The Gaza split
British foreign policy over the latest Israel-Gaza conflict is a shambles and has split the government, reports Anthony Tucker-Jones
This summer Gaza found itself victim to yet another Israeli military invasion. It is the third major military operation in Gaza in six years. The situation underlines the terrible human cost, to both sides, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it comes at a time when the security situation in the Middle East is the worst it has been for decades. Central government has failed in Iraq and Syria, and Lebanon teters on the brink of renewed sectarian violence.
Tel Aviv blames its actions on the ceaseless rocket attacks by Hamas and the constant tunnelling under their mutual border; Hamas blames the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank. To most Middle East watchers it is apparent the two sides cannot and will not co-exist. Desperate not to offend either side in this latest round of interminable Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, the British government has desperately sought to sit on the fence. Critics argue this amounts to support for Israel.
Meanwhile Israel was cast as the villain. Following an overwhelming show of force in which the Israeli Defense Force was portrayed as Goliath to Hamas’ David, world opinion swiftly swung against the latest military attack on militants in Gaza. The deployment of the Israeli’s high-tech weaponry and superior firepower could only have one outcome, and that included Palestinian civilian casualties.
On the international stage, British diplomacy has been doing its utmost to keep the dialogue going in what is a very fast-moving situation. At the same time, the UK joined the rest of the United Nations Security Council in calling for de-escalation of the crisis, the restoration of calm and reinstatement of the November 2012 ceasefire. The UK remains ready to consider further action in the Security Council if that can help secure a lasting ceasefire.
The world has long tired of Israel’s iron fist policy of “if you strike us we will strike back”. There is no question that Tel Aviv has politically mishandled the latest conflict. It should have gone to the UN Security Council and warned that UN failure to make Hamas desist within two weeks would lead to military action. The problem would then have firmly rested with the international community and Israel would have been seen to be doing the right thing – but it was not to be. Once again the Israelis acted unilaterally against the underdog; it matters not to world opinion whether the under the underdog deserves it or not.
Apparent perceived British bias toward Israel has resulted in ugly rifts within the government, and allegations that British-supplied weaponry is being used against the Palestinians has left Prime Minister David Cameron unable to take the moral high ground. The Arms Export Committees have admitted that British communications equipment and software has undoubtedly been used to spy on the Palestinians.
Calls that the House of Commons cut short its summer recess and recall MPs to debate the Gaza Crisis – and indeed the mess now engulfing Iraq – fell on deaf ears in Downing Street. This left pro-Palestinian campaigners appalled at London’s inability to take concrete steps to part the warring parties. What is apparent is that Whitehall lacks a coherent security policy when it comes to dealing with militants, be they in Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq, Syria or southern Lebanon.
Only after the killing of school children in Gaza was the British government finally stung into some form of action. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, stated on 5 August that the Israeli military operation in Gaza had overstepped the mark, and called for the immediate suspension of arms export licences to Israel. The Liberal Democrat party strove to make a compelling case inside government for this. Some commentators argued that this was too little too late.
Backbenchers were already calling for the Prime Minister to take a much harder line with Israel. Baroness Warsi quit as a Foreign Minister in protest over the government’s stance – clearly it needed to take a more robust position. Reacting to public opinion, the government announced it was reviewing all existing export licences to Israel. In the meantime, the Israelis withdrew their ground forces from Gaza and resumed peace talks in Cairo.
Concern over UK arms exports to Israel has been mounting for some time. Last year, Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell asked the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skill what steps his department took to ensure that, in issuing arms export licences to Israel, the weapons would not be used for internal repression. Michael Fallon, Minister of State for BIS, responded by stating the UK adhered to the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. BIS’ position though was soon shown to be untenable.
The Committees on Arms Export clarified to the House of Commons at the end of 2013 that the UK had more than 100 extant cryptographic export licences worth a staggering £8bn. At the time, committee member Sir John Stanley acknowledged that “it seems highly likely that some of the massive cryptographic export to Israel will be used, sooner or later, to the advantage of the Israeli security services in operations against Palestinians. For all those reasons, the committee’s scrutiny of the government’s extant licences, particularly in countries where there is significant internal repression, will continue intensively.”
Arms exports tend to be a very grey area in terms of what is being approved and, in Israel’s case, much of it is clearly communications equipment and software. There is, however, very justifiable concern over the use of British components for the Israeli Hermes drone and the Merkava main battle tank. Both these weapon systems have been deployed in Gaza. If they do contain British components, then there is every reason to assume the licensing criterion has been breached. In the eyes of the Palestinians this hardly makes the UK an impartial party and leaves BIS facing some difficult questions.
