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Violence in the West Bank

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 4 July.

“The accelerating cycle of violence in the West Bank risks another round of bloodshed and the Government are doing everything possible to urge the de-escalation of the situation. The latest operation by the Israel Defense Forces in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Monday is the latest episode in a conflict that has become more worrying as the year has progressed. While the UK firmly supports Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens against terrorism, we urge the Israel Defense Forces to demonstrate restraint, adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law and prioritise the protection of civilians.

While the security situation today remains fragile, the UK welcomed Israeli and Palestinian engagement at meetings in Aqaba on 26 February and Sharm el-Sheikh on 19 March. We are clear-eyed that those meetings have not been a silver bullet, but they are an open, meaningful channel of communication between senior Israelis and Palestinians. At times of strife, this is important in assisting de-escalation and reducing violence. We have consistently engaged with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to urge them to de-escalate tensions and to support efforts towards renewed negotiations.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, on 26 June—when they discussed the security situation in the West Bank—having spoken to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, on 16 June. I can confirm that the Minister for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad, will be discussing the evolving situation with the Israeli ambassador later today, further to discussions in recent days. He also spoke to the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, on 5 May. Our ambassadors in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem speak regularly to both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to urge de-escalation and to make clear our expectation that all sides avoid unilateral steps that move the parties further away from dialogue.

Finally, I draw the House’s attention to the statement that the Foreign Secretary made jointly with his Canadian and Australian counterparts last Friday. The UK opposes Israel’s announced proposal to expand settlements across the West Bank, and we ask Israel to halt and reverse its policy of supporting settlement expansion. Settlements are not the only obstacle to peace, but they are an important one, and our concerns about these recent steps are clear. The lives lost in this wider conflict are tragic. There is an urgent need for all parties to avoid further escalation in the West Bank and Gaza, now and in the days ahead.”

My Lords, we must all be concerned about the events in the camp in Jenin. Last Whitsun, I visited the West Bank, touring refugee camps and following a trail set by my noble friend—I mean, the noble Lord the Minister—who, I believe, did the same trip a couple of weeks before me. I witnessed at first hand the conditions in some of the camps and the closeness of the communities. I also witnessed settler violence against Palestinian villagers. The situation was pretty dire. I recognise that Israel has the right to defend itself against militant groups, but that right must be exercised proportionately and in line with international law.

In the other place, when this Question was considered, my honourable friend Wayne David asked a straightforward question for which he did not get an answer. I therefore repeat it this afternoon: what of substance are the Minister and the Government doing to bring this immediate conflict to an end and to lay the foundations of a two-state solution, which we all seek?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. He almost called me his noble friend. Perhaps that is a reflection of the time we are spending together on various aspects of the House’s business today. I share his concern, and we have all been again shocked by the cycle of violence that continues to occur across the West Bank in particular but also in Gaza. I share the same sentiments and principles that the noble Lord has articulated in relation to Israel’s security concerns; however, as it seeks to address those particular concerns, it should do so by respecting and minimising civilian casualties, demonstrating restraint and adherence to principles of international humanitarian law, and ensuring that civilians are protected.

On the steps that the United Kingdom is taking, as the Minister responsible for the Middle East, I can assure the noble Lord that, first and foremost, we are engaging directly with both sides. Over the past 48 hours or so I have spoken to the Israeli representative to the United Kingdom at length and to the Israeli chargé d’affaires. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Foreign Minister Cohen of Israel as well as the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, again emphasising: first, the importance of de-escalation; secondly, the importance of ensuring a minimisation of any further violence that may take place; and, thirdly, the need to ensure, particularly on the Israeli side, now the Jenin operation has ended, that full access is given to allow full medical attention for those injured during the crisis. Tragically, people have died on both sides. There has also been a further attack in Tel Aviv with a car ramming. It shows the challenge that we all face regarding the ever-growing circle of violence. I agree with the noble Lord and assure him of my best offices in addressing the issue of the immediate cessation of violence. It should be the foundation for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

My Lords, I, too, have visited the Occupied Territories in the West Bank in recent times and echo the concerns already raised. I pay particular tribute to the NGOs and voluntary organisations within the Occupied Territories that are giving support in the current circumstances. I am particularly concerned, again, about settler violence and increasing attacks, and the incitement from the extreme Government of Israel for settlers to erode and take away the rights of the resident population there. I am concerned to hear from Medical Aid for Palestinians that medical aid is proving inaccessible for many civilians under the violent conditions within the West Bank and that they are prevented from having access to medical support. I should like to hear the Government say something about that. The UK Government now have the presidency of the UN Security Council. Will they take a leadership role to ensure the protection of human rights for the Palestinian people in the illegally Occupied Territories of the West Bank?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point, I have directly met some of the NGOs, including Medical Aid for Palestinians, in my office in the last 48 hours and we discussed specific measures. Engagement with NGOs is a key part of my priorities. We will be convening a session tomorrow on this issue at the UN Security Council. It is a closed session but will be followed later in our presidency with a more extensive debate on the Middle East peace process. I share all the relevant concerns expressed by the noble Baroness about the need for negotiation and for peace to prevail.

Will my noble friend say to his counterparts in the Israeli Government that those of us who are strong supporters of the state of Israel are none the less deeply concerned by the building of settlements outside the internationally recognised frontiers of Israel, by the absence of any obvious movement on a peace settlement or agreement with the Palestinians, and by the propensity to use massive force? Does he agree that this is not a stable situation?

I totally agree with my noble friend. For the record, again, the United Kingdom’s position on the settlements is clear: they are an impediment to peace. As my noble friend illustrated, those settlements are of course illegal under international law.

My Lords, Israel was forced to act because the Palestinian Authority lost control of Jenin and Islamic jihadists and Hamas terrorists then used the city to mount a wave of terror attacks on families and children in Israel. In this operation, the IDF destroyed explosives labs, seized hundreds of guns and bombs and arrested 120 terrorists. It did all that in a densely populated area while ensuring that there were no civilian casualties at all—not one. Does the Minister agree that this was a justified, proportionate, successful operation to tackle terrorism?

My Lords, as I have already indicated, as both a friend and a partner to Israel, the UK—indeed, I myself—reiterated those exact points to the chargé during our conversation, as did my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. However, as we see the cycle of violence occur yet again, is it equally important that the core issue is addressed, because there can be no peace for any Israeli or Palestinian until we see a final settlement on this long-standing issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that trying to allocate blame in the circumstances of the events of the past few days is probably not very worth while? Surely it is becoming clearer that the total absence of any discussion of ways to dial down the escalation, which is being provoked by extremists on both sides, is part of the problem. What do we in the Security Council plan to do to see whether some discussion—direct or indirect—of the way ahead could now take place, perhaps adding a small element of chance that the escalation will not continue into a new intifada?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the role that the UK has to play. We are convening appropriate meetings. Ultimately, I agree that what we need—indeed, the only way to stop this cycle of violence—is de-escalation now and a pathway to peace.

My Lords, I refer the House to my entry in the register of interests. There is a clear pattern of behaviour, which—whether it is drones targeting Ukrainian citizens, the support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Jenin, or Iran via the IRGC—continues to destabilise across the globe. I welcome the Statement on Iran today, but my noble friend knows it is not enough for me: the IRGC must be proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

Earlier today, my noble friend said at the Dispatch Box—and repeated just now—that every Government’s first duty is to defend their people. Does he therefore agree that we must stand shoulder to shoulder with our friend and ally Israel in removing Iranian-backed arms and explosives before they are used to murder innocent Israeli citizens?

My Lords, we will be discussing the Statement when it is repeated later, but I can say once again that we have been very clear in our statements on Israel’s destabilising influence in the wider region. I reiterate on the record that the first responsibility of any responsible Government is the security of their citizens. As I said, while we appreciate, respect and have defended Israel’s right to self-defence, what is equally needed—as I am sure my noble friend agrees—is security, stabilisation and, ultimately, a pathway of sustainable peace for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Sitting suspended.