I’m deeply concerned about the situation and loss of life on both sides of this tragic, and seemingly inextricable, conflict.
The Israel – Palestine conflict is as polarising as it is emotive, and I’ve received much correspondence asking me to condemn one side or the other. I believe that a resolution to this conflict (as with any conflict) can only emerge when there is a recognition by both parties of the suffering endured by each side, and an understanding that both Israel and the Palestinians have committed dreadful acts against each other in pursuit of their goals.
Though the overarching cause of this recent escalation lies in the failure to resolve the century old Israel – Palestine conflict, the political, geo-political and socio-economic causes of the clashes we are now witnessing are hugely complex. Given these considerations, it’s fruitless to reserve condemnation for one side.
I am supporting the international efforts to immediately deescalate the situation and am calling on the UK Government to work towards the realisation of the Two-State Solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
I believe it’s essential that acts of aggression or violations of international law carried out by either side are condemned in their entirety. I utterly condemn the Israeli policies which have fuelled and lit a proverbial fire under this conflict.
And it’s crucial to recognise that at present the Palestinians are not represented by a single leadership, with Hamas ruling in the Gaza Strip and Fatah ruling in the West Bank. Since Tuesday, Hamas, ruling the Gaza Strip, have launched over a thousand rockets into Israel. These rockets have been deliberately aimed at Israeli civilian population centres including Sderot, West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Beersheba. The rule of civilian immunity is one of “the oldest fundamental maxims” of international customary law, meaning that it’s binding on all parties to any conflict. Non-state parties to a conflict, such as Hamas, are also obliged to respect international law. It is illegal, and rightly so, to deliberately direct attacks against civilians. To attack civilians intentionally is a war crime. It is thus an imperative duty for an attacker to identify and distinguish non-combatants from combatants in every situation. This, Hamas have done, and have chosen to target the general population in Israel.
So, as with the Israeli policies which have led to the escalation, I similarly condemn these war crimes. Not only for the loss of life and destruction of property that they inflict but also because Hamas’ military strategy, focussed on rocket barrages, has brought nothing but suffering to the very people they purport to protect: the Palestinians. The materials used in the production of rockets are diverted from imports for civilian purposes. The rockets, when fired, often fall short of the Israeli border due to poor quality manufacturing and inflict additional loss of life on civilians within the Gaza Strip.
But my most severe condemnation for Hamas’s tactics lies in the fact that rather than leading to the liberation of Palestinian land and the creation of a Palestinian State, they have legitimised Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank on security grounds and have strengthened the electoral appeal of nationalist Israeli political parties.
It’s important to recognise that although Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, they took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007, expelling their Fatah rivals and, in many cases, murdering them by throwing them off rooftops. Hamas’s charter specifically calls for the creation of a Palestinian State on the entirety of Mandatory Palestine (and, therefore, the destruction of Israel) through armed conflict. The Israeli blockade was in response to Hamas attacks, including thousands of rocket attacks, on Israeli civilian targets. By being able to amass such powerful rocket arsenals, and by demonstrating the capability to launch rocket barrages, often using highly sophisticated Iranian or Libyan missiles, whilst under blockade, Hamas has shown the extent to which it would have militarily threatened Israeli population centres were a blockade not in place.
So, sadly, while Hamas maintains its rockets, and openly calls for the destruction of Israel, no Israeli political party that advocates for the withdrawal from the West Bank without full Palestinian disarmament can ever win power. With sympathy for these concerns widespread throughout the international community, Hamas have, in effect (as they can never hope to defeat Israel militarily), ensured the continued occupation of the West Bank and have legitimised it, both domestically and internationally, on the grounds of necessary security.
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 presented the Palestinians with an opportunity – an opportunity that has tragically, until now, been rather squandered. The Arabic word “jihad” translates as “holy struggle,” not, as widely believed, “holy war,” and Hamas - or any other faction - could have created a Palestinian state through a jihad that was not based on armed struggle. If the Palestinians had chosen to wage an economic and societal jihad, concentrating on unleashing Gaza’s vast economic potential to improve the lives of the Palestinians and in creating a stable democratic society, many of the causes behind Israel’s occupation of the West Bank would have been eroded.
