Comment: Palestine is a state – and a prison

By Edward McMillan-Scott

Whatever the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons, Palestine is a state but it is also a prison.

It's a prison in the sense that Tibet has been described as such by the Dalai Lama: absolute control of borders, trade and much else by a dominant neighbour, and yet both are states in the eyes of their people. Britain has a particular responsibility to each.

Much of the ghastly history of the Middle East began with the cynical Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 partitioning the post-war region and the conflicting Balfour declaration in 1917 promising a 'national homeland to the Jewish people'; and Britain's refusal for 100 years until 2008 to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, where we had abandoned our mediating role generations ago.

I chaired the largest-ever parliamentary observer missions – 30 MEPs – to the last Palestinian elections, the election of President Abbas (Abu Mazen) in January 2005 and then the parliamentary elections which saw the victory of Hamas in January 2006.

The failure of US secretary of state John Kerry's heroic efforts to get negotiations going again between Israel and Palestine may be resumed, but the collapse last spring led him to expect 'apartheid' between the two countries.

It already is apartheid, said a leading independent Palestinian lawmaker, Mustafa Barghouti, whom I had met in Ramallah with Kerry during the optimistic presidential election in 2005. Both had been presidential candidates and both remain committed to a peaceful settlement on internationally-agreed lines, which only Israel disputes.

As a kinsman of T E Lawrence ('of Arabia') I have followed the tragic evolution of the Middle East for a lifetime. Lawrence, a friend of both, believed in the possibility of Arabs and Jews living in peaceful cooperation. However the current struggle engulfing the region evolves, the sore of Israel/Palestine must remain in our focus.

I had met a Hamas delegation in January 2005, the first EU representative to meet the banned movement. My notes show that my priority was to encourage the rather dour and radical group to give up its terror activities, accept Israel's right to exist and above all to take part in the parliamentary elections. It remains a scar on international relations, notably on the West, that having encouraged Hamas to stand the result of the election was ignored. There have been no elections in Palestine since then.

On my last visit to Ramallah in November 2011, UNESCO had just voted to accept Palestine as a full member state. Britain abstained. At lunch with a group of Palestinian politicians the following day, we realised that the data line on our smartphones had died. One of our number, recently a telecoms minister, called his former colleagues. Apparently Palestinian mobiles were the subject that day of a denial-of-service attack sourced to 26 locations worldwide. The Palestinians were in no doubt that Israel was flexing its muscles again.

In international relations, gestures count. Britain counts too. I hope that our parliamentarians show the way by recognising Palestine.

Edward McMillan-Scott was MEP for Yorkshire & Humber 1984 – 2014 and Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy & Human Rights

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