Online talk by Sir Vincent Fean, Balfour Project, 2 April 2020
Read the transcript below:
A welcome to all. Thank you all for joining the Balfour Project today. I think it’s important to have this discussion to keep the spotlight on an issue which only gets worse with neglect.
And at this time of Corona virus, I’d like to wish you all health and well-being and safety.
Today I’m going to say four things. The first is who we are in the Balfour Project, and where we’re coming from – with no monopoly of wisdom but, we hope, with realism and common sense. And then three chunks of time; Starting with what Britain did, the time that we spent in the region and the Mandate period, leading up to 1948 and our departure.
On 7th May we have another event comparable to today at three o’clock, which will be focused on the history.
The second bit is the situation today and the third is what we can do about it – because there are things that we can usefully do.
The Balfour Project Charity
We’re a charity. We’re focused on education, and awareness-raising about what Britain did in the first half of the last century, plus advocacy about what that past responsibility could and should lead us to do now.
By Britain, I mean our government and British civil society, and by civil society, I mean us. We argue that we have a past responsibility which calls for present action to help attain equal rights in the region. Peace with justice. And our vision is focused on Britain’s role, which is inseparable from our past. Our vision is, with British support, to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on justice and equal rights.
The charity’s mission is to acknowledge Britain’s continuing historical responsibilities and through popular education and advocacy, persuade the British government to uphold equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians and recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. And when I say alongside Israel, that’s an important point. The Balfour Project as a charity wishes the people of Israel and the people of Palestine well. The well-being and security of the people of Israel, in our view, is best ensured by peaceful exercise of the right to self-determination of their neighbours, the Palestinian people. These two peoples will always be neighbours, and will live in well-being and security if they enjoy equal rights, which is emphatically not the situation today.
The narratives, the stories of the two peoples each have validity. By that I mean both stories are deeply held, deeply believed by those who trust in them, who advocate them, who live by them. Both need to be better known. Both need to be taught in our schools and universities. Likewise Britain’s part in them. The Balfour Project is working on that area.
Education is our main theme. We are working on a Peace Advocacy Fellowship Scheme pilot programme in the University of London with four Fellows who I hope are listening in today. Their task is to try to spread the word about the Balfour Project in university, and to avoid partisanship, to argue for dialogue rather than a radicalising approach. What matters ultimately is how the two peoples will coexist. That needs to be on equal terms. And as I’ve said, it’s not so today.
Britain contributed directly to that inequality. So we have a responsibility. We can’t change what was done in our name, but it’s good to know about it because the impact is still being felt today. And we can do something about the present and the future if we try.
I will be brief, because on the 7th of May we’ll be talking more about history and showing a short documentary film: Britain in Palestine 1917-1948. Britain made promises in World War One to Arabs and Jews, which were irreconcilable, contradictory promises. I’ll take two of those promises, two of several. The first, and less well known, was to the Arabs. In 1915/16, Sir Henry McMahon on behalf of the British government offered British support for an independent Arab state including Palestine, if the Sherif of Mecca would rebel against the Turks, which he duly did. We all remember Lawrence of Arabia.
The second was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 which gives the Project its name, promising in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, ostensibly without prejudice to the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. In other words, the Muslims and the Christians who together formed the majority of the population throughout the British Mandate period from 1923 to ‘48.
In December 1917, Allenby entered Jerusalem and his Empire forces defeated the Turks in Palestine. Britain acquired the Mandate in 1923 from the League of Nations to ensure the wellbeing and development of the people of Palestine. This task was described in the Mandate document as “a sacred trust of civilisation.” The Mandate stated:
“Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised”.
Palestine and its inhabitants were covered by this.
But Britain had also incorporated into the Mandate the text of the Balfour Declaration, promising a national home for the Jewish people. Balfour certainly saw fulfilment of that promise as essential and the views of the Arab majority as an obstacle to overcome or bypass. And bypass those Arab majority views, we British did.
How? To quote the late British historian of Israel, Sir Martin Gilbert, in a lecture in Israel in 2011:
“The centrepiece of British Mandatory policy was the withholding of representative institutions for as long as there was, in Palestine, an Arab majority.”
As long as there was an Arab majority, then representative institutions, democratic institutions would be withheld.
