Mark Seddon: Today British Parliamentarians wrote to PM Rishi Sunak calling for a ceasefire. What did the letter say?
Sir Vincent Fean: The letter is signed by around about 120 members of Parliament in both houses: Peers and members of the House of Commons. It was the initiative of Baroness Shas Sheehan, Liberal Democrat. I’ll read out the main asks in the letter. They are:
- An immediate humanitarian ceasefire by all belligerents. There are the Houthi and Hezbollah as well as the Israeli army and Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- The release of all hostages, which is a key issue for Israel and the UK, because there are also British hostages held illegally by Hamas.
- The presence of independent international observers on the ground in Israel and Gaza. This issue is too big and too ugly to be left to Palestinians and Israelis to monitor, sort out, assess the criminal activity.
- Providing unrestricted aid to civilians in Gaza. Fuel, clean water, food, medical help, and supplies. Today, there is a very small amount of fuel available for UN vehicles, but no fuel allowed by Israel for such things as desalination to produce clean water, or hospital generators to enable neonatal clinics and other aspects of the hospitals to operate. The hospitals are decimated. There were 35 functioning hospitals in Gaza. We’re down to less than half that and only one in Gaza City, which is the main populated area.
- Protecting the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, including guaranteeing the rights of those forced out of their homes in the north of Gaza to return home. That’s a key issue. 70% of the population of Gaza are refugees from 1948, the children of children of the refugees. They fear a continuation of the Nakba – not a second Nakba, but a continuation of the Nakba of 1948.
- The British Government should work with partners for a definitive resolution of the conflict, realising the Palestinian right to self-determination and mutual security for both peoples.
The crude experiment of Prime Minister Netanyahu to impose Israeli security on the occupied people in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank has failed. I believe that he has actually misled the Israeli people into thinking that leaving it to the army, the police and the intelligence services to maintain Israeli national security with no regard for the rights of the Palestinians and their security was a mistake. It’s a mistake that’s been going on for decades, but this tragic episode, the terrorism of Hamas and the retaliation of the Israeli army, proves that you cannot maintain safety simply by imposing your own security on another people.
Mark: Looking at the letter and its signatories, the spread from across all parties and none was very striking. People from the Liberal Democrat Party, from the Scottish National Party, from the Labour Party, from the Conservative Party. The Earl of Sandwich pops up. A truly extraordinary cross-section of opinion in Parliament getting behind this letter. Do you think that this body of opinion, given its expertise and breadth, could actually move again? Because there may not be a ceasefire as far as the British and Americans, and some European countries are concerned now, but there might be in a few days’ time. How influential do you think some of the people are that have signed?
Vincent: The timing is important because of this vote in the Commons tonight. The letter issued at 9:00 am today to Mr. Sunak, to our new Foreign Secretary, David Cameron and to the Minister for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad. The signatories are moved by the humanitarian crisis. They are moved by the fact that the Hamas terrorist attack of the 7th of October has provoked, unleashed a retaliation which we have never seen. There have been several Gaza conflicts as we know, going back to Cast Lead in 2008, but nothing on this scale in terms of Israeli army intervention, indiscriminate intervention in terms of bombing.
We’ve heard an IDF spokesman talking about damage rather than precision. We’ve heard their Defence Minister ordering a complete siege, withholding fuel, withholding water, withholding food, all the things that are in this letter as demands on a humanitarian basis. There is a risk of communicable diseases, contagious diseases spreading because there is starvation in Gaza. Let’s make no mistake about that. Coming back to who signed, it’s a fairly mixed bag. Not as many Conservative MPs as one would’ve wished. I think that’s partly because of the whipping process, which will mean that the vote goes the Government’s way tonight.
On the Labour side, there is a protocol which says if you are in the front bench in the shadow cabinet of the potential government of the UK, or could become a junior minister in those ranks, then you are not normally expected to sign. We’re looking at backbenchers more than at frontbenchers. We’re looking at the people who have an opinion and have a conscience. I think it is people of conscience who have signed. By doing so they align themselves with the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the UN Secretary General and President Macron. They all share this opinion that what needs to happen is more than a pause. We need a stop. The reason is that preparation is needed to get the fuel in and get it to the places that need it in the south, the middle and the north of Gaza, it’s a small area, but the roads have been damaged, if not destroyed, by bombing. Getting those fuel tankers in is essential, if we’re going to stop that wave of cholera and other diseases which could come our way very soon, because the population of Gaza has been weakened physically over the last five weeks.
