By Ramzy Baroud
It would be intellectually dishonest to reflect on the British House of Commons’ vote of Monday, 13 October, on a Palestinian state without digging deeper into history. Regardless of the meaning of the non-binding motion, the parliamentary action cannot be brushed off as just another would-be country to recognise Palestine, as was the Swedish government decision on 3 October.
Unlike Sweden, and most of the 130 plus countries to effectively recognise Palestine, Britain is a party in the Middle East’s most protracted conflict. In fact, if it were not for Britain, there would be no conflict, or even Israel, of which to speak. It is within this context that the British vote matters, and greatly so.
As I listened to the heated debate by British MPs which proceeded the historic vote of 272 in favour and 12 against, phantoms of historic significance occupied my mind.
When my father was born in historic Palestine in 1936, he found himself in a world politically dominated by Britain. Born and raised in the now long-destroyed Palestinian village of Beit Daras – which, like the rest of historic Palestine has now become part of “Israel proper” – he, along with his family – were entrapped between two anomalies that greatly scarred the otherwise peaceful landscape of Palestine countryside. A Jewish colony called Tabiyya, along with a heavily fortified British police compound that was largely aimed at safeguarding the interests of the colony, subjugated Beit Daras.
The residents of the village, still unaware of the plan to dispossess them from their homeland, grew wary of the dual treachery with time. But by 1947-48, it was too late. The British-coordinated withdrawal from Palestine was aimed at creating space for a Jewish state, today’s Israel. The Palestinians, for 66 years and counting, suffered from more than homelessness and dispossession, but also a military occupation and countless massacres, ending with the most recent Israeli war on Gaza. In what Israel calls Operation Protective Edge, nearly 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed and five fold more were wounded. Yet, Palestinians continue to resist, with greater ferocity than ever.
Because of this, and the fact that the British government remains a member of the ever-shrinking club of Israel’s staunch supporters, the vote in the British parliament greatly matters. “Symbolic” and non-binding, it still matters. It matters because the Israeli arsenal is rife with British armaments. Because the British government, despite strong protestation of its people, still behaves towards Israel as if the latter were a law-abiding state with a flawless human rights records. It matters despite the dubious language of the motion, linking the recognition of Palestine alongside Israel, to “securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
But there can be no two states in a land that is already inhabited by two nations, who, despite the grossness of the occupation, are in fact interconnected geographically, demographically and in other ways as well. Israel has created irreversible realities in Palestine, and the respected MPs of the British parliament should know this.
The MPs votes were motivated by different rationale and reasons. Some voted “yes” because they have been long-time supporters of Palestinians, others are simply fed up with Israel’s behaviour. But if the vote largely reflected an attempt at breathing more life in the obsolete “two-state solution” to a conflict created by the British themselves, then, the terrible British legacy in Palestine which has lasted for nearly a century will continue unabated.
British army boots walked on Palestinian soil as early as 1917, after the British army defeated Turkey, whose vast Ottoman Empire, that included Palestine, was quickly disintegrating under the combined pressure of European powers. As soon as Jerusalem was captured by British forces under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby in December 1917, and the rest of the country by October 1918, the will of the Palestinian people fell hostage to the British Empire. The figures of how many Palestinian Arabs were killed, wounded, tortured, imprisoned and exiled by Britain since that date, until the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, is beyond depressing.
However, Britain’s integral role in the suffering of the Palestinians and the establishment of Israel was hardly a coincidental policy necessitated by the nature of its immediate colonial ambitions. It was calculated and rooted in political and diplomatic intrigues that go back to the 19th century. It was also predicated on an unmistakable element of racism, rampant in the colonial culture at the time. Its manifestations still bring shame to Britain today, which still refuses to fully and unconditionally reverse that early policy.
It is inexplicable that one century after the British involvement in Palestine, which has proved its astounding failure, the current British foreign policy is not far removed from the language and policies executed by the British Empire when Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour “promised” Palestine for a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration is dated 2 November, 1917, before Palestine was even occupied by the British, thus reflecting the sheer arrogance and disregard of Palestinians and their rights. In one of his letters at the time, Balfour so conceitedly wrote:
“For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.”
Encouraged by the overwhelming recent vote in favour of Palestine at the parliament (although nearly half of the MPs didn’t show up or abstained,) one can hardly deny the signs that both the British public and many in the country’s political establishment are simply disenchanted by Israel’s continued war and occupation which are the main reason behind the destabilisation of the region long before the Syrian civil war and other upheavals began. Many British MPs are furious over Israel’s violent, expansionist and anti-peace conduct, including those who were once strong allies of Israel. That must not be denied.
But it is hardly enough. When the British government insists on maintaining its pro-Israeli policies, and when the general attitude of those who truly hold the reins of power in London remain committed to a farce vision of two-states, defending Israel and disempowering Palestinians at every turn, the Balfour vision of old will remain the real guidelines for British policy regarding Palestine.
66 years after ending its “mandate” in Palestine, Britain remains a party in a bloody conflict, where Israel is still carrying the same policies of colonial expansion, using western – including British – funds, arms and political support. Only when Britain fully and completely ends its support of Israel and financing of its occupation, and works diligently and actively towards correcting the injustice it had imposed on the Palestinians a century ago, one can consider that a real change in British policies is finally taking hold.
Without a clear course of action to help Palestinians gain their freedom, the British vote will remain another symbolic gesture in a conflict in which military occupation, war, siege, death and destruction are very much real. And when British leaders, like conservative Prime Minister David Cameron continue to parrot their unconditional support for Israel, even after the Gaza wars and massacres, one will also continue to seek even moderate proof that the Balfour legacy has truly and finally ended.
– Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).