Secular Israelis, who remain the majority, would largely be unsupportive of religious or nationalist Israeli settlers on the West Bank. They would be even less willing to support the need to send their sons and daughters serving in the military to the West Bank to maintain the occupation. A flourishing Gaza would have increased political support in Israel for withdrawal from the West Bank and to disengage with the Palestinians. A peaceful and thriving Gaza would have eliminated international sympathy for the occupation based on security grounds. And, most importantly, it would have demonstrated to both sides that they could live side by side in peace and security. But Hamas - as stated in its own charter - does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and has no interest in peace. The Hamas led militarisation of Gaza has only proved to Israelis that they must, for their own protection and security, retain their control of the West Bank.
It is important to recognise, also, that Hamas has been ruthless in its governance of Gaza and, as well as committing war crimes, it has also committed grotesque human rights violations against the people of Gaza. Members of the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups, (including members of Gaza’s small Christian community), have suffered appalling persecution. Political persecution has been widespread, with members of opposition political factions being subject to arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. Materials and aid meant for civilian development programmes has been expropriated for military use and Hamas’ armed wing has made no secret of its use of its own people as human shields – purposefully launching rockets from civilian population centres and using civilian structures as arms manufacturing and storage depots.
As I believe in the Two State Solution, I do recognise Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. But, just as I condemn the actions of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad as I’ve quickly outlined, I also condemn Israel’s flagrant violations of international law, its provocations and often shockingly disproportionate military responses.
Israeli settlements on the West Bank exist in violation of international law. Their expansion must stop, and the founding of new settlements must be prohibited. Israel must recognise, and abide by, international law. Until a resolution on Jerusalem’s status can be found (if, indeed, one can be found), Israel should cease construction activities in East Jerusalem. Any such activity will always be a provocation to Palestinians and to Muslims around the world. The situation at Sheikh Jarra, in which Palestinian families are being expelled to allow settlers to move in, is as immoral as it is illegal in international law. An Israeli court has found in favour of the settlers under a law that allows Israeli Jews to reclaim land and property that was lost because of the 1948 war that led to Israel’s independence. No such law exists that allows Palestinians to reclaim land that they lost. This evident imbalance of justice experienced by the Palestinians is just one of many causes of the frustration they endure and, with Sheikh Jarrah’s proximity to the Old City and to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, these evictions were always going to serve as a provocation to violence.
Israeli police have clearly been heavy handed in their response to the protests about the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and to peaceful gatherings at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem – a usual occurrence during Ramadan. Cavalry charges and the use of “skunk” in water cannons against mostly peaceful gatherings is utterly abhorrent and I fully support calls for Israeli police to desist from using these practices.
Israel has had four general elections in two years as no party has won a majority in the Knesset or been able to form a working majority with other parties. Netanyahu, to win over nationalist parties needed to form a coalition, has empowered these parties and, consequently, Israeli politics has become increasingly nationalistic. This is reflected in the total lack of engagement with the peace process in recent years, in relentless settlement expansion, and in failing to incorporate the Palestinians into Israel’s world leading vaccination programme – despite having the capacity to do so. I condemn this deliberate pandering to nationalism, and I truly hope that the creation of a national unity government in Israel will help to extinguish these nationalist flames.
I also believe that it is essential to examine the roll that Trump’s Middle East policy has played in creating the circumstances that lead to this current escalation. The status of Jerusalem is the most contentious issue of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and it was wrong of the Trump Administration to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital and to relocate the US embassy to the holy city. This act encouraged the Israeli government to escalate their settlement activity, especially in East Jerusalem, and further disillusioned the Palestinians that a just peace could ever be achieved. I will also be calling on the UK Government to seek to persuade the Biden administration to reengage with Middle East Peace Process in such a way that acknowledges the hopes and aspirations of both sides of the conflict.
The suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples is made more tragic as both possess the capacity for so much, with such vast economic, scientific and technological potential. Peace between the two peoples could allow not just Israelis and Palestinians to flourish but could also bring so much good to the wider world. I do believe peace is possible, and I will be doing all that I can to pressure the UK Government to make securing this peace top of its foreign policy agenda.
My apologies for the length of this statement but, such is the complex nature of the conflict and the reasons for the tensions on each side, that it is very difficult to skate over it quickly.
I can only assure you – I share your concern and will do all I can to promote the kind of understanding which is the only route towards peace.