Crisis in Gaza – Debate on the Middle East


On 17 July 2014 there was a backbench debate on the current situation in the Middle East in the House of Commons. Given the number of constituents who have written to me about what is is going on in Gaza I wanted to share the speech I gave that afternoon.

“I will pose a few questions. Does Israel have the right to self-defence? Yes. Do Palestinians have the right to self-defence? Yes. Can what either the Israeli Government are doing or what Hamas has been doing in the past two weeks be credibly described as self-defence? No. Have the actions of either made the people each said they were defending any safer? Well, there are some answers to that. I will quote Emily Hauser, an American Israeli, who wrote recently in Haaretz:

“I have lived under missile attack, and I have family under attack in the south right now. I do not for one moment doubt Israel’s right to self-defense. But even if we set aside the damage and forget the dead, if we remain incurious about the impact both might have on our enemy’s will to compromise—even if all we consider is sheer efficacy—how can we look at this history and believe that repeating past failures will keep the Jewish State safe? Are you safe now?”

That speaks volumes. If we look on the other side, the answer was given yesterday when those four children had their lives snuffed out while doing nothing other than playing football on the beach. If hon. Members have not read Peter Beaumont’s eyewitness account of that in The Guardian, I suggest they do so.

The point is that it has to stop; the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said that in introducing the debate. Nobody will do the Palestinians or the Israelis any service in this debate by justifying rockets or trying to justify the scale of the attacks that Israel has been making on Gaza. The question is how we can help to stop it.

The first thing is to be serious. We have just heard that there has been a humanitarian ceasefire for a few hours. There was also a very strange ceasefire a day or two ago, of a kind that I have never come across before. It seemed to be announced without even the Americans being involved, which is rather strange in the circumstances. It was announced late one night and accepted by Israel the next morning, when Hamas said it had not even been directly approached and had heard about the ceasefire from the media. If people are serious about ceasefires, they pre-cook them and make sure the back channels work, but those channels did not work on that occasion.

I have been trying to put some feelers out as well—not to Hamas directly, but through people who I know are talking to it. One thing that has come back from that—not from hard-liners, who reject the idea altogether, but from people who are saying that they might be prepared to consider it—is that if a ceasefire is agreed, it will need to involve Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, as well as Hamas, and Hamas will be relied on to police that ceasefire. How will it do that while it is itself the target of air strikes? We do not have to hold a writ for Hamas to work out that there may be a point there. That is why people should use the back channels and take the process seriously, and not just announce things. That is not just my opinion; hon. Members can read the article on ABC News by Ali Weinberg, who said that some of the things going on around that ceasefire were curious—I will say no more than that.

The question is, what do we do? First of all, if there is going to be a ceasefire, as we all hope, it has to be serious and it has to work. Secondly, let us not make life any more difficult from our side. Every time Britain supplies arms to Israel—we do not supply arms to Hamas, because there is an arms embargo—we do so under strict criteria called the EU consolidated criteria, with the condition that they are not to be used for external aggression or internal repression. Under the Labour Government—and I think under this Government—use in the occupied territories was seen to run contrary to that condition. Every time there is a flare-up, it is asked, “Were British arms used?” At best, the reply is “We are not quite sure”; at worst, it is, “Probably, yes, they were.” Every time, we say that to Israel, but it happens again, so my first question to the Minister is: are British arms being used? If they are, what will we do to stop it? If we do not know, there should be an arms embargo.

The next point is that if we want a ceasefire to turn into peace, we have to tackle the causes. There is a narrative that says that if Hamas just stopped its rockets, things would be okay—the idea is that quiet will be met with quiet. The last time there was a flare-up like this one was in November 2012. In November 2013 the United Nations—not Hamas, not the Palestinians, but the United Nations—produced a humanitarian bulletin from OCHA, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I quote:

“November marked one year since the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire understanding between Israel and Hamas, which ended an eight day escalation of hostilities. The year that passed has witnessed the lowest level of violence and civilian casualties registered in Gaza and southern Israel in 13 years. Additionally, there has been limited improvement in people’s access to fishing areas at sea and to farming areas along the fence with Israel. Overall, however, Gaza has seen a deterioration in living conditions. The majority of the Israeli imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip have remained in place, with at least one of them (import of building materials) tightened.”

That same humanitarian report also talked about the growing sanitation and water crisis in Gaza and an escalation in dispossessions and demolitions in East Jerusalem. That was during a period of relative quiet.

I was in the West Bank at the end of last year with my right hon. Friend Mr Straw. We saw dispossessions being threatened and schools threatened with demolition to make way for settlements. Someone might say that I have my own view on the issue and that it is not unbiased, so let us not listen to me; we will listen to the United Nations again. This is from 2 June this year:

“UNRWA is gravely concerned about recent steps taken by the Israeli authorities that appear to advance plans to transfer Palestinian Bedouin communities in the central West Bank, the large majority of which consist of Palestine refugees.

That report goes on to say that they are

“located in the E1 and Ma’ale Adumim areas, which are slated for further Israeli settlement development. Additionally in recent months, the ICA appears to be intensifying measures that are displacing or threatening to displace many of the Bedouin communities targeted for transfer.”

It simply is not true that quiet is met by quiet. Quiet is met by continued settlement building, displacement and occupation. We should not think that there will be a real and lasting peace unless those things are addressed; there will not be.

Imagine if the tables were turned—that somehow, in that mythical world, the Palestinians suddenly got the kind of military power that Israel has, and said, “We want to build some settlements in Galilee. A lot of Palestinians live there. We want to take over the homes of a few Jewish Israelis and build there.” Are we honestly saying that all the west would say to that is, “That’s not a very good thing to do—please stop”? Of course we would not. We would demand that they stop. We would talk about international law—and we would be right to—and would implement it.

If we accept that continued settlement building is contrary to UN resolutions, the Geneva convention and international law generally, what do we do about it? I am not suggesting any military action against Israel, but I am suggesting that we uphold international law. That means we should have no contact with illegal and illegitimate settlements. We should not trade with them, and we should insist that if Israel wishes to export goods from the settlements, it separates them from goods produced in Israel. If it does not, I am sorry, but the trade preferences that apply to goods from Israel should not apply to goods from the settlements.

I will conclude by responding to the point made by John Howell. People say that the Palestinians should recognise Israel. I agree. The Palestinian Authority, including Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, recognised Israel years ago. It has said that Hamas should recognise Israel. The Quartet takes the view that not only should it recognise Israel, but it should already have done so, in order to get into talks. That demand has never been made of Israel the other way around. Let us think about it. Continued settlement building removes the practical chance of a two-state solution. In practical terms, Israel does not

recognise the right to a Palestinian state; in practical terms, it is removing it before our eyes. That is the reality; is it also the theory?

Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave an interview that was reported in TheTimes of Israel by David Horovitz. It was given in Hebrew, but it has helpfully been translated by The Times of Israel, which is not a Hamas organ, or even a Palestinian Authority organ. I urge hon. Members to read it because it makes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view of a Palestinian state pretty clear. It says:

“He”— Prime Minister Netanyahu— “made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.”

That should give us all pause for thought. If we are all in favour of a two-state solution, both sides must abide by that, not as a matter of negotiation, but as a matter of right. If Israel demands, as a matter of right, to be recognised by the Palestinians, it is not wrong and not too much for the international community to say to Israel that as a matter of right it should recognise Palestine. Perhaps we could help that along the way by doing it ourselves.”

You can read the full debate here.


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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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