Towards peace in Israel and Palestine 

I was only 19 when I first visited the West Bank in 1964 but was sufficiently gripped that, after studying the region’s history at university, I retained a strong interest in the area thereafter. The Israel-Palestine conflict seems far less amenable to a solution today than it did then. That is why I greatly welcome Conference’s Motion F39,’Towards a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine’.  There are two particular issues I should like to flag up. 

The first concerns UNRWA, the UN agency of Palestine Refugees for which I worked in the 1970s. As we watch the refugee crisis in Afghanistan it is easy to forget the Palestinian one. Unlike Afghan refugees, Palestinians never wished to be resettled and resisted attempts by the UN and Arab states. They demanded the right of return, adumbrated in General Assembly Resolution 194 (1949)  (which reflects Article 13.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). For political reasons, that return has not happened. Today, they are stuck in a terrible limbo, without full citizenship rights (except in Jordan’s East Bank) and in the case of the Gaza Strip, where they are some 80% of the population, suffering awful privation under Israel’s permanent siege. We must support the woefully underfunded UNRWA robustly, to sustain needy refugees whose right to the same freedoms we enjoy has, after seven decades, still not been realised. Support for UNRWA also has the self-interested virtue of helping reduce the tensions that lead to violence. 

The second issue concerns respect for international law as the bedrock of the international order. Nothing in that body of law is so crucial to this conflict as the Fourth (1949) Geneva Convention (4GC), dealing with the rules governing military occupation following the 1967 war. In law ‘occupation’ is a temporary situation, which can no longer be said of Palestine where it has been unlawfully prolonged. Why is 4GC so important? It was the inadequacy of existing rules (dating from 1907) as well as the Axis Powers’ comprehensive disregard of them, 1938-45, which impelled the drafting of the four Geneva Conventions in 1949. All four open with the requirement that all States party to them undertake to ‘ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’, now recognised to mean that all State signatories have a responsibility to ensure that the protagonists in this particular conflict abide by the Convention’s terms. It goes on to forbid wilful killing, collective punishments, house demolitions, settlement of the Occupier’s own nationals in occupied territory, and much else besides. It lists ‘grave violations’, requiring signatory States to detain and charge individuals believed guilty of such crimes if such persons ever enter their own territory. For political reasons States have been loath to act. Whereas the West has been quick to punish Russia over Crimea, it declines taking similar measures against friendly states, a lack of consistency that smacks of hypocrisy to much of the world. 

Finally, 4GC makes the cardinal point that those under occupation may under no circumstances concede the rights and protections contained in the Convention, including conceding any territory to the Occupier while 4GC applies, which of course it does until the occupying force has completed its withdrawal to pre-war borders. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what that means, nor why 4GC’s canny drafters saw how important it was to protect a vulnerable people from the immense political pressures of an Occupying Power (and its powerful allies).  

The urgency to uphold 4GC and other relevant laws has been increased by recent developments. In July 2018 Israel enacted its ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,’ which affords self-determination to Jewish but not to its 21 per cent non-Jewish citizens and ambiguously extends the territorial definition of Israel to all Mandate Palestine. More recently, two internationally respected bodies, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem, have charged Israel with legal and administrative discriminatory practices against the occupied population. This situation would not have arisen had the West insisted from the outset on strict compliance with 4GC and the prohibition on annexing captured territory. Mere non-recognition of such illegality, the UK’s habitual position since 1967, is manifestly not enough. Our failure of will is letting down both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians and renders resolving a deepening humanitarian catastrophe far harder. It is also letting ourselves down. By failing to assert the fundamental imperative of international law consistently, we are accomplices in its world-wide erosion.



* David McDowall worked for UNRWA in the 1970s, and was an Oxfam relief worker during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then he’s written on Middle Eastern and British history.

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  • Brad Barrows 8th Sep '21 - 5:22pm

    Excellent article. Sadly no political party in the UK appears to have the courage to say it as it is. Well done for this important contribution.

