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Ehud Olmert visits Oxford

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, visited Oxford on 5th February to address students. His appearance was organised by Oxford Speaks in association with the Oxford Diplomatic Society as part of their ongoing series of Israel-Palestine talks.

Olmert served as head of the Israeli Parliament between 2006 and 2009. Notably, he attempted ratification of a formal border agreement which would establish an independent Palestinian State, evacuating West Bank settlers whilst also annexing East Jerusalem into Israel. The plan was never accepted and Olmert soon resigned.

The event was met with online disapproval, with Oxford Palestine Society issuing a public statement that “[they] condemn Olmert and the choice made by Oxford Speaks to invite him. War criminals are not welcome on campus”. They shared their view that “Olmert is a war criminal: he was threatened with arrest by the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland for violations of international law”.

The Israel-Gaza war has been ongoing since early October, following the 7th October Hamas attacks on Israel killing over 1,200 people. More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed since and essential supplies have had limited access in Gaza.

Amidst this conflict, Olmert opened his speech declaring that “[he is] not a spokesperson for the [Israeli] government” but also that “[he] didn’t come here to apologise for Israel’s reaction”.

He added that “[he doesn’t] know any other country who would have tolerated the brutal massacre, the rape, the beheading [of October 7th]”. Over 250 people were taken from Israel by Hamas, and vigils have taken place in Oxford for the hostages. 112 have now been freed, though Olmert relayed that Israeli authorities are “not confident that more than half the [current] hostages are still alive.”

Several protests occurred during the talk, including a reading of Oxford Palestine Society’s full statement. One protester stood up during the first part of the talk to declare: “Israel war criminals shouldn’t have any place at Oxford”. Chants of ‘Infada’ were also heard, which have been criticised as ‘anti-Semitic incitements to violence’ and received disapproving murmurs from the audience.

Protesters present outside the event also commented on civilian casualties and Israel’s alleged use of illegal weapons during the 2006 Lebanon War. Amnesty International has accused the IDF of using White Phosphorus shells, an illegal weapon, in the conflict.

The 2006 conflict was a point of contention to several attendees, with one audience member expressing that Olmert should be arrested and tried for accusations of war crimes and sarcastically praised his bravery for coming to a country where he may theoretically be subject to such arrest.

The IDF’s responsive military campaign in Gaza was also a salient issue at the talk, following the International Court of Justice order that Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent its troops from committing genocide against Palestinians. 

When asked if he’d be willing to pull IDF forces out of Gaza, Olmert agreed that pulling significant forces out of Gaza would be the right thing to do if it were necessary to secure the return of the hostages, stating: “the life of the hostages is the pride of victory”. Similar sentiment was on display in Jerusalem last week when family members of hostages stormed Israeli Parliament to demand a ceasefire.

Co-hosting the discussion, Oxford Speaks’ Sam Zia presented Olmert with statistics which estimated that between 70% – 90% of current conflict deaths in Gaza have been civilian. This alongside the displacement of millions has led to scarce supplies and rampant disease.

Answering to the vast civilian casualties, Olmert stated firmly he “regrets the death of every innocent, non-involved person”, but disputed both the accuracy of the statistics of civilian death in Gaza and the technical status of the many journalists reportedly killed there.

However, Olmert appeared to agree with the notion that civilian death occurring in Israel’s military campaign was seriously awry, saying “something is going wrong, it’s heartbreaking”. In his own words, he expressed “one baby that was killed by an Israeli is one too many”, but was confident that “the IDF has not targeted civilians intentionally”.

Olmert was nonetheless insistent that eradicating Hamas is vital to securing long-term peace. He emphasised that Hamas was the “enemy not just of Israel, but of the Palestinian Authority, of Jordan and Egypt”, and other surrounding Nations. He shared that “as long as there is a Hamas, there is not a likelihood of peace between Israel and Palestinians”.

He remained hopeful that his 2008 proposal would be of practical use in the future, and that this plan will involve collaboration with the Palestinian Authority. He acknowledged that barriers of prejudice and hurt exist on both sides of the border: “there is a problem amongst us, a problem amongst them”.

In response to an audience question he further recognized that radicalisation and the reluctance to negotiate within the Occupied Territories does not operate in a vacuum, acknowledging that “53 years of occupation leaves an impact of bitterness”.

In contrast to Netanyahu’s most recent statements about the future of Palestinian sovereignty, Olmert was firm in his closing remarks that “what we need is a Palestinian state alongside us… living with patience and tolerance”.

Image Credit: Kremlin

Image Description: Ehud Olmert