Britain left Palestine in 1948 after 25 years of Mandate rule, still without those majority representative institutions in place. We walked. There was a war which the Jewish forces won. Israel was born on 78% of British Mandate Palestine.
In 1967 there was another war which Israel won, occupying the remaining 22%: Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. That year came UN Security Council Resolution 242 condemning the acquisition of territory by force and calling on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied militarily in June 1967.
Britain drafted Resolution 242. Britain has its share of responsibility for what preceded it up to 1948 and arguably after. And there is still the military occupation of what I will now call Palestine today: Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Let’s fast forward to now and keep the focus where the Balfour Project wants to put it: on Britain, both government and civil society. We know that the situation on the ground is dire – with the closure of Gaza, sporadic indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, settlement expansion, house demolitions, settler violence, the prospect of Israeli de jure annexation of the Jordan Valley and settlements, on top of what is de facto annexation already.
So what’s the attitude of our government and what should the attitude of our government be? Our government is doing some good things, but it says some inconsistent things. I think we should press hard for consistency from our government. We need it.
Let’s start with the good things. The Department for International Development (DfID) supports Palestinian refugees by funding the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Israel argues against UNRWA and President Trump has cut US funding for UNRWA to zero. Under Obama, America was the biggest single funder of UNRWA. Now they give nothing. That gives added importance to the role of our Department for International Development. Its support for UNRWA needs to continue and grow.
Similarly, DfID supports the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which does also do some work in Gaza with utilities and other support. I believe that continued support, financial support for the Palestinian Authority by our government is the right thing to do.
The Foreign Office regularly, routinely condemns settlement expansion and has condemned the prospect of unilateral annexation by Israel of the Jordan Valley and settlements. Britain has not moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Britain opposes the forced transfer of the Bedouin from the area called E1 between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The creation of another illegal settlement on E1 would end contiguity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
But some contradictory things had been said. We know, because it’s true and because it has been stated, that unilateral Israeli annexation of Palestinian land constitutes a serious breach of international law. That was stated by five countries on 12 September last year. Ours was one of them, with France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
We hear from our Prime Minister that the Trump proposal could constitute a step, that it says something about two states and it says something about Jerusalem. I find that inconsistent with the line that the UK position has not changed and that the United Kingdom continues to support a negotiated outcome on the basis of the 1967 borders.
The UK government did not cooperate with the UN enquiry into companies trading with settlements, despite UN Security Council Resolution 2334, to which we subscribed in December 2016, which says that member states of the UN should distinguish in their dealings between what I call Green Line Israel, the Israel of 1948, and the settlement enterprise. The proposed Bill to prevent local councils from taking a policy position, for instance on settlement products, is questionable.
Above all, consistency is needed in upholding the law. There is a tendency to say that we support international humanitarian law, but to do little. And this, in a context where sadly President Trump disregards the law. Not just with regard to the Palestinians – we all need the rule of law. Our government should resist the temptation to avoid offending the mercurial President Trump. Specifically in the near future, it’s important for all of us to monitor the negotiations that will happen between Israel and the United Kingdom for a free trade agreement. Such an agreement must explicitly exclude settlements. And we know that Mr Netanyahu wants them to be included.
So much for the status quo.
What can we do?
What can we, and by we here, I mean us – British civil society – do about it? Quite a few things.
The first is to seek to influence our government. Second, we can do some things ourselves. I know many of you are already active.
On the first point, governments matter. What ours says and does matters. This is a highly, highly political issue. It is also a test of the government’s commitment to international law and the rules-based order, which we wrote after World War Two, ratified, and now need more than ever. So the message is:
“Don’t penalise your foes and let off your friends”.
That’s not how the law works.
To give an example, Russia took the Crimea and earned sanctions from the European Union, from the US, which are ongoing. The threat of Israeli unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and settlements, what will we do about that?
I recommend lobbying your MP. If that person is sympathetic, still do it. MPs need encouragement. Like-minded constituents can band together. The scale of lobbying matters. Conservative MPs matter. I recommend lobbying by the constituents of James Cleverly, our Middle East Minister in Braintree, Dominic Raab – Foreign Secretary – whose constituency is Esher and Walton, and the Prime Minister’s constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
In Parliament, cross-party cooperation is to be encouraged. It’s happening between Conservatives, Labour, SNP, Lib Dem, Green, Plaid Cymru. It’s happening, but it needs to grow.
And press for what? Seek what? Upholding the law. Recognition of the state of Palestine by our government on 1967 lines as the place where Palestinians must be enabled to exercise their right to self-determination. Recognition changes the mindset of the recognising state and indicates parity of esteem for both the people of Israel, which Britain recognised as a state in 1950, and the people of Palestine. Such action, recognition, also emulates how Israel gained international legitimacy through the United Nations in 1948 – 50. To date, more than 130 countries have recognised Palestine. Recognition by the UK, given our historical responsibilities, would be particularly powerful, and I think would serve, would help to change the approach of our government to equal rights.
I maintain that the right to self-determination of a people, including the Palestinian people is not for another people to question or undermine – least of all us British.
Currently, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is considering investigating the Gaza wars. Palestine, recognised as a state by over 130 members of the UN, merits inclusion in that investigation, merits inclusion within the scope of the ICC. This is being contested by some. We need to argue that membership of the UN, which occurred in 2012 for Palestine, means that the ICC has the scope to investigate crimes committed by any side against civilians in this conflict.
We need to press for equal rights in a situation where rights are being denied systematically. We need to press our government to support UNRWA, and DfID to renew its funding by July and recommit to support UNRWA in the long term, and over the next five years. This despite a systematic campaign of denigration now underway against UNRWA, which does essential work.
I mentioned UN Security Council Resolution 2334. We need to uphold it properly and press our government to do more to distinguish between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967, on issues such as labelling settlement products and so on.
When he was Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph on 27 October 2017 setting out a vision for the future, My Vision for Middle East Peace between Israel and a new Palestinian State. In practice, much of what he said reflected European Union existing policy. We need to hold our government to that course.
It’s important to know we are not alone in our search for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. Prince Charles, in Bethlehem on the 24th of January this year, said:
“No one arriving in Bethlehem today could miss the signs of continued hardship and the situation you face. I join you and all communities in your prayers for a just and lasting peace. We must pursue this cause with faith and determination, striving to heal the wounds which have caused such pain. It is my dearest wish that the future will bring freedom, justice and equality to all Palestinians, enabling you to thrive and to prosper”.
Similarly, the Holy Land Coordination, Catholic bishops plus the Anglican Bishop of Southwark Christopher Chessun, led by his fellow-Balfour Project patron Bishop Declan Lang, said in Jerusalem in January 2020:
“We implore our governments to help build a new political solution rooted in human dignity for all…
There is an urgent need for our countries to play their part by
1) insisting upon the application of international law,
2) following the Vatican’s lead in recognising the state of Palestine,
3) addressing the security concerns of Israel and the rights of all to live in safety,
4) rejecting political or economic support for settlements,
5) resolutely opposing acts of violence or abuses of human rights by any side.
We stand in solidarity with those Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to give up their non-violent struggle for justice, peace and human rights.
We pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.
Those two Balfour Project patrons, Bishops Chessun and Lang, publicly rejected the Trump proposal two days after it was issued. They said:
“Our governments have a responsibility to uphold international law and protect human dignity in the Holy Land. This unilateral initiative does not do so… The British government should continue to insist upon meaningful dialogue, a viable two state solution and the application of international law”.
The Palestinian people lead a lonely life. But they are not alone. How can we in civil society show them that we care, that we take our responsibility to heart, that we actively seek to advance their well-being, their dignity, their equal rights with all their neighbours, including those in Israel?
Here are a few suggestions of my own.
We’re in a democracy. Tell your MP what you want to happen.
One positive way to show that Palestinians are not alone is to join a group here in Britain which is friends with a group in Palestine. It can be a link to a particular community in Palestine or indeed with Palestine as a whole. There are more than 30 such groups spread across Britain. They are listed on the website of the Britain Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network. If there isn’t a group near you now, but you think you can help form one, please email the network committee on firstname.lastname@example.org. These groups offer friendship, support, solidarity, and a voice to their Palestinian counterparts, organising visits in both directions, undertaking project fundraising events, and so on. Whatever’s needed.
Seeing is believing. Most people who visit Palestine do so via Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. There is no visa requirement. I strongly recommend a visit, post virus, to see the reality for yourself. It clears your mind. It shows you just why the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change.
