Amid all the horror in Syria and Iraq, I fear that we are on the brink of another conflagration in a much older conflict. What is all the more tragic is that the violence erupting in Palestine and Israel is so utterly foreseeable to anyone minded to look.
First published in The Sunday Herald, 18 October 2015
I visited Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories in June. Tensions were high and every politician, official and an NGO worker I met warned that the situation was going to escalate, that tensions continue to bubble beneath the surface and any moment we could see an eruption of violence. Barely three months later, everything I feared would happen is happening. And it is going to get worse.
A wave of violence is spreading across Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the situation is quickly spiralling out of control. Thirty-two Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed in the past two weeks. The Israeli police say they have shot dead 10 knife-wielding people.
Let me be clear, there is absolutely no justification for these reprehensible attacks. I deplore any violence against anyone for any reason. However, the international community when condemning the violence needs to think long and hard about its causes or else we risk condemning the peoples of the region to more heartbreak.
To fight radicalism and outbursts of violence we need to denounce all human rights abuses, make sure international law is upheld on the ground and support progressive voices within Israel, of which there are plenty. We need to use all pressure at our disposal to force all sides to the negotiating table. We need, urgently, to force the Israeli government to reign in the dreadful activities of the people they call Settlers – people who illegally occupy Palestinian land and then demand protection from the state of Israel. They are not government actors, but they're not independent either and they could be controlled, nothing less will calm tensions.
This uprising has not started in the past few weeks, it has been building for years, simply awaiting a lit fuse to ignite it.
It is caused by the continuous, deliberate and systematic oppression of the Palestinian people. The election this summer of a new government, still presided over by Benjamin Netanyahu but notably more extreme in its makeup, brought forward a new range of policies which have contributed to the flashpoint. When I was there the frustration on the street was palpable, and I have little faith that the Palestinian Authority is actually in a position to speak for or control the street anymore.
The frustration is entirely understandable. Let us not kid ourselves, there is no Middle East peace process. There is no two-state solution on the table. There is no table.
Instead the Palestinians have seen on a daily basis what I saw briefly: a monumental construction programme of outposts, settlements, roads and infrastructure that have made day-to-day life all but impossible. An apartheid system actually more ruthless than South African apartheid ever was, with a Palestinian territory being divided into a series of impossible and unsustainable Bantustans. Even since my last visit I was shocked by the scale of the change.
And the violence now in some quarters authorises a further crackdown. In response to the continuing violence, Israeli police have been given authority to seal off some parts of East Jerusalem. Human Rights Watch said sealing off some areas would harm the whole Palestinian community. Further, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the homes of people who carried out attacks would be demolished and residency rights revoked.
Both measures are forms of collective punishment and will not bring justice. Collective punishment is unjust in itself and the recent upsurge of violence is used as an excuse to expel, banish and remove as many Palestinian families from East Jerusalem as possible, to complete the already well advanced annexation of the city. In the last couple of days Israeli forces delivered at least seven home demolition orders to the families of suspected Palestinian attackers, giving them 72 hours' notice.
The Israeli police force will be enlarged, 300 additional security guards are being recruited for public transportation in Jerusalem and the army will deploy units in sensitive areas along the security fence. Israeli forces have started to seal off Arab areas in Jerusalem and, most surprising of all, it has also been suggested that gun controls should be relaxed within Israel. All of the measures suggested will only lead to further deaths on both sides.
Again, let me be clear. Israel has a right to exist and a right to security. Within its borders. It does not have a right to claim Palestinian land and then adopt the language of victimhood when the Palestinian street reacts.
Meanwhile, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, told Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the recent telephone conversations to avoid action that could increase tensions, and called on the sides to agree on substantial steps which would improve the situation on the ground and lead to renewed peace talks. So what?
The European leaders have also called for calm but no-one listens, one side doesn't want to and one side can't control anything. At least two generations of Palestinians born into occupation realise that this is not a temporary measure and as an act of desperation they reject voices of reason in favor of violent protest.
It may well be that the distressing images from East Jerusalem and the West Bank will disappear from the front pages for a few weeks, maybe a few months but this conflict is not going away unless the parties involved, including the international community, accept the fact that two-state solution is the only solution.
Like many times before, the UN Security Council holds a special meeting to discuss the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians; Israel is bracing for more violence and Palestinians gather to face the security forces. Unfortunately, many more homes will be demolished, many settlements built and lives lost before any conclusion to this conflict can be found.
We are bound to the people of Israel and Palestine, through kith and kin, and, indeed,ties of Empire when many of the fault lines now exploding were set down. This conflict must be resolved, and only co-ordinated international pressure will do it. What a shame Scotland is not in the forums of the world as a voice for peace.