Mark: Let’s talk about the Balfour Project charity. Balfour is not exactly a popular name amongst many Palestinians for various good historical reasons, but there is a very sensible rationale behind your choice of Balfour, which I wonder if you could let us know about. Also just tell us something about, what you’re about as a project, and perhaps who’s involved.
Vincent: The name originated from a conversation between a few British people wondering how Britain would mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. 2017, 100 years on. As you’ve implied, there is no particular affection for Balfour in the activities of the Balfour Project. What we are doing is shed light on a rather dark corner of British imperial history. A promise in 1917 to several people; a promise to the Sherif of Mecca that Palestine would be part of the Arab nation that would arise after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. A promise to the Zionists in the UK that a homeland for the Jews in Palestine would occur, would come to be. It did. It’s become a state which Britain recognized in 1950. We acquired the Mandate to govern Palestine from the League of Nations in 1923, having been the military power in Palestine since 1917. The task was to lead Palestine to independence. That was the mission. We added in the Balfour Declaration. Those two are not compatible and proved to be incompatible. Yet again, we were frankly being deceitful.
One of my colleagues, a Balfour Project trustee Peter Shambrook, has written a book called a Policy of Deceit, which is the cover-up of the promises that we made to the Arabs, which we then left behind and made promises to the Jewish community in the UK, which frankly were deceitful. That is our legacy. Coming to now, we’re not just focused on the past. What we want to do is to demonstrate that our imperial mistakes in Mandate Palestine up to 1948, when we effectively prevented the emergence of a state of Palestine, give us a responsibility, we the British people, civil society, parliament, government, a responsibility to do better.
One way in which that can be done is by giving a lead to international action advancing to a situation where the Palestinian people, for the first time, actually exercise their clear right to self-determination, including the option, if they choose, of statehood. We are very keen to change the mindset of our Government. Whatever the Government is this year or a year from now, after our general election, we want our Government to be conscious of our past and present responsibilities.
By changing the mindset, I mean the United Kingdom recognising the state of Palestine on the pre-June 1967 borders. That means Gaza as an integral part of Palestine, not separated from the West Bank by the barrier that is currently there, ie the ban by Israel on communication between the West Bank and Gaza. We can’t change the geography, but we can work to advance normal communication within Palestine and with the rest of the world – and to change the way in which Palestine is represented on the world stage. The ICC and the International Court of Justice are both relevant.
It is important that Palestine is recognised as a state in order to have the ICC look into these alleged war crimes by Hamas, by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by Israel. Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minister, said because Palestine is not a state, the ICC has no locus. That’s wrong. The Palestinian Authority signed up to the ICC in 2015, and Britain did not object to that. We hear from Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, who happens to be British and who went to Rafah a couple of weeks ago, that the ICC is investigating not only the past alleged war crimes of 2021, 2014 and so on, but the current alleged war crimes now.
Mark: What I want to get to now is this central argument that seems to have been resolved in most other member states of the United Nations. If you look at the call for a ceasefire, it’s been backed by multiple UN agencies. As Baroness Sheehan’s letter says, nearly 700 NGOs, Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, 250 British lawyers, including eminent Jewish lawyers, the 120 countries that voted in favour of the UN General Assembly motion, and in the last poll, which I think was on October 19, 76% of the British public.
In Britain we have both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition opposing this call for a ceasefire. Sir Keir Starmer has toughened up the language and there’s been much more criticism of the way that the Israeli army are behaving in Gaza, but both the Government and main opposition are still calling for humanitarian pauses as opposed to a ceasefire.
Why is it that the majority of global opinion in terms of UN member states, want a ceasefire, while the US, Britain, Germany, a handful of others, are still sticking to just humanitarian pauses, and what essentially is the difference?
