UK ministers always seem to preface what they say about the crisis in Gaza by acknowledging Israel's right to self defence against attack. I agree with them about that. Actually, the Palestinians have the right of self defence too. The point is that neither can credibly be invoked to justify the carnage that is unfolding.
Nearly 1,200 civilians killed, hundreds of them children. Some 485,000 civilians displaced as their homes are obliterated, only to find that the United Nations schools and clinics in which they have sought shelter are themselves then hit by shells and missiles. UN buildings? A few weeks ago it would have been almost unthinkable to hear of such a thing happening at all. Today the news reports are not about whether humanitarian safe places are hit, but how many have been hit. Israeli Government spokespeople sound almost Orwellian in the arguments they invoke to explain these strikes away. And before anyone asks, yes I do also condemn any Palestinian group that has hidden weapons in any such place. That however, does not absolve Israel of its own obligations under the Geneva conventions. Civilian life should not be wilfully disregarded any more than civilians deliberately targeted.
Yet while we all express our horror at what is going on, the point is what are we actually doing to stop it? Calling for a ceasefire? Calling for negotiations? Yes, of course those things are right. In the meantime, though, in practice Israel is continuing its attacks with impunity. We need to do more.
So what should we do? First, the UK was a prime mover in setting up the International Criminal Court to hold states and their leaders accountable for war crimes. There is prima facie evidence that War crimes are being committed in Gaza. International referral of Israel to the ICC would require the United Nations Security Council to do so. On past form there is little doubt that such a move would be vetoed by the USA, but that is no excuse for the UK to avoid doing the right think if referral to the ICC is moved.
Second, the custodians of the Geneva Convention are its High Contracting Parties. The UK is one of those. Palestine's President Abbas has already called for a meeting if the HCPs to be convened. David Cameron should support that.
Third, the UK and EU have some of the world's strictest rules in place for the export of arms and components. Israel already has a history of using UK-supplied arms in the Occupied Territories, including Gaza, in breach of those rules. It is an abrogation of duty that the UK has so far failed even to investigate whether UK-supplied arms and components are again being used in Gaza, as Katy Clark MP and I have asked ministers to do. If it's too difficult to do that right now, an arms embargo should be imposed in the meantime.
Fourth, the EU has an Association Agreement with Israel. It's privileges bring preferential trade terms. The agreement includes responsibilities too - in particular respect for human rights. If Israel refuses to fulfil its responsibilities under the agreement, it should lose its privileges. The UK should be saying so.
Fifth, the UK should ban trade and cooperation with Israel's settlements in the West Bank altogether. The UK government had always acknowledged that such settlements are not only a barrier to peace; under International Law they are illegal too. As trading with them is being complicit with that illegality, you have to wonder why UK companies have been allowed to do so until now anyway. In any event, the crisis in Gaza underlines why that trade must stop now.
Call these five actions sanctions if you like. I call them insisting that international agreements should be honoured and that international law should be upheld.
Finally, we need to be clear that when we talk about rights, these are indivisible. Again to quote Orwell, some are not more equal than others. First, that means the UN Security Council was right at the weekend to deplore the upsurge there has been in anti-Semitic attacks in parts of Europe. Gaza does not provide a pretext for prejudice - whether against Jews, Muslims or Christians. The second right we should uphold is the right to self-determination. That's why the UK recognises Israel -as a matter of right, not a matter for negotiation. It's time we recognised Palestine too. As Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said last year, "not as a gift to be given, but as a right to be recognised."
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