OPINION – HILARY BENN: I’ve seen two possible futures for the Israelis and Palestinians

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OPINION – HILARY BENN: I’ve seen two possible futures for the Israelis and Palestinians

Benn, who is widely acknowledged to have made one of Parliament’s finest speeches when advocating action against ISIS in Syria this month, was
making only his second international visit outside Europe in his role as shadow foreign secretary.
Benn, who is widely acknowledged to have made one of Parliament’s finest speeches when advocating action against ISIS in Syria this month, was making only his second international visit outside Europe in his role as shadow foreign secretary.

by Hilary Benn, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary 

Hilary Benn
Hilary Benn

Last week I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. It was my third trip to a region I first visited more than a decade ago. The aim was simply to hear, to see and to learn more from people and politicians on both sides.

I returned full of thoughts and reflections, but I am sad to say that politically my overriding sense was of gloom at the lack of progress since the Oslo Accords. To put it bluntly, today there is no peace process. 

For the Palestinians, who rightly want their own state and their civic, political and economic rights, hope is absent. The younger generation grew up on promises of peace, progress and jobs but now there is just huge frustration and despair. 

And for Israelis, who also want security and to get on with their lives, the absence of a settlement creates fear and uncertainty about the future in a very troubled region.

We know, however, that politics can find a way forward. We have seen how it can bring peace where once there was only conflict. All the Israeli and Palestinian politicians I met told me about their continued commitment to two states, with Israel living in security alongside an independent Palestinian state. But this could all too easily slip away unless political leaders on both sides act with urgency. Some people told me that the continued building of settlements means that time is running out for a two-state solution, and yet that the alternative does not bear thinking about.

As in all long-running conflicts, more attention is paid to past wrongs rather than to the possibilities of future cooperation. The economic dividend of peace would be enormous, especially for the Palestinians. But instead both sides find it hard to move beyond suspicion and resentment.  

Of course, each conflict is different, but as on my two previous trips, I found myself reflecting a lot on our experience in Northern Ireland. At the height of the troubles in the 1970s, it used to be said that the conflict had been going on for 400 years and would still be going on in another 400 years. And yet it isn’t. In the end, it took political leadership in both communities to change things; a decision to seek peace rather than continue to blame each other. 

The international community certainly has its part to play in securing two states so that Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in peace, security and mutual respect but ultimately it must and will fall to leaders to make this happen.

I hope that the new year will bring a new commitment to peace, remembering that small steps can lead to big progress. A freeze on illegal settlement building and vocal condemnation of violence would certainly help.

There are two possible futures for Israelis and Palestinians. The morning I spent in Hebron illustrated what can happen if the conflict continues to fester and isn’t resolved. The main road, where once there was a thriving market, has been closed off. There were checkpoints, no-go areas and a pervasive tension, created in part by a cycle of killing. Settlers live above Palestinian shopkeepers with metal netting separating them to catch the rubbish that some settlers throw down on their neighbours. Young Israeli soldiers are stuck in the middle of it all operating to different rules of engagement for Palestinians and for settlers, further fuelling resentment.  

And yet it could be so different with people of different faiths living alongside each other and worshipping freely. This is not a dream because it was the history of Hebron for many years and there is no reason why is should not be so again. 

The other future is the one I saw in Jerusalem in the new media quarter by the old railway station. Start-up media companies, a technology incubator, restaurants, a music club and concert venue and a youth empowerment programme supporting youngsters from some of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods. 

It is all about people coming together to build something better and provide jobs and opportunity for the next generation. It can be done.

For hope to win out and to achieve justice for the Palestianians and security for Israel, all that is needed is for courageous political leadership to compromise in the interests of peace. 

There are always reasons why it is hard to do this. But if not now, when?

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