Adam Ramsay – British elites have long been a barrier to peace in the Middle East

Politicians parrot the unworkable ‘two-state solution’ rather than confronting the UK’s role in creating crisis in Gaza

Adam Ramsay is openDemocracy’s special correspondent

Cross-posted from openDemocracy

King David Hotel 1946 Photo: Gordon Trevor Moore/Creative Commons

Our family has lots of old stories set in Palestine. My mum’s dad enjoyed long walks in the beautiful countryside – hikes Palestinians today couldn’t take – when he was posted there before the Second World War. My dad’s parents had their honeymoon there after meeting in Egypt during the war. Both sets of grandparents lost friends when Zionist terrorists blew up the King David Hotel in 1946.

The reason so many British families have similar residual memories is obvious: the crisis in Palestine was made, at least in part, in Britain.

As Nicola Perugini, a senior lecturer in international relations at Edinburgh University, put it to me: “Britain was the original sin.” Perugini previously led the human rights programme at Al Quds University in Jerusalem and lived in Palestine for several years studying the conflict.

When we met in his flat last week, we were less than 20 miles from the childhood home of Arthur Balfour, the former British prime minister whose 1917 declaration as foreign secretary promised Palestinian land to Zionists. Balfour was chancellor of Edinburgh University at the time.

Perugini argues that, in the Balfour Declaration, Britain “instituted a political right to a community” of Jewish settlers “within the framework of colonial expansion, while denying political rights for the Indigenous Arab population of Palestine”.

“That,” he said, “was the moment that instituted the impossibility of political rights for Palestinians. The history of the last century is a reproduction of that differential inception of rights. Palestinians were entitled, according to Balfour, to civil and religious rights. But [he] didn’t think Palestinians were able to govern themselves.”

Balfour was a Conservative. But the declaration, which was Israel’s conception, was agreed by a British wartime cabinet that included Labour ministers and was led by a Liberal, Lloyd George.

Its effects are still being felt to this day. When 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli cells last month, more than half had faced no trial. Those who had been through some kind of judicial process had seen not a court with a jury of their peers, but a military tribunal where the judge was an Israeli soldier.

West Bank Palestinians arrested, often for little reason, by occupying troops are held indefinitely under a legal process called ‘administrative detention’. This, along with Israel’s powers to bulldoze houses, ban books and newspapers, seal off whole areas and impose curfews, was introduced under emergency laws in 1945 – not by Israel, which didn’t exist, but by Britain, which had taken responsibility for governing Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Racist assumptions about different peoples’ capacity for self-government were used to justify this colonialism. Palestine was among places described by the League of Nations as “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. Britain, whose empire reached its largest ever extent three years later in 1920, and who wanted a buffer zone to protect the Suez Canal and so the sea route to India, was awarded a mandate to rule “until such time as they are able to stand alone”.

If Israel was conceived by the Balfour Declaration, it was gestated in the following three decades of British rule. Balfour, Perugini explains, “had in mind a hierarchy of races. He starts having an idea that Jews might be the right settlers ‘in-between’ whites and the races which are ‘not capable of governing themselves’.”

When hundreds of thousands of Jews desperately fled the Nazis in the 1930s, Britain refused them entry, just as it had done to Jewish refugees fleeing a wave of pogroms in Russia more than 30 years earlier when Balfour was prime minister. Of course, this meant that many Jewish people ended up in Palestine. Millions more, denied escape routes by Britain and the US, were murdered.

Fearful that British support for a Jewish state in their homeland would permanently dispossess them, Palestinians held a general strike and revolt in the late 1930s, which the British, supported by British-trained Zionist militias, put down by force. Around 5,000 Palestinians were killed, and many more wounded and imprisoned in a violent campaign that included brutal collective punishment. It’s estimated that up to 10% of adult male Palestinians, including most political leaders, were killed, wounded, or detained by the British in response to the uprising, which ended with the start of the Second World War.

After the war, Israel’s birth was bloody. Arab Palestinians and Zionist Jews fought for dominance, with Britain trying to police the two after declaring the mandate would end in 1948. But the Palestinians had been forcibly disarmed by Britain, while Zionist militias had been trained and allowed to arm themselves. And the baby that emerged looked remarkably like its parents: from its unwritten constitution and common-law system to its steep racial hierarchies, Israel is in many ways a beloved child of the British empire.

A path to genocide

In 1956, when Britain and France joined Israel in invading Egypt in what became the Suez crisis, Israeli troops attacked the Gaza Strip – then under Egyptian control – killing a “large number” of civilians (exact figures vary). That year, my nephew’s grandfather, Nahed Al Afranji, was born in Gaza.

The Al Afranjis had lived in Gaza in previous generations, I am told by Nahed’s daughter Dina, who is my nephew’s mum and my brother’s ex-wife. But they had moved 45 miles north to Jaffa (now Tel Aviv) by the time her dad’s five older sisters were born, well before the UN agreed to partition Palestine in 1947.

The proposed carving-up handed the Jewish state 56% of the land and the Arab state 42%, with the remaining 2% – Jerusalem and Bethlehem – staying under international control. But in the civil war the following year, Jewish militias captured the land allocated to them and around 60% of that designated for Arabs and declared independence. One of Dina’s relatives was killed in the violence, and her family was forced to flee to Gaza.

There, Nahed and his brother Talal Al Afranji were born, and the family continued to suffer from Israeli assaults. During its invasion of Egypt in 1956 in the Suez Crisis, Nahed’s father and brother were among men and boys rounded up and forced to squat in agonising positions, hands in the air, in the blazing sun all day. Other members of the family fled to a nearby woodland, where they hid, foraging on leaves, for four days. Others still were forced by Israeli troops to march into the desert and bury the bodies of killed Egyptian troops.

In 1967, when Israeli troops occupied Gaza and the West Bank, Dina’s family fled to another area of the strip. At one point, she told me, her uncle and dad’s school was surrounded by Israeli tanks, with children beaten up by soldiers as they entered or left. The following year, when Nahed’s sister went with their mum to Jordan for a gymnastics competition, the rest of the family decided to briefly join them “until things calmed down”.

They were never allowed back: Israel occupied the Gaza Strip from 1967 until 2005, when it withdrew and instead placed it under siege. Like most Palestinian refugees, they still have the keys to the family home.

Dina’s maternal grandmother Etaf Al Deeb also fled to Jordan in 1948 as a 15-year-old girl, along with her own mother Salam and nine younger siblings. On that journey, a starving Salam was forced to abandon her baby daughter in the woods in the hope of improving the chances of saving her nine other children. The baby survived only because Etaf went back for her, and carried her across the Jordan river. Both sisters are still alive. Neither has ever been allowed to return to their homeland.

Almost 60 years later, I travelled to Jordan, where Dina was born in the 1980s, to watch her marry my brother. There, I stood with her grandmother on the east bank of the River Jordan, now narrowed to a stream by Israeli irrigation, and looked across to the West Bank, a homeland she is not allowed to return to. She wept.

The village where her grandmother had lived in Palestine “doesn’t exist any more,” Dina tells me. “Everyone who didn’t leave was killed.” Israeli historians have recently revealed that it was not uncommon for Israeli militias to sow typhoid bacteria into the wells of the Arab villages they destroyed to ensure anyone who tried to return died.

In total, over the past three months, my nephew has had more than 50 of his cousins killed in Gaza

Dina still has relatives in Palestine, though. When Nahed’s family left, their cousins remained and had children and then grandchildren. The two branches of the family have largely struggled to meet in person: those who had left aren’t allowed back, while those in Gaza aren’t allowed out. But they stayed in touch, first through letters, then phone calls and more recently through Facebook, where those in Gaza have told of successive Israeli assaults, such as a bombing in 2021 that killed 260 Palestinians, including four children from Dina’s family and their mother.

Since Israel’s latest bombardment of the Gaza Strip – which began after Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis, most of whom were civilians, on 7 October – Dina has been in touch with her family in Gaza “daily”. They send desperate pleas for help across the internet. In late October, around 30 of them squeezed into a home in an area the Israelis said was safe. It wasn’t. The house was shelled and, after desperate searching through the rubble, all were found dead. Weeks later, another house where another group of her cousins had gathered was shelled. All were killed. Others have been shot.

In total, over the past three months, my nephew – Dina’s son – has had more than 50 of his cousins killed in Gaza.

Saying the unsayable

Britain’s ruling class has largely supported this latest slaughter, which has killed more than 18,600 people in Gaza, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

The government continues to allow arms manufactured here to be exported to Israel. Both prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer have responded to what increasingly looks like genocide by reciting platitudes about Israel having the “right to defend itself”. And while 153 countries have backed UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire, Britain is among the 33 states that have refused to do so – sitting alongside Germany and the US as the only major powers holding up Israel’s diplomatic cover for ethnic cleansing.

Germany and the US each have their own political and historical reasons for this, but for Britain’s elite, the explanation is in part that they are trying to protect their own past. The current crisis in Gaza is the legacy of the political institutions they seek to represent. Denouncing Israel requires a confrontation with British history, and it is from that history that they draw their legitimacy.

