Supporting occupation – Gordon Brown in Israel

Whoever scheduled Gordon Brown’s recent visit to Israel is surely out of a job. Brown’s dreary, etiolated performance – appropriate for a political corpse – was rendered even flatter by its proximity to Barack Obama’s headline-hogging whirlwind tour of Europe and the Middle East. Despite the differences in style, however, both politicians took to the podium in Israel with a similar message: one of support for the latter’s rejectionist expansionism.

The political background to Brown’s trip was almost without exception one of misery and despair. The Israeli government, despite its flowery rhetoric, has continued to pursue long-held policies designed to fragment the West Bank and prevent the emergence of anything resembling a coherent Palestinian state. The West Bank today consists of a series of isolated cantons, surrounded on all sides by Israeli infrastructure and security forces, between which movement and economic activity is extremely difficult. The UN last year estimated that Israeli military and settlement infrastructure together make nearly 40% of the West Bank inaccessible to Palestinians. Freedom of movement is drastically curtailed through a vast network of checkpoints, roadblocks and Israeli-only roads that serve, to quote the World Bank, “to expand and protect settlement activity and the relatively unhindered movement of settlers and other Israelis in and out of the West Bank”.{1} The humanitarian, social and economic consequences of this enforced cantonisation (.pdf), “intimately linked to maintaining settler access and … quality of life”, are “profound” – indeed, it is “at the root of the West Bank’s declining economy.” Unemployment in the West Bank between July and December 2007 reached 25%, double the average regional rate. Overall, levels of employment in the occupied territories were “amongst the highest in the world“, with refugees being hit even harder. The Palestinians “continued to have the worst performing economy in the Middle East-North Africa sub-region” – a state of affairs that, as discussed below, has been engineered deliberately by Israel and its international backers, including Britain.

Gaza, meanwhile, is undergoing a humanitarian crisis of “unprecedented” (.pdf) proportions. The Gazan economy has “collapsed”, its population intentionally reduced to a state of “abject destitution” through sustained economic and military siege. Although the Israeli blockade has eased somewhat since the ceasefire agreement with Hamas, conditions in Gaza remain grim (.pdf). 45% of the population is unemployed, 95% of factories have shut down and entire industries have been decimated (.pdf). Over half of Gazan households now subsist below the poverty line, while 35% of Gazans are surviving below the ‘deep poverty’ line of $457 a month for a family of six.{2} In December 2007 the World Bank warned of an “irreversible” economic collapse in Gaza, outlining a worst-case scenario of 44% unemployment – a scenario that, as noted, has already been exceeded.

Given the gravity of this situation, one might have expected Gordon Brown to confront the Israeli government with some harsh truths. If he did so, he certainly didn’t do it in public. His “historic” speech before the Knesset made no mention of the occupation, or indeed of Palestinian suffering at all. Instead Brown produced an unqualified paean to Israel’s magnificence, lauding it as the very embodiment of “democracy”, “liberty”, “justice”, “idealism”, “bravery” and “perseverance”. At times he reached for New-Age mysticisms in the struggle to fully evoke his passion for the Israeli state, babbling to a no-doubt baffled Knesset of “liberty’s torch”, “justice’s mighty stream” and “tolerance’s foundation of equality”, before proceeding to outline a vast “conflict of ideas” in which Britain and Israel “stand together” on “the side of openness”. Brown referred to “the achievement of 1948: the centuries of exile ended”, failing to mention that the same year saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who, along with their descendants, continue to live in exile today. He spoke of “the age-long dream realised, the ancient promise redeemed – the promise that even amidst suffering, you will find your way home to the fields and shorelines where your ancestors walked”, apparently unaware of same yearning possessed by Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps just a few hours away.

Brown pledged to Israel Britain’s “true friend(ship)”, the two states sharing “an unbreakable partnership based on shared values of liberty, democracy and justice”. Leaving aside the absurdity of attributing these “values” to either the British or Israeli state, it is unclear who exactly Brown was speaking for. Surely not the 65% of Britons who view Israel’s influence in the world as “mainly negative”, or the 79% who want the UK to avoid taking sides in the conflict. Whereas Brown has praised Israel for bearing “burdens for peace in every generation”, 57% of the British public think that Israel is failing to do its part to resolve the conflict, thereby placing Britain’s population – though not its leadership – in line with world public opinion, the UN, the International Court of Justice and numerous independent, respected human rights organisations.

Virtually the only allusion Brown made throughout his whole trip to the horrific injustices being inflicted on the Palestinians was a reference to the wall following his meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, describing it as “graphic evidence” of the need for justice for the Palestinians, a “secure” Israel and a viable Palestinian state. In fact the wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, is “graphic evidence” principally of Israel’s intention to annex a large portion of the West Bank, making a “viable and economically sustainable Palestinian state” an impossibility. Its route, which “cuts deep into the West Bank” (.pdf) to encircle the major settlement blocs, “was not based on security considerations, but to perpetuate and expand the settlements“.{3} It is difficult to see how Brown can reconcile this clear rejection of a two-state settlement with his praise for the Israeli government’s “vision of peace and reconciliation”.

‘Economic roadmap’

But enough with the fluff. What actual, concrete policy proposals did Brown suggest? Apart from repeating Britain’s official position on a final settlement, which is in accord with the international consensus,{4} and making a vanishingly brief pro forma request for Israel to freeze construction in and begin withdrawing from the settlements, Brown’s main theme was his “economic roadmap“, which looks to be nearly as redundant as its political counterpart. The plan essentially appears to be to throw lots of money at the Palestinian Authority, encourage the reforms being carried out by Fayyad and stimulate investment in the West Bank by organising conferences, constructing business parks, and so forth. This is all fine as far as it goes. Improving the economic situation in the West Bank is both a humanitarian imperative and a necessary measure to increase the stability and effectiveness of Palestinian institutions. However, as the International Crisis Group points out (.pdf), there is “a natural ceiling” to potential economic and security development while the territory remains under occupation. Indeed, Fayyad may “already be bumping” against this ceiling, since the “political context” has failed to keep up with his economic reforms. Despite the large amount of donor aid and other measures that have been pursued in the past year to stimulate the Palestinian economy, the World Bank reports that economic indicators “have not changed considerably”, failing to reverse “the impacts of the aid boycott in 2006 and 2007”. “The contributing effects of the closures and movement restrictions” to the stifling of the Palestinian economy “cannot be overestimated”, with the result that PA reforms and international aid “remain necessary but insufficient preconditions for economic recovery”. This analysis is shared by the House of Commons International Development Committee, which concludes (.pdf) that,

“Increased donor assistance, while welcome, will not be sufficient to turn around the economic downturn which has pervaded the Palestinian economy since 2000 without significant and long-term removal of such restrictions.”{5}

In this light, it is noteworthy that Brown’s economic proposals were not accompanied by anything similar on the political front. He had nothing to say, for example, about the disastrous political division between Hamas, the de facto authority in Gaza, and Fatah, the de facto authority in the West Bank.{6} This apparent oversight can be understood in the context of Britain’s far from insignificant role in engineering the internal Palestinian conflict. After Hamas was elected in January 2006, Britain, along with the U.S. and the rest of the EU, subjected Palestinians to what the UN special rapporteur for human rights described as “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times” – the “first time”, he noted, “that an occupied people has been so treated.”{7} This “collective punishment”, a clear attempt to “compel Hamas to change its ideological stance, or to bring about regime change”, had catastrophic social and economic consequences. The number of Palestinians living in ‘deep poverty’ soared by 64% in the first half of 2006, while by early 2007 nearly half of Palestinian households were malnourished, to give just two representative examples of the shocking suffering the British government helped to inflict on an occupied, civilian population.{8} The blockade helped drive (.pdf) the PA to “the edge of collapse”, reducing it to “an utterly broken pseudo-government” that had “virtually ceased to function“. This was all carried out with the expectation that it would increase the risk of internal Palestinian violence. When, despite the international sanctions and a brutal Israeli military assault,{9} Abbas formed a government of national unity with Hamas in a desperate attempt to end the slaughter, the Quartet, including Britain, moved quickly to avert the threat. The diplomatic and economic boycott was maintained and, inevitably, the government collapsed.{10} In parallel the U.S., and to a lesser extent Britain, were busy arming, financing and training an elite Fatah militia{11} with the goal of destroying Hamas. This attempted coup against the elected Hamas government was a principal cause of the internecine Palestinian violence that ultimately led to the forcible takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007, in what the International Institute for Strategic Studies describes as “a pre-emptive coup“.{12}

Today, the British government continues to insist that Hamas be isolated until it satisfies the specious Quartet “principles”,{13} accurately described by a former chief of Israeli military intelligence as “ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate“, despite the fact that “a new Fatah-Hamas power-sharing arrangement is a prerequisite for a sustainable” attempt at peace. The International Crisis Group expresses a near consensus among serious analysts of the conflict when it concludes that the “imperative of Palestinian national reconciliation remains as urgent as ever.”{14} British parliamentarians appear to agree, with the relevant select committees repeatedly urging the government to engage with Hamas and encourage Palestinian reconciliation. The Foreign Affairs Committee argues (.pdf) that “the decision not to speak to Hamas in 2007 following the Mecca agreement has been counterproductive”, recommending that the government “urgently consider ways of engaging politically with moderate elements within Hamas” and promoting efforts to reach “a negotiated settlement with Hamas with a view to re-establishing a national unity Government”. The International Development Committee similarly concludes that “it remains important to bring Hamas into dialogue and into the peace process”, since “without some kind of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and without international engagement of all stakeholders, the peace process will not succeed.” The Committee makes the obvious point that while Hamas’ acceptance of the Quartet conditions will plainly have to be part of any final settlement, to insist that they be met as preconditions to negotiations simply presents “an unnecessary obstacle to practical progress”.

Rather than promote Palestinian unity and engage constructively with the Palestinian leadership, the British government has, quoting Human Rights Watch, remained “tacitly or openly” complicit in “a policy of protracted collective punishment” instituted in response to Hamas’ electoral victory in early 2006 and intensified following the movement’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007. The siege of Gaza, officially condemned by the British government as a violation of international law, has caused “a marked and clear deterioration” (Amnesty International) in an already disastrous humanitarian situation, to the point where “life … is a daily struggle, even to get enough to eat.” To give just one illustration of the effects of the blockade, “(t)he proportion of deaths among hospitalised neonates at Gaza’s pediatric hospitals … increased from 5.6% during the period January-October 2006 to 6.9% during the corresponding period in 2007.” Interestingly, both the Department for International Development and the British government itself are of the view (.pdf) that the blockade, recognized by the International Development Committee as “amounting to collective punishment”, is “part of a political strategy to get Hamas to sign up to the Quartet principles”, with the border closures intended to further the “political objective” of “isolating Hamas”. That is, the British government freely acknowledges that Israel is guilty of deliberately targeting the civilian population of Gaza in the service of political goals, otherwise known as terrorism.{15} Such is the alliance of “liberty, democracy and justice”.

The Annapolis process

Presumably to justify his failure to propose any significant steps to advance the political process, Brown pointed to the “Annapolis process” as “a real opportunity” to progress towards a two-state settlement. The Secretary of State for International Development has similarly described Annapolis as “the only show in town“. In reality, Annapolis represents a continuation of a long-held strategy, described above, to weaken and isolate Hamas.{16} Israel’s view of Annapolis is made clear by its behaviour following the conference last November. This year has seen “an unprecedented escalation in human rights violations in the Gaza Strip” (.pdf). In the first quarter of 2008 more Palestinians were killed in Gaza than in the corresponding periods in the three previous years combined and then doubled. More Palestinians have been killed since the conference than were killed throughout the whole of 2007. Restrictions on movement in the West Bank have continued to increase, in violation of numerous promises and in the context of a more than 60% increase (.pdf) in checkpoints and closures since August 2005. Settlement activity, described by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “the single biggest impediment to realising a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity”, has increased dramatically, in violation of the Roadmap, the Annapolis declaration and international law. In the 11 months prior to the Annapolis summit, Israel published tenders for 100 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since Annapolis it has sought bids for more than 1,700 homes, an increase of more than 1,600%. Last week an Israeli ministerial committee approved plans for the construction of 20 homes in the settlement of Maskiot, east of the annexation wall, while earlier this month the settlement of Ariel received final approval for the construction of 27 factories, a move that will triple the size of its industrial park. This is reality of the “process” Brown hails as offering “a real opportunity to move forward”.

As noted, Brown did briefly condemn the settlements and urge Israel to begin withdrawing from them. However, when pressed to outline any concrete steps he would take to exert pressure on Israel to freeze its settlement activities, Brown refused to answer. The International Development Committee notes in this regard that the Quartet has not “exert(ed) sufficient pressure on Israel to open the crossings”, while the British government “often stops short of explicit condemnation of the closures and the restrictions.” Oxfam similarly condemns the international community’s response to the crisis in the West Bank and Gaza as “wholly inadequate”, adding that “the UK government should have acted more robustly, undertaking practical steps, to secure the opening of the Gaza crossing points and address settlement expansion in the West Bank.”

Were the British government genuinely interested in advancing prospects for a two-state settlement, there are clear steps it could take. It could use its position within the EU and its “considerable” influence over Fatah to promote Palestinian national reconciliation and initiate diplomatic engagement with Hamas. It could ban the import and export of settlement produce from the UK. Arms sales to Israel, totalling £14 million last year alone, could be conditioned on respect for international law.{17} Concrete measures could be taken to oppose Israel’s continuing construction of the annexation wall, in accordance with Britain’s legal obligations.{18} The EU-Israel Association Agreement, which gives preferential access to Israeli exports, could be suspended in the light of Israel’s gross human rights violations. Instead the EU recently upgraded its bilateral ties with Israel, a move supported by the British government despite Fayyad’s pleas to condition the upgrade on a freeze in settlement construction.{19}

As it is, the UK has not only failed to adequately oppose Israeli crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, but has actively taken part in and facilitated them. This represents a complete abdication of our legal and moral obligations, particularly disgraceful given Britain’s clear historical responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, and amounts to complicity in the systematic destruction of any basis for a viable two-state settlement of the kind the British government affects to support.

Cross-posted at The Heathlander


{1} The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem similarly concludes that “a substantial proportion” of the restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank serve interests other than security, for example “to create a rapid and convenient road network for the settlers”. B’Tselem’s “inescapable” conclusion is that the restrictions constitute “collective punishment”, a violation of international law.

{2} This sharp increase in poverty, for those who care about such matters, appears to be having the entirely predictable effect of driving Palestinians towards Hamas.

{3} This obvious point was acknowledged by the then-leader of the Labor Party and current Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2003, when he noted that the route of the wall “is following a certain vision of the future”, constituting a “political fence” as opposed to a “security” one. The House of Commons International Development Committee similarly concludes (.pdf) that the wall’s “route into the West Bank appears to protect the presence of major settlement blocs in the West Bank rather than the security of Israel.” The UN OCHA has described the wall as a “de facto border” (.pdf), while Amnesty International views it as an “unlawful land grab” aimed at “facilitating the expansion and consolidation of unlawful Israeli settlements”.

{4} In Brown’s words, “an agreement based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem a capital for both states, and for fair and agreed arrangements with refugees”.

{5} The International Development Committee notes further that, “the economic forecasts remain poor without a fundamental change in the current restrictions on movement and access”. The Gazan economy has “collapsed since the June 2007 closures”, while the economic situation in the West Bank has improved “only marginally”. The World Bank similarly emphasises that “Palestinian economic revival is predicated on an integrated economic entity with freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza and within the West Bank”.

{6} Although Western politicians and media prefer to focus on the dubious legal legitimacy of the Hamas government in Gaza, the fact is that neither administration is ruling in accordance with Palestinian law – see, for example, the ICG report cited above p.1; footnotes 1-3.

{7} Recall that this vicious punishment was meted out to a population already suffering sub-Saharan levels of malnutrition and undergoing “the worst economic depression in modern history“.

{8} For more, see (for example) Oxfam International, which in February 2007 warned that “conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (are) close to melt-down”. It continued:

“Since 2006 poverty has shot up … Two thirds of Palestinians now live in poverty, a rise of 30 per cent last year. The number of families unable to get enough food has risen by 14 per cent. More than half of all Palestinians are now are ‘food insecure’, unable to meet their families’ daily requirements without assistance. The health system is disintegrating.”

This horrific human suffering was, to repeat, a direct and predictable consequence of international actors, including Britain, using “international aid as a battering ram to force through political change” (Jeremy Hobbs, Director of Oxfam).

{9} In 2006 Israeli actions left 660 Palestinians dead, 141 of whom were children and at least 322 of whom were civilians uninvolved in the hostilities. Most of the civilian deaths were “the result of deliberate and reckless shooting and artillery shelling or air strikes by Israeli forces carried out in densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip.” The military assault, focused primarily on Gaza, was intended to weaken or topple the Hamas government by collectively punishing the Palestinian population. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories wrote at the time that, “(r)egime change, rather than security, probably explains Israel’s punishment of Gaza“.

{10} As the International Crisis Group reported last year,

“it would be disingenuous in the extreme to minimise the role of outside players (in the collapse of the national unity government), the U.S. and the European Union in particular.