Vincent: It depends a bit who you talk to on this. My take is that to address the humanitarian plight of the people of Gaza and to make it more likely that those poor hostages, mainly Israeli, but of many nationalities, can be released safely – an obligation on Hamas which they’re not fulfilling – then a ceasefire is what is needed. The argument against a ceasefire seems to be that it would enable Hamas to regroup and possibly to repeat the terrorist action of the 7th of October. I find that unrealistic. First of all, Hamas is under severe pressure from the Israeli army. There doesn’t seem to me to be a likelihood of a recurrence of this terrorist act. Secondly, the idea that stopping the bombing should be for a short period of time, hours, days, rather than for a sustained period, argues against the need of the moment. The need of the moment is to prevent communicable diseases, contagious diseases, which are around the corner. We should listen to Dr. Nick Maynard, a cancer surgeon who’s worked in Gaza. He’s now back in the UK. He said quite rightly that nobody is being treated for cancer. In Gaza today, nobody is being treated for diabetes. Women are having to give birth without hospital support. These contagious diseases like cholera are around the corner. Because the Palestinian people have been weakened by five weeks of starvation, five weeks without any delivery of goods, and they used to have 500 trucks a day go in, we’ve had 750 in total in the last five weeks, barely two days’ worth, you might say, over five weeks. Gaza has not been able to sustain itself for a long time. It needs that importation of goods. That seems to me to outweigh any argument about a ceasefire needing to be agreed by both sides.
I don’t know this because I don’t talk to Hamas, but I sense that Hamas would accept a ceasefire. I trust, I don’t know this, that Hamas would abide by it for as long as Israel did. We can’t know until it happens. Frankly, I would not describe these four-hour stoppages in bombing in prescribed areas as a humanitarian pause. I think that’s a misnomer. What Biden, Sunak and Starmer are talking about is something longer and better than that. For me, there can be nothing better than a sustained ceasefire, which would lead, I hope, to a negotiated outcome to this war, which is what is needed.
Mark: Let’s turn now to international law. After the Hamas attacks on 7th October, the response was very clear from Prime Minister Netanyahu and also from the Israeli military that what was going to happen was going to be a reshaping of the Middle East in many respects. Also it was made quite clear to anybody who was prepared to listen that the idea, if we’re going to be given a free hand, really to take all necessary action as they decide in Gaza.
We’ve subsequently heard Western leaders saying that Israel must act in accordance with international law and with the Geneva Conventions. They US and UK have certainly tightened up the language in recent days, saying that the prosecution of this war must be carried out with far more regard to civilians. Time and time again when they’re challenged directly on specific acts of alleged illegality, so many of these politicians say we can’t provide a running commentary.
When you have UN agencies, when you have Medecins Sans Frontieres, all of these NGOs, pointing to quite obvious acts of illegality, are you clear that Israel has been in breach of international law? If that is the case, you mentioned the ICC, but what should the consequences be? So many people feel that really this is the worst Gaza war ever, but when these things have happened before, there never have been any real consequences.
Vincent: I see two sets of war crimes: war crimes committed by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, before but also particularly on the 7th of October. You’ve described the scenes in the kibbutzes. Nobody can do anything except condemn that utterly. Murders were committed. Following on from murder, the kidnapping of over 240 hostages, some military, mainly civilian are now being held. We’ve seen the release of just four. There are some Brits among the hostages. They should all come out, now. There is no excuse for holding them.
I’ll be blunt, on the second set of war crimes: I regard what the Israeli Defence Minister said and did in terms of a “complete siege” on Gaza as being collective punishment. That means penalising 2.3 million people for the activities of a small minority. That is not legal. It is not legal. It is something which has continued for the last five weeks, it needs to stop. This fuel that we’ve talked about needs to go in.
The lorries that will carry the fuel need to go in not from Rafah where a few crawl in now, but from a place called Kerem Shalom, which is the lorry freight link between Gaza and Israel, and the passage for people in the north of Gaza through Erez, which I’ve been through a few times myself doing my Consul-General job, to get into Gaza. That too needs to reopen to enable medical cases to be taken to East Jerusalem and in some cases into Israel, as in the better days, to get medical treatment not available in Gaza but needed to save lives. That’s what needs to happen.
Coming back to consequences, let’s be frank: there are sterner consequences for a non-state actor, eg Hamas or another group, than there are for states. There seems to be what the French would call a laissez-passer, a passport for states, particularly states that are allied to the West. That is bad, and it is ultimately to the detriment of upholding a rule of law, upholding a rules-based system which our Government and the US Government and others say they want to see. We stand accused by what’s called the Global South. Many of those states which voted for Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly and voted there for a ceasefire look at our approach to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and to this one, and they see daylight. They see daylight between the two approaches when the annexation by Putin of Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine is in breach of the self-same laws as the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel, and the de facto annexation through the settlement project in the West Bank. We are accused collectively as the West; UK, US, Germany, others, of double standards, and it’s very hard to rebut that accusation.