  • This timely article, published shortly before we debate motion F39 at Conference, ought not be necessary in a world where “Geneva Conventions” are a by-word for international agreement about human rights in times of war. As David McDowall tells us, the post-conflict rules were carefully written, and the occupation of Palestine following the 1967 war was an ideal opportunity for the signatory countries (i.e. virtually every country in the world) to apply them.
    They didn’t, and most, including our own government, still aren’t, 54 years later. Those who watched Layla Moran’s Urgent Question debate following the conflict in May will have seen MPs from all sides repeatedly told that the UK has had words with Israel on a number of occasions. But Geneva IV requires us to not merely murmur disapproval up our sleeve; under those solemnly entered into treaties, we are required to act to bring the injustice to an end.
    I don’t think sanctions are the answer, but the Israeli people need to be told – in a way that will make them listen – that the world has stopped admiring them. Yes, they made the desert bloom, and against all odds they created a state for Jews after all the years of terrible persecution, and yes, Israel has a viable form of democracy in a troubled and often undemocratic part of the world, but the world was watching in May this year, and it has given its verdict. What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is not only illegal under clearly laid out international law, it is no longer acceptable by people in the civilised world on any grounds. The illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the collective punishment of the people of Gaza must end.

  • David McDowall’s books on the history of the Middle East reveal a sorry tale of interference by the ‘Great Powers’, some well-intended, but much of it a story of treachery and broken promises, driven by changing strategic concerns and the complexity of imposing nationhood in areas where tribal loyalties predominate.
    I wonder if his frustration could be down to the comparatively simple set of issues now in play in Palestine. Modern weaponry and the end of the Cold War have reduced the regional importance of the Eastern Mediterranean to the ‘Great Powers’ (now just the USA), and there are no complicating tribal issues in this case. Palestinians were promised their own nation by the League of Nations, and then by the United Nations, something that would have been achieved long ago if the 1967 invasion by Israel hadn’t prevented it.
    The 4GC post-conflict rules David refers to are in plain English, and the fact that they are being being broken is being ignored. Our Conservative government (like many before it) has failed to hold Israel to account, and Labour are still frightened by the thought of Jeremy Corbyn’s fate after he upheld Palestinian rights.
    Political opportunism is not something we should espouse without good reason, but some of us who have been lucky enough to have visited the West Bank and met Palestinian people believe now is the time to remedy decades of neglect by all political parties in the UK, and nail Liberal Democrat colours to mast. The debate in next week’s conference is a chance for all of us to vote for meaningful change in the UK’s stance on Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. The Palestinians deserve better, but so do the Israeli public.
    Israel’s political and military leaders share a rosy view of the past, dominated by past military successes, and justifiable pride in how Israel has triumphed over adversity. Reaction to events in May show that when it comes to the on-going denial of Palestinian rights, the world has moved on. So must they. We Liberal Democrats should play our part in sending that message.

  • Peter Downey 9th Sep '21 - 12:43pm

    I have posted an amendment to Layla’s section on equality of travel and visa treatment.
    Mine ( if called) adds that we “Demand Immediate implementation “ so that if Palestinians have to get visas, which they currently do, then so too should Israelis
    The problem of previous Israeli Government transgressions is our response is no more than admonishment.
    There must be cost that will make Israelis aware, this is not the case as I found on my many visits, not least when I visited Tel Aviv University.
    Policies have consequences or should have.
    I also find it wrong that UEFA have Israeli sides in European competitions.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Sep '21 - 4:49pm

    Thank you all for an excellent article and comments!
    The attached article may be of interest and even use.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Sep '21 - 6:30pm

    The issue is not as much the treatment of the Palestinean people, terrible as that is as the precedent this sets for determing how countries treat their minorities accross the globe.

