The Arab-Israeli conflict is unlike any other regional conflict. As the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, put it: “No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield.” Not surprisingly, this has had its impact on multicultural Britain, with different communities aligning themselves to varying degrees with the Israeli and Palestinian causes.
Everyone in a democracy has the right to argue for their views and engage in public debate. But there is no equality when it comes to how the British government treats those who want to give physical support to Israel and those who want to do the same for the Palestinians. Such double standards feed resentment in Britain’s Muslim community at the government’s failure to recognise its legitimate grievances, as highlighted in yesterday’s report by the thinktank Demos.
In recent months the media have reported on the recruitment of British Jews to fight in the Israeli army, now in its 40th year of occupation of Palestinian territory in defiance of international law and UN resolutions. Some are intending to emigrate; others to return to Britain after serving in the Israeli army. But we have not had a word of concern from the British government. In the Muslim community, however, the question is widely raised as to how British citizens can travel to another country and fight in its army of illegal occupation without any repercussions. Would that be the case if, say, a young Muslim or Briton of Palestinian origin travelled to the occupied Palestinian territories – let alone occupied Iraq – to protect his or her homeland or co-religionists? Of course not: such volunteers could expect to be arrested under this government’s anti-terrorism legislation as soon as they returned.
These Britons who go to fight for Israel are volunteering to serve in the frontline of Israel’s war in the illegally occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Some have acknowledged that they have been or will be engaged in the killing of Palestinians. Under international law they and those who facilitate their enlistment are committing war crimes.
Presumably the politicians’ silence can be explained by Britain’s support for the Israeli government, both diplomatic and military. But how does that sit with the government’s regular homilies to the Muslim community about citizenship and loyalty to the flag? It might be argued that as Israel is a state – unlike the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian political organisations – and Britons are entitled to dual citizenship, with any military-service obligations that entails, there can be no objection. But the fact that the Palestinian people have no state is of course at the heart of this uniquely internationally inflammatory conflict. And those fighting against the illegal occupation of their land are entitled to do so under international law.
The British government’s indifference to this recruitment is feeding the alienation and radicalisation of young Muslims, who can be labelled terrorists for even voicing support for the Palestinians.
Perhaps British citizens should not serve in foreign armies full stop. But the essential point is that there must be equality. If Britons are allowed to join the Israeli army, the same right should be accorded to those – particularly of Palestinian origin – who wish to volunteer to defend lands Israel occupies. Alternatively, both should be barred.
We need a shift in approach at the top. Tony Blair has expressed his desire to bring peace to the Middle East, but his actions – most recently his refusal to condemn Israel’s Beit Hanoun massacre at the UN – scarcely suggest an honest broker. At home and in the Middle East, it is time the British government showed some real even-handedness.
Ismail Patel is chair of the Leicester-based campaign Friends of Al-Aqsa.