The post-Brexit agreement is seen by many as an unconditional endorsement of the dangerous direction the Israeli government is taking, reports Ben Gelblum
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If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to escape the mass protests his new government has faced at home in Israel when he visits London this week he may be disappointed with planned demonstrations by various groups including Israeli ex-pats.
Yet despite rising concerns around the world about new measures to accelerate settlements in occupied Palestinians and curb the Israeli judiciary’s independence, the UK Government has just signed a bilateral ‘Roadmap’ agreement “deepening tech, trade and security ties” with Israel ahead of the visit.
With human rights bodies increasingly calling for international action on what they describe as a growing apartheid system in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine, the agreement signed by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen this week just made such action much harder.
Last year, the UK and Israel launched negotiations for a new post-Brexit free trade agreement. According to the UK Foreign Office this week’s “Roadmap contains detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.”
The Foreign Office also said the Foreign Secretary would “raise the UK’s concerns about the recent spike in violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the need for all parties to take steps to deescalate and end the cycle of violence.”
But what exactly has the UK Government signed up to this week, and how helpful is it with the “spike of violence” that has coincided with Netanyahu’s new governing coalition?
Suppressing the ‘Apartheid’ Description
The text of the “2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel Bilateral Relations” signed by James Cleverly contains a vow “to disagree with the use of the term ‘apartheid’ with regard to Israel.”
Just weeks after the Israeli parliament gave preliminary approval to a controversial bill by extreme-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to introduce the death penalty for terrorist killings of Jews, but not for Israeli Jews who kill Palestinians, the bilateral agreement promises that “the UK and Israel will work together to tackle the singling out of Israel in the Human Rights Council as well as in other international bodies. In this context, the UK and Israel disagree with the use of the term ‘apartheid’ with regard to Israel.”
Last April, Bylines Times reported how a quarter of Israeli Jews agreed that “a regime in which one group controls, and perpetuates its control over another, through laws, practices and coercive/forced means is considered an apartheid regime” and that such a word applied to Israel. And that was before the current far-right governing coalition was formed by President Netanyahu, promising to increase Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories as well as the controversial legislation to make courts politically appointed that has caused mass demonstrations in Israel, as well as concern around the world.
‘Apartheid’ is a term that Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights bodies, U.N. Special Rapporteurs, the South African government, and several former Israeli officials have used to describe how, as detailed in a recent Amnesty report, “Israel’s laws and policies are specifically designed to deprive Palestinians of rights, land and resources.”
The Israeli government insists Amnesty’s lengthy report “consolidates and recycles lies” and is designed to “pour fuel onto the fire of antisemitism”. It accused Amnesty UK of using “double standards and demonization in order to delegitimize Israel” – language which is echoed in the Roadmap.
Adam Keller, founder of the peace organisation Gush Shalom, points out that there is a polling station in the West Bank city of Hebron for “thousand Israeli Jewish settlers living in a fortified enclave in the heart of Hebron and all voting for racist extreme right parties”. Meanwhile, the 200,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron “have no vote and no rights”.
“What does the British government do about it?” Keller asks: “Pledge to work with the Israeli government to oppose any comparison of Israeli practices with Apartheid, and to stigmatise any such comparison as “antisemitism”.”
In a section of the agreement titled ‘Antisemitism, Delegitimisation, and Anti-Israel Bias’, the Roadmap conflates such issues, with an unconditional promise to end any Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns by public bodies, “including through legislation.”
Such anti-BDS legislation could seriously hamper organisations from taking a stance against Israeli companies operating in occupied territories.
According to Human Rights Watch, in the United States such anti-boycott laws have been used to punish companies refusing to do business with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Undermining Human Rights Investigations
Worryingly, the Roadmap agreement signed by James Cleverly adds: “The UK and Israel believe that the latest ICJ referral on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict represents an inappropriate recourse to the Advisory Opinion mechanism as this undermines the efforts to achieve a settlement through direct negotiations between the parties, which remains the only viable path to a lasting peace.”
In December the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give a legal opinion on Israel’s continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territories – the longest military occupation in modern history, lasting since 1967.
