The speech made by Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, in the House of Commons on 24 September 2020.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian territories.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this crucially important debate. As the outgoing chair of the British-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, I pay particular tribute to colleagues who have been such powerful advocates for peace, justice and security in this troubled land, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who will be taking over as chair of the APPG. I wish her well.
I start by setting out three core principles, which I hope and believe are shared by all who are taking part in this debate. First, this is not about religion or ethnicity. It is not a question of Arab, Muslim or Jewish identity. It is about upholding the universal norms and values that we hold dear, and it is about working to constrain and reverse the actions of those who seek to undermine those norms and values. Nor is this about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. This is about striving for peace, justice and security for all.
Secondly, we condemn violence in all its forms, whether it is Hamas launching rockets or the Israel Defence Forces bombarding Gaza or bulldozing Bedouin villages to make way for illegal settlements. We oppose any and all actions that lead to the death and destruction that have so tragically come to define this conflict.
Thirdly, we believe passionately in the rule of law. Indeed, our point of departure is that the rule of law is not up for negotiation. It is not some bargaining chip that can be tossed on to the table in exchange for concessions or compromises; it is the very cornerstone of the rules-based order and the bedrock of the norms, rights and values that we cherish and seek to defend.
I believe that our defence of the rule of law matters more now than it has done at any time since 1945, because we stand today at a moment in history when the rule of law is under threat across the world. The Chinese Communist party has breached the Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong, the Russian Government annexed Crimea in 2014 and, deeply regrettably, even our own Government are willing to renege on their commitment to a legally binding treaty.
Israel’s consistent flouting of UN resolutions and the fourth Geneva convention has undermined the rules-based order for decades, and the international community can no longer just look the other way. Both sides in this conflict have witnessed horrific bloodshed and both sides deserve an end to the fear and suffering that they have had to experience. That is why it is so vital and urgent that the rule of law be brought to bear as the foundation upon which a viable and sustainable Palestine can be negotiated and built—a Palestine that protects the rights of its citizens and lives in peace with its neighbours.
The illegal Israeli settlements undermine all three of the principles that I have set out. They drive and amplify the vicious identity politics that poisons this conflict. They cause violence on a daily basis and they are a flagrant breach of international law, yet they continue and expand.
In 2018, we marked 25 years since the signing of the Oslo accords. That moment in 1993 was meant to herald a new and lasting era of peace and co-existence—the beginning of a genuine two-state solution—but since then, the number of illegal settlers has increased from 258,000 to more than 610,000. Fifty thousand homes and properties have been demolished, and an illegal separation barrier has been built that carves up the west bank and brutally disconnects towns, cities, families and communities from each other. What have the Israeli people experienced in that time? They have experienced insecurity, fear of attacks through suicide bombings, rockets and mortars, knife attacks and car rammings. None of this will end while there is no proper peace and no end to the occupation. It has been a disaster for all sides in this conflict.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the balanced way in which he is opening this debate. The events of the recent weeks have encouraged me and many others; I wonder whether they have encouraged him as well. They have shown that the 70-year unresolved conflict between Israel and the Arabs will no longer be allowed to define regional dynamics and relations. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this new outside-in approach to peace offers an invaluable opportunity to transform the entire region, and that there is an opportunity to move forward together, perhaps with a two-state solution?
We certainly welcome any steps towards peace and conflict resolution, but we should be realistic about what the so-called Abraham accords really signify. The reality is that the United Arab Emirates and Israel have never been at war with each other. They have pre-existing and long-standing relations. Indeed, they have co-operated on military matters, in counter-revolutions, and in coups in many of the Arab League states. We should be realistic that this is really more the formalisation of pre-existing relations, rather than something new. Nevertheless, it is to be welcomed.
Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman has made some important and strong points in his opening remarks. May I bring him back to the reference he made a few moments ago to the signing of the Oslo accords, and their failure to result in the era of peace that so many people had hoped for? Straight after mentioning Oslo, he talked about settlements—almost implying that it was the issue of settlements that meant that the aspirations behind Oslo were never realised. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read Bill Clinton’s account of the peace negotiations and many other accounts to see exactly why peace was not struck when there was an opportunity; it was not the Israelis who walked away from that opportunity.