Mark: This week there have been dramatic events on the British domestic scene with the sacking of the Home Secretary to be replaced by Mr Cleverly. Bringing back David Cameron as Foreign Secretsry, who certainly back 10 years ago was a much more nuanced voice, a more sympathetic voice. He famously spoke of Gaza being an open prison. They also appointed Andrew Mitchell as Lord Cameron’s deputy.
Mr Mitchell has already indicated that Israel can be subject to rulings by the International Criminal Court. That does make a break from Boris Johnson. Let’s not over-egg the pudding as far as Britain’s influence goes, but people in many parts of the world do still expect something better from Britain. Do you think that having people like Cameron and Mitchell, both experienced people, will actually begin to shift policy post the war on Gaza?
Vincent: I think it’s progress. It’s hard to measure. It’s brand new, but I think it’s progress. David Cameron was Prime Minister when I was in Jerusalem, and I accompanied President Abbas a couple of times to the UK to meet him. Lord Cameron knows the score. He is indeed the man who said that Gaza is the biggest open prison in the world. I think he has contacts with, and some credit with international leaders in the Arab world and in Europe. He cultivated the US, as every British PM does, in his time. He has links into the Biden administration, into President Macron’s team, etc. That’s useful. Andrew Mitchell is also a former Secretary of State for International Development. He is a friend of UNRWA. That’s important. UNRWA will play a key role in the aftermath of this war. They have 32,000 staff. They have big financial problems. Before this war came, they were fearful that by November they wouldn’t have any money to pay staff salaries. The 32,000, mainly Palestinian staff in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon could be left with nothing and not doing their job. What’s happened now is that over 100 UNRWA staff have been killed by the bombardment. UNRWA is still trying to do its job. It will be using this very, very small amount of fuel to try to get stuff into Gaza using UN vehicles. The answer has to be bigger than that. Andrew Mitchell is on his way to Egypt now. David Cameron will be visiting the region. It’s an opportunity for them, I hope, to listen and share thinking, not partisan thinking, cross-party thinking about the way forward. Where do we go after this?
Some of the things that are being said by Israeli ministers are deplorable. This is the most right-wing Israeli administration we’ve ever seen with the likes of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in office. I think one of them has talked about a second Nakba. Others have talked about creating a big military buffer zone, constraining the people of Gaza into an even smaller space than there is now. Gaza is the size of Greater Manchester. You imagine pushing 2.3 million people further and further towards the Mediterranean with a buffer zone.
Others are talking about never reopening Kerem Shalom or Erez and allowing everything that can be brought in and taken out to happen only through Rafah, which is not equipped for that. These things need to be challenged. They need to be challenged maybe privately, but they need to be challenged. I’m hopeful that Cameron and Mitchell, once they get a grip on the facts, will use their influence with the US, because the US is the biggest single influencer of Israel. The US has Israel’s back as Biden, Obama and Trump have always said. Having Israel’s back means believing in the continued existence of a state of Israel. It doesn’t mean believing in continuation of the occupation. Israel often maintains that when it pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005, somehow the occupation ended. It’s not true. The occupation has been running since 1967 to date. It may be a different form of occupation, with soldiers all around Gaza rather than inside, but the occupation has never gone away. It has never been given up. The occupation under the Geneva Conventions, to come back to international law, means, and it’s highly ironic, that Israel has a responsibility for the well-being of the citizens which it is starving by the complete siege.
That needs to stop. The ICC is one mechanism. The International Court of Justice will rule next year on the legality of the 56-year temporary occupation, which some in Israel including, I think, Prime Minister Netanyahu, wish to see perpetuated, made permanent. If the occupation is made permanent, then so is violence. Only violence can occur because it is not possible for one people, one government, one army to suppress the population of 5 million, 6 million, 7 million Palestinians by force. It can’t be done. This tragic conflict proves it.
Mark: Indeed. Looking at Gaza, even before the current war, life was becoming pretty untenable. Water was becoming more salinated. You talked about the hundreds of trucks needed every day, and also the dependence of so many people on UNRWA, on effectively living on aid. 2.4 million people, many of them refugees descended from refugees living in this 30-mile strip of fairly arid land. You have to then ask yourself, what is the condition going to be like after this latest round of war with so much destruction that has taken place? Some 50% of buildings, we understand, have been blown up or damaged.
