Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories

Countless lives have been lost, ripped apart, and upended due to the crisis in Gaza, Israel and wider Occupied Palestinian Territories. In the face of such devastation and suffering, humanity must prevail.

Update: 4th April 2024

Since my last update things are undoubtedly getting worse, not better in Gaza. Just recently, we’ve seen the desperately sad killing of UK aid workers, John Chapman, James Henderson and James Kirby. These individuals were heroes, using their skills and talent to try and make the world a better place and alleviate the terrible suffering in Gaza faced by so many. Their deaths were as a result of Israeli forces targeting a convoy of aid which was clearly marked with the World Central Kitchen Charity logo and 7 workers in total were killed as a result of the attack. The WKC have now paused their operations meaning more hungry children, women and men will go unfed.

Following the unprovoked killing of aid workers, including those from the UK, ships carrying vital aid turned back, unable to put more staff in danger from further attacks. However, the World Health Organisation has said they will continue their work but that their civilian workers continue to work under extreme danger. This simply cannot continue.

The Prime Minister has said that the UK Government will press Israel for an independent investigation into the deaths of UK aid workers but continues to defend the sale of arms to Israel meaning the risk to aid workers trying to provide some fragment of humanity to for civilians in Gaza will continue to be felt hard.

The sale of arms to Israel must stop and I’m joining colleagues from across parties in pressing the UK Government on this point. The SNP Leader at Westminster Stephen Flynn has written to the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Labour Leader calling for Westminster to be recalled from recess for Parliament to urgently press the UK Government to cease the sale of deadly arms to Israel and do everything they can to ensure that international law is complied with.

Last month I wrote to the UK Foreign Secretary with more than 115 parliamentarians calling on the UK Government to reinstate funding to UNRWA, a vital avenue of aid which the UK needs to support. It’s not only about vital resources and aid being funded by the UK Government, but also about endorsing the UN’s work on the ground which is being actively frustrated by the Netanyahu Government.

The UN Security Council has finally voted in favour of an immediate ceasefire, albeit during Ramadan, but this marks a significant shift in the US position and a global momentum towards action to prevent the collective punishment of innocent civilians and genocide continuing. While this shift is welcome, it has taken too long to reach this point with 100,000 Palestinians have been killed or maimed, 2 million people displaced and famine across Gaza.

Lastly, we now know the UK Government are refusing to publish the legal advice they have on whether Israel is in breach of international law. We have now seen countries like Ireland intervening in the ICJ legal case following their own legal advice. It’s therefore imperative that the UK Government publish the advice they have received. If the advice states that Israel is in breach of international law, the UK must immediately halt all arms sales and use further pressure to implement an immediate ceasefire and support diplomatic efforts to achieve peace.

Update: 5th February 2024

Since my last update on the situation in Gaza, Israel has alleged that 12 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were involved in the October 7th Hamas attacks. UNRWA has 13,000 workers in Gaza and provides a vast range of essential services. Within hours of the allegations the UK had announced that it would suspend funding for the whole organisation. 
 
Now of course, UNRWA employees should be held to account if they were involved the horrific attacks in early October, and these allegations must be investigated. But by any measure the response of the UK and other western funders was an overreaction. Once again, the entire civilian population of Gaza are set to be punished for the actions of a few.
 
I pressed the Minister of State on the UK government’s outrageous decision to halt UNRWA funding which you can watch here: https://x.com/TommySheppard/status/1752337308278255750?s=20. Put simply, it is another round of collective punishment on a people already teetering on the brink of survival. 
 
Britain’s speed of response is highly selective. They were not so quick off the mark when it came to dealing with the recent judgements of the International Court of Justice in respect of South Africa’s charge of genocide against Israel – an application which I supported.
 
Whilst it will take a year or more for the ICJ to determine the case, they announced a series of interim measures insisting that action is taken now to prevent genocide occurring in Gaza. Were the UK government really concerned about the rule of international law they ought to have immediately reviewed policy to ensure compliance with the court. Instead, and to the alarm of much of the rest of the world, they claimed the case should not have been brought and acted to undermine the authority and judgment of the court. 
 
