This time next week I will be proposing a resolution in parliament on the situation in Palestine. It’ll make a change from wall-to-wall Trump and Brexit. The resolution has cross-party support including a surprising number of Tories. It calls on the British government to lead in getting new peace talks started and on the Israeli government to stop building settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
But why? And why now?
For pretty much all of the first half of the 20th century British and French governments used the players in the various Middle East conflicts as pawns in an international power game. They sowed the seeds of the conflicts we see today and we, more than most countries, have a moral and political responsibility to help sort it out. Resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict will be crucial to long-term peace in the Middle East – which of course makes the world, and us in it, more secure. And apart from anything else it’s the right thing to do.
2017 is a year of anniversaries. One hundred years since the declaration of British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour paved the way for Jewish state in Palestine, 70 since the war which led to the formation of Israel, and 50 since Israel began its illegal occupation of Palestine.
A generation ago the world thought progress was being made. Following violent resistance to the military occupation, talks in Oslo concluded with an agreement to have a two-state solution. Israel and Palestine would both exist within secure borders, with mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. That was the theory anyway.
Obviously you cannot have a two-state solution whilst one state (Israel) militarily occupies the land designated for the other (Palestine). So the Oslo Accords divided the occupied territories into three zones, giving a new Palestinian Authority control over urban areas and leaving Israel as the occupying military force, the legal authority in most of the land. This was meant to be temporary, the plan being that Israel would gradually hand over territory to the new Palestinian state by the end of the century.
25 years later things are markedly worse. Not only has Israel not withdrawn, it has consistently extended its power in the occupied Palestinian territories. Key to this is the creation of residential settlements on occupied land which looks for all the world like annexation.
More than half a million people have been moved into the occupied territories to live in new apartment complexes. Some of these settlements are, in effect, modern towns complete with transport, communications and leisure infrastructure. These settlements displace the local Arab population and command the majority of the water supply. The people who live in the settlements are Israeli citizens and protected by the Israeli Army even though they are in someone else’s country. All of this is completely illegal and has been condemned by the UN, the EU, the UK and pretty much everyone else. Meanwhile Palestinians are refused permission to build homes and demolition orders are used to tear down their buildings.
If there is to be viable two-state solution then the occupation has to end and the settlers will either need to be relocated or become citizens of a new Palestine. It’ll be one of the most difficult and complicated negotiations in international conflict resolution. But unless a halt is called to the settlement building programme and both sides commit to starting peace talks the situation will only get worse.
Many ordinary Israelis fear for their own security. What they don’t seem to understand is that the main threat to their security stems from their occupation of someone else’s country.
Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East