Held on 14 June 2021
(Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
I beg to move that this House has considered e-petition 585313 (signed by 130,233 to recognise the State of Palestine) and e-petition 585314 (signed by 386,809 to introduce sanctions against Israel including blocking all trade, and in particular arms).
We were all shocked and horrified to see the tragic and heart-breaking violence in Gaza and Israel last month. I know this issue provokes strong emotions, both in the country and in the House, and the roots of that conflict are deep, complex and highly contested. I hope, however, that we can begin this debate with a point of agreement among all Members: the latest round of violence has improved conditions for no-one, be they Palestinian or Israeli. The loss of life, including so many children, is heart-breaking and my thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones. I am sure Members will have shared the horror at the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, and the Israeli actions that have killed Palestinian civilians.
More than half a million people have signed the two petitions. One petition calls on the Government to recognise Palestine as a state, while the other advocates the blocking of all trade between the UK and Israel. As vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a parliamentary supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, I share the deeply held concerns for the plight of the Palestinian people. Colleagues who have visited the region will know that the desire of the Palestinians to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own is unmistakable. Their aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support; it is right for the Palestinian people, and it is right for the Israeli people.
I do not believe, however, that sweeping sanctions of the kind proposed by the second petition would bring the prospect of a two-state solution any closer. As the Government’s written response says, we should “not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever …necessary,” but sanctions threaten to drive the two sides further apart, increase polarisation and extremism, and weaken the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers.
Blocking all trade between the UK and Israel would destroy our relations with Israel and reduce our influence in the Middle East. The only long-term sustainable solution to the conflict, and the only way that we can end the sporadic and sickening outbursts of violence, is for the two peoples of that beautiful land to have states of their own, with Israel safe, secure, and recognised within its borders, living alongside an independent Palestinian state.
Former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres famously remarked that the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that “there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel”.
He meant that most fair-minded observers know what a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict would look like: a gradual sequence of confidence-building measures, eventually culminating in a two-state solution. The lack of a process and a foundation to get to that point is the key problem.
It is an immense relief that the ceasefire in Gaza is holding up, but if we want to look back on this as the point at which a peace process became possible, there must be meaningful dialogue between Israel and Palestinians.
For too long it felt as though Palestinian groups did not really want a peace process, while the Netanyahu Government felt that they did not need a peace process. The latest eruption of violence shows how unsustainable such notions are.
The approval of a new coalition Government in Israel offers an opportunity to kickstart the process towards a peaceful two-state solution, but peace is not within the gift of one side alone. It will require painful compromises and concessions by both sides and the kind of leadership, imagination and generosity that has rarely been evident on the part of the Netanyahu Government or Palestinian representatives in past negotiations.
It is regrettable that the petitions being debated today do not reflect the reality that Israel is a beacon of hope in a region of instability, and an important ally of the United Kingdom. I have been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for almost 15 years now—that is, for a little longer than Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister. People may judge which of us is the genuine survivor in all of this.
It is a simple fact that boycotts of Israel harm Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom work for Israeli companies on higher wages than they could earn elsewhere. The implications of blocking all trade and sanctioning Israel, as the petitions call for, are grave, not only for Israelis and Palestinians but for the British people. More than 500 Israeli companies operate in the UK, employing thousands of British workers. Before Covid, UK-Israel trade reached more than £5 billion a year, and it continued to grow despite the pandemic.
Generic medicines produced by the Israeli company Teva save the NHS billions of pounds every year, and I expect that at one point or another many of us have benefited from these treatments, as no one provides more medicines to the NHS than Teva. British scientists work with Israeli scientists on groundbreaking medical research, and our two countries are working closely in the fight against Covid-19.
I welcome the Government’s firm opposition to Israeli boycotts, and I hope that the Minister will reiterate how harmful and divisive they are. The petitions were signed during the latest violence between Israel and Hamas, when Hamas targeted Israeli civilians and put Palestinians in harm’s way. Israel’s strikes in response to those indiscriminate attacks were, by contrast, precise, targeting only militants and terrorist infrastructure. Every civilian casualty is regrettable—a view also held, incidentally, by the Israel defence forces, but not, it would seem, by Hamas. The crucial context is often neglected by those who call for arms embargoes and say that Israel’s response was disproportionate. On that, I shall leave the matter in abeyance.
Like many thousands of my constituents, I watched in absolute horror a few weeks ago when violence was used against worshippers gathering during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque. The scenes were truly shocking. They were deeply painful to watch and they motivated many thousands of my constituents to write to me. Like me, so many of them were thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
The ceasefire is, of course, welcome. We all pray that it holds and is strengthened, and that a path forward can be charted, but it is essential that all holy sites in that holiest of cities—holy to so many people of many different faiths—are protected and respected. I press the Minister to do whatever he can to ensure that there is no repeat of the scenes we saw just a few short weeks ago.
