Debates on Palestine in the House of Commons used to be like groundhog day with a government minister having nothing new to say and repeating the same phrases over and over again, said Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab). But he looked back on those days with nostalgia because “now we simply seem to be going backwards”.
For most of the MPs who took part in a debate on Wednesday November 17 in Westminster Hall everything was indeed going backwards and for Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) (right), who introduced the debate, it was time for the UK to take a tougher stand.
“Our trade relationships with Israel mean that we can make use of sanctions to exert leverage over the Israeli Government to ensure that the human and civil rights of Palestinians are respected and that all illegally seized land is returned.
“It is unfortunate to have to resort to sanctions, but it is clear from the ongoing violence and evictions that imposing sanctions is the start of the process to bring about change in the region.”
Other MPs focused on stopping trade with illegal settlements. “We are not talking about boycotts here,” said Andy Slaughter, “we are talking about settlements that are illegal under international law, but which the Government will do nothing to prevent British companies profiting from.”
This was the only way to bring about a two-state solution, said Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP). “If somebody says that they believe in a two-state solution in the Middle East, and yet they do nothing—make no comment, take no action—about the things that are happening to actively undermine that objective, they are being insincere and not serious.
“The Government should take serious economic action to end economic trade with settlements in the occupied areas that sustain the occupation.
“We might wish to be good friends with the state of Israel, but we need to say to its government: ‘You cannot continue with these policies. If you do, there will be consequences’. This country will not stand by and idly watch this happen.”
Other MPs called for a boycott. “If the Government will not provide moral and substantial leadership on this issue,” said Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab), “it will be up to civil society to do so, through the boycott of, and divestment from, companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights.”
A junior Foreign Office minister, Vicky Ford, pointed out that goods from illegal settlements are already charged a higher tariff: “The UK does not recognise the occupied Palestinian territories, including Israeli settlements, as part of Israel, so, for example, goods imported from the settlements are not permitted to benefit from trade preferences under the UK-Israel Trade and Partnership Agreement.”
New pressure for recognition
MPs also pressed the Government to go ahead with its long-promised recognition of Palestine. “It is time for the UK to follow many other countries around the world in finally recognising the state of Palestine. Many like to speak about the two-state solution to the conflict, but how can we commit to that if we do not even recognise Palestine as a rightful state?” said Tahir Ali.
“Recognition of the state of Palestine is not only the right thing to do, but perhaps a means of salvaging what is left of the two-state solution.”
He was joined by the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind) who said: “The principal point must be that Britain should give unconditional full recognition to the state of Palestine.
“Most countries around the world have no problem with that and have recognised the state of Palestine, as does the United Nations—it is generally accepted. We should do exactly the same, so that we are seen as honest brokers and proper participants in the whole process.”
The opposite view came from the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab), who said: “We are told we must recognise Palestine, but what Palestine? Is it the bit controlled by the Palestinian Authority, or the bit under military occupation by Hamas?
“I genuinely want a two-state solution. I genuinely want peace. However, I also want recognition that the state of play is that Hamas is supported and financed by the Iranian revolutionary guard, and that its objective is the destruction of the state of Israel. We have to bear that in mind.”
But Tommy Sheppard challenged him, saying that the settlements, the occupation and the criminalisation of protest – “all of that creates conditions in which young Palestinians have so much despair and so little hope that they are attracted to the ideas put forward by Hamas and others”.
Six ‘terrorist’ NGO organisations
Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Wayne David (Caerphilly) asked when the Foreign Secretary would condemn the labelling of six Palestinian human rights NGOs as “terrorist” organisations. So far the Middle East minister James Cleverly has only said he would “speak to our friends and colleagues in the Israeli Government about the reasons why they felt that they needed to designate those organisations”.
Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab), successor to – and sister of – Jo Cox MP who spoke at a similar debate in Westminster Hall shortly before she was killed, took up the issue. “It breaks my heart that the rights of ordinary Palestinian men, women and children are being denied, and their hopes of a better future are being crushed. With no voice of their own, they rely on human rights defenders to speak up for them, which is why the Israeli Government’s attack on six leading civil society organisations must be unequivocally condemned.”
She was joined by Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab) who said the 74-page dossier prepared by the Israeli security services provided little concrete evidence to back their accusation that these NGOs were linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small political party with a formerly active military wing.
“These organisations include the most well-established Palestinian human rights groups that work in the occupied Palestinian territory. They provide healthcare to the most vulnerable communities, organise legal support for those detained and collect evidence of human rights violations—which I suspect is where the problem is.”
The minister replied: “We are in contact with the Government of Israel to understand the basis of the designations of six civil society organisations.”
Labour’s Wayne David challenged her twice to say how long the Foreign Secretary would wait before making a decision about whether or not the designation is correct.
Israeli settler terrorism
Two MPs also raised the accusations of Israeli settler terrorism against Palestinian villages. Andy Slaughter asked: “What are the Government saying on settler violence, which is now endemic? There were 450 recorded attacks since early 2020—that is from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation. Those attacks are specifically designed to terrorise Palestinian farmers or force them off their land,” asked.
Andy McDonald said: “The human rights group B’Tselem has documented a staggering 451 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians since early 2020, and Israeli forces failed to intervene to stop the attacks in two thirds of cases. The organisation has also recorded how settlers have been used as a tool of the state to expropriate 11 square miles of Palestinian farm and pasture land in the West Bank over the past five years alone.”
Shadow minister Wayne David also called for a freeze on settlement building by the new Israeli coalition government which includes members of the Israeli Labour Party.