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Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

I know the whole House will join me in condemning the horrific murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee by a terrorist just over a week ago, and in offering our deepest condolences to Rabbi Leo Dee and the rest of the family in their pain and grief. My colleague, the noble Lord Ahmad, recently joined Lucy Dee’s family in London to sit shiva, the Jewish mourning period. I pay tribute to the extraordinary and noble decision of the Dee family to donate Lucy’s organs, saving five lives so far and possibly more. That act of compassion and generosity in a moment of tragedy stands in vivid contrast to the senseless and abhorrent violence that robbed a family of its mother and two sisters.

The United Kingdom unequivocally condemns that act of terrorism. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on the Friday, shortly after Maia and Rina had been murdered, to offer our sympathy and co-ordinate our response. We also condemn the second act of terrorism against Israel on Good Friday, when a car rammed into civilians in Tel Aviv, killing an Italian citizen and injuring many others, including some British nationals.

Those callous acts are more examples of the attacks that have plagued the lives of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians for too long. As the British Government has made clear, the UK remains steadfast in its commitment to work with the Israeli authorities, the Palestinian authorities and all parties in the region and in the international community to bring an end to the terrorism that Israel faces and to the destructive violence that we continue to witness.

The people of Israel deserve to live free from the scourge of terrorism and antisemitic incitement, which gravely undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. The UK strongly condemns the numerous terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians this year, including the killing of seven Israelis on Holocaust Memorial Day. In recent months, Israel has also faced indiscriminate rocket, missile and drone attacks from groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and from hostile groups in Lebanon and Syria, unjustifiably and unlawfully threatening the lives of civilians. Israel must also contend with appalling rhetoric from Iran and others calling for an end to its very existence. That underlines the threats that Israel faces every day, and the UK will never waver from supporting Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence.

However, our support for Israel is not confined to its defence and security. I can also inform the House that on 21 February the Foreign Secretary signed the 2030 roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations, alongside his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen. The UK is proud of its deep and historic relationship with the state of Israel. Both countries are committed to a modern, innovative and forward-looking relationship, focusing on shared priorities for mutual benefit.

The roadmap is the product of detailed negotiations to deepen and expand our co-operation up to 2030, following the elevation of our relationship to a strategic partnership in 2021. It provides detailed commitments for deepening UK-Israel co-operation, including in trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender. The roadmap also demonstrates the seriousness with which we take the global problem of antisemitism. The UK is proud of being the first Government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition. There is no better tool to define how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century.

I turn now to the alarming violence we are seeing across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The conflict is exacting an ever-greater human toll. The numbers of Palestinians killed by the Israeli security forces in the west bank, including 15-year-old Muhammad Nidal, and Israelis killed in acts of terrorism, including Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee, is significantly higher than at this point in 2022. In that regard, we call on the Palestinian Authority to denounce incitement to violence and resume their security co-operation with the Israeli authorities. We say to the Israeli Government that although Israel has a legitimate right to defend its citizens from attack, the Israeli security forces must live up to their obligations under international humanitarian law.

In this situation, it is all too easy for actions by one side to escalate tensions. The raid by Israeli police on Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan and on the first day of Passover was one such incident. When Israeli security forces conduct operations, they must ensure that they are proportionate and in accordance with international law. The anger that arose across the region and beyond from the police’s actions in Al-Aqsa underlines the necessity of respecting and protecting the sanctity of Jerusalem’s holy sites, especially when Ramadan, Passover and Easter overlap, as they have done this year. It is vital that all parties respect the historic status quo arrangements in Jerusalem, which allow coexistence between faiths. I welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent announcement on de-escalating tensions. We value Jordan’s important role as custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, and I pay tribute to the Jordanian authorities for protecting the safety and security of the holy sites and all who worship and visit them.

Let me restate clearly the position of the UK: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees. To be clear, the UK-Israel road map agreement that I have mentioned in no way alters our position on the middle east peace process. A two-state solution offers the best prospects of achieving sustainable peace.

We do not underestimate the challenges but firmly believe that, if both parties show bold leadership, peace is possible. The Israelis and the Palestinians showed leadership recently when their representatives met in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss ways to de-escalate. Those talks—the first of their kind for many years—were a positive and welcome step. The UK is working with both sides and our international partners to support this process and uphold the commitments that were made.

