A Herd of Independent Minds

Photograph Source: Nikolay Andreyev – Public Domain

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his Notes from Underground that “the most refined shedders of blood have been almost always the most highly civilized gentlemen”, to whom their enemies “could not have held a candle”. In the latest phase of the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Israeli deaths reaching 1,400 and Palestinian deaths reaching 2,800 (at the time of writing), and with Hamas holding over 200 Israelis hostage, it is worth asking some rather basic questions concerning the historical context and ongoing reactions.

Much of the legacy media in the West, alongside prominent academics and public intellectuals, have a poor memory when it concerns the issue of Israel-Palestine. Although there has been some discussion of major historical events (1948, 1967, 1973, 1987), the lack of contemporary context for the current scenes in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories only serves to intensify knee-jerk responses from commentators on both sides of the conflict.

The emergence of alternative media outlets and long-form video podcasts, in addition to the rise of popular Arab media organizations like Al Jazeera, have forced many Western commentators to recalibrate what Edward Said would call their otherwise orientalist perspectives on the conflict. A typical BBC report in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s used to provide no context or historical background. In 2015, on BBC Newsnight Evan Davis asked Shimon Peres simply whether Israel had made any “mistakes”. The framework of assumptions is clear: Israel can occasionally meander from its promised path, but its sights remain fixed on justice.

Today, major BBC figures like Victoria Derbyshire can ask appropriate, challenging questions about the nature of possible war crimes, despite some clear biases remaining (compare her recent interviews with Husam Zomlot and Mark Regev). Derbyshire asked the UK Labour Party’s Shadow Secretary of State, David Lammy, if he supported Israel’s order for Gazans in the north to move south (a directive condemned as “impossible” without “devastating humanitarian consequences”, according to the United Nations). In response to this Yes/No question, he ruminated that “war is ugly”, and refused to condemn the decision. Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer strongly supported Israeli self-defense and refused on multiple occasions to condemn apparent Israeli war crimes. A trained human rights lawyer, Starmer is well versed in weaponizing a meticulous choice of misleading words to argue that black is white, up is down, and humanitarian crises are self-defense.

In stark contrast, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt stressed that the UK could be complicit in war crimes by supporting Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged £10m in aid to Palestinians affected by the conflict. Sunak called Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and expressed his condolences for the deaths of Palestinian civilians – although this occurred just days after Sunak emblazoned the Israeli flag on the front of his official residence.

Still, many other journalists simply report Israel’s official statements without comment. They are, to quote Harold Rosenberg’s sardonic phrase, a “herd of independent minds”, self-identifying as scrupulous columnists and reporters whilst simultaneously keeping within the Overton window. As Frankie Boyle once put it in the Guardian (June 30th, 2015): “We live in a country where posting ‘Let’s riot or something bruv!’ on Facebook will get you a couple of years in prison, while writing a column saying we should bomb Syria is practically an entrance exam for public intellectuals”. Many journalists continue to describe any act of Palestinian resistance (violent or non-violent) as ending a “period of quiet” – a peaceful moment experienced only by Israel.

The modern, sassy type of interview technique best exemplified by Kay Burley (Sky News), Kirsty Wark (BBC), Emily Maitlis (BBC) and Michelle Dewberry (GB News) is often presented as hard-hitting and challenging journalism, but more often than not it ends up being, in quite fundamental ways, reactionary and aggressive. Piers Morgan, in an interview with Mohammed Hijab on TalkTV, when discussing Hamas’s recent violence said that it was “one of the worst atrocities I’ve ever had to read about”; when discussing Israel’s bombings of Gaza and the blockade of the strip, he said “I don’t think Israel has been perfect”. James O’Brien, the author of How to Be Right and radio host at LBC, bravely stood up against the Palestinians and said that Israel doesn’t need to abide by “proportionate” or “moderate” or “legal” standards when responding to Hamas’s terrorist attacks. O’Brien asked: “Why does Israel have to play by rules that Hamas holds in complete contempt?”

Support for Israel’s actions has always been found far and wide across the intellectual spectrum. Robert Nozick, famous for his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, was a self-identified libertarian, despite his strong support for violence in the occupied territories. This support was so extreme that his friends often joked that he was greatly in favour of a two-state settlement: namely, Israel and the US.

