Britain appointed itself the ruling power in Palestine after the First World War mainly because it suited British geopolitical ambitions, but our government solemnly acknowledged a “sacred duty” to safeguard the rights of all the people of Palestine when British rule ended. However, in 1948, Britain, bankrupted by World War II and dealing with the collapse of its empire, forgot its promise to the Palestinians, and left them to their own devices. The Jewish state of Israel was created in roughly the part of Mandate Palestine designated by the United Nations, and the rest was ceded to Egypt and Jordan.
This all changed after the 1967 war, in which the Israeli army overran large parts of neighbouring countries. The areas they occupied when the fighting stopped were effectively the parts of Mandate Palestine which Israel had been unable to claim when it was created in 1948. Continued military occupation is allowed in the immediate aftermath of a war, but occupied territory must be handed back, and permanent settlement by people from the conquering power is illegal.
Despite that, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and part of southern Syria immediately in June 1967, and have remained as an occupying military power in the West Bank and Gaza until the present day, some 53 year later. During that time the Palestinians have struggled to have their rights recognised, mostly through peaceful protest and negotiations sponsored by third parties. Some have resorted to violence, and there have been acts of terrorism, particularly in the early days of the PLO. The Israeli response is usually disproportionate retaliation, based on the idea that ‘collective punishment’ means violent protest rebounds on the local community. Collective punishment is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was ratified by virtually every country in the world, including Israel, but like the illegal settlements, it has been tolerated by the world community for decades, and rarely generates more than mild rebukes.
None of us was born when the unfolding disaster for the Palestinians began – with Balfour’s famous 1917 letter – and many of us weren’t around in 1948, but we are now at another pivotal moment in history, and it is one we can influence.
Formally annexing large parts of the West Bank would begin of the final chapter of the ‘Greater Israel’ project, and end hopes for a Palestinian State, but concerted international condemnation and a credible threat of sanctions will make it impossible for Netanyahu to go ahead. Our government has expressed disapproval of the annexations, but in terms that imply ‘business as usual’ after the annexations. We should remember the promise our forefathers made to the Palestinians, and tell MPs and peers that we, the British people, are not satisfied with meaningless hand-wringing.
Britain can, and must, threaten punitive sanctions. If we take the lead, other countries will follow.
* Andy Daer is a member of the Liberal Democrats in South Gloucestershire