The Zomlot event – a decades-old conflict unravelled

Around the start of Lent Term, I heard that the LSESU Debate Society’s event hosting the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK was back up and running. I expected it to be similar to the previous event with the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, back in November last year. But, bar the plain-clothed security guard from the Palestinian Mission by the door, it felt like a regular LSE speaker event. No rallies, no security scanners, no guards lining the hallways. Walking into the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, I was greeted by the gentle buzz of conversation and laughter, an almost jovial atmosphere. The event was the second part of the series “A New Era in the Middle East” from the Debate Society, which aimed to discuss the practical steps needed to achieve peace in the region.

The chair of the event was Dr Lloyd Gruber, who had also chaired Hotovely’s event. He briefly introduced the equity policy and then invited Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, to the lectern. Zomlot opened his address with an account of his LSE experience; he’d graduated with a MA in Development Studies in 2000. He was clearly a proud alumnus: “I love the atmosphere… the research… the quality of the teaching… the many many friends I made here.” He quipped: “When I was here in 2000, we did not have all these high rises…we only had the George IV… but that was the most modern building at the time!” – a remark that was greeted with laughter. He spoke with an assured, measured pace that I was accustomed to hearing from our lecturers – after all, he was one himself before becoming a diplomat.

Zomlot then described the suffering of the Palestinian people, recounting the Nakba of 1948 where more than 750,000 Palestinians had to flee from their homes, including his grandfather. Making his case for Palestine, he drew on the authority of international law and repeated Palestine’s commitment to it. “We should be able to exercise our internationally sanctioned right to return,” he said, referring to the right of refugees to return to their homes as laid out in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Palestinian refugees’ right to return has been reaffirmed by the UN more than 135 times

“For more than a quarter of a century…the Palestinian leadership has been engaged in a two-state process,” he said, basing it on Palestine’s commitment to “international legality”, “order”, and the “international system”. He contrasted Palestine’s support for international legality with the international community’s “lukewarm” commitment to the two-state solution. Despite Israel’s illegal (as adjudicated by the UN) settlements within the borders of Palestine drawn up in 1967, “Israel never faced sanctions for such gross violation of basic international provisions”. “Many countries, including the UK…are backed by no substance and no political will [in pursuing the two-state solution],” he said, tolerating Israel’s “refus[al] to pursue a peace process and…negotiations”.

Nearing the end of his address, Zomlot commented that he was optimistic for Palestine’s future because of the global youth movements in support of Palestine. “I believe we are reaching a South Africa moment in Palestine…[where] global public outrage…forced an end to apartheid.”

“It was very powerful remarks,” the chair said after Zomlot’s address. Starting off the Q&A session, he asked whether Palestine needed to solve its internal problems so the international community would be mobilised, given “what’s happening on the ground…with Fatah and Hamas”. The theme was echoed by a student, who asked how Palestine could “prosper” when the government was “deeply authoritarian and corrupt”. 

“The causality needs to be thought about very carefully,” Zomlot responded, saying that Palestine needed the support of the international community for momentum to improve their governance. He acknowledged that there was corruption in the Palestinian government, but it was found “everywhere”, and it should not be taken advantage of to argue that “[Palestinians] are being oppressed because we are corrupt… so we brought it upon ourselves.”.

Another student asked what the implications of “Israel [becoming] largely accepted [within the Arab world]” were for the Palestinian cause. “You had to ask that question!” Zomlot exclaimed. “We disagree with the way they are…conducting their relations,” he said, but reiterated that the Arab Peace Initiative, a peace plan laid out and supported by the Arab League in 2002, practically committed them to the two-state solution. Answering other questions concerning Israel, Zomlot described Israel’s illegal settlements in Gaza as “not sustainable” and under a “freakish control system”.

The most challenging question of the event came from a student who asked: “[Hotovely once] stated that…there is no Palestinian people. How do you think a debate on…the Palestinian right to exist is beneficial in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and has anything to do with the expression of free speech…if this opinion is denying the existence of current or former LSE students?” This question had a striking resemblance to the criticisms that stakeholder societies on the LSE campus, such as Jewish, MENA, or Palestine, had levelled towards the Hotovely event last time. 

“My God, God help you my friend,” Zomlot intoned. “Such talk does not help,” he continued. He pointed out that Palestine’s existence in the international arena was a matter of debate a few decades ago, but their current political legitimacy and his position as the Palestinian Ambassador “came out of generations of real struggle”.

I was likely one of the few people who went to both events, which was probably the intention behind the event series. I was surprised by how kindly the questions were put forth at Zomlot’s event, given the multiple rounds of heated exchange between Hotovely and the students previously. While Hotovely was walked out on by five students shortly before her address, Zomlot got an extra round of applause when he left the room. According to a member of the Debate Society, who declined to be named, there weren’t as many people from stakeholder societies at this event compared to Hotovely’s one. Some stakeholder societies also did not respond to the Debate Society’s invitations to this event.

It was fascinating to understand the grievances which fuel the conflict between both nations from the mouths of the ambassadors. Israel’s grievance lies with how they were once “a nation without a land”, which means they feel their right to have a state is under siege whenever they are condemned by the international community; Palestine’s grievance concerns their lack of recognition as a nation, historically and currently. Their respective “rights to exist” as a nation shone through both ambassadors’ addresses. The two nations’ deeply held claims to the same piece of historic land was evident – Hotovely stated that “the Jewish people are connected to their homeland for over 3000 years”, while Zomlot said “I am the product of the Nakba… my grandfather took me to his home that he was forced out of in 1948.” Their interests are polarised, but both ambassadors emphasised their respective “rights to exist” as nations and their attachment to their history and their land. The strands of resemblance were striking.

Both ambassadors claimed, as their respective governments do, that they wanted a two-state solution and peace between both sides. Zomlot blamed the breakdown of that peace process on Israel’s encroachment of the 1967 borders, while Hotovely blamed the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, of bombing Israel and thus impeding negotiations. Simply judging off these snapshots of the conflict, Israel encroaching Palestine’s borders and blocking the Gaza Strip from getting travel and necessities is one-sided, whereas bombings between Hamas and Israel are mutual. Zomlot demonstrated a degree of consideration for Israel, saying that Palestine would not claim the land currently acknowledged by the United Nations as belonging to Israel. He explained this under the principle of “relative justice”, as they wanted to spare younger generations, who have had little to do with the conflict. In contrast, Hotovely outright denied the Nakba, one of the most traumatic incidents inflicted on Palestine in its history. 

What I’ve seen through both events is a mere snapshot of the decades-old conflict, and both sides have undoubtedly committed countless wrongdoings against each other. But from what both ambassadors have shown LSE, Hotovely seems to have a longer way to go for a chance at peace.

Picture credit: Husam Zomlot at the PES Conference in 2010. Photographed by PES

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