Beyond Denial – A New Role for UK Policy In Israel and Palestine


Let us be clear. There was no justification for Hamas’ military takeover in Gaza last week. Reports of summary executions and of those considered to be rivals being thrown from rooftops were nothing short of horrific. It opens up yet another chapter in the ongoing tragedy of Palestine. And once again, it will be ordinary Palestinians who will suffer the most.

But neither can I disguise my anger about the role of the international community.  The Quartet of the USA, EU, UN and Russia is in a state of denial about our own contribution to creating the circumstances in which the current bloodshed was unleashed. We told the Palestinians to go down the path of democracy and then we shunned the government that came out of the elections we ourselves supervised.  We told Hamas to turn away from violence and to commit to democracy. But when they stood for election, suspended their attacks on Israel and offered a long term ceasefire, we ignored these changes.

Instead, we boycotted them, telling them that their election would be disregarded by the outside world unless they signed up, without qualification, to a total renunciation of violence, full recognition of Israel and full acceptance of existing international agreements on Israel and Palestine. We are right to insist that these will all be essential elements of a lasting and just peace settlement in the region. But we made them preconditions to our even talking to the elected Hamas government. We have never applied similar preconditions to Israel, despite the fact that it does not in practice live up to those principles. For example, Israel has never in practice renounced the use violence in pursuit of its objectives. And it continues to violate its own obligations under international law and existing agreements through its continued occupation of Palestinian land, through the ongoing expansion of illegal settlements and through its construction of a Wall, not along its own lawful borders, but beyond them.

Our own boycott of the Palestinian Authority provided cover for Israel to impose on Gaza a military blockade that cut off most Palestinian trade access to the outside world by land, sea and air. Simultaneously, Israel has withheld from the Palestinians the tax revenues they are owed from the movement of those goods that they have been able to get through Israeli checkpoints. Not surprisingly, poverty in Gaza has soared to levels similar to those of sub Saharan Africa. The bitter irony is that the UK and other Western Governments is now spending more on emergency food and medical aid to the Palestinian population caged in by Israel than we ever did before we imposed the boycott. But that aid is more costly and less effective because we have insisted on by-passing the regular institutions that deliver health, education and social welfare.  That, in turn, helped to increase unemployment amongst public service workers and deepened poverty across the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, we now have to put in even more aid to offset the impact of our own policies

And do we really think any of this helped the elected secular President Abbas when he needed it? The brutal truth is that the actions of  the international community over the last two years have undermined the President and those in both Fatah and Hamas who were not only willing to share power between themselves but who were also trying to bring their own movements towards the conclusion of a durable peace agreement with Israel. Even when the Mecca agreement brought a National Unity Government in to existence, we refused to seize the opportunity, ignoring a new proposal for a ceasefire with Israel which was published by Fatah, Hamas and Independent members of that Government as recently as two weeks ago.

Instead, we have unwittingly strengthened the hands of the hardliners; of the more extreme elements in Hamas, of those Fatah figures who were never prepared to accept that they had lost the Palestinian Parliamentary elections and of the clan and militia leaders for whom the power bestowed on them by the gun is more important than any political or ideological loyalty. Just have a look at the reports flying around the US administration in recent months, none too subtly recommending that Fatah-dominated forces should be given the financial and other support necessary to “sort out” Hamas. This has fuelled rumours in Gaza itself of US-funded arms shipments going to Fatah. Hamas leaders warned that a coup was coming against the National Unity Government they led, allowing their own hardliners to push for a pre-emptive strike. That strike came last week. As with some other pre-emptive military strikes, the rhetoric turned out to have been launched on the basis of faulty intelligence. The rumoured stockpiles of US-funded Fatah weapons have not been found.

