What the Government must do to uphold equal rights

Vincent Fean

May I draw your attention to a strong new economic document called Palestine Emerging. You will find it on a website:a website: www.palestine-emerging.org. It’s not a political document, but it is based on the assumption that there will be game changers and that the Palestinian economy will be enabled to grow both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Palestine needs to recover economically, and flourish. The question it tries to answer is, how will that happen? Who needs to work on it? My colleague Baron Frankal, a trustee of the Balfour Project and CEO of the Portland Trust, is among the authors. There are about 100 contributors to the thinking behind this document, including Palestinians, internationals and Israelis. 

Dr Phyllis Starkey, vice chair of the Balfour Project: Action Points from this conference

I will talk about the Action Points which will emerge from this conference, and which the Balfour Project will take forward. We are focusing on the UK government – not because the UK is uniquely powerful, although it does have a history that’s contributed, not in a good way, to the situation that we’re in in the Middle East – but we focus on the UK government because it’s our government. It should be accountable to us. We have a duty to try and influence it. It is well-placed to work with like-minded governments in the Middle East and closer to home and in Europe to achieve change. The Action Points document is an attempt to crystallise the key issues on which we are focusing our activity. For example, we have been lobbying intensively to get the UK government to resume funding UNRWA. That is a priority. 

It is a selective list. On many issues, we’ve already been lobbying the government and the opposition, and we’ll continue to do so. We made this draft available in advance of the conference on our website and to all our attendees, seeking feedback. The focus is on events since 7 October. The plan sets out immediate actions which are required of Israel and Hamas. The most urgent is an immediate ceasefire and cessation of violence. The role of our government is to try and make sure that happens. It also calls on Israel to remove all restrictions on humanitarian aid entering Gaza to give unfettered access to all UN agencies, including UNRWA, to cease to use starvation and the destruction of civilian infrastructure as weapons of war and to guarantee the safety of all humanitarian workers, medical workers, and so on. And in the West Bank, to stop settler violence and freeze all settlement building.

It then proposes actions that the UK government must take: to recognise the state of Palestine on pre-June 1697 borders; to end immediately any collusion of UK government or UK businesses in war crimes in Gaza; to ensure accountability for war crimes by supporting the ICC and the ICJ; to participate in reconstruction, ending the occupation and supporting Palestinian civil society in democratic renewal, leading to an elected Palestinian government. We don’t have a view on who should be in that Palestinian government, what form it should take, or what their final demands should be. That is for the Palestinians themselves to decide. It is our duty to make sure they are able to have that self-determination on the territorial basis of the state of Palestine. The Balfour Project will continue to lobby government and parliamentarians on these and many other points. But now we are in a general election campaign, so as individuals you have the opportunity to question potential MPs. This is the moment when you get listened to because you are voters and you can decide whether this potential MP actually becomes an MP. So you need to make the most of this opportunity. There are lots of election hustings in most constituencies in the UK. Please find out when the ones are in your constituency. You should go to one, and we hope that you will use this list as a way of holding those candidates to account and to  remind them that Palestine and the rights of Palestinians are an important issue for voters here in Britain. We expect a future British government to make sure that those rights of Palestinians are properly respected.


Chris Doyle, Director, CAABU: positions of the 4 main UK Parties on Palestine/Israel

I will speak in a personal capacity in analysing the elections and the positions of the political parties in the UK. My first comment is on the nature of this election. This is a domestic election. In contrast to 2019, Brexit was not mentioned once by Sunak or Starmer. Although Gaza has been an issue in by-elections, notably in February in Rochdale, and in local elections, it will not dominate this campaign.

It will be key in certain constituencies. There are three constituencies where British Muslims are the majority. By no means are British Muslims the only part of the population who are concerned about this. There may be 18 constituencies where it might make a difference. But this election will not be determined by international issues. It will focus on the economy. That creates a broader problem: the party leaderships are not talking about Britain’s place in the world, let alone the Middle East and Palestine/Israel. 

CAABU and Medical Aid for Palestinians have done two polls with YouGov. British public opinion is consistently in favour of an immediate ceasefire. All the polls have shown more than 70% in support of an immediate ceasefire. Looking at those who intend to vote for the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, that rises to 86% and 88% respectively: a very high level. On the more contentious issue of imposing a UK arms embargo on the state of Israel. There the polling ranged from 55% to 62% in favour of suspending UK arms transfers. The percentage of those who opposed an arms embargo shrank in the last poll to just 13%. In one poll of those who intended to vote Conservative, 49% would back an arms embargo. Our political leaderships are not in line with public opinion on this issue. And under increasing challenge for that reason. 

Neither Sunak nor Starmer is expert in the Middle East, nor that interested. Their positions are rooted in domestic political concerns. Ridhi Sunak knows his Party is essentially pro-Israel in sentiment and has been for a while. He doesn’t want to rock that boat, so he will keep to those lines. He also knows that Labour has an issue. He can see the splits that arose in the Corbyn years and is very happy  to exacerbate them, to see Labour Councillors resign, to have these arguments. That’s fine by him. Let Labour have these debates. Keir Starmer doesn’t want to be seen as Corbyn 2.0. He wants to say the Labour party has changed and pose as a leader. He’s going to have to deal with an American administration, be it Biden or Trump. He’s taken advice fromTony Blair, despite his lack of success as Quartet Envoy. 

In terms of the party positions: the Conservative government has given uncritical support for Israeli military operations in Gaza. There has been criticism of lack of entry of aid into Gaza and on settlements and settlers – insufficient on both counts. The government has never been willing to say that Israel has violated international law. Labour took until February to call for an immediate ceasefire. Labour are better in terms of the ICC and ICJ, speaking out in favour of the independence of those courts, whose decisions must be respected. But they haven’t backed an arms embargo. They’ve called for a review. If Labour wins, what happens on day 1 on arms exports to Israel? They are going to have to make that decision whilst the military operation is ongoing.

Labour have changed their policy position on recognition. They were in favour of immediate recognition, but last autumn they changed it. Thry are vulnerable to the electorate, to voters, to Party members. If you make your voice heard that there should be recognition. The Greens, Liberal Democrats and SNP, they do support an arms ban and they do support recognition. But let’s look to the first 100 days o& a new government. What we can do is important, because with a 20-point lead, Labour’s going to win this election. What will our next government do? Will Labour restore future funding to UNRWA on day 1? No reason to delay.

Will it say something on international law? Arms transfers. Will there be a change of position on this? What can you do? Phyllis has already mentioned the hustings. You can write to your parliamentary candidates. Those of you who can, please do. Let us know about it too. Write to the leaders, make them aware there is a concern about these issues. Please go to those hustings and press the incoming government on day 1 to act – because so far the lack of action has been lamentable. 

Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director, Human Rights Watch  

I want to address points made by the audience after Agnes’s speech, and to reframe where we are. We are frustrated because we are seeing civilians being killed, women, children. We saw it on 7 October and for over six months now.

I woke up to the news that a refugee camp, an UNRWA facility, had been attacked. 35 civilians killed. Among those 35 there will be children. I looked at my six-year-old son, who was ill last night. I watched and worried if he had a fever. He’s living in London. We have a doctor five minutes away from us. He has a grandma upstairs, a dad and a mum who are watching over him. I still woke up worried and panicked about him. I saw this news and I froze, because I cannot even imagine what the parents of Gaza are feeling right now.

 I know that we need to talk about what next – a way forward. It does not do justice to anyone to only talk about today and the suffering. But since the Nakba, the talk has been about what next? About a peace process. Where have we got to? A place of mass atrocities. Part of the reason that we have got here is because all we are doing is looking forward to a peace process, to a solution, and we are not looking at the reality on the ground. That’s why they both need to go hand in hand. We cannot just talk about PA and the Arab states and a negotiation table and next steps. That will lead us to continue on a path that we have followed for over six decades.

We need to talk about the situation not just in Gaza. We need to contextualise that this has been decades of severe systemic repression of Palestinian people, amounting to the crime against humanity of apartheid. We are not talking about two groups coming to a table that are on equal sides, that this is a conflict where we bring two together and we find a way forward with equal power. We need to keep talking about the suffering. But we do need to talk about the next steps.