There seems to be a general misapprehension that the UK has been inactive in trying to find a resolution, but this is far from the case. The government has taken the latest crisis very seriously, and the Foreign Office has worked tirelessly to get the conflicting parties around the negotiating table. The truth, unpalatable though it may be, is that the UK has no real leverage whatsoever with either party.
For many, the UK’s 1948 legacy over its handling of Palestine is to blame for the unending Israeli-Palestinian impasse. In reality, the British government of the day in the aftermath of the Second World War had little choice but to allow the Jewish people into the former Turkish mandate of Palestine (since biblical times they have considered the region the Promised Land). Britain did not give Palestinian lands away – indeed, Jewish extremists in Irgun and Haganah waged a brutal terror war against British forces to drive the UK out and prevent it from keeping the two sides apart. Unfortunately the first Arab-Israeli war, fought in 1948, unhinged the proposed UN plan that would have created three Jewish areas alongside the Palestinian areas.
The Arab states refusal to recognise Israel’s independence has led to five major wars in the region. Israel took the Occupied Territories in 1967, comprising Gaza (which was then administered by Egypt), Sinai (belonging to Egypt), the West Bank (which belonged to Jordan) and the Golan Heights (belonging to Syria). Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1979 and Israeli settlers forcibly removed.
In terms of the Palestinians, Israel gave Gaza self-governance in 1994 along with parts of the West Bank. Israel removed is settlers and military forces from Gaza in 2005, but two years later Hamas won the elections there and has been unable to co-exist with Israel ever since, or even co-operate with the Fatah/Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, thereby greatly weakening the Palestinian cause. While the Israelis have ended their latest incursion into Gaza, the West Bank remains occupied.
The previous Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said on 8 July: “All sides have a responsibility to respect in full the November 2012 ceasefire, and to address the underlying causes of conflict and instability in Gaza.” Over the next few days the Foreign Secretary spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry who was helping broker a ceasefire with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Likewise, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urging restraint by the Israeli Defense Force.
The UK acknowledges that neither side is blameless. William Hague made a statement to the House of Commons on 14 July in which he condemned acts of murder committed on both sides, stating: “We utterly condemn these barbaric crimes. There can never be any justification for the deliberate murder of innocent civilians.”
Hague’s successor as Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories on 23-24 July and personally met Mahmoud Abbas, Binyamin Netanyahu and Lieberman. The discussions were frank and had one goal in mind. These were followed by talks with EU ministers who called for an extension of the ceasefire in Gaza. The challenge was getting both sides to adhere to it, and this proved problematic throughout August.
In addition to all the diplomatic efforts, the UK is providing £349m for humanitarian relief, state-building and economic development for the Palestinians up to 2015, and providing around £30m a year to help the people of Gaza. In 2013-14 the UK funded 17 projects through the conflict pool programme for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a budget of £4m.
Egypt, once a claiming hand on Gaza, is in no position to influence events as it is pre-occupied by the deteriorating security situation in Sinai. With the Muslim Brotherhood in disarray and thoroughly discredited, Egypt’s secular politicians have no stomach for backing militant Hamas. Secretly, Cairo probably feels that strategically it was very fortunate to have lost control of Gaza to Israel; if it had been handed back in 1979, war would almost certainly have ensued at some stage. Today, with its economy in tatters, the last thing Egypt needs is a war with Israel. Likewise Syria, stricken by civil war, is unable to influence events in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian factions once backed by Damascus are no longer the power they once were.
The only hope of breaking this cycle of violence is a resumption of the peace negotiations. A return to the 1967 borders, though, remains a pipedream. London is committed to a negotiated peace settlement, which includes a two-state solution and freely elected representatives according to the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees. This would involve difficult but necessary compromises, in order to protect Israel’s security and respect of the sovereignty of the Palestinian people. Such an agreement seems nigh on impossible.
Ultimately, if the two sides cannot bring a long-term halt to the violence then there will be a case to instigate either a EU or UN arms embargo against both parties. Such a move would be public window dressing, however, as arms embargoes are never effective – the black market always steps in to fill the void. Besides, Iran and Hezbollah would take no notice and continue to covertly arm Hamas. An arms embargo would be little more than a band-aid to the long running sore that is Israeli-Palestinian relations. This latest war just might kick-start the moribund Middle East Peace Process, but it seems unlikely. Meanwhile London continues to fiddle while Gaza burns.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is intersec’s terrorism and security correspondent. He is a former defence intelligence officer and is now a widely published defence commentator specialising in regional conflicts and counter terrorism.