THE BLOG

When Will the UK Do More Than Whisper for Justice for the Palestinians?

16/12/2013 11:30 GMT | Updated 14/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Sometimes the kernels of a significant policy shift are barely whispered. They remain buried in the mass of technocratic jargon on government websites, or lurking in the footnotes of departmental reports.

Thus the British Government has moved one step closer to disowning UK businesses trading with Israeli settlements in the West Bank, stating: 'Settlements are illegal under international law... we do not encourage or offer support... to economic or financial activities in the settlements.'

The business advice, formulated by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and relayed to businesses through UK Trade and Investment (where it remained, unannounced, on its website) , draws attention to the 'reputational implications' of dealing with Israeli settlements, as well as 'possible abuses of the rights of individuals'.

This has potentially significant implications for Israel, with Britain currently the second largest export market for Israel, after the US, and with trade relations growing.

But while it is a positive development, the UK's history of inaction on this issue should provide more than pause for thought.

Since 2000, Israel has benefitted from the EC-Israel preferential trade agreement, which offers reduced tariffs on commodities imports/exports with EU states.

The UK position has long been that businesses involved in economic activity in settlements would not be entitled to benefit from the agreement. But a Freedom of Information request I submitted to HM Revenue & Customs paints a very different picture: the number of imports rejected on these grounds is vanishingly small.

In 2008, there were 21,783 claims for the preferential rate of duty. Just 11 were denied because the goods came from illegal settlements. 11.

Likewise in 2009, just 21 of 20,611 applications were rejected. The highest annual rate of rejections between 2006-2010 was just 0.9%.

One might almost think that this policy simply wasn't being enforced: except in the most overt or egregious cases.

But as Martin Luther King once said, it is true that morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. And if the Government is genuinely attempting to regulate the behaviour of businesses then that is to be welcomed: though it still doesn't go far enough.

UK businesses should not be allowed to profit from settlements which, in the Government's own words, are 'illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible.'

More than words and warnings are needed, as the UK's recent failure to underpin the rhetoric with concrete actions has made all too clear.

As politicians the world over scramble to erase their history of inaction over South African apartheid, so too will the glare of history cast a shameful light on those who remained passive in the face of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

While the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, who galvanised an international movement against the barbarism of racism and oppression, there has never been a more acute time to heed his words: 'We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.'