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Britain’s opposition to sanctions on Israel exposes its support for the occupation and its crimes

June 11, 2021 at 9:27 am

A pro-Palestine activist holds a placards opposite the London Eye as they march in central London on 22 May 2021. [JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images]

The British government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has issued a statement in response to a petition calling for sanctions to be imposed on Israel. The statement ignores the fact that Israel is an occupying power and the people of Palestine are living under that occupation. It is worth looking at in detail.

“The UK is firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel. Our close and varied relationship means we are able to express clearly when we disagree.”

Friends, of course, disagree all the time; but real friends would take Israel to one side and say, “You know what? You’re out of order. We can’t offer this unconditional support if you keep breaking international law.” It is outrageous to suggest that having a “close and varied relationship” with Britain somehow makes Israel immune from accountability.

The Palestine Mission in London posted a statement on its website in April in which it said: “It is clear that the UK now believes Israel is above the law. There is no other interpretation of a statement [by Prime Minister Boris Johnson] that gives carte blanche to Israel to continue its illegal settlement project in occupied territory, and signals to Israel that no matter its actions vis-à-vis the Palestinian people in occupied territory, it will not be held to account… because it is a ‘friend and an ally’ of the UK.”

“HM Government has made its position on sanctions clear. While we do not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we are firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions. We believe that open and honest discussions, rather than the imposition of sanctions or supporting anti-Israeli boycotts, best supports our efforts to help progress the peace process and achieve a negotiated solution.”

The government mentions “the peace process”. What peace process? That series of “negotiations” which bought Israel more time to extend its colonial settlements across occupied Palestinian land, creating “facts on the ground”? The FCDO knows full well that the process is effectively dead in the water, and has been for years. Officials must have noticed that concessions after concessions are wrung out of the Palestinians, with nothing ever given in return by the occupation state of Israel.

“HM Government takes its export control responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We consider all export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework. We continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard.”

HM Government’s “export control responsibilities” are meant to ensure that arms and other items sold to foreign countries aren’t used to commit serious human rights violations and alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Is that what the FCDO means when it says that it takes these “responsibilities… very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world”? Is that really the case? If Britain is monitoring the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories what is the FCDO not seeing that the rest of the world can see very clearly? A brutal military occupation, for example; military offensives against civilian areas; the abuse of worshippers in a mosque by police; attacks on Palestinians in their homes and streets by illegal settlers; the dispossession of Palestinians. And that’s just in a few days last month. Israeli policy was described in 2008, as “ethnic cleansing by stealth”. It still is.

“The UK welcomed the recent announcement of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza on 20 May, which is an important step to ending the cycle of violence and loss of civilian life. During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to the region on 26 May he reiterated the UK’s firm commitment to the two-state solution as the best way to permanently end the occupation, deliver Palestinian self-determination and preserve Israel’s security and democratic identity.”

READ: British pro-Palestine activists prove that direct action and BDS are effective 

In the meantime, Britain will sit back and watch while Israel expands its colonial settlements and dispossesses more Palestinians on a daily basis. The two-state solution has been moribund for years. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the leaders of the proposed new “government for change” in Israel support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, so why does the international community, including Britain, pretend that “two states” is a viable solution?

The growth of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and the land taken to build the Apartheid Wall and settler-only roads, means that the land available for a Palestinian state is non-contiguous, and a land bridge between the West Bank and Gaza is likely to be unsustainable. The Israeli government is unwilling to rein-in its aggressive, illegal settlers now; what would it be like if Palestinians had to cross Israel to get from one part of Palestine — the Gaza Strip — to another, the West Bank? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

“Israel is an important strategic partner for the UK and we collaborate on issues of defence and security. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering. The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and locations within Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups, who must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. We are also concerned by reports that Hamas is again using civilian infrastructure and populations as cover for its military operations.”

