Pressure on the UK government to commit to concrete measures and not just “lacklustre” verbal condemnation if Israel goes ahead with annexation of parts of the West Bank has been stepped up by a coalition of 14 British charities and human rights groups.
The pressure follows confirmation by the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, at the weekend that the British Labour party supported a ban on Israeli imports made in West Bank settlements if annexation of parts of the occupied Palestinian territories went ahead. Her proposal has been backed by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and is likely to be raised in the Commons on Tuesday.
There are no official figures of settlement exports to the EU, as the Israel government makes no distinction, but the most recent estimated value is €229m – less than 2% of total Israeli exports to the EU, which were €14.7bn in 2017.
The Foreign Office has so far said an illegal annexation could not go unanswered or unchallenged, but has gone no further, partly since it is still hoping Israel may yet pull back. The UK will also be coordinating if possible with other major European states, but the EU is divided on how to respond, with some groups such as the Belgian parliament voting for sanctions, if necessary in a coalition of the willing. Eastern EU member states normally oppose such measures.
UK diplomats will also be gauging the true depth of the surprisingly strong rhetorical opposition in the Arab states.
The statement by the charities, including Christian Aid, accuses the UK of a “lacklustre” response. “While reiterating its principled opposition to annexation, and stating that such action is illegal, the UK has consistently failed to outline how it will meaningfully oppose it,” the statement said.
“The precise shape that this annexation will take remains unclear, though it is likely to encompass existing settlements, and potentially the resource-rich agricultural lands of the Jordan valley that are so vital to the Palestinian economy. But whether an inch of land or the entire West Bank, such a move would be manifestly unlawful.”
The groups, because of their charitable status, make no specific proposal, but stronger options include recognition of Palestine, wider sanctions built on UN resolutions and use of an imminent UK-Israel trade agreement to punish human rights abuses.
The UK Middle East minister, James Cleverly, told the UN security council last week that the UK “strongly opposes” annexation as a breach of international law. “Such a step would go against the rules-based international order and the UN charter. Annexation could not go unanswered, and we implore Israel to reconsider,” he told the UN.
Nandy said the proposal to annex nearly a third of the West Bank would undermine the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and had serious implications for the stability of the Middle East.
“It is a shameful proposition to which the UK cannot be a silent witness. Across the world concern is growing … So far the UK government has been conspicuously absent from this global response,” she said.
“This is now urgent. The government must be clear with the Israeli coalition government that concrete action will follow, including a ban on goods entering Britain from the illegal settlements in the West Bank. This is a major step, but such a blatant breach of international law must have consequences. It will take a level of courage that so far ministers have not been willing to show.”
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, responded by urging Starmer not to go down the route advocated by Nandy, saying it would be divisive.
Nine EU member states, including Sweden, Hungary and Poland, have already recognised the state of Palestine. But Israel has strong support in central and eastern Europe, and EU foreign policy is conducted by unanimity.
Those calling for tougher action point out it took 17 days from the Russian annexation of Crimea for sanctions to be enforced.