For those who concern themselves with such matters as human rights, there is perhaps no issue which weighs so heavily on the collective conscience than the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Occasionally, escalations in the violence make the headlines. But the sporadic media coverage tends to result in certain misapprehensions, not least that the conflict comprises no more than intermittent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, and that the modus operandi is confined to the exchange of missile fire.
This is a conflict which has a long history, but the history very much shapes the present reality for Israelis and Palestinians alike. In 1917, Britain seized control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and issued the Balfour Declaration (the ‘Declaration’), pledging to support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, together with the caveat that ‘nothing [would] be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. The driving force behind the making of such an ambiguous, yet obviously provocative, statement appears to have been geopolitical; in other words, it would best serve the interests of the British Empire.
The Declaration met with outcry from the Arab world. Palestinian Arabs comprised ninety per cent of the population of Palestine at that time but, by means of just a few words from the British government, were now reduced to being merely ‘non-Jewish communities’ that so happened to be based in Palestine. In response, there was a surge in support for the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, which hitherto had been relatively passive, and the next thirty years saw a series of riots. In 1948, in the midst of conflict, Jewish forces declared independence and established the modern state of Israel. In what the Palestinians call the Nakba (the Arabic word for catastrophe), 700,000 of them either fled or were forcibly expelled.
To this day, Israel refuses to recognise the right of Palestinians to return to their homes. It continues to dispossess and displace Palestinians by means of forced evictions, land confiscation and the demolition of residential buildings. This is a clear violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits ‘[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons’. Amnesty International reports that there are currently over five million Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Middle East, many of whom face appalling living conditions in overpopulated camps.
The air, land and naval blockade of the Gaza Strip (a Palestinian territory to the west of Israel) – which has now been in place for over a decade – has devastated the area’s economy, resulting in extreme poverty. Nearly two million Palestinians (three quarters of whom are refugees) are currently barricaded into the area, which measures a mere 360 square kilometres. For reference, that is equivalent to two thirds of the Welsh population being confined to an area roughly the size of the city and county of Swansea.
Israel has also fenced in almost 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank (to the east of Israel), a move which was condemned by the UN General Assembly in a 2003 resolution and subsequently held to be a violation of international law by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion. The heavy restrictions on the movement of both people and goods have separated family members from each other, and have hampered access to construction materials, education and healthcare. Last June, Omar Yaghi, an eight-month year old baby with a cardiac condition, died after the Israeli military denied his family entry into Israel for arranged surgery.
Hundreds of Palestinians, including children, are arbitrarily arrested and detained by Israel each year. Those who find themselves in Israeli prisons, again even the children, are routinely subjected to torture or cruel treatment. The Israeli “justice” system is pitted against Palestinians; Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation, has reported that there is only a 1.9 per cent chance that an Israeli citizen will be convicted following a complaint by a Palestinian. In contrast, Palestinians, whom are often tried in military courts, face a conviction rate of 99 per cent.
The Adalah (the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) has identified over 60 laws which it says, directly or indirectly, discriminate against Palestinians residing in Israel or those residing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It notes that ‘[t]hese laws limit the rights of Palestinians in all areas of life, from citizenship rights to the right to political participation, land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights, religious rights, and due process rights during detention’. ‘[T]he two-tier system of laws’ has also drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch. The stance taken by Israel is undeniable, if overtly paradoxical: Palestinians should not be entitled to enjoy the same human rights as Israelis.
The exchange of missile fire is the result of these underlying tensions reaching breaking point. On the one hand, there is the Zionist movement – the Jewish nationalist movement to create a Jewish homeland – taken to the extreme; the eradication of any non-Jewish presence in the territory that the Israelis claim for themselves, by whatever means it deems necessary. On the other hand, there is the Palestinian counter-movement to reclaim their historic lands, which has generated support for militant groups that similarly deploy violent means.
Israel has repeatedly, and indiscriminately, fired rockets at the Gaza Strip, killing civilians (including children) and destroying civilian infrastructure (during last month’s hostilities, an Israeli airstrike destroyed Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing facility). Hamas, the largest of Palestine’s militant Islamist groups, has also indiscriminately fired rockets at Israel. Every breach of international humanitarian law must be condemned. But the balance in power cannot be ignored, something which is borne out by the stark difference in the number of casualties. Nor can the desperate situation facing the Palestinians. Israel does have a responsibility to protect its own civilian population, but this cannot explain away its subjugation of the Palestinians. It certainly provides no pathway towards peace.
How has the UK responded to the systematic oppression of the Palestinians? It supplies arms to Israel. In fact, the UK government has licensed arms worth over £400 million to Israeli forces in the last six years alone. When asked in Parliament whether any British-sold weapons or military hardware had been used in Gaza, Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, would not answer but claimed that “the UK has a robust arms export licensing regime”. This is the same regime which has permitted billions of pounds worth of arms to be licensed to Saudi Arabia and its allies for use in Yemen, despite evidence that British-made weapons and military hardware are being used on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and fuelling what the UN has called the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis”. For the British government, money speaks louder than innocent lives. And, as for its relationship with Israel, the UK is, quite simply, an enabler of what is effectively an Apartheid regime.
As a final word, there are those who regard criticism of Israel, in and of itself, as anti-Semitic. They apply the label to anyone who would challenge Israel’s history of human rights violations against the Palestinians. It is no exaggeration to say that this tactic has been deployed on the international political stage to Israel’s advantage. After all, the term carries with it a particular stigma – and rightly so. But no state should enjoy impunity purely because of its religious significance; no state should be beyond reproach when it comes to violations of the most basic human rights.
Simultaneously, there are those who would use Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians to inspire hatred of Jews. Indeed, the heightened tensions in May saw an increase in anti-Jewish harassment and violence worldwide. Proponents of this view, and perpetrators of these acts, have no place in civilised society. Hate is their only agenda, and they have much in common with those in Israel who are committed to the subjugation of the Palestinians.