HC Deb 22 December 1988 vol 144 cc660-8 1.52 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South)

It is somewhat appropriate that the last debate of 1988—the last debate before the Christmas holiday—should be about Israel. It is, indeed, almost symbolic. A visitor to Bethlehem in 1988 would not be turned away from the inn to find shelter in a manger, because the inns and hotels, normally fully booked over a year in advance, are 60 per cent. empty this year. That reflects the 15 per cent. drop in tourism in Israel and the occupied territories over the last year.

The Palestinian uprising against 21 years of Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip has entered its second year. The brutal repression of the intafada is measured not just in economic terms, in the loss of tourism or the Bank of Israel's estimate of $700 million lost in GDP, but in truly horrific statistics of casualties. Estimates compiled up to the anniversary of the uprising two weeks ago for the number of Palestinians killed range from the Defence Ministry's 302 to the 405 assessed by the International Commission of Jurists' local organisation Al-Haq. Eleven Israelis have died.

The number of Palestinians wounded is 3,640 according to the Israeli Government; over 20,000 according to Al-Haq and the United Nations. The Defence Ministry figures also list 402 Israeli civilians and 730 soldiers as casualties. Converted into a British context, the equivalent figures would be 12,000 to 16,000 killed and over 750,000 wounded. That is a glimpse of the scale of the horror. During the year, 20,000 Palestinians have been arrested, thousands of whom have been detained in notorious camps such as Answa 3. The Defence Ministry confirms that 5,500 Palestinians are now in gaol. Houses have been demolished by bulldozers. People have been expelled from their homeland and semi-permanent curfews and sieges have been imposed. The Jelazoun refugee camp was under non-stop curfew for 42 days.

I visited Israel and the West Bank in October with my comrade the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) and a Danish dock workers' leader, Carsten Andersen. It was my first parliamentary delegation visit in over five years as a Member of Parliament, and it lasted six days. A brief debate such as this is too short in which to convey the vivid impressions of that visit, although going from Tel Aviv, a largely modern, western city, to the outskirts of Jericho, or the largest Arab village in Israel, Um el Fahm, was literally like walking back to the biblical age.

We visited Jericho under the auspices of the United Palestinian Medical Relief Committee. Its director, Dr. Jihad Mashal, was our guide. We visited medical centres set up by a group of volunteer doctors and workers. Their aim is to educate the people in basic health care and to provide medical treatment in an expanding programme. We saw slides of the results of brutality against the population by the occupying forces. The condition of some of the victims was horrendous and defies description.

We saw the stark contrast of what exemplifies the differences in society for the Palestinians. Water, flowing from natural springs in the mountains, is enclosed in pipes for consumption by Israelis in the settlements. The Palestinians cannot take water from such piping. Their water supply flows down man-made gulleys—ditches, in fact—that are open to the atmosphere, and it is used for washing, cooking and drinking. It is also used by the local clinic. No attempt is made by the authorities to provide sterile, clean water for Palestinian families. Water supplies to homes from these gulleys takes the primitive form of dropping a length of tubing into the trough and letting gravity do the job of relaying it to the houses—or not.

We saw squalor, deprivation and repression on the one side and affluence and privilege on the other. The barren area and conditions in which the refugees in the camps have to live contrast sharply with the well laid out and serviced Israeli settlements and, in addition, the palatial houses owned by rich Palestinians who apparently are dual passport holders.

The contrast in the camps could not be greater. Sewage runs down gulleys in the main thoroughfare—they cannot be called streets—and many homes are built in the traditional way with mud bricks. Youths roam the streets, as there is no formal schooling since the intafada, except that provided by volunteers. Overshadowing the camp were military positions on the high road above.

The camp is continually under surveillance on normal days. On others, the troops enter the camps in large numbers and provoke the people, especially the youth, and make arrests. That is done in an attempt to take out those layers among the youth who may be leaders in the popular committees, which are made up of the ordinary people. The committees enjoy the complete confidence of the people and call the days of action and strikes. They organise the distribution of food and take care of the welfare of families whose homes have been destroyed by the troops— a common occurrence.

The delegation saw homes that had been destroyed and spoke with families who had suffered in this way at the hands of the occupying power. Although suffering terrible conditions and hardship, the mood of all sections of the population was one of supreme optimism, from young children to aged grandparents. They expressed the view that they had achieved more in the months of intafada than anything else in 40 years: that it was the people, all the people, who had taken their destinies into their own hands and who were now struggling for independence. Their confident belief was that they would win and that they could not suffer any more. Nothing that the Israeli state could do to them could deflect them from that ultimate goal.

Although the human cost of the intafada, measured in deaths and casualties, is undeniable, it is the political effects which have spread in recent weeks like expanding ripples after a stone has been tossed into water. The growing international support for the Palestinian cause is, in my view, based on the heroism of the workers and the youth in Gaza and on the West Bank.

The Labour Movement internationally has had much sympathy for the state of Israel, whose formation was given impetus by the horrific genocide of the Jewish people in Nazi gas chambers during the second world war. Until recently, abuses by the Israeli authorities of human rights has not attracted the same level of criticism as similar activities in South Africa or Chile. The developing use of Arab workers in Israel and the occupied territory, like the migrant workers from the Bantustans in South Africa, and in particular the gruesome scale of repression of the intafada—reinforced by infamous television scenes of soldiers beating Palestinians until their bones were broken—are drastically changing working people's perception of Israel.

The intafada is the backcloth, in my view the main contributory factor to the declaration by the Palestine National Council at its Algiers summit of an independent Palestinian state—a proclamation that was universally welcomed in the occupied territory—and to the speech by Yasser Arafat at the United Nations meeting in Geneva.

Workers internationally have viewed with deep unease the past methods of terror campaigns and hijacking. The recognition by the PLO's leadership that those methods have not, and would not have, forced Israel into submission can only be welcomed. The increasing diplomatic isolation of Israel is evidenced by the United Nations vote of 150 to two—with the United Kingdom disgracefully abstaining—over a visa for Yasser Arafat to address the UN Assembly in New York, by recent developments and contacts initiated by the American Government and by today's declaration of a coalition Government formed in Israel. That isolation could increase significantly if workers' organisations began to discuss sanctions to isolate Israel, as dockers in Denmark— some of the staunchest defenders of Jews during the second world war—have recently done.

Israel's boast of being the only democracy in the middle east is coming under closer scrutiny not only on the West Bank but also behind the green line. It is undeniable that there is a measure of democracy in Israel. There is a system of parliamentary democracy which, despite serious flaws, has free elections; there are diverse political parties and various other features of western democracy. But for Arab workers in Israel and on the West Bank there are no more rights than in surrounding reactionary Arab regimes.

At the beginning of this year, the partial publication of the Landau report caused a wave of controversy in Israel society. It disclosed the routine torture of Palestinian detainees and extracted confessions for more than 17 years. When such cases came to court, Shin Bet agents flatly denied such allegations. The report states: We do not refer to the means of interrogation used, which in large measure are to be condoned, both on a moral and legal plane… but to the system of giving false testimony to the courts … which must be fully condemned. In other words, denying the occurence of torture was a far greater crime than the torture itself.

I now have personal experience of one such political prisoner. I believe that the evidence that the Israeli authorities claim to have in the case of Mahmoud Masarwa consists mainly of confessions extracted by beatings by the security services at Petach Tikra police station and Ashkelon prison.

Mahmoud was arrested on 18 July, just two days before he was due to arrive here. I was going to bring him to the House to meet other Labour Members. I was keen to meet Mahmoud, an Arab citizen of Israel, born within its pre–1967 borders. He came to my attention because he advocates unity between Jewish and Arab workers as vital to obtaining a solution that could satisfy all the oppressed people in the region. Far from being a professional terrorist, as the Israeli authorities have tried to imply, Mahmoud was forced to hold down two jobs to support his wife and three children. He was a well-known activist at the Isre Biton cement works near Tel Aviv—his most recent place of employment—where he, an Arab worker, played a predominant role in a strike of mainly Jewish workers for recognition of a factory committee.

