Israel and Palestine – borders , barricades and, now, Coronavirus

By Hugh Lanning

Any thoughts or hopes that the Coronavirus pandemic might lead to a humanitarian relaxation of the continuous lockdown Israel imposes on Palestinians have been quickly shattered. The siege has been used to restrict medical supplies into Gaza, the military occupation to harass and raid the Issawiya neighbourhood in East Jerusalem during lockdown and emergency medical facilities in the West Bank have been bulldosed.
Israel’s multiple internal walls and barriers are being used barricade the Palestinians in dire conditions with grossly under-provided health facilities in order to ‘protect’ Israelis from the risk of infection. This is not withstanding the fact that there are currently far more cases amongst the globally mobile Israelis than there are amongst Palestinians.
As Israeli politicians form a coalition government to deal with the crisis, former Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to exclude the ‘Arab list’ from Government. Twenty percent of the Israeli population are Palestinian, but they – like the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – will not get the same treatment or access to health facilities as other Israeli citizens.
This tallies with Israel’s strategy, it wants the land, but not the people and the responsibilities that go with them. Whilst continuing with the building of multiple internal walls and barriers, it has never finally defined its own borders or recognised Palestine. This is because it still sees itself as expanding into more and more Palestinian land. It does not accept the internationally declared position of the ‘green line’ borders of 1967. Its mechanism for this land grab are the euphemistically called ‘settlements’.
Israel’s settlements aren’t a few people building houses on unoccupied land – a Middle Eastern version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’. These are towns with roads, infrastructure and now more and more houses. Even by official figures – well over 600,000 Israelis on land wholly or partially owned previously by Palestinians. Israel’s supreme court has recently ruled that this is legal – the ‘public use’ of the land for settlement is ‘justifiable and proportionate’.
The statistics have become boring with the international community’s response lacklustre to say the least. It is in this context that Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ must be seen. It represents not a proposal for peace but a demand for the Palestinian people to live under conditions of inequality, external control and occupation in perpetuity. They are not being offered a viable state, but instead a series of dis-connected, encircled parcels of land where the Palestinians are to be corralled like the Bantustans were used by apartheid South Africa to segregate the black population from the white.
It is alleged that calling Israel an apartheid state could be interpreted as anti-Semitic; but if we do as Israel asks and examine ‘the facts on the ground’ then it is systematically building an apartheid infrastructure – not abstractly, but physically – through construction, demolition and ethnic cleansing. All involved are participating In what the late Israeli activist – Uri Avnery – believed was a ‘suicidal project which will create an apartheid Israeli state’, because if a minority of Israeli Jewish settlers are to rule over a disenfranchised majority of Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank – currently upwards of 2.75 million people – that will be the result.
The settlements are a ‘huge construction enterprise across the hilltops of the West Bank, with swimming pools, lawns and smart roadways, supermarkets and orchards – all encircled by acres of barbed wire and now also by the grotesque Wall’. This theft has been directly funded through banks and financial institutions. The UN Council of Human rights recently published a list of 112 companies currently operating within the illegal colonies, which now number over 140.
They are illegal, not because of the theft of land – wrong though that is – but because Article 49 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions specifies: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The UN security council and general assembly, the ICRC and the International Court of Justice have all agreed Article 49 applied to Israeli-occupied territories.
These were territories – East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank – occupied by Israel in 1967. Over 50 years later, Israel is not only still continuing its military occupation – it is deliberately encouraging and transferring hundreds of thousands of its citizens, many recent migrants from Russia and the USA, to take the ‘unilateral step’ of crossing the internationally recognised threshold in order to set up house on Palestinian land. Not just encouraged, but financially induced – with settlers receiving financial support three times that of other Israeli citizens.
Normally it is the ‘occupier’ who should fund the costs of the occupation – looking after and feeding the civilian population. However, these costs are borne, not by Israel, but by the international community – primarily the EU; with the military costs of the occupation being funded by the US. Despite this huge subsidisation of what was meant to be a transitional period to a ‘two state solution’ Israel consistently and regularly puts two fingers up to the international community – ignoring international law with seeming impunity.
Whilst joyously waving Palestinian flags, the last two Labour Party conferences have passed motions calling for Labour to support Palestinian rights. This will be an early challenge for human rights lawyer – Keir Starmer, and new shadow Foreign Secretary – Lisa Nandy. Lisa – a Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, has visited and spoken out on behalf of Palestine.
Within the Party there is rightly a determination to stamp out any vestiges of anti-semitism. The UK government has waiting in the wings – post-lockdown – legislation aimed at ‘banning boycotts of Israel’, which leadership candidates were asked to oppose. There are concerns that the departure of Jeremy Corbyn as leader will lead to renewed attempts aimed at silencing of Palestinian voices within the Party.
Labour Party policy passed by its conferences makes it clear that Labour’s ethical foreign policy should support ‘Palestinians’ rights to freedom, justice and equality, including by applying these principles based on international law to all UK trade with Israel.’
It goes on “an internationalist Labour Party has a special responsibility to redress the ongoing injustices against the Palestinian people, denied their right to self-determination during the British Mandate, because of the role Britain played as a colonial power during the 1948 Nakba when Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes.”
Jeremy Corbyn – as a life-long supporter of Palestine – was seen as a potential threat by ardent supporters of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. His departure was not only welcomed, but worked for, and is now being perceived as an opportunity to push back the gains that have been made in recent years – notwithstanding the backdrop of the furore taking place over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.
Labour & Palestine was set up by seven affiliated trade unions, including the two biggest Unite and Unison, to galvanise grassroots support for Palestine within the party. The successful and overwhelming passing of motions at Party conference shows that that support exists. It is the natural instinct of new and old members of the trade union and labour movement to be internationalist and support the oppressed, not the oppressor – in this case the occupied, not the occupier.
In 1914 it was prophetically stated, for Palestinians, that “We are a nation threatened by disappearance”. If one looks at the maps of Palestine – it is shrinking and shrinking towards invisibility, not just physically but along with the political prospects of a viable Palestinian state. These are Israel’s dual objectives – to make the physical reality of Palestine impossible along with driving the issue off the international political agenda.
It has two problems – first the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere – they have nowhere to go. Imprisoning, isolating and intimidating them isn’t working. The second is that the practical acts of Israel – the occupation, the wall, the settlements – are in breach of international law. Without the existence of a Palestinian state, the more steps that are taken towards making Israel a Jewish state, the more it is discriminating against the Palestinians both within and without Israel – however defined.
For the reality is that there exists a ‘no-state’ solution where Israel controls all the land and people between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. The proposed annexation of the settlements and large tracts of the Jordan Valley into Israel – as proposed by the ‘Trump’ plan will only accentuate the racial basis of the two infrastructures that will exist.
If you look at law, land, waste, water, food, income or education – this is not separate and equal, but endemic, planned inequality based on the racial discrimination by one people of another.
In his recent book (The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine) Rashid Khalidi concludes: “While the fundamental colonial nature of the Palestinian-Israel encounter must be acknowledged, there are now two peoples in Palestine, irrespective of how they came into being, and the conflict between them cannot be resolved as long as the national existence of each is denied by the other. Their mutual acceptance can only be based on complete equality of rights, including national rights, notwithstanding the crucial historical differences between the two”.
The mutuality of respect and rights cannot be placed into the never-ending debacle of the peace process – now surely dead and buried under the weight of Israeli house demolition and settlement construction. It requires the international community to robustly call for and expect the observance of international law and that a failure to comply should have consequences. Fundamentally this must mean the end of the cruel and inhumane siege of Gaza – most recently witnessed by the denial of supplies to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic. It must mean the end of the occupation and respecting the rights of refugees.
At the moment – with Trump’s aid and abetting – Israel is going in the opposite direction, seeing how far it can go, how far it can push its borders, before the world does anything. Israel’s ever-expanding occupation of Palestine is described by Robert Fisk as the last colonial struggle. Now, more than ever, the Labour Party needs to be speaking up for Palestine, saying ‘enough is enough’. Indeed, saying it is too much.

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• An edited version of this piece appeared on the Tribune website.