It is a striking thing about the news cycle that events of only a few days ago swiftly begin to seem like ancient history. People reminisce about events of only a few weeks back, and dredge up memories and opinions from months past. The surface-knowledge that this encourages has an obvious corollary, which is that bigger, underlying questions get passed over as though it is they which are the froth.
Events around the resignation of Priti Patel, which took place a whole week ago now, threw up a number of examples of this. But one stood out.
One of the allegations made against Patel was that – in her position as Secretary of State for International Development – she had meetings with Israelis about the possibility of the UK’s international aid budget being used to assist the Israeli government’s Syrian refugee relief efforts in the Golan Heights. Since the start of the Syrian civil war the existence of these facilities has been quietly known. Although the numbers are not huge, some hundreds of civilians who have been badly wounded in the conflict have found their way to a border which was impregnable for half a century but which for them has in recent years become semi-porous. They have been given a level of medical existence which not only does not exist anywhere else in the region, but – with Israel’s sadly acquired knowledge of these matters – does not exist anywhere else in the world. After treatment the Syrians go back into their own country, supplied with medicines or artificial limbs which it is carefully ensured do not have any markings showing that they come from the Jewish state.
For their part, the Israelis have been uncooperative with journalists wanting to see the facilities. This appears to be in order to protect the wounded Syrians, many of whom would not be able to return to Syria – or would be killed on their return – if it was clear where they had been. But a fortnight ago, just before Patel’s resignation, there was a preview screening in Parliament of a film called ‘Love your Enemies’ in which a filmmaker was given unprecedented access to some of these facilities. Photographs of the patients were carefully pixelated, but they included the story of a young man who had most of his face blown off in his native country and who was having it carefully reconstructed in Israel.
Since the UK government has in the past been generous enough to help pay the salaries of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists, it may seem surprising that it would deem the victims of such people not to be worthy beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse. But there is an additional reason for such a stance – which is that these facilities are in the Golan Heights, and in the eyes of the British government and much of the rest of the international community, these areas remain illegally occupied by Israel. The Foreign Office source (immediately identifiable as Alan Duncan) who was quoted in the press describing the idea of the UK’s International Aid budget helping such a cause as ‘inappropriate’ was certainly thinking of this fact among others.
All of which raises one of the great questions which the British Foreign Office must be invited to address. The Golan Heights are undoubtedly a beautiful area. The land has been made fertile and great swathes of vineyards among other agricultural cultivation now goes on there. But they are also a crucial tactical vantage point. Until the 1967 War, when Israel’s neighbours once again attempted to invade and destroy the state, this area’s geographical height – like a large portion of the West Bank – gave the country’s enemies a far-stretching strategic vantage-point. As such, it was a place from which to launch land-invasions and rockets that would put the whole country within striking distance of even the most basic weaponry.
To believe that this territory was illegitimately seized is to presume that there should be no punishment for continuously launching wars of aggression against neighbouring states. In fact if a country repeatedly launches aggressive wars from a vantage point and repeatedly loses those wars that it has started, then the loss of such a vantage point seems a rational and reasonable cost.
Yet for those who think that there should be no such price to pay another question lingers unaddressed. Which is that if – like Britain’s Foreign Office – people think that the Golan Heights are illegally occupied and must be returned, then who should they be returned to?
The Islamic State group (ISIS) have occupied a number of villages on the Syrian side of the border in recent years. As has the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front. Should the Golan heights be handed over to these groups? At a time when ISIS is suffering major setbacks everywhere, the gift of such a productive piece of territory could be a great consolation. True, the vineyards would be of little use to them but otherwise they would welcome the gift.
If the Israelis were forced to live up to the attitudes of the British government then a more obvious person to hand the Golan over to would be the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In recent years whenever any group has fired a missile into the Golan, the Israelis have returned fire and destroyed the launch sites. The Syrian dictator who has been bombing his own population with impunity for the past six years has not been able to carry out such acts in the Golan. If the territory were handed over to him, then he would certainly be able to barrel-bomb a further stretch of territory with similar impunity.
One point of view on this – held in parts of the Foreign Office, among other places – is that although now may not be the ideal time to hand the Golan back to Assad, perhaps after the Syrian conflict is over such a gift would be desirable. They imagine that such an act would help some wider peacefulness in the region.
But they should consider another fact that is rarely, if ever, mentioned. What happens if you add up all the dead on every side of every war involving Israel since the creation of the state in 1948? Add the death tolls on both sides from the 1948 war of independence to the present, including the wars of 1967 and 1973, the first and second Lebanon wars and every intifada and exchange between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Add all of these together, and grant the largest death-tolls estimated on the Arab sides in each of these conflicts. And add these to the Israeli death-tolls in all these conflicts and terror acts. Put that sum together and the total – including the dead of all sides – adds up to an average eighteen months of killing in Syria since 2011.
This is the regime to which the British government wishes to ‘return’ the Golan. This is part of their plan for a wider regional peace. There are always oddities and contradictions in foreign affairs. But there are also times when positions become unsustainable. If the Patel affair is to prove anything more than yet another momentary news-feast, it should prove a chance to enter British policy towards the Golan into that strange and embarrassing category. And for the UK government to develop the courage to change its policy accordingly.