Month: June 2015

Why Foreign Office ministers are wrong about recognition

And why Britain is one of the few countries that can help in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, Tuesday 9th June 11.30 am

Attempts by Government ministers to justify their continuing refusal to recognise Palestine are looking threadbare after MPs raised the issue at Foreign Office questions last week.

The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did not challenge the statement by aid minister Desmond Swayne that “the Palestine Authority is now ready for statehood” when it was put to him by Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman.

He even forgot the Foreign Office rule and called the country “Palestine” in his reply instead of the officially preferred “occupied Palestinian territories”.

The main reason he gave for witholding recognition was that it would be “throwing away ..an opportunity that the European Union has to exercise leverage collectively by holding out the prospect of recognition or non-recognition as a way of influencing behaviour”.

This overlooks the fact that nine of the 28 counties in the EU have already recognised Palestine (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Estonia and Cyprus).

It overlooks the fact the fact that 137 countries in the UN (out of 193) have already recognised Palestine.

It also overlooks the fact that the House of Commons has voted by 274 to 12 to recognise Palestine.

But the main factor it overlooks is that there is very little leverage in holding out the prospect of “recognition or non-recognition” when it’s pretty clear it’s only a matter of time before we recognise.

If we say a country should be given statehood and is “ready for statehood” and we already call it “Palestine”, then we are close to recognising Palestine as a state. All that is missing is the diplomatic nicety of conferring the recognition by accepting the credentials of its ambassador at the Court of St James.

The other reason the Foreign Secretary gives is one of timing. “We will recognise Palestinian statehood at a time that we judge contributes most to the delivery of a settlement”, as he said at Foreign Office questions this week,.

This seems to imply that the decision is already taken and it is just a question of when to announce it. But he has already passed over several opportunities to say it is the right time to recognise, notably the collapse of the Kerry talks in April 2014.

Palestinians could certainly be forgiven for concluding that Hammond is playing a game with their national aspirations and wants to postpone recogntion as long as possible.

Certainly he sometimes gives the impression of hiding behind the US. He repeated his mantra this week that the “United States … is the only power that has any leverage over Israel” and we should be pressing for “a new, American-led initiative”.

He must surely know by now that this will not happen. Even if President Obama wants one, he could not get another peace mission through Congress.

In any case the EU does have leverage over Israel. The EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner. A third of Israel’s trade is with the EU (while only a fortieth of the EU’s trade is with Israel). The EU’s most generous trading agreement is with Israel, giving it duty-free access to the world’s largest market on condition that it respects human rights and democratic values.

If the EU enforced this human rights clause, suspending tariff reductions until Israel reversed its settlement programme, they could make progress overnight. But this would require a unanimous vote by all 28 members. As well as hiding behind the US, Hammond hides behind the EU, calling for “collective action” when he knows it is unlikely to happen.

The truth is that the only countries in a position to make a difference in the Israel-Palestine conflict are Britain, France and other leading EU countries and the first small step in that direction would be for Britain to go ahead – with or without other European powers – and recognise the state of Palestine.

Aid Minister urges Gaza exports

Allow Gazan entrepreneurs to start exporting to Israel again, says minister|

International Development questions – Wednesday 3rd June 

Aid minister Desmond Swayne said at International Development questions in the House of Commons that there could be no future for Gaza until exports were again allowed into and out of the strip.He was responding to a question from Andy Slaughter MP calling for the re-opening of all the goods and passenger crossings between Gaza and Israel.

The result of the blockade is that hundreds of factories are standing idle. Unemployment is 44.8 per cent (2014 Q4) which the World Bank says in “probably the highest in the world”. Youth unemployment is 60 per cent.

The only hope for young people is to continue their education, and many go abroad to study for higher degrees, but then they come back and find they still cannot get a job. No prizes for guessing what this does to young people.

Gaza is desperate and Gaza is angry, UN Special Coordinator for Gaza
The UN Special Coordinator for Gaza said after his first visit in his report to the Security Council: “Gaza is desperate and Gaza is angry.”So why do the Israelis persist in restricting exports out of Gaza even more tightly than imports? There is no plausible security reason for banning exports. Lorries laden with Gazan strawberries or tulips are hardly a terrorist threat.

One can accept it is possible for a lorry full of imported food to be used to conceal weapons and for cement to be used to build tunnels, but what is the security concern about exports?

It’s not as though Gazans are exporting arms to Israel. And in any case there is a scanning machine donated by the Dutch government and sitting unused at the Kerem Shalom crossing. It could be used to scan the contents of exports.

Israel restricts imports to just under half their pre-blockade level (49 per cent), but they restrict exports to only 8 per cent of their pre-blockade level. In the first half of 2007 there were 240 lorryloads of exports out of Gaza a week; in the last week for which figures are available (May 19-25th) there were 19.

The 19 lorryloads are not even all technically exports. More than half are just being transferred across Israel to the West Bank. It was part of the Oslo agreement to build a secure road to link Gaza and the West Bank, only 25 miles apart, so there could be unrestricted trade between two parts of Palestine, but the Israelis have never allowed it.

It is not as though Israeli businessmen are frightened of competition from Gaza.  Quite the reverse. The Gazan and Israeli economies are complementary.  Before the blockade Israel exported half-finished goods to Gaza’s factories and then imported them back as high-quality furniture and textiles for the Israeli market.

Gaza is a very entrepreneurial society.  Before the blockade there were business parks along the border with Israel, full of modern factories producing furniture, textiles, shoes and foodstuffs which were immediately sent across the Karni crossing to be sold on the Israeli market.

But in the final days of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 and again in 2014 Israeli tank brigades targeted factories, dynamiting buildings and systematically destroying machinery. Palestinian businessmen who had been trading with Israel for years and were on good terms with their Israeli counterparts could not understand these vindictive acts.

Today one million Gazans, more than half the population, are dependent on food aid from the United Nations agency for refugees, UNRWA, and Gaza is top of the aid-recipients’ league table. The Qataris have recently been sending huge amounts of aid through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

But as the World Bank has said and as British government ministers have said many times, Gaza’s need for aid will soon disappear when the blockade is lifted. British ministers press for free trade between Gaza and the West Bank, for an expansion of the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings, for a sea route from Cyprus to Gaza – but none of these will happen unless Britain starts to use or threaten trade sanctions.

Gaza also used to export labour to run Israel’s factories.  Before the blockade in 2004 there were half a million crossings through the Erez crossing into Israel and now there are less than 30 per cent of that number – roughly12,600 a month.

Israeli businesses have been pressing for the lifting of restrictions and the resumption of exports. The Quartet has negotiated an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But it would mean Israel having to accept value-added tax forms issued by Hamas in Gaza and they refuse to do that.

The Israelis seem to believe that a policy of “semi-starvation” will force the Gaza’s Palestinians into submission, but this is clearly counter-productive. A policy of unrestricted trade (with all the normal border security controls) is far more likely to lead to normalisation.

There is nothing in this world worse than unnecessary suffering. There is already far too much suffering from wars and famines and natural disasters, but what is unforgivable is the imposition of unnecessary suffering on the Palestine people.