None of this should be surprising. A report from the House of Commons International Development Committee pointed out the perverse effects of Quartet Policy on poverty in Palestine earlier this year. Humanitarian agencies have been making similar points. Independent and moderate Palestinian voices have been warning the Quartet for months about the dangerous situation its policies were creating and so too has the recently retired UN Special Envoy to the area. All have been ignored. We now face the consequences of that. Our task now is at least to avoid making a bad situation worse and to identify what we can do to help in practice.

In appointing Salam Fayyad as the emergency Prime Minister, President Abbas has chosen someone who has a reputation for honesty and who has credibility in the outside world. However, It is no criticism of Fayyad to acknowledge that the depth and breadth of his support amongst Palestinians living in the OccupiedTerritories is more limited. His chances of bringing greater stability to Palestine will depend on how far and how fast he is able to secure real changes in the daily lives of Palestinians living under occupation. The brass neck with which the USA has promised a quick end to the boycott now it has the prospect of a Palestinian Government more to its liking may be breathtaking, but that does not alter the fact that the lifting of the boycott is vital to any chance of progress.

However, lifting the international boycott on aid to the PA it is not enough. As long as the West Bank is criss-crossed with Israeli checkpoints and closures and  a Wall that prevent students getting to college, patients getting to hospital and traders or farmers getting their goods to market, there is simply no chance of taking forward the “economic roadmap” out of poverty on which Gordon Brown has rightly placed such emphasis. Israel has existing obligations here under international law and under a number of international agreements. Its own Association Agreement with the EU gives Israel goods preferential access to European markets but carries with it a raft of human rights and obligations which Israel ignores. The EU summit this week should make clear to Israel that the continuation of its own trade preferences are dependent on its fulfilling these obligations and allowing the Palestinians the same rights to trade that it demands for itself.

In Gaza, the position is even worse. In a report this month Christian Aid reported that over 80% of its 1.5m population are without a regular income. Even before last week it was cut off from the outside world for most of the time by Israel’s military blockade. The response of Israel and parts of the international community to Hamas’ military takeover could now make the isolation of Gaza complete, taking it to the point of starvation and its humanitarian catastrophe to unprecedented levels. We have to keep the humanitarian aid going in even whilst the search for a settlement to the Palestinian crisis goes on. To do that, aid agencies will not be able to avoid dealing with the Hamas fighters that control the streets and their leaders. Accepting that does not mean endorsing anyone or excusing what happened last week. It simply recognises that – as an international community – we have humanitarian responsibilities to the ordinary people of Gaza that we cannot ignore.

And we need to give the Palestinians the space and encouragement to rebuild a political consensus out of the bloodshed of recent days. President Abbas is the legitimate President of the PA and the recognised leader of the PLO. He has the constitutional right to appoint a new government under Salam Fayyad but he is also  obliged to have that ratified by the Palestinian Parliament within a month or so. Fatah, Hamas and a range of other parties are part of the political reality of Palestine and their voters have a stake in its democracy. A Palestine fractured between a “Hamastan” in Gaza isolated from the outside world and a series of rival Fatah Bantustans in the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli settlements and Walls, offers no hope for the Palestinians and no security for Israel. It could also breed not the nationalist Islam of Hamas but an Al Qaeda-type Jihadism that has never until now had any significant support in the OccupiedTerritories. The dangers of that for the outside world should be clear. So this time we should support, rather than undermine, any attempts by the Palestinians and perhaps by the Arab States to promote reconciliation between Palestinians rather than “victory” of one side over another. We should press for the release by Israel of the democratically elected Palestinian Parliamentarians that are being held in Israeli gaols – including figures like Marwan Barghouti who could play a key role in promoting reconciliation.

And just as important as all this, we should pick up and take forward the plan which was agreed by all Arab States at the Beirut Summit five years ago which sets out the two simple principles which can give both Israelis and Palestinians the future they deserve. Full withdrawal by Israel from the territories it occupies and a fair solution to the refugee problem in return for full recognition and full peace.

Recent Posts

Richard Burden

Avatar photo

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.

Get in touch

You can reach me by email at or use the form on the Contact page to send me a message.