20 May 2008 : Column 1WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 May 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I am most grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to call this debate. As I shall be entering territory that is highly charged with controversy and emotion, it might be helpful if I begin by saying where I come from. I do not have and never have had any personal, family or business connections with the state of Israel, any Palestinian community or institution, or any Arab country. It is meaningless to call any individual human being objective—that would be a misuse of the language—but it is fair to say that I come from as neutral a background as can readily be conceived.

I have visited Israel three times: once in my 20s, privately; once at the invitation of the Conservative Friends of Israel—I hope that they do not regret their kind hospitality to me on that occasion; and once as a member of the International Development Committee. I have also visited on one occasion each of Israel’s Arab neighbours—in fact, I have been to Egypt three times. That is my background.

I had originally asked for a debate to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, but I gather that, for technical reasons, it is not possible to make that the subject of a debate. The foundation of the state of Israel, which took place 60 years ago last week, was an event of extraordinary consequence in the middle east. It took place in extremely dramatic and, indeed, desperate circumstances. I remind the House that in May 1948, there had been open warfare between Jewish and Arab-Palestinian communities in Palestine for a long time. The mandate was about to end: the British were withdrawing to the last ports and would leave for the last time the next day or the day after. The very next day, on 15 May 1948, all four of Israel’s Arab neighbours—Lebanon, Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Egypt—together with Iraq invaded Israel. Few people gave Israel any great chance of surviving.

Israel did survive, of course. It won that war and three subsequent wars with its Arab neighbours. Today, it is a remarkably successful country with an extremely high standard of living. Its per capita income is the highest in the middle east, except for the oil and gas-rich countries of the Gulf, and actually it is not so far removed from them as one might imagine. I checked the figures last night: the latest World Bank figures show that Israel has a per capita income of $18,000 a year, and Saudi Arabia, with all its oil, has a per capita income of only $23,000 a year. That is the measure of Israel’s economic achievement.

20 May 2008 : Column 2WH

Israel is a stable democracy and the only country in the region that can be described as such. It is famed for its universities and its scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. I believe that it is the third country in the world in terms of the rate of business creation per head of population, and the first for the rate of business creation by women and those aged over 55.

I am well aware that many people in this country and in the world are willing to pay tribute to the achievements of Israel but will then immediately say there is a dark side—that all those achievements have been made at the expense of the Palestinian people whose land has been seized and whose heritage has been robbed by alien immigrants and occupiers. It is because that view is so widespread that I want to address it explicitly this morning.

Three things must be said in response to that view. First, Palestine has never had a homogeneous population: there have always been some Jewish communities there. Some Jews remained after 70 AD, when Vespasian put down the Jewish revolt, dispersed the population and destroyed the temple except for the famous western wall. Some Jewish communities remained through the rest of the Roman-Byzantine period, through the Arab invasions in the 7th century, through the arrival of the Seljuks, through the period of the Christian kingdoms—the Crusader kingdoms of the 12th and 13th centuries—and through the arrival of the Ottomans in the early 16th century. Indeed, in the later Ottoman period there was increasing immigration of Jews into Israel, notably from eastern Europe.

As a result, by the time that political Zionism and any sort of co-ordinated immigration into Israel began—I date that as roughly from 1896, the publication date of Theodor Herzl’s famous book on the Jewish state, “Der Judenstaat”, or 1897, the time of the first Zionist Congress—the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish. There were 25,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, as against 14,000 Arabs. Anybody who says that the Jews should never have been there, that they were taking down the Palestinians, must start off by saying when the Jews should have ceased to be there, or from what point they should not have been allowed to arrive.

The second thing that needs to be said is that there was absolutely no expropriation or involuntary expulsion of Arab communities by Jews whatsoever during the Ottoman and mandate periods. The mandate authority would occasionally requisition land for the purposes of building public infrastructure, but it never expelled Arabs to give land to the Jews. There was, of course, an enormous expansion of the Jewish population from roughly 90,000 to 600,000 between the beginning of the mandate in 1920 and 1948. Those people were largely refugees from Nazi Europe, but they installed themselves on unclaimed land, or on land that had been purchased perfectly legally at market prices from the local inhabitants or proprietors.

Indeed, some of the land that was bought resulted in people doubting the good sense of the Jewish purchasers. When Menachim Ussishkin, for example, bought 40 square kilometres of the Jervaal valley in 1920 on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, it was simply a malarial swamp. He was much criticised, including by the next Zionist Congress, for having extravagantly wasted money. The Jervaal valley is now the centre of one of the most fertile and productive agricultural areas
20 May 2008 : Column 3WH
in the whole of the middle east, but one can hardly say that its value was created at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Many Members will know Tel Aviv—a booming and, indeed, swinging city. Its mixture of entrepreneurialism and hedonism reminds me of Los Angeles, and it has the same climate as that city. One hundred years ago, Tel Aviv did not exist—it was not even a small settlement, which Los Angeles was 200 years ago. It was nothing at all, just sand dunes and a beach—the beach is still there, by the way. No one can fairly say that Tel Aviv’s enormous value was created at the expense of the Palestinian people or stolen from them.

My third point is that a determinant of the very sad history of the middle east during the past 70 or 80 years—a history with which we are all familiar—was a decision taken by the Palestinian leadership right from the beginning of the mandate. In my view, that decision was taken at the expense of individual Palestinians. I do not wish to criticise the members of that leadership, which was dominated and personified by Haj Amin al-Husseini, known to history as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but the policy that they adopted was one of violent opposition to Jewish communities in Palestine. Undoubtedly, the violence came from one side—the Palestinian side.

Some people say that the Zionist project was an exclusive project and that, ultimately, the Palestinians had no choice. In all fairness, that thesis, if it was a thesis at the time, was never put to the test, because the Zionist leaders of the day—Chaim Weissman, David Ben-Gurion and so on—made it absolutely clear on every possible occasion that they wanted to deal peacefully with the Arabs, to respect their rights and to have good, harmonious relationships with them. They were never allowed to do so. The violence began right at the beginning of the mandate, with the Arab riots in 1920; they were followed by Arab riots in 1921 and in 1929, when 133 Jews were killed. It was in response to these riots that the Jewish community set up the Haganah—the origin of the Jewish defence forces—because the mandate authorities were incapable of defending Jewish communities through the length and breadth of the mandated territory of Palestine. It is hard to blame the Jews for that.

There is no question that in 1948 there were expulsions of Arabs from areas of Palestine. Most of the Arabs who left their homes in 1948 did so of their own accord— sensibly and understandably, they wanted to get out of a war zone. Some of them may have left because Arab leaders told them to do so. A number of them may have left because of the fear engendered by the appalling atrocity perpetrated by Jewish terrorist organisations—the Stern gang and the Irgun—at Deir Yassin, where more than 200 Arabs were killed. Although Arabs may have left for other reasons, some undoubtedly left because individual Israeli units expelled them from villages that they were occupying. There is no doubt about that at all. However, people cannot read back into history from the expulsions in 1948 and say that that justified the violence of the 1920s and 1930s, because there had been no expulsions and no expropriations at that point: that is the key historical fact. The war, the fighting and the expulsions of 1948 were the consequence of a series of violent episodes that, unfortunately, were started by the Arab riots of 1920.

20 May 2008 : Column 4WH

If the Arab leaders—the Grand Mufti and his colleagues—rejected any kind of negotiation or deal with the Jewish community, or any kind of integration, they also rejected partition when it was first proposed in the Peel report in 1936 and, with much more devastating consequences for the Palestinian people, when the United Nations decided that that was the solution in the 1947 resolution. That had enormous consequences. It can be proved mathematically what a bad decision that was for the Palestinian people, simply by calculating the surface of the territory that UN partition resolution—which was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs—would have accorded to the Palestinian Arabs and comparing that with the frontiers that were demarcated by the ceasefire lines of 1949. I am sorry to say that, at that stage in their history, the Palestinians chose the path of violence and lost. That is a sad fact for them. There is no doubt that, as a result, for 60 years the Palestinian people have had a miserable history, but I am not sure that it is possible simply to say that it is all the fault of Israel or of the precursor Jewish communities in Palestine.