Much bias in the media and academia remains to be uncovered and systematically documented (and this is not to mention the various polls over the past decade which have suggested that a substantial portion of the British and American public think the Palestinians are occupying Israeli land, and not the other way round). An obvious, perennial example is how most outlets continue to focus on Palestinian offensive capabilities and Israel’s defensive capabilities (e.g., Iron Dome, which Theodore Postol at MIT estimated in 2014 to have an efficacy rate of at most 10 percent, most likely around 5 percent), but never the reverse. The fundamental, driving injustice behind the conflict is rarely evaluated explicitly. But there are signs that popular pressure, social media and public outrage are pushing the issues surrounding broader, historical context and understanding to the fore. This essay aims to provide some of that history.

2014: “Our answer is fire”

Hell is the incapacity to be other than the creature one finds oneself ordinarily behaving as.”

–  Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza, 1936

Many media reports on the recent conflict have started the historical timeline in medias res, opting to omit crucial details from earlier years. Before the present conflict, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs documented that Israeli forces and settlers have killed almost 3,800 Palestinian civilians since 2008 in the West Bank and Gaza. Within the past decade, there have been major conflagrations that have been unequivocally condemned by UN Secretaries-General and human rights organizations. For example, take Operation Protective Edge, launched on July 8th, 2014. This claimed the lives of over 2,250 Palestinians (UNHRC numbers), including over 500 children, whilst wounding thousands more and causing major damage to basic infrastructure.

The reasons for the Israeli offensive are well understood. In April 2014, Gaza’s Hamas and Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority formed a national consensus government under the authority of Mahmoud Abbas. De facto, this meant that Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist. This created new avenues for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, but, as Norman Finkelstein has noted, the very last thing Netanyahu wants is a reasonable Hamas that might comply with Israel’s demands. The unthinkable threat of peace talks would involve unacceptable concessions and compromises that Israel seems unwilling to make. The Israeli writer Amos Elon once wrote about the “panic and unease among our political leadership” caused by Arab peace proposals – little has changed.

Netanyahu therefore had to think of ways to further radicalize Hamas to undermine Hamas’s status as a reasonable negotiating partner, disrupting the entire basis of the peace process and allowing Israel to continue its settlement expansion.

After the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu et al began shelling Gaza, even though it was almost immediately known that the teenagers had been tragically killed and would not be returning to Israel. A ground invasion followed on July 17th, only a few hours after Malaysian Airlines Flight 117 went missing, saturating news cycles. Amnesty International described the subsequent 51-day offensive by pointing to the “war crimes” and “human rights violations” perpetrated by the Israeli state, which engaged in a form of “collective punishment”. More notoriously, the IDF initiated “targeted attacks on schools sheltering civilians and other civilian buildings that the Israeli forces claimed were used by Hamas as command centers or to store or fire rockets” (Amnesty).

One solution to the crisis was presented on July 15th by Moshe Feiglin, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. His solution was to “Conquer – After the IDF completes the ‘softening’ of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations … Sovereignty – Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews”. His other cited proposals included “Attack”, “Elimination”, “Ultimatum” and “Siege”.

Makarim Wibisono, a leading UN human rights expert, announced on September 29th that “Israel’s claim of self-defense against an occupied population living under a blockade considered to be illegal under international law is untenable” – an assessment echoed by large numbers of Western human rights groups and NGOs. The Israeli authorities refused to cooperate with a UN Human Rights Council investigation into Operation Protective Edge.

Gaza’s higher educational institutions were also the subject of relentless bombings, prohibited under international law; an extension of Israel’s ongoing war against Palestinian higher education. Student deaths (421) accounted for 27.4% of the total deaths during Operation Protective Edge. Save the Children detailed how “an average of 12 children were killed and 77 were injured every day – 25 of whom were left with permanent disabilities. Daily, an average of six schools were shelled, 435 families lost their homes, and 37 children were orphaned”.

Meanwhile, many Israelis in Sderot regularly gathered on hilltops to secure front-row seats from which to observe their government’s bombing of Gaza.

Over a month after Netanyahu had given the military permission to use “full force” against Gaza (as he put it: “When there is no ceasefire, our answer is fire”), a ceasefire brokered by the US and Egypt formally came into place on August 26th. But the violence continued regardless of whether it was accompanied by the formal “Protective Edge” title. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights revealed that Israel repeatedly violated the terms of peaceful settlement during the month after the ceasefire. Attacks on Gaza during September occurred at a rate of over one per day, including attacks on Palestinian fishermen, while Palestinians fired not a single rocket during the same period.

