LONDON — Casual observers of the House of Commons’ monthly ritual in which British MPs grill the country’s Foreign Office ministers would know that Israel and the Palestinians are frequent topics of debate.
But the true scale of the UK parliament’s growing focus on the Jewish state has now been revealed by the researcher and blogger David Collier.
Using Hansard — the official transcripts of proceedings in parliament — Collier has uncovered what he claims to be “astonishing results” underlining the “total obsession with Israel” in Britain’s legislature.
By searching Hansard’s online tool, Collier discovered that Israel has been referenced 17,667 times between January 1, 1946 and January 20, 2019. The search pulled up mentions in both the House of Commons and parliament’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords.
As Collier notes, throughout much of the postwar period there were spikes in references to Israel at predictable moments relating to key moments in the conflict between Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. These include the time of independence, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war, the period between the 1991 Gulf War and the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Second Intifada and the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
But the period since 2005 appears to indicate that parliament has become, in Collier’s words, “totally preoccupied with Israel.”
Even allowing for spikes around the 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 Gaza wars, the number of references to Israel generally outpaces the level of discussion which occurred prior to 2006. Indeed, the number of references to Israel in the years in which the 2008-9 and 2014 Gaza wars took place is greater than that which occurred in any other year, except for the 1956 Suez crisis in which Britain was directly involved.
“I believe that since 2005 and the rise of BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement], the Palestinians have ‘internationalized’ the conflict, engaging in a major PR exercise with Western parliamentarians,” Collier told The Times of Israel. “NGOs, which can range from Islamic charities to church groups, fund trips so they can ‘see the truth,’ treat them like kings, and in turn, these politicians become activists, raising the case for the Palestinians wherever and whenever they can. Social media has clearly had an impact on this strategy also.”
Collier puts this focus on Israel into perspective by comparing references to the Jewish state over the same period to other Middle Eastern countries. There were, for instance, 11,671 references to Iran; 11,468 to Syria; 9,676 to Egypt; 4,780 to Jordan; and 4,514 to Lebanon. Palestine was mentioned 7,032 times. (Search results specifically mentioning the Palestinian Authority were not included in the report, but Collier noted that nearly every time the word “Palestinian” was referenced, “Palestine” was as well.)
Although not included in Collier’s investigation, a Hansard search also reveals that during this same period there were 25,389 references to Iraq. However, this is a country with which Britain has twice gone to war in the past 28 years, with the 2003 conflict still proving hugely contentious domestically and UK troops not being withdrawn until May 2011 (British forces remain part of the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition operating in Syria and Iraq).
Moreover, a comparison of references to Syria and Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 is also revealing. There have been 8,856 mentions of Syria in the UK parliament, according to Hansard, and 4,152 to Israel. During this period, the Syrian conflict is estimated to have claimed over 500,000 lives.
Likewise, there have been 1,382 references to Darfur since the genocide began there in February 2003. In the same period, there were 7,414 mentions of Israel and 3,519 of Gaza. Thirty-nine debates were held on Darfur and 99 on Gaza. The UN estimated in 2013 that up to 300,000 people have been murdered in the Darfur genocide (a figure disputed by the Sudanese government).
Of course, a reference to Israel is not necessarily negative. During the 1967 and 1973 wars – when British public opinion overwhelmingly backed Israel – it is reasonable to assume that many parliamentary references would have similarly supportive.
Even in more recent years, pro-Israel MPs, working with groups such as Conservative Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), secure debates and ask parliamentary questions. They also intervene in debates staged by MPs hostile to Israel. Such tactics, while helping to redress anti-Israel bias, necessarily increases the overall number of references to the Jewish state.
However, it is also the case that many parliamentary mentions of Israel are negative in the extreme. A debate held in the House of Commons chamber the day after 62 protesters — 50 of whom Hamas later claimed as its own members — were shot dead was especially fraught.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Emily Thornberry, struck the tone, condemning the “horrific massacre” which she described as “an apparently calculated and deliberate policy to kill and maim unarmed protestors who posed no threat to the forces on the Gaza border.”
She assailed the “lethal intent of the Israeli snipers working on the border”; compared Israeli forces to Americans who hunt animals; and attacked “this vicious slaughter.”
