and a range of people on the ground including diplomats and strong supporters of Israel—is that unless there are consequences for their actions, this Israeli Government will continue on their current path. That means, ultimately, moves towards further annexation and the end of a two-state solution.
I do not disagree. I might phrase it differently, but my hon. Friend makes an important point.
We need to think about how we can practically influence the Israeli Government to abandon the plans. We have talked in this House about sanctions against Governments that break international law, and Crimea was mentioned earlier. We were talking a couple of hours ago about sanctions on Belarus, and we seriously need to consider how this country, as a friend of Israel and with a historical responsibility, can use our influence to stop the Israeli Government going down the line of permanent annexation. I think we do have to be clear that there must be consequences, whether that means banning settlement goods or considering other forms of sanctions, because words have not been enough.
Even if the current plan were abandoned, that would certainly not be the end of the issue. There are some right-wing representatives in the Israeli Government who actually prefer creeping annexation, because it means that that kind of de facto annexation does not have to accommodate any agreement with the Palestinians. We need to be very wary of that, and we need to look beyond the immediate issue of the Trump plan and make it clear that creeping annexation is equally problematic and needs to cease.
Let me just repeat one or two of the requests to the Minister made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon. I strongly support recognition of the state of Palestine and confirmation that the UK will not recognise any annexation, and that we will consider actions against the Israeli Government if it goes ahead. As several of us have said, words have not been enough.
I will just make one final related point. The humanitarian situation in the west bank and Gaza is, as we all know, very difficult, and I would welcome an assurance that our support for our aid to the occupied territories will not be cut as a result of the cuts in the aid budget.
I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests in relation to my trip to Israel and the west bank on a fact-finding mission in February of this year.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of the events of recent weeks for the prospect of Israeli-Palestine peace. The Arab League of 2020, which has refused to condemn Israel’s peace agreement with the UAE, is a very different organisation from that of 1967. After gaining control of East Jerusalem and the west bank from Jordan, Gaza from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria in the six-day war, Israel offered to return most of the territories it had occupied in exchange for peace treaties with its neighbours. In response, the Arab League issued the infamous three noes—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict, as it was then known, was born out of the refusal of those Arab states to accept Israel’s existence in any borders.
The conflict is no longer one between Israel and the entire Arab world, with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain having now officially recognised Israel in landmark peace deals. Those agreements have included land swaps and concessions, with Israel prioritising the principle of land for peace over territorial gain.
We must not forget that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, uprooting thousands of Israeli Jews who lived there, in order to advance peace with the Palestinians. It is regrettable that, instead of seizing that opportunity, Hamas murdered its Fatah opponents and turned the Gaza strip into a launch pad for terrorism.
Israel’s occupation of the west bank cannot be understood without our considering that, before Jordan seized control of east Jerusalem and the west bank in 1948 and ethnically cleansed the territory of Jews, there had been a continuous Jewish presence in the area for four millennia. Many of Judaism’s holy sites, including the Cave of the Patriarchs, are located in the west bank. More than 10,000 Jews living in the old city of Jerusalem, the west bank and Gaza were driven out or killed in the 1948 war of independence. Today the territories are designated by the international community as illegally occupied Palestinian territories, a definition that Israel and the United States contest. The implication that Jews praying at their holiest sites are doing so illegally is deeply troubling to me and to the Jewish community.
Land borders can only be resolved in direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, with difficult compromises needed from both sides. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa what steps he is taking with international partners, including Israel’s new partners in the Gulf, to make the resumption of direct talks a reality.
The state of Israel is a beacon of freedom and democracy, developing solutions to global problems, including coronavirus, and sharing expertise worldwide. I welcome the remark by the Minister last week:
“The UK’s commitment to Israel is unwavering.”
With that in mind, does he share the Foreign Secretary’s view that now annexation is off the table, the Palestinians should re-engage with Israel on finance and security co-operation as a confidence-building measure? Does he agree that until the Palestinian leadership embraces co-existence with Israel and stops teaching Palestinian children that Israel’s presence is temporary, the prospects for peace remain bleak? As our close ally, Israel, further develops ties with the Arab world, let us ensure that the Palestinian people are not left behind, by telling the Palestinian leadership the hard truths needed to achieve a lasting peace, and providing the support needed to reinvigorate the peace process.
