Reflections by Dr Phyllis Starkey MP
Unfortunately there are many conflicts around the world, but the continuing conflict in Palestine is particularly important because it:
An affront to international law
Israel’s continued occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its violations of the Geneva Conventions: in continuing to expropriate Palestinian land and settle their own citizens in the occupied territories, to demolish homes, deprive Palestinians of their freedom of movement, visit collective punishment on relatives of militants and on the entire population of Gaza through the continuing siege, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment (including imprisonment of children) and targeted assassinations, not to mention the wholly disproportionate military action against Gaza with its wilful disregard of civilian casualties. Israel’s apparent impunity for these multiple violations, and its failure to comply with UN resolutions, are a threat to international law and the authority of the UN as well as showing a complete disregard for the human rights of the Palestinians.
A source of instability
The occupation and the resistance it provokes maintain a continuing level of violence, death and injury in the Palestinian Territories and to a lesser extent within Israel, which can at any time escalate into full-scale military conflict. Israel’s lack of respect for international law increases anxiety among the region’s governments, as its response to violence is unpredictable and can easily spread to neighbouring countries. The inability or unwillingness of Arab governments to confront Israel’s occupation or protect Palestinian rights inflames public opinion within those countries, undermines those governments and increases political instability.
The constant threat of regional conflict holds back economic development across the region, contributes to the “under-development” documented in the UN Arab Human Development Report and makes it completely impossible for Israel to have “normal” relations with the countries of the region.
Reinforces “conflict of civilisations”
The Israeli government presents the situation as an existentialist conflict between “Western democratic values” and “Muslim fundamentalism”, with Israel the front-line in the struggle. Paradoxically, some jihadist groups subscribe to a mirror image of this analysis; presenting the Palestinian struggle for justice as a “Muslim struggle” against the “Zionist/Crusader alliance”. Both analyses are inaccurate and subordinate the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination to another’s ideological agenda.
Here in Britain, those same distorted analyses attempt to use Palestine as an issue to inflame inter-community tensions, leading to an increase in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks.
Of course many British Muslims feel particularly strongly about the denial of Palestinian rights because the majority of Palestinians are also Muslim. But support for justice for Palestine is widespread in Britain and spreads across all communities; including many within the Jewish community who understand that Israel’s security depends on a just settlement for Palestine. The British Government’s position also recognises the right of the Palestinians to their own state. The Labour Government constantly restates that Israel’s occupation is illegal, that all settlements are illegal and that the conflict can only be solved by a political negotiation; in line with UN resolutions, that leads to a Palestinian State in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
The whole international community (apart from Israel) is agreed that a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders is the only practical solution. The problem remains how to get from the current situation to that agreed two-state outcome. The Obama administration is making a genuine effort to nudge Israel in the right direction but it is becoming increasingly clear that real progress will probably only occur if the US uses its power to effectively impose a two-state solution.
In the meantime, the British Government and the British people need to be sending a strong signal to the Israeli government that international law will be upheld, that those guilty of war crimes will not be immune from arrest and that illegal settlements and their produce will be boycotted. We should reach out to and support those courageous groups within Israel that are challenging their own government and build the broadest possible alliances here to support the Palestinians in their struggle for justice and statehood.
Ten Years On?
If the US, supported by the rest of the international community, does pressurise the Israeli government into a settlement that delivers “a viable and sovereign Palestinian State alongside a secure Israel”, the Middle East would be transformed, with the real possibility of people power across the Arab world, including Palestine, delivering governments more accountable and more committed to improving the lives of all their people.
But if the international community walks away, then violent resistance in the Occupied Territories will flare up again and civil conflict will spread within Israel and almost certainly destabilise the other countries of the region.
Whichever of these competing scenarios occurs, people in Britain must ensure that our government is on the side of justice and international law, and must work together across communities using the freedoms we have in a democratic society to achieve that. This will obviously be more difficult in the second, violent scenario, but if we in Britain simply import the violence into our own society setting one community against another, instead of uniting behind a common commitment to human rights and justice, we will fail not only ourselves but all those in Palestine and Israel who want a just and prosperous future.
Dr Phyllis Starkey is Labour Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes South West, Chair of the Select Committee for Communities and Local Government and Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. She has held numerous notable positions, including Chair of Finance for Oxford City Council, National Chair of the Local Government Information Unit, member of the Modernisation of the House of Commons Select Committee and PPS to Denis MacShane, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Prior to entering Parliament, Dr Starkey qualified as a biochemist and followed a career in medical research, leading her own research group in Oxford.
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