Britain is the principle architect of the Palestine problem and has a historic responsibility to correct past wrongs of illegally promising Arab Palestinian land to another, the Jewish people, which was not theirs to give. The right of Palestinians to live in dignity and freedom in their own state just like any other people on earth should be a UK Foreign policy priority. Yet successive UK governments, both Labour and Conservative have abrogated their moral and political responsibilities and failed to do the right thing by the Palestinians. Worse than that, Britain has done very little to further the case for Palestinians statehood at the UN or EU.
Key to understanding where we are today is to look back at the starting point following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the Great War Britain along with three other powers carved up the Middle East. In 1918 Britain took charge of what was known then as Mandate Palestine. At the time Mandate Palestine was home to over 1 million Palestinian Arabs who had lived in the area known as historic Palestine for thousands of years. The infamous document, The Balfour Declaration is where the Palestinian tragedy began literally 95 years ago on 2 November 1917 the British Foreign Secretary; Lord Balfour made the following pledge:
Dear Lord Rothschild,
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Britain in its capacity as custodian of Mandate Palestine promised to facilitate the setting up a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine without even consulting the indigenous Palestinian people made up of Christians and Muslims. Can you imagine a situation today where the British people of say London, Manchester or Birmingham would be told to vacate their cities to make way for waves of immigration of people who had not even lived in the UK? It is not acceptable now and it should never have been acceptable then.
The natural inclination of the Palestinian Arabs who can trace their ancestry back 1000’s of years could not accept this enforced fait accomplait and embarked on a path of resistance. From that moment on the land of Palestine has been plagued by numerous revolts, uprisings and protests until the British could finally no longer keep the two communities Arab and Jewish apart and handed the problem over to the UN. In 1947 the UN recommended partition of Palestine into 2 states and the state of Israel was created in 1948. A war broke out between neighbouring Arab countries who too could not accept the imposition of a Jewish state on the Arab land of Palestine. Close to one million fled Palestine and have never been able to return home to this day. Hundreds of Arab villages were destroyed. Palestine was in effect wiped off the map. The immense suffering of the Jewish people experienced during the Holocaust was caused by Germany, and not Palestinians. Jewish persecution has its historical origins in Western Europe and not in Arab Palestine. Yet Palestinians have been expected to pay the highest price of all by being forcibly vacated from their homeland.
Meanwhile Israel has colonised more and more land of historic Palestine, fought war after war, leaving Palestinians located in two areas, the West Bank and Gaza. To this day these two areas do not have independence from Israel. In the West Bank Palestinians suffer the daily indignity of numerous checkpoints, brutalisation by the IDF, not to mention the large barrier wall erected by Israel which is deemed illegal under international law. Today Israel occupies large swathes of the area of Mandate Palestine which were not granted under the 1947 UN partition plan. The 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank has brought more colonisation and settlement expansion. More importantly Israel has divided the West Bank into three areas, A, B and C. Within Area C Israel has settled since 1967 more than 500,000 settlers even though this is deemed illegal under international law.
We hear often in the mainstream media that Hamas is to blame for the last Gaza war and other two wars in the last 10 years because of rocket fire launched from Gaza. It is important to realise that Hamas is a national liberation movement which grew out of the decade’s long failed peace process. The oft repeated refrain what you would do if rockets were raining down on your community misses the context of why rockets, which are at best very primitive, were being fired at Israel in the first place.
Let’s put to bed the repeated myth that Israel pulled out of Gaza completely in 2005. In point of fact Israel never left Gaza. Israel controls all of the entry and exits points including the air, sea and land routes, bar the Rafah Crossing. We should mention too the 24 hour drones and fighter jets that regularly patrol the skies over Gaza designed to menace the Gaza population. The “Open Air Prison” to which David Cameron alluded and condemned prior to becoming Prime Minster accurately describes the plight of Gazans. Israel has maintained a state of siege and blockade over Gaza so that even basic goods or going abroad to seek medical treatment are denied. Israel has engaged in extra judicial killings of Hamas members of government who were elected in free and fair elections in 2006. We should mention too that Israel has also assassinated many Hamas members abroad, including using stolen British passports to carry out the execution of Mahboub, a Hamas leader. By its own admission Israel has kept the Gaza Strip existing at subsistence level, on the brink of collapse) and unable to flourish economically, as confirmed in reports in the widely respected Haaretz Israeli newspaper. The tunnels to which Israel has complained endlessly about are a response to the siege and blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel whereby just to live a normal life in terms of access to basic goods and services, to travel freely is not permissible. May I remind the reader that Jews trapped in the Nazi War Ghettoes in Warsaw also built tunnels to survive the brutal Nazi siege.
The recent debate in the House of Commons which sought to give recognition to the concept of Palestinian statehood was an important symbolic gesture, but was non binding. The UK coalition government despite claiming to be committed to a two state solution refused to vote in favour of Labour MP Graham Morris’s motion. The UK government in typical fudge style argued that recognition of the state of Palestine would be made at a time of the governments own choosing and only when such a move would serve the peace process. After three brutal and bloody wars in Gaza in the past decade where thousands of Palestinians have lost their lives, to argue that the time is not right, defies morality as well as logic. How many more Palestinians need to lose their lives before the British government deems the time is right to make peace and put pressure on Israel? Indeed so paralysed by indecision was the coalition government that Prime Minister David Cameron refused to call Israel’s actions in Gaza: “disproportionate”, despite the fact that so many Gazan civilians died. Destroying entire neighbourhoods such as Shujjayia and wiping out entire families is disproportionate. There is nothing moral about the way the IDF behaved in Gaza. All of the war crimes committed in Gaza will be documented by the newly appointed UN Enquiry which Israel has already announced it will not cooperate with.
