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20 May 2008 : Column 7WH—continued

That is also the reality and in the consciousness of the Palestinian minority who live in Israel. During my recent visits to the region, what perhaps struck me most is that it is not just those Palestinians who live under occupation in the west bank and Gaza who feel that. There is a massive and growing sense of grievance among Palestinians living in Israel, partly because in practice the laws discriminate against them, although in theory they do not, partly because in practice there is
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inequality in access to jobs, health care and education, and partly because of the way in which thousands of Bedouin homes in the Negev are demolished while the number of homes for Jewish families expand. That has been amply documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch. There is a feeling that Palestinians may be tolerated as citizens of Israel, but are not welcome in the area. It seems to me that if Israel wants to live at peace with itself, it must address that.

I pay tribute to the New Israel Fund and Sir Jeremy Beecham for bringing such matters to broader attention. Finding some sort of accommodation and recognition that Israel needs to deal with the reality of the Nakba and of the refugees must be part of that. I hear people say that Palestinian refugees cannot be allowed the practical implementation of the UN resolutions that apply to them because that would destroy the Jewish character of Israel. Actually, I believe that there are ways of recognising the rights of refugees without some of the problems that Israel believes there would be. However, what message does it send to the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel if they get the impression that their presence is tolerated only if there are not too many of them and that they do not become a majority in the area? That feeling is not new. Golda Meir was progressive in many ways compared with some of the Israeli leaders who followed her, but in 1969 she was quoted as saying:

What would we say if somebody said that about a racial or religious minority in the UK? Indeed, what would we say if that logic was applied to Jewish rather than Arab people?

If Israel is to have the bright future that my hon. Friend and all of us want, it must ask itself some serious questions. Israel must ask whether—not just in theory but in reality—it wants equal rights for its citizens. If the answer to that is no—quite apart from the impact that would have on Israel’s continuing relations with its neighbours—I do not think, as a state, it will be able to live at ease with itself, whether in relation to its Jewish or non-Jewish citizens. If the answer to the question I have posed is yes—and Israel means it—the refugee issue might not be as difficult to sort out as Israel thinks. Also, the search for peace, real equality and real co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis, and between the Israeli state and its neighbours, will not be as difficult as those involved think and the issue of occupation can be brought to an end. Israel needs to think about those issues and seriously ask itself those questions.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether he talks about those matters in the many discussions he has with his counterparts in Israel. If so, what do they say?

10.1 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. There remain 30 or so minutes for eight or nine two or three-minute snapshots of Israel, which should be enlightening. Certainly, if the contributions follow the lead of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who opened the debate in such a measured and interesting manner, we are in for an interesting few minutes.

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I begin from an unchanged position: as a friend of Israel and as someone who visited it as a student. I carry many memories of that land from a number of visits over the past years. However, like all friends of Israel, I do not take an uncritical position. At this stage, I do not want to labour the contemporary difficulties—I will come on to those. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) mentioned, a number of things should be put on the record about Israel. In paying tribute to Israel’s 60 years, such things should not be forgotten. For example, it has an extraordinary free press and a sense of religious freedom that is not shared throughout the middle east. Israel has shown commitment to other nations through humanitarian and international aid. In addition, it has good health care facilities, and has worked on climate change issues, on combating desertification and on environmental innovation. Those are all things of which the Israeli people can be proud.

In Israel itself, there is co-operation across faiths. The Christian Allies Caucus has been established through the Knesset and throughout the world to cement the strong relationship between Christians and Jews. The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development has done much work and economic efforts have been made to improve the circumstances of those in the Arab community. The centre’s recent newsletter provides details about small shops, small enterprises and the technological advances achieved through the co-operation of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. That is a remarkable testament to what goes on under the surface of a country, about which we often hear only the difficult things and world shattering events, rather than the things that mark the everyday lives of people.