Some 103 years ago, the Palestinians were abandoned when our then Foreign Secretary decided unilaterally to facilitate the establishment of a new state for one people in another people’s homeland. In 1948 the Palestinians were abandoned when that state was established, and in 1967 they were abandoned again when much of their remaining homeland was lost, leading to the occupation that continues today.
But this year they have not just been abandoned; they have also been ignored. On the back of ignoring them, Israel’s ignoring of international law has been rewarded, not punished, by political normalisation with two states in the region. We all want peace in the Holy Land, but when we are told that there are peace deals being announced without the Palestinians even being part of those deals, we should get real about whether peace is what we are really getting.
Peace is too important to be mis-sold. While Israel, understandably, pursues normalisation, we should remind all concerned that there is nothing normal about occupation. We found the lockdown due to covid-19 incredibly difficult, with curfews, lack of freedom to travel and being cut off from family, but Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation have been under their own lockdown for so many decades.
The argument being proposed is that the normalisation agreements with Bahrain and the UAE have halted annexation of even more Palestinian territory, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—whom I thank for securing this debate—pointed out, they are continuing behind the scenes. The Israeli Prime Minister has made no such guarantee in any case to his own Knesset, and he has been indicted already more than once for breach of trust as well as for fraud. Why should we take anything he says at face value?
Closer to home, we know from our experiences with the Good Friday agreement that peace can come only when sworn enemies are seated around the table, not when only one side of the table has the chairs out. It is that experience we should be sharing with the world in Britain’s commitment to a safer, fairer world for all—including Israelis and Palestinians.
The recent announcements coming from the UAE and Bahrain are significant to those states’ relations with Israel, but detrimental to peace between Israelis and Palestinians and righting the wrongs committed during the military occupation. No normalisation effort with Israel will be real and genuine—let alone accepted by the people of the region more widely—without addressing the reasons why normalisation has escaped Israelis for so long: the occupation and the wrongs emanating from it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite what has recently happened, the Israeli Government have not ruled out normalisation of annexation for the long term, that it is a temporary thing, and that our Government need to ensure that the Israeli Government do not continue to pursue that as an agenda?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Indeed, she and I were in Palestine last year, visiting the Palestinians, and we saw at first hand what happens. I agree, and would go further. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said earlier, it is not even paused; the truth is, it continues.
In Northern Ireland, we would not have declared peace with the Irish just because Britain normalised full political relations with Dublin. Nor can the Israelis claim peace with the Arabs just because of deals struck in the UAE and Bahrain. Trade deals and PR stunts are one thing; peace is completely different. Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve better than the status quo. Both the oppressor and the oppressed and their populations suffer through injustice.
As Dr H. A. Hellyer of the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last week,
“full normalization for Israel does not require its government to set up diplomatic outposts in cities far away from Tel Aviv, but rather, to come to an equitable and just settlement with the people of Palestine, from Gaza to Jerusalem to Ramallah.”
In the end, the normalisation of Israel in the region can come only through acceptance on the ground by the wider Arab public, including the people of Palestine, irrespective of the fanfare from the Trump Administration.
As we continue to pursue peace, we must ask, who is peace for? It is not for the Emiratis and it is not for the Bahrainis. It is not even for us. It is for the Israelis and Palestinians. Anything that excludes one side is nothing to do with peace. This is not about the art of a deal, especially when the artwork is counterfeit; it is about the rights of the oppressed, the occupied and the erased.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, at a time when the prospects for middle east peace are perhaps greater than ever before. Israel’s recent peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain demonstrate how the outdated view that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead to regional peace is rooted in a lack of understanding of the issues at hand. Conflict is in no way as clearcut as it is so often presented, just as the settlements issue requires greater nuance than some are willing to provide.
While settlement expansion is counterproductive, it is worth recalling that Israel gained control of the west bank in a defensive war to maintain security and that there was no previous legitimate sovereign there. While I welcome the fact that annexation has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future, it appears that the settlements issue can be resolved only through a negotiated peace deal that defines the borders of a sovereign Palestinian state with agreed land swaps. It is for that reason that I have greater hope for the possibility of a two-state solution following the historic signing of peace deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.
