The British Government likes to portray itself as an honest broker’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seeing “blame on both sides”. Perhaps because such a position finds no basis in international law, the Government dislikes international institutions getting too involved — as seen when it tried to prevent the International Court of Justice ruling on the illegality of the Separation Wall 18 months ago. And when this fails, there is nothing left but retreat into pure fantasy, which describes its policy over the last year.
In truth, the Palestinians represent an incredibly persistent “local difficulty”; a thorn in the side of countries interested in running the Middle East to their own advantage. While the UK pays lip service to international law, it’s actually busy helping Israel to get away with murder.
In the first six months of 2005 the UK granted licenses for £10.5m of weapon components to Israel, over three times the amount sold by the same point in 2004. Meanwhile the European Union, fully supported by the UK, continues to reward Israel for its appalling human rights record with the EU-Israel Association Agreement, allowing Israeli products preferential access to European markets. Although the Agreement is based on “respect for human rights”, and so should actually be suspended under its own terms, such a course appears unthinkable from the fairy-tale world of Whitehall.
Although the Foreign Office sometimes admits that their strategy of close engagement with Israel has failed — hardly surprising given that the strategy’ appears to consist of mentioning the issue at a handful of meetings — their alternative is even closer engagement through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP provides for closer ties with Europe’s neighbours, including Israel, to go “beyond co-operation, to involve a significant measure of economic integration and a deepening of political co-operation”. In other words, the exact opposite of suspending economic preferences.
Of course, the Government falls over itself to praise the Disengagement from Gaza, ignoring the worsening situation on the West Bank, where an additional 14,000 illegal settlers have moved this year, more than compensating for the 8,500 settlers who left Gaza. The honesty of Sharon and his advisors, who describe Disengagement as an attempt to “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state”, is ignored by the Foreign Office, contradicting as it does the story they tell the public and the world.
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the UK’s position has become worse since Disengagement. Foreign Office Minister, Kim Howells, set the tone in an interview with the Jerusalem Post in September in which he stated that recent Israeli air strikes on the supposedly independent Gaza Strip constituted a “proportionate” response to the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel which had already been condemned by the Palestinian Authority. The strikes included Israel resuming its policy of illegal targeted assassinations of militants and launching about 30 aerial attacks on Gaza, destroying schools and homes, with scores of civilians injured and welfare projects raided, not to mention over 400 arrests carried out on the West Bank amidst a fragile election process.
When asked what he was expecting of Sharon following Disengagement, Howells replied nothing’ — it was up to the Palestinians now. Faced with an impassioned speech by Phyllis Starkey MP in Parliament, Howells ripped up even the pretence at even-handedness retorting that, yes it was a terrible situation, but mostly because of the Palestinians “stupidity” in looting the Gaza greenhouses, the selfishness of the Arab states hoarding their oil wealth and the corrosive corruption of “Arafat’s cronies”. The Israeli Ambassador couldn’t have put it better.
British law finds about as much respect as international law. In September, Jack Straw, apologised to the Israeli government after a British court issued an arrest warrant for Israeli Major General Almog on war crimes charges. Head of the Israeli Army’s Southern Command from 2000-4, Almog was responsible for dropping a one-ton bomb on Gaza in 2002 which killed 15 and injured 150, and for the destruction of 59 homes in Rafah refugee camp.
Almog was made aware of the arrest and refused to leave his plane at London Heathrow, promptly returning to Israel. Nonetheless, Straw felt the need to apologise “as a courtesy” and explain that he wanted to “find a way to bridge the gap so this doesn’t happen in the future”. Heaven forbid British courts should arrest war criminals on British soil.
As calls to hold the Israeli government to account grow louder, the British government disappears further into the mythical world of its own propaganda. Perhaps the introduction to the European Neighbourhood Policy, which states that the “EU and Israel share the common values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law”, has a good deal of truth to it. Certainly none of those things seems to matter to either if they get in the way of self-interest. As in the fight against injustice in South Africa, it will have to be ordinary activists who help bring justice for the long suffering Palestinians.
NICK DEARDEN works for the London-based War on Want. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org