Before speaking on the substantive and amended motions, I would like to recall the perspective of our first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which he shared in 2013, referring to the larger canvas against which the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas have occurred.
Lee Kuan Yew on the Israel-Palestinian conflict
I quote “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the biggest problem plaguing the Middle East. It is a running sore that oozes pus all the time.
To end the conflict, there has to be a two-state solution – one for the Israelis and one for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian state must also be economically and politically viable. Its people must feel that they have a reasonable chance of making a success out of their country – only then will they have a vested interest in keeping peace in this troubled region.
Because of the pro-Israel policy the Jewish lobby has succeeded in forging for America, a hard-line stance is allowed to prevail in the Israel leadership. This can have adverse and irreversible effects on the peace process. By building settlements in the occupied territories, for example, Israel is slowly but surely annexing land that would be handed over to the Palestinians in any potential deal between the two sides.
Ultra-conservatives in Israel believe the settlements bring Israel closer to its rightful historical borders, as laid out in the Hebrew Bible. They believe recovering the land is ordained by God, no less.
The settlements represent an unwelcome revision to an already complicated status quo. They are causing the prospects of any future possible deal to become ever remote.”
Mr Lee continues, “with every passing day, a permanent resolution to the conflict becomes less likely. The United Nations has declared the Israeli settlements a violation of international law, describing them as a “creeping annexation”.
The Israelis however, know that such declarations are toothless unless they are endorsed by the Americans. If, for example, the Americans are willing to cut of financial aid to Israel – amounting to $115 billion since 1949 – as well as other forms of military and political support until the building of settlements stops, Israel will have no choice but to act.
Without the Americans putting pressure on Israel, there is no end in sight for the conflict.”
Mr Lee also warns, “the conflict also serves as an evergreen cause which jihadists can exploit as part of their propaganda efforts to attract young recruits. The cause is kept alive across the Middle East, as well as in other parts of Asia, through television images that play up Palestinian sufferings.” (Unquote)
Mr Speaker, since the 7th of Oct, thousands of innocents have been killed and wounded in Israel and Gaza. Among those are thousands of children, the overwhelming majority of which are Palestinian. The sight of dead children being pulled out of rubble, and parents weeping, is something no sane human being could ever wish for anyone.
Why should we in Singapore even be speaking in Parliament about what is happening in Israel and the Occupied Territories, including Gaza? A conflict more than 8000km away has prompted Singaporeans from all communities to speak out and donate money to assist those in Gaza who are in dire circumstances. It is clear that Singaporeans care, and are very concerned about what is happening there.
I will make three points in my speech, taking reference from the Workers’ Party statement on the conflict on 18 Oct 2023. I will first repeat the statement for the record without reference to the footnotes in the statement.
WP Media Statement – The situation in Israel and the Gaza Strip
The Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament have received many emails and representations from Singaporeans calling for an immediate end to hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.
Previous military action in the Gaza Strip undertaken by the Israel Defence Forces in response to militant operations including by Hamas have been marked by overwhelming disproportionality. We fear this reality will repeat itself in the coming days, weeks and months.
The flagrant disregard of the Geneva Convention, the United Nations (UN) Charter and other international legal instruments; including the occupation of land taken in war by any sovereign nation – is not in Singapore’s national interests.
The killing of non-combatants, women and children by any country or organisation, in the name of war, deserves no less than absolute condemnation.
The WP supports Singapore’s long-held position that a two-state solution consistent with UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions is the only viable path to a durable, just and comprehensive resolution to the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
In particular, UNSC Resolution 242 which is supported by Singapore, calls for the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 war in exchange for a lasting peace with its neighbours.
Worryingly, the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine is likely to increase attacks against Jews and Muslims elsewhere, raising the prospect of radicalisation far beyond the Middle-East, making the world more unsafe and dangerous for all countries, particularly where multi-racial and multi-cultural communities live in peace and harmony. All Singaporeans should be aware and mindful of this possibility, and play an active part to prevent it from happening on our shores.
We call on Israel to reject the collective punishment of innocent civilians, cease all military operations in the Gaza Strip and to allow for the transit of humanitarian aid into Gaza forthwith.
At the same time, we call for the immediate return of all Israeli hostages captured in Hamas’ military operation in Southern Israel on 7 Oct 2023. De-escalation by all parties must be followed by a withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories, followed by serious negotiations to achieve a lasting peace in the Holy Land; a peace that legitimises the existence of the state of Israel, and establishes a viable Palestinian state.
By the time the Workers’ Party released its statement on 18 October, ordinary Singaporeans were troubled and even agitated about the issue. Many wrote to Workers’ Party MPs and continue to do so.
In the assessment of the Workers’ Party, one reason that precipitated this frustration was the perception of a dominant narrative at that point in the West and other advanced economies to focus only on the actions of Hamas. Let me be clear. The atrocities committed against innocent civilians by Hamas militants on 7 October cannot be supported and there can be no reason to target, kill or take civilians hostage.
It is important to point out that the West’s one-dimensional narrative was inadequate and incomplete because it suggested that the Israel-Palestine conflict started on 7 Oct 2023 with the killing of innocent civilians in Israel. Absent was context; context of Israel’s occupation and subjugation of the Occupied Territories, a matter that has not been resolved for decades. Nor was there any reflection on past United Nations fact-finding missions to Gaza in aftermath of previous Israel-Hamas conflicts. Nor was there any consideration of the impact of the wanton expansion of settlements in Occupied Territories by successive right-wing Israel governments, which delegitimized the right of the Palestinian people, making any future peace even harder to reach. Ultimately, these omissions, amongst others, operated to decontextualise the tragedy that befell Israel and her people on 7 Oct 2023.
Mr Speaker, the motion as worded by the three members is not objectionable and will be supported by the Workers’ Party. I assume Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Zulkarnaian will agree with me that the Israel-Hamas conflict is a subset of a larger struggle that arises out of the absence of a political solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. I invite all three members to disagree with me now, and for the record, if they do not agree with this statement. I am prepared to give way.
I will continue Mr Speaker.
A continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians
The first objective of the Workers’ Party statement of 18 October, was to put out this seemingly obvious fact – that the latest eruption in hostilities between Israel and Palestinians should not be seen in isolation – even as we condemned the killing of civilians by any country or organisation. Having done so, it was also important to state that this latest outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas was not new.
Since the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2006, four other major conflicts have broken out between Israel and Hamas. The tragedy that is befalling the people of Gaza today is a continuation of what has happened many times before. In previous bouts of violence between Israel and Hamas, 5365 Palestinians are reported to have been killed, many of them children, while 308 Israelis mainly combatants, are reported to have lost their lives.
The same history always repeats itself. In the end, the story on the Palestinian side is always far more gruesome in scale – overwhelming casualties, with a large number of children among the dead. Only the ill-informed could have thought that the latest installment was going to be any different. If history is a guide, we will very soon see the number of dead Palestinians in Gaza cross the 10,000 mark, with many of the dead being women and children.
As one senior former Israeli Defence Forces commander told me once, the Israeli way of war in the Gaza Strip is to strike hard so that the Palestinians learn a lesson they never forget, so they live in fear, and as a result are deterred from ever attacking Israel again.
With such an approach to warfare, one that invokes collective punishment in the name of self-defence, the death of many innocent Palestinians is all but certain.
Far from deterring future attacks on the Israeli state, this disproportionate response gives birth to a new generation of Palestinians that seek to avenge their forebears and some of whom see martyrdom as something to aspire to. This sad reality repeats itself ad infinitum, scuttling both the birth of a viable Palestinian state as well as a creating conditions in Israel where its borders are secure and its people live in peace with their neighbours. These are the reasons that explain why the Workers’ Party statement called for an immediate ceasefire, the return of hostages, and the conveyance of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, to be followed by serious negotiations towards a two-state solution.
Impact of conflict on Singapore’s peace and harmony
A second important aspect of the Workers’ Party statement was to identify the threat of the latest edition of the Israel-Hamas conflict to multi-racial and multi-cultural societies and communities like Singapore. The reality of radicalization and the prospect of uncalled-for and senseless attacks against Jews and Muslims all over the world and a more unsafe world as a result, cannot be understated. Singaporeans should be alive to this and not fall prey to calls, especially online, that target Jews or Muslims. The threat is not imaginary. The long-standing Israel-Palestinian conflict was, according to the Internal Security Department, one of the reasons why a twenty-year old Singaporean was remanded some two years ago because he planned to attack and murder Jews worshipping at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in Singapore.
While the call for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict consistent with UN resolutions is a clear way forward, we all know that the reality is more complex and layered, and getting to this outcome will be a struggle. For example, many months ago the most famous historian of his generation, Yuval Hariri, a Jew living in Israel was quoted as saying on the BBC that, I quote “my house is burning”. Unquote.
Prior to Hamas’ unprovoked attack, an intense political battle had been taking place for Israel’s soul. Deep political fissures over a fundamental tenet of democracy – the separation of powers – pitted many elements of Israeli society against the plans of a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
I quote Yuval Hariri from a piece he penned for the Financial Times in July this year – “To understand events in Israel, there is just one question to ask: what limits the power of the government? Robust democracies rely on a whole system of checks and balances. But Israel lacks a constitution, an upper house in the parliament, a federal structure or any other check on government power except one — the Supreme Court….the Netanyahu government plans to pass the first in a series of laws that will neutralise the Supreme Court. If it succeeds, it will gain unlimited power.” Unquote.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, which hosts the annual Shanghai-La dialogue in Singapore reported that between March and July this year, Israeli Air Force reservists refused to keep up their training hours, helicopter instructor pilots refused to report for duty and active reservists in the special forces refused to volunteer for service, all in protest of the country’s direction.
These differences in Israeli society should remind those of us far removed that not all Israelis think alike and that there are Jews and Israelis who may not necessarily agree with the right-wing political leadership on issues that include pursuing a strategy of settlement expansion that seeks to unilaterally change facts on the ground.
It would be incorrect to think that all Jews and Israelis are monolithic in their views, even as their desire for a homeland where they can live in peace without being subjected to terrorist attacks, is shared by all Israelis, and friends of Israel including Singapore.
These nuances are no different in the case of Palestinian organisations that operate in the Gaza Strip and the other Occupied Territories. This point was shrewdly emphasised by the Palestine ambassador to Malaysia last month. On the one hand, he thanked Malaysians for their steadfast support for the Palestinian cause, but on the other, warned them to channel their donations and support carefully lest they reach the wrong hands.
Some months ago, in a different context, he was on record noting that there were sectarian issues such as internal politics involving the Palestinian population. For those who are familiar with this, the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas, for example have different approaches to achieve their political goals, even if Israel has deemed the Palestinian Authority as supporting Hamas after the latter’s actions on 7 October.
While the Israel-Hamas confrontation and broader conflict looks set to continue for some time, Singaporeans should be aware that in view of our multi-racial and multi-religious society, this conflict will test us. But it should not be allowed to compromise our multi-racial and multi-religious peace and harmony.
As Singaporeans, we should not analyse a political issue through religious lenses.
For us, it is a humanitarian issue and both Israel and the Palestinians deserve to live in peace and harmony. Our contribution is a humanitarian one – to advocate and support calls to stop the killing, particularly of civilians and children, and to support the international community in reaching a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
To that end, the Workers’ Party supports the major decision taken by Singapore at the UN General Assembly calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities. This brings me to my third point and final point on the importance of international law for Singapore.
Singapore and the centrality of International Law
Mr Speaker, we speak in this House on this matter because it is important for Singapore to put its position on record. Both the parties directly involved in the conflict as well as the rest of the international community must know Singapore’s position and our firm belief in international law and our desire for the protection of human life.
The Workers’ Party supports the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols that prescribe international humanitarian law. We endorse the United Nations Charter and other international agreements.
We support them because our survival depends on them.
Singapore is a small state that relies on international law. And small states need international law and its protections. For example, Singapore has made its position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict clear. We took particular umbrage at the Russian claim that its aggression in Ukraine was justified because of historical errors and crazy decisions.
In the context of the Israel-Palestinian dispute, Singapore has voted in the UN against calls for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital of Israel. The principles and reasons for doing so are readily apparent.
If some religious group, militant organisation or country justified its aggression on something other than international law, we would have to aggressively stand against such perspectives. For example, some group or organisation in a neighbouring country may argue that Singapore has been part of the Malay archipelago for centuries and therefore should expect to be occupied and annexed. International law is clear that this cannot be so.
In conclusion Sir, about two decades ago, a grouping called the Middle East Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has recognized that in order to have peace, it is necessary to fulfil the aspirations of the parties for an independent homeland through two states for two peoples – the state of Israel, and an independent, viable state of Palestine, both of which must be able to live in peace and security.
The Workers’ Party backs this stand, which is also that of the Government of Singapore, as the only feasible path to a durable, just, and comprehensive resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Today, this prospect may seem far removed. But until that day comes, it is important that Singapore advocates strongly for the safety and security of civilians and children who are the innocent victims of this long-standing conflict. We call on both Israeli and Palestinian leadership to make compromises for peace to prevent future generations from paying for the actions and omissions of their elders, a price has proved and will continue to prove to be a high one for the world well beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine.
Thank you Mr Speaker.