From 1948 to 1967, the Palestinian leadership adopted a policy of non-recognition, which we would call, using the modern phrase, being in denial—pretending that Israel did not exist and rejecting the idea of negotiation, including direct negotiation, or a final settlement. What happened in 1967? I read the other day in The Guardian that Israel conquered the west bank. With due respect to The Guardian, that was an extraordinarily disingenuous use of language. I have seen that word used before. “Conquered” implies Julius Caesar conquering Gaul or William the Conqueror conquering England or the British conquering Zululand or Ashantiland: it implies a prior decision to go out and swipe somebody else’s territory and therefore to plan an invasion with the effect of doing so. Nothing could have been further from the truth in 1967. In fact, in 1967, Israel went out of its way to make desperate efforts to persuade King Hussein not to attack it in the rear while it was involved in the war in the west that had been provoked by President Nasser. But King Hussein of Jordan found that he was under such pressure—blackmail, really—from Nasser and the Palestinian leader at the time, Ahmad Al-Shukairy, that the future of his own kingdom would be threatened if he did not join in the war and attack Israel. So he attacked Israel in that war and, as we all know, he was defeated, the Arab Legion retreated and the Israelis found themselves on the banks of the Jordan river. Again, it is difficult to blame the Israelis for that. Once they were there, what were they to do?

Once again, and for 25 further years, the Palestinian leadership refused to deal with Israel, refused any kind of settlement and decided instead, first, under Ahmad Al-Shukairy and then under his successor, Yasser Arafat, to invest in international terrorism—those were the terrible days of the Achille Lauro and the murder of the Israeli athletes and so forth—as if that were going to solve the problems of the Palestinian people. So the Palestinian people were condemned, for another 25 years, to a continuation of the purgatory of statelessness, the lack of any sense of future and the inability to enjoy any kind of compensation, as they should have had and, I hope, still will have. All of those who left in 1948 should have had compensation a long time ago for the land that they left behind. That is a sad story.

The story has become slightly happier in the past 15 years. Right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar
20 May 2008 : Column 5WH
with the events of the past 15 years: the famous Rabin-Arafat meeting at the White House in 1993, and the Oslo I and Oslo II meetings in 1995, which were followed rapidly thereafter by the murder of Rabin by a Jewish fanatic who accused him of giving away Israeli land. Those deals and agreements—Oslo I and Oslo II—were, of course, interim arrangements that involved the extension of successive slices of Palestinian territory to be administered by a Palestinian authority: they were not a final settlement and did not represent a two-state solution.

The big imaginative leap forward came with Ehud Barak’s Government’s proposal in 2000 at the Camp David conference, which would have involved transferring to Palestine 98 per cent. of the territories, including the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. As we know, the then Palestinian leader declined that offer and declined even to negotiate on it, to the consternation of President Clinton and the other Americans present. That was an extraordinary decision: it was a decision to invest in violence, as we found, rather than invest in peace. We now know that Yasser Arafat was planning the second intifada all along, which, as we recall all too well, involved the obscenity of suicide bombing, sometimes involving impressionable adolescents and people with mental illnesses. For a third time, the Palestinian leadership decided, when given the choice, to go down the route of violence and, again, that did not work. Fortunately, largely as a result of the construction of the security fence or wall in the west bank, that campaign of violence did not succeed.

There have been peoples who have had worse leaders than the Palestinian leadership—the Russians had Stalin and the Germans had Hitler—but throughout human history I cannot think of any people who have been cursed with three leaders of the quality of the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the friend of Hitler, Ahmad Al-Shukairy and Yasser Arafat, who is now dead and is generally despised by Palestinian militants of all hues because of the massive evidence of corruption that has emerged since his death.

In many ways, the story of the Palestinian people is a sad one and there is no doubt that they are the victims, but they are not the victims of any wicked Zionist conspiracy to uproot them and remove them from their land. I am sure that all hon. Members in this Chamber, and all those who wish the Palestinian and Israeli people well, are united in hoping that we shall see in our time in politics a genuine long-term settlement and a genuine two-state solution. We hope that Mahmoud Abbas is the Barak or the Rabin of Palestine—the man who is prepared to invest in peace and take the risks of peace, rather than invest in war and take the risks associated with that. We hope that he may be in a position to speak for Gaza and deliver it as well as the west bank, although I cannot see how that can be achieved in the immediately foreseeable future. Some other leader might have to do that.

We can all see the way forward and we are all aware of the need to recognise the claims of and to compensate the 1948 refugees. We all recognise the need to deal with the Haram el-Sharif and the holy sites of Jerusalem. We all recognise the need to deal with the fact that, as a result of the events that I have described, 400,000 Israelis are living in areas beyond the 1948 boundaries. There is no great mystery about the task ahead of us, and we all hope and pray that, well before its 70th
20 May 2008 : Column 6WH
anniversary, Israel will be able to add to its list of magnificent achievements the conclusion of a final peace settlement with its neighbours.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I must call the Front Benchers shortly after half-past 10. Hon. Members can do the maths. If they all wish to speak, will they please keep their comments brief?

