Originally published on May 27, 2021 in Conservative Home:
Israel and Palestine. We must be friends of peace, not polarisation.
The ceasefire agreed between Israel and Hamas has held good so far. Both declared victory when the news was announced – and the White House received assurances that both were committed to the ceasefire.
Eleven days of conflict has reduced large areas of Gaza to rubble and left at least 232 Palestinians dead, including at least nine senior Hamas commanders. Meanwhile, the group’s 4,300 or so rockets killed 12 people across the border in Israel.
It can be easy to watch the heart-breaking and all too familiar images of this conflict – now in its 74th year and despair at any prospect of a lasting peace. The international community have welcomed the ceasefire but, amidst the turbulence of each daily event, it is easy to overlook the casus belli of the latest stage of this conflict.
Hamas rocket fire at Israel may have caused the Israeli military to retaliate, but at the heart of this conflict is Jerusalem and the Old City. In particular, the dispossession of Palestinian homes and land in Jerusalem – activities deemed illegal under international law.
Wandering the warren of streets that make up the Old City is often a stirring experience. Jews, Arabs and Christians cram the streets in what feels like one of the largest souks in the region, and the narrow alleys are thick with hustle, history and sanctity.
Old Jerusalem is the venerated home to some of the holiest sites of the world’s three main Abrahamic religions. For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the site of the Crucifixion at Golgotha. For Jews, there is the Western Wall, the only remains of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. On the site of the Temple itself are two important mosques, the Dome of the Rock and of course, Al-Aqsa.
Indeed, the hostilities were set off in part by Israeli police raids on the Al-Aqsa compound. Al-Aqsa has been a focal point of violence between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators during and after the Holy month of Ramadan. Visibly violent scenes have erupted again outside Al-Aqsa in recent days following the announcement of the ceasefire.
Behind the violence are two incidents: the recent celebration by Israelis of Jerusalem Day, to mark the capture of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War; and the attempt to evict Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Old Jerusalem and hand them over to Jewish settlers.
The largely right-wing Israelis who are currently populating neighbourhoods in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem reject criticisms by the UN that they are potentially committing war crimes and breaking international law by expelling families in occupied territory. However, what is happening in East Jerusalem is only a small part of a resettlement project that has witnessed 650,000 Jews move into the West Bank, in breach of various international agreements and UN resolutions. Palestinian frustration over events in Jerusalem, and the settlements had been mounting long before recent events.
In 1980, the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, declaring Jerusalem as “the unified capital” of Israel. Israel’s own Supreme Court interpreted the law as the effective annexation of East Jerusalem. The UN Security Council condemned the attempt to change the status of Jerusalem and ruled the law “null and void” in Resolution 478. Over the years, Palestinian anxiety over Jerusalem has grown. In 2014, Palestinian militants carried out attacks on the city’s relatively new light railway because it was seen as a piece of Israel infrastructure primarily designed to unify the city under Israeli control.
The Sheikh Jarrah evictions and other events have furthered Palestinian fears that Israel is attempting to do de facto what has been rendered impossible to do de jure by the UN and much of the international community. The decision by the Trump White House to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv was seen by many Palestinians as further evidence of a creeping annexation.
Meanwhile, the use of social media, both by young tech-savvy Israelis and Palestinians on the ground, and their access to a global community all over the world, mean that the nature of reporting and fact-finding has shifted. We witnessed the game-changing use of Facebook across the Middle East during the Arab Spring in 2011, but the social media of today is even more interactive – live videos of airstrikes and missiles flooded millions of Instagram feeds, whilst Twitter and Clubhouse allow for minute-by-minute updates.
Before this most recent conflict, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, had intended to hold the first PA elections in 15 years, hoping they would help kick-start talks on a two-state solution as well as bolstering support for Fatah. Fatah was ejected from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 following a brief civil war. Up until now, Abbas has only held sway in the West Bank. But Israeli silence on whether to allow elections in East Jerusalem effectively scuppered the election plans. Some argue that this failure to hold elections has only increased Palestinian support for Hamas in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As ever with this most intractable of conflicts, peace could only realistically be achieved by a final two-state solution that clearly establishes the borders of both Israel and a new Palestinian state. But Palestinians have found that agreements and international law are only as real as their actual implementation. And any agreement must be implemented in reality under the supervision of the international community. Right at the heart of any agreement lies the Gordian Knot of Jerusalem and the Old City.
Continuing failure by all parties to come to a lasting solution, and failure of the international community effectively to police and safeguard existing international agreements appears to have succoured the extremes on both sides. As ever, the extremes represent minorities, but drive events. As we have seen in recent weeks, this has tragic consequences for Israelis, Palestinians, and can dangerously destabilise the region as a whole.
Long may this ceasefire hold. But the root causes are still there. The international community has failed to ensure the upholding of international law. We must. Internationally illegal settlements continue to build over the possibility of a two-state solution, unchallenged. Resentment, frustration and the dangerous perception for many Palestinians that there is ‘nothing left to lose’ has been nurtured – especially in Gaza. This is the ideal recruitment tool for Israel-deniers and violent Hamas activists. Iran-supported militia gain traction (and arms) and Israelis feel – and indeed are – more threatened. Pressure escalates, and social media accelerates anger on all sides.
In an increasingly polarised world, there is a danger that this tragic conflict becomes polarised in our UK politics too: that is becomes impossible to be seen as both a friend of the Israeli people and of the Palestinian people; That supporting one side or the other becomes a proxy for your own domestic political identities and loyalty.
But if the UK is to honour the responsibility it took up in forging the Balfour Declaration 104 years ago, and is to help in resolving this conflict, we must resist these polarising forces. We must call out breaches of international rule of law and occupier-responsibilities under that law, and respond impartially without fear or favour. We must recognise the dangers that Iran-backed militias pose for Israel and the West, and work to cut off their supplies – both of money and materials, and of angry, desperate, Palestinian recruits. We must be wise, fair, and pragmatic. Only then can we be a friend of peace.