British MPs return from Palestinian elections


A British MP who was an official international observer at the Palestinian elections last week has called for “clear thinking and a measured response” to Hamas’ sweeping victory. Mr Burden says that the international community is right to make clear to Hamas that they must abandon the path of violence and that recognition of Israel will be part of any lasting settlement. However, he warns against the imposition of ill-thought through preconditions on exploratory dialogue with Palestine’s new government. He says that forcing people into corners at this stage could undermine the search for a lasting peace and leave the international community vulnerable to the charge of double standards.

Mr Burden has also drawn attention to the humanitarian crisis facing the Palestinian territories where extreme poverty has trebled since 1999. Last week, former US President Jimmy Carter warned that a $900m deficit left the Palestinian Authority facing the real prospect of running out of money by then end of February. Faced with this situation, Mr Burden says the international community should reject calls for an immediate cut in international aid to Palestine.

Mr Burden chairs the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group. He was in the Occupied Territories last week with Westminster Parliamentary colleagues Shahid Malik MP, Kerry McCarthy MP and Lord Kilclooney together with Pauline McNeil MSP. Speaking from Jerusalem last Friday, Mr Burden outlined his personal response to the Palestinian election result in the following statement:

“Anybody who was in Palestine on polling day could tell that Hamas was going to do very well but the scale of the victory exceeded anybody’s expectations. It represents a political earthquake whose effects will be felt well beyond the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

“This makes it all the more important that we are both clear thinking and measured in our response. Simply making megaphone demands on Palestine’s new government will not help.

“Given Hamas’ responsibility for some appalling attacks in which innocent civilians have died, Israelis will be understandably anxious about what the future holds for them and they will be looking for protection from their own government and from the international community. It is not only governments that should respond. Friends of Palestine like me must also make clear that actions such as suicide bombings are morally repugnant and offer no future for Palestinians.

“If we are to understand the causes of Hamas’ victory, and find ways of promoting a durable peace, we also have to understand that the world looks very different if you live in Gaza or the West Bank, rather than Tel Aviv, New York or London.

“In part, the genuine groundswell of support for Hamas this week expressed the frustrations which Palestinians feel about the numerous failures of the previously Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to deliver basic services or to deal with the corruption that often disfigured its activities. Hamas has a track record of organising social welfare on the ground, particularly among the most disadvantaged communities in Gaza. Now that Hamas will be forming a Government, the International Community obviously has a role in emphasising the importance to them of respecting the rule of law and the rights of all Palestinians, irrespective of their gender, culture or religious belief.

“However, support for Hamas also reflects the sheer exasperation amongst Palestinians at the huge gulf they see between the theory of internationally-sponsored peace plans such as the Road Map and the daily reality of their own lives under occupation – the poverty, the continual restrictions on basic freedoms such as the ability to move around and the illegal confiscation of land whilst equally illegal Israeli settlements expand with apparent impunity.

“The election should be a wake up call telling the international community – and most of all to the USA – that the double standards have to end.

“Bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to build peace requires more than slogans. Indeed, if we avoid forcing people into corners at this time, we could just achieve more in practice than looks possible in theory. Of course Hamas should be encouraged to accept Israel’s right to exist on its internationally recognised pre-1967 borders. But we should not make this any more of a precondition to dialogue with Hamas ministers than we make it a precondition to dialogue with Israeli ministers that they should first publicly recognise the right of the Palestinians to a state in all of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967.

“Similarly, whilst we must all do everything we can to persuade Hamas to reject the path of violence, we should be equally sensitive to Palestinians’ concern to maintain a capacity to defend themselves from Israeli attacks just as we are sensitive to Israel’s right to protect its citizens. Remember that Israel has not renounced its policy of assassinating Hamas activists or the right it claims to conduct military incursions into Palestinian towns at will.

“We would also be foolish to ignore the fact that, in practice, Hamas has been on ceasefire for some months now. In the current circumstances we may achieve more by securing an extension to that than by demanding that Hamas publicly disarm as a precondition for dialogue.

“Over the coming weeks there will be those on both sides that will try to stir up tension. Some Palestinian groups outside Hamas (or breakaway factions within it) may well launch bombing attacks on Israel. In the run up to their own election, hardliners in Israel may try to gain credibility as strong men by urging a tightening of the occupation or still more brutal responses by Israel to terrorist attacks. Some are already urging the international community to cut humanitarian aid to Palestine at the very time that poverty in Gaza is rife and the Palestinian Authority faces a $900 million deficit.

“Hardliners on both sides will have their cheerleaders internationally. But Britain, the EU and most of all the USA should reject those siren calls. Our job is to identify the practical ways of bringing Israelis and Palestinian together. Most of all we need to recognise that a lasting peace must be built between those who are currently enemies, not those who are already friends.”

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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