LFPME accompany Rt Hon Ed Miliband on his first official visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt)
This visit was an excellent opportunity for the Labour leader to witness and understand firsthand the facts on the ground, in both Israel and the oPt a year before he could become Prime Minister in the General Election in May 2015.
The trip included a few significant firsts, signalling the shifting sands in party, public and international opinion. This was Ed Miliband's first international trip as leader of the Labour Party, highlighting the Middle East Peace process as a top priority for a Labour government . Ed Miliband is also the first leading politician to stay overnight in Ramallah, in a show of support that underscores his measured approach to the situation.
The first part of the visit in Israel - accompanied by Labour Friends of Israel - began with a Q&A session with students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and a field visit to the city of Sderot .
The Labour leader also met with officials from the Israeli Labour Party, the Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Netanyahu, to discuss the latest developments in the peace talks.
In the second part of the trip, representatives of Labour friends of Palestine & Middle East (LFPME) Komal and Helena accompanied the Labour leader to important sites in the oPt. In 2011 and 2012 the Labour Party supported the Palestinian bid for State recognition and enhanced observer status at the UN– while the Coalition government abstained. Both Ed Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander (also part of the delegation) reiterated their support for Palestinian Statehood throughout the visit, calling it a ‘fundamental right to be realised and not a gift to be given’.
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provided a powerful briefing for the delegation of facts on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. Illustrating the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza - with over 80% aid dependency, high levels of food insecurity, 90% of water deemed unfit for consumption and the UN predicting that Gaza will be unliveable by 2020.
The briefing was followed by a visit overlooking the site of the proposed E1 settlement .
Settlements account for 42% of land in the West Bank and there are approximately 540,000 Israelis living in illegal settlements across the West Bank. The illegal settlements and the accompanying network of settler only roads, buffer zones, military zones, nature reserves, check points and the separation barrier effectively carve up the West Bank, encircling nearly all of Palestine’s major cities, making it difficult to envisage what a viable two-state solution might look like.
The E1 settlement alone threatens to forcibly displace 2,300 Bedouins and most experts warn that this would effectively mark the end of the two-state solution.
Visiting a Bedouin community at Khan Al Ahmar, the Labour leader, his wife Justine and Shadow Secretary of State Douglas Alexander had the opportunity to talk to local residents who are facing eviction from their homes to make way for the expansion of a settlement already towering above them. The local residents talked almost dispassionately about the struggle of their daily lives; from lack of access to basic services, to restrictions on movement and harassment from the settlers. They are anxiously awaiting an Israeli High Court decision, following a third appeal against the impending demolition of their camp.
Visibly moved by the visit to Khan Al Ahmar, Ed Miliband said "What I have seen today shows that the expansion of Israeli settlements on the Palestinian West Bank is not only wrong and illegal but represents a mortal threat to the two-state solution and to a successful outcome of the peace process.
"If we are going to have a viable, democratic Palestinian state the more we see an expansion of settlements the more it becomes difficult to construct this state."
Meeting with representatives from the Palestinian business community, the delegation heard the challenges of trying to develop an economy under Occupation, with limited access to their own resources, restrictions on movement and Israeli control of the most resource rich parts of the West Bank. For example Area C, this constitutes 60% of the West Bank and is the most fertile part of land, remains under Israeli control. According to the World Bank (2013) access to Area C could generate up to $2.2bn for the Palestinian economy and significantly reduce aid-dependency.
While the Labour Party has made its position against boycotts clear, Palestinian business representatives outlined the distinction between a boycott of trade with illegal settlements and trade with the State of Israel. In 2012, the Co-operative Group became the first major European supermarket group to end trade with companies that export produce from illegal Israeli settlements while continuing to trade with Israel itself. More recently, Luxembourg’s state pension fund has excluded nine Israeli banks and firms over their role in illegal Israeli settlements, as have public pension funds in Norway and the Netherlands and Danske Bank, Denmark’s largest bank.
In line with the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights and EU guidelines, the UK Government took a bold step last year in publishing business guidelines on the UKTI website, dissuading UK investors from conducting business with illegal settlements in the West Bank. The Labour party has repeatedly made its position against boycotts clear, but Ed Miliband has yet to articulate the Party’s position on the boycott of trade with illegal settlements.
At a youth centre in Ramallah, Ed Miliband asked young Palestinians about their daily lives, hopes and aspirations. “Our interests, our hopes and dreams are probably the same as young people anywhere else in the world; to work, to study, to travel, to meet someone; but the Occupation, the restrictions on movement, soaring youth unemployment and lack of opportunities mean this is all but impossible” replied one student.
Ed Miliband and the delegation also met with the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and separately with President Abbas, both discussions were dominated by the current round of peace talks. Both the Prime Minister and the President reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process, despite the ongoing difficulties they faced not only from the Israeli government but also the Palestinian population, who appear to have little confidence in the ongoing negotiations. With the Israeli government continuing with announcements of settlement expansion, reneging on its agreement of the prisoner release and house demolitions continuing unabated, it is difficult for the PA to attract support from its own people, often leaving it trapped between a rock and a hard place.
If Ed Miliband thought that the meetings with Palestine’s most senior officials might raise some tough questions, he couldn't have guessed that the liveliest event was yet to come. A dinner in down town Ramallah, with an inspiring group of Palestinian women, that included Ivy League graduates, political and community activists, diplomats and women from the corporate sector. They discussed the fragility of the peace process, the viability of a two-state solution, the challenges of daily life under Occupation and how the international community had failed to support genuine peace by failing to hold Israel to account for its repeated violations under international law and UN resolutions.
Ed Miliband’s trip to the Middle East has been reported as both a personal journey and a bold political statement. After decades of failed negotiations, ongoing conflict and rapidly changing facts on the ground, the Israel Palestine conflict is an overwhelming challenge for the most seasoned statesman; so what will the young Labour leader add or contribute if elected Prime Minister in 2015?
Having accompanied Ed Miliband and his wife on the visit, LFPMEs Komal Adris commended Miliband’s ‘very personal yet measured approach. Ed has a very strong personal connection to Israel but at the same time can empathise with the situation on the ground and have the moral courage to say that the current Israeli settlement policy is a serious threat to any prospects for peace.’
Ed Miliband has said that the achieving peace between Israel and Palestine is “an important foreign policy priority” and we hope that the Labour Party policy review will reflect the mood of the British public and indeed the party when it comes to supporting international law and peace in the Middle East.
Last year, an overwhelming 70% of Labour European election candidates endorsed LFPMEs five pledges for Palestine http://www.lfpme.org/news-p349
A good starting point perhaps for the Labour leader.
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