Centenary of the Balfour Declaration -
Today we debated the impact of the Balfour Declaration, and its lasting impact in the region.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the opportunity to debate such an important subject, which is still the source of much suffering in the middle east.
The state of Israel has come to exist over the last 100 years, and the document we are discussing is largely symbolic of changes in attitudes, certainly within this country, to the notion of a Jewish nation co-existing in Palestine; but is crucial that we understand that the 50 years following 1917 probably played a far more important role. It is clear that the vision laid out in the letter was always almost certain to fail. A new state located in a place at the expense of those currently inhabiting it would always be problematic, and it has proved to be that way. Britain has a clear historical connection to both the people of Palestine and the people of Israel. The letter, in my view, goes beyond that and sets out a moral obligation and responsibility to ensure that both are protected. It would not be right to mark Balfour’s letter purely through the prism of when it was written, and not to reflect on the current situation in the middle east.
The sad truth is that, while the current situation exists, we are no closer to the vision—if it can be called that—laid out in the Balfour letter. Some 5 million Palestinians of varying descent live as displaced refugees, living by and large in poverty across the middle east; 2.5 million live in torturous conditions in the occupied west bank, and 1.7 million people live in the largest open prison camp on the planet, in Gaza, with no basic rights, no citizenship, and no hope of a lasting future. Given that the current Israeli Prime Minister is intent on further expansion, the border is more undefined than ever and, sadly, lasting peace is further and further away. The Government must recognize just how far away we are from a peaceful solution.
We must recognise that our role has created untold suffering. We have a humanitarian and moral obligation, set out by Balfour, not to leave things unfinished. We must not allow the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and accept it as the norm within the region. We must compel, and recommit ourselves to helping, both sides to find a lasting peace. If the Government are truly committed to a two-state solution, there are steps that they can take, and there are a few things that I want today to call on them to do. One is investing in infrastructure in Palestine, so that we can rebuild. The Government can also go a huge way to ensuring that prejudice and the suppression of the civil rights of Palestinians are brought to an end, by making a commitment to the legal recognition of Palestine. That would be a small but momentous step and might help to create the conditions for peace.
I remind the House not to look at Balfour through the prism of the time when it was written. We have failed the people of Palestine and with each passing day we fail more of them. We must help to find a way to help them out of their suffering and not speak of peace but commit ourselves to trying to make it happen.