Last night, Palestine’s health ministry confirmed that 25 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including nine children, following Israeli bombing. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians by Israeli forces is nothing new, and governments like our own have failed to adequately hold Israel to account for it; instead, they have enabled much of what the Palestinian people have had to endure.
Just last month, Boris Johnson announced his opposition to an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in the Israeli-occupied territories. In a recent letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) network, Johnson claimed the ICC investigation ‘gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s.’
Such a statement demonstrates a complete lack of empathy for the Palestinian people, many of whom are hoping that the investigation can hold Israel to account for its numerous human rights violations against them. If governments like our own fail to hold Israel to account for its persecution of the Palestinian people, Israel will have no incentive to comply with international law. By standing in the way of justice and thus allowing Israel to act with impunity, the British government is complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people.
But this complicity is nothing new – it spans all the way back to Britain’s colonial history in the region. In 1917, at a time when Palestinians were seeking independence from British rule, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to establish a national home for Jews in Palestine – on land already inhabited by Palestinians. This act substantially paved the way for the future displacement and destitution of the Palestinian people.
In 1936, a popular rebellion by Palestinians against British rule was violently put down by the British military. The Palestinian leadership was exiled by the British, and Palestinian military units were forced to disband. This would later make it difficult for Palestinians to resist what would come to be known as the Nakba—Arabic for ‘catastrophe’—in 1948, during which over 700,000 Palestinians were driven out from their homeland and over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed.
For Palestinians both in Palestine and in the diaspora, the Nakba is very much ongoing with the support—both tacit and explicit—of Western governments. The blockade on Gaza has created a humanitarian catastrophe; what is left of Palestinian land in the West Bank continues to be encroached upon by illegal Israeli settlements; the apartheid system subjects Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories to different laws by virtue of their ethnicity. These are just some of the many ways in which Israel continues to persecute Palestinians, confident in the knowledge that governments like our own will simply stand on the sideline.
This would be bad enough were the British government not also complicit in supplying Israel with arms, knowing full well those arms could be used to kill and injure Palestinian civilians. Six months before 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, in which over 2000 Palestinians were killed, the UK approved £7 million worth of arms sales to Israel.
80 percent of the Israeli army’s drones, used in surveillance and attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, are supplied by Elbit Systems, a company with four subsidiaries and two joint ventures in the UK. The arms trade is a two-way relationship, and Britain itself collaborates extensively with Israel’s army and military industry despite abundant evidence from international human rights organisations on Israel’s unlawful use of force. Israel takes advantage of its armed conflicts to ‘field test’ its weapons on Palestinians, and by exporting arms to and importing arms from Israel, the British government is sending a clear message of approval.
In 2018, during the Great March of Return—a march by Palestinians to the Gaza Border—the Israeli military used live ammunition on peaceful protestors. According to the UN Human rights council, 189 Palestinians were killed, including 32 children, and 6,000 were injured – many suffering life-changing wounds. Human Rights Watch has reported that the overwhelming majority of those killed and wounded in the protests were unarmed, and such use of lethal force could constitute war crimes.
The same year, Britain shamefully abstained from a United Nations vote which condemned Israel for ‘excessive, disproportionate, and indiscriminate force’ against the demonstrators. This is one of many possible war crimes against Palestinians that the ICC is currently investigating, and it’s a deep source of shame that our own government is standing in its way.
Successive British governments have used the language of humanitarianism and internationalism to justify participation in murderous conflicts, such as the Iraq war in 2003. What the current debacle with the ICC has shown is that such rhetoric is just empty talk. There is no consistency to supposedly ‘internationalist’ values when it comes to British foreign policy. Where are the humanitarians when Israel uses white phosphorous against civilian populations? Why is it that we only talk about internationalism when our geopolitical interests are at stake?
The British government itself asserts that ‘Promoting international criminal justice and the rule of law are fundamental elements of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy’. When it comes to Palestine, these principles don’t apply.
We cannot allow this government to continue to selectively ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people. It’s time for an end to complicity, which means ending arms sales to Israel and working constructively with the international community to promote peace and justice, rather than self-serving rhetoric.