While Arab states normalise relations with Israel, British voters lobby MPs for Palestine

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 3/12/2018

November was an extraordinary month for normalisation between Arab states and Israel. You would think that Israel had settled its disputes with its neighbours — perhaps accepting and implementing the Arab peace initiative, for example, — and that a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital was close to reality. In fact, though, Israel has challenged the world to call out its Apartheid status following the passing of the Nation State Law; continues to build illegal colonies on Palestinian land; imprisons thousands of Palestinians; demolishes Palestinian-owned homes and other buildings; and kills peaceful protesters at the nominal border with the Gaza Strip on a weekly basis.

The Sultanate of Oman hosted an official state visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife. It then gave a conference platform to Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz to outline his state’s vision for a railway linking Haifa with the Gulf. Israeli sports teams competed in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, while Bahrain indicated its desire to establish diplomatic channels with Israel. To cap it all, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was given support for his position from Netanyahu. This is the same Saudi Arabia that recently banned Palestinians holding valid travel documents from visiting Makkah and Madinah for pilgrimage, presumably on the orders of the Custodian of the Holy Mosques, King Salman. Who would have thought it possible?

The Palestinians know of and rely on the long standing support of the Arab people but it has now become clear that support from a substantial number of their governments is tokenistic. In fact, the Arab states’ role has become more like cheerleaders for Donald Trump’s still to be announced “deal of the century”, and to be ready to put a few million dollars into the kitty to cajole them into accepting the ultimate surrender deal.

READ: Normalisation and a ‘regional solution’ are back on the agenda 

The Arab people — including Palestinians — are oppressed by their own governments, which deny them their civil and political rights. They have little or no influence on the decisions made in their names by their unelected governments and are therefore hardly able to influence the decisions which have an impact on the Palestinian cause.

While wanting to see the Arabs return to their unwavering support for the cause, the Palestinians look increasingly elsewhere, particularly where they can influence government decisions, even if the effect is not immediately obvious. A good example of this is in Britain, where demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in Gaza have been held since the start of the Great March of Return protests in the territory since 31 March. Furthermore, many British voters lobby their MPs and government on behalf of the people of Palestine.

The annual pro-Palestine lobby of parliament in Westminster takes place on or near the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, 29 November. The UN introduced this in 1977 to coincide with the passing of UN resolution 181, the Partition Plan, in 1947.

This year’s lobby was again organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The objective was for ordinary British people to meet their MPs and discuss the Palestinian issue with a particular focus. This year the two issues that constituents were asked to raise with their MPs were related to Palestinian child prisoners and an end to the arms trade with Israel. An Early Day Motion (EDM) 563 on military detention of Palestinian children, is the fourth most signed EDM in this parliamentary session. EDM 1305, meanwhile, calls for “a suspension of arms sales to Israel”.

Just under 3,000 members of the British public participated in the lobby last week. They contacted 600 out of the 650 MPs to express concern about child prisoners and the arms trade. Other MPs whose constituents were not able to travel to Westminster attended various briefings arranged by the PSC both to show their support and to learn more. Most of the parties with MPs were represented at these events.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) on an official diplomatic visit to Oman where he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said on 25 October 2018 [PM of Israel/Twitter]

At a rally held after the lobby, many MPs spoke in support of the Palestinian cause, highlighting the need for actions more than words. It was noticeable that those who had visited Palestine and Israel to see the situation for themselves were the most outspoken.

The new Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Dr Husam Zomlot, expressed appreciation of the Palestinian people to the “heroes” involved in the lobby. He stressed the importance of such efforts, especially the timing, “because of the campaign by the extreme right wing groups who are adamant to be anti-internationalist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic values, anti-solidarity and anti-openness.” In particular, the Ambassador commended the pro-Palestine activists for focussing on the “upholding of international law.” While noting that the issues of Palestinian children and the arms trade with Israel are important, he also highlighted Israel’s illegal settlement building and the position of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees. He referred to the importance of enforcing the law in Britain under which, he argued, “importing settlement produce is illegal.”

Zomlot called for the British government to recognise the state of Palestine and claimed that “no act will be more relevant, would be more effective in bringing peace and justice.” He pointed out that the Palestinians do not understand the reluctance to offer such recognition. “We do not understand what is taking the government so long. We do not understand why, given that the British people expressed their will through their elected parliamentarians four years ago, recognition remains unimplemented.” He then reminded the audience of Britain’s historic responsibility and the motion for recognition tabled by Britain’s first MP with Palestinian heritage, the Liberal Democrat Layla Moran.

The Palestinian Ambassador spoke after Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry insisted that a future Labour Government will “immediately recognise the state of Palestine, and will urge our international friends to follow suit, not in due course, not when the time is right or whatever formula this current Tory Government comes up with.” She also committed to Britain hosting an emergency international conference to address the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and all of those displaced from their homes or forced into refugee camps abroad as a result of Israeli actions. Most importantly, perhaps, she called for the shortfall caused by Trump’s callous move to cut funding for UNRWA to be filled.

READ: Students from 30 UK universities protest against investment in Israel occupation 

Thornberry also emphasised that Britain must use its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to “demand action when Israel breaks international law.” She stated that it was time to expose the hypocrisy of the US and others “who demand actions and independent investigations when other countries break those laws but then turn a blind eye when it comes to Israel. It is not good enough. We must be even handed and it is about time we started being a little braver and a little bolder when it comes to peace in the Middle East.”

The Shadow Foreign Secretary stated that a Labour government “will be prepared to say out loud that it shames the United Nations and it shames the Security Council that for decades Israel has been able to ignore with impunity all the resolutions that the UN has passed and demand effective actions to enforce them.” Since the US has effectively shut itself out from being a broker for peace, Thornberry said that Britain and other countries should step in to revive talks between the parties based on clear principles and a clear timeline to deliver a two-state solution.

Protest in Tunisia against the normalisation of Israel [File photo]

One long-term supporter of Palestinian rights, Andrew Slaughter MP, emphasised the importance of Thornberry’s participation in the rally, which may not have been possible just a few short years ago. He called for a ban on settlement goods, but not a boycott of settlements per se.

The final speaker at the rally thought that this was inadequate. Lubnah Shomali, of BADIL — the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights — contended that it was not enough to speak in solidarity, to recognise Palestine and to ban settlement products. She went further and argued that, since Israel does not distinguish between Israeli and settlement products, neither should we; in fact, we should be boycotting all Israeli products. She also argued for sanctions on Israel as other states are obligated to hold it to account for its breaches of international laws and conventions.

Shomali will take back to Palestine the tremendous support for Palestinian rights that she witnessed among British citizens, who put pressure on their elected representatives not only at the parliamentary lobby but also throughout the year. It is sad to say that she would not be able to take back the same sort of experience after a visit to any of the Arab states falling over themselves to normalise relations with Israel. The people there may want to show solidarity with the Palestinians and put pressure on their governments to act in support of Palestine, but they live under political systems that do not have any representative democratic institutions. The will of the people in such countries is, therefore, ineffectual at the moment.

Britain must not reward Israel for its abuse of Palestinians

First published by the Arab Weekly on Sunday 10/6/2018

Britain appears to be developing closer relations with Israel on many fronts.

Breaking with the norm? Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (L) and Prince William arrive as she hosts a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London, on May 31. (AP)

Prince William’s visit to Israel this month, the first official British royal visit to the country, could not come at a more inappropriate time.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire since March 30, when mass protests near the Gaza-Israel border broke out to highlight the plight of the besieged enclave and the rights of refugees. More than 10,000 people have been reportedly injured.

Among the fatalities was Razan Al-Najar, a 21-year old volunteer medic who was shot in the back while tending to injured protesters near the Israeli fence. Her death caused international outrage. Nicolai Miladinov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, tweeted: “Medical workers are #NotATarget!”

Israel, however, has not been held accountable. A resolution tabled at the UN Security Council to provide protection for the Palestinian people was vetoed by the United States hours after Razan’s death.

Britain’s Middle East Minister Alistair Burt, who was visiting the Palestinian territories and Israel, tweeted: “Circumstances of dreadful death of young Palestinian medic yesterday require urgent clarification.”

The world community failed to condemn Israel for the use of live ammunition fired by highly trained snipers, when less lethal force could have been used. There were no reports of injuries either to Israeli army personnel or nearby settlers.

Britain called for an independent inquiry into Israel’s killings of Palestinians only to abstain in the UN Human Rights Council when a resolution setting up the required inquiry was tabled.

Criticism of Britain’s U-turn on an independent inquiry grew when Burt said he could not verify how British weapons would be used once delivered to Israel. This raised concerns that British weapons may have been used by the Israeli military to kill Palestinian protesters, which is in contravention of the licences that allowed their sale.

Burt explained that once a risk assessment had been conducted, the licences were issued and no further checks made.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade said the United Kingdom issued approximately $300 million worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel, substantially more than the $115 million sold last year and the $27 million licensed in 2015.

Over the past five years, Israel has bought more than $450 million worth of British military hardware, making Israel the eighth largest market for UK arms companies. Last year’s sales included targeting equipment, small arms ammunition, missiles, weapon sights and sniper rifles. This makes it possible that snipers were using British rifles to kill and maim civilian protesters at the Gaza fence.

Britain appears to be developing closer relations with Israel on many fronts.

Britain’s Royal Air Force took part in a flyover to mark Israel’s Independence Day last month, even though it coincided with the Palestinians’ commemoration of 70 years of their Nakba.

Last December, HMS Ocean, a flagship of the British Royal Navy, docked in Haifa. It took part in exercises with the Israeli Navy and Air Force. To encourage British-Israeli business cooperation, particularly in the high-technology sector, the United Kingdom created the UK Israel Tech Hub. Its website confirms that it focuses on “tech areas with the potential to contribute to growth in both the UK and Israel.”  The areas include cyber-security, biomed, clean tech and fintech.

The United Kingdom is also firmly against placing pressure on Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and has attempted to stop British local authorities excluding companies complicit in Israel’s occupation from applying for contracts or for their pension schemes to invest in such companies.

Israel is on a list of ten countries the United Kingdom is targeting for trade deals post Brexit and the United Kingdom appears to be exercising caution in taking any action against Israel that may put such a deal in jeopardy.

Prince William’s visit to the region is to include stops in Jordan and the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian Authority welcomed the visit, however, it is likely to be a only courtesy call in Ramallah, rather than a “meet the people” affair. The pomp and pageantry will be with the Israelis. Significantly, the prince will not visit Gaza to see first-hand the effect of the siege — imposed by the leaders whose hands he will shake and whose wine he will drink — on 2 million people.

It is the norm that royal visits avoid politics but by choosing to make such a visit in the current climate, every step and every word uttered by the prince will matter.

To avoid the many pitfalls, it would have been better for this visit to take place after a peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis, rather than after the significant loss of life in the Great March of Return.