By Richard Burden, October 20, 2020
This week marks six years since the House of Commons voted, by 274 to 12, for Britain to recognise the State of Palestine alongside Israel. It was the first time in decades that Parliament had voted on a motion focused specifically on Israel and Palestine. The number of MPs present was unusually large for a debate initiated from the backbenches rather than in government time. It reflected a genuinely cross-party mood with vocal support for the motion voiced by MPs on both sides of the Chamber– including by several former ministers.
It was also a resolution that had an impact well beyond the UK, heralding similar initiatives in several other European capitals. By February 2015, the Parliaments of Ireland, France and Belgium had all voted in favour of recognising Palestine as a state.
Six years on, though, the UK Government has still not acted on the Commons vote, insisting that while Britain remains committed to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the time is not yet right to recognise one of those states. Herein lies a fundamental inequity in the official UK perspective. Recognition of the state of Israel has long been seen not as a matter of timing or of negotiation but correctly as the realisation of the right of its people for self-determination. Why does the logic change when it comes to the rights of Palestinians?
If ever there was a time to assert in practice that a sustainable peace can only be built on the basis of equal rights both for Palestinians and Israelis, it is now. The reality is that the prospect of a two-state solution is disappearing. Binyamin Netanyahu stood for re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister this year promising to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. Although formal annexation has been taken off the table “for now”, following the normalisation of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, in practice Israel continues to deepen its occupation of the West Bank. As recently as August, Israel’s Prime Minister announced that he is pushing ahead with the construction of around 3,500 units near Jerusalem under the so-called E1 Plan (1). Long regarded as a red line for the international community, as well as contrary to international law, E1 would cut the West Bank in two and make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. It is part of a pattern. Shifts in US policy mean E1 is not the only red line now facing erasure. Under what President Trump has called his “Deal of the Century”, up to 40 per cent of the West Bank would remain under permanent Israeli control.
For the Palestinians, the human consequences of all this are a lived experience a world away from the triumphant picture presented at the White House. Gaza remains under blockade, with the World Bank recording poverty rates of more than 53 per cent amongst the people who live there (2). In East Jerusalem and the West Bank more and more Palestinian families face eviction from their homes. June recorded the highest number of home demolitions and seizures for three years (3). According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in September, even humanitarian projects such as building schools, funding clinics and providing mobile toilets in Palestinian villages are being blocked by Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, with European and other support for such work being described in the Knesset as a “virus”, “cancer” and “territorial terror” (4).
All this is not only horrific for the Palestinians involved. It is also illegal under the Geneva Conventions to which the UK is a High Contracting Party and custodian. The challenge for us and the international community as a whole is whether we are willing to hold those responsible for breaches of international law in Israel and Palestine to the same standards of accountability that we uphold in other parts of the world. At root it is about whether or not we believe that the people of Palestine are entitled to the same human, civil and national rights as the people of any other country – now, rather than simply in some imagined distant future.
If we are serious about that, and about keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution that would uphold the principle of equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, then we must demonstrate that equality in the respect we show to both peoples. It is over a century since the Balfour Declaration made a solemn promise of UK support for the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, providing nothing should be done to prejudice the rights of non-Jewish communities there. The first part of the promise was realised with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its international recognition. The second part remains unfulfilled. We owe it to the people of Palestine to put that right.
The UK Government can make a big contribution to doing so by acting on what the House of Commons asked it to do six years ago and recognising the State of Palestine.
Richard Burden is Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. He was MP for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and, as Chair of the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group, he was one of the prime movers of the October 2014 Commons resolution to recognise the State of Palestine.