RUTH Davidson has been heavily criticised by a Syrian human rights group after a high-powered group of ten Scottish Tories visited an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied Golan Heights.
Al-Marsad, the only human rights organisation operating there, is at loggerheads with the Scots Conservatives' leader after raising concern about the group's visit to the Golan Heights winery in Katzrin.
They say the delegation did not contact Al-Marsad or other representatives of the Syrian community in the "occupied Syrian Golan" to get a "balanced view".
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And they say they have repeatedly failed to get an explanation for the visit to the territory from Ms Davidson or any condemnation of the illegal settlement.
The group, which is described as an independent, not-for-profit international human rights organisation, said it was "highly concerned" that it sends the message that the Scottish Conservative party endorses the illegal activities of such settlements.
The UN, in 1981, issued a resolution saying that Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights was illegal. The strategic ridge was captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981.
Since then, every year the UN passes a General Assembly resolution titled “The Occupied Syrian Golan” which reaffirms the illegality of the Israeli occupation and annexation.
The Israeli government disputes this position.
After raising Al-Marsald's concerns, a Scottish Conservatives spokesman said their position is the same as the UK government position which is "not to support illegal settlements".
The row surrounds a delegation of ten Scottish Conservatives, including nine MSPs were on a Conservative Friends of Israel-funded trip to Israel, the West Bank and Golan Heights in August.
It was described by CFI as a trip to "promote bilateral trade between the two countries and bolster the growing pro-Israel advocacy movement in Scotland".
Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw followed up the trip earlier this month with controversial plans to establish a cross-party group, called ‘Building Bridges with Israel’. It has been set up in a bid to oppose anti-Semitism and offer an 'alternative viewpoint' to what it says is a pro-Palestinian stance that has been dominant since the Scottish Parliament's inception in 1999.
The party also lodged a motion in Parliament calling for more direct flights between Scotland and Israel.
But the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, strongly opposed the group's message with a spokesman saying: "Israel doesn't build any bridges, it demolishes homes, farms and is demolishing Palestine."
The delegation to Israel in August included the director of the Scottish Conservatives, Mark McInnes, Scottish Conservative chief whip, John Lamont along with shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross, shadow economy, jobs and fair work cabinet secretary Dean Lockhart, shadow environment secretary Maurice Golden, tourism and small businesses spokeswoman Rachel Hamilton, community safety spokesman Oliver Mundell, digital economy spokesman Jamie Greene, further education, higher education and science spokesman Ross Thompson and welfare, reform and equalities spokeswoman Annie Wells.
During the trip Mr Lamont that anti-Israel sentiment was being spread where people were telling the Scottish public "that Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good and then sign up to some boycott".
He added: "That’s not based on any properly informed position, because nobody’s given them the alternative views. So part of this exercise [taking lawmakers to Israel] is making sure that more and more people are getting at least a balanced position and a positive view of Israel.”
There is a “small but very vocal minority” in Scotland that is hostile toward Israel, he continued. “But the vast majority of Scots are relatively passive on issues, but are influenced by that very vocal minority.”
But a Scottish Conservatives spokesman said Mr Lamont had made clear their concern was "for the human rights of everyone in the region".
He added: "The UK and our international partners have consistently called for an end to settlement expansion."
James Gurd, director of the CFI, told the Jewish Chronicle that the trip, reflected a growing sympathy towards Israel north of the border saying: "For years a vocal minority seen as dominating debate there were very pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli."
Al-Marsad, which has previously voiced concern over what it deems Israel's "ethnic cleansing" of the Syrian Arab population in the Golan, say they have written two letters to Ms Davidson asking in particular about the visit to "occupied Syrian Golan" but without response.
PHOTOS: Conservative MSPs briefed at Israel's border with Syria by IDF soldiers at Mount Bental viewpoint pic.twitter.com/9u8ARLVx8Q— CFoI (@CFoI) August 2, 2016
Dr Nizar Ayoub said afterwards: "Given this lack of clarification, I am highly concerned that the Scottish Conservative party appears to condone the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements – illegal under international law – in the occupied Syrian Golan."
The group said it was "highly concerning" if human rights issues, in particular, in the occupied territories are "not considered or trumped by business interests".
Al-Marsad director Dr Nizar Ayoub told Ms Davidson in his letters: "As I imagine that you are aware, such settlements are illegal according to international law, and their construction and expansion at the expense of the native Syrian inhabitants have been repeatedly condemned by the international community.
"I am highly concerned that the delegation has visited a winery in an illegal Israeli settlement without providing any explanation of the purpose of the visit. In effect, this sends a message that the Scottish Conservative party endorses the illegal activities of this settlement - built on land illegally appropriated from its original Syrian owners.
"Even more worrying is the fact that the Scottish Conservative party has refused to answer questions about whether the delegation raised the broader issue of the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan during its visit."
He was concerned that in describing the visit, Mr Lamont said “on Israel’s northern border with Syria we witnessed first-hand the devastataing civil war raging metres away from Israel"
Dr Ayoub told Ms Davidson: "The only part of Syria that Israel borders is the occupied Syrian Golan. The fighting in Syria is not taking place metres away from Israel, it is taking place metres away from the occupied Syrian Golan. From Mr Lamont’s comments, it appears that he considers that the occupied Syrian Golan is part of Israel, which it is not."
He added: "I am highly disappointed that the delegation did not contact Al-Marsad or other representatives of the Syrian community in the occupied Syrian Golan in order to discuss the daily challenges faced by the remaining native Syrian population in the Syrian Golan due to Israel's illegal occupation. This would have ensured that the delegation obtained a more balanced view of the situation in the occupied Syrian Golan."