14 June 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate on Israel and Palestine

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on recent e-petitions relating to Israel and Palestine.


The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on the issue. I am grateful, too, for the thoughtful contributions made by Members on both sides of the House on this delicate issue.

We welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza on 20 May. It is an important step towards ending the cycle of violence and the loss of civilian life. The UK offers its deepest condolences to the families of all those who have lost their lives. We echo the condemnation of the antisemitic actions that, unfortunately, we saw on the streets of the United Kingdom, and I am pleased that Members across the House have condemned those actions.

Christian Wakeford 

The tone of the debate has been incredibly helpful in condemning the antisemitism on our streets. Does the Minister agree that every single Member in the House has a duty to do so, and when we see banners calling for Palestine to be free from the river to the sea—which is actively calling for the ethnic cleansing of Israel—we need to condemn that wholeheartedly? Will he make a statement in the House doing so?

James Cleverly 

I thank my hon. Friend for the question he has asked. As we have seen today, there is widespread condemnation of those acts and where there are small pockets of resistance against condemning those actions, I think that those individuals stand outwith the mass of the viewpoint in the House. This is an issue that I do not doubt will come up in departmental questions tomorrow.

While the ceasefire holds, we must make sure that every effort focuses on making it not just durable but permanent. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region on 26 May and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As he made clear on that visit, the recent escalation demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards a more positive future and address the long-standing drivers of the conflict in the region. We have worked actively during this crisis to urge all parties to work with mediators towards a ceasefire. We fully support the Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations actions to that end, and we work closely, of course, with our friends and partners in the United States of America.

It is important now for Israel to facilitate rapid humanitarian access to Gaza, and we urge the continued opening of all crossings. The UK will provide £3.2 million of new aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, responding to its emergency flash appeal, launched on 19 May. The funding will help to provide food, water and emergency shelter to Palestinians affected by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza.

Christian Wakeford 

Will the Minister give way?

James Cleverly 

Let me make a little more progress; I am conscious that we are a little tight on time.

We thank UNRWA for its support for Gazans displaced during the conflict and for its continued courage and dedication. The UK continues its diplomatic efforts to build confidence between the parties and to find a political way forward. We welcome and echo calls for equality of safety, security, freedom, peace and dignity, both for Palestinians and for Israelis. I have spoken regularly with a number of ambassadors from the Arab states to reiterate the need for progress towards our shared goals—to reiterate the need for a peaceful two-state solution. We also play a leading role in this on the United Nations Security Council.

Let me address the subjects specific to the petitions. There have, of course, been many calls over the years for recognition of Palestinian statehood. The UK Government position is clear: the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the object of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot, and will not, end the occupation. The UK Government continue to believe that without a negotiated peace agreement, the occupation, and the problems that come with it, will continue. We are committed to the objective of a sovereign, prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state, living side by side with a safe and secure Israel. That is why we are a leading donor in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and why we have set so much store by strengthening Palestinian institutions, fostering private sector-led sustainable economic growth in the west bank.

Economic progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital in the interim that Palestinians see tangible improvements in their daily lives. We call on the Palestinian Authority and Israel to resume dialogue on economic issues, to reconvene the Joint Economic Committee and to address the financial and covid crisis together. The UK enjoys strong relations with the Palestinian Authority, and they have made important progress on state building, which has been recognised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is so important now that the PA return to Gaza to ensure that good governance is extended throughout the territories that will make up a future Palestinian state.

It has been said by Members representing parties across the House, and I echo it from the UK Government’s position: we condemn in the strongest terms the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations in Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups. All countries, including Israel of course, have a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to defend their citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and calibrated to avoid civilian casualties.

On the second petition, the Government have made their position on sanctions clear. Although we do not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we are firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel. We believe that open and honest discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israel boycotts, best support our efforts to progress the peace process and to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. The Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously, and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We consider all export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework. We continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard. We continue to urge all parties to work together to reduce the tensions in the west bank, including East Jerusalem, so that, hopefully, we will not see images as we saw during May.

Several Members stated their desire for the UK to oppose evictions and demolitions. Let me assure them that the UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is long-standing, public and has been communicated directly to the Government of Israel. That position is that we oppose those activities. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, evictions are contrary to international humanitarian law. The practice causes unnecessary suffering for the Palestinians and is detrimental to efforts to promote a peaceful two-state solution. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion and, instead, work towards that two-state solution.

The Foreign Secretary and I have made the UK view clear in meetings with Israeli leaders. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary did so on his visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories on 26 May. We continue to call on all parties to show real leadership, including the willingness to make tough compromises and to refrain from unilateral steps that move us further from our shared goal of sustainable peace. We will continue our intense diplomatic efforts in the region, focused on creating the conditions for a sustainable peace, and we will work with our international partners towards that goal.