The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I was privileged earlier this month to spend a week in Gaza and the West Bank. I went as an Anglican participant in the annual visit of the Holy See’s co-ordination group of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. It was very challenging to see at first hand the current situation in Gaza and more widely in the West Bank.
The recent cycles of violence in the Gaza region represent the worst kind of failure in human relationships. The terrible destruction means that families continue to live in extreme temperatures in the shells of their homes. Indeed, we heard of the death of two infants that same weekend as a result of exposure. The halting of rebuilding due to a lack of funding from the international community and external restrictions, coupled with the hardship that the continued closure imposes on the ordinary people of Gaza, means that the tense peace grows ever more fragile. The international community cannot and should not stand idly by. I hope that DfID takes note of this and works towards increasing aid provision to UNRWA.
Despite this, it is also clear from the many people whom we met that, even in these terrible situations, the human spirit still has hope. It is humbling to see, yet, without change, that hope will eventually ebb away. Throughout the visit, we heard skilled people saying that, while they would remain, for their children there was little hope. Emigration is seen as the only answer.
Emigration affects in particular the rapidly diminishing ancient Christian communities of the region. They are a vital building block for a long-term, sustainable peace. Continual marginalisation makes the prevailing political situation more difficult, especially in Jerusalem. The separation barrier and the accelerating settlement activity are also matters of considerable concern. These divide communities, making peace much harder, as well as breaching international law and, therefore, breaching the responsibilities of nationhood. Difficult as it will be, energy needs to be directed into building and rebuilding bridges of trust, not walls that divide.
The two-state solution is the only credible outcome. On the occasion of the debate in the other place, Anglican and Catholic Church leaders in this country signalled their support for the recognition of Palestine. The joint statement by the Catholic Bishop of Clifton, Declan Lang, and my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, reflects also the desire of the churches in the Holy Land. Recognition is essentially a diplomatic decision that needs to be taken at a moment that either results from negotiated peace or helps to relaunch that process, which may well be preferable. However, we need to be sure that the rights and responsibilities that go with statehood can be honoured. Part of this is the essential recognition that Israel has a right to a secure and peaceful future in which its continued security and existence is guaranteed.
Crucially, when recognition comes, as I believe it must, we need to have a care for the minority communities of Israel and Palestine; they must have hope and security about their place, too. The recent experiences of Sudan and the Balkans demonstrate how easy it is for ethnic or religious minorities in new nations to be squeezed out in a bid for a common national identity. In a region where ethnic and religious pluralism has long been part of the fabric of communities, yet is under increasing pressure in both Israel and the West Bank, this is a considerable concern. Indeed, the concerns of Arab Israelis and non-Muslim Palestinians are often unheard in these discussions. I ask the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment is of the dangers minorities face as a result of the emergence of two states, and what work is being done to bolster and support the fragile ancient Christian communities that are, in my view, so vital for peace.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Government Response): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark talked about the future of the ancient Christian community in Palestine and within Jerusalem. We are also much concerned about that. We note, in particular, the problem of the Cremisan and Catholic community at present, and the threat posed to that well established community by the extension of the border wall. We have the right to say to all sides that the maintenance of that ancient Christian community in Palestine and Israel must be assisted.