Money always helps. In our case, the Balfour Project, if you like what we say and do, we do need money to organise events, manage our website, et cetera. Our next public event is on the 27th of October, at Church House in Westminster, about Jerusalem. We aim to cover the British role there historically; Jerusalem’s status legally; its sacred nature for all three Abrahamic faiths and freedom of worship; life in East Jerusalem today, and what British government policy is and should be, particularly in relation to the Trump proposal. Our event comes a week before the 3 November US Presidential election, which matters greatly.
If you so wish you can donate to the Balfour Project. The Jerusalem event, with visiting speakers from Israel and Palestine, will cost about £20,000 to put on, so we will also be charging on the day – but that will not cover our costs.
There are many other good causes. May I mention two other charities? Medical Aid for Palestinians, for which I happen to be a trustee, does great good in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon in the UNRWA camps, and is currently working very hard in Gaza to combat the coronavirus. Friends of the Holy Land creates jobs in Gaza and provides scholarships, because education is a way forward for Palestinian youth. Currently Bethlehem is locked down and there is an FHL appeal going on to help the citizens of Bethlehem, helping Christians who help Muslims.
To sum up: British policies and actions towards Palestine in the last century are still being felt today. That fact gives us British, government and civil society, a unique responsibility to work earnestly for equal rights for all living between the Sea and the River.
The charity’s first priority is to increase awareness of that responsibility.
Our second priority is to advocate for policies and actions that give primacy to equal rights over inconsistency or expediency or partisan interests.
One action our government should take is to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel on 1967 lines, not as the answer to everything, but as an affirmation that the two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, merit parity of esteem from us as we affirm our belief that each people has the right to determine its own future without hindrance by the other or by us.
The challenge is to raise awareness and to advocate for British policy to be guided by international law and the rules-based order, which is in our own UK wider interest and in the long-term interests of both peoples in Palestine and Israel. For I am convinced that Israel’s long-term interest is best served by coexistence with sovereign neighbouring states focused on their citizens’ development and well-being.
Israel’s nearest neighbour, Palestine, deserves the right to invest in the dignity and well-being of the Palestinian people at peace with all its neighbours, including Israel. That’s more than a dream, but it is very, very far from today’s reality.
How do we get nearer to it? I think we start at home with ourselves and our elected representatives, raising awareness of our own past actions and responsibility. We can influence our Parliament and our government to do more and do better and we can challenge inconsistency when we see it.
We can advocate recognition of Palestine on the 1967 borders and seek allies elsewhere in Europe. We can demonstrate our friendship with, and esteem for, the Palestinian and Israeli peoples seeking parity of esteem. I’ve mentioned the opportunities afforded by friendship and twinning groups and by visits to the region and working closer to home.
I commend the Balfour Project with this focus on us, the Brits, our past and how we can influence the future in Palestine and Israel for the common good. Thank you.
And now we’ll turn to your questions,
We will be sharing the transcript and the recording of this call and the questions on the Balfour Project website after the event. We’ve had so many questions coming in advance and while we’ve been talking that it will just be impossible to answer all of them.
Vincent has very kindly said that he will answer any unanswered questions after this talk and we will share them on our website and to our email list.
So I would first like to tell you one of the questions that’s come through from Imran Yusuf, the comedian. “Would a focus on championing the Universal Human Rights Declaration allow for an easier passage for Palestinian rights to be discussed amongst those who would otherwise oppose?” And then I’m going to give you another question. “What expectations are there in Israel and Palestine that Britain might play some role in easing current tensions?”
Thank you to Imran, who’s a good friend of people all around the world, and a good friend of the Palestinians. Imran went with Medical Aid for Palestinians and the late, great Jeremy Hardy to the West Bank a couple of years ago and made a very excellent moving documentary about what he saw. So thank you Imran. One of the themes of today is equal rights. It’s vital. So yes to the Universal Human Rights Declaration. No one can or should contest the concept of universal human rights. So it needs to be championed.
Will it persuade, in this very deep rooted, very old conflict? One can hope. I think it should be part of our message. Equal rights around the world. Equal rights between neighbours. Equal rights between peoples. Equal rights between the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. And however one looks at the narratives (I said earlier that I respect those two narratives) if you look at the situation on the ground today, one people is relatively doing fine and one people is under, what I would call, oppression. So the Universal Human Rights Declaration is key. Making it stick? We can only make it stick by talking about it, by reminding people of it and by calling out those who have signed it and are not living by it.