I agree that opportunities have been missed on all sides—there is no doubt about that —but the reality is that the constant feature of everything that has happened since 1993 has been the expansion of the settlements, which are a flagrant breach of international law. Once we start to erode the foundations of international law on which all the negotiations are based, they are rendered effectively meaningless. We need to bear that in mind as we look back on what has happened since 1993, but it is also vital that we look to the future with hope and optimism.
It is against that backdrop that President Trump and the Prime Minister Netanyahu have come forward with their so-called deal of the century. This is not a deal. It is not a plan. It is not even a starting point for talks. It is a proposal that is fundamentally flawed because it has no basis in law. It is a land and power grab that would mean Israel seizing around 40% of the west bank, with full military and security control over the Palestinian people and their resources. Which Government, in their right mind, would ever agree to such terms? Why would the Palestinian Authority ever enter into talks on the basis of a document that effectively legitimises attempts to destroy any chance of an independent sovereign Palestine?
Christian Wakeford (Bury South) (Con)
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the deal of the century could well have been the starting point for a conversation? Yes, there is a lot that is disagreed with on both sides, but there are also elements that could be agreed on. It is those levels where agreement could be sought that could be moved forward to deliver the two-state solution that everyone—on both sides of this House—ultimately wants.
But if one is seeking to restart negotiations, one needs to do so on the basis of a plan that has legitimacy. It is not possible to move forward if the plan is actually based on breaking the law. Countless UN resolutions have pointed out that the settlements, as they stand, are illegal, so that has to be taken off the table before there is even a basis for starting to talk. That is why it is perfectly understandable why the Palestinian Authority is refusing to engage on that basis.
The Foreign Secretary and his Ministers continue to present the Trump-Netanyahu plan as a basis for talks. They ask the Palestinians to compromise, yet the Palestinians have already ceded 78% of their land to Israel. How much more can they be asked to compromise?
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree that given Britain’s unique history in relation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is important our Government continue to work at being an honest broker rather than taking sides? The position the UK Government have taken actually puts at risk Britain being seen as an honest broker.
I agree entirely. This country has a unique place in history and a unique responsibility, particularly if we trace this back to the Balfour declaration. It is vital that everything this Government say and do honours the commitments in that declaration.
The Foreign Secretary and Ministers also say that the Palestinian side should make a counter-offer. Well, they have: a two-state solution, as already set out in countless UN resolutions and based on 1967 lines. That is the counter-offer. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition had agreed that Israel would begin de jure annexation from 1 July. Thankfully, the Israeli Government have rowed back on that for now, but what we are instead witnessing is more annexation by stealth. Netanyahu announced approval of preliminary plans for 3,500 new housing units in a new settlement in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, thus severing East Jerusalem’s contiguity with the rest of the west bank.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the developments he is now describing pose a threat to the feasibility of a two-state solution, because there will not be enough left for a viable state in Palestine to be established?
I agree entirely with right hon. Friend. If one looks at the map, one sees it is not really a viable geographical area anymore; it is an archipelago of patches of land that are no longer connected to each other. E1 and E2 would in many ways represent the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution in my view.
Building on E1 is more of a danger to the two-state outcome than the formal annexation of parts of the west bank. It has long been seen by the UK, France and Germany as a red line. Another huge settlement plan of 7,000 units has been approved at Efrat to the south of Bethlehem, often labelled E2. In both cases, the reality is that the Israeli Government hold all the cards, while the Palestinian Authority have limited power and must rely on international solidarity.
Those who take a more sympathetic view of the actions of the Israeli Government will no doubt point to the so-called Abraham accords, which were signed by UAE and Bahrain at the White House on 13 August, and which commit those states to the normalisation of relations with Israel. Yet the reality is that the Abraham accords are simply the formalisation of pre-existing and well-established relations between the signatories. Those states have been working together for years on joint military operations, coups and counter-revolutions. For the Palestinian people, nothing has changed. The reality is the creeping annexation of their land continuing and accelerating.