9.50 am

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I congratulate the state of Israel on reaching her 60th birthday, and I salute her remarkable achievements. Israel has achieved a remarkable amount, and I want to talk about some of her achievements, particularly in science and technology. I shall be as brief as I can because I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Israel is a country that is low in natural resources, and to succeed she has had to depend on the inventiveness of her people. Indeed, her people are her greatest asset. Israel has done well not because she has vast mineral wealth, oil or huge natural resources, but because her people are enterprising, extremely innovative and able to apply high technology. Israel has attracted enormous foreign investment in new high-tech companies, and ranks second only to the United States in her research and development achievements in recent years.

Israel has more companies listed on American exchanges than any other foreign country bar Canada. Her high-tech products have found their way into most homes and offices throughout the world. Israeli inventions and high-technology have found their way into computers, telephones, cars and satellite television stations. Israel is no longer—if she ever was—merely a land of citrus groves and kibbutzim. She is a major global player in high-tech R and D. A vast number of the world’s multi national giants and companies seek to participate and to have a presence in Israel. It is a remarkable achievement that both Microsoft and Cisco Systems developed their first R and D facilities outside the US in Israel. In addition, companies such as IBM, Motorola, Unilever, Sony and Hewlett Packard all have a major presence in Israel. Major financial houses and venture capital companies also have a big presence in Israel, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Israel’s astonishing success at integrating into the global market has been facilitated by an enormous number of free trade agreements with the US, Europe and other countries, including Canada, Mexico and so on. In fact, Israel’s approach to free trade is one that we in this country could learn from.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by saying that I hope that the Government will continue to do all that they can to forge close economic ties with Israel. We can learn an enormous amount from Israel, and it is important that we do all that we can to try to help Israel to prosper and to benefit from close economic ties.

On Israel’s 60th anniversary, she has an enormous amount that she should be proud of. Few countries in the world can claim to have matched her ability to generate high-tech ideas, to translate those ideas into reality, and successfully to integrate them into the global marketplace for all of us to benefit from. Happy birthday, Israel.

20 May 2008 : Column 7WH
9.54 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this debate. He referred to some of his visits to the region, and I was with him on his last visit with the Select Committee on International Development.

Just over two weeks ago, I visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust. For anyone who goes there, it is a chilling experience to see where 1.5 million people were clinically and brutally murdered. That left me with two salutary reminders of things I already knew. The first is the obvious one: the message that we must never, ever let anything like that happen again. The second is that the experience of the holocaust is ingrained in the collective memory of every Jew in this country and throughout the world, and a large proportion of the population of the state of Israel. It is there as Israel marks its 60th anniversary.

I am not suggesting that the Zionist dream of Israel came from the holocaust, because it did not. My hon. Friend talked about some of Israel’s history and criticised some of the selective versions of history from the other side—one could say that there was some selectivity in his description too, but I will not go into that. I simply want to say that if the search for peace in the middle east today is to be successful, we all need to understand the sense of identity of those involved. Their hopes and fears today are conditioned by, informed by and, to some extent, a product of those collective memories. The holocaust must be part of that, and it is essential to understand that. For anyone who is more associated with the Palestinian and Arab perspectives of the current situation—as I consider myself to be—an understanding of that collective memory of the holocaust is vital.

I say candidly to my hon. Friend that there are other collective memories that are different in scale and nature from the holocaust, but are just as real and just as painful for the people concerned. For all Palestinians, the collective memory of what they call the Nakba or catastrophe, which was also 60 years ago, is one. Seven hundred thousand Palestinians lost their homes. As my hon. Friend said, some were driven out by threats of violence, some were driven out by actual violence, and some fled because they were in a war zone. The point is that, however they left, they were never allowed to return.

Today, 4 million Palestinian refugees are registered, and refugees form a big part of the 1.5 million people who are imprisoned in Gaza with the appalling humanitarian crisis there. I do not want to go into the details of that today, because it is not the time, but to understand the Palestinians we must realise that the collective memory of the Nakba is a daily reality in Gaza and for those who, in the west bank, face closures, checkpoints and the separation wall.

Next Section Index Home Page