Aftermath: “A punch in the right places”

Shots continued to be fired into Gaza in the subsequent months. Then, on November 18th, an Israeli settler shot and seriously injured a sixteen-year-old Palestinian after a settler demonstration at Beitin village. It was later revealed in January 2015 by B’Tselem that IDF soldiers were deliberately provoking Palestinians by sniping them with 0.22-inch calibre bullets – less deadly than conventional ammunition but still potentially lethal. In one particular case, soldiers “took action designed to provoke youths to throw stones, ultimately enabling the soldiers to respond with gunfire, wounding the youths” (B’Tselem).

During the Protective Edge bombing, 360 of Gaza’s 2,695 factories and workshops were damaged, and 126 of them were completely devastated. As recent history has proven, there was zero hope of a swift, substantial economic recovery. Shortly after Protective Edge, the IDF canceled the West Bank’s status as a “firing zone” in order for it to continue the expansion of the Ma’aleh Adumin settlement. This followed a well-documented history; an Amnesty International report from 1999 documented how Israel has manipulated the notion of “public land” to continue its colonization efforts, partly relying on Ottoman land legislation dating back to 1858 – a modern democracy indeed.

Within a year after Protective Edge, an IMF report detailed how Gaza’s economy contracted 15% for the first time since 2006, and unemployment levels drastically soared. Poverty reached such a height that Gaza’s children died in the streets from hypothermia.

In the months after Protective Edge, humanitarian supplies entering Gaza reached only 3.9% of total needs (Gisha report, January 2015), with over 70% of Gazans relying on this humanitarian aid. In May 2014, Colonel Einav Shalev had sagely prefaced much of this by explaining to the Knesset that the IDF’s tactic of confiscating Palestinian-directed humanitarian aid was “a punch in the right places”.

On October 16th, 2014, the IDF shot dead 13-year-old Bahaa Samir Badir in Beit Laqiya. Three days later, 5-year-old Inas Khalil in Sinjil was run over and killed by an Israeli settler. On October 24th, Israeli forces shot dead 14-year-old Orwa Hammad in Silwad. According to UN data, Israeli forces injured 454 Palestinians, the vast majority of them in East Jerusalem, between October 28th and November 10th. On November 13th, Israeli forces shot an 11-year-old boy, blinding him in one eye. The next day, a 10-year-old girl was shot in her car, fracturing her skull – news that would have caused an international scandal had the girl been Israeli.

The author and columnist Marwan Bishara once wrote that the practitioners of horror are of two types: thuggish and exhibitionist (“medieval style”), or cynical and stealthy (“modern style”). The IDF managed to demonstrate remarkable competence in both domains.

In the run-up to these events, the United Kingdom sold £6.3 million worth of arms to Israel in 2013. In March 2015, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond responded to concerns that Israeli land developments were blocking a peace agreement by announcing, rather blithely, that the settlements are “just buildings”, and so shouldn’t “stand in the way of a sustainable solution”.

“Things that happen around the world or whatever”

Prince William told British comedians Ant and Dec in January 2016 that he is much more emotional than he used to be, and that he increasingly wells up about “things that happen around the world or whatever”. Since the onset of recent tensions in Israel, he has indeed sent some “commiserations” – to the Welsh Rugby Union on social media. On Twitter/X, the account for the Prince and Princess of Wales recently declared on October 11th that they condemn Hamas’s recent terrorist attacks and that Israel is exercising its right to self-defense. No discussion of the usual un-mentionables in this entire saga.

Not long after Prince William’s comments, the UK sold targeting equipment, small arms ammunition, missiles and sniper rifles to Israel, aiding its actions at the Gaza wall, where it regularly used live rounds against civilians, as it did in April 2018 shortly before the prince made a historic visit. With respect to focusing on “things that happen around the world or whatever”, Gaza seems to fall under the “whatever” part of the prince’s philosophy.

The prince follows a long tradition in Anglo-American politics. Over £110m worth of military and ‘other’ equipment was licensed for export to Israel from 1999 to 2006, throughout a period of offensive operations in the Occupied Territories and the war with Lebanon. British arms exports doubled during the second intifada from 2000 to 2001, reaching £22.5 million. Whitehall managed to keep a stiff upper lip when three British citizens were killed between December 2002 and May 2003, dealing with the emotional trauma by continuing to grant Israel strong diplomatic support. Later, in October 2003 the UK abstained from a UN Security Council vote declaring Israel’s “separation wall” in the West Bank (a de facto annexation wall) to be illegal, a moment not considered newsworthy by the British press. In the same year, it was revealed that British missile trigger systems were being used in US Apache helicopters sold to Israel.