The UK continues to be a strong supporter of all efforts to promote peace in the middle east and a lasting and sustainable agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and we will work with all parties to progress that goal. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and join him in condemning the appalling and cowardly murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee. On behalf of the Labour party, I send our deepest condolence to Rabbi Leo Dee and the rest of the family at a time of unimaginable grief for them.

We are deeply concerned by escalating violence against Palestinians and Israelis. This year has been one of the deadliest for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: 98 Palestinians, including at least 17 children, have been killed by Israeli forces, and 17 Israelis have been killed so far in 2023. Each life lost is a tragedy, and every Palestinian and Israeli deserves a just solution to the conflict.

As Ramadan ends, it is crucial that steps are taken to reduce tensions and avoid any further escalation in the days ahead. There must be no repeat of the unacceptable violence used against worshippers at Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan earlier this month. Israeli authorities must respect all places of worship and maintain the agreed status quo around holy sites. Since the formation of the new Israeli coalition Government, which is led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and includes extreme far-right elements, there has been a renewed assault on the rights of Palestinians, a ramping up of inflammatory rhetoric, and dangerous new moves to try to legitimatise illegal settlements, threatening the viability of a two-state solution. Israel has suffered from appalling terrorist attacks and rocket attacks, including indiscriminate attacks from Gaza and escalation with Lebanon. Labour strongly opposes all actions that make a two-state solution harder to achieve, including rocket attacks, the expansion of illegal settlements, settler violence and evictions and demolitions, and we condemn all acts of terrorism.

The UK must be a strong and consistent advocate for justice, human rights and international law in this conflict. Escalating violence and human rights violations leave us further than ever from a two-state solution and a thriving and prosperous Palestinian state, alongside a safe and secure Israel. All sides must demonstrate through their words and actions a genuine commitment to peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. We are therefore incredibly concerned about measures already being taken by the Israeli Government, such as giving Defence Minister Bezalel Smotrich control over much of the Civil Administration, the military body that administers the occupied west bank—a far-right Minister who called for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be “wiped out” in February amid the unprecedented settler violence against Palestinians.

Last month, the Prime Minister welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu to the UK as the Government signed the 2030 road map for UK-Israel bilateral relations. The UK has a strong relationship with Israel, and there are many areas of important bilateral co-operation, but this comes at a time when the Israeli Government are taking steps that threaten to undermine Israel’s democracy and curb the power of the judiciary, and we continue to see mass protests in Israel, demonstrating the divisions and unease across Israeli society.

This road map appears to dilute long-standing UK positions held by successive Governments in relation to international law. It makes no mention of supporting a two-state solution, and it implies that there could be a change in the long-standing UK position that illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories should not be treated as part of Israel. It also raises concerns about the UK’s commitment to apply proper diplomatic scrutiny to breaches of international law and its support for the role and independence of international legal institutions such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

How is the UK using diplomatic efforts to call for de-escalation following recent violence as we approach the end of Ramadan? Will the Minister condemn the attacks against worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque earlier this month? There needs to be more accountability, and the UK Government should challenge human rights breaches wherever they occur. Labour is committed to international law, human rights and a negotiated peace based on a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a sovereign Palestinian state. What steps are being taken to bring about a two-state solution?

As the UK Government continue to consider Israeli settlements within the west bank to be in breach of international law, what further steps will the Government take to put pressure on Israel to stop evictions and demolitions in the occupied west bank? Finally, can the Minister tell the House whether the recently signed 2030 road map amounts to a change in policy, and can he assure us that it does not dilute our long-standing commitment to international law and the two-state solution?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the Dee family, which I am sure will be warmly welcomed across the House. I also thank him for the measured comments he made about the current position and for his helpful and consensual approach on these issues. When the House speaks with one voice, particularly in its condemnation of human rights abuses, we have an impact, and our voices are heard. I thank him for the words that he used on the two-state solution and respect for human rights.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues that I suspect we will discuss further in this place this afternoon, during the second debate. I can assure him that the road map does not indicate any change in the long-established and long-stated position of the British Government on these matters. There is no change in our position. In respect of his second question, we condemn all acts of violence and terror without qualification, whenever they occur and whoever perpetrates them.