UK ministers are less than convincing when they claim that they encourage Israel to uphold international law. To prove genocide is a high bar but there can surely be no question that Israel is in obvious breach of international humanitarian law. 
 
Too many people are letting this pass. It’s not okay to shoot and kill unarmed civilians approaching under cover of a white flag. It is not okay to send special forces into hospitals and execute people in hospital beds whilst they are getting treatment. When did we dispense with arrest and trial? Most of all the massive and continuing attacks on civilian infrastructure and the mass deaths of unarmed non-combatants is not okay. 
 
The UK Government ought to have made sure that it could not be accused of complicity in genocide. Given that this country is one of the biggest arms exporters to Israel and that those armaments and systems are now being used against the civilian population, an obvious and logical response would be to immediately suspend arms exports until there can be certainty about their deployment. 
 
Components for this weaponry are being made here. The Italian firm Leonardo employs 1800 people in Edinburgh making guidance systems for F35 fighters being used against Gazans by the Israeli Defense Force. It has multiple other licenses to supply armaments to Israel. I believe that the government should halt these licenses right now. And while the UK reviews licenses, I have written to the company suggesting that it would help their own reputation and protect them legally if they were to voluntarily stop supplying the IDF whilst genocide is being investigated. You can read my letter here: https://x.com/TommySheppard/status/1753458265927667746?s=20
 
In the midst of the terrors and chaos unfolding in the Middle East the only response of democrats can be to insist on the universal application of international law. It’s difficult. It’s not trendy. But it’s the right thing to do. 

Update: 11th January 2024

Sadly, the humanitarian context in Gaza remains beyond catastrophic and has intensified over the winter break. On Tuesday, I attended an online briefing on the current situation in Gaza with the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Dr Husam Zomlot. It was heartbreaking. 
 
At least 22,835 people have been killed, including at least 7,729 children. 85% of Gaza’s entire population, around 1.9 million people, have been displaced because of the hostilities, many of them forcibly displaced multiple times. Meanwhile, since 7 October, 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel, including 36 children and it is estimated that around 136 Israelis and foreign nationals remain captive in Gaza.
 
Given this context, it is unsurprising that a new YouGov Poll commissioned by Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP) and Caabu found that 71% of the British public believe there should be an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Palestine. The poll also found that only 17% of people approve of the UK Government’s handling of the conflict while only 9% approve of the Labour Party’s handling. Of course, neither supports an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 
 
Instead, the UK Government’s only legislative response to what is happening in Gaza is to try to bring forward proposals to stifle criticism of Israel. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill or “anti-boycott bill” passed the Commons last night by 47 votes – a much closer vote than a government with such a large majority would expect.   
 
I voted against this sordid and grubby bill which takes away many of the political freedoms that we have enjoyed in this country for decades. The impact of this bill on the right of people in civil society to organise to express themselves and to peacefully campaign is being eroded. It must continue to be resisted. You can watch my contribution to the debate here: Tommy Sheppard’s contribution
 
While the UK is taking steps to restrict our ability to protest peacefully, South Africa has filed an application to the International Court of Justice arguing that Israel is guilty of genocide both for committing it and failing to prevent it. You can catch up on details of the first hearing here: South Africa brings genocide case against Israel at Hague
 
The threshold for the charge of genocide is high and a much tougher charge than war crimes, which are dealt with by the International Criminal Court. A decision on whether Israel has committed genocide typically takes around four years. However, the court has the power to order preliminary measures to stop or prevent genocide if it determines this is ‘plausible’. 
 
Despite these legal proceedings, in recent months we have seen an escalating rhetoric from far-right Israeli politicians. Israeli leaders, including the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have a series of comments that are genocidal in nature or that support ethnic cleansing. Human rights organisation, Law for Palestine, has compiled a list of 500 such comments  can be viewed on this database.
 
