We must work with the US to stop a massacre in Rafah

By Sir Vincent Fean, Balfour Project Trustee

The Independent, 18 February 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his military to plan the “evacuation” of Palestinian civilians from the Gazan city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. The same order is to attack the city, where over a million displaced Palestinians live – many of them starving and homeless. Those afflicted people have nowhere else to go, because nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Remember Hind Rajab, the six-year-old girl killed in January by Israeli tank fire when fleeing Gaza City? The medics in an ambulance sent to rescue her – Yusuf al-Zeino and Ahmed Al-Mahdoun – were killed trying to reach Hind.  Those names matter. They were people, not numbers. They were innocent.  Many more innocent civilians will die if Israel carries out an assault on Rafah.

On 26 January the International Court of Justice (ICJ) imposed provisional measures on Israel, having found that there is a plausible case under the 1948 Genocide Convention and ordered Israel to ensure that its forces do not commit such acts. One of the measures states:

“Israel must ensure the delivery of basic services and essential humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza”.

How will Israel fulfil that requirement if it bombards Rafah, now the sole entry point for aid into Gaza? The UK and US claim some influence with Netanyahu. They need to exert that influence now to prevent the carnage in Rafah that we have witnessed in Gaza City and Khan Younis. President Biden is more outspoken than Mr Sunak, rightly saying “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and are dying, and it’s got to stop”.

  Expressions of concern are not enough. As the ICJ effectively ordered, what matters is that Israel should desist from indiscriminate killing and destruction. Of that there has been no sign, and there needs to be.

 Netanyahu claims that he can eliminate Hamas by force, and that the way to free over a hundred Hamas hostages – including British citizens – is to assault Rafah. He is wrong on both counts. Israel’s friends in the West need to tell its people so, piercing through the trauma of the appalling Hamas attack of 7 October and displacement of Israeli civilians, north and south.

 It needs to be public – quiet diplomacy does not work with Netanyahu and his cabinet. Britain’s close Commonwealth allies have gone public: Australia, New Zealand and Canada jointly calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Britain’s role and responsibility

Since David Cameron launched his reincarnation as Foreign Secretary, there is a sense of renewed purpose, of determination – and of raised expectations. He will be conscious of our country’s historic responsibilities in Mandatory Palestine before the creation of modern Israel, when Britain denied the Palestinians their right to self-determination. He says things as a critical friend of Israel that the US Administration wants to hear but hesitates to say: that Israeli policy of the last thirty years has failed.

The first duty of a government is to provide security for its people. The Netanyahu policy of oppressing the Palestinian people under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza while claiming to deliver safety for Israelis has failed. Israelis will not feel safe until Palestinians feel safe, too. Mutual security by and for both peoples must replace the attempt by the army of one state to dominate another people. The policy of mutual security, bolstered by international guarantees of support and monitoring, has not failed – it has never been tried.

 Cameron has got one big thing badly wrong: suspending future British funding for the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) in response to Israeli allegations linking 12 employees to Hamas’ crimes of 7 October.

UNRWA has 13,000 staff in Gaza. It is the only agency on the ground capable of delivering the humanitarian assistance at a scale which the ICJ has ordered Israel to ensure, and which is so desperately needed. Philippe Lazzarini of UNRWA has sacked the 12 employees, and warns that the agency will grind to a halt by the end of this month without that aid commitment from the US, UK, Australia and others. Two separate reviews of UNRWA procedures are underway. Our Government should express confidence in their integrity, reserving the right to act if Britain disagrees with their findings and recommendations.

 Cameron has announced that Britain could recognise the state of Palestine before the end of a negotiating process, both bilaterally and at the UN. Only Palestinians can govern Gaza. Peaceful Palestinian agency is essential.

 I believe that Britain should now recognise Palestine – Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Not any Palestinian faction – but the state itself as an entity alongside Israel. Others – Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Australia, and perhaps France – could join in affirming the Palestinian people’s right to determine their own future in their own state.

 Israelis and Palestinians will be neighbours until the end of time. Tomorrow, hope needs to be rekindled: for Israel, of lasting security and for the Palestinians, of equality and an end to the misery and oppression of the 1967 Occupation.

Today, our Government must work with the US to prevent a massacre in Rafah.


Vincent Fean was British Consul-General, Jerusalem (2010-14), and is a trustee of the Balfour Project charity.

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