Palestine Briefing
Are we seeing Theresa May perform an about-turn on Palestine?
 
Watch the House of Commons debate on Israeli settlements
Thursday February 9th 11.30 am - 2.30 pm
Foreign Office questions Tuesday February 21st 11.30 am
 
Two days before Christmas the UK voted for UN resolution 2334 calling settlements a "flagrant violation of international law" and demanding an immediate freeze. Indeed the UK played a leading role in helping to improve the draft so that it would get through the Security Council.  

Five days later, after US Secretary of State John Kerry had made his widely-acclaimed speech on Israel and Palestine, Theresa May put out a statement from Downing Street that struck an entirely different chord.
 
"We do not believe that the way to negotiate peace is by
 

focusing on only one issue, in this case the construction of settlements, when clearly the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so deeply complex. And we do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically-elected government of an ally."
 
The US State Department reacted with scarcely-concealed incredulity that the country that had for years been pressing them to take a more robust line on settlements had suddenly changed its tune: “We are surprised by the UK Prime Minister’s office statement given that Secretary Kerry’s remarks were in line with the UK’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations last week.”

Kerry’s speech had been welcomed with “strongly supportive statements", they pointed out, "from across the world, including Germany, France, Canada, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others.”
 
On January 10 Boris Johnson told the Commons the UK would be represented at the Paris peace conference. He either misled the Commons or changed his mind because when the conference opened, five days later, neither Johnson, nor his junior minister, nor even the UK ambassador was there. Over 70 countries did attend to send a stern warning to Israel over the settlements but for the UK only an official was sent - and he was unable to sign the communiqué because he was only an observer.
On January 21 Trump took over. On January 25 Netanyahu approved 2,500 settler units with another 3,500 in the following days. The move was widely condemned. 
 
Finally, six days later, on January 31, the White House issued a statement but it contradicted itself: "While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” 
 
Then, at the European Council in Malta, France, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland (but not the UK) were among the countries that forced a postponement of a summit between Israel and the European Union scheduled for February 28 because of Netanyahu's announcement of new settlement building. 
 
What’s going on? Are we seeing a historic shift in the position of the UK?  Or is Theresa May just hoping she can persuade President Trump to soften his line? Or is she jettisoning any policy that might get in the way of a favourable trade agreement with the US? 
 
MPs have a chance to find out on Thursday February 9th at the House of Commons Debate on Settlements or by tabling a question on Thursday February 9th for the next Foreign Office questions on Tuesday February 21st.

Whatever the final position of the Trump administration, this would seem to be the right moment for the UK to join with France and other European countries in sticking to its line on settlements and pointing out the realities to the new US administration before its position is fixed. 
 
Ask your MP to ask the Minister in the debate
To strengthen guidance to businesses and banks to ensure they respect international law and human rights in their dealings with firms operating in illegal settlements and with the Israeli occupation authorities? (This would be in addition to the weak business guidance issued in December 2014 that the UK will "not encourage" trade with settlements.) 
 
To draw up a database of UK firms engaged in trade or financial dealings with illegal settlements in occupied territory and support the work of the United Nations and European Union in differentiating between Israel and occupied territory? (The UN Human Rights Council has already instructed its director to draw up such a list - but the UK did not support the move.)
 
To recognise the state of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders affirming the equal rights of both people to live in sovereign, independent, viable, contiguous and secure states and acknowledging the right of both people to self-determination? (Parliament voted 274-12 in favour of recognition in October 2014.  Ministers say they agree with recognition in principle but will only do so 'when the time is right'.)
 
To exclude settlements from bilateral and multilateral arrangements between Israel and the United Kingdom? (We agreed in the UN Security Council resolution to differentiate in all our dealings with Israel between the illegal settlements and Israel.)

To exclude goods and services originating from illegal settlements from access to UK markets? (We say the settlements are 'illegal' but sustain them with EU trade with £200 million 
a year.)
 
Netanyahu leaves May at Number Ten to fly back to vote for 'robbery' law'
 
“The robbery law”.  That’s the name given to the bill that was passed in the Israeli parliament on Monday by a man with impeccable right-wing credentials – Benny Begin, the most senior Likud MP and the son of a former premier Menachem Begin.

“Evil and dangerous”. That’s how the bill was described by a former justice minister and Likud MP Dan Meridor. 

The Regularisation Bill - to use its official title - will retroactively  
 
legalise all the outposts built on privately-owned Palestinian land by giving the Israeli government the power to make private land ‘state land’.

This crosses a line that hasn't been crossed before. The Israel army can and does issue military orders that apply to every aspect of life in the West Bank, but the Israeli Knesset cannot pass laws that apply in the West Bank, because then they would have to give Palestinians the vote - or stop calling themselves a democracy.

They can get around this legal problem by getting the army to commandeer land for “military purposes” and then declare it surplus to requirements so it can be used to build settlements for Jewish Israelis. They do this so they can pretend they are complying with international law which makes it illegal for an occupying power to seize land unless it is needed for military purposes.

There are 150 of these Israeli government settlements built on ‘state’ land but there are also another 100 privately-organised settlements or 'outposts', many of which have just taken Palestinian land without the owners’ permission and built houses on it.

It was when the Israeli High Court ruled that the outpost of Amona, built on privately-owned Palestinian land, would have to be evacuated by February 28th that the Jewish Home party, a part of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, introduced its bill to retroactively legalise all the outposts built on Palestinian land.

The law says landowners should be offered an alternative plot or an annual usage payment – but this is done in the knowledge that no Palestinian will ever accept Israeli offers of compensation on the grounds that Israel has no legal right to the land. 
 
The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem said: “Lending a semblance of legality to this ongoing act of plunder is a disgrace to the state and its legislature. It proves yet again that Israel has no intention of ending its control over the Palestinians or its theft of their land.”

The last time that the Jewish Home party tried to introduce this bill, Netanyahu blocked it, but this time he was so desperate to hold his coalition together and keep its 61-60 majority intact that he shook hands on a deal with the Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett to deliver the government's support to his bill despite the risk that it will be declared illegal by the Israel Supreme Court or the International Criminal Court (see picture above)..

As Peace Now said: “Netanyahu is willing to enable the theft of land, to endanger Israeli army officers and to drag Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and all for the sake of his own political survival.”

Netanyahu left his visit to Downing Street on Monday morning in a rush to fly home in time to cast his vote for the bill in the Knesset that evening. In the event the vote was taken early and he missed it - but the bill was passed by 60 votes to 52.
 
It emerged later that Mrs May had told her Israeli guest during their meeting in Downing Street that the new law was "unhelpful" and "made it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend the country in the international arena".  

Later the Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood was more forthright. "I condemn the passing of the Regularisation Bill by the Knesset, which damages Israel’s standing with its international partners. It paves the way for significant growth in settlements deep in the West Bank, threatening the viability of the two-state solution." 
 

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