There’s been talk about the Palestine Authority administering the ruins of Gaza after all of this. Of course, it can’t be down to the Balfour Project to decide what’s going to happen in Palestine, but your suggestions as to how it could be administered in the interim seem to be more forward thinking than anybody else. What are your thoughts are on a postwar Gaza?
Vincent: In every tragedy, and this is a vast, vast human tragedy, there can be an opportunity. There has to be hope. There has to be hope for ordinary Palestinians to be able to say to their kids, your life is going to be better than mine. That is a normal human family trait. It’s what we do. We want our kids to have a better life than we do. It’s the same in Israel. All these people are human beings, and every life is sacred.
I want the future to be a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire now, to enable all the things that we’ve talked about to happen, that will safeguard lives, and I hope produce the release of those poor hostages. What then? You are right about the damage. Gaza was pretty much on its knees before the 7th of October. Largely, I would say due to 18 years of blockade, not a “complete siege” as now but a blockade by Israel, an attempt to weaken Gaza politically, and to keep Gaza distinct from the West Bank: divide and conquer. It’s a very British imperial habit, and a Roman habit from way back, and it’s what Netanyahu did.
Before the total siege, before the 7th of October, Netanyahu and his Government prevented Palestinian students, civilians from completing their studies in the West Bank. There used to be interchange, there used to be intermarriage. That stopped because it was not possible for the vast majority of Gazans to get into the West Bank and vice versa, with very few exceptions. That needs to change. There needs to be linkage, not necessarily a road, not necessarily an air bridge, but a linkage between Gaza and the West Bank, because Gaza is an integral part of the Palestinian entity, the Palestinian state.
Going back to your point about living conditions in Gaza before the 7th of October, I remember in my time, Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, saying that the situation in Gaza was unsustainable. She said it in 2012: 11 years ago. It has been sustained, but it was on its knees. There was a UN report called Gaza 2020, which said that if nothing changed Gaza would be uninhabitable in any normal fashion because of the salination of the water, because of the lack of trade, which meant unemployment was at about 50%.
We can’t go back to that. I’m slightly heartened by people like Tony Blinken, who I think is doing a job, shuttle diplomacy in the Arab world, with Israel and with the PLO in Ramallah, saying to Israel privately more than publicly – though he said some things in public as well – we can’t go back to the status quo ante. We cannot go back to the way it was because the way it was, and Guterres was accurate about this, the way it was formed the context for the terrorist act of the 7th of October, and if we don’t learn the lesson of the 7th of October and the retaliation, the overkill by Israel, the cycle of violence will be repeated. Nobody should want that.
Mark: Breaking news: British Members of Parliament have rejected a ceasefire by 293 votes to 125. 232 MPs didn’t vote. The Palestinian journalist, Hamza Ali Shah has said, “125 MPs out of 650 voted for a ceasefire in Gaza. A Palestinian child is murdered every 10 minutes. Nearly 1.5 million Palestinians have been displaced. A genocide enabled and supported by the bulk of our political class. Shame on them”. That’s how a lot of people will feel. But there must always be hope. The good work that the Balfour Project have done, particularly in mobilising that support… Disappointing though that result may be, it will not set things in stone. As we must all believe, there must always be light at the end of the tunnel.
Vincent: I regret that vote. It’s predictable because the Government will have ordered its own majority to follow its course. But I’m clear that the public demonstrations of concern by the writers of that letter, by the peace marchers, not the hate marchers, the peace marchers of Armistice Day and previous Saturdays, and next Saturday, are having an impact. I hope that the outcome will be reconstruction of Gaza on a different basis with Palestinian agency. It’s a point I should have made earlier. Palestinian agency. It isn’t for us outsiders, particularly us, the ex-imperial power, to say to the Palestinians who should run their country. It’s not our job. It is for Palestinians to determine who they hold accountable, who they choose to lead them. They need elections. They need lots of things. They’re aware of that. It isn’t for us on the outside to pontificate. In the meantime, immediately after this crisis, after this conflict, there is a need for a force to enter, led, I would say, by UNRWA, but a force, an international force. When I use the word force, not so much peacekeeping, but peacemaking force to ensure that the reconstruction of Gaza takes place and that the fear of Palestinians that this is an ongoing Nakba is not realised.