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This week marks a hundred years since the Balfour Declaration committed official British support for the Zionist project, which aimed to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. Far from an uninterested party, the British government at the time was keen to maintain its colonial presence in the region, and went on to rule Palestine from the end of the war until 1947. During that time, the British administration in Palestine paved the way for fledgling Zionist settler-colonies in Palestine to build and grow into what would become the State of Israel.
The consequences of the colonisation of Palestine were devastating for its indigenous population, the Palestinians. Between 1947-49, over 400 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed by the Zionist militias that later formed what is now the Israeli military. Some 800,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee from their homes, in what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
The legacies of British colonial rule, and in particular of the violent repression of protest, are present in Israel’s apartheid regime of control over Palestinians today. Administrative detention, first introduced to Palestine by British forces in 1945, was adapted in Israeli legal codes to be used against Palestinians. Today, hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners are held in administrative detention without charge or trial, including children.
But aside from legal hangovers and other administrative details, the British colonial legacy persists in more structural ways, in particular, through the UK’s ongoing complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
The UK is far from a well-meaning onlooker
Scores of documentaries, op-eds, and news reports have come out in the past few weeks with British commentators speaking to Palestinians and Israelis about “their” conflict, standing aside as though Britain is an uninvolved party, just hoping for the best for everyone. Representing Britain as a well-meaning onlooker couldn’t be more disingenuous, as the UK government and British corporations are actively helping to sustain and build Israel’s infrastructure of occupation and Apartheid.
One glaring example of this is the UK-Israel arms trade. In the last 3 years alone, the UK government has given the green light for £223 million worth of military exports to Israel. This includes a wide range of weaponry and technological components used by Israel in day to day violence against Palestinians, including components for gun boats, aircraft carriers, armed drones, sniper rifles and more.
On top of this, the UK government regularly welcomes Israeli arms companies, such as the infamous Elbit Systems, to present its “battle-tested” weaponry at arms fairs in the UK, and accepts its bids for joint ventures. Elbit Systems even has subsidiary factories in the UK. In other words, Israel’s military industry thrives off a robust and close relationship with the UK government. All the while, it is Palestinians who pay the price, as the Israeli military’s core mission is to maintain its occupation and internal repression of Palestinians.
UK corporations and companies also play a key role in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. HSBC, with its branches on high streets around the UK, holds shares worth £831 million in companies selling weapons and security services to Israel, including Elbit Systems. HSBC also has an Israeli ‘correspondent bank’, Bank Le-umi, that provides financial services to illegal Israeli settlements and settlement construction companies.
Apologies later, BDS now
In 2005, Palestinian civil society groups called on people of conscience around the world to undertake campaigns to expose international complicity with Israel’s repressive regime, and to pressure companies, institutions and governments to end their support for the oppression of Palestinians. The response internationally was a resounding cry of solidarity, with campaigns springing up around the world to challenge those who support Israel’s violations.
In the UK, popular campaigns focusing on the British private security firm G4S successfully pushed it to end its relationship with the Israeli prisons where Palestinians are held in detention. Similarly, Veolia was pushed to end its participation in the light-rail system designed to expand the infrastructure of illegal settlements.
The efforts of ordinary people are beginning to reverberate in other forums as well. Recently, the UN Human Rights Commissioner sent a letter to 150 companies, warning that they will be added to a UN database of companies doing business in illegal Israeli settlements. Appearing on such a list will have serious repercussions for companies, as it means they will be publicly associated with activities against international law, marking an important step in international action against Israel.
In other words, BDS is starting to work. But for it to move forward, we need to build a groundswell of support for BDS campaigns similar to the campaign that helped topple the Apartheid regime in South Africa decades ago. To reach that tipping point, we need to build more understanding beyond activist circles of why Israel’s criminal actions can be best tackled through BDS campaigns. That starts with an understanding of the UK’s complicity, and a rejection of its framing as a neutral arbiter.
On an anniversary like this one, there is much to mourn. But we must not allow the reflections and speculations on the past to stand in the way of action. Palestinians are leading the way in saying enough is enough: a century of British complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is a century too long. No apology will change the past, but continuing complicity only makes the harm worse.