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Courtesy Unsplash / Ash Hayes

Why moving the UK embassy to Jerusalem would be a terrible idea

Described by critics as ‘dangerously inflammatory’, the UK government’s proposed plan would fly in the face of international consensus and effectively act as an endorsement of the oppression of Palestinians

Yesterday, Australia reversed a decision made four years ago to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The country’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, argued that the measure had “put Australia out of step with the majority of the international community” and risked undermining the possibility of a two-state solution. For decades, there has been a shared consensus among almost every government that Jerusalem should be the capital of both Palestine and Israel, but only in the context of a negotiated peace agreement. When Donald Trump moved the US embassy there in 2018, he was met with near unanimous condemnation from world leaders. But in spite of this overwhelming consensus, Prime Minister Liz Truss has recently said she is considering following in Trump’s footsteps, an extreme move which would make the UK an outlier on the world stage (just four other countries - the US, Honduras, Guatemala and Kosovo - have done the same.)

Having floated the idea during her leadership election, Truss confirmed her intention to review the location during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid last month. This would be controversial for several reasons: while Israel regards Jerusalem as its “eternal and united” capital, Palestinians argue this claim comes at the expense of their own history and continued existence in East Jerusalem – which Israel occupied in the 1967 war and unlawfully annexed in 1980, marking the beginning of an ongoing process of displacement which has been condemned by the UN. By moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the UK would be flying in the face of decades of international consensus and, in effect, recognising the city as the capital of Israel alone. While Truss’s willingness to do this has been welcomed by some pro-Israel groups, it has been met with harsh criticism elsewhere. This hasn’t just come from organisations and figures who are typically vocal in support of Palestine: a number of her fellow Tories have denounced the plan (including former foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan, who described it as “dangerously inflammatory”) along with Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP. Meanwhile, religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a number of Jewish community groups, including one which is avowedly pro-Israel, have all voiced their opposition. A legal group which supports the rights of Palestinians has announced that, if the plans go ahead, it will launch a judicial review with the goal of blocking the move.

If you don’t know much about the situation in Palestine, the location of the British embassy might seem like a technicality. But for Palestinians, this move would represent an enormous betrayal by the British government. To understand why, it’s important to consider the larger context. “Palestinians have lived in Jerusalem for centuries – my own family included,” Dr Sara Husseini, director of the British Palestinian Committee, tells Dazed. “Many were forcibly expelled from their homes in the western part of the city in 1948, becoming refugees, and, since 1967, successive Israeli governments have sought to erase the Palestinian Christian and Muslim identity of the eastern part of the city as well.” Towards this end, Israel has enacted a number of discriminatory policies, including expelling Palestinians from their homes in neighbourhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan; stripping them of residency rights, demolishing their homes, and arresting and detaining people without charge

“The question of relocating the embassy is far more than symbolic,” Dr Husseini continues. “Truss would effectively be rewarding and encouraging the systematic daily atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians. While Truss and her government are considering this move in the safety of Westminster, Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout the rest of occupied Palestine are being brutally forced out of their homes, injured, and killed by Israeli forces on a near daily basis.”

By moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Truss would be endorsing the ongoing oppression of Palestinians under what a number of human rights organisations – including Amnesty International and Israel’s own B’tselem – have described as a system of apartheid. “The feeling among Palestinians is one of repeated disbelief at the double standards applied by the government when it comes to Israeli violations of international law, at the apparent lack of any sense of responsibility given Britain’s own colonial legacy in Palestine, and at the extent to which Palestinians have been so dehumanised that the killing of more than 136 women, men and children by Israeli forces since the start of this year alone may not only be tolerated, but effectively rewarded,” says Dr Husseini.

“[We would] effectively rewarding and encouraging the systematic daily atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians... [they] are being brutally forced out of their homes, injured, and killed by Israeli forces on a near daily basis” – Dr Husseini

The effort to have Jerusalem recognised as Israel’s capital must be understood as one part of a larger colonial project. “Land grabs are at the core of [this], historically and now: destroying Palestinian homes, schools, villages, and farmlands to make way for Israeli settlements,” says Ryvka Barnard, deputy director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign. “This was what happened during the Nakba of 1948, when over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed and depopulated, and it happens today in Jerusalem; it happens in the Palestinian Bedouin areas in the Naqab; in Masafer Yatta in the West Bank, and beyond. Sometimes this is achieved through Israeli armed forces expelling Palestinians from their lands, and sometimes it is about making their lives so unlivable that they have no real options.” 

According to Barnard, Israel has been steadily dismantling the political, cultural, and economic cores of Palestinian life, and establishing centres of state power in their place. “This is extremely intense in Jerusalem, which Israel has been trying to make its capital city for decades. Its attempts to get other states to move their embassies to Jerusalem – even if they wouldn’t be located in the parts which are recognised as occupied under international law – are still part of the process of trying to secure official international recognition for Israeli state power on stolen Palestinian land, despite this being at the expense of Palestinian life and internationally recognised rights,” she says.

Whether it’s through British companies selling weapons or bulldozers to the Israeli state or our government allowing Israel to commit human rights abuses – or even apparent war crimes – without facing any consequences, the UK is firmly complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. But at the same time, it has still held some lines that it would not cross, one of which was adhering to the international consensus on Jerusalem. “That consensus was broken when Trump moved the US embassy a few years back, but beyond that, it has pretty much held up,” says Barnard. “So for Britain to break it now would be another major blow and a massive step backwards. What we saw after the US embassy move was deepening Israeli state violence against Palestinians, because it lent Israel an increased sense of impunity, like it could do whatever it wanted with no consequences at all.”

Whether Truss will actually go ahead with the embassy move, however, is a different question. Just a short while ago it seemed inevitable, but it’s considerably less likely to happen now that her premiership has proven such a disaster (according to one poll, she is the least popular Prime Minister since records began – at the time of writing, she holds a similar approval rating as Prince Andrew.) At a time when the economic and political situation at home is so dire, and Jeremy Hunt is insisting that every government department needs to find savings, it would be hard to make the case for why it would be a priority. All moral and political considerations aside, an embassy move would be expensive. And while lacking official recognition in the international community, Palestinians have a groundswell of grassroots support across the world, including here in Britain. If Truss does decide to go ahead with the move, this will, Barnard suggests, lead thousands more people to supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice, and self-determination.