Despite repeated attempts, I received no response to my letters and phone calls to the Israeli authorities—that is, until after I had returned from Israel three months later. With other concerned hon. Members and trade unionists internationally receiving largely the same blank response, the international campaign which had now been formed to secure his release decided to send a delegation to Israel. Jef Ulburghs, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament played an invaluable role in that campaign, for he moved a resolution of support for Mahmoud in the European Parliament, which was adopted on a 60 per cent. majority vote. One of the results of that resolution was a European Parliament delegation to the occupied territory in the new year.

In addition to parliamentarians and leading trade unionists in Britain, sponsors of the campaign to release Mahmoud include trade unions representing millions of workers in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden, Pakistan and the United States of America. Prominent individuals who sponsored the campaign and the delegation included the president of the Lawyers Association of Athens, Anker Jorgenssen, who was the Prime Minister of Denmark for seven years, and Oscar Verner, the president of the Danish section of the Association of Former Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Survivors.

Even with such backing, when we arrived in Israel no official of any Ministry would meet us. Nor were we allowed to visit Mahmoud in prison, despite repeated approaches by ourselves and the welcome assistance of locally based British embassy officials.

Since Mahmoud's arrest, any information relating to him has been banned from press publication, although internationally anyone reading the London-basedJewish Chronicle will be aware of the campaign on his behalf. Although no details of his arrest can be published in Israel, a standard letter was sent out from Israeli embassies alleging that Mahmoud had been involved in "planning terrorist acts", "arson" and links with the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza strip. The press in Israel were forbidden to print that information.

The plot was assuming the proportions of a Kafka novel, interlaced with pointers from Russia in the 1930s and "Spycatcher" in the 1980s. When the delegation arrived in October, a small article appeared in one newspaper saying that a delegation of Labour Members from Britain had arrived to take up a case on which the newspaper was forbidden to comment. That immediately aroused interest, and with the assistance of helpful Israeli journalists we managed to breach the wall of silence that has surrounded Mahmoud's case.

The papers could refer to the details of the case legally by mentioning the coverage in the Jewish Chronicle as an authoritative source, and Mahmoud's case became front-page news, with coverage in the Hadashot and the Maariv, the second and third largest circulation Hebrew newspapers, and in the Arabic newspaper El Fajir. As a result of the widespread publicity that the case received, reporting restrictions were partially lifted by the court, which was hailed as a major victory by Israeli civil rights activists.

The other way in which the delegation was able to assist the campaign was by securing legal representation for Mahmoud. Attempts to mount a legal defence were systematically sabotaged by the Israeli authorities. In August, a court order prevented his lawyer, Andre Rosenthal, from representing him, on the grounds that he did not have "unquestioned" security clearance. A new lawyer was found—Avrahim Orin.

A few days before Mahmoud was due to appear in court on Tuesday 18 October, his family were told that Orin, too, would be refused security clearance. We were able to negotiate for the services of Avigdor Feldman, the lawyer who represented Mordecai Vanunu in the recent atom secrets trial. Obviously, the Israeli authorities could not turn him down on the basis of lack of security clearance, and he is now representing Mahmoud.

Thanks to donations received by the campaign before we left Britain, we were able to leave Mrs. Masarwa with a sum of money to help to provide for the family. In addition, I was able to bring Mahmoud's family to Tel Aviv for the first stage of the trial on 18 October. During a brief pause in the trial, I arranged for his children to be brought in to the court room, and for the first time in three months Mahmoud was able to hold their seven-month-old baby.

During the break, Mahmoud made this statement to the public gallery: I stand for a bi-national state of Jewish and Arab workers. I was arrested because I was going to say these things in England. I don't have confidence in the court because the security service is making the decisions, but I am willing to fight for my innocence and I am sure workers throughout the world will help me. Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I give that pledge today.

