MR ZAQY MOHAMAD: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) what is Singapore's position on the latest Gaza conflict that has seen massive Palestinian civilian casualties due to Israeli military action; (b) how does the Ministry plan to address concerns that the Government has not issued a strong enough statement on the violence against civilians; and (c) what are the Ministry's plans to communicate its position to the Muslim and non-Muslim population in Singapore to manage the divisiveness of the issue.
Madam Speaker, the latest conflict in Gaza has harmed the Middle East Peace Process. It has further made worse the already bad situation in the Middle East. As with all conflicts, Singapore and the international community’s primary concern has to be, and is, the security and safety of innocent civilians from all sides.
This latest conflict in Gaza comes after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, as well as the abduction and killing of a Palestinian teenager in July. The killing of the three Israeli teenagers and the killing of the Palestinian teenager are heinous crimes. MFA has strongly condemned the two terrible crimes, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. We have also urged the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to do everything possible to reduce tensions, and protect the lives of innocent civilians. Unfortunately, tensions between the two sides have escalated into an open conflict. Hamas has launched rocket attacks, numbered at over 2000 on a regular basis. On 8 July, Israel started “Operation Protective Edge” to destroy the rocket-launching sites, the smuggling tunnels and the munitions stockpiles to prevent attacks on Israel. However, these attacks have also caused severe civilian casualties, which are rising quickly.
And on the 10th of July, we issued a statement expressing our deep concern over the escalating violence. We called on Israel to exercise maximum restraint, and urged it to do its utmost to protect innocent civilian lives. We also called for the rocket attacks on Israel to cease immediately, and urged all sides to urgently find ways to de-escalate the situation and work towards a ceasefire. On the 15th of July 2014, we welcomed and supported the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire. We were encouraged by Israel and the Palestinian National Authority’s acceptance of the proposal, and we had hoped that Hamas would do the same. However, Hamas did not accept the Egyptian proposal, and the violence continued. On 17 July 2014, Israeli defence forces began their land offensive into Gaza. MFA issued another statement stating that Singapore was seriously disturbed by the deteriorating situation in Gaza, expressed our strong support for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and for all parties to do their utmost to ensure the protection of civilians and that humanitarian assistance continued to reach all those in need. We again urged all parties to work towards a lasting ceasefire. We reminded all parties that it was important to break the cycle of violence, and that the focus had to be the safety and security of all innocent people affected by the conflict.
Unfortunately, the 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire, which was announced by the US and the United Nations, ended just a few hours after it started on Friday 1 August 2014.
Regrettably, the conflict has raged on with more casualties on both sides. A new 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire is scheduled to begin today. We can only hope that this will hold. But even as I speak, we can’t be sure given the recent history.
I would like to make some key points on what Singapore’s position is. First, the loss of many innocent lives, especially young children, is completely unacceptable. Many Palestinians have also been displaced from their homes. Second, in this complex situation, both sides blame the other for what is happening. Israel says that it has to respond to Hamas launching thousands of rockets against Israel, some of which now reach Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, there is the question of how Israel has responded. While we understand the legitimate right of Israel to self-defence, the rising Palestinian death toll – over a thousand killed so far, the majority of them civilians, including many women, and children – is tragic and extremely distressing. It raises the question of whether Israel’s response to the threat is proportionate. Whether or not this response is justified, we believe that Israel can and should do more to ensure that civilian casualties are minimised. Hamas in Gaza should also take maximum precautions to ensure that civilians are not put in harm’s way. Unfortunately, Hamas’ cynical approach has been the very opposite – to deliberately use civilians as shield. The rocket attacks on Israel should stop and Israel should stop its operations in Gaza. Third, Singapore supports the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland under a two-state solution. And Israelis must also be able to live in enduring peace and security. Unfortunately, this is proving to be extremely difficult to realise. The situation is compounded by the fact that Hamas does not recognise Israel, and calls for the destruction of Israel. The rocket attacks from Gaza, on Israel, have increased from previous attacks on Israel in 2009 and 2012, and now Israel’s counter attack has caused significantly large casualties among the Palestinian population, including innocent civilians. Fourth, only a negotiated settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long term solution. This has been Singapore’s consistent position. Unfortunately, talks broke down in April despite the best efforts of the United States. I believe that Israel can, and should show full commitment to the two-state solution, and comply with its international law obligations, and that Hamas should stop its attacks on Israel. Fifth, unless compromises are made by the parties involved, the cycle of violence will repeat itself over and over again. We have made clear, in public, our position on the latest conflict. We have issued statements, which have referred to the actions of both parties. Both bear responsibility. We all share a concern for the loss and suffering of innocent lives. Both Israel and Hamas should do their part to stop this violence. We have joined the international community in urging restraint and supporting humanitarian efforts.
Singaporeans have started donating and MUIS has been collecting funds at the mosques, and the Singapore Red Cross Society and Mercy Relief have launched appeals for donations. Mercy Relief has announced that it has collected over S$400,000. The Singapore government has pledged US$100,000 in response to international efforts and is channelling the funds through the Singapore Red Cross. But money is not the key issue. If there is a stop to the violence, the international community will come forward to help very generously, including Singapore. Money is not the issue; political will is. Thank you.
SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION #1:
SPEAKER: Mr Zaqy Mohamad.
MR ZAQY MOHAMAD: I thank the Minister for sharing with us Singapore’s position on the conflict. First and foremost, our hearts and sympathies go out to the families of both sides who have been affected by the conflict and innocent lives lost. My three supplementary questions would be whether Singapore would play a more pro-active role in the UN to take a stronger position against Israel for using asymmetric force on civilians. In some quarters, of course, they have classified this as a war crime. My second question would be, what is our relationship with the Palestinian Authority; how have we connected with them before? Because there is some perception that we are taking sides in this case. And my third question is whether the Singapore government, in addition to what we have done so far, would be planning, or have intent to do more to provide humanitarian aid and medical help to Gaza as we did for Afghanistan? Thank you.
MINISTER: Can I understand the first question, is it whether we can play a more proactive role? Taking a stronger position, on Israel’s actions? Thank you.
Let me deal first with our relationship with the Palestinian National Authority and what we do. We have maintained good relationships with the PNA. Mr Goh Chok Tong, when he was Senior Minister, has visited Palestine. We have been supportive of the two-state solution, and consistent with that we have tried to support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. Last year, at the UN General Assembly, Singapore voted for all Palestinian-related resolutions. That is as public a support as you can get.
I personally met the Palestinian National Authority Foreign Minister last year, and we had a good exchange of views. We have also supported visits from ministers from the Palestinian National Authority to Singapore. Indeed, we financially support that: since 2013, we have been participating in the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development, or CEAPAD. During CEAPAD I in Tokyo last year, we announced Singapore’s enhanced technical assistance package for the PNA, worth at five million dollars for five years, which is more than several of our regional countries have pledged. Under this package, we have received several delegations and study visits. The Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Masagos Zulkifli, met with the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister during CEAPAD II in Jakarta, early this year. And Masagos encouraged the Prime Minister to send more Palestinians to Singapore under this package. So we hope that they do so. So politically, materially and philosophically, we have been supportive of the Palestinian cause, and we have made that very public.
As to the other two questions, whether the Singapore Government can do more, and also whether we can play a more pro-active role, I think the way that I would look at this is that we have to get the facts right. In your question, you said the killing of innocent civilians – if innocent civilians were targeted as a direct act, that would be a serious violation of international law, and we believe that this should be pursued under international fora. Throughout the current conflict, the UN Secretary General has repeatedly called for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire; the protection of civilians; respect of international humanitarian law; as well as the provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance. And we have strongly supported the Secretary-General’s calls. The Secretary-General’s calls were also reiterated in a statement made by the President of the UN Security Council (UNSC), which called on the parties to get into a meaningful and durable ceasefire. But despite all these efforts by the international community, the US, and other countries, the hostilities continue. You have heard me talk about the different ceasefires.
There are limits to what the United Nations can do, and obviously there are limits to what the US can do, and what Singapore can do. Look at what is happening in Syria- at least 180,000 people have been killed in the last two to three years. I think this is more than the last twenty years in Palestine. There has been a limit to what the UN has been able to do. So the international community can make statements and can try to bring some sense, but ultimately it is going to require that the actors themselves also want peace. At the end of the day, the fact is the Israelis and Hamas – and I say Hamas because there was not a single rocket from the West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, and there have been no attacks by Israel on West Bank – are responsible for what is happening in Gaza, and they have to exercise political will and take concrete steps to bring an end to the conflict. The Human Rights Council in Geneva has decided to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate all violations of international law, including violations of humanitarian law. We say that all parties involved should cooperate in that inquiry.
Let’s hope that the latest 72-hour ceasefire holds, and hopefully this will develop into something more. Essentially only a negotiated solution under UNSC Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long-term solution. We have issued statements, made our positions public, and have been consistent with what the UN itself has asked. Both Singaporeans and the Government have come forward to make an offer of material help. But as I said earlier, it is not really an issue of money. It is ultimately a ceasefire holding – if a ceasefire holds, the international community, including Singapore and the man on the street in Singapore, will come forward very generously.
That really covers both your questions on the more proactive role, Israel’s actions and whether Singapore can do more. Thank you.
SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION #2:
SPEAKER: Mr Zainal Sapari
MR ZAINAL BIN SAPARI: Minister, I do not want to belabour the point. Apart from making statements, what is the strongest action that our government can take to express our deep concern against the killing of innocent civilians? My second question – under what circumstances would this action be taken given the escalating and prolonged violence in Gaza?