I applaud the vision and bravery of the UAE and Bahrain in choosing a future of peace and reconciliation. Unlike Israel’s peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, these are likely to be much warmer in nature, with a far greater emphasis on cultural and economic co-operation.
The role of Saudi Arabia in these events is of great interest. Although the kingdom has not publicly indicated its intention to agree a peace deal with Israel in the immediate future, it is clear that Riyadh and Jerusalem are co-operating in a way that has never happened before. The fact that Bahrain has agreed a peace deal with Israel is significant, as the Gulf state is widely regarded as a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Let us consider the point that Saudi Arabia has permitted flights to and from Israel to use its airspace, including flights by Israel’s flag carrier, El Al, in a region all too often beset by violence. These are momentous developments, and I call on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to do everything he can to support this new relationship.
We must not forget that it was Saudi Arabia that instigated and led the Arab peace initiative of the 2000s, which ushered in a decades-long consensus in the Arab world. The price of normalisation and recognition of Israel was the creation of a Palestinian state. As the years passed and the impasse grew, commentators and analysts increasingly speculated that the initiative had simply emboldened the Palestinians in their rejectionism in relation to repeated peace initiatives, as they adopted a maximalist approach, but a pivot towards a better future built on peace, prosperity and shared interests has shattered this consensus.
While international efforts have historically focused on unlocking the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians to enable peace, the United States has emphatically shown that peace is possible from the outside in. The Palestinian Authority’s joint rejection of the peace deals, alongside Hamas, is deeply regrettable. The peace agreements clearly recommitted the signatories to a just and enduring solution for the Palestinians, and I hope that the Palestinians will choose to engage instead of continuing their accusations of betrayal. After all, the strategy of prolonging the conflict and rejecting successive peace offers has repeatedly harmed the hope of ordinary Palestinians for statehood. Now is the time for change.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee, but also the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for leading this debate and the other Members who have brought it to the House. It is incredibly important—I thank those who have contributed—and I think many of the facts and figures that have been thrown around are well understood. I rise as the first British Palestinian MP, and I thought the best thing I could do would be to give some human colour to the debate.
When I saw Trump’s peace plan, which we asked to debate back in March, my heart sank. The reason why it sank was that there is no one who wants more than me and my family, and my cousins and aunts and uncles back home, peace. We want peace—of course we want peace—and Hamas does not speak for me. I stand here as a friend of Israel as much as I am a daughter of Palestine. To those who suggest that that is in some way a weird thing for a Palestinian to say, I reply that most Palestinians I know actually say the same. All Palestinians I know recognise Israel, and all Palestinians I know want peace. This is not some black-and-white situation; that is where we want to get to.
In that plan there was mention of Jericho. My family is a Greek Orthodox family, and we had a long history of living in Jerusalem within the city walls, but after 1967, the family moved away because it was no longer safe to raise my mother there. She and her five siblings went to live in Jericho, which is where she grew up. The plan that Trump was putting forward would essentially have meant a suffocation of Jericho. A farmer in Jericho would, under this plan, have had to seek a permit to go and tend to their land. When Members say—I noted the words of the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb)—in the old ways of thinking, “Why don’t people just engage?” it is the equivalent of someone going to where they have grown up and saying to them, “We are going to suffocate the very village where you grew up or where your mother grew up, and you should be grateful that we have come up with this great plan for your family.” In response, Members would turn around and say, “No!”, yet that is what is going on in this case.
It is very obvious that this plan was never going to work. It is very obvious that the peace plan between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel—good for them; all peace is good, and the more peace, the better—is not going to help Palestine. Let us not fool ourselves. What we can do in this House and what this Government can do is recognise my other country, the one I love equally with this one. What that would do is give hope, because ultimately that is what keeps being eroded with every annexation, with every so-called peace plan and with every intervention by Trump. Frankly, he does not believe in peace; he just wants to be re-elected. What we need now is hope, and that is what is in the gift of this Government.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There is an organisation in Europe that could help with this issue: the Council of Europe. I mention it because both the Israelis and the Palestinians are associate members, yet not once has it been involved in this discussion or reached out to try to get them together. I hope the Minister will support my efforts in the Council of Europe to try to get it to do that sort of thing and play a role in taking that forward.
I am not going to underplay the role of the recent agreements. Israel signing deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain was a seismic moment of historic proportions. To many casual observers, they have appeared almost incomprehensible, given the historical enmity of the Arab states towards the Jewish state. Conversely, the region has been changing before our eyes in recent decades, and the landmark deals are the most significant manifestations of that new reality. Despite the recent Israel-UAE deal taking annexation off the table, the Palestinian leadership is yet to recognise the good-will gesture. Land swaps have been part of the agreed framework for a two-state solution for decades, and settlements, although unhelpful, cannot be seen as a permanent obstacle to peace.
I read an article in The Guardian which typified the attitude of Palestinians. Rather than seeing such deals as an opportunity to engage and get lasting peace, they fell back on the same arguments about settlements and on attacking the Arab nations that had signed the agreements as simply betraying their cause. The article went on to blame the Israelis for violence, which is ironic, given the extent of Palestinian violence, for example in the ramming of cars, which makes the settlements necessary in the first place. I am afraid that Arab leaders have just grown frustrated at Palestinian intransigence. Does that mean that Arab states are simply going to forget the settlements?
The question of elections among the Palestinian people is interesting. I attended a presentation by pollsters in the Palestinian territories that put as at-risk the continuation of the current Administration in the Palestinian territories. That throws up a difficult area.
As I was saying, does the Arab leaders’ frustration mean that Arab states are simply going to forget the settlements? Or are they, as we have seen, putting pressure on Israel not to go ahead with new settlement building, which was talked about in the election but for which I do not believe there is a genuine appetite? As the so-called Arab spring swept through the region, citizens were not protesting about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on settlements. Those brave citizens passionately demanded the exact same rights and social securities that we take for granted in the UK. It is my great hope that the peace agreements between Israel and her neighbours, and the additional ones that are expected soon, will offer a new and overdue route to a lasting two-state solution. I am sure that colleagues in all parties in this House share my hope that the Palestinian leadership will embrace this new forward-looking dynamic, rather than continue its rejection.
In closing, let me quote some words that have stuck in my mind. They are from Theodor Herzl, who said:
“If you will it, it is no dream.”
That is the truth of the matter.
Order. I hope that hon. Members will not now intervene unless it is absolutely necessary, especially those who have already spoken. We are not going to be able to get everyone in; we are running out of time. I am trying my best, but if people take long interventions, it is not fair to others.
I am a supporter of the state of Israel. I am a supporter of its creation and our role in achieving it, a supporter of its flourishing within the region, and a supporter of its robust and thriving democracy in a region where democracy does not thrive. I am a supporter of its place in the international community of nations, and of its culture, religion, dynamism and growth. But that considerable admiration does not blind me to the areas where Israel has failed to live up to its international obligations, and where its actions have worked against the global need for peace in the middle east.
Settlements are just one of many issues that stand in the way of peace, and a three-minute speech is not the way to discuss the issues of the middle east. However, there is nothing in building settlements in the occupied settlements that encourages the prospect of a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If we believe that a long-term peace accord relies on the creation of an agreed two-state solution, how can a Government policy of ongoing building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories do anything other than make a long-term division of lands less achievable? Yet such a peace agreement would massively benefit Israel, as well as the nascent Palestine. Surely the Israeli Government’s current plans to annexe the west bank throws up yet another barrier to the kind of peace that both protagonists, and the wider international community, purport to support.
I welcome the peace agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, and I hope that they presage an increased impetus for more normalised relations throughout the region, giving greater impetus to the opportunity for peace. The suspension of the annexation plans, at least for the time being, is an early example of the positive impact of those agreements. It is through the normalisation of relations, and dialogue, rather than assertive acts of annexation in defiance of international law, that the progress we all crave will be achieved.
On the current Israeli-US peace plan, one only needs to turn to the map of the proposed Palestinian state to see that, at best, it can only be the start of a conversation, which perhaps it should be. The proposed state does not look like a state, but rather an internal diaspora of enclaves. We know from the history of the past 50 years that the weeping sore of low-grade attritional conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will not be settled by the imposition of one side’s solution on the other. Equally, peace cannot be imposed from the outside. The only way that peace will come is from the free agreement of both parties, supported and facilitated by their international friends. I support Her Majesty’s Government as they continue to promote just such a solution.
As chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I welcome recent news from the middle east, while acknowledging the challenges facing a two-state solution and an end to conflict. LFI has repeatedly made clear that we oppose annexation in the west bank, and we welcome the fact that, as part of its historic agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Israel has abandoned such plans. The decisions by the UEA and Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel is a cause for optimism. I hope others will follow so that Israel can live in peace with its neighbours and play its part in creating a stable and prosperous region.
As Dennis Ross, veteran of the Clinton and Obama peace efforts said,
“The UAE example can be used to foster a resumption of diplomacy that can change the stalemated reality between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The international community should facilitate that, but only Israel and the Palestinians can find peace. Settlement building is an obstacle—that is why LFI called for a freeze on new settlements—but it is not insurmountable. Israel has previously withdrawn from Sinai in 1981, and Gaza and the northern west bank in 2005. Since Oslo, all negotiations have included land swaps.
Settlements are not the only obstacle. Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist, and terrorises the people of Israel and Gaza. Iran’s proxy army, Hezbollah, has around 140,000 rockets and missiles, and an army of 45,000. Tehran has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction, pledging, in the words on Ayatollah Khamenei’s website, a “final solution”. In their classrooms and in their policy of paying salaries to terrorists and their families, the Palestinian Authority incite and glorify violence—a policy aided and abetted by international donors, including our own Government. That does nothing to advance peace. I am disappointed that this problem, which has been recognised on both sides of the House, continues, and I urge Ministers to act.
I am also disappointed that the UK has cut all funding to peacebuilding co-existence projects that foster conflict resolution and improve relationships. I appeal to the Minister to look at what is happening in the US House of Representatives and join the call to build a peacebuilding fund.
It is a good thing that the annexation of the west bank has not gone ahead, but suspending it, with the implication that it will go ahead at some future point, is not enough. It has not been taken off the table, as has been suggested in a couple of contributions to this debate. That threat needs to be lifted.
Over the summer, I was contacted by more than 400 constituents who were deeply concerned about annexation and illegal settlement building going ahead. Those developments and what is happening in that part of the world are of deep concern to people in the UK. I welcome the stand that the Government have taken against annexation, but simply stating that we do not approve of it is not enough. We must back up those statements.
Even without annexation, as we have been reminded, the construction of illegal settlements makes the prospect of a two-state solution increasingly illusory. Those from across the House who have argued for a two-state solution need to recognise the impact of continued settlement expansion on the prospect of that ever being feasible. The United Nations special rapporteur has rightly spoken of the two-state solution having become “a vanishing mirage”. It would be a tragedy if that were allowed to happen. If it does, there will not be a peaceful settlement in this part of the world.
It is shocking that the Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses has continued even during the pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) reminded us, we have seen the demolition of buildings and structures that were funded by donors from countries such as ours. The UN special rapporteur has called on the international community
“to review its extensive menu of sanctions…to stem this march towards further illegality.”
That, surely, is what we have to do.
We need to hear from the Minister today, beyond hand-wringing and objections to annexation, what action the UK Government will take to address the continuing damaging illegality that is under way in Israel and Palestine.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for a visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Council for Arab-British Understanding.
I rise to speak as a friend of Palestinians as well as Israelis—as, I believe, are all Members across the House. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has meant suffering on all sides for generations, along with regional instability and insecurity for Israelis as well as Palestinians. In Gaza, 80% of civilians depend on international humanitarian relief. In 2010, former Prime Minister David Cameron described the blockaded Gaza strip as a “prison camp”. The situation has not improved much since then; in fact, it has got worse. The plight of Palestinians has been worsened by restrictions on freedom of movement and on freedom of access to work, opportunity, healthcare and education.
When I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories last year, it was clear that the situation had got progressively worse. The daily battle of survival—to get to work and through checkpoints—is exhausting to observe, never mind to live through. That is why it is imperative that all of us work together to ensure that the Palestinians have a right to statehood. Our Government must do all they can to ensure that there is a genuine peace process to provide security for Israelis, a two-state solution and the right to Palestinian statehood. But the so-called Trump plan and the annexation threat by the Israeli Government have put all that in jeopardy and taken us backwards.