The vote came one day after the swearing-in of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right Israeli government which promises an expansion of illegal Jewish settlements. The UN resolution asks the ICJ for an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of “occupation, settlement and annexation … including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures”.
Since the start of this year alone, more than 400 Palestinians have been displaced as a result of Israeli demolitions, according to data gathered by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with many more at risk.
The Roadmap signed by James Cleverly contains the unconditional promise that “the UK and Israel will work together to tackle the singling out of Israel in the Human Rights Council as well as in other international bodies.” This overtly undermines the UN Human Rights Council’s 2021 resolution to “urgently establish an ongoing, independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of international human rights law.”
The hearings in Geneva have heard serious recent allegations including female human rights defenders being intentionally targeted by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the systemic targeting of journalists and eyewitness testimony on the shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh that sparked outrage around the world. The inquiry to “investigate all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity” is due to report this summer.
The wording and timing of the agreement signed by the UK Foreign Minister could not be more controversial, with recent policies accelerating what appears to be a de facto annexation of Occupied Palestinian lands. The UK Government signed the Roadmap in the same week that the US Government warned it was “extremely troubled” by a new Israeli law that paves the way for restoring illegal settlements in the north of the occupied West Bank. While The UK’s Foreign Minister signed the Roadmap, Washington summoned the Israeli Ambassador for a rebuke.
In other concerning developments, the new Israeli Government has agreed to place the “Civil Administration” – Israel’s governing body in the West Bank – mostly under the authority of extremist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich has denied that placing the West Bank under his control amounts to annexation, insisting nothing changes “the legal status of the West Bank, the laws applied within, or the government’s authority over it.” Yet he sparked outrage this week claiming there is “no such thing” as a Palestinian people.
The Israeli Government has also legislated to identify additional illegal settlement outposts to normalise and undermine a contiguous Palestinian State. Such aggressive policies may indeed be found to amount to the annexation of Palestinian lands by the ICJ which makes the wording of the UK’s agreement with Israel appear particularly ill-judged if the UK is serious about a just peace solution between Israel and Palestine.
According to a statement by the Foreign Office, “our trade relationship is worth around £7 billion, and there are more than 400 Israeli tech firms operating in the UK. Israeli investment into the UK drives growth and jobs, adding around £1 billion gross value to the UK economy.”
It said the Roadmap includes around £20 million of joint funding commitments on technology and innovation.
There is no mention in the Roadmap of occupied territories or any measures to stop UK investments or cultural exchanges from supporting settlements.
There are also clauses in the Roadmap on “Bilateral defence cooperation” – “strengthening military ties” some may find controversial at a time when the Israeli armed forces are ramping up operations in Palestine, with a death toll much greater than at this point last year – a year Save The Children charity called the deadliest year for Palestinian children in the West Bank for over 15 years. The UN too has said that 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2006, but 2023 is already on course to surpass that.
A year after hackers used Israeli spyware to infiltrate then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s mobile phone, there are also commitments in the Roadmap to “strengthen our already deep cooperation on cyber to promote international security and stability in cyberspace.”
Ahead of this week’s talks between Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak and Benjamin Netanyahu who has been on a European tour to ramp up support for global measures against threats posed by Iran’s nuclear program, there are also commitments in the Roadmap to tackle Iran’s “destabilising and malign activity in the Middle East.”
But many Israeli ex-pats in the UK will be joining the London protests this week against the Israeli PM who while facing criminal charges of corruption has formed a governing coalition with far-right parties now set on dismantling the independence of Israel’s judicial appointments.
“The UK and Israel can agree all they want, but apartheid is not just a term: it is the lived reality for millions of Palestinians,” Roy Yellin, of Israeli human rights information centre B’Tselem, told Byline Times. “Instead of committing to dismantling apartheid, these governments opt to engage in denial.”
Whether Rishi Sunak will privately express concerns about such measures and recent violence in the West Bank we can only guess. But the wording of the Roadmap will be seen by many as an unconditional endorsement of the dangerous direction the Israeli government is taking.
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