May I express my deepest condolences to the Dee family for the wicked murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina? The family had great links with my constituency, with Rabbi Leo Dee working at Hendon United Synagogue at Raleigh Close.

Can the Minister advise the House what the UK Government are doing to protect innocent civilians in Israel, and particularly British tourists as they visit sites of interest?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for expressing so eloquently his condolences to the Dee family, and I know of the links with Hendon about which he spoke. We condemn all attacks against civilians, from wherever they come. They are unjustifiable and unlawful.

I also thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. It is a horrific murder, and our deepest condolences go to the family of Lucy, Maia and Rina at this time for this brutal murder, and indeed to the family of the Italian tourist killed in Tel Aviv and those affected. Violence on either side must be thoroughly condemned. No innocent Israeli or Palestinian should face this kind of terror when going about their day. Respect for international law, human rights and due process must prevail.

There is little to disagree with, and much to support, in the Minister’s statement; however, there is also little specific action outlined. The UK Government must act to call out the glaring and obvious mass and systematic discrimination in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the hands of the Israeli Government and military, so why does the 2030 road map for UK-Israeli bilateral relations contain no reference to the Israeli authorities’ treatment of Palestinians there? This situation is rapidly deteriorating, so did the Prime Minister raise these concerns with his counterpart when he visited last month? Will the Government cease licensing arms and security equipment while these settlements are being illegally progressed and exempt construction equipment from tariff-free deals? Will they halt trade negotiations while illegal settlements are being progressed, too?

More needs to be done to de-escalate the situation. If the UK Government are going to use the strong relationship that they have with Israel to move beyond platitudes and promises of raising concerns, it is critical that they take direct action to ensure that those things are real, and they need to do so now.

I thank the SNP spokesman for his comments. The wide Dee family will draw strength, at a dreadful time, from the solidarity that the House is showing towards them.

The hon. Gentleman asks how often discrimination in the Palestinian territories is raised, and whether the Prime Minister has done so recently. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raise these matters regularly in all the conversations that they have with both sides. On arms sales, as he will know, the Government have the strongest and toughest export regulations of any country in the world. On his comments about discrimination, we welcome the recent engagement between Israeli and Palestinian leadership at Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh.

I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend condemning all acts of violence. Obviously, our thoughts are with all those people who have lost loved ones in this recent period.

The UK accepts that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and continued trade with them facilitates and legitimises their existence. Will my right hon. Friend set out what consideration has been given to banning the importation of goods from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and including such a ban in any forthcoming trade deal with Israel?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in humanitarian issues as well as in issues affecting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. On the specific issue that she raises, such trading is not allowed under the existing trade and partnership agreement, and we have no plans to change that—our position is absolutely clear. I hope she will be reassured by that point.

May I associate myself and my party with the expressions of condolence to all those who have suffered acts of violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the recent upturn in violence? May I press the Minister, though, because he is at risk of conflating the positions of the Palestinian Authority, who are not a sovereign Government, with the Israeli Government, who are a sovereign Government, and as such have responsibilities towards the Palestinian people as an occupying force? Will he confirm that in any dealings and agreements with the Israeli Government, it is made explicit in writing that any agreement applies only to the sovereign state of Israel, and not to the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

The right hon. Gentleman is right on the second point that he makes. I should explain to him that while his description of the governance arrangements is entirely correct, we do our best to remain even-handed in assisting the cause of peace in the middle east, and that is the point we were making. We were not equating the two forms of governance in the way that he feared.

May I associate myself with the condolences, the tribute and the condemnation that my right hon. Friend has expressed from the Dispatch Box? Has he considered the possibility that sooner rather than later we will need to decide what our priority is? Is it to preserve even the physical possibility of a two-state solution, or is it to maintain at quite the current level of intensity the strategic partnership that he has announced with the current Israeli regime?

My right hon. Friend, with his usual incisiveness, poses an important and interesting question, but the position of the UK Government is precisely as I have set out, and I hope that he will therefore reflect that all these discussions we are holding are aimed at that singular end.

I join other members of the House in expressing condolences to all those who have lost dearly loved family members. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we are now probably further away from peace and a two-state solution than we have ever been, and that we will continue to see this kind of violence again and again and again until such time as new courageous political leadership emerges on the part of the Government of Israel and of the Palestinians that is prepared to compromise in the interests of that peace?