The second point was about expectations from Israelis and Palestinians about Britain. Here I speak with a lot of humility. Palestinians have come to expect little from Britain and have a long memory of our past deeds.
Nevertheless, in the absence economically of the United States, the role of the United Kingdom within Europe, not in the European Union, but within Europe in showing a lead in relation to, for instance, the UN Relief Works Agency, is important. I know that the dialogue between the PLO and the United Kingdom is ongoing and we get a hearing.
The current British government is highly popular with the Israeli leadership. That can be used to persuade. My only caveat there is that quiet diplomacy and quiet persuasion are not proven to be effective in this conflict. So I think it behoves a friend of Israel, in the shape of our Prime Minister, to say and repeat what he did say on a visit as Foreign Secretary a few years ago, which is that, and he said these words, in his opinion you need either a two state solution or you end up with an apartheid system.
Now, using our good offices is fine. Using our ability to talk to both sides is fine. It’s the right thing to do. I think it needs more, it needs more cooperation across frontiers in Europe and it needs more persuasion in the United States because the role of the United States is key, which is why I said the next election in the US is vital on the 3rd of November. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate that. When Obama was in office, there was no breakthrough. There was no solution. But I do find that the last three years of Trump have been bad. I’ll stop there.
The next couple of questions are on Gaza. What particular action in relation to Gaza should the international community urge the government of Israel to take in this time of the coronavirus? And then we’ve got another question. Are you disappointed that there’s still hostility between Israel and the Gaza Strip?
On the second point, I think I’ll spend more time on the first point, but on the second point, I’m not surprised, I’m disappointed that the blockade of Gaza continues. I think that the people of Gaza have the right to free movement to the West Bank and beyond. And that the closure, on security grounds has outlived its usefulness, if it was ever useful.
In terms of what particular action Israel could take now: Israel is clearly facing its own crisis on the coronavirus. And there is dialogue between Hamas and Israel and between the Palestinian Authority and Israel on how to handle this plague, which knows no boundaries. I have two suggestions for Israel. One is to accelerate the delivery of medical equipment across, and to reduce to zero the prohibitions of dual use, which currently prevent things like isotopes for breast cancer treatment from going into Gaza, reduce those to zero.
And the second one is to heed the voice of the UN Relief Works Agency, which is a lifeline, a life support system for about 70%, if not more, of the people living in Gaza, and will remain so. In those circumstances, listen to UNRWA, listen to its requests, accede to them and very, very particularly, call off the systematic attack that I mentioned against UNRWA. UNRWA does a good job. It works hard on healthcare with clinics. It works hard on education. It is a force for good. And if it were not there, there would be chaos and a humanitarian disaster. So I would ask Israel to call off the systematic attack of denigration of UNRWA.
There are a couple of questions on Netanyahu’s comments about annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements. Can you expand on that? Is this a likely threat and what do you think the British government should be doing about it?
I think it’s important and I think it’s more likely than not to happen. The British government should do what it can to stop it, to prevent it. I’m aware that the US administration is not likely to intervene seriously in the matter. So it becomes a question for the UK and like-minded countries in Europe. I mentioned earlier this declaration of 12 September last year by five European States saying that unilateral annexation would be a serious breach of international law. True.
The subsequent question, therefore, is what can and should the British government do? Well, first of all, I think it should take a renewed public position of opposition to the annexation idea. I say that’s a current issue because in the talks that are going on now in Israel about the formation of the next government, with highly likely Prime Minister Netanyahu returned to office for 18 months at least, one of the issues that is going to be hammered out between his Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s supporters is the issue of annexation.
Now on the one hand, one could argue that annexation is already underway. The settlement enterprise, the IDF control of the Jordan Valley, of the crossing points to Jordan, that de facto annexation is already with us.
De jure, legal, or illegal is it would be, annexation is a big threat. I think it’s a big threat to any prospect of Palestinian self-determination if it’s allowed to take root. And I continue to believe that it’s in the best interests of the Israeli people for the Palestinian people to be able to exercise that right to self-determination. They cannot exercise that right to self-determination in bantustans.