I have dealt at some length with the case of Mahmoud Masarwa, who is one of many victims of the Israeli Government's brutality and secrecy. He is a test case for thousands of others—a litmus paper that shows the absence of genuine democracy and freedoms in Israel.

On the basis of the worsening position for Arabs inside and outside Israel's 1967 borders, Britain's relations with that country must be re-examined. A condition for continued trade and other relations with Israel should be the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of the Israel defence forces from the occupied territories. Given Britain's past role in the area—the emergency regulations inherited from the British mandate in 1948 are still renewed annually by the Knesset—Britain's contribution of less than £1 million in humanitarian aid for education, health and other projects on the West Bank and in the Gaza strip is woefully inadequate. I hope to do what I can to encourage British trade unions, especially those connected with the Health Service and education, to twin with organisations such as the United Palestinian Medical Relief Committee.

I end with a message to the heroic Palestinian people, who have endured much over the past few years, not least over the past 12 months. In retrospect, the Intifada, which began on 9 December 1987, will be seen as the breaking point for the national oppression of the Palestinian people. Its success will be achieved in a shorter period if it is linked to a fruitful appeal to Jewish workers in Israel for the unity of Jew and Palestinian in trying to establish a Socialist federation of Israel and Palestine committed to the guarantee of democratic and national minority rights for all. Were that to be established, it would be not only a hope for the future for the workers and people of the area but an echo of hope to the oppressed masses of the surrounding reactionary Arab regimes.

3.10 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), though I doubt that we share the same political analysis of the position. Appeals for worker solidarity throughout the world as the solution to conflict have been shown in a number of conflicts—one thinks of the first world war—to be not necessarily fruitful. Sadly, nationalism overcomes such appeals.

Some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks struck a chord, and he clearly understood that, for all its faults, Israel still has much to be proud of and to offer. Recent events and the potential loss and damage to some of the values for which Israel has stood make its friends and supporters desperately sad.

When explaining how he fought in court for Mr. Mahmoud's rights, the hon. Gentleman used the phrase "Israeli civil rights activist". It is true that there are such people in Israel fighting hard for such causes. That phrase creates no sense of surprise in the House, but the phrase "Syrian civil rights activist" or "Libyan civil rights activist" does not trip off the tongue quite so easily. We must not forget the difference between the Israeli regime and some of those that surround it.

Israel's liberal values, including the possible election of Socialist Governments and the institutions that guarantee those liberties, seem to be under threat from the policy that it is following, which creates anxiety and genuine sadness among people in this country. We have always valued our friendship and contact with Israel. We value our cultural exchanges, our trade and the immense number of relationships that exist. Our respect for the beliefs of the founding fathers leads us to urge Israel that the course on which it is engaged is profoundly mistaken. I agree with the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East about the abuses of civil rights, which sadly have become too common in response to the uprising in the occupied territories.

It is no news to the House that the Government—spectacularly in the shape of my predecessor—have from time to time put on record their profound objection to what has happened. I am irritated by the way in which the Israelis say that punishments such as deportation are based on British law. The mandate territory regulations under which such punishments were carried out were repealed long ago and are not part of British law.

We should concentrate on the next steps. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said—I was much impressed by it—the PNC in Algiers, with further clarification from Mr. Arafat and others, has made it clear that it has shifted its position and tactics. The PNC has shifted its strategy and seen that Israel can withstand to the end of time the terrorist campaigns which have been waged against it. The PNC has seen that, every time a terrorist atrocity is committed, more damage is done to international sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause than is done to Israel. It is not a matter just of public relations, as some have claimed: the PNC in Algiers and the PLO leadership have signalled a clear shift in approach.

The individual for whom the hon. Gentleman campaigned so that he will achieve his legal rights in Israel was, I gather, a supporter—as he has every right to be in a free country—of the original concept of a single state, with Jew and Palestinian living together. That is a marvellous ideal, but in practical terms seems far from ever being possible. The PNC has accepted the outcome of a dual state. It was made clear to me by Mr. Bassam Abu Sharif, whom I met, and in writings by senior Palestinian leaders, that the PNC—the body which drew up the —PLO's charter on a single-state solution, which the Israelis find so threatening—has shifted its position and will support a two-stage solution. That is a second, fundamental shift. It explicitly involves the recognition of a state of Israel existing within secure borders. Mr. Arafat made that clear in Geneva.

The third point which the PLO leadership has recognised is that the international conference, which the Government and the Opposition believe is the best way of taking the matter forward, should be on the basis of Security Council resolution 242 and others which call for recognition of Israel and the idea of trading land for peace. These shifts are profound. Among all the tragedies of this Christmas, let us not forget that there are signs of hope in the world. These shifts offer an opportunity of making progress at last in dealing with this dire problem. That will happen only if Israel responds.

The hon. Gentleman's anger about what he saw is understandable, and I would not argue against it. I take issue with him, however, on whether the international community should isolate and punish Israel or should try to build bridges to Israel. If we talk about imposing trade sanctions and pressure on Israel, a nation of 2,000 years o potential isolation and with a capacity to feel itself alienated from its surroundings, the danger is that it will react as it has always done. That is not the right way to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhode James), who is one of those who undertakes these important activities, is present. We should all build bridges to those in Israel who want peace and know that pracitcal steps could be taken towards it.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East spoke of some of those people with whom he had worked.

I agree with the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East that the external leadership of the Palestinians decided that it had to take practical steps or it would lose control. It was not the leadership that caused the Intifada but the ordinary people in the occupied territories. With an extraordinary display of solidarity, those people took the matter forward. The external leadership feared that it would be isolated and would lose control. Therefore, I agree with the hon. Gentaleman that the uprising changed world opinion and the opinion of the Palestinian external leadership.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

What is the Government's policy?

Mr. Waldegrave

The Government's policy is to advance towards an international conference, under the aegis of which the Israelis and the Palestinians—the Palestinians would have a right to choose their own representatives—should move towards peace. The Israeli Government cannot choose with whom to negotiate. As Abba Eban said on a famous occasion, one does not make peace with one's friends but with one's enemies. Therefore, one has to talk with one's enemies. Bassam Abu Sharif said that the PLO could make peace withing a few days if it talked to the "Peace Now" movement in Israel. It is not for the PLO to select with whom to negotiate. Now that the PLO has made a fundamental shift in outlook and opened a window of opportunity for progress, it is for Israel to begin to respond. We have to decide whether a real response is likely to come from ganging up on Israel or from trying to work with those in Israel who know the truth. They know that, even with all its military skills and military investment, Israel cannot live safely in world of modern weaponry. There are people in Israel who understand that, and it is to them that we look for a response.

I welcome the letter in The Times today from Lord Rothschild, the distinguished constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. He said that we should test, in searching and specific negotiations, the declarations that the PLO has made. They cannot be tested unless the framework of a peace conference is established and talks get under way. Surely that is the right response. It is the Government's response, and I believe that it is the response of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Coventry South-East.

In the meantime, the British Government and other European Governments must do all we can to ensure that life in the occupied territories is made more tolerable. As the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East knows, we have been taking steps to ensure access to European markets for goods produced in the Palestinian territories. We have been trying to support some of the institutions, such as hospitals. The hon. Gentleman referred to the closure of schools and universities. Those are matters that we should attempt to alleviate.

Ultimately, Israel will have to live with the Palestinians. Every day that passes with no Israeli policy except the beating and shooting of people, builds increased bitterness for the future. It is in the interest of Israel to join us in trying to diminish the causes of the continuing conflict.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East has given us the opportunity once again to summarise our policy and to put on record what we believe should now be done. I think that that is a suitable ending for our proceedings before the Christmas recess. There is some hope in the present situation, but that hope can be all too easily dissipated if the only response from the Israeli Government and their supporters is to emphasise the difficulties.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Before we adjourn, I wish all hon. Members, our officials and our staff a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Three o'clock till Tuesday 10 January 1989, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 19 December.