MPs raise concerns about rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, threat of forcible transfer in the West Bank

Last week, as President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel  and the intention to move their embassy to the city, UK Members of Parliament discussed worsening violations against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), and warned of the dangers of unraveling international consensus and international law in the region.

President Trump’s announcement sparked widespread protests across the oPt and throughout the region. In the first four days of protests alone, four Palestinians were killed and 1,632 injuries across the West Bank and Gaza were reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, including 92 from the use of live ammunition, 416 from rubber bullets and 962 from teargas inhalation. The Palestine Red Crescent Society also documented eight attacks against medical teams, injuring four ambulance workers.

An urgent question asked the day after President Trump’s announcement by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP, who recently visited the West Bank with MAP, asked for clarity on the UK’s position on the status of Jerusalem. Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt MP reiterated the UK’s rejection of President’s Trump’s move:

“We disagree with the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.”

Emily Thornberry MP strongly denounced the “recklessness” of the American decision, stating:

“Donald Trump is not crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; he is deliberately setting fire to the theatre. And then he has the unbelievable cheek to claim that he is doing this to move forward the peace process, when in reality he is setting it back decades.”

Richard Burden MP, chair of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group also spoke, calling for a re-commitment to international law in the UK’s policy toward the region:

“Is it not more vital than ever that the UK and the European Union demonstrate—in deed, as well as in word—that respect for international law must be the cornerstone of any lasting peace?”

A letter headed by Mr Burden to UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gathered signatures from 90 cross-party Parliamentarians calling for the UK to “show leadership in the pursuit and facilitation of a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine with Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states.” The MPs further urged that: “The UK must demonstrate in deeds as well as words that respect for international law and a commitment to equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis must be cornerstones of a new UK proactivity and leadership to achieve peace. We believe it is in the best interests of pursuing peace, for the UK to now recognise the State of Palestine, in line with the decision of the House of Commons as expressed on 13th October 2014.”

Debate on house demolitions

The previous day, just hours before President Trump’s announcement, MPs had gathered in Westminster Hall to debate the “effect of Israeli demolitions on Palestinian communities”. This debate was a vital opportunity for parliamentarians continue to highlight the impact of continuing impunity for violations of international law on Palestinians’ lives and their rights to health and dignity.

Palestinian homes and other structures have been frequently subject to demolition or confiscation as part of the Israeli-imposed planning and zoning regime in East Jerusalem and Area C - the 60% of the occupied West Bank where Israel maintains full civil and military control.

The destruction of property in an occupied territory is prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL), unless absolutely necessary for military operations.

However, UN OCHA figures show that 2016 had the highest rate of demolitions of Palestinian structures (1,089) and displacement of Palestinians (1,593) in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since recording began in 2009. Between January and September 2017, 349 Palestinian properties were demolished and 542 Palestinians displaced, including 302 children.

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) supports a mobile clinic in Area C of the West Bank, providing primary healthcare to 27 communities, many of which have been threatened or affected by demolitions of homes and other structures.

MAP would like to thank everyone who contacted their MP ahead of the debate, encouraging their attendance and support for Palestinian health and dignity. The debate was well-attended, and speakers included a number of cross-party MPs who had visited the West Bank as part of MAP-Caabu delegations, including Stephen Kinnock MP, who tabled the debate.

A number of important issues were raised, emphasising that demolitions by the Israeli authorities in the oPt constitute not only likely violations of the residents’ rights to housing, education and health but also possible war crimes.

Stephen Kinnock MP (Lab) secured the debate and contributed the following:

 “Just over a month ago, a UN report found that Israel’s role as an occupying power in the Palestinian Territories has ‘crossed a red line into illegality’.

International law is clear. An occupying power cannot treat occupied territory as its own or make claims of sovereignty. Occupation must be temporary, and the power must act in good faith and in the best interests of the protected or occupied population. However—these are the findings of the UN and its special rapporteur—that has been the repeated pattern of behaviour of successive Israeli Governments over the 50 years of the occupation.”

Richard Burden MP (Lab) added:

“Let us be clear: what we are discussing is the forcible transfer of a civilian population protected under the fourth Geneva convention; and under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court that is a war crime.

