Call me a cynic if you wish, but I have a hunch that debates in the House of Commons have so far made only a limited impact on the course of the Israel-Hamas war. Of course, it’s important and appropriate that in a democracy, Parliament should consider one of the biggest foreign policy issues of our times. Nevertheless, it seems to be doing so an awful lot. If you go to the Hansard website and do a quick search, it will tell you that since the terrorist attacks of October 7, MPs have held debates with the word “Israel” in their title no fewer than 15 times, a rough average of twice every week. On Monday and Tuesday this week, MPs held separate sessions at different times in both the main Commons chamber and in Westminster Hall.
The war has also dominated parliamentary questions to the Foreign Office. Overall, Israel has been mentioned in both Houses of Parliament a total of 624 times since the current war began, and in addition, MPs have written a total of 271 blogs or press releases about it. Meanwhile, other pressing international issues have received far less attention. Taiwan, whose continued independence is being increasingly menaced by China, has not figured in the title of a debate in either House once this year. Ukraine, where President Zelensky is under mounting internal pressure and the war seems to be swinging Putin’s way – a development with terrifying consequences for Britain, Europe and the wider world – has been debated in the Commons on just three occasions since October 7: one fifth as many times as Israel – Hamas.
What makes this near-obsession all the more peculiar is the fact that most of these debates aren’t really debates at all, by which I mean that none of their participants ever admit to having been persuaded by the arguments of their opponents. They tend instead to be largely performative. The government and the Labour front bench will express their abhorrence for Hamas and their support for Israel’s right to self-defence, although recently both have also placed more emphasis on reducing civilian casualties in Gaza and supplying more humanitarian aid.
In response, their opponents, which include the Liberal Democrats, Labour left-wingers, the SNP and some maverick Tories, demand a “ceasefire now”. As for the longer-term future, almost everyone says they are against West Bank settlements and in favour of a negotiated, two-state peace.
This is nothing new: long before the current phase of the conflict, Israel seemed to take up a disproportionate amount of parliamentary time. From the start of this year until October 7, Israel was debated in the Lords or Commons on ten separate occasions. The British government and its intelligence and security services have made it clear that they see China as a looming threat to UK interests, but MPs and peers debated it just four times in the same period. Iraq has been debated just once all this year, war-torn Yemen only twice, and Lebanon, mired in political and economic crisis, not at all.
Four years ago, the researcher David Collier revealed that Israel had been mentioned in Parliament 17,667 times between the start of 1946 and January 2019. There were, he discovered, predictable spikes in parliamentary attention during periods of violence, such as the 1956 Suez crisis (in which Britain was directly involved) and the 1967 Six-Day War. But he also detected a steady, rising trend that became especially noticeable in the new millennium, with some baffling anomalies.
For example, after the Darfur genocide started in 2003 until 2019, there were 1,382 mentions of Darfur, but 7,414 of Israel and 3,519 of Gaza. Over that 16-year period, a total of 39 debates were held in the Lords and Commons on Darfur and 99 on Israel’s conflict with Gaza - despite the fact that the UN estimated in 2013 that the Sudanese government had murdered 300,000 people in Darfur, a figure which, needless to say, dwarfs even the most exaggerated claims about the level of casualties in Gaza.
Just as now, MPs were especially prone to singling out Israel for criticism while failing to mention alleged crimes committed elsewhere. For example, in a 2018 debate on Israel’s treatment of juvenile prisoners, the Labour MP Sarah Champion claimed Israel’s arrests and interrogations of children were “equivalent to torture”.
It was left to Joan Ryan, the then-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, to point out that in the two years since Parliament had last debated young Palestinian prisoners, it had not once addressed the estimated 80 child prisoners facing execution on death row in Iran, nor the fate of children sentenced to death in Egypt, the Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen.
Nor, she added, had it bothered to notice 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”.
I suppose democratic parliaments are meant to represent the electorates they serve, and a disproportionate focus on Israel is just as evident on the streets: there have been no marches hundreds of thousands strong in support of the Uyghurs persecuted by China or the Iranian opposition crushed with such brutality since the murder of Mahsa Amini last year.
But it’s disappointing to note that the same obsessive focus is just as evident in Parliament, and it does not augur well for the role MPs say they want to play in achieving the goal so many of them purport to espouse - that elusive, long-lasting, negotiated two-state peace.