Two vigilant readers have pointed out that the articles promised in the last Post which I’ll add here because the attachments didn’t work. Sorry!
Can there be peace between Israel and Palestine? How can we help?
Remarks by Sir Vincent Fean at the University of Sheffield, 25 February 2016
I was in Jerusalem from 2010 to 2014, representing the British Government and talking
mainly to Palestinians. What I witnessed there, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, made
me want to talk about the Israel/Palestine conflict tonight. It is a conflict too easily neglected.
I had the privilege of going there and seeing for myself. We neglect it at our peril.
Now retired, I will share my personal impressions of what is happening on the ground and at
the political level now; look at three options for the future in what we call the Holy Land, two
of them bad and the only good one – the solution of two states – becoming harder to achieve
by the day, and end by suggesting why we British should care, and what we can do to make
the best outcome more likely to happen. I shall talk more about Palestinians than about
anything else, because it’s best to talk about what I know something about.
What is happening now, on the ground and politically
Let’s not start from the beginning. But let’s start with the Prophet Abraham, revered by Jews,
Christians and Muslims alike. Abraham embodies the fact that all three of those great
religions belong together in the Holy Land, and have so much in common. They teach
peace, justice and mercy. So let no one tell you that this conflict is about religion. It could go
that way, into sectarian strife – but at heart, it’s about land, power, control, security and the
well-being of two peoples who are cousins.
There are two strongly competing narratives – one Israeli Jewish, one Palestinian Arab. Both
peoples feel a sense of victimhood, past or present. Both narratives deserve respect, but
you don’t need to believe just the one, and espousing one to the exclusion of the other
doesn’t actually help. Nor does it help to assimilate an entire people with the actions of a
government. That mistake is too often made. Today, what we have is the State of Israel
recognized on pre-1967 war lines by almost all the world including, very importantly, by the
Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and neighboring Egypt and Jordan. In 1967 Israel
won a war and occupied what I today call Palestine–East Jerusalem, the West Bank of the
River Jordan and the Gaza Strip. That Israeli-occupied area is recognised as a state – the
State of Palestine – by two thirds of the members of the United Nations, including China,
Russia and India, but not by the USA or most of the European Union, including the United
Kingdom. I advocate recognition of Palestine. Recognition matters, which is why it is not
easy to obtain.
On the ground, the Occupation inevitably causes friction. To put it bluntly, one people’s army
is bossing around another people, who resent that fact. During this 49 year occupation there
have been a number of uprisings by Palestinians, overpowered by Israel, for Israel has the
power, including three Gaza wars – the last in 2014. The cease fire between Hamas in Gaza
and Israel has held since then, but is very precarious. Elsewhere in Palestine and Israel, in
recent weeks we have seen desperate and totally futile individual acts of violence, often by
very young Palestinians, against Israelis – both military and civilian. These acts are hard to
prevent – they look and are spontaneous, unplanned, uncoordinated. Often the perpetrators
are killed on the spot. Their violence is to be deplored, condemned outright. We should also
ask what drives them to desperate acts. Where is their hope for a better tomorrow, for the
sort of future we seek for our own children?
Politically, there is next to no communication between the Israeli and Palestinian
leaderships, between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. Each side talks to the
Americans, to the EU – but barely to each other, except for megaphone diplomacy, at which
Israel is much, much better than the Palestinians. It does not help at all that the Palestinians
are politically as well as administratively divided, between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah, the
PLO or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Western diplomatic efforts focus on the
PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, as agreed in the Oslo
Accords, and the Palestinian Authority as the legitimate authority in Gaza, which it is.
Currently the PLO excludes Hamas, though Hamas won the last Palestinian parliamentary
election back in 2006, and won fairly.
