Hilary Benn has called for “vocal condemnation of violence” from West Bank leaders  alongside a freeze on settlement construction – but warned “different rules of engagement” applied by the IDF to settlers and Palestinians was fueling resentment, writes Justin Cohen.

Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn

The shadow foreign secretary said he witnessed two possible futures for Israel and the Palestinians after a three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank that included talks with leading politicians, journalists and officials.

Writing exclusively for the Jewish News this week, he said he returned from only his second international trip in the role “full of thoughts and reflections but I am sad to say that politically my overriding sense was of gloom at the lack of progress” since the Oslo Accords. While every leader he met told him of their commitment to the two-state solution, he warned this could “slip away” unless leaders on both sides act speedily including with a settlement freeze and “vocal condemnation of violence”.

He wrote: “The morning I spent in Hebron illustrated what can happen in the conflict continues to fester. The main road, where once there was a thriving market, has been closed off. There were checkpoints, no-go areas and a pervasive tension, created in part by a cycle of killing. Settlers live above Palestinian shopkeepers with metal netting separating them to catch the rubbish that some a settlers throw down on their neighbours. Young Israeli soldiers are stuck in the middle of it all operating different rules of engagement for Palestinians and for settlers, further fuelling resentment.”

The other possible future, he continued, was represented in the area by the old railway station in Jerusalem that features a technology incubator, concert venue and youth empowerment programme. “It is all about people coming together to build something better and provide jobs and opportunities. It can be done,” he said.

But he insisted the experience of Northern Ireland – where many claimed the conflict would “still be going on in another 400 years” – showed courageous leadership could overcome the gloom. Benn, who called for his party to take on those who delegitimise Israel during his second address to Labour friends of Israel since being reappointed to the role in September – added: “I hope that the new year will bring a new commitment to peace, remembering that small steps can lead to big progress.”