Can the Palestinians sue Britain over Balfour?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/4/2017

The Balfour Declara­tion is a letter from Arthur Balfour, then the British foreign secretary, to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, dated November 2, 1917.

The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s government view[s] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use [its] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

For Israel and many Jews around the world, the centennial anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is cause for celebra­tion. After all, the declaration paved the way for the establish­ment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine, which, 100 years on, Israel would claim has been achieved in what it calls “the Jewish state.”

Palestinians, both informally and at the official level, argued that — at the very least — Britain should use the document’s 100th anniversary to acknowledge the role it played in what the Pales­tinians describe as the nakba — “disaster.”

After all, peace has not been achieved; the Palestinians continue to exit either in exile, under occupation or as second-class citizens within Israel’s internationally recognised borders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded an apology from Britain during his address at the UN General Assembly last September.

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its conse­quences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

In the Palestinian diaspora, several ideas were considered, including mass demonstrations on or near November 2.

The London-based Palestinian Return Centre secured a petition on the British government’s petitions site calling on London to openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

“The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation,” the petition reads, adding that London should recognise its role during the mandate and “must lead attempts to reach a solution that ensures justice for the Palestin­ian people.”

The government’s response was that the Balfour Declaration is a historic statement for which London “does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel.”

It further stated that “estab­lishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”

The statement recognised that the declaration “should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the important thing is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.” It then reinstated Britain’s position on how peace can be achieved.

Britain plans to celebrate Balfour or “mark it with pride,” as British Prime Minister Theresa May announced. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will attend and a royal visit to Israel is planned.

In response, Palestinian envoy to Britain Manuel Hassassian said celebrating Balfour “rubs salt in the wounds of the Palestinian people.” He made no reference to the threat made at the Arab summit last July by Abbas to sue Britain in an international court for the Balfour Declaration.

The Times of Israel recently reported that the British govern­ment, which has been delaying the issue of a visa to the new Palestinian head of mission announced by Abbas, might be planning to “downgrade” the status of the diplomatic mission in London.

The prospect of the British government responding to the call from its own Parliament in 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine seems as distant as ever.

UN resolution 2334 must be seen as a tool, not just a victory

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 9/7/2017

Image of the UN Security Council resolution that called Israel to stop settlement activities on Palestinian territories on December 23 2016 [Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency]

Image of the UN Security Council resolution that called Israel to stop settlement activities on Palestinian territories on December 23 2016 [Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency]

The Palestinians were set to conclude that their cause had been severely damaged in 2016 when the UN Security Council delivered a timely Christmas gift on 23 December: Resolution 2334. The resolution declared the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be occupied illegally and that Israeli settlements in both areas are in contravention of international law. Furthermore, it distinguished between Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967.

While it was a major surprise to everyone when Egypt circulated a draft text of the resolution on the 22 December, prospects for it to be agreed looked good until the Egyptians announced that they were postponing the resolution. The decision was made under pressure from Israel as well as, significantly, the incoming Trump administration.

The following day brought a further surprise when four member states of the Security Council decided to bring the resolution to a vote; it was passed with fourteen out of the fifteen council members voting in favour while the United States refrained from using its veto to protect Israel. Rather than voting for a resolution which matched decades of official US policy regarding the illegality of settlements, the American ambassador to the UN abstained. The result of the vote was greeted with an unusual round of applause ringing around the famous Security Council chamber. Predictably,the Israelis were outraged; they rejected the resolution, called it “shameful” and accused the outgoing Obama administration of stabbing them in the back by abandoning the long-held US position to protect Israel from “one-sided resolutions” by wielding its veto.

Those proposing the resolution quickly incurred the wrath of Israel, which recalled its ambassador from New Zealand and cut aid to Senegal. Ambassadors of other members of the council, including permanent members, were summoned to the Israeli foreign ministry — on Christmas Day — while the US ambassador was called in for a meeting with Prime and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It has to be said that while Israeli religious leaders were banning Christmas trees in Israel, the other SC — Santa Claus — who has not been over-generous with gifts to the Palestinians in recent years, ensured that resolution 2334 brought them some Christmas cheer. However, the question that has arisen since is whether or not the Palestinians will harness the opportunity presented or squander it as their leadership has done on at least two previous critical occasions.

