Sir Alan Duncan is MP for Rutland and Melton. He is a former Minister of State for International Development, and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.
May I start by expressing my gratitude to RUSI for providing me with a platform from which I can express my considered thoughts on an issue that has concerned – not to say, troubled – me for over thirty years.
No one who has travelled to Israel and Palestine, as I have done so often, can fail to become emotionally engaged in the rights and wrongs of the arguments between the two. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is one of the most polarising and vexed issues in the world. What’s more, it creates fury and indignation way beyond the immediate vicinity of the region. Far more than just an Arab issue, it angers millions in the wider Muslim world.
I want today to examine one fundamental component of this issue, try to put its importance into context, and then explain the stand I believe we, as engaged citizens, should take about it.
Year after year, in cycles of hope and despair, we dwell incessantly on what we all call the Peace Process. And we go on talking about it even when it is in intensive care, and deemed by some to have died altogether. There is no need to rehearse today all of the ins and outs and ups and downs of the failed negotiations and near successes of the past.
I expressed my thoughts while I was a Minister, in a letter to the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, in June last year. I will today release that letter as it succinctly encapsulates my point of view, and I want to explain in greater depth the serious argument in it.
At its heart is this. I think we have been looking at the entire issue of Israel and Palestine from the wrong end of the telescope. Our policy, and that of many other countries, has been that on no account should we ever rock the boat by talking in tough language to Israel for fear of jeopardising the so-called Peace Process.
I certainly shared that view – albeit temporarily – while John Kerry, as Secretary of State, worked so valiantly to secure a lasting agreement. His objectives were genuine and attainable, and it was not his fault that talks collapsed when last April the Israeli cabinet declined to respond constructively. While Secretary Kerry was trying his best we were all duty bound fully to support him.
His efforts could have succeeded. Everything for a sensible agreement was offered by the Palestinians – borders, land swaps, the retention of some major settlements, a shared Jerusalem, a demilitarised Palestine. They even started by offering all these main components of a sustainable agreement, yet the Israeli Government finished by having offered absolutely nothing substantial. In my view, as I said in that letter, I don’t think they ever had any intention of doing so. But we all stuck by the process.
But the price we have paid for focussing only on the process is that we have increasingly lost sight of the principle. The principle that has been sacrificed and subordinated to the false dawn of process is the stand we ought to make on Israel’s illegal settlements.
It has been the position of every British government since 1967 that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have not been lawfully part of the State of Israel, whether at its creation or at any point thereafter. Indeed, that is the view of every foreign government, including the United States.
And since 1967, a clear line has been drawn in international law which defines which territory is occupied and which is not. Yet relentlessly, every week, every month, and every year for decades, Israelis have built illegal constructions on Palestinian land.
The construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is contrary to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the occupying power from transferring parts of its own population into the territories it occupies. This is a position held by the international community and confirmed by the International Court of Justice. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Israel itself has repeatedly found that the West Bank is held in belligerent occupation.
But since 1967 Israel has continuously and systematically built outside its legitimate borders and has claimed its neighbours’ land as its own. Israeli settlements are the worst, most destructive, aspect of the military occupation, an occupation which has become the longest in modern international relations.
The continued expansion of settlements demonstrates that the occupier has little or no intention of ending that occupation or of permitting a viable Palestinian state to come into existence.
Back in 1993 when the Oslo Peace Process started there were, in the West Bank- not including Jerusalem- 110,000 settlers. Today there are 382,000- around 10% of the entire population of the West Bank. Israel’s Housing Minister Uri Ariel, himself a settler, wants to see the number grow by 50% over the next five years. Crucially, not only would the number of settlers increase, but so too would the proportion of settlers, so therefore further entrenching the occupation.
This illicit expansion did not even diminish while the Kerry initiative was at its height. Just last year, new housing starts in West Bank settlements rose by over 120 per cent. During the nine months of the Kerry initiative, according to the Israeli group PeaceNow, ‘the Netanyahu Government promoted plans and tenders for at least 13,851 housing units within the existing settlements and in East Jerusalem – an average of 50 units a day.’
There are now over half a million settlers living in around 120 settlements and 100 unauthorised outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And to compound the intrusion, the population growth of settler communities during the past decade has been almost three times that of the Israeli population as a whole.
This illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker. As such, it should be called what it is, and not by some euphemistic soft alternative.
Settlements are illegal colonies built in someone else’s country. They are an act of theft, and what is more something which is both initiated and supported by the state of Israel.
We need to be clear about what settlements actually are. To many they are thought to be nothing more than a little tent, set up as a harmless protest, and thus no more than a temporary camp. If that’s what anyone really thinks, then it could not be further from the truth.
Settlements might start as an outpost, something which might indeed be little more than a portable cabin on a hill with the Israeli flag on top. However, they are no less illegal, just because they might be small. But they then become guarded encampments, and then housing estates, and then entire towns.
They are often linked by settler-only motorways, and in the name of security are out of bounds to Palestinians. Many are now massive Israeli colonies located well into the West Bank some distance from Israel proper. Maale Adummim has 37,000 inhabitants, Modi’in Illit 55,000, Beitar Illit 43,000, and Ariel 18,000.
Over the years, the wood and canvass has turned into concrete, the tents have turned into towns, the towns have turned into fortified cities. Nowhere in the modern age has the wider world so tolerated such brazen and repeated illegality.
As if enormous towns in the middle of the West Bank were not offensive enough, other settlements are even worse. If Israel were to build on area E1 east of Jerusalem, it would cut off the capital city from any future Palestinian state. The recently proposed development of 1000 acres to the west of Bethlehem is doubly illegal because not only is it for settlements, but it has also unilaterally been designated by Israel as state land, an action by an occupying power which is forbidden in international law.
And, apart from the calculated insult to President Obama, it is impossible to overstate the criminal intent and strategic importance of Israel’s settlement plan, announced a fortnight ago, for Givat Hamatos. It would finalise the severing of Bethlehem from Jerusalem; it is to be built on Palestinian lands owned by the villagers of Beit Safafa; and it would destroy any easy connection between Palestinian neighbourhoods in south Jerusalem and a future Palestinian state.
It is not just the physical constructions themselves that matter. Building them has a much wider detrimental impact on Palestinians. Their construction is often accompanied by the displacement of Palestinians from their historic farmland, the demolition of their homes, the bulldozing of their ancient olive groves, and the destruction of their water wells.
Rightful Palestinian citizens are reduced to having nothing: while illegal Israeli colonisers get everything. Water, electricity, access, protection: illegal settlers get the lot, the Palestinians next to nothing.
Settlement activity is not carried out by some minority group outside the orbit of the Israeli state. Settlement activity is systematically initiated, implemented and supported by the Israeli Government, who authorise, implement and protect the relentless illegal expansion of the borders of Israel. This is reprehensible.
In addition to being illegal, settlement activity is very often violent, nasty, and brutal. Not all, but many settlers are heavily armed and aggressive.
It is no exaggeration to say that many settlers are state-supported militia, defying international law, driving out the rightful inhabitants from their land, and creating an illegal economy at the expense of those who have been cruelly displaced.
There are all too many accounts of people who have witnessed criminal violence by illegal settlers against the legitimate inhabitants of Palestinian land while the Israeli Defence Force merely looks on.
The IDF are required to be the guardians of illegal Israeli settlers, not the protectors of Palestinian victims. A dual system exists where illegal settlers are subject to civil law while Palestinians are subject to military law. The principal casualty is the Rule of Law. According to the Israeli group Yesh Din, of all legal cases brought by Palestinians against settlers 91 per cent are closed without indictment.
Occupation, annexation, illegality, negligence, complicity: this is a wicked cocktail which brings shame to the Government of Israel. It would appear that on the West Bank of the Jordan the rule of international law has been shelved.
Perhaps the most vivid example is Hebron. No decent person visiting Hebron can fail to be disgusted by what they see.
In the centre of this amazing city, settlers have occupied the main central residences, driving out Palestinian families who have lived there for centuries. There is a new one this year – Rajabi House. Protected by the IDF, and forced to face billboards saying ‘Palestine has never existed, and never will’ and ‘Gas the Arabs’, all Palestinians are confined to half the city, and risk being shot if they step over a painted line.
While Israeli settlers throw human excrement and rubbish out of their back windows onto the Arab souhk below, busloads of US tourists visit the Old City while their organisations back home such as the New York Hebron Fund take advantage of their tax-exempt status to fund the settler families who illegally move in.
