Rishi Sunak has given Britain’s full approval to the flattening of Gaza.
Late on 7 October, the prime minister tweeted “we stand unequivocally with Israel”. Sunak had expressed “full solidarity” to Benjamin Netanyahu, the tweet added.
As Netanyahu had promised “mighty vengeance” following the Hamas-led offensive that morning, there was no room for doubt about the signal which Sunak was sending.
In a few words, Sunak took Britain’s foreign policy to a new extreme.
Israel’s “mighty vengeance” is shaping up to be its most destructive bombardment ever of Gaza and its 2.3 million inhabitants.
A “mighty vengeance” endorsed by 10 Downing Street.
There is a long history of the UK supporting Israel’s wars.
‘A real act of war’
Through the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain sponsored the Zionist colonisation project. Ruling Palestine from the 1920s to the 1940s, Britain took a series of concrete steps towards realising the project’s objectives. In so doing, Britain paved the way for the Nakba, the mass expulsion of Palestinians.
Yet since Israel was formally established in 1948, Britain’s relationship with that state has involved a number of twists.
In 1956, Britain and France used Israel to do their dirty work.
At a secret meeting in Sevres – a Parisian suburb – during October that year, a plan was hatched to attack Egypt over its nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company (an Anglo-French firm and a key player in international shipping).
“Britain’s foreign secretary, advocated that Israel commit ‘a real act of war'”
Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military chief who took part in those discussions, subsequently revealed that the plan put on the table there was presented as a British initiative. Selwyn Lloyd, then Britain’s foreign secretary, advocated that Israel commit “a real act of war,” Dayan wrote in his memoirs.
The Israeli attack on Egypt – and the skullduggery by Britain and France – drew an irate response from the US. As the dominant world power, it could not countenance the notion of Britain acting without its authorisation.
Under US pressure, a ceasefire was called later in 1956 – though not before such horrors as a few massacres in Gaza.
The Suez fiasco put Britain in its place. It was of pivotal importance in making Britain behave as a junior partner to the American superpower.
Labour’s friends of Israel
Despite being told off for its underhand dealings, Britain kept on providing valuable assistance to Israel. Harold Wilson was a keen admirer of Zionism. That can be seen in his book The Chariot of Israel.
The government which Wilson led in the 1960s proved accommodating to Israeli requests for arms. Hundreds of Centurions – British-made battle tanks – were delivered to Israel between 1965 and 1967.
During June 1967, Israel used those tanks in its invasion of Arab territories.
Israeli military commanders were “handsome” in praising the tank, it has been documented. The tank “apparently did far more than was ever expected of it,” a memo drawn up by the British embassy in Tel Aviv stated.
The June 1967 war was the beginning of a military occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights which persists to this day.
The numerous British statements that have subsequently been issued against the occupation – and, in particular, the construction of settlements – must be viewed sceptically. The truth is that the occupation was enabled by British weapons and that the British political elite was pleased with that fact.
A key, though little-known, British document on Israel dates from May 1968. Penned by Michael Stewart, then foreign secretary, it stated that “the survival of Israel as a separate state is a fundamental aspect of our Middle East policy”.
The document nonetheless indicated that Britain also wished to cultivate strong relations with Arab countries. For that reason, it recommended Britain should maintain an “approximate balance of military strength” between Israel and its neighbours.
1973 and 1982
Such thinking explains how Britain responded to the October 1973 war between Israel and a number of Arab states, headed by Egypt.
On that occasion, Britain halted weapons supplies both to Israel and several of its Arab enemies.
US planes taking arms to Israel were even prevented from landing in Britain military bases. The measure was necessary, Washington was told, as Britain did not wish to antagonise Arab oil providers on which it had become dependent.
The Israelis “have been sharing with us their latest battle experience”
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s prime minister – and waging her own war to retain the Falkland Islands – when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.
Her thoughts on the invasion can be found in a letter to Ronald Reagan, then the US president. She contended that there was “an urgent need for a balanced policy” and that “unlimited support for Israel can only lead to growing polarisation and despair in the Arab world”.
If not unlimited, Britain had given Israel significant support ahead of the invasion. More than 100 Israeli soldiers received training in Britain between 1981 and 1982.
A July 1982 memo from Britain’s Ministry of Defence confirmed that the Israelis “have been sharing with us their latest battle experience”.
Such eagerness to learn from Israeli tactics were at odds with public statements. Thatcher denounced the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila – Beirut-area camps for Palestinian refugees – as an “act of sheer barbarism”.
The massacres were carried out by Israel’s Lebanese allies the Phalange and with Israeli assistance. Thatcher’s reaction – whether sincere or not – is, therefore, probably the strongest denunciation of Israel or an Israeli proxy by a British prime minister.
Tony Blair – whom Thatcher regarded with great affection – never dared to direct a similar message towards Israel.
Instead, Blair enthusiastically backed Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon. Reflecting on that war in his memoirs, Blair claimed Israel’s soldiers were engaged in an epic struggle between “modernity and atavism”.
“Blair enthusiastically backed Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon”
It should be recalled that Blair encountered pushback from his party colleagues over his support for Israeli aggression. Blair even complained that he “suffered” (his word) for his stance, which “probably did me more damage than anything since Iraq”.
Rishi Sunak is unlikely to suffer for his embrace of Israel. Applauding Israel is considered mandatory in 2023 for the leaders of Britain’s two main parties.
There is little hope that the British political elite will do a U-turn and start taking Palestinian rights seriously. Change can only come through mass mobilisation by ordinary people in Britain or anywhere else.
David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada, a website focused on Palestine. His latest book is Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support of Zionism and Israel.