On 9 July 2004, for example, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an unambiguous Advisory Opinion on the “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. One of its key rulings was that, “Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breaches of international law, to cease the construction of the Wall, to dismantle its structures, and to repeal or render ineffective all related legislative and regulatory acts; Israel is further under an obligation to make reparation for all damage caused by the Wall.”

Despite initial celebrations by the Palestinian leadership and Palestinians, this judgement lay largely underutilised by the former. Twelve years on and Israel has not suffered any consequences for its continued breaches. On the tenth anniversary of the judgement, 86 legal experts wrote to then UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions highlighting continued Israeli breaches and recommending ways by which Israel’s impunity could be challenged.

Moreover, following Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2008/9, the UN Human Rights Council commissioned a report into the war which was headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone. The report contended that the blockade on Gaza was (and, therefore, still is) “collective punishment”, concluding that the attack on Gaza had been directed at the “people of Gaza as a whole.”Some of Israel’s actions constituted war crimes, it found, and the denial of rights of the Palestinians in Gaza “could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.” The report also accused Hamas of committing war crimes.

Once again the Palestinians had an opportunity to use an independent statement both to highlight criminal Israeli policies and to seek legal means to punish it for its crimes. However, the PLO chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas caused outrage by delaying a vote in the UN Human Rights Council at the time, under pressure from the Americans. The Goldstone Report has lain unused ever since; in fact, under yet more external pressure the author subsequently retracted parts of it.

An objective assessment of the performance of the Palestinian leadership in the international arena more recently shows that it has secured some important victories. The most important was perhaps the upgrade of Palestine’s status in the UN when it was elevated to a “non-member observer state” in 2012. The overwhelming vote, with 138 states in favour to 9 against (Canada, Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, Palau and the US) not only gave a much-needed boost to Palestinians but allowed Palestine to seek membership of dozens of international organisations and accords. Crucially, it paved the way for it to seek justice for Palestinians through the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Indeed, the Palestinians joined the ICC in 2015, a move that they hoped would open the door to possible war crime indictments against Israeli officials. They have since requested the ICC to open investigations into the 2014 war on Gaza, Israeli practices against Palestinian prisoners and the illegal settlement project.Following its admission to UNESCO in 2011, Palestine applied to join 15 international bodies and conventions in 2014.

These moves have borne some fruit. Last October, the Palestinians took Israeli violations of occupied East Jerusalem to UNESCO and, despite tremendous pressure from Israel and its supporters, managed to secure a resolution on this matter, which troubled the pro-Israel lobby.

The Palestinians must now build on these gains and, in particular,having the world’s attention on illegal settlements following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2334. Increasing efforts should be placed on documenting illegal settlement activities, through the PA working with NGOs that already have a track record in this area. Perhaps a visible ministry specifically for combating settlements – similar to Britain’s Ministry for BREXIT — could be set up which combines the documentation of statistics on the impact of settlements and the development of peaceful strategies to resist them. A further task would be to put pressure on governments, particularly permanent members of the Security Council who voted for resolution 2334, to articulate policies for extracting a cost for Israeli violations of the terms of the resolution. The cost of the settlement enterprise must rise to such a level that Israel will conclude that is unsustainable, as it did when the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

A collective effort involving the Palestinian leadership must be tireless in challenging Israeli violations through legal avenues such as the ICC as well as a major diplomatic mission to pressurise other governments to act. The Palestinian people must take their own responsibility to boycott Israeli goods, particularly those made in settlements, even more seriously. Finally, Palestinians in the diaspora must pressure their own governments to accept that, without real pressure, an Israel emboldened by the election of Donald Trump will continue with its violations of human rights and international law.

The challenge is immense, but Resolution 2334 has provided an opportunity for many actors to rally around one specific issue that Israel insists is controversial, but which every other state believes is not: its illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The resolution must be seen — and used — as a tool, and not just another diplomatic but ultimately toothless victory.

