Britain’s major role in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is no secret and has been well-documented by historians. The mainstream media, meanwhile, has for decades addressed the Palestinian issue as something that dates back to the 1967 Six Day War, ignoring the fact that the conflict was by then already at least 50 years old. It was in 1917 that the British government voiced its support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The letter in which this was set out became known as the Balfour Declaration.
The centenary of Balfour was marked by Britain’s then Prime Minister, Theresa May, inviting her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, to commemorate the anniversary “with pride”. This was despite the fact that over 13,500 people had signed a parliamentary petition launched by the Palestinian Return Centre calling for the government to apologise to the Palestinians. The PRC pointed out that Britain’s pro-Israel colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and a massive, ongoing injustice.
The government remained steadfast in its denial. “The Balfour Declaration is a historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologise,” a spokesperson declared. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel.”
Britain is yet to acknowledge its historic responsibility for the calamitous situation facing the Palestinians. Successive governments have avoided the injustice by simply making statements of goodwill, instead of progressive actions to end the Israeli occupation and support the Palestinian right to self-determination.
This year, though, the Palestinian ambassador in London, Dr Husam Zomlot, hopes that things will be different. He arrived in Britain in September last year, after being expelled from the US. The Trump administration shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, and he relocated to the UK to head the mission in London, where he had lived as a student. His PhD is from the University of London.
The British government has never recognised the state of Palestine. According to the ambassador, this omission is “neither legal nor strategic” as it is the one step that will be the most progressive towards achieving the two-state solution, which is Britain’s professed preference.
“It’s what they owe with Britain‘s historic responsibility with the Balfour Declaration contributing to where we are now,” he explained. “And if you keep arguing that the recognition of the Palestinian state will only be an outcome of negotiations, then why did you recognise the state of Israel when we haven’t reached the final resolution yet?”
British fears about the political cost of recognition and Israel’s reaction to it helps neither the Palestinians nor, indeed, the Israelis, argued Zomlot. He narrowed the solutions down to two options: either “unrecognise” Israel and “level the playing field” so both states are equal in status; or recognise the state of Palestine based on its own policy. He believes that the latter would be the most “helpful and constructive”.
The Palestinian ambassador thinks that we need to see a clear signal from Britain and the international community that positive action is under way. He cited the fact that the Gaza Strip, home to nearly two million people, has been under an Israeli-led siege for more than a decade. Given the ongoing human rights violations and crimes against the Palestinians by Israel, why is such a signal not forthcoming? Recognition might do the job.
He finds it amusing that diplomats still talk about “working towards” two states, while simultaneously displaying a carefully measured amount of sympathy for the people of Palestine. Meanwhile, the number of Jewish colonists living on occupied Palestinian land – illegally, under international law – keeps increasing. Nobody, least of all the British government, does or says anything about this fact, apart from a few meaningless platitudes.
According to the official Palestinian Authority Wafa news agency, Israel has used the recent Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Yom Kippur as cover for its ongoing settlement expansion. A statement issued by the PA Foreign Ministry said that the Israeli activities during the Jewish holidays included incitement and aggression against Palestinians and their property, as well as the occupation of more Palestinian land. Moreover, Anadolu Agency reports that the Israeli government has advanced plans to build 251 more settlement units in the occupied West Bank.
Precisely 137 countries have officially recognised the state of Palestine, but Britain and the US have not. Indeed, successive US administrations have been consistently pro-Israel. President Donald Trump broke with protocol and international law last year when he recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferred the US Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv.
Despite this lack of recognition, Dr Zomlot commends Britain for its financial support for the Palestinian Authority as well as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which strives to meet the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. The agency is facing serious financial difficulties and an existential threat from Israel and its allies at the UN.
The ambassador insists that Britain is uniquely placed to give a lead by recognising Palestine now and championing internationalism for urgent peace-making, which will require the implementation of international resolutions. “The UK is very clear that this is a situation of military occupation, that’s why in the official terminology of the Foreign Office and the government, it’s the ‘Palestinian occupied territories’ or the ‘occupied Palestinian territory’,” he noted. “It has also been a main supporter of the Palestinian Authority for many decades, and we appreciate its strong position over the past few years in the face of Trump’s actions by publicly opposing his position on Jerusalem.”
Dr Zomlot added that Britain has also been very clear in its stance on Netanyahu’s threat to annex illegal settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, which alone is home to 65,000 Palestinians. Nevertheless, Israel is one of Britain’s top 50 trading partners, according to The Spectator; £2.3 billion worth of vehicles and machinery is sold to Israel annually and £1.6 billion worth of plastics and minerals is bought by Britain in return, even as the Zionist state continues to abuse Palestinian rights systematically.
Banning settlement produce from being imported into Britain is just one of the strategies that Britain could adopt to prevent any further destruction in Palestine, stressed the Palestinian ambassador. “By law, it is clear that products of settlements are illegal and it is important for the UK to prevent British companies who are there for economic reasons from operating in illegal settlements using stolen water and resources. Nothing would help the cause of peace more than banning illegal activity and upholding the law, across the board.”
Although the majority of global conflicts have been resolved by international mechanisms, Palestine has been the only exception. For Ambassador Zomlot, this is a mistake. The Israeli government led by Netanyahu has fighting openly against the two-state solution by its illegal actions, which have intensified over the years. “There is a clear attempt by Netanyahu to dismantle the peace process. If you follow what Netanyahu is doing, he’s trying to focus on attacking three main entities, the first of which is the Palestinian Authority itself. The second is UNWRA, one of the most important organisations that provides services to refugees in Palestine and more than two thirds of the people in Gaza. The third is his attack on Palestinian civil society and its call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli regime.
“In such a situation, Britain and the rest of the world must pause and decide what to do. If this continues, it’s just a matter of time until Netanyahu can finally smile on camera and declare the death of the ‘two state’ solution.”
The Palestinian ambassador is keen on direct engagement with the public, including young people. Last month, he attended a meeting in Sheffield City Hall, where councillors passed a motion unanimously to recognise the sovereign state of Palestine, making it the first city in the UK to do so. Like most councils in northern England, Sheffield is controlled by the Labour Party. It hopes that its bold move will increase pressure on the Conservative government in Westminster to follow suit.
Dr Zomlot has visited All Saints Catholic School in Dagenham to see its work looking at the connections between the UK and Palestine after studying about rivers in Jericho, thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Furthermore, students from Bewdley Secondary School near Kidderminster have visited the Palestine Mission to ask the ambassador about Palestine and the Palestinian people.
“These are the leaders of the future. Regrettably, previous generations of young Britons have been subjected to a barrage of disinformation and misinformation. Youngsters as young as six or seven should learn the correct message, so when they are exposed to propaganda and deliberate disinformation, they can challenge them.”
The most important thing, concluded Dr Husam Zomlot, is that he and his small staff are being proactive and taking a bottom-up approach. “This is long-term because we want change in the UK and its relations with Palestine to be sustainable and everlasting.”
British recognition of the state of Palestine would help to reduce the risk of the two-state solution becoming irrelevant, and would be powerfully symbolic. However, it will not be enough to restore the damage that years of occupation has inflicted on the Palestinians. It can never be the only solution, but it could be the first, significant step on the road to a genuine and lasting peace based on international resolutions and justice.