The Americans traditionally lead on efforts to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is for debate whether the Americans are neutral, unbiased. In any event, since Secretary
Kerry’s valiant effort failed almost 1 year ago, the USA have signed off. This is a Presidential
election year in the US. Obama wants his Democratic Party to win, and taking risks for
peace in the Holy Land by challenging Israeli policies is a risk too far. Optimists would say
that this is an opportunity for the EU to fill the vacuum, but EU policy on this conflict is of the
lowest common denominator type – the opposite of adventurous or assertive. If you thought
that the Quartet – the US, Russia, the EU and the UN – had folded its tent and faded into the
night, you might be forgiven for thinking that, since it has achieved so little. But it continues
to exist, and is working on a policy document setting out what needs to be done. I am not
holding my breath. That leaves the French. I am not saying much about our Government –
their mind is elsewhere – an error we can correct, but for now let’s focus on the French, as
our partners and rivals in EU foreign policy formulation. They propose an international
conference on the conflict this summer. Today Abbas is keen and Netanyahu is cool, but has
yet to say no. He was irritated by the remark of France’s then Foreign Minister, Laurent
Fabius, last month that if the conference fails to come about, or fails to work, then France will
recognise the State of Palestine, albeit under Occupation. I have long admired, and
sometimes been jealous of, French diplomacy. I think they’ve got this right.
Three possible outcomes to the Israel/Palestine conflict
I believe we are at a decisive point in this conflict. I see three possible ways ahead. Only one
of them is actually a way forward. The first is more of the same – the status quo continued. That means continued illegal Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, contrary to the 4th Geneva
Convention, and the continued closure of Gaza, locking in 1.8 million people – most of them
under university age. It means chronic violence in and from Gaza – if nothing changes, the
conditions for violence there will recur. It probably means a continuation of the sporadic
violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and indeed in Green Line Israel proper.
Israel’s security forces are strong and well practiced in preemption, though not always with
proportionate use of force. In the last Gaza war Israel’s use of force was not proportionate,
and Israel’s international standing suffered as a result. Israel will continue down this spiral as
long as she maintains the Occupation.
The words “status quo” have a seductively reassuring ring – an air of continuity, pause for
breath, time to take stock. This status quo is different – it’s dynamic, with already 650,000
Israeli illegal settlers on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, and more coming every year.
That’s over 10% of the Israeli voting population: an increasingly influential political force.
This status quo suits some Israelis – by no means all Israelis – but no Palestinians at all. To
me, it risks meaning the end of the EU’s favoured option of two contiguous sovereign states
on ’67 lines sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both – in other words, the demise of the two
state solution, and thus of the agreed aim of the international community for the last 25
years or more. I think that’s bad for Israelis, and I know it’s bad for Palestinians. It’s bad for
Israel’s international standing. It means the army of one people continuing to boss another
people, with corrosive effect on both peoples. It’s bad for Palestinians because it deprives
them of the sovereign state to which they aspire in Gaza, the West Bank and East
Jerusalem, and thus of the opportunity to invest in that state, to make something of it, to give
their children prospects. The absence of those prospects is daunting.
The second possible outcome is more clear-cut, but with the same result: it’s called the one state
outcome, or the ”bi-national state” – ie two peoples in one state – which Mr Netanyahu
swears will never happen. There are some in his cabinet who favour illegally annexing the
countryside of the West Bank, just as Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967. It is a
short step from there to the assimilation of the West Bank into “Greater Israel”, bringing 3 or
– if you included Gaza – 5 million Palestinians into a state created explicitly for the Jewish
people. If those people had equal rights, the present Jewish majority in Israel might lose
power. That’s not what Mr Netanyahu is about. Nor do I favour the one state outcome. I fear
it would not be a state of equality, of equal rights for all, in my lifetime. To use a word that
Secretary Kerry whispered, quite deliberately, it would be an apartheid state.
One major drawback of both these outcomes is that they internalize and perpetuate
violence, because they perpetuate the Occupation of 1967 and the illegalities inherent in the
conduct of that Occupation. Both deprive a people – the Palestinian people – of hope.
The third outcome is the one which the West has urged on the two parties to this conflict for
decades – a two state solution which ends the 1967 Occupation while safeguarding the
security of both Israelis and Palestinians and beginning to undo the harm caused by
decades of mutual suspicion, of mistrust, of hatred. Easier said than done, as the last 49
years of Occupation have proved. This outcome needs work, lots of it, and lots of moral
courage. It entails risk – more risk for Israel than for the Palestinians, because the Israeli
authorities now exercise control of the Palestinian territory and the people through the
Occupation, and will be expected to give it up. For it to work, Palestinians will need to
exercise new-found power responsibly. Some of the 650,000 settlers will have to go home to
Green Line Israel. Otherwise, there is no contiguous Palestinian state – just a collection of
Palestinian bantustans in the West Bank.
We are not close to an equitable two-state outcome today, and many Palestinians say that it
is a pipe-dream – so very far from the grim reality they live. But it remains the best available
outcome for both peoples, and for us here. It’s pretty clear what’s in it for the Palestinians –
though it does not address all of their concerns, including the plight of Palestinian refugees
from 1948 and 1967. For Israelis to embrace the change, the goal of enhanced security for
their children needs to be attainable, and credible – and the alternatives, including the status
quo, need to become much less appealing, less comfortable. There is a security role here for
the US, for NATO, for the EU. There is a major role for the Arab states, offering recognition
for Israel, trade with and investment with Israel, based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
There is a role for us British, as a concerned friend of both peoples: first warning of
consequences for any illegal acts by either party, and then following through consistently if
those illegal acts are repeated. Our Governments talk the talk, but hesitate to do more than
Some say that Israel would be foolish to withdraw in a phased manner from the land
occupied in 1967 – just look at the turmoil in the neighbourhood… The counter-argument is
that no one in his right mind is asking Israel to disarm – but Israel’s long-term interest lies in
a peace treaty with the Palestinians such as Israel has negotiated with Jordan and Egypt.
Those vital peace treaties, and the turmoil in Syria and elsewhere, mean that today there is
absolutely no strategic threat to Israel from any of her Arab neighbours, unlike 1948 or, most
recently, 1973. At the same time, there is genuine urgency: an equitable two state solution is
disappearing before our eyes. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Hope is dwindling
– to many Palestinians, their situation is hopeless, and that is dangerous.
Why we should care, and what we can do.
So, what’s it to us? The answer depends on who we think we are, and what we stand for.
What are our values, and where do our interests lie? We have “form” on this conflict, going
back even before the Balfour Declaration whose centenary is on 2 November next year. In
1917 our Foreign Secretary said: “Her Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which
may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Part two of that Declaration, that promise, is still unfinished business. Our unfinished
business. In my view, only the creation of the Palestinian state alongside Israel will complete
I commend to you the work of a group of British academics and people of faith who have
joined together in the Balfour Project – http://www.balfourproject.org – to shed light on that corner
of our country’s history, for the benefit of our young people and those charged with their
education. The Project promotes justice, security and peace for Israelis and for Palestinians.
We British co wrote the 4th Geneva Convention, after World War 2. Israel and the
Palestinians – the PLO – have signed and ratified it. Israel’s conduct of this Occupation does
not conform to that Convention – it breaches it in several regards: the settlements are illegal,
as is the Separation Barrier or Wall wherever it trespasses on Palestinian soil, which is often;
the closure of Gaza, banning movement to the West Bank, is in effect collective punishment.
There are other examples. This is not to condone the terrifying and indiscriminate rocket fire
from Gaza, currently suspended – nor the stabbings and other violence to which I have
referred. But two wrongs do not make a right. Justice requires an even handed approach if
we really want to end this conflict, not just manage it. Expediency suggests trying to manage
it – and diplomats are familiar with expediency – but the right thing to do is to try to end this
conflict, which has poisoned and stunted the region for 50 years and more.
Politically, what can be done? France shows us the way. The international conference will
only work if Israel sees opportunity for a better future not just with her nearest neighbours,
the Palestinians, but with the entire Arab world – and sees that she is losing altitude
internationally through her conduct of the Occupation. France is prepared to recognise the
state of Palestine on ’67 lines if the conference doesn’t happen, or doesn’t work. Recognition
of Palestine is in the gift of our Government, who are reluctant to do it. But there is an urgent
need to save the two state outcome – what better way to do so than to legitimize and
strengthen the voice of moderate, non-violent Palestinians, without in any way delegitimising
the state of Israel? Where France leads, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and others will follow. The
message to the parties will be so much stronger if HM Government work with France on this
issue. It matters greatly that Britain and France, the two European members of the UN
Security Council, should work in concert, objectively, giving primacy to security for both
peoples in Israel/Palestine and to upholding International Law.
There are British interests as well as British values at stake. The self-styled Islamic State or
Da’esh makes much of its call to “liberate” the al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, the third
most holy shrine in Islam. Da’esh will do nothing of the kind, of course – but its sinister and
efficient propaganda machine denounces the double standards of the West, including the
United Kingdom, and claims that Israel acts as if she is above the law, with impunity. Some
British youths may be swayed by this line. There is anecdotal evidence to support this. It is
directly in our own security interest to uphold International Law without fear or favour – and
to be seen to do so. That will confound Islamic State, which has misappropriated and
abused the name of a great religion.
And finally – what can we in this room do? We should do what we can, while heeding the
wise words – “Do no harm”. Those of us with political influence – and that’s all of us in this
democracy – should argue for more from our elected representatives than just DFID funding
for Palestinians and ritual diplomatic condemnation of Israel when she creates new, illegal
facts on the ground. Leaving this conflict to fester harms Israelis, Palestinians and us. So we
should give everybody a hard time – but exerting maximum influence where we have the
greatest clout, and on those with the greatest ability to change things. We should start with
our own Government, because it is nearest to home, and we have great influence on it. Of
the two parties, Israel has the power, and occupies the land. Palestinians need to reunite,
and hold free, fair elections – the result of which we should respect.
Sheffield, this excellent university, is doing good things with Israeli and Palestinian students,
including a valuable Gaza connection. I am delighted that public health student Hind al Alami
from Gaza is here with us. In all of Palestine, Gaza is in the greatest need of skilled people
to do what their community needs most. There is always more for Sheffield to do. Israel is
well served by her universities. The Palestinians are the ones in greater need – their
universities lack funding, external support and, in the case of Gaza, room to breathe. They
need joint research projects, partners in bids for EU programmes – you name it. Israeli and
Palestinian universities are centres of excellence, shaping the minds of the next generation.
In partnership with Sheffield and like-minded British universities, they can only get better –
and it’s a two way street. The same goes for community links, church links, school links. I
happen to be the patron of the Britain Palestine Friendship and Twinning Network (BPFTN),
whose volunteer members do much good. In their spare time they come together locally to
link with Palestine or a locality in Palestine – helping people there to feel less isolated, more
valued, not forgotten. Please look at their website – http://www.twinningwithpalestine.net.
With regard to Israel, I do not favour academic boycotts – as an ex diplomat, I believe in
talking, in the power of persuasion. There is one exception, and it is not in Israel. There is a
college in Ariel, an illegal Israeli settlement in the middle of the Palestinian West Bank. Mr
Netanyahu elevated it to university status a couple of years ago, against the advice of the
relevant Israeli academic body. The German Government has written to all German
universities advising them to have nothing to do with Ariel. That’s my advice, too.
To conclude: yes, there can be peace between Israel and Palestine, if we act evenhandedly
and encourage our partners to do so. Inertia will kill the two state solution – which remains
the best and just solution.
Of our Government and elected representatives I ask more activism, more willingness to
speak the truth to power, to call things by their name, and to uphold the international laws we
wrote. I ask them to work with France and other EU partners to legitimise the non-violent
voices in Palestine through recognition of the State of Palestine, removing a potent
propaganda weapon from Islamic State while doing the right thing.
Of this right minded University, I ask for a fresh outreach effort to both Israel and to Palestine
– taking into account who needs us the more. Israel has America, no question. Palestine
needs us, and we do well to recognise that fact – and that state.
Ceasefire of hostilities or Ceasefire 28/02/2016
The ceasefire in Syria that took effect on Saturday was part of a negotiated deal, based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, passed in December 2015. The deal that contained three main commitments around humanitarian access, a negotiated ceasefire and a political transition was reached in Munich by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a group of international actors mandated to find a resolution to the Syrian conflict. The ISSG, which includes major regional actors, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, as well as regional bodies, such as the Arab League and the European Union, has emerged out of previous attempts, notably the Geneva process, to negotiate a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
The major difference between the ISSG’s success in negotiating a deal in February had little to do with its structure or political agreement among the key sides. Instead, the February deal has everything to do with the changing dynamics on the ground and the ability of Russia and its allies to impose a political vision for ending the conflict that suits their interests. Below are answers to some key questions about what these commitments entail, what their chances of success are, and how the Munich agreement may shape the future of Syria.
What does the ceasefire in Syria mean on the ground? Which areas will observe it and which areas will not?