The history of Palestine and Israel is in so many ways a perpetual cycle of loss, sorrow and conflict, pierced only occasionally by moments of hope and fleeting opportunities for positive and lasting change. Even those moments have become ever rarer in recent years, with a cycle of violence that has decimated entire communities, led to the loss of countless lives, and laid bare the shaky foundations on which any aspirations of a negotiated, diplomatic settlement have been built.
The goal of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel remains the shared objective of so many in this House and all over the world, but in truth, it has rarely seemed further away. The end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years as Prime Minister of Israel at least suggests that a path towards a settlement, political and practical, could be charted. Indeed, the high-wire balancing act that led to his removal points to a long-missing political tenacity that could bode well.
However, among those who have removed an indisputable roadblock to peace are some with still greater belligerence, with opinions more extreme and entrenched even than Benjamin Netanyahu’s. The fact that they will serve alongside those with an unequivocal commitment to a viable two-state solution is welcome, and it is perhaps to them that we must reiterate that the illegal occupation and proposed annexation of the West Bank is violating international law. Only when they accept that can we make progress in the field of peace. Any and every road towards a just and lasting peace requires that the occupation is brought to a permanent end, with both Palestinians and Israelis enjoying true and meaningful security, dignity and human rights.
Some may try to argue that formal annexation has been stopped—that we no longer need be concerned. It is impossible to articulate adequately how dangerous and misguided such counsel is. The truth is that illegal settlement expansion has continued, and Palestinians are still being evicted from their homes. I cannot condone these violations of international law, nor should anyone in this House or in the international community. The Labour party has repeatedly called on the UK Government to object to the expansion of settlements in the strongest possible terms, and we have raised this issue in Parliament, in public, and directly with the Israeli ambassador to the UK. I urge the Minister today to change the dial on the facts on the ground by recognising the state of Palestine.
Today’s debate on recognising the state of Palestine and holding Israel accountable for its complete contempt for international law and human rights is not timely, because it should have happened a long time ago. I find it heart-breaking that after decades of violence, illegal occupation, the demolition of Palestinians’ homes and complete disregard for their lives, we are still debating the very basics. This Government have a policy of a two-state solution, but paradoxically they are yet to even recognise the state of Palestine. This lip service has cost lives and entrenched the de facto annexation of Palestinian land, and it sends a loud and clear message that Palestine is not equal.
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 138 have recognised the state of Palestine. The UK is not one of them. I recently received a response from the Minister stating that the UK would recognise a Palestinian state at the time when it best served the objectives of peace. If we truly believe that the time is not now—frankly, it is already too late—we must deeply rethink our religious, moral and political philosophy.
A two-state solution and equality cannot be discussed without talking about the occupation, which is the root cause of so many of the issues at hand, from evictions to inequality. Such acts only entrench divisions and make peace harder to achieve. Will the Minister openly condemn illegal annexations and evictions, and urge the Israeli authorities to end their impunity? These shocking scenes during the holy month of Ramadan—far-right Israeli groups chanting “Death to Arabs”, the storming of the holy al-Aqsa mosque and the bombing of the media building in Gaza—are beyond contemptible, and yet there is zero accountability for Israeli actions.
The reality is that the Minister already knows all this. We must move away from a debate on Hamas versus Israel’s right to defence, and tangibly work towards a peace process that respects and demands human rights, equality, international law, accountability and the recognition of Palestine. If the Minister is serious about a genuine two-state solution, will he commit to ending the arms trade with Israel? The UK has a moral obligation to uphold international law.
I begin by saying that I made a serious mistake, though I was not alone in making it: in the period when hostilities were diminished, I deprioritised the issue of Israel and Palestine, prioritising instead the things that seemed most pressing. The problem, of course, is that the conflict has not gone away; it has returned with a dreadful ferocity, only made worse by the intervening events. I say to my Friend the Minister that I will not do it again; I will come back to him again and again and ask what the Government are doing to further the cause of a two-state solution. I voted to recognise the state of Palestine. If we are serious about a two-state solution, it is important that this Parliament, and Parliaments and Governments elsewhere, recognise the state of Palestine.
There is enormous passion on the issue in Wycombe. About 17% of my electors in the last census are British Asians. I think overwhelmingly that means that they are British Muslims, they are Kashmiris. I say to my Friend as gently as I can that there is a real problem that on the issues of Kashmir and Palestine British Muslims feel that people are being persecuted, and that that persecution is being neglected—a blind eye is being turned—because they are Muslims. However true or untrue that may be, it is incumbent on me, as their Member of Parliament, to call it out and to say that of course that would not be acceptable if that is what is happening. The very thought that it might be happening would tend to radicalise opinion. We cannot have that—not one bit of it. We must act, and we must be seen to act.
I wish to say a huge thank you to community leaders in Wycombe, in particular the imams. Having seen some conduct elsewhere in the UK on this issue, when a protest was held in Wycombe I feared what might take place, but I could not be more pleased or more proud of what our imams said. One speech in particular was brought to my attention that I think anyone of good faith, in particular any of the three Abrahamic faiths, could get behind as a speech of humanity and dignity.
Finally, there is a book that it has been suggested that I read over the summer that I recommend others reflect on. It is a book called “I Shall Not Hate” by a doctor called Izzeldin Abuelaish. In 2009, his three daughters were killed by Israeli shells. What a terrible thing, but if he shall not hate then I recommend that approach to everyone.
As a new Administration takes over in Israel, we debate the Palestinian question in the mother of Parliaments. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has previously stated: “I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state”.
My welcome message to Mr Bennett, and those who support him in the Knesset, is that the mood music is changing. The world is waking up to Israel’s actions, and all those who want to see lasting peace in the region know that to achieve such peace we must end the occupation, injustice and oppression, and that starts with recognising a viable Palestinian state.
In the past, Prime Minister Bennett has ruled out the transfer of even a centimetre of land to the Arabs and boasted: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life—and there’s no problem with that.”
The unwelcome news to him is that those of us around the world who condemn the killing of all civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian, will not remain silent if even a centimetre more of Palestinian land is illegally annexed, and we will not be silent in pushing for Israel to be tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes if any more Palestinian blood is unjustly spilled under a perverted interpretation of a right to self-defence, while completely ignoring the crucial principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality.
For five decades, the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza have been under occupation—the longest lasting occupation in the world today. If Palestinian children in Gaza make it to the age of 21, they will have witnessed five brutal wars, 14 years of which they have spent in one of the largest open-air prisons on the world, under a land, air and sea blockade. Human Rights Watch has declared the situation in Israel as “apartheid”. Amnesty International has stated that Israel’s “systematic discrimination, dispossession and displacement” of Palestinians is “at the root of the ongoing violence we see today.”
War on Want declared: “The UK government regularly approves military technology and arms exports to Israel, including for weapons of the type used in clear violation of international law. This means that the UK is providing material support for Israel’s illegal use of force, and an infrastructure to sustain that force through the ongoing trade in arms.”
Our Government have an immediate moral and political duty to act on Palestine. The Government cannot meet their word about a two-state solution while they recognise only a single state—it will not work. Let me be clear: the only party stopping the UK from recognising the state of Palestine is the Conservative Government.While they send empty words, the only thing stopping the UK supporting, rather than blocking, a United Nations inquiry to investigate the underlying root causes of the conflict in the region is the Conservative Government.
In the recent siege, for every Israeli killed, more than 21 Palestinians were killed. For every Israeli child killed, 33 Palestinian children were killed.
While all the parties condemn aggression and illegality on either side, the only party that turns a blind eye to Israel’s actions and questions of violation of international law is the Conservative Government. The blinkers have been taken off the eyes of the world. The reality of Israel’s actions is clear. The Palestinians have suffered for too long. The time for empty words is over. The Government must act or the electorate will.
(South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza and the occupied territories all share that same desire for self-determination and a state of their own. The British Government are committed to the creation of a Palestinian state, and said in February that they will recognise the Palestinian state at the time of their choosing and “when it best serves the objective of peace”.
That has been the position the British Government for many years. I want to probe the Government further on when the time of their choosing will be. My particular concern is that the increase in the building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories may mean that any recognition comes too late, because the land will simply not be there to create a viable Palestinian state.
I was struck by the words of Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations and associate fellow of Chatham House. He said: “For too long, the issue of recognition has been framed as a prize waiting for the Palestinians at the end of negotiations. This has always put Palestinian negotiators in an inferior position around the negotiation table vis-a-vis Israel, which is not only a superior military and economic force that is occupying its land, but one that is formally a state. Laying to rest the question…of Palestinian self-determination would accelerate the peace negotiations and give them a better chance of succeeding.”
Is that not the central point? A peaceful and viable Palestinian state would also be in Israel’s best interests, and profoundly in its long-term security interests as well. The dividend to Israel of having a generation of young Palestinians growing up next to it who no longer hated Israel would be immense. Recognition could be a spur to achieving peace. Many of us are left thinking, “If not now, when?”
I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chair of Labour Friends of Israel.
It is my view that, following the recent conflict, we cannot just settle for a ceasefire and another stalemate. We should take advantage of events such as the formation of the new Government in Israel, the Abraham accords and President Biden’s support for an international peace and reconciliation fund as an opportunity to push for fresh peace negotiations. It would be really heartening to hear from the Minister that, following the G7, the UK will commit to playing our full part as a member of the international peace and reconciliation fund.