In the years up the present, British supplies to Israel have included small arms, grenade-making kits, tanks, combat aircraft, electric-shock belts, chemical and biological agents such as tear gas, rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons.

The media around this period was mostly favorable to the Israeli narrative. Ehud Barak’s offer, for instance, of 97% of the West Bank and Gaza in 1999-2000 was met with considerable awe and was frequently cited by the media. Yet, not many journalists discussed (or discuss today) the Arab offer of complete normalization and peace with Israel in exchange for a return to the Green Line in 2001 (which UN Resolution 242 called for after Israel’s occupation of the territories in 1967). The PLO would later recognize Israel and renounce armed struggle – in response, the Palestinians experienced further subjugation and indiscriminate violence.

Britain remained complicit in Israeli crimes in numerous other ways. Despite the International Criminal Court’s 2004 call for Israel to abandon its illegal construction of the West Bank wall, the British government did not object to the security firm G4S providing equipment for IDF forces patrolling the wall.

In the intervening years, violence continued to be a constant part of life. In 2011, considered a year of relative calm, Israel killed over 100 Palestinians by firing projectiles, and in September 2012 alone 55 were killed. Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) has a unique place in the modern history of indiscriminate violence against civilians: In contrast to up to 1,400 Palestinians killed (500 militants and police, 900 civilians; PCHR numbers), on the Israeli side 3 civilians and 13 IDF soldiers were killed (4 of these soldiers died from friendly fire). The government under Gordon Brown at the time confirmed that UK equipment had “almost certainly” been used in the attack, including components for combat aircraft, warships and attack helicopters. A UN inquiry later found that Operation Cast Lead was designed to “punish, humiliate, and terrorize” Gaza’s civilian population.

To quote Sari Bashi, program director for Human Rights Watch: “You do not get to target civilians because somebody else has targeted civilians. It’s nonreciprocal because your obligations are to the civilians. It’s not a deal between fighters. It’s a deal with humanity” (interview in The New Yorker, 15th October 2023).

When the IDF invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, they used Gazans as human shields. A classified US cable reported that soldiers “testified to instances where Gazans were used as human shields, incendiary phosphorous shells were fired over civilian population areas, and other examples of excessive firepower that caused unnecessary fatalities and destruction of property”.

The official claim that the UK’s arms export controls are among the most stringent in the world is far removed from the reality of business as usual. Shortly after the government admitted that 12 of its licenses may ultimately be used to commit human rights abuses, on August 19th, 2014 Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that “in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, and on the basis of information currently available to us, there could be a risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

The secretary of state responsible for the license revocation, Vince Cable, was unable to define “significant hostilities”, and the day after Hammond’s statement Israel resumed its task of “mowing the grass” in Gaza, a common euphemism used by some military strategists for the recurrent attacks on Palestine. This seemingly did not qualify as “significant” enough, and so no licenses were revoked.

During the Great March of Return in 2018, Israeli forces killed over 180 unarmed protesters at the Gaza-Israel border and injured 23,000. Responding to this, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy observed that “the killing of Palestinians is accepted in Israel more lightly than the killing of mosquitoes” (Haaretz, 1st April 2018). In the UK, the Labour Party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said that to criticize Israel’s atrocities is anti-Semitic.

This episode highlighted something important: Palestinians using mass non-violent resistance, on their own, get crushed. The only alternative is coordinated peaceful demonstrations with Western solidarity movements, which could put pressure on Western states to force Israel to end the occupation. During segregation in the US South, peaceful protests purely coming from within the southern states were brutally suppressed (essential though they ultimately were). It was only when a national, and then international, solidarity movement was born that sufficient pressure was put on the US government to change course.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US explicitly formalized its acceptance of Israel’s intentions to annex any new land in the “disputed territories” or “administered territories” (terms preferred by some Israeli politicians – but not used by human rights organizations or international law – for illegally occupied territories). As Colonel Daniel Reisner, former head of the IDF’s Legal Department, explained: “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries … International law progresses through violations”. Subtle changes to the language (like replacing “occupied” with “disputed”) form a major part of the effort to suppress objections to violations of international humanitarian law.

The broader historical context here has been well documented. A pro-Arab policy in the region was rejected by the UK Foreign Office in 1970, largely “because of the pressure which the United States government undoubtedly exert on HMG to keep us in line in any public pronouncements or negotiations on the dispute” (Foreign Office Planning Committee, ‘Future British Policy Towards the Arab/Israel Dispute’, 14th September 1970).

No sentimentalist, Winston Churchill also clearly explained his views on the Jewish right to the holy land in comparing Palestinian Arabs to dogs: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place” (Churchill, ‘To the Palestine Royal Commission’, 1937). Churchill’s literary flair no doubt proved him worthy of the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

The British media and politicians, as mentioned already, have a long history of downplaying Israel’s military actions, running right up to the present. In January 2009, white phosphorous shells were used by Israeli forces against civilians in Gaza. These incendiary airburst weapons, designed to incinerate a wide target area, were being used by Israel, according to the BBC’s Ben Brown, “merely to illuminate targets in Gaza” (BBC News, 9th January). On 16th October 2023, after Israel used white phosphorous over crowded civilian areas in northern Gaza and the southern fields of Lebanon, the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News that he would neither confirm nor deny these allegations, referring to the “huge amount of disinformation around” – a cautionary note that was not provided by the British statement when discussing reports of Palestinian crimes.

The crimes of empire spread various echos not deemed sufficiently newsworthy: White phosphorous was also used illegally in the US attack on Fallujah in 2004, creating “increases in cancer, leukemia and infant mortality and perturbations of the normal human population birth sex ratio significantly greater than those reported for the survivors of the A-Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945” (Busby et al., 2010, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 7).

Current white phosphorous shellings in Gaza and northern Lebanon follow on from a rich British history of poison gas usage. Churchill approved of its use in the early 1920s to spread what he called a “lively terror” amongst “uncivilized tribesmen and recalcitrant Arabs” (the Kurds and Afghans), continuing a harsh colonialist theme that continues up to the present moment. As one of Israel’s Labor Party leaders, Moshe Dayan, once explained, the Palestinians will “continue to live like dogs”.

“Vast and splendid possessions”

Some of the most consistent supporters of Israel over the decades include the US, Canada, Australia and India – colonial societies and the offshoots of the British Empire.  History presents other iterations of this general theme of Englishmen either directly supporting, or exhibiting wonderful complacency towards, the crimes of empire. Britain has historically been friendly with a number of major authoritarian and reactionary regimes (Ceaușescu in Romania, Amin in Uganda, Obasanjo in Nigeria, Suharto in Indonesia, Mubarak in Egypt, Duterte in the Philippines) – and today, Netanyahu and Herzog in Israel, with the latter recently claiming that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza.

Herzog’s statements would be well understood by sociologist Martin Shaw, who writes about “degenerative war”, whereby statesmen intentionally erode the distinction between civilian and combatant, in such a way that the militants live amongst the civilian population so closely that an offensive power can effectively equate any civilian death with a combatant death. The far right, not just in Israel, but generally, always thrives on the exaggerated prospect of threats to their own existence.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, British arms were supplied to the fascist General Franco through the Strait of Gibraltar to help defend British interests in the region against the workers councils and anarchists. The leaders of Western ‘democracies’ were content with Hitler and Mussolini flouting a ‘non-interventionist’ pact, given that Franco was no direct threat to their empires.

On August 14th, 1938, Churchill said in an interview:

“Franco has all the right on his side because he loves his country. Also Franco is defending Europe against the Communist danger – if you wish to put it in those terms. But I, I am English, and I prefer the triumph of the wrong cause. I prefer that the other side wins, because Franco could be an upset or a threat of British interests, and the others not”.

Churchill also presented a speech to his Cabinet friends in 1914 (quoted years later in the press, with any offending phrases omitted), concluding after much patriotic melodrama:

“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us”.

A few years later, in stark contrast to British imperial arrogance, we find Albert Einstein’s views on Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East:

“We need to pay greater attention to our relations with the Arabs. By cultivating these carefully we shall be able in future to prevent things from becoming so dangerously strained that people can take advantage of them to provoke acts of hostility. This goal is perfectly within our reach, because our work of construction has been, and must continue to be, carried out in such a manner as to serve the real interests of the Arab population also. In this way we shall be able to avoid getting ourselves quite so often into the position, disagreeable for Jews and Arabs alike, of having to call in the mandatory power as arbitrator. We shall thereby be following not merely the dictates of Providence but also our traditions, which alone give the Jewish community meaning and stability. For that community is not, and must never become, a political one; this is the only permanent source whence it can draw new strength and the only ground on which its existence can be justified”.

Testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in January 1946, Einstein confessed: “The State idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe that it is bad. I have always been against it”.

The situation bears comparison to conflicts in the late 1930s when the Spanish fascists bombed Guernica. At the same time as the bombing in Spain, condemned by many on the left, British aircraft bombed Palestinian villages to the silence of the establishment and much of the left. John Newsinger records in his People’s History of the British Empire that in 1938 “one RAF squadron alone dropped 768 20lb and 29 112lb bombs and fired over 62,000 rounds in operations against rebel targets. Thousands of Palestinians were interned without trial, harsh collective punishments were imposed on whole communities, routine use was made of Arab hostages as human shields”.

As Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, War on Want and countless other organizations have shown through extensive documentation, the Palestinians remain what George Orwell would describe as “unpeople”, their cries silenced by the sharp crackle of British-made gunfire. This follows on from what Michael Stewart, UK foreign secretary, stated in May 1968; that “the survival of Israel as a separate state is a fundamental aspect of our Middle East policy”.

Yet even the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, hardly a progressive voice in UK politics, noted in a letter to US President Ronald Reagan in 1982, after the invasion of Lebanon, that “unlimited support for Israel can only lead to growing polarisation and despair in the Arab world”. In stark contrast, during the next war with Lebanon in 2006, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair strongly supported Israel. In his memoirs, Blair said that Israeli soldiers were engaged in a struggle between “modernist and atavism”. He experienced considerable pushback even from those close to him within his party for his hawkish stance.

New Labour under Blair systematically violated international law and supported some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, leading many foreign commentators (especially in the Middle East) to view Britain as an outlaw state. In New Labour’s first decade in power, it sold £45 billion worth of arms around the world. Blair is “today a grotesque figure, drenched in blood, plastered over with money, and completely unrepentant”, to quote Newsinger’s People’s History again. In February 2015, Blair started advising the Serbian prime minister, Aleksander Vucic, notwithstanding Blair’s role in the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 – a relationship which becomes more surreal with the revelations that Vucic was in fact such a vocal critic of Blair during the war that he was even an editor of a 2005 book entitled English Gay Fart Tony Blair.

2016–2022: The fingerprints of British ingenuity

In the modern occupied Palestinian territories, we find a system of checkpoints, walls and surveillance, the demolition of houses and schools, and the expansion of illegal settlements. We also find imprisonment and torture of large numbers of Palestinians. Within the state of Israel, Palestinian citizens face systematic and institutionalized discrimination. This system has been explicitly described as “apartheid” by Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs, Harvard Law School, a UN special rapporteur, and former Israeli diplomats.

The UK continues to provide key support for this system. Between 2016 and 2020, the UK issued Single Individual Export Licenses for arms sales to Israel valued at £387 million. A large number of Open Individual Export Licenses have also been issued since 2014, allowing unlimited deliveries of specified types of equipment.

The biggest license in value, worth £182 million, was issued in October 2017, for “technology for military radars”. No public information is currently available concerning the nature of the deal. The UK also sells components that ultimately find their way into US-built equipment sent to Israel, e.g. missile triggering systems for Apache helicopters, and Head-Up Displays for F-16s. These have been used to bomb towns and villages in Lebanon and Palestine.

The Labour Party’s Richard Burgon (MP for Leeds East) proposed to Parliament in July 2021 the ‘Israel Arms Trade (Prohibition) Bill’, designed to “prohibit the sale of arms to Israel and the purchase of arms from Israel”. The proposal was rejected in 2022.

In May 2021, bombing raids on Palestinian territory killed over 260 people, including 65 children. An orphanage was destroyed, and the area around an MSF clinic in Gaza City was bombed. The Israeli military confirmed that F-35 warplanes were among the military aircraft used in the strikes. The jet’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, boasts that “the fingerprints of British ingenuity can be found on dozens of the aircraft’s key components”. The UK Defence Journal estimates them to be 15 percent British-made.

Over 100 UK-based suppliers were involved in the construction of the F-35, including BAE Systems, GE Aviation, Martin-Baker, SELEX, Cobham, Ultra Electronics, UTC Actuation Systems, and Rolls-Royce. The Israelis pay UK suppliers using some of the billions of dollars they receive in US military aid, feeding a highly profitable cycle of arms sales. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel was the eighth-biggest exporter of major conventional weapons during 2017-2021. Israel’s arms industry explicitly markets its weapons as “battle-tested” – it takes little imagination to figure out on whom these “tests” were conducted.

According to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), since 2015 the UK’s Conservative government has licensed over £442m worth of arms to Israel. These include licenses for aircraft, helicopters, drones, grenades, bombs, small arms, missiles, countermeasures, armored vehicles, tanks and ammunition.

In the summer of 2022, Israeli airstrikes killed 49 Palestinians (17 of whom were children), injuring hundreds more. On the Israeli side, two IDF soldiers were wounded, and 21 Israeli civilians “suffered anxiety” (The Times of Israel, 8th August 2022) and were immediately treated at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. There remains a dominant Spartan-like mentality in much of Israel, where a military casualty is treated as in many ways more tragic than a civilian casualty.

Current events

The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” –

Jake Sullivan, 29th September 2023, The Atlantic Festival

Turning to more current events, Israel does not seem to have been planning for a larger war beyond the present attacks on Gaza, although it may feel encouraged to strike out against Hezbollah after the current crisis settles. Hezbollah (as well as Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) also does not appear to favor immediate escalation. Lebanon is experiencing a severe economic and social crisis. This makes President Joe Biden’s decision to continue to promote “Israel’s right to self-defense” all the more infuriating for most of the international community – not least because Biden is also not likely seeking a larger war, juggling already Taiwan and Ukraine.

Like Obama before him, Biden day after day has repeated the slogan that Israel has a right to defend itself. Alternatively, he could have made a single statement at the beginning of the conflict and then approached the matter differently without reiterating the self-defense line. Biden, in recent years, has effectively taken the baton passed by Trump in continuing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in contravention of international law, and has continued to treat the Palestinians as an annoyance. By the time this essay is published, Biden will have visited Israel (expected Wednesday 18th October), likely to continue this historical legacy.

White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, blasted Democratic lawmakers calling for a ceasefire and de-escalation “repugnant” on October 11th. On October 15th, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the Senate would quickly push through a military aid package to Israel. Monday, October 16th saw the opening of humanitarian aid through the Rafah crossing into Gaza.

Sky News recently released a brief segment on ‘FYI’, a weekly show for children, reviewing the history of the conflict. The term “occupation” was never mentioned, and neither was the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. The lack of historical context provided to children would not have surprised the English biologist Thomas Huxley, who noted in the 19th century that the level of education in schools gave students the “general impression … that every thing of much importance happened a very long while ago; and that the Queen and the gentlefolks govern the country much after the fashion of King David and the elders and nobles of Israel – his sole models” (Science and Education, vol. 3).

Deborah Haynes recently reported for Sky News that she was with an Israeli brigade readying itself to attack Gaza. “This is a very highly trained, highly professional unit”, she said. “They were the unit that went into Gaza back in 2014”. No additional comment was provided.

The Israeli ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, told Kay Burley on Sky News (16th October) that there is “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, and that the entire saga is only the fault of Hamas. The humanitarian crisis is so non-existent in Gaza that corpses are being piled into ice cream vans because of the lack of room in the morgues. This is all happening in the context of Gazans being “slowly poisoned” by the water they drink, according to the reports of the world’s leading scholar on Gaza’s economy, Sara Roy at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Ben Shapiro, who once claimed that “Israel can take care of herself” and that the US should not fight wars for Israel, now recently claims that “it is very important that the United States provide the material aid to Israel”.

No media outlets, to my knowledge, have recently discussed the even broader historical context concerning the origins of Hamas. Israeli official Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, once told a New York Times reporter that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement in order to build a “counterweight” to the secularists and leftists of the PLO and Fatah party. Fatah was at the time led by Yasser Arafat, who also referred to Hamas as “a creature of Israel”. “The Israeli government gave me a budget”, said Segev, “and the military government gives to the mosques”. Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation”.

The media continues to reiterate Israel’s current claims of needing to destroy Hamas’s “terror tunnels” from Gaza into Israel. But there are several problems with this narrative. Firstly, Israel occasionally notes that it destroys tunnels from outside Gaza, without needing to send soldiers into the strip. Secondly, if Israel was genuinely concerned about these “terror tunnels”, it could easily do what Egypt’s Sisi did and bulldoze them before flooding them. Israel could build a deep moat along the Gaza border and fill it with water. Sisi’s actions immediately halted the construction of further tunnels along the border with Egypt. There is no credible argument that Gazans could dig deeper than Israel’s world-class machinery. Lastly, Israel is mostly concerned in reality with tunnels inside Gaza itself, not the ones connecting Gaza to Israel, since it wants to ensure that its soldiers are not faced with serious opposition in the event of a land invasion. Yet, no media outlet provides even a modicum of rational response to claims of “terror tunnel” threats.