In theory, the ceasefire should apply to all of Syria. However, Russia has insisted that, along with its allied forces, it reserve the right to attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and al-Nusra Front forces as these two groups are outside the framework of the ceasefire, as are other groups labelled as ‘terrorist’ by the UN. This means that the ceasefire is not geographically demarcated. This exception to the ceasefire is very problematic, however, because Russian forces have attacked many rebel groups and civilian areas under the justification of attacking ISIL and Nusra. The commitment to a political transition envisaged through the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is unlikely to generate resources and energy at this point when so much focus is on the ceasefire.
These two groups have become convenient scapegoats for Russian attacks throughout Syria. Russia has essentially reserved the right to militarily engage any armed groups in Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIL and Nusra. The United States has been working with Russia in an attempt to designate whether certain areas are ceasefire-abiding areas or not, but they have yet to agree on the specific geographic contours of the agreement. The absence of such contours will give Russia greater military latitude. Practically speaking, this means that large swaths of Syrian territory in which these groups are present, particularly in the eastern and northwestern parts of the country, will remain active conflict zones. Groups outside of the ceasefire, such as Ahrar al-Sham and others labelled as terrorist groups, remain present in parts of Homs and Hama provinces, as well as near Damascus, meaning these areas also potentially lie outside of the ceasefire zones.
What are the chances of the ceasefire holding and for how long? What could it hold and why might it not?
The ceasefire is unlikely to hold for three main reasons: First, Russia and its allies have reserved the right to attack forces outside of the ceasefire. This means that any violence on the ground that is committed by Russia or regime-led forces can be justified within the framework of the Munich agreement and the ceasefire under the pretense of fighting ISIL. As such, Russia can have its cake and eat it, too; it has reserved the right to militarily engage armed groups while demanding that they cease all hostilities. Second, there are simply thousands of small, organised brigades in Syria that have little interest in a cessation of hostilities. There is a network of armed groups who have benefitted handsomely from the conflict and for whom a ceasefire may threaten them and their activities. It is counterintuitive; however, it is important to note that not all of the violence in Syria is driven by meta political issues, such as trying to overthrow the regime, and that there are micro political issues, such as security and smuggling, that also motivate armed groups.
With little incentive aside from the possible reprieve from Russian bombing, it is unlikely that many of these groups will be motivated to observe the ceasefire. Third, most of the rebel groups inside of Syria cooperate with other groups on the battlefield. This cooperation has as much to do with their political or ideological affinities as it does their relative strengths and weaknesses and need to build alliances to make military gains. Thus, very few armed groups inside Syria operate independently of other groups, blurring the distinctions between them. Isolating a few groups as outside of the ceasefire betrays the organisational structure of violence on the ground and the reality that most groups cooperate on the battlefield.
How many of the rebel groups have committed to the ceasefire?
According to the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), more than 100 rebel factions agreed to abide by the terms of the ceasefire. Many of the stronger rebel groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are outside of the terms of the ceasefire as they are labelled as terrorist groups and remain subject to attacks. This will complicate and weaken the ceasefire as both of these groups are known to cooperate with opposition-backed armed groups committed to the ceasefire. The greatest chance for success of the ceasefire is if there is significant compliance over the initial two-week period and that this brings different groups – whether officially or not – under the umbrella of the ceasefire.
What are the chances that humanitarian aid will reach the besieged areas?
While chances that the ceasefire will hold are slim, the agreement will likely lead to enhanced humanitarian access throughout the country. Humanitarian airlifts are about to begin the delivery of relief to besieged areas, and there are agreements between regime and opposition forces to lift sieges imposed on specific towns and villages. This includes Madaya, where a devastating siege by regime forces has been in place for months. Creating and maintaining access to areas in need should be reinforced by a large commitment of ISSG members to provide medicines, food, and other necessities. Unfortunately, the agreement does not carry stipulations for levels of humanitarian aid as it focuses solely on creating access.
Will the ceasefire lead to a political transition?
Advancing a political transition is the third goal of the agreement but is the least likely to generate any interest among the main parties at this point. At this point, international efforts have been focused on efforts where there is relative agreement specifically on the need for a ceasefire and creating humanitarian access. The contours of a political transition remain very contentious, and while the Western world is gravitating towards the Russian position on the architecture of a political transition, there is enough resistance from the political opposition and regional states to prevent a consensus on the issue. The commitment to a political transition envisaged through the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is unlikely to generate resources and energy at this point when so much focus is on the ceasefire.