We need our Government to fight for an end to the occupation, to illegal settlements, to demolition orders, and to the barriers that prevent Palestinians and Israelis from being able to live side by side in peace and security. We need the international community to redouble its efforts to ensure that a genuine peaceful settlement can be reached. The Trump plan is far from that. That is why it is important that our Government fight for a permanent commitment to preventing annexation, not just a temporary reprieve. We need our Government to act as an honest broker, not to take sides. We need our Government to play the role that the world desperately needs us to play with other partners to ensure peace and security in a troubled nation and a troubled region. It is imperative that we all work together to make that happen in a genuine way.
Order. I am afraid that we have run out of time for Back-Bench contributions, but I note that everyone who is present and has not been called in this debate has already spoken this afternoon in the earlier debate, so I hope they will not feel too badly done by.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on raising this subject today. I also congratulate him on a speech that, frankly, I wish I had made myself; I associate myself warmly with it.
It was interesting that the hon. Member started with what this debate is not about, and that is worth restating. This debate is not about being pro or anti Jew or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. The reality on the ground is far more complex. It is about our being consistent in our application of international law. A few other things also bear restatement. Israel has a right to exist. It is an important partner for the European Union and the UK. It has a right to security within its borders—the 1967 borders, which are the only legal borders recognised. I regard myself as a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine. My party takes a position of principled neutrality on this matter. We favour, as do many others, a two-state solution. We condemn any violence against anyone, whoever it is perpetrated by, and we condemn any breach of international law.
Any discussion of the middle east by outsiders is bedevilled by a wilfully short memory on occasion, and wilful partial-sightedness. We have heard some of that today. The Trump plan is the worst example of it lately. The Trump plan is not a serious basis for talks—quite the reverse. It rewards bad, illegal behaviour, and should be rejected out of hand. The Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain accords are to be welcomed as far as they go—any dialogue and co-operation surely have to be welcomed—but they themselves ignore the 2002 Arab peace initiative condition that any normalisation of relations is contingent on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The developments in the middle east are bedevilled by a series of year zeros that seek to erase what happened before. These accords in themselves do nothing in international law to change or erase Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law.
We have heard from the Government Benches that settlements are one issue among many, or that they are not a significant barrier to peace. I find that a remarkable analysis, which I utterly reject. I would contend quite the reverse. The settlements are the primary obstacle to a two-state solution, in that they have rendered Palestinian territory an ungovernable archipelago.
The formal annexation seems to have receded for the moment, but the occupation continues, and the occupation undermines a two-state solution. We should remember that under the UK Government’s own policy, settlements are illegal. Contact with them should be illegal also. Settlement produce is stolen goods and there should be consequences in dealing in it, so I have some concrete questions for the Minister. Will the UK ban settlement goods? Failing that, will we at least clearly label them so that consumers can make choices? Following the formal publication of the UN list of companies trading with settlements, what action will the Government take against JCB, Opodo and Greenkote, which continue that illegal trade?
We all favour a just peace for all in the middle east, but it must be based on a clear-eyed assessment and application of international law. The UK Government could be doing more to encourage that discussion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). He said at the start that this was a debate of critical importance and that he had waited a long time for it. I commend him for his patience. The debate has been conducted, by and large, in a very positive spirit. That has been personified by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). She set the tone that we all need to maintain.
Earlier this year, President Trump published his so-called deal of the century. It was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, a package of proposals designed in effect to break international law, and in so doing offering little hope to the Palestinian people. Moving the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has also done absolutely nothing to promote peace. President Trump’s deal was followed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposals to unilaterally annex large parts of the west bank. Again, that was against international law. It placed in jeopardy existing peace treaties and would effectively have brought to an end, if it had been successful, the prospect of a viable two-state solution.
