United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has brought Britain’s standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds to its lowest point for half a century. By withdrawing British monitors from a Palestinian jail in Jericho on March 14, the Blair government as good as handed over to Israel the prisoners it had made an international agreement to protect.
In doing so, it colluded with its American co-sponsor and – at the very least tacitly – with the Israeli occupation regime in an armed attack on the prison and the seizure of an elected political leader regarded by many Palestinians as a national hero.

As the ruins of the British Council building in Gaza smoulder, the foreign secretary can reflect on his contribution this week to peace in the Middle East: the humiliation of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the undermining of efforts to form a viable Palestinian administration and the confirmation in Arab and Muslim eyes that Britain cannot plausibly be regarded as an honest broker in the region. No wonder the prime minister struggled to defend the blunder in parliament on March 15.

As the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan turn ever bloodier and more disastrous, you might think that the last thing Britain would want to be responsible for was more degrading TV footage of Arab men being paraded in their underpants by another occupying army. But then this is the foreign secretary who used a recent visit to Beirut to praise Ariel Sharon’s “courage and statesmanship” and “work towards a long-term peace settlement” – in the very city where he oversaw the massacre of 2,000 Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists in 1982. It’s perhaps no wonder that British complicity with Israel’s assault on Jericho was being compared in the Arab media to the duplicitous US deal which led to that slaughter. As anyone who has spent time in the Middle East will know, while Britons may not be familiar with the history of their country’s involvement in the region, it is not forgotten by those who suffered at its hands: from the 1917 Balfour declaration, which promised Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people, to the collusion with France and Israel over the 1956 invasion of Egypt.

Both Straw and Tony Blair have claimed that a security threat to the British (and US) monitors justified the decision to withdraw them from Jericho. But no credible evidence of any such threat has been offered – and the complaint that the prisoners were allowed to use mobile phones cannot be treated as a serious reason to end the four-year-old agreement. The five prisoners captured as a result – including Ahmad Saadat, leader of the leftwing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – are accused by Israel of responsibility for the killing of racist cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001, carried out in retaliation for the assassination of Saadat’s predecessor, Abu Ali Mustafa. The deal to hold them in a Palestinian jail under British-US supervision later ended the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound.

But judging by last week’s joint British-US letter to the Palestinian president, it was the pledge by the newly elected Hamas to release these prisoners, rather than concerns about security, that lay behind the decision to withdraw the monitors. If they had been released, it would have been the Palestinian Authority, not Britain, that broke the agreement. As it was, in the knowledge that Israel was ready to seize the men, the British-US pullout makes far more sense as a calculated warning to Hamas and a favour to the acting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

In Israel the Jericho operation is of course highly popular and regarded as a boost for Olmert’s electoral credibility as a tough successor to Sharon. But that only helps explain why waiting for Israeli politics to deliver a viable peace deal is a recipe for failure – and why the western powers that helped create this conflict will also have to help resolve it. Instead they have connived in the continued illegal occupation, colonisation and carve-up of the West Bank, the building of the land-grabbing wall and the throttling of Gaza – all the while paying lip service to a future Palestinian state whose viability looks less plausible daily. The landslide for Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January was largely a response to this unending misery and the breakdown of the Oslo arrangements of the 1990s.

Britain’s strategic support for Israel while claiming to be even-handed in the Middle East conflict is nothing new: recent revelations of the UK’s secret supply of nuclear materials to Israel in the 50s and 60s are a reminder of that. But there are also clear signs that the Blair government has recently tilted even further towards Israel in what appears to be a growing Americanisation of British policy in the region. Palestinians who deal regularly with British officials report an unmistakable shift in attitudes towards the conflict, now increasingly seen through the US prism of the war on terror, Iran and Iraq.

This shift may help to explain Tuesday’s events; it certainly represents an unjustifiable abandonment of international responsibilities to protect an occupied people and help achieve their human and national rights, denied for nearly 60 years. But it is also a highly dangerous role to adopt in the most inflammatory conflict on the planet – and one which puts at risk the security of people in Britain, as well as the Middle East.