I say to colleagues who disagree with me that, like them, I want a viable and democratic Palestinian state, but I doubt the wisdom of willing it as a unilateralist gesture. I remind those who are keen to use international law in such debates that conditions for statehood in international law include an independent Government who exercise control over a defined territory. Those conditions are not met. The reality is that there are now two Palestines—one under weak Palestinian Authority control, and the other under Hamas military occupation.
What exactly are we being asked to recognise? Hamas has already taken advantage of the weakness of Abbas. What is the incentive for a negotiated outcome, if we capitulate to them now? Are those who push for sanctions saying that they oppose Israel’s right to defend itself? Is it okay to live each day with the threat of an air raid siren? How would we feel if a bomb shelter was part of everyday planning requirements for a new home? How would we feel about going to bed with the threat of a tunnel attack occurring in the night?
Those who deny the threat from Hamas and the existence of its propaganda, and who fail to acknowledge the actions that it engages in, are making excuses for it. They are too willing to condemn Israel, and too ready to turn a blind eye to Hamas atrocities. We need a better approach to this. We need an approach that is diligent, serious and designed to bring about proper and lasting peace.
(St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
I long for us to be able to recognise the state of Palestine, as one of the petitions calls for, but we have to be absolutely clear about the main roadblock to being able to achieve that: Hamas. For as long as the Palestinian territories are in the grip of a proscribed terrorist organisation whose stated aim is to wipe Israel and the Jewish people off the face of the earth, Hamas is the biggest roadblock to our being able to recognise the state of Palestine and move forward with a peace process.
I am convinced, as I know the vast majority of people in the House are, that the only answer to peace in the region is a two-state solution, but that cannot be achieved while we have one party in that process in the grip of a terror organisation. I often think how we in the UK would react if camped on our doorstep was a terrorist organisation the stated aim of which was to wipe us off the earth and drive us into the sea. We would not welcome other parties recognising that state officially, and we have to be realistic about the real roadblock.
I do not believe that Hamas are friends to the genuine, decent people of Palestine. Let us remember that in the recent attacks, one in seven rockets launched by Hamas were actually misfired or landed on Palestinian territory. In that conflict, more Palestinians were killed by Hamas rockets than by any action by the Israelis.
I do not say that the Israelis are blameless; sometimes what they do is provocative and disproportionate, and they do have to take some responsibility, but I will always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself against those terrorist attacks, which are the key block to peace.
Israel is a beacon of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, and we should stand up for the rights of all religious minorities in that place. No one other than Israel in the Middle East is doing that, so I believe that we need to stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself and be clear about what the main roadblock to peace is.
The decades of conflict and violence between Israelis and Palestinians have been a source of unimaginable horrors and of pain and suffering for generations with little hope of peace. What we saw in the attacks on the al-Aqsa mosque, and in the cycle of violence between the Israeli military and Hamas, is the reality of civilian suffering in the latest escalation of the violence.
Although the ceasefire is welcome, let us ensure that our Government take the necessary steps to make sure it is maintained. Let us take stock and remember how many people have sadly lost their lives: a total of 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and six people with disabilities, were killed during the 11-day military assault on Gaza, while nearly 2,000 were injured between 10 May and the ceasefire announcement on 21 May. Since 7 May, 35 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, and, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, 7,056 have been injured. In Israel, 13 people were killed by rockets fired by Palestinian armed factions.
We need to ensure that the international community, led by the US with our Government and others, works together to ensure a negotiated settlement to secure peace in that region, otherwise the cycle of conflict and violence will continue. That is why it is so important that our Government listens to the many, in Parliament and across the country, who have campaigned for the recognition of Palestinian statehood. Some of us were in Parliament when campaigning for statehood came up previously. We need our Government to work with our international partners to ensure that the Israeli Government, as well as Hamas, are held to account for the atrocities that they have committed. We need to ensure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire and that they are protected against the conflict.
Ultimately, the only way we can prevent the cycle of violence is through a negotiated settlement. That is why it is vital that our Government play their part and, frankly, their actions have been found wanting.
I am deeply concerned by the substance of the petitions. I consider myself a friend of both Israel and the Palestinian people, and I do not believe that these petitions will result in any positive outcome for either. The language that these petitions employ is clearly inflammatory, breeds misunderstanding and foments hatred and hostility.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply complex, and it is reckless to make over-simplifications by suggesting that Israeli actions are disproportionate or that Israel is persecuting Palestinians, as these petitions do. We are talking about a liberal democracy, the world’s only Jewish state, being attacked by an internationally proscribed terror group committed to its destruction. There cannot be any justification for these attacks, which have targeted communities, homes, schools and even nurseries.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to ban boycotts against Israel, which divide our communities, and I hope this legislation is brought forward soon so that we can provide the peace of mind that my constituents seek.