Since the publication of the various permutations of the annexation proposals, there has been widespread international condemnation of annexation. The UAE-Bahrain-Israel agreement has at least halted the move towards annexation, but we should note that Prime Minister Netanyahu said that as far as he was concerned annexation was “still on the table”. I understand that the Foreign Secretary recently visited Israel and the west bank, and had talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I would like to know from the Minister whether our Foreign Secretary said emphatically that it was not enough for those plans to be halted, but that they should be withdrawn absolutely and irreversibly cancelled. I hope our Foreign Secretary said that.
I know that the Government support a two-state solution, as we in the Labour party do, but we should recognise that it will not just happen. We need to acknowledge that illegal settlements are a real barrier. They are in breach of the fourth Geneva convention. They are a real barrier to peace, an impediment to moving forward. The demolition of houses and the eviction of Palestinian people from their homes in Jerusalem and elsewhere are deplorable—no ifs or buts. The Government also need to recognise that there is a need to support the creation of a new climate in Israel and Palestine, so that people are able to move towards a process of peace. That is why it is important to support coexistence projects. There was funding, provided by the Government, for coexistence projects, but that has now, sadly, come to an end. I believe the Government need to support projects that promote coexistence, because only when Palestinians and Israelis have an ongoing dialogue, when they live and work together and engage in reconciliation, can there be a firm basis for a permanent peace.
I also think that we need to recognise that there needs to be the beginning of a meaningful peace process. The Trump plan does not offer the basis for that. I would like to see the Government—I give the Minister the opportunity to do so today—saying loudly and clearly that the Trump plan is unacceptable and does not offer the basis for real negotiations.
Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon once again for securing this important debate, and I thank everyone who has contributed. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, which I hope will be positive.
I am genuinely grateful that the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) secured this debate on what is a sensitive but incredibly important issue. A number of Members from all parts of the House have highlighted the fact that since the original date given for this debate, much has changed in Israel’s situation and its relationship with its regional neighbours and the Palestinian people.
The middle eastern peace process continues to be a complex and sensitive issue. I cannot really do it full justice in the time allocated today, but I will attempt to cover as many points as I can. I know that many Members correspond with the Department on a regular basis on this matter. I hope that, through correspondence and perhaps in future debates, any details that I am not able to cover today will be explored.
The UK remains active in attempting to secure a peace process for the region, and we warmly welcome the recent announcements of the normalisation of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. All three countries are good friends to the United Kingdom, and we welcome the fact that their relations have improved. I recognise the points that the hon. Member made about the formalising of what was, in many instances, a pre-existing relationship, but that public formalisation really matters. As has already been discussed, it has unlocked direct flights through Saudi airspace, which is another significant issue. I hope that it has also shown the leadership of the Palestinian Authority that there is a shift in mood among Arabic neighbours. They should recognise that, and take this as an opportunity to positively engage with a dialogue for future peace.
That said, it should be clear that the United Kingdom’s position on the future relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples has not changed. We desire a stable, secure and peaceful two-state solution, with a thriving Israel next door to a thriving Palestine based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and fair, agreed and realistic settlements for refugees. We continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution for the area. More than that, as a good friend of Israel, we genuinely believe it is in Israel’s best interests to have a viable Palestinian state so that it can maintain its desired future as a Jewish democratic state.
I have been asked very explicitly in a number of speeches about the UK’s position on annexation, so let me explain it to the House in clear and unambiguous terms. The UK’s position on annexation is that it would be a violation of international law. It would be counterproductive to securing peace, and it would be a significant blow to a viable two-state solution. As a lifelong friend, admirer and supporter of Israel—
In August, the Labour party announced that should annexation take place, we would call for a boycott of goods sourced in the occupied territories. Does the Minister agree that this would demonstrate a genuine commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people and international law?
The UK Government have a long-standing position to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement towards the state of Israel, but more than that, it is better that we prevent annexation from taking place. We have made the case, through our excellent bilateral relationships, that we oppose annexation. The Prime Minister has consistently made it clear, as a vocal friend of the state of Israel, that he opposes annexation. He has expressed this publicly in an article in the Israeli media and directly, including in a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 6 July. The Foreign Secretary raised this in Jerusalem on 24 August with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, and I outlined our opposition to such moves at the UN Security Council on 24 June. Our position is clear on that.
As a strong friend of Israel, and a friend who stood up for Israel when it faced biased and unreasonable criticism, we are continuing to urge Israel not to take steps in this direction, and for annexation to be permanently removed as an option.