Over the years, and including under Tony Blair the Labour Party has repeatedly failed to act in an even handed manner when it comes to the Palestine question. For the most part, Labour Party policy has been shaped by a small group who favour Israel. Indeed much has been made of how Maureen Lipman has loudly proclaimed she has left the party because Ed Miliband voted in favour of the Palestine recognition bid. Similarly in the Jewish Chronicle we heard how anonymous Jewish donors were reconsidering their support for Labour following the motion in Parliament to recognise a Palestinian state put forward by a courageous Labour MP, Graham Morris. It does beggar belief that that the Jewish lobby can claim to want peace on the one hand and be committed to a two state solution; but on the other hand rejects the motion that could facilitate steps in that direction. It is also interesting to note that many members of Labour Friend of Israel (LFI) abstained in the vote, including many who are joint members of Labour Friends of Israel and Palestine. These are the same MPs’ who shout from the rooftops how they support the two state solution. It is possible to find many members of the Shadow Cabinet who swing both ways in this respect. In my opinion membership of both organisations shows lack of commitment to the Palestine cause.
The world has moved on since the time when Labour Friends of Israel could shape and dictate Labour Party policy. As Ed Miliband pointed out in his first part conference as leader of the Labour Party, the situation between Israel and Palestine is unsustainable. Ed Miliband promised if the Labour Party was elected in May 2015 to make formal recognition of Palestine, a foreign policy objective. LFI, though claiming to want to achieve a two state solution, serve a useful purpose of shielding Israel from any criticism. Ian Lucas MP described the new settlements in the West Bank the fourth to be announced in the past few weeks as “unhelpful”. No Mr Lucas they are more than unhelpful they constitute a major obstacle to peace, as pointed out by Conservative MP Alan Duncan. How can Israel claim it wants peace while at the same time colonising more land which is meant to form part of the Palestinian state. The current unrest in Arab East Jerusalem which Israel occupies illegally is meant to be the capital city of the new Palestine state. Yet Israel is busy creating new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Despite the illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, successive Israeli Prime Ministers from David Ben-Gurion, to Benjamin Netanyahu, from Yitzhak Rabin, to Ariel Sharon have all declared that Jerusalem will forever belong to the Jewish people and will never be given away or sacrificed. It should also be noted that Prime Minster Netanyahu has made it clear that he does not want to see a two state solution and he is currently opposed to granting the Palestinians statehood in the West Bank and Gaza.
We often hear supporters of Israel refer to the right of self defence. The principle of self defence is enshrined in international law. It is also stated that such defence should be proportionate. It should be remembered that we are not talking about a war between equals. The IDF(Israeli Defence Force) has access to the most sophisticated military equipment supplied by the US and is the sixth most powerful army in the world. In contrast Hamas’s army is modestly armed and does not even have an air force. When the IDF conducts a military operation we are talking about serious fire power. We are talking about asymmetric warfare where Israel is the military Goliath in comparison to Hamas’s primitive homemade rockets.
It should also be mentioned that we await the outcome of the UK Parliamentary Enquiry as to whether British weapons have been used in the Gaza war. The scenes we witnessed on our TV screens brought home the true horrors visited upon the Gazan people by the IDF. The Gaza Strip is a densely populated area where 1.8 Gazans inhabit a tiny piece of land measuring 360 square km. Look at the scale of suffering and destruction that you the average British person witnessed on your TV screens and tell me that you were not moved by the plight of the Gazans. Square the circle if you can between the “moral army” which Israel claims to be and the widespread suffering and destruction witnessed on a daily basis. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the Gazan’s plight. Jon Snow’s tribute to the people of Gaza brought home that tragedy into our sitting rooms. Instead of being lauded for bringing that narrative of suffering to the British people, Jon Snow was widely condemned as being “too political”.
Prime Minster David Cameron even refused to call Israel’s actions in Gaza “disproportionate”, despite the fact that so many Gazan civilians died. The horrors of the last Gaza war which Israel termed part of its” mowing the lawn strategy” was designed to keep Gazans in their place. According to the UN the war of August 2014 has left over 2000+ Palestinian civilians dead; with over 500+ of the dead are children. Some 11,000 Gazans are injured; and a large proportion of those injured will be permanently disabled. Currently over 17,000 homes have been destroyed in the war; and 108,000 people are homeless. The normally conservative World Bank has acknowledged the scale of destruction and human loss in Gaza, stating it will take over 20 years to rebuild Gaza and will cost between $4-6 billion to restore Gaza to its former position, prior to the war. Bodies such as the UN and other commentators who have visited Gaza since the war have said the scale of destruction and devastation was comprehensively worse than expected.
Fruitless peace talks since the late 1970’s have yielded very little if anything at all for the Palestinians. We have only to look at the colonising actions of Israel to know that it is not a serious partner for peace. Sixty six years on and the dream of Palestine is slipping further and further away as Israel colonises more land. Israel meanwhile has turned its brutality to the West Bank where we hear of the daily deaths of men, women and children. Only two days ago it was reported in the Maan News Agency website that an 11yr old has been blinded by a new sponge type of bullet which is far more lethal than ordinary bullets, being used by the IDF.
The time has come for the Western international community to accept that Israel is not above international law. Germany and the US need to stop putting permanent obstacles in the way of achieving a just and lasting peace. As a respected member of the international community, Britain should set an example by voting in favour of the upcoming UNSC resolution proposed by the Palestinian Authority at the end of November to set a timetable for recognition of a Palestinian state. A historic injustice, created by Britain needs to be put right. The idea of fair play and justice is part of the British psyche and DNA. Palestinians cannot wait for their state a moment longer, and neither should they have to. Palestinians need a state they can call their own and they need it now.