Numerous Conservative MPs called for a return to direct peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a Backbench Business Debate on Israeli settlements in the House of Commons this week.
Many of the MPs underlined that settlements are far from the only issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and condemned intransigence by the Palestinian leadership.
Among Conservative MPs to speak were CFI Vice-Chairman John Howell MP, CFI Officers Mike Freer MP and Bob Blackman MP, as well as Nigel Huddleston MP and Philip Hollobone MP.
A number of MPs from across the political divide also spoke in support of Israel, including Labour MPs Joan Ryan, Louise Ellman, and Ian Austin, and Democratic Unionist Party MPs Ian Paisley and Jim Shannon.
Opening his speech, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer, said: “Israeli settlements are not the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians by a long stretch” and drew attention to a recent statement by a No. 10 spokesperson affirming the same view.
Criticising UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which was passed in December 2016, Mr Freer said: “UN Security Council resolution 2334 does not help to advance peace, as it focuses on Israeli settlements and only serves to reward Palestinian intransigence and unilateralism”.
He added: “Of particular concern to my constituents is that, for the first time, resolution 2334 defines East Jerusalem as ‘Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967′, including the Western Wall and Temple Mount, which are Judaism’s holiest sites. The area also includes the holy sites of Christianity, where Jesus practised his ministry. The definition implies that Jews and Christians visiting their holiest sites are acting illegally, and that is an affront to Christians and Jews alike”.
Mr Freer highlighted the double standards faced by Israel, and asked MPs who see settlements as the root of the conflict to consider why violence in the region pre-dates settlements: “The narrative seems to be that the conflict we see today started in 1967, when Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza, but I ask hon. Members to consider why violence in the region pre-dates the existence of the settlements?”
He asked why “international outcry was deferred until Israel’s occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza, and not when the land was occupied by Jordan and Egypt: “It is worth recalling that the West Bank and Gaza were occupied before 1967 not by Israel, but by Jordan and Egypt respectively. During those occupations, they refused to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, nor did they surrender the territory to be used for a Palestinian state. Where is the condemnation of Jordan and Egypt?”
Speaking about the legality of Israeli settlements, Mr Freer underlined: “Legality is not subjective. It is often said that Israeli settlements are illegal, but stating that repeatedly does not make it true. The West Bank and Gaza remain, as they have always been, disputed territories under international law. There has never been a Palestinian state, so the territory remains ownerless”. Mr Freer asserted that “that is a strong argument for some, although it is not one to which I necessarily subscribe”.
Harrow East MP Bob Blackman intervened in Mr Freer’s speech to ask whether he agreed regarding the 2005 Israeli unilateral disengagement from Gaza, that “as far as Israel was concerned, the trust was almost ended when the only result of removing all settlements from Gaza was a torrent—an avalanche—of rockets and missiles?”
In his speech, Bob Blackman MP underlined: “the only way in which this crisis in the Middle East will ever be solved is by face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinian leaders and the state of Israel”.
He condemned UNSC resolution 2334, and congratulated Prime Minister Theresa May “on distancing herself from John Kerry’s one-sided speech”, as well as the Government for “not sending individuals to the Paris conference, which attempted to internationalise the solution to the problem”.
Mr Blackman underlined that the Green Line was never an international line or border: “We have heard that United Nations resolution 2334 would prevent Jews and Christians from celebrating at the Western Wall and at the greatest Christian sites. Before 1967, the Western Wall was out of bounds to Jews, and the same thing would happen again were this implemented. The Green Line was never, ever an international line, and there has never, ever been an international agreement on the exact borders of any potential state of Palestine”.
Referring to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Mr Blackman said, that thousands “went to Israel, some to the United States and others to parts of Europe. They are never mentioned, but there clearly has to be a home for them”.
Mr Blackman underlined that for the security barrier to be removed, trust between both sides needs to built: “It is quite clear that everyone would like the security barrier around Jerusalem to be removed, but it can be removed only when there is trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians”.
Nigel Huddleston MP made an intervention into Mr Blackman’s speech, emphasising that “substantial concessions need to be made on both sides” for peace to be achieved, rather than an emphasis on Israel alone.
CFI Vice-Chairman John Howell OBE MP in his speech praised the work of Israeli NGO Save A Child’s Heart, “a brilliant organisation that goes out of its way to treat Palestinian children who have heart problems”.
He made the point that “here we have a wonderful example of cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and yet we are focusing on one issue—settlements”.
Mr Howell said that he believed settlement expansion is counterproductive, however, “we have heard from speaker after speaker that settlements are not the cause of conflict. They are not the cause of the violence, which long predates the existence of settlements, in this part of the world”.
Mr Howell emphasised: “Settlements are one of the five final status issues, which also include borders, the status of Jerusalem, security and Palestinian sovereignty. A whole range of issues need to be addressed if the situation is to be moved forward”.
Referring to Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Mr Howell said: “As I have already mentioned in an intervention, the Israelis pulled out 8,000 Israeli settlers, including their dead, from Gaza and they have been greeted by the almost 20,000 rockets that have been launched at them”.
The MP for Henley said that the Backbench Business Debate motion “calls for the internationalisation of the peace process, and I do not think that that is very productive”.
He underlined that ahead of peace talks: “Unfortunately, the Palestinian side comes up with preconditions every time, and those preconditions usually involve the release of yet more terrorists. If we look at Israel’s record over settlements, we see that in 2010 there was a 10-month moratorium, but the Palestinians allowed nine months to slip by before they resumed peace talks; they did not take it seriously”.
Further emphasising Israel’s commitment to peace, Mr Howell said: “A month ago Israel evicted 50 families from homes in Amona. In 2005, we saw the situation in Gaza, and in 2008 Israel made a fantastic offer to withdraw from 94% of the West Bank”.
MP for Kettering, Philip Hollobone, outlined in his speech that he believes settlements to be an impediment to peace, and emphasised the need for a two-state solution.
Mr Hollobone praised the work of Save A Child’s Heart “and the work that Israeli surgeons are doing to help vulnerable children from all nations around the world, including Muslim nations”.
He said: “Israel is a leader in the high-tech industry and in medicine—many NHS medicines come from Israel—and a key ally in very rough and dangerous part of the world”.
Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood MP, said in his responding speech that “the only way to secure a just and lasting peace is through a two-state solution”.
He began his speech by “firmly underlining our deep friendship with Israel, its people and its absolute right to exist and defend itself”.
The Middle East Minister underlined that for peace to be achieved: “We need the Palestinians to do more to prevent the incitement of violence. President Abbas condemns certain aspects of it, but we are still seeing schools and squares being named after terrorists. These are not the confidence-building measures we need see”.
Mr Ellwood said that “although important, the matter of settlements is not the only issue but one of a number. The immediate removal of settlements would not immediately lead to peace”.
Read the full transcript of the debate here.