Given its pivotal role in promising Palestine to the Zionist movement while it was already inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, the British government has a special responsibility to address the suffering caused by the decision
If any of the world’s great powers has an obligation to protect Palestinian rights to a state, enshrined under international law, it is the United Kingdom. While the United States is the dominant power today, and arguably there is no greater friend to Israel than President Donald Trump, it was Britain’s involvement and schemes for Palestine following the First World War that ultimately created the situation faced by Palestinians today, with regional and international repercussions that are felt by most people around the world.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to move ahead with his plans to annex large swaths of the West Bank, earmarked for a future Palestinian state, the only thing Britain has contributed to the discussion is a handwringing plea for Netanyahu to not go ahead with his plans.
Britain’s role in the Palestinian tragedy
The British government’s stance towards Israel’s planned West Bank annexation, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s article published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, represents a complete and total dereliction of moral responsibility and duty.
Johnson reaffirmed his “profound attachment” to Israel and described himself, quite accurately, as a “passionate defender of Israel”. Perhaps most telling of all is Johnson’s repeated references to finding a solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live in an environment that allows for “justice and security”, while then going on to state how he was “immensely proud of the UK’s contribution to the birth of Israel with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.”
Of course, the British prime minister is referring to none other than Lord Arthur Balfour who committed British imperial policy to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in the final stages of the First World War. This was promptly put into action after Britain and its allies carved up former Ottoman territory and designated Palestine as a British-governed territory under a mandate of the League of Nations.
The way Britain went about this was utterly callous and completely ignored the fact that Palestinians already lived on the land they had just promised to a people the Europeans themselves were subjecting to anti-Semitic hatred. In fact, and two years prior to the establishment of British Mandatory Palestine, Viscount Herbert Samuel received a receipt of “One Palestine, complete” from the British military authorities who had now handed control over to him as the first High Commissioner for Palestine a century ago. One could not be blamed for thinking Britain had just been on a shopping trip and brought home receipts for goods it had just purchased at a mall.
Often overshadowed by Balfour, Viscount Samuel was himself the first openly practising Jewish cabinet member in the British government. While not an official member of Theodor Herzl’s World Zionist Organisation, Samuel unmistakably espoused Zionist views and lobbied for them. It was Samuel who first proposed the idea of establishing a British protectorate over Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, with an eye on making it a homeland for the Jewish people that Europe had long persecuted. In essence, Samuel laid the groundwork for Balfour’s infamous declaration that dispossessed one people in favour of another.
Annexation will lead to more blood
While the United Kingdom is now facing homegrown resistance to its imperial past – including the defacing and destruction of statues ranging from 17th century slavers to racist war time leaders like Sir Winston Churchill – its role in the historical abuses against the Palestinians perpetrated by both the British Empire and Zionist settlers has largely been ignored in the current conversation.
After all, what happened to Palestinians is still in living memory, with many of the generation who experienced the Nakba – the forcible and illegal expulsion of Palestinians from their land – still alive today. Britain cannot simply absolve itself by saying, “it was too long ago, no one alive today experienced it, get over it.”
Netanyahu’s plans to annex land illegally occupied by almost half a million Israeli settlers will be a mere continuation of what the British started – the complete dispossession of Palestinians from their land at the hands of a state barely at its 72nd birthday that behaves with unscrupulous illegality.
Annexation will further appear to be a grotesque dance upon the corpse of the much-vaunted two-state solution, that died long before Netanyahu abandoned it when the Israelis, supported by the United States and its allies, negotiated in bad faith with the Palestinians knowing they were too weak to enforce any agreements made with Israel. Largely abandoned by their Arab brothers and left to fend for themselves, the Palestinians have been dealt an unenviable hand that sees them stripped of more and more of their rights with every passing year.
Inevitably, this will lead to greater violence, and many Israelis recognise this. Protesters in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva sabotaged the Trump Square fountain on Monday so that it spurted fake blood rather than water. On the side of the fountain, named after the American president, was daubed the message: “Annexation will cost us in blood.”
The demonstrators could not be more correct. By pandering to a hard-right and nationalist political agenda to stay in power, Netanyahu risks a conflagration of violence. The Palestinians have already been dispossessed, disadvantaged, and treated with utter contempt. When a cornered people feel that they are continually under the boot with no hope for a political solution and with sustained assaults on their dignity, the inevitable result is violence. The Palestinians are hardly going to stand back as what is left of their ancestral homeland is also stolen from them.
This is not even a partisan issue between Fatah and Hamas, but an issue that concerns all Palestinians. We need look no further than the first and second Intifadas and, if annexation goes ahead and powerful countries like Britain maintain their silence by paying only lip service to international law while not holding their Israeli ally to account, we can expect a true third intifada which will make the unrest in Jerusalem since 2014 seem like a minor disturbance.
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