Rolls Royce, pants and sand: What Boris Johnson said to the Arab ambassadors

First published by the Middle East Eye on 13/10/2016

The foreign secretary’s candid speech reveals an opportunity to influence UK policy in the Middle East – Arab ambassadors should seize it

Away from the endless discussions on Brexit at this year’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham, there were the usual fringe meetings and receptions that complement such an occasion.

One such event was the Arab ambassadors’ regular reception to which the Foreign Office normally invite the foreign secretary. I was grateful for an invitation. On previous occasions, the person who ended up attending to speak on behalf of the party and government was a junior minister rather than their boss.

However, on this occasion the rumour was that it would be the man himself, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. There was notable excitement among the attendees, including ambassadors representing countries from across the world.

We knew that the main speaker was about to arrive when the Kuwait TV camera and the ambassadors were summoned to the entrance led by his excellency, the doyen of the London diplomatic corps, Khaled al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of Kuwait.

It took some 10 minutes for Boris to complete the round of handshakes and small talk before he could be welcomed formally.

Balfour’s legacy

The doyen welcomed Boris as a “star” of Britain and praised him not only as current secretary of state but also for his previous role as mayor of London. He told him that “our relations as Arab countries are very strong’ and Britain has with them a “historic relation”.

He then invited the head of the diplomatic mission of Palestine, Professor Manuel Hassassian, to address the foreign secretary. It was not clear whether this had been agreed in advance, but the foreign secretary was happy for this to happen.

Professor Hassassian made good use of this opportunity to remind Boris of why 2017 would be a “remarkable year” for Palestinians. “We will be commemorating the hundred years of the Balfour declaration and 70 years of the Nakba and 50 years of the occupation and 10 years of the Gaza siege,” he explained.

He thanked the UK for the “nice words” of support and the money it donates to support the Palestinian Authority. This brought a smile to Boris’s face. Then the ambassador hit hard: “But Sir, we don’t need the money, we need you to be more involved in the political process.”

Hassassian suggested that “crisis management” had been a dismal failure and that what is needed is “conflict resolution”. He did not think it was enough for Britain to consider not importing goods from Israeli settlements or to simply say that it is for the two-state solution or the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. “Those are nice words to be said, but we need to see them concretised on the ground,” he challenged.

He also reminded the foreign secretary of Britain’s role. The Balfour Declaration, he said, “was the starting point in the destruction of Palestine. Great Britain should shoulder its historic, legal and moral responsibility.” He laid a challenge at Boris’s door to “add one sentence to the Declaration: ‘the recognition of the independence of Palestine'”.

Rolls Royces, pants – and sand?

Anyone thinking that Boris would rise to the challenge was quickly disappointed.

“I hope you will forgive me if I don’t venture to solve the problems of the Middle East peace process tonight off the cuff,” he told the crowd. In his typical light-hearted style, Boris acknowledged the doyen’s important role in leading the ambassadors in “paying the London congestion charge”.

Returning to more important matters, Boris acknowledged the importance of solving the Palestinian problem, but that “it was not the only problem in the region”. He seemed surprised at the lack of reaction to his statement. He then significantly stated that he did not believe that that region should be “defined by those problems”.

READ MORE: Human rights advocates weigh in on Boris Johnson’s comments and the UK export push to the Middle East

 

“It is absolutely vital that we do not allow the Middle East, the Arab world in the eyes of the British public to be defined by these problems,” he said, arguing that the region should be seen as providing a great opportunity, particularly following Brexit.

Reflecting on his time as mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that people used to accuse him of being the mayor of the “eighth Emirate”. He acknowledged the massive investment London has received, which changed its skyline. He described the Shard as “poking through like a gigantic cocktail stick through a super colossal pickled onion”.

Boris then talked of the opportunities in the other direction as “we also get the ball back over the net. This is the fastest-growing economic partnership that Britain has”. He then stunned the audience when he proclaimed that “the growth in exports to the Arab world outstrips any other part of the planet including the EU”. The exports include Rolls Royce cars, pants and “sand to Saudi Arabia”.