The right hon. Gentleman, who has dealt with these matters in government and understands them well, makes the case with impeccable clarity.

May I add my deepest condolences to Rabbi Dee and his family following the murder of his wife Lucy and his daughters Maia and Rina in the west bank? I welcome the statement by the Minister, who has laid out the issues clearly, but can he tell me what discussions he has had with the Palestinian Authority and what help has been offered to bring the violence to an end?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for her comments and her support for the statements of condolence across the House today. These discussions take place all the time. I can tell her that the UK is committed to working with all parties to reduce tensions and maintain calm across Israel and the OPT. These discussions do not go forward in leaps and bounds; they are continuous and take place all the time.

It was disappointing that there was no announcement in the Minister’s statement on recognition, on settlement trade and on supporting international law processes in the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. We all agree with the condolences that he has expressed, and we have a debate this afternoon. Will he deal with one point, which is the transfer of a major part of the occupied territories to civilian administration? As a matter of law, that is de facto annexation. What has he addressed specifically with the Israeli Government on that point?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details of very recent discussions that have taken place, but he is right in his analysis of the issue, and the British Government are doing everything we can to advance that.

I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the recent increase in tension and violence in Israel and the west bank, and in particular the tragic killing of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee. Fuelling this conflict is undoubtedly Iran. It has been promoting violent uprisings in Israel and the west bank and welcoming new terror networks, such as the Lions’ Den, as well as orchestrating rocket attacks across three of Israel’s borders. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the UK proscribed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety and sent a strong message out that the British Government are against state-sponsored terrorism?

My hon. Friend draws attention to the point I made in my statement that Iran is a malign actor in the region, in the very way that he sets out. As he knows, the IRGC is a sanctioned organisation. While we keep all these things under review, he will understand why we do not tend to comment on the precise position we have reached from the Dispatch Box in the House.

Can I first associate myself with the condolences for all the lives lost and the condemnation of all violence? Since 2005, 2022 was the deadliest year. We are not even six months into 2023, and it is even more deadly. What assessment has the Minister made of the escalating violence and the impact that will have on a two-state solution?

The hon. Lady is right to echo the point I made in my statement about the levels of violence. We do everything we can to try to see that they are diminished, and we are committed to working with all parties to reduce the tensions and maintain calm across Israel and the OPT.

Remarkably, the recent road map makes no mention whatever of human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, preferring to concentrate on trade and defence co-operation. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) from the SNP Front Bench, will the Minister take this opportunity to acknowledge that Palestinians in the OPT are subject to calculated and systematic mass discrimination? Only by addressing that issue can we move forward to a just and lasting peace.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to condemn violence on one side and not on the other. The point I want to make is that in order to advance to the objectives that are commonly held across the House, we should condemn all these things on all sides whenever they take place.

Can the Minister confirm that he has raised the issue of the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Masafer Yatta with his Israeli counterpart? In the run-up to the elections, Benjamin Netanyahu stated that he wanted to annex the west bank, which would be a loss of 30% of Palestinian territory. Can the Government outline how they intend to ensure that the new Israeli Government abide by their obligations under international law?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that we press the Israeli Government to abide by international law on all relevant occasions. In respect of my own discussions, I should mention that this is not an area where I normally have ministerial responsibility, but I will write to him on the specific question he has raised to give him the latest information in respect of the Government’s action on that.

I share the Minister’s expressions of condolence and sorrow at the loss of all the lives in the middle east over these 70 years, and I share his commitment to international law. Yesterday, I met Defence for Children International Palestine to discuss its campaign, “No Way to Treat a Child”. Eleven Palestinian children are being held by the Israeli military in administrative detention, a relic of the British mandate. Children can be held indefinitely without ever being charged, some for more than one year. The Government’s current approach has failed to discourage these gross human rights abuses, so will the Minister commit to impressing upon the Israeli Government the need to end this brutal practice, and reserve the option of sanctions should they fail to do so?

I am not going to get into the issue of sanctions at this point, but on the hon. Member’s substantive point about sticking with internationally agreed regulations and conventions, particularly in respect of children, he makes the point extremely clearly, and I agree with him.

I thank the Minister for his statement and join him, the shadow Minister and colleagues across the House in sending our heartfelt condolences to Rabbi Leo Dee and the rest of the family on the horrific murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina. May their memory be a blessing.

