Glasgow, United Kingdom – The Conservative British government must be pressed “to recognise the state of Palestine … as the place where Palestinians must be enabled to exercise their right to self-determination”, a former United Kingdom diplomat said on Thursday evening.
But Sir Vincent Fean, addressing an online audience, insisted that today’s British government was doing “some good things” regarding the ongoing occupation.
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“The UK Department for International Development funds Palestinian refugees via the UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA],” Sir Vincent maintained, adding Britain had not moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the US government did in 2018, infuriating Palestinians in the process.
Sir Vincent, a former British consul-general to Jerusalem, was speaking in his capacity as chair of the Balfour Project – an organisation created by Britons to highlight their country’s record in Palestine before and during the British Mandate period of 1920-48.
A panel discussion on Britain’s past and present responsibilities in the occupied Palestinian territories, which would have included contributions from Sir Vincent, had been due at Scotland’s University of Dundee last month, but was cancelled due to the mounting coronavirus pandemic.
But joining other similar online initiatives in this time of global lockdown, the veteran diplomat held a virtual seminar from London.
He tackled a variety of aspects of Britain’s role in the region, from its duplicitous promise during World War I to grant the people of the Middle East an independent Arab state if they rose up against Ottoman Turkish rule, to the Balfour Declaration from which his organisation takes its name.
The infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration made the Zionist aspiration of creating a Jewish state in Palestine a reality when the British government announced a pledge to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in the territory. Palestinians and their international supporters frequently point to the declaration’s caveat, which said, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Today, following the 1948 creation of the State of Israel, which came into being after the British Mandate over Palestine expired that same year, Palestinians continue to live under a brutal Israeli military occupation, with the Palestinian territory of Gaza currently subject to an ongoing air, land and sea blockade.
Peter Shambrook is an historian on the UK’s role in Palestine during the British Mandate, and one of the panelists who had been invited to speak in Dundee before the event’s cancellation. Before Thursday’s online discussion, he told Al Jazeera that the “British administration [during the mandate] created and established a military and political iron cage into which the Palestinians – the indigenous population – were placed”.
“The relevance of that today is that Britain left in 1948, but that political and military iron cage is still firmly established in Palestine,” added Shambrook. “And that is why the current conflict continues – because you have fundamentally one people [the Israelis] oppressing another people [the Palestinians] in a variety of ways.”
Yet, in today’s unyielding crisis, which has claimed lives on both sides of a wholly uneven divide, Sir Vincent said that granting “equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians” was the key to a lasting peace.
“The wellbeing and security of the people of Israel is best ensured by peaceful exercise of the right to self-determination of their neighbours – the Palestinians,” he said, adding, “the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change”.