It was very encouraging that Catherine McKinnell who is the Chair of the Parliamentary Petitions Committee and MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne North has brought two petitions together for a debate so soon after they both passed the 100,000 level of signatures. This debate took place yesterday at 4.30pm till 5.50pm and there are many more words that can be seen here. Given that such a large number of signatures have taken place, one would hope that all MPs, particularly from locations where the signatures are high would have taken the time and trouble to respond to this so they could express their own views and perhaps also explain how they will seek to learn from their constituents. No MP is obliged to agree with every element of any petition if they do not do so, but if a large proportion of people in their community does so, they should be willing to try to engage with the theme. I felt it was very sad that no one in Sussex, particularly from Crawley or Brighton and Hove took part in the discussion. One of the first comments that Catherine made included this paragraph
More than half a million people have signed the two petitions. One petition calls on the Government to recognise Palestine as a state, while the other advocates the blocking of all trade between the UK and Israel. As vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a parliamentary supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, I share the deeply held concerns for the plight of the Palestinian people. Colleagues who have visited the region will know that the desire of the Palestinians to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own is unmistakable. Their aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support; it is right for the Palestinian people, and it is right for the Israeli people.
I do not believe, however, that sweeping sanctions of the kind proposed by the second petition would bring the prospect of a two-state solution any closer. As the Government’s written response says, we should
“not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever …necessary,”
but sanctions threaten to drive the two sides further apart, increase polarisation and extremism, and weaken the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Blocking all trade between the UK and Israel would destroy our relations with Israel and reduce our influence in the middle east. The only long-term sustainable solution to the conflict, and the only way that we can end the sporadic and sickening outbursts of violence, is for the two peoples of that beautiful land to have states of their own, with Israel safe, secure, and recognised within its borders, living alongside an independent Palestinian state.
It is important to be aware that these petitions were both set out mid way through last month and so there is the potential for many more signatures to arise before the six month period ends. The most significant one in terms of its support is “Introduce sanctions against Israel” and although it reached 30,000 signatures on the day it emerged on the 14th May, it took only two days to reach 300,000 signatures and the number now is nearly 400,000. Interestingly towards the end of May another petition arose which called for “Don’t introduce sanctions against Israel” and that has currently achieved 68 signatures. The full explanation of the title of the petition states “The Government should introduce sanctions against Israel, including blocking all trade, and in particular arms.” and although I would not agree with blocking all trade, I do agree that blocking our arms makes a great deal of sense, in a number of settings that includes Israel. The other petition which has fewer signatures with only 130,000 so far is entitled as “UK Government to formally recognise the State of Palestine”. This one actually emerged a day earlier on 13th May and it took three days to reach 30,000 signatures but only one more day to get to 100,000. Along with Catherine there was another MP called Shabana Mahmood who is the MP for Birmingham which was one of the places that set out many of the signatures and Shabana stated as part of her speech
Like many thousands of my constituents, I watched in absolute horror a few weeks ago when violence was used against worshippers gathering during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque. The scenes were truly shocking. They were deeply painful to watch and they motivated many thousands of my constituents to write to me. Like me, so many of them were thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I”. The ceasefire is, of course, welcome. We all pray that it holds and is strengthened, and that a path forward can be charted, but it is essential that all holy sites in that holiest of cities—holy to so many people of many different faiths—are protected and respected. I press the Minister to do whatever he can to ensure that there is no repeat of the scenes we saw just a few short weeks ago.
Another Birmingham MP is Afzal Khan who represents Gorton. His opening words were
Today’s debate on recognising the state of Palestine and holding Israel accountable for its complete contempt for international law and human rights is not timely, because it should have happened a long time ago. I find it heartbreaking that after decades of violence, illegal occupation, the demolition of Palestinians’ homes and complete disregard for their lives, we are still debating the very basics. This Government have a policy of a two-state solution, but paradoxically they are yet to even recognise the state of Palestine. This lip service has cost lives and entrenched the de facto annexation of Palestinian land, and it sends a loud and clear message that Palestine is not equal.
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 138 have recognised the state of Palestine. The UK is not one of them. I recently received a response from the Minister stating that the UK would recognise a Palestinian state at the time when it best served the objectives of peace. If we truly believe that the time is not now—frankly, it is already too late—we must deeply rethink our religious, moral and political philosophy.
This second paragraph seems to be a very clear one that would be agreed by many people. Sadly the comment on this theme from James Cleverly towards the end of the debate is rather disappointing.
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.
It is clearly an open ended comment that deserves to be challenged.