Actions speak louder than words. The question we must therefore address today is how the British Government can use their position as a leading member of the international community to press the Israeli Government to pull back from creeping annexation and to re-engage in talks on the basis of a viable two-state solution. The problem we face is that the deadlock will continue as long as Israel rejects any deal that includes Jerusalem and does not mean Israel keeps the Jordan valley, rejects a sovereign viable Palestinian state, and will negotiate only on the basis of a plan that annexes occupied territory and includes total security control on any Palestinian entity, including control of all borders. Israel must drop those preconditions. There have already been some attempts by European states to assert their influence. For instance, 11 states, including the UK, Germany and France, joined in a démarche to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on 1 May opposing Netanyahu’s annexation plans. But together the international community must go further.
Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making a powerful, balanced and considered speech. On that point about the international response, could the accords that have been struck with the UAE and Bahrain provide an opportunity for the UK Government to work with them and with Europe to gain extra leverage to bring about some sort of change in Israeli policy?
That is absolutely a step in the right direction, although I think it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, for the reasons that I have set out. The reality is that as long as the basis for the talks is the so-called Trump-Netanyahu plan, it is a non-starter, because that plan violates international law.
We should explore the potential for the International Criminal Court to play a role. The Israeli Attorney General’s office has already warned the Israeli Prime Minister that annexation could trigger an investigation of
“senior Army officers, civil service officials and heads of regional councils of West Bank settlements”.
It is essential that the UK condemns any further creeping annexation, but condemnation alone will never be enough. To this end, the UK Government must take the following steps with urgency. First, they must immediately recognise the state of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 lines. The UK Government argue that recognition should follow successful negotiations, but the logic of this argument is deeply flawed and partisan. It suggests that we are happy to see a 53-year-old occupation persist, legitimising the illegal actions of the Israeli Government and contributing to the brutality and violence that shame us all.
Secondly, the Government must ban all products that originate from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Profiting from such products is tantamount to profiting from the proceeds of crime, and it must stop. When we trade with these settlements, we are essentially telling the world that international law does not matter, and such trade legitimises and facilitates the existence and expansion of the settlements. In 2014, it was right that the UK, as part of the European Union, prohibited trade with Crimea following its illegal annexation by Russia. It is crucial that we are consistent in our application of international law.
Thirdly, the Government must act to end the involvement of UK-based companies within the illegal settlements. In March, the UN published a list of companies that are involved in the settlements, which included JCB, Opodo and Greenkote PLC. Charities actively involved in illegal settlement projects should not be eligible for the privileges of charitable status, including tax exemption. What steps will our Government now take to hold these companies and charities to account? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on these points. These measures must be put in place immediately: no more excuses, and no more obfuscation from this Government.
Standing here in the Chamber today, it is easy to forget the human cost of this conflict. Visiting the west bank and East Jerusalem with Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and the Council for Arab-British Understanding in 2014, I saw how the settlements touched the lives of those in the occupied territories. I think of the father from Gaza I met in Makassed hospital who was nursing his four-year-old double-amputee son and worrying about his wife in another hospital 20 miles away, who had also had both her legs amputated. I think of the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, whose residents live in perpetual fear of military demolitions and harassment. I think of the quarter of a million children across the Palestinian territories who the UN identifies as in need of psychosocial support and child protection interventions. What future can these children look forward to? What hope can we offer them? A 10-year-old child in Gaza will already have witnessed three wars and nothing but the siege.
I therefore rise today to convey this simple message to the Minister: act now. Act now to show that Britain is still a country that will give voice to the voiceless and stand up for the rights of the oppressed. Act now to show that Britain is still a beacon of hope and a country that stands tall in the world and strives relentlessly for peace and justice. Act now to help us to believe that yours is a Government who still believe in the rule of law.