One should not use the word ‘apartheid’ lightly, but as a description of Hebron it is both accurate and undeniable. In South Africa it meant pass cards, no free movement, forbidden areas, and first and second class citizens. So it is in Hebron.
It’s not just the acreage of settlements themselves which offends. Israel also exercises complete control over most of the Palestinians’ land, life and economy.
The Oslo Accords divided Palestine into three areas. Area C constitutes 61% of the West Bank and is the only contiguous land amid a sea of 227 smaller separate Palestinian areas. The 1993 Accords stipulated that Area C should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority by 1999. Over 20 years after the Oslo Accords, that transfer has never taken place. Instead Palestinians are occupied, repressed, controlled and restricted.
To any rational, well-meaning observer, the actions of Israel defy all logic. And the logic is painful. Doesn’t Israel understand that the occupation of Palestine is not in their interests? Doesn’t the Israeli Government appreciate that their country’s long-term security is not best served by stoking widespread hatred through its actions? Surely Israelis should consider it wise only to do unto others what they would have others do unto them.
Let me, however, make one thing crystal clear. Israel is Israel. It is a country. It is a nation. It is a legitimate state and, since1948, is a full member of the international community, on a par with any other country. Nobody can or should challenge its right to exist.
Over a decade ago, Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, of Saudi Arabia, spoke for the Arab world when he offered full and unconditional recognition of Israel after decades of Arab opposition. Even though his principled initiative was churlishly rebuffed by Israel, it is today the considered view of nearly every Arab and Muslim government across the world.
It should be everyone’s view that it is unacceptable not to acknowledge and respect Israel’s legitimate existence. It is simply not acceptable to question Israel’s right to exist: but it is also unacceptable for Israel to deny that their extra-territorial settlements are illegal. This is a fundamental issue of principle from which all other moral judgments follow. Israel’s attitude to settlements is the litmus test of their, and anyone else’s, decency and moral standing.
In the past, the world has taken a clear stand on illegal territorial expansion, even when the aggressor might describe the area as disputed. We sent the Navy to repel General Galtieri’s claim to the Falkland Islands. We sent an army to repel Saddam Hussain’s claim to Kuwait. We are imposing sanctions on Russia for their annexation of Crimea, and their subterfuge in Eastern Ukraine.
But there is no punitive action taken against Israel for their persistent annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is a cruel irony that Russia’s embrace of Crimea might be said to enjoy a modicum of popular consent: whereas the unpunished Israeli land grab in Palestine most certainly does not.
It is a poor reflection on the international community, and on the United States in particular, that Israel persists with the building of settlements largely because it believes that it can get away with doing so. The vision of Greater Israel, a country stretching by divine right from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, is unfortunately seen by some as a respectable political objective.
Settlements are wrong. Settlements are illegal. Settlements are immoral. This illegality, and all the impropriety that goes with it, is the fulcrum of morality in global affairs. No amount of political funding and no degree of lobbying can ever convert wrong into right.
Israel is of course a democracy. And because it asserts its moral superiority as a democratic state, it is imperative that it should also behave like one. Just stating it is a democracy does not in any way excuse it from behaving in violation of the fundamental principles of democracy. It is not Israel’s political system that is being judged, but rather its conduct.
Israel, by its deliberate policy of settlement expansion, is consistently acting in defiance of democratic norms, and in so doing it forfeits the moral high ground. If Israel does not adhere to the rule of law, then it puts itself on the wrong side of the difference between right and wrong. It puts itself on the wrong side of democratic principles. It pollutes its own standing as a democracy.
There is another link between process and principle. If you look at every stage of past negotiations, no step forward or Palestinian concession has ever been taken without Israel then committing to build more settlement units. Any step in any direction under the ‘Process’ is invariably accompanied by Israel announcing a further tranche of illegal settlement units as a part of its intended Greater Israel. They have invariably acted in bad faith, and they have done so with impunity.
Israel’s defiance should not be left unchecked. The world should stop and think; the Arab world should unite and speak out; and the western world, including America, should combine to protest against this deliberate violation of decent values. It is high time that we persisted with the process, but also made a stand against Israel’s underlying violation of principle.
In all they do, whatever their other arguments, whatever their deliberate attempts to divert attention from the issue, the continuing gradual annexation by Israel of their neighbour’s land is an ever-deepening stain on the face of the globe.