#ShutDownElbit - Protesters in the UK for closure of arms factory exported to Israel [Twitter]

#ShutDownElbit – Protesters in the UK for closure of arms factory exported to Israel on 8 October 2018 [Twitter]

Why is the government’s commitment to Israel’s security “unwavering”? It could be something to do with what looks like a requirement for every leader of a major political party in Britain to pledge support for Israel almost before doing anything else.

Even if we take the occupation of Palestine, which actually started in 1948, to date from 1967, that was 20 years before Hamas was formed. The issue is not about Hamas and Palestinian resistance to the occupation. It’s about the occupation itself. Cause and effect: what came first, the occupation, or legitimate resistance to the occupation? People living under military occupation have a legal right to resist that occupation using whatever means at their disposal.

As Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights and professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University wrote in International Law and the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000): “Though the Israeli government and the US media persist in describing the second Palestinian intifada as a security crisis or a disruption to the ‘peace process’, in international law, Palestinian resistance to occupation is a legally protected right… Israel’s failures to abide by international law, as a belligerent occupant, amounted to a fundamental denial of the right of self-determination, and more generally of respect for the framework of belligerent occupation — giving rise to a Palestinian right of resistance.”

Moreover, UN Resolution 3246 dated 29 November 1974 “strongly condemns” all governments which do not recognise “the right to self-determination and independence of peoples under colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation, notably the peoples of Africa and the Palestinian people.” The same resolution “[r]eaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.” (Emphasis added)

It is, therefore, erroneous to call Hamas a “terrorist” organisation and its legitimate resistance “terrorism”. The British government has adopted the Zionist narrative and is misleading the British public. Moreover, the “human shield” argument is an old one for which no evidence is ever produced. However, the investigation by the International Criminal Court will determine if this and other war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in the occupied Palestinian territories. Interestingly, Israel rejects the ICC move, while the Palestinian factions have welcomed it. The latter are aware that charges may be laid at their own door, but accept the probe nonetheless.

READ: BBC sparks outrage after removing content following pressure from pro-Israel lobby

Furthermore, as Dr Martin Cohen wrote in a letter to the Guardian in 2002 (this is not a new discussion, by any means): “The tactics of the Israeli occupying forces thus far have been systematic brutalisation and frequent killings of unarmed civilians and feebly armed protesters. That such immoral and illegal ‘policing’ tactics have not thus far concerned the west indicates only the flexible application of our moral codes where Israel is concerned,” said the then editor of The Philosopher.

He wrote his letter in 2002 in response to the then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who had “pleaded for greater public sympathy for Israel’s position in its conflict with the Palestinians.” Our politicians appear to have learned nothing in the intervening years, and are doggedly sticking to the “Israel, right or wrong” brief, trampling over international laws and conventions in the process.

“We are clear that all countries, including Israel, have a legitimate right to self-defence, and the right to defend their citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with International Humanitarian Law, and are calibrated to avoid civilian casualties.”

It is important to note that not all countries impose apartheid on their own citizens and a people under occupation, so Israel is not like other countries. Israeli apartheid was recognised as long ago as 1961, when on 23 November Hendrik Verwoerd, the then Prime Minister of South Africa — whose party introduced the apartheid regime in Pretoria — wrote in the Rand Daily Mail, “[The Jews] took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years… Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”

It is ironic that the FCDO mentions International Humanitarian Law. Israel breaches international laws and conventions every single day, with impunity because of friends like the British government. And when did Israel ever worry about civilian casualties? It targets civilians very deliberately, as has been seen very recently in Gaza, and in 2018/19 during the Great March of Return protests when even medics were shot and killed — 21-year-old Razan Al-Najjar, for example, on 1 June 2018 — as well as journalists such as Yaser Murtaja going about their lawful work. During the recent assault on the Gaza Strip, 66 children and 39 women were among the 248 Palestinians killed by Israel. Indeed Israel has killed a Palestinian child on average every three days for 20 years.