He finished with an acknowledgment of cultural synergy between Britain and the Arab world as the 400th anniversary of its greatest author is celebrated “who was himself a Sheikh,” he said with a dramatic pause. “Shakespeare!” This brought the house down.

Seize the opportunity

This was Boris Johnson at his best, connecting with the audience brilliantly and they loved him.

However, it is clear where Britain’s and his current priorities lie. The impact of Brexit, which was being debated in the serious sessions taking part in Birmingham’s magnificent Symphony Hall, clearly comes ahead of solving the problems of the Middle East.

The foreign secretary directed approaches to him on these issues to his junior minister, Tobias Ellwood, who was also in attendance. I doubt if he would have done that with such ease to the Israeli ambassador.

The most important message I took away from the evening was the statement about the growth of exports to the Middle East far exceeding any other part of the planet. I would see this as an open opportunity for the Arab world to influence British foreign policy in its favour as Britain seeks to develop its economic ties with markets outside the EU.

I would urge the Arab ambassadors who attended the reception to see this significant opportunity and formulate policy accordingly. This would be power not only for the various troubled countries in the region but also for the Palestinian problem. Their collective voice could and should be used to influence the kind of approach Britain takes to 2017 and, in particular, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

My only regret was that, had I known Boris was to speak at the reception, I might have turned up in a corduroy jacket but I do not own one. During a visit to Israel last year, the then London mayor accused supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of being “completely crazy” and being promoted by a “few lefty academics” in corduroy jackets pursuing a cause.

I did manage to shake Boris’s hand at the reception wearing a suit and he may remember me as not “completely crazy”. He needs to realise that those working for justice for Palestinians are neither crazy, nor anti-Semitic, as Israel and some of its supporters claim.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: London mayor Boris Johnson salutes photographers as rides a bicycle in front of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, during his visit to Dubai, on 16 April 2013 (AFP)

Read more:

Conference: Holding Palestine in the light

Lichfield is holding a conference entitled Holding Palestine in the Light 7-9 October.

This promises to be an excellent event and I am privileged to be contributing to it.

Details here

It’s time for the EU to punch its weight in the drive for peace in the Holy Land

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 12/2/2016

It’s time for the EU to punch its weight in the drive for peace in the Holy Land

   
Image from the Middle East Monitor 

The European Union is a powerful bloc. Around 500 million people live within its 28 member states. Their combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $18 trillion in 2014, making it the largest or second largest economy in the world.

The EU is also an important market for Israel. In 2013, EU exports to Israel amounted to €17.9 billion while imports totalled €13.5 billion. It is Israel’s biggest trading partner. In 2013, 32 per cent of Israel’s exports went to the EU and 34 per cent of its imports came from Europe; both figures exclude the trade in diamonds.

Trade between Israel and the EU is regulated by the EU-Israel Association Agreement which was established in 1995 and came into force in the year 2000: “The main features of the EU-Israel Association Agreement include provisions on regular political dialogue, on freedom of establishment and liberalisation of services, the free movement of capital and competition rules, the strengthening of economic cooperation and cooperation on social matters.”

Those who drafted the agreement considered respect for human rights to be important. “The agreement states that the respect for human rights and democratic principles guides the internal and international policy of both Israel and the EU and constitutes an essential and positive element of the Agreement. At Israel’s request, there is a Joint Declaration on the importance both parties attach to the struggle against xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.” This should have strong implications given the nature of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

This point notwithstanding, the EU singles Israel out for special treatment in a number of fields, especially in scientific and technological research. This was particularly the case in terms of allowing it access to the significant Horizon 2020 research programme. At the signing of the Horizon 2020 agreement, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: “Israel is a strong player in research and innovation and for this reason an important partner for the EU to address societal challenges of common concern, such as ageing, food safety, environment protection or cleaner energy, and to strengthen the competitiveness of our industries. I am pleased that we are signing the agreement today since it reflects the mutual importance we attach to cooperation and partnership in research and innovation.”

In culture, Israel is again singled out for participation (despite being located outside Europe) in the EUROVISION song contest, and its football clubs and the national team are members of UEFA, playing not in its geographical continent of Asia but as part of Europe. In 2013, Israel hosted the UEFA under-21 championships. Neither privilege is offered to Palestine and its football team.

The EU’s trade with the Palestinians is much more modest, totalling €154 million in 2014. Significantly, Palestinian exports only amounted to €14 million, due to the “difficult economic situation and restrictions on movement and access”. In terms of aid and financial support, the EU is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, essentially supporting it in covering 25 per cent of its salary commitments. It also supports the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in its delivery of services to Palestinian refugees.

The EU is, therefore, a major stakeholder in Palestine-Israel, which has allowed it not only to develop trade relations with both parties but also to play a role in the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It is a member of the Middle East Quartet, alongside the US, Russia and the UN. It supplied the Quartet’s Peace Envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2007 to 2015. However, it has always shied away from playing a leading role, in deference to the US. It has, as a result, not punched at its proper weight, never mind above it.

This is a great pity, because its position allows it to exert pressure on the two parties should it choose to do so. However, it has chosen not to apply significant pressure on the Palestinians by, say, withholding aid, as it realises that it could lead to the collapse of the PA, which would reduce rather than enhance the chances for peace. On the other hand, it could apply significant pressure on the intransigent Israeli government without the state itself “collapsing”. In reality, it has only chosen to apply minimal pressure on Israel; while it has a clear position on the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, it has not taken the logical step of at least banning the import of any goods from them, despite condemning settlement expansion on numerous occasions. Instead, it has taken decades to reach agreement among its member states to require accurate “labelling” of certain goods originating in illegal settlements to help European consumers make an informed choice about whether or not to buy them. Incredibly, it has not even taken action against Israel when the latter has demolished civilian buildings and facilities paid for by the EU, particularly in what is called “Area C”.

The EU’s envoys to the Palestinian Authority frequently produce reports on the deteriorating situation on the ground in Palestine, which show clearly that Israel has no intention of allowing, let alone working towards, a two-state solution, which is at the heart of EU policy. In their report in 2015 they slammed Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem and urged the EU to take actions to “strengthen” the PA’s status in the City. They also advised “taking various measures to protest [against] Israeli policy in the city, as well as sanctions against people and groups involved in ‘settlement activity’ in and around it.” In June 2015, envoys from all 28 EU member states sent a clear message to Israel that the EU was against the planned demolition of Khirbet Susyia in the Hebron Hills by visiting the 300 Palestinian villagers en masse in a show of solidarity.

Such encouraging signals serve to raise Palestinian expectations that the EU will move from condemnation to action. However, to date, the reality has been regular raising of hopes only for them to be dashed when the crunch comes. Take, for example, the recent move by the EU Council of Ministers to “distinguish” between Israel and the areas it occupied in 1967. This would have meant that the settlements would not be considered as part of Israeli territory. Once again, Palestinian hopes were raised about action. This position was watered down, though, under pressure from Israel and, surprisingly, Greece, which was once a supporter of Palestine but is now increasingly an Israeli ally.

It is true to say that the make up of the EU makes it difficult to unify 28 countries on many issues, particularly the Middle East conflict. Nevertheless, the EU’s policy in support of a two-state solution and the illegality of Israeli settlements unites all members. The EU could, therefore, apply its considerable economic and political weight to extract a change in direction from Israel by supporting a move by the Palestinians to specify a date for the end of the occupation. Should a resolution to this effect pass without a US veto during President Barack Obama’s last few months in office, then sanctions on Israel could follow. This needs to happen before Israel succeeds in diversifying its export markets, thus reducing the impact of EU sanctions.

In conclusion, if the EU was to punch not even above its weight but at its weight, it could change the dynamics in the conflict in favour of an end to the occupation. It must emerge from its self-imposed shyness and act. Once that barrier has been breached, perhaps peace will be that little bit closer.

Professor Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham. He is a commentator on Middle East affairs and is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He blogs at http://www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.