Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan during the Parliamentary Motion on the Israel-Hamas Conflict, 6 November 2023

06 November 2023

Mr Speaker,


1 I rise in support of the amended motion in the name of Mr Vikram Nair and as amended by Mr Alex Yam.


2 This conflict occurs thousands of kilometres away and has a long, complicated and often violent history going back thousands of years. But all Singaporeans are horrified, are saddened by this latest escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Anyone with a heart must feel pain when we witness the suffering of fellow human beings – regardless of race, language, religion, ideology or allegiance.


3 Early in the morning of 7 October 2023, Hamas launched several thousand rockets into Israel. At the same time, more than 1,000 militants infiltrated Israeli territory, and killed more than 1,400 persons. The victims included innocent civilians at home, many of them asleep, young people attending a concert and several of our fellow ASEAN nationals working on farms. Hamas also abducted more than 200 civilians including senior citizens, women and children, who today are held as hostages in Gaza.


4 Let me be clear and unambiguous: what Hamas did on 7 October was an act of terrorism. It involved indiscriminate killing and extreme brutality. It was not a military operation, targeted at military targets. Such acts cannot be justified by any rationale, any historical grievance, any religious belief, any context. These acts of indiscriminate killing, torture, and kidnapping of innocent civilians are acts of terror, period. This is why Singapore has strongly condemned the terrorist attack by Hamas and why we have called for the safe, immediate and unconditional release of all civilian hostages. It is in our absolute national interest to hold fast to this stand, not just because we feel sorry for innocent victims, but because our national interests are at stake. Being so small, exposed, vulnerable and multi-racial, Singapore must take a clear and unambiguous stand against terrorism, in all circumstances. I was somewhat reassured when I listened to the Leader of the Opposition’s speech just now, where he now seems to have clarified that the attack that was launched by Hamas was not simply a military operation, but in fact, deserves to be condemned. I think Mr Gerald Giam was even more specific – I think he used the phrase ‘unequivocally condemn’ the attacks by Hamas. I could not help noticing that both members of the Workers’ Party were unable to use the word ‘terrorism’. I will leave that for you to clarify later on, but I must share with you that when I first saw your published statement, it left room for ambiguity. I think your speeches in this chamber today are more reassuring, but I would feel even better if you can clearly and unequivocally say that indiscriminate attacks on civilians, on women, on children, and taking hostages, are a clear and present act of terror. Say that for the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans. 


5 These attacks have obviously deeply shaken the Israelis’ sense of safety and security. Israel has responded by launching an intensive aerial bombardment of Gaza. It imposed a blockade on the delivery of food, water and fuel supplies. On 28 October 2023, Israeli troops expanded their ground operations in Gaza to destroy Hamas’ military capacity and its vast network of underground tunnels, much of which is alleged to be located under civilian infrastructure including schools and hospitals. Israel’s intensive bombardment and blockade has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza. To date, health authorities in Gaza have estimated that more than 9,000 Palestinians, including many women and children in Gaza, have died. Many more have suffered injuries, and over 1.5 million have been displaced from their homes and are without adequate shelter, food, water or medical attention.


6 At the 10th UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on 27 October 2023, Singapore voted for a humanitarian truce so that immediate and sustained humanitarian provision of essential supplies and services to civilians throughout the Gaza Strip can be provided. I think you have a copy of that resolution including the Explanation of Vote by our Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) in New York Burhan Gafoor, which made the point that there were glaring omissions in that resolution – to call out Hamas for conducting an act of terror, and for not acknowledging the right of self-defence on the part of Israel, which I will explain a little bit later on.


Mr Speaker,


7 Let me explain the principles underpinning the Singapore Government’s position on this unfolding tragedy.


8 First, Singapore must always take a zero-tolerance approach towards terrorism. We have to be categorical in rejecting terrorism, whoever, whenever, wherever it is perpetrated. As I said just now, we do so not just out of sympathy, but because terrorism is a clear and present danger and threat for Singapore and Singaporeans.


9 Second, international law dictates that all states have the legitimate and inherent right to defend themselves. This is enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. I do not think that I need to remind this House that this is a very important principle for Singapore. Have no doubt, if Singapore is ever attacked, we would certainly assert and exercise the right of self-defence.


10 Third, all countries must ensure that if military action is taken in exercising this right of self-defence, they must abide by the principles of necessity and proportionality. They must also comply with the laws of war, including the principle of distinction and humanity enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.


11 In such times, it is crucial that decisions are not made out of anger, blind wrath and hatred, but are made in line with the moral values and legal principles that shape our common humanity. In a jointly written Financial Times commentary last month, a group of distinguished Jewish jurists, and this includes experts in international humanitarian law, strongly counselled Israel and its leaders to act in a restrained and thoughtful way that would not make the country’s problems worse. One of these jurists was in fact Lord David Neuberger, who was the former President of the Supreme Court of the UK.


12 It is worth quoting them and let me quote one paragraph in full. “International law forbids sieges of civilian populations. Gaza is home to some two million fellow human beings (almost half of whom are children) and it would be a grave violation of international law to hold them under siege and while doing so, deprive them of basic necessities such as food and water. To be clear, collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war. Equally, international law requires combatants to ensure minimum destruction to civilian life and infrastructure. An intent to cause indiscriminate damage, rather than behaving in a precise manner to minimise damage would, if established, constitute a grave violation of international law. In the conduct of any military campaign, politicians and commanders alike must be careful to ensure that their words do not imply to their troops that the laws of war can be disregarded, nor employ language whose effect is to dehumanise a civilian population.” I want to emphasise that last sentence: ‘to dehumanise a civilian population’. Because usually that is a very clear indication that conflict between countries, states or civilisations is about to begin. The moment that human beings dehumanise the other, is the time that unspeakable horror, barbarity and terrorism is conducted.


13 Any alleged violation of international humanitarian law in this conflict should therefore be investigated in accordance with international law. I think MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim had asked that question earlier. Yes, we would support that investigation into all allegations, in accordance with international law. We hope that all parties will cooperate in the investigations.


14 History will judge each party’s response not only by whether and how immediate threats are resolved, but also by the effects on the long-term stability and security of the region.


15 Fourth, humanitarian assistance must reach the affected civilian populations immediately. That is why we call on all parties to enable this, and particularly Israel and Egypt which have immediate borders with Gaza. Yesterday, I spoke with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. Frankly, he was tired, almost demoralised. I told him that Singapore understands the tremendous strain that Egypt faces as an immediate neighbour of Gaza. I said that we want to support you. Our people in Singapore care, we are raising funds, and let us know how we can assist Egypt. I commended the Egyptian government’s efforts to open the Rafah crossing to facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods into Gaza, and equally the possible evacuation of seriously injured persons for medical treatment. The day before, I had spoken to the Foreign Minister of the UAE who was also trying to work out plans to perhaps evacuate injured persons and their families for treatment elsewhere. We strongly support these efforts by immediate neighbours as well as by the UN and other relief organisations to urgently increase aid to Gaza.


16 I think that you all are aware that the Singapore Government has contributed seed funding of S$300,000 to the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) which is working with its partners to support the relief effort in Gaza, and is working closely with the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Egyptian Red Crescent Society. In fact, I think Singaporeans have donated nearly S$5 million to the fundraising drives by the SRC and the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation (RLAF).  I am sure that more will come in the weeks to come. Later tonight, Minister Maliki Osman will be going to Cairo and he will also help to ensure that the goodness of the hearts of Singaporeans will be directed to the right channels. He will explain a little more after my speech.


17 Fifth, Singapore continues to uphold our longstanding and consistent position that a negotiated two-state solution, consistent with relevant UNSC resolutions (especially 242 and 338), is the only viable option for a comprehensive, just and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have consistently stated, for a long time, that Israel must accept a Palestinian state, just as Palestinians must also accept Israel’s right to exist. We have expressed our firm opposition to violations of international law and to unilateral measures which imperil the prospects for peace.


18 Many of you know we have good relations with Israel. I hope you also know that we have good relations with the Palestinian people and with the Palestinian Authority (PA). But look at our voting record at the UN. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli forces occupied the Old City of Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank after Jordan attacked Israel. Following the war, in 1967 – before some Members in this House were even born – we voted in support of all the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions calling upon Israel to rescind all unilateral measures taken to change the status of Jerusalem. We voted again like this in 2017. We have also voted in support of UNGA resolutions that reject Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank. With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I ask the Clerks to distribute a list of some of Singapore’s past voting positions on the relevant resolutions. Members may also access the handout through the MP@SGPARL App. The point is, we are good friends, but good friends also speak truth even if it is disagreeable and not the most comfortable to the person on the other side. Our ability to speak truth to friends and be friends to both sides, even while they are locked in mortal conflict, is a privileged position, but one that can only be maintained if we are consistent and we operate on the basis of principles.


19 Now unfortunately, the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians – and we have heard a good synopsis on the history of this by Mr Vikram Nair in his opening speech – the upshot of this process is that first, I would remind you that being a peacemaker in the Middle East is dangerous. Mr Nair mentioned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat made peace with Israel in Camp David, they signed it (the Camp David Accords) in 1978, and by 1981 he was assassinated. In Israel, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was in fact the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff during the 1967 War, so this was no doubt a realist, a general, a commander, a soldier. Mr Nair reminded us that it was Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat who signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and subsequently a second round in 1995, and in fact this was what had led to the creation of the PA, and to the Israelis pulling out of Gaza. But you all will know that Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, not by an Arab but by an Israeli extremist. As for the Palestinians, the PA consisted initially of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), because the Oslo Accords provided that for the first time ever the PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist, and the Israelis recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. But soon, fierce political rivalry between Hamas and Fatah occurred – and in fact it was not just a matter of elections, or ‘you win or I win’ but it was actually civil war, violence, they killed each other. The rise of the radical hard right extremists in both societies has rendered a peaceful political settlement almost impossible. We stand here and talk about a two-state solution, but we are talking. That is where the frontline is. Actually, support for a two-state negotiated political solution has been dropping, waning in both of those societies. In a very perverse way, the extremists in both Israel and amongst the Palestinians believe in a ‘one state solution’, but if you think about it, a one state solution by definition means the violent elimination of the ‘other’. So I am making the point that this is difficult, this is complicated, and we should respect the difficulty.


20 Nevertheless, it is our sincere hope that, over time, both sides will muster the political will. In fact, I should digress – they need the political leadership with the conviction, the courage, and the political capital, which they are willing to expend, in order to make a two-state solution a reality. If they do not, then they are doomed to repeated cycles of violence.


21 In the meantime, we will continue to engage the PA. We will support their capacity-building efforts through the Enhanced Technical Assistance Package. We have regular high-level exchanges and visits with the PA which have allowed us to meet them, hear them and discuss issues with them candidly. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited Singapore last year while PM Lee, SM Teo Chee Hean, Minister Maliki Osman and I have visited Ramallah, in fact on more than one occasion. We opened our Singapore Representative Office in Ramallah in 2022.


22 Sixth, we must not allow external political events, painful as they are, to divide us in Singapore. Yesterday, PM Lee reminded us that this is not our quarrel, this is a quarrel amongst our friends, and our job is to be sympathetic, to be compassionate, to speak truth to them, to be helpful but not to pour oil on fire. Bear in mind that both sides claim to be the children of Abraham. This is the ultimate example of sibling fratricide. Both sides have suffered tragic losses and they deserve our sympathy and support. But come back now to Singapore – be very wary and careful in how we reflect our compassion, our principles and our values. Understand that strong emotions are engaged, but we must not fall prey to what we see in other countries, where strong emotions have led to violent clashes, to hate speech and to exclusion, and as many of you have illustrated, often fuelled by disinformation. Our religious and racial harmony is very precious. We must not allow anything to break this or split our society. It is heartening that so many of our faith and community leaders strongly feel this, say this and operate on this basis.


23 Our Muslim community, in particular, has responded in a very restrained, responsible and responsive manner, working in concert with other communities, to collectively raise funds for humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The Mufti Dr Nazirudin Nasir wrote a letter, which I hope every single one of you will read, to express solidarity and support to Rabbi Mordechai Abergel who replied in the same spirit. It was an exemplary gesture of goodwill that reflects so well on our religious harmony. But it is actually quite rare in the world for a Mufti and Rabbi to, in a moment of tension and high emotion, correspond like that. I can assure you that the Government had nothing to do with it, but we saw it, we approved of it, and we should all be grateful to them.


24 Let me say that it is worth emphasising that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a religious conflict. At its core, the conflict has always been about territory, self-determination and identity and complicated by intra-Palestinian politics and intra-Israeli politics. As I said before, it provides fertile ground for extremists, on both sides, to misuse religion to further their political aims. We must not fall into their trap.


25 Seventh, the safety of Singaporeans abroad is always a priority for us in MFA. Following the 7th of October 2023, we advised Singaporeans to leave Israel and the Palestinian Territories as soon as possible. We reached out to Singaporeans who had registered with MFA and facilitated the departure of those who needed assistance.


26 But even today, you might be surprised to know that 40 registered Singaporeans remain in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We do our best to remain in contact with them, and they have chosen to remain. More than 120 Singaporeans heeded our advice and left by land or air earlier. While most Singaporeans left Israel via commercial means, a few who were unable to do so departed via dedicated evacuation flights organised by other countries. I would like to express our gratitude to the governments of Australia, Canada, Portugal, and the Republic of Korea for helping our Singaporeans leave Israel safely.


Mr Speaker,


27 This latest conflagration is just the most recent episode of a complex long-running conflict in the Middle East. As human beings, we cannot remain detached and inured to the human suffering, but we know these cycles of violence will recur unless we come to the nub of the problem. As Singaporeans, we do care, and care deeply.


28 This episode is also a reminder to all Singaporeans that we do have our national interests at stake. What are they? We must reject terrorism in all its forms. No excuses, no ifs, no buts, no short-term political advantage. We reject terrorism. If attacked, all of us here must give the government of the day the ability to exercise the right of self-defence. But even when it does so, we would expect the government of the day to uphold international law. As Singaporeans, we should extend humanitarian assistance and protection to all civilians. We should support the peaceful resolution of all disputes. We must nurture and protect our own precious cohesion and harmony.


29 We must never allow conflicts elsewhere to divide us domestically. I am glad that today my sense of the House is that we have unanimity, and we will have consensus in voting for this motion. I make this appeal as Foreign Minister that our ability to conduct consistent, coherent foreign policy in a very volatile and dangerous world depends on domestic cohesion and consensus. So I fully support the amended motion, I thank MPs Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim – and I call on all MPs, regardless of party, to support this motion and uphold these principles which are essential for Singapore’s survival.


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