During his recent visit to Ramallah, Boris Johnson re-emphasised Britain’s long-standing support for the two-state solution and its position that illegal Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. Last December Britain also supported UN security council resolution 2334, which reiterated the illegality of settlements.
Yet last month, at the UN human rights council, the British government chose to abstain on key resolutions devised to hold Israel to account for its human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories and its illegal settlement building. This clearly demonstrates that Britain refuses to put pressure on Israel to stop its continuing theft of Palestinian land. In February the red carpet was rolled out at No 10 to welcome Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who represents a hard right, increasingly racist government. Britain’s foreign secretary was proud to assert that the two countries have just made their biggest joint trade deal.
There is certainly no red carpet in dealing with the Palestinians. In 2011 Britain upgraded the status of the Palestinian representative office from a delegation to a mission. In effect, the upgrade was only symbolic, because it did not entail any diplomatic privileges. Yet since then we have witnessed nothing but a downgrade in our status. Embassy staff no longer have the same entitlements as other diplomats. We are told that this is because of Britain’s non-recognition of Palestine.
In the wider institutional context, there is a hostility towards those who criticise Israeli occupation. This was clearly demonstrated in the heavy-handed clampdown on student activities during Israeli Apartheid Week. Equating activism for Palestinian rights with radical Islam, and conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians with antisemitism, is wrong. The fight for Palestinian rights should not be criminalised.
However, the Conservative government seems to be increasingly isolated in its unconditional support for Israel. Parliament and the main opposition parties are highly critical of Israeli violations of international law, and have supported steps to censure Israel and empower the Palestinians. In 2014 parliament voted to recognise Palestine. and there have been numerous debates on Israeli breaches of international law, including the treatment of children in military detention, and illegal settlements. A select Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s policy on Palestine/Israel is currently underway.
Government plans for the centenary of the Balfour declaration, on 2 November 2017, sum up perfectly its one-sided approach. The declaration led to the creation of Israel but at the same time signed away the Palestinian people’s inheritance and created generations of refugees. Despite this, Theresa May told Conservative Friends of Israel in December that the declaration was “one of the most important letters in history”, and that the anniversary was a date her government “will be marking with pride”. This rubs salt in the wound for every Palestinian, as will a royal visit to Israel this year – the first since 1948.
Palestinians, like any other people in the world, have a right to self-determination. Palestinian refugees want to exercise their right of return, as enshrined in UN resolution 194. It is clear that Israel will never give them this without international pressure.
The window on the two-state solution is closing fast as Israel grabs more land for its illegal settlements. The Palestinians have compromised to a point where they have nothing left to give up. What can Mahmoud Abbas bargain with in his forthcoming meeting with Donald Trump? As for its people, especially the generation born over the last 25 years, since the Oslo accords and the charade of the “peace process” began, what hope do they have?
This year – which marks 50 years of occupation, 10 years of the siege of Gaza strip and 100 years since the Balfour declaration – is an apt time for Britain to redress this century-old wrong, to work to end occupation and create an independent, sovereign Palestine. Otherwise the region will continue to be destabilised for years to come. Britain will be haunted by the consequences of Israel’s conduct, and its own complicity with it.