Of course, we do not think of Israel in those terms; we think of it in terms of its strategic world position, and I shall say a couple of things about that. History and memory are both a blessing and a curse. For most people, history and memory sit lightly upon us. In fact, there is a medical condition that leads to people being overcome because they remember everything that has ever happened to them. They cannot move or function because everything they do is affected by the slights and hurts that they felt in the past. Most nations do not have such a condition: they wear their history relatively lightly, gently erase what they want to forget and keep the things that they need to allow them to move on. The middle east is too often stuck because of problems related to memory—things are never forgotten and that prevents people from moving on. It is essential that people are able to move on.

Israel’s friends are candid with it. No state is perfect. The way in which it reacts to the unique circumstances that affect and threaten it has weaknesses, which could damage Israel in the eyes of world opinion. No discussion of Israel’s reaction to its difficulties can avoid recognition of those threats themselves. One of Israel’s neighbouring nations is working on potential nuclear weapons with the declared aim from its President of wiping Israel from the map. Hostile undemocratic forces on its borders are unprepared to acknowledge its right of existence and will not work within the realities of modern politics to find accommodations that will ultimately benefit those whom they claim to represent, if memory can, to some extent, be put to one side. Its enemies hide weapons in the clothes of children and rockets in the households
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of the humble. They appear to glory in the privations of their people—using them in campaigns of hatred and rejoicing when a suicide bombing kills the innocent of all ages.

Yet, Israel survives—as I trust it always will. It remains an oasis of democracy and freedom in a troubled region. Israel’s friends salute its jubilee and wish it many more, but most of all they wish it to have peace among its neighbours and pray for a change of heart among those who hold back those opportunities—those who perhaps hold to memory on both sides. Some of that memory must now be put to one side to take the nations concerned forward and provide the peace that those in the middle east so earnestly deserve.

10.5 am

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Often debates on Israel focus on the peace process and the failures of the Israeli and Palestinian political establishment to reach a comprehensive settlement when so much time has already been dedicated to talking about that. There is plenty to say on that matter and I am sure that colleagues have and will expand further and at great length on the problems and the solutions.

However, given the broad title of the debate, I wanted to take the opportunity to look at aspects of the state of Israel that are not related to peace and security and to focus on some of Israel’s remarkable achievements in the fields of education and health. Both areas are of particular interest to me and I am committed to trying to reduce health inequalities in the UK. My constituency suffers from particularly high rates of heart disease and cancer and I am keen to learn wherever possible of ways to reduce those rates in the north-east. As a member of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I have been lucky enough to have had opportunities to consider what other countries are doing in terms of education. Much can be learned from some of Israel’s achievements and best practices.

When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, a fully functioning education system already existed. It was developed and maintained by the pre-state Jewish community. The modern Hebrew language—an updated version of biblical Hebrew—was used as the language of instruction, which had been revived for daily speech at the end of the 19th century. However, since shortly after the establishment of the state, the education system has faced the enormous challenge of absorbing large numbers of immigrant children from more than 70 countries. Some children arrived with their parents, and others came alone. The UK can learn a range of lessons from Israel’s massive success in integrating such a vast number of children into an evolving school system. We are constantly developing our own education system to deal with a changing demographic and it is hugely important that we take lessons from other countries who have successfully dealt with similar situations, although in differing circumstances.

In the newly established state of Israel, the mass immigration of the 1950s—mainly from post-war Europe and Arab countries—was followed by a large influx of Jews from north Africa in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the first sizeable immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union arrived. Since the beginning of the 1990s, more than
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1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union have arrived in Israel, and tens of thousands more still arrive each year. In two mass movements—in 1984 and 1991—almost the entire Jewish community of Ethiopia was brought to the country. In addition to meeting urgent demands for more classrooms and teachers, special tools and methods had to be developed to help absorb youngsters from many cultural backgrounds into the school population. Programmes designed specifically to meet the needs of newcomers include preparation of appropriate curricular aids and short-term classes to introduce immigrant pupils to subjects with which they were not familiar, such as the Hebrew language and Jewish history. Special courses were initiated to train teachers to deal with immigrant youngsters, and retraining courses for immigrant teachers have helped them to find jobs in the Israeli education system.