By refusing to deal with the national unity government and only selectively engaging some of its non-Hamas members, by maintaining economic sanctions and providing security assistance to one of the parties in order to outmanoeuvre the other, they contributed mightily to the outcome they now publicly lament.”

The International Development Committee similarly reports that “the international community withheld support for the National Unity Government-itself an attempt to establish a stable and functioning government in the territories-and bolstered one side against the other which increased tension between Hamas and Fatah”, adding that, “if this National Unity Government had been given greater international support it could have provided a gateway for greater dialogue and negotiation and at the very least kept the Palestinians united”. Countering this diabolical threat of Palestinian unity was precisely the objective driving U.S./Israeli policy, supported fully by Britain and the rest of the EU. See footnote 12.

{11} Of note in this regard is Brown’s statement following his meeting with Fayyad that the British government is “expanding the offer that we have already made of training for Palestinian police and security forces”.

{12} The IISS explains the “debacle in Gaza” as a “direct result of the policies advocated by Fatah’s ‘old guard’ … (and) US officials in charge of Palestine policy”. The International Development Committee, noting “reports of a controversial US sponsored plot to oust Hamas from power”, likewise concludes that “the building-up of Fatah security forces with the assistance of donors led Hamas to take control of Gaza in June 2007”. See “The Gaza Bombshell“, David Rose, Vanity Fair, for the definitive account of the U.S./Israeli plans to topple Hamas. For further discussion see: “Document details ‘US’ plan to sink Hamas“, Mark Perry and Paul Woodward, Asia Times; “UN was pummelled into submission, says outgoing Middle East special envoy“, Rory McCarthy, The Guardian; “Our Second Biggest Mistake in the Middle East“, Alastair Crooke, London Review of Books; and my article, “Engineering a coup in Gaza“.

{13} The “principles” demand that Hamas 1) renounce violence, 2) recognise Israel’s “right to exist”, and 3) respect previous agreements. Illegitimate in themselves, these conditions can in any event be immediately dismissed on the grounds that Israel violates all three on a scale that dwarfs anything attributable to Hamas.

{14} This view is shared by, for example, Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency; Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell; Palestine scholar and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment Nathan J. Brown (.pdf); veteran diplomats and political analysts Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Lee Hamilton and other mainstream, respected foreign policy analyists; and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (.pdf).

{15} It is no accident that the Fourth Geneva Convention groups “collective penalties” together with “measures of intimidation or terrorism” – the two are largely the same thing. The Israeli government is fairly open about its terrorist policy in Gaza, with Ehud Olmert stating:

“As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s resident can walk and have no fuel for their cars, as they live under a murderous regime … We won’t allow a situation in which people in Sderot walk around in fear day and night, while Gazans lead a completely normal life … We won’t allow for a humanitarian crisis, but have no intention of making their lives easier. And the harder their lives, excluding humanitarian damage, we will not allow them to lead a pleasant life. (my emph.)

Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, summarised Israeli policy in late 2006: “We have to make them (the Palestinian people) much thinner, but not enough to die”. One Israeli border officer defined his mission in similar terms: “no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency” (.pdf).

{16} Middle East expert Henry Siegman, describing the “peace process” as possibly “the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history”, notes that what became known as the ‘Annapolis peace process’ is in fact motivated by a U.S./Israeli “determination to bring down Hamas rather than to build up a Palestinian state”. See also “Gaza’s Future“, Henry Siegman, London Review of Books.

{17} The Campaign Against the Arms Trade reports:

“Israel has used F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache combat helicopters to bomb Lebanese and Palestinian towns and villages. These contain significant UK components including missile triggering systems for Apaches and Head-Up Displays for F-16s.”

For more information, see Stop Arming Israel.

{18} The ICJ ruled that every party to the Fourth Geneva Convention – including Britain – is legally obliged to “see to it that any impediment, resulting from the construction of the wall, to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self determination is brought to an end” and to “ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law”.

{19} The International Development Committee, which has repeatedly called for the Agreement to be suspended, expressed “surprise” that “the EU has decided to upgrade its relationship with Israel while it continues to flout international law”.


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  1. If didn’t tell you elsewhere, excellent diary as always. I have bookmarked it for the sources I’ll need to counter the, um…uninformed. 😉

  2. That’s some serious writing you pulled off. How long did this take you?

    Thanks for your informative diary. I’ll head over to your blog now. Thanks and keep writing diaries like these!

    – ctrenta

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