It is only through direct peace talks that a two-state solution will be achieved. Although I will not start my own petition on this subject, I hope that such a petition will gain far more support than those we are debating today.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. It is a real honour to speak on such a critical issue. I also wish to declare a non-pecuniary interest as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.
We recently passed the 54th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territory, one of the longest occupations in history. The daily lives of Palestinians are worse than ever. This is a disgrace, and the British Government, who have an historic responsibility in this area, should work with the international community to take action now to end the deterioration of the situation and improve the lives of Palestinian people as well as of Israeli citizens.
I condemn violence whoever perpetrates it, and I feel strongly that those perpetrating violence should be held accountable. The reality of the recent violence is that since 7 May, during the 10-day military assault on Gaza, 256 Palestinian people have been killed, including 66 children and six people with disabilities, with almost 2,000 injured. In Israel, 13 people were killed by rockets. This is the disproportionate nature of the violence. This is not self-defence by Israel—this is aggression. I defend Israel’s right to self-defence, but this is not that. Every one of those deaths and injuries is wrong, a tragedy and should not happen. Accountability, whether for the Israeli Government or Hamas, should follow. The Government have a responsibility to try to make that happen through the international courts.
The situation post ceasefire is not the status quo, which in itself is not good enough. Only this morning in occupied East Jerusalem, municipal inspectors in the Al-Bustan area of Silwan were handing out demolition notices. The situation in Gaza is deteriorating, not de-escalating, not improving. The medical situation in Gaza is desperate. During the assault, two prominent Palestinian doctors were killed and nine hospitals were damaged, as were 19 clinics, including a Covid-19 testing centre and Gaza’s only Covid-19 laboratory. In East Jerusalem, 48 attacks happened, damaging 16 ambulances, and there were 18 incidents of denying medical access. These latest attacks are examples of decades-long violence against healthcare.
The violence may have stopped but the situation on the ground has not improved. The Government should ban goods from illegal settlements and recognise the state of Palestine now. They should take action with the international community to ensure that international law is upheld.
All of us will have been appalled at the loss of life in the conflict in Gaza and in Israel last month, particularly the loss of life of non-combatants and many children, who we saw on our television screens. The real tragedy is not that, but rather that this will happen again—next week, next month, next year—and it will keep happening until the root cause of the conflict is tackled. The root cause of the conflict is the fact that Israel is in military occupation of the Palestinian territories that were designated for a future state of Palestine.
From an Israeli point of view, it makes sense to continue that occupation. Not only do the Israeli Government not set any policy to end that occupation, but with every day and week that passes, through the process of settlement building, evictions and other measures, that occupation is entrenched, to the point where, in the words of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, there is now a “one-state reality”.
Within that one-state reality, people’s life chances and how they are treated are fundamentally different depending on whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. For more than 50 years, Israel has maintained this policy almost consequence free. Of course, there have been many UN resolutions and people have wrung their hands and said, “It’s not right,” but Israel has been able to maintain this military occupation pretty much unrestricted.
The petitions before us today are from people who are clearly concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people. I ask colleagues, particularly those on the other side of the argument, to see things through their eyes for a moment. If we do not take action to persuade Israel to end the occupation and bring about a two-state reality, we are breeding further despair among Palestinian communities and galvanising the extreme right wing of Israeli politics, resulting in a situation where groups such as Hamas fill the political void. That is why we need to take action.
The new Israeli and American Governments provide a moment for this country to step up to the mark and do something. If people say that a boycott of Israel will not work, the question that the Government have to answer is, “What sanctions should be applied to try to make the Israeli Government behave in a manner consistent with international law?” Surely this must be the time to recognise Palestine. If we are sincere about a two-state solution, we cannot say that on the one hand and refuse to recognise one of those states on the other.
I have visited Palestine twice and have seen what he refers to as the “one-state reality”. I know exactly what he means. However, the point about the one-state reality, as he describes it, is that it is no solution. The only solution is a two-state solution, and if it is a solution that does not involve two states in a meaningful way, it is no solution.
The yardstick by which the Minister and British foreign policy should be guided is always to ask one simple question: will this make the achievement of a two-state solution more or less likely?
Looking around Palestine, we see that the settlement-building programme on the West Bank makes the achievement of a two-state solution manifestly less likely, and it should be condemned by our Government accordingly. It is also beyond peradventure that Britain should recognise Palestine as a state. To those who have suggested that that is not possible because it is not quite the right time, I gently say that the reason that Palestine does not control her own territory goes back to the circumstances that pertained in 1967 and subsequently. There is now no good reason for that not to be the case.
