Towards peace in Israel and Palestine

An article by David McDowell in Liberal Democrat Voice

I was only 19 when I first visited the West Bank in 1964 but was sufficiently gripped that, after studying the region’s history at university, I retained a strong interest in the area thereafter. The Israel-Palestine conflict seems far less amenable to a solution today than it did then. That is why I greatly welcome Conference’s Motion F39,’Towards a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine’.  There are two particular issues I should like to flag up. 

The first concerns UNRWA, the UN agency of Palestine Refugees for which I worked in the 1970s. As we watch the refugee crisis in Afghanistan it is easy to forget the Palestinian one. Unlike Afghan refugees, Palestinians never wished to be resettled and resisted attempts by the UN and Arab states. They demanded the right of return, adumbrated in General Assembly Resolution 194 (1949)  (which reflects Article 13.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). For political reasons, that return has not happened. Today, they are stuck in a terrible limbo, without full citizenship rights (except in Jordan’s East Bank) and in the case of the Gaza Strip, where they are some 80% of the population, suffering awful privation under Israel’s permanent siege. We must support the woefully underfunded UNRWA robustly, to sustain needy refugees whose right to the same freedoms we enjoy has, after seven decades, still not been realised. Support for UNRWA also has the self-interested virtue of helping reduce the tensions that lead to violence. 

The second issue concerns respect for international law as the bedrock of the international order. Nothing in that body of law is so crucial to this conflict as the Fourth (1949) Geneva Convention (4GC), dealing with the rules governing military occupation following the 1967 war. In law ‘occupation’ is a temporary situation, which can no longer be said of Palestine where it has been unlawfully prolonged. Why is 4GC so important? It was the inadequacy of existing rules (dating from 1907) as well as the Axis Powers’ comprehensive disregard of them, 1938-45, which impelled the drafting of the four Geneva Conventions in 1949. All four open with the requirement that all States party to them undertake to ‘ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’, now recognised to mean that all State signatories have a responsibility to ensure that the protagonists in this particular conflict abide by the Convention’s terms. It goes on to forbid wilful killing, collective punishments, house demolitions, settlement of the Occupier’s own nationals in occupied territory, and much else besides. It lists ‘grave violations’, requiring signatory States to detain and charge individuals believed guilty of such crimes if such persons ever enter their own territory. For political reasons States have been loath to act. Whereas the West has been quick to punish Russia over Crimea, it declines taking similar measures against friendly states, a lack of consistency that smacks of hypocrisy to much of the world. 

Finally, 4GC makes the cardinal point that those under occupation may under no circumstances concede the rights and protections contained in the Convention, including conceding any territory to the Occupier while 4GC applies, which of course it does until the occupying force has completed its withdrawal to pre-war borders. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what that means, nor why 4GC’s canny drafters saw how important it was to protect a vulnerable people from the immense political pressures of an Occupying Power (and its powerful allies).  

The urgency to uphold 4GC and other relevant laws has been increased by recent developments. In July 2018 Israel enacted its ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,’ which affords self-determination to Jewish but not to its 21 per cent non-Jewish citizens and ambiguously extends the territorial definition of Israel to all Mandate Palestine. More recently, two internationally respected bodies, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem, have charged Israel with legal and administrative discriminatory practices against the occupied population. This situation would not have arisen had the West insisted from the outset on strict compliance with 4GC and the prohibition on annexing captured territory. Mere non-recognition of such illegality, the UK’s habitual position since 1967, is manifestly not enough. Our failure of will is letting down both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians and renders resolving a deepening humanitarian catastrophe far harder. It is also letting ourselves down. By failing to assert the fundamental imperative of international law consistently, we are accomplices in its world-wide erosion.

* David McDowall is a party member in Richmond and author of Palestine and Israel: The Uprising and Beyond (IBTauris, 1989) and A Modern History of the Kurds (4th edition, IBTauris/Bloomsbury, 2021)

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