Terror and territoriality – The House Magazine


Richard interviewed Lorna Fitzsimons of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre for the House Magazine in January 2008.

Read the article below.

Terror and territoriality
The House Magazine
14 January 2008

Differentiating offensive from defensive military action has been the crux of many a Middle East crisis. Richard Burden wades through a rich stew of psychology and security with Lorna Fitzsimons, head of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre

There are few issues that generate as much passion as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As one of the world’s most long-running political face-offs, the Middle East question is the focus of a perpetual storm of debate and contention.

Amongst the chorus of competing voices is the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, known as BICOM. BICOM is an independent organisation devoted to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in the UK. It is headed by an old colleague of mine on the Labour benches, Lorna Fitzsimons, the forthright and combative former MP for Rochdale.

A not-for-profit organisation, funded by individual donations, BICOM was set up six years ago. Its mission, says Fitzsimons, “is to help create a supportive environment for Israel”. BICOM’s research, analysis, media and communications work aims to “add to the understanding of people who are going to comment on decision and events, or people who are actually going to formulate policy”.

As Fitzsimons, who describes herself as “a gentile, atheist, Zionist”, says, “anyone who’s been to the Middle East knows that there are as many views as there are people”. For her, BICOM’s raison d’être is to give commentators and policymakers a sense of the diversity and reality of Israeli life.

She says this means “being able to frame a debate about Israel which accepts that the country is a very rare thing in the Middle East: a democracy with a thriving civil society, a thriving media, and a separation of powers between the judiciary and state. It’s something that we should absolutely understand and celebrate, but [also] be realistic about.” By this, Fitzsimons means that those judging Israel often set the bar “too high”. She feels that “because there aren’t comparable nation states surrounding Israel, the expectation of what Israel therefore can solve and do by itself is sometimes unrealistic”.

I ask Fitzsimons about Britain’s role in the peace process. What role can we play and what is expected of us?

“We are a bit player,” she says, “but we have an important role to play.” She thinks Gordon Brown and David Miliband have “hit the ground running”. She also says “one shouldn’t underestimate how much Gordon is already a known commodity on the international stage, and how much that helps in terms of relationships and trust.”

She is equally positive about the way Tony Blair has approached his new role as an envoy for the Quartet. “There was a lot of hullabaloo with people saying that because of Iraq people wouldn’t trust him in the Arab world. I can tell you that’s not what the Palestinians think. They know that because he has the trust of the Israelis and the Americans, that therefore he can deliver for the Palestinians.” She concedes that “Blair is not as popular on the Palestinian street as he is on the Israeli street,” but insists, “he has got traction”.

I ask Fitzsimons about the ever-thorny issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She replies unequivocally. “There are no new settlements being built.” Any building that is taking place, she says, is “in already established settlement blocs”.

But, I ask her, under international law, isn’t it illegal for an occupying power to move its own people into occupied land to live, and that all Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967 are illegal, whether they are “existing” today, or “new”? A seasoned politician, Fitzsimons avoids a direct answer, saying she’s not an expert in international law.

We move on to the Separation Barrier and the network of Israeli checkpoints, closures and roadblocks that hamper Palestinians’ ability to move from place to place in the West Bank and undermine any chance of normal life for Palestinians, let alone economic development. We also consider the Israeli blockade which has effectively sealed off Gaza altogether from the outside world since Hamas took over there.

Fitzsimons emphasises Israeli security concerns. She says that in the West Bank there was a case where “a roadblock was taken away at the beginning of the week and an Israeli was killed. An innocent Israeli was shot. There are real consequences to this for Israelis. The Palestinians at the moment are not – and they will say this to you openly – in a position where they can guarantee their own people’s security, internally, let alone being able to give Israel security guarantees in the West Bank.”

So what does Fitzsimons feel about the Annapolis conference which took place before Christmas? Although warmly welcomed in the international community when it took place, by the time of my interview with Fitzsimons just a couple of weeks later, there were real concerns about what discernible changes on the ground it was going to deliver.

Fitzsimons agrees that things got off to “a rocky start”, but stresses that “people need to understand these are the first talks in seven years”, and “we shouldn’t underestimate how important that is”. Particularly important, she says, was the fact that all the critical members of the Arab League was represented at the talks.

But how does she feel about the fact that Hamas is still excluded from any talks, and that the people of Gaza are kept in a state of siege by Israel? How can the peace process move forward if it ignores such a large elephant just outside the room?

Fitzsimons says that the siege can only be lifted and dialogue take place with Hamas if it first explicitly accepts the three Quartet pre-conditions of recognition of Israel, an unequivocal renunciation of violence, and an acceptance of existing agreements. She cites the Northern Ireland peace process as an example where “we were absolutely and utterly consistent and unified in what conditions there were in coming to the negotiating table”. She continues: “We do nobody, including the Palestinians, any favours if we go weak on the conditions.”

But if it is right to insist that Hamas accepts these pre-conditions before anybody even talks to them, why do we not insist on the same preconditions for parties in Israel? When, for example, have we ever said that we should refuse to even talk to those in Israel who don’t accept the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own? When have we ever demanded that Israel should unequivocally renounce its own use of violence as a precondition to dialogue?

Fitzsimons sees it differently, claiming that “Israel has never launched an unprovoked attack” on the Palestinians. “Israel does make mistakes and there are tragedies,” she says, “but [only] when there are consistent unprovoked acts of terror on a daily basis on Israelis. In Britain we would not tolerate it to the degree that they do.”

There is no doubt she is right that Israelis genuinely believe their use of violence is self-defence. It is worrying though that Fitzsimons does not seem to recognise that many Palestinians also genuinely regard the violence that they have used as acts of self-defence in resistance to illegal occupation. And ultimately, where do such claims of self-defence get us? A Palestinian civilian in Gaza on the receiving end of an Israeli missile attack is not likely to feel any less threatened because Israel claims its actions are motivated by self-defence, any more than an Israeli civilian threatened by Hamas’ ramshackle rockets will feel reassured by Hamas’ arguments that they are a response to continued occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

Maybe this points to a fundamental problem. Both sides and their supporters know intimately their own narratives about the causes of this conflict and about what they want the other side to do to achieve a settlement. But all too often we don’t try to understand the narrative of the other side. So I ask Fitzsimons about bottom lines. If she was to explain to a Palestinian what the bottom lines are for ordinary Israelis that the Palestinians will have to accept if there is going to be a settlement, what would she say? “The first thing,” she says, “is security, but the second, for any human being, is about somebody accepting their identity.” And if she tried to explain to an Israeli about Palestinian bottom lines? “Those two same things,” she says. “Security from Israel’s actions?” I ask. No, she replies. The Palestinians she meets feel far more threatened by Palestinian militias than they do by Israel.

This last part of Fitzsimons’ answer disturbs me. At a broad level Fitzsimons and I both want the same thing: a peaceful and viable two-state solution. But it needs to go further than that. The interview reminds me that, as chairman of the Britain-Palestine Parliamentary Group, I need to better understand the hopes and fears of Israelis. But I also hope that, on reflection, Fitzsimons will also recognise when you listen to Palestinians, security from occupation and from Israeli military incursions are not second-order issues for them, but central to their concerns.

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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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