Many of you will have heard the recent remarks from the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, while being interviewed on LBC Radio last week. She suggested that every “school, mosque and second house” in Gaza is a legitimate target for Israel. 
 
Following these extremely alarming comments, I wrote to the UK Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron asking him to make clear the UK Government’s condemnation of such remarks and to act urgently to prevent future harm to Palestinians. You can read my full letter here: Cameron pushed on ‘genocidal’ comments from Israeli ambassador

Update: 13th December 2024

With the UK media attention turned to the Tories’ reheated and morally repugnancy Rwanda Bill, the war on Gaza has slid down the headlines. And yet, the past week since the pause in the fighting ended has been one of the heaviest in terms of death and destruction. 
 
More than seven hundred Palestinians were killed in one day alone recently, the highest daily toll so far. More than eight out of ten Gazans have been displaced. More than 60% of homes destroyed. People are living in tents on streets surrounded by rubble. Food is in short supply. Water is dirty. Aid agencies report that humanitarian assistance is impossible.
 
There is only one way to end this suffering which offers hope for Israelis and Palestinians alike – the war must stop and the talking must start. That will require considerable international pressure. An immediate ceasefire could lead to a managed truce with international arrangements for the temporary administration of Gaza and brokering new talks aimed at long term solutions. 
 
Sadly, we are a long way from that with the UK Government and that of the USA offer nothing more than platitudes. It’s clear that while both talk of upholding international law, they remain silent when presented with evidence of clear violations. Take last week’s ceasefire vote at the United Nations Security Council for example: the UK is now an outlier in the world, alone with the USA, in not calling for an immediate ceasefire. 
 
Earlier this week during an urgent question on international diplomacy surrounding Israel-Gaza, I asked the UK Government whether it understood that abstaining from UN votes on a ceasefire damages the UK’s credibility to be an honest broker in the necessary international discussions that must follow. You can watch my question here: https://vimeo.com/893717279
 
“I must admit I sense that the prime minister feels zero pressure, and that we will do whatever it takes to achieve our military goals,” Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser Ophir Falk told Reuters last week when asked about the international pressure on Israel.
 
Those of us in standing in solidarity with a Palestinian people under existential threat need to make that pressure rise. That is why I have added my name to a motion in Parliament (EDM 1) which urges the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to: 
 
“…urgently press all parties to agree to an immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities, to ensure the immediate, unconditional release of the Israeli hostages, to end the total siege of Gaza and allow for unfettered access of medical supplies, food, fuel electricity and water, to guarantee that international humanitarian law is upheld and that civilians are protected in accordance with those laws.”
 
It is also why I have co-sponsored another motion (EDM 177) which calls for the UK Government to immediately stop the sale of all military equipment and technology to Israel, and to suspend the issuing of new arms licenses. Yesterday, I spoke during the debate on this issue and argued that – at the very least – we should halt sales of military equipment until it can be proven that they are not being used in Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. Put simply, it’s time that the UK Government stop putting arms dealers’ profits before Palestinian lives. You can watch my contribution here: https://vimeo.com/893765948.
 
All the while, Christian churches in Bethlehem have cancelled Christmas celebrations in solidarity with Gaza. The Lutheran church has a new nativity with a baby Jesus set amongst a pile of rubble. It is a poignant representation of the suffering of Gaza’s children who find themselves buried under what is left of their own homes. Its pastor, Reverend Munther Isaac says “If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling.”

Update: 27th November 2023

Today is the final day of the ‘humanitarian pause’ between Israel and Hamas. The deal involves the release of hostages by Hamas and the allowance of some, but nowhere near enough, humanitarian aid into Gaza. Reports suggest that the pause could be extended beyond today. Any pause in hostilities and violence is welcome, but international pressure must go further. There is no humanitarian pause long enough to alleviate the suffering and the loss of innocent lives. We need a permanent ceasefire to enable people to return home, for Gaza to be rebuilt and for all hostages to be returned safely.
 