The country that continues to be the greatest problem is Iran. I understand that the United Nations arms embargo on Iran, for conventional weapons, expires in mid-October. Will the Minister use his good powers as a Foreign Office Minister to ensure that work is done alongside the USA to make sure that that arms embargo is reinstated?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I am constrained by time, and that is an important and complicated issue which I cannot address in this speech.
The UK’s position on settlements is also clear. Again, they are illegal under international law and present an obstacle to a sustainable two-state solution. We want to see a contiguous west bank, including East Jerusalem, as part of a viable sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders.
In 2016, the UK supported UN Security Council resolution 2334, which states that Israeli settlement activity “constitutes a flagrant violation” of international law and “has no legal validity”. This is the long-standing position of the UK Government, and we are able to have these very direct conversations with the Israeli Government because we are friends—long-standing and close friends of the Israeli people and the Israeli Government. That gives us the opportunity to have these frank and sometimes difficult discussions.
I am going to make progress; otherwise, I will deny the hon. Member for Aberavon the opportunity to come back in.
We maintain strong and close relations with the Israeli people and the state of Israel, which enables us to have these direct conversations.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised Iran’s intentionally insulting and provocative language, and we must understand that Israel, from its inception, has felt an existential threat. That very much informs its view to its own protection, and we must understand that. We must also work to remove that existential fear because that, ultimately, will unlock the viable, peaceful two-state solution.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), who injected a very moving, personal contribution. We must always remember that this is not just about lines on maps and international power politics—this is actually about people. That is why the UK Government maintain our support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, to help those people who are suffering because of this unresolved situation.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and some of my right hon. and hon. Friends raised the issue of insulting language and incitement in textbooks. The former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister in her very first phone call in post. The Foreign Secretary also raised it with the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Education Minister on his recent visit to the OPTs. We have pressed the EU to publish its interim report on Palestinian textbooks. We want it to be addressed at pace and transparently.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), in what was once again a thoughtful and balanced contribution, asked about businesses and their activities in the occupied territories. We give guidance to businesses and ultimately it is a decision for individual companies whether to operate in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, but the British Government absolutely do not encourage or support such activities. [Official Report, 28 September 2020, Vol. 681, c. 2MC.]As I have said, the British Government firmly oppose boycotts of Israel, but we understand the concerns of people who do not wish to purchase goods exported from Israeli settlements near the OPTs. It was in order to allow consumers to have that choice that in December 2009 the UK Government introduced voluntary guidance to enable products from Israeli settlements near the OPTs to be specifically labelled as such.
Time precludes me from going much further with the details, but I will close with a reminder that this debate is about protecting the viability of a peaceful, secure state of Israel, and a peaceful and secure state for the Palestinian people. There is an opportunity, and we have encouraged the Palestinian Authority to engage with Israel, the United States of America, its Arab neighbours and friends, and the UK, to put a counter-offer on the table. We know that President Trump is someone who likes to do a deal, and we strongly urge our friends in the region to take him up on the offer.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members present for what has been a rich and multifaceted debate. If I had to distil it, I would say that there are five really important points that we need to take away from it.
First, the UAE deal has not stopped annexation. The settlements continue. Planning has been approved for 3,500 new units in E1 and 7,000 in E2. It is blatantly not the case that annexation and settlements have stopped, so we should shoot that fox.
Secondly, the Trump plan has to be taken off the table. It is not a viable basis for negotiations. It represents the breaking of international law.
Thirdly, the British Government must recognise Palestine immediately, on the basis of 1967 lines; otherwise, we are simply not having a realistic or constructive engagement in this process.
Fourthly, on banning trade in products, the Minister kept saying that this was about banning trade in products from Israel, but it is not Israel that we are talking about. The illegal settlements are not Israel. They are illegally occupied territory that should belong to the Palestinians, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) correctly pointed out.
Finally, we need to act against those British companies that are involved in the illegal settlements. It is all very well having guidelines and encouragement, but that is clearly not working. It is time for the British Government to step up to the plate. It is time for tangible action. Hand wringing and expressions of outrage will no longer cut it. We need to see action, and we need to see it now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian territories.