A wall of black smoke billows along the Gazan border. For most, peace in Israel and Palestine could not feel further away. Over the past few months, tens of thousands of Palestinians have joined the ‘great march of return’; a campaign composed of a series of marches which demand right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their homeland. Elderly men were seen holding banners with the names of the villages they were expelled from 70 years ago as young children. Organisers insisted that the march was for families and would be peaceful. However, media reports showed scores of protestors firing slingshots, hurling stones, launching Molotov cocktails and rolling burning tyres towards the Gazan border fence.
On 14 May, these protests became the scene of the deadliest day of violence since the 2014 Gaza War. The Israeli Defence Force launched rounds of tear gas and engaged in a deliberate policy to kill and maim protesters. Around 3,000 people were left injured and at least 58 Palestinians were killed, including an eight-month old baby who died from tear gas inhalation. Such scenes of violence are not isolated incidents; they have sadly characterised this conflict over the recent months and deepened the sense that peace is further away than ever. Israel’s use of lethal force in these most recent incidents was not simply disproportionate, it was completely unjustified.
The Palestinian people have an undeniable right to self-determination, and with the emergence of an ever-stronger national identity for Palestinians, the international community must recognise this right and the urgent need for it to be realised with a viable and independent state of Palestine.
Equally, as we mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration, we reflect upon the history of the Israeli diaspora: from escaping the pogroms of the Russian Empire in the 1880s to fleeing the scourge of antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the 1920s, to surviving the Holocaust, where we saw the harrowing result of a violent and racist ideology that placed hatred at its core.
Labour supported the establishment of the state of Israel from the outset. Indeed, it was the first political party in Great Britain to declare its backing for the right of Jewish people to return and live in the region, as outlined in the war aims memorandum from August 1917, published three months before the Balfour declaration.
History is all too often the story of suffering – the decades of conflict in the Middle East is a prime example of that. But history is also the story of hope, and shows what can be achieved when people – and especially leaders – not only put aside their differences but prioritise working through them. The end of apartheid in South Africa; the Good Friday agreement; the Colombian peace process and the recent de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula have all shown that peace is possible when reconciliation is placed at the top of the agenda.
Both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples are in desperate need of fresh leadership. Hamas continues to incite violence and coordinate rocket attacks into Israel and that, combined with President Abbas’ constant refusal to hold elections, failure to contain the military wing of Hamas and his recent speech at the Palestinian National Council in which were contained a series of vile antisemitic remarks, is indicative of how the authority is deepening tensions. On the other side, prime minister Netanyahu’s hard-line policies force the political discourse ever further to the right and away from that ideal of reconciliation. Added to the backdrop of this woeful saga is President Trump’s reckless decision to relocate the United States embassy to Jerusalem, which not only broke the international consensus but further fuelled the fury of the Palestinian people. A new generation of leaders who strive for peace, democracy and transparency is desperately needed.
The points of divergence remain clear: Israeli settlements, rights of refugees and of course the status of Jerusalem. At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, there were approximately 250,000 settlers beyond the Green Line, today the figures stands close to 640,000, with roughly two-thirds of this population concentrated around East Jerusalem. With each year, this situation becomes more difficult to reverse or at the very least resolve. Whilst we are now seeing public support for a two-state solution from both the Israelis and the Palestinians begin-ning to decline, the largest roadblock for real progress on these issues is the political elite.
The competing and frequently mutually exclusive national narratives of leaders on both sides mean the only political solution to this conflict is a two-state solution. In the absence of a renewed commitment to the peace process, we face the appalling prospect of a third intifada and perpetual war, death and suffering.
The international community must use every tool available to help facilitate reconciliation between both peoples, and most importantly a lasting peace.
I believe in Israel. I believe in Palestine. It is time to consign the old adages of being ‘pro-Palestinian’ and ‘pro-Israel’ to history and adopt in full the approach of being pro-peace.