Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs what can the Government do to (i) help de-escalate the tension in Israel and the Palestinian Territories to avoid the loss of innocent lives and protect from damage the UNESCO World Heritage religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem which include the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and (ii) monitor and ensure the safety of all Singapore citizens who are currently residing in Israel.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: We need to understand the context of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict that led to the tragic loss of many innocent lives in May 2021.
First, the 11-day outbreak of violence in May 2021 was the fifth major military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the last 15 years. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but retained control over the border crossing and the supply of goods into Gaza from the Israeli side. The Palestinians have accused Israel of imposing a blockade of Gaza. On Israel’s part, it has experienced recurrent indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza and armed border incursions over the years. In this latest round, an unprecedented number of more than 4,000 rockets were fired indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel. Israel has also accused Hamas of launching rockets from civilian areas in Gaza. Although a majority of rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, a dozen people were killed, including one child. On the Gaza side, the Palestinian toll was higher, with Palestinian health authorities reporting about 250 deaths, including 60 children. Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was also badly damaged and over 77,000 civilians were displaced according to UN figures. Tragically, the cycle of violence has not been broken over the last 15 years and civilians on both sides have been the victims. We are all deeply saddened by the loss of innocent civilian lives.
Second, this latest episode was related to earlier violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in Jerusalem, including on the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Clashes in the vicinity of the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount are always very sensitive given its sanctity and religious significance for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. That these took place during the holy month of Ramadan only exacerbated tensions. When Hamas decided to launch rocket attacks on Israel on 10 May, it had publicly claimed that it was doing so in the name of “defending Jerusalem and Islam”. Given Jerusalem’s importance to all the Abrahamic religions, incidents at key religious sites will inflame emotions and be easily exploited by various groups to advance political causes. However, this does not mean that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one. At its core, the conflict has always been about territory, self-determination and identity which has been ensnared by Israeli and intra-Palestinian politics.
Third, the situation in Gaza is partly a reflection of intra-Palestinian political rivalries. The West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and controlled by the Fatah party. However, the PA no longer governs Gaza after Hamas seized unilateral control in 2007. The political divide between the West Bank and Gaza has remained despite past attempts at forging a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas. Unlike Fatah, Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and believes in armed conflict. In an interview in May 2020, Palestinian academic Dr Khalil Shikaki said that Palestinians in Gaza viewed the use of violence as an effective solution against Israel, and that support for armed resistance was notably higher among Palestinian youth compared to the older generation. It therefore comes as no surprise that public Palestinian polls have indicated that popular support for Hamas has considerably increased following its latest attacks on Israel, as was the case immediately after the 2014 Gaza War.
Fourth, given the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, achieving a resolution has been extremely difficult. The historic Oslo Accords in 1993 gave rise initially to optimism that a two-state solution and Israel’s right to exist in peace could be realised at some point. Regrettably, there has been limited progress despite attempts by the international community, including the Quartet, to support direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The lack of visible progress has made it even more difficult to realise a peaceful outcome. Public polls show that support for a two-state solution within Israel appears to be waning. Similar polls show that many Palestinians believe a two-state solution to be neither achievable nor viable.
I have first provided some context so that Singaporeans can have a better appreciation of the ground realities in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza beyond the media headlines and polemics. This is also the context for the Singapore Government’s longstanding, consistent and principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
First, Singapore’s primary concern has always been the safety and security of civilians on all sides. International law and agreements must be upheld. On 9 May, MFA expressed deep concerns and urged all sides to stop the violence following the clashes on the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount. On 12 May, MFA called upon all parties to cease attacks against civilian targets and work towards a durable ceasefire. Gaza is a densely populated area and the risk of civilian casualties is high. On its part, Hamas should not use civilians as shields by launching indiscriminate rocket attacks at Israel from civilian sites. On 21 May, we welcomed the mutual ceasefire and urged both sides to avoid further loss of civilian lives. We also called for the swift and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to affected civilians. As with past conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, Singapore will continue to support humanitarian assistance efforts for the Palestinians. For example, the Singapore Government donated US$100,000 as seed money to the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) for its fund-raising appeal. I am heartened that Singaporeans have responded generously by contributing almost S$4.5 million to the fund-raising drives by the SRC and the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Fund (RLAF), which will be channelled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Red Crescent in support of their humanitarian and relief efforts. This is a testament to the Singaporean spirit of compassion for others in need.
Second, the cycle of violence in Gaza must stop. While the damaged infrastructure in Gaza can be rebuilt, the cynical view is that it is inevitable that another round of violence would erupt again. This will continue unless all sides are willing to make the necessary compromises and refrain from further violence. In this regard, Singapore welcomes efforts by key regional countries such as Egypt in strengthening the ceasefire in Gaza and facilitating negotiations between the relevant parties.
Third, Singapore will continue to support the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) capacity-building efforts. The Singapore Government has committed S$10 million under the Enhanced Technical Assistance Program (ETAP). Since its inception in 2013, the ETAP has hosted customised study visits and training programmes for over five hundred Palestinian officials in line with the PA’s priorities such as public administration, economic development and urban development. We have also sponsored Palestinian students to pursue post-graduate degrees in our local universities.
Fourth, Singapore has taken a consistent and principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We support a negotiated two-state solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side in peace and security consistent with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. This is the only viable option to achieve a durable, just and comprehensive solution. While the international community can help support this process, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership ultimately need to have the political will to resolve this conflict. Concessions have to be made by both sides. We hope that the leaders on both sides will find a way to engage in serious negotiations on the two-state solution in the interest of their peoples and regional stability. In the meantime, we call on all sides to refrain from taking any actions that would further escalate tensions.
MFA continues to provide consular assistance to Singaporeans residing in the region. MFA had reached out early to check on their welfare. MFA reminded them to be vigilant and to take the necessary precautions for their personal safety. MFA will continue to work with our Honorary Consulate-General in Tel Aviv to provide consular assistance to Singaporeans in Israel as necessary. We also urge those who have not e-registered with us to do so immediately so that we can reach out to them in the event of an emergency.
. . . . .
MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
3 AUGUST 2021