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David Cameron failed miserably trying to make Israel’s case in parliament

January 10, 2024 at 4:12 pm

UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs David Cameron arrives Downing Street to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting in London, United Kingdom on January 09, 2024. [Raşid Necati Aslım – Anadolu Agency]

The Economist published a revealing article last week examining why Germany “goes too far defending Israel.” It was written after several high-profile Germans faced allegations of anti-Semitism. They aren’t alone. An Indian poet, an Australian political scientist, an Irish folk troupe, a British architect, a Bangladeshi photographer, an American historian of the Holocaust, a Chilean composer, an Israeli-Austrian playwright, a Dutch footballer, a German-Nigerian journalist, a Palestinian novelist, a South African artist and US Senator Bernie Sanders have all been abruptly “cancelled” in Germany over the past few months.

Explaining Germany’s “ultra-squeamishness”, the article referred to the Holocaust and the systematic murder of six million Jews and said: “One answer to that horror by subsequent generations of Germans has been to embrace the creation of Israel as a ‘happy ending’ to their own national nightmare.” As a result, “Germans have come to see any challenge to this redemption myth as something akin to committing a sin.”

A similar story of redemption has been playing out in Britain. As the country that issued the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration, promising support to the World Zionist Organisation for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the UK has been hoping in vain for its own “happy ending”. Israel’s metamorphosis into an apartheid state facing allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is not the fairy-tale ending that Britain and Israel’s other Western allies have been dreaming about.

READ: Germany, Egypt agree that Gaza, West Bank belong to Palestinians, FM says

It perhaps explains the “ultra-squeamishness” that was on clear display yesterday when UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron gave evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. The former prime minister, who in 2010 said that Gaza had been turned into a “prison camp”, was grilled on whether government lawyers advised him of an Israeli breach of international law, UK arms sale to the apartheid state, the legal status of the Gaza Strip and allegations that Israel is committing genocide.

With the ICJ about to hear South Africa’s argument that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, Cameron’s response to the questions could prove to be catastrophic for the occupation state.

In the eyes of the world, it’s not just Israel that stands accused at The Hague, but also the UK, the US and Israel’s other Western allies who are aiding and abetting the genocide of the Palestinians.

There was clearly a lot at stake, but Cameron could only put on a sloppy show, prevaricating and refusing to answer basic questions when talking about Israel. In one of the more revealing exchanges, Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara asked repeatedly whether Cameron had seen any evidence or had any grounds to believe that Israel was in breach of international humanitarian law.

The minister responded several times by saying that he isn’t a lawyer, and that he had regularly sought legal advice. O’Hara then pointed out that earlier in the hearing, Cameron had said that the UK government wanted Israel to turn the water back on in northern Gaza.

“I’m asking you, in your position as foreign secretary, if Israel has the power to turn the water back on that they turned off, surely that is a flagrant breach of international humanitarian law,” O’Hara stressed. Cameron again merely repeated that he isn’t a lawyer, but that Israel “ought to switch it [the water] on because in the north of Gaza, the conflict is now effectively over there.”

O’Hara was making the important point that if Israel has the power to turn the water on and off whenever it wishes — a point which Cameron had conceded during the questioning — and the occupation state then denies water to the Palestinians, then that is a clear violation of international law.

The question of whether government lawyers advised Cameron of an Israeli breach of international law is relevant to a High Court challenge that the UK government faces over its continued licensing of arms exports to Israel. Under its arms exporting criteria, the government is obligated to suspend licences if it determines that there is a clear risk that British weapons might be used in violation of international law.

Watch Debunked: ‘Gaza is not occupied’

O’Hara’s point is also relevant to the question about whether Israel occupies Gaza, which Cameron was asked about. Since 7 October, Israeli ministers have continued to spread the lie that the besieged enclave is not occupied. However, under the 2005 Israeli Disengagement Plan, Israel retained absolute authority over Gaza’s airspace, territory and sea, not to mention water and fuel supplies.

The key question in determining whether Israel still occupies Gaza is who has “effective control” over the territory. Does Israel pass the “effective control” test?

Over the course of the past three months Israelis themselves have debunked the claim that Gaza is not occupied in the clearest possible way. When Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza, and halted the already limited electricity, food, water and fuel supplies, it was an explicit demonstration of effective control. If Israel doesn’t occupy Gaza, how is it able to turn off the lights with a flip of a switch? To stop Palestinians from exporting produce from their land? And control what and who can enter and leave the Strip? O’Hara appeared to be making the same point in his questioning of Cameron.

“What is the UK’s current legal position on whether or not Gaza is occupied?” the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, asked Cameron, who refused to answer the question directly. “I don’t think Israel regards itself as an occupying force,” he said. “Whether that is correct, I would want to take legal advice on.”

Pressing Cameron further, Kearns said that under British law Israel is an occupying power, to which he replied: “I don’t know the precise legal definition, but I’ll have to get back and check.” Kearns then turned to Sir Philip Barton – Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; the senior civil servant in Cameron’s ministry — for clarification of the UK’s position. He replied by stating that under UK law Gaza is part of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Kearns stressed that there no ambiguity over the status of Gaza under British law. “As I understand it, there is no question but that, in law, and according to UN Security Council resolution 2334, on which we have based our legal position, Gaza is an occupied territory,” she said. “Therefore, from that, Israel does have obligations as an occupying power. Whether or not they consider themselves to be one or not, British law does state that, and I would consider it to be quite fundamental that we knew exactly from what premise we were operating when engaging with something so complex.”

Opinion: Israel-Palestine war: Israel’s claim of ‘self-defence’ has zero legal legitimacy

The exchange refuted unequivocally Israel’s assertion that it has the right to “self-defence”, a claim that has been used to justify its military operations in Gaza and has been endorsed by Western allies, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Cameron’s predecessor at the foreign office, James Cleverly, as well as senior Labour Party officials, not least leader Keir Starmer. Contrary to Israel’s claim, and that of its allies, it was emphasised explicitly yesterday during the discussion with Cameron that, under international law as well as British law, Israel does not possess the right to “self-defence” against the people under its military occupation.

The principle that the right to self-defence can only be invoked when a state is threatened by another state is acknowledged widely. Moreover, according to international law, it is the occupied population that holds the right to self-defence and is entitled to resist the occupation by any means, including “armed struggle”. The position of an occupying power is by definition an aggressive position to take, especially in a territory subject to belligerent occupation, as Israel’s occupation most certainly is.

Is it “ultra-squeamishness” that prevents Cameron from acknowledging basic facts about Britain’s position on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories? Could it be that the desire for redemption and a happy ending imbibed by British leaders from an early age blind them to the reality of Israel’s aggression and belligerence? Whatever the reason, yesterday’s exchange is further proof that when viewed through the lens of international law and judged on the evidence, Israel has no moral and legal grounds on which to stand. The hope remains that the ICJ will share this perspective, and enforce an end to the genocide of the Palestinians.

READ: ICC to investigate Israel attacks on Gaza’s journalists

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