Escalating rhetoric in recent years has not helped with the “peace process” either. Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, called for Hawara, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, to be “wiped out”. Israel’s national security minister, Itmar Ben-Gvir, flashed a gun at residents of Sheikh Jarrah, requested that police use live ammunition on Arabs throwing stones, and threatened to “mow down” Palestinians in the area. Likud MK Ariel Kallner looks forward to a second Nakba. A peaceable leadership this is not.

New conflicts, old themes

But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

– 1 Samuel 16:7

The current convictions of young students and workers worldwide during recent demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian people – in particular in the Arab states and also the US and UK – seem to prove correct the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s prediction in 1865; that a strong element of social revolution will be “that intelligent and truly noble part of the youth which, though belonging by birth to the privileged classes, in its generous convictions and ardent aspirations, adopts the cause of the people”.

The goals of the world’s popular democratic movements – standing against state violence and subjugation – have also remained remarkably similar through to the present day, as the words of the radical Levellers in 1659 after the English Civil War demonstrate:

“It will never be a good world while knights and gentlemen make us laws, that are chosen for fear and do but oppress us, and do not know the people’s sores. It will never be well with us till we have Parliaments of countrymen like ourselves, that know our wants”.

Submitting the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880 to scrutiny also reveals how little the unaccountable and undemocratic military strategies of the major powers in the current conflict have changed. To quote a parliamentary inquiry of 1879:

“The object … is to help our countrymen to understand by what steps they have been involved in a war with the Afghan nation, and what grounds are assigned for that war by its authors. The war was sprung on us with great suddenness. Not only was there no consultation of parliament by our government, no communication to that body of any change of policy tending to involve us in a quarrel, but, when questions were asked on the subject the answers given were calculated to mislead, and did mislead the most sceptical officials and experts, and through them the whole nation”.

If responsibility is conferred with privilege, position and power, then those who are fortunate enough to be granted relatively unique educational and economic resources should heed the calls of those under occupation. Non-violent direct action, charitable donations, and writing to representatives are tactics that have been most effective in the past.

These forms of persistent demonstration, patient explanation, and principled resistance can be tiring and boring at times. But the people who direct the white phosphorous and drone attacks are not bored, and as long as they continue to do their work, so must those who wish to be part of an effective humanitarian response. Goethe’s recommendation remains evergreen: “We are, and ought to be, obscure to ourselves, turned outwards, and working upon the world which surrounds us”.

Some of the cold and cynical responses to recent events in the Middle East by leading statesmen, commentators and business leaders are strongly redolent of some ideas presented in the closing pages of Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time (2016, pp. 164-5):

“As for Shakespeare: he wondered, looking back, if he hadn’t been unfair. He had judged the Englishman sentimental because his tyrants suffered guilt, bad dreams, remorse. Now that he had seen more of life, and been deafened by the noise of time, he thought it likely that Shakespeare had been right, had been truthful: but only for his own times. In the world’s younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not any more. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found”.

Bringing this historical survey to a close, the words of Thomas Arnold (brother of Matthew) evoke a clear sense of humanitarianism and unmitigated self-sacrifice, which many contemporary political commentators may have lost sight of:

“Take but one step in submission, and all the rest is easy … satisfy yourself that you may honestly defend an unrighteous cause, and then you may go to the Bar, and become distinguished, and perhaps, in the end, sway the counsels of the State … All this is open to you; while if you refuse to tamper in a single point with the integrity of your conscience, isolation awaits you, and unhappy love, and the contempt of men; and amidst the general bustle of movement of the world you will be stricken with a kind of impotence, and your arm will seem to be paralyzed, and there will be moments when you will almost doubt whether truth indeed exists, or, at least, whether it is fitted for man. Yet in your loneliness you will be visited by consolations which the world knows not of; and you will feel that, if renunciation has separated you from the men of your own generation, it has united you to the great company of just men throughout all past time; nay, that even now, there is a little band of Renunciants scattered over the world, of whom you are one, whose you are, and who are yours forever”.

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).