So I haven’t answered the question, what should British government do? That’s for the government to say. But it needs to voice its opposition to the prospect of annexation before any Knesset decision. There hasn’t been a Knesset decision. The Knesset is re-forming now. And secondly, the British government needs to talk to France, Germany, Ireland, our like-minded allies in Europe, about a joint position, which would be more than words.
We’ve got a couple of questions on the Balfour Project approach. We’ve got one that says, “Why doesn’t the Balfour Project advocate for the Balfour Declaration to be taught in schools and be part of the school curriculum. Why isn’t this one of the main calls for action?”
And then we got quite a lot of comments on, I know this is a big one, but our view on one state versus the two states solution.
Let’s start with education. I’ve seen an email coming in, in advance, from Colin Cooper up in Edinburgh. And thank you, Colin, for the question. Education is key to the work of the Balfour Project. We seek to cast light on a part of Britain’s past that is insufficiently known, because knowledge would lead to a sense of responsibility and greater effort to help to resolve the current situation.
So education is key. Education as Colin says, begins in, in this case I would guess in secondary school and goes on in university. At the university level, I’m proud to say that the Balfour Project has launched a pilot project with four Peace Advocacy Fellows who are working on projects related to Balfour, related to equal rights and that will come to fruition in this semester. We give them a modest stipend for their work.
We hope to expand this pilot project, funding permitting, in the coming semester and thereafter and to widen it within London, but also spread it across the UK. That requires money. It’s meant to be a force for good. It’s meant to be a force for reason and to be a means at the level of university of getting beyond the silos. We all know that there are silos in university and that people in those silos don’t necessarily talk to each other. One of the aims is to persuade people to talk to each other on the basis of equal rights.
At the school level, I agree with Colin, that there is an important gap in the curriculum of our schools across the UK. It’s quite hard to influence the Department of Education to add this conflict into our studies at GCSE and A-level. We’re considering it. And we are considering it with a partner organisation called Parallel Histories, which I commend to all, run by Michael Davies. Michael has spent a large part of his life creating teaching materials which tell each narrative, not one side. That’s important. So to conclude on Colin’s question, I think it is important, we need to include it in our action plan and we will do so.
On the question of one state, two states, here’s my take. It’s not for me to determine or advocate what the outcome, the negotiated I hope, outcome of this conflict should be. I know that it needs to entail the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories occupied in 1967. I do not know whether the ultimate outcome is going to be two states or one and it’s not really for me to say.
What I think is for the Balfour Project to say is that today the best means of showing our commitment to equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians is to accord to the Palestinian people the recognition that we accorded in 1950 to the Israeli people by recognising their statehood.
That seems to me to change the mindset of our government from one in which the Palestinian question is one of policy and money to one where it’s a matter of parity, equality, and we, as a government, are demonstrating that we take each people seriously and that we equate them, that we regard their rights as being equal.
I say those things not to preempt the outcome. If the outcome were to be one state with equal rights, who am I to argue? But in the situation that we’re in today, I argue strongly for the British government to recognise the state of Palestine on 1967 lines and to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination in the territories occupied in 1967. I think that’s realistic. I think it’s achievable. I think it’s what international law dictates going back to Resolution 242 and the condemnation, the denial of the right to take land by force.
So I hope I’ve made myself clear. I’m open to discussion on the long-term outcome. And it’s not for me to say. What is for me to say is what our government should do. And I think that our government should be encouraged to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel because that means parity of esteem. It means advocacy by our government of equal rights.
You’ve touched on the topic of recognition. We had a few questions on it, specifically, why it wasn’t addressed in 1950 when Israel was recognised, why Palestine wasn’t recognised as a state then. We also had a really interesting question about Churchill’s role in the Balfour Declaration and his views, suggesting that he had Zionist views.
I will, if I may, remit those two questions to our 7th May event, but I’ll say two words about them. On the 7th May, at this time, we will be showing the 20 minute Balfour Project film about the British role from 1917 and in the Mandate time, and then having a question and answer session with historians about that period.
So those two questions are relevant to it, but I’ll very briefly say, Churchill was a strong Zionist from a Manchester constituency and he incorporated the Balfour Declaration into a White Paper, which became an Act of Parliament in the UK around 1922. And that set the tone for British policy up until World War Two. So Churchill is an interesting character. He wasn’t involved in the early negotiations about the Balfour Declaration before or in 1917. He wasn’t party to that, but he was very much an implementing force.
