Palestine in the Elizabethan Era: Will Britain Atone for Its Sinful Policies

Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo: Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Ilan Pappe

While millions of people in Britain and around the world can not stop singing the praises of the late Queen as a paragon of moderation, sensibility, and common sense, quite a few of the people who were colonized during her reign, or were second-rate subjects in Britain itself, took a far more complex view on her 70 years of rule.

Of course, the Queen was not the chief policy maker in all these 70 years, but symbolically, any decision taken was after all Her Majesty’s Government’s decision, for good or for worse. So, indeed, we can all agree that an era has to come to an end, and this is always a good time for reflection and summation. From this perspective, I would like to revisit Palestine in that era, more specifically the British policy towards Palestine and its impact.

Queen Elizabeth’s rule began after the Nakba. Therefore, the disgraceful British behavior that allowed the 1948 Israeli ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians belongs to the period when her father was the king of the United Kingdom. Elizabeth began her time on the throne when the Conservative Party bounced back after a surprise defeat in the 1945 elections to Labour that were ruling Britain during the time of the Nakba and carried direct responsibility for its occurrence.

When the Conservatives came back first under Winston Churchill and then under Antony Eden, another shameful chapter in Britain’s relationship with Palestine and the Arab world was written by Her Majesty’s Government. Britain colluded with France and Israel to try and topple Gamal Abdul Nasser and, on the way, fully endorsed the intransigent Israeli refusal to allow the Palestinian refugees to return, a rejection that was followed by a shoot-to-kill policy towards the Palestinian refugees trying to retrieve their crops, husbandry and whatever else was left after the Israeli pillage of the Palestine countryside in 1948.

The Labour Party, in the period between the Nakba and the Naksa (the June 1967 war), was most of the time in opposition, but was the most loyal ally of Israel, on a level unimaginable even today. An alliance that also included the Trade Union Council (TUC), which, together with other leading socialists, turned a blind eye to the suffering of the 48 Arabs under a cruel military rule, based on colonialist British emergency regulations that bred, among other atrocities, the Kafr Qassem massacre in 1956, preceded by the massacre of the village of Qibya before that, and in the village of Samu’ after that.

In those days, a new outfit was established, The Labour Friends of Israel, which became a pillar in the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain, already quite well established as a pro-Zionist lobby since 1900, the year the fourth Zionist Congress convened in London and launched the building of a powerful lobby, which brought about the Balfour Declaration and the British commitment to hand over Palestine to the Zionist movement at the expense of the indigenous people of Palestine.

At that period, two processes began that were crucial for providing a shield of immunity around Israel, which would allow it, until today, to continue the policies of colonization and dispossession in Palestine, without fear of international rebuke or condemnation.

The first was the full recruitment of respectful Anglo-Jewish institutions, which in theory were meant to look after the concerns of the Anglo-Jewish community, to the Zionist, and later Israeli cause. The most important of them was the Board of Deputies, which transformed from being the parliament of the British Jews into an Israeli embassy.

The second process was a close association between a successful political career within the Labour party and membership in the Labour Friends of Israel. Being a friend of Israel could get you very far in the party.

The Elizabethan landscape changed after June 1967. It was more difficult to sell to the British public the Israeli mini-empire as a poor David fighting the Arab Goliath. A fundamental shift in the attitude of the rank and file in all the political parties occurred after 1967 and in response to the re-emergence of the Palestinian liberation movement. This swing towards solidarity with the Palestinians began to affect the policies from above.

Two British politicians, one from the Labour party and one from the Conservative party, epitomized this change of heart. Not always due to their solidarity with the Palestinian plight, although it was part of what motivated them, but also out of an understanding that unfledged support for Israel can impact negatively the British position in the Arab world.

The first was the Labour Foreign Secretary, George Brown and the second was the Conservative Foreign Secretary, Alex Douglass Home. Both were depicted by the lobby in adjectives and language that many years later will be reserved for the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn. The sin of all three of these politicians was daring to take a balanced view on the issue of Palestine, which was immediately branded by Israel and its lobby as antisemitic.

Brown, in the UN, called for total Israel withdrawal from the occupied 1967 territories and demanded attention to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Douglass Home, in a famous speech in Harrogate in 1970, went even further in locating the Palestinian issue at the very heart of what was called “the Arab-Israeli conflict”. What they both offered was a far cry from what was, and is, needed to bring peace and justice to historical Palestine, but it suggested policies that could have taken us in the right direction.

More promising, in the post-1967 years, was the work of the organized campaign of solidarity led by our friends Ghada Karmi, Christopher Mayhew, and Michael Adams, to mention but few of those involved in British politics in all three parties – Labour, Conservative, and the Liberal party. They – together with anti-Zionist Jews from Britain and formerly from Israel, and the Palestinian community in Britain – challenged a powerful lobby, which added to its already existing structure, a plethora of new outfits, the most important among them was the Conservative Friends of Israel, the largest lobby group in Europe. Today, eighty percent of the Conservative MPs are part of this organization.

So, no wonder why Brown and Douglass Home had no impact whatsoever on British policy towards the Palestine issue. The people who mattered in this respect were prime ministers, mostly of the Labour party, such as Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They were all rewarded by the Jewish National Fund, which planted a European pine tree forest on the ruins of three Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba, in gratitude to the pro-Israeli British politicians.

All three of them were Christian Zionists of a sort, providing Israel carte blanche in a period stretching from the early 1970s to 2010, in which the Judaization of the West Bank and Greater Jerusalem and the onset of the brutal assaults on the Gaza Strip were the hallmarks of the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

Britain was the least pro-Palestinian member of the EU, before the new European countries joined the organization after the fall of the Soviet Union, and was faithfully following the American dishonest brokery in the so-called peace process while continuing to furnish Israel with weapons and diplomatic support, in a world where its former colonies were trying to set a new decolonized agenda that included the liberation of Palestine.

The civil society in Britain at the end of the Elizabethan era has shifted dramatically, and the solidarity with the Palestinians has never been higher in the history of the United Kingdom, to the extent that many endorse the call of the Palestinians to the British people to join their Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign. T

The pro-Israeli lobby gave up many years ago the moral struggle to justify the criminal policies of Israel. Both in Israel and inside the lobby, it became painfully clear that, morally, Israel has very little to sell. The lobby’s main task is now to suppress the support for Palestine. It had few successes in silencing debate, intimidating individuals and institutions, and taming mainstream politics and media. But there it stops.

When the political system in Britain will be genuinely democratic one day, and respect faithfully the electorate’s take on foreign policy, Britain will begin to atone for its sinful policies toward Palestine and the Palestinians and rectify the past evils while standing alongside those who fight for liberation and justice in Palestine.

- Ilan Pappé is a professor at the University of Exeter. He was formerly a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, The Modern Middle East, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Ten Myths about Israel. Pappé is described as one of Israel’s 'New Historians' who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been rewriting the history of Israel’s creation in 1948. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for a concise clear history.
    This hopeful last paragraph: “When the political system in Britain will be genuinely democratic one day, and respect faithfully the electorate’s take on foreign policy, Britain will begin to atone for its sinful policies toward Palestine and the Palestinians and rectify the past evils while standing alongside those who fight for liberation and justice in Palestine.”…will not come true in my lifetime. The world may well end before such a reckoning. The Brits now bow before the US and do its bidding.

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