Grahame Morris MP on child prisoners, apartheid and the peace process
"There are bootcases full of agreements and documents and aspirational plans and road maps but they haven't resulted in any kind of settlement because the Israelis, it seems to me, are getting everything they want at the moment by force of arms."
In Israel, Palestinian children wearing prison fatigues with leg irons and manacles on their hands are lead into court by a military official. There is no jury system, the charges are read in Hebrew and all rely on confessional based evidence. "It was like something from medieval times" says Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, recalling court proceedings he witnessed on a visit to Israel. "These children were the same age as my younger son."
Whilst these Palestinian children are tried under the jurisdiction of military courts, Israeli children are tried under civil law. "It's a form of apartheid, applying the law in a different way to a different racial group. What other word could you apply?" he asks.
Morris believes that the issue of child prisoners is one many people find unacceptable and intolerable irrespective of their political allegiances. "I've spoken with colleagues who are members of Labour Friends of Israel about the issue and frankly it's indefensible" he says. "The treatment of Palestinian child prisoners is an outrage and their brutalisation, the manner of their arrest, the fact that they're taken away from their parents, the fact that they're held in Israel in a separate country in contravention of international conventions on human rights and rights of a child. I think it's an issue where Israel does not have a leg to stand on."
It is all part of an overarching strategy to brutalise them and terrify the civilian population, he says. "It's a form of psychological warfare not just on the children, but on the families and for the community;" seeing this take place made Morris want to become more involved in the issue of Palestine. "I've taken an interest ever since in the general situation, in particular child prisoners, which I think is a huge affront to justice and democracy" he adds.
In fact, treating Palestinians in this way actually reinforces their sense of injustice, believes Morris, and builds a sense of hatred against the occupying power. Last week Palestinians tried to establish access to the centre of Hebron after the Israeli army closed access because settlers have acquired property there. "A peaceful process was met with what appears to be excessive force" says Morris, "which resulted in an overreaction, the use of tear gas and batons, and children stoning the security forces. The consequences are that Israeli Defence Force were carrying out arrests which may or may not be the people who were involved. It's a vicious circle, there isn't a solution either. All the indications that I've had is that many of those children are just brutalised."
As a backbench MP Morris has raised the issue of child prisoners many times in questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth office, and in debates. "I think it's just important to keep raising it and I do think it's starting to have an impact you know" he says. "Just thinking back perhaps ten years or so, or maybe less, I do think that the weight of international opinion -maybe because of social media - is swinging against Israel and their policies of apartheid where they're discriminating against the Palestinian community and acting in breach of international law, of UN resolutions, of international conventions. I do think that's starting to have an effect on world opinion."
In December last year, Morris was elected Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, "a great honour" by his own admission. Whilst some feel that taking up the Palestinian cause would have a damaging effect on prospects for progression within the political establishment, says Morris, "I don't think that's the case; even if it was it wouldn't bother me. But it is good to see that so many Labour Friends of Palestine now sitting on Labour's front bench are being promoted, it's a really positive thing, it's good for the group and you know it increases the kudos and standing of the group."
Though he doesn't encounter much resistance from other party members, Morris has had "a lot of flak" from pro-Israeli groups and individuals. "I consider it as a badge of honour" he says. In the past there was an "asymmetrical" relationship where Labour Friends of Israel were in a position of power and influence and Labour Friends of Palestine was much smaller, but this has changed. "I do think it's become very much more influential in terms of within the party and generally within the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party], it's a very positive sign."
As Chair, Morris hopes to build on "the solid work" of his predecessors. He would also like to deepen Labour Friends of Palestine's relationship with the Labour Party, spread the message, and "contribute towards a lasting settlement based on the two state solution on the 1967 boundaries which can afford a degree of justice and dignity to both the Palestinians and the Israelis because I don't think there is dignity for Israel in what is happening at the moment."
"If they think they can get everything they can wish for by force of arms and just riding rough shod over the Palestinians and ignoring the international community, I don't think that will give them what they seek, which is long term peace and security" he adds.
We meet during Israeli Apartheid Week, where events across the world aim to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system. Morris describes the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa as "solid" and one which he has personally seen evidence of on the ground.
Like Israel, South Africa was a system it seemed would never change, "a monolith that was impervious to pressure." But eventually it did. "I think the turning point was when internationally the world was disgusted by discriminatory policies of apartheid and the application of sanctions - which I actually support in the case of Israeli settlements, the illegal settlements - and I think that helped to concentrate public opinion throughout the world, but particularly in the west, and South Africa was recognised as a pariah state. I think for too long the world has been prepared to turn a blind eye to what Israel is doing and I just think it's unacceptable, it just can't go on."
The situation in Gaza is not tenable either, he continues, in relation to the devastating effects of the siege. "It's just not sustainable in terms of the consequences of the blockade and the difficulties that's causing even in terms of being able to feed the population. The contamination of the water supplies, the consequences for public health, the problems it's causing in terms of unemployment, lack of basic materials and just the general quality of life deteriorating. Something has to change."
There may be warm words and acknowledgement of the issues, but what seems to be lacking is tangible progress and changes on the ground that transform into a lasting peace and settlement. "I fully understand that Israel has legitimate concerns about its own security, but that can't be used as a camouflage for unreasonable territorial demands that directly and unfairly penalise the rights of the Palestinians who also have rights that should be respected."
As for Kerry's attempt at a peace process, Morris describes it as a "powder keg" and admits he is not "wildly optimistic" about his efforts. "I do hope that he can pull the iron out of the fire and produce something more than a framework agreement" he says. President Obama needs to apply pressure on Israel to negotiate a settlement, and not just make an agreement with aspirations for the future.
"It would be sensible to have some kind of objective assessment of the grievances and assessment of the legitimacy of the aspirations and demands of the Palestinians and of the Israelis" he continues, "but realistically unless the Americans really take on the role of honest broker and are not favouring Netanyahu and the Israelis then how can we have stability in the region and a peaceful two state solution that is honourable for the Palestinians that forms the basis for a long and lasting peace, which is what everybody wants."
"There are bootcases full of agreements and documents and aspirational plans and road maps but they haven't resulted in any kind of settlement because the Israelis, it seems to me, are getting everything they want at the moment by force of arms, because they're in an irresistible position in terms of the tactics that they're employing. They're getting everything they want, they're expanding their settlements, they're accessing the water resources, they're imposing a blockade on Gaza. There just has to be some enforceable solution, it has to be based around both sides accepting it, making a commitment to accept the offer."
"We'll just keep our fingers crossed and hope people of good will prevail."
Published in Middle East Monitor