Because while the partition of Palestine between different ethnic groups was agreed upon by the UN, it was a very British solution. Just months earlier, India had been partitioned, following a model familiar from Ireland 27 years earlier. None of these has been entirely successful – yet in the UK, it’s still common to hear politicians and pundits call for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Both Sunak and Starmer have done so in recent months.

For Perugini, these demands are growing ever more unrealistic. “I think that there is an increasing academic understanding that, based on the situation on the ground, there is no more room for a two-state solution,” he said.

It’s not just academics who feel this way. Among Palestinians, support for a two-state solution has fallen from 60% a decade ago to 24% now. This is perhaps unsurprising: Israel has allowed 700,000 Israelis to set up fortified towns across Palestinian territory in the past 50 years – many in the last decade. Palestinians, who are banned from both these towns and the tarmac roads that serve them, have been left with a shrinking hotch-potch of land in between, where they are harassed by the settlers and IDF soldiers.

Many in Israel have also rejected a two-state solution. As its ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, said on Sky News this week: “I think it’s about time the world realised that the Oslo paradigm failed on 7 October and we need to build a new one.” Asked if that includes a Palestinian state, she said: “Absolutely no… why are you obsessed with a formula that never worked?”

At this point, it’s worth asking what it would take to make the two-state solution being demanded by British politicians work. Would three-quarters of a million Jews be forced to move permanently from the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel? If not, in what way would a Palestinian state exist? And what would happen to the Palestinian refugees, including much of Dina’s family, who have been forced out of what is now Israel over the past 75 years?

In any case, Perugini argues that Britain and its allies “have never acted” in favour of a two-state solution. A majority of UN members have voted to recognise a Palestinian state, but the UK, the US and Germany never have. “They say they want a two-state solution,” Perugini said, “but then they vote systematically against it.” In reality, he added, they are in favour of “keeping the situation as it is: apartheid, or settler-colonial apartheid”.

“Ultimately, what they want is the status quo,” he said, but “the status quo ante is not practicable anymore. We can’t go back to that. Because that status quo… is what led to cyclical explosions of violence [and] revolt, or in the case of 7 October, evil atrocities and then the genocidal response since.”

If the two-state solution is unworkable, then, there are three potential alternatives. The first, as Perugini says, is the status quo: Israel de-facto governing the whole territory as an apartheid state, while allowing only those people in territories with a Jewish majority to vote. The second involves some kind of genocide or ethnic cleansing. We’ve seen in recent months how the first develops into the second.

For Perugini, like many experts, the real answer lies in a third option – not in the long failed attempts at making partition work, but in creating one democratic state across the whole territory, in which every person has an equal vote. “The chances of peace are there only if we think the unthinkable,” he said.

If he is right, then peace depends in part on experts persuading the international community down that path. And in that, they face one major barrier. A one-state solution is almost “unsayable”, Perugini said, because “that kind of state is not just a Jewish state. That kind of state is a state in which ethnic or racial belonging is not the foundation of a state. That state is a democratic state in which one [person] corresponds to one vote.”

The total number of Arab Palestinians across Palestine/Israel is slightly higher than the number of Jewish Israelis, but as there is a scattering of other minorities, no one group forms a majority. And so when academic experts suggest that the solution to ending the current system of apartheid lies not in partition but in democracy, they are told – often by employers at universities – that they are not respecting Israel’s ‘right to exist’.

This is not because they are proposing that Jewish Israelis shouldn’t be allowed to stay, but because they are suggesting that the state that, in reality, already governs all of historic Israel/Palestine shouldn’t be allowed to place one ethno-religious group in its territory above the others. This argument, it’s worth mentioning, is never posed the other way around. You don’t see the likes of Sunak or Starmer discussing Palestine’s ‘right to exist’.

This problem is profound. Almost every academic expert on violence in the Middle East that I approached while writing this piece said they were worried they would lose their jobs if they expressed their actual opinion on the most plausible path to peace. One democratic state is becoming the pragmatists’ option, but academics worry they will be disciplined for saying so.

To say that the state that governs the territory from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea isn’t allowed to grant special rights – including the right of immigration – to a particular ethnic group above all others, including the Indigenous population, is treated as antisemitic. And so suggesting that there ought to be one democratic state becomes unsayable. And so peace becomes impossible.

If Britain wants to make up for its mistakes, one of the first things it could do would be to break that omerta. We shouldn’t be parroting slogans about the right of an ethno-state to exist as an ethno-state. We should be supporting people to live together in peace and equality. And that means demanding democracy.

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