  • Many thanks to Steve Trevethan for the link to ICAHD director Jeff Halper’s extensive analysis of the global politics behind the failure of western countries to condemn of the colonisation of Palestine. Having said in a comment above that the issues in play were relatively simple, I am suitably chastened. However, David McDowall’s central point remains true; if we abided by 4GC, the occupation would have to end.
    Among the points Jeff Halper makes is that Israel is widely seen by the US and others as a fortress guarding ‘Western values’ from frightening states like Iran – a view Israel is, of course, keen to promote – but it isn’t clear why we would be any less safe if Israel ended its repression of the Palestinians, which has little to do with its ‘fortress’ role (which is itself largely delusory and manufactured). Apparently, remaining on good terms with Israel is so important that if they don’t like us complaining about the human rights of Palestinians, leaders of the Western world have decided we have to do as we are told, and shut up.
    Many would argue that Israel has become trapped in a mindset that relies an external enemy and the perpetuation of conflict and oppression, and needs help to escape from it. We should not remain silent, and should do all we can to help the organisations like the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) to change the minds of Israeli citizens.

  • Jeremy Woolf 12th Sep '21 - 5:32pm

    I do not think focusing on Resolution 194 is likely to assist a peaceful or just resolution of the conflict. A right of return to Israel is effectively inconsistent with a two state solution to the conflict and this “right” is completely unacceptable to the Israeli side of the conflict and has been a major reason why no resolution was reached to the conflict under the Oslo process. I would also question its justice because it glosses over the dispossession of the Jews of the Middle East by the Arab world (whose numbers were similar to the Palestinian refugees and who now mainly live in Israel) . Andy Dear’s comments that there would have been a State of Palestine were it not for the 1967 War also glosses over the fact that Jordan ruled the West Bank and would not have lightly given up its sovereignty. I did regularly vote Liberal Democrat in the past, and have voted for the party during the Brexit issue. One of a number of issues that put me off from voting for the party was, in my view, its lack of balance on this conflict and what appears to me to be frequent anti-Israeli stance.

  • David McDowall 13th Sep '21 - 3:35pm

    I must disagree with Jeremy Woolf. I believe the right of return for refugees is fundamental, even if they (probably) do not wish to take it up. I greatly regret the departure of Jews from Arab countries and equally strongly believe in their right of return if they wish it. Ideas of ethnic and ethno-religious nationalism derive from Europe but have been utterly catastrophic for the peoples of the Middle East, who for centuries lived in successful multi-confessional multi-ethnic polities. I’m not dewy-eyed that we can return to that happier situation but I do believe in universal human rights, as much as for Jews as for Arabs, regardless of how it might or might not affect a two-state solution. It is a principle we should affirm, whether or not it is taken up in practical terms.

  • The only credible plan is the Saudi Plan
    The peace plan does not mention explicitly the refugees’ right of return but instead called only for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem” in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 194.
    Saudi Arabia and the USA remain key to a resolution. This has been the case since the Great Bitter Lake meeting between FDR and King Saud.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Sep '21 - 9:21pm

    Andy Daer: “Labour are still frightened by the thought of Jeremy Corbyn’s fate after he upheld Palestinian rights.”
    Well if so then they are mistaken, because that was never the problem. The problem with Corbyn and his like isn’t that they support “Palestinian rights”, but that they have an extremely narrow definition of those rights, treating it as a zero-sum conflict between those and Israeli rights. In their worldview, “Israelis” are always the oppressors and “Palestinians” are always the victims. So they brush aside attacks on Palestinian rights by Palestinian authorities, such as the brutal misogyny and homophobia of Hamas and related groups. The rights of Palestinians who are gay, female, non-Muslim or the wrong sort of Muslim are completely ignored in this narrow simplistic analysis. But it is important to consider if you claim to support human rights, which is incompatible with the rigid victim-oppressor analysis of the hard left.

  • Jeremy Woolf 17th Sep '21 - 10:15pm

    I would be intrigued whether applying similar reasoning whether David McDowall similarly calls for rights of return for Indians to Pakistan (caused by the partition of India in 1947) or Germans to the areas of what is now Poland or Czech Republic where they formally lived or Poles from what is now Ukraine (all movements that occurred in 1946) or is his sole attention on Israel? I certainly can not see any of my family realistically returning to Iraq where they lived for over two millennia and I have no doubt that the same comment could be made by any Jews whose families originate from the Arab world (the numbers of copies of Mein Kampf I saw on the streets of Amman on a recent visit certainly would not be an encouragement).

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