Britain refuses to own up to its responsibility for Palestine
As director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, much of my time is spent trying to ward off legitimate charges of British treachery toward the Arabs, or British historic failures in the Middle East. Balfour, Sykes-Picot, Suez are all trotted out. Most countries have a historic grievance to direct toward the former imperial power. On no issue is this more vexed than the historic British role in Palestine.
British officialdom has yet come to terms with perhaps the most egregious failure of the UK’s role in the region, one that has still to run its course. Is it any wonder, therefore, that as all Palestinians mark 71 years since their Nakba or Catastrophe, angered eyes turn toward London’s murky role?
In 2017, the UK refused to apologize for issuing the Balfour Declaration. It was the 100th anniversary of when the British foreign secretary promised away the land of Palestine to another people.
The UK chose to ignore the weak, if important, part of the declaration stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” This unconscionable act accelerated the dispossession of the Palestinian people, and the denial of their legitimate national and human rights. Instead, British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on “celebrating” this anniversary with “pride.”
The UK’s lamentable tenure as the mandatory power was an unmitigated disaster. It failed to find a way to resolve the tensions, and refused to allow democratic elections. Bundling the issue like a hot potato to the UN, Britain was too exhausted to even bother securing an orderly transfer of power. It had around 100,000 soldiers in Palestine, but they did nothing. The shabby and hasty withdrawal was akin to Pontius Pilate washing his hands.
Massacres occurred, and roughly 440,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from around 220 villages in the period before British forces left. The Deir Yassin massacre of 110 Palestinian villagers happened when the UK was responsible. British forces did nothing to protect Palestinian civilians in Jaffa and Haifa. Anti-Arab racists care little for this, and try to justify the unjustifiable.
Arabs are not deemed to have national rights, and should be grateful for what they get. These racists object to Palestinians even getting the puny dismembered pockets of land under some form of semi-autonomous control. The British government claims that it supports the Palestinian right to statehood, but refuses to recognize this or to demand the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land since 1967.
The lack of any urgency to demand the end of the occupation is at the core of existing anti-Palestinian attitudes. The occupation has barely crossed the lips of recent foreign secretaries, let alone a crystal-clear demand that Israel withdraws. On occasion, a whole parliamentary debate on demolitions or settlements is held, with a minister succeeding in not mentioning the occupation once.
Britain could start to make amends by genuinely standing up for international law and justice for the Palestinians. It could support Palestinian freedom.
The occupation is a bald fact. Just as Iraqi forces were forced to withdraw from Kuwait and Russia was sanctioned for occupying Crimea, Israeli forces should be compelled to withdraw from occupied territory. Occupations are meant to be temporary, but 52 years wreaks of permanence.
This has to be the undiluted principle of any peace process. The Palestinians have obligations too, to live in peace with their neighbors. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has recognized Israel, and must continue to do all it can to live up to that commitment. But occupation, colonization and blockade test the will of all but the most quiescent populations. Why should Palestinians have to wait decades?
The Nakba was not one moment in time. It was not just the period of 1947-49, when 70 percent of the Palestinian Arab population of Palestine became refugees, and when Israel erased more than 400 of their villages from the map. No, the Nakba is an ongoing process of dispossession. Israeli governments continue this process of taking land away from Palestinians, and even denying them citizenship and residency rights.
Israeli citizens elect a government that rules over millions of Palestinians, who have no say in the matter. The Israeli military regime in the West Bank is every bit as oppressive as any dictatorship. It means martial law, military courts, checkpoints, detention without trial, confiscation of land, demolition of homes, and theft of resources such as water.
Britain has spent 71 years downplaying this Nakba and doing nothing to stop it. By doing nothing, we are party to facilitating this injustice. What does Britain say about this? Next to nothing. Foreign Office automatons are masters at press releases expressing concern, or even occasionally — wait for it — grave concern!
But if it is tough to obtain a meaningful British ministerial statement on ending the Israeli occupation, try getting one on Palestinian refugees and their rights. The UK government says nothing on this, the single most devastating aspect of the Nakba. Israel’s refusal to permit the Palestinian right of return is a flagrant violation of international law.
Whenever Gaza is bombed or the blockade is at its most punitive, have you heard British ministers highlight the fact that three-quarters of Palestinians in Gaza are UN-registered refugees? They barely ever do. A little sign of British regret or repentance would mean something, even if far too late.
The 1.5 million Palestinians lingering in refugee camps deserve this. The 2 million blockaded in Gaza deserve this. Those living under a never-ending Israeli occupation deserve this and more. Britain could start to make amends by genuinely standing up for international law and justice for the Palestinians. It could support Palestinian freedom. It could also finally recognize the state of Palestine, a moment that is long overdue.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech