Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 16 May.
“The United Kingdom Government were shocked to hear of the very sad death of the respected and renowned journalist Shireen Abu Aqla while working in the West Bank. On 11 May, the Foreign Secretary and UK Ministers made clear our concern, and we have called for a thorough investigation into the events. On 13 May, in company with the other members of the United Nations Security Council, we strongly condemned the killing and stressed the importance of an immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation. We also stressed the need to ensure accountability.
The work of journalists across the globe is vital and they must be protected to carry out their work and defend media freedom. We were also deeply distressed by the scenes at the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqla on Friday. Her death was a tragedy and those mourning must be treated with respect and dignity. The situation on the ground makes clear the need to make progress towards a peaceful two-state solution, and the UK stands ready to support.”
My Lords, the killing of Shireen Abu Aqla was not only an outrageous act but an attack on the freedom of the media and the independence of journalists working around the world. Her killing was rightly condemned by world leaders, the UN and civil society. The recent violence at Shireen’s funeral was similarly indefensible. While I note that Vicky Ford in the other place yesterday confirmed support for the international investigation, she did not indicate whether representations had been made to her counterparts in the Israeli Government to encourage them to support such an inquiry. Can the Minister answer this, and say whether further representations have been made to the Israeli Government on the subsequent violence following the funeral?
My Lords, I am sure that I speak for everyone, irrespective of where they are on the issues in the Middle East and the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, when I express my shock at the killing of a very renowned journalist, Shireen Abu Aqla. She worked over many years with great diligence and great conviction, and— speaking as someone who leads on the importance of media freedom around the world, which I know is close to the noble Lord’s heart as well—she did exactly what we know many journalists do in conflict zones: operated in reporting news with great courage and conviction. She has tragically paid the ultimate price of her life. The subsequent scenes we saw during the funeral shocked many of us. Witnessing that unfolding on television screens was clearly something that everyone found extremely shocking. I can confirm that of course we are engaged. Our ambassador has engaged directly with the Israeli authorities, as has our consul general in Jerusalem. We have continued to press for a thorough investigation into the events that took place.
With regards to the funeral, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, of the Roman Catholic Church, was reported as saying this:
“The Israel Police’s invasion and disproportionate use of force—attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital patients—is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.”
The Vatican has said that the 1993 agreement on the protection of the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief has been brutally violated. The Minister is well regarded on this subject, and he has spoken very regularly in this House on the importance of UK leadership on the protection of the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief. What direct representations have Ministers from the UK Government made to their counterparts in the Israeli Government?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right that freedom of religion or belief is a key priority for the United Kingdom Government. We look forward to hosting the important ministerial event in July this year. I assure the noble Lord that, as the Human Rights Minister, I put out a specific statement in respect of the events that unfolded at the time of the funeral. As the noble Lord has said, the response is being investigated—and it is right that those actions are fully investigated. What unfolded on our screens was, irrespective of where you stand on the issues that divide people in the Holy Land, something that no one deserved. The sanctity of life is important, and the funeral of someone who has tragically been killed—or any funeral—has to be respected for the dignity of the deceased. We will continue, as we have done, to call on the Israeli authorities to open an investigation. I know that, equally, the Palestinian Authority is looking at an investigation. We believe that it needs to be impartial so that it can establish the facts on the ground, and we will continue to work constructively with both sides.
My Lords, the bravery and courage of journalists reporting from war zones and caught up in the crossfire knows no bounds, and my sympathy and prayers are with the family of Shireen Abu Aqla. However, does my noble friend the Minister share my sympathies and prayers for the families of Oren Ben Yiftah, father of six; Yonatan Havakuk, father of five; and Boaz Gol, father of six? They were all hacked to death with axes and knives by Palestinian terrorists on 5 May.
My Lords, in joining my noble friend in prayers for the family of Shireen Abu Aqla, I am sure that I speak for all Members of your Lordships’ House, irrespective of what our positions are or where the Government or anyone else may stand, when I say that while we ultimately seek and hope for peace and security for all, I condemn any shocking or tragic death and express our solidarity with those who suffer the tragedy of such actions. This underlines the importance of achieving a resolution to the conflict. It is important that we strive to find peace in the Holy Land.
My Lords, it is sad but not surprising that the general opinion piles in to find that Israel is guilty before any investigation is carried out. Will the Minister encourage the Palestinians to hand over the relevant evidence—I believe it is a bullet, and we hope that it will be the right one—for investigation? Will he also encourage the Palestinians to stop their “pay for slay” policy whereby the families of assassins who are in prison are given salaries? That would be one way to cut down the amount of tragic bloodshed in that area.
My Lords, on the tragic killing of Shireen Abu Aqla, it is important that we have made the UK’s position clear. Indeed, on 13 May, with other members of the UN Security Council, we not only condemned the killing but stressed the importance of an
“immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation”
and the need to ensure accountability. In this respect, anyone who has evidence in support of such an investigation needs to bring that forward. It is also important to say that no one who commits these acts achieves any goal towards the important path of peace. What we need at this time is reflection on the tragedy that continues to engulf all communities across Israel and the Palestinian territories but, equally, to ensure that the structures and justice systems act to bring justice for those who suffer as a consequence of these tragic acts.
My Lords, the scenes at the funeral were terrible but it is completely wrong for people to attribute all the blame to Israel for this tragedy, when it occurred during a gun battle launched by terrorists trying to prevent the arrest of people responsible for the sort of attacks we have just heard about, and when one of those gunmen was heard saying that he had shot a soldier when in fact no soldiers were hit. This might explain why the Palestinian Authority has refused to allow the bullet that we just heard about to be examined and has refused to hold a joint investigation.
My Lords, that is why we have been very clear in saying that the investigation has to take place. It needs to be impartial and to ensure that all evidence is included. As I have said—I say it time and again as someone who has visited Israel, not just officially but with my family, and who has also visited the Palestinian territories—there is much that those communities find in common. It is important that we now find minds that can bring this conflict to a resolution. Ultimately, for every life lost there is a family, whether Israeli or Palestinian, that has to endure the loss. This tragedy has to come to an end.
My Lords, the Minister did not quite answer the question of whether he thought it feasible and valuable to have a joint investigation. The bullet is clearly an essential piece of evidence. He talks about an impartial investigation; does he believe it should be a joint one?
My Lords, that has certainly been put forward, and the Israeli side has called for a joint investigation. As I have said, one hopes that both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities can come to an agreement to ensure that the evidence necessary to any investigation is fully provided, so that we have that impartial investigation. One hopes that that bridge can be crossed, so that there can be agreement on the investigation.
With the indulgence of the House, I will also take the second question as the Whip indicated.
I am grateful to my noble friend. Shireen was an American Palestinian Catholic member of the press. We have seen just from the interventions in this House that opinion is divided as to how she was murdered. In those circumstances, does my noble friend agree that the only way to make sure that we get to the bottom of who killed—assassinated —Shireen is to have an independent investigation, independent of those accused of being involved?
My Lords, of course, as I have said already, the United Kingdom Government have been very clear that what is needed is an investigation that is
“immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial”.
It is important for all involved in that investigation to come together. Ultimately, we want to see those who were responsible for the killing of Shireen to be brought to justice.