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National Article

First published in The National, Friday 17 May 2024

On Monday it was reported that right wing protesters in Israel had blocked aid trucks destined for Gaza, throwing food packages onto the road and ripping open bags of grain.

Whilst the UN Aid Agency confirmed that Northern Gaza is now experiencing full-blown famine, video footage showed fit young men in their late teens and early twenties stomping on food parcels and throwing their contents down a ravine.

The attack happened at the Tarqumiya checkpoint, west of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. US national security adviser Jack Sullivan said: “It is a total outrage that there are people who are attacking and looting these convoys coming from Jordan, going to Gaza to deliver humanitarian assistance.” 

That same day in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons MPs from across parliament came together to call for urgent family visas to allow people with loved ones in Gaza to bring them to the safety of the UK temporarily.  I spoke in the debate alongside SNP colleagues. I started by declaring my support for the Balfour project. It was set up in 2011 by husband-and-wife Roger and Monica Spooner. They had been on holiday to the middle East with friends who were Jordanian and were shocked to learn about Britain’s role in Palestine.

Promises were made by Britain to Arabs in 1915 that a state would be created stretching across the Near East including Palestine in return for a military alliance with the British against the Ottoman Empire an ally of Germany during the first world war.

However, those promises were betrayed notwithstanding the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which appeared to promise a Jewish homeland whilst doing nothing to prejudice the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. 

On their travels the Spooners met many Palestinians who blamed Britain for the loss of their nation and the dispossession of their land during the Nakba. Nakba, Arabic for "catastrophe," refers to the 1948 displacement of roughly 700,000 Palestinians.

Following the UN partition plan for Palestine, war erupted between Palestinians and Jewish forces. Many Palestinians fled violence or were forcibly expelled from their homes. The Nakba remains a central point of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians seek a right of return to their lost lands, a demand disputed by Israel. The Nakba's legacy is one of dispossession and longing for a homeland. 

The Spooner’s work on raising awareness has grown into the charity the Balfour Project. It has three broad aims, to acknowledge Britain’s historic role in shaping 20th and 21st century Palestine/Israel, particularly in light of the Balfour Declaration and the policies of the British Mandate; to Support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights, justice and security for all, and to work for the British Government’s recognition of the State of Palestine. 

The British Government recognised the State of Israel in 1950, but Palestinians remain stateless, exiled, refugees or second-class citizens within Israel and the Occupied Territories.

That is why so many people in the UK feel that Britain bears a responsibility for what has happened to the Palestinians since the Nakba and why the UK Government should be doing far more than it is at present to help Palestinians who have been so cruelly caught up in the war.

Of course, none of this condones the evil actions of Hamas on October 7 but it does go to underline the plight of innocent civilians in Gaza suffering as a result if Israel’s backlash and to put the whole terrible situation in its historic context. 

MPs called on the UK Government to allow British Citizens with immediate and extended family members in Gaza to come to the UK on temporary visas. My constituent Dr Eman El-Bahnassawy is a specialist dentist who managed to evacuate her 79-year-old mother from Gaza to Cairo.  

As a child, this now elderly lady witnessed the Nakba and she has endured all the recent wars on Gaza.  She has already been displaced 9 times during the current war and her home has been destroyed by the bombing, so she has nowhere to go back to.  

The UK Government has previously introduced successful bespoke pathways for those fleeing persecution in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong so it can quickly introduce visas when it suits it. What is being called for here, however, is not akin to homes for Ukraine. British Citizens living and working here simply want to be able to house and support their own family members and get them out of Gaza before they are killed.

In the absence of a specific family route, they can only rely on existing visa routes, such as a family visa for example as a spouse or partner or based on refugee family reunification, or a skilled worker dependent visa. These types of applications involve prolonged waits, up to 6 months for a family visa, and hefty fees - £1846 per person if applying from outside the UK to join one’s partner, parent, or child, in addition to an immigration health surcharge of at least £2587.50 per adult.

So many of the children in Gaza have been orphaned because of the war, under the existing schemes it is very difficult for the remaining extended families to rescue their kin, so these existing routes do not fit in the current crisis.  

You cannot apply for a visa unless you are able to have your fingerprints scanned and a digital photograph taken of your face in a UK Visa processing centre. You cannot get out of Gaza to the UK without these scans and you cannot have them without getting out of Gaza. The only remaining option is to evacuate to Egypt.

This evacuation process has forced many families to crowdfund tens of thousands of pounds to pay private companies to facilitate their loved ones’ exit from Gaza into Egypt.

That option is now also closed due to Israel’s recent occupation of the Rafa crossing. Those who have already fled to Egypt are trapped in limbo - unable to join their loved ones in the UK because they are waiting for the outcome of an application (if they can afford it) or because they are simply ineligible under existing routes. Palestinians’ precarious immigration status in Egypt also means they lack effective access to state support to rebuild their lives. 

Some online commentators reacting to the debate in parliament said that neighbouring Arab countries should accept refugees from Gaza and that it is not the responsibility of the UK. However, what is being talked about here is people with family ties to British citizens being allowed to join their families in the UK.

The refusal of Egypt and Jordan to accept large numbers of refugees is rooted in their fear that Israel wants to permanently expel Palestinians into the Sinai desert to finally end Palestinian demands for statehood.

Many Palestinians live as refugees in other countries, 300,000 people fled mostly to Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War. Displacement is at the root of the ongoing conflict.  

The UK Government has repeatedly failed to introduce more safe and legal routes for refugees to come to the UK. They show no sign of agreeing to allow Palestinians living in the UK to bring any relatives here, even when they are old ladies or children, and family sponsorship is promised.

It’s a humanitarian outrage and a dereliction of the UK’s historic moral responsibilities.