The Minister is right that the UK and this House must condemn violence and terrorism in all its forms, but can I ask him what the Government’s assessment is of the current security situation and of the recent loss of life in Israel and the occupied west bank?

As the hon. Member will know from news reports, the position has been extremely tense. We seek at all stages to try to de-escalate that tension, advising both sides in that respect. I very much hope that our words and, indeed, the words of many others will be heard. I should like to thank her for the very kind and generous way in which she expressed her condolences in the first part of her comments.

I, too, express my condolences to all the families and those who have lost loved ones in all the violence. The Israeli High Court of Justice recently rejected appeals against eviction orders issued to Palestinian inhabitants of Masafer Yatta and allowed the Israeli Government to forcibly evict Palestinians. That is happening at the same time as legislation in Israel is transferring control of the west bank to civilian Ministries and away from the military. Obviously, this is in effect annexation, and we know that there are going to be violations of international human rights laws. Can the Minister confirm that the Government regard the forced transfer of civilian populations in occupied territories, whether in south Hebron in Palestine or in Donbas in Ukraine, as illegal under international law?

In response to the hon. Member’s general point, the British Government welcome the decision by the Israeli Prime Minister to pause the legislation to reform Israel’s judiciary; that is relevant to the main point she made. In respect of her interpretation of international law, Britain will always urge all Governments to abide by their commitments under international treaties and under international humanitarian law.

On top of the ongoing day-to-day restrictions on life for Palestinians in the occupied territories, in February there was unprecedented settler violence towards local Palestinians in Huwara, during which Israel’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, called for the town to be “wiped out”. Has the Minister raised concerns with his counterparts about settler violence and the culture of impunity in relation to attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians?

The hon. Lady is quite right to condemn settler violence, and Britain condemns it in the strongest possible terms. Although I have not had those discussions, I can assure her that Foreign Office officials in country and in London do have those discussions, and they emphasise the point that I have made.

The Minister will know that we now have the most extreme right-wing Government there has ever been in the history of the Israeli state, including Ministers who are openly racist and who deny the very existence of the Palestinian people. Yet, while other countries were using diplomatic pressure to try to curb the Tel Aviv Government’s actions, this country and this Prime Minister invited the Prime Minister of Israel to London, rolled out the red carpet for him and signed an agreement with Israel that makes no reference to human rights abuses or to the upholding of international law. How does the Minister think that, in the space of a generation, the UK has gone from being seen as an honest broker in the middle east to being an outlier in its support for the Israeli Government?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, and I would say two things to him. The first is that the very close relationship Britain has with Israel enables us to have conversations at all levels of Government. If he is serious, which I am sure he is, about pursuing his wish for peace and de-escalation, the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel comes and is seen by our Prime Minister is a very good way of advancing that dialogue. Secondly, he spoke about the very significant and contentious issues that are part and parcel of Israeli politics at the moment, but he will know that in Israel too there is free and open discussion, with many different opinions put. The view he takes is also expressed by many within the state of Israel, and that happens because it is a democracy, and we of course respect that.

It is true and right that we all condemn violence on all sides, and the Minister said:

“When the House speaks with one voice…we…are heard.”

However, I must ask the question: who does he think is listening, because the violence escalates and more illegal settlements are built, making a two-state solution more difficult? The Government often talk about diplomatic engagement and private representations, but that is clearly not making any difference, so what new approaches or ideas are the Government considering to try to move the dial on this issue?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. It is a frustration that we all share. We use our very considerable diplomatic presence in the region and our diplomatic work from London to try to advance a position that I think the House is agreed upon, as I have said, and I do believe that that voice is heard. Let me make absolutely clear what the position is and remains. It is that a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living side-by-side with a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, should take place, and that Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees should be at the centre of what we do.

I thank the Minister very much for his statement and for the understanding he has of the issues. On behalf of my party, I join others in condemning the horrific murders of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee by terrorists earlier this month, and we send our sincerest condolences to their immediate family and friends. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin aligns itself alongside Hamas, a terrorist organisation proscribed by our own UK Government, and has called for sanctions, including a boycott of Israeli products. Does the Minister agree with me that Hamas are terrorists and that the boycotting of Israeli goods is utterly abhorrent?