In the 20th century, British and French governments in the Middle East laid the foundations for mass displacement. Today, their policies continue to shape the region, but fall short of resolving this issue.
Today’s map of the Middle East was shaped by European powers. In 1916, Britain and France divided it up in the Sykes-Picot agreement, laying claims over lands thousands of miles away. Borders were created without consideration for local ethnic groups or pre-existing territorial powers, changing the geo-political landscape and causing discontent amongst populations who were separated from their local groups and organised into different states.
This paved the way for subsequent instability in the Middle East. The UK and France should recognise the role they have played in destabilising their former mandates and take action to help end conflict and provide safe countries for returning migrants.
Complicated British-Israeli-Palestine relations
The Sykes-Picot agreement also created historical ties between Britain and Palestine. After the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, there was considered to be an urgent need for a Jewish homeland. In 1947, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 181 for the partition of Palestine, which was predominantly Arab, but gave the minority Jewish population over 50% of the land. Following Israel’s founding in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli war, the Israelis received 78% of the Palestinian Mandate.
This triggered mass displacement for the Palestinians and further territorial disputes. Britain kept a close eye on these affairs, sponsoring the UN Security Council Resolution 242 to bring an end to Israel’s 1967 war with its Arab neighbours.
Today, British-Israeli relations remain amicable. Last year marked 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two states, with Israel being one of the first countries to sign a trade continuity agreement with the UK. British diplomatic relations with Israel tend to avoid strong criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Nevertheless, in January 2021, the UK government expressed concern at Israel’s decision to build new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as this exceeds Israel’s 78% share of the Palestinian territories. The UK, in line with most of the international community, maintains that the former territory is Palestinian. It does not recognise Palestine as a state, but continues to advocate for a two-state solution. This raises the uncomfortable question of where these two states should draw their borders.
The French government also continues to have a vested interest in Middle East affairs, as evidenced by its actions in Syria. French withdrawal from that country in 1946 resulted in decades of violence, with the al-Assad family’s torture and killing of peaceful protestors sparking the 2011 civil war and mass displacement.
Along with members of an international coalition, France has attempted to end the conflict, committing over €1bn towards Syrian civilians between 2019-21. Much of that money has gone to neighbouring countries Lebanon and Jordan which are hosting fleeing Syrian refugees. France participates in military operations under Operation Chammal and founded the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons in 2018. It also advocates for peace negotiations, to protect civilians and bring about an end to the root causes of continuous mass displacement.
Although the Israel-Palestine conflict is different to that in Syria, France’s foreign policy is an example of what more the UK could do in the Middle East. For instance, it could provide more aid money for the Palestinians and be a more vocal advocate for finding a peaceful solution. Aiding peace in the Middle East would help the UK government in its desire for the country to be seen as a global player as well as providing much-needed stability for millions. Resolving decades of conflict could help resettle those who have fled and allow them to rebuild their lives in a safe environment.
Nearly ten years after it began, there is no sign of the Syrian conflict abating. There is also little indication of peace between Israel and Palestine. Continuous Israeli expansion and violence committed by both sides continue to fuel distrust. As of 2019, there were 5.6m Palestine refugees, according to UNRWA. Many remain in Palestine in desperate conditions and with no opportunity to leave.
It is important that European states prioritise the establishment of stable democratic governance, rather than anything which would exacerbate tensions by encouraging actors to struggle for power. Countries such as the UK and France must tread carefully in advocating peace and crisis resolution.
Lara Brett is studying for an MA in Contemporary European Studies at the University of Bath.