Roz Currie

Chief of Staff

Israel and Palestine Debate

Tommy contributes to the debate on Israel and Palestinian Talks (5th July 2017).

Click here to view footage >>

My Speech:

I too refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Since time is so short, I will concentrate on an aspect that I do not think has been properly discussed this afternoon: what is happening to democratic debate and expression inside the state of Israel. There are developments there that gravely concern me and should concern the rest of the House.

There is broad consensus in this Chamber when we have discussed this issue today and on other occasions: most people would favour a two-state solution—two democratic secular states, each reflecting the different traditions of that region, but each living in peace and harmony with one another—and in order to get that, a phased end to the occupation, peace talks and so forth. That was a mainstream—although perhaps not a majority—political position inside the state of Israel until quite recently, and it is probably the majority position of the Jewish diaspora throughout the world. Yet today inside Israel it is seen as an extremist position, and people who advocate it are denigrated and denounced for doing so.

Hagai El-Ad is the director of an organisation called B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation based in Jerusalem. Earlier this year he addressed the United Nations in terms not dissimilar to many who have contributed today. The response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally to launch a Facebook tirade against him and to threaten to change the law to prevent people doing national service from working for that organisation. As a consequence, others joined in and that organisation and its officials received thousands of threats, including death threats. That is what they got for daring to criticise the Israeli Government. It would be a little like the Prime Minister of this country doing the same thing against the director of Liberty for publishing a report criticising British Government policy in, say, Northern Ireland.

Breaking the Silence is an organisation that is composed of veterans of the Israeli army; only those who have served in the IDF can be members of Breaking the Silence. It is fair to say that it does not take a mainstream position; it is critical of the occupation. It is led by a formidable man called Yehuda Shaul who told me to my face that he was a proud Zionist but his main concern is that Israel’s biggest threat was the occupation of Palestine itself, and that is why he wanted it to end. 

That organisation has campaigned long and hard within Israel to try to put an alternative point of view. What is the response of Israeli politicians? Some in the Knesset have tabled motions calling for the organisation to be outlawed as a terrorist organisation. That did not get very far, but a law has been passed in the Knesset to make it illegal for Breaking the Silence to go into schools and colleges and speak to young people about the choices facing them. That is hardly a liberal position.

There are many other similar examples, including the no contact policy of Mr Netanyahu. He has said that any international Government or organisation that makes contact with organisations that are critical of the Israeli Government will not speak to the Israeli Government. He said that to the German Foreign Minister earlier this year; the German Foreign Minister had the decency to say that they will not be told by anyone who they will and will not speak to, and he went ahead and met Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. The response of Mr Netanyahu was to cancel his meeting with the German Foreign Minister—the Foreign Minister of one of Israel’s biggest supporters in the international community. That is the degree of illiberalism and intolerance, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that this Government will not bend in their dedication to consult other opinions within Israel because of threats by the Israeli Government and will not be cowed into refusing to recognise the plurality of discussion that is needed.

Ministerial Statement

I thank the Opposition Front-Bench team for both their contributions, in particular the short and thoughtful summing up from the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). I echo her remark that this has been an excellent debate: more than 20 colleagues speaking with great force in a short period of time about things that they know a lot about.

Like the hon. Lady, I will start by referring to the new hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya). She says that she is a symbol of diversity in her city. That is true, but she is also a symbol of strength, dignity and clarity, and she has a passion for the important causes she mentioned. I know that we will hear more of her. I particularly liked her concerns about the mental health of army veterans. She will find out that looking after mental health was another of the jobs I used to have. She also spoke about achieving her dreams, and I am quite sure that in doing so she is helping other girls in her city to do exactly the same. Her forthright defence of faith, saying that it is mankind’s frailties, not God’s love, that causes the problem, was heard and welcomed by many of us.

There was a range of other speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) made a thoughtful contribution, as befits the most recent Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) spoke with extensive experience in this area. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) drew her speech to a thoughtful conclusion with a remark from Shimon Peres. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) both made thoughtful speeches. We heard optimistic speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Henley (John Howell), for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), picking out a bit of the relationship with Israel which makes a difference and suggests that there is a future, and referring to neighbours such as Jordan that have made a contribution to peace in the area.

There were tough words for the state of Israel from the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). All of them referred to difficult things for the state of Israel to deal with. I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I have walked the streets with B’Tselem and Peace Now and value the contribution that they have made. I certainly will not be told to whom I should speak when it comes to those who represent valued, trusted and moderate opinion in other states.

There were harsh words for the Palestinian side from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) and for Hendon (Dr Offord). My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made remarks about Hamas in Gaza, about which I will say a little more, but we need to be clear about what is happening in Gaza under the rule of Hamas. We continue to have concerns about the abuses of human rights and Hamas de facto authorities in Gaza; 17 death sentences were issued and three were carried out without the ratification of the Palestinian President. We continue to have concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and of assembly, and on respect for LGBT rights. We remain deeply concerned that Hamas and other militants are rearming, rebuilding tunnels and holding military training camps.

Overall, although the sympathies of colleagues for one side or another were occasionally clear, it was rare that those sympathies were not expressed without a recognition that there were issues on both sides. Although we have spoken about this a great deal, the recognition that the pain is serious and that we want to do something about it was clear for all. I am sorry not to have time to deal with all the questions raised, but I just want to pick out a little about the DFID side of this and the support being offered to the Palestinian people, who are under pressure.

In relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the UK has provided £349 million-worth of support for Palestinian development from 2011 to 2015, and a further £72 million in 2015-16. I do not see any suggestion that that is going to change or falter. The UK pledged £20 million extra for reconstruction and development in Gaza following the Gaza reconstruction conference in 2014. We are one of the largest donors to UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—providing basic services to approximately 5 million Palestinians, including 70% of the population of Gaza.

 hose of us who have visited Gaza know how miserable it is. If there is one place that we could say stands for the very reason this conflict must come to an end, it would be Gaza. The hon. Member for Ilford North asked what a young Palestinian thinks about their future, but what does the young Israeli soldier think when they are standing on the border of Lebanon and being involved in the west bank? What do they think of their chances of ensuring that their children no longer have to defend the state of Israel in the way they feel committed to do. That is the measure of the task.

If Members want a clear commitment from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself, they can have it. We do not know exactly where the United States is on this issue, but we do know there is a real interest there and a determination to go to see people and talk to them. The deal is not a simple one, as we all know, but it is not often that an American President takes an interest at the start of a first term, and this provides another opportunity. Most of us in this House have seen those opportunities come and go over the years, so this is a chance now that we should all take. We have all seen enough of this.

To answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), there is no change in our policy. The United Kingdom’s long-standing position on the map is clear: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and with a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees. I do not think any other state is going to tell me that that is not going to be our continuing policy; I assure her of that.

What are we going to do? We are going to redouble our efforts. We have to work with international partners and will continue to engage with those in Israel who are seeking such a solution. We recognise the concerns of those in Israel who fear for their security, and they are right to do so, as we have heard. We know well about the random attacks and the fears that have affected the people of Israel. Equally, there will be no ultimate lasting peace unless the hand is reached out and this time grasped by those on the other side, both in Gaza and on the west bank, to make something of this. The United Kingdom will be determined to do everything it can, and those of us who have a second chance at something that means a lot will have a really good go at this. I do not promise an answer, but I do promise an effort.

 

 
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