The government has developed a dangerous affliction. Faced with intractable - maybe insoluble - problems, it has started to make policies on the basis of wishing them away, as if stating a much-desired outcome while ignoring serious obstacles could somehow bring it about. This is a species of what psychologists call “magical thinking”.
The first example on show this week was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s “plan B” Bill to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats by sending them to Rwanda. One can pity Home Secretary James Cleverly for having to announce its details in the Commons knowing that his immigration minister Robert Jenrick had already resigned, but this wasn’t a great example of what Theresa May once called “strong and stable” government. On Friday, the Times reported that Sunak had been warned by lawyers that the plan would be “seriously impeded” because it “provides an easy way” for individuals to avoid deportation, and he now faces serious challenges over the policy from both the Tory left and right.
The second example was less widely reported. Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has asserted that the best vehicle for governing Gaza when the war ends is the Palestinian Authority, and the British Support Team, a military unit that has been training the PA’s security forces for many years, should play a vital role, with its “capacity” enhanced.
There is one immediately obvious problem with this prescription: the fact that the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that it doesn’t think the PA should govern post-war Gaza at all. Another is that the PA is led by Mahmoud Abbas, who has a long history of making antisemitic statements. A third is that the months before October 7 saw a surge in terrorist attacks in the PA-governed West Bank - where Hamas still has strong support.
However, there are other issues that are aired much too rarely. The PA’s lack of legitimacy among Palestinians, the widespread and accurate perception that many of its senior officials are deeply corrupt, and above all, its security forces’ dismal record of torturing Palestinian prisoners. That is despite years of British training by the unit mentioned by Shapps which, throughout this time, has been tasked with improving the PA forces’ respect for human rights.
Last year, the JC published my investigation into some of these failings. I revealed that the British training mission, which is usually led by a brigadier, has cost taxpayers more than £65 million since 2011. Its official “areas of focus” include training on “gender and inclusivity and working to reduce torture and mistreatment in detention”. According to the Foreign Office, a formal “three-tier package of British training” for Palestinian officers began in 2008, with courses to both students and instructors at al-Istiqlal university in Jericho, the PA’s security academy.
Time and again, the British government has claimed this is effective. For example, in 2011, a Foreign Office report stated: “The PA leadership is committed to strengthening human rights and is making good progress.” In 2018, the same department awarded itself an official score of “A+”, claiming the training had “exceeded expectations” for developing “accountable and responsive security and justice services”, and that as a result, “citizens have been empowered… to hold authorities to account”.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, one night in June 2021, 14 members of those same PA security forces raided the home of Nizar Banat, the West Bank’s leading anti-corruption, pro-democracy campaigner, kidnapped him in full view of security cameras, and then savagely beat him to death. They inflicted 42 separate injuries that were so severe that he literally drowned in his own blood.
His murder led to weeks of huge street protests across the West Bank that were barely reported by the international media, and further brutal repression by the PA, with demonstrators beaten, detained arbitrarily, and subjected to sexual assaults. As for accountability: the trail of the 14 men accused has been repeatedly postponed, and they were long ago released on bail.
According to Grant Shapps, the PA will “need a great deal of international help” to be able to rule the Gaza Strip, and he admitted “we are not there yet”. But he told The Times that the British Support Team is already “helping to prepare the PA to take over governance of Gaza”, and Britain would “look at ways of increasing [the team’s] capacity”.
Sunak’s Tory opponents have claimed that his plan B migration Bill represents a “triumph of hope over experience”, but exactly the same accusation can be levelled at Shapps. In what universe can the loathed and brutal PA security forces be expected to enforce order in Gaza after the end of the war and help lay the foundations of a lasting peace? (By the way, it’s worth pointing out here that these forces are dominated by Hamas’s enemy Fatah, many of whose members Hamas murdered when it seized power from the PA in 2007. If they were to find themselves patrolling what’s left of Gaza’s streets after the war, it’s distinctly possible that some PA officers might decide the time had come to settle a few scores - not the greatest way to achieve popular consent.)
I began this column by stating that magical thinking is dangerous, and if the events since October 7 demonstrate anything, it is surely the truth of this proposition. We can all list the magical thoughts that have been exposed, both in Israel and among leaders abroad, starting with the belief that Israel had the Hamas threat largely contained, and the claim there was still some kind of “peace process” that would one day lead to a negotiated two-state solution.
I don’t pretend to have the answer to what should happen to prevent future violence. But for the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the magical thinking has to end, with debate over the long-term future grounded in facts, not fantasy. We don’t know what will work. Unfortunately, we do know what doesn’t.
David Rose is the JC’s Politics and Investigations Editor