Above: Jews celebrate the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948
Labour Party conference passed a motion on Israel-Palestine, but shoehorned into the same session as Brexit, with no debate, and even less understanding of the issues.
The motion supports a majority-Palestinian state within the territory of Israel-Palestine, but in a fashion suffused with political dishonesty, written to hide rather than explain the issues.
The motion is premised on an “internationalist Labour Party” having particular responsibility “because of the role Britain played as a colonial power during the 1948 Nabka when Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes.”
That is nonsense. From the end of World War 2, Britain refused entry for Jewish refugees into Palestine, already heavily restricted during the war and the Holocaust. An increasingly violent Jewish insurgency in Palestine fought the British.
In 1947 Britain handed the problem to the UN, which proposed the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish controlled states. Britain, unwilling to implement this plan, started withdrawing from Palestine in November 1947. Arab guerrillas, with their command mainly based in Syria, started war against the Jewish population. The Jews fought back. The British forces tried to avoid conflict, and from time to time “managed” the removal of Arab or Jewish communities fleeing from areas conquered by the “other” side.
Britain’s “mandate” expired in May 1948. The Jewish Agency declared the state of Israel. Four Arab states, with smaller contingents from other states and military support from Britain, invaded to try to crush the nascent Israel and impose an Arab state. Israel won the war. Jews were expelled more completely from the Arab-held areas, but more Arabs were expelled from Jewish-held areas.
The Arab-held areas did not become a Palestinian state, but were taken over by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza). It was indeed a disaster (“Nakba”) for the Palestinians, but the motion’s grasp of history is poor.
Its politics are worse. It opposes any settlement that is “not based on international law and UN resolutions recognising [the Palestinians’] rights to self-determination and to return to their homes.” In her speech (though not in the text of the motion) the mover ruled out a two-states solution.
Reliance on the UN is not the habit of a healthy socialist movement. The UN and international law are the result of agreements between the political leaderships of the states of the world and as such represent the agglomerated interests of the ruling classes of those states.
Within this, the most powerful states have the loudest voice. This is obvious with the UN. Its General Assembly comprises representatives of most states, but its motions are not binding on its members.
The real power is with the Security Council, a faded sepia photograph of the world powers in 1945. Its permanent members remain the victors of the Second World War: the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France. Those five alone can veto any proposal.
Some UN bodies such as UNESCO or UNICEF might represent some form of liberal internationalism, at but the top level it is nothing more than a forum for reconciling the interests of powerful national and regional factions within the ruling classes of the world.
In any case UN policy is not what the motion claims. The UN General Assembly resolution most commonly cited in support of the Palestine cause is 194, passed as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War was ending. It contains the provision that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so.”
This statement, one that has been regularly reaffirmed by the General Assembly, is not a plan for merging two populations onto a single territory, far less an unrealistic attempt to return the seven million descendants of those original refugees to where their forebears once lived and thus, on the pretext of “refugee rights”, to suppress Israeli-Jewish self-determination. Legalistically, it probably only applies to the original 1948 refugees, not to their descendants. The “living in peace” implies acceptance of the Israeli state.
It operates in the context of the UN’s support for a Palestine divided into two states for the two peoples. Ever since the UN partition plan of 1947 as agreed in Resolution 181, some variant of a two-states solution has been a constant feature of UN policy. The UN supports Palestinian self-determination — in the context of a two-states solution.
The treaties and customs recognised by the UN’s International Court of Justice have clear implications for the right of colonies to independence, but in other ways the UN charter does not promote the right of nations to self-determination as socialists might understand it (the right of subject peoples within existing states – Scots, Catalans, Kurds – to have their own state).
Rather it seeks to protect (in the words of the Charter) the “territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.
It is often stated that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal under international law, but that is because these territories were previously claimed by Jordan and Egypt, not on any principle of Palestinian self-determination.
The tragedy of this motion is that it represents genuine concern in the Labour Party about the plight of the Palestinians. But the framers of the motion have concocted superficially reasonable appeals which disguise a programme that is both unachievable and reactionary.
This motion should have been (at very least) remitted for a period of serious debate in the party.
Labour should campaigning urgently and vigorously for “two states” and in support of democratic movements in Israel-Palestine like Standing Together. This motion will set back that solidarity campaigning, rather than advance it.
- This article also appears in the current issue of Solidarity and at the Workers Liberty website