Bishop of Chester speaks in debate on situation in Palestinian territories

On 7th June Lord Steel of Aikwood led a debate in the House of Lords ‘That this House takes note of the situation in the Palestinian Territories’. The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, in this immensely complex situation, I want to comment on three historic issues which affect contemporary circumstances. The first was what I will call a reaction of the indigenous Palestinian people 70 years ago not to accept the ​decision of the United Nations to support the establishment of a mainly Jewish state and a separate Palestinian state—we must remember that that was part of the 1947 resolution. It may be that it will not work, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said; it may not have been endorsed later, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, but that was the original plan, and not a later plan, to sort things out.

Whether we look back 3,000 years to biblical times, 100 years to the growing Jewish resettlement of Palestine or to the Holocaust, there was, I believe, an inevitability and rightness about the emergence of the modern state of Israel. This clearly required, and still requires, a parallel Palestinian state.

I have visited Israel and the Palestinian territories seven times since I became a bishop. Perhaps the most obvious fact on the ground is Israel itself: an extraordinarily prosperous, modern state whose emergence in just a few decades has almost been a modern wonder of the world for those who see it and a great credit to the Israeli people. It is a tragedy that the indigenous Arab, mainly Muslim, people of Palestine, admittedly with the support of surrounding nations, thought that they could stop the establishment of the modern state of Israel or subsequently destroy it in the disastrous wars of 1967 and 1974. It is a tragedy that a two-state solution was more possible 70 years ago than it is today.

The second mistake was the failure of the United Nations in 1948 properly to manage the emergence of the two new states, as envisaged in the resolution adopted in November 1947. It needed money and a peacekeeping force, and neither was provided. The withdrawal of the British mandate simply left a vacuum, which is not a good story about the responsible action of the United Nations at the time. One result was the refugee camps, with all the problems that have arisen from them to this day. I believe that the international community bears a greater responsibility for today’s problems than we often recognise, although I am not sure whether the Palestinian Arab community could have been helped and persuaded to the two-state solution 70 years ago.

The third major error of judgment, to which reference has already been made, was the Israeli decision to create Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. We have to make some distinctions. The Gaza settlements were handed back to the Palestinian Authority in 2005, with 8,500 settlers removed, some very publicly and forcibly. I went and looked into those settlements at the top of the Gaza Strip a couple of years ago. It seems that nothing has happened on them. I would be interested to know why the Gaza people do not occupy the land that was then released.

Jerusalem is a special and unique case. I do not think that we could simply go back to the pre-1967 lines. However, on the West Bank, I regard the settlement policy as a major political blunder—in political terms, it is equivalent to apartheid; it is a similar type of political error of historic proportions. I cannot see peace without its reversal. Although the Gaza situation is currently in the headlines, the demise of Hamas and the reassertion of a co-ordinated Government of the overall Palestinian areas should focus attention back on the most fundamental obstacle to the two-state solution, the West Bank settlements. Those settlements undermine the moral authority of Israel to promote a ​lasting solution. Sadly, I have come to think that Israel cannot see a solution, and it is left to the rather brutal management of affairs, as we have so sadly witnessed.


Baroness Northover (LD)… I note what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said—that Israel cannot see a solution—and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, noted ​that the Israeli Government seemed to have “no plan” in this regard, as settlement expansion undermined lip service paid to a two-state solution. There is often in these debates an element of whataboutery. It is because of that that we need international engagement that is not partisan, as the US has now declared itself to be.