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Israel-Palestine: How British policy could trigger Third Intifada

Sunak is rolling out the red carpet for Netanyahu, even as a Jewish supremacist government threatens to annihilate Palestinians
Protesters wearing facemasks of Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Britain's PM Rishi Sunak stand with a placard outside the gates of Downing Street in central London on 23 March 2023 (AFP)

The man who arrived in Britain on Friday claiming to be the leader of the government in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not in control of his country. 

Hundreds of thousands of people, including military pilots and elite units, have camped out on the streets for weeks in protest against moves to neuter Israel’s highest court. Roadblocks have gone up across the land. 

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu said in a televised speech that he would proceed with “responsible judicial reforms”, while opposition politicians urged Likud members to rebel. But the question left in everyone's minds is: does Netanyahu control his last bastion of power, the Likud party?

Netanyahu is not even in control of his cabinet. The man who is finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-declared Jewish supremacist, recently gave a speech in Paris claiming that Palestinians did not exist.

Smotrich said much more than that. At the podium where he stood was a map that suggested Jordan, along with parts of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other neighbouring states, did not exist either, and should be under Jewish control.

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In Britain, we have a document lavishing praise on 'democracy' in Israel at the very juncture where a significant portion of its population is up in arms

When Israeli and Arab officials met in Aqaba to defuse tensions in the occupied West Bank in February, Smotrich said he had “no clue” what was discussed at the “superfluous summit” in Jordan. He pledged that settlement construction would not be frozen for “even one day”.

“What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir added.

When Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Egypt last weekend to agree on measures to calm tensions ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, the Knesset’s response was to pass legislation that would allow four abandoned Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank to be re-established after they were dismantled in 2005. Settlers can now return to areas of the occupied West Bank evacuated by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are not down-table ministers in a large cabinet. Apart from being finance minister, Smotrich has powers to oversee settlement construction. He is, in effect, the occupied West Bank’s civilian governor.

Just imagine if after the Windsor summit, in which British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a deal with the EU over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, had made a speech saying the Irish did not exist in front of a map that laid British claim to the whole of the island of Ireland.

That is what is happening right now in Israel.

No casual bystander

The map attached to the podium where Smotrich spoke was taken from the symbol of the Jewish terrorist organisation Irgun, which was involved in many massacres in 1948, including Deir Yassin, in which at least 107 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed. Former Irgun commander Ben-Zion Cohen once said that if there had been “three or four” more Deir Yassins at the time, Israel would not have a Palestinian problem.

After the recent rampage of settlers through the village of Huwwara, which senior Israeli commander Major General Yossi Fuchs described as a pogrom, Smotrich said the village should be wiped out. His only objection to the settler attack was that it should have been done by the state of Israel instead. 

Whatever the fate of Netanyahu's government, the remaining legal constraints on annexation are being removed, giving Smotrich and the settlers carte blanche to stage more pogroms and more attacks on Palestinian homes, villages and towns.

This is the context for the visit to London of a prime minister whose ministers openly advocate for another Nakba, another mass expulsion of Palestinians trying to live on their land.

What is Britain’s response? For it is no casual bystander to the war crimes that Israel openly commits, without the slightest scintilla of shame or caution.  

Britain is responsible for the creation of the Jewish-majority state and the fruition of the Zionist project. No other country bears more responsibility for expulsions, house demolitions, and illegal settlements that have gone on ever since Israel’s creation.

The successors of the Foreign Office that issued the Balfour Declaration have another responsibility. As Russian President Vladimir Putin knows only too well, Britain has been at the forefront of the international campaign to supply Ukraine with battlefield tanks and aircraft. Like Smotrich, who says that Palestinians don’t exist, Putin says that Ukraine does not exist

Britain’s reaction to Putin’s alleged war crimes has been to refer Russia to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which under British pressure went to Ukraine within a year and issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president.

Britain’s reaction to Israel’s repeated war crimes in its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories has been to oppose an ICC war crimes investigation and to vote against a UN inquiry to investigate the root causes of the conflict. In 75 years of the Nakba, the ICC has yet to issue an arrest warrant for any Israeli official, although it has opened an investigation into “the situation in the State of Palestine”

Shielding Israel from criticism

This week, Sunak went even further than his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who voted against an ICC investigation. To herald the arrival of a prime minister that Britain should - if it maintains any claim to uphold international law - be boycotting, Britain signed an agreement with Israel, which enshrines Israeli impunity at the Human Rights Council and other international bodies, and rejects the use of the term apartheid.

Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, said in a report to the Human Rights Council last year that the treatment of Palestinians “satisfies the prevailing evidentiary standard for the existence of apartheid”.

Britain’s new policy goes even further than the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.

How the UK government has bought into Israeli hasbara
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It overturns decades of UK policy in allowing Israel to decide which institutions of higher education should be part of educational cooperation with Britain, presumably opening the door to the university in Ariel’s illegal settlement to participate in these exchanges with the UK. 

Not even the US, Germany or France have gone this far. All have reminded Israel, albeit gently, of the dangers of diverting from the democratic path. But in Britain, we have a document lavishing praise on “democracy” in Israel at the very juncture where a significant portion of its population is up in arms and its government is being led by fascists.

The reaction of Arab governments is barely better. A former Jordanian interior minister, Samir Habashneh, recently called for the return of compulsory military conscription, and the United Arab Emirates is reportedly “considering” lowering its diplomatic representation in Israel. With indifference like this, Smotrich must feel he can do whatever he wants.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has no leftist credentials, coming from Likud and then the centrist Kadima, but even the likes of him pleaded with Britain not to receive Netanyahu.

The only reply to this will come from the Palestinian streets. And when it does, and there is shock and horror at shoppers and restaurant-goers in Tel Aviv being killed, and the international airwaves are once again full of weasel words about Israel’s right “to defend itself”, everyone will know where the blame for a Third Intifada will lie. 

Right here in Britain. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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