MINISTER: I am not sure I will be able to add much to what I have already said. I think the first point is that if indeed the facts are that it is a pure targeting of innocent civilians, that is completely unacceptable. It is an international crime and we would support prosecution under international criminal laws. There is however, I suggest, a need to look at the facts carefully. I think the facts are that over 2000 rockets have been launched into Israel by Hamas, and not a single rocket from the West Bank. With regards to the killing of civilians, if I may quote what President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas said about what he feels about Hamas’ tactics. “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” he asks. “I do not like trading in Palestinian blood.” It is not really just speculation anymore that Hamas deliberately put its civilians in the line of fire. Let me quote Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who went on Gaza national television, and said that the human-shield strategy has proven “very effective”. The rockets that Hamas fires into Israel rarely kill any civilian or cause any serious damage. They are launched from densely populated areas including hospitals and schools. They do not cause much damage because of the preparations that Israel has taken, including the Iron Dome. But then you would have to ask, why launch rockets without causing any real damage to the other side but inviting great damage to your own people? Then, putting your own civilians in the line of fire when the response comes. Because Hamas knows that its cause is helped when Gazans die. If there is one thing that helps Hamas most, that gives it any legitimacy, it is dead civilians and rockets in schools.
So, the exploitation of dead children is completely unacceptable, but equally we have made it clear that we believe that Israel’s response is not proportionate. So it is disproportionate. The rights and wrongs we hope will be investigated by the Human Rights Council but when we take the position that there is the targeting of innocent civilians, I think it is important to get the facts right. If, and I do not say that Israel has not targeted civilians, indeed there is targeting of civilians, that is a serious international crime and should be punished. Equally, you must take into account what Hamas has been doing and Hamas’ public admission that it has been using civilians as a shield, which is why we say that both sides bear responsibility. Thank you.
SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION #3:
SPEAKER: Mr Pritam Singh.
MR PRITAM SINGH: The Minister has wide-ranging comments on what is inevitably a very difficult issue to come to terms with. Nonetheless, I welcome MFA’s comments on 31 July that the shelling of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School in Gaza is unpardonable. But my concern on these incidents in Gaza and Israel is really of the impact on Singapore and our regional situation. The images that we see of the destruction of homes and schools and the killing and suffering of children are something that all Southeast-Asians are exposed to. Therein lies the fear of further self-radicalisation amongst populations in Singapore and in the region. In view of this danger and in view of our deep relationship with Israel, does the Minister not think that we can perhaps send an even stronger message to Israel both publicly and privately that the conduct of its operations in Gaza is jeopardising the safety and security of its friends like Singapore? Thank you.
MINISTER: I think there are probably the following points. Mr Singh, please correct me if I am wrong. The impact of the images, including the possibility of self-radicalisation; two, whether we are in a special position to give some messages to Israel; and three, what else we can do to protect the safety and security of Singaporeans. Thank you.
On the first, the impact of the images, I think that is a serious issue and the concomitant effects on self-radicalisation, not just in this region but elsewhere. Not just in Singapore. It is a serious issue. This issue is there regardless of whether it is Palestine, or whether it is Iraq. Members would know what is happening in Iraq. The new Caliphate has been announced and the killing of thousands of people by ISIL. That has attracted converts from all around the world, some of whom are going back to their countries, and which intelligence agencies have assessed to be the single most serious threat to the security of various countries. We are going to be faced with that just like others, even if we do not have recruits from Singapore going there. What can we do about it? Very little, frankly. I mean we can try to be safe and secure within Singapore but how can we prevent self-radicalisation? We can try and monitor, we can try and persuade within Singapore but do we have control over what is happening in the region and what access people get to images? All the images of the 180,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, women and children, who have been killed in Syria by both sides, including radical elements which are opposed to Mr Assad, and Mr Assad’s troops. That is causing alot of self-radicalisation, as is the Palestinian cause.
Our relationship with Israel is not any deeper than with many other countries. In fact, other countries have much more leverage over Israel. We are a small country far removed from Israel. We have a good relationship with Israel as we have with the Palestinian National Authority, and several other Arab countries and many others. The position we take on this issue is a principled one, which is we abhor the violence; we say that both sides should stop it; we say that we should look at the facts. There is responsibility on the part of Hamas and there is responsibility on the part of Israel. We have gone public and when we meet people, we give them our views and we must also be realistic as to what we can do. Neither Israel nor Hamas owes its living to Singapore. They have much bigger backers and until and unless their backers are able to work with them, this situation will continue. The Palestinians in Hamas, the world knows who backs them and who gives them material support. And until that stops, the attacks on Israel are not going to stop. And Israel itself, there are countries that are in a much more influential position vis-a-vis Israel.
I think the answer to the third point regarding the safety and security of Singaporeans. The fact is, I think I have answered it earlier, basically in such an interconnected world, anything that happens anywhere in the world will almost have a serious impact on us. That is the reality. Thank you.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
5 AUGUST 2014