The first thing to say is that international pressure has an impact. It is no accident that the postponement that the state of Israel requested for the demolition and evacuation of Susiya came after a joint EU demarche, to which I am pleased to say the UK was a party, on that issue. 

The Obama Administration’s opposition to ​the E1 plan and, in particular, to the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar school, is one of the reasons it is still standing today, despite continued threats. However, if we had any doubts about the current US Administration stepping in to warn Israel off egregious breaches of international law, the announcement by Donald Trump today will dispel them. That means that we have an even greater responsibility ourselves.”

Dr Philippa Whitford MP (SNP), who recently visited the West Bank and Gaza with MAP’s multidisciplinary breast cancer mission, added:

“We are predominantly talking about punishment demolitions, and those are focused around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. To create the two-state solution that this country always says is our aim, the West Bank has to function. Sixty per cent of the West Bank is in Area C, and less than 2% of permits will ever be granted for building there. It is therefore inevitable that most structures are illegal. Eighty per cent of all Bedouins live in the Jordan valley, and the threat of demolition hangs over them at all times. Of the more than 350 Palestinian communities in the Jordan valley and Area C, a quarter have no access to health facilities, and half have to travel more than 30 kilometres. There is not one single permanent health facility in that area.

Money is going from the EU or the UK to build schools and clinics that are often destroyed in an act of de-development. At the same time, settlements are being built with all amenities. The IDF produced a report in 2005 to suggest that demolitions do not work and just generate hatred. It was right. We need to turn this around. It is more than a quarter of a century since the peace process, and we must be part of bringing both sides together.”

Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP) further added:

“People who are living in desperation with their farms and houses collapsing, and who have a desperate need to build new structures, have little opportunity but to try to build them unlawfully and without permission.

We are discussing these demolitions now because there is a new dimension to it—this is not the same thing that has been happening over many years. Consider the situation to the east of Jerusalem in the segment of the central West Bank. The demolition orders now in place on those villages are part of a strategic plan in that area to depopulate it of Palestinian villages so that Israeli settlements can be created.

That that is part of a strategic plan and involves the forcible displacement and relocation of people who are living under occupation is, according to many legal authorities, a violation of international law and, as colleagues have described, a war crime. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he say whether that is also his assessment? Does he believe that what is happening with the forcible displacement of civilians within a militarily occupied area constitutes a war crime? If that is not his view, why not? If it is his view, what on earth will we do about it?”

Bob Stewart (Con) said:

“I am very surprised at the way in which Israel sometimes deals with Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank. Removing people from their homes in the middle of the night—often, and by force—is utterly unacceptable, and so is the immediate bulldozing of their homes and giving them no place to live. I very much support Israel as a sovereign, independent and democratic state, but its actions in demolishing Palestinian and Bedouin communities, particularly in Area C, comes perilously close to some of the stuff I witnessed in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Israel must stop those actions, because I want fully to support Israel. Please, Israel, consider what you are doing and stop the process happening.”

Responding for the Government, Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt MP said:

“The UK position on demolitions, and what we do about them, is clear: we consider them entirely unacceptable. In all but the most exceptional cases, they are contrary to international humanitarian law. Every single demolition or eviction of a Palestinian family from their home causes unnecessary suffering and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution. I am particularly concerned by the proposals to demolish Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar. When I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories in August, I met members of the Susiya Bedouin community and we discussed the grave threat of forcible transfer and the understandable stress and anxiety that it was causing them. Some years ago, I also visited the Khan al-Ahmar community. Demolitions in Khan al-Ahmar are a particular concern because they appear to pave the way for a future settlement expansion in E1. Many hon. Members present know the geography pretty well, so they understand what that would mean: it would directly threaten a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital for both states.

The UK has repeatedly called on the Israeli authorities not to go ahead with these plans. I urge them again to abide by international humanitarian law and reconsider the remaining demolitions planned for Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar.”

You can read the full debate here.

If you did not get a chance last week to contact your MP to support Palestinian health and dignity, you can help us urge the Government to make recommendations about Palestinians’ right to health, the rights of people with disabilities and the protection of health facilities at Israel’s Universal Periodic Review in January 2018.

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