To quote Cohen’s letter again: “The right of self-defence is used to justify actions in the occupied territories… There is no right of self-defence for an occupying force. Clearly, actions taken by the Palestinian people, in land internationally recognised as illegally occupied by Israel, are legitimate acts of resistance, subject only to the rules of war…”

Fast forward to May this year, and journalist C J Werleman made the same point: “What [UN State Department Spokesperson Ned] Price and the Biden administration also know is that under international law, it’s the Palestinians who have the right to self-defence in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and it’s Israel that does not.”

“The UK is strongly opposed to the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel, just as we oppose any calls for boycotts which divide people and reduce understanding.”

This is probably because BDS, an entirely peaceful movement, is effective and Israel knows it. Those who are old enough to remember the anti-South African Apartheid Movement know that the British government also opposed sanctions against the racist regime in Pretoria. Britain stands to be on the wrong side of history again.

“The UK position on evictions, demolitions, and settlements is longstanding and clear. We oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease its policies related to settlement expansion immediately, and instead work towards a two state solution. Settlements are illegal under international law, and present an obstacle to peace. We want to see a contiguous West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as part of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders. Our position was reflected in our support for UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and we continue to urge Israel at the highest level to halt settlement expansion immediately.”

Urging Israel does nothing; Israel ignores even its “friends”, because it is pulling some very powerful strings in Washington, London and other world capital. The US has used its veto in the UN Security Council on dozens of occasions to prevent sanctions being imposed on Israel. Last month, the veto was even used to block a resolution calling for a ceasefire in occupied Palestine. Those powerful strings were pulled yet again.

“We advise British businesses to bear in mind the British Government’s view on the illegality of settlements under international law when considering their investments and activities in the region. Ultimately, it will be the decision of an individual or company whether to operate in settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but the British Government would neither encourage nor offer support to such activity.”

Basically, the British government is willing to let businesses profit from settlements which are not only illegal, as the government admits, but are also part of a process which amounts to a war crime. In the meantime, the government is seeking to make it illegal for local councils in Britain to boycott Israel and/or its illegal settlements in their procurement and investment policies.

“We have also made clear our concerns about the increasing rate of demolitions and evictions of Palestinians. The UK is focused on preventing demolitions and evictions from happening in the first place through our legal aid programme, which supports Palestinians facing demolition or home eviction.”

Legal aid is useful, but it’s too little too late. Demolition notices shouldn’t be issued in the first place. The government should be doing more than express “concerns” by letting Israel know that demolitions and evictions — part of the ethnic cleansing process — will carry a cost in terms of sanctions.

“As a strong friend of Israel, and one which has stood up for Israel when it faces bias and unreasonable criticism, we are continuing to urge Israel to not take steps such as these, which move us away from our shared goals of peace and security.”

Peace and security are not Israel’s goal. Expansion of the territory it controls is: “To maintain the status quo will not do,” wrote David Ben-Gurion in Rebirth and Destiny of Israel (1954, p419). “We have to set up a dynamic state, bent upon creation and reform, building and expansion.”

The creation of “Greater Israel” requires the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land. “Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories,” said Benjamin Netanyahu when he was Deputy Foreign Minister speaking to students at Bar Ilan University. (Quoted in the Israeli journal Hotam, 24 November, 1989)

That’s the reality of Zionism, which the British government is appeasing.

“The occupation will not end and peace will not be achieved by symbolic measures, but by real movement towards renewed peace negotiations which create a viable Palestinian state, living in peace and security side-by-side with Israel. We will continue to press Israel and the Palestinians strongly on the need to refrain from taking actions, which make peace more difficult. And will continue to encourage further confidence building steps towards meaningful bilateral peace negotiations between the parties.”

The both sides argument — “We will continue to press Israel and the Palestinians strongly on the need to refrain from taking actions, which make peace more difficult” — ignores the reality that this is about a settler-colonial state on one side — a nuclear armed settler-colonial state — and the people whose land is being colonised on the other. It’s about the oppressor Apartheid state and the oppressed. It is about occupiers and the occupied. It is an asymmetric conflict. For the British government to pretend otherwise exposes its support for the occupation regime and its crimes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.