I am still absolutely gutted that, following an operation, I was unable to vote on the amendment calling for a ceasefire due to Westminster’s archaic voting system. However, I was pleased that none of my SNP colleagues voted against this call – they will be able to look themselves in the mirror knowing they did the right thing. Sadly, the same cannot be said for MPs of other political stripes. It’s shameful that a majority of Tory and Labour Members blocked calls for a ceasefire – condoning the continued bombardment of Gaza in breach of international law. Put simply, they chose to put politics before humanity.
 
Meanwhile, in the Scottish Parliament, MSPs backed a motion by 90 votes to 28 to call for a ceasefire. The motion won the support of all parties except the Conservatives, who continued their calls for wholly inadequate “humanitarian pauses” instead. It was great to see some of you at the rally outside the Scottish Parliament ahead of this motion.
 
Please be assured that when I return to Parliament this week, I will continue to press for an immediate ceasefire and full International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes, including by piling pressure on Westminster to do the right thing. This is not over, and we will not give up.
 
While global attention is focused on Israel and Gaza, Israeli authorities are increasing their repression in the West Bank and attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers are surging. According to leading Israeli human rights organisations, since Hamas’ atrocious acts of terror against Israeli civilians on 7 October, 13 herding communities have been displaced. In the West Bank, over 150 Palestinians have been killed by settlers and the IDF and over 900 people forcibly transferred from their homes and communities. These abuses are a part of the Israeli authorities’ crimes against humanity.
 
These human rights organisations are pleading for the international community to take action. That’s why, alongside a cross-party group of MPs, I have written a letter addressed to the Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, and Home Secretary, James Cleverly MP, asking them to take a clear stance against violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank by banning their entry to the UK. The letter was co-ordinated by Yachad, a British Jewish organisation that advocates for a political resolution to the Israel Palestine conflict. I would encourage you keep-up-to date with their work here: https://yachad.org.uk/.

Update: 15th November 2023

When the King’s Speech debate comes to an end today, it’s likely there will be a vote on an amendment which calls on the government to “join with the international community in urgently pressing all parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire” in Israel-Gaza. 

The amendment will not pass without a rebellion on the government and Labour benches, but how individual MPs vote matters. I have received thousands of emails from constituents over the past few days registering their support of a ceasefire and urging me to vote for one.

I was one of the first MPs to add my name to the SNP amendment and I wholeheartedly support it. Unfortunately, following a medical procedure, I have been advised by my doctors not to travel to London this week. That means I’ll be unable to vote on this amendment should it be selected for a vote by the Speaker. As a life-long advocate for Palestinian human rights, this breaks my heart. It also angers and appals me that the antiquated Westminster system excludes me, as your MP, from voting remotely or by proxy for health reasons.

If there was any way for me to be present to vote, I would do so. In my view, the UK government, and MPs of all parties, have a moral imperative to join the international community in urgently pressing all parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire – and to seek a resolution that upholds international law and protects the lives of innocent civilians.

That’s why I have signed a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, calling on the UK government to support a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the horrific killings. It has been signed by 115 UK parliamentarians and urges Sunak to support:

  • an immediate humanitarian cease-fire by all belligerents.
  • the release of all hostages.
  • the presence of independent, international observers on the ground in Israel and Gaza.
  • providing unrestricted aid to civilians in Gaza – fuel, clean water, food, medical help and supplies. 
  • protecting the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, including guaranteeing the right of forced transferees to return home.
  • working with partners for a definitive resolution of the conflict realising the Palestinian right to self-determination and mutual security for both peoples.

You can read the full letter here: Caabu letter to the Prime Minister

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister was forced to carry out an early reshuffle of his team following a series of inflammatory and downright offensive remarks by the now former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. So bereft of competent Tory MPs is Sunak, that the man responsible for the greatest UK foreign policy catastrophe in our lifetime – Brexit – was brought back into government as Foreign Secretary. My SNP colleagues and I have urged David Cameron not to repeat the same mistake he made when he disregarded international law and voted for the Labour government’s illegal Iraq war. He must reset this government’s shameful position on the siege of Gaza.

