Why do Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip not warrant a response from the British government?
By Ben White
Wednesday, 13 March 2013
On 26 February, Palestinians fired a rocket into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, the first such projectile attack since the ceasefire that brought an end to Israel’s eight-day assault on the blockaded territory (‘Operation Pillar of Defense’).
For over three months, there were precisely zero rockets. Yet during the same period, four Palestinians were killed and almost 100 wounded by Israeli forces, with over 60 shooting attacks, a dozen incursions into the Gaza Strip, and some 30 attacks on Palestinian fishermen working in Gaza’s waters.
By and large, these incidents have gone unreported in the Western media and it was thus sadly unsurprising that the solitary Palestinian-fired rocket in late February was reported as ‘breaking’ or ‘rattling’ the ceasefire.
Some publications responded to criticism – like The New York Times and the BBC (who made a small, though important, correction following my email). But overall, the misrepresentative and selective reporting of violations of the ceasefire reflects familiar patterns in the media’s coverage of Palestine/Israel.
It is more disturbing to see such problems reflected in government, but that is the only conclusion one can draw from the UK Foreign Office’s shameful record the past few months.
The day after the rocket was fired in late February, the Foreign Office’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt issued a statement expressing how he is “very concerned” about “the first such incident” since the ceasefire agreement. Burt called on “both parties to respect in full the November ceasefire”, and added: “The calm since November has been welcome: it should be built upon, not reversed.”
I emailed the Foreign Office to ask them what other statements they have issued regarding the ceasefire and whether there had been any official comment on Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the last three months. I was directed to remarks made in parliament, the FCO said, “on many occasions since the November conflict in answer to oral and written questions”.
In other words, there has been not a single public FCO statement about the dozens of – sometimes deadly – Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When I pressed the FCO about why Alistair Burt – or anyone – had failed to issue a statement on Israeli attacks like the one about the rocket, the answer was:
The principal reason for issuing the statement was our concern that the rocket attack, if repeated, may lead to an unravelling of the ceasefire: besides condemning the attack, the statement re-stated our call for all sides to respect the ceasefire and to take advantage of the Egyptian-brokered talks. As for our concerns over Israeli actions in Gaza, we regularly raise them privately in our contacts with the Israeli authorities. We cannot do the same with our concerns over actions by Hamas and other militant groups as we do not have contacts with them.
This prompts two further questions. First, why did the rocket attack represent a threat to the “unravelling of the ceasefire”, but dozens of Israeli attacks did not produce similar concerns? Second, there are plenty of examples of when the UK government does issue a public expression of concern over an Israeli government action (e.g. settlement expansion). So, why do Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip not warrant such a response?
The FCO’s only answer was that they “look for the most effective way of delivering our messages, based on the circumstances at the time”, and in a subsequent email, adding that:
The UK delivers its bilateral and multilateral messages in a number of different ways. As I highlighted in my last email, how this is done depends on the circumstances at the time and what we think might be most effective.
I looked at the references to Gaza and the ceasefire in parliament, as the FCO spokesperson advised. On 4 December – by which time, Israeli forces had already shot numerous Palestinians in Gaza – Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs that the government was “urg[ing] all parties concerned…to observe the ceasefire”.
Later that month, responding to a question about the detention of Palestinian fishermen by the Israeli navy, Baroness Warsi said that “while the UK regularly makes representations at both ministerial and official level to the Government of Israel on the urgent need to ease restrictions on Gaza, we have not raised this specific incident with the Israeli authorities”.
Then most recently, in early March, Alistair Burt told parliament that the UK government had “made clear to Israel our longstanding concerns about the manner in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) polices the buffer zone between Israel and Gaza” and had “reiterated our concerns over the IDF’s use of live ammunition” in the context of “recent cases of Palestinian civilians killed by the IDF in both Gaza and the West Bank”.
The message is clear. Israel’s repeated attacks on Palestinian farmers and fishermen merit, at best, an expression of concern in parliament – while we are left to guess at what the UK government may, or may not, say to Israel “privately”.
An insight into how the Foreign Office approaches the question of Israel’s systematic and routine violations of international law and human rights can be found in an answer given by Baroness Warsi on 6 December, when answering a question on boycotts. Warsi claimed that it is the UK government’s “close and productive relationship with Israel” which allows “the frank discussions that are often necessary between friends”, and that “boycotts would lessen that influence”.
But where is the evidence that the UK exercises any “influence” through “robust engagement”? Instead, we have a record of double standards, platitudes, and complicity with human rights violations. Meanwhile, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – and elsewhere – wonder when their lives will be considered of equal value by Western diplomats.