I have met FCDO officials and the AG’s office and David Cameron. I said to them, “You’ve set out a 5 point plan for next steps. While this plan on paper looks fine, the settlements in the West Bank keep expanding. If there ever was going to be a two-state solution, it’s continuing to die before your eyes while you set out a beautiful plan on paper of what’s going to happen next. So what are you doing? A couple of settlers, individual violent settlers got sanctioned. The settlements are a state approved policy. The state arms the settlers, protects the settlers, fails to investigate the settlers. Issuing sanctions against a few settlers sits in stark contradiction to your pledge of a two-state solution and a way forward. Where are your sanctions against Ben-Gvir and Smotrich? Where are your commitments to a two-state solution?”.

Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on recognition, but I would, in my personal capacity, ask any future government what their vision is for a two-state solution. First, ensuring that it can be a reality on the ground, whilst we know settlements are expanding. Where are your sanctions? Where are your bans on doing business with settlements? Where is your guidance to businesses to say you shouldn’t be doing that, like Norway has issued? Where are the levers that you hold? You don’t have many levers. Let’s be clear. The UK is not the US. But you do have levers. Why are you not using those levers, even talking about using them? You have a trade agreement with Israel. You have made commitments about future agreements for cooperation on science, technology, military and trade.

Why are you not saying that these are up for review because of our plan for a two-state solution – something different needs to happen? Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on what that outcome will look like, but you need to address the underlying human rights harms. None of your plans will be achieved without that. We no longer have the Anti-Boycott bill, which flies in the face of this, that a public body, local councils themselves can’t take account of the abuses that are happening in settlements and not do business with those settlements, not invest or procure from those settlements. It would have been banned under that Bill. Thank you for stopping that. 

Arms, people say it’s less than 2% the UK sends to Israel. The quantity does not matter under the law. One component that is being used by Israel to enforce the blockade, to attack civilians, to attack aid workers is enough to mean that you are legally obliged under domestic and international law to stop the licensing of military equipment. The UK has acknowledged in the current judicial review brought by Al Haq, that there were, in December last year, 28 extant current licences, and 28 future licences are on their table that they said were the most likely to be for equipment and components that were going for IDF use in Gaza. 20% of the components in the F35s flown in Gaza by the IDF are UK made. It is not acceptable legally or morally. It would make a massive difference politically if a future government, alongside their key European allies, made a statement together and stopped the export of arms and military components licences. It would leave the US out on a limb, on their own. It makes a difference. You cannot come into power and say you are committed to a rules-based international order, international law, domestic law, the rule of law and not comply with it. You are potentially complicit in the violations that are happening now.

That means not only the UK is complicit, but individual ministers and officials are complicit, and potentially liable under criminal law. Staff in the Dept for Business and Trade have already raised their concerns and are thinking about taking action. 

UNRWA funding: if that is not done in the first days, I don’t want to hear anything about commitments to humanitarian provision… Nor to hear a government minister say we are so concerned that aid is not getting into Gaza, and you will not lift your funding suspension on UNRWA. This month, the UK’s allocation will be up. We are liable to pay UNRWA money in June – to the principal vehicle for delivering humanitarian aid.  

Now in the West Bank Israeli settlers, armed, supported by Israel, are actually demolishing schools and facilities funded by the UK government. Let’s be clear why accountability and the day after need to go hand in hand. We will not be spending British taxpayers’ money to then not say anything when Israel, in its next attack on Gaza, destroys the hospitals, the schools that we’ve spent millions of pounds to construct. Use your leverage. The next government needs to use its leverage. We cannot continue to see the atrocities being committed and no leverage being used.

It’s not enough. It will not be enough when the future generations look back and ask what did we do? That’s what they asked about the Holocaust, about Srebrenica, about Rwanda. What did we do? No one says, “Well, we didn’t have much leverage. It wasn’t that much. We do what we can.” The UK government is under a legal  obligation to not only not be complicit, but to take positive steps to end violations of international law. That is the rules-based order. ICC, ICJ, it was great to see that Labour were strong and principled on the ICC. But I heard equivocation from Starmer, so that needs to be clarified. If an arrest warrant is issued, what will the UK government do? Will it, as it is required to under international law, as a state party to the Rome Statute, give effect to that warrant? That needs to be clear.

Unfortunately, our current government’s position continued on the path that they have been on, which is to undermine the rules-based order. You can say that you don’t agree with a case being brought. But when an independent court has made a decision, that’s when you say you support the independent court decision with information and evidence before it. Time and again, that’s not the position this government has taken. And this despite the fact that this government’s continued position has been that it’s not for the UK government to make these decisions about international crimes, it’s for independent courts. But actually we’re not going to agree with that. I urge the next government to take heed that this is a matter of legality, morality, and politics.

You need to be thinking of them all hand in hand, and about the legacy that you’ll leave – and about those people in Gaza who are relying on you right now because they have no one else. 


Thank you, Yasmine. That was profound, and it’s why you’re here. Thank you. Noor, again, you have a free hand. We’re near the end. We will have some questions, but if you’d like to say what you would do in our shoes.

Nour Odeh

Recognition by the UK of Palestine is not just a matter of legal position, it is a historical debt owed to the Palestinians. British politicians need to be reminded of that. Annoying as it is, they need to always remember that they have a legacy that they need to rectify. The dimension of Balfour, British history and Mandate Palestine marks 14 million Palestinians. We view what the UK does with a different lens, but because we see that London has an added responsibility. There is an international, legal, moral responsibility, but there’s a bilateral score to settle here. There’s a correction of history that needs to happen. And don’t settle for words.

We’ve heard over the past 30 years of the so-called peace process that has got us to genocide, that settlements are illegal, or as the Americans like to say, an obstacle to peace, whatever that means, and yet the number of settlers has gone from 100,000 to 700,000. The settlers near my home were once on the horizon. Now I see them from my balcony in my comfortable neighborhood in Ramallah. In the village I come from in southern Hebron, I can no longer have a balcony because it has been forbidden because Palestinians are bothering the settlers when they look out of their balconies.

It’s not about saying the right thing –  politicians are good at that. They can say a lot of nice things. We need to make sure that they’re taking the actions. If settlements are illegal, great. Now tell me that you’re going to outlaw products coming out of that stolen land and from those stolen resources. That is the only way I’ll understand that you really view settlements as illegal. Are you against the terrorism of settlers and those who arm those settlers? Great. Show me that you are doing what you are legally required to do and hold accountable those who direct the policy and who are doing the arming, not individual settlers who can get away with it. And don’t do it like the US did – they did a big splash and then they walked it all back. So not words. Don’t settle for words, please. And don’t settle for recognition only. That is the first step.

It’s a legal and political commitment that we build on. Politicians can’t get away with saying, “Look at me, I’m great. I’ve recognised Palestine. Now I can go home.” No, there’s a lot more work to be done. And there’s a lot of work to be done for reconstruction and in the day after when that day after comes. But please understand that those who can have a right to participate with Palestinians in rebuilding and healing, and building a better future where we can be liberated from the colonised and coloniser reality as Palestinians and Israelis, those who have been complicit in our mass slaughter should not, cannot, must not have a say or a stake in reconstruction.

Accountability has to be at the forefront. It has to hurt. Those committing war crimes and atrocities shouldn’t complain that they’re being punished. If they don’t want to be punished, then they shouldn’t be doing the crimes. So yes, it needs to hurt. Being a coloniser has to be at a high cost. That might hurt some well- intentioned people, but it is the only way. I would draw the parallel with apartheid South Africa. Governments were the last to join when it became untenable for them to continue being complicit in apartheid. It was the people, the voters who made sure that supporting apartheid became politically untenable. It is within your power and ours together to make sure that happens. 


Questions on accountability and on normalisation with Saudi Arabia

Chris Doyle: The UK has got to stop treating Israel as a good faith actor. It says Israel should investigate the killing of a child in the West Bank. As if there’s any history of proper, credible, independent investigations into Israel’s own conduct. That has got to end. 

I’m fed up with government ministers, whenever asked about international law, they say, “Well, I’m not a lawyer.” There are so many examples. But then when it comes to Ukraine or Sudan, suddenly they offer a legal view, condemning Russia or Dyria, for example. Suddenly, they are all lawyers when it suits them.

Nour Odeh

Normalisation with Israel has been central to US policy declared or not, even before the so-called Abraham Accords. What they are in essence is making sure that Israel is the boss in the region.  Militarily, in terms of security, in terms of economy, there’s an overlord who represents the bigger overlords, and everybody else is willing to play. In exchange, Israel will give to our beautiful despotic regimes in the region all the intelligence gadgets they need to spy on the opposition, perhaps even murder the opposition, or at the very least, jail them and make their life hell. There is an implicit deal in this normalisation frenzy. It wasn’t just Trump. It’s also Biden.  Biden is far more dangerous, because in the middle of a genocide, he is presenting the biggest prize of all, Saudi Arabia.

The price for Saudi normalisation has gone up for purely Saudi reasons, not necessarily just because of the genocide. Saudi Arabia saw the opportunity to leverage everything that was happening, and they did drive the price up. Politically, I’m not sure they’re willing to give Biden that win, but they would be amenable to reaching a deal with Trump the deal-maker. Now, Israeli-Saudi normalisation wouldn’t be possible while throwing the Palestinians entirely under the bus. The Saudis have to have a gesture. It is up to us to make sure that it’s not just a gesture, but something meaningful. So no promises of mirages that are called horizons, no promises of processes. There needs to be something more concrete. Saudi can get it if it wants to.

Nour Odeh

Before I came here, I asked my friends in Gaza for permission to leave and come here without feeling too much guilt that I would be in a safe place. I asked them what they wanted me to say to you on their behalf. They said tell them we can hear them. 

Dr Phyllis Starkey: concluding remarks

I’d like to follow on from Noor said just now and earlier – that Palestinians count on us to pressure the US government, and our own. That should be a spur to us, to carry on doing what we are doing, but to do it better. It’s important that we empathise with Palestinians and what is happening to Palestinians, but simply empathising does not change anything. We have to convert that empathy into action and be realistic about actions we can take in a democracy like ours.

We need to think strategically and politically – not asking for things that we know the government or the opposition are never going to entertain. We have to start from where they are, and then move them further in the right direction. Asking relatively small things to get to big things. Don’t ask the big things. Aim for the big things but ask for the small steps that will get you nearer. When you’ve got your first step agreed and they’ve done it, then you press for the next step, within the rules and within the framework. That is a discipline you have to follow to be effective. We owe it to Palestinians to be effective – not to do things that just make us feel better, to be blunt. 

My second point is to pick up on this issue about the rule of law and the wider effects of what is happening when our government goes on being selective about the rule of law, and the difference between responses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the responses on Israel’s attacks against Gaza. I acknowledge that this round of violence was initiated by Hamas attacking Israel, whereas Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wasn’t actually provoked by anything, they just did it. Our governments have applied very effective sanctions against Russia, which if applied against Israel would, for example, mean that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich would be sanctioned. All the settlement administrations would be sanctioned.

If we transferred across to Israel-Palestine all the things that we and European Union states have done in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that would be a good start. We can say you’ve done it in this case. Why are you not doing it in these other cases? We’re not asking for something that governments haven’t done before. We also need to emphasise the rule of law. to make the point about the rule of law – how it protects us, as well as everybody else, because politicians also respond to self-interest. We in Britain have a self-interest in the rule of law and its credibility being maintained. It is outrageous if our government is undermining the credibility of the system which protects us, as well as everybody else.

We should make that point because it engages a lot more people than when we talk only about the very important issues that relate to Palestinians. We need to also talk about the wider implications of its attack on the rule of law. 

We will continue to use our resources as effectively as we can to take forward this work and to advance the peace with justice that both the Palestinians and the Israelis deserve. 

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