In a House of Lords debate on the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel (“Arab Israelis”) called by the Lord Bishop of Exeter, peers from across the political spectrum drew attention to what has been described as a “fifth column” of Israeli society. The Bishop initiated the debate, explaining that “Israeli-Arab discrimination needs now to be seen as a justice issue in its own right and very much framed within a discourse of civil rights.” Opening the debate, the Bishop referred to a number of examples of continued discrimination against Palestinians and described the changing laws in Israel as a “steady drip” of government regulations which are specifically against the interests of the Palestinian minority of Israel, despite the fact that Palestinians should, theoretically at least, enjoy full equality in Israeli law.
Echoing a recurring sentiment that has been heard a number of times in the Houses of Commons and Lords, the Bishop voiced his concern that any possibility of a two state solution seems to be dying. It was in the light of these concerns that he chose to raise the matter of anti-Arab discrimination, which the EU has described as a core issue that “cannot be postponed until the peace process is revived”.
Lord Steel of Aikwood’s noteworthy contribution to the debate was a slightly wider observance of the current situation in Palestine and Israel; he described things as having come “full circle”. Referring to his trip to Israel during his time as leader of the Liberals, he noted that the then Israeli Prime Minister did not meet with his delegation because they had met with Yasser Arafat, then head of the PLO and at that time persona non grata. Lord Steel argued that history was now repeating itself with the refusal to engage with Hamas and that this was indeed worse than before, given that Hamas are the elected representatives of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. In her response, Baroness Warsi, now Minister at the Foreign Office, noted Lord Steel’s great expertise but made no comment on discussions with Hamas. The British FCO continues to apply a policy of boycotting Hamas, despite the changing facts on the ground and recent moves towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
In reference to a delegation with the Middle East Monitor, crossbencher Lord Hylton raised examples of discrimination as described to him by Palestinian Israelis that he met when in the north of Israel. He commented that “in general, the feeling was that Israel sees Palestinians as temporary residents, alien and not indigenous. Palestinians sense Israeli animosity and police suspicion”, highlighting the growing sense of dispossession felt by Palestinians living in Israel.
It is this as well as the concerns that have been raised about the Palestinian citizens of Israel at the EU and specifically those raised by the Or Commission (which was set up by the Israeli government after the Second Intifada) which has prompted recent conversation and debate about the issue. As a number of contributors to the House of Lords debate noted, the Or Commission’s report made a number of recommendations in regard to the Palestinian citizens of Israel and reflected worryingly on the fact that these recommendation had not been enacted. Baroness Warsi confirmed that the British government continues to raise concerns about this with their Israeli counterparts, as does the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.
As the debate progressed a number of Peers made references to the heavy discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel. Labour Peer Lord Warner gave a number of examples of legislative discrimination which affects Palestinians primarily and distinctively, from housing to the economy, making specific reference to the recent “Nakba Law” which prohibits commemoration of the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis. Concerns about discriminatory legislation were heard throughout the debate, but it was Lord Warner’s call for economic sanctions which perhaps rang the loudest. Referring to the economic sanctions imposed upon apartheid South Africa, Lord Warner said that “finger wagging” was no longer enough and that the UK and its EU partners should consider economic sanctions against Israel. Notably this call was echoed by Lord Steel, who said that the UK had leverage it could use over Israel, in the form of the EU-Israel preferential trade agreement, and that it should do so. Whilst people have previously been keen to ignore comparisons between Israel and South Africa, Lord Steel – an ex-president of the anti-Apartheid movement said that similarities between the two were obvious; he compared the resettlement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem to the South African regime’s Group Areas Act, and the use of separate roads in the West Bank with the apartheid transport system. His was a voice of experience gained fighting South African apartheid and he is a respected figure; it will be hard for opponents to ignore his concerns.
It was also notable that though the debate was headed “Israel: Arab Citizens”, the House of Lords did take note of the fact that they are in fact referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel and Lord Parekh explained that this was to magnify the focus on their history and identity. The use of specific language to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel is crucial and well worth noting in such an important debate.
Reference was made to Ben White’s book, “Palestinians in Israel”, which was commended to the House by Baroness Uddin. The book won the Special Runner Up Award at MEMO’s Palestine Book Awards.
Despite the support for strong action to be taken against Israel with regards to the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, Baroness Warsi continued to toe the UK government’s line of calling for a return to the peace process led by the United States. Plus ça change…
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