Over the Bank Holiday weekend, coinciding with the start of the Ramadan fast for Muslims and the run-up to “Israel’s Independence Day”, it was touch and go whether the latest outbreak of violence – fatalities on the border, rockets fired into Israel, airstrikes against the Gaza Strip – would escalate into all-out war. Twenty-five Palestinians and four Israelis was a modest death toll compared with summer 2014, when 2,250 Palestinians and 67 Israelis were killed in Operation Protective Edge.
The ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and the UN should ease the punishing blockade imposed by Israel since the Islamists of Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. Millions of dollars donated by the Gulf state of Qatar will continue to pay official salaries and help needy families. Palestinian fishermen will be able to operate farther out to sea. Electricity and fuel supplies should be boosted.
Amid speculation about what happens next, one thing is certain: it could all happen again, any time – before or after 2020, when Gaza reaches the point, long predicted by the UN, of being “uninhabitable” for its 2 million population. “The war hasn’t been averted, only postponed,” as one Israeli minister commented on Twitter. Cynics suggest that Israel may launch military action after the Eurovision song contest is held in Tel Aviv next week.
The immediate trigger for this round of violence was the wounding of two Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border, where over 200 Palestinians have been shot dead in the year-long “marches of return.” These have highlighted hopelessness and sustained the culture of resistance generated by Israel’s siege, reinforced by the mutual hostility between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Israel’s newly re-elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, putting together the most rightwing government in the country’s history, had little to say about this bout of fighting. He has been heavily criticised for failing to defeat Hamas and in effect using it as a partner in his struggle against Palestinian statehood by maintaining the debilitating split between Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Netanyahu has, of course, been emboldened by the unstinting support of Donald Trump – who recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, closed down the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington, slashed aid to the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, and on the eve of last month’s Knesset election recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Netanyahu responded with a pledge to start formally annexing illegal settlements in the West Bank.
In a few weeks’ time, after Ramadan, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is to unveil what Trump calls his “deal of the century”. Never has a peace plan been the subject of so much vilification before it has been published. Leaks and briefings point to massive investment in Gaza and the West Bank with the help of the Saudis and others, anxious to ingratiate themselves with the White House. Kushner has described “a very good business plan with a strong economic component for how Palestinians can move forward economically” – an approach rejected as financial blackmail by the Ramallah-based Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh.
No one doubts that Gazans need urgent relief, but the latest eruption is a bleak and timely illustration of the fact that economic development alone will not resolve the Palestinian question as long as an overwhelmingly powerful Israel, backed uncritically by the US, retains overall control and prioritises its own settlement project and security needs.
If Trump’s deal, as is widely predicted, is dead on arrival, others will need to work out how to respond. Britain is preoccupied with Brexit, but whatever the future relationship with the EU it remains a permanent member of the UN security council. Historically it has a special responsibility, with the centenary of the Balfour declaration in 2017 a resonant reminder that the promise of a Jewish “national home” ignored what were notoriously described as the “non-Jewish communities” – then 90% of the population – of the Holy Land.
In the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, MPs voted overwhelmingly to recognise the state of Palestine, which was first declared by Yasser Arafat in November 1988, after the first intifada. The government’s position since then has been that Britain “reserves the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at the moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”. But there has been no peace process since John Kerry threw in the towel in April 2014. Sweden recognised Palestine then and has been shunned by Israel. But if France follows suit, as diplomats say seems possible, there will be safety in numbers and a result that would mean that four of the five permanent members of the UN security council (China, and Russia already do so) would have recognised Palestine.
It has become fashionable to dismiss the idea of ever achieving a two-state solution. Polling on both sides shows that support for it, and belief in it, is draining away, especially when it comes to the gritty details of core issues such as refugees, borders, settlements and Jerusalem. “Don’t even mention it,” Kushner said of the two-state model. Europeans with long experience of backing it insist that it must be defended – whatever Trump does next.
In the words of the independent Palestinian thinker Mustafa Barghouti, if Israel is not prepared to negotiate a two-state solution, let them contemplate one state: yet how that state – with equal rights for Jews and Arabs alike – is supposed to be created remains a mystery, an aspiration without a workable strategy.
British recognition of the state of Palestine would have powerful symbolic significance. It would reinforce the principled position, embodied in decades of UN resolutions and anchored in international law, that the only way to resolve this most intractable, divisive and toxic of global conflicts is support for national rights and self-determination for both peoples in their own independent states. The moment to get off the fence and finally do that is fast approaching.
• Ian Black is a former Middle East editor of the Guardian
• This article was amended on 9 May 2019 to clarify that the immediate trigger for the latest round of violence was the wounding of two Israeli soldiers, not the shooting of Palestinians as initially stated.