John Hilary: Time to Get Serious about Israel

By John Hilary 

You know that things are serious when a parliamentary select committee puts out a call for sanctions against another sovereign state. Doubly so when that state is supposed to be one of Britain’s key allies in the Middle East. Yet today the House of Commons international development committee is calling on the Labour government to press for sanctions against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinian people. Things must be pretty bad.

Things are indeed bad, says the committee’s new report. As a result of Israeli occupation and the accompanying restrictions on movement, the Palestinian economy is in freefall. Fully 70% of Palestinians are now living in poverty, according to UN calculations, a figure which rises to 80% in Gaza. Over half of all Palestinians are now unable to cover their families’ daily food needs without relying on external aid – a scandal in such a rich and fertile land.

As a first step in putting pressure on the Israeli government to end this oppression, the UK should now urge its fellow members in the EU to consider suspending the EU-Israel association agreement, the cross-party committee says.

That agreement gives Israeli exports preferential access to the markets of the European Union. Europe accounts for two-thirds of Israeli exports, and suspending the preferences those exports currently enjoy would send the first proper message to Israel that its oppression of the Palestinian people is unacceptable.

That message is long overdue. The EU-Israel agreement should have been suspended years ago, as its own text states that it is conditional upon respect for human rights. In this regard Israel has already violated the agreement many times over. The UN’s own special rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, among many others, has pointed out that the agreement should already have been suspended under its own terms.

The call for suspension of Israel’s trading preferences is the first in a line of sanctions which the UK could take. Suspending arms sales is another obvious candidate. The UK has been approving record levels of arms sales to Israel over the past couple of years, despite admitting that it cannot trust Israel’s claims that the weapons will not be used in its military operations against the Palestinian people. The government is now facing a court case on the issue.

Today’s committee report is not just targeted at Israel. It also slams the UK and other international donors for withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority since early 2006. Together with Israel’s withholding of revenues due to the Palestinian government, this action by the international community has "increased poverty and hardship amongst most Palestinians", the report says. At least one million people have been affected by this punitive action, the least smart form of sanctions since those imposed on the people of Iraq during the 1990s.

The main significance of the committee’s report is that it challenges Tony Blair to move from his unconditional support of Israel to a position of standing up for the Palestinian people. In so doing, the report echoes the call of a new coalition also launched this week. The Enough! coalition brings together all major British trade unions, campaigns organisations and charities plus faith groups from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in a joint call for justice for the Palestinian people. Only through such justice can Israelis and Palestinians hope to build a lasting peace for the region as a whole.

The immediate focus of the coalition is to mark this year’s 40th anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Palestinian groups trace their suffering back further to the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe, when 750,000 were driven into exile in order to make way for the founding of the Israeli state. Both anniversaries are equally important.

For those of us who bear the weight of British imperial history, there is another reason for marking 2007. This year also sees the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain, for its own political ends, committed itself to a Jewish national home in Palestine. Britain and France had promised self-determination to the peoples of the former Ottoman empire, but the British government chose to deny the people of Palestine this right.

Yet the historical responsibility of the British state is not the issue. It is Britain’s current support of Israeli aggression which must be challenged and changed. Today’s call for action from MPs in the international development committee must be the start of a radical reorientation of Britain’s policy towards the Middle East. Sanctions against Israel is a first and necessary step on that journey.

(The Guardian, UK,

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