This is the point of fundamental principle. So fundamental, and so much a matter of principle is it, that it can no longer be treated as subordinate to the illusory process of peace.
No end of diversion, deceit or delay should be allowed to detract from this undeniable principle. Israeli settlements are illegal, and until Israel admits as much, and behaves accordingly, Israel forfeits its moral standing.
Whatever Israel’s approach may be, the rest of the world can and should make its own stand. If it fails to do so, then there is little morality left in international politics. The US has vetoed 42 UN Security Council resolutions that are critical of Israel – it has only exercised its veto 83 times in total. And the resolutions that have been passed are being flouted.
So let me move on.
If Israel’s illegal settlements are an offence to democratic principles and the rule of law, then so therefore is anybody’s support for settlement building.
In our normal politics, we make a stand against extremism – and so we should. An opinion can most certainly be labelled as extreme, and a person can be defined as an extremist, if they defy the rule of law, promote illegality, advocate the oppression of innocent victims, or use the power of the state cruelly to persecute and abuse others. But this is exactly what is happening with Israel’s settlement activity.
So, anywhere in the world, be it in Israel or beyond, all must now embrace this important principle. Settlement endorsement, meaning the denial that they are illegal and the support for their consequences is a form of extremism which we should not tolerate. Be it tacit, or be it explicit, such an attitude is simply not acceptable,
Over the years we have made a firm stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. It is time now that we added ‘settlement endorsement’ to that list of extreme undemocratic attitudes which we are not prepared to tolerate.
Anyone who considers settlements acceptable places themself outside the boundaries of democratic principle. Settlement endorsement should be put on a par with racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, just as we quite rightly judge someone unfit for public office if they refuse to recognise Israel, so we should shun anyone who refuses to recognise that settlements are illegal.
No settlement endorser should be considered fit to stand for election, remain a member of a mainstream political party, or sit in a Parliament. How can we accept lawmakers in our country, or any country, when they support lawbreakers in another? They are extremists, and they should be treated as such.
What I am trying to say is as much an issue of justice as it is a matter of principle. Nothing motivates me more in politics than our duty to redress injustice. The pursuit of justice should be one of the main motivations for anyone who goes into politics.
Such is the injustice meted out on the Palestinian population – occupied, contained, deprived and repressed – that ‘Justice for Palestine’, like all the ‘isms’ which define our moral being, should now be a cross-party, international cause.
The Holy Land is an area and not a country, but it is being reprehensibly treated by the state of Israel. How can any Christian not be ferociously indignant about the encroachment on Bethlehem? How can any Christian not be appalled by life in Hebron? Yet many evangelical Christians in the United States are amongst those who most excuse and justify the improper actions of Israel. They should reconsider their position. Their blind endorsement of Israeli conduct has become perverse, and their unquestioning acceptance of Israeli injustice to Palestinians is warped.
For instance, intoning the words ‘Judaea and Samaria’ as a justification for an Israel stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River has become a vulgar heresy. The Bible is not a travel guide to modern national boundaries. Those US Christians who endorse and enable the expansion of Israel into Palestinian land should realise where morality and justice lie.
So let me move on to a further aspect of this issue. It is one which requires sensitive yet firm handling.
To assert Israel’s legitimacy as a state entity and its unquestioned right to exist and be secure – a view I fervently share – does not require anyone also to defend everything Israel does.
Many who defend the state of Israel have worked themselves into a muddle. Too often, any critic of Israeli conduct is accused either of wanting to see the destruction of Israel or of being anti-Semitic. Neither opinion is forgivable, nor is any unfounded accusation against someone for supposedly holding such views when they do not.
It is offensive when such accusations are made against those who in no way hold either such view but who, from a decent position, have thoughtfully concluded that the behaviour of the Government of Israel is wrong.
This is all the more worrying when, more likely than not, the belief that settlements are acceptable and that critics of Israel’s settlement policy should be roundly opposed, is an opinion which is not shared either by the majority of Israelis or by the majority of the Jewish community in the UK.
In assessing this issue over three decades I think that most Israelis are uneasy about settlement activity, but that the nature of Israeli politics smothers their voice. I also think that most Jewish people in the UK are similarly unhappy about Israeli settlements. The majority are fair and reasonable, but are forced to submit to an aggressive nationalist attitude. Both such groups, quite sensibly, see settlements as not just wrong, but also as a threat to Israel’s reputation and long-term security.