In the context of the recent conflict in Palestine, I hope that the Minister and our Government will look very closely at the deployment of arms that would have come from this country. Like others, I bow to no one in my acceptance of Israel’s right to defend herself, but we all know that self-defence in law, wherever we find it, must always be commensurate, appropriate and proportionate, and what we saw was none of those things. The idea that these events were contributed to by arms sold from this country is something that many people, wherever they stand on the debate, find disturbing.
I commend my Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for securing this important debate at a crucial fork in the road for Israel’s Government, following Naftali Bennett’s replacing Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister yesterday. I hope that the new Administration will listen to the voices of governments around the world on the issue of justice in Palestine and urgently change direction, because for too long peace and the hope of peace has been crushed by military might. I know that a large number of my Labour colleagues wish to speak in the debate, including the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, whose constituency had the highest number of signatories, alongside mine, to the petition that urges the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed millions of people marching in almost every major city in the world. Israel’s illegal occupations, annexations and bombardment of the Palestinian people and those trying simply to exist in Gaza can no longer be ignored. Indeed, there is an enormous sense of anger and injustice in my constituency of Ilford South, which has the highest number of signatories to the petition, at around 6,000. Individually, 5,000 people in my constituency have written to me. This has happened during the Covid pandemic, which shows that people care deeply about what is happening around the world. My constituents rightly feel that human rights abuses should be challenged, be they in Kashmir, Myanmar, Yemen or, indeed, in Gaza.
Although people are rightly concerned about events in the Middle East, I want to be clear that it is never acceptable for members of the Jewish community, both in my Ilford South constituency and across the UK, to be subject to criticism, abuse and attacks because of the actions of the Israeli Government. It is clear that there is a huge groundswell of support for justice as the escalation of this conflict has continued, with the needless deaths of civilians on both sides, the recent illegal seizure of land and the incendiary storming of the al-Aqsa mosque. The proliferation of evictions, demolitions and new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories not only runs counter to international humanitarian law, including the fourth Geneva convention; it also serves to make a viable two-state solution ever more distant.
The Labour party has long urged both sides to come together to ensure a just two-state solution that enables Palestinians and Israelis to peacefully co-exist. I have travelled to Israel and Palestine extensively, on more than half a dozen occasions, and I have seen at first hand the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live. However, I have also met many progressive activists and politicians in Israel, and I encourage Members from both sides of the House to forge links with those groups and with partners for peace on both sides of the divide. As we have seen in recent weeks, they were highly effective in helping to bring the latest conflict to an end. The many powerful protests in the likes of Lod, Ramla and Umm al-Fahm show that hundreds of thousands of Israelis are united with the Palestinian people in their condemnation of the events in Palestine and Gaza.
The UK Government should therefore consider every possible avenue to put pressure on the Israeli Government. That includes reviewing the £360 million-worth of arms that they sell to Israel, and challenging—
The UK Government have an historical obligation, as do all of us on both sides of the House, to support the state of Palestine in coming into being, and to ensure a future of hope, in which two peoples can co-exist on the same land.
We are discussing two very important petitions: the first is a call to recognise Palestine as a state, and the second a call to implement sanctions on Israel for continued breaches of international law. Scottish National party foreign policy is based on principles. It is human-centred, feminist, egalitarian, ecological, multilateral and, above all, about the promotion of international law. We are not an aspiring international rights non-governmental organisation; we are an aspiring state, from my party’s perspective. Small countries need international law in a way that big countries do not, so international law is at the heart of everything that we do. We view Israel and Palestine, and everything else, through those prisms.
I am a friend of Palestine. I am also a friend of Israel. It is worth making a few things clear for the record. We condemn all violence, whoever it is perpetrated by and whoever is a victim of it. We utterly reject false equivalence. There is hurt and heartbreak on all sides of this dispute, and it is not just between two sides; it is far more complex than that. Israel has a right to exist and to security within its borders, and the Palestinians have a right to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own. We do not view those statements as exclusive. We view them as quite compatible, but how can there be a two-state solution, which we all say that we are in favour of, when there is not a two-state reality?
We believe that we should indeed recognise Palestine. We recognise the flaws, which we have heard about, in the Palestinian Authority, and that Palestinian unity is not where it needs to be, but we believe that recognition would level the discussion and give it an impetus that is, sadly, sorely lacking. It is not an outlandish position; we are actually in the majority, as 139 of 193 United Nations members already recognise Palestine as a state. The UK should do the same.
On sanctions, we have a rather more delicate call to make, because we need to consider the effect of any policy change on the ground. I said that Israel has a right to exist and to security, and I will defend that. It does not have a right to annex other people’s land and then to claim victimhood when there are consequences to that illegality. Settlements are, on a daily basis and in fundamental ways, making a viable, just peace less achievable. They are illegal. Their products are illegal. We should not deal in them. The UN agrees. UN Security Council resolution 2334 is clear on their legal status; we should not deal in settler goods, but ban them. At the very least, we should ensure that they are properly labelled.
On the petition’s call to implement wider sanctions on the state of Israel itself, however, we disagree for the moment. We do not think that that would help the situation. We think that it would do more harm than good—just. However, I urge our Israeli friends, who I know are paying attention to the debate, to pay attention to where that call is coming from. We cannot simply say that there must be consequences to the illegality but then not implement any of them. We must do better than we have done to date. We respect individual organisations that feel a need to implement such a policy themselves, though we would stop short of sanctions as a party.
It is not good enough to say that we are in favour of a two-state solution but to do nothing to bring about a two-state reality. We will continue to be part of the problem unless we give impetus to the discussion, and we can do that from here because we are bound to the people of Palestine and Israel by empire and by international law and trade. We have influence. Perhaps there is a moment for new momentum with the new Israeli Government and the new US Administration. Colleagues, let us seize that moment and build a just peace, which we all want to see.
I am pleased that this debate is taking place today, because there is tremendous public concern about this issue: witness the fact that two very significant petitions have been submitted to the House, and I am pleased that the Petitions Committee has brought them forward for a debate. Let me say at the outset that there can be no justification whatever for antisemitism in any shape or form, whatever people’s views are on the Israel-Palestinian issue: let us be clear about that.
Just a few weeks ago, nearly 300 people, Israelis and Palestinians, lost their lives in a violent conflict between Hamas and the state of Israel. The Labour party strongly condemns the firing of rockets by Hamas, and we strongly condemn the air attacks by Israel that led to such a large loss of life. Labour called for an immediate ceasefire, and we were pleased that international mediation led to a ceasefire. The immediate issue that led to the conflict was the appalling violation and desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. That was disgraceful, and the international community must do all it can to ensure that such scenes never happen again. Religious sects must be respected at all times.
The second immediate reason for the conflict was the prospect of the forced eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and in particular from the community of Sheikh Jarrah. Labour believes that the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel is completely wrong, and we do not recognise the annexation of East Jerusalem by the state of Israel. The city of Jerusalem must be shared by Palestinians and Israelis. It is totally unacceptable that illegal Israeli settlers are trying to displace Palestinians from their homes—homes that their families have lived in for generations.
There are also longer term issues at the root of the conflict, which must be addressed. They stem from the Israeli occupation of 1967. Since then, and especially over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the size and number of illegal Israeli settlements. International law states clearly that those settlements are illegal, and we stand four-square behind international law—no ifs or buts. We have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian structures on the West Bank by Israeli authorities, which again contravene international humanitarian law via the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.
At the same time, we have seen the totally unacceptable treatment of Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. As a former youth worker, I have long taken a keen interest in the treatment of children by the Israeli authorities in the occupied territories. The military court system operates in a cruel and unacceptable way: young people are denied basic rights, frequently denied contact with their parents, and incarcerated in a way that inevitably leads them to be psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives.
If we are talking about injustices, we have to focus on Gaza, too. Before the recent conflict in Gaza, the situation was bad: now, it is much worse. Whatever the profound disagreements that the Israeli Government have with Hamas, there is no justification for the present blockade, which exacerbates the humanitarian suffering of the people of Gaza. Those injustices cannot be resolved through conflict. They can be addressed and resolved only though meaningful negotiations, which must lead to a two-state solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. In 2014, this Parliament called on the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine. The Government say that they are committed to such a recognition, but as the Leader of the Opposition made clear last week, it is high time for that recognition to happen.
While it is certainly politically expedient to call for the recognition of Palestine right now, given certain by-elections, does he not agree with his own colleague: how can we recognise something when we cannot define it? What borders would it have, and without any real borders, is it really a state?
With all due respect, what I am saying is what I believe to be right, and what the Labour party deems to be right. There is no expediency about it—it is a long-standing commitment that we have, and we stick to it. Of course, there are issues to be worked out, but it sends an important signal that we believe that there should be an active Palestinian state and that we recognise it as a matter of principle.
I am sure that the Government would wish to see a peace process recommence as soon as practicable, but if the goal of negotiations is a two-state solution, it would seem sensible for the UK to join 139 other countries across the world to recognise the state of Palestine now. With regard to sanctions, particularly on arms, it is important that we take stock of the changing situation. Some Members will recall that Labour called on the Government to implement a ban on goods from the illegal settlements and any annexed territories. I am pleased that the Trump-Netanyahu plans for annexation were not implemented, and President Biden has called for all new settlements to be stopped.