Update: 31st October 2023

Hundreds of constituents have contacted me horrified about what is happening in the Middle East. That’s why last week, I hosted a discussion on the catastrophe unfolding in Israel-Gaza to hear directly from constituents what action they want to see from the UK government. 

It goes without saying that I absolutely and completely condemn the murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians at the hands of Hamas terrorists in the strongest possible terms. There can be no justification for such violence, and I call for the immediate release of all hostages. Yet again, innocent people have been caught in the cycle of violence that has torn apart so many lives.

That said, none of this excuses what the Israeli Government is doing in Palestine and the Occupied Palestinian Territories right now. While Israel has the right to live in a secure and peaceful environment, Hamas are not the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people are not Hamas. I stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are now facing the war crime of collective punishment.

My SNP colleagues and I have spent the last two weeks demanding the UK Government joins growing international calls for a ceasefire. We have been met with the grotesque dissembling from Sunak and silence from Keir Starmer. They keep repeating the mantra that Israel has the right to defend itself, adding the codicil “within international law” as a seemingly disposable afterthought.

In the House of Commons, I have also signed Early Day Motions (EDM) 1685 and 1676 which called on Israel to immediately end its siege, restore power and water supplies and open the Rafah border to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. While the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza has finally opened to allow in a trickle of aid for the first time in over two weeks, a continuous delivery of much more aid to Gaza is needed. 

Until the blockade is fully lifted and more aid is allowed to access Gaza, not just from the Rafah border, but from Erez via Israel, we will see the death toll continue to climb. This cannot be a matter for debate. We are in a critical moment of atrocity prevention, and so to prevent the death of millions more, aid must be allowed into Gaza and specifically to the Al-Ahli Arabi Baptist Hospital immediately. My SNP colleagues and I are also pressing the UK Government to call on Israel to rescind the evacuation order and agree a ceasefire. 

I was also one of the co-sponsors of a motion (EDM 300) which called on the UK Government to stop arms sales as part of efforts to end Israel’s militarised repression of Palestinians, violations of international law and the illegal occupation of Palestine. I also fully support the proposed bill to prohibit the sale and purchase of arms from Israel.

UK Ministers should be at the forefront of making clear that the life of a Palestinian is as valuable as the life of an Israeli and ensuring that innocent men, women, and children are never thought of as collateral damage.

Yet sadly, while other countries have used diplomatic pressure to try and curb the Israeli Government’s actions, the UK Government seems reluctant to do so. Indeed, earlier this year, Sunak invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to London, rolled out the red carpet for him and signed an agreement that made no reference to human rights abuses or the upholding of international law.

I can’t help but think that the UK Government has become an expert in appearing to address these serious human rights concerns, but then fails to take any concrete action. I recently asked the Government what it will take for them to step up diplomatic pressure on Israel, exercise its responsibilities under international law and uphold the rights of Palestinians. Here’s a video of my exchange with the Minister: www.vimeo.com/821192350.

The Government’s response was completely inadequate and highlighted its inconsistent approach towards international accountability mechanisms. For example, while the UK has led on and supported several UN resolutions establishing investigations into alleged breaches of international law by countries other than Israel, it opposed and continues to speak against the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. 

Just last week, the UK abstained from a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. A shameful decision. The time is now for the UK Government to act. They must unequivocally champion human rights around the world, and no longer turn the other way when it is not politically expedient to call out what they see.

If Israel continues to face no concrete consequences from allies such as the UK for its continued serious breaches of international law and human rights violations, it is not just the prospects for peace, security and access to human rights for both Palestinian and Israeli citizens that are damaged, but the international rules-based system itself.

I believe that a lasting peace in Israel – Palestine can only come about through political discussions and not through a military or ‘security’ solution. For that to happen, we need to see all parties cease hostilities and engage in meaningful peace talks to end the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories and bring about the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. Please be assured that I will also continue to call on the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine and to encourage new peace talks in the region.