The Guardian / March 26, 2023
The government’s mealy mouthed criticism of the Israeli PM’s increasingly right-wing policies is not enough. He should be persona non grata in the UK.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, might have been hoping for some brief respite from the tumult back home during his flying visit to London.
Instead, in addition to his meeting with Rishi Sunak and other officials, the Likud leader was met with protests from human rights activists, including a protest by Amnesty International, a Palestine solidarity demonstration outside No 10 and another by the British Jewish group Na’amod.
Such protests are well justified. Since the new government was sworn in, as reported by international governments, lawyers and human rights groups, Israel has furthered “annexation” of occupied land and advanced construction in illegal settlements. In 2023 so far, 75 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces (as of 13 March); last year, at least 231 Palestinians were killed in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, including nearly 40 children.
Moreover, these developments have not come out of the blue; Netanyahu heads a regime built over decades, and under various coalitions, that systematically privileges Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across all of the territory under its control – a regime that many in British politics have long condemned for its colonisation and occupation of Palestinian land.
This amounts to apartheid under international law, as many Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups agree. Yet rather than treating the Israeli government accordingly, the UK government has signed a “roadmap for UK-Israeli bilateral relations”, committing to various aspects of economic and state partnership.
Shamefully, the agreement also doubled down on the UK’s opposition to an international court of justice advisory opinion on the policies and practices of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory, calling the ICJ’s decision “inappropriate”. The UK pledges to “tackle the singling out of Israel in the human rights council”, it adds – seemingly by singling out Israel and making the state exempt from international law.
It is true that there have been some tame expressions of concern from Sunak’s government about the current Israeli government, and the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, has confirmed that the UK government is not engaging with the Israeli minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right activist within the coalition. Cleverly has also reiterated the UK’s position that Israeli settlements are “illegal under international law”.
Contrast the mealy mouthed or boilerplate criticism offered with respect to Israel with the UK’s response to Russia – the UK supported the international criminal court’s issuance of a warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest for the war crime of “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.
Cleverly welcomed this development, noting the British government’s respect for the “judgment” and “independence” of the court and reiterating the Ukrainians’ right to “get their country back”. By contrast, in 2021, the UK government actively opposed any ICC investigation into Israeli actions.
Meanwhile, the UK government’s “anti-boycott” bill is due to be tabled imminently and expected to prohibit public bodies, such as local councils and universities, from making investment and procurement decisions that are not in line with UK foreign policy. A move designed to “prevent organisations, including local councils, from boycotting countries such as Israel” now threatens to undermine the ability to peacefully protest over human rights abuses and unethical practices across the board. Thus, we find ourselves in the position where a UK government is rewarding an apartheid regime with strengthened bilateral ties, and undermining efforts to hold it to account.
It has long been the case that UK policy towards Israel has been at odds with a supposed commitment to a rules-based order and respect for human rights; Netanyahu’s ultra-right government appears to be throwing such inconsistency into sharp relief.
While the current UK government appears wholly unconcerned by the gaping disparity between its purported foreign policy principles and Israeli crimes, it would be prudent for British policymakers across the political spectrum to take a longer view. As it stands, the UK position is actively contributing to a worsening of the situation on the ground. Acting as an apologist for a serial law violator destroys the UK’s credibility as a responsible international actor and insults the intelligence of the British people.
As British Palestinians, we are being let down twice over. And for Palestinians back in Palestine, the consequences of this UK position are far, far worse. In 2019, Amnesty International reported: “In addition to being violations of international humanitarian law, key acts required for the establishment of settlements amount to war crimes under the Rome statute of the international criminal court.” Why do the Ukrainian victims of war crimes deserve urgent accountability and legal redress, but Palestinian victims do not? Why, when it comes to Palestine, is the clarity that peace only comes through freedom and self-determination completely absent?
Just as Putin is rightly held accountable for crimes committed by Russian forces, so too should Netanyahu be held accountable for crimes committed by Israeli forces and authorities. Indeed, the crimes in Israel’s case are copiously documented and have been going on for decades under every single Israeli prime minister.
If we want to be on the right side of history, the Israeli leadership should be persona non grata until the end of apartheid; the only European trip Netanyahu should be making is to The Hague.
Sara Husseini is director of the British Palestinian Committee