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Towards justice and peace in the Middle East


by John Bond


How do we work for justice and peace in the Middle East? That was the theme of a webinar hosted by IofC International, which brought together prominent voices, Palestinian, Israeli, British and American. It was conceived by IofC activists in Egypt, developed by colleagues in several countries, and hosted by International Council members Mounir Beltaifa and Pilar Griffin. About 200 people joined the webinar on zoom, with more watching on YouTube.

The distinctive feature of the day was the conviction that, tragic though the immense suffering is in and around Gaza, a way has been opened to resolve a century of conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine.

The first speaker, historian Peter Shambrook, focused on Britain’s role in the conflict. His recent book, Policy of Deceit, was described by the Times Literary Supplement as a ‘forensic, fair-minded’ exposure of ‘how the British government broke its promises to the people of Palestine.’ In the webinar, Dr Shambrook argued that when Britain governed Palestine between 1920 and 1948, they adopted a ‘fundamentally anti-Arab’ approach.  ‘Hundreds of laws were passed during the 1920s and 1930s which deliberately ignored the wishes and interests of the majority Palestinian Arab population, and which encouraged the creation of a Zionist state within a state.’ 

When Israel came into being in 1948, he went on, 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and 200,000 of them went to Gaza. This refugee population has swollen over the decades to over two million. Dr Shambrook argued that Israel seized the opportunity presented by the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October last year to continue this policy of “ethnic cleansing”. But, he said, the Palestinians refuse to be erased from history.’

He was followed by retired Ambassador Sir Vincent Fean, most recently British Consul-General in Jerusalem. He had no right to propose a political framework for the region, he emphasised, ‘least of all with regard to the Palestinians, whom my country, my government, has undermined and undercut for more than a century.’

But, he said, ‘We can tell our British Government that the UK should uphold international humanitarian law. We can ask our elected representatives to seek equal rights as a principle in foreign policy.’

He noted that the leaders of Britain, France and the USA, after a 10-year pause, are now talking again about creating a Palestinian state. In his view this was because ‘Israel has gone too far... It has resorted to starvation and famine as a weapon of war.’

He called for ‘a plan which recognises Palestinian agency... It all comes back to self-determination for two peoples. One people has achieved it. We can acknowledge the rights of the other people by recognising the state of Palestine. It means parity of esteem for both peoples.’

The elements of a plan are well-known, he said. ‘What’s needed is the will. A sustained effort will need to be undertaken, with the US or if not, with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, Israel and the PLO or whatever leaders Palestinians choose. It’s for the Palestinians to choose their own leadership.

‘We need to say what's right, convince others, and do it, instead of having one rule for our friends and another for our political enemies. I believe we are better than that, or can be. We certainly need to be, if we are to contribute to ending this cycle of futile violence and repression.’

The next speaker was Alon Liel, a former head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In 2014 he was an instigator of a campaign by Israeli academics and former diplomats to encourage European governments to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, and has since worked assiduously for this recognition. Though the Israeli Government sees recognition of Palestine as anti-Israel, he disagrees. ‘The Israeli paranoia about a Palestinian state is only 10 years old. When I was a diplomat we saw this as the solution. Recognition is a positive, first for Palestinians but also for Israel. The only way that Israel will sit down seriously with the Palestinians is if Palestine is recognised as a state and becomes a member of the UN. So by encouraging recognition, governments are helping us to find a solution.’

The second session of the webinar began with Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Professor of history at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. He pointed out that ‘Palestinians are not passive in front of the attempts at dispossession and genocide. They try all methods of resistance. They are surviving in incredible situations in Gaza. They are not going away.’

For him, one source of hope is that Palestine is back at the focus of the international community. ‘So many people, especially the young, believe that the struggle for justice in Palestine is also the struggle for justice in their own places. I haven’t seen this happen on such a scale.’

In his view the Israeli response to the Hamas attack has broken ‘the structure which is called the state of Israel… Of the Israeli population of eight million, nearly half a million people have left Israel since the 7 October attack. The army is not invincible any more. The economic crisis is growing. This internal implosion is bringing us to the end of the Zionist project in Israel.

‘The collapse of a state can be disastrous, and this can go on for years, as we have seen in Syria and Libya. But a win-win structure is possible for coloniser and colonised. This is why international pressure is so important. This could be a pivotal moment for the Palestinians. I am very worried about what Israel will do in the next three years. But something much more positive could happen in the long run.

‘This is the conversation we need to have. We should talk about post-colonial liberated Palestine. It belongs to the Muslim Arab world, not to the West. How do Jews and Arabs live in it. How does it help to solve the problems of the Arab world? This is a long process, but I think for the first time we have a chance to ignite it.’

Sabreen AbeedAllah

He was followed by Sabreen AbeedAllah, a Palestinian social and health rights advocate, and a member of the political bureau of the Palestinian Initiative Party. She knows the situation in Gaza. Nearly two million people have been displaced and 360,000 housing units have been destroyed, 33 hospital have been closed, 25 of them due to missile strikes. She pointed not just to the 35,000 deaths, but to the 87,000 who have been injured and may die because there is little treatment available.

‘It's hard to talk about peace knowing that 50,000 pregnant women in in Gaza do not have a safe place to give birth,’ she said. ‘But we are resilient. You can see it in the steadfastness of people amidst the tragedy.’

The final speaker was Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned economics professor at Columbia University in the USA, known for his work on the fight to end poverty.

He pointed out that ‘during the Trump and Biden administrations, the idea has been that the Arab states can be bought off to normalize relations with Israel while allowing Israel to pursue its extremist agenda. Israel is then secure, and Palestine disappears in a sustained apartheid or ethnic cleansing or continued massacres. It was profoundly cynical, and I think it has failed.’

In his view, a different approach is now possible. ‘The US stood alone in the UN Security Council in vetoing the resolution for UN membership of Palestine. The US stood with nine of the 193 UN member states when the same proposition was taken up by the UN General Assembly the following week.

‘And we've seen a massive shift of US public opinion. Young people support Palestine over Israel in the current struggle and see both the injustice and the genocide.

‘If there is Arab unity in favour of a two-state solution, I think it will happen. Recently the Arab League met in Bahrain, and the Bahrain declaration states that the path to peace is the two-state solution based on 1967 borders, with Palestine’s capital in East Jerusalem, and Muslim control of their holy sites there. And the UN General Assembly has backed a global conference to put this into effect.

‘In the midst of this horror we're coming close to a diplomatic outcome of a kind that can lead to peace. Now that the weight of global political community is so overwhelming, perhaps the US will come into line and stop blocking the path to peace.’

From all continents the organisers have received messages of appreciation of the webinar. In case you missed the event, you can watch the recordings using the links below: