MPs call for action on illegal Israeli settlements

13 February 2017 - 5:30pm

On 9 February 2017, MPs held a back-bench debate on Israel’s illegal settlements. This followed a week in which Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Downing Street, only days after his government announced the construction of thousands of new illegal settlement units. Only hours after his visit, he voiced his support for a new law in Israel which retroactively ‘legalises’ some Israeli settlements.

Thousands of you emailed your MP asking them to attend the debate and to speak out against Israel’s illegal settlements and to press for accountability over Israel’s violations of international law.

MPs called for moving beyond words into action to hold Israel to account for its continued building of settlements, a war crime under international law.

Settlements and the daily violence of military occupation

Throughout the debate, MPs who have travelled to Palestine described acts of violence that they witnessed committed by the Israeli authorities and settlers against Palestinians. Their comments served as a reminder that settlements are not just houses being built in the middle of nowhere, with no consequences. On the contrary, the building of settlements happens within the context of a brutal military occupation. They are preceded by the confiscation of Palestinian land and demolition of houses and structure. In 2016 alone, over 1,000 Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were demolished by the Israeli military, leaving thousands homeless and even more with their livelihoods destroyed.

As Lyn Brown MP noted: ‘The UN said that that situation was unprecedented; it is unprecedented, but it is also intolerable and inhumane.’

In Hebron, Sir Desmond Swayne MP reported, Palestinians find themselves excluded from the heart of their own city because of the settlement set up in the middle of their city. Checkpoints choke the movement of Palestinians, including some 13,000 children in Jerusalem who have to cross a military checkpoint every day just to get to school, horrible for everyone but, as Seema Malhotra MP put it: ‘particularly traumatic for children who see homes and also schools destroyed.’

UK Complicity

MPs raised questions about the UK’s trade and diplomatic relationship with Israel in light of its violations of international law. Alan Brown MP said: ‘Israel has acted with impunity over demolitions because the international community has not acted.’ He noted that ‘180 structures, partly funded by the EU, and therefore the UK, have been demolished [by Israel], but there has been no redress.’

Crispin Blunt MP mentioned the failure of the international community in protecting Palestinian rights, and in particular the role that Britain has played in that failure.

MPs failed to mention that in 2016 alone, the UK government approved over £100 million worth of arms exports, weapons headed for Israel despite the UK export criteria that, if implemented, would result in a de facto arms embargo on Israel.

A mockery of international law

Many of those who spoke reminded the house that the building of settlements is illegal under international law, a fact which has been reaffirmed by the UK government time and time again. Mike Freer MP seemed to question the facts of international law and UK policy, saying that ‘It is often said that Israeli settlements are illegal, but stating that repeatedly does not make it true’.

Joanna Cherry MP, on the other hand, spelled out clearly the international legal position:  ‘The international community considers the establishment of settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories illegal under international law because the fourth Geneva Convention prohibits countries from moving people into territories occupied in a war. That is a legal fact.’ William Wragg MP added: ‘Is now not the time, more than ever, for the United Kingdom Government to be entirely consistent and to remind the world, without any qualification, that settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal?’

Not only has Israel continued to build settlements in contradiction of this law, but it has just in the past week passed a new national law that ‘legalises’ some illegal settlements under Israeli law, a provocative move that shows exactly how Israel positions itself in relation to the international consensus on a base line issue of justice.

‘Petty Apartheid’

Sir Desmond Swayne MP and Andy Slaughter MP both commented that Israel’s occupation policies look like ‘petty apartheid’, a series of laws in Apartheid South Africa that enforced segregation in public spaces. Richard Burden MP was right in asking that when, as in the case of the occupation, you have a ‘system of laws and controls that discriminate against the majority of people who live in the West Bank and denies them basic democratic rights, what term can we use to decide what we are left with but a form of apartheid?’

Echoing what Palestinians have been saying for years, many others have made such observations in the past, including legal experts, well-known anti-Apartheid figures such as Desmond Tutu, a former U.S. president and many others. Former UN special rapporteur, South African law professor John Dugard wrote:

‘On the basis of the systemic and institutionalized nature of the racial domination that exists, there are indeed strong grounds to conclude that a system of apartheid has developed in the occupied Palestinian territory. Israeli practices in the occupied territory are not only reminiscent of – and, in some cases, worse than – apartheid as it existed in South Africa, but are in breach of the legal prohibition of apartheid.’

Boycott, Divestment, Sanction: moving beyond words into action

Naz Shah MP called for moving ‘beyond condemnations and hollow words of support. We must support moves towards accountability and demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law.’

There was a sense of frustration amongst some MPs that after decades of UK government pleas to Israel not to continue its settlement building, Israel continues to flagrantly defy international law and build more settlements each year. Ian Murray MP asked: ‘What message [does] it send out to the international community when UN resolution after UN resolution on settlements is ignored and on what we can do to ensure that we action the one that has just been passed?’

If this is the frustration being expressed in the UK House of Commons, how do you think Palestinians feel?! In fact, this is the very issue that motivated the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in 2005.

The Palestinian BDS call responds to Israel’s intransigence and international complicity by calling on all of us to take action for justice and accountability. This is exactly what motivates our work to end UK complicity in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Read more about our campaigns and take action!

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