As the Middle East minister, Alistair Burt, suggested in response, Thornberry failed to make any mention in her remarks of Hamas. Unlike Thornberry, some of the MPs who subsequently spoke – including Layla Moran, a member for the centrist Liberal Democrats and the first MP of Palestinian descent – recognized that Hamas bore some responsibility for the bloodshed. Many references to Hamas were, however, simply made in passing with the blame for the violence overwhelmingly apportioned to Israel.
Gaza has, indeed, frequently proved a flashpoint for the voicing of strongly anti-Israel sentiment.
Debating the 2014 war shortly before MPs began their summer recess, one Labour MP made clear his lack of interest in any form of balanced debate: “We should not equate the occupied with the occupier. We should not equate a refugee population of 1.7 million imprisoned in a tiny strip of land with the prison guards. We should not equate terrorists firing rockets with a supposedly civilized state systematically killing women and children and elderly and disabled people,” said Hammersmith representative Andy Slaughter.
It is, however, notable that during that debate – which occurred the year before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader – the party’s then spokesperson on foreign affairs, Douglas Alexander, struck a decidedly less negative stance towards Israel and a far greater recognition of its security concerns and the threat posed by Hamas than Thornberry did last May.
While much of the criticism of Israel comes from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish and Welsh nationalist benches, it is also not the case that Conservative MPs are uniformly supportive of the Jewish state, with the Tory benches containing a small but vocal number of critics.
Even outside periods of war and crisis, the topics around which debates are held are also frequently highly negative. In the space of two years, MPs twice, for instance, debated the emotive topic of Palestinian children and young people detained or imprisoned by Israel.
In the most recent debate, held in January 2018, the Labour MP who had secured it, Sarah Champion, made three references to “torture” in her short, opening speech. The crimes for which those detained were being held were also frequently downplayed by others.
One MP, for instance, referred to “the terror experienced in military court by the kids who threw stones.” (The notion that apparently harmless stone-throwing accounted for many arrests was also prevalent in the January 2016 debate).
“The majority of children are taken from their homes in the occupied West Bank during the middle of the night,” stated another MP. “Heavily armed soldiers take the children away and several hours later they turn up in detention or interrogation centers alone, sleep-deprived, bruised and scared.”
It was left to pro-Israel MPs to question whether there was an undue focus on the subject. Joan Ryan, the chair of LFI, for instance, noted that in the two years since MPs previous discussed the topic “we have not debated the fate, for instance, of child prisoners in Iran, where Amnesty International estimates there are at least 80 individuals on death row for crimes allegedly committed when they were under 18, or indeed the fate of others in Egypt, the Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen, which have all sentenced juvenile offenders to death since 2010.”
“We have also never discussed the fate of the 60,000 children locked up in juvenile detention facilities in the United States — many for truanting, under-age drinking or consensual sexual conduct — or the fact that, adjusted for size of population, 5.5 times more minors were arrested in 2015-16 in England and Wales than in the West Bank by Israel,” she continued.
But it is arguable that it is less the content of parliament’s deliberations on Israel than its seemingly disproportionate focus on its affairs that is most problematic. It is not necessary to believe that there may be some darker motive for what Collier terms “the increasing fixation” with the world’s sole Jewish state to recognize that it skews the way in which politicians and the public in the UK come to view the problems of the region.
By expending so much energy discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, West Bank settlements or Gaza, parliamentarians – who have only a finite amount of time to spend in debates – grapple less with issues around Islamist extremism, terrorism, corrupt and undemocratic governance, economic weakness, and Iranian expansionism which lay at the root of the Middle East’s ills.
Collier also notes the rise in mentions of anti-Semitism in parliament in recent years.
“It is part of a trend. It isn’t tied to a single individual, nor can accusations of anti-Semitism simply be a plot to unseat Corbyn,” he asks. “If the anti-Semitism ‘smear’ exists to unseat Corbyn, why were there spikes of discussion in 2004, ‘8, ‘9, ’11 and ’14?”
“The rise of Corbyn is linked to the rise of anti-Semitism, in that extremist ideologies have entered the mainstream … Corbyn is a symptom of a problem that is getting worse,” he writes.
Collier argued to The Times of Israel that the increasing preoccupation with Israel and rising anti-Semitism were “absolutely connected.”
“Whilst not all anti-Israel activity is rooted in anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism is part and parcel of anti-Israel activism,” he said. “Any rise in one, will inevitably bring about a rise in the other.”