I think I said what I can about recognition just now. In 1950, two years after the Americans, Britain recognised the state of Israel. I think the reality of life, the fact of life is that no British government will unrecognise the state of Israel.
Why didn’t we recognise the state of Palestine at the same time? That’s a more complicated question. I think the reality, but we’ll hear more on the 7th May, is that the body politic of Palestine was demoralised and depleted by the British response to the Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939. So there wasn’t actually a strong Palestinian leadership, because the British government had worked against that. It was also the case that in 1948, at the end of that war, Egypt was in control of Gaza and Jordan was in control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In those circumstances, it was harder, I guess, but I’m not sure it was a question that was actually aired, to recognise the state of Palestine on that territory. And it was with the arrival of Arafat and the PLO in the 1960s that the issue became a centre point of attention.
I would also add that allegations that the PLO has not recognised Israel are untrue. The PLO recognised Israel in 1988 and reaffirmed that recognition at Oslo in 1993. So we have a situation where the PLO, the Palestinian leadership, has recognised the state of Israel.
A really interesting question has come in from Nick Georges. “While in the West Bank with EAPPI, June, I met someone from the British Consulate in Jerusalem. He told me that the British government supported the two state solution and have no immediate expectation of recognising Palestine. Bearing in mind Netanyahu’s recent visit to London, the income from the arms trade, [which has come up in a lot of questions] and other trade with Israel, Israel’s assistance to the Conservative Party with their efforts to help sideline the Labour Party and Boris’s new stance over making BDS illegal in the U.K. , do you hold out any hope of this government withdrawing their support of Israel and doing more to support the Palestinians?”
The short answer is that I don’t see our government reducing its support for Israel. I expect negotiation of a free trade agreement and I said in my talk that it’s very important to ensure by lobbying MPs, by making the right approaches, that such an agreement explicitly excludes settlements from the scope of the agreement, because settlements are not Israel.
We have, as a government, the benefit of being able to talk to both sides. Let me add as an aside that I hoped that we would be willing as a government to talk also to Hamas. That has not been the government position. I think it’s a mistake purely to talk to your friends and that you should talk to people that you vehemently disagree with in order to persuade them to change their position and to understand yours.
The way in which the British government operates is often discreetly rather than by megaphone. It seems to me that in this case, in order to take a stand against the unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements, discreet diplomacy should be put to one side and we need a more explicit condemnation of the prospect of annexation with consequences if the annexation were to be implemented.
Coming from the UK, as a friend of Israel, that would have added strength and might, in cooperation with other European states in particular, give pause to what otherwise may be an accelerated process, which I fear because like everybody else, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be aware that the Presidential elections in the US are on the 3rd of November and the outcome is uncertain.
There have been quite a lot of questions about Israeli organisations that people might want to look up and get involved in or follow. Do you have any recommendations of Israeli organisations that are working on this?
There are a lot. When I was in Jerusalem as Consul-General, I met Breaking the Silence, which is a strong, and it needs to be, a strong organisation of ex-servicemen and -women of the Israeli Defence Force who come together to say that the things that they were asked to do, their successors currently in the IDF should not be asked to do, not just in Hebron but around the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Breaking the Silence, which is suffering from serious attack by the government of Israel, in Israel is a force for good. B’tselem is another. Peace Now as well, working to see a way through, working to keep alive that idea of equal rights, showing that Israelis have respect for the dignity and wellbeing of Palestinians and seek a negotiated outcome, a peaceful outcome.
There are others. The Policy Working Group, with Alon Liel and Ilan Baruch. There is a group of Israeli women who monitor the checkpoints. I know that, in our case, in the case of the UK and Europe, the Ecumenical Accompaniers, which is a great organisation, do so selflessly for a period of three months and then come home and talk about their experiences, which is a great thing to do.
The one I’m thinking about is called MachsomWatch and this is Israeli women who monitor the checkpoints, who talk to the IDF, who try to ensure that the sick and the old get priority for passage through the checkpoints and the school children get to school. Those are all important.