We have a newly elected Government in Israel, and I for one am pleased to see the back of Netanyahu. It is sensible to wait a little to see how the Israeli Government respond to the situation. The British Government must assess, in line with all our obligations, the use of exported arms and equipment in the recent conflict. We need a report to Parliament setting out whether any licences for exports could be used to commit acts of internal repression, external aggression or violations of international law.
The reality is that a peace process will not be established overnight, let alone a lasting peace. What is the case, however, is that for peace to be negotiated, achieved and maintained, we need an ongoing process of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. Like my Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I very much hope that the Government will make real their commitment to a peace fund, and join President Biden to ensure that it is established as quickly as humanly possible. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian and Israeli people want to live in peace. It is our responsibility in Parliament to make sure that we do everything we can to make their dream a reality.
The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa
We welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza on 20 May. It is an important step towards ending the cycle of violence and the loss of civilian life. The UK offers its deepest condolences to the families of all those who have lost their lives. We echo the condemnation of the antisemitic actions that, unfortunately, we saw on the streets of the United Kingdom, and I am pleased that Members across the House have condemned those actions.
While the ceasefire holds, we must make sure that every effort focuses on making it not just durable but permanent. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region on 26 May and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As he made clear on that visit, the recent escalation demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards a more positive future and address the long-standing drivers of the conflict in the region. We have worked actively during this crisis to urge all parties to work with mediators towards a ceasefire. We fully support the Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations actions to that end, and we work closely, of course, with our friends and partners in the United States of America.
It is important now for Israel to facilitate rapid humanitarian access to Gaza, and we urge the continued opening of all crossings. The UK will provide £3.2 million of new aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, responding to its emergency flash appeal, launched on 19 May. The funding will help to provide food, water and emergency shelter to Palestinians affected by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza.
We thank UNRWA for its support for Gazans displaced during the conflict and for its continued courage and dedication. The UK continues its diplomatic efforts to build confidence between the parties and to find a political way forward. We welcome and echo calls for equality of safety, security, freedom, peace and dignity, both for Palestinians and for Israelis. I have spoken regularly with a number of ambassadors from the Arab states to reiterate the need for progress towards our shared goals—to reiterate the need for a peaceful two-state solution. We also play a leading role in this on the United Nations Security Council.
Let me address the subjects specific to the petitions. There have, of course, been many calls over the years for recognition of Palestinian statehood. The UK Government position is clear: the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the object of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot, and will not, end the occupation. The UK Government continue to believe that without a negotiated peace agreement, the occupation, and the problems that come with it, will continue. We are committed to the objective of a sovereign, prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state, living side by side with a safe and secure Israel. That is why we are a leading donor in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and why we have set so much store by strengthening Palestinian institutions, fostering private sector-led sustainable economic growth in the West Bank.
Economic progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital in the interim that Palestinians see tangible improvements in their daily lives. We call on the Palestinian Authority and Israel to resume dialogue on economic issues, to reconvene the Joint Economic Committee and to address the financial and Covid crisis together. The UK enjoys strong relations with the Palestinian Authority, and they have made important progress on state building, which has been recognised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is so important now that the PA return to Gaza to ensure that good governance is extended throughout the territories that will make up a future Palestinian state.
It has been said by Members representing parties across the House, and I echo it from the UK Government’s position: we condemn in the strongest terms the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations in Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups. All countries, including Israel of course, have a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to defend their citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and calibrated to avoid civilian casualties.
On the second petition, the Government have made their position on sanctions clear. Although we do not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we are firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel. We believe that open and honest discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israel boycotts, best support our efforts to progress the peace process and to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. The Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously, and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We consider all export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework. We continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard. We continue to urge all parties to work together to reduce the tensions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, so that, hopefully, we will not see images as we saw during May.
Several Members stated their desire for the UK to oppose evictions and demolitions. Let me assure them that the UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is long-standing, public and has been communicated directly to the Government of Israel. That position is that we oppose those activities. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, evictions are contrary to international humanitarian law. The practice causes unnecessary suffering for the Palestinians and is detrimental to efforts to promote a peaceful two-state solution. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion and, instead, work towards that two-state solution.
The Foreign Secretary and I have made the UK view clear in meetings with Israeli leaders. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary did so on his visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories on 26 May. We continue to call on all parties to show real leadership, including the willingness to make tough compromises and to refrain from unilateral steps that move us further from our shared goal of sustainable peace. We will continue our intense diplomatic efforts in the region, focused on creating the conditions for a sustainable peace, and we will work with our international partners towards that goal.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 585313 and 585314, relating to Israel and Palestine.