Every humanitarian will be appalled and horrified at the scenes we are witnessing after the severe escalation of violence since October 7th.
International law must be the framework within which we judge acts of violence and their legitimacy. International law makes it clear that the deliberate killing of civilians, hostage-taking and collective punishment are war crimes. International law also enshrines the right of a people to resist oppression and military occupation.
An offensive launched from Gaza can only be understood in the context of Israel’s ongoing military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, and imposition of a system of oppression that meets the legal definition of apartheid, which under international law constitutes a crime against humanity.
Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel is now at war with Palestinians, but the reality is that Israel has been waging a decades-long war, enacted to enforce a system of occupation, apartheid and colonisation. The immediate context of the attack from Gaza is the intensification of violence by Israel since the election of the most far-right extremist government in its history, elected on a platform of proceeding with the effective annexation of the West Bank.
From the beginning of 2023 up to October 6th, the day before the offensive from Gaza began, Israeli forces had killed 240 Palestinians including 45 children, the highest level of killing since the UN began to keep accurate records in 2005.
Alongside these illegal killings, Palestinians in the West Bank have been subject to intensifying attacks by armed Israeli settlers, enabled and encouraged by Israeli forces. In one week alone 17 Palestinian villages were attacked, homes set ablaze, civilian people killed or severely injured. Applauding these pogroms, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Finance Minister, publicly called for an entire Palestinian village to be erased.
Beyond this immediate context, Gaza, with a population of over 2 million – of whom 50% are children – has been subjected to an Israeli-imposed blockade for the last 16 years. This collective punishment of an entire population is in absolute defiance of international law. It is worth remembering that 80% of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees.
On October 8th, the Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant declared “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.” Benjamin Netanyahu called on civilians to leave Gaza as Israeli forces intend to turn Gaza “into a deserted island” as “we will target each and every corner of the strip”. Knowing that Israel will not allow the people of Gaza to leave the strip, this can only be interpreted as a declaration of the intent to slaughter thousands of innocent civilians.
These crimes are all aspects of a system of rule established over Palestinians since the foundation of the Israeli state via a process of ethnic cleansing that saw over 750,000 expelled or forced to flee from their homes, and denied them their right to return home. Since that Nakba of 1948, Israel has enacted a system of rule designed to sustain a Jewish majority and grant it privileged rights. Across all of historic Palestine – what is now the state of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank – Israel has maintained a system of control and oppression that is now recognised by a consensus across international civil society as meeting the definition of apartheid, a crime against humanity.
It is in this context that we must measure the response of British political leaders. Those who rush to condemn the violence of Palestinians have no moral foundation to do so while they support the maintenance of this system of apartheid: the root cause of this violence. As Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire reminds us, “with the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.” To cast the events of October 7th as an unprovoked act of terrorism erases both the Palestinian people and the facts of their history, which is British history too. Moreover, the decision by the UK Government and the Mayor of London to emblazon public buildings with the flag of Apartheid Israel delivers a deeply concerning message. Given the context outlined above, and the breaches of international law we all know Israel is about to commit, this cannot simply be read as a statement of empathy and support for civilian victims of violence, but as an endorsement of an ongoing military occupation, support for human rights violations and as a green light for the Israeli Government to proceed with a major military assault which will inevitably lead to a huge number of civilian deaths.
Any claims of respect for international law and human rights only carry weight if they are applied without discrimination. You cannot fly the flag of Ukraine and claim solidarity with its struggle against military occupation, while at the same time pledging political support, and selling arms to a state that has been enacting a military occupation for generations.
Over the next few weeks, as this situation inevitably escalates, we will be leading public demonstrations of solidarity with the people of Palestine. We will do so from a framework of supporting the application of international law and principles of human rights. These principles also lead us to stress with utmost vehemence that our grievance is with the actions of the Israeli state and those governments that are complicit with its crimes – we condemn absolutely any attempt to victimise communities in Britain in this context.
We act from a sincere wish to see an end to all violence, especially violence against civilians, but we recognise that this will never be achieved unless the root causes of that violence are addressed. We will do so from a foundation of our enduring support for the right of the Palestinian people to freedom, self-determination and return.