In Jerusalem, there’s an organisation called Ir Amim which monitors settlement activity in East Jerusalem and which publishes information. These are all Israeli organisations since that was the question, but more widely in the UN family, there’s an organisation called UN OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities, which publishes factual information about settlement activity, about house demolitions, about the breaches of international law and can be relied upon. It is impartial, it is tasked is to monitor those things, human rights abuses and so on. And it is impartial. So if people are looking for a factual source of knowledge, UN OCHA and the UN Secretariat in general are a good source of knowledge.
There are quite a lot of comments on BDS so I don’t know if you want to address that topic and if you could as well give your final thoughts so that we can wrap up shortly. There are a couple of other comments coming in about panel discussions. This is our inaugural online talk that we have set up in light of everyone being on lockdown. We hope to have a similar style online lecture or event once a month.
On the forthcoming events. On the 7th of May, at three o’clock, there will be a showing on Zoom of the Balfour Project film, which is dedicated to the contradictory promises of World War One, and then the conduct of the Mandate until 1948. Some of our historians associated with the Project will then take questions, including a couple of the ones that we’ve had today about Churchill and about recognition of Palestine in 1948/50.
The next event after that is on 4th of June, when my fellow trustee of the Balfour Project, Andrew Whitley, aims to talk about the United Nations, not just UNRWA, but the United Nations writ large, the UN Security Council and its involvement. I recall that in 1948, when Britain did walk, we handed the responsibility for this issue, for this conflict, to the United Nations, which is where, in truth, the solution belongs. At the moment, because of the position of the United States, the UN Security Council is not able to fulfil its role in seeking a solution to the conflict.
And on 30 June my colleague John McHugo, another trustee of the Balfour Project, will talk about the the role of Britain before and during the Mandate. 30 June is the centenary of the handover from military to civilian rule, still British rule, but military to civilian rule in Palestine on 30 June, 1920.
I mentioned 27 October, when we hope we can all sit together at an event focused on Jerusalem at Church House in Westminster, with speakers from Israel and Palestine. The focus there will be on the history, international law, the religious aspect of the three Abrahamic faiths and their regard for Jerusalem, freedom of religion, freedom of worship, life as it is lived in Jerusalem today, and what British government policy should be on Jerusalem looking forward.
On BDS, I’m not ducking the question, but I have to say that the Balfour Project as a charity does not have a position on BDS. I’m conscious that it is an emotive subject on which many people have strong views for and against. So I’m not trying to duck the question, but in terms of our responsibility as a charity, the Balfour Project does not take a position on BDS.
I would refer to Resolution 2334 of the UN Security Council, which calls upon states to distinguish in their dealings between the state of Israel and the territories occupied in 1967. And for me that has implications for how one deals with settlements and with the products that come from the settlements. And I don’t regard that as BDS. I regard that as respect for UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
I will briefly wind up, first of all by thanking all of you who have joined in today. I am grateful. One of the ambitions of today is to ensure at our own level, that the issue of equal rights between the River and the Sea remains a focal point of UK foreign policy and of UK grassroots activism. And if we have contributed to that in some way today, then we’ve done something.
To try and sum up briefly. The Balfour Project is created for educational purposes. We will continue on that track. We will continue with the Fellowships. We will work as best we can on curricula and on reaching, not only university students and the young, but the younger, those in secondary school. In my opinion, telling the truth about this conflict, giving space to both narratives and to the British role, is the best way of ensuring that this issue does not add to radicalisation in our country. It needs to be aired. It needs to be taught, it needs to be taught in a balanced way.
The Balfour Project will continue to work as best it can for equal rights in the region. We will listen to the comments that you’ve offered today and try to respond on our website to the frequently asked questions.
We know that we are one part of quite a big mosaic with many campaigning organisations and we’re not one of those; with many charities, and I’ve mentioned a couple, Medical Aid for Palestinians and Friends of the Holy land, both of whom do great work in their own way. And there are many more.
So we are not alone in our effort and we don’t have a monopoly of wisdom. What we are trying to do is to see a way to encourage our government to do more and to do better and to be consistent and to uphold the law. And if we contribute to that, if we can make an impression on our MPs, on our influencers, on our media, on our young, to emphasise the importance of maintaining, not just respecting, but maintaining and upholding international law in this context and in others, then we’ll be doing the right thing. Thank you.
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