A major problem is that too many public representatives of Jewish groups seem to feel obliged to defend Israel for everything it does, and are pressed to confront any criticism as if it were a challenge to the very existence of Israel as a country and Jewish homeland. This is both illogical and counter-productive. Even worse, is when they warp all argument by unreasonably accusing people of anti-Semitism.
Criticising Israel for its conduct neither questions its right to exist, nor is it anti-Semitic.
Similarly, standing up for justice for Palestinians is not in any way anti-Semitic either.
I find it astonishing – indeed rather sickening – that the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, should have been roundly attacked by some of his readership in the UK for his simple humanity and decency, not to say editorial right, in publishing an advert in the paper for the Gaza humanitarian appeal.
In contrast, Laurie Penny, who is herself half-Jewish, spoke for many Jewish people when she wrote in the New Statesman that ‘The moral basis for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people is eroding fast. It is not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name”.
One of the most incisive letters in The Times was written last month by Mr Dominic Kirkham, responding to comments from Rabbi Sacks. He said ‘…it is Israel’s belligerence, growing sectarian nature, aggressive colonisation and indifference to international law which are the real cause of so much concern and hatred. Events do not happen in a vacuum and by conflating Zionism, anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, Rabbi Sacks seems to be condoning what is happening in Israel.’
When some British Jewish organisations unreasonably accuse people of anti-Semitism, more often than not as a diversion from the actual issues in question, they do a disservice to the necessary and valid fight against anti-Semitism.
Jewish representative organisations are not obliged to, and nor should they, stand up for the illegal and excessive conduct of the Israeli Government.
Whereas Israel has adopted a policy of making itself a self-defined Jewish state that should not mean that all Jews in all other countries should be required to become spokesmen for all that Israel does.
I deplore anti-Semitism. It should be crushed in all its forms and we should never seek to diminish its significance or downplay its impact on the Jewish community, particularly in the light of the worrying increase in anti-Semitism that we have seen recently across Europe.
In the same way as it is wrong to correlate Israel with all Jews: so is it also wrong to conflate all Jews with Israel. 263,000 Jews are British. Jewish people don’t just play an important part in British life: they are crucial to it. All should value the UK’s Jewish community and its deep contribution to the fabric of Britain. As such they should, and do, play a full part in or politics.
But our politics has rules. And one important such rule is that our political funding should not come from another country or from citizens of another country, or be unduly in hock to another country. This rule seems to apply to every country except when it comes from Israel. Jewish voters in the UK should be welcomed as supporters of, and donors to, their favoured political party.
Of course, the support of any British Jew for any political party can hinge on whatever they want, including on a politician’s stance on Israel. But we should stop conflating, as we have for too long, British Jews with the Israeli lobby. They are distinct, and failing to recognise this treats the entire Jewish community as if they are homogenous, when of course they are not.
We need British Jews for the Conservative, Labour, or other UK parties; not the Israeli lobby for any party. The time has come to make sure above any doubt that the funding of any party in the UK is clearly decoupled from the influence of the Israeli state.
For far too long, those who have made a moral stand against Israeli misconduct and in favour of justice for Palestinians have been trashed, traduced and bullied. This, and the character assassination of critics, cannot be allowed to continue.
The time has come for us to make an international stand on the principle of illegal Israeli settlements. All who converse, all who interview, and all who debate are entitled to ask their interlocutor for a simple answer to a simple question. ‘Do you agree that Israeli settlements outside the 1967 borders are illegal – yes or no?’
If they give no answer at all, or equivocate, or actually say ‘no’, then we are entitled to brand such a person morally complicit in illegality, and therefore an extremist.
Anyone who supports illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian land is an extremist who puts themself outside the boundaries of democratic standards. They are not fit to stand for election or sit in a democratic parliament, and they should be condemned outright by the international community and treated accordingly.
Truth, principle, justice, morality, legality: they are all enduring values and they cannot and must not be bought or bullied into submission. For too long we have been too submissive on the principle of illegal settlements, and it is high time we stopped being so, and reasserted clearly and without fear, exactly what is legally and morally right and what is legally and morally wrong.
This is the full text of a speech delivered today at the Royal United Services Institute.