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Britain must not compromise its own values in Israel-Gaza war

Nuseirat refugee camp, Gaza (Credit: Imago / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Parliament is prorogued. Come back. We need urgent parliamentary oversight over the tragic conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. British foreign policy is being determined for a generation to come by a government at the end of its political life.

There are some very British principles that could, I suspect, be agreed across the aisle, in both Houses. Emphasis must be put on humanitarian protection and the sanctity of innocent human lives; that this tragedy cannot be resolved by military means alone, despite the clear right of Israel to defend itself against Hamas; and so, acknowledge that beyond Hamas is a Palestinian population that must be re-engaged in a political process if this violent cycle is ever to be broken. 

On 27 October, 120 sovereign members of the United Nations (UN) – including our neighbours France, Ireland, Norway and Spain – voted for a resolution backing the “protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations” in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Britain was one of 45 countries to abstain, just as it had denied a similar resolution support in the UN Security Council.

The attacks of 7 October were the largest killing of Israelis since the establishment of the state of Israel. It was a horrific war crime, proportionally much worse even than 9/11. But as President Joe Biden himself warned, on 18 October during his visit to Israel, it would be an act of self-harm for the country to be “consumed” by rage as America was in the aftermath of its worst modern terror attack. 

Are we really going to allow a government at the end of its life to define our future in this way?

I sympathise as both Conservative and Labour front benches hide behind the semantics of a humanitarian “pause” versus a “ceasefire” even as the tragic toll of Palestinian deaths, many children, rises daily. But in the face of such suffering we cannot hide behind semantics. There must be a stop in the fighting – at least temporarily. Instead of solely focusing on Israel’s right of self-defence, Britain needs to unequivocally stand up for basic human rights. 

As a UN official during the period of America’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Israeli incursions in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, I know how the desire for the permanent elimination of the security threat can lead to open-ended military commitments that end in humiliating withdrawal. The implications of the United States and United Kingdom position are being felt not just at the UN but in Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels and across the Global South as support for the Ukraine is either pushed into second place or subject to increasingly divisive debates. 

At a time of enormous stress on Western geopolitical alliances, there is a risk that a protracted war in the Middle East drives a much more fundamental reordering of the regional and international system. 

And hence to Britain itself: a loyal ally of the US but without the same reason President Biden arguably had for his empathic support to Israel during this crisis. In Biden’s case, his administration posits that influence has been used to press for a degree of Israeli restraint, notably in the first days. Britain, I suspect, has no such privileged access. Instead it risks that its own values and history are tarnished by its position. It was one of the founders of the United Nations and of the modern human rights system. And yet here it is putting itself on the side that seems to have at least partially turned its back to these concerns in order to enable the maximum Israeli retaliatory response. 

Contemporary Britain is also a proudly multicultural and multiracial society and so the apparent contradictions inherent in its response are felt not just abroad but at home. Are we really going to allow a government at the end of its life to define our future in this way? Westminster, we need you back on your benches to deliver an independent British voice in this crisis.    

Lord Malloch-Brown is currently on a leave of absence from the House of Lords.

Lord Malloch-Brown, Crossbench peer, president of the Open Society Foundations and former deputy secretary-general of the UN

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