Israel takes the provision of education seriously and, since 1990, national expenditure on education as a percentage of gross domestic product has averaged above 8 per cent. That compares with UK education expenditure of 5.6 per cent. of GDP in 2007. School attendance is mandatory from the age of five and is free until the age of 18. Almost all three and four-year-olds attend a pre-school programme.

Higher education plays a pivotal role in developing the country. In the academic year 2004-05, 257,000 students were enrolled in Israel’s higher education institutions, with 48 per cent. attending universities, some 30 per cent. studying at various colleges and 21 per cent. participating in courses through the Open university. A wide range of programmes, from bachelor degrees to courses at post-doctoral level, are available at Israel’s eight universities, while colleges offer academic courses as well as specialised training in fields such as primary school teaching, music, fashion design and physical education.

Israel has recognised its lack of natural resources and compensated by investing heavily in higher education and scientific research and development and in the application of R and D. Some 24 per cent. of the Israeli work force hold a university degree. In that respect, Israel ranks third in the industrialised world after the United States and Holland. The statistics speak for themselves. With so many of Israel’s youngsters reaching university, their level of production in science and technology is remarkable. While we consider innovative and creative means of encouraging our youth to enter university in the UK, we should take the time to examine how Israel has achieved that and whether we can learn from it.

The other area that I wanted to talk about was health, but I am aware of the time and that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I will therefore cut my comments short. I will just highlight Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, which is a beacon of integration. Its mission statement includes a pledge to forge links between patients of all nationalities, races and religions who come to its doors for healing. As well as being at the forefront of medical research and pioneering technologies, Hadassah is a tremendous example of equality and medical care that transcends all political divisions.

I hope that I have given an insight into the contributions and achievements of Israel and that I have highlighted work that we might be able to learn from in the UK. No
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doubt Israel will continue to stride forward over the next 60 years. I wish Israel the best of luck in all its fine work.

10.12 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this very important debate and on his tour de force of historical analysis. That said, I would like to mention one or two points of particular relevance to the UK. First, it was, of course, the UK that created the Balfour declaration, which led to the state of Israel. That was the positive. The negative was how very soon afterwards, under the British mandate, we made every effort that we could to limit immigration by Jewish people into Israel. The most appalling decision was made in May 1939. I am referring to the White Paper that limited immigration, on the eve of the holocaust, to 75,000 people over five years.

When considering the history, we should remember, not as a side note but as an important point, that hundreds of British service people and civilians gave their lives during the period of the British mandate, trying to fulfil what was an impossible task given to them by the British Government and the League of Nations in the mandate. The graves of those people are often forgotten.

When talking about the problems of the Palestinian refugees, we overlook the Jewish refugees from Arab lands. In 1945, some 800,000 Jewish people were living in Arab countries; today, there are fewer than 7,000. I am thinking of the Jews from Iraq and Yemen, who had to flee the pogroms there. The net result was what can only be described as an exchange of populations, because of the number of Palestinians who left and the number of Jewish people who went to Israel, having been expelled from Arab lands. Now, of the population of Israel— 7.2 million—some 20 per cent. are Arab, yet there is still immigration not just from Russia and Ethiopia, but from Europe. Of course, there are people from my constituency who like to carry out aliyah—to return to what they consider their homeland of Israel. We also see, in the rest of Europe, people fleeing to Israel from the fear of anti-Semitism, which has been growing dramatically.

In the short time available, I would like to remind hon. Members of the founding principles of Israel. The declaration of independence stressed the values of liberty, justice, peace and equality—traditional values. Israel has been able to maintain that democracy against all the threats with a vibrant Supreme Court, which challenges its own Government in the same way that our courts challenge our Government, of whichever political hue—often to the regret of the politicians involved.

Although Israel has won the wars that it always has to fight against threats that exist—I am thinking of the events of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973—unfortunately it has lost the battle for public opinion. When we compare how people perceived Israel in 1967 with how they perceive it now, we need to ask why the perception has changed. It is partly because Israel has not gone out to court world opinion. Also, people forget that Israel is surrounded by an enormous population of people who are hostile to it. That has fed anti-Semitism around the world. It has led to terrorism, hostage-taking, the missing
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Israeli service personnel, from Ron Arad to Gilad Shalit, and now we see for the first time threats to Israel’s existence from Iran and the nuclear programme of President Ahmadinejad, who refuses to negotiate about that. Although the threat to Israel’s existence—though not to its population—through terrorism has declined, a very different world is now developing. We will perhaps see some realignment as Arab states, too, are threatened by the growth of Iran’s armoury.

There is little time left in the debate, so I will simply say this. If there is to be progress and a peace agreement, the three international conditions of an end to terrorism, recognition of international agreements and recognition of Israel by Hamas must be met.

10.16 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the debate and the historical analysis provided by my hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Obviously, the creation of the state of Israel is a product of history and of the Zionist movement, but also of the holocaust before and during the second world war. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, I visited Auschwitz earlier this year, and one can only be moved by the sheer horror of what happened and the violence that was used to try to exterminate a large number of people.

We are now dealing with the existence of the state of Israel and, with all the hullabaloo surrounding the 60th anniversary, I would just advise Members to look at page 2172 of today’s Order Paper, which states that the Select Committee on International Development is taking evidence on:

Who is occupying the Palestinian territories other than the state of Israel? If Israel wishes to live in peace and prosperity in the future, it has to start reckoning both with its own immediate past in terms of the expulsion of large numbers of people from what is now Israel into Palestinian lands and refusal of their right of return, and with the destruction of 530 Palestinian villages.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the future security of Israel very much depends on a two-state solution and that if that is to be the case, there must be a viable second state, and at present Israel appears to be doing a great deal to ensure that that does not exist?

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree. I will be brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. While all the celebrations are going on in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not far away—in fact, probably less than an hour’s drive away if the roads were normal—one has in Gaza the most densely populated place in the world, with 80 per cent. unemployment, desperate poverty, food shortages, water supply shortages and sanitation problems.

The Gaza mental health organisation has informed me that 70 per cent. of the population are seriously medically depressed by the situation. Gaza is nothing more than a vast prison surrounded by barbed wire and roadblocks, and there is an inability to travel. Imagine what it is like for a young person growing up in Gaza,
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knowing that the only future they have is to stay living in that prison and that the possibility of travel is about zero.

Young people growing up in Gaza and on the west bank live their lives vicariously through television and the internet. The possibility of travel and experiencing the rest of the world is zero, and the poverty that they experience is terrible. I want peace in the middle east. I want recognition of a Palestinian state. Imprisoning the people of Gaza and, to some extent, the west bank does not achieve that.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Does my hon. Friend think that it will help the people of Gaza, and normalise their existence, endlessly to fire rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel? I believe that 7,000 such firings have taken place since 2002.

Jeremy Corbyn: As my hon. Friend knows, I am on record many times as being very critical of anybody firing rockets from Gaza into Israel—and, indeed, of the bombing of Gaza by Israeli jets. I remind him that 21 children were killed in April alone by Israeli bombardment. The death rate in Gaza from Israeli bombardment is high. I remind him of what was described by the United Nations as the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and the raids that take place on the west bank. That collective punishment involves roadblocks, imprisonment and the wall. Israel presents itself as a democracy; perhaps it should give some thought to the 70 Palestinian parliamentarians still being held in Israeli prisons.

I want peace in the middle east. I want people to be able to live in peace and security, and enjoy each other’s company. Israel is not creating security in the Palestinian territories; it is making the situation much worse by its refusal to negotiate, particularly with Hamas; by its continued construction of the wall; and by the grabbing of Palestinian lands.

The sense of anger and outrage among ordinary Palestinian people is so great that it will boil over at some point. The way to deal with that is not by continuing the oppression and the occupation, but by engaging—by replacing conflict with politics. That, surely, has to be the way forward. Israel, on its 60th anniversary, might think about those things a little more and recognise that keeping people in poverty is not a good way to ensure its security.

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