Britain's Minister of International Development, Alan Duncan, has been in the firing line of the Jewish Chronicle. His only apparent crime is that he stated the obvious, daring to point out that Israel's so-called "security barrier" is a land-grabbing mechanism and that it steals Palestinian water on a massive scale. When contacted, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, to its credit, affirmed that Mr Duncan's position "is the government's position".
The JC says it took them 15 months to discern what the government really thinks about Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories; that can be construed as a very definite dislike of what Mr Duncan said. Anyone not clued in may have read the JC website on the 18th August and concluded that this represents a major fall out between the British government and the pro-Israel Lobby, of which the JC is a central player. That, however, is not the case. Israel remains a close friend and ally of Britain.
However, this incident shows that while the present government is prepared to maintain Britain's close relationship with Israel, it will not be a blind or uncritical supporter, as its New Labour predecessor was. The Lobby, it seems, is not satisfied with the give and take that a healthy relationship entails, despite concessions it extracted from the government to change the law on universal jurisdiction and to detain Palestinian rights activist Shaikh Raed Salah. It wants unqualified and unlimited support for its paymaster state, to the detriment of Britain's international reputation. That raises doubts about the loyalty of pro-Israel Lobbyists to the country which most are privileged to call home.
Alan Duncan, a senior Conservative and MP for almost 20 years, was not prepared to be a slavish supporter of or apologist for policies which are clearly illegal. The so-called "security barrier" aka the apartheid wall, is the same monstrosity which was condemned as such by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004.
"The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law," ruled the ICJ by a vote of fourteen to one. "Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breaches of international law; it is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated, and to repeal or render ineffective forthwith all legislative and regulatory acts relating thereto."
Furthermore, ruled the ICJ, "All States are under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction; all States parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 have in addition the obligation, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law as embodied in that Convention."
Alan Duncan was thus clearly honouring Britain's international obligations when he spoke out against the apartheid wall. He was not blinded by narrow-minded prejudice. Yet the JC accuses Mr Duncan of "ignorance" and "prejudice" for speaking out against the wall's destructive social and economic consequences for Palestinians.
The JC was also outraged by the minister's remarks about the theft of water although what he said is nothing new. International observers have been making this point for a long time. Last year, for example, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Israeli control of water supplies in the West Bank has led to a severe water crisis for Palestinian residents.
The worst affected area is the occupied land known as Area C, where an estimated 150,000 Palestinians live alongside 300,000 illegal Israeli settlers in 135 colonies. In 1995, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (also known as Oslo II) categorized land in the West Bank into areas A, B and C. Although the Palestinian Authority (PA) is technically responsible for water services in Area C, it is unable to deliver because Israel retains full control over security. It must be noted that this area has the most land reserves available in the West Bank.
The West Bank-based Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hygiene Group (EWASH), which is a coordination body made up of national and international NGOs, UN agencies and academic and research institutions, has confirmed that the health and livelihoods of communities living in Area C are hardest hit as they suffer from a severe and chronic shortage of water and sanitation infrastructure. The only source of water for Palestinians in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer. The Israelis, on the other hand, control several sources, including the Jordan River to which they claim sole access. Moreover, Amnesty International has reported that Israel uses more than 80% of the water from the Mountain Aquifer while restricting Palestinians to a mere 20%.
When he made his comments it seems that Alan Duncan was well briefed on these facts. He was, therefore, absolutely right to speak out against this abuse of power and extraordinary display of greed and selfishness by the Israelis. If Israel had the legal right to the water in the first place it would perhaps be excusable; but we are speaking of water sequestered from illegally-occupied territory.
The British government should support its International Development minister to the hilt. MEMO notes the outrageous laws passed a few days ago banning boycotts of Israeli settlements. If the coalition government does not stand by its man it will, sooner or later, find itself legislating to legitimise that which is so obviously illegal.