‘Arms race’ for visits over world’s most contentious conflict
Groups linked to both sides of the conflict have spent over £130,000 since the last UK general election on taking Parliamentarians to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Many of those MPs who accepted trips have gone on to make supportive speeches and statements in Parliament and the media backing the positions of the groups that have paid and organised their travel.
On the Israeli side, the biggest single donor, according to the register of MPs’ interests, is Conservative Friends of Israel, which has spent over £30,000 taking more than two dozen Tory backbenchers to Israel and the West Bank since the election on five separate trips.
Earlier this week, as the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians intensified, the organisation co-ordinated a public letter supporting the Israeli cause. “More than 1,000 rockets and mortars have been indiscriminately fired into civilian areas by Hamas and other terror organisations operating under its protection,” it read. “Israel has a sovereign duty to protect its citizens. Hamas needs to know that the British Government will not reward its terror tactics.”
It was signed by 17 Tory MPs – 10 of whom had been on pro-Israeli delegations to the region in since the 2010 General Election.
Other pro-Israeli groups who have paid for MPs to travel to the region include Labour Friends of Israel who have funded nine places for Labour backbenchers on trips and Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel who have spent £5,400. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has spent over £10,000 on trips since 2010, the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange £11,000 and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre £5,000.
Earlier in the week, during a Parliamentary debate on the current conflict, at least 14 of the speakers on either side of the argument had travelled to the region.
Louise Ellman, the Labour chair of the Transport Select Committee, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this year as part of the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue. In the debate she said: “Does the fact that Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, that in 2005 Israel removed all its 9,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza and that that was followed by Hamas firing thousands of rockets from civilian centres in Gaza targeted at Israeli citizens mean that Israel deserves full support in defending its citizens against this aggression?”
Richard Ottaway, the Conservative MP for Croydon South visited Israel in November 2011 as part of a Conservative Friends of Israel trip. He said: “Over the weekend, Israel was widely condemned for a military strike on an international media centre in Gaza in breach of the Geneva convention. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it was in fact a base for Islamic Jihad and that the only person who lost their life was its military commander?” Neither made mention of the trip in their interventions – although some other MPs did.
Both MPs told The Independent that the Commons Speaker had consistently upheld the principle that there are “certain proceedings” where a declaration of interest may not be practicable, for example “oral questions”
It is not only Israeli lobbying groups paying for MPs’ trips to the region. The Sir Joseph Hotung Programme for Law, Human Rights and Peace building in the Middle East has spent over £30,000 paying for 26 MPs to visit the West Bank, Israel and Gaza since the election. But these visits were in fact organised by the Council for Advancing Arab British Relations, a pro-Palestinian outfit which admits it sees the conflict through an Arab perspective.
The Conservative Middle East Council, funded by a number of wealth Arab donors, has also spent over £16,000 taking nine MPs on visits.
A spokesman for the Council for Advancing Arab British Relations said: “More than anything these visits are about showing how people are struggling to survive under occupation.” But he added: “There is no point lecturing MPs. They have to come to their own conclusions.”
Overseas visits: The Rules
MPs are required to notify the House of the destination, date and purpose of their overseas travel when paid for by a third party and where the cost of the visit exceeds one per cent of an MPs annual salary.
The Code of Conduct states that they are also required to name the organisation, Government or company that funded the travel and the costs involved. Visits on behalf of or funded by Her Majesty’s Government are exempt from registration.
Any gift to the MP or any “material advantage” received from or on behalf of a company, organisation or person while overseas must be declared.
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