Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Campaign Letters #5: Israel and Palestine

Thank you for writing to me about the human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Between 2008 and 2012 I was a frequent visitor to Israel, employed as part of an offshore energy project, so some of my opinions will be at variance with Liberal Democrat party policy. I shall point out the differences as they occur.

 The Liberal Democrats are committed to seeing a negotiated peace settlement, with two-state solution to the conflict. However, both sides will need to make some significant compromises to ensure the rights of people from both communities are respected. Liberal Democrats in Government have been working hard to ensure that the UK continues to play its part in the pursuit of peace. We have supported direct negotiations between the two sides, provided £122m over four years to help the Palestinian Authority develop and £107m worth of essential services to vulnerable refugee communities.

 After seeing the country, I personally feel that on the Israeli side, there is no intention to either commit to or deliver a two-state solution. As an example is the proposed location of the Palestinian Authority's International Airport. It is to be sited near the town of Netanya, which is on the Mediterranean coast. When I expressed surprise at this, I was further informed that Israel intended to keep control over both people and goods passing into any separate Palestinian state. It is therefore clear that a two-state solution is an impossibility.

 Where does that leave us? The state of Israel is a reality and is to be accepted upon that basis. Since the Oslo Accord, land has continued to have been annexed by illegal (but state-supported) Israeli settlements, leaving the areas remaining in Palestinian hands isolated and unviable. The only way forward I can see is to call for equal rights and equality before the laws for all people that live in Israel and the West Bank. I would have no problem if Israel were to recognise and apply the law, with impartiality, to all people within its original borders, the West Bank and Gaza. The recent elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu shamelessly rallied the Israeli right by claiming bus-loads of Arabs were being shipped to polling stations to vote, shows that such an aspiration is almost as difficult to achieve as the much promoted two-state solution.

 In response to the specific questions that you pose: I urge the UK Government to uphold the principles of equality, human rights and international law in all its relations and dealings with Israel.

Yes - as I have made clear above. Israel should have both the rights and responsibilities of any state and should not be accorded any unique status. Liberal Democrats in Government have put human rights and international law at the centre of our foreign policy. These are some of our core values and we would only join a government if they were at the heart of our relationship with Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and every other country around the world.

 I consider the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal and unjustifiable.

Yes - as stated above. These settlements are illegal and they make finding a two-state peace settlement even harder - personally I would say impossible. At the Liberal Democrat conference last October we passed a motion which called for the UK to “apply continued pressure on the Israeli Government to cease its illegal acquisition of land in the West Bank.”

 Do you agree that one of the first acts of the next UK Government should be the recognition of Palestine? Liberal Democrats believe the UK Government should encourage the EU to recognise the State of Palestine. When MPs voted on recognising Palestine I was delighted to see Liberal Democrat MPs overwhelmingly supported it. The UK Government has said it will continue to support a negotiated two-state solution and will work with other countries to secure one. The government said they look forward to recognising a democratic, sovereign and viable Palestinian state when it will help the peace process most. I now believe the time for such a two-state solution to have passed. To answer your question directly, I don't know. I have looked with interest at Swedish recognition of Palestine and acknowledge it is a welcome boast for the cause of an oppressed people. What practical aid such a move is able to bring, that I am not so certain of.

 Do you agree that the blockade on Gaza should be lifted immediately?

Yes The UK Ambassador in Israel has been raising this with senior Israeli Government officials since the ceasefire in Gaza last summer. We have been calling for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted and for trade routes to be reopened. The UK has also been working with the EU and UN to put pressure on Israel for this to happen, while recognising their legitimate security concerns.

 Do you agree that we should stop trade with Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land, and stop settlement goods being sold in Britain?
No Putting trade sanctions on Israeli goods will only make achieving a peaceful solution much harder. I think the Government is right to support the voluntary guidelines so that customers can identify whether goods come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and make a decision for themselves if they want to buy them.

 Do you agree that the EU Israel Association Agreement should be suspended until Israel meets its human rights obligations? No The EU-Israel Association Agreement allows the EU to regularly raise human rights concerns with Israel and work to address these. However, I think the EU should review its Association Agreement to consider whether Israel continues to uphold peace and human rights.

 Do you agree that the government should stop supplying arms to Israel until it complies with international law? Yes Israel has also been listed as a country of concern in the UK Government’s Human Rights and Democracy Report and Liberal Democrats believe that there should be a presumption of denial when considering whether to grant arms export licenses for equipment bound for countries that are listed in that report.
I would go further. It is my firm belief that the whole economy, not just of Israel but the entire region, is based upon war. Every arms export to the area continues to fuel the conflict. If I may be blunt, during my time in Israel, I have never encountered so many arms dealers in my life! From the financiers organising the capital, the technical experts and the sales teams, the business of war is fully represented.

 Before finishing, I think it is only fair that I mention also the stresses upon the average Israeli citizen too. I found Israel to be a very suppressed state on many levels, with very high degree of surveillance by the authorities upon its citizens. Although discussion and debate are wide ranging, actual attempts to deviate from expectation, such as conscientious objection, are punishable either by prison or by being declared of unfit mental state, meaning, for example, the withdrawal of one's driving licence and financial independence.
 The cost of housing and inability of many Israeli young to afford a roof over their head, led to widespread protest while I was there, and may also be a driving force in Israeli settlement of the West Bank. When considering the outrages routinely visited upon Palestinians, it is sometimes easy to forget that not all Israelis back their government's policies on human rights and relations with their neighbouring states.

 My fundamental position is to be against all violence, whoever the perpetrator; for equality of human rights and enforcement of the rule of law: regardless of birth, ethnicity or religion.

 Yours sincerely,
 